Salvation is for All of Creation

Below is a 2,200 word research paper I just completed for one of my seminary classes.  For this paper, I started with the realization that the animals of Nineveh in Jonah 3 are required to repent and fast.  Then God Himself uses that language when defending His mercy on Nineveh.

From there, I started discovering other OT and NT passages that indicated similar things:  a holistic view of salvation as a means of healing for all of creation, not just for humans.  Then I was able to find that Jewish Rabbinic tradition in the Talmud that supported this view.  Then I discovered early Church leaders who had a similar perspective.

It is certainly different than the anthropocentric models we’re used to in America.  But take time to hear the words of Scripture with new ears and discern what is truly there in the text and in the Christian faith’s ancient tradition.

 

 

 

 

Seth Hecox

CHTH 541 SH: Theology and Stewardship of Creation 1

December 12, 2016

 

The word “salvation” immediately conjures mental images for many Christians.  An entire cultural notion has developed in the western Church around the idea of what salvation entails:  who it is for, how it happens, how long it lasts, and even the mechanics of how it works.  Unfortunately, many of those mental images and connotations have strayed a considerable distance from what both the Church fathers and mothers said about salvation as well as from what the source text for Christians, the Bible, says about the matter.  Despite a highly anthropocentric salvation theology that existed in the Church for hundreds of years and peaked with Anselm, there is a plurality of voices in the Old Testament, New Testament, Rabbinical tradition, Church fathers, and recent scholarship that all view salvation holistically:  salvation acts as reconciliation between Creator and all of creation, which includes the land and animals as well as humankind.

The first source that Christians have often looked at to find answers is the voice attributed to God in the Bible.  When Christians look for what God says about salvation, there are several occasions that inform the reader as to how salvation works from the divine perspective.  While these occasions range from the Pentateuch, through the Old Testament prophets, and into the New Testament, one of the most direct statements by God about salvation from sin and destruction comes from the book of Jonah.

After Jonah proclaims judgment on the evil city of Nineveh, the city responds in immediate, dramatic fashion.  The king of Nineveh dramatically proclaims “’By the decree of the king and his nobles: No human being or animal, no herd or flock, shall taste anything. They shall not feed, nor shall they drink water. Human beings and animals shall be covered with sackcloth, and they shall cry mightily to God. All shall turn from their evil ways and from the violence that is in their hands. Who knows? God may relent and change his mind; he may turn from his fierce anger, so that we do not perish.’”[1]

Perhaps the most striking aspect of this repentance proclamation to western minds is that the king includes the animals in the fasting and crying out to God.  Christianity’s theology of sin has for many centuries usually only extended to humankind.  The king of Nineveh, however, sees the land and animals as part of the necessary participants in the request for God’s mercy.  Readers are not given a clear indication if the animals are included because the king sees them as participants in the guilt of Nineveh, or rather as joint victims that experience the consequences of Nineveh’s sin.  However, their participation in the repentance of the whole land is indicative of a holistic approach to sin and repentance that extends beyond humankind.[2]

The pagan king’s response to the proclamation of Jonah are not the words of God, however, they do set the stage for God’s response.  Does God acknowledge the repentance of Nineveh that includes animals in the fasting and sackcloth alongside humans?  Indeed, he does: “When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil ways, God changed his mind about the calamity that he had said he would bring upon them; and he did not do it.”[3]  God appears to accept their pleas for mercy and both humans as well as land and animals are spared destruction.  But God goes further in response to the repentance of Nineveh.  His words to Jonah defend his relent and this time, God unequivocally includes the animals in the salvation he has created for Nineveh.  “Should I not be concerned about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also many animals?”[4]

Beyond the words attributed directly to God in the book of Jonah, there are other places in the Old Testament that describe salvation in holistic terms.[5]  Both explicitly in narratives such as Noah’s Ark and the Israelites’ entrance into the Promised Land, as well as metaphorically throughout the prophets, God regularly speaks of salvation or shalom in terms of the whole:  land, animals, and human inhabitants.  These passages combine to create a unified vision of holistic reconciliation between the Creator and all of creation.

Repeatedly, God’s instructions to the Israelite nation about how to engage other nations include the animals and landscape, as much as humans.  Some of those instructions of God may give the reader pause, such as the demand to “kill both man and woman, child and infant, ox and sheep, camel and donkey.”[6] There is, however, the same inclusive approach to redemption.  Perhaps chief among these examples is found in the story of Noah.[7]  Here, the salvation from destruction is not only for Noah and his family, but seems to almost be chiefly for the animals, as the size of the ark is meant to accommodate so many them.[8]  God’s care for the animals in this passage gives the reader insight into God’s interest in salvation.  If God had only been concerned with saving a handful of humans, the ark could have been much smaller.  But God takes care to provide a sizable place for animals in His sanctuary from the storm of destruction that rages outside its walls.

