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Extracanonical Transformation

Once more, the new heaven and the new earth.

In an excursus on “The Renovation of Nature” in their commentary on Romans, Arthur Headlam and William Sanday note that, while the idea of a new heaven and a new earth is firmly rooted in the Old Testament, and especially in Isaiah 65 (as discussed here in regard to Calvin), it was also the subject of extracanonical reflection. Thus, in the Book of Enoch, new creation is described in terms of the transformation of this creation for the sake of the elect:

3. On that day Mine Elect One shall sit on the throne of glory
And shall try their works,
And their places of rest shall be innumerable.

And their souls shall grow strong within them when they see Mine Elect Ones,
And those who have called upon My glorious name:
4. Then will I cause Mine Elect One to dwell among them.

And I will transform the heaven and make it an eternal blessing and light
5. And I will transform the earth and make it a blessing:

And I will cause Mine elect ones to dwell upon it:
But the sinners and evil-doers shall not set foot thereon. (Book of Enoch 45.3-6)

Similarly, in chapter 51:

1. And in those days shall the earth also give back that which has been entrusted to it,
And Sheol also shall give back that which it has received,
And hell shall give back that which it owes.

5a. For in those days the Elect One shall arise,
2. And he shall choose the righteous and holy from among them:
For the day has drawn nigh that they should be saved.

3. And the Elect One shall in those days sit on My throne,
And his mouth shall pour forth all the secrets of wisdom and counsel:
For the Lord of Spirits hath given (them) to him and hath glorified him.

4. And in those days shall the mountains leap like rams,
And the hills also shall skip like lambs satisfied with milk,
And the faces of all the angels in heaven shall be lighted up with joy.

5b. And the earth shall rejoice,
c. And the righteous shall dwell upon it,
d. And the elect shall walk thereon.

In a way not dissimilar to what we find in Romans 8, the destiny of the world is tied to the destiny of believers, though of course in Romans these are explicitly believers in the Incarnate Christ. The glorious consummations of man and world are linked even as their ignominious fall into decay is, for the corruption of nature is due to the sin of man. This is clear already in Genesis 3, and Ernst Käsemann points out that the idea is present also in the apocryphal 4 Ezra (2 Esdras):

10 I said, ‘That is right, lord.’ He said to me, ‘So also is Israel’s portion.11For I made the world for their sake, and when Adam transgressed my statutes, what had been made was judged. 12And so the entrances of this world were made narrow and sorrowful and toilsome; they are few and evil, full of dangers and involved in great hardships. 13But the entrances of the greater world are broad and safe, and yield the fruit of immortality. (4 Ezra 7:10-13)

The same idea is found in Calvin and Chrysostom, as I’ve noted previously.

Headlam and Sanday do note an important difference, however, from pre-Pauline reflection, which had centered on Israel (though I think that the Old Testament is clearer about the incorporation of the Gentiles than they seem to think):

On the other hand, with St. Paul the movement is truly cosmic. The ‘sons of God’ are not selected for their own sakes alone, but their redemption means the redemption of a world of being besides themselves. (p. 212)

Just as man’s turning away from God meant futility for the world, so his restoration to and by God means freedom from decay for the world.

By E.J. Hutchinson

E.J. Hutchinson is Assistant Professor of Classics at Hillsdale College.

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