We’ve waited a long time for a worthy successor to Langdon Gilkey’s theology of creation, Maker of Heaven and Earth, so I was excited to read Jonathan Wilson’s new book, God’s Good World: Reclaiming the Doctrine of Creation (Baker). Unfortunately, I think we’re still waiting. The book is a solid piece of scholarship suited for an academic setting, but it’s too Barthian for me to use as a required text in my classes. Wilson attempts to give more weight to creation than he learned in his pietistic, Baptist upbringing, but his insistence that creation be read only in light of redemption prevents creation from having value in its own right.
Specifically, Wilson’s insistence that we must never speak of creation apart from redemption (it’s never creation simpliciter but always “creation that is being redeemed”) leads him to conflate creation and the Fall. He contends that in the beginning “creation was teleologically perfect, not originally perfect. In other words, God made the cosmos perfectly suited for the fulfillment of its purpose in Jesus Christ.” (p. 119). God’s original creation contained agony and death, but that is okay because God planned that Christ would restore everything in the new creation. The original creation wasn’t entirely good, but God promised to make it so by the end.
Wilson claims that Adam and Eve did not ruin a good creation when they sinned. Rather their Fall rejected God’s final, redemptive purpose for creation (p. 119, 190). Of course, I imagine that it may have been difficult for them to trust God’s telos, given that they were surrounded by suffering and death in their original state. Wilson argues that death is so ingrained in creation that even if Adam and Eve had not sinned, the divine Son would still “have become incarnate to die, not for our sins, but to take death into the life of God so that death would be no more” (p. 198).
Wilson’s approach is reminiscent of Barth (p. 49-50, 54)—though he stops short of arguing for universalism (p. 124-25)—and H. Richard Niebuhr. Like Niebuhr, Wilson uses creation, fall, and redemption as various perspectives on the world rather than three successive acts in its history (p. 54-55). This makes for confusion, as Wilson wants to say that the present world is simultaneously good, fallen, and being redeemed, depending how you look at it. I didn’t quite understand when Niebuhr said it, and I still don’t get it.
God’s Good World would be a provocative book to engage in a doctoral seminar, as it’s an updated example of a Barthian, Niebuhrian approach that attempts to make Scripture fit with the findings of modern science. For example, Wilson claims that evolution is true inasmuch as it describes the world in its fallenness (p. 187). I don’t think this works as well as he thinks, as evolution claims to describe the world as it is and always has been, not merely the negative side of life as we find it. Wilson’s creative attempt to reconcile Scripture and modern science shows how much ground some Christians will yield to make this work. And it leaves me wondering whether his title should end with a question mark.