About thirty years ago there was a series in a radical Christian magazine called The Other Side. The series was called The Reversed Standard Version. Basically the writer took a well known passage of Scripture and changed it to mean what people generally seem to think it means. This in many cases totally reversed its true meaning. I found this a very enlightening thing to do. When I read what Richard Bauckham has to say on Colossians in relation to ecology, in his book Bible and Ecology which we are studying, I immediately had the idea of doing the same with the passage he quotes. So here is the Reversed Standard Version of Colossians 1.15-20:
He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all humanity; for in him all people were created, all people have been created through him and for him. He himself is before all people,
and in him all people hold together.
He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that he might come to have first place in humanity. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself some human beings,
by making peace through the blood of his cross.
Thatʼs how Christians often appear to read this passage. Salvation is about rescuing a select few human beings from the dead world of this planet and taking them to heaven. The destiny of the non-human creation is to be burned up, or laid bare, according to how you translate one obscure verse in 2 Peter; and it will be replaced by a new heavens and a new earth.
Now letʼs hear what Colossians 1 really says - and while you hear it, Iʼm setting you a challenge: count how many times Paul uses the words ʻallʼ or ʻeverythingʼ, or the phrase ʻall thingsʼ :
He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers— all things have been created through him and for him. He himself is before all things,
and in him all things hold together.
He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that he might come to have first place in everything. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven,
by making peace through the blood of his cross.
Any answers? I made it eight, in five verses. This is a poem or hymn about the cosmic Christ, a Christ whose reach extends to all creation; and that is why Richard Bauckham, in Bible and Ecology, chooses it as a source for a biblical understanding of Christʼs relation to ecology.
Bauckham begins with some background introductory remarks. He points out that most of the biblical theology of the created world is developed in the Old Testament, and is taken for granted in the New. Bauckham doesnʼt mention this, at least in the chapter weʼre studying today, but I would want to add that Jesus himself does often turn to the natural world for the images in his parables and teaching. As Thomas Hardy said in a poem about himself, ʻHe was a man who used to notice such thingsʼ.
What the NT does do is to give us a Christological, or Christ-centred, rendering of the OT theology of creation. In other words, the NT writers are re-reading the OT in the light of Christ, and in it they discover that Jesus Christ is intimately involved in the whole story of creation. Hence the repeating of ʻall thingsʼ in our Colossians passage - Christʼs work encompasses Godʼs whole creation, earthly and heavenly.
Bauckham sees this as part of a metanarrative, or overarching story, which is about the relationship between God, humanity and the rest of creation. This story is leading to a goal, and the goal is all of creation being taken into eternity. And this goal is being achieved through Jesus Christ, who is active both in the original creation and in the renewal of creation. As Revelation 22.13 puts it, ʻI am the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end.’
Clearly this understanding of Christ’s role towards creation has not always been prominent in Christian thinking, in fact it’s been entirely obscured sometimes. This is because of the intrusion of philosophical ideas from other world views, in particular the world view of Plato, in the early centuries of Christianity. In Platonism, there is a strong dualism between matter and spirit, and spirit is always superior to matter. I’ve seen this expressed in another book as a simple diagram:
MIND SPIRIT = GOOD/IMMORTAL
BODY SEX = BAD/MORTAL
Now contrast the Christian view, based on Hebrew thinking, as expressed in another diagram:
MIND BODY SPIRIT = GOOD/TO BE RESURRECTED
When my friend Evelyn, who is normally quite prim and proper, saw this diagram she immediately asked, ‘Where’s the sex in the Christian one?’ Which is a pretty good question, so let’s add it in.
Early theologians tried to combat Platonism by a more biblical view of the goodness of material creation. But there is quite a lot of evidence that over the centuries, the battle was to a large extent lost. You only have to think of a chorus that used to be popular: ‘Turn your eyes upon Jesus, look full in his wonderful face, And the things of earth will grow strangely dim, In the light of his glory and grace’. What’s so wrong with the things of earth, which God has created, that turning to Jesus has to turn us away from them? This is exactly the criticism environmentalists have made of Christian theology, that it sets humanity in opposition to nature.
Bauckham says there is a modern version of Platonic idealism, which is our scientific quest to ‘conquer’ nature and bend it to our purposes. This creates a dualism of humanity versus nature, in which our goal is to become completely independent of nature, maybe by some form of everlasting artificial intelligence. In Bauckham’s words, ‘We should be deploying the Christian belief in the resurrection of the body against these anti-human technological aspirations’. Or to put it another way, ‘Salvation is not the replacement but the renewal of creation’.
Against this background, Bauckham explores the Colossian hymn as what he calls a Christological eco-narrative (sorry about all the jargon). It’s constructed in two halves, the first about the creation of all things in, for and through Christ, and then about the reconciliation of all things in, for and through Christ. The two parts parallel each other totally in language and structure, so that the scope of reconciliation is as wide as the scope of creation.
