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The world in the Old Testament
It should be noted that Hebrew has no single term for universe in the full modern sense. This is denoted by such familiar phrases as “the heavens and the earth” (
Even though it does not have the term, the Old Testament has a fully developed sense of the unity of all things. This is based on the doctrine of Creation (cf.
Within creation a prominent place is occupied by the earth, especially in the sense of the land as distinct from the sea (
Greek ideas of the cosmos
In contrast to the Old Testament, the Greeks had a highly developed sense of the universe as a single entity quite apart from any reference to the Creator. This is implied in the word cosmos, which carries the basic meanings of (1) structure, (2) order between men, (3) order in general, and (4) adornment. These senses merge into that of the world as an ordered, harmonious, and beautiful structure. Predominant in the early days of Greek philosophy is the thought of the order or system, i.e. that which holds the world together. At some point not later than the 6th cent. b.c., the word came to be used of the totality held together by the order, i.e. the cosmos in the sense of universe. According to Heraclitus, the universe in this sense is eternal, having neither beginning nor end. It is interesting that even Greeks who suggested an origin for the universe always accepted the eternity of matter. The only beginning was that of form or order.
Plato and Aristotle
Plato took over the view of an integrated cosmos based on a universal order. The cosmos in this sense might be described as a body with a soul, a rational creature. It was a spatial manifestation of the idea, a sensual reflection of the eternal. In the famous passage in the Timaeus (28ff.) Plato can speak of the making of the world by a theos or demiourgos. This was done in accordance with the perfect idea. It should be noted, of course, that Plato, though he finds a cosmological demonstration of God, does not really believe in creation. The demiurge’s function is simply to shape what is formless into a cosmos. He also works according to the idea already present in the so-called noetic cosmos. In the last resort, God is simply the highest idea in the cosmos. Even the created cosmos may also be called God. This is theos aisthetos, i.e. God apprehensible to the senses. The very modest approach of Plato toward a genesis of the cosmos was abandoned by Aristotle, who accepted the eternity of the world and regarded God, not as the world’s architect, but as pure mind or form. On the other hand, Gnosticism developed the distinction between the noetic and the aesthetic worlds into a thoroughgoing dualism in which the material world, created by an inferior demiurge, is the prison of the soul, and redemption is a liberation from this, a return to the realm of pure mind or the true God.
Stoicism, like Platonism, has a doctrine of the genesis of the cosmos. It incorporates this, however, into an eternal recurrence, a process of constant becoming and dissolving. Hence, the Stoic beginning is no true creation, nor is the Stoic destruction a true end. Furthermore, there is no need of an architect. God is the world soul which permeates the whole cosmos, the reason (logos) which rules it. Indeed, so pantheistic is the Stoic understanding that a direct equation can even be made between God and the world. Man, as a participant in the soul of the world, is a part of God.
The inhabited world
Since the earth is included in the cosmos, the term “cosmos” can be used by the Greeks for the earth as distinct from heaven on the one side and from the underworld on the other. It is then only a step to the use of the word “cosmos” for the creatures which inhabit the earth, and a further step leads to the special sense of the human race, mankind. Indeed, in the later koine there is a very general use of “cosmos” for “people,” “everybody,” e.g. what people are saying.
A bridge between the Greek view of the cosmos and the Old Testament is to be found in the writings of Philo of Alexandria. Philo, who makes considerable use of the term, distinguishes in Platonic fashion between the noetic and the “aesthetic” cosmos. He argues from Genesis 1 that God first created the world of ideas, which then served as a prototype for the material world. The cosmos is characterized by order and beauty. But it stands under the divine transcendence. God as father and architect created the world. He did this by the logos, the mediator between the world and God. Thus Platonic and Stoic ideas are here combined with the fundamental Old Testament belief that the cosmos is the creature of God. There is, however, a certain imprecision in Philo’s thought and language which leaves some doubt as to whether he is speaking of a real creation of the world by God, or of an ordering of existing formless matter in the Greek sense. He certainly avoids any identification of the world and God; at this point he is faithful beyond question to his Jewish heritage.
