Foundations: No.75 Autumn 2018

World Without End: Covenant and Creation in The Book of Consolation and the New Testament

This article presents a limited exercise in biblical theology, examining the question of the place of the created world in the eschatological purposes of God. The text in initial focus is the Book of Consolation in Jeremiah. Its covenantal contours are briefly examined: Abrahamic, David, Mosaic, and most importantly Noahic. A consideration of the Noahic tradition is then part of an exploration of the content of the well-known “new covenant” passage in Jeremiah 31. The hymn found here, and its associated oath, express Yahweh’s dual commitments to creation and to humanity, commitments that are theologically rooted in the covenant with Noah and every living creature. Echoes of this covenant tradition are traced in other Old Testament texts expressing Yahweh’s perpetual commitment to the world (Pss 93, 96). Seeming “counter-testimony” – which appears to express a transient or annihilated world – is also considered (Ps 102). The intertwined commitments of Yahweh to the world and to humanity are traced to their root in Genesis 1 and 2. This same intertwining of commitments is then explored in two well-known New Testament texts: John 3:16 and Romans 8:20-23. The eschatological perspective of a redeemed humanity as part of a redeemed cosmos is revealed in both of these texts, in continuity with the traditions explored in the Old Testament. The article concludes that these texts convey the idea of the perpetuity of creation. There are also concluding suggestions regarding two major implications of the doctrine of the perpetuity of the cosmos. First, implications for the doctrine of human resurrection; and, second, implications for the life of the church in discipleship and mission.

I. Introduction

What is the place of the created world within the eschatological purposes of God? What is the destiny of the cosmos? When it comes to answering these questions, it is striking that Christian theology has produced such divergent views:

At first sight it is astonishing that ideas about the consummatio mundi, the consummation of the world, should range so widely, from the total annihilation of the world according to orthodox Lutheranism, its total transformation according to patristic and Calvinist tradition, to the world’s glorious deification, the view of Orthodox theology.[1]

As Moltmann notes, it was Lutheran theology that especially embraced the idea that the world is to be annihilated.[2] However, the idea is present more broadly within the strands of Protestant theology, and specifically within Evangelicalism. This is probably through the influence of the Pietist tradition, which was a major influence in the birth of modern evangelicalism.[3] Whilst the Calvinist tradition has not been untouched by the idea, it has expounded the view that the cosmos is not to be annihilated at all; rather, it is to be renewed.[4]

In this article, I want to examine one of the hermeneutical foundations for concluding that the Creator’s purpose is the renewal, rather than the annihilation, of the world. The specific testimony which we will consider is a useful window through which to enter into considering the broader hermeneutical base from which we must approach New Testament texts on the destiny of the cosmos. Once we have explored this, we will then briefly reflect on two of these New Testament texts. This limited exercise will hopefully provide some helpful reflection on the hermeneutical issues at hand.

II. Covenant and Creation in The Book of Consolation

The window through which we enter into this exploration is found in the well-known Book of Consolation in the prophecy of Jeremiah. Whatever the editorial background to the book, the canonical form of Jeremiah weaves together images of judgment and images of salvation, messages of destruction and messages of hope. The Book of Consolation (chapters 30-33) falls into the latter category.[5] The first section (30:1-31:40), mainly in the form of verse rather than prose, conveys promises of deliverance from captivity for the exiled people of God. The language is of return, of restoration, healing and rebuilding. Tears are turned to joy; there is grace, mercy and redemption for the faithless. The rubric of this section is unstintingly covenantal:[6]

I will restore the fortunes of my people, Israel and Judah, says the LORD, and I will bring them back to the land that I gave to their fathers (Jeremiah 30:3)

And you shall be my people, and I will be your God.” (Jeremiah 30:22)

“At that time, declares the LORD, I will be the God of all the clans of Israel, and they shall be my people.” (Jeremiah 31:1)

There are obviously deep resonances here with the Abrahamic covenant: “my people” and “your/their/our God” is repeated language in the section.[7]

In the second section (32:1-33:26) the covenantal language continues, initially with a focus on the land, but then becoming strongly Davidic in character, David being mentioned five times in chapter 33.[8] Verse 17 contains a very strong echo of 2 Samuel 7:12-16: “For thus says the Lord: David shall never lack a man to sit on the throne of the house of Israel” (Jeremiah 33:17).

