First Things and Last Things in Christian Theology

Brad East on two major works of Christian thought

Perhaps no part of the biblical story is so well-known or so contested as its beginning or ending. In the span of a week, God calls forth a universe of light and life with nothing but speech. Creatures soar, swim, crawl, and walk upright, blessed with divine approval and charged to reproduce, filling the earth according to their kinds. Human beings—the pinnacle of creation, made in God’s image—find themselves addressed by God repeatedly, first in Israel, and then, decisively, in the person of Jesus of Nazareth, Israel’s Messiah; in the fate of this man, particularly his resurrection from the dead, they see in microcosm the great finale of history brought forward in time, ahead of time. The human story—and, because the creator deigned to become a creature, the story of creation, too—will come to a close with a great travail, a baptism of the cosmos, a purging of all evil and death. And on the other side: new creation, the resurrection of the body, glory everlasting, life with God centered on the incarnate and risen God-man, through whom creation came to be, by whom it is held together, and in whom—long after God’s hallowing of the Sabbath—it will come to rest.

On such an account, in the broadest of brush-strokes, most could agree. But the devil is in the details.

Start at the end. What of the character of life in the new heavens and new earth? What continuity, if any, will there be with the present life? Who will populate the world to come? Do the dead already inhabit it? Can any of us know with assurance whether we will join them? What of the wicked or the unbelieving? What of hell? Can Christians, with St. Thomas Aquinas, affirm that the saints in heaven will know and see the damned in hell, delighting in divine justice? Alternatively, can Christians plausibly maintain the good news of the faith while positing hell’s evacuation? Can they, with a straight face, inform the manifold victims of torture, rape, and murder that their oppressors will join them in the New Jerusalem—universal amnesty issued from on high for history’s butchers?

Compared to last things, first things may be less fraught, but are no less controversial. Who has not heard of the famed year 4,004 B.C.—the date God created the universe? For the better part of two centuries, Christians have been fighting among themselves no less than with their cultured despisers regarding the age of the earth, humanity’s parents, and how to read the early chapters of Genesis in light of evolutionary science. One version of this battle has Christians in a perpetual rearguard action, beginning with the Renaissance, ceding ground inch by painful inch to the godless gains of secular knowledge, scurrying to move the goal posts, frantic to find gaps for God to fill. Theologically literate historians of science like Peter Harrison have, thankfully, put that myth to bed (not to say that everyone has gotten the message). But further questions arise. Of what use are Christian claims about God’s creation of the world? If the Bible does not contain scientific truths about human or cosmic origins, do not such accounts become merely ornamental, superfluous, a matter of values whose sphere of authority does not—should not—overlap with empirical knowledge?

Two recent works of Christian theology take up these and related questions with candor and sophistication. Their answers are at once deeply traditional, aiming to reclaim rather than replace the classical doctrines they seek to expound, while being subtly attuned to the specific scientific, philosophical, and moral challenges that confront these doctrines today. Each book in its own way exemplifies the intellectual contribution systematic theology can make in the academy. Church fathers like St. Augustine used the story of Israel taking Egyptian gold with them in the Exodus as a trope for Christians appropriating pagan knowledge. But the reverse applies as well.

So gather round, ye heathens, come: take as much gold as you please.

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Ian A. McFarland, From Nothing: A Theology of Creation, Louisville, Westminster, 2014, 256 pp., $35

From Nothing: A Theology of Creation is Ian McFarland’s account of the doctrine of creatio ex nihilo, or creation out of nothing, a doctrine he argues is central to the Christian faith. Having formerly taught at Aberdeen and Emory University, McFarland, a Lutheran, serves as Regius Professor of Divinity at the University of Cambridge. His argument is a sustained analytic unpacking of the seemingly simple claim that God is not a creature, everything that is not God is a creature, and there is no third category.

In this sense, in this one crucial respect, whatever may be said for humanity’s unique status within creation—and McFarland is ambivalent here—all creatures are absolutely equal. Every entity that is or will be or ever has been, from seashells and single-cell organisms to quarks and dark matter to humans and moths to angels and archangels and all the company of heaven: all of it, the whole ensemble, without exception, is created, and therefore comes from God, has existence by God’s good pleasure, and continues to exist in total and direct dependence upon God. In the order of being, there is no greater or lesser proximity to God. McFarland abjures the notion of a chain of being, or of more or less likeness (in this sense) to God. The uniqueness of God and thus of God’s creative activity means that creatures, no matter how different, always have more in common with one another than with God.

