Justo González on Creation
Resources Editor Kathryn Applegate reflects on historian Justo L. González's book Creation: The Apple of God’s Eye.
I love getting mail. Recently I received a package from Fernando Cascante, Executive Director of Asociación para la Educación Teológica (AETH). As the name implies, AETH promotes Hispanic theological education, and Fernando is a great ambassador for the mission.
What Fernando sent was a pair of slim books—English and Spanish versions of Creation: The Apple of God’s Eye by Justo L. González (Abingdon Press, 2015). I have hung around seminarians enough to know that González is a preeminent scholar and teacher of church history and doctrine. Having not read his work myself, though, I didn’t know what to expect, either in terms of perspective or style.
In so many ways, I was delighted. Creation has much to commend it. For one thing, it’s brief—less than 100 pages—and each of the seven chapters has a handful of discussion questions, making it perfect for small group use.
For those who are new to or intimidated by the origins conversation, it’s a great introduction to a few key topics (e.g. What is the doctrine of creation? Hint: it’s not about the how of creation, but the who and for what). For people wounded in the creation/evolution culture war, the book is a salve—González plays peacemaker, making space for Christians with differing views about the how of creation to find common ground. As William Willimon writes in the introduction of the English version, “Dr. González has not simply written an explication of correct Christian doctrine; he has written a story about the love that creates something out of nothing, beauty out of chaos, and generates life out of death, love that moves the sun, the moon, and stars.” It is hard to fight if your foundation is love.
González displays an unusual blend of provocation and pastoral sensitivity in this book. For instance, in Chapter 2, “Creation as an Act of Love,” he doesn’t mince words regarding the early chapters of Genesis:
No matter how one explains the differences between the two creation stories in Genesis, there is no doubt that in the first chapters of Genesis there are two stories and that if these are taken as actual accounts of the process of creation they are clearly incompatible—which means that we cannot take them literally; if we did so they would be contradicting one another. (p. 14)
This is likely to raise hackles in some quarters. The differences González refers to here relate to the timeline of events in creation. In Genesis 1, God makes people—male and female at the same time—only after the rest of creation is complete. In Genesis 2, God creates Adam first, then the animals, and then finally Eve.
Interpreters through the ages have bent over backwards to make these two accounts fit together, and skeptics have often cited their discord as proof of the inconsistency of the Bible. González, on the other hand, turns this apparent weakness of the Bible into a strength. Multiple accounts in Scripture invite us into deeper reflection about the purpose of the text. In the Gospels, González reminds us, we have four accounts of Jesus’ life and teaching: “When we read the Gospels we are not particularly concerned with whether it is Matthew or Luke that has the Beatitudes right. We neither discard one of them nor simply compile them into one. We use each to enrich the other as well as to force us to look more deeply into their meaning” (p. 16). So, too, it is with Genesis.
The most provocative part of the book, to me, is Chapter 4 (“Enter Evil”). Here González discusses theodicy, the problem of how evil can exist in a world created by a good and all-powerful God. After explaining the problem, he writes, “We affirm that God is powerful, that God is loving, and that evil is real. Therefore, we must openly and unashamedly confess that we do not understand evil” (p. 52). It’s a mystery, he concludes, but he doesn’t end there.
González walks us through fourth-century theologian St. Augustine’s response to theodicy, which ultimately can be summed up this way: “the cause of evil is free will, which itself is good, but which can be used for evil and can make good things evil by placing them at a level where they do not belong” (p. 56). (Those familiar with the writings of Tim Keller will recognize this idea: idolatry is making good things into ultimate things; see Counterfeit Gods.)
Augustine’s explanation only goes part of the way, however; it doesn’t explain natural evil. González writes,
There is every indication that long before any humans trod the earth there were earthquakes , volcanoes, and cataclysmic occurrences in which thousands of species and entire ecosystems were destroyed. Given what we now know of the origins of the universe and of the human species, to say that all evil is the consequence of human sin is hardly believable. (p. 57)
That’s a pretty strong statement, to say the least, but one that fits well with our views here at BioLogos.
González goes on to discuss two metaphors that give voice to the mystery of evil, even if they don’t fully explain it. The first is that of the Fall. Many Christians I know are far from comfortable using the term “metaphor” for what—to them—is clearly a historical event. But for González, the fact that violence existed on earth prior to humans is evidence enough that it is a metaphor—albeit a valuable one, since it “clearly reminds us that creation is not what God wills it to be” (p. 59).
The other metaphor he describes, also common in the church fathers, is best known through the writings of Irenaeus, who “saw [the Genesis creation narratives] not as the story of a completed creation but rather as the story of the beginning of a process that would eventually lead to Jesus and then to the final reign of God” (p. 60). This metaphor is about a creation moving toward completion.
Both narratives are helpful, in final analysis, because both are grounded in Scripture. Anyone concerned that González is treading into theologically unorthodox waters by all this talk of metaphors may be reassured by his clear affirmation of both the deeply pervasive nature of evil in every human heart and the goodness and power of God to bring forth his purposes for creation in love.
Have you read Creation? Has anyone used it in a small group setting? Thoughts?
About the author
If you enjoyed this article, we recommend you check out the following resources:
Creation Groans | Hope on the Other Side
Creation Groans | Into the Darkness
Creation Groans | World of Wounds