Christian Doctrine (8)

Image - John Calvin
Not a world-denying ascetic spiritualist, thank goodness

Although the exam on theology is in the past now (passed it – yay!), I was thinking that now that hip replacement/rehab AND spring semester teaching are ALSO in the past I could turn back to the project of annotating my copy of Shirley C. Guthrie, Jr., Christian Doctrine Rev. ed., (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1994) – if only for the sake of closure. Here are summary notes (and a couple of comments) on Chapter 8, “What Are We Doing Here? The Doctrine of Creation” (145-165).

Guthrie opens by contrasting the view of the world presented in the Bible (about 4,000 years old, flat land, bowl-shaped sky, three-story universe …) and by modern (ca. 1994!) science (about 4 billion years old, a light year about 6 trillion miles, stars hundreds of light years away, evolutions and extinctions, etc.), and painting them as an “apples to oranges” comparison. Science takes empirical observations and tries to answer the question of how we got here. The Biblical story of creation, and the revelation contained therein, aims to tell us “why” we’re here. Guthrie says “Christians can respect and be grateful for everything science can tell them about the mystery and greatness of God’s creation” (147) and would confidently refer factual questions about the physical/chemical/biological world to science. On the other hand, there are things we can only learn from revelation, including the three topics of his chapter proper:

(1) The God of Israel and Jesus Christ is the ultimate source and ruler of the world. (2) Therefore the world and our creaturely life in it are good. (3) We need fear nothing in the world, nor can we give ultimate loyalty to anything in the world. The truth of none of these statements is obvious. Quite the opposite, they are confessions of faith despite much evidence to the contrary. (147)

[Comment: the relationship between science and Biblical revelation he outlines in this introduction is remarkably similar to the relationship between general revelation and special revelation outlined in chapters 3 & 4. That relationship really does lay a foundation for being able to accept all kinds of scientific knowledge as something we might call “public revelation,” with a robust confidence that whatever is vital about special revelation will harmonize with it just fine, and any conflicts between properties/statements of its temporally and culturally contingent literary vehicle and science don’t need to hang us up too much. I like that a lot.]

Under point (1), God is the ultimate source and ruler of the world, come these implications, drawn from the scriptural revelation of the divine Creator:

  • “God is the Creator of the whole world” (147). So: everything, “seen and unseen,” [by extension, the entire universe]. This includes the idea that (1) everything in a real sense “belongs” to God. (Psalm 24:1 – “the earth is YHWH’s, and everything in it”) [Guthrie is more comfortable using the language of “property,” albeit in scare quotes – I think it’s questionable whether God shares our views of “property.”] So this isn’t an intrinsically anthropocentric view of Creation. Sin against the creation is ultimately – maybe even first and foremost – sin against God. And (2) humankind is made in God’s image (Genesis 1:26, 28) – which implies that humans have a special responsibility vis-à-vis creation, to master our more damaging impulses, and to act as its friends and benefactors.
  • “God creates in the beginning” (150) (Genesis 1:1) – but not in the Deist sense of starting things, and then leaving them to their own devices; God is and continues to be and will be creating; the creation is ongoing, new creation is underway, God is doing new things … so the Creation is not all past tense. Similarly, God is our creator, and this, too, is an ongoing reality; implying at the very least that things can be different in our lives – past conditions and conditioning are not the last word or our “fate.”
  • “There is only one God, who alone is Creator and Ruler of everything that is” (152). This rules out any form of dualism, the popular ones having been good/evil dualism – there’s God, a good force, and then there’s some evil oppositional cosmic force (like Satan, maybe) that is competing with God – and spirit/matter dualism – there’s the spirit, that’s divine or kind of divine, and then there’s matter, that’s base or anyway less. Neither of these dualisms, or any other one, really works to describe the nature of Creation by ONE God. As Guthrie points out with respect to the good/evil dualism, “Evil can then come only from rebellious creatures who refuse to acknowledge and serve God and who misuse God’s good creation” (153). [This also implies, as I learned in Calvin class, that evil is radically subordinate to God, at least ultimately.] With respect to the spirit/matter dualism (one of my love-to-hates), God is as much the creator of matter as of spirit; there’s no source privilege attached to spirit. [I could say that makes matter just as good as spirit, but that really comes up later in the chapter.]
  • “The Creator is powerfully above and independent of the created world but also lovingly present and at work in it” (153). Here, the challenge is to balance transcendence and immanence. Guthrie reviews three models of conceptualizing God as Creator in these terms, Theism – which emphasizes transcendence (and puts God outside the world, apathetic, not sharing its pain … all that); Pantheism – which emphasizes immanence (and for that reason, maybe confuses God with the world, and doesn’t leave fully enough room for God’s redemptive activity, which requires some distance); and Panentheism – which envisions God as fully in the world, but also beyond the world, sort of in the way a pregnant mother is fully present in the life of the child-in-progress, even with its differentiation, but also considerably more than and other than that child. Guthrie leans on Jürgen Moltmann’s development of panentheism – God “makes room” within Godself for the Creation – but Tillich has the panentheism idea as well, and as presumably others do. [Panentheism probably does the best job of balancing the affirmations of transcendence & immanence. It definitely describes my own basic view of things.] Guthrie makes the point that none of these models are without their limitations. [It seems to me that each of these models creates their own characteristic issues when it comes to dealing with the evil in the world – although the problem of not being able to separate God from the creation of evil seems especially looming for pantheism.]

