In the Beginning, There Was Improvisation

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June 5, 2011 Tags: Creation & Origins

Today's entry was written by Bruce Ellis Benson. Please note the views expressed here are those of the author, not necessarily of The BioLogos Foundation. You can read more about what we believe here.

In the Beginning, There Was Improvisation

Picture taken by photographer Joy Guion Bailey, the image above features musicians David Bailey and John White playing at the Baptist World Alliance Conference in Honolulu, Hawaii in December 2010.

The dominant—and generally acclaimed orthodox—view of divine creation is that Genesis chapter one depicts God as creating ex nihilo—out of nothing. Indeed, this has long been the dominant stance among Christian theologians. Yet, recently, the theologian Catherine Keller has argued forcefully against this view in her book Face of the Deep: A Theology of Becoming. Her goal is to deconstruct ex nihilo theology and return to what she terms the “forgotten chaos.” Writing as a feminist theologian, she claims that the ex nihilo account is a highly masculine one. In its place, Keller suggests a theology of becoming in which we rethink the very notion of beginning. In this respect, she is indebted to Edward Said, who distinguishes between “beginning” and “origin.” Whereas beginnings are “secular, humanly produced and ceaselessly re-examined,” origins are “divine, mythical and privileged.”1 To quote Keller, “what if we begin instead to read the Word from the vantage point of its own fecund multiplicity, its flux into flesh, its overflow?”2

Why is this issue so important? The German theologian Gerhard May is certainly right when he states: “church theology wants through the proposition creatio ex nihilo to express and safeguard the omnipotence and freedom of God acting in history.”3 At issue, then, are power and freedom. The God who can create ex nihilo is simply more powerful and free than the God who merely creates from that which already exists. How we interpret the first few verses of the book of Genesis depends very much upon what kind of God we think is being depicted here, and we are tempted to conclude that a truly powerful God has no need of existent matter.

But consider these opening verses from the book of Genesis:

In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters. Then God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light. And God saw that the light was good; and God separated the light from the darkness. God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, the first day (Gen. 1:1-5, NRSV).

What exactly is God doing here? Further, what is this “beginning” [re’sit] and where does it begin? One can say this is a basic question regarding any kind of genesis: at what point can we say that something begins?

It is significant that the OED defines “genesis” as “the action of building up from simple or basic elements to more complex ones.”4 For something like that seems to be described here. The earth is described as “a formless void” and “darkness covered the face of the deep” [tohu vabohu, or “the depth in the dark”]. And then God creates [bara]. On this account, things are already “in medias res”—or “into the middle of affairs.” That is, there is already something going on and then God enters the picture. This is not to say that God was not “before all things,” only that that is not the point at which Genesis begins to tell the story. Here I want to consider the implications of these views for how we think of artistic creation: for it seems to me that our views regarding divine creation have affected the ways in which we think about how artists create. Conversely, perhaps we may also look to human creative practices to help us rethink some of God’s methods, patterns and intentions for His creation.

We might say that, historically, images of the artist’s work have alternated between something more like ex nihilo creation and something more like “out of something” accounts. On the one hand, Immanuel Kant gives us a picture of the artistic genius that sounds very much like the ex nihilo creator. According to Kant, “genius is a talent for producing something for which no determinate rule can be given . . . . hence the foremost property of genius must be originality.”5 You might say that the “rules” don’t apply to the genius, meaning that the Kantian artist is likewise free.6 As Kant puts it, “on this point everyone agrees: that genius must be considered the very opposite of a spirit of imitation.”7

Kant’s concept of genius gets even more interesting when he claims that “if an author owes a product to his genius, he himself does not know how he came by the ideas for it.”8 This clearly separates the genius artist from the scientist, at least for Kant. Whereas the genius artist has absolutely no idea of how she came up with her ideas, says Kant, a scientist like Newton can explain each of the steps that led him to his theory. So creating for the genius is a kind of mysterious process that even she does not understand, unlike Bach’s view in which it can be explained by the techniques of a craftsman who’s at the top of his game. To sum up Kant’s account: 1) true geniuses are original, 2) what they create is exemplary for everyone else, and 3) they are unable to explain how they created their masterpieces. Here we have a conception of the artist that is remarkably like that of the God who creates ex nihilo—an artist who is both powerful and free.

On the other hand, in contrast to Kant, we could posit what we might term creatio ex improvisatio—creation out of improvisation. Of course, on either view we can say that God is an improviser. For creation—however we define it—is precisely God setting in motion a reality of “ceaseless alterations” (to cite the theologian John Milbank).9 Thus, the very being of life is improvisatory—by which I mean that it is a mixture of both structure and contingency, of regularity and unpredictability, of constraint and possibility. Further, if God is indeed still at work in the world, then God is likewise part of that improvisatory movement. Living in such a reality means that we take part in that improvisatory movement in all that we do.

