One of the ways in which emerging theologies have attempted to correct the individualistic bias of much modern Reformed and evangelical theology has been to stress the cosmic dimension to salvation. So, for example, J.R. Woodward, whom I greatly regret having missed when he passed through Dubai last year, started off a recent post on the “key elements of personal salvation” with the words: “While the Good News of Jesus Christ is both personal and cosmic in nature….”
This emphasis on the cosmic dimension, which relies principally on a few New Testament texts that speak of the final transformation of all creation (cf. Rom. 8:20-22; Rev. 21:1-4), is a substantial improvement on soteriologies that are narrowly focused on the journey that a person makes from conversion to his or her eventual arrival in heaven. There is much social and ethical good that can be drawn from the vision of a world made new. In Love Wins Rob Bell speaks of the essentially earthy and humane vision of the life of the age to come that is found in the Old Testament prophets:
…Jesus and the prophets lived with an awareness that God has been looking for partners since the beginning, people who will take seriously their divine responsibility to care for the earth and each other in loving, sustainable ways. They centered their hopes in the God who simply does not give up on creation and the people who inhabit it. The God who is the source of all life, who works from within creation to make something new.
But in both J.R. Woodward’s opening clause and in Rob Bell’s rich account of the life of the age to come a crucial biblical component has gone missing. The biblical story does not say that “God has been looking for partners since the beginning”. It says that God chose a people in Abraham to be a “new creation”. Bell’s characterization of this people as partners who would “take seriously their divine responsibility to care for the earth and each other in loving, sustainable ways” is conceptually anachronistic in the first place, but we may let that pass. The more significant problem is that it gives the impression that God was looking for well-disposed, eco-sensitive volunteers. That seems to me rather badly to misrepresent the place of a people bound by covenant to the creator in the biblical story.
This has a bearing, moreover, on how we understand the “good news” of Jesus Christ and the locus of salvation in the biblical story—and I think it helps us to see how emerging theologies and New Perspective approaches to the New Testament still fail to connect. You would think that the personal-cosmic spectrum would encompass pretty much everything that needs to be said about salvation. In fact, it collapses—perhaps unintentionally—the structure of a biblical theology by circumventing the role of a chosen people.
So we have Rob Bell’s God looking for individuals to participate in the work of creational renewal, and we have a “good news” of salvation that has no reference to the community to which it was originally proclaimed, namely first-century Israel. There was a similar oversight in Brian McLaren’s Everything Must Change.
Jesus did not come to save people from their sins. He came to save his people from their sins (Matt. 1:21). The gospel was a public and political announcement to a nation. That is a very different type of story with a very different type of outcome. The story of salvation in the New Testament is, at its heart, the story of the salvation of a people from the “final” destruction of the impending Jewish War—a salvation which, through the over-abounding grace of God, led to the inclusion of Gentiles in the community and the eventual victory of the church over its pagan enemies.
This national-level narrative provides the basis for—and certainly the starting-point for—whatever we want to say about both personal salvation and cosmic salvation. On the one hand, individuals, in different ways, participate in the story of the people of God. On the other, the story of the people of God generates the hope that in the end all creation will be renewed.
The problem here is not merely exegetical. By disregarding the corporate dimension, the emerging model excludes, or at least greatly reduces, the difficult sphere of practised justice. A significant layer of cosmic and humanitarian concern is added to the outlook of the individual, legitimizing the engagement of Christians in social action. But this does not fundamentally change the structure of things: we still have a very “modern” theology organized around the needs and potentials of individual participants in secular society.
We can understand the emerging church’s reluctance, on the one hand, to perpetuate the failings of the old institutional church, and the desire, on the other, to recover some degree public credibility, some ethical integrity. But this cannot be achieved at the expense of diminishing the concrete life and witness of the church as community—indeed, as a place where “new creation” is practised and not merely talked about.