Review: Engaging the Doctrine of Creation

engaging the doctrine of creation

Engaging the Doctrine of CreationMatthew Levering. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2017.

Summary: A systematic theology of the doctrine of creation beginning with the nature of the Creator, the significance of creatures, the meaning of the image of God, the mandate to be fruitful and multiply, original sin, and atonement that engages with scripture, contemporary sources, and most significantly, the theology of Thomas Aquinas.

In the last century, the discussions of the doctrine of creation often quickly have degenerated into creation-evolution debates. Classically, the doctrine of creation has been foundational to our understanding of God, our place in the cosmos, the purpose of our existence, the tragedy of our fallen condition and our hope of redemption. In this magisterial volume, the third in a series on doctrines of the Church (the first two on Revelation and the Holy Spirit), Matthew Levering seeks to recover this classical focus, and particularly one which draws not only upon scripture but the work of Thomas Aquinas.

This is no where more in evidence than in his first two chapters on “divine ideas” and “divine simplicity” in which he draws upon Aquinas to answer more contemporary theologians such as Victor Lossky in defending the idea that all creation has its origin and existence in God’s eternally present thought with no resort to something external to God’s self and that God is identical with his attributes and without parts spatially and temporally. Thus, God as wise and good is utterly distinct from his creation, and yet its source. These chapters involved close theological reasoning worthy of careful attention.

The next chapters focus on God’s created beings. The third chapter focuses on creation and particularly, accepting the geological records, the profusions of creatures that have lived and died on the earth, dealing with the difficulties of death and destruction that are part of this succession. He contends that nevertheless, these offer a kind of “cosmic theophany” that proclaim through “a superabundance of finite ways” something of the infinite and yet personal God. He then turns particularly to humans in the image of God and explores in what this consists, which he contends involves our rationality employed in our royal and priestly mission as wise and good stewards of the creation. In chapter 5, Levering engages the contention that as creatures, we have fulfilled the mandate to be fruitful and multiply and should limit procreation, made by Christian environmentalist Bill McKibben, and others. Upholding Catholic teaching, Levering would not have us “constrict the circle of interpersonal communion for which God created the whole cosmos.”

The last two chapters explore the doctrines of original sin and atonement. In chapter six, he takes on contemporary theologians like Peter Enns, who argue against the idea of a historical Adam and thus, never an original goodness. Levering argues that this undermines the idea of a wise and good Creator in making God the author of sin, and that if we believe in a wise and good Creator, then it follows that there was originally a human who was free of sin, sustained by God in that goodness, until willfully rebelling against God.

The chapter on atonement would seem out of place in this volume until one understands the concern Levering seeks to address and the integral importance of creation to responding to that concern. Levering engages the contention of philosopher Nicholas Wolterstorff that since Christianity commends freely forgiving our debtors, it is inconsistent to insist upon a penal character to the atoning work of Christ. Levering’s response, again drawing upon Aquinas points to the original relational justice of the good Creator that was broken or breached by human rebellion that must be restored through the relational act the death of God’s Son. Thus, the doctrines of creation and atonement are closely linked.

Levering writes as a Catholic theologian and yet engages thoughtfully with Protestant, Orthodox and secular writers. I would consider this a sterling example of excellent theological writing. Levering is not content to engage the writers of the last ten or fifty years, but roots his work in biblical teaching, the work of the church fathers, as well as major teachers of the church like Thomas Aquinas. One may not concur with all of his contentions, but to read Levering is to read someone, who like Aquinas, gives first the reasons of other positions, then his own carefully thought-through conclusions leaving it to the reader to conclude which are the better arguments. For those desirous of rooting their faith in rigorous thought and not simply devotional passion, Levering’s work is worth the careful attention it requires.

[My review of Engaging the Doctrine of Revelation appears here.]

_____________________________

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free in e-book format from the publisher through Netgalley. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

God at Play?

“Work that’s unrelated to want.” That’s how our pastor defined “play” in a message on “the Christian at play.” This sparked some thinking about what it was that God was doing in the “work” of creation. If this definition is accurate, God was in fact at play, because there was no want or necessity in God’s creation. God didn’t create because God “had to.” All this was done simply for God’s pleasure. In the old King James Version, Revelation 4:11 says, “Thou art worthy, O Lord, to receive glory and honour and power: for thou hast created all things, and for thy pleasure they are and were created.”

One gets a sense of God at play in making the creation. He says, “let’s do so and so” and it springs into existence, and then at the end of each day, he looks at this and says, “that was goo-ood!” (Bob’s paraphrase!). When he creates fish, he creates a bazillion different kinds. He doesn’t just make green, but an infinite variety of greens. And he gives human beings eyes that can distinguish those shades.

