Engaging God’s World (May-Jun 2003)

By Matt Dabbs

Cornelius Plantinga, Jr.
Engaging God’s World: A Christian Vision of Faith, Learning, and Living

(Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002).

Cornelius Plantinga’s book, Engaging God’s World, is quick read that delivers quite a theological wallop. Originally commissioned while he was chapel director at Calvin College, the book is intended to introduce college students to the broad picture of Christian theology. It beckons the reader come out of the self-obsessed existence that characterizes so many (both young and old) in our society and participate full-throttle in the life and purposes of the Kingdom. Not only campus ministers, but also the church and/or individual Christian seeking a deeper understanding of God’s calling may find this book beneficial.

Plantinga begins by asserting that human beings have an inner sense that something is not quite as it should be. “We have a world troubled enough that human hope—sometimes wistful, sometimes desperate—will be a growth industry for some time to come. Everybody knows there is something about human life that is out of line or out of whack. We can be happy at times, but not totally fulfilled.”

Plantinga suggests this universal longing is no mere accident of history or evolution. Rather, it comes about because God created and intended so much more for us than what we currently experience, that the fallen state of the world cannot but be unsatisfactory. Somewhere, deep within the mysterious recesses of our souls we know this to be the case.

Plantinga taps into the idealism of youth by encouraging the reader to engage life on earth with full vim and vigor. The universe is depicted as a beautiful place, created by a beautiful God. The universe stands as a testament to the artistry and the love of the Creator. As such: nature, society, politics, all can–and by rights ought to–reflect the glory of the One who brought them into being. Plantinga rejects theology that sees the rest of Creation merely as “props” in the grand cosmic play that is only about humanity and God. Indeed, at times his Creation theology is so expansive that it may strike the reader as strange (e.g., suggesting that the haunting songs of humpback whales may be their way of offering praise to God.) Nevertheless we are reminded that while the Creation is beautiful, it is only so inasmuch as it reflects the eternal beauty of its Creator. “Ultimate beauty comes not from a lover or a landscape or a home, but only through them.”

After such an auspicious beginning, one is struck afresh by the tragic segue from Creation to Fall. Plantinga portrays Sin as far more than simply individual acts of disobedience. Rather, it is an independent force that has been unleashed upon the universe, wreaking havoc wherever it goes. Plantinga laments, “We have in the world not just sins, but sin; not just wrong acts; but also wrong tendencies, habits, practices, and patterns that break down the integrity of persons, families, and whole cultures.”

This broad vision of Sin demands an equally broad vision of Redemption. Plantinga outlines the Old Testament expressions of hope for Messiah, and the revelation of God in Jesus. He reminds readers that the path of communion with the Divine is complex. He stresses the concepts of redemption within the context of the faithful community, repentance and obedience as the fruits of redemption, and the continual transformation characteristic of God’s ongoing redemptive work. Plantinga also suggests that redemption ought to extend beyond the human community itself to include such things as: economic systems, familial models, and ecological policy.

This wide-angle view of Redemption occasions the final and perhaps most compelling chapter: an explication of the theology of vocation. The reader is inspired to ask where he or she is located within God’s redemptive scheme. The inescapable notion is that not only does God desire to redeem the individual, He then seeks to utilize that individual as a vehicle through which to effect the redemption of other people and things. Speaking in the Reformed language of election, Plantinga remarks, “In Scripture, people are not elected to feel good, but to do good.” [Emphasis mine] This statement lies at the heart of his theology of vocation. The reader is challenged to understand all of life’s decisions from whether or not to marry; to what sort of occupation to pursue; to whom to vote for in the next election, as in some sense Kingdom decisions. Simultaneously, however, Plantinga reminds us to pursue these decisions with a certain degree of ‘good humor,’ conscious of the fact that redemption is ultimately the fruit of God, not humanity.

The book’s only weak spots are that it occasionally oversimplifies complex theological issues, and leans heavily—perhaps a bit too much so—upon Calvinism. Those who do not share a Reformed theological background may find Plantinga difficult to understand at certain points. Nevertheless, it is worth the time it takes to read. Though there is a distinct ‘academic flavor’ throughout, this is only to be expected in light of the circumstances of its production. The average Christian will find it accessible and—its target audience notwithstanding—many of the concepts discussed have universal application and beneficence. For anyone seeking a deeper understanding and broader vision of God’s will for their lives, Engaging God’s World will prove to be an insightful aid.

Justin Lillard works as a campus minister for students at the University of Virginia. He is employed by the Rugby Avenue Church of Christ in Charlottesville, VA. Additionally, his time is occupied studying in Lipscomb University’s graduate Bible program, and in preparations for his upcoming marriage to the lovely Miss Stephanie Seabolt. elijahfire40@earthlink.net

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Profile photo of Matt DabbsThis author published 1577 posts in this site.
Matt is the preaching minister at the Auburn Church of Christ in Auburn, Alabama. He and Missy have been married 12 years and are raising two wonderful boys, Jonah and Elijah. Matt is passionate about reaching and discipling young adults, small groups, and teaching. Matt is currently the editor and co-owner of Wineskins.org.

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