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.


A nice little milestone

Did you notice the byline up there?! Over the summer, I wrote this review of Shannon Astyk’s new book Making Home for the Englewood Review of Books (ERB) and now its published! Pretty cool stuff…

A big thank you to Chris Smith and Englewood Review of Books for hosting such a great place for these important conversations. If you haven’t already, I would highly recommend you check out ERB and like them on Facebook/follow them on Twitter. While you’re at it, make sure you keep a close eye on a blog that Chris is co-authoring: SLOW CHURCH.

Then Jesus said, “Just make it up as you go…”

Well, that isn’t a direct Scriptural quote, but it speaks to a way of life that we in the Church world often refer to as “walking by faith” and not by sight. Using a different metaphor, one could say that the life of faith, of following Jesus as Lord, is about improvising, or “making it up as you go.”

I got started thinking on this today when I read a post by Chris Smith over at the Slow Church blog. Chris is writing a book called Slow Church (that I’m very excited to read!) and one of its chapters develops an analogy between improv and the drama of Scripture. I first heard of this analogy from a book by N.T. Wright called Scripture and the Authority of God (which I would recommend). Wright breaks the Biblical drama down into 5 “acts”:

  1. Creation
  2. Fall
  3. Israel
  4. Jesus
  5. New Creation

He describes the New Testament, not including the Gospels, as “act 5, scene 1” and suggests that we – you and I right here and now – are living in act 5, still playing out the Biblical drama as we love God and neighbor in our everyday lives. We are the actors in God’s great drama. We have a story to follow and we need to, rather, must honor it, but we have no script to follow. We are like improv actors on the stage; listening for the voice of the Spirit and following where the Wind of God may blow.

This analogy fascinates me. As I finished Chris’ post and browsed the comments, I was super excited to find two other bloggers who have written in-depth on this analogy. I took the time today to read their posts and loved them so much that I thought I would share:

Joe Boyd Blog by Joe Boyd

Theatrical Theology by Wes Vander Lugt

Wes Vander Lugt has a great page for more resources on this topic.

Do you like the analogy? Is faith like improv?

Sowers Need Good Soil

I just read a great post over at the SlowChurch blog called Becoming Good Soil. It is all about how churches should cultivate an environment for growth – be good soil. Chris Smith, the writer, quotes Dietrich Bonhoeffer from Life Together (love, love, love this book) to say that we too often try to inject our own idealistic dreams into church that will lead to the death of the community in spite of some quick, short-term growth. It’s like the toxic fertilizers used around the world to boost crop output while destroying the soil and not to mention the surrounding the ecosystems. Instead, churches should strive to become good soil that nurtures and sustains diverse forms of life in a particular place. He lists several corporate practices that can help:

  • Conversation
  • Theological Reflection
  • Rejection of Authoritarianism /Hierarchy
  • Internal Evaluation of our life together
  • Caring for one another and our neighbors in REAL situations (not idealized ones)
  • Real commitment (not romanticized/idealized) to faithfulness

One of the cool things about this post is that it wasn’t just some abstract idea. It grew out of conversation at his church… I like ideas with integrity.

All this talk about soil reminded me of a great talk I heard earlier this year by Tim Downs at the Fellowship Bible Church. Tim spoke on a passage that is often overlooked because it comes right after a passage that is studied quite a bit – the Samaritan woman at the well. The Apostle John records these words of Jesus given to His disciples just after that event in chapter 4:

36 Already the one who reaps is receiving wages and gathering fruit for eternal life, so that sower and reaper may rejoice together. 37 For here the saying holds true, ‘One sows and another reaps.’ 38 I sent you to reap that for which you did not labor. Others have labored, and you have entered into their labor.” (ESV)

Churches love, love, love to talk about the harvest. The fields are white! Go gather up them sinners! Bring in the sheaves! etc, etc… Since most people don’t farm, we kind of miss a big part of this harvest imagery – sowing. Just as Jesus confirmed in v37 about, one sows and another reaps. We pretty much get what “reaping” or “harvesting” means; it is all about evangelism. Sowing – what is that?

Well, basically if you’re a farmer and you’re not harvesting – you’re sowing. Just try to think of everything that goes into growing something: work the soil, prepare the fallow ground, fertilize (naturally of course), plant, pull the weeds, water, and many more. Sowing is the everyday, ho-hum, back-to-the-fields work that is absolutely essential to growing food. We sometimes forget that harvesting is cyclical. The fields may be white right now, but that doesn’t last forever. Harvesting is a yearly event that lasts maybe a few weeks. It is not perpetual. The harvest ends; the seasons change; the sowing starts again.

Of course, the harvest is absolutely dependent on the sower. But, we want results and usually we wanted them five minutes ago. Sometimes Cassie and I like to go pick our own fruit at these pick-your-own fruit stands. Ever seen a plant-your-own fruit stand? No, you haven’t. Why? Because that would actually be work. You couldn’t just drive up and walk away 30 minutes later with 10 quarts of fresh blueberries (yum). In the church, we like to focus on quantifiable results: new members, new believers, attendance, and money just to name a few. For the most part, we think the “professional” ministers are responsible for these results, for bringing in the harvest. If nothing grows, the clergy must be bad harvesters. We too easily forget the liturgy – the work of the people – of sowing that calls each and every one of us to the fields. We have ALL been made ambassadors of reconciliation in Christ. This is not an optional calling. How will you begin sowing?

As I just mentioned, sowing is hard. In fact, Jesus says it is harder than reaping. Just look back through that list of practices that Chris included in his post for developing a church with good soil – not many things on that list are easy. Rejection of hierarchy (aka priesthood of all believers), internal evaluation, caring for neighbors – this is hard work! Lawddamurcee, having a conversation sometimes is hard enough! Jesus tells us in Matthew 10 to be as shrewd as serpents and innocent as doves… really? Because a dove and a snake are so similar? But that’s the point… We are called to live in this tension with our world, our culture, where we must take the time to listen and understand, even in hostility. We must engage our culture; the real people just down the street.

Maybe the hardest part about sowing is that it puts us, the sowers, in a position of weakness and dependence. We can’t forget that sowing does NOT cause the seed the grow. I may plant, you may water, but the Spirit brings the growth. And the Spirit… Lord knows He is on his own schedule. He is so out of our control we just don’t know what to do sometimes. In addition to being humbled by the Spirit, we are humbled by our cultures. Bonhoeffer would remind us that we cannot just show up and know the answers. We have to ask questions, to place ourselves in a posture of learning, and be teachable by others. The soil around us is full of deficiencies, but finding out what those are will take time and tedious effort.

We know this: there will be no harvest, no Kingdom in our midst, without faithful sowers in the fields every day. Sowers cannot work alone. They need good soil. We need good churches, full of good sowers, to work the ground that His Kingdom might sprout up in our midst!