In thinking about rewriting my book about Genesis 1 I find myself looking at references to creation in the New Testament. Awhile back I wrote a series of posts on Alain Badiou’s book about Saint Paul, in which Badiou touches on the “new creation” as a pivotal concept in Paul’s movement away from flesh and law to spirit. It turns out that Paul uses the phrase “new creation” only twice in his epistles, with the cognate “new creature” appearing three times. No other NT writer refers to the new creation, nor does Jesus as his words are recorded in the Gospels.
Briefly, what I see Paul working out in this idea of “new creation” is a path toward the universal reconciliation of all humanity. This reconciliation is achieved neither through universalizing a social and moral code (as represented by Israel), nor by participating in a universal empire (as represented by Rome), but through some sort of universal participation in Jesus. It seems that this participation has already been accomplished through Jesus’s historical death and resurrection, even if the consequences of this cataclysmic event aren’t yet widely recognized.
In the spirit of this Epiphany season — no wait, I guess it’s Advent isn’t it? — I’m going to look at each of the 5 Pauline references to “new creation” one at a time. The first one is in Galatians, a Pauline epistle on which I’ve previously written several posts.
Those who desire to make a good showing in the flesh try to compel you to be circumcised, simply so that they will not be persecuted for the cross of Christ. For those who are circumcised do not even keep the Law themselves, but they desire to have you circumcised so that they may boast in your flesh. But may it never be that I would boast, except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, through which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world. For neither is circumcision anything, nor uncircumcision, but a new creation. And those who will walk by this rule, peace and mercy be upon them, and upon the Israel of God. (Galatians 6:12-16)
Throughout his letter to the Galatians Paul mounts an argument against those who would require Gentile believers in Christ to follow the Mosaic Law. Here at the end of the letter he reiterates his position. Paul frequently uses “circumcision” as a synecdoche, a figure of speech where a part stands for the whole. Thus circumcision stands for the whole Mosaic body of law, of which the specific act of circumcision constitutes only one specific law. Paul explicitly identifies the part-whole relationship in the preceding chapter:
And I testify again to every man who receives circumcision, that he is under obligation to keep the whole Law. (Gal. 5:3)
So in Galatians 6:15 Paul is telling the Galatians that it doesn’t matter whether they follow the Law of Moses or not. But the specific act of circumcision isn’t lost sight of. In 5:12 and 5:13 Paul twice links the word “circumcision” to the word “flesh.” This is important too, because Paul wants to distinguish flesh from spirit. Synecdochally speaking, circumcision doesn’t just represent the whole Law; it also represents the whole flesh. Those who think the Law is important are those who judge matters according to the flesh rather than the spirit.
Now we get to the key phrase in Gal. 6:15:
For neither circumcision is anything, nor uncircumcision, but a new creation.
The distinction between those who follow the Law and those who don’t is unimportant, because this is a fleshly distinction. Instead what’s important is a new creation. By implication, then, the world that distinguishes between circumcision and uncircumcision, between Law and not-Law, together comprise the old creation characterized not by spirit but by flesh.
Those who insist on preserving this old fleshly distinction are, of course, the Jews. Is Paul saying that Jewishness itself is an old-creation construct, that from the perspective of the new creation Israel doesn’t matter any more? Gal. 6:16 suggests we think again:
And those who will walk by this rule, peace and mercy be upon them, and upon the Israel of God.
As far as I can tell, the phrase “Israel of God” is used nowhere else in the Bible. In contrast, “God of Israel” is a very frequent construction throughout the Old Testament. Is Paul calling attention to something by inverting the customary word order? He doesn’t elaborate here at the end of Galatians, moving directly from this verse to the closing of his letter. We might speculate from the larger theme of the letter to infer something like this: The Jews act as if God were their possession, as if they controlled the Gentiles’ access to God through the traditional means of circumcision and the Law. But Paul says it’s the other way around: Israel is God’s possession.