Was God at work or play in creation? Genesis 2:2 says, “By the seventh day God had finished the work he had been doing; so on the seventh day he rested from all his work.” It sounds like God is in fact working, But then I notice the rest part. Was God wiped out from doing all this stuff? I don’t think so. Genesis says he “had finished”. One senses that God is admiring and delighting in what God had done–savoring the delight of making and the things made. Was God at work or play in creation? I think the answer is “yes”.

Rich’s definition explores the paradox that often play involves this intense investment of energy that we might be tempted to call work. Likewise, aren’t there times when the work we do that is related to want ceases to be labor and seems to be play? I often describe the joy I have in setting foot on the campus where I work as “feeling like a kid in a candy shop who just received his allowance”!

Sometimes, people think that work was “the curse” or part of the curse of the fall of Adam and Eve. I’ve often taught that work existed prior to the fall (see Genesis 2:15) and that work simply became toilsome and a necessity in consequence of the fall (see Genesis 3:17-19). What the message makes me think about is that there was a connection between work and play that was damaged along with the connections between God, people, and the creation. Work becomes this survival necessity that is often laborious but sometimes still has glimmers of play. Play gets relegated to a “carve out” in our days, or something we live for on the weekends. Sometimes it becomes an obsession and we literally work at our play.

Perhaps then, “playing together”, which is something Rich suggests should be part of the life of our community, is a way of celebrating “the new creation”, the ways Jesus is restoring all the connections severed in the garden. Playing together isn’t just a bonding, fellowship activity (nice churchy words!). It looks forward to the fulfillment of new creation–the new heaven and earth that exceeds our wildest dreams of all that is good and true and beautiful. Maybe Euchre Tournaments really are a taste of heaven!

This blog also appears at our church’s blog page: Going Deeper.

Either/Or

Yesterday I stirred up a bit of a firestorm of comments on my Facebook page because I posted my son’s blog, Evolution vs. Creation (IT DOESN’T MATTER)I posted it not to stir up a flurry of posts defending one or another theory (although it did–what was I thinking?). Nor do I think the discussion doesn’t matter. Actually, I think it does. Rather, I posted it because I think his post reflects what many of those on both Nye and Ham’s side don’t get–that the way this discussion has been occurring has become tiresome and off-putting. Many scientists would just like to get on with their science. And many Christians feel like we are shooting ourselves in the foot in having these arguments. Even if we “win” the argument, we lose people who conclude we are narrow-minded and anti-scientific. And as Ben pointed out, the center of our faith is the cross of Christ and his call for us to follow him in demonstrating and sharing his sacrificial love in a lost and needy world.

promo-postcard-300x200

What I think matters crucially in this discussion that I find needed on both sides is a willingness to think about how physical causes that are scientifically observable and the activity of God in creating and sustaining the world go together. I feel both sides of the “debate” are locked into an “either/or” paradigm. Either the universe came about purely through a series of random events and a chain of physical causes, or God created the universe, whether in a shorter or longer time.

The issue is larger than the question of beginnings though. Christians are not deists who simply believe God started the world but that it now runs on its own. Hebrews 1:3 claims this of the Christ who redeems the world:  “He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature, and he upholds the universe by the word of his power. After making purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high.” That states that God in Christ is continually active in the world. It has been said that “the laws of science are adjectives for the activity of God in the world.” It was this in fact that motivated many of the early scientists in their research, to more clearly understand how through physical causation God was at work in the world.

If in fact we believe that we can both study physical causation in the present and understand something of the mind and working of God, why can this not also be so when we speak of beginnings?  Why can we not think in both/and terms? I think part of why both “sides” in debates like the one between Ham and Nye are so entrenched is that the debate is framed almost exclusively in either/or terms. It becomes a zero sum game where if science wins, the Bible loses, or if the Bible wins, science loses.

For scientists like Bill Nye, I think the question is, are you willing to admit the possibility of a universe in which God exists, and in which he actively is involved in the beginnings and continuance of its existence including your very own?  Are you willing to admit that such a God is capable of revealing himself and that this, along with the fruits of reasoned observation should shape our view of the world? Good science doesn’t exclude this possibility, only “scientism”.

For Christians, are we willing to live in the tension of believing that Genesis 1-3 is a true account of God’s activity in creation while not forcing a reconciliation between the findings of geology, physics, and biology and our narrative of beginnings that compromises either faith or science? This means living with unanswered questions. The truth is, we live with many unanswered questions in this life and I would rather do that than summarily say that the science around origins is wrong or that Adam never existed.

For those who did not see the debate, Al Mohler, Jr. gives what seems a good account that underscores the real issue of the debate–the worldview clash between what I’ve called “scientism” and the Christian worldview that is open to learning both through reasoned inquiry and revelation. If we can get to a discussion of this, then I think we can have a discussion that “matters”.