Creation History and Covenant

An agenda emerges: the doctrine of creation provides a theological context for the consideration of political norms of goodness in the determination of what is the case universally, and by which the polity is referred to God. To develop this point, some account of the origins of the doctrine is required, as well as a reading of its political implications, especially in connection with covenant.

How might a Christian doctrine of creation be construed? First, creation is the free, unconstrained act of God. Creation is to be understood not as necessary but as contingent: traditionally, this rule has been glossed as creatio ex nihilo [creation out of nothing]. In other words, God creates out of God's freedom and will;

there is no pre-existing material nor any resistance to God's will. Creation in its entirety is the result of God's action. "God's relation to the world is like this: not a struggle with pre-existing disorder that is then moulded into a shape, but a pure summons" (Williams 2000: 68). Creation is the free decision of the social God: a gratuitous action. God has no "need" of creation; creating is rather an action of God's love. Against pantheism, we may conclude, the world is contingent, that is, not necessary; it is thereby truly other to God. When God wills to be not-God, creation comes to be. As such, this is the first "political" act: "God does not want to be everything" (Pohier 1985: 266). In such a "political" act, God makes room by means of a desire not to be everything, which eventuates in a movement outward that we call the world. In making room, creatures come to be in an ordering in time and space. If creation is the first salvific act (GutiƩrrez 1988: 86-7), it is founded in the first "political" act: a Godly willing that others be.

Second, the order of creation is dependent on God's act. The act of creation is not to be understood as only concerned with a beginning but also with the middle and the end of the world. Nor is creation to be understood as an immanent, creative process; the notion of natura naturans is rejected by mainstream Christianity. In sum, the world is internally related to God: it exists, and continues to exist, on account of God's loving purposes. An account of creation that is externally related to God, as in deism's interpretation of creation as machine, is ruled out.

It is likely that the theme of creatio ex nihilo has its source in Israel's understanding of the activity of God in the covenant. For example, Rowan Williams traces the theme of creation out of nothing to Israel's return from Babylonian captivity:

This deliverance, decisive and unexpected, is like a second Exodus; and the Exodus in turn comes to be seen as a sort of recapitulation of creation. Out of a situation where there is no identity, where there are no names, only the anonymity of slavery or the powerlessness of the ghetto, God makes a human community, calls it by name (Is. 40-55), gives it or restores to it a community. But this act is not a process by which shape is imposed on chaos; it is a summons, a call which establishes the very possibility of an answer. (Williams 2000: 67-8)

Moreover, in mainstream Christian tradition, there can be no discussion of covenant or deliverance except by reference to Jesus Christ (cf. John 1: 1-18). Thus creation is always understood to be an event related to Incarnation. For the movement of God in Incarnation has to do with the liberation and transformation of creation. In other words, creation is understood to be a trinitarian action: creation is the external action of the triune God.

A tendency to contrast creation with history should, in this perspective, be rejected. It is indeed tempting to see creation as a backdrop to human endeavors. There are many inducements in contemporary Western culture to support such a view. Instead, creation should always be seen as co-present (Hardy 1996:

189), as in-between, in every human endeavor. Creation itself has a history which is profoundly interwoven with the history of humanity. Indeed, such a formulation does not do justice to the matter: there are not two histories - the one of creation, the other of humanity - but instead a single history in which humanity and nature are co-participants (Scott 2003). Moreover, if creation is understood as a static backdrop, a more conservative account of history than is required by Christian theology may result. For a political theology, creation should not be collapsed into protology.

Creation on this view is historical and salvific: ordered and receiving its purposes from the salvific purposes of God. In other words, creation is other to God (created out of nothing), settled and yet open. The ordering proposed here is determinate (it is the gift of God in creation) but not fixed, properly proportioned yet receiving its realization from outside itself. The combination of these aspects requires that creation be understood as stable yet open to reorientation. The relation of these aspects is of decisive importance. Why so? To stress the order at the expense of the openness is to apply to creation for the legitimation of "what is." To overstress the openness is to claim that creaturely structures have their order only by imputation and not in the manner of the receipt of a gift, thereby denying their goodness. The first stresses the time-invariant features of creation, the second the time-variant aspects. This is not a distinction between space and time but between those aspects which enjoy regularity through time and those forms that change more rapidly. In terms of the earlier discussion, in a political order the time-invariant aspects refer us to the ecological and then the economic and the time-variant aspects refer to the political and legal. Getting the relationship right between these two is vital: to overstress the time-invariant aspects can be employed to declare that a social order is poor and fixed and therefore cannot afford justice. Or the time-variant aspects may be overemphasized to claim that change will in and of itself produce justice. As Raymond Williams (1989: 222) notes, both options must be refused.

We now see the reason why political theology tends to be suspicious of the doctrine of creation. To affirm only the time-invariant aspect proposes a static view of the created order: " 'Order' is most often an ideological disguise for domination, repression and persecution. . . . Ideologically, the ultimate appeal to justify order goes back to God's creation" (Westhelle 1998: 149). Or, as Ruether (1983: 85) states, what must be criticized is "the model of hierarchy that starts with non-material spirit (God) as the source of the chain of being and continues down to nonspiritual 'matter' as the bottom of the chain of being and the most inferior, valueless, and dominated point in the chain of command." By contrast, to affirm only the time-variant aspect thrusts the political order into a state of flux in which change is confused with restlessness, goodness with wildness, and in which social agency is denied. What is required is the relating of these two aspects, which anyhow are always mutually implicated.

We have seen already that the origins of the doctrine of creation out of nothing may be traced to the way in which YHWH establishes a community from no-community - in other words, creation indicates "associations of different, interdependent creaturely realms" (Welker 1999: 13) given their purposes by God - and also that the relationship of Creator to creature has determinate content. In Judeo-Christian tradition this relationship is called a covenant. Law, as may be seen in the development of covenant between YHWH and Israel, is central to covenant: the giving of the Mosaic Law at Sinai is the classic case (Exodus 19, 20). Yet such law serves the covenantal promises (and not vice versa): law should then be understood as dynamic, as offering a normative account of order in and through which the responsibilities of the community are shaped and turned outward. In line with such an understanding, Jesus' golden rule makes this shape and movement clear: "So always treat others as you would like them to treat you; that is the Law and the Prophets" (Matt. 7: 12; cf. Luke 6: 31).

What is the relation between creation and covenant in a political theology? In a famous formulation, Barth (1958) argues that the covenant is the internal basis of creation. As such, the covenant is to be understood as the rationale of creation: the "material presupposition" of creation. Creation in turn is interpreted as the external basis of the covenant: creation is not the condition or backdrop of the covenant but indicates that humanity in its nature is destined for the covenant. Goodness is not to be regarded simply as the outcome of a process as if goodness were a property of humanity. Instead, goodness is to be associated with covenant: a promissory agreement which establishes community and engenders trust, and without which social life is profoundly impoverished.

So far I have argued that the doctrine of creation is the theological location for the consideration of social order and of the norm of goodness by which a society must organize itself. Furthermore, the doctrine of creatio ex nihilo affirms that the present order is divine gift but should not be considered as fixed. The actuality of covenant reinforces and develops this view: creaturely forms are not denied but rather taken up into the promissory character and ex-centric dynamic of covenantal relations. Now it is time to consider some of the ways in which creation has figured in political theology and to review briefly the animated discussion of ecology in the doctrine of creation.

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