So how would this view of God translate into an account of artistic creation? If we take creatio ex improvisatio seriously, then artistic genesis always begins somewhere. Consider the following example. It was at a baseball game, when someone handed him a pair of binoculars, that Andrew Stanton suddenly got the idea for what the character WALL-E should look like. He spent the entire next inning looking at the binoculars backwards, twisting them this way and that to simulate various expressions of sadness and joy. Stanton, the director of the film WALL-E, had been thinking for years about the idea of lone robot left to clean up an uninhabitable earth, but it was only in that moment that he figured out how the animated robot should look.

Many artists will instinctively resonate with the process that Stanton went through. Some ideas come in a moment, but many aspects have to be worked out over days, weeks, months—even years. And those ideas don’t usually come by being isolated but by being connected: with other artists, the history of art, friends who inspire you, and the world of everyday life. Often what happens is that you see something—perhaps as mundane as a pair of binoculars—and you suddenly realize how it could be painted or reworked into something that’s both similar and different.

Such a conception of artistic creation is strikingly at odds with that of Kant. Yet I think it much better approximates how artistic production actually works. It is Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) who (in)famously insists that “life itself is essentially a process of appropriating . . . . ‘Exploitation’ does not belong to a corrupted or imperfect, primitive society: it belongs to the essence of being alive.”10 Certainly all art making is essentially appropriation. Indeed, it is so basic to artistic improvisation that the novelist Margaret Drabble (1939- ) boldly admits that “appropriation is what novelists do. Whatever we write is, knowingly or unknowingly, a borrowing. Nothing comes from nowhere.”11

The question, then, is simply: how much does any given piece of art depend upon another?

The answer is: it all depends. For appropriation and dependency represent a rather wide spectrum that has representatives all along the way. It shouldn’t be difficult to see that defining the role artists in terms of improvisation changes pretty much everything. If artists are indebted to one another, there can be no “lone” genius, disconnected from the community. Instead, we are all improvisers together, quoting one another, saying the same thing in different ways, and giving different perspectives on the same things. There is an ever-shifting balance between quotation and originality, between old and new, between you and me. Some of what I say is more “mine”; some is more “yours’; some is more “tradition.” Getting the exact ownership right may be only possible to a certain extent.

So how might this improvisatory understanding of human artistic creation give us insight into the way God created and continues to create? It may suggest that while God’s agency is not limited, God has nevertheless chosen to share that agency with the creation itself, including—in a particular but not exclusive way—the humans who bear His image. Along with God’s sovereignty, another point of the Genesis account seems to be about abundance, fruitfulness, interrelations and creative community (even Keller’s “fecund multiplicity”), rather than who gets a “divine copyright” on this or that species, or kind. And finally, reading the first chapters of Genesis as improvisation rather than ex nihilo creation might also help us newly recognize the presence of Christ in the text, as it prefigures both the way Jesus laid aside the power that was His alone by right of being God, and the way He imparted His freedom to the Church in its commission to carry on the re-creation of the world through the Spirit.

Notes

1. Edward Said, Beginnings: Intention and Method (New York: Columbia University Press, 1985) xii-xiii.

2. Keller, Face of the Deep 19

3. Gerhard May, Creatio Ex Nihilo: The Doctrine of “Creation out of Nothing” in Early Christian Thought, trans. A.S. Worrall (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1994) 180.

4. The Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd ed. s.v. “genesis.”

5. Critique of Judgment §46.

6. As the quotation from Kant makes clear, “genius is a talent” according to Kant. If we were to pursue this carefully defined conception of genius, then Kant’s view might be less problematic. However, elsewhere Kant speaks of the genius not as a talent but as a person (“the product of a genius . . . is an example that is meant not to be imitated, but to be followed by another genius,” Critique of Judgment §49). Moreover, I am less interested in explicating exactly what Kant thought and more on how Kant has normally been interpreted.

7. Ibid. §47. I should point out that Kant often uses phrases like “on this point everyone agrees” precisely when he is putting forth ideas on which everyone doesn’t agree.

8. Ibid. §46.

9. John Milbank, “’Postmodern Critical Augustinianism’: A Short Summa in Forty Two Responses to Unasked Questions,” in Modern Theology 7 (1991): 227.

10. Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil, trans. Judith Norman (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002) §259.

