Tuesday, January 19, 2016

2. Creation and Catastrophe

Christian theology says both “Yes” and “No” as it announces its good news to the world. Its positive word concerns what God has done, is doing, and will do for the world. Its “No” concerns views that misstate, mistake, or deny aspects of that positive announcement. Attending to the “No” is a crucial part of our struggle as God’s subversive counter-revolutionary movement for it is precisely these misstatements, mistakes, and denials we seek to subvert and present an alternative to.


From the get-go the loudest No to be said in the discussion of creation is the creation-evolution or science-faith issue. And the no has to be said to the entire discussion. I’m not going to spend a great deal of time on it here. But I want to say loud and clear that this is a pseudo-issue. Science asks and answers questions of what is there and how it got there. Though it is an ongoing discussion among scientists there is a stable consensus in the field that some form of evolutionary development is the truth of how what is here got here.

Theology, on the other hand, proclaims from whence did what is here come and why is it here. And its clear answer, given in literary terms using the images and conceptions of its own cultural context in the Genesis stories, is that Israel’s God is the creator and, as we seen, intends this good creation to be his home with his creatures for all eternity. His human creatures are given special roles to play in the growth and development of this creation toward its divinely-appointed destiny.

There is no necessary or inherent conflict between these two descriptions. Both need each other, in fact. Conflict arises, however, when we assume these descriptions are talking about the same thing. That is, when science presumes to answer the from Where (or Whence) and Why questions and theology presumes to answer the What and How questions. Science parading as philosophy and theology presenting itself as science is where the conflict comes. Bad science confronting bad theology creates the ugly scene we see play out in many ways in our culture. And I forthrightly condemn this spurious discussion and will move on to genuine issues (and there are genuine issues) in the rest of this chapter.

The Whence of Creation

Christian theology affirms that God, the biblical God, made known finally and fully in Jesus Christ, is the Creator of all that is. Creation is not eternal, that is, it has not been around forever. Despite the claims of some philosophies and spiritualities that creation is eternal and is to be worshiped or revered or is the source of everything else that is, Christianity draws a hard and clear line between Creator and creation. God is God and creation is not.[1]

Unfortunately, too much Christianity in the west has taken the difference between Creator and creation to mean the diminishment or even denial of creation. This is a key reason why movements to affirm or even glorify creation have arisen. The philosopher Aristotle was a major early supporter of an eternal creation. But the influence of his teacher Plato has been dominant in our part of the world.

He taught that spirit and matter comprised two different parts of reality. Spirit, the immaterial, invisible, inner part of reality Plato deemed the good, superior, desirable realm. The material, physical sphere was deficient and a hindrance to human development and destiny and ought to be eschewed.

Christianity bought into this platonic scheme and styled following God as a “spiritual” pursuit. One sought to grow inward and upward (or perhaps deep, below the level of the material) away from the material. Death was often seen as a release from the demands and drives of the body allowing the spirit, that inner immaterial core inside us, to return to its true home, an immaterial, invisible existence in heaven with God forever. You can see this often in “Christian” funeral services.

This devaluation of creation is thoroughly unbiblical. Not only did God pronounce it good, even very good (Gen.1:31) but creation is to be the place of our “eternal life” with God. Creation is not a dispensable part of cosmos but rather its central site! Divine creation means that matter matters, and matters eternally. And according to Karl Barth creation serves as the “external basis” for the covenant. It is the theater on which the covenant story is played out. So when the covenant is fulfilled creation will be fulfilled along with it.[2]

This, of course, includes our bodies. We will receive a new one at the resurrection (1 Cor.15) which will be more but not less than the embodied experience we have in this life. We will not be immaterial, floating on clouds, playing harps, and singing alleluias all eternity![3] Rather, we will be embodied, on the new earth, carrying out the stewardship vocation God always intended for us (see Rev.22:5).

