From Lipscomb to Wallace on “New Creation” Theology

The Bible Banner, edited by Foy E. Wallace, Jr. with a masthead reading “Devoted to the Defense of the Church Against All Errors and Innovations,” had a profound impact on Churches of Christ in the 1930s-1940s. Whether it was for good or ill depends on whether one thinks the theological movements and consensus achieved in that era, at least in part through the influence of the Bible Banner, were healthy or harmful. But it seems apparent to me that Wallace’s periodical was a significant player in building a consensus within Churches of Christ on several fonts. Just War advocacy would be one as well as a profoundly positive assessment of the role of human governments.

My interest in this post is new creation theology, that is, the belief that God will renew this earth, unite heaven and earth, and dwell with his people upon that renewed earth for eternity. This was a rather commonly held view among 19th century Stone-Campbell folk though, of course, not the only perspective. It was certainly the understanding of the theological trajectory connected with the Nashville Bible School, particularly in the thinking of David Lipscomb and James A. Haring.

By the end of WWII, however, renewed earth theology had all but disappeared. What happened? One might argue that the more biblical view won out as is just and expected in a movement that wants to follow the Bible alone. Or, one might recognize that hostility toward a cultural and theological movement among Fundamentalists generated a fear that the church had lost its unique role in the redemptive plan of God and this fear enabled an interpretation of Hebrew prophecy that understood renewed earth hopes in the prophets as realized within the spiritual reality of the church in the present age.  I will not argue this in great detail here, but I will offer a few nuggets from the Bible Banner that seem to support that historical reading, or at least suggest that the reason renewed earth theology is rejected is because it was associated with “literal” or “material” Fundamentalist interpretations of Hebrew prophecy.

T. B. Wilkinson in his “Heaven, the Kingdom and Premillenialism” (BB [November 1943] 11-12) links the interpretation of heaven with not only Russellism (Charles T. Russell) but also with premillennialism as a whole. “By premillennialism,” he writes, “I mean everything in that line from Russellism to Bollism, including Jehovah’s Witnesses, and other intermediate grades.” He rejects any kind material reality associated with heaven and regards any such “literal” interpretation of Scripture as unsuited for immortal saints. Rather, the earth will be literally destroyed by fire.

The Bible Banner‘s assault on premillennialism included an assault on any kind of understanding of “heaven on earth” or a renewed earth eschatology. It is part of Wallace’s critique of R. H. Boll as, for example, when Wallaces advocates a spiritualized and ecclesial interpretation of Romans 8:18-23. The central problem with premillennialism is its new creation theology since it expects a time when the earth will be renewed, when the curse will be lifted, when the kingdom of God will fill the earth, and every one will sit under their own vine and fig tree. Hebrew prophecies related to such expectations as in Isaiah 55:12-13 are fulfilled in the church.

Historic and Dispensational Premillennialism, however, usually expect this during the millennium after which comes an enternal home. New Creation theology argues that the renewed creation is the eternal home where the saints with transfigured, resurrected bodies will live upon a transfigured, renewed earth which will have become the habitation of God for eternity.

But this is precisely the point that many find objectionable on two fundamental counts. First, it means that there are still Hebrew prophecies that have not yet been fulfilled. Amillennialists who deny new creation theology (and there are amillennialists who do not–particularly in the Reformed tradition) interpret all the Hebrew “restoration” texts as either having been fulfilled in the return from Babylonian exile or in the church age. Anything else becomes a “system of rank materialism,” and this includes spiritualizing the resurrection body for some celestial state and the loss of the Abrahamic land promise to believers in Christ.

Second, according to critics, it demeans the dignity of the church to anticipate a future time when the reality of God’s rule will fill the earth in more than a “spiritual” way. The church is the bride of Christ and nothing should detract from her beauty or detract from her role in the present age. A future, material, renewed earth kingdom does just that, according to some.

As a result, whenever I speak on new creation or renewed earth theology, I always hear the objection that I am advocating premillennialism and underminding the role God has graciously given to the church.

The church’s fear and hostility toward premillennialism in the early 20th century culiminating in its practical expulsion from Churches of Christ in the 1940s limited our visions of heaven to a celestial, spiritualized reality. Anything else is tantamount to affirming premillennialism. The denial of a renewed earth was an important aspect of opposing premillennialism. In the imagination of Churches of Christ, a renewed creation theology was functionally equivalent to premillennialism and thus it was generally excised from the body.

By focusing on the Bible Banner I do not mean to imply that this was the only journal pushing these views. Both the Firm Foundation and the Gospel Advocate, by the 1930s-1940s, had also adopted these perspectives with varying degrees of hostility and tolerance toward premillennialism. Nevertheless, the Bible Banner stoked the fires it thought were important to preserve the church from “errors and innovations.”  New creation theology was one of those “errors” that, in their minds, constituted a divisive heresy.



