God’s Vision of Human Relationality in Creation

Throughout their common history, Jewish and Christian people have given witness to their God as the Creator of all things. This witness is captured magnificently in the first two chapters of Genesis where God speaks the heavens and the earth into being and calls it good. This Creator God intimately forms an earth creature, ‘adam, from the earth and breathes it to life. God plants a garden full of vegetation and creatures and settles ‘adam there as its keeper. God fulfills this earth creature’s need for mutual relation by creating an ‘ezer – a beneficial, equal helper.[1] As I reflect on this story, I see the Triune God revealed as the One creating a good world – out of nothing – that reflects the relational image of its Creator in order that all creation might commune together along with the Triune Creator in interdependent relationships of self-giving love.

To begin, the work of creation is the direct work of the Triune God – Parent, Child, and Spirit.  The act of creation provides the context for theologia – the interior life of God – to be expressed and experienced as oikonomia – the self-revelation of God within human history in the person of Jesus Christ and the work of the Spirit. The 20th century theologian Karl Barth spoke of creation as that which makes “possible the history of God’s covenant with man [sic].”[2] Since creation constitutes the space for God’s action in salvation history, God is the proper “origin, ground, and goal of the world and everything in it.”[3] As the origin and ground of creation, God is both the source and sustenance of life for all created things: the Psalmist defines life and death by the presence and absence of God’s breath.[4] Creation, then, is an ongoing act being moved towards its completion and not a fixed event in the past whereby God set the world in motion and then walked away. As the goal of creation, God’s relational, communal existence as Trinity is revealed as the desired intention for all of life. The virtually infinite set of dynamic, interdependent relations among created things is both a sign of and witness to this intention of diversity in perfect community. As the context for oikonomia, with the life of God as its beginning, means, and ultimate end, creation is the first and the foundational expression of the Triune God’s work of salvation.[5]

Creation as act of the Triune God stands in stark contrast to Gnostic and Platonic claims that continue to exert influence in contemporary society. Generally, Gnostic belief dualistically characterizes the physical realm as evil, or the handiwork of an evil god, or demiurge, while celebrating the spiritual or intellectual realm as the good creation of a good god. Platonic thought states that matter is pre-existent and co-eternal with God[6] and views creation as simply bringing order to things in chaos.[7] Against these Gnostic and Platonic claims, Christian thinkers throughout history, most notably Tertullian and Irenaus, have described the nature of God’s creative act as creatio ex nihilo­ – creation out of nothing. This belief serves as the foundation of a Christian doctrine of creation in at least four ways. First, it establishes creation as made by God,[8] which implies God’s transcendence over creation and rejects any notion of God being equal with creation.[9] Second, creation as ex nihilo is creation as pure grace because it reveals a dependence on the freedom and goodness of God in opposition to any claim for creation’s necessity.[10] In addition, creatio ex nihilo affirms God’s unique sovereignty and power as the One who creates new things which had no prior existence instead of merely arranging pre-existing pieces of matter like an artist.[11] Finally, creatio ex nihilo affirms creation’s inherent goodness by rejecting Gnostic dualism and forging a connection between the transcendent, life-giving work of God in creation and the incarnational, redemptive work of God in Jesus Christ.[12] When creatio ex nihilo is affirmed, every feature of created life – its limits, particularities, and even its death – can be celebrated as a good, gracious gift from the ever-present Creator.

The Triune God’s good work of creatio ex nihilo is unmistakably marked by the relational character of its Creator. Creation’s relational identity is highlighted in the making of human beings in God’s own image. However, a holistic view of humanity’s created nature as spirit, soul, body, and flesh is required to fully grasp this image-bearing reality. As spirit, humans possess the capacity to be in life-giving relationship with God, others, and all creation.[13] As soul, humans are needy and express longing and desire which they share with all creation.[14] Humans are bodies in their fragility, their limits, and their physicality; features which are common throughout all creation.[15] Finally, humans are flesh in their capacity to choose to live in rebellion against God, others, and the created world.[16] With this holistic perspective of human relationality in view, God’s image extends outward from humanity as men and women forge relations with other people, creatures, their environment and God. As humanity takes up the work of preserving and protecting the inherent goodness and diversity of all created things within communities characterized by relationships of care, service, and love, the image of the Triune God is expressed in its intended beauty and glory.[17]

In light of creation as a salvific act of the Triune God, made out of nothing and bearing God’s image in its relationality, God’s purpose for creation is revealed as its communion within itself and with God. The Trinity is a community of love that does not desire to remain closed: the creation community is called to join in the life of its Creator.[18] An outpouring of grace is at the core of God’s creative work as God’s image-bearers are empowered to steward the image of God seen in creation’s diversity.[19] Since creation is an ongoing work of God that is inseparable from God’s work of reconciliation in Jesus Christ through the Spirit, it calls all people to join in God’s renewal of all things and work towards the flourishing of all life in all their immediate contexts.[20]

In a North American context characterized by frantic, homogenizing speed that leaves no time for the care and nurture of particular human bodies, communities, and the places they inhabit, this doctrine of creation cries out for care-full attention to the people, the creatures, and the land with which their life is shared. This attention begins with an approach to ministry that is radically incarnational within specific, local contexts. Creation is honored when the Church knows the limits, functions, and needs of its neighborhoods and continually asks how it might become a life-giving presence in that neighborhood.[21] This kind of incarnational ministry is difficult because it is a slow work that requires the kind of long-term commitment that has very little value in North American culture. Without this slow, context-preserving presence, the diversity of creation that constitutes God’s image is subject to degradation and loss as the particularities of the weak are sacrificed on the altars of convenience and comfort that serve the powerful.

[1] Phyllis Trible, “Depatriarchalizing in Biblical Interpretation,” Journal of the American Academy of Religion 41 (March 1973): 36.

[2] Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, vol. III, The Doctrine of Creation,  trans. H. Knight, G.W. Bromiley, J.K.S. Reid, and R.H. Fuller (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1960), 42.

[3] Anne M. Clifford, “Creation” in Systematic Theology: Roman Catholic Perspectives, eds. F. S. Fiorenza and J. P. Galvin (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1991), 195.

[4] Ps. 104:29-30,  New Revised Standard Version.

[5] Gustaf Wingren, “The Doctrine of Creation: Not an Appendix but the First Article,” Word & World 4, no. 4 (Fall 1984): 353.

[6] Clifford, 211.

[7] Frances Young, “’Creatio Ex Nihilo’: A Context for the Emergence of the Christian Doctrine of Creation,” Scottish Journal of Theology 44, no. 2 (1991): 139.

[8] Ibid., 143.

[9] Clifford, 211.

[10] Young, 147.

[11] Young, 142.

[12] Clifford, 212.

[13] Dr. Loida I. Martell-Otero, “Anthropology” (lecture, Palmer Theological Seminary, King of Prussia, PA, October 2, 2012).

[14] Ibid.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Kyle D. Fedler, Exploring Christian Ethics: Biblical Foundations for Morality (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2006), 82.

[18] Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics: A Selection, ed. Helmut Gollwitzer (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1994), 151 in Dr. Loida I. Martell-Otero, “Doctrine of Creation: Formation of Community” (lecture, Palmer Theological Seminary, King of Prussia, PA, September 25, 2012).

[19] Dr. Loida I. Martell-Otero, “Doctrine of Creation: Formation of Community” (lecture, Palmer Theological Seminary, King of Prussia, PA, September 25, 2012).

[20] Sallie McFague, “Is God in Charge?: Creation and Providence” in Essentials of Christian Theology, ed. William C. Placher (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2003), 104.

[21] McFague, 103, 105.


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