Matter matters, and matters eternally. Creation and its care are foremost matters of concern for God’s people. It has its own integrity and relationship with God (Noahic Covenant, Gen.9). God has promised to see its nurture and flourishing. And has commissioned his human creatures to carry out this care. As God’s SCRM we will

-be alert to efforts to violate the creation, destroy its ecosystems, treat it merely as a quarry for resources to meet our needs.                                                                   -be a place where ways of life and carbon footprints can be discussed and analyzed. -will not pull its punches and must name names and confront directly governments and businesses about their responsibilities or violations in this regard.                              -treat the piece of creation we are most intimately familiar with, our bodies with proper care as well as avoiding obsessing and even idolizing them.

God, the triune God, is the Creator. St. Irenaeus uses a felicitous image. God the Father creates (or works in general) through his two hands, the Word (Christ) and the Spirit. “Now man is a mixed organization of soul and flesh, who was formed after the likeness of God, and moulded by His hands, that is, by the Son and the Spirit.”[4]

God the Father

Text Box: God the Spirit

Text Box: God the Son



Remembering our discussion of the triune God (ch.1), that God’s work in creation is triune means that the sovereign power of creation is love.

                   We affirm that the universe exists
                                  by the power of God's Word and Spirit.
                              God has chosen to give it reality
                                  out of the love we have come to know in Christ.”[5]


A Christian reading[6] of the first few verses of Gen.1 bears this out. God the Father acts (“created,” v.1) through his Word (“God said,” v.3) and Spirit (“the Spirit of God swept over,” v.2) to form the world. The creation thus bears the divine, that is, triune, imprint. Creation is shot through with relationality parsed with love. Everything in creation is “for” everything else. The profound interconnectedness and reciprocity evident throughout the cosmos is the “fingerprint” of the triune God. But I get ahead of myself.

The whence of creation is the triune God of love. Creation is his gift to his creatures. It calls them into being and places them in a habitation fit for them and for the life God calls them to. Love-gift-life form a triad expressing the triune source and heart of creation. Frederick Buechner gives a profound if whimsical statement of this truth: “The grace of God means something like: Here is your life. You might never have been, but you are because the party wouldn't have been complete without you.”[7]

Love-gift-life – this is the meaning of God’s own work as subversive counter-revolutionary God in a world that has chosen and chooses a scarcity-competitive-zero-sum way of life. Buechner has it right: we are to throw a party and let everyone know that they are invited! Such a way of life subverts the attitudes that underwrite the scarcity-competition-zero-sum way and counters the way this attitude has been structured and instituted in social life.

The What of Creation

In the section of the Bible’s story in ch.1 I mentioned that the Genesis creation accounts picture creation as God building a temple for habitation. It’s time to fill out that claim a bit more. Nick Nowalk provides a helpful (if lengthy) summary leaning on the scholarship of Gordon J. Wenham:

“’The garden of Eden is not viewed by the author of Genesis simply as a piece of Mesopotamian farmland, but as an archetypal sanctuary, that is a place where God dwells and where man should worship him.  Many of the features of the garden may also be found in later sanctuaries, particularly the tabernacle or Jerusalem temple.  These parallels suggest that the garden itself is understood as a sort of sanctuary…Further support for such a view arises from the overall purpose of Genesis.  The main weight of Genesis falls on the patriarchs: Genesis 1-11 is merely a prologue to the story of redemption beginning in chapter 12.  But as Clines has observed the promises to the patriarchs are essentially a reaffirmation of the divine ideals for all mankind expressed in Genesis 1-2…Looked at in this light, the opening chapters of Genesis describe what human life should be like.  According to the rest of the Pentateuch worship is of the greatest importance.’ (Gordon J. Wenham, “Sanctuary Symbolism in the Garden of Eden Story,’ Proceedings of the World Congress of Jewish Studies 9 (1986): 19-25

1.) The Lord was ‘walking’ in the Garden (Genesis 3:8) just as he later ‘walked’ in the midst of Israel’s tabernacle and temple (Leviticus 26:12, Deuteronomy 23:14, 2 Samuel 7:6-7).  Both Eden and Israel’s subsequent sanctuaries are portrayed as God’s own dwelling place with human beings.

2.) Adam and Eve are called to ‘work and serve’ in the Garden (Genesis 2:15).  The only other Old Testament occurrences of these two words together are found in Numbers 3:7-8, 8:26 and 18:5-6, where they function as a job description for the Levite priests in the sanctuary.

