There are two prominent schools of thought within conservative Protestant circles that continue to clash over what Christianity is about because their starting points comprise different biblical theological visions. I use the word “prominent” here because I fully recognize that there are other more nuanced voices in the Christian diaspora. No “binaries” or “false dichotomies” are intended here. This is simply a distinction between the two dominant voices in a choir of others.
One begins by constructing an understanding of the Christian life orientated around Genesis chapters 1 and 2 and the other begins with Genesis chapter 3. A Gen 1 and 2 starting point views the gospel as a means for human beings to have a realized experience of what their humanity was meant to be and to do, whereas a Gen. 3 orientation sees the gospel as a means of saving us from our humanity in preparation for the eschaton (heaven).
Space doesn’t permit a full development of these distinctions among the dominant voices but we could frame the current discourse in terms of how the gospel is understood. For example, when one begins with Genesis 1 and 2, as one well-known Protestant pastor opines, we could understand the gospel this way: “Through the person and work of Jesus Christ, God fully accomplishes salvation for us, rescuing us from judgment for sin into fellowship with him, and then restores the creation in which we can enjoy our new life together with him forever.” As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, Theodore G. Stylianopoulos reminds us that the gospel is “the good news of God’s saving work in Christ and the Spirit by which the powers of sin and death are overcome and the life of the new creation is inaugurated, moving towards the eschatological glorification of the whole cosmos.” Because the entire creation has been drawn into the mutiny of the human race, (Rom 8:19-24) redemption must involve the entire creation, as Michael Williams argues. In a Genesis 1 and 2 framework, everything matters in God’s redemptive plan. As such, every person matters to God because they bear his image, and the Holy Spirit uses the evangelicalism of God’s people to unite men and women to Christ. The rest of creation and culture also matter to God because, in the mystery of God’s redemptive plan, we play a role in seeing that the cosmos brings glory to God (1 Cor 10:31, Col 3:23). The emphasis here is God’s sovereignty and mission for the whole creation.
On the other hand, when the gospel begins with Genesis 3, as the conceptual starting point, one might articulate the gospel as: “the good news that Jesus Christ died for our sins and rose again, eternally triumphant over all his enemies, so that there is now no condemnation for those who believe, but only permanent rejoicing.” As such, because of Christ’s redemptive work, argues this view, “there is nothing that separates those who believe from their Creator and all the benefits that He promises in him.” What matters for the church and the Christian life is keeping the issues of sin and salvation front and center (John 3:16, Eph 2:8-10). Being human is something that needs to be remedied in preparation of a life of eternal rejoicing. Personal evangelism and increasing disciples becomes an ever-increasing emphasis. This is what the church is for and is the work that the church prepares Christians for. Culture is “engaged” for the sake of uniting more and more people to Christ. The main emphasis here is God’s sovereignty in saving individuals for a life with Him.
The key difference between the two is what the role of creation is in the redemptive mission of the Triune. From Gen 1-2, there will be an emphasis in seeing how the redemptive mission of God is meant to properly direct not only individuals but all of society and culture. Culture is part of the creation and is intended to bring glory to God by design. So, while centered on the cross of Christ, followers of Christ are not to forget their cultural calling and commission. Starting from Gen. 3, by contrast, there will be an emphasis on celebrating Christians in “secular” spaces because of the evangelistic opportunities to the unbelievers around them and their positive moral influence because of their presence. A Gen. 1 and 2 orientation not only emphasizes the evangelistic opportunities Christians have in the workplace, but also seeks to challenge Christians about the importance of their marketplace activities as opportunities to bring glory to God and to lead their co-workers in doing the same (Luke 19:40; 1 Thes. 4:11; 2 Thes. 3:10-12).
The clashes of these two dominant Christian visions have created much division, misunderstanding, and distrust among classical Protestants in recent years regarding the role of the church and the Christian life. I know of one theologian, from the Gen. 3 perspective, who remains concerned that Christians do not become so one-sidedly Christological and soteriological in their understanding of what it means to be a Christian that the doctrines of creation and providence are excused because of the urgency of the missionary mandate to make disciples of all nations. The implications of a one-sided soteriological emphasis can detract from the fulness of God’s mission to reconcile all things to Christ (Col 1:19-20), many Gen 3ers would argue.
In the end, the Gen 1 and 2 framework sees the missionary mandate and the commission to create and steward cultures that glorify God as a “both/and” while the Gen 3 framework tends to see the missionary disciple-making mandate exclusively as the Christian’s main concern. For Gen 3ers, the cultural emphasis is merely an implication or application of the gospel as opposed to the restoration of creation as something to which the gospel directly points.
If we understand culture to be the place where human persons, made in God’s image, enter into various relationships with others within the family, business, government, economics, the arts, the sciences, and so on, but cannot discern what God wants to do with culture, Christian leaders will continue to be embroiled in intramural debates about what it means to be a Christian in modern society, why Christians should care about injustice, and so on, while fundamentalist secularists gain more and more of a foothold in the lives of individuals and the institutions that are a part of God’s good creation. There have been good discussions to clarify the gospel in light of the heresy of legalism but the directional elephant in the room, in the mission of God discussion, is what we understand as our role in stewarding God’s desire for creation (people, places, and things) now and in the world to come.