Wednesday, November 08, 2017

God the Creator - A Disciples of Christ Theological Reflection



Note: This is part one of a two part reflection on creation and human origins written with Disciples of Christ members in mind. This contribution is part of an ongoing set of reflections meant to provoke theological dialogue within the community and beyond.  

    The Apostles Creed begins with the words: “I believe in God the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth.” The Preamble to the Design of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) states: “We rejoice in God, maker of heaven and earth.” These theological affirmations reflect the intent of the opening sentence of Genesis: “In the beginning when God created the heaven and the earth . . .” (Gen 1:1). At the very heart of each of these statements is the affirmation that God is by nature creative, and that we exist because God has created us.      

            In the past two centuries this affirmation of God’s vocation has experienced numerous challenges. In earlier ages the question was not whether God had created the universe, but which god was responsible for creating the world, and whether this creation was a good thing. Genesis stands as a witness to the principle that the created order is a good thing, and that the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob is the Creator.


            Today, science stands as the biggest challenge to this traditional confession, and this is especially true of scientists who insist that science rules out the existence of any sense of divinity. It’s true that evolutionary theory provides a mechanism by which the biological origins and development of the earth’s species can be largely explained without recourse to God.  While there are gaps in the record, filling them with God has always proven to be a problematic affair, especially when science comes up with a useful explanation that pushes God further back from the equation. But the question that many ask, including many scientists is this: Does science rule out the possibility that God exists or that God is relevant to the discussion? 

            This question is a serious one, and the traditional responses, such as St. Thomas Aquinas’s cosmological argument, fall short of offering convincing proof of God’s existence or involvement. Ted Peters, a Lutheran theologian who has been deeply involved in the science-theology conversation notes:  
It does not necessarily reveal the presence of God in an indubitable fashion.  Some sort of special revelation from God seems to be necessary if persons are to understand that nature is more than natural--that is, if they are to understand the cosmos as God's creation [Ted Peters, God—TheWorld's Future, (Fortress Press, 1992), p.125].
            In answering this challenge, some Christians have simply rejected science, especially evolutionary theory, in favor of biblical literalism. Believing that the bible is an infallible text, they choose it over science.  This isn’t a new thing—it’s been tried before. Just ask Galileo. St. Augustine faced this question in the fourth century, and he answered the literalists of his day, suggesting that it would be disgraceful if a non-Christian were to hear a Christian speak ignorantly about things such as this. What Augustine and others since his day have reminded us is that we misread Scripture if we assume that the intent of the biblical writers is to offer a scientific explanation of the universe.  [St. Augustine, The Literal Meaning of Genesis, in the Ancient Christian Writers, John C. Hammond, ed., (Paulist Press, 1982), pp. 43-43]. 

                There are, of course, more than two options. One needn’t choose between science and faith. If the principle holds that all truth is God’s truth, then we must be open to following the trail wherever it leads. Such a principle fits well with the insistence by Disciples who insist that ours is a “reasonable and empirical” faith.  If we take this path then we can avoid categorical mistakes that confuse the issues [Victor L. Hunter, “Creation,” in Chalice Introduction to Disciples Theology, Peter Goodwin Heltzel, ed., (Chalice Press, 2008), p. 129. Clark Williamson, Wayof Blessing, Way of Life: A Christian Theology, (Chalice Press, 1999), pp.134-135]. As people of faith who affirm the principle that the God we know in Jesus Christ is the creator of the heavens and the earth, if we are to keep clear of confusion on this issue, we must recognize that science does put constraints on our understandings of divine action, but it doesn’t rule out divine action.  Clayton and others point us to panentheism as a way of understanding this divine-universe relationship. In this model, the relationship between God and the world is analogous to that of the mind and the body.  In this view the world is not outside God, but God is not the same as the world. [Philip Clayton, Adventures in the Spirit: God, World, Divine Action, (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2008), p. 99, 106-107].   


          
            While the appellation of Creator is usually given in Trinitarian theology to God the Father, Scripture suggests that creation is the joint activity of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. That is largely because we tend to apply all references to divine activity that are not otherwise designated to the Father. Thus, it is the Father who, in the beginning, created the heavens and the earth (Genesis 1:1ff). It is the Father who is, according to Paul, the source of creation, its fountainhead (I Cor. 8:6).  All things exist for the glory of God, or as the Psalmist put it: 
            The heavens are telling the glory of God;
                        and the Firmament proclaims his handiwork. (Ps. 19:1)

            If the Father is the source of creation, Paul suggests that Christ is the agent of creation – that is, it is through Christ that all things, including humanity, exist (1 Cor. 8:6). By his "Word" (logos) God created the world (Jn. 1:3).  In Colossians 1:16-17 this becomes even clearer:

