In Romans 8:19-20 it is written “For the earnest expectation of the creature awaits the manifestation of the sons of God. For the creature was made subject to vanity, not willingly, but by reason of him who subjected it…”
When this passage is read by most Christians today, they see an arcane language filled with hyperbole which can never be fully grasped, unless, as they say, God reveals the meaning. Now of course I have nothing against divine revelation. The problem here is that mainstream theologians will often use this notion as an excuse to avoid discussion or debate of certain passages that might not affirm their cherished notions of orthodoxy. Otherwise they might have to face the fact that some arcane passages reflect ideas that belonged to other ancient schools of thought that were not “Christian”.
Romans 8:19-20 may be obscure and mysterious to the average Christian today, but if this passage is viewed against its historical & cultural background the language does reflect familiar ideas known to the ancient Greeks and Romans.
Right away there is the peculiar notion that the “creature” (Greek: “ktiseos”) has an expectation and also a will. Hence the creation was not subject to vanity “willfully”. Vanity is contrary to the will of the creation. Even the King James translators perceived the subtle implication in Paul’s statements, and they chose the word “creature” for the passage, viz. that Paul referred to a living soul.
Clearly Paul was not simply referring to the creation but instead was referring to a soul. A soul has a will and an expectation. In some schools of ancient Greek thought the Creator or supreme Deity was considered along with the creation to be one big soul. In Stoic philosophy this was the “world soul” or cosmic soul. In Plato this was the cosmic soul created by the Demiurge (Timaeus, 30b). And among neo-Platonists the cosmic soul is part of the Demiurge, a part of its own being.
In Gnostic thought, among the Valentinians, the Demiurge was said to derive from Sophia’s repentance which is the origin of the soul (Irenaeus, Against Heresies, 1.5). All souls in the cosmos originate from and have a share of the Demiurge, and to even have their existence IN the Demiurge.
Paul seems to have had similar ideas in mind when he wrote. Paul can be seen as speaking of more than one God; for example affirming that everything is In God in 1 Corinthians 8:6 or Romans 11:36, but then also denying that everything is in God in 1 Corinthians 15:24-28, viz. that all rule and power must be put down so that “God may be all and in all”.
Of course anyone who is intimate with Paul’s writings knows that Paul had more than one doctrine, and did not teach the same doctrine to every person (e.g. 1 Cor. 2:6-14; 9:19-22).
In Romans 8:19-21 we may be seeing an early statement of what later became the Valentinian doctrine of the Demiurge being saved through the Gospel. But this in turn raises another question: Who was it that subjected the creature to vanity? And, what was this “vanity” that the creature was subjected to?
If we take a clue from the Valentinians then this vanity was the Demiurge’s belief that he alone was the highest God, without knowing the Wisdom above (Irenaeus, ibid., 1.5.3). That Paul held similar views can be seen in 1 Corinthians 2:6-14 and 2 Corinthians 3:6-4:4. In these passages Paul distinguished between a God known to the nature of the soul and a God known by the nature of the Spirit. Paul also stated that Moses received an unspiritual Law that was given by the “god of this world”, and that this Law is in opposition to Spiritual Grace that comes through the Father of Jesus and is revealed in the radiant face of Jesus Christ.
But why then was the Demiurge subject to vanity?
Because the only way the Demiurge would ever find salvation was through repentance and not by nature: because the god of this world is not by nature a spiritual being.
In Valentinian doctrine the Demiurge is under the dominion of the Savior (Irenaeus, ibid., 1. 3 & 7). It is the Savior who allows the Demiurge to reside in ignorance, in his rightful place of vanity until the time that the Gospel is revealed through the children of God who have the spiritual seed (Irenaeus, ibid., 1.7.3-4). As Paul wrote: “…the creature awaits the manifestation of the sons of God…Because the creature itself shall also be delivered from the bondage of corruption into the glorious liberty of the children of God (“teknon tou theou”).
By Jim West. Copyright © August 9th 2015; revised September 14th 2017.
All Rights Reserved.