Lesslie Newbigin Lectures, Part IV: “Creation”

I. Genesis 1 is an absolute beginning. In the beginning… God. In Colossians, St. Paul spells that out more fully when he says all things in heaven and earth, visible and invisible. There are been many futile arguments that have resulted from forgetting the doctrine of Creation.

  • For example, the theological question of “whether a thing is right because God commands it, or God commands it because the thing is right?”: This question implies that there is something called right which exists before or apart from God, but the phrase “all things invisible” protects us from that idea. We think of concepts like right and wrong, beautiful, or coherent, as if they have a timeless existence. But that is not so. All things have their sole source and origin in God.

Newbigin draws out five points that are brought out in those first chapters of Genesis:

  1. There is an emphasis on the distinguishing of things, one from another, the separating of things — light from darkness, sea from land — and the different species of animals and plants. In general the distinctness and specificity of everything that is created.
  2. Secondly, the created world is given a kind of autonomy and life of its own to reproduce, distinct from God (though not separate).
  3. The whole created world is created as a home for the human family. On the fourth day, when the sun, moon and stars are created, these words were almost certainly written during the time of the Babylonian Captivity — working as powerless slaves under the shadows of the enormous palaces of their foreign rulers. The sun, moon, and stars were considered divine and part of the heavenly bodies by the Babylonians. They were even worshiped and prayed to. But on day four of the Creation Story, we get a different account of these “heavenly bodies.” They were placed in the sky by God for the home that God has made for his family. The meaning of the whole creation is that of home for God’s family.
  4. The human family is given a particular responsibility. It is to cherish the creation, to bring the creation in the perfection which the Creator desires. This has an important message for our whole ecological concerns at the time. Moreover, it is not God’s intention that the world should be mere a wilderness. it is the be a garden, and the human family is to till, nourish and cultivate it. The human is given the responsibility of naming the animals so that we have a relationship with these animals. It’s part of the human responsibility to bring animals to their fullest potential as God created them to be. Take, for example, a well-trained dog in comparison to a wild one.
  5. God looked at everything he had made and said it was very good. This contrasts so sharply with much of human religion which has regarded the world as a bad, dark and dangerous place. The world was created, in John Calvin’s words, to be a theater in which God’s glory is reflected.

II. “Pagan” (or just non-Christian) views of the Created World in Contrast:

  • Nature itself is in some way divine and is the ultimate reality. This is expressed in both primitive and mystic forms, in which the physical world is seen as a place where divine energy rests. In Hinduism, for example, the sheer natural powers are identified with God. The power of human sexuality, for instance, is glorified.
  • And things are seen as transient. Most of nature is marked by change, passing away, and dying. So there’s a strong tendency to feel that the ultimate reality must indeed be trans-temporal — something timeless and changeless to be grasped by the mind (thinking of Plato and Greek/classical philosophy here), rather than the fleeting things that we know by our senses.
  • Plato said that the ultimate realities are ideas, non-material things. And everything in this world is merely an imperfect, shadowy imitation of the perfect, invisible world (Plato’s Allegory of the Cave). Aristotle makes the similar distinction between substance and accidents. All we really know and experience are accidents (characteristics). The substance of things remains hidden.
  • So there comes to be this sharp distinction between what the Greeks called the sensible world and the intelligible world, and between the material world we touch on the one hand, and that we grasp with our contemplation and spirits on the other hand. And so the way to ultimate reality is thus declared to be via the mind, not the body. We must bypass the accidental happenings in history that cannot give us ultimate truth — either by the powers of human reason, mystical contemplation, self-transcendence, and to pass beyond to the eternal invisible.
  • Therefore, history cannot have real significance! It may appear to be going somewhere, but it’s really just going around in circles. Now the Christian gospel was launched into a pagan world in which these were the dominant ideas! During the period in which Christianity was a persecuted minority, struggling for its life and advancing through its testimony by the martyrs, there could not be much mature discussion between these two ideas: the Christian gospel and these pagan views. But once Christianity was acknowledged as a permitted religion and as the religion of the Empire, the way was opened for vigorous discussion, which took place especially in the great intellectual center of Alexandria. In the 4th and 5th Centuries, these two worlds engaged each other.