11. Margaret Drabble, The Red Queen (Orlando: Harcourt, 2004) x.


Bruce Ellis Benson is Professor and Chair of the Department of Philosophy at Wheaton College in Wheaton, Illinois, and Executive Director of the Society for Continental Philosophy and Theology. Dr. Benson’s research interests include the "theological turn" in phenomenology and work at the intersection of continental philosophy and theology; hermeneutics and interpretation theory; and aesthetics, with special interest in the philosophy of music. He has written three monographs, the most recent of which is Pious Nietzsche: Decadence and Dionysian Faith, and is widely published in collections and journals. A more complete account of his training and education may be found here, and an expanded version of the ideas presented in this post were previously published here.


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theothinker - #62167

June 5th 2011

John Walton in The Lost World of Genesis One, argues as well that the first chapter of Genesis does not teach creation ex nihilo.  Although, he says that creation ex nihilo, as a theological concept, finds warrant elsewhere (however, due to the nature of his work he doesn’t go into that).


Is this, what seems to be, denial of an ex nihilo creation founded only on examining the first chapter of Genesis?  Or does the author suggest that nothing in Scripture at all points to creation ex nihilo?

Merv - #62169

June 5th 2011

Thanks, Dr. Benson, for bringing Catherine Keller’s provocative insights into view here.  I hadn’t thought of the contrast between ‘ex-nihilo’ and working with ‘forgotten chaos’ as representing different perceptions of how power works—masculine and feminine.  While the gender dichotomy may be unfortunately accurate  [in my view] to western culture, I would take this even farther and suggest that the former represents our own corrupted view of power while the latter (exemplified by Jesus) represents true power in the Christian sense.  Ever since Constantine (but even from before that if we examine how the disciples struggled to understand power concepts from Jesus) the church has, along with the entire world, been enamored by only one recognition of power:   dominion in the forceful sense.    To perform the “magic” of declaring something will be is done in entire disregard for any previous state—we admire this as raw power.  If two people approach each other on a narrow sidewalk and one defers to the other, moving aside to let him pass; the world would think the “deferee” who moved along unimpeded—perhaps even without regard for the other—must have the greater power and status.  But it is the sensitivity, awareness, and capability of the former that makes him responsive to the needs of the latter (who perhaps was in a wheelchair).  It is precisely because the deferer has more power, that he chooses to exercise it on behalf of the other.  I don’t think of this “nurturing” aspect as being some feminine form of power.  I think it is the *only* true form of power.   I saw this quote on a website:   “My god has a hammer.  Your god was nailed to a cross and died two thousand years ago.  Any questions?”    I have little admiration for iron-fisted people (or gods) wielding hammers as weapons.  But I have ultimate admiration for the God who can, as he’s dying, forgive the hammer-wielder, and in some cases (in no compulsory way whatsoever!) transform hammer-wielder’s life into something worth living.  Now *there* is real power! 

This notion of a creator who lovingly works with existing materials fits Christian theology like a glove on a hand.  Not that the big-bang isn’t impressive enough in the ex-nihilo sense, of course.  But the seemingly [to us] slow patience of letting something unfold I think exhibits the superior kind of power.

—Merv


Mike Beidler - #62170

June 5th 2011

Interestingly, a study note for Genesis 1:1 in the NET Bible (produced mostly by scholars from Dallas Theological Seminary) says,

In the beginning. The verse refers to the beginning of the world
as we know it; it affirms that it is entirely the product of the
creation of God. But there are two ways that this verse can be
interpreted: (1) It may be taken to refer to the original act of
creation with the rest of the events on the days of creation completing
it. This would mean that the disjunctive clauses of v. 2
break the sequence of the creative work of the first day. (2) It may be
taken as a summary statement of what the chapter will record, that is,
vv. 3-31
are about God’s creating the world as we know it. If the first view is
adopted, then we have a reference here to original creation; if the
second view is taken, then Genesis itself does not account for the
original creation of matter. To follow this view does not deny that the
Bible teaches that God created everything out of nothing (cf. John 1:3)
– it simply says that Genesis is not making that affirmation. This
second view presupposes the existence of pre-existent matter, when God
said, “Let there be light.” The first view includes the description of
the primordial state as part of the events of day one. The following
narrative strongly favors the second view, for the “heavens/sky” did not
exist prior to the second day of creation (see v. 8) and “earth/dry land” did not exist, at least as we know it, prior to the third day of creation (see v. 10).


Jon Garvey - #62186

June 5th 2011

Maybe I’m shallow, but nobody so far seems to have mentioned the implicit dualism of this view. In the beginning there is God, who is good, and there is chaos. Maybe God arose from the chaos - how? And if so, God is the creation of chaos. Or maybe both are eternal - why? And by what law is God’s goodness triumphant over chaos, for it must be some law that applies both to the chaos and to God, and so superior to both?

