Posted by: timjdavy | March 12, 2012

Chris Wright on Noah and the mission of God

In our journey through Genesis 1-11 on Redcliffe’s Applied Theology in Intercultural Contexts degree programme we have reached the account of Noah.

Here is what Chris Wright in The Mission of God says about the covenant God makes with Noah in Gen. 9

The narrative of the covenant that God made with Noah in Genesis 8:15-9:17 is the first explicit reference to covenant-making in the biblical text… The Noachic covenant establishes at least two foundational points that are relevant to the rest of the biblical concept of mission.

God’s commitment to all life on earth. In the context of God’s radical judgment on the comprehensive nature of human sin (repeatedly portrayed as “violence and corruptions”), God still commits himself to the created order itself and the preservation of life on the planet. Although we live on a cursed earth, we also live on a covenanted earth. There is an unambiguous universality about God’s covenantal self-commitment here: His promise is not only with humanity but also with “every living creature on earth” (Gen 9:10). This Noachic covenant provides the platform for the ongoing mission of God throughout the rest of human and natural history, and thereby also, of course, the platform for our own mission in participation with his. Whatever God does, or whatever God calls us to do, there is a basic stability to the cotnext of all our history.

This does not of course mean that God would never again use his natural creation as the agent of his judgment as well as his blessing (as the rest of the Old Testament amply testifies). But it does set limits to such actions within history. Apart from the final judgment of God that will bring an end to fallen human history as we presently know and experience it on this sinful planet, the curse will never again be expressed in an act of comprehensive destruction as the flood. This is God’s earth, and God is also covenantally committed to its survival, just as later revelation will show us that God is also covenantally committed to its ultimate redemption. Even the final judgment will not mean the end of the earth as God’s creation but the end of the sinful condition that has subjected the whole of creation to its present frustration. Our mission then takes place within the framework of God’s universal promise to the created order. This is a framework that gives security and scope to all our mission: security because we operate within the parameters of God’s commitment to our planet, and scope because there is nothing and no place on earth that lies outside the writ of God’s covenant with Noah. The rainbow promise spans whatever horizon we can ever see.

The ecological dimension of mission. The language with which God addresses Noah at the end of the flood clearly echoes Genesis 1. In a sense this is a fresh start for all creation. So Noah and his family are blessed and instructed to fill the earth and (although not with the same phrase) to have dominion over it. The creation mandate is renewed. The human task remains the same-to exercise authority over the rest of the creation, but to do so with care and respect for life, symbolized in the prohibition on eating animal blood (Gen. 9:4). So there is a human mission built into our origins in God’s creation and God’s purpose for creation. To care for creation is in fact the first purposive statement that is made about the human species; it is our primary mission on the planet. The covenant with Noah effectively renews this mission, within the context of God’s own commitment to creation. (pp326-327, his italics)

Here are a few questions to get you thinking.

  • Is our reading of the Bible so focused on humanity that we miss what it says about God’s purposes for the wider creation?
  • What do you make of God making a covenant with all of creation, and not just humans?
  • What do you think of Wright’s point that, ‘there is nothing and no place on earth that lies outside the writ of God’s covenant with Noah’? How does it rebuke or encourage you as you engage in God’s mission?
  • How does Wright’s section on ecology inform discussions on creation care? To what extent do we treat creation care as peripheral to mission?

What do you think? Leave a question or comment below…


Responses

  1. It is an interesting point of view, of course. But there are at least two points I would like to comment upon.
    1) God is committed to the planet’s survival – well, I have doubts about that. Yes, there is a covenantal relationship, but what if one of the parts crosses the line? Is then God still responsible to fulfilling His part? I guess not. I mean in all covenants it has been so. Look at the Mosaic covenant – when the people were crossing the line, the Lord could discipline them.
    And moreover, there is no implication that God would not intervene, should the fallen man cross his part of the covenant. Then God is bound by His own words, His sovereignty and power are locked in a covenant. We have to be careful with this kind of assumptions. Furthermore, God is talking about destruction by water in the covenant. In the end the earth will be destroyed by fire – so the Lord kept His share anyway.
    But I think there is too much stress on the creation. Yes, we love creation, yes, the Lord made the covenant with all creation, but does that mean He values birds and trees at the same level with humans? That’s what I get from the article. Well, that is definitely not so. He says so in the Sermon on the Mount. There is a hierarchy of values He keeps dear.
    “it is our primary mission on the planet” – well, I wouldn’t say so. I know that you may have a good intention here, but I don’t see that message in the Scriptures as a whole. Nor does a large part of the Church see it like that. That the ecological stuff is prominent in W societies, yes it’s a trend. It will pass. I wouldn’t insist too much on it – remember it was all started by the New Age movement back in the 70s. Our primary mission on earth are the almost 4 billion lost souls.
    2) “Even the final judgment will not mean the end of the earth as God’s creation” – Oh, yes, it will. For this read for yourselves Rev 21:1 and also very clearly in 2 Peter 3:10 – earth and all the works in it (creation) will be burnt up by combustion. Redemption will happen in heaven, not on earth. Why would Jesus redeem the men he chose on a cursed earth? Here I am making new things – God’s inexhaustible creation power does not need to cosmeticize things of old, He can always create something new. I have heard that idea many times in our days, that God will preserve the earth and we will remain here with Him. Well, that is another Bible, I am sorry.

  2. I like what Wright has written: “Although we live on a cursed earth, we also live on a covenanted earth.” This ties in with what Atkinson in ‘The Message of Genesis’ says – “We are ‘after the Deluge’, not ‘back in Eden’.” (p158), in the sense that when we become Christians, everything is not hunky-dory. It’s the tension of living a covenant life in a fallen world.

  3. 1 Col. 1:19+20 For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.

    gives a nice summary..

  4. If we look at the biblical text, the covenant that God is making with all of creation in Gen.9:9-11 is that “never again shall there be a flood to destroy the earth”. There doesn’t seem to be anything about mankind’s responsibility to ‘care for creation’. We are told in Gen.9:1-2 that mankind is to be fruitful and multiply and will have dominion over creation; dominion not exploitation.
    I think it’s important that we are wise stewards of God’s creation but I don’t think the environment should in any way be our primary focus in mission.

  5. Wright’s view about the ecological dimension of mission is interesting. Many Christians (and I include myself) have ignored their responsibilities to creation and have maintained a blasé attitude towards ecological issues. However, I do find Wright’s view that caring for creation, ‘is our primary mission on the planet’ unsettling and difficult.

  6. I think that just as we are God’s creation, so is the earth and to me it seems logical that God would create a covenant with all His creation not just us. But what does this mean for mission – I’m not sure of I agree that our primary mission is caring for the planet but I do think its important that we each do our part to the best of our ability to care for what God has created.

  7. Maybe, we are confusing our ideas of “mission” (from Jesus’ comission) to God’s first command to Man (to care and stewart creation). God’s care and love of His creation (including man) is part of so called “Missio Dei”, which is renewed with Noah. Therefore, I agree with Chris in thinking we have neglected this aspect. This is a challenge to understand Missio Dei in a holistic manner. Maybe we should ask how and why is man linked to creation and how can we present the Redemption story with an environmental viewpoint.

  8. Can Romans 8:22 be brought to bear on this discussion too? It seems to hammer home again that creation is in God’s redemption plans. This (and even general social action) have often been viewed as peripheral issues in my background, but this ought not to be so.

    Application: we ought not to be going out on lots of short term mission trips around the world since our carbon footprints will be akin to massive size 13s. Too far…?

  9. ‘This is God’s earth, and God is also covenantally committed to its survival, just as later revelation will show us that God is also covenantally committed to its ultimate redemption.’ It is God’s commitment to ‘ultimate redemption’ that must be our main focus as Christians, throughout Scripture this seems to be primary in the heart of God. Looking after the planet is important but this has to be the secondary issue here.

  10. Having recently read what Chris Wright said in the mission of God’s people I am more convinced of the need for us to care for the environment. He talks about our role within the environment, because of the fact that ‘creation exists for the praise and glory of its creator God’. He goes on to say ‘when we care for creation, we share in its great purpose of giving glory to God. Conversely of course, when we fail to do so, or when we participate in the destruction, pollution and wasting of creation, we are reducing even further creation’s capacity to give glory to God’. Knowing that there are people who have gone from atheism to believing in God as a result of their observation of the natural world I think we need to be in some sort of a partnership with the environment. It brings glory to God in its own way, and we can point to who God is and his relationship with humans within that creation.
    I wonder as well whether, if the most important part of the Noah story is in genesis 8:1, then the point is not that God remembered Noah, but that ‘God remembered Noah and all the wild animals and the livestock that were with him in the ark’. I think this might show how much God values the animals he created, as well as the humans he created.

  11. I understand where the man is coming from and we certainly have a duty to care and be good stewards of creation but as a primary mission I am not convinced. After all humanity does seem to be the pinnacle of creation, when God says it was very good compared to good for the rest of His creation. Although this is the case I think it is more appropriate that we see the mission of God as all encompassing; not separating our duty to creation and humanity.

  12. It is interesting to note, that God commits himself to his covenant. In the Old Testament we see, that God didn’t retribute 1:1 in regard to the covenant, he often went out of his way to reconcile the people of Israel to himself, culminating in Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross, the ultimate instance of God “going out of his way” to reach out to fallen humanity. In this sense, God’s commitment to his creation even goes beyond his covenant, even though he doesn’t break his covenant. Human thinking about sin and justice tends very much to be 1:1 retribution, which makes the grace of God a foreign concept to religious thinking. The same mindset may cause us to emphasize the brokenness of creation and to see mainly this aspect. Maybe in the thinking of many Christians, the world is ultimately doomed for judgment. This would cause us to adapt a negative attitude towards Christian engagement for a better world, be it political, ecological, social or in spreading the gospel of Jesus Christ. However, Luther was supposed to have said: “Even if the world were to be destroyed tomorrow, I would plant an apple tree today”. Though Luther was aware of sin and judgment, he was also aware of God’s commitment to his creation!

  13. ‘The human task remains the same-to exercise authority over the rest of the creation, but to do so with care and respect for life, symbolized in the prohibition on eating animal blood (Gen. 9:4)’
    Does this prohibition therefore still apply to us?
    How does it look to have creation as our primary mission, in practise?

    Is God limiting himself by creating a covenant that limits the way that he disciplines us?

  14. I was really struck by the statement that God has purposes for the wider creation as well. Although it is personally difficult not to focus on God’s purposes on humanity, I don’t think that it should be our primary focus when reading the Bible – it is indeed reading that I know more and more about God’s character and heart, this will lead automatically not only to the discovering of myself as human being before God but also to the growing desire to care for creation as well, as it is God’s desire and purpose to do so.

  15. I think God made a covenant with the whole of creation and not just humans, and our role is to be stewards of the earth. The article places too much empasises on one verse but I do agree that part of our purposes is to care for creation

  16. Briefly, answering the four questions at the end of the blog;

    1. God doesn’t say much about his purposes for wider creation. His purposes are for ‘His people’ whoever his people are! When we analyse biblical text too often great emphasis is given to particular words and phrases which are usually unpacked in such a way that it is often our own thoughts and interpretations that are layered onto scriptures (Eisegesis). Academics often stretch scripture beyond its original context through various interpretational tools leading to the contruction of flawed understanding.

    2. Are human being really capable of maintaining a co-promise with God or is it just God’s promise to us, not to do us harm again? If we are co-promisees isn’t this too high an expectation of human beings by God? The bible consistency shows us as fallible human beings who fail time after time. Do we really think we can change? Our present day reality is demonstrating that we cannot – we force and maintain a third of the worlds population in poverty, world economies are coming to a grinding halt, financial markets failling etc etc etc.

    Are we really so insecure as human beings that we require an external entitiy (God) to tell us and guide us on how to care (knowing right from wrong) for our environment and for each other? Is it not common-sense, or is common-sense not too common? Or do people already know how to care but choose not to do right mainly out of selfish greed and materialism.

    3. Our paradigm changes when we think beyond the realm of Earth. The Earth is only a spec of dust compared with the vastness of space which to-date is unmeasurable. Is God so small that his covenant is only applicale on Earth. Rainbows don’t form in space because the rules of physics required to create them don’t happen in space in the same way.

    Do we really think we are the only beings in existence in the vastness array of God’s creation which is not limited to Earth? Wright’s picture and his theology is small-minded.

    4. Wright’s section on ecology doesn’t enrich discussions on environmental/creation care. His understanding is a repetition of the thoughts of many other theologians before him. His arguement is an emphasis and stress of theological semantics revisited.

    Advances on environmental/creation care issues are increasingly found in other world disciplines such as the Environmental Sciences by scientists but such guidance and advice is not often taken into consideraion by theologians as they are often enclosed within their own bubble mentality. An integrational approach is required by all disciplines in order to reach a common consensus.


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