talking points…

Eustace: “In our world, a star is a huge ball of flaming gas.”                Ramandu: “Even in our world, my son, that is not what a star is, but only what it is made of.”   

Ramandu, the “retired” star, imparts age-old wisdom to Eustace, the smart school-boy, in C. S. Lewis’ tale, Voyage of the Dawn Treader.

Close-up of white dwarf stars at center of Milky Way galaxy (Hubble, NASA)

What is a star?  Is it a huge ball of flaming gas?  Or is it a piercing point of light that skewers the darkness of night with a fire that sears the apprehending soul?  Yes.  And, No.  One definition strives for quantifiable exactness, while the other revels in the sensation of something too awesome for words.  Both descriptions say something true, and yet each falls far short of reality. Both answers might fairly be deemed “Star-Talk”, that is, talking about stars with the intent of saying something important.  But of course, as the wise old Ramandu knows from first-person experience, a star itself is more than either answer can express.

Theology is like that too.  We might as well call it “God-Talk”.  We can use all kinds of language to describe God: in terms of metaphysical attributes, personal qualities, and worshipful encounters, and of course there are the names recorded in the Bible.  Do any of these words tell us who God is?  Yes.  And, No.  Yes, but only in the event of his self-disclosure, and not in the power of our language to contain Him or define him.

For God-Talk to succeed in its goal of expressing something important, requires a posture of worship, in which we recognize God as the one who makes himself known.  Otherwise God-Talk too quickly devolves into metaphysics, psychology or philosophy, setting aside ultimate reality in the pursuit of a self-referential coherence.  Likewise, Star-Talk can devolve into physics, and set ultimate reality aside in the pursuit of a coherent self-referential mathematical language.  This is not to deny the validity of the physics and math; they are not false; they are true.  We need them, and value them for their coherence.  It’s just that they don’t capture ultimate reality.  To know what a star is, the scientist needs to apprehend the star, not just talk about the star.  God-Talk is like that, too.

Has God stopped creating, or is he still at work as Creator?  The creation is clearly complete in some important sense, for “on the seventh day God finished the work that he had done, and he rested on the seventh day from all the work that he had done” [Gen. 2:2].  Yet in another sense we know that God is still at work, as Jesus said in explanation for the miracle of healing he performed on the Sabbath: “My Father is still working, and I also am working” [John 5:17].  Herein lies another beautiful paradox of theology, another paradox which seems to deny the simplicity of either/or questions.  The question of God’s on-going activity in the creation seems to demand an answer in the form of “both/and”, in order to sustain two paradoxical truths: God finished the creation and rested, and yet the creation is made new by the trinitarian living God.[1]Baptism of Jesus

This paradox expresses the heart of the debate over the idea of “continuous creation” – the idea that God is still actively exercising creative power.   As a scientist-theologian, John Polkinghorne reads “the book of nature” as providing strong evidence for the on-going creative activity of God:

The scientific recognition of the evolutionary character of the universe has encouraged theological recognition of the immanent presence of God to creation and of the need to complement the concept of creatio ex nihilo by a concept of creatio continua.  Continuous creation has been an important theme in the writings of the scientist-theologians.[2]

Continual creation also finds support in trinitarian theology, for the doctrine of God would seem to require some form of on-going creative activity, if we are to avoid the reductionist idea of God as the maker of a “clockwork universe”-a god who created the cosmos and then stepped aside to let it run on its own.  This is the basic idea of Deism: that God has stopped working.  We reject this notion based on the witness of Jesus as still alive and working, both during his ministry in Palestine, and now through the Holy Spirit: He is yet alive, and is the one who says, “See, I am making all things new” [Rev. 21:5].  God also spoke through the prophet: “For I am about to create new heavens and a new earth” [Isaiah 65:17]. 

But there is a risk of carrying this idea of continuous creation too far.  We must keep in mind the sense in which the creation is “finished”, and not contingent upon our human freedom or any random sequence of events. Oliver O’Donovan rightly warns against the mistaken ideas of voluntarism and historicism which imply that human will and behavior are changing the course of God’s creation:

Classical Christian theology took trouble to distinguish between the ideas of ‘creation’ and ‘providence’. … The modern faith in ‘continuous creation’ is merely the latest form in which forgetfulness of this dialectic between order and contingency betrays itself.[3]

By rejecting continuous creation outright, O’Donovan seeks to avoid the slide into relativism which makes our moral judgments arbitrary.  Such relativism occurs if we conceive of the moral order as an evolving function of human choices, rather than as a pre-existent reality established by God at the Creation.  Thus O’Donovan warns: “Creation as a completed design is presupposed by any movement in time.  Its teleological order … is not a product of the historical process.”[4]  With this slide to relativism in mind, O’Donovan rejects the variety of humanistic existentialism that would imply the moral order is a creation of our own imaginations.  O’Donovan thus asks the rhetorical question:

 “Is cosmic order really present in the world, or is it imposed upon reality by the human mind?”[5]

But is this a false dichotomy?  Are we really forced to choose between moral order and existential relativism?  And does relativism really result from the doctrine of continuous creation?  That dichotomy seems to unfairly paint the idea of continuous creation into a (heretical) corner.  Indeed, there is an equally unfair false dichotomy awaiting us  in the opposite direction, if we deny too aggressively the possibility of on-going creation.  The problem is that a categorical denial of the possibility that God is yet active as a creative presence in the creation is tantamount to Deism. Such a move into Deism supports natural theology within a doctrine of God.  Here’s why: If there is no sense in which we may conceive of God as being actively at work in the creation, then we might as well base our doctrine of God on observation of the natural and moral order within the creation. In other words, knowledge of the natural would lead us to understand the mind of God, if we were to presume that God is no longer at work in creation. Polkinghorne recognizes the risk of heading too far in this direction:

 … [A]notion of continuous creation may be expected to go beyond a deistic upholding of the universe in being, for so strong a concept seems inadequately realized in terms of the God of natural theology alone, who is simply the ground of cosmic order.[6]

Thus, we conclude that the either/or alternative of continuous creation vs. relativism is a false dichotomy.   We do not need to deny God’s on-going creativity in order to sustain a coherent doctrine of objective moral order.  Rather, the challenge is to formulate a doctrine of God that encompasses both the possibility of continuous creation and the objective reality of moral order which displays God’s teleological purpose for the creation, without moral reality becoming contingent upon the whims of history brought forth through human freedom. Such a doctrine of God is entirely within the scope of trinitarian theology, for the mystery of participation in Christ encompasses both God’s freedom and human freedom.  This is the biblical witness to the interplay of God and human wills as being within the power of the Holy Spirit.[7]

Polkinghorne offers the helpful suggestion that kenosis provides a fruitful approach to understand the interplay of human and divine freedom:

[T]he Creator’s kenotic love includes allowing divine special providence to act as a cause among causes.[8]

Our doctrine of God can thus remain robustly immune from the dangers of polarizing statements either of (a) existential relativism as a necessary implication of continuous creation; or (b) natural theology as a necessary condition of the objective reality and teleological completeness of the of the moral order.  The “trick”, if there is one, is to sustain the mystery of inescapable paradox in the biblical witness to participation in Christ as the walk of faithful obedience and worship of the Triune God of Grace.[9]  Paradox is unavoidable in Trinitarian theology, and attempts to dispose of the paradox lead us away from the mysterious heart of our relationship with God.  We give Polkinghorne the last word here:

Kenotic theology is inevitably paradoxical theology, for it is founded on the concept of the humility of God.[10]

[1] This need for a balanced “both/and” answer brings to mind the humorous observation of Colin Gunton regarding the task of theology: “To seek ‘balance’ as a primary end in theology is to court boredom, if not disaster; yet imbalance can also be catastrophic.  Such are the difficulties of the discipline.” Act & Being: Towards a Theology of the Divine Attributes (Eerdmans, 2002), p. 20.  We shall see in this paper how imbalance can be catastrophic to the doctrine of God, and we shall seek to remain unbalanced enough to avoid boredom.[2] John Polkinghorne, “Kenotic Creation and Divine Action”, in The Work of Love: Creation and Kenosis, ed. John Polkinghorne (Eerdmans, 2001), p. 95.

[3] Oliver O’Donovan, Resurrection and Moral Order: An Outline for Evangelical Ethics (Eerdmans, 1986), p. 61.

[4] Op. cit., p. 63.

[5] Op. cit., p. 67.

[6] The Work of Love, p. 96.

[7] The interplay of divine and human spirits, as well as the inter-relationship among the Trinitarian Father, Son and Holy Spirit, has long been a foundation of Christian theology.  The concept of perichoresis dates back to the Cappodocians (esp. Basil and Gregory of Nazianzus) as a description of the ‘relation between the divine and human natures in Christ.’  For an insightful explanation of perichoresis, see T. A. Dearborn, “God, Grace and Salvation”, in Christ in Our Place: the humanity of God in Christ for the reconciliation of the world : essays presented to James Torrance, eds. Trevor A. Hart and Daniel P. Thimell, (Paternoster, 1989), pp. 265-293.

[8] The Work of Love, p. 104.

[9] J. B. Torrance has definitively expressed the doctrine of God in these terms in Worship, Community, and the Triune God of Grace (Paternoster, 1996).

[10] The Work of Love, p. 106.