Ultimate and Penultimate
Why do some Christians seem opposed to the idea that the Church has an ecological mission? I have been reading a commentary on
Martin Luther’s ‘Heidelberg Disputation’ (Gerhard O. Forde, On Being a Theologian of the Cross: Reflections on Luther’s Heidelberg Disputation, 1518. Grand Rapids/Cambridge, Eerdmans, 1997). Luther insisted on the vital distinction between ‘the theology of the Cross’ and ‘the theology of glory’.
For Luther ‘The cross alone is our theology’. In other words, relying on the death, resurrection and exaltation of Jesus Christ as the only means of salvation is the essence of Christian faith and life. Forde comments that in order to enter into this faith, we ‘suffer the absolute and unconditional working of God upon us. It is a suffering because as old beings we cannot abide such working. We are rendered passive by the divine activity.’
By contrast ‘the theology of glory’ seeks to salvage some contribution that we can make to our own salvation. Forde writes that ‘”The theology of glory” is a catchall for virtually all theologies and religions.’ Could it be that the care of creation is being seen as an effort to contribute to our eternal redemption, and thus as an aspect of the theology of glory?
The theological teaching that comes from Luther does leave some room for good actions – but only after the suffering caused by God’s work in sinful people has reached its conclusion. The works are then the works of God, not our own. Why then should teaching and working for the benefit of God’s creation not be one of these works? And how far does God’s work in us have to progress before we can safely be responsible carers within God’s creation? Do we ever in this life reach the stage where all we do is a result of the work of God upon us?
Forde, in his reflections on Luther’s work, helpfully draws a distinction between ultimate and penultimate issues. The penultimate issues are the ones that concern our present life on earth, such as ‘affirmation, comfort, support, building self-esteem…’ Such things are valid and important for our life on earth now, but should not be allowed to replace concern with the eternal redemption that is only possible through the Cross and Resurrection of Christ. This warning is timely and important. But both penultimate and ultimate salvation have a cosmic as well as a personal dimension.
Because of God’s love and mercy the creation, and we within it, are promised ultimate redemption (Romans 8:18-25). ‘The time of universal restoration’ (Acts 3:21), and the creation of ‘new heavens and a new earth’ (2 Peter 3:13) are promised; those believers who have died, and rest in Christ, will be raised in glory to share in the resurrection (1 Corinthians 15:35-57). These are ultimate matters. In the mean time, we who share the present earthly life are called to live responsibly before God as a part of the community of creation. All that we do to cherish the earth and its occupants, both human and non-human, is a vital aspect of the penultimate life of living responsibly within the earth community.
The mission of the Church can become polarized. Some see the ultimate issues as dictating the whole of the Church’s work. Then the idea that the Church has been given an ecological mission is viewed as a mistake. So we find comments such as:
‘When it comes to mission – the mission of God in the world – is it to do with redeeming a lost creation through the forgiveness of the sins of its human components or is it to do with planting trees in Borneo?’ (Mike Ovey, ‘Faithful Teachers in an Age of Confusion’, in Lee Gatiss, Mike Ovey and Mark Pickles, Be Faithful: Remaining Steadfast in the Church of England Today. London, Church Society/Lost Coin Books, 2017).
And why not both?
Keith Innes was in parish ministry from 1958 until his retirement in 1997. Since then he has studied and written on biblical eco-theology. His notes “God, the Earth and Humanity in the Book of Micah” and “British and American attitudes to nature” are available on the JRI Briefings page of this website.