Does Romans support the idea of a fallen or wounded creation? Most translations, commentaries and theologians seem to say yes (even if they say no).
William Buckland in 1841 dressed for fieldwork in geology
Here is a quote from an article on CS Lewis and suffering by Bethany Sollerender on the Biologos site
In Romans 8:19-22, arguably the strongest case to be made for a fallen cosmos, it is God who subjects the creation to frustration, not Satan. In a minority reading of this passage some commentators interpret “the one who subjected it” as Adam, but no one suggests Satan (since Satan would not subject it “in hope”). – See more at: http://biologos.org/blogs/jim-stump-faith-and-science-seeking-understanding/challenging-cs-lewis-on-evil-and-evolution#sthash.hdHk9qrl.dpuf
The eighth chapter of Paul’s Letter to the Romans is probably the high point of all his epistles, beginning with the fact that “there is no condemnation in Christ Jesus” and concluding with the ecstatic claim that nothing can “separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
Paul’s Letter to the Romans is a long sustained argument for the truth of the Christian Faith. All agree that the argument continues to at least the end of Chapter 8, and scholars differ whether it continues to chapters 9 to 11. I shall not consider that and my only interest is whether the Greek word ktisis in Romans 8 should be translated “creation” or “humanity”. Most commentators today state, with no or little argument, that ktisis is “creation”, but older commentators are divided. Related to that are the meanings of “futility” mataiotes and “decay” phthora.
The issue may seem to be trivial but the section Romans 8 vs 18-24 is commonly used to give the final biblical warrant for two rather diametrically opposed opinions within the churches today. First, Young Earth Creationists use the idea of the “creation” suffering and groaning (vs 22) as confirmation of the Adamic Curse of Genesis 3, which brought disease, suffering and death into the world. (This is also present among other Christians, and creeps into writings of those who are anything but Creationists.) Secondly, many Green Christians use these verses as a reason why Christians must heal a “wounded planet” i.e. Creation. Both have some justification if ktisis means creation, but if ktisis means humanity the use of this passage for either of these two purposes is invalid.
As almost all Christians only read the New Testament in translation, the alternative translations of the word are overlooked. Few commentators discuss the alternatives at any length, and often simply make an affirmation that ktisis includes the whole inorganic and organic creation rather than a justification for that translation.
Romans 8 is about the work of the Holy Spirit in empowering a believer. The section relevant to this discussion is Romans 8 vs 18 – 25, with the over-riding theme of hope and endurance in suffering. Here is the NRSV translation
18 I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us. 19 For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God; 20 for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope 21 that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. 22 We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; 23 and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies. 24 For in hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? 25 But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience. 26 Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know
This is the NRSV version and others do not differ materially. The three words under scrutiny here are creation, futility and decay. From Arndt and Gingrich the words have a variety of meanings. Ktisis can mean creation, that which is created i.e creature, humanity and civil authorities. Phthora can mean either decay or depravity or immorality i.e sin. Mataiotes means futility and is used in the Septuagint of Ecclesiastes. Now here is the same passage of Romans using the alternative translations;
18 I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us. 19 For humanity waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God; 20 for humanity was subjected to moral futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope 21 that humanity itself will be set free from its bondage to immorality (moral decay?) and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. 22 We know that the whole of humanity has been groaning in labor pains until now; 23 and not only humanity, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies. 24 For in hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? 25 But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience. 26 Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know.
This leads on to several questions;
- Does reading ktisis as humankind make better sense of Paul’s argument and does it give it a better sense of flow?
- How many meanings does ktisis have? Which fits in best into both the immediate and wider context of Romans?
- Are there any historical reasons why humankind has been the favoured rendering of ktisis?
- What is the meaning of “futility” mataiotes and “decay” phthora?
 A and g 456-7
Having checked out all the occurrences of ktisis, matiotes, phthora in both the New Testament and the Apostolic fathers, it is impossible to force one meaning of these three words on to the various texts studied. Frequently the context makes it clear but others are ambiguous. Words are often used to mean different things in different contexts.
The context in Romans.
So far, I avoided the wider context beyond Romans 8. Apart from references in Romans 1 and Romans 8.19-22, Paul does not deal with creation/cosmos in his letter except in passing. The substance is the salvation from sin – of humanity, Jews and Gentiles; Rom 1 vs 16. The first eleven chapters explore this, considering humanity’s relationship to God both in sin or through redemption, and noting the difference with Jew and Gentile. The whole letter is people and salvation orientated, with hardly a nod to creation. That is not a criticism as Paul was writing for a particular purpose. If Rom 8.19-23 is about creation/cosmos then these few verses are like an erratic block which has no relation to what is discussed before or after, and seems to have been transported from elsewhere. If so, Paul goes off at a tangent and then returns to his main them in vs 24
If ktisis is humanity, then there is a seamless argument going back before Romans7, considering the power of sin in chapter 7 before moving to life in the spirit in chapter 8 which deals with how redeemed creation overcomes mataiotes vanity to avoid moral decay phthorai and pasa he ktisis “waits with eager long for the revealing of the children of god.”