So does Paul mean that God gives access to Israel rather than vice versa? I don’t think so. Earlier in Galatians Paul talks about two sons of Abraham: Ishmael, born of the servant Hagar; and Isaac, born of Abraham’s wife Sarah. The nation of Israel traces its lineage through Isaac; the Gentile nations, through Ishmael. But Paul turns the story around:
This is allegorically speaking, for these women are two covenants: one proceeding from Mount Sinai bearing children who are to be slaves; she is Hagar. Now this Hagar is Mount Sinai in Arabia and corresponds to the present Jerusalem, for she is in slavery with her children. But the Jerusalem above is free; she is our mother. (Gal. 4:24-25)
Paul distinguishes between earthly Jerusalem, capital of the nation of Israel, and “the Jerusalem above.” How is earthly Jerusalem enslaved? Israel has become a province of the Roman Empire, so in a political sense Jerusalem is enslaved to Rome. But the subject of Paul’s Galatian letter is freedom from the Law. In Chapter 5 he describes the Jews’ subjection to the Law as enslavement. But, says Paul,
It is for freedom that Christ set us free… for in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision means anything, but faith working through love. (Gal. 5:1,6)
Earthly Jerusalem is enslaved to the Law, but “the Jerusalem above is free.” So in Gal. 4 does “the Jerusalem above” trace its lineage through the Gentile Ishmael? Paul doesn’t complete the analogy in quite this way; rather, he’s making the distinction between the physical and the spiritual descendants of Sarah. Physically, the nation of Israel sets itself apart from the other nations, and this “fleshly” Israel controls access to its God via fleshly circumcision and adherence to the Law. Spiritually, the “Israel of God” isn’t distinguished by ethnicity, national boundaries, or Law. Rather, the Israel of God, the “new creation” to which Paul extends peace and mercy at the end of his letter, is identified by the freedom from these fleshly distinctions between “in” and “out” that characterize the old creation, a freedom made possible by faith and love.
By believing God, Abraham received the promise of a new creation, a promise which was to be fulfilled in the future. This promise, says Paul, has now been fulfilled in Christ’s death, ushering in the new creation. All who believe God can receive now that which had been promised long ago to Abraham. This is the thrust of Paul’s argument in Galatians:
Abraham BELIEVED GOD, AND IT WAS RECKONED TO HIM AS RIGHTEOUSNESS. Therefore, be sure that it is those who are of faith who are sons of Abraham. The Scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, preached the gospel beforehand to Abraham, saying, “ALL THE NATIONS WILL BE BLESSED IN YOU.” So then those who are of faith are blessed with Abraham, the believer. (Gal. 3:6-9)
Throughout the centuries the Jews anticipated the fulfillment of God’s promise to Abraham, which remained in the future. They failed to recognize that participation in the Mosaic Law — i.e., membership in the nation of Israel — wasn’t the portal offering entry into the new creation yet to come. The real portal is faith, by which many nations may participate in the fulfillment of the promise.
Many nations are to be blessed by the fulfillment of God’s promise to Abraham. In Gal. 3:16 Paul emphasizes that “the promises were spoken to Abraham and to his seed“: singular, not plural. Paul goes on to say that the seed of Abraham is Christ. I think Paul’s intention here is to assert that the promise wasn’t extended directly to the many nations that would eventually benefit from the promise, nor was it channeled through Israel the grandson of Abraham, nor through Moses by whom the Law was given to the nation of Israel. Instead, the promise passed through Jesus.
What I am saying is this: the Law, which came four hundred and thirty years later [i.e., after Abraham], does not invalidate a covenant previously ratified by God, so as to nullify the promise. For if the inheritance is based on law, it is no longer based on a promise; but God has granted it to Abraham by means of a promise. Why the Law then? It was added because of transgressions, having been ordained through angels by the agency of a mediator, until the seed would come to whom the promise had been made. (Gal. 3:17-19)
Paul is saying that the promise to Abraham, the “new creation” through which many nations would be blessed, remained a promise rather than a fulfillment throughout all the intervening centuries between Abraham and Christ. It wasn’t until now, through Christ’s death, that the promise is fulfilled and the new creation begins.
But before faith came, we [i.e., the Jews] were kept in custody under the law, being shut up to the faith which was later to be revealed. Therefore the Law has become our tutor to lead us to Christ, so that we may be justified by faith. But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a tutor. For you [i.e., the Gentile believers] are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus. For all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s descendants, heirs according to promise. (Gal. 3:23-29)
There remains an element of the promise yet to be fulfilled, an aspect of the new creation not yet made manifest.
For we through the Spirit, by faith, are waiting for the hope of righteousness. (Gal. 5:5)
Paul directs this remark to the believers who, realizing that they haven’t yet become sinless, are tempted to revert to the Law as the means of achieving sanctification. Paul is reassuring the believers that, even though the promise is now fulfilled in Christ and the new creation is begun, it’s not yet complete. And so Paul begins his discussion of walking freely in the Spirit rather than obeying the Law as the right way to live in new creation.
NEXT UP: 2 CORINTHIANS 5