3.) Cherubim play an important role in guarding both the Garden and the later tabernacle/temple.  In Eden, the Cherubim are stationed on the east side of the Garden to prevent sinful humanity from re-entering God’s holy presence (Genesis 3:24).  In Exodus 25:18-22, 26:31, and 1 Kings 6:23-29 Cherubim guard and adorn the place of God’s presence in the sanctuary.

4.) Both the Garden of Eden (Genesis 3:24) and the later tabernacle and temple (Numbers 3:38, Ezekiel 10:19, 11:1, 42:9, 12, 15, 43:1-4, 44:1, 46:1, 47:1) are entered only from the east.

5.) The menorah in the tabernacle (Exodus 25:31-35) seems to be a symbolic tree, pointing back to the original tree of life in the middle of Eden (Genesis 2:9).  Both remind Israel that life is only to be found in the presence of the Lord.

6.) Adam and Eve are clothed by God after their rebellion with garments (Genesis 3:21) that are perhaps reminiscent of the priestly garments the Levites would later wear in the sanctuary (Exodus 20:23, 28:41-42, 29:8, 40:14, Leviticus 8:13, Deuteronomy 23:13-15), in view of the dangers that exist when sinful human beings come ‘naked’ into the holy presence of God.

7.) A river flows out of the Garden of Eden (Genesis 2:10-14), a notable symbol for divinely given life in the Scriptures.  So also a river flows out of the eschatological temple in Ezekiel’s vision toward the nations for healing the curse of death (Ezekiel 47; cf. Revelation 21-22).

8.) The precious stones found in the Garden of Eden (Genesis 2:12), bdellium and onyx, are later found in Israel’s sanctuary as decoration or as a part of the priestly garments (Exodus 25:7, 28:9-14, 20, 1 Chronicles 19:2), and are compared to the heavenly manna (Numbers 11:7), which is ‘bread from heaven’ (Exodus 16:4) and kept in the ark of the covenant in the Holy of Holies (Exodus 16:33).

9.) The description of the ‘tree of the knowledge of good and evil’ as pleasant to the sight, good for food, and to be desired to make one wise seems to be echoed in the description of the Torah as making wise the simple, rejoicing the heart and enlightening the eyes in Psalm 19:8-10.  The law of Israel was kept in the Holy of Holies.  The stone tablets containing the ten commandments were kept inside the ark of the covenant and the book of the law (the rest of the commands given at Sinai) was placed besides the ark (Exodus 25:16, Deuteronomy 31:26).  And just as eating the tree of the knowledge of good and evil brought death in the Garden, so touching the ark that contained the law brought death (2 Samuel 6:7, Numbers 4:20).

10.) Wenham also notes that ‘the parallels in phraseology between the conclusion of the creation account in Genesis 1:1-2:3 and the tabernacle building account in Exodus 25-40 have long been noted…The six commands in the instructions for building the tabernacle correspond to the six days of creation…[and] God’s rest on the first sabbath (Genesis 2:1-3) corresponds to his resting, i.e. dwelling in the tabernacle…[So] the completion of the universe parallels the completion of the tabernacle’ (p. 23).

Wenham concludes with this insightful observation:

‘If the Garden of Eden story is meant to be interpreted symbolically in terms of later cultic legislation…[then] the divine threat ‘in the day that you eat of it you shall die’ [Genesis 2:17] should also be interpreted symbolically.  According to later cultic ritual the sanctuary was the center of life, because there God was present.  To be excluded from the camp of Israel was to enter the realm of death…Thus the expulsion of Adam and Eve from the garden was in the narrator’s view the real fulfillment of the divine sentence.  He regarded their alienation from the divine presence as death [cf. Ezekiel 37, where Israel’s return from exile in the promised land characterized by God’s presence is likened to a resurrection from the dead].  But the serpent was a literalist who believed death meant physical death and so he denied that eating the fruit would result in their demise.  Though many commentators imply that the serpent was right after all, because God relented and acted more leniently than he had threatened, I suggest this is unlikely’ (p. 24).”[8]

Creation as Temple-Palace is verified by the vision of the new heaven and new earth in Rev.21-22. There the New Jerusalem, God’s people, descends from heaven to earth. The vision blurs its boundaries and that of the new creation together. They are coextensive. And the New Jerusalem is cubic in shape, sharing that shape with only one other structure in the Bible – the Holy of Holies in the Temple. John the Seer intends us to understand that the creation itself has become the place of meeting and fellowship between God and his people just as foreshadowed in Gen.2.