This is the argument briefly, and I rest my case.
Two applications of Romans 8 19-24
Frequently Roman 8.19ff is use to buttress to rather different arguments. The first is for Creationism, positing that Rom 8 supports a Fall which resulted in a Curse on all life. The second is to see our planet as a wounded planet and thus to give a particular exegetical support for certain environmental arguments. Both take ktisis to be cosmos and the other words to tally with physical decay etc.
Creationists and the Curse
Many Creationists emphasise that death, even for animals, only came in at the Fall of Adam and after that God cursed all life with death and suffering. Many, like Ken Ham support this from Romans 8, which they read through the spectacles of the Curse. The idea of no death before the Fall is the lynchpin of much creationism today and biblically is based on a particular reading of Genesis 3 and of Romans 8, as in https://answersingenesis.org/bible-history/so-what-are-the-7-cs-anyway/ .
Adam’s sin ushered death, sickness and sorrow into the once-perfect creation (Romans 5:12). God also pronounced a curse on the world, changing it completely (Genesis 3, Romans 8:20–22). As a result, the world that we now live in is merely a decaying remnant—a corruption—of the beautiful, righteous world that Adam and Eve originally called home. The good news is that, rather than leave His precious handiwork without hope, God graciously promised to one day send a Redeemer who would buy back His people from the curse of sin (Genesis 3:15).
This argument was used by opponents of geology in the early 19th Century and to counter this the geologist, Rev William Buckland gave a sermon in 1838 in the Cathedral at Christchurch would reach many, and particularly those considered as opinion formers at Oxford. Buckland later became Dean of Westminster. It was my reading of Buckland that led to this study.
His sermon An inquiry whether the sentence of death pronounced at the fall of man included the whole animal creation or was restricted to the human race given in Oxford in 1839 is in part a response to the noisy minority of nay-sayers of anti-geologists, who included Frank Nolan, the Bampton Lecturer of 1833. Here we do not see Buckland the geologist wielding his geological hammer or tracing out routes of former glaciers, but being a theologian and carefully studying biblical texts.
He took as his text Romans 5.12; “As by one man sin came into the world, and death by sin”, which he discussed briefly along with 1 Cor 15 vs21. The heart of his sermon is an interpretation of Romans 8 vs 19-23, followed by a comment on Paradise Lost. In both the Romans 5 and I Corinthians 15 passages Buckland stresses that no mention is made of any “other part of creation” and that “death is mentioned only in immediate apposition to, and connexion with the remedy provided for it by the sacrifice of Christ”.
When Buckland came to Romans 8 vs 19ff, he emphasized that ktisis (creation) can mean both the “whole creation” or the “whole human race”, and chose to cite Gill, an 18th century Baptist commentator of “ultra-conservative “ views that “’Tis best of all by the creature to understand the Gentile world” i.e. not creation as such. He then referred to Colossians 1 vs 23 and Mark 16 vs 15 where pase te ktisis (the whole creation) clearly means humanity. After all, apart from St Francis, few preach to animals!
Without going into detail, Buckland’s interpretation is the minority one today, but is not without support both now and in previous centuries.
Having raised questions about Romans 8, Buckland then pointed out that such “erroneous” ideas on physical and animal death are “so deeply imprinted on most men’s minds, that maturer judgment rarely stops to enquire precisely as to the source…” He alluded to painters and poets, especially Milton, almost anticipating both Edward Hitchcock and Bishop Colenso. He took theological support from Shuttleworth and Bishop Bull to buttress his orthodoxy.
Buckland then went to argue that had not Adam fallen, humans would have been mortal but without the pain of death would have passed on to another existence. Here he drew on the Discourse on the State of Man before the Fall by Bishop George Bull 1634-1710, who was very much in the Anglican tradition of Richard Hooker. Buckland seems to have done this to show that Milton’s view was not universal and that he had not diverged from traditional understandings of Genesis 3.
To conclude, Buckland’s sermon has a dated feel about it as it predates both evolution and most critical biblical scholarship, but he does wrestle with the issues raised and takes on those who wish to claim there was a Curse which afflicted the planet and all life on it. By 1839 most educated Christians had accepted the vast age of the earth and, by implication, that the Curse had no real effect on the earth and life, but did not consider the full implications and so for well over a century such questions were either not considered or avoided.
Environmentalists and the Wounded Planet
In recent years some, or even many, Christian environmentalists have focussed on the standard reading of Romans 8 and stress how our “wounded planet” is “groaning”. If ktisis means humanity then the theological reasoning behind this is not valid. However this needs far more elucidation than this brief comment.