These Old Testament passages combine with Rabbinic tradition of Torah interpretation that sees salvation as extended to the land and animals as well as to humankind.[9]  Rabbinic Tradition stored in the Talmud expands on this point and reminds the reader that animals are highly important to God. While many Old Testament passages deal primarily or solely with humans, the Rabbis argue that this is reflective of the message’s audience (humans) as well as the responsible party.  It is not so much that God values or is more interested in humans than animals, but rather that human decisions are of great consequence to both themselves as well as to animals.  As the more powerful creatures in the world, the evil and selfish decisions of humans have a magnifying impact on wellness of the land and animals that God created and loves.  This is reflected in the narrative of “The Fall” of Genesis 3, where the sin of humans causes destruction not only for themselves, but for all of creation.  Thus, the primary audience of the law and prophets of the Old Testament is toward the part of creation responsible for its current broken state. [10]

The Old Testament, however, is not alone in its testimony to God’s love of all his creation.  The New Testament also bears witness to the love of the Creator for the creation.  The Bible’s most popular verse in western culture, John 3:16, tells us that “God so loved the world.”[11]  Of important note here is that the Greek word for “world” in this verse is cosmos.  Cosmos refers to the entire created order, and not merely to the globe of planet earth and especially not to the limited sphere of human interaction.

This insight should inform Christian understanding about a few key elements of salvation theology.  First of all, Jesus’s words state clearly that the scope of God’s love extends beyond humanity and includes the entirety of creation.  Secondly, it shows some of God’s motivation in initiating Christ’s salvific work in the first place:  His love for creation as a whole necessitates a plan of redemption for the entirety of it.  Finally, the implied recipients of such a reconciliation would be the object of God’s love in the first place:  the entire cosmos.

Beyond the Old Testament and New Testament, the early Church fathers lend their voices to this perspective.  Perhaps chief among these is Athanasius’s view of redemption through incarnation.[12]  Based on this view, the incarnation of Jesus Christ is key to understanding what salvation is and who it is for.  The act of Christ in taking on flesh in a physical, tangible way is indicative of the reality of salvation extending to all of the created order, not merely humankind exclusively.  For Athanasius, the physical reality of a God in flesh extends from the Wisdom and Word of a God who finished the act of creation with the declaration that it was all, together, “very good.”[13]  Thus, the reconciliation accomplished by Christ’s work is intended to restore that creation, as a whole, to its original state of being “very good” once again.

Martin Luther, while not a Church father, is a Father of the Reformation and includes some thought of the land and animals in his salvation theology.  He reminds us that while humankind is given stewardship of the earth in Genesis, that there is a tenuous relationship between sinful humanity and the animals which suffer the effects of humanity’s sin.[14]  While less clear in his assertions, Luther is mindful of a suffering God who redeems a suffering creation, not just a suffering humanity.

While the voices in this vein are not hard to find throughout Church history, it is only fair to note that the Church has not been unanimous on the concept of holistic salvation for all of creation.  Despite the passages and scholarship recounted above, some leading Church theologians have felt that salvation was only intended for humankind.[15]  The vast majority of Christian theology has been anthropocentric and is focused on humans and their reconciliation with their Creator.  Certainly, Scripture as well speaks more extensively on that subject than on the role of the land and animals in God’s reconciling work.  These factors have led to plenty of scholarship through the ages that simply ignores the role of non-humans in Christ’s work of salvation.  Some scholars go even further, however, and openly reject the notion, most notably Anselm.[16]

Anselm developed an eleventh century legal perspective of atonement theory that described atonement as the penal substitution of Christ’s blood on our behalf which served to appease God’s unbridled wrath.  This atonement theory fit hand-in-hand with his outright rejection of animals or land in salvation in his book Cur Deus Homo.[17]  In this view of atonement, the need for salvation was guilt, and only humans were guilty, so only humans needed rescue from their guilt.  This perspective on atonement became popular for several centuries and served to bury the reconciliatory or healing aspect of Christ’s work that extends to all of the created order.

In the last two centuries, however, the Church has recovered an atonement theory more in line with historic understandings of Christ’s work.  This has enabled the Church to look at Scripture with fresh eyes and see perspectives that it had mostly ignored for hundreds of years.  Thus, recent scholarship unites with early Church scholarship to understand the metanarrative found in the Bible as a story of God’s redemptive work toward all of creation.[18]  Recent Christian scholars among this school of thought include C.S. Lewis,[19] Karl Barth,[20] and Jurgen Moltmann,[21] among many others.

