Wednesday 6 September 2006

Theology for beginners (11): Creatures

Summary: Through the life-giving Spirit, God’s creatures exist as a rich plurality of related beings; and the source, goal and meaning of all these creatures is grace.

What, then, does it mean to be a creature? First and foremost, the word “creature” describes a relationship between God and something other than God. To be a creature is to stand in relation to God. To be a creature is to be addressed and summoned by God. Further, all creatures exist not only in relation to God, but also in relation to each other. All created things thus exist in dependence on God and in mutual interdependence – so that to be a creature is to be related.

This creaturely relatedness takes place in a world of unimaginable plurality. The whole created world is characterised by diversity, plurality and difference. Since the universe exploded into being some 13.7 billion years ago, it has expanded and developed into ever more complex and diverse forms. Within the last 3.5 billion years, our own planet has become home to life in innumerable species and variations. Such plurality is an essential aspect of what it means to be a creature. And this plurality is the work of God’s Spirit which accompanies and indwells all creatures. The Spirit is God himself as life-giver – the Spirit accompanies the created world and brings forth life in ever greater complexity and plurality. The Spirit creates and nurtures life – or rather, the Spirit is life, the life of all creatures. This creative, energising Spirit is the same Spirit who raised Jesus from the dead. And so, in giving life to creation, the Spirit is always the Spirit of the future, the one who prepares all creatures and summons them towards their goal of participation in the life of God’s future.

Thus through the power of the Spirit, the world that God makes is a world of irreducible difference. This difference echoes the dynamic triunity of God’s own life: God himself is rich in relations, and irreducible differences constitute the unity and harmony of God’s own life as Father, Son and Spirit. Through the Spirit, creatures therefore echo God’s own richness of difference – so that the plurality of the created world forms a symphony of praise to the life of its creator.

Further, the differences within the created world are physical differences. To be a creature is to be physically located in space-time in relation to other creatures. There is no deeper disembodied or “spiritual” plane on which the material world finds its true goodness or true reality. Rather, the world which God calls “very good” is precisely our physical space-time cosmos. The world’s sheer physicality is its goodness; the embodied existence of creatures is their true reality. God affirms the world that he creates – and, more than that, God himself enters into this world as a body, as a biological creature of flesh and blood. All attempts to escape or transcend the embodied physicality of creatureliness are thus denials of God the creator – the God who calls our world “very good.”

The created world, then, is a plurality of physical things which exist in relation to God and to one another. And this also means that creatureliness is a gift. A creature does not derive its existence from itself. Its existence is simply there. To recognise myself as a creature is to recognise my mysterious thereness – I simply find myself in the world, I find myself depending on God and on other creatures, I find that my life has been given to me as an undeserved gift.

Thus to be a creature is to exist as an expression of God’s generosity and grace. And such grace is not merely incidental: it is the very essence of creatureliness. At every moment, the created world exists by this grace. At every moment, it is grace that upholds the creation, preserving it and carrying it forwards. To be a creature is to be open to God’s grace. Grace is not foreign to creatures. It is not an alien interruption of the created world. Rather, nothing is more suitable to creatures than the grace of God – for creatures already have their being solely through the gift of grace.

Moreover, the life of God’s grace is the goal of all creatures. In the resurrection of Jesus from the dead, God’s future breaks into the world and reveals for the first time the final goal and meaning of creation. In the resurrection of Jesus, one of God’s creatures – one particular member of the human species – is raised by the Spirit into the life of the future. Jesus remains a real human, he remains a creature – but the life-giving Spirit transforms his creatureliness into a new creation, so that Jesus becomes the first new creature of God’s kingdom, the one who arrives at history’s goal ahead of time. Thus the risen Jesus lives from the future, as the goal of all history. His risen life is the “first fruits” of a renewed creation, and he thus summons all creatures towards their destiny.

It is here, then, in the risen Jesus, that all reality finds its goal! It is here that all creatures are gathered together in anticipation of a new creation – the new creation of God’s future kingdom! And thus it is here, in the resurrected life of Jesus, that the created world as a whole appears in its true light as a world of meaning and grace and destiny.

In the resurrection of Jesus from the dead, then, the beauty of the created world is finally seen – with startling clarity – as the beauty of the triune God who generously gathers all creation into his own life, into the life of the future.

Further reading

  • Hardy, Daniel W. God’s Way with the World (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1996), pp. 151-70.
  • Hart, David Bentley. The Beauty of the Infinite (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2003), pp. 249-318.
  • Jenson, Robert W. Systematic Theology, Vol. 2 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999), pp. 29-49.
  • de Lubac, Henri. The Mystery of the Supernatural (New York: Herder & Herder, 1967).
  • Moltmann, Jürgen. God in Creation (London: SCM, 1985), pp. 104-214.
  • Pannenberg, Wolfhart. Systematic Theology, Vol. 2 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1994), pp. 59-161.
  • Torrance. T. F. Divine and Contingent Order (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1981).


Anonymous said...

A treasure trove of a post, both brilliant and beautiful, with a gem in every paragraph: the splicing of scientific and theological discourses; the embedding of creaturely diversity and difference in the Trinity; the joy and goodness of embodiment; and grace, grace, grace! - who says Reformed theologians don't do justice to the doctrine of the Creator and his creation/creatures? Thanks, Ben!

byron smith said...

Thanks Ben. I really enjoyed this one too. Dependence is a good thing! What a subversive message in our society.

David W. Congdon said...

Indeed, a very good post. However, I would want to be careful about how closely you identify Jesus with the rest of God's creatures. Of course, I agree with this, but you come rather close to adoptionism if you do not also affirm that God self-determined to become this particular creature. I realize this is not a post on Christology, but what you need to insist on is the assumptio carnis, in which Jesus is not just another creature who happens to be raised into the future; Jesus is rather the electing and elected one of God who takes on human nature so that his particularity stands in place of the generality of all humankind. Jesus' creatureliness is taken on by God from the beginning (incarnation); it is not simply taken on by God at the end (resurrection). We need both sides equally and fully.

byron smith said...

Thanks again for this post. I've been thinking about grace and nature: Grace is not foreign to creatures.

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