But this is not about some cosmic Christ figure set in eternity, but specifically about the crucified and risen Jesus of Nazareth, who embodies the universal in a particular human life. This Jesus shares God’s relation to the world: he is both creator and redeemer, and he has begun the reconciliation between God and all of nature. The key verse is, ‘through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross’.
Bauckham says this means that ‘the Gospel story - the story of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus - is focal and decisive for all creation. The fullness of God in him is the intensive presence of the God who fills heaven and earth. His sacrificial death identifies him with the whole of the suffering and perishing creation. His resurrection inaugurates the renewal of all creation’.
He goes on to list some ecological conclusions we can draw from this passage. Firstly, it gives a holistic view of creation, because all creation is integrated in Jesus Christ. Secondly, this vision relates to the actual human figure of Jesus, crucified and risen. This, he says thirdly, is the hidden mystery at the heart of creation. This mystery cannot be discovered in creation itself because creation is full of violence, but it can be seen in the way God transcends that violence in Jesus. By his non-violent, self-giving love, Jesus overcomes the violence of creation.
Fourthly, there is the mention of the ‘powers’ at the heart of the Colossians hymn. This is there to tell us that while earth may appear to be in thrall to powers of violence and injustice, they are in fact already conquered by the cross. And their conquest becomes a practical reality by God working through us as we seek to make a better world.
This brings him to the fifth point, which is really a question: is creation fallen? As modern people we now know that there was animate life long before humans emerged, so we can no longer hold to the idea that nature is corrupted because of some historic human action. In fact violence and death are integral to the processes of nature, and without them the evolution of species could not happen. So where did what we see as evil in nature, come from?
According to Bauckham, the Bible does not really attempt to answer this question fully, but what it does do is to prophesy that through Christ the creation will be liberated from the evils that it now suffers. It is focused on the creation’s future, not its past.
At this point we can turn to the other passage Bauckham examines in the first half of this chapter: John’s prologue to his Gospel.
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God.
All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life,
and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it....
The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world. He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him...
And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son,full of grace and truth.
All four Gospels begin by linking the story of Jesus to the story of the OT, but John goes back the furthest: to the beginning of Time itself. By starting his Gospel with the words ‘In the beginning’, he is offering us a way to read the Genesis story in the light of Jesus. He is also giving a nod to Proverbs 8, in which a figure identified as ‘Wisdom’ tells us:
The Lord created me at the beginning of his work, the first of his acts of long ago. When he established the heavens, I was there,
when he drew a circle on the face of the deep, when he made firm the skies above,
when he established the fountains of the deep, when he assigned to the sea its limit,
so that the waters might not transgress his command, when he marked out the foundations of the earth,
then I was beside him, like a master worker, and I was daily his delight,
rejoicing before him always, rejoicing in his inhabited world
and delighting in the human race.
Although this describes a created figure rather than an uncreated one, Wisdom in this context is often identified with ‘the Word’ who was with God and who was God in John 1. This is the Word who becomes flesh in Jesus: God incarnate entering into our created world, so that in the end our created world can be taken into God. Notice how that phrase ‘all things’ recurs in this passage: in both the creation and the Incarnation, Christ is related to the whole creation, human, animal and inanimate. This is the world which is to be redeemed, when in Bauckham’s words ‘creation finds its fulfillment in being taken into the divine life’.
Finally, Bauckham looks at some of the nature miracles in the Gospels, such as the calming of the storm, and at the wider meaning of the Kingdom of God in Jesus’ teaching. He points out that the phrase ‘the kingdom of God’ would have called out Old Testament echoes in the minds of Jesus’ hearers. There are parallels to it both in Isaiah, a book the Gospel writers quote a great deal, and also in the Psalms, which emphasize the kingship of God over all creation. For example in Psalm 95:
For the Lord is a great God, and a great King above all gods.
In his hand are the depths of the earth; the heights of the mountains are his also.
The sea is his, for he made it, and the dry land, which his hands have formed.
O come, let us worship and bow down, let us kneel before the Lord, our Maker
God is the King of all creation, and humans are invited to join in the praise which the animal and inanimate creation already offer. We are also told that creation looks forward to the coming of God to judge and rule the earth. Hereʼs part of Psalm 96:
Then shall all the trees of the forest sing for joy before the Lord; for he is coming, for he is coming to judge the earth. He will judge the world with righteousness, and the peoples with his truth.
So Jesusʼ nature miracles are a foretaste of the wholeness which will eventually come to all creation, and the Kingdom he proclaims is one that encompasses all creation. Which brings me to my conclusion, which I canʼt put better than Bauckham does: ʻWhen God does come to judge and to rule, all creation will rejoice at his adventʼ.