It is my contention in this paper to show that a theology of healing (TH) and a theology of sickness and dying (TSD) find unity within the meta-narrative of scripture. This meta-narrative, or worldview approach, provides the framework by which all reality, including sickness, healing and death, is interpreted, providing a way to fuse together theology and praxis, and is thus a vital component for churches in developing and training those involved in a healing ministry in the local church. At the risk of over simplification we shall explore this metanarrative as creation, fall redemption and consummation.1
I) Creation (Gen 1+2)
Against pantheism and panentheism the Church affirms that God and the cosmos are not to be confused for the creator is ontologically distinct from the created. Although in developing a TSD we may stress, to some degree, that God suffers and is the ‘crucified God’2 we must likewise affirm the transcendence of God. God is above and beyond creation and is omnipotent, omnipresent and omniscient. This view of God allows the sufferer to know that God knows their pain and is able to stop it. The unhealed sufferer of a terminal illness can be encouraged in seeing God, not only as a brother walking with us through pain, but as the sovereign Lord who directs all things. Likewise the godness of God, his transcendent power, allows the Christian to take confidence that God is able to heal for he is not bound by the laws of science, of cause and effect. A tension between the sovereignty of God in healing and suffering needs to be held together in dialectical tension with without tending towards an anti-sovereign3 or prosperity position.
The creation narratives describe this world as being the purpose and design of God in contrast to other near-eastern creation narratives where the world is the result of a cosmic battle between the God’s or a cosmic accident. The Christian worldview, as opposed to platonic duality, affirms the goodness of physicality. This means that a Christian theology which does not pay attention to physicality and focuses simply on the ‘spiritual’ is not fully reflecting the metaphysical and ethical demands of createdness. A TH and TSD find unity in the belief that the human, as part of the the cosmos and as imago dei, is to be valued, and that physicality, wholeness and sickness, are the realms in which God is working. As a conservative evangelical, I join with Francis Schaeffer in an internal critique of conservative evangelicalism which has, at a popular and academic level, sought to view physicality as of secondary importance, with a tendency to view the Church’s task as that of evangelism.
We warned earlier against allowing Platonic concepts to color our Christian thinking. Platonism regards the material as low. But we certainly cannot think the material low when we realize that God created it. We can think of things being created in different orders, but that is a very different concept from thinking things are low in the sense of base, as opposed to high. God made everything, and any sense of lowness (with its poor connotations) has no place here. To think of them as low is really to insult the God who made them. 4
In the creation narratives human life is made up of spirit and matter and is thus opposed, not only to platonic thinking which emphasises the primacy of spirit, but also a non-theistic evolutionary worldview in which humanity is nothing more than physicality.
ii) The ‘Fall’
The biblical worldview affirms the original shalom, beauty and goodness of creation. This present world, although still in some sense God’s creation, is not how God intended it to be for human rebellion caused humanity to become estranged from God’s presence and this brought with it a ‘fall’ in the cosmos.
This present world of tears, suffering and death are anti-normative to God’s creational norm5. In pastoral ministry, the worldview lens of ‘fall’ should be allowed to function. Cancer, brain tumours and AIDS should be brought under the worldview of the fall and in doing so the church can humbly affirm that they are not part of God’s good creation, they are not the way things are meant to be. In one sense they are, to use a line from Barth, the “possible impossibility”. Sin, suffering and illness are permitted by God, for he is still sovereign, but they are an affront to his original creative intention.
Nigel Wright and Shiela Smith, in ‘Suffering’(1997), seem to deny the ‘falleness’ of creation and, in my opinion, offer a distortion of the biblical metanarrative. They conceive of creation as ‘an evolutionary-developmental picture of creation’ in which ‘God’s creation displays a dark side of ‘experiences of pain, failure and disappointment, loss and capacity for death’6 which is not evil nor anti-normative in itself for ‘a glorious creation displays inglorious traits and is capable of producing the brutal and the ugly’7 This view cuts against the grain of orthodox Christian belief and thus offers a distorted Christian worldview. In response to the sufferer this view may say ‘in God’s good world this is the way it has to be’ whereas the Christian worldview may say ‘suffering is anti-normative to God’s good creation’.
The church is given the task of proclaiming and living in a way which shows that these aspects of the present creation are anti-normative. The sufferer, and TSD, can be encouraged to embrace the tension between suffering and illness being sovereignly and providentially sifted through the Lord’s hands, and suffering and illness being rebellion to God’s creational norms. A TH can embrace the reality that suffering is the antithesis to God’s creative shalom.