25 Responses to “From Lipscomb to Wallace on “New Creation” Theology”

  1. Avatar of Douglas Young  DouglasYoung Says:

    I recently taught a bible class on renewed earth theology based off of NT Wright’s video series to Surprised by Hope. When a case was made for 2 Peter 3 and the burning up of the earth, I took the inquirer there and showed him two things:

    1. The preceding analogy in reference to the flood. It was destruction by water that served to purge the earth for life thereon. Does fire not do the same thing? I’ve witnessed a lot of land burned for the purpose of regrowth.

    2. To bolster this claim, I reminded the inquirer of verse 13, “But in accordance with his promise, we wait for a new heavens and a new earth, where righteousness is at home” (NRSV). Peter seems to be suggesting that the “present heavens and earth” that have been “reserved for fire” (v. 7) have something “new” in store!

    New creation theology makes sense to me…

    •   rodney burke Says:

      I would have to ask the following; If God destroys the Earth with fire, how total is that destruction and then will God completely renew the earth, the physical earth so we can live on it?

      The flood didn’t destroy the earth like fire would. How are we as the Bride of Christ going to inherit an earth that has been destroyed. Have you forgotten that fire also destroys water? Is God going to restore all the water NOT in the ocean?

      If we are “Changed in the twinkling of an eye” won’t the earth be a spiritual place and not a physical place? Just askin’. The context says it will be a new, not a RENEWED and that is what happened during the flood. The earth had not changed, it was merely covered with water which receded.

      • Avatar of johnmarkhicks  John Mark Hicks Says:

        Fire can destroy for renewal. Many lands are burned in order to make way for renewal. Fire does not necessarily mean total annihilation. Fire can refine as well as annihilate. There will be water–a fountain flowing from the throne of God that waters the earth and gives it life as Rev 22 pictures. We will all certtainly be changed as our present bodies are transformed into bodies suitable for immortal living upon the earth. Actually the word “new” here is the Greek term for a kind of newness that is renewed or made new. It does not refer to something that is made out of nothing. The new earth and heavens are made from the old earth and heavens–it is a change from old to new analogous to what our bodies will experience in the resurrection.

  2.   Jeff Young Says:

    Great stuff. Love the Campbell quote in the link. I think you are spot on with the premillennial fears driving the rejection of this. It is fascinating that many modern non-premillennial scholars (Bauckham, Wright, etc.) are right in line with Lipscomb and Campbell on the concept of New Creation. So, too, Tim Keller. In his Gospel in Life video series, he goes through a picture of the heavenly city (Rev. 21 & Isa. 65) that is very powerful and expresses a very similar idea to Campbell’s. I appreciate this fresh look. It is too bad this is associated with premillennial fears; rather than investigating it without that influence.

  3.   Johnny D. Hinton Says:

    I have a sneaking suspicion that this same misunderstanding has fueled a denial of our own future bodily (glorified) resurrection.

  4.   TP Says:

    What a fascinating history! I wonder if NT Wright knows he has been scooped (j/k). Actually, it was there in the scriptures all along.

    Thanks JMH.

  5.   rich constant Says:

    ya know john mark
    in this creation there are protons, electrons,neutrons, and last but not least morons.
    so i being of the latter have so much to say, i have a hard time finding where to begin, SO, i am going to work.
    and think.
    :-)
    blessings there big guy
    thanks

  6.   A. W. Says:

    “He rejects any kind material reality associated with heaven and regards any such “literal” interpretation of Scripture as unsuited for immortal saints. Rather, the earth will be literally destroyed by fire.”

    Please, PLEASE, tell me that the irony here was deliberate on your part. If so, it’s delicious.

  7.   Clark Coleman Says:

    One thing that always struck me when studying millennial interpretations is that writers from the Church of Christ often made no distinction between dispensational premillennialism and historic premillennialism, which are quite far apart theologically and prophetically. I have read entire tracts about “premillennialism” that were aimed at dispensational premillennialism and seemed to have no awareness that there is any other kind. Note that I am making this observation as an amillennialist.

    • Avatar of johnmarkhicks  John Mark Hicks Says:

      Your observation is on target. Some distinguished between, say, T. W. Brents’ historical premillennialism and R. H. Boll’s more dispensational millennialism. But most often they are grouped together. On the point of materiality and OT prophecy, they would certainly be seen that way.

  8.   Lonnie Gentry Says:

    John Mark,
    Thanks for your blog.
    Thanks especially for the discussion of New Creation theology. I’m learning a lot.

  9.   Clarence Cannon Jr Says:

    Explain Rev.1:7 along side of 1 Thess.4:17 If we are going to stay on a renewed earth as heaven why the need to meet Jesus in the clouds?

    • Avatar of johnmarkhicks  John Mark Hicks Says:

      Actually 1 Thessalonians 4:17 uses a verb (apantaw) that refers to the act of “meeting” someone in order to accompany them to the goal of their journey. It was used of civic leaders meeting the Emperor outside the city gates to accompany him into the city. It is used of Paul who was met by Paul as he was headed to Rome (Acts 28:15). They went out from Rome to meet him and then accompanied to Rome. We will meet the Lord in the air with all the saints and then accompany the Lord back to earth. It will be Christ’s triumphal return to the earth where now everything is holy to the Lord.

