It’s hard to write a brief post on this chapter! Don’t feel you have to read the whole summary; it’s here for your use and mine both now and in the future. Just pick out what interests you in the book, scan my post to see if I added anything, and make a comment.
Creation Vs. Providence
Let’s make sure we nail down what Wolters is doing at the beginning of the chapter.
- First he argues that you can’t really draw a firm and clear distinction between God’s creation of the world and His providential rule over it; otherwise, you’ve got a Deistic god who made the watch, wound it up, and then just let it tick. “Let there be light is, in a way, still uttered by God moment by moment” (2 Pet 3:5, 7).
- So what do we call God’s work of creation and providence put together? Wolters suggests law. That word points to God’s rule over all creation (Ps 33:9).
That category of law has to be further divided into two binaries:
1. Laws of Nature vs. Norms
So, for example, God works without mediation through nature. Laws of “gravity, motion, thermodynamics, photosynthesis, and heredity” work whether man does anything about it or not. But God works with mediation through the norms he sets up for human behavior. And make no mistake about it, Wolters says: God rules over all areas of individual and group behavior. There are divine norms for agriculture and business as well as for politics and journalism. There is “an order to which both mankind and nature are subject” (p.18).
And this is where Wolters argument is at its strongest, because he shows that the Bible says what he’s saying. Psalm 147:15-20 conflate what we moderns are apt to keep in very separate compartments. God’s words rule nature just as they rule human behavior.
2. General Laws vs. Particular Laws
God law, too, has both a general aspect (“Do not murder”) and a particular one (“You ought to work as an internist this summer”).
And this brings us back around to the major assertion of the chapter
Human nature is normed throughout. Everywhere we discover limits and proprieties, standards and criteria: in every field of human affairs there are right and wrong ways of doing things. There is nothing in human life that does not belong to the created order (p.25).
God instituted marriage (1 Tim 4:3-4), for example, and even governmental authority (Rom 13:1-2; 1 Pet 2:13). To go against their norms is to go against the God who put them there.
Wolters gives general norms by the scriptural name “wisdom.” The wise man in Proverbs is one who conforms his ways to God’s order and plan, whether in nature or in interpersonal relationships (p. 29). It may take me some years to decide what I think of his translation of אמון (amon) in Proverbs 8:30. (The only other instance of that word would seem to require that it refer to a person, not a blueprint, but perhaps I’m missing something.)
A Major Scripture Reference To Hold On To
The one thing I have found my mind going back to most often in this chapter is Wolters’ citation of Isaiah 28:23–29. I’ve looked at it closely, and I think it’s saying what he’s saying it’s saying: God teaches the farmer the best ways to do the most mundane parts of his work. Crop-rotation, threshing practices—“All this…comes from the Lord Almighty…, whose wisdom is magnificent” (28:29, NIV).
In other words, if God’s “creational norms” extend that far down, to the most menial tasks, they certainly exist for the halls of Congress or for academic journals in the sciences and the humanities.
But how do we know God’s laws for these disciplines if He hasn’t revealed them explicitly in Scripture? Wolters answers with Scripture: Col 1:9-10 expresses a prayer that believers would be “filled with the knowledge of his will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding.” There are, then, aspects of God’s will that fall outside what He’s stated in Scripture. We need spiritual wisdom and understanding to find them out. Scripture is still primary, however, because it serves as a lens interpreting an otherwise fuzzy reality. God’s word isn’t just a light shining on nothing; it’s a light shining on my path. I need to actually look at the path. (This is very reminiscent of John Frame’s normative [Scripture’s light] and situational [the illuminated path] perspectives.)
Creation as Blueprint
Another way to think of it, and another thing I find myself coming back to, is the blueprint metaphor. Scripture is the audio recording of instructions given to a builder as he attempts to build following the blueprint in creation.
Civilization Unfolds What God Placed Here
One big point in this chapter that I starred is that the various academic disciplines and fields of human endeavor (Wolters does a good job, again, of listing off a large spectrum of them in just a few words—from needlepoint to rocket science) all arise from possibilities God programmed into creation at the beginning. Humans are responsible to actualize, reify, or positivize them. The fall, of course, makes our responsibility difficult. We get frustrated. But it doesn’t remove the responsibility; we’re not allowed to check out and do our own thing: “If God did not give up on the works of his hands, we may not either” (p. 45).
And that fall into sin brings Wolters to a key point which will help defuse the kinds of objections I first had when encountering his perspective: Wolters is trying to strike a scriptural balance between stressing the good inherent in creation and the evil brought on by sin. This is, he says,
an absolutely fundamental distinction, and one neglects it only at the peril of falling into either cultural pessimism (which sees only the debilitating effects of sin) and cultural optimism (which sees only the normative development of creational possibilities). (p.46)
God values His creation so highly that He didn’t
scrap it when mankind spoiled it, but determined instead, at the cost of his Son’s life, to make it new and good again. God does not make junk, and he does not junk what he has made. (p. 49)
I’m a dispensationalist, as far as I know. I’m a premillennialist that far, too. I believe that God has a future for Israel and that Christ will set up His 1,000-year kingdom with a cataclysm. And for these reasons I have struggled at times to see much value in mowing my lawn. There are souls to save, books to read, blog posts to post! You know? But now that I’m a husband and father—and even though I work in full-time ministry—I see how needful it is to have a theological justification for all my shopping trips to Home Depot. The necessity is even greater for those who fix refrigerators day after day. And here it is: we’re supposed to subdue and have dominion. We’re supposed to cultivate and create. We’re supposed to make something of the small pieces of the world God has put under our care. And all of this is somehow consistent with the premillennial view that things will get worse overall until Christ comes and fixes everything for us. I haven’t worked all that out, but a thought from a theologically astute friend has helped a good deal.
Wolters: “Perhaps the most fitting symbol of the development of creation from the primordial past to the eschatological future is the fact that the Bible begins with a garden and ends with a city—a city filled with ‘the glory and the honor of the nations.” (p. 48)
Me: “But there’s a cataclysm in between the culture we’re creating all the time and city God will create. Doesn’t that destroy Wolters’ picture? Yes, history is flanked by a garden on one side and a city on the other, but the two don’t stand on the same timeline. It’s as if God starts a new one above the old. So if our cultural labors have no lasting place in the new earth, why engage in them?”
Theologically Astute Friend: “The cataclysm does not end the trajectory from Garden to City. It gives the ultimate victory to the City of God. Also, we should justify cultural engagement for doxological reasons, not for permanence reasons. The search for permanence is a frustrating search for all—including church planters and missionaries. This is the nerve that Solomon keeps stepping on in Ecclesiastes. His conclusion is that we fear God and keep his commandments. And what are his commandments? The Creation Mandate is the first.”