God did not abandon his creation at the ‘fall’ but has sought within history to bring about salvation and redemption. This redemptive turn in the biblical drama stems from the covenantal promises to Abraham and finds its climax in the God-Man, Jesus the messiah. Redemption is not simply concerned with the salvation of ‘souls’ but is about the kingdom of God which calls for the restoration of creation and physicality to its normative status. 9 The task of the church is to become agents of redemption in the world.
As N.T Wright states,
And what he [Jesus] was promising for that future, and doing in that present, was not about saving souls for a disembodied eternity, but rescuing people from corruption and decay of the way the world presently is so that they could enjoy, already in the present, that renewal of creation which is God’s ultimate purpose-and so that they could become colleagues and partners in that larger project itself10
In the ministry of Jesus we see that the reign of God includes, amongst other things, a healing ministry. Therefore, we may say that a kingdom focussed church will seek to bring God’s reign and rule into all spheres of life which include the alleviation of suffering. This move against suffering may take the form of social or political action against injustice, but may legitimately find part of its expression in a healing ministry. A Christian ministry, unlike cessationalism, is not to marginalise a healing ministry nor is it to be reductionistic in seeing a healing ministry, as does prosperity teaching, as the dominant kingdom action.
In Jesus’ miracles we see that physical healing is not the only factor in the provision of wholeness to the ill. A blind man who receives sight, not only receives a physical change of circumstances but is seeing the transformation of his religious, economic, social and psychological worlds. A church which seeks to model Jesus’ redemptive action must pay close attention to religious, economic and psychological wholeness and not simply reduce its ministry to the alleviation of physical ailments. It may be that a person is prayed for in a terminal situation and no physical change takes place. If this is the case it does not excuse the church from moving in a more practical manner to bring economic, societal and psychological wholeness.
The 2nd temple Judaic world-view looked to the arrival of the eschaton as the time when God would set the world to rights, when Israel would be vindicated, the gentiles welcomed in, and YHWH’s spirit would be placed in the heart of humanity. The early Church, most noticeably Paul, proclaimed the arrival of these promises with the advent of Jesus and Pentecost.. The Holy Spirit, according to Paul, give gifts to his church and this includes the gift of healing. It will not simply do, as some cessationalist state, to assume that the gifts of the spirit are no longer valid. Cessationalists often turn to 1 Cor 13 interpreting the ‘that which is perfect’ to be the completed canon of scripture. However it makes more sense to view the perfect as the second coming of Jesus who we shall meet face to face. With this non-cessationalist reading we should actively encourage the reception and use of the spiritual gifts including that of healing, for in some sense a healing ministry shows itself to be an advance guard of the consummation.
In contrast to an overrealised eschatology, such as prosperity teaching, the Christian affirms the ‘now and not yet aspect of the kingdom’, for the present kingdom age, in the midst of a fallen world, is simply a foretaste of the consummation which is yet to come.
Consummation, or in more traditional language ‘eschatology’, has often played a marginal role in christian dogmatics.11 In recent decades though eschatology has made a comeback through the writings of N.T. Wright, Moltmann, Pannenberg and Grenz. We have seen that sickness, suffering and death are a product of the fall. In the light of redemption, and the advent of Jesus, we see God embarking on a rescue plan, a rescue plan which will find its fullfillment in the full arrival of the eschaton, in the consummation of the cosmos with the Almighty. The consummation provides hope and joy for the sufferer who can be confident that although at present ‘ all creation groans’ there is a time coming when there will be no more tears and no more suffering. The church is not to provide cheap hope and glib promises to the sufferer but is, pointing to the resurrection of Jesus as the first fruits,to proclaim that there is hope.
Christianity offers a radically different worldview, for the sufferer, than non-theistic materialism or even a platonsied christianity. For non-theistic materialism there is no life after death, for platonised Christianity this world is an illusion from which we will one day escape. In contrast a biblical worldview holds to a utter confidence in life after death, but also, in contrast to Platonised Christianity, does not minimise the material and physical world for the future hope is not escapism to heaven but is a restored heaven and earth in which God rules over the physical world as King. A Christian worldview names pain and suffering for what it is looking to the future for blessing, shalom and vindication.