The world in the New Testament
The word ecumene, which has assumed such importance today in the socalled ecumenical movement, is of little theological account in the New Testament. Related to oikos (house), it is a participle used as a noun, and denotes from the very first the inhabited earth (for examples, cf. TDNew Testament, V, 157). The primary sense is geographical, but this quickly merges into the religious, cultural, and political, so that the ecumene is the civilized (Hellenic) world, or, after the Rom. conquests, the Rom. empire as a political and cultural unit.
Used in the LXX, Philo, and the rabbis (a loan word), ecumene is fairly common in the New Testament, especially in the gospels and Acts. In the prophecy of
It is worth noting that Paul uses ecumene only in the quotation of
Aeon is a much more important word. It is basically a word of time rather than space. From its early use in Homer for “vital force,” it quickly came to signify “lifetime,” “generation,” “space of time,” “time” with a past, present, or future reference, and finally “eternity.” It played a considerable role in the Greek discussion of time, and in the Hel. age it was personified as the god Aeon.
The temporal sense of aeon is preserved in the New Testament in various phrases used to signify eternity, e.g. from or to eternity (often pl.). The adjective aionios also is used to denote the eternity of God. God is king of the ages in
Aeon as world
How could a word which means time come to be used for the world? The answer seems to lie in the use of aeon for time of the world, i.e. time limited by the creation and end of the world. As Sasse notes (TDNew Testament, I, p. 202), it is sing. that “in the Bible the same word is used to indicate two things which are really profoundly antithetical, namely, the eternity of God and the duration of the world.” Nevertheless, this is true. The end of the aeon in
If, however, aeon is the time of the world, it is no less easy to equate the world’s duration with the world as to equate the world’s order with the world. Later Hebrew had done this, and it is natural enough to find the same usage in the New Testament. The clearest instances of equation are in
The two aeons
As noted already, the pl. “aeons,” though often equivalent to the sing., can also suggest more than one stretch of time. This can be worked out in different ways. Eternal recurrence, for example, postulates an infinite series of aeons. The Biblical view, however, is incompatible with successive aeons in this sense. The world begins and ends. Nevertheless, a break has been made in the world by sin. This means that the creation-conclusion understanding yields to the more complicated understanding in terms of creation, fall, destruction, new creation, and consummation. Directly related to this is the New Testament doctrine of the two aeons.
The background of this doctrine is incontestably Jewish. In later Jewish apocalyptic writings there are constant references to the two aeons, both spatial and temporal (cf. Ethiopian Enoch). These aeons are the time of this world on the one side and eternity on the other, with an accompanying antithesis between the visible or present world on the one side and the invisible or future world on the other. Between the aeons stands the resurrection and the judgment. The rabbis apparently followed up the same idea, for there are examples (mostly post-Christian) of the distinction between this aeon and the aeon to come.
In the New Testament the contrast occurs in the synoptic gospels.
Paul speaks expressly of the aeon to come only in Ephesians. Nevertheless, his many references to this aeon (
Hebrews contains only one direct reference to the future aeon (
The coexistence of the new aeon with the old is a salutary warning that aeon here does not simply mean world. At the same time, one must not distinguish too sharply. The Bible also speaks of a new heaven and a new earth. Hence the relationship between time and space is maintained even though the nature of the new creation is beyond our powers of apprehension. Even in the new aeon, at least when it is consummated, there is to be something of world. The new aeon is also the new world.
If aeon is important, cosmos is perhaps the most significant of all the New Testament terms for world. In the LXX it had been used first for the “host” of heaven (
In the New Testament cosmos occurs over 180 times. It never has the sense of order, and means adornment or beauty only in
In the New Testament, as elsewhere, the cosmos is primarily the sum of all things, the universe (
The transitory cosmos
The fundamental connection between space and time is reflected in the New Testament assumption that the cosmos is of limited duration. The cosmos has an aeon (
New Testament cosmology
A question which has assumed some importance in modern theology is that of New Testament cosmology. Bultmann seemed to base his call for demythologization on the need to correct the supposedly outdated New Testament concept of the universe as a three-decked structure. Is this picture correct? One must concede that the Bible does speak of heaven and earth. The sea or underworld can also be a third division. One should note, however, that heaven is also a system of worlds or spheres (aeons) in
The theater of history
The predominant concern of the New Testament, as of the Old Testament, is not with the cosmos as a whole but with man in the cosmos. God made the whole world, but He made man in His image, and His main dealings are with man. Hence, in the familiar phrase, the cosmos is the theater of human history, and more specifically of the history of God and man. In many instances, then, the word cosmos will bear the special sense of the inhabited world, the earth, the dwelling-place of man (cf.
