Tuesday, 24 November 2009

Covenant precedes creation

Much of my own research and writing over the past year has focused on the Barthian theme of the priority of salvation over creation. God's act in Christ "precedes" the creation of the world, and is its foundation. Just this morning, I came across this nice passage:

The history of salvation is not a small event, on a poor planet, in the immensity of the universe. It is not a minimal thing which happens by chance on a lost planet. It is the motive for everything, the motive for creation. Everything is created so that this story can exist – the encounter between God and his creature. In this sense, salvation history, the covenant, precedes creation. During the Hellenistic period, Judaism developed the idea that the Torah would have preceded the creation of the material world. This material world seems to have been created solely to make room for the Torah, for this Word of God that creates the answer and becomes the history of love. The mystery of Christ already is mysteriously revealed here.... One can say that, while material creation is the condition for the history of salvation, the history of the covenant is the true cause of the cosmos.
No, that was not a quote from Karl Barth. It's Benedict XVI, speaking in a recent meditation on Psalm 118 – as cited in the immensely enjoyable new book by Scott W. Hahn, Covenant and Communion: The Biblical Theology of Pope Benedict XVI (Brazos Press 2009), p. 23.

22 Comments:

Spencer said...

How does "covenant preceding creation" explain God's "punishment" of Adam & Eve, i.e., humanity? Does "covenant preceding creation" do a major overhaul on Old Testament hermeneutic? I'm thinking this viewpoint would place Adam and Eve as symbols of humanity rather than actual persons (which I am okay with)and would shock fundamentalists like crazy. What sources are out there to help explain such a theological viewpoint, exegetically and hermeneutically?

Derrick said...

How would you respond to David Bentley Hart's (and others, of course) critique that this type of precedence of salvation (or covenant) over creation seems to quite literally imply that "this story's" horrors are ontologically grounded in what appears to be a modified supralapsarian decision of God? Or perhaps the other side of the question, would in your opinion, those like Benedict XVI and others who write "everything is created so this story can exist" actually be implicated by Hart's critique? Is this something they have to accept or is there a "way out" so to speak of this potential implication of their theology?

Nathaniel Drake Carlson said...

I'd like to second Derrick's question. It seems a really good one to me and I'd love to hear an answer to it.

Lee said...

Granted I don't have the context, but the quote only seems to make this idea plausible by reading salvation in such a broad sense ("the encounter between God and his creature") that it threatens to collapse the distinction between salvation and creation. After all, isn't it trivially true that creation is a necessary condition of God encountering a creature? A more narrow reading (e.g., that the entire cosmos exists just for the sake of humanity) is pretty hard to swallow on both cosmological and biblical grounds.

Zac said...

Is there not also some confusion here over the term creation? What exactly does creation mean? Ben has specified "creation of the world" and with this specification, I think Benedict XVI is right. However, the problem is that theologically "creation" implies more. I think if we want to speak from Hart's perspective, we have to make the distinction between the creation which Hart calls the "posterior creation, the temporal exposition of the divine model, its cosmic and historical effoliation, which from the creaturely vantage appears to precede the eternal form that, in fact, guides it" and the "a prior (or eternal) creation that abides in God.." (BOTI, 403). If we speak of creation in the sense of "posterior" creation, then I think it would be accurate, even from a Hartian perspective, to say that covenant preceds creation. However, if we are speaking about "a prior (or eternal)" creation, then we say that covenant and creation, as part of the same internal divine movement, occur together. This is why for Hart, "the eschatological vindication of creation is, once again, creation" (BOTI, 397-398)

Just some thoughts.

Zac

Bob Covolo said...

I like where you're going with this Zac. The vantage point of revelation includes both reading the story back on itself (covenantal redemptive history), but not in a way that omits the actual order of the story (creation, fall, covenant). This is not to say that one can not expand the sense of "covenant" to include creation...but covenant then becomes a reism.

Ben, how does your account of covenant preceding creation account for both forward and backward readings?

Anonymous said...

There’s a movie that has the same sort of thought. Have you seen Everything is Illuminated? It’s the story of young American Jewish man who goes back to where his grandfather came from in the Ukraine, to find the woman who saved his life in WWII.
He eventually finds the one survivor left from the village, who has saved up pieces of all the lives of the people there. She gives the young man the wedding ring of her sister, who married her grandfather and saved his life, with this explanation as to why she buried the ring before she was killed by Nazis:
She wants to know why Augustine buried her wedding ring...
...when she thought she would be killed.
So there'd be proof that she existed?
To remember her.
- No. I don't think so.
In case...
In case someone should come searching one day.
So they would have something to find.
- No, it does not exist for you.
- You exist for it.
- You have come because it exists.
She says the ring is not here because of us.
We are here because of the ring.

What’s attractive about the proposition that salvation is prior to creation is that it affirms there’s a lot we don’t know, and that’s wonderful. The picture that salvation is reactive to the fall is too nice and neat, and appeals too much to our having stories that make a sort of sense to us, but don’t lead us into the mystery of God. It reminds me a bit of Julian of Norwich, in the parts where she talks about how we’ll understand later how sin leads to a greater bliss than had it not happened.

Aren’t there passages that suggest the whole of creation is being redeemed, not just this planet? The whole of creation being redeemed reinforces the perspective that salvation is something more than wiping up a mess, but the process of theosis, where God starts with a creature, and in the end there a multitude who have become sons…

-Ann

Austin said...

I feel like I was set up and then the rug was pulled from beneath me!! ;)

Andrew Esqueda said...