St. Thomas explains this fundamental disanalogy as the identity of existence and essence in God alone; Kierkegaard calls it the infinite qualitative distinction between creator and creature; Karl Barth speaks of the absolute otherness of God, God as totaliter aliter; Robert Sokolowski terms it “the Christian difference.” Whatever we call it, McFarland suggests that we see it for the idiosyncratic claim that it is, and argues further that it depends upon, or rather mandates, the claim that God created from nothing.

The doctrine is hardly undisputed. Any number of ancient and modern religions and philosophies deny creation from nothing. Instead, God and creatures occupy an ontological continuum. God is, other entities are, and for the latter to be true either God is all that is (pantheism) or God generates other entities from God’s own being (emanationism). Metaphysical continuity marks the relationship between divinity and the world. The world’s coming into being means God’s expansion, or partition, or giving birth; the self-diffusion of the One into the many entails, eventually, the return of the many into the One. From another perspective matter, however chaotic, is coeval with deity; neither omniscient nor omnipotent, such a deity nevertheless seeks to coax and woo stubborn, ignorant corporeal beings such as us into relationship with itself, in an irresolvable succession of intimacy and relapse.

These, per McFarland, are the cosmogonies most ready to hand, past and present, not creatio ex nihilo. In recommending the historic Christian doctrine, then, he also wants to make it strange again.

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Creation from nothing means that, metaphysically speaking, God is off the map. There is no continuity of being between God and creatures. God exists from and to all eternity in perfect, flawless beatitude, a fullness of life, goodness, power, and love that lacks for nothing. This life is triune, the inexhaustible and irreducible relationships among and between the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Indeed, God just is these relationships, the personal relations of giving and receiving that they name. God alone is from everlasting to everlasting; but God is not alone.

To say that God creates from nothing does not mean that nothing is a kind of something, a substance or source or disordered cosmic flux, from which God fashions the world. It is to say that God does not create from anything at all. No raw materials. Nothing means nothing. It follows, in McFarland’s phrasing, “that in the beginning there is nothing but God, that there is created nothing apart from God, and that in creating nothing limits God.” Creation is not necessary, but contingent. It exists because God desires it so. Its existence is not grounded in itself or in anything else but the divine will and power.

That last clause might set off alarm bells. Is this doctrine little more than an assertion of the Christian God’s arbitrary will to power? McFarland constructs much of the book in order to address this particular concern. (The other concern is scriptural: is this doctrine taught by the Bible? Using John 1 as hermeneutical lens for Genesis 1, he believes it is, following naturally from biblical claims about the person and work of Christ.) McFarland argues, on the one hand, that the identity of the creator is central to answering this question; and, on the other hand, that we must clarify what it means to be a creature.

Focusing on the latter, the first step is to exorcize from one’s mind the unvoiced premise that creaturely integrity means creaturely autonomy. Independence from God is a condition of flourishing only if it is the case that God’s presence and power are a threat to my own being and agency. But that presumes a metaphysical spectrum on which both God and I can be located. Such a vision makes God the biggest (possibly the baddest) creature around: like me, only more so. And it is true that fellow creatures crowd out one another, for space, for resources, for the exercise of energy and pursuit of desire. If God is like that, then the more of God, the less of me. God must “make space” for me, must “get out of the way,” for my being to flourish.

Following the classical tradition and, more recently, the work of Kathryn Tanner, McFarland opposes this view of God and creatures in relation, precisely because it does not follow the logic of creation from nothing to its proper conclusion. God is the absolute, direct, and enduring source of my being and action. God plus me, therefore, does not equal two; God does not take up space in the world, literally or otherwise. That I exist at all is a gift, a gratuitous product of God’s will, which actively seeks my well-being in all things. To be dependent on God in all that I am and do is not only an unavoidable fact of my existence. It is the ground of every good in my life. Far from repudiating dependence on God—an endeavor with as much probability of success as Jonah catching a ship for Tarshish—I ought, if I am at all solicitous of my own interests, to welcome, accept, and deepen my awareness of such dependence. Truly to understand my dependence on God’s creative power should result, not in horror at discovering a cosmic tyrant, but thanksgiving for having been embraced by a loving parent. To be, as a creature, is to be beloved.

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In addition to creation from nothing (spread across the book’s first half), McFarland devotes chapters to the topics of evil, providence, and glory. Throughout the book his approach never wavers: measured in tone, rich in learning, attentive to figures and texts from the whole sweep of the Christian tradition (particularly Saints Irenaeus, Augustine, Maximus, and Thomas), responsive to moral and philosophical challenges (such as process thought and feminist and ecological critiques), and conversant with the latest scientific research (he takes evolutionary biology for granted, for example, while clarifying that creatio ex nihilo is “completely unaffected by the scientific question of whether or not (let alone when) the world had a temporal beginning”). The sheer clarity of his writing is, shall we say, less than common in academic works.