Neither am I entirely convinced by the evidence that ex nihilo creation has a gender bias. It would seem to imply that more women than men are gardeners, or that male potters are prone to attempt to do their work in the absence of clay.

And Merv, if God did create out of nothing, is it really a negative thing to create without any regard for nothingness? I know we’re into rights for everyone and everything, but deference to nothing?


Cal - #62189

June 5th 2011

Jon:

I agree that Breathing life out of what was not there is not some forceful display of power. In light of Genesis and the words chosen, I like Theothinker’s comment which complements both the vocabulary of Genesis while also enforcing the overall picture that Scriptures give (There was God, and then He created). I also don’t like the avenue of dualism that making Chaos eternal can lead to.

I think the Darkness (aka. Sin) is powerful and is a vacuum, but like Dark, only appears where there is no Light. I’m apt to think it is part of choice given to creatures like Humans and Angels, God allows us to walk away (like the Garden). I’m also apt to see this in how Creation was battered from a ‘war in Heaven’ (on which, I have no idea what that means or entails), but that’s another story.

I think Genesis affirms the Sovereign action of God in creating something that contains Freedom, and I’d suppose part of freedom is the choice to sell it. Dr. Polkinghorne’s description of nature is interesting, but I’m unsure of how Scriptural it is. I also smile a little when I hear the quote, “Creation was born of the laughter of the Trinity”. Even the Master tells us when we are set free, we are free indeed, and His apostle that where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty.


Merv - #62203

June 6th 2011

Jon, I’m not saying creation “ex nihilo” didn’t happen.  It had to at some point, obviously—-the big bang being a probable example.  But beyond “created the heavens and the earth” the Bible doesn’t start with the beginning of the universe.  The details begin with an earth already there, formless and void.

Nor do I think an ex nihilo creation event comes with inherent gender bias.  But our preference for that interpretation does.  I think Keller may be on to something there.  Only I don’t see it so much as men vs. women, but rather as Worldly version of “power”  vs. Godly kind of power.  The nurturing gardeners (of either gender) exemplify more the latter to my mind.  Those who see domination and forced subjugation as power may prefer the interpretations that have God simply “making it so” like Captain Picard giving orders that are carried out instantly.   God forming a person from clay, and then breathing into him, while not purely ‘ex nihilo’ is still considerably more so than God using generations—eons—of adapting and evolving creatures to gradually form those first hominids who would receive the breath of his Spirit.  Since more than 90% of warriors / political leaders through history have been men, and probably more than 90% of theologians also; the shoe may fit men well that charges us with erroneous “ex nihilo”, or more more accurately “quick creation by fiat” presuppositions gone amok. 

But there is hope for us.  Jesus had to pound the male disciples over the head repeatedly with God’s concept of power that showed our concept to be upside down in comparison; and they caught on eventually.  We (men and women—but especially men) continue to need persistent lessons on the same thing today.

—Merv


Jon Garvey - #62207

June 6th 2011

Merv

I agree with theothinker’s point from Walton about the scope of Genesis 1, but for two reasons I don’t think the Bible squares with Keller’s position, as I understand it from the article. For she appears to prefer a “nurturing” view of creation on moral and gender-stereotype grounds.

But,
(a) as you say, ex nihilo has to happen sometime, so in Keller’s terms God would have to start out with a masculine fiat of creation ex nihilo, and then expresses his feminine side in the Genesis creation. But she actually wants to de-construct ex nihilo altogether.
(b) You seem to be suggesting that the way creation is expressed in Genesis reflects the male-type bias of the Bible writers in itself. For my own part I’m unwilling to go down that far down the line of “The Bible says this, but from our more enlightened position it really ought to have said that.” Apparently even Keller is saying not that the Genesis account itself is “masculine”, but that the modern ex nihilo interpretation of it is.

I certainly agree with you that Jesus radically transformed the concept of power, or more correctly amplified a concept that was present throughout the Old Testament. I don’t see him, though, linking it in any way to gender (as so many do today) any more than to any other power structure in the world of sinful humanity. That’s why it is still relevant to “new” issues like racism, democratic politics, etc. I have no doubt that gender-related issues are one key area for the application of the Lord’s teaching - and certainly prefer that effort to attempts to rewrite the Bible to recreate God himself in the image of our own interpretations of gender stereotypes. Jesus himself provides a nuanced picture of God’s power as both mercifully gentle and uncompromisingly absolute.