Yet the Revelation vision is not a “return to paradise” picture. The idyllic garden is still there. But now it is in the middle of a city – a grand structure grown up around it. Genesis is the beginning of the end while Revelation shows the end of the beginning. That’s to say that God’s creation project is dynamic and ongoing. It is not complete and set in its final form in the creation stories. It is good, to be sure, even very good. But that does not mean perfect and unchanging. It means that it was just the kind of place for God’s human creatures to exercise “dominion” over (Gen.1:28). This dominion, though often perverted in industrial lands as tyranny over creation as we in the west are all too familiar with, is interpreted in Gen.2 as “tilling and keeping” the garden or “farm it and to take care of it” (2:15). Nurturing and protecting would be another word pair that captures the sense of the passage.

Dominion as nurturing/protecting ties in the rejection of the spirit-matter dualism we noted above. Creation care, then, is at the heart of God’s purpose for us. Our spiritual duty to God the Creator is to take care of his care whose care he has vouchsafed to us. We are to shape it with care and attention to its own systems, functions, and needs as well as ways we can live in harmony with what God has provided for us. We are neither to let creation grow untouched nor are we to overburden it with our demands on it and lifestyles. At present, it is clear that the world has a small bevy of first-class passengers who consume a disproportionate share of its resources. It is also quite clear that the whole world cannot live at such a level without quickly bankrupting its resources. Nurturing and protecting creation requires of God’s people, at least a revaluation of our lifestyles and demand on its resources. This too, is part of our service as God’s SCRM.

If God created the world good, though, why is there so much evil, injustice, and oppression in it? Why does it look so little like a Temple-Palace and so much like a few islands of gated-communities surrounded by huge garbage dumps?

The problem of evil is so vast a topic with so many issues and so much discussion that I cannot hope to do justice to it here. But perhaps we can make some headway. Let’s begin with a basic Christian affirmation.

“We acknowledge God's care and control
   in the regularity of the universe
   as well as in apparently random happenings.
There is no event from which God is absent
   and his ultimate purpose in all events is just and loving.
That purpose embraces our choices
   and will surely be accomplished.
The Creator works in all things
    toward the new creation that is promised in Christ.”[9]

This seems to me a proper starting point, biblically and theologically considered, for us to work from. It is the affirmation that creates the problems posed by the presence of evil.

Among the matters we need to consider here are:

          -is there an explanation for evil?

          -is God responsible for it? The devil?

-what can we say about it in light of the biblical witness?

So, is there an explanation for evil?

No, not in my opinion. Evil remains a mystery beyond human ken. And even divine knowledge! St. Augustine taught us that evil is essentially a privation, or lack of some good. Reason is one of those goods deprived of its goodness by evil. There is no reason, no rational explanation for evil. Not even God has one. Philosophers call such a thing a “surd.”

The Bible offers no explanation for evil. It is a part of reality that exacts its toll and must be faced. Evil deprives humanity of the experience of life, creation, each other and God we are intended to have. John Mellencamp gets it just right in a refrain in his song “Jack and Diane”: “Oh yeah, life goes on Long after the thrill of livin' is gone.”[10] Evil pervades every aspect of life. Not only our own inner lives and personal relationships are corrupted but even the large institutions and systems that form the infrastructure of our lives become enemies of human well-being on account of evil.

