Rescuing Genesis: Creation (ex nihilo)

Someday, I would like to write an essay or book or something that rescues Genesis 1-3 through a reading informed by ancient/mediaeval Christian/Jewish exegesis, both in terms of content and technique. The wars over these early chapters of Genesis have left many people befuddled at the sidelines; some thoughtful Christians are uncertain as to whether they would be willing to say, ‘I affirm the creation account of Genesis,’ because that all-too-often means, ‘I believe that the creation account of Genesis is literally true and the Earth is 6000 years old.’

Genesis’ alleged ‘friends’ often do a grave disservice to the Genesis account by arguing that its theological content is meaningless without historicity attaching itself to the events portrayed there. Some go so far as to say that Christians who do not believe in a literal six-day Creation followed by 6000 years of history on this earth are not real Christians who do not take the Bible seriously. In all of this talk, the grave importance of what we are being taught about the universe in Genesis gets left at the side in favour of apatosauroi in the Congo or proving that Leviathan and Behemoth are dinosaurs (cf. Kent E Hovind).

Genesis’ critics also do a grave disservice to responsible reading. Rather than arguing, ‘Certain readings of Genesis have led to the oppression of women by men,’ Thomson Highway (who has the best name of all) says that Genesis necessarily leads to the oppression of women by men, so we should, instead tell Cree creation stories (see the closing chapter of Me Funny). Thomas King argues that believing the universe to have been created by a God who basically commands things into being inevitably leads to the sort of messed-up systems of white, western society (see the opening chapter of The Truth About Stories — both this book and Me Funny are worth reading).

Responsible reading of Genesis does not necessarily lead to a vision of a totalitarian God and women subservient to men. Bad reading of Genesis can.

There is thoughtful engagement going on in these conversations, though, as seen in this post by T. M. Law, who graciously and carefully takes on the arguments of Kevin DeYoung regarding the ‘Historical Adam.’ If more such courteous discussion could be had I think the conversation would be less vomit-inducing (the following pages, sadly, are vomit-inducing: Creation “Science” Debunked and people who give cryptozoologists a bad name).

I have one point to raise regarding Law’s post about Kevin DeYoung, and it is simply the statement that creation ex nihilo is a Patristic innovation. I’m not going to argue that this is wrong — I have not read the pre-Christian exegesis of Genesis, so I can’t say whether anyone before the Fathers believed in creation ex nihilo. And I’m not saying that Law says that the Patristic exegesis is false.

What I would like to say about creation ex nihilo is that if it is a Patristic innovation, it is a specifically Christian innovation, created as the result of prayerful, Christian reading of Sacred Scripture in response to the problems facing Christians of the day. The Fathers did nothing without a reason, and I don’t want people walking away from Law’s article thinking that they should turn away from believing in creation ex nihilo since it is a Patristic innovation.

I think, in fact, that creation ex nihilo is a quite sensible innovation. While Thomas King seems to think that it leaves the Creator at a dangerous remove from the natural world, I think it gives us a view of a Creator who is all-encompassing and bolsters a belief in an all-powerful divine Person(s). If God by speaking creates matter afresh, then we see that he is not limited in any way. The pastoral application is that the Being Who flung the stars in the sky would have no trouble dealing with one’s own illness of relationship problems or whatnot.

YHWH creating out of nothing is bigger and better than everything. Elohim making the stuff of the universe with the breaths of Their mouth also makes Him more intimately connected with us and our surroundings, I believe. All this everything was completely and utterly, down to its atoms and electrons, down to the fabric of all matter, envisioned by This Person(s) Who fashioned it by His Word.

If God fashions the universe by His Word, and if John 1 is true, then the very fashioner of all matter and energy is the Person Who has pitched His tent amongst us as the God-man Jesus Christ.

If God, like the Platonic deity, has fashioned the world out of pre-existent matter, he is still a powerful divine being, but there is limitation to him. And where did matter come from in the first place? Matter is suddenly co-terminous with the god. Matter is eternal if the god did not create it. How can we be sure of the god’s absolute almightiness if he did not create matter itself? Even a great artist working with marble can screw up. Could not a god who did not create his own matter? The pastoral implications are great.

