The ordinary reader should not be put off this daunting 500-page book, for it has much to teach us. Like all the author’s works that I have read, it is well written and makes readily accessible valuable material (on man’s progress in the knowledge of God, for example).
Wright’s laudable concern is to underline the fact that God himself is the author of a mission relating to the creation he has brought into being. He rightly indicates, referring to Exodus 19:5 in particular, that election is not simply to privilege but to responsibility. Though the Israelites as the people of God were unique, they were intended from the start to bring blessing to the nations (cf. Gen. 12:1-3) and be a light to them (Isa. 42:6; 49:6). In other words, God’s mission has always been the salvation of the world (John 3:16).
However, Wright is not merely concerned with man but with the material creation. He strongly stresses mankind’s stewardship, and underlines his own concern for ecology in these days of global warming.
It is here, however, that his work reveals the inadequacy of his theology, his covenant theology in particular. His assumption is that the whole of the material creation is under a curse (see index under ‘curse’). For example, on page 395 he writes: “… humanity is at odds with the earth; and the earth is subject to God’s curse and to the frustration of not being able to glorify God as it ought until humanity is redeemed. Such are the grim realities of our fallen human condition that Paul expounds in Romans. We live as fallen humanity in a cursed earth…. All that God did in, for and through Israel … had as its ultimate goal the blessing of all nations of humanity and the final redemption of all creation….”. Here Wright’s argument and understanding are deeply suspect.
First, it is strange to draw the conclusion that because the earth is to be redeemed, we should lavish special care on it. Surely our consumer society teaches the opposite, that is, that the old should be abandoned and the new brought in!
Next, the problem with Wright’s approach, apart from his faulty appreciation of covenant theology, is that it is Augustinian, not Pauline. He fails to see that the very first verse of the Bible tells us that the material creation is temporal, serves only a temporary purpose and was never designed for permanence (cf. 2 Cor. 4:18). By contrast, he thinks that since creation is under a curse, it needs redemption. My Bible tells me something different, that is, that the material creation, though certainly affected by sin, is, like the flesh that derives from it, temporal and corruptible by nature. God made it that way (cf. Rom. 8:18-25; Heb. 1:10-12). And even before sin became a reality, mortal man (Adam) was charged with exercising dominion over it in hope of glory and eternal life (Gen. 1:26-28, cf. Ps. 8:5f.; Gen. 2:17). Far from being redeemed, once its mission is accomplished creation will be dispensed with (cf. 2 Pet. 3:7,10-12), and hence replaced by something better, that is, the eternal world, the regeneration or the age to come that already exists. This was the divine intention from the start. Intimations of heaven occur even within the limited perspective of the somewhat earth-centred OT. Isaiah, like the apostle John, looks forward to the time when the former things will not be remembered (65:17-19, cf. Rev. 21:4; 66:22, cf. Heb. 1:11; 12:27). And we shall dwell with God in the heavenly Jerusalem (Heb. 12:22, cf. Phil. 3:20), which, since we are born from above (John 3:3), is our mother (Gal. 4:26).
Wright is of course an OT scholar who has failed to appreciate the difference between the old and new covenants. His view seems to be based on the OT theme of restoration. (1* See, for example, his “Knowing the Holy Spirit through the Old Testament”, 2006, pp. 148ff.) In the NT, restoration (cf. 2 Chr. 24:13; 36:19-23), repetition (cf. Heb. 10:11) and reproduction (cf. Luke 20:34-36) give way to removal and replacement (2 Cor. 3:11; 4:18; Heb. 12:27). A restored earth like a restored temple now that Christ has come and risen is to say the least superfluous (cf. John 2:19-22; 14:2f.). Just as flesh gives way to spirit (1 Cor. 15:46), so earth gives way to heaven (cf. 2 Cor. 5:1). We move from ground to glory (Rom. 8:18; 2 Cor. 4:17).
Sadly Wright has taken his cue from Nicodemus. He fails to realize that the corollary of the redemption of creation is the redemption of the flesh which both Jesus and Paul (1 Cor. 15:50, etc.) clearly deny.
In some ways, “The Mission of God” reminds me of Terrance L. Tiessen’s “Who Can Be Saved?” (Downer’s Grove and Leicester, 2004). It is a forlorn attempt to overcome the evident restrictions and to broaden the scope of Augustinianism. What both Wright and Tiessen fail to realize is that it is impossible to equate Augustinian (or Calvinist or Reformed) theology with what the Bible teaches. The Augustinian worldview is simply flawed. It should be abandoned. We need a new outlook – a biblical one!
My advice to the potential reader is: read this book but don’t be misled by its inadequacies. It begs a lot of questions. (2* I have sought to address many of them in a halting sort of way in other articles on this site. See especially my Cosmic Curse?, Supplement to ‘Cosmic Curse?’, Concerning Futility, The Destruction of the Material Creation, The Harvest of the Earth, The Biblical Worldview, Augustine: Asset or Liability? etc.)
Arguably, Wright is at odds with himself. While dealing with idolatry, he underlines the futility of worshipping earthly things and gods which are subject to decay and death (p.162). But surely this applies to the earth itself (Rom. 8:20; Heb. 1:10-12) which man is forbidden to worship (Dt. 4:19; 17:3, cf. 1 John 2:17) as Wright himself concedes (p.165) precisely because it is created and therefore inherently transitory (2 Cor. 4:18). So, if Romans 1:25 refers to ‘created things’ (NIV) in general rather than to the ‘creature’ (e.g. NRSV), to posit the redemption or restoration of creation which is by nature transitory (Gen. 1:1; 1 Cor. 15:50b) implies idolatry (cf. Rom. 1:20 and Heb. 11:3; 12:27). The source of Wright’s inconsistency would appear to be the radically false idea, lacking any real semblance of biblical support embraced by Stott and others, that when Jesus was raised from the dead, he was physically transformed despite explicit denial of this (Luke 24:39; John 20:27f., cf. 1 Cor. 15:50, etc.). (3* See p.416 and my John Stott on the Putative Resurrection Transformation of Jesus, Geisler on the Redemption of Creation.) While man made in the image of God must (Gk dei) undergo corporeal (1 Cor. 15:50-53) as well as spiritual transformation (John 3:7) as was his God-ordained destiny from the start, not so creation, including the flesh, which having served its temporal purpose is finally removed and replaced (Heb. 12:27; 2 Pet. 3:7,10-12).
Dealing with the Noahic covenant Wright’s assertion that we live on a cursed earth which is also covenanted (pp.326f.) is a manifest contradiction in terms. Covenant and curse are mutually exclusive. Indeed, the biblical contrast is between an uncovenanted creation under Adam and one that is temporarily and universally covenanted under Noah (Gen. 8:22, cf. Acts 14:17, etc.). This indicates that apart from local curses (e.g. Proverbs 24:30-34; Lev. 26; Dt. 28 and the exile) the earth will remain productive till the plan of salvation is complete (cf. Jer. 31:35ff.; 33:19ff., and note especially Luke 17:26ff.).
When Wright adds that God is covenantally committed to creation’s redemption, he seems to forget that the covenant with Noah is a temporal not an eternal one! Contrary to what he says final judgement will indeed mean the end of the earth as God’s creation for the simple reason that all visible created things are by nature impermanent (2 Cor. 4:18, cf. Rom. 1:20 and Heb. 12:27; 2 Pet. 3:7,10-12, etc.).
Note: redemption and restoration on account of the Fall, p.323. An eternal restoration, p.409. Surely this is another contradiction in terms.
C.J.H.Wright, The Mission of God, Nottingham 2006