Papalinton - #62205

June 6th 2011

Hi John Garvey 

You ask,  “Maybe I’m shallow, but nobody so far seems to have mentioned the implicit dualism of this view. In the beginning there is God, who is good, and there is chaos. Maybe God arose from the chaos - how? And if so, God is the creation of chaos. Or maybe both are eternal - why? And by what law is God’s goodness triumphant over chaos, for it must be some law that applies both to the chaos and to God, and so superior to both?”

These are terrific questions.  They are the fundamental blocks to questioning supposed realities and determining the truth of that reality.  You are that close [I hold up my left hand with thumb and forefinger about half a millimeter apart]  to agnosticism.  I would so encourage you to continue on your journey of questioning and follow it to its logical end.  You will not for one moment regret that journey, although it surely will be painful, if you maintain absolute honesty, evidence and reason as your guiding principles and decision-making tools.  Your self-worth and integrity will not be compromised one jot, indeed will be enhanced by the rigor you maintain throughout that adventure.
Cheers

Cheers

Cheers


Jon Garvey - #62206

June 6th 2011

Hi Papalinton

Thanks for your concern for my integrity, but I’m not sure that pointing out the apparent inconsistencies in a rather left-field theological proposition will lead me to agnosticism. Indeed, it’s been the same questioning approach over the last 46 years that have led to my confirmation of ex nihilo creation, and indeed most of the historic Christian doctrines. After all, I’m following in the footsteps of two millennia of brighter and more rigorous thinkers than myself.

But we do live in  strange world where different people will follow the same evidence to radically different conclusions.
Cheers in return.


Jon Garvey - #62187

June 5th 2011

PS spoken as a dedicated improviser on saxophone and guitar, if not trumpet.


Jon Garvey - #62193

June 5th 2011

“I think the Darkness (aka. Sin) is powerful and is a vacuum, but like Dark, only appears where there is no Light.”

Yes indeed, though sin is not darkness because of the absence of God, but because of opposition to God. Seems to me that’s the only way to escape an ontological dualism. Indeed Genesis 1 appears to imply that God is responsible (in an ultimate sense) both for light and darkness - he creates light, and separates it from darkness not to avoid contamination, but to endue both with good functions. I don’t think that passage says anything about sin as darkness, but there is a sense in which God treats sin similarly, giving even opposition to himself functions like demonstrating his justice, and so on.

Incidentally (not relating to your post), improvisation usually doesn’t proceed from chaos, except maybe in free jazz, but by conscious permutations of what is already beautiful. Having said that I can certainly agree with the idea that music, in particular, is appropriated rather than forged.

“All the good music is snatched from the air
You think that you’ve made it, but it’s already there.”


Cal - #62199

June 5th 2011

Jon:

It doesn’t make a dualism but a vacuum. I’d rather think that opposition creates a duality because opposition seems to posit a personality at the very  bottom of the conflict rather than an absence of good quality. I’d ask the question, why did the Snake (if indeed Satan is a fallen angel) tempt? Was it because God made it to do so? Or did it choose to walk away from the life into unlife, into death, and become a monster outside of the Creator who is the embodiment of Truth, Light and Love.

I don’t read God “creating light and darkness” as a manual act because the point is made that God is Light. So by being, He is light.So rather than manufacture darkness (however that would be) all He merely does is leave, recede from an area, remove His presence. In Isaiah, God’s wrath is anthropomorphized as “I turned my face from you”, “I hid my eyes from you”. Paul’s solution to someone acting in sin is turn them over to Satan, in Romans it says God “gave them over to their evil desires”. It seems to me His ‘creating darkness’ or ‘creating “evil” (misfortune, sorrow)’ is His leaving. So in that sense, it is an absence, you shoved God out the door and He leaves but for the Church the prophecy in Isaiah is that He will no longer turn His face away, so we who were once filled with Sin, that void, are filled and are then in Christ.


Jon Garvey - #62208

June 6th 2011

Firstly, I emphasise that we must avoid using “darkness” as a Biblical terminus technici for “sin”. Sometimes it means just “darkness”. That leaves room for God’s involvement at various levels.

Your first para begs the question of whether, indeed, there can be any absence of the good qualities of God unless some other personality causes that absence. I take orthodox teaching to be that it is only the misuse of the freedom God gave to created beings that gave scope for evil. There was no absence of good in the Universe until a will came into existence which could oppose God. That’s not dualism because humans, and even demons, are dependent on God for their existence, and so any capacity to do evil (guarding, of course, God’s own righteousness in creating them).

As to darkness itself, the Bible actually affirms positively that God creates (bara) darkness as well as light, together with both prosperity and disaster (Isa 45.7). That may well bear the interpretation of God’s absenting himself, but I think such affirmations require us to do careful theology, not make hasty and incomplete assumptions.