In my opinion, creation ex nihilo preserves both God’s transcendent power as a Person(s) Worthy of our Worship and the immanent care as a Parent Who has carefully fashioned absolutely everything, right down to the electrons flitting through my brain.

This is not necessarily a part of the Genesis war, but it’s something worth thinking about as we consider our God as Creator. To believe in creation out of nothing does not require a belief in a literal six-day creation. Where did the matter come from before the Big Bang? And could it not be the Finger of God (the Holy Spirit, cf. Saint Ambrose) that caused the Bang and set forth in motion this entire universe?

More on Pelagians and Myself

There have been some comments (finally!) on my post about Pelagians, so I should set the record straight on a few things. If you are here for Pelagians and sex, you can skip the stuff about me and scroll down to the bold words “Pelagians, Augustine, and Sex”.

First, I have rightly got into trouble for this:

“Clearly misinformation and caricature are the best things to fill our devotional books. Thank you, Northumbria Community.”

That was gall, not righteousness. Mea culpa.

Second, I have been accused of two things: never having read Augustine and being “one of the Calvinist illiterates who believes whatever [my] deranged pastor tells” me. So, these require full treatment, I feel.

  1. I have not, it is true, read much of Augustine. I have read The Confessions, various homilies, On Grace and Freewill and things he says about demonology. Oh, and portions of De Doctrina Christiana and of On Marriage.
  2. I am not Calvinist. This is an amusing thought, given this post and this post amongst others. I wish I were more easily labelled (does Franciscan Orthodox — Eastern — Wesleyan Prayer-book Anglican even cover enough bases?), but if we wish to concern ourselves with grace & freewill, I prefer the imperfect ideas of John Cassian’s 13th Conference, sometimes called “Massilianism” (NOT the Eastern heresy “Messalianism”, an unrelated thing) or “Semi-Pelagianism”. Catholic scholar Boniface Ramsey prefers to see Cassian as Semi-Augustinian; Eastern Orthodox Scholar AMC Casiday wishes to eliminate all “semi’s” from the discussion and read the authors on their own terms.
  3. Also, I don’t believe whatever my pastor tells me, deranged or not. I’m unfortunately critical of most sermons, although those at my local church do better than many elsewhere.

Pelagians, Augustine, and Sex

I will agree with my opponent, rey, that Augustine and the tradition that follows from him, as well as many of the Fathers, had a confused view of sex. While I disagree categorically with diagnosing any historical person as “a classic case of insane transference whereby a nutcase asserts that everyone else is as messed up as he is” or even as necessarily sexually deviant — except in cases such as Nero, and even then the record is incredibly biased against him — because we don’t know enough about him. The only non-modern people we really know that much about are Cicero and the merchant of Prato, and I don’t think we should diagnose them, either.

Augustine’s animosity towards intercourse no doubt comes from his own previous years with a concubine with whom he had at least one child. At the point of his conversion, although St. Monica wished to arrange a marriage with a lovely young lady, Augustine devoted himself to the monastic life (contra rey: “He remarried a wealthy Catholic woman, and this helped him achieve the status of bishop. [To be bishop, you needed wealth.]”) We know of this from the most popular text of Late Antique Latin Christianity, The Confessions. That the only sex Augustine ever had was in a more or less sinful state (concubines are a foggy area even to ancient Christians sometimes) no doubt helps contribute to his views on sexual intercourse.

Concerning Augustine on sex in marriage, see “On the Good of Marriage.” Here we see some rather convoluted things, and it is clear that Augustine would prefer a world without sexual intercourse, but he has to admit that it is not actually sinful in marriage. Given the enormous quantity of Augustine’s corpus, he may have said elsewhere that sexual intercourse in marriage is evil; I know that Aquinas at least implied it in the 13th century. Indeed, it is rather absurd to imagine that living like a celibate with your own wife is the best pathway; yet he still concedes that having intercourse is allowable. That which is allowed is not sin, is not evil.

This odd sort of teaching is the sort of thing that comes from monastic discourse throughout the Mediterranean and Near East and is not peculiar to Augustine. People seem to imagine that, while it’s okay to have sex and raise children, it’s best to be celibate. I have discussed this issue in relation to St. Gregory of Nazianzus here. I do not agree with these people (much to my wife’s relief). If Julian called St. Augustine out on this silliness, this is a good thing.

