Thursday, July 10, 2008

Druchesis III: Maker of Heaven and Earth

Let's continue our series of reflections on the Apostles' Creed. Last week we spoke of the first clause of the first article of the creed: I believe in God the Father Almighty. There we discussed God's priority, relationality, identity and character. God is God. God is Father. God is Almighty. In all these things we attempted to speak of God as he is in himself. This week we turn to the second clause of the first article of the creed: maker of heaven and earth. In so doing we turn to speak of God as he relates to us. Of course, last week we already spoke about how God relates to us, since there is no other way to think about God as relates to himself except as he relates to us. But this week we turn our attention directly to God's relationship to things other than himself.

Specifically, we turn our attention to God's relationship to all things other than himself. God is the creator of everything. That is the claim made by the second clause of the first article of the creed. It is an audacious claim. It may not seem audacious at first, for the definition of God as "maker of the universe" has come to be taken for granted in much of Western culture. When you ask someone whether or not they believe in God, they usually take you to mean, "Is there a personal power that made everything?" But during the early centuries of their missionary outreach, Christians could not presume such a definition of God. Some Christian preachers (Marcion, famously) even claimed that God did not make the world, and that such a denial is good news. Hence the declaration that God is the creator of everything finds its way into the earliest creeds. Against this background, Christian leaders developed the first crucial building blocks toward its own unique understanding of God's relationship to the world. This unique understanding is worthy of our sustained attention in order to see if there is more going on here than the now taken-for-granted definition of God as maker of the universe. What is taken for granted is quickly forgotten, easily corrupted, and eventually rejected. One of the tasks of theological reflection is to probe the depths of that which is taken for granted. So let's probe the depths of the claim that God is the creator of everything.

God is the creator of everything.

The first task of the Christian doctrine of creation is to clarify who creates. This was at the heart of the controversy with Marcion, mentioned above. You see, Marcion did not deny the existence of a creator. Of course there is some primary source or first principle from which all things emerge. What Marcion denied was the identity of this creator with the God revealed in Jesus Christ. The good God revealed in Jesus Christ is in a great battle with the evil god who made the world, known as the demiurge (Greek for 'craftsman'). The God and Father of Jesus Christ is concerned with eternal, spiritual things that lift us up, whereas the demiurge is concerned with temporal, material things that draw us down. Of course, such an opposition is difficult to reconcile with the picture of God in the Old Testament (not to mention the New), in which God is said not only to create the world and but also to get involved in the world with its temporal and material concerns. And so Marcion and others like him drew the logical conclusion that the God of the Old Testament -- the God of Israel -- is the demiurge, the evil god who created the world. On this theological basis he rejected the Old Testament as scripture, and while he was at it edited out much of the emerging New Testament.

Now this little historical foray is necessary inasmuch as it shows the interconnectedness of doctrinal topics. When we talk about creation, we are also taking about God, Israel, Jesus and the canon. In Christian theology, everything is related to everything else. That's, by the way, why the adjective "systematic" gets attached to some forms of theological reflection. The point here is that, thanks to Marcion and his willingness to follow his own insights to their own logical conclusions, the early Christian church identified a puzzle inherent in its own proclamation that required clarification by means of rational reflection. Key leaders in the Christian community -- most famously, Irenaeus of Lyons -- successfully encouraged the church to identify the maker of the universe with the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. The God who creates is the God who saves. There is no opposition between creation and redemption, between the Old Testament and the New, between matter and spirit. There is one God, the Father Almighty, who is the maker of heaven and earth.

In doing so, the church upheld a number of theological values, which have been developed and explored in various ways over the centuries. First, creation is good. God in Genesis 1 declares the goodness of creation. The creedal word of thanks and praise to the God who creates ensures that no interpretation of Genesis 1 (or any other relevant text) is permitted which would impinge on the goodness of God's creation. For human beings in particular, this means that there is no part of us which is essentially bad, no part which we should seek to simply cast off. We will return to this in a few weeks when we speak of the final destiny of human beings. For know let's just make sure to agree with God when he says, "It is good."

Second, creation and redemption are positively related. The redemption wrought in Jesus Christ and perfected by the Holy Spirit are not an escape from the world which God the Father has made. To seal this point, Christians speak of creation as an act of the triune God. God the Father creates through the Son by the Spirit. The Word and Spirit are the "two hands of God," as Irenaeus put it. Including a first century Jew in the act of creation is not an easy claim to swallow. But doing so develops a line of New Testament teaching (cf. 1 Cor 8:6; John 1:1-4), however such passages might be variously interpreted in their original context. The point of such a development is to ensure a positive relationship between creation and redemption. There are a number of ways of construing this relation. There are two primary alternatives: either redemption is a restoration of what was lost in creation, or redemption is the fulfillment of an original creative purpose. Both may in fact be true in some sense. But either way the point gets across: creation and redemption are positively related.

Third, Israel is an essential character in the story of God told by the Gospel. The affirmation of creation and its material history makes room for the story of Israel within the story of God. Just as Marcion's rejection of God as creator led to the rejection of Israel, so the Church's affirmation of God as creator may lead to the affirmation of Israel. I say "makes room for" and "may lead" rather than "secures the place of" and "necessarily leads" because the church has consistently failed to remember the positive place of Israel in its message. The rejection of Marcion makes the affirmation of this positive place possible, but does not guarantee its execution. The terrible treatment of the Jews by the church throughout history is a testimony to this failure. In our time, especially in the wake of the Holocaust, we ought to go out of our way to speak positively of Israel as an essential character in the story of God with us.