Of course, amongst all these covenantal resonances in the Book of Consolation, Moses remains in the shadows. There is just one positive echo of the Covenant of the Law in the Book: “the Levitical priests shall never lack a man in my presence to offer burnt offerings, to burn grain offerings, and to make sacrifices forever” (Jeremiah 33:18). Rather, it is the “new covenant” of Chapter 31, a covenant unlike the covenant with Moses, which instead rises to prominence:

Behold, the days are coming, declares the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah, not like the covenant that I made with their fathers on the day when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, my covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, declares the Lord (Jeremiah 31:32).

This unique Old Testament reference to a new covenant has been well-discussed.[9] Here, we simply notice something important: an attendant resonance of yet another covenant. In the oath that follows the prophecy of the new covenant, we find an echo of the Noahic covenant of Genesis 9.

III. This Fixed Order: Creation and Covenant

The foretelling of the days of the New Covenant are immediately followed by a poetic passage expressing Yahweh’s covenant commitment to his people:

Thus says the Lord, who gives the sun for light by day and the fixed order of the moon and the stars for light by night, who stirs up the sea so that its waves roar – the Lord of hosts is his name: “If this fixed order departs from before me, declares the Lord, then shall the offspring of Israel cease from being a nation before me forever.” (Jeremiah 31:35-36)

This passage comprises two elements. First, a hymn declaring Yahweh’s faithful giving (nāṯan) of the sun, moon and stars, and his sovereign control over the chaotic forces at work in the world, particularly the sea. Second, the hymn is followed by a divinely spoken oath. Two features are noteworthy: (i) the hymn and (especially) the oath express Yahweh’s commitment to the cosmos, and (ii) the oath fundamentally expresses Yahweh’s commitment to his people Israel.[10]

1. Yahweh’s Commitment to Creation

The content of the hymn is built upon the creation tradition of Genesis 1. References both to the heavenly lights (in conjunction with nāṯan), and to Yahweh’s sovereignty over the waters, find their anchors in the creation account.[11] Yahweh is a gracious giver – his providence maintains the lights for day and for night.[12] Yet it is in the oath itself that the idea of Yahweh’s commitment to creation comes to the fore. The pattern of lights for day and for night is described in 31:35 using the Hebrew ḥuqqîm, variously translated as “fixed order”, “decrees”, “ordinances”, “statutes” or, well-captured by Allen, “these regular features”.[13] The regular rhythms of day and night, the movements of sun, moon and stars, are statutes established by Yahweh.[14] Both hymn and oath speak to the commitment of Yahweh to his creation.

It is the permanence of these regular features that constitutes the ground for the oath regarding Yahweh’s relationship with Israel. We will return to this interplay shortly. First, we can notice that Yahweh’s commitment to the created world is a motif repeated in the Book of Consolation. In the last section, which as we have seen is orientated toward the Davidic covenant, we find the “fixed order” of chapter 31 cast explicitly as a covenant:

Thus says the Lord: If you can break my covenant with the day and my covenant with the night, so that day and night will not come at their appointed time, then also my covenant with David my servant may be broken, so that he shall not have a son to reign on his throne, and my covenant with the Levitical priests my ministers (Jeremiah 33:20-21).

Here again we see Yahweh’s covenant with the cosmos expressed – and again this is used to underline Yahweh’s commitment to the Davidic covenant.[15] The explicit description of a covenant (berîṯ) with the cosmos evokes another pentateuchal tradition, that of Noah. In the aftermath of the flood, as the soothing aroma of Noah’s sacrifice rises to him, Yahweh reflects poetically:

I will never again destroy every living thing, as I have done.
While the earth remains,
Seedtime and harvest,
And cold and heat,
And summer and winter,
And day and night
Shall not cease (Genesis 8:21-22 NASB)