Love Almighty and Ill’s Unlimited, the title of a well-known book by Austin Farrar, sets the issue. Evil is the most vexing problem facing Christians trying to understand their faith in the world as it is.[11] It excites our fears and desire for control making us feel vulnerable and the lack of a rational explanation leaves us uneasy and perhaps even feeling intellectually dishonest. We must not underestimate the force of this problem or fail to face it with as much honesty as we can muster. Bono and U2 give voice to crisis evil should provoke for us in their song “Peace on Earth,” written in the agonizing aftermath of a bomb that killed twenty-nine and left dozens of others wounded in Omagh, Northern Ireland which shattered the new Belfast Agreement for peace:[12]

We need it now                                                                        I'm sick of all of this
Hanging around

Sick of sorrow
I'm sick of the pain
I'm sick of hearing
Again and again
That there's gonna be
Peace on Earth . . .

Jesus in the song you wrote
The words are sticking in my throat
Peace on Earth

Hear it every Christmas time
But hope and history won't rhyme
So what's it worth

This peace on Earth
Peace on Earth
Peace on Earth
Peace on Earth[13]

Our theology, I suspect, does not truly become ours until we’ve had our hearts and minds ravaged by such terror and we’ve been forced to work through it with God.

The Bible, as I have said, does not (cannot) offer an explanation for where evil comes from and why it is here. But it does identify evil as the enemy of God and his good purposes for the world. And it narrates what God has done to defeat this scourge.

Is God responsible for evil? Or is the devil?

Hebrew thought could not imagine anything lying outside the control of God.  “I am the Lord, and there is no other. I form light and create darkness, I make weal and create woe; I the Lord do all these things” (Isa.45:6-7). But they did not construe that in a deterministic way. They knew evil was an unbidden alien intruder into God’s creation and that God had set himself against it and would prevail over it.

Then how about the devil? This figure, whether we take it as a personal evil presence in the cosmos or an impersonal power or force, is not on a par with God. It’s not like we have two equal and opposite powers fighting for control of the world with the outcome lying in the balance. That’s but another version of dualism (cosmological) that biblical faith completely rejects. God is in control but there is (apparently) room within his creation for opposition to his will and way to arise and be active. But there is no sense in which this opposition can prevail against God. However, the way God defeats this evil opposition, ultimately displayed and made clear in Jesus Christ, is not by crushing it and bringing the hammer of divine power (as we imagine it) crashing down on it.

What, then, can we say about evil in light of the biblical witness?

“Whether we understand evil personally or impersonally,
             we cannot explain how it originated in a world made good.
          But we can affirm that evil is God's enemy as well as ours.                     

In Christ, God shared our agony over evil
             and broke the back of its power
             by bearing the worst it could do.
        God works continually to overcome evil.
        In the end it will be utterly defeated.
        Therefore we have courage to endure evil,
             to learn from it, and combat it.”[14]

God “continually” works to overcome evil. But he does not work to destroy either his creatures or creation. God works to reconcile and restore. And that means cross-shaped action. The only way evil power can be defeated without destroying creature and creation is by God bearing the hurt and pain of evil at its worst, and in love overcoming it and freeing his them respond anew to this demonstration of loving mercy and forgiveness. This liberating love and mercy are seen most clearly in their decisive display at the cross of Christ (Col.2:15). Having done its worst by putting Jesus to death, and astonished and horrified that death did not defeat his love, the powers of sin, evil, and death lost their hold over humanity and creation. Deceit and illusion are now all that remains to these powers. The “truth, way, and life” of Jesus has exposed these powers to be powerless and destined to pass away.

As Jesus’ followers, his SCRM, the church is called to cruciform action as well. This is how we “imitate” Christ and live for and as the covenant (family), Kingdom (power), and Temple (presence) of God in the world. More on all this down the road a bit.

The Why of Creation

An earthly habitation for God and his people to dwell together in harmony and fellowship – that’s the short answer to the “Why” of creation. We’ve seen it foreshadowed in the creations stories in Gen.1-2 and pictured as fulfilled in Rev.21-22. The Kingdom (throne) and the covenant (the fulfilled covenant formula) are present in here too but the picture is dominated by the New Jerusalem, the worldwide Holy of Holies, creation become Temple, John sees.

If God’s people are to dwell with him in this cosmic Temple, we will serve him as royal (children of the Great King) priests (nurturing and protecting the Temple, mediating between God and the world and the world and God). Royal priests – this is the calling and destiny of Israel in Ex.19:5-6, and the calling and destiny of the church in 1 Pet.2:10. Royal priests, then, is what it means to bear the “image of God” (imago dei).

