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Creation

Why is it important to understand creation as the act of a Triune God?

Introduction

All cultures seek for a way to account for the universe. Creation theology in the broadest sense is an inquiry into the divinity that shapes or makes our world and is part of the universal human experience. Christian theology is distinctive in the form and content of its teaching. It is credal in form—this shows that the doctrine of creation is not something self-evident or the discovery of disinterested reason, but part of the fabric of the Christian response to revelation: “I believe in God the Father, maker of heaven and Earth.” In addition to creation as an article of the creed, the unique contribution made by Christian theologians of creation lies in their development of a view that God creates “out of nothing,” a view that is possible by virtue of the Trinitarian shape of the doctrine. Because God is a communion of persons existing in loving relations, it follows that God does not need the world and so is able to will the existence of something else simply for itself. The universe, therefore, is the outcome of God’s love. Nevertheless, theological reflection on the doctrine of creation is often concentrated upon the role of the Father as Creator, neglecting the action of the Son and Spirit.

Key issues in historical perspective

The Son and the Spirit are the “two hands of God” who mediate the creation of human beings, are the agents of revelation and redemption, and are respectively seen as God’s Word and Wisdom. The naming of God as triune—Father, Son, Holy Spirit—is the faithful attempt to represent the One known in the person of Jesus and in the life of the ecclesial community grounded in the covenant history of Israel. The period of the Apostolic Fathers into the 2nd century saw the beginnings of the development of a doctrine of the Trinity as revealed in salvation history. Irenaeus of Lyons (d. 202) considered the whole process of salvation, from the first moment of creation to the last moment of history, as bearing witness to the action of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. It is the work of the one and same God.

We can say that the works of the Trinity are a unity. For instance, every person of the Trinity is involved in every outward action of the Godhead, and yet it is appropriate to think of creation as the work of the Father without diminishing the action of the Son and the Spirit. Historically, several early theologians played a role in the development of the doctrine of the Trinity which was initially developed during the Council of Nicaea (325). At that time the Trinitarian terminology of “three persons of one substance,” including the term homoousios (the Son was of the same substance as the Father), was significant in resolving the matter of the Son’s divinity.

The Cappadocian Fathers contributed a conceptuality that complemented the Nicene language of homoousios with the notion of perichoresis. This concept grounds the unity of the persons in terms of a reciprocal interiority of the Trinitarian persons, that is, in every divine person the other persons also indwell, though in doing so they do not cease to be distinct persons. Perichoresis allows for a mutuality that does not prevent separation or division.

A central element of Christian teaching on creation is that God created ex nihilo, out of nothing. This teaching affirms that God had no need to rely on anything outside of God. As an act of total divine freedom, creation derives from God’s love and exists for a purpose. God’s love for creation is further exhibited in God ongoing interaction with the created order in such a way that God makes it free to be itself. There is also an eschatology of creation, an understanding of a destiny which is something more than a return to its beginnings. The created world is that which God enables to exist in time and through time to come to its completion. These ideas about creation are well-grounded in biblical perspectives that include the creation narratives in Genesis, other parts of the Old Testament such as the speech of God from the whirlwind in Job 38-39, Psalms 104 and 139, and New Testament passages like Hebrews 11:3 and Revelation 4:11. Furthermore, there are several New Testament texts that link creation with Jesus Christ in general and his resurrection in particular. In 1 Corinthians, Colossians, and Hebrews, as well as the opening verses of John, Jesus Christ is celebrated as the mediator of creation, the one through whom God the Father created and continues to uphold the universe. Other passages in both the Old and New Testaments (e.g., Ezekial 37:1-14; Rom. 8:11) suggest that the Spirit is the vehicle of God’s sovereign power over the created order.

Theological implications for Christian life

It can be said that creation, reconciliation, and redemption are all to be attributed to the Father, and yet all realized through the work of his two hands, the Son and the Spirit, who are themselves substantially God. If we see creation as the work of only the Father, we neglect New Testament affirmations of the place of Jesus Christ in the mediation of creation and, more specifically, his role in the redemption of the whole created order. We cannot ignore the reality of the Fall and the resulting effect of sin upon all of creation. Creation and redemption are integrally connected. If we take seriously the radical nature of evil as that which impedes creation to achieve God’s intended purpose, then redemption becomes a central element of our doctrine of creation. Jesus is, after all, the agent of both creation and redemption. The incarnate Son has overcome the corrupting influence of evil upon creation by his work on the cross. This defeat of evil will be complete eschatologically; therefore, we wait with anticipation looking to the resurrection of Jesus and the works of the Spirit who enable human beings and events to become what they are created to be in the Son. Until then, redemption of creation is partial and by anticipation.

A proper understanding of creation also includes the notion of God’s providence which is often characterized by the work of the Spirit. By the Spirit, God upholds the world in summer and winter, seedtime and harvest. All particular acts of providence derive from the paradigmatic work of the Spirit in upholding the human Jesus in his calling and mediating the Father’s action in raising him from the dead, transforming his body to the life of the world to come. So also does the Spirit mediate God’s continuing care for all of creation as we await the final transformation in the new creation.

A Trinitarian conception of creation leads to an understanding of God’s freely creative love, God’s continuing care of the world, and God’s purposes for the created order. It frees us from seeing God the Creator as one who simply acted in the past as the world began, and shows us that God’s acts of redemption and fulfillment are central to God’s role as Creator. We now live as people of God who, by the Spirit, participate in the ongoing care of creation through our proper dominion over the earth and in how we take responsibility for the way things are. It should not be simply an ecological response, but a theologically rich view of creation in which we view ourselves as joining with the Spirit in God’s project of perfecting the world.

Tell me a story…

In speaking of the ongoing care of creation, it may be easy to fall into an ethical approach that sees things in terms of particular choices about the world and our responsible behavior in it. While this may be one important aspect of an understanding of our Christian lives as participation in God’s providential care, we want to also stress that understanding creation as the act of a Triune God shapes the way we see the world and ourselves in it, perhaps in more subtle, yet influential ways. The simple words of the familiar song—“He’s got the whole world in His hands”—sums it up well. In our world of technological advancement and striving ambition, we often forget that the world is God’s and that God holds it all in his loving care, including the very minutes of each day. A well-known theologian, though internationally regarded and widely published, left his computer and put down his books every afternoon to work in the garden. Certainly there was more work to be done, more research and writing, more lectures to prepare—he was in great demand as a scholar—and yet, he saw the garden as a place of participation with God who had lovingly provided the beauty of the earth and given it into our care. There was always time in the day for this kind of work and it provided a space to join with God in the upholding of creation. It may seem fairly trivial in the scope of the tremendous needs in our world, but it is an example of a way of looking at the world which we might all practice in our various contexts. God has created a rich diversity of life and the time within which to share our gifts and share in the work of creation.