Cal - #62210

June 6th 2011

Fair enough, I didn’t intend my comments to be the end all on the question or offer any definitive proof but rather to at least introduce that there may evidence, I’m not just conjuring off in thin air.

I agree that all things are upheld by God and do no independently exist but that doesn’t mean that since there is an inner lacking, that God doesn’t keep them suspended from the outside. God sustains everyman, those who Christ indwells and those who He is not in, yet the Scriptures still speak of God becoming all in all as a hope of things to come. However I do see your concern with a potential for dualism in this idea.

As for the last comment, how do you mean when James talks about the Father “Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father
of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows.” if He, in the same way giving good gifts, also gives darkness and woe in the same manner? Maybe that’s a way of saying He disciples and corrects, which may be painful, but I always figured sometimes spending too much time in the dark, a brighter light hurts.


Jon Garvey - #62213

June 6th 2011

Cal

Your last para is an example of what I meant above about avoiding applying Jesus’ teaching on power to be all there is to say about God.

I’m sympathetic to the idea that the good works of God bring joy or distress according to the subject: the law is joyous to the righteous but a snare to the sinner. Even the gospel brings repentance to some, but stirs up enmity to God in others.

Yet in the context of Isaiah 45 “disaster” had meant the covenant judgement of Judah in the form of Babylonian atrocity. It was retributive, when all corrective judgement had failed and “there was no remedy” (Chronicles), although it was a prelude to God’s mercy being renewed through Cyrus (initially), and ultimately with the New Covenant that dealt with the problem of disobedience itself.

Whether God “raised up” Babylon merely by not impeding their rise and removing his protection from Judah, it doesn’t alter the fact of a very decisive judgement for sin, contrasted sharply in covenant terms with the gifts of blessing for obedience.


Cal - #62215

June 6th 2011

I would not disagree that God, regardless of the how, does pass judgments on the rebellion of Israel. Jesus Himself had warned His generation that they will be judged and how He wanted to nurture them but they were unwilling and stubborn.

I suppose I was just wondering about mechanics, not the overall happenings. I don’t deny judgment but rather what that entails, what is a Biblical understanding of “wrath”.


Cal - #62229

June 6th 2011

Also this just occurred to me, Jesus has two descriptions and displays of power: relationally and creatively.

Relationally He describes how we should serve one another and when we are given power, we should use it to serve more. Servant leadership by love instead of pagan leadership by force.

Creationally, power is used the same way a painter uses a brush. A painter does not consult the mural before painting, but begins to make brush after brush, stroke after stroke, to make a master piece. You can see Jesus rebuke storm to see how He changes the ‘painting’ with just a word, there was no reasoning or serving the winds and rains.

If we begin to blend the two without understanding distinction, we can either imagine God as a tyrant who puppeteers humanity by authoritarian decree, or we begin to make nature into a personality which raises the issue of dualism. I don’t think the solution is, “There is more to God than what was in Jesus” rather we need to examine Jesus even more with attention to detail. This truly is the face of God, the exact image (Hebrews 1:3)


Jon Garvey - #62230

June 6th 2011

Quite agree, Cal. Jesus constantly challenges our presuppositions about him, and  refuses to let us reduce him to a single dimension.

I just wonder which of your two categories the withering of the fig tree comes under?


Cal - #62233

June 6th 2011

This episode I’ve never truly understood the full implications of, but I suppose it was a creative display of power to prove a relational lesson.

The Tree, that seems full of health, is actually dead. The intended function is disabled, thus dead, but it is a mockery of true life. This connected to the casting out of the money changers, Jesus is demonstrating that truly “Without me, you can do nothing”. We may dress ourselves up in religious pageantry, we may preform our rituals flawlessly, but is is a hollow shell, a game of make-pretend acting. God doesn’t want actors, but living breathing sons and daughters who walk and have a relationship with Him. The fakes will be unmasked and revealed as they truly are, withered and dead.

More than you asked for, but I take things and run with them!


Jon Garvey - #62234

June 6th 2011

Would it overcomplicate things to add a category of “revealing power”? If you’re right about the fig tree (and hypocritical people) then its withering was a divine revelation of what it actually had become. That would then apply in other situations, particularly of judgement, notably of final judgement. If a human in God’s image becomes inwardly corrupt, then the revelation of that truth is a powerful and terrible thing.

Seems a very suitable modus operandi both for the Word of Truth, and for the Light of the world.


