Updated: Aug 6, 2022
Every country has its landmarks of geography and history that give its culture shape and direction and are essential for understanding its story. Our questions of the Bible need to be asked in the context of its big landmarks, its big story or meta-narrative. A lot of devotional reading concentrates on the mini-stories, and misses the panorama of salvation history in which they should be understood. As we seek a Biblical view of ‘the world’ we need to set our question in the meta-narrative context of the whole of Scripture.
The Bible’s four big landmarks are Creation, Fall, Redemption and Consummation. When we ask ‘What time is it?’ the answer is ‘ After Redemption, after the mid-point of human history from which time is counted back (BC) to Creation, and before the Consummation to which time is counted forwards (AD).’ This is the backdrop to the world drama while we are on stage in the world. Apart from these great landmarks, we do not and cannot know what time it is.
Four Greek words translate into ‘world’ in English.
(1) ge: the physical earth, as in geography;
(2) kosmos: can mean both the created order and the social order, and gives us ‘cosmetic’, the ordering of appearance – ‘the earth was formless and void’ before God created order, ‘cosmos’, out of ‘chaos’;
(3) ktisis: creation; and
(4) aion: sometimes means ‘age’ like the Latin saecula from which we get ‘secular’, this present world.
Paul gives us three representative statements about the world in Romans. In 1:18-25 Creation and Fall are linked. Paul argues that the invisible God is knowable in his eternal power and divine nature through “the creation of the world” (ktiseos kosmou). Despite this, people did not give him glory and thanks, and are to be blamed for not worshipping him as God. Instead, they worshipped their own creations that resembled God’s creation. In claiming to be wise, they became idiotic. A graphic example of the point is the descent into bestial insanity of Nebuchadnezzar, who commanded the worship of idols and exulted in his own power and glory (Daniel 3-4).
Romans 8:18-21 looks ahead to Consummation, the restoration of all things. The creation (ktisis), subjected to futility or frustration in the disorder of the Fall, is now eagerly waiting for the revealing of the sons of God. Renewal of covenant will lead to renewal of creation, to order restored. As Tom Wright argues, Paul does not speak “of leaving the cosmos to its own devices and of finding a salvation elsewhere”. Rather he “points firmly in the direction of the liberation of heaven and earth”, to a “new world (that) will be more real, more physically solid, than the present one” (Wright 1999:13).
In Romans 12:1-2 Paul addresses our present situation very directly, as we live out hope in the world of the here and now, between Redemption and Consummation. “Don’t let the world around you squeeze you into its own mould” is J B Phillips apt translation, ‘the world’ here being the Greek aion, this age, the present social order. Paul distinguishes, but does not separate, bodies and minds. Our bodies, part of the material world, are to be given to service in the world, and Paul calls this intelligent worship of God. Our minds are to be transformed, renewed from within, and this will lead us to the practical testing and approving of the perfect will of God. Asking how this might happen leads to all sorts of consequences: personal, social, in mission and in worship.
Piaget, the Swiss psychologist, saw human development as a two-way process of adaptation to the world, assimilation of the physical and social world into the organism’s consciousness, and accommodation of the organism to its physical and social environment (Donaldson 1978). But as William Temple points out, this adaptation follows the pattern of the Fall. “When we open our eyes as babies we see the world stretching out around us…I am the centre of the world I see…So each of us takes his place in the centre of his own world. But I am not the centre of the world or the standard of reference as between good and bad; I am not, and God is. In other words, from the beginning I put myself in God’s place. This is my original sin.” (Temple 1976:60). It is these selves, shaped by heredity and adaptation, that Paul urges to transformation in body and in mind. That is the challenge to the self.
Socially, as members of the Christian community, we face the challenge of the world which is simultaneously the object of God’s love (John 3:16) and also the organised centre of resistance to him (John 1:10-11). Different personal and corporate responses to the world are possible, both negative and positive. We may deny the world’s uncomfortable reality, burying our heads in the sand like the ostrich. The armadillo rolls itself into an armour-plated ball to protect itself. We may withdraw into our own community, isolating ourselves from the world or like the rabbit, run when danger threatens. The chameleon changes colour as it accommodates to its surroundings, and the silkworm spins in different colours according to the leaves it assimilates. But the transformative Biblical model for Christians is not fright or flight, or uncritical adaptation, but fight, like the lion, engaging society as God has done by entering the world in Jesus Christ. This demands critical thinking by minds that are being biblically renewed, with action to match. That is the challenge to the Church.
This leads us to mission, engagement with ‘the Other’. The Church does not exist for the sake of its members but for the world. As the called community, its vocation is to make the love of Christ known in word and deed. This means calling people to forgiveness of sins through repentance and faith and caring for their material needs - thus authenticating concern for their spiritual well-being. Biblically informed social concern will address the causes of social injustice and challenge the power structures which sustain them. This means getting our hands dirty in a dirty world.
In mission, the motivation of the Church includes gratitude and obedience to God, and love and concern for others. But the overarching motive is the glory of God and the worship that is due to him. As Alexander Schmemann puts it: “Man…stands in the centre of the world and unifies it in his act of blessing God, of both receiving the world from God and offering it to God…The world was created as the ‘matter’, the material of one all-embracing Eucharist, and man was created as the priest of this cosmic sacrament.” (Wolterstorff 1983:149). It is only as this happens that order, cosmos, is restored to our disordered universe.n
Donaldson, Margaret (1978) Children’s Minds Fontana/Collins, Glasgow.
Temple, William (1976) Christianity and Social Order Shepheard-Walwyn/SPCK, London.
Wolterstorff, Nicholas (1983) Until Justice and Peace Embrace Eerdmans, Grand Rapids.
Wright, N T (1999): New Heavens, New Earth: The Biblical Picture of Hope Grove Books, Cambridge