Saturday, September 22, 2012

Great Commissions (1 of 2)

Reading chronologically is not always the best help when it comes to Biblical interpretation.  Thanks to a stimulating Awayday with Magdalen Road Church, where Julian Hardyman helped us to think through what it really means to live for Jesus every day, I've been mulling over the relationship between Matthew 28 and Genesis 1-2, and in particular what Julian called the Two Great Commissions.  It seems to me that there are at least three ways of seeing the relationship between these two Commissions, and that the one we pick will have a huge effect on what we think it means to live as a Christian.

Firstly, the two Commissions - what are they?  The first, chronologically speaking, is the instruction and permission found in the two creation accounts in Genesis.  This could be called the creational mandate, or the cultural mandate.  Humanity is to expand and advance, both numerically and in terms of control over creation.  They are to steward the resources of creation, making responsible use of everything that God has given them.  This will involve creativity, craftsmanship, thought.  Humanity is commanded and permitted to thrive, and to enjoy the fruits of their gentle work within the world that God has made.  The second Commission, and the one which is more commonly referred to by that name, is the sending out of the Apostles, and through them the Apostolic Church, to bear witness to Christ, making disciples who are baptised and taught to follow everything that Jesus has said.  This Commission, unlike the other, is delivered to a limited group of people, although the intended beneficiaries are not limited.  In a way, it too involves expansion and advancement in numbers and in ways of being community together for the world.

The first way of understanding the relationship between these two Commissions is to say that the latter nullifies the former.  Genesis 1 and 2 stand as testimony to God's original intention for humanity, but after Genesis 3 there is nothing left of that intention.  The fall raises an impenetrable barrier between that world and our world (a cherub with a flaming sword, perhaps?) which makes it useless for us to even think about the mandate of Genesis 1 and 2 except in the context of reflection on what we have lost, and therefore how much we need Christ.  Those who hold this viewpoint tend to think that evangelism is the only worthwhile thing to be doing - everything else being simply the necessary prerequisites for evangelism.  If you have ever heard someone use an argument like ‘what does it matter what great works of art we create when there are people going to hell all around us’, they probably hold this view of the relationship between Genesis 1-2 and Matthew 28.  (The wonky eschatology follows on logically).

I think this viewpoint has a lot to recommend it (it used to be mine).  It takes the fall seriously, it takes seriously the fact that we cannot even imagine a world in which work was always blessed and human effort was not constantly subject to futility.  It also takes seriously the urgent need for the gospel to go out.  However, I am convinced that this is not the biblical view.  For starters, in both Old and New Testaments, numerous activities are endorsed and commanded which bear no relation to evangelism, the extension of the church, or the plucking of brands from the fire.  Moreover, this view of the relation between Genesis 1-2 and Matthew 28 (or, indeed, the rest of the Bible) implies that God has abandoned his creation to destruction, choosing to save a few souls from the wreck.  That just doesn’t fit with the declared intentions of God for his creation in Scripture.  Genesis 1-2 still matters for more than just a reminder of what we have lost.

The other two perspectives to follow shortly...

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