Regarding rey’s statement that one needed wealth to be a bishop in Late Antiquity, I would like evidence. I do not think that this is true. One certainly tended to need class, but class and wealth are not the same thing. If we consider how many poor ascetics were made bishop, I cannot see how wealth is a prerequisite to the office of bishop.

Moving on to grace. Rey says, “Grace is not magic power to enable you to do things you couldn’t do before.” No one ever said that it is. Gratia, lexically, as my opponent has said, is favour. It is:

Favour which one finds with others, esteem, regard, liking, love, friendship

as well as:

Favour which one shows to another, mark of favour, kindness, courtesy, service, obligation (Lewis & Short’s Latin Dictionary; I don’t yet have the OLD — apologies).

In Souter’s A Glossary of Later Latin to 600 A.D. we also find this amongst the usual suspects:

any benefit or blessing from God.

Gratia in the second sense involves action. If an Emperor shows favour to me, he is likely to use his power to help me. For example, we could say that when St. Savvas entreated the Emperor Justinian for help in his monasteries against dissenters and raiders, Justinian showed his favour, his gratia, to St. Savvas by helping reorder the monasteries and build a fortress against the raiders. This is favour, is it not?

So, when we say that we are saved by God’s grace, that means that God has done something to help us. We are saved by God’s favour, which inevitably involves action. When we say that God’s grace helps us to do good, that means that he, through his favour towards us, chooses to help us do a good action. Grace is not power, no, but it implies the use thereof.

Grace is not, however, as the lengthy comment contends, mercy. There is no hint of mercy within the lexical range. Latin words for mercy are clementia and misericordia. These all have to do with having pity upon someone. Indeed, mercy and favour are related; they are not synonymous.

All of this is to say that, for a Latin-speaker, God’s grace would most certainly have helped us do good as a real possibility.

And Greek only bolsters our case, as we note the third meaning of charis in the LSJ:

in concrete sense, a favour done or returned, boon, charin pherein tini confer a favour on one, do a thing to oblige him

When Paul speaks of being saved by God’s grace, he does not mean that God saves us by his mercy. He means that God saves us for no merit of our own. He looks upon us with favour, “not weighing our merits but pardoning our offences” (BCP). Or, to bring out my evangelical youth, “When you get what you don’t deserve, it’s a real good thing” (the Newsboys).

Given that grace has both the sense, in Late Latin as well as in Greek, to be both favour and action done out of favour, then verses such as Noah having found grace in God’s eyes are clearly not about God giving him power to do a good action. This is a different question altogether, for it is another use of the same word within its lexical range. Words have nuance, and we always need context. To imagine that grace always means mercy is illiterate, in my opinion.

Re Col. 4:6: “Let your speech be always with grace, seasoned with salt, that ye may know how ye ought to answer every man,” I would argue that LSJ’s first definition of charis — outward grace or favour, beauty — works best. Let your speech be always beautiful and favourable to others.

The problem with Pelagianism is the assertion that God will not help us do good. Pelagians teach that our will is untarnished and capable of doing good all the time and doing enough good to save us. God’s grace, whether favour or mercy, does not help us in this endeavour. Woe to me, if I am the only responsible for my salvation! I know the weight of my sins. How can I be free of them save by the favour of God that pardons my offences?

Most of the second comment our friend rey made is about my alleged Calvinism. It does, however, include this:

The Celtic church was Pelagian.

This may be true. I, personally, only have the evidence from the Venerable Bede concerning Germanus’ visit to Britain in the 5th century that was meant to stamp out Pelagianism. I do know, however, that the big seventh- and eighth-century issues as we see in the Life of St. Cuthbert seem largely to be about the date of Easter and monastic foundations, not Pelagianism.

We must remember that the Late Antique/Early Mediaeval/Byzantine world was still very connected, even with a few barbarian kingdoms around. The Celtic monastic foundations (ie. Iona) included in their libraries Latin editions of the Mediterranean Fathers such as Basil & Co (Basil’s is the only name I can remember). Furthermore, according to an article I read a couple of years ago, they had much in common with St. Maximus the Confessor (Eastern theologian of the 600’s).