Cal - #62236

June 6th 2011

That’d be true and right. I’d figure revelation is a subset of creative and relational power as, these two are activity and dynamic and revelation is a veiling into how these really work. In Creating it would be removing the dry-wall to show the interior rotted, and in relationship it is revealing how genuine a free, heartfelt creature is connecting, is it out of love and service or out of greed, pride and ambition. Both would then be followed by repair in the respective realm.

As for the judgment, that sort of judgment of a corrupted, marred image is happening everyday. God is Love, which entails gentleness and patience, but it is not mean it is nice and flowery. We may say a mausoleum is ornate and intricate, but if one were to dump it open and lay bare its contents, most would be taken aback by the ghastliness of bones and rot. And yet recognizing decay and sickness is the only way we understand we need a Doctor and a Cure.

A little off topic, I do like your comment about Jesus defying simple classifications (even such as these ). There was a quote somewhere that we always try to make the Lion of Judah into something kittenish we can handle, but God refuses to be boxed. His defining character (agape-Love) is such a power that is never able to be restrained and comes about in the strangest and most moving ways.


Jon Garvey - #62238

June 6th 2011

“There was a quote somewhere that we always try to make the Lion of Judah into something kittenish we can handle, but God refuses to be boxed.”

“Aslan is not a tame lion.” (The prophet Narnaiah, 3.16)

Have you noticed how frequently judgement is related to light (and contrasted to darkness) in the NT? 1 Cor 4.5, Eph 5.11,13; Jn 3.20. In fact the Greek “ELENCHO” means both “expose” and “rebuke”.


Cal - #62265

June 6th 2011

Yeah I’ve picked up on that idea. It is sort of played out in how Jesus says He has not come to condemn the world but to save it, but also that when Jesus came into the world, the world has condemned itself because it was convicted of its guilt (in the murdering of the prophets and then the Prophet, among other things). Another reason Jesus is called the Light of the World, He reveals the criminal activity of those in the dark.


penman - #62209

June 6th 2011

Apologies for joining this thread a bit late…

But I’m confused! Is the essay trying to deny creation ex nihilo? There are two separate questions here:

1 - Does Genesis 1 teach creation ex nihilo?
2 - Was creation created ex nihilo?

You see, I’m inclined (slightly) to say NO to question 1 but (strongly!) YES to question 2. That is, I’m not convinced that Genesis teaches creation ex nihilo; it seems more to be the imposition of form on matter. But I do actually believe in creation ex nihilo. One can believe it on other grounds - grounds other than Genesis 1. I think it’s taught in the New Testament (e.g. John’s prologue). And I think it’s a necessary inference from any kind of monotheism. If we deny creation ex nihilo (as opposed to denying that it’s taught in Gen.1), then what alternative have we landed ourselves in? That God & the cosmos are co-eternal?

BUT…. If God & the cosmos are co-eternal, on what basis do they each exist? Is there some third reality grounding them both? Or do they just face each other eternally as brute facts? Is the cosmos as much an Ultimate Fact as the Lord of the cosmos? We’re in slight trouble theologically if we make ourselves as Ultimate as God, I think.

On the other hand, if we say that an eternal cosmos eternally depends on the eternal God (a sort of “eternal creation” view, which Thomas Aquinas thought was conceivable albeit not actually true), then we haven’t really escaped the omnipotent “masculine” God. He’s still there as the eternal Superior of creation, its absolute ontological source (though no longer in a temporal sense), without whom it wouldn’t even exist. And if this eternal cosmos eternally exists for the sole reason that God has chosen that it shall exist, He must also have chosen what kind of cosmos it would be. That’s a divine superiority & sovereignty compared to which a master-slave relationship would be a mere trifle.


Peter Hickman - #62289

June 7th 2011

Joining the thread even later ....

It seems to me that the Scriptures do not specifically teach creation ex nihilo.

Taken together Genesis 1 and John 1 state that God made everything. I assume that these are references to the material universe that we inhabit rather than the spiritual realm (albeit creation of non-material things cannot be excluded). However, it does not necessarily follow from this, because nothing was made without God and everything was made by God, that all things were made out of nothing.

Another scripture, Hebrews 11:3 is worthy of consideration: ‘The universe was formed at God’s command, so that what is seen was not made out of what was visible’.

The writer does not say that what is seen was created out of nothing.
He could have done so - and explicitly taught ex nihilo creation - but for whatever reason he did not.
Is it reasonable to suggest, from the way the verse is phrased, that the writer thought that what we can see was made out of something we can’t see? Maybe.

I’m with you that the cosmos is not co-eternal with God, but I can’t be sure that God did not make the visible, material cosmos from something rather than nothing.


Roger A. Sawtelle - #62266

June 6th 2011

Please do not describe God or the workings of God in either/or dualistic terms.

God is not a simplistic either/or Being.  God is a Complex/One both/and Being. 

God created both male and female in God’s own Image, because God is a diverse Being Who loves diversity.  God does not work unilaterally for God’s own sake, but works for the benefit and well being of all God’s creatures, even the ones not yet created.

God the Father created with God the Word (Logos) and God the Spirit (Wind).  Diversity means cooperation, mutualism, and love, which is what God is all about.


Paul DeBaufer - #62323

June 8th 2011

I love the poetry of creatio ex improvisatio.

Ican’t subscribe to the Kantian view of how the artist creates. There is no ex nihilo creating in the human realm. Seems that the artist is wanting to communicate something, a view of the world. That seeds her creativity. The ideas do not come from nothing, they come from something.

I see in the Genesis narrative God creating from existing chaos, existing matter. Creatio ex chaosmos. Tom Oord in both Defining Love and The Nature of Love suggests that God has always created from that which has already existed. He still affirms that there was nothing before God. This is a challenging idea for the Modern mind, we tend to want to go to some beginning to claim ex nihilo but in this idea we cannot do that because there is this eternal creating. It takes us into the mystery of God, as does creatio ex  improvisatio.

As I started I love the poetry of creatio ex improvisatio. I love the beauty and creativity of it and it fits the Biblical account.


KevinR - #62355

June 9th 2011

Isn’t it strange that the author and Ms. Keller assert that things were
not created from nothing, but doesn’t produce any other text from the
bible to support that view. I always thought that the bible itself
should be used to interpret or clarify issues which arise.
Instead we
find a whole discussion on what outsiders have to say about it- with
really scant regard for making the case from within. It really rings
absolutely hollow, showing that the discussion attributes much more
authority to the opinions of human beings than the word of God.

The
viewpoint is also very singular and does not consider the different
ways that the scripture could be interpreted, as others have already
shown above. This too makes it a one-sided, biased view, not worthy of
any serious thought.


BobRN - #62412

June 10th 2011


This article is an excellant example of why it is necessary to read the Scriptures according to the tradition of the Church.  Otherwise, there is the temptation to lay aside established, orthodox doctrine and rely on our own musings.  That Ms. Keller “writes as a feminist theologian” is problematic, for feminist theology is a theology with an agenda.  It is no longer “faith seeking understanding” but “speculation seeking to prop up my personal take on things.”

“By the Lord’s word the heavens were made; by the breath of his mouth all their host. ... For he spoke, and it came to be, commanded, and it stood in place.”  Ps. 33:6, 9

Consider this in light of John 1 - “In the beginning was the Word…”

“I beg you, child, to look at the heavens and the earth and see all that his in them; then you will know that God did not make them out of existing things; and in the same way the human race came into existence.”  2 Macc. 7:28

“God of my fathers, Lord of mercy, you have made all things by your word.”  Wis. 9:1

Again, “In the beginning was the Word…”

”[Abraham] is our father in the sight of God, in whom he believed, who gives life to the dead and calls into being what does not exist.”  Rom. 4:17

“He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation.  For in him were created all things in heaven and on earth, the visible and invisible ... all things were created through him and for him.”  Col. 1:15-16

“We hold, however, the rule of truth, according to which there is one almighty God, who formed all things through His Word, and fashioned and made all things which exist out of that which did not exist ...
“Men, indeed, are not able to make something from nothing, but only from existing material.  God, however, is greater than men first of all in this: that when nothing existed beforehand, He called into existence the very material for His creation.”
St. Irenaeus, Against Heresies, inter AD 180/199

“There is only one God, and none other besides Him; the Creator of the world who brought forth all things out of nothing through His Word, first of all sent forth.”
Tertullian, The Demurrer Against the Heretics, c. AD 200

“Only His Word is from Himself, and is therefore also God, becoming the substance of God.  The world was made from nothing.”   St. Hippolytus of Rome, Refutation of All Heresies, post. AD 222

“The specific points which are clearly handed down through the apostolic preaching are these: First, that there is one God who created and arranged all things, and who, when nothing existed, called all things into existence; ...”  Origen, The Fundamental Doctrines, inter AD 220-230

“God, before all those things that now attract our notice existed, after casting about in his mind and determining to bring into being time which had no being, imagined the world such as it ought to be and created matter in harmony with the form that he wished to give it.”  St. Basil the Great, Hexaemeron, post. 350

”[God] immediately and from all time fashioned each creature out of nothing, spiritual and corporeal, namely angelic and mundane; and then the human creation, common as it were, composed of both spirit and body.”  Lateran Council IV, can. 2 and 5, 1215



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