It is because the world is the theater of human life that the New Testament can speak of entries and exits. To come into the world is common in John, whether with reference to everybody, to Christ, or to “that prophet.” Sin and death come into the world (
In a passage like
The evil cosmos
The human race is a fallen race. This means that the cosmos, too, is presented as alienated from God, especially by Paul and John. Paul in 1 Corinthians uses a whole series of contrasts to make it plain beyond all possibility of doubt that there is this alienation. The wisdom of this cosmos (or aeon) contrasts with the wisdom of God, the spirit of the cosmos with the Spirit of God, the repentance of the cosmos with the repentance of God. An even darker picture is painted in Romans. Since sin has entered the cosmos, the whole cosmos is guilty, and it is judged and condemned by God (
John uses different language, but the thought is materially the same. Christ is not of the cosmos; He has come to it from God. He is in the cosmos but the cosmos does not know Him (
The object of salvation
The evil cosmos is condemned and lost. Yet the cosmos is still the theater of God’s saving action and the object of His saving love. Paul and John are again as one in stating this fundamental truth.
Thus Paul says plainly that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners (
The impulse behind this mission is that the world is the object of God’s reconciling love. Two of the most basic and comprehensive vv. in the whole of the New Testament state this fact:
Though the cosmos is thus the sphere and object of God’s gracious work, it is still true that there is no cosmos to come. The reconciled cosmos is the kingdom of God, the future aeon, the new creation. As Sasse observes, it seems as if this term cosmos, which comes from Greek philosophy, is ultimately “reserved for the world which lies under sin and death.” Though the world is reconciled, believers are saved out of the world. A deep ambivalence lies over the word. “When the cosmos is redeemed, it ceases to be the cosmos” (TDNew Testament, III, 893).
Christians and the world
The theological understanding of the cosmos determines the relation of Christians to it. This may be summed up in three theses. Christians continue to live in the cosmos, they are not of the cosmos, and they are sent, or are to preach, to the cosmos.
They continue to live in the cosmos. The cosmos is still the setting both of human life and also of Christian life and ministry. As Paul says, Christians cannot leave it (
Finally, Christians preach to the world. As God loved the world and Christ came into it, so Christians are to go into the world as the ambassadors of reconciliation. The great commission enjoins this. Paul states it in his own way (
The biblical meanings are best described under the several Hebrew and Greek words. Hebrew ’erets, “earth, land, country, ground,” is translated “world” when it refers to the kingdoms of the world (
International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (1915)
1. Original Words:
Of the above terms, some need not detain us; ’erets, as the original to "world," occurs only thrice, chedhel, once, cheledh, twice, `olam, twice (including
Tebhel, as the original to "world," occurs in 35 places, of which 15 are found in Psalms and 9 in the first half of Isaiah. By derivation it has to do with produce, fertility, but this cannot be said to come out in usage. The word actually plays nearly the same part as "globe" with us, denoting man’s material dwelling-place, as simply as possible, without moral suggestions.
We have indicated above the speciality of aion. It is a time, with the suggestion always of extension rather than limit (so that it lends itself to phrases denoting vast if not endless extension, such as "to the aions of aions," rendered "forever and ever," or "world without end"). In
The word oikoumene occasionally means the Roman empire, regarded as pre-eminently the region of settled human life. So
We have remarked above on kosmos, with its curious and suggestive history of meanings. It may be enough here to add that that history prepares us to find its reference varying by subtle transitions, even in the same passage. See e.g.