The Basis and Orientation of Public Justice: God's Sabbath with Creation
An Interview with James Skillen, Part 1
By James Skillen
James Skillen is the founder and the former president of the Center for Public Justice (CPJ).
Abstract: This is the first in a two-part interview with James Skillen, the founder and former president of the Center for Public Justice. CPJ’s Chelsea Langston Bombino discusses with Skillen the themes of his newest book, God’s Sabbath with Creation: Vocations Fulfilled, the Glory Unveiled (Wipf and Stock, 2019) and how those themes relate to the just ordering of a diversified society, which includes faith-based organizations of civil society. In the new book, Skillen makes the case for how all of creation, including human institutions and organizations, are both revelatory and anticipatory of the fulfillment of all things in Christ. In this interview, Bombino and Skillen discuss big-picture ideas related to God’s dynamic purposes for creation, especially for humans created in God’s image. Skillen expands on how everything that humans do in this age, both personally and in associations, has significance for the age to come. These ideas have deep resonance and implications for explicitly faith-based civil society organizations and the services they render.
Editor's Note: This is the first in a two-part interview with James Skillen (JS), a founder and the first director of the Center for Public Justice. Chelsea Langston Bombino (CLB), director of CPJ’s Sacred Sector initiative, interviewed Skillen regarding the themes of public justice in his newest book, “God’s Sabbath with Creation: Vocations Fulfilled, the Glory Unveiled” (Wipf and Stock, 2019) and how those themes relate to the just ordering of a diversified society, which includes faith-based organizations of civil society.
God’s Sabbath With Creation: Vocations Fulfilled, the Glory Unveiled (Wipf and Stock, 2019) provides a framework for understanding how the Bible tells more than a sin-and-salvation story. The biblical drama is about the Creator’s purposes and fulfillment of those purposes in the climactic revelation of God’s sabbath glory. Christ Jesus is revealed in the New Testament as the Alpha and not only as the Omega, the one through whom all things are created and hang together. Biblically speaking, humans are not first of all sinners, but creatures made in God’s image to develop and govern the earth in revelatory service to God. The exercise of human responsibility in this age plays a major part in the revelation of God’s glory, and most of those responsibilities are carried out in different kinds of communities and institutions over the course of many generations. Every vocation in this age is oriented not only for our neighbors and other creatures, but also for the praise of God for whom we are stewarding the earth. Therefore, our vocations are important not only for individuals but also for the institutions through which we exercise our God-given responsibilities. In this book, Skillen makes the case for how all creatures, from the natural world to the human generations, reveal and anticipate something of what will be fulfilled in God’s sabbath with creation. The book knits together many biblical themes in a way that helps us to understand how everything we do, both personally and as communities and organizations, has significance both now and beyond this age.
CLB: Jim, can you share a little bit about how this book came to be? What is the story behind your thought process for connecting these complex ideas about creation, individual and institutional vocations, and the anticipated fulfillment of creation in and through God’s seventh day sabbath rest?
JS: Early in my college years, I began to ask what it means to be human. I was not satisfied that traditional Christian liturgies, confessions, and theologies in which I was raised offered enough to provide an answer. Serious and prolonged study of the Bible (including a seminary degree) and pursuit of my vocations in marriage, family, citizenship, teaching, and more, led me to realize that Jesus is not first of all the savior of sinners, and humans are not first of all sinners. The incarnate Savior is first of all the one through whom all things are created and hang together, and humans are primarily the creatures made in the image of God to be the chief stewards, priests, and governors of creation. Consequently, the sin-and-salvation story of the Bible is told as part of the revelation of God’s purposes and goal for creation. Fifty years of studying, teaching, and then serving in the political arena have contributed to my thinking and writing about what the Bible says and what human life means. It is a great joy, therefore, to have finally been able, by the grace of God and the encouragement of many, many people, to complete this volume and see it in print. My hope is that it will help Christians in every area of life to catch the vision of who God created us to be and to do. I want readers to see that earthly life is not simply here today and gone tomorrow, followed after death by another story that takes place in heaven. Life in this age, in every dimension of human responsibility, is oriented toward the fulfillment of creation in the age to come, not to the end of creation.