A church healing ministry embedded in its cultural context must be confident in its eschatological vision, for this vision and hope can inspire the ill and bring inner peace in the most painful of deaths. This inner peace is not, as in the case of Buddhism, escape from pain and suffering, but a hope within the midst of pain and suffering in future blessing and vindication. 12 A Christian church though, as Wright has shown most clearly, must seek to become signposts of the coming kingdom in all areas of life. It is within a healing ministry, enabled by the power of the holy spirit, that we should expect, as with all spheres of life, God’s future to burst into the present.
‘I know that he calls his followers to live in him and by the power of the spirit, and so be new-creation people here and now, bringing signs and symbols of the kingdom to birth on earth as in heaven. The resurrection of Jesus and the gift of the Spirit mean that we are called to bring real and effective signs of God’s renewed creation to birth even in the midst of the present age.’13
In this brief essay I have sketched out the Christian worldview in such a way that a unity is found between a TH and TSD. A worldview approach is theoretical and pressupositonal, yet it is an approach with ‘hands and feet’ for if we change the way the church community, and the sufferer, see the world we will also change its praxis, for worldview and praxis go hand in hand. A church committed to a biblical holistic metanarrative will be a church of action towards those who are ill and dying. It will live as it prays,
‘Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven’
Bartholomew, C. G., & Goheen, M. W. (2006). The drama of scripture : Finding our place in the biblical story. London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge.
Carson, D. A. (2006). How long, O Lord? : Reflections on suffering and evil (2nd ed.). Nottingham: Inter-Varsity.
Lucas, E. (1997). Christian healing : What can we believe?. London: Lynx.
Naugle, D. K. (2002). Worldview : The history of a concept. Grand Rapids, Mich.: W.B. Eerdmans Pub.
Piper, J., & Taylor, J. (2006). Suffering and the sovereignty of God. Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway Books.
Schaeffer, F. A. (1970). Pollution and the death of man : The Christian view of ecology. Hodder Christian paperbacks. London: Hodder & Stoughton.
Schaeffer, F. A. (1996, c1982). The complete works of Francis A. Schaeffer : A Christian worldview. Westchester, Ill.: Crossway Books.
Spykman, G. J. (1992). Reformational theology : A new paradigm for doing dogmatics. Grand Rapids, Mich: W.B. Eerdmans.
Wolters, A. M. (1986). Creation regained : A transforming view of the world. Leicester: Inter-Varsity Press.
Wright, C. J. H. (2006). The mission of God : Unlocking the Bible’s grand narrative. Nottingham: InterVarsity Press
Ware, B. A. (2000). God’s lesser glory : The diminished God of open theism. Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway Books.
Wright, N. T. (1993). The New Testament and the people of God. London: SPCK.
Wright, N. T. (2007). Surprised by hope. London: SPCK.
Christainity Today 2006/Vol 50 available online at http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2006/septemberweb-only/137-41.0.html#prosperity7 p
1In doing so I follow Spykman (1992) and Wolters (1985) and from modifications of this Wright (1992) and Bartholomew and Goheen (2006) who include Israel in their metanarrative.
3In recent years Process theology and Open Theism have undermined the classical view of God as being sovereign. See Ware (2000)
4 Francis Scheaffer (1996) . Also Wright 2007
5 Gorden Spykman (1992) who offers systematic theology sensitive to the narrative of scripture states, ‘In Gen 3:14-19 the dark clouds of divine judgement descended on human life from the cradle to the grave. Nothing escapes its curse. Every creature great and small bears its brunt-the soil, plant life, animals, human relationships-not least of all, marriage and vocation. Like a drop of ink falling into a glass of water, our origonating sin has a ripple effect on our environment.’ 319
6ed. Ernest Lucas (1997,126)
8 As with Gordon Spykman ( 1992,151) ‘The plan of salvation represents God’s way of restoring the fallen creation to all it was and is meant to be. To that end God in Christ intervened redemptively in the affairs of our alienated world to win it back. That mighty act of redemption is still going on.’
9Nigel Wright (2006) offers a holistic view of Church Mission. In particular see chapters 12 and 13.
10Wright (2007, 204)
11 Barth(1993,500) remarked that the conclusion of Christian Dogmatics is often ‘a short and perfectly harmless chapter entitled–’Eschatology”
12 Buddhism seeks to alleviate suffering, as in the third noble truth, by detaching oneself from pleasure, pain, good and evil.
13 Wright (2007, 220)