If the Mediterranean Church chose to do away with Pelagianism, despite any politicking that inevitably went on, it did so for good reason. These reasons were ultimately not those given by Celtic Daily Prayer in the original post. They were the issues of grace and freewill. The Celtic Church was connected to the Mediterranean Church, and if she leaned more towards John Cassian than towards Augustine, she was in good company (see the ENTIRE EASTERN CHURCH).

The Eastern Church, however, also turns away from Pelagianism even as it anathematises Augustinian doctrines of predestination as heresy. From what I’ve seen, in some poems from Iona, the life of St. Columba, the Voyage of Brenden, Patrick’s autobiography, St. Patrick’s Breastplate, and so forth, the insular Celtic Church was not at odds with the Mediterranean Church and out-and-out Pelagian but, rather, had many things in common with the Eastern Church, which also explains the clashes in the seventh-century, since Latin West and Greek East were starting their own clashes at about the same time.

Note also that if the Mediterranean Church was not monolithic by any means, neither were the Celts on these Isles. Thus, even if many were Pelagians, it is likely that many weren’t, just as many in the Mediterranean world were not Augustinian.

Finally, rey took exception to my statement:

Whether you believe in the talking snake or not, the whole point of Gen 3 is to explain the very real condition of humanity as being basically cursed and sinful, fallen, lost.

Apparently, this is “illiteracy mixed with lies,” because Gen 3 “shows how apes became human.” If we are to read Gen 3 literally, this reading cannot work. And if we are to read Gen 3 allegorically, we are in sparse company when we read it that way. I do not even know where to begin figuring out the hermeneutics that led to rey’s position.

So, I shall state the following instead. Rey says that the Fall is “a Manichean myth handed down by word of mouth among the illiterates since Augustine’s time.”

According to St. Irenaeus (I am likely to blend in Athanasius — apologies), the second-century apologist (a full two centuries before Augustine), humanity was created in innocency. This is what we see in the chapters before Genesis 3. Our forebears naturally did what was right, but were like children. They did not know really know right from wrong. They could not fully perceive. However, God had a plan that He would strengthen them and enable them to grow into understanding. Then they would be like Him, knowing right from wrong.

But the humans, in their greediness, ate from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil before their time. This led to them gaining knowledge they were not prepared for, and as a result led to death which is the separation of our soul from our body, an unnatural event.

As a result, we have lived out our lives in a world of pain and toil, growing into the maturity that God gives us through his grace but without the ease of the Garden. God will recapitulate all things at the end of time, as effected through the Incarnation and Second Coming, restoring things to a better state than before we fell. Because we fell, God’s Incarnation as a man also involves his suffering and dying, so that he may taste of all we have tasted and may be a sacrifice for our sins and the conqueror of death.

This narrative, this world of recapitulation, makes more sense to me than a world where God told us not to eat the tree through reverse psychology so that we would gain “moral capacity, the ability to know right and wrong and to CARE.” That eating from the tree then and there was God’s plan. And if eating from the tree was God’s plan all along, why did he proceed to curse the man, woman, and snake? Furthermore, if Gen 3 teaches neither Fall nor Curse, why is there a curse in it? Interpreting the curse may be difficult, but denying it is avoiding what is there before us on the page.

This view of Gen 3 leaves us in a world that is as it was meant to be. A world with a God who wants cancer and war and hatred and violence. Why? Because there is no fall. We are living our lives exactly according to God’s plan. With the fall, we have a frame of reference, that this beautiful, tragic world is great but could be greater, and was meant to be so. With the fall, we have redemption. Without the fall, the Cross is meaningless, redemption impossible.

With the fall, we also see why it is that we do not do what we want to do.

Playing Nice

I would like to call out rey for not playing nice. Endlessly referring to one’s opponents in a debate as “illiterate” is not nice or fair. Calling their ideas “lies” is not fair.

Assuming that your opponent is one thing and then writing from that frame of reference based upon a single thing he wrote one evening in less than half an hour — that’s just bad argument. Especially when said opponent has an entire website right in front of you that could show you several things, such as not being a Calvinist, such as having read a certain amount of Patristic literature, such as knowing Latin and Greek. Just for starters.

Also, saying, “Well duh,” does not count as playing nice.

And talking down to people throughout the entire comment is not playing nice.

