Romans 8:18-25 – The Hope of Creation J. Mark Lawson
Lynn White, Jr. and Jerry Mander in their respective articles have put the blame of the ecological crisis on God’s command in Genesis 1:28 that people “have dominion” over other forms of life and are to “subdue” the earth. Author J. Mark Lawson has observed that ecologists like Mander and White, “dismiss Christian faith, not because of the hypocrisy of its members, but on the grounds that it is intrinsically exploitative” (Lawson, 559). The ecologists also have cited a restored French fort located out of Syracuse, New York that has an ancient French Bible opened to Genesis 1:28, which quotes “have dominion.” Essentially, the quote on the caption is meant to be a philosophical basis for the colonial attack on Native American cultures. The author agrees that the command in the Genesis creation story has been bitterly misused in the past to “justify economic upheavals, destruction of native cultures, and abuse of the land” (Lawson, 559). Nonetheless, Lawson argues that the Jewish-Christians scriptures are not intrinsically exploitative like the above ecologists have understood them to be. Thus, the author’s purpose is apologetic in that he provides the interpretation of “dominion” that “precludes exploitation” (Lawson, 559). Romans 8:18-25 is the passage Lawson exegetes to shed light on God’s righteous purpose in giving people dominion over the earth, how man’s sinful nature has perverted creation, and all these in hope of restoration.
Lawson gives a little background before he introduces his major passage. In Romans 6, the Apostle Paul says that those who have trusted in Jesus have been given new life and sin has no power of them. Yet, again, in Romans 7 he also says that they still struggle with sin. There is a constant battle between the new life and the old that Satan does not want to let go of. In that, a believer experiences suffering. However, any suffering a believer may experience is nothing in comparison with the glory that will be revealed to them.
When God first created man and woman in the image of Himself, He also commanded that they “fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion.” The skeptics have used this cultural mandate to argue that Christians have thought about this command as license to tamper with nature. Lawson denies and says that God was inviting “people to live in and work the earth responsibly” (Lawson 560). By this, Paul and Genesis were suggesting the concept of “stewardship.” Deep ecologists believe that creation could exist for its own sake. Lawson defies that nothing has been created merely for its own sake. Self-validating of both nature and human beings are unbiblical. Thus, all things exist for a higher purpose, which is to glorify God and can only be used for His purposes. Lawson agrees that nature has been abused during the industrial age but maintains that “abuse of land does not invalidate all land use any more than the abuse of drugs invalidates all medication” (Lawson, 561).
Now, people were given dominion over the earth, but with the Fall sin has affected every thing. Since man and the earth have an intricate relationship, when man became subject to futility so did the earth. “We are fellow workers with God” (2Cor. 3:6), but this is perfectly played out only when people use God-given discernment according to His will. In Genesis when God pronounced punishment to Adam, He knew that every part of His creation would be affected man’s sinfulness. However, Lawson quotes A.M. Hunter, “If the creation suffered with man in the Fall, God means it also to share in his final beatitude.”
Lawson emphasizes again that God is up to glorious liberty and redemption of mankind along with the creation that encompasses land, air, water, animals, plants, the landscape, and the seascape (special enumeration for ecologists) that are groaning together with people. This, the author says is not an end itself but that it means to the fulfillment of the kingdom of God.
We know that the whole creation has been groaning in travail together until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait for adoption as children, the redemption of our bodies (Romans 8:22-23).
Despite religious distinctions, Paul boldly compared nature to a woman experiencing the pain of childbirth, which invited the image of “mother earth.” Paul wanted to tie his words and Genesis 3, in which God said to the woman, “I will greatly multiply your pain in childbearing; in pain you shall bring forth children, yet your desire shall be for you husband, and he shall rule over you.” The verse explains again “the close relationship between the pain of childbirth and the pain of creation, which further implies a close relationship between the sinful state of male dominance over females and human dominance over “mother earth” (Lawson, 562).
Lawson laments that in this industrial age people can hardly relate to “the groaning of creation?” because man-made noises have replaced nature’s way of communicating to us. Certainly, how much of nature do we hear, see, or feel, and so much less still can we hear its groaning? If Paul in the first century could hear the groaning of creation, Lawson remarks that people today should hear the agonies of creation even louder because “humanity’s futile attempt to live only to itself has led to the pollution of the air and water, the rape of mineral-rich mountains and valleys, the depletion of the ozone layer” (Lawson, 562) bringing almost “the end of nature” as Bill McKibbon puts it. The author further laments that technology has pushed people away from nature, we no more listen and observe nature for weather, time, and so on.
Now for people who doubt that Paul was speaking of material reality at all, Paul actually reminds us that he is as he introduces the redemption of our bodies. Our body is the dwelling place of the Lord through the existence of which we interact with God and the creation. Thus, it only makes sense that one cannot be redeemed in a disembodied state. However, when Paul states, “For in this hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what he sees? But if we hope for what he does not see, we wait for it with patience,” modern readers doubt again that Paul was talking about material reality at all. Lawson clarifies that the connection between “unseen things” and “disembodies existence” is a modern invention. “Paul’s hope is that fulfilled reality is more than, not less than or other than, what we see now” (Lawson, 563).