Under point (2), the goodness of God’s Creation, there are these points:

  • This is a fundamentally word-affirming, rather than world-denying theology. [The world is not all maya, illusion, as in most of the Hindu darshanas; the extent to which this is compatible with the Mahayana notion of sunyata I think is an interesting question, because the answer is not completely obvious to me. Sunyata doesn’t necessarily hold the world as un-good; just contingent and interdependent ontologically speaking, so … still …] In particular,
  • “Bodily-physical life is good” (159) – take that, dualists and Platonists; sex, “our daily bread” – which Luther, in the Small Catechism, links to everything we need for our well-being, including good government and health and education – and pleasure (luxuries; art; beauty; etc. [Jamocha Almond Fudge ice cream, e.g.]) – all really actually good. Not to say that anything good couldn’t be misused, which would be bad. Calvin, note, says this about the view that Christians can have necessities but not pleasures: this would “fetter consciences more tightly than does the Word of the Lord – a very dangerous thing” and cites Psalm 104:15 pointing out that God gives us “wine to gladden the human heart,” and also that Jesus went to parties.1 [Once again, Calvin proves to be way cooler than lots of people think.]
  • “Temporal life is good” (160) – despite the problems. History has meaning, because God is in it, and working things out in it and through it; time and life in it is going somewhere; Christians don’t believe in “progress” apart from God (the kind that represents the “triumph of the human spirit” etc. – and the horrors of the 20th century, for instance), but don’t give up on the struggle to improve human life in this world, rather than putting all eggs in the basket of the world to come. Our lives here and now matter. [For instance, they are vehicles for knowing and sharing love, of God, of neighbor … how is that not good?]

Under point (3), that the world, while good, is not God, are the insights that

  • “Nothing in the world is to be feared” (162) Nothing in the world has “absolute, undefeatable power” over us – nothing is ultimate, in the way that God is ultimate. This holds true for things seen (diseases; injustices; abuses; losses; …) and unseen (demons & spirits, “fate” or the unconscious …) – everything is finally subject to the control, and the redeeming love, of God. [Statement of faith, as he noted earlier.]
  • “Nothing in the world is to be worshiped” (163) “Idolatry is by definition giving absolute loyalty to something that is only a creature rather than to the Creator” (163). Everything creaturely, worldly, can be viewed as a gift of God – but God has to be, properly, our ultimate priority. Paradoxically, this really frees us from the tyranny of the creaturely (think of what happens when we become slaves to our appetites, our worldly commitments, our ideologies, etc.), for the enjoyment of and service to the world.

1 John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, ed. John T. McNeill, trans. Ford L. Battles (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1968), 3.10.1 quoted in Guthrie, 160.

2 responses to “Christian Doctrine (8)”

    • Thanks for the comment!
      Pretty unabashed Calvinist here — except for when I’m not. As someone told me once years ago, “theology divides, but Jesus unites.”


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