Okay, that's enough for now on the identity of the creator and its implications. Let me just add two briefer points concerning the mode of God's creating and its scope.

God is the creator of everything.

The creed praises God as the maker of heaven and earth. But how does God make the heavens and the earth? It should be observed that Genesis 1 (and other relevant texts) use the verb "create" in addition to, and in distinction from, the verb "make." Creatures also "make" things. But only the creator "creates." But therein lies the problem: if only God creates, if creation is an absolutely unique activity, then how can we understand how it works? Are we simply forced to say that God creates and that he does so in a way wholly mysterious to us? Well, we should stand in awe of the mystery of God's creating. But such an awe-filled stance does not bar an awe-inspired inquiry into the mode of God's creating. When it comes to God's unique acts, the limits of our understanding are not set by our dumbfoundedness but by God's revelation. If God has revealed the mode of his creating, then we ought not suffer in silence but spring forth with praise for his mighty deeds.

And God has so revealed his mode of creating: God creates by speaking. In Genesis 1, God says, "Let there be ... and so there was ..." God in his awesome power (almightiness!) creates with his sheer word. Now we might just cast this off as poetic license in the opening chapter, if it were not such a pervasive theme in Scripture. God calls Abraham by speaking. God delivers the law to Moses by speaking. God judges his people through the prophets by speaking. God's speaking becomes flesh in Jesus Christ. God creates by speaking, and thereby initiates a history of speaking to and with his people.

Creation by speaking rules out a number of other modes of creation. Two particular alternative ways come to mind. On the one hand, God could be said to create by emanation. All things emanate from God. This was a particularly popular notion during the early centuries of Christianity. Emanation means that creation flows naturally out of God's over-abounding goodness. The world "spills out" of God, so to speak. And so creation is a lesser extension of God himself. Now there is a element of truth here. God does create out of his goodness, and there is a certain familiarity and fitness between God and his creation. But the emanationist model undermines God's purpose in creating. It is as if creation just "happens," almost out of necessity. Such a narrative does not cohere with the story of the God who creates by speaking in order to engage in a conversation with his creatures.

On the other hand, God could be said to create by sheer will. All things simply are because God willed it. This option emerges whenever Christians overreact to the emanationist tendency. Sheer will means that God arbitrarily brings worlds into existence, and so can just as arbitrarily change the rules of the world and destroy the world. Now there is an element of truth here too. God does create in freedom. He is not compelled by any force or necessity to create. And God remains Lord over his creation; creation has no inherent "claim" on God. But the sheer-will model also undermines God's purpose in creating. It is as if creation happens for no reason whatsoever, but simply because God wanted it that way. Such a narrative does not cohere with the story of the God who creates by speaking in order to engage in a conversation with his creatures.

God is the creator of everything.

Lastly, we should make a comment regarding the scope of what God creates. All along, we've thrown around the phrase "all things" as if it can be assumed. But this deserves our direct attention, for much of what we have already said could be maintained of a God who creates most but not all things. In fact, such a claim is probably easier to maintain. It is easier to think of God creates the good parts of the world. It is harder to give thanks and praise to a God who creates everything, because we are not always thankful for everything. Now we can make a caveat that some things are not God's direct will, such as the sinful things that humans do. We will come back to that. But even if that were an adequate answer on its own, we would still have to deal with the problem of those horrible things that cannot be blamed on any human agent (e.g., hurricanes, earthquakes, etc.). It might be easier to say that God is the creator is most things.

But that is not the claim of the Christian creed. God is the maker of heaven and earth. The phrase "heaven and earth" is there on purpose. It is to indicate the scope of God's creating. God creates everything, from top to bottom. God creates the spiritual and the material realms, and everything in between. As the Nicene Creed puts, "of all things seen and unseen." This blocks any gnostic half-way house that may avoid the extremes of the Marcion brand that rejects the creator outright. A God who creates some or even most things is still not the God of the Bible. A gnostic half-way house can come in all kinds of shapes and sizes. Perhaps God fashions some pre-existing material. Or perhaps God creates matter along a space-time continuum that is co-eternal with him. Or perhaps more crudely we can fall into the thinking of a full-populated heaven with angels, etc. co-eternal with God. But even angels are God's creatures; they may be immortal, but they are not eternal. The Christian church has blocked all these avenues by saying that God creates out of nothing (creatio ex nihilo). There is no thing which God draws on to create. Nothing pre-dates God's creation. But the doctrine of creation out of nothing does not stand on its own. It is rather a negative rule that guards the positive praise that God is the creator of everything.

Any thoughts?
  • Do you see the connection between the identity of the creator and the character of creation? Am I right to make a big deal about this?
  • How do you understand the relationship between creation and redemption?
  • Are there any further implications of God's creating by speaking and out of nothing?

1 comment:

Bob MacDonald said...

I am reading too much and too fast - but I really like the approaches you have taken here - from the contrast with Marcion to the issues around emanation and will - very nice work.

Any thoughts? you ask

Here's one: if I want to 'create' a new department of government (on paper) - all I need is a program (the word) and a grant for operating expenses (the material). The grant creates both an asset and a liability - which sum to zero. So also in the current theories of particle and anti-particle at the so-called big-bang, creation ex nihilo seems possible by analogy and taking into consideration that we are blind as to direct observation.

Also by analogy, Peter's statements about rolling up the heavens etc are quite possible and equivalent to shutting down the department and its program.

The focus on ki-tov is a very good one - links exactly to my first lessons in Hebrew to our Sunday School.

I also think your conclusions about Jesus and Israel are spot on and helpful.