Across modern biblical scholarship, religious studies, and popular science-and-religion writing, creation from nothing has come to assume the status of doctrinal whipping-boy. Given the doctrine’s outsized role in Christian tradition and its broad acceptance among Muslims and Jews, such a state of affairs is shallow, incurious, and intellectually indefensible. McFarland’s book is a welcome antidote, not to say inoculation, against facile critiques that know not whereof they speak. At the very least, they are now without excuse.

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McFarland’s virtues are of the scholarly sort: materially excellent, formally unspectacular. This is as it should be. It is very difficult, though it is certainly a temptation, for scholars to produce work that is both substantial and attention-grabbing, work that entices and exhilarates, that aspires to beauty as much as truth. For the scholarly task is ill served by the cheaply provocative and salacious. Scholarship takes time, and the patience formed in the process conduces to work that broadens and deepens the understanding in ways that would not otherwise be possible. Sobriety reigns, or ought to reign, in the academy.

But theology has never quite been at home in the academy, and for good reason. Its subject matter is not an item in the world, something one can study in a lab or the field. Its principal epistemic form is contemplation: the thought that attends prayer. Accordingly, the German- and English-speaking universities have never quite known what to do with theology.

This exilic status is often taken as a problem. In Decreation: The Last Things of All Creatures, Paul Griffiths sees it as an opportunity. There is a kind of sobriety in evidence here, most of all in the lucidity of the prose and the delimitations of the project. But there is also an enraptured, unadulterated pleasure of the soul at work. Griffiths, a Roman Catholic and retired professor of theology at Duke Divinity School, doesn’t want his theology to be artificially acceptable to his peers as a species of the sort of thing academics are wont to do. The subject matter must conform the discipline to itself. The radical difference of the one makes for radical difference in the other. And Griffiths is convinced that, thus unshackled from arbitrary conventions, theology can be free to be itself.

The result is sublime.

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Paul J. Griffiths, Decreation: The Last Things of All Creatures, Waco, Baylor University Press, 2018, 408 pp., $49.95

The first sign that Griffiths’ book is terra incognita is its opening section. A three-page lexicon for what follows, it defines the peculiar usage of certain common terms as well as neologisms coined by Griffiths. For example, he refers to the Holy Trinity exclusively as “the LORD,” rooted in the historic practice of translating the name of Israel’s God (YHWH) as Lord (Adonai/Kyrios/Dominus) and grounded in the claim that the Living One confessed and worshiped by Jews and Christians is not the species (“God”) of any genus (divinity as such). Further, “cosmos” is Griffiths’ word for the beautiful, harmonious, deathless world created by God, untouched by evil; whereas “the devastation” is his term of art for the fallen world, haunted by death and beset by wickedness, the “charnel house” of predation, suffering, and violence that is the only world we sinful humans know. Last for our purposes, novissimum names the “last thing” for any creature. A creature’s last thing by definition, or so Griffiths argues, is a state that lacks novelty. It is a condition in which there will be no new thing(s), no new experiences, no “more” in addition to what has preceded; it is the “EXPLICIT” written at the end of the book of one’s life. Decreation is a work of Christian speculation into the novissima of every kind of creature of whose existence we are aware.

Speculation is the heart of what Griffiths is up to in this book. “Doctrine” as taught dogmatically by the church is assumed as given; but where doctrine has not spoken, or spoken definitively, Griffiths takes this as an invitation, not only to him but to all theologians, to venture, to probe with the imagination, and to hazard a reasoned guess. This is where Griffiths’ evident spiritual and intellectual delight enters in. For what could be more pleasing to the mind, not least the mind that seeks to take every thought captive for the Lord, than to ruminate on the teasingly unknown? The consequent playfulness remains grounded, however, in Griffiths’ awareness that no one should take his speculations too seriously—or, better put, that no one should take them to heart, believing in them as if they were surely true. Instead, they are the tracing out of a path, half of whose byways and detours will, he is confident, be shown to be false long after his death.

The path goes like this. God creates from nothing, and in bringing creatures to be, God makes time to be as well: God creates cum tempore. What it means to be a creature, any kind of creature at all, is to belong to the space-time continuum, what Griffiths calls “timespace.” In this sense the difference between God and creation is one and the same as the difference between eternity and time, immateriality and corporeality. Unlike the majority tradition, therefore, angels have bