Is the Created World Good?
Michael Horton claims that an old heresy, “is constantly threatening the orthodoxy of the church and it is as old as Satan’s lie, ‘You shall be gods.’ It is Gnosticism.” This view is almost as old as the Christian church itself and in incipient forms may be the subject of a stern apostolic warning in Colossians 2, “See to it that no one takes you captive by philosophy and empty deceit . . . in questions of food and drink.” In this chapter the physical body is affirmed precisely because we are members of Christ’s body. Yet, as Horton says, Gnosticism is still present today, yet perhaps in variant forms. Today’s Gnosticism often manifests itself in a mood rather than a doctrine. Even many Christians seem to regard physical things—in the spirit of Gnosticism—as evil in themselves. For these people, the point of Christian life is to prioritize what is spiritual over what is physical. This mood, or habit of thinking is crucially misguided because it fails to realize that while sin has influenced the created, material world, it remains substantially good, a vehicle for worship. Christians can revel in the goodness of creation.
The reason this claim may sound controversial needs to be noted and admitted. Biblical testimony confirms a fact that is obvious to Earth’s inhabitants, that “the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now.” (Romans 8:22) It is true that creation can seem hostile to human flourishing, especially in light of merciless predators, diseases, or natural disasters. Paul reminds the Romans that this is because creation waits to be set free, “creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption.” (Romans 8:21) In other words, the world is not as it should be, but waits or yearns to be. And “willing” and “yearning” can be rightly applied to creation as Paul himself exemplifies in verse 21, “creation waits with eager longing.”
On the other hand, Christians can revel in the goodness of creation, first, because creation declares the glory of God. In one of the most well-known Psalms David says, “The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork. Day to day pours out speech, and night to night reveals knowledge.” In other words, the dawning and departing of the sun gives knowledge of God, knowledge that moves to worship. The logic of this verse needs to be made apparent. It is as a person comes to know and comprehend the awe inspiring immensity and regularity of God’s creation that this person by natural inference learns about the awe inspiring immensity and regularity of its source, the glory of God. Only a good creation could possibly tell rightly of a good God.
Christians can revel in the goodness of creation also because in so doing, Christians actually use material goods for godly ends. Paul instructs Timothy to warn the rich not to hoard their material possessions, that is not to set their hope in those things, but on God. In doing so, he reminds the rich just what God they are hoping in—he is the one “who richly provides us with everything to enjoy.” (1 Tim 6:17) Essentially, Paul is telling the rich not to make riches the end of their hope, but rather God is the end. Yet, in doing so, he also affirms the value of using material things as the means of hoping in God (the end) as we enjoy them. Certainly, Paul is not saying that one could worship God through sexual immorality for instance. Yet, he is affirming the practical joys of savoring his good creation, be it in the bedroom with one’s husband or wife or on the table with food or drink. In other words, the act of enjoying rightly—as means, not ends—actually brings glory to God as the giver of good things. Paul says elsewhere, “So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God.” (1 Cor 10:31).
So Horton is concerned, and perhaps rightly so, that a Gnostic mood is developing even among Christians. The proper response for Christians is to revel in the goodness of God’s creation, to affirm the physical, especially as a manifestation of God’s glory. Yet, we must not treat the material world as an end in itself. We must always orient our worship to the creator rather than creation. Yet, as we do, we will find that creation itself looks, tastes, and smells better as a witness to God’s goodness.