If creation was such an important theological subject, why does Paul wait to introduce until Romans 8:19? Some may ask! To this, the author sheds light by saying that the subject was “consistent with the eschatology spelled out in other epistles of the Pauline corpus” (Lawson, 563). In his epistles to Corinthians, Ephesians, Colossians, and in Romans as Lawson has cited, Paul seem to have indicated that Christianity is all about “spiritual matters,” but we are not to ignore that Paul also adds that the resurrection attends to our “mortal bodies” (Romans 8:11, 2 Cor. 4:11). Therefore, resurrection signifies that human beings are not disembodied existence, but that the fulfilled life includes a redeemed body. Materialism is transient not the material things which need to be redeemed, which Paul says they will be.
Finally, Lawson argues that the redemption plan of the whole universe is not unique to Paul, he actually believed in “cosmic redemption” and thus discussed about it. Lawson also brings up the fact that modern Christians hardly realize that early Church and ancient Israel revealed far more ecological approach than they do. In fact, Old Testament books are full of events, days, commands, and songs that God engages to deal with humanity. Thus, Romans 8:18-25 Lawson says is “not only consistent with the whole of scripture, but its truth is integral to the doctrine of salvation, standing midway between the purposeful creation of the world and the coming of the new heaven and new earth in Revelation 21. They profess the full expanse of Christian hope” (Lawson, 564).
The Bible is consistent and coherent. Analogy of faith is a very important principle in Hermeneutics that the author has applied. Analogy of faith or Sacra scriptura sui interpres states that scripture is to interpret scripture or sacred scripture is its own interpreter. New Testament students may run over issues like the one in the article where non-Christians or even lay-men could stumble on. Lawson has intelligently and creatively used Romans 8:18-25 to interpret the idea of “dominion” as used in the Book of Genesis. Certainly, the entire lay out of the Bible is coherent and consistent and the author has testified to this through this article. God pronounced “dominion” in the beginning of creation and the Book of Romans was written much later, yet how creatively one idea that could be misconceived is clarified by the use of another. It is thanks to God, the omniscient one who has all these events already worked-out.
When Lawson says, “dominion over the earth that precludes exploitation,” God meant for people to be good stewards of His creation but He also knew that sin would pervade his creation and His redemptive plan was already at play.
We also observe that the author has explored the theology of eschatology. Eschatology is the study of end times. New Testaments students, as the matter of fact, every Christian should know that in His second coming, every thing will be restored to its original form. People might have abused God’s command to rule over the earth but as Paul puts it, “For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God. For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God.” Lawson does a fine job of putting into perspective that the destruction that abuse of “dominion” had done over the earth, in the end times, will be set from its bondage to decay just as the sons of God will. The eschatological community is one where the relationship among the Creator, the creation, and human beings are completely restored. Theologian Abraham Kuyper’s quote, “There is not a square inch in the whole domain of human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry: ‘Mine!’” emphasizes again what Paul communicated in the above verses.
What the ecologists have posed as a stumbling block to put their faith in God is not unique to the story of God’s commanding His people to rule over creation. There are people out there who question polygamy, adultery, wars and other events in the Bible; these horrendous events and lifestyles carried out in Bible history have put many people off. People involved in ministry will very often run into these problems. Lawson has shown his humility in the article by accepting the fact that people in the past have abused what God had meant it for the good. After all, even King David- a man after God’s own heart sinned. Lawson, starting off his article with humility is an invitation to readers that indeed Christians mess up. Christians, just as any other person is merely a person with flaws. However, Lawson has also clearly set out God’s redemptive plan.
Ecologists stumble with the idea that scripture allows exploitation of nature. For missionaries who run into such arguments, this article comes handy. In explaining God’s plan of redemption just as Lawson has in this article, they could actually share the Gospel with them. The way “deep ecologists” expresses themselves, it shows that their concern is to save nature and using the nature for survival that too only in absolute necessity. Saving of the creation is what Romans 8:18-25 talks about. “Creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay,” this very verse in Romans 8 is the hope of creation for “deep ecologists.” Could there be a better Gospel introduction for “deep ecologists” than the above verse which offers hope for what they are so passionate about?
One big element necessary in ministry that this article seems to imply is that of humility. We, involved in ministry are certainly not to be loud and boastful about how awesome and saved Christians we are. We cannot deny our past and how people have abused the Bible for their ulterior motives. The heart of Christianity is to accept that we are sinners and ask for forgiveness. What a beautiful picture of humility Lawson has portrayed by accepting our mistakes. Yet, again, as he progresses with his argument, we recognize his confidence in God’s definite plan. This is how we as ambassadors of Christ should be, sent out as sheep among wolves, we should be as innocent as dove yet, wise as serpents. When wisdom comes from the Bible, confidence follows.