Last semester, I took a course on the development of the Christian doctrine of Creation over the centuries. We looked at the broad scope of Christian thinking on Creation: from the evolution of the doctrine of creatio ex nihilo to the problem of evil, from the christocentric cosmologies of the early and medieval church to modern attempts to harmonize a Christian doctrine of creation with scientific findings. I learned a lot from the course. I have come away with a five reflections on what I think every theologically interesting doctrine of creation should in some way address. Here is an edited version of the conclusion to the nearly 50 page project.
First, is the nature of the created order. Nearly all of the course readings from antiquity to today addressed in some way the shape of the created order. Any doctrine of creation worth its salt will have some kind of typology that can account for creation’s physical as well as non-physical aspects. From the very beginnings, the church has affirmed the existence of various non-physical entities (angels, demons, the human soul, nous, spirit). Any decent doctrine of creation has to delineate the nature of these entities in relation to one another as well as in relation to both the physical created order and God’s eternal uncreated nature.
Second, any interesting theological account of Creation has to square with cosmogony. How did creation come to be? Is matter itself eternal, and only created in the sense of ordered (and perhaps sustained) in its present condition (Plato)? Is creatio ex nihilo and, if so, what is ‘nothing?’ Did God order chaos to call forth creation (Levenson), or did God self-limit himself and create space where he was not, thereby allowing nothingness (Moltmann)? Or is nothingness nonbeing and creation only has a positive ontic shape (Athanasius)?
An additional issue to add to this already complex aspect is the relationship between theology of creation and science. Any theologian of creation who does not listen to and engage with scientific discovery is, at the very least, limiting his or her audience. As Polkinghorne and Nesteruk have demonstrated, one does not have to accept a mechanistic view of the world to embrace and engage with contemporary scientific discoveries. Nor must one create a pseudo-scientific response to materialist attacks upon sensationalistic accounts of what the Christian tradition purportedly teaches. It is actually possible for theologians to engage with scientific discoveries in theologically responsible ways.
Third, any theologically robust doctrine of creation must account in some way for the presences of suffering and evil in the world. If God is the only source for creation and God is good, why is even the possibility of evil and suffering allowed? Scholars from antiquity on have recognized and attended to this problem, some more successfully than others. What is important here is that the theologian attend to this problem, not that they answer it with logical rigor (e.g. Plantinga). For example, Moltmann’s ‘answer’ to the problem of suffering is God’s utter condescension into godforsakenness in the death of Jesus.
Fourth, any interesting doctrine of creation will be christologically shaped. This was highlighted by certain patristic theologians, particularly Irenaeus, the Cappadocians, and Maximus. From the beginning of Christianity in the New Testament, Christ has been understood as fundamental for understanding creation (creation is ‘in him,’ ‘through him,’ ‘for him,’ ‘to him,’ ‘by him,’ etc.). It is a major theological mistake to see the incarnation as simply a soteriological event — a divine rescue operation. Rather, the historical person of Jesus of Nazareth is the purpose, fulfillment, and salvation of all of creation. In fact, it is impossible to understand rightly his person without reference to creation. In the memorable words of Lesslie Newbigin, “the simple truth is that the resurrection cannot be accommodated in any way of understanding the world except one of which it is the starting point” (Truth to Tell, 11).
Fifth and finally, any interesting doctrine of creation will be ecologically attentive. The doctrine of creation has to have an ethical component or it is simply speculation. It has to be livable. Moreover, the current ecological crisis necessitates address by Christian theology. If creation is that which God loves, and that which groans not in vain for redemption, then humanity has a role to play in its well-being.
There you have it. Any theologically interesting doctrine of creation should…
- Account for the order of creation (nonphysical as well as physical).
- Account for the beginnings of the creation (What is nothing?).
- Account for the presence of evil and suffering in the world (account for need not mean ‘answer definitively’).
- Be christocentric.
- Be ecologically attentive.
At its core, creation is simply gift. Through the outpouring of God’s love, being is given. We have been given the world, our work in it should be one of communion and enjoyment. The confusion and anxiety posed by being must ultimately disappear in light of the recognition that creation is the gift of a loving and good God. It is fitting the close here with two poetic reflections upon this gift by which we live.
And in this he showed me something small, no bigger than a hazelnut, lying in the palm of my hand, as it seemed to me, and it was as round as a ball. I looked at it with the eye of my understanding and thought: What can this be? I was amazed that it could last, for I thought that because of its littleness it would suddenly have fallen into nothing. And I was answered in my understanding: It lasts and always will, because God loves it; and thus everything has being through the love of God.
Julian of Norwich, Showings
We live by mercy if we live.
To that we have no fit reply
But working well and giving thanks,
Loving God, loving one another,
To keep Creation’s neighborhood.
Wendell Berry, “Amish Economy”