This sentiment then finds concrete expression in the covenant of Genesis 9. In connecting this material to Jeremiah 33, we must note that the Noahic covenant is not merely established with Noah, but with his offspring, and “with every living creature that is with you, the birds, the livestock, and every beast of the earth” (Gen 9:9-10) in perpetuity. It is a cosmic covenant that holds true for all future generations (9:12). Its comprehensive scope is seen in its summary characterisation as a covenant between God and “the earth” (9:13), and between God and every kind of living creature on the earth (9:16). The promissory content of the covenant repeats the sentiments of 8:22 – the destruction of the earth just enacted will not be repeated: “I establish my covenant with you, that never again shall all flesh be cut off by the waters of the flood, and never again shall there be a flood to destroy the earth.” (Genesis 9:11)

Some interpreters have detected a provisional character to the Noahic covenant, particularly linked to the phrase “all the days of the earth” (8:22).[16] However, a conclusion that this indicates the “mortality” of the earth would need a surer evidential base. When we look elsewhere in the Old Testament we find echoes of this same tradition which express Yahweh’s perpetual commitment to his world. For example, in Psalm 93 we find:

The Lord reigns; he is robed in majesty;
the Lord is robed; he has put on strength as his belt.
Yes, the world is established; it shall never be moved. (Psalm 93:1)

The tradition also appears in similar form in Psalm 96:10 (and in the parallel in 1 Chronicles 16:30). Certainly, there are a small number of texts in the prophets and the writings that seem to speak of the transient nature of the earth. Psalm 102:25-26 stands out:

Of old you laid the foundation of the earth,
and the heavens are the work of your hands.
They will perish, but you will remain;
they will all wear out like a garment.
You will change them like a robe, and they will pass away (Psalm 102:25-26).

It might seem difficult to reconcile this to the theology represented by The Book of Consolation. If the statement in this psalm does refer to the end of the cosmos it would, as John Goldingay notes, be absolutely unique in the Old Testament. Therefore, the verbs here are best read as hypothetical, as the yiqtol form allows: “They may perish, but you would stand. All of them could wear out like clothes; like a garment you could make them pass on.”[17]

The text then becomes not only an affirmation of the eternity of Yahweh, but also an affirmation of his providence towards the work of his hands. Other Old Testament texts might also, at first glance, seem to describe cosmic destruction. Jeremiah 4 provides one of the clearest examples:

I looked on the earth, and behold, it was without form and void; and to the heavens, and they had no light. I looked on the mountains, and behold, they were quaking, and all the hills moved to and fro. I looked, and behold, there was no man, and all the birds of the air had fled. I looked, and behold, the fruitful land was a desert, and all its cities were laid in ruins before the Lord, before his fierce anger (Jeremiah 4:23-26).

Does this text speak of cosmic annihilation? It is a long reach to such a conclusion. Much closer to hand is the explanation that God’s judgment, whether upon Israel or upon the nations, is often depicted in cosmic terms as a kind of de-creation, a collapsing of the regular features of God’s providential commitment to his world.[18] This feature of prophetic texts seems to be the root of some of the imagery in the apocalyptic tradition.

In dealing with texts like this, we need to remain cognisant of the wider Old Testament theology of God’s commitment to his creation and of the hermeneutical foundation which this provides. In judgment oracles, the context often indicates that hyperbolic language of cosmic de-creation is being employed in the service of something more limited than the annihilation of the entire cosmos. In fact, in the particular instance above, the text makes this clear: “The whole land shall be a desolation; yet I will not make a full end” (Jeremiah 4:27).

It is the question of a “full end” that is the cogent question for Christian interpretation of these texts, and for a Christian eschatology of creation. Walter Brueggemann, in an important section of his Old Testament Theology, reminds us that for all of the texts delineating Yahweh’s judgment in terms of the destabilising and nullification of creation, there are qualifications rooted in Yahweh’s commitment to his world, including in the flood narrative, or here in Jeremiah 4.[19] Yahweh judges a world to which he is committed, and his judgment serves his purposes for salvation. This perspective helps us to understand why in Psalm 96 (which, as we have noted, speaks clearly of this commitment) the sky, the earth, the sea and all its creatures, the fields and all life in them, and the trees of the forest all rejoice at the prospect of the Lord’s coming in judgment (Psalm 96:11-13).