For in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers--all things have been created through him and for him.  He is before all things, and in him all things hold together.  (Col 1:16-17).
 What then is the role of the Son in the act of creation?  Both John and Paul use the phrase di' autou (through him) rather than hupo autou (by him), therefore we can view Christ as the indirect agent of creation, so that it is through the Son, that the Father creates the world. The Son is the logos, the unitive principle of all things, the principle of creation. Here the key word is "Word," which is rooted in the Genesis statement that God spoke the heavens and earth into existence. As for the Holy Spirit, consider this witness from Genesis 1:2 which reads: “The earth was formless and void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters” (NRSV). The Hebrew word ru'ach, translated variously as breath, wind, or spirit, is suggestive of the Spirit’s presence in Creation—a vision made explicit in the Revised Standard Version, which reads: “the Spirit of God was moving over the face of the waters.” This passage speaks of God bringing order out of chaos. Perhaps we can see this as bringing order to the materials God already brought into being.  Psalm 104:29-30 speaks to the dependence on the Spirit for life that we all have:
            Why you hide your face, they are dismayed;
            When you take away their breath they die, 
                       and return to their dust. 
            When you send forth your Spirit they are created;
                        and you renew the face of the ground. 

            While we need to be careful not to impose Trinitarian constructs on Scripture where they are not found, these passages, and others like them, at least suggest, even if they do not provide a definitive statement, that the Holy Spirit is part of the creative process. A Trinitarian construction of a doctrine of creation requires an inductive method of biblical interpretation. Nowhere do we find an explicit statement of God as Trinity creating the heavens and earth. However, a thorough examination of the biblical material at least suggests, if not demands, this view. Jürgen Moltmann, however, offers us this valuable statement on way in which the Trinity acts in creation:
The Christian doctrine of creation takes its impress from the revelation of Christ and the experience of the Spirit.  The One who sends the Son and the Spirit is the Creator—the Father. The One who gathers the world under his liberating lordship, and redeems it, is the Word of creation—the Son. The One who gives life to the world and allows it to participate in God's eternal life is the creative Energy—the Spirit. The Father is the creating origin of creation, the Son its shaping origin, and the Spirit its life-giving origin. 
Moltmann also points out that the Trinitarian foundation of the doctrine of creation brings together God's transcendence and God's immanence. If we focus too much on God's transcendence, we end in deism. If we focus too heavily on immanence, we end in pantheism. The Trinitarian view brings these into balance. In this we recognize both that God creates the world, and therefore, stands apart from it, and that God has chosen to indwell his creation by his Spirit.  [Jürgen Moltmann, God in Creation:  A New Theologyof Creation and the Spirit of God, Margaret Kohl, trans., (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1985), pp.  97-98].

            Leaving behind the scientific questions as to how things originated and developed, we can and should ask the question: Why did God create the heavens and earth? To some extent the question of why God created the world remains a mystery, and even the Bible doesn’t really address this question directly. It simply assumes that God is the creator and invites us to give thanks and praise to God for creating that which exists. This truth is especially supported by a quick glance at the Psalms, which continually extol God's role as creator. The Psalms continually point to the beauty and order of creation as reason to give praise to God. This same idea is found in Revelation 4:8-11, where the heavenly beings stand before the throne of God praising God day and night. In verse 11 the issue of creation comes to the fore: “You are worthy, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honor and power, for you created all things, and by your will they existed and were created” (Rev. 4:11). James McClendon makes this keen observation about the relationship of this heavenly worship and the experience of the church that received this word. “Here then, is a primitive Christian celebration of the creation. As its first readers would know all too well, Revelation sprang from the midst of a suffering church. While the heavenly elders sang creation's praise, earthly elders suffered exile, imprisonment, and martyrdom.” [James McClendon, SystematicTheology:  Doctrine, (Nashville: Abingdon, 1994), p. 149]. These texts give us a bigger picture that puts our own lives into context. They don’t tell us how or why God created the heavens and the earth, but they do affirm the principle that what God creates is good and that we should both treasure and care for that gift. 

            One need only look closely at Genesis 1 to see this is true.  Even though sin and evil may exist in the world at present, that in no way takes away from the fact that the created order is good and that it is part of God's will. Any theology that suggests that the created order is evil or less than good or that the only purpose for the earth is to provide a way station on the way to heaven stands contrary to the words of Scripture. In fact, the only time that the Genesis narrative suggests that something in creation isn’t good is the observation that the solitary human being wasn’t good, so God made for the man a partner (Gen. 2:18). 

            The biblical witness also suggests that creation was an act of divine love. If God is love (1 John 4:8), then it would make sense for us to view creation as being an act of divine love. The world is the environment that God created as a habitation for God’s creatures—including humanity. The earth is simply the loving expression of God's creative being.  While the created order is not necessary, it is a rightful expression of God's being.


            Creation is, finally, a gift of freedom.  The idea of transcendence underscores this point.  If God is infinite in being, then God has made a place for the finite within this infinite space.  The doctrine of creation affirms transcendence, not that God necessarily above creation spatially, but God is distinct from creation.