Why play nice? Because playing nice helps people listen to you. Not playing nice makes them decide to take you to town and have many knee-jerk reactions to everything you say. People get angry all the time at Augustine for not playing nice. I would argue that, while clearly being as heretical a Pelagian as ever there was, you have played the game as an Augustinian this round, rey. Too bad.

If you wish to argue with me about Predestination & Freewill, my thoughts on John Cassian’s doctrine are here and here.

A brief note on Pelagians

I was  surprised tonight to read this in Celtic Daily Prayer:

But soon [Pelagius] was criticized for teaching women to read Scripture, and for believing that the image of God is present in every new-born child, and that sex is a God-given aspect of our essential creation. He did not deny the reality of evil or its assault on the human soul, or the habitual nature of sin. Augustine’s own peculiar ideas were in stark contrast, seeing humanity as essentially evil, and polluted by the sexual activity which causes conception to occur. (141)

Clearly misinformation and caricature are the best things to fill our devotional books. Thank you, Northumbria Community.

Now, I know that almost every heresiarch had a group in the 20th century seeking to rehabilitate his memory and prove his true orthodoxy, including Arius, Nestorius, and Pelagius. I have not read books on Pelagius himself, but Pelagianism, those things for which he got in trouble, is something of a different story than the caricature produced by people who imagine that “Celtic” Christianity is something special and unique, different from imperial, “Catholic” Christianity in the Mediterranean, represented by free spirits like Pelagius rather than horrible men like Augustine.

First, lots of women read Scripture. This is not part of the substance of any argument that could have brought Pelagius down, given St. Jerome’s tendency to be surrounded by virgins, some of whom could read the Old Testament in Hebrew.

Second, I understand that the question is not whether the image of God is present in new-born children but whether those children, like adults, are fallen and in need of redemption. The orthodox answer is that, yes, children are fallen; thus do we baptise them. Yes, they are in the image of God. We all are.

Third, even Augustine would agree that sex is a God-given aspect of our essential creation. What makes sex dirty is the fact that it is through sex that the man transmits the original sin of Adam. No doubt in his more Neo-Platonist moments, Augustine would also argue (along with St. Thomas Aquinas) that sexual intercourse is not always a good thing because it involves passion, not reason, and reason is the best part of a human. Part of the solution to this “problem” of sexual passion (as I believe explicated by Tertullian) was to say that Adam could engorge his membrum virile at will, rather than having it beyond the power of his reason.

We are not polluted by sexual activity, but our sin has irrevocably polluted it, since it is the means whereby sin is transmitted. This, as I understand it, is the Augustinian position.

To return to the second point, the Northumbria Community maintains that Augustine sees us as “essentially” evil. If we are to consider terminology, this is inaccurate. The Augustinian human being is not “essentially” evil; that would mean evil by essence, by nature. God does not create evil things. Human beings are necessarily evil, due to the fall of original sin.

Our essence is marred by evil, but not innately evil. This is how God is able to redeem us. Remember that for someone with so strong a Platonic background as Augustine, evil is essentially non-being. It is the absence of the good. Therefore, we cannot be evil by our own essence, or essentially evil. We can have a lack of good where it ought to have been. We can have ourselves marred so badly by evil that only a strike force from the heavenly realms can save us in a rescue mission (cf. Irenaeus and Athanasius). But this is not being “essentially evil” as the Northumbria Community contends.

Now, to say we are all evil in our very selves seems like a very pessimistic view of humanity to our “enlightened” ears. It is my contention that Augustine formulated it so very sharply because he was dealing with the very real, dangerous ideas of Pelagius’ followers (if not of Pelagius himself).

God’s grace, according to the Pelagian Julian of Eclanum, does not help us do good. We can not only choose God for ourselves (what most Calvinists think when they hear “Pelagian”), we can live a perfect, sinless life and attain salvation just as Christ lived of our own free will. God does not give us his grace in this endeavour. If He were to do so, He would contravene our free will and our good actions would be null and void.

Pelagianism (even if not Pelagius) teaches not simply that we can do good without God, but that we can be good without God. It teaches that we do not need God’s grace at any stage of our salvation because we have the capability within ourselves to live a holy life free of divine intervention.