III. The Christian Response: One of the convictions of the Christians was that you cannot build on the classical philosophy — the gospel builds a completely new starting point. If the Divine has indeed appeared in the person of Jesus Christ, then that has to be the starting point for all our thinking. Based on this conviction, and in light of the Greek philosophy it was encountering, several definitive thoughts arose that have been central for Christian theology ever since:

  1. Since the world is the creation of a rational God, and since God has created us in his image, there is therefore rationality in the world which in principle our reason can grasp. Thus, we can take it as a matter of faith that the universe is ultimately, in principle, comprehensible — even though we don’t know everything about it yet. This is the foundation upon which modern science has been built.
  2. Since Creation is not an emanation, this created world has a relative (not absolute) autonomy — a measure of independence. In Aristotle’s thought, everything that moves, moves because God is moving it. And this is followed by Islam even to this day. But for Christians, everything that happens is not the result of the direct action of God.
  3. But how much autonomy does the world have? It’s possible to go to one extreme and say that it has almost complete autonomy. This is the image of a clock that has been wound up by God, and God no longer needs to interfere. This is called deism, which was very dominate in the 17th Century when Isaac Newton was working. Perhaps from time to time God would move in and adjust when necessary, but this “clock maker” model eventually becomes merely redundant by the time of the 19th Century in much of philosophy and science, which still has such a large influence today.
  4. The other extreme, which we call pantheism, is when the world is understood as being totally dependent upon God all the time. The world is impregnated with God, and God is in everything, but God is not more than or independent of everything. On this view, you cannot distinguish God from the world. God is identified with nature. This thinking reasserted itself during the Renaissance. The New Age spirituality of today is an example of this same view. (So Christianity has always had to find itself in between these two extremes, deism and pantheism – more below)
  5. Lastly, because of the Incarnation, it is permissible to think in terms of material means for our salvation. Whereas the Greeks had developed the science of medicine to a consider degree, and the practice of medicine, the Hebrews rejected it. Healing is the direct work of God and answer to prayer. There is no place for medicine. But the early Christian theologians argued that, since in the Incarnation, God had used the actual material life of Jesus Christ to bring about the salvation of the world, we cannot reject the material world as a means for salvation.
    o Medicine then, for instance, was accepted. And a whole healing ministry has been developed out of it — not to mention the wider developments of technology ever since, which Christians are certainly entitled to utilize and celebrate. Francis Bacon and others stated that we must development science and technology for the good of humanity.

–> But sadly of course we also know how technology can become an instrument for terrible evil.

IV. How do we answer this question about Autonomy, without falling into either extreme? How is the created world related to God? This is perhaps one of the most difficult and inescapable problems in all Christian thinking about the world.

  • The reason why Islam has to reject the central Christian doctrine of Christ’s death on the cross as simply impossible is because Islam believes Jesus was an apostle of God, and that God could not have killed his own apostle. And since everything that happens in the world is a result of the direct action of God, it is incredible and preposterous to believe that Jesus died on the cross.
  • But the other extreme is to claim total autonomy for the world, to see it as a closed system, entirely controlled by the laws of cause and effect (19th Century Positivism).

–> In both of these cases, there is no place for intercession, miracle or divine providence. We cannot ask God to interfere in a world that is quite independent, nor in a world that is utterly dependent from him. In sum, Newbigin doesn’t think that there is a metaphysical/philosophical solution to this problem. It depends rather on faith in God’s grace as revealed to us in the Bible.

But what might illuminate this further, however? How far does God “interfere” in the workings of the natural world?

