Here’s an exercise in presuppositions. I have been reading the book, What Is the Mission of the Church?, by Kevin DeYoung and Greg Gilbert. On the chapter about the Kingdom of God, they ask whether there is a human role in God’s work of establishing the Kingdom.
Of course no one argues that we Christians are tasked with building the new heavens and the new earth from bottom to top. That would be as impossible as it is ridiculous. But there are a number of people who have argued that we as Christians at least have a hand in the creation of the new heavens and the new earth – that we partner with God in his mission to restore the cosmos. As energizing as that may sound, though, it simply doesn’t ring true with the way the Bible talks about the new heavens and new earth. There’s the clear testimony of the passages we’ve just considered, but there’s also the fact that the land in which God’s people dwell – whether the Promised Land or the new earth – is always said to be a gift from God to his people. [p. 205]
This paragraph caught me by surprise. I had just read “the clear testimony” of a dozen passages and they did not strike me as excluding humans. (Ah! Presuppositions!!) Furthermore, the dismissive and offensive idea that anyone can “have a hand in the creation,” initially struck me as merely a terrible caricature of those they disagreed with. But eventually I realized that this manner of viewing “cooperation” lies at the heart of so many disagreements between East and West. We have different presuppositions. It’s not just a “kingdom of God” issue, it’s how everything God touches is thought about.
The Eastern Church thinks of all of God’s relationships with all aspects of the created order in an incarnational manner. The idea of God being outside the universe and coming into the universe to manipulate it (as in the images of judgment common in the western church, for instance) is largely foreign to the Orthodox mind. But first a caveat. When I speak of thinking in “an incarnational manner,” I mean the paradigm for God’s involvement in the universe is specifically the incarnation of the Son. The Jewish hope for the Messiah might be summarized by Isa. 64:1, “Oh that you would rend the heavens and come down, that the mountains might quake at your presence …” (ESV). That expectation was met in a completely unexpected manner. Rather than a conquering hero breaking in from the outside, God entered the world in fully human form, entering creation in an “inside out” manner. Thus God’s strength appeared to be weakness, and his glory appeared to be hidden.
In the Orthodox mind, this is not merely the mystery of Christmas, this is simply how God works. Divine action takes on human (or material) form and operates from the inside outward. Rather than calling this incarnational thinking – because that might imply for some people that God’s work in the Chosen People of Israel, in the Church, and in the Kingdom, is on par with the incarnation of the Son of God – it is probably better to call this sacramental thinking. A divine act is always clothed in an earthly form just as in the sacrament the Bread is the heavenly Body of Christ, although it most certainly remains bread.
So DeYoung and Gilbert are completely correct when they say that the Kingdom of God is purely [my word] “a gift from God to his people” [emph in original] but mistaken when they then conclude that this somehow excludes God’s people. The reason for their confusion is quite clear. They conceive cooperation between human and divine as meaning, “Christians at least have a hand in the creation of the new heavens and the new earth.” That image completely perverts sacramental thinking. We don’t “have a hand” in anything! Rather, we are the instruments of divine work in the world.
I “cooperate” only in the manner that Mary cooperated with God. All she did was open her being in willingness to God’s work: “I am the servant of the Lord.” She didn’t “give God a hand” by going out and getting pregnant (forgive me for being crass). She rather became the vessel of God’s work in the world, and thus became God’s hands and feet and mouth. To use the language of Paul, she became the Body of Christ in the world so that the Son of God might have a human body in order to fulfill his role as Christ.
God will act in his normal way, that is, through the stuff of creation, and pre-eminently through his willing human servants. In the meantime, as God’s servants we go about our life. We pray, we stay in fellowship with other Christians, and in that context of God and community we live in the world. The things we do as faithful Christians then become the building blocks of the Kingdom of Heaven, not because we’re trying to build the Kingdom (for that would by hubris) but simply because that’s how God works. From our human perspective the Kingdom is accidental, from the divine perspective, it is God’s gift to us.
I’m curious if any of you have read What is the Mission of the Church? It appears most of my readers are not Orthodox, so I’m also curious if you consider this incarnational way of thinking to be complete bollocks, or if you see a some sense in this view.