This is not biblical orthodoxy. Whether you believe in the talking snake or not, the whole point of Gen 3 is to explain the very real condition of humanity as being basically cursed and sinful, fallen, lost. We need God’s grace to be saved. Now, some of us may fall in line with the Massilians (not Messalians who are heretics) like St. John Cassian and believe that there is some sort of synergy between our will and God’s (that’s a terrible way of putting it; read it for yourself); others may fall in with Predestinarians like St. Augustine of Hippo.

We all believe that we cannot be perfect without God’s help. We all believe that Christ is unique and “Adam” is more than a bad example, that our genes are hardwired for sin. Some of us believe in total depravity. Some of us don’t, believing that we can do good deeds without God. But we do not believe that we can save ourselves.

Believing that you, yourself, all alone, can save yourself free from God’s divine intervention is heresy.

We call it Pelagianism.

Whether or not Pelagius himself believed it, it’s the real reason he was condemned, not the mocking caricature provided for us by the Northumbria Community in Celtic Daily Prayer.

Haydn’s Creation

I am listening to Haydn’s Creation (1796-1798) right now.  It is the Representation of Chaos, when the earth is formless and void.  After this powerful representation, the angel Raphael shall begin the tale of how God spoke the universe into being.  It’s all in German, and I don’t have the libretto, but I know when he says, “And God said, ‘Let there be light,'” because then the orchestra produces something more glorious than the power of Chaos.

It makes the sound of light.  There is no other description for what the strings do at that point of the oratorio.  (It just happened.  Tingly.)

Shortly before CBC butchered Radio2, I heard the beginning of this magnificent oratorio.  The announcer mentioned that many people don’t like the Creation because they think it naive.  Yes, naive.

I don’t really know how an oratorio can be naive.  Now, the reason for the alleged naivete of the Creation is the fact that it recounts the six-day creation of Genesis.  Due to the polarisation of popular opinion in the ill-starred Creation-Evolution debate, people are blinded when they come to a piece of art such as this.  They think, “Sure, the music is nice, but the content — so naive!”

I would like to argue that there is nothing naive in Haydn’s Creation at all.  My first reason is that the claim is utterly ridiculous.  If the literal six-day creation of Genesis 1 is simply Hebrew mythology, to make a piece of art representing this story is not naive, as the Creation‘s critics imagine.  It cannot be, unless we are to therefore declare Monteverdi’s Return of Ulysses, Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas, Mozart’s Idomeneo, Wagner’s Ring Cycle and countless other operas naive because they represent mythology.  If you disbelieve Genesis 1, this does not mean that art based on the creation story is naive.

Second, you cannot say that an oratorio or an opera is naive because of the contents of the words.  In oratorio, the words are an important aspect.  Handel’s Messiah would be far less potent without the force of the words combining with the force of the music.  Nevertheless, the music is at least, and in some opinions, more important than the words.  Haydn felt that an oratorio based on the biblical account of creation was a worthy piece of art.  Whether he believed in a literal interpretation of this passage or not has nothing to do with the piece of art ultimately produced.  He produces music to enrobe the words of Genesis, to encapsulate them, to imbue them with a life that the word on the page lacks.  There is no naivete here, my friends.

Finally, this question raises the question of the interpretation of the first chapters of Genesis.  Is it necessary to believe that something must be literal in order for it to be true?  I would say no.  I would say that if it turns out that God chose to create the universe over billions of years rather than six days, Genesis 1 is still true and relevant to our lives and our art.  Myth can be true without being literal (history cannot; is Gen 1-3 myth or history?).

Genesis 1 speaks a deep truth about the universe.  Almighty God brought it into existence out of nothing, ex nihilo.  He is creator of all things that are, were, and ever shall be.  He brought order to chaos.  He hung the stars in the sky.  His word went forth, and things were made.  He looked upon all that he had made, and each stage of creation was individually labelled as good.

The God of the Bible is a Creator God.  What he has created is good.  These are the foundational statements of the doctrine of creation.  And from these and other biblical passages stream the Christian ethic of creation.  And God’s creative action in bringing the universe into being, that story we see in Genesis, as a doctrine, has nothing to do with the debate between “creation” and “evolution.”

How, therefore, could Haydn’s Creation be naive?  I would argue instead that its critics are naive in saying such.

NB: This is the post promised at the Random Ramblings.