CLB: In your book, you connect the idea of vocation to spheres of life. We learn about something of God through the vocations God has given us. We know that God is a multifaceted creator because he creates us for diverse roles as family members, workers, participants in political communities, congregational members and so forth. So in creation we see that vocational responsibilities of the image of God are expressed in those different relationships and institutions. There is one particular excerpt I would like to share with readers from chapter eight and have you reflect on it for us:
The creation and its creaturely relationships tell us a great deal about God in relation to creation. That is particularly true of God’s relationship to humans: the generations of the image of God are God’s ruling stewards on earth. The children of Israel are God’s children. God’s covenant with Israel is likened to a marriage bond (Isa 54:4-8; Hos 2-4), and Paul speaks about marriage as a mystery that is revelatory of the love between Christ and his bride (Eph 5:22–33; Rev 21:9–14). God tends to Israel as a shepherd tends his sheep. God is like a vineyard keeper who prunes and cares for the vines (John 15:1–11). There are countless passages that speak of our governmental, judicial, and public administrative responsibilities revealing something of God who is the governor, judge, leader and legislator of the creation kingdom.
It is the meaningfulness of created reality that makes all such likenesses possible. Genesis 1:26–27 is emphatic that humans are like God in that they image the creator. As sixth-day creatures, embraced by the hospitality of all other creatures, humans are to experience their identity—the meaning of their lives—as revealers of the God with whom they can walk and talk throughout their faith-led journey on earth. Human life represents a disclosure of meaning that comes to expression in the rich diversity of responsibilities and institutions developed throughout history. That which is revelatory in God’s relations with humans is dynamic, not static, mounting up in anticipation of the fullness of that meaning still to be unveiled.
The discernment of the creation’s revelatory character emerges in the course of human experiences and is expressed through multiple similes, metaphors, and figures of speech as well as in art, architecture and liturgies of worship and life. God’s seven days of creation are likened to a human week in such a way that God’s days are understood to be original, the foundation of all creatures, including the time of our earthly days and weeks. Every creature depends on and refers to other creatures in a dynamic display of glory of God. Likeness follows likeness, metaphor builds on metaphor because of the revelatory character of creation. Humans are not sheep, but a shepherd’s intimate knowledge and care for sheep leads to the insight that humans are like sheep in relation to the good shepherd. Likewise, those in certain offices of responsibility, such as parents, teachers, priests or governing authorities, can be thought of as shepherds of those they care for, lead, and govern.
CLB: Can you talk about your vision in God’s Sabbath with Creation of how our God-given roles are fulfilled in the context of different associational communities corresponding to these different vocational identities?
JS: Vocations are not just for individual persons. Think, for example, about the most basic institution of marriage: Paul tells us that marriage reveals a mystery about Christ’s love for his bride—the people of God. So marriage itself is a vocation that images and points to God. The same applies to families. Vocations don’t just belong to individual persons who happen to be spouses or parents or children. There is a vocation for the family itself, as family. A married couple needs to ask, “how shall we together exercise our marriage vocation?” The same holds true for a school, a farm, a hospital, an orchestra, a political community, and so forth. The political vocation, for example, is not something that belongs first and solely to individual citizens. The political order has its own vocation, and within it citizens and public officials must discover how to build and maintain their public-legal community. In the United States, the president, Congress, and citizens all have offices of responsibility that are qualified or contextualized by the republic as a communal institution. The word “office” is related to the word “calling,” or “vocation.” So in order to work out what it means to be created in God’s image we need to think in terms of doing that in and through the different relationships and institutions of which we are a part.
I especially like the example of an orchestra in this regard. Each participant is playing a distinct instrument and there are many kinds of instruments that have been created over the centuries. In most cases, each instrument can perform on its own and bring delight to listeners with its unique sound in playing a particular musical composition. An orchestra, however, is not a gathering of individuals, each playing in isolation from the others. Instead, the orchestra has its own character with a communal vocation that requires each of the many instrumentalists to cooperate in a discipline, organized act defined by the composer of the music and a conductor who leads the diversified group as a whole in a coordinated performance that both transcends and enhances the contribution of each performer. An orchestra beautifully exhibits the vocation of an organized human institution.
