When I was in school, my teachers in two subjects taught me the concept of transposition. In math we learned to move a number and its sign from one side of the equation to another. In music we learned to move the pitch of a composition upwards or downwards.
But just recently I have been reintroduced to the word in the writings of William Dembski and the venerable C.S. Lewis. These writers have taught me that transposition is no less than a pathway between space and time creation, on the one hand, and the transcendent, eternal kingdom of God, on the other.
Human beings inhabit the boundary between the spiritual and the physical. Transposition is the pathway between these two realms. It is the movement between time and eternity, between the natural and the transcendent.
In this sense, transposition is a change in form or nature. In his book The End of Christianity mathematician and theologian William Dembski illustrates the concept of transposition with Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony.
We are all familiar with the transposition of information. Consider Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. It is a marvelously rich orchestral work. And yet a three-year-old can play the main theme from the first movement with one finger on a piano. Here the transposition is from a richer to poorer medium. Indeed, much is lost in transposing a full orchestral work to a piano version. But transposition need not be in the direction of impoverishment. It can also be in the direction of enrichment.
Dembski notes that the transposition can move either downward or upward. A complex orchestral piece can be transposed down to the piano or the simpler piano piece may be transposed up to a full orchestra. Listen to an orchestral version here, and compare the remarkable performance of a five-year-old autistic child here.
In his masterful essay Transposition (in The Weight of Glory), C.S. Lewis tells a fable. A woman in a dungeon uses pencil and paper in an attempt to depict the outside world to her son, who has never seen beyond their four walls. In her drawing, she sees the beauty of waving trees and dancing light. Not only does he not see these realities, but when he finds out that the real world has no actual pencil lines, his mental image goes blank. Her pencil can never capture “the coloured three-dimensional realities which are not enclosed in lines but define their own shapes at every moment with a delicacy and multiplicity which no drawing could ever achieve. The child will get the idea that the real world is somehow less visible than his mother’s pictures. In reality it lacks lines because it is incomparably more visible.”
From Heaven to Earth
The same higher-to-lower transposition is at work in the Lord’s Prayer (Mat. 6:10): your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven, and in the Great Commission (Mat. 28:18-20): Go and make disciples of all nations…. teaching them to obey all I have commanded them.
What makes heaven heaven? Heaven is heaven because God’s will is done perfectly. Earth is not heaven, because God’s will is not done perfectly here.
Jesus wants the perfect kingdom of heaven to be expanded on earth as it is in heaven and therefore he commands his followers to disciple all nations. Through obedience to God’s ordinances the first fruits of heaven are manifested in our broken nations. Something from heaven is to be transposed to earth. This is the task given to God’s people.
After his resurrection and before his ascension Jesus is inaugurated King of heaven and earth. In Mat. 28:18-20, Jesus speaks first of his authority “all authority in heaven and earth has been given to me.” On the basis of that authority (“in heaven and on earth”) he commissions his followers: “Therefore GO! And make disciples of all nations … teaching them to obey all that I have commanded.” Note that because all authority has been given to Christ, all nations are to be discipled by teaching them to obey (read: internal self-government) all that Christ has commanded. The order of heaven is to be transposed to earth.
That which is higher, the transcendent, reveals the nature and potential of the lower, the “natural”. The Kingdom of God reveals what transformed community or nation might become and the purpose towards which we are to work. Your earthly purpose is revealed against the backdrop of the transcendent nature of the kingdom of God. Oh what wonder! Oh what beauty!
We see an example of this in that dimension of humanity which the world has so debased, our sexuality. The transcendent feminine reveals the profound nature of female biology to show compassion, nurture, and teach. Likewise, the transcendent masculine reveals the profound meaning of the male body to provide, protect, and lead. The communion of the Trinity, expressed in the Hebrew word yada - face-to-face intimacy, is the voice that draws “mere sex” into a mystical union. See here the Song of Solomon.
We are to live today, in the reality of the future coming of the kingdom of God.
From Earth to Heaven
Transposition between the eternal and the temporal is a two-way street. The lower may be transposed to the higher. Here we see the relationship between the Cultural mandate and the Great Commission
In Genesis 1, the Cultural Mandate to develop the earth is given by God to the first members of the human family (Gen. 1:26-18). This is the prologue of the transposition from the earth to heaven; the epilogue is the kings presenting the glory of their nations (Rev. 21:24). We are to create culture using the gifts and resources God endowed at creation. These resources are not merely to be used or crassly consumed; they are given as the raw material of human invention, discovery, and creativity. The human story, between the prologue and epilogue, is to be the creation of God-honoring culture. These artifacts, scientific discoveries, works of art, etc.—each a reflection of the glorious transcendence of God—are transposed, at the end of time, to adorn the new heaven and new earth.
For more on this see Scott Allen’s paper, The Cultural Dimension of the Great Commission and our blog series Great Commission Utilitarianism.
The Bible includes many images to help us understand the transposition from earth to heaven. Here are just three:
- The new heaven and a new earth (Isa. 65:17; Rom. 8:21; Rev. 21:1).
- A refiner’s fire to redeem, not destroy, the world (Pro. 25:4; Mal. 3:2; 1 Cor. 3:13; Rev. 21:5).
- The resurrected Christ (John 20:26-29).
That last one begs elaboration. Note that Jesus passed through a wall to appear to the disciples. Then he then told Thomas to feel his hands and side. The scars were inflicted on earth, but Christ had a new body, without the limitations of his earthy body. Just as he had been transposed “down” in the incarnation, he is transposed “up” in the resurrection and accession.
In the book of Isaiah we witness the kingdom which is to come (Isa 25:6-8 NIV):
On this mountain the LORD Almighty will prepare
a feast of rich food for all peoples,
a banquet of aged wine—
the best of meats and the finest of wines.
On this mountain he will destroy
the shroud that enfolds all peoples,
the sheet that covers all nations;
he will swallow up death forever.
The Sovereign LORD will wipe away the tears
from all faces;
he will remove the disgrace of his people
from all the earth.
The LORD has spoken.
At the end of history, the ravages of the fall – death, sorrow, tears—will be wiped away. What will we find in its place? Life in abundance, pictured as rich food, aged wines.
In Rev. 21:23-36 we read of the kings of the earth leading the parade of nations into the city. They will bring the glory and the honor of their nations. Are these the God-honoring artifacts of the cultural commission transposed from earth to be enjoyed in heaven? Perhaps we will enjoy the finest wines from Chile and the finest coffee from Ethiopia. We may eat the finest English pastries created by my grandfather at Bailey’s Bakery. Perhaps while we are enjoying the feast, an ensemble will play a Bach concerto.
Consider well how you spend your time, how you invest your life. The things you do on earth, for good or ill, count for eternity. What you create in this life that honors God may be transposed, at the end of time, to an adornment in His eternal kingdom.
- Darrow Miller