2. Yahweh’s Commitment to Humanity

To return to the oaths of the Book of Consolation, these important texts add a certain hermeneutical weight to the issues discussed above. What is striking about the oaths is the explicit intertwining of Yahweh’s commitment to the cosmos, and his commitment to Israel and the Davidic Kingdom. As Allen writes concerning the new covenant oath: “In both parts of the oracle Yahweh’s work in the world of nature is used to explore the covenant relationship and to guarantee its validity”.[20]

If we are to argue that Yahweh’s commitment to the cosmos is limited, bounded by time, temporary, then these oaths push us to the same conclusion in regard to Yahweh’s salvific commitment to his people. Put like that, the stakes are particularly high. Some traditions might take a parochial view of Yahweh’s commitment to Israel (31:36), that it is a limited commitment to a political state of affairs.[21] However, against this possibility (especially within the Reformed tradition) is the whole new covenant context of this oath and its reception in the New Testament (whether in the Upper Room, or in the book of Hebrews). The writer to the Hebrews certainly finds no difficulty in the language of Israel and Judah in Jeremiah 31, and Paul’s redemptive-historical approach to the controversy in Galatia (and his argument in Romans 11) demonstrates the continuity between Israel and the church in his thought. The fulfilment of Jeremiah’s new covenant in Jesus Christ for both Jew and Gentile precisely demonstrates God’s perpetual, eternal salvific commitment to his people.

So, to re-emphasise and reflect the implications of these oaths: if Yahweh’s providential commitment to his world is perpetual, so is his salvific commitment to his people, and vice versa. Thompson rightly notes that the oath of 31:35-36 is cast as an argumentum ad absurdum: God’s commitment to creation will not cease, and hence neither will his commitment to his people.[22] Interpreters tend to emphasise the covenant bond between Yahweh and his people.[23] Allen summarises:

Yahweh’s control of sky and ocean in the production of light for the world and of storms at sea… exhibits a divine constancy that may logically be predicated of the same God’s covenant relationship with Israel.[24]

Whilst this is undoubtedly where the balance of emphasis ought to lie, there is something more; the permanence of God’s commitment to his creation ought also to be emphasised here. The covenant commitments of Yahweh to both humanity (through his election of Israel) and creation are intertwined, implying that the destinies of humanity and creation are also intertwined.[25]

As we have seen, this intertwining is a feature of the Noahic covenant,  made with humanity, with every living creature and with the earth. The theological root of this phenomenon of intertwined commitments and destinies is buried deep in Genesis 1 and 2, where humanity’s identity is firmly intertwined with the created world. Adam is made from the “ădāmāh, from the same stuff as the earth (Gen 2:7). Human beings are created as the image of God, a role that places them in intimate relationship with the fish of the sea, the birds of the air, herding animals and creeping things, and the earth (Gen 1:26-28). As the derived tradition of Psalm 8 states explicitly, it is this relationship that constitutes the glory of human beings, their designated role within God’s world (Ps 8:5-8). This intertwining surfaces elsewhere, for example, in Haggai’s vision of covenant renewal both for people and for the creation (Hosea 2:18-23), and in the testimony of Psalm 115:16. So, it ought not to surprise us that in Jeremiah 31:35-36 Yahweh’s commitment to humanity is intertwined with his commitment to the creation. It also ought not to surprise us that we encounter this same feature in the eschatology of the New Testament.

IV. The Perpetuity of the Cosmos in the New Testament

Where do these intertwined commitments of God to human beings and to the cosmos surface in the New Testament? Perhaps in more places than might be imagined, but it is not within the scope of this exercise to look at all of the relevant passages.[26]