There are many examples of this and here are two important ones;
Douglas Moo deals with this in his long paper Nature in the New Creation: New Testament Eschatology and the Environment [ Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 49 (2006) 449-88] http://www.wheaton.edu/CACE/CACE-Print-Resources/~/media/1A6F51F87327432788A292F9A46CC2DB.pdf
He favours ktisis being cosmos but refers only to Augustine as a naysayer.
If the argument the ktisis means humanity then the use of this passage is invalid. However I would argue vehemently that a Christian is morally and theologically obliged to care for God’s creation.
Further to use this passage to claim that the creation is groaning is to implicitly accept that either the creation is not as God intended and was so from the beginning of time, or that creation underwent a radical change at the time of the Fall due to human sin. The second necessitates a young earth and a literal fall, as there could be no suffering prior to that. The first means that creation is neither good nor very good.
Word study in Greek of ktisis, matiotes and phthora. For this I used the Arndt/gingrich Lexicon and the Greek texts of the New Testament and Apostolic Fathers
The meanings of ktisis
Concerning the meaning of ktisis the Arndt and Gingrich lexicon devotes a column to the various alternatives and how they are used in the Old Testament, New Testament, Apocrypha, Apostolic Fathers and other writings. Arndt and Gingrich state the main meaning ktisis is either Creation (the sum of) or a creature i.e. a part of the total creation. AG cite references from both the New Testament and the Apostolic Fathers, and both sets of literature use ktisis several different ways, which often can be elucidated from the context. Thus, I Peter 2 vs 13 uses ktisis as civil authorities.
Ktisis in the New Testament
Ktisis as humanity is found in a few examples in the literature and A and G cite Mark 16 vs 15, Colossians 1 vs 23 and Shepherd of Hermas 37 vs 4, using the terms pasa(he) ktisis – all the creation, which in the context must mean humanity rather than the creation, animate and/or inanimate. Using the word rather differently in 2Cor 5 vs17 and Gal 6 vs 15 the Christian is described as kaine ktisis. This could be termed as a new human. Hebrews 4 vs13 uses ktisis for humans. The use in Heb 9 vs11 is more ambiguous, but makes better sense if Ktisis is Creation rather than humanity and thus “not made with hands, that is not [made] by any human” makes less sense. Col 1 v15 speaks of the firstborn of all ktitis. Does this mean the firstborn of all humanity, or the firstborn of all life, thus of creation, i.e. a possibly unicellular organism some 4 billion years ago, or even the firstborn of the total creation, or to put in popular terminology – the firstborn of the Big Bang. Some might even say that Jesus was the firstborn of all evolution! Col 1 vs 23 speaks of the gospel “which has been proclaimed to every creature (ktisis)”.That makes better sense is ktisis is restricted to humans,
The statement of Jesus that “marriage is from beginning of creation ktisis” Mark 10 vs6 /Matt 19 vs4 contains ambiguity and makes equal sense either way, whether as the beginning of creation or the beginning of humanity. From the context and the first century understanding of time, they are probably seen as synonymous. Mark 13 vs 19 is far more ambuiguous and illustrates a non-specific use of the word. The use in II Pet 3 vs4 is similar, whereas I Pet 2 vs 13 uses ktisis for human authorities, yet no translation indicates the use.
Ktisis in the Apostolic fathers
The Apostolic fathers use ktisis in varying ways. The occurrences of ktisis are listed in A & G. In many cases ktisis means the whole Creation e.g I Clement 34 vs 6, which quotes Isaiah 6 thus meaning the cosmos. A little later in 1 Clem 59 vs3 has “which is the primal source of all creation”, which can be either cosmos or humanity in the context. It is the same for I Clem 19 vs 3.
The Shepherd of Hermas uses ktisis both as humanity or creation.
Hermas 1 vs 3 “and glorifying the creation of God” can mean either the cosmos, God’s creatures (Holmes) or even humanity. I would favour either the first two.
Hermas 12 v1 is also ambiguous, but Hermas 37 vs 5 (Hm 7.5 in AG) clearly refers to humanity; “every creature [humanity] fears the Lord and keeps his commandments” . This is neither cosmos nor the animal kingdom due to the reference of the commandments.
Moving on from Hermas 59 vs3 which already has been mentioned 59 v5 is ambiguous “The pre-existent Holy Spirit, which created the whole creation”, but 91v5 almost contrasts kosmos and pasa he ktisis. 100v4 is again ambiguous. But coming to Hermas 102vs1 “all the lord’s creation (ktisis) drank from the springs, are believers such as these: apostles …” Here ktisis most clearly means humanity.
78v8 uses ktisis differently “pan gevos tes ktisis” (all species of creation).