The human vocation and destiny in God’s good purposes is to represent the Great King as his children who spread the family likeness throughout the world and those who serve him by protecting and nurturing his Temple-Palace (creation). 

As created in God’s image:

-we are molecule-like, made for and constituted by community. If God is his relationships, so too are we. “It is not good for humans to be alone” (Gen.2:18) for we are created for one another.

-as well as community, God’s life is marked as well by communication and communion. We are made to declare, share, and bear one another’s lives as if they were our own. We, like our Maker, are relational all the way down.

-more particularly, humanity is made male and female. Human being is neither male nor female but male and female. Together the two make up humanity and together they are commissioned by God to share equally together in the work he has set for them. As someone has said, Eve was not made out of Adam’s head to rule over him, nor from his feet to be trod upon, but out of his side that they may share together in God’s work. Though this truth about our humanity has been distorted, confused, and convoluted, we can be sure that God is working to reconcile and restore male and female to this primal unity in all relationships of life. A Declaration of Faith puts it well:

God made human beings male and female
    for their mutual help and comfort and joy.
We recognize that our creation as sexual beings
    is part of God's loving purpose for us.
God intends all people--
     whether children, youth or adults,
     single, divorced, married, or widowed--
     to affirm each other as males and females
     with joy, freedom, and responsibility.
We confess the value of love and faithfulness
      and the disaster of lust and faithlessness
      in all our associations as women and men.
 Our creation as males and females must not serve as a pretext
      for dominating, hurting, betraying, or using each other,
      for denying anyone's rights or rewards
      or opportunities to develop potential to the full.[15]

[1] “By refusing to worship either Father Time or Mother Nature Christian faith may be said to represent a vast iconoclasm, a clearing away of some of the most readily available images of who God is as Creator.” Christopher Morse, Not Every Spirit: A Dogmatics of Christian Disbelief (Valley Forge, PA: Trinity Press International, 1994), 205.
[2] Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, III.1, 1,94. Further, “(1) creation without redemption has no purpose or meaning; (2) redemption without creation has no reality. We don’t really know what “creation” means if we don’t know that it is redeemed in Christ. And we don’t really know what “redemption” means if we don’t tell it as the completion of God’s creating work.” See more at: http://kenwytsma.com/2014/05/29/jonathan-wilson-on-reclaiming-the-doctrine-of-creation/#sthash.jZUXYkPD.dpuf
[3] Being musically illiterate, this sounds good to me. Otherwise it seems kind of boring!
[4] Irenaeus, “Against Heresies,” The Ante-Nicene Fathers, IV Preface, 463.
[5] A Declaration of Faith, ch.2, ll.4-7.
[6] Obviously Jewish readers do not find this meaning in these verses. Nor was it the meaning of the author of Gen.1. It is a Christian reading looking back in light of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection.
[7] Frederick Buechner---------------------------
[8] https://strangetriumph.wordpress.com/2012/02/27/eden-and-humanity-the-first-temple-and-its-priests/.
[9] A Declaration of Faith, ch.2, ll.11-19.
[11] It is worth noting the problem of beauty that faces non-believers. John Horgan, not himself a believer, writing in Scientific American, November 13, 2011, says, “The flip side of the problem of evil is the problem of beauty. If there really is no God, if the world was not in some sense designed for us, why is it so heartbreakingly lovely?”The flip side of the problem of evil is the problem of beauty. If there really is no God, if the world was not in some sense designed for us, why is it so heartbreakingly lovely?lip side of the problem of evil is the problem of beauty. If there really is no God, if the world was not in some sense designed for us, why is it so heartbreakingly lovely?
[12] Niall Stokes, U2 into the Heart – The Stories Behind Every Song (New York, NY: Thunder’s Mouth Press, 2005), 156.
[13] http://www.azlyrics.com/lyrics/u2/peaceonearth.html.
[14] A Declaration of Faith, ch.2, ll.35-44.
[15] Ch.2, ll.80-95.

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