The importance of organizations and institutions of all kinds is that they exhibit the communal meaning of imaging God. Americans, including Christians, think too individualistically. No matter how complex the association or institution in which they play a part they tend to think only of the individuals involved and of their personal responsibility. This means asking primarily “I” questions: what should I do? How can I do the right thing, the best thing? How do I strengthen my one-on-one relation to God? However, most of life demands that we ask “we” questions: how should “we” (husband and wife together) strengthen “our” marriage? How should “we” (doctors, nurses, and all assistants) cooperate in strengthening “our” hospital? How should “we” (citizens and public officials) work together to strengthen our republic? Our human calling, then, in its widest scope, is to exhibit the diverse communal and multi-generational meanings of being made in the beautifully complex and image of God.
Paul asks us to think and act this way as members of the body of Christ (1 Corinthians 12:15–26). Every member is not a foot or a hand, and no member of the body may boast that it is more important than the others. The body is a complex organism (like an orchestra) and every member has an important role to play in exhibiting, maintaining, and developing the whole body. Cooperatively exercising diverse communal vocations is essential to the fulfillment of both the individuals and the organizations and institutions which reveal much about God and ourselves.
CLB: Can you tell us more about your own journey in articulating this important theme of vocational identity related to image bearing? How do these creaturely relationships connect to the institutions and structures of creation? How do our vocations, including social services, environmental care, nurturing families, governing political communities, and so many more reflect or relate to God’s creation purposes?
JS: I remember when someone first pointed out that the biblical meaning of knowing is often doing: Adam knew his wife. We understand what that means. Actually, that meaning of knowledge is at the heart of the Bible, saturating every phase of the unfolding drama. God’s commandments to Israel demand that they do or are not to do various things. It makes no sense to memorize the commandments, but not to do what is called for. We discover both our creaturely identity and who God is in relation to us by doing.
Not until you pick up a basketball and begin to play do you begin to see and feel that such a game is meant for you. Not until you pick up a pen and start to write a story or an essay do you begin to learn if writing is you. We don’t learn much about God or ourselves by studying theology or mastering a list of the “attributes” of God. Knowing God comes from walking with God, loving God above all and our neighbors as ourselves. John tells us that if we love God, we will keep (do) God’s commandments. “Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love” (1 John 4:7–8). James says, “be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves” (James 1:22). “So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead” (James 2:17).
In building friendships, experiencing child-parent love, discovering our talents by giving ourselves to the disciplines of a yard-care team; helping a fellow student solve a problem in chemistry; starting from scratch with the help of a teacher to play the piano; joining a sports team; working with a house-painting crew; working in a science laboratory on a team project; becoming part of a civic project to help build gardens or tutor students—any of these and countless others are examples of how knowledge and insight come from doing. Every kind of “doing” immerses us in the process of disclosure—discovering who we are in relation to God and who God is in relation to us. Life as God’s creatures encompasses the whole of life not only a part. So all sinners are called by God in Christ to turn from the wrong path and practice (do) repentance through faith in Christ for the restoration and fulfillment of all of life. How do we grow to know Christ Jesus? By diligently following him as disciples (the hard work of developing the habits of doing what is right and good in every dimension and vocation of our lives). This is where civil-society organizations have to be included. Why did they come into existence? How do they relate to other vocations people have as workers, family caretakers, citizens, consumers, and more? And if they are addressing civic responsibilities, what is right for them to do in helping citizens act responsibly as citizens? And how should they address the government to exercise its responsibilities? You see, a thousand important questions arise in that arena as in every other, related to the manifold responsibilities people have. They can and should be important contributors to a wiser, more just society and government, which is all part of seeking to obey God’s call to us to do justice.
To respond to the author of this article, please email PJR@cpjustice.org. The articles in Public Justice Review do not represent a consensus of positions on questions of public policy. We do not expect our readers will agree with all the arguments they find here, but we believe that within the broad tradition of what we call public justice we can do more by providing a forum for the debate and exchange of Christians, within those bounds, to work out public policy faithful to God and in service of our neighbors. We do not necessarily share the views expressed, but we do accept responsibility for giving them a chance to appear.