Hermas 89 vs2 is intriguing “the Son of God is older than all his creation” Here one could suggest that Arius would say pasa he ktisis means humanity!! However it seems to mean kosmos.
These examples from the Apostolic Fathers show that ktisis can be used to mean either “creation” or “humanity”. Often, but not always this can be worked out from the context.
These examples from both the New Testament and the Apostolic fathers indicate a varied usage of ktisis. At times it clearly means either cosmos or humanity but many are ambiguous.
Arndt and Gingrich in their Greek-English Lexicon seem to avoid the issue on ktisis and state;
The mng of kt is in dispute in Ro8: 19-22, though the pass. Is usu. taken to mean the waiting of the whole creation below the human level…
However they do not substantiate this point. Yet few follow up Arndt and Gingrich, though the interpretation has great implications both on theodicy and environmental responsibility.
Phthoras (vs21) and mataiotes (vs20).
Both of these words have multiple meanings and are used in the NRSV to support the idea that ktisis is cosmos.
Rom 8 vs 20 reads “the creation was subjected to futility” or untranslated “te gar mataiotes he ktisis upetage”
Elsewhere in the New Testament; Eph 4v17, 2 Pet 2 v18 and in the Apostolic Fathers; I Trallians 8 v2, Barnabas 4 vs 10 and Polycarp, Phillipians 7 v2 it is used to mean human folly, echoing the refrain of Ecclesiastes “vanity of vanities” “mataiotes mataioteton” Eccles 1 vs2 (LXX) etc. mataiotes is used 40 times in Ecclesiates. mataiotes and cognates are widely used for human folly. Sanday and Headlam weakly argue for ktisis to be cosmos but that means taking a different meaning for mataiotes in this verse.
At the beginning of his argument Rom 1 vs21 Paul referred to those who “became futile (ematsiothesan) in their thinking”.
Turning to phthoras in the NRSV Rom 8 vs 21 reads “that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay (phthoras) and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God.” Decay is the primary meaning but it includes religious and moral depravity (AG) . I suggest moral depravity makes better sense in Rom 8 vs21. There is also the question how rocks, minerals and insects “will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God.”
Col 2 vs 22 uses the word to mean “physically perishing” as the “regulations” of vs 20 and 22 are human and finite. Likewise in Paul’s discussion of seeds in I Cor 15 vs 42 and 50. In Gal 6 vs8 Paul uses phthora in contrast to eternal life, as the ultimate moral and spiritual decay.
In contrast the usage in 2 Peter 1 vs4 “… you may escape from the corruption that is in the world” is clearly moral corruption and likewise in 2 Peter 2 vs 19 are slaves of corruption” I.e. MORAL corruption. However the usage in 2 vs 2b is ambiguous
Moving on to the Apostolic Fathers, in 2 Clem 6 vs 4 which speaks of “adultery and corruption (phthora) and greed and deceit” phthora is only too clearly moral corruption
Ignatius in Romans 7 vs3 wrote “I take no pleasure in corruptible food or the pleasures of this life. I want the bread of life….” AG takes the “corruptible/perishable food “ of TRom 7 vs 3 “literally”, but Ttrallians 6 vs 1 writes of “Christiani trophe” i.e. a “spiritual food”. I suggest AG is wrong over TRom 7 vs 3.
For the moral sense Barnabas 19 vs5 and Didache 2 vs 2 use teknon en phthora to mean abortion. In Did 2 vs 2 paidophthora means corrupting children or as in AG sodomy of children. Barnabas 10vs 6 uses paidophthora with a (strange) typological interpretation of Mosaic food laws
The word phthora in both the NT and AF is sufficiently fluid and can mean either moral or physical decay.
In Romans 8 it is possible to argue for either, but moral decay makes better sense.
Conclusion on word meanings.
From a consideration of the usage of ktisis, mataiotes and phthora in the NT and Apostolic Fathers, it is not possible to come down firmly on the “standard” translation of the three words. At the weakest, the usage must be seen as ambiguous, but a consideration of the whole argument of Romans favours humanity, human futility/folly and moral corruption.
Sanday and Headlam on Romans 8 state without much ado that “The two verses [22 &23] must be kept apart.” They must if ktisis means cosmos as verse 23 means Christians and thus the two verses have little relation to each other. However if ktisis means (unredeemed) humanity then the two verses are linked by contrasting the situation of the old and new humanity/ktisis, i.e. before and after regeneration. There is no break indicated by punctuation in the Greek text, which suggests the two verses must not be kept apart and thus give a contrast of the immorality of the old creation/humanity and those who have the first portion of the spirit, to wit – redemption.
 Arndt, W.F. & Gingrich, F.W. , A Greek English Lexicon of the New Testament, Chicago, Chicago University Press, 1957 p457.