Liberation in the Midst of Futility and Destruction: Romans 8:19-22 and the Christian Vocation of Nourishing Life


Eastman, Susan

Burroughs, Presian Renee





Duke Divinity School


Doctor of Theology


In an era of ecological upheaval that has led some scientists to declare that human activity has inaugurated a new geological epoch, the Anthropocene, the apocalyptic theology of the Apostle Paul speaks a timely word of ethical and practical import. In his letter to the Roman Christians, Paul calls for a conversion of behavior that resonates with and lends theological substantiation to the urgent calls of ecologists, climatologists, and others concerned for the wellbeing of the entire ecosphere. With a fundamental belief in the God who creates, sustains, and resurrects life, Paul's message in Romans 8:19-22 urges Christians to align their lives with the liberation that God intends for creation and that Jesus Christ has inaugurated through his life, death, and resurrection.

This dissertation examines Rom 8:19-22 in its literary, theological, imperial, and ecological contexts in order to illuminate the implications of Paul's thought for contemporary Christian living. Laying a biblical and theological foundation, the first chapter delineates the ways in which Old Testament texts assume a "relational pyramid" in which Israel, the nations, and nonhuman creation relate with one another and with God in ways that affect the wellbeing of all. In this vision, the conditions and destinies of human and nonhuman members of creation interdepend. Presupposing such a view of the world, Paul indicates throughout Romans, and especially in Rom 8:19-22, that creation's slavery to destruction results from human sin and that its liberation depends upon God's liberation and glorification of humanity, an argument developed in my second chapter. While this interpretation parallels common understandings of Rom 8:19-22, the frequently muted voice of creation is magnified when we recognize that the nonhuman creation too acts as subject, aligning itself with God's purposes, expectantly awaiting the resurrection of humanity, and collectively groaning and laboring towards that resurrection, the apocalypse of the "sons of God." Chapter three turns to relevant features of ancient Rome's religious, political, and agricultural traditions. Like Paul, the Roman imperial mythos maintained that human activity affected the health of creation. Yet, in contrast to Paul, it declared that Augustus, the divinely favored son of god, had established an age of peace and had brought fertility and abundance to the natural world. This "Golden Age" depended upon military power and the exploitation of conquered people and land, as an investigation of the Roman grain trade reveals. By placing Roman rhetoric and practice in conversation with Paul, chapter four demonstrates how Paul's vision of liberation subverts the Roman imperial mythos. The Epistle to the Romans insists that the empire's practices are among those that enslave creation to destruction and that the fulfillment of God's liberation will be established by Jesus Christ, the true Son of God, who will share his inheritance with his siblings, the children of God from all nations. In accord with their allegiance to Christ, his followers should live in ways that honor their relationships with human neighbors and also alleviate the destruction of creation, promote the flourishing of life and biodiversity, contribute to the wellbeing of creation's vulnerable members, and render thanksgiving to God. Exhibiting Paul's practical theology of creation and its powerful political bite, the fifth chapter examines and criticizes American industrial agriculture, particularly the growing of wheat in the Great Plains. In ways that parallel the Roman imperial myth, modern agriculture presents itself as liberating the world from famine through industrial power even as it masks the ways in which it binds creation to destruction. Inspired by the message of Romans, however, Christians find themselves called to unveil the powers of oppression and nurture sustainable communities of liberty, peace, and flourishing in harmony with creation. They may begin to do this by supporting local, organic, and perennial forms of agriculture with the hope that farmers may rely less on fossil fuels, toxic chemicals, and expensive seeds. In so doing, humans presage the liberty and flourishing of the New Creation as they mitigate the epoch-shifting and life-destroying events of climate change and species extinction.



Biblical studies




Classical studies




Christian ecological ethics




ecological theology




Son of God


Liberation in the Midst of Futility and Destruction: Romans 8:19-22 and the Christian Vocation of Nourishing Life






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