We could begin by considering the most well-known verse in the New Testament: John 3:16. Here in this verse we find the same phenomenon seen in the Book of Consolation – God’s eternal promises both to his world and to humanity. What is the world that God loves? Is it merely the “world of men”, the human world, as Bultmann concluded?[27] The Greek κόσμος can sometimes carry this nuance. Interpreters have repeatedly parsed the usage of κόσμος in the Johannine literature: positive, negative and neutral; creation, human world and human world in darkness.[28] However, the unifying idea is that it is the earth, God’s earth, and not heaven, which is the scene of human life in rebellion, and of God’s redemption. Some have argued that there is a tension between the Prologue and the rest of the Gospel. Rather, the force of the opening stanzas of the gospel must be felt throughout: the God who is Redeemer is the God who is Creator. In 1:10, the κόσμος is made through the Word (a restatement of 1:3 where “all things” came into being through him). The κόσμος here is the created world – the earth and everything in it. The Word became flesh, and came to the world created through him, but it (in a personification of the world that captures the fundamental importance here of its human inhabitants) did not know him. John 3:16 is then only properly comprehensible if it is the love of God for the world that he has made that leads to the giving of the Son: “God’s love for the world… makes sense against the backdrop of the world belonging to God as God’s creation.”[29] God’s purpose is not to condemn the κόσμος – he is eternally committed to it – but to save it (3:17): “[I]n the Fourth Gospel the dualism of God and world is not absolute: the world was not only created by God, but is also the object of his love and salvation.”[30] God as Redeemer is fundamentally the redeemer of creation.

Alongside this commitment to the cosmos in 3:16 we have the clear statement of God’s commitment to humanity in Jesus Christ. Whoever believes in him will live eternally despite the judgment of God on a humanity which has embraced the darkness. What we find here in John 3:16, then, is the intertwining of the eternal destinies of both humanity and the creation.[31]

This link is most clearly seen in Romans 8. Paul’s choice of metaphor in 8:21 is revealing: the whole of creation is in slavery.[32] In evocative language, Paul personifies every part of the cosmos as groaning together (συστενάζω), awaiting its freedom from slavery.[33] It is noteworthy that Paul casts the focus of creation’s yearning as humanity itself. The eager longing (ἀποκαραδοκία) is for the revealing of the sons of God. This revelation is not so much an uncovering of identity (the creation yearning to know who amongst the human race are genuinely God’s people) but rather an uncovering of the final character of humanity in the eschatological age (the creation yearning to experience its inhabiting by human beings as God’s fully-transformed children).[34] As Paul’s thought here is unpacked, the intertwining of God’s purposes for humanity and cosmos is revealed: the freedom to be experienced by the creation is an incorporation into the freedom of human beings as God’s children.[35] Like an oppressed populace breathing a sigh of relief at the transition from tyranny to liberty, the created world will be released into the freedom that comes from the final transformation of justified men and women. The final eschatological character of humanity (which Paul here refers to as glory, in an echo of Psalm 8:5) does not merely represent freedom for humanity itself – freedom from law, sin and death. The realisation of this freedom brings a consequential freedom for creation, one for which it yearns. Here Paul’s thought draws close to that of the psalmist in Psalm 96.

This intertwining of God’s purposes for humanity and the cosmos is also seen in Paul’s language of redemption, which appears explicitly in 8:23, where he refers to the resurrection of the dead using the phrase “the redemption of our bodies” (τὴν ἀπολύτρωσιν τοῦ σώματος ἡμῶν).[36] The New Testament language of redemption finds its background in manumission, the setting free of a slave by means of the payment of a ransom; a slave is restored to freedom through this redemption. This is the language employed for the restoration of the human body. It is also explicitly the language employed for the restoration of creation: it will be set free from its slavery. So, both humanity and the cosmos receive redemption: “creation is to be redeemed, not redeemed from… [R]esurrection life is to be part of a complete creation.”[37] Both of them are set free. Their futures are intertwined in the purposes of God in Jesus Christ. Of course, human beings are very much a part of the cosmos, and the redemption of the human body is merely one part, but a uniquely important part, of the redemption of the physical world.

So, we see in Romans 8 the linking of the destinies of humanity and the world. Again, this ought not to surprise us, given the theology of Genesis 1 and 2, which is so important for Paul, with its resounding portrait of humanity as the image of God, and of the first humans with the earth as their home and task: “In his vision of the restored cosmos, in conjunction with a restored, glorified humanity, Paul has painted an eschatological portrait that ties together profoundly Jewish hopes around the resurrected, crucified one.”[38] This is why these New Testament passages reflect the outlook of the oaths of the Book of Consolation.