  10. Avatar of downenray  outreachraydownen Says:

    I’m no expert on theology. My view is that there will be no 1,000-year reign on earth in a future day. I suspect that Jesus will come when least expected, after which there will be total destruction of this cosmos, earth and all. The New Jerusalem which then comes down from Heaven will be totally different from our world.

    No night or day. Jesus will be the light throughout eternity, which will consist of uncounted years. He will not sleep. Nor will we. All who are in Heaven will indeed love one another and will live pacifically with one another. Doing what? We’re not told. But it’ll be doing good things in God’s sight. Will we take with us our earthly talents and preferences? Would we be ourselves otherwise? Will we have jobs? I hope so.

    A major difference between now and then will be that things are now circular. Then they will be square. Digital rather than analog. Things will look different. They will BE different. And not just for 1,000 years, but for eternity. Did I mention that THIS world will be burned up. It will be destroyed by fire. That’s the promise. Totally destroyed. Not rebuilt like now. Different in every way. But perfect and pleasant. Who else believe this? I wish I knew. We’ll all know after the Lord returns.

    What I think is more important is for us to diligently study matters concerning THIS life. That’s why I offer for sale books about being RAISED INTO NEW LIFE with Christ (available from amazon.com). Our future is secure if we are in Him. And He calls for us to share that good news with everyone!

    • Avatar of johnmarkhicks  John Mark Hicks Says:

      Renewed earth theology does not necessarily affirm any kind of premillennial or postmillennial idea. It simply affirms that heaven will come to earth and God will make his eternal home within his creation with his people.

  11.   eirenetheou Says:

    Our brother Paul teaches that “if anyone [is] in Christ, [there is] a new creation. The old has passed away; look, the new has come!” (2 Cor 5:17). In this teaching, Paul is speaking of the present, not of the future. In the immediate context, the “new creation” is the means of God’s “ministry of reconciliation” through which human beings are reconciled to God and also to one another. They can now be reconciled to one another because they “know no one according to the flesh” (2 Cor 5:16).

    This is why Paul writes to the Galatians that “in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God through faith, for as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. [There is] neither Jew nor Greek, [there is] neither slave nor free, [there is] no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus!” (Gal 3:27-28). In the “new creation” the order of the old creation of Genesis is overturned “in Christ Jesus.” That is now, not in some millennial fantasy. If it does not happen now, it will never happen at all.

    God’s Peace to you.

    d

    • Avatar of johnmarkhicks  John Mark Hicks Says:

      You correctly state the Pauline use of “new creation.” It is a now, but it is also a not yet, just as our adoption is alreadly/not yet. The hope of Romans 8 reflects this already/not yet eschatological structure. Christ, as ascended new human, is the ground of new creation breaking into this world and of transforming it into the the new heavens and new earth (or, in Pauline language, the liberation of the creation from bondage). This is already in process, and the new creation has begun, but there is also a consummation yet to come.

      •   rich constant Says:

        john mark
        could it be that the concept of irresistible grace came from an
        inability to perceive time as something other than the way we perceive it to day, as part of the Creation.
        in that god lives” in” and “outside of” at the same instant.
        i wonder , then there is Plato’s cave.
        in the 15th century they didn’t have much to work with.
        so having the concept ‘that which was” “that is” and ” is to come”
        might have been an impossible concept,”and thus predestination” seems logical…
        Calvin’ might have been great in his day ” but limited by a flat earth thinking”?

      •   eirenetheou Says:

        In Romans 8, our brother Paul writes that “the whole creation waits in travail for the revealing of the sons of God” — that is, those who are “sons of God through faith” (Gal 3:27) and “are led by the Spirit of God” (Rom 8:14).

        i’ll give you “process,” for that is surely what it is. Yet it begins now and it happens now, not in some eschatological fantasy. It happens now, or it will never happen at all. With the creation, i am waiting . . . and doing what i can to make it happen!

        God’s Peace to you.

        d

  12.   Peter Says:

    When this earth is renewed/purified by fire, many things will be destroyed, right? What about the believers who are on the earth at this time? If you say that the rapture is based on a faulty interpretation of Paul’s words to the church at Thessalonica (like N.T. Wright), it seems the elect would sort of be in the way while God was transforming this earth to the new earth. Or am I missing something?

    • Avatar of johnmarkhicks  John Mark Hicks Says:

      1 Thessalonians 4 teaches that we will be caught up with the Lord in the air; we will “meet” him there. The word “meet” is a word often used to describe how one would go out of the city to meet a dignitary and then escort them back into the city. We will meet the Lord in the air, we will be changed (transfigured) and the creation will be purified and made new. I think God can protect his people while he remakes the earth, even by fire.

  13.   Johnny D. Hinton Says:

    What about the words “and so shall we ever be” when we meet the Lord in the air?

    • Avatar of johnmarkhicks  John Mark Hicks Says:

      We will be with the Lord forever. We will “meet” him in the air and be with him for ever. We will be with him as we escort him back to the renewed earth where we will live forever. The text does not say we will be forever with him in the air, but simply that we will be forever with him.

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