  1. God does not act arbitrarily or whimsically. There is an orderliness. Science helps us with this too, with the laws and regularities of nature. Without that, human freedom would be impossible. We can only act responsibly if we know that the world is not an arbitrary place.
  2. Human beings have the responsibility and therefore the freedom to obey and disobey God. We can sin and repent. So certainly everything that happens is not the direct will of God. Human beings are able to do things that God does not will.
  3. We can look at the world like a machine — how a machine works is different from what it is for… (this is also from his other lecture on “How do we Know?”)
    o There’s a hierarchy of levels of knowing a thing — atomic, molecular, mechanical, biological, etc. You cannot replace biology with physics, chemistry or mechanics, for example. Questions of purpose, however, are of a totally different nature.  While the world can at one logical level be explained as a self-operating mechanism, that is in no way a total explanation of the world. To attempt to understand the world apart from the purpose of what/who has created the world is a logical mistake. It is to misunderstand the difference between these logical levels.
  4. Having said all of that, it still remains for us a mystery that God does give us this freedom to disobey him, that God does give to the world this kind of regularity which we cannot ignore or reject, and that yet God does “work all things together to good for those who love him” (Romans 8:28). It is only by grace through faith that we understand that. And that understanding begins with the cross and resurrection of Jesus.

–> Because the cross is, from one point of view, the most complete contradiction of God’s purpose, and yet has become the most complete expression and action of God’s purpose. The cross and resurrection of Jesus are the place where by faith in response to grace we can believe even if we cannot completely explain, that, in spite of the relative independence God has given to the world, that nevertheless he does overrule all things for good to those who love him.

V. What does it mean to seek the truth: if we know what it is, why do we seek it? If we don’t know what it is, how do we recognize it when we find it? This is the conundrum of Plato (also from previous lecture on “How do we Know”).

  • The passion to know, and the passion that leaves unwilling to accept mere confusion, which drives us to seek patter, order, beauty, coherence — in all the multitude of things that face us — that heuristic passion isn’t something which simply arises from below, but is the response to the grace of God who has made us so that we might feel after him and find him.
    o And if that is true, it brings our knowing and our being together, because we would have to understanding that it is that same grace of God calling of all creation to its full perfection, which also brings about the developments in nature. Evolution of living creatures in the world, not simply by blind forces from below, but rather by the response of the creation to the calling of its Creator. It is in us as human beings, finally, that this response becomes a conscious response, such that in all our hearts we struggle to grasp the meaning of this wonderful and perplexing world in which God has placed us.

–> And if that is our understanding, then we will also be able to understand what we call the Fall. We know that the human story is not the story simply of our faithful search for the truth and of our growth toward God’s purpose. If this picture above is true, then we can understand the Fall exactly as Genesis 3 portrays it, namely, as the struggle to know, perverted into the desire to have power for oneself. The serpent deceives Adam and Eve by temping them to try to know rather than trust. This is the essence of the fall, which explains why our use of science and technology, our stewardship of nature — which is suppose to serve humankind — can and has become so corrupted and self-destructive.

V. Finally, we are talking about not only the visible world, but the invisible world: invisible things, which are nevertheless real and powerful (e.g., structural and systemic sin — not just invisible sin).

  • Sometimes in the Bible this is the political/imperial power, or the Jewish Law in Galatians, or Greek philosophy in Colossians 2. Sometimes it is the whole establishment that put Jesus on the cross (Pilate, the crowd, scribes, Pharisees, priests, etc.).
    o Caesar, for example, is the present embodiment of an invisible worldly power and ideology — a spiritual reality — that is represented temporally in human beings and human institutions.
    o Some individuals in positions of great earthly power nonetheless feel relatively powerless due to the institutional constraints and limits of the power structures in which they find themselves (capitalism, socialism, political parties, government branches, etc).
    o There can obviously be a good purpose within political power and economic order and so forth, but these are still fallen powers. They have also become part of this fallen Creation. They have sought to absolutize themselves. In this way, therefore, they can also become agents of evil against which we have to struggle.
  • But as the New Testament reminds us, in his dying on the cross, Jesus has disarmed these powers. He has dethroned them! The prince of this world shall be cast out! They are not destroyed, but they are disarmed. So we live in the time in which these powers, which still exist, and still threaten us, have yet been robbed of their final authority.
  • Therefore, we can, as Paul says, put on all the armor of God, and fight not against flesh and blood — not against other human beings — but against these principalities and powers — these invisible realities, which are part of the creation — God’s creation, a fallen creation! — but one that is nonetheless ultimately redeemed by the power of Christ.

–> And so we live by grace through faith in the confidence that God, who in the beginning created all things visible and invisible, will in the end reign in glory over all things, and that the earth will indeed be a theater of his glory

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s