V. Concluding Remarks

To conclude, the intertwining of humanity and the creation in God’s salvific purposes, as seen in The Book of Consolation, is foundational in Old Testament theology. The outlook of the New Testament follows suit, not at all teaching the annihilation of the cosmos. If the hermeneutical trajectory of the Old Testament is followed, passages such as 2 Peter 3:3-13, which are often seen as describing the annihilation of the cosmos, are resolved much more satisfactorily in accordance with the prophetic vision of the Old Testament.[39] This tradition of interpretation has a long history. To take one example, it is strongly the view of Irenaeus, who writes:

It is fitting, therefore, that the creation itself, being restored to its primeval condition, should without restraint be under the dominion of the righteous...[40]

And,

For neither is the substance nor the essence of the creation annihilated… but “the fashion of the world passeth away”; that is, those things among which transgression has occurred, since man has grown old in them.[41]

The implications of the biblical vision of the redemption of the cosmos, and the intertwining of the eternal destinies of humanity and the earth, are significant. First, it precipitates an attendant recovery of the doctrine of resurrection. It is unfortunate that Christian theology has so often lost sight of the importance of this. In recent years, in no small part due to the work of N. T. Wright, it has experienced something of a recovery. However, there are still many churches where, functionally if not confessionally, resurrection is an unfamiliar doctrine and the gospel that is preached is essentially one of a heavenly home for God’s people. There are no biblical grounds for conceiving of our eternal home as such, but a solid theological basis for concluding that it is on earth – a state realised eschatologically through resurrection from the dead.

Second, there are implications for the life of the Church in discipleship and mission. When eternal life is envisaged as something separate from the earth, when Christians believe that the goal of salvation is to live in another, unearthly realm, then most of life in the present age will seem to be utterly irrelevant. However, where Christians believe that, according to God’s creative purpose, being truly human is fundamentally to do with functioning as his image in his world, then every aspect of life lived in this age is made meaningful. Whether we live on earth in this age, or in the age to come – whether we eat or drink, or whatever we do – we live life on earth to the glory of God. There is a glorious and liberating motivation in seeking, however imperfectly, to live the life of the eternal Kingdom on earth in the here-and-now. Suddenly, all of life is relevant to salvation, and to glorifying God, and this outlook imbues a powerful dynamic to discipleship.

There are implications, too, for the Church’s mission in the world. Proclaiming a gospel of disembodied, ethereal salvation rather than one of the redemption of creation will not yield the fruit it ought to. George Caird pointed out almost fifty years ago that an otherworldly gospel does not speak to the genuine human experiences of unbelievers:

Too often evangelical Christianity has treated the souls of men as brands plucked from the burning and the world in general as a grim vale of soul-making. It has been content to see the splendour of the created universe... as nothing more than the expendable backdrop for the drama of redemption. One of the reasons why men of our generation have turned against conventional Christianity is that they think it involves writing off the solid joys of this present life for the doubtful acquisition of some less substantial treasure... the whole point of the resurrection of the body is that the life of the world to come is to be lived on a renewed earth... Everything of real worth in the old heaven and earth... will find a place in the eternal order.[42]

The answer to Caird’s cogent insight is present within the Calvinist tradition, and to embrace it is to recover the grand cosmic vision, not only of the scriptures, but also of Calvin. Eduard Thurneyson’s evocative description goes some way towards grasping this redemptive vision:

The world into which we shall enter in the Parousia of Jesus Christ is therefore not another world; it is this world, this heaven, this earth; both, however, passed away and renewed. It is these forests, these fields, these cities, these streets, these people, that will be the scene of redemption. At present they are battlefields, full of the strife and sorrow of the not yet accomplished consummation; then they will be fields of victory, fields of harvest where out of seed that was sown with tears the everlasting sheaves will be reaped and brought home.[43]

The Lord God, in and through Jesus Christ, remains committed to his covenant people, and he remains committed to his cosmos, our home – to day and night, to times and seasons. The oath of Jeremiah’s new covenant prophecy points us not only to our redemption, but to that of the cosmos in the Lord’s glorious and expansive salvation. Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit, World Without End. Amen.

 

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