I may be wrong, but I think we might be missing the point of what Ben is trying to get at. I think that the Barthian idea that salvation/covenant precedes creation has more to do with the God's being than the created order. Ben said above, "God's act in Christ "precedes" the creation of the world, and is its foundation." The is in relation to the election of Christ and the Barthian concept that God's actions constitute God's being. So, God's constitution of God's self as trinity also constitutes God's saving act in Jesus Christ. If this is the case than the salvation has to be logically prior to the creation of the world.

-Andrew

Bob Covolo said...

Hi Andrew,

How fun to be on a thread of F & T together! :-)

So...

Is the triune nature of God an action? Is the election of Christ possible without the concept of an election "to" something?

You always help me understand a Barthian approach...

Andrew Esqueda said...

Hey Bob, I was excited when I saw you made a comment. It's always fun to see when friends chime in on theological threads.

To answer your question, I am not sure that I want to say that the triune nature of God is an action. To better state my point, I would say that God's decision to be God for humanity, in the person of Jesus Christ, is a primal event in God's being, which also constitutes himself in trinity. This is what is argued by Bruce McCormack in "Orthodox and Modern."

I would say that you are correct in saying that the election of Christ necessitates and election "to" something. The election of Christ has a two-fold purpose, electing Christ to be God for humanity and in this action, constituting God's being in trinity.

This is why salvation/covenant precedes creation. In God's primal decision to be God for humanity, he constitutes the actions of Christ on the cross before the creation of the world.

I hope this helps

Andrew Esqueda said...

Sorry, I said this in the third paragraph of my last comment.
"The election of Christ has a two-fold purpose, electing Christ to be God for humanity and in this action, constituting God's being in trinity"

I should have said:

"The election of Christ has a two-fold purpose, electing Christ to be God for humanity and in this event, constituting God's being in trintiy."

AndrewM said...

Andrew, if that is what Ben means, I doubt very much that it is what the Benedict means.
His thinking seems very typical of Franciscan (esp.) exemplarism which sees the Word as medium/centre in both the Trinity and creation. But he/they would never say that the former depends on the latter.

Ben Myers said...

This has been an interesting discussion. Sorry I haven't really been able to contribute: my life at the moment is a continual blur of grading papers...

Anyway, just to add one more quick response to Derrick's question, whether "this type of precedence of salvation over creation seems to imply that 'this story's' horrors are ontologically grounded in a modified supralapsarian decision of God?" If you're interested, Robert Jenson has a whole book on this (Alpha and Omega), where he develops a Barthian riff on the medieval argument that the Son of God would still have become incarnate, even if Adam had not sinned. In other words, "supralapsarianism" is really just "supra-creationism" — it doesn't necessarily depend on the idea that evil plays any positive role in God's economy.

AndrewM said...

Do you think that's a legitimate idea, Ben?
Funnily, I have just been reading about that debate this week, and the Scotus(Deutz/Grosseteste) line seems way more Neoplatonist than scriptural.
How does the recapitulation of humanity in Christ come about *except* through Christ's remedy? Or is it just a mystery? Maybe I need to read Jenson.

Andrew Esqueda said...

AndrewM,

I wasn't necessarily saying that's what Benedict was saying. My suggestion was only that we might be missing the point, but I also noted that I might be wrong.

Ben, can you fill us in on what your basis for arguing the priority of salvation/covenant over creation is?

Derrick said...

Thanks for the Alpha and Omega reference Ben, that is one of Jenson's works I have not yet read Ill have to check it out. That type of "Barthian riff on the Medieval argument" for the necessity of incarnation without sin is an interesting concept and I assume might fill out Jenson's otherwise quite cryptic and repeated comments throughout the 2 volume systematics that God could have been "otherwise" than He is for us in this history, but that we can not comment on that speculative idea much further.

ryannewson said...

I find some echoes of this conversation in parts of Moltmann, as well.

"In God's primal decision to be God for humanity, he constitutes the actions of Christ on the cross before the creation of the world."

I like this a lot. A question: does this mean that God chooses to be the KIND of God that ultimately, eternally manifests itself in the cross? Could this lead to a depoliticized reading of the cross-event in Jesus' life in Palestine?

ryannewson said...

"Could this lead to a depoliticized reading of the cross-event in Jesus' life in Palestine?" Or could just the opposite be the case?

Luke said...

Ratzinger was very influenced by Barth, not least by Barth's doctrine of election (cf. R's Meaning of Christian Brotherhood). In fact, this influence makes Hahn's love of Ratzinger's theology rather humorous (to me). Hahn left the Reformed because he found that the Roman Catholics (esp. Ratzinger) had a better understanding of covenant, but Ratzinger only came to this position because of his interaction with Barth.

Karl Barth, aged 74 said...

Creation is not an end in itself but the area and ground of God's great final work of redemption. Calvin said that the world as God created it is the theatrum gloriae Dei, the theater of God's glory. God's glory is what he does in the world, but in order to do what he does, he must have this theater, this place and realm-heaven and earth, creation, the creature, man himself. That's the relation between creation and redemption seen from the side of creation. From the side of redemption, I would say that redemption is the end and goal of God's will for the world and creation. Redemption is God's glory in the realization of his mercy towards his creation and his creature. Creation is the natural ground for redemption, and redemption is the spiritual ground of creation.

Anonymous said...

The history of salvation is not a small event, on a poor planet, in the immensity of the universe. It is not a minimal thing which happens by chance on a lost planet. It is the motive for everything, the motive for creation. Everything is created so that this story can exist...

This sounds like an attempt to resurrect a grandiose version of the old Ptolomaic cosmos.

Post a Comment

New book

Archive

Contact

Although I'm not always able to reply to all emails, please feel free to contact me.

Faith and Theology © 2008. Template by Dicas Blogger.

TOPO