There is a strong tradition throughout Scripture, Talmudic tradition, the early Church fathers, as well as modern scholarship that all point toward the theological stance that reconciliatory salvation is meant for all of creation.  For several centuries, this view was buried and lost, as the Church took on a more and more anthropocentric view of atonement.  This view of atonement skewed the predominant views of Scripture in the Church, and salvation theology developed into an extremely limited view of reconciliation between God and humankind only, which has had a damaging effect on the predominant Christian view of creation.  But while some prominent voices in certain times viewed salvation as limited to humankind, the ancient Jewish understanding and the early Church’s understanding has begun to be recovered.  This recovery can be a powerful tool that informs how Christians behave and engage in discipleship as they see the entire created order as the object of God’s love and redemptive work.  As Christians read Scripture with fresh eyes, the power of the Gospel of Jesus Christ in both Old Testament and New Testament reveals how Christ’s salvific work extends to all of creation; humanity, land, and animals alike.

 

 

[1] Jonah 3:7-9, NRSV.

[2] Terence E. Freitheim, The Message of Jonah (Minneapolis, MN:  Augsburg Publishing House, 1977), 111.

[3] Jonah 3:10, NRSV

[4] Jonah 4:11, NRSV

[5] David L. Clough, On Animals: Volume One Systematic Theology (London: T&T Clark, 2012), xix, 5, 13, 82.

[6] 1 Samuel 15:3, NRSV

[7] Gary Kowalski, The Bible According to Noah: Theology as If Animals Mattered (New York City: Lantern Books, 2001), 124.

[8] Genesis 6:19-21, NRSV

[9] Yael Shemesh, “And Many Beasts (Jonah 4:11):  The Function and Status of Animals in the Book of Jonah,” The Journal of Hebrew Scriptures, Volume 10, Article 6 (2010): 23.

[10] Kimberley C. Patton, “He Who Sits in the Heavens Laughs: Recovering Animal Theology in the Abrahamic Traditions,” The Harvard Theological Review 93, no. 4 (2000): 407-408.

[11] John 3:16, NRSV

[12] Celia Dean-Drummond & David L. Clough, editors, Creaturely Theology: On God, Humans, and Other Animals (London:  SCM Press, 2009), 91-92

[13] Genesis 1:31, NRSV

[14] Martin Luther, Lectures on the Minor Prophets (St. Louis, MO: Concordia Publishing House, 1975), 20

[15] Clough, 89, 115.

[16] Ibid, 104.

[17] Anselm, Cur Deus Homo (Oxford and London: John Henry and James Parker, 1865), 68.

[18] Kelly A. Cline, “Talking Animals in the Bible: Paratexts as Symptoms of Cultural Anxiety in Restoration and Early Eighteenth-Century England,” Journal for Eighteenth-Century Studies, 33 (2010): 439.

[19] Clough, 146.

[20] Ibid, page 91.

[21] Ibid, page 146.

 

 

Bibliography

Clough, David L.  On Animals: Volume One Systematic Theology. London:  T&T Clark, 2012.

Dean-Drummond, Celia, and David L. Clough, editors. Creaturely Theology: On God, Humans, and Other Animals. London:  SCM Press, 2009.

Fretheim, Terence E. The Message of Jonah. Minneapolis, MN:  Augsburg Publishing House, 1977.

Cline, Kelly A. “Talking Animals in the Bible: Paratexts as Symptoms of Cultural Anxiety in Restoration and Early Eighteenth-Century England.” Journal for Eighteenth-Century Studies, 33 (2010): 437–451. doi:10.1111/j.1754-0208.2010.00316.x.

Kowalski, Gary.  The Bible According to Noah: Theology as If Animals Mattered. New York City:  Lantern Books, 2001.

Luther, Martin.  Lectures on the Minor Prophets. St. Louis, MO:  Concordia Publishing House, 1975.

Maudlin, Michael G. and Baer, Marlene. The Green Bible New York City:  HarperCollins Publishers, 2008.

Patton, Kimberley C. “He Who Sits in the Heavens Laughs: Recovering Animal Theology in the Abrahamic Traditions.” The Harvard Theological Review 93, no. 4 (2000): 401-34.

Shemesh, Yael. “And Many Beasts (Jonah 4:11):  The Function and Status of Animals in the Book of Jonah.” The Journal of Hebrew Scriptures, Volume 10, Article 6 (2010): doi:10.5508/jhs.2010.v10.a6.

St. Anselm. Cur Deus Homo. Oxford and London: John Henry and James Parker, 1865.

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2 thoughts on “Salvation is for All of Creation

    1. Yes, I was encouraged as well, Peter. The holistic view of the early Church fathers should give us courage to look faithfully at scripture to embrace a salvation theology that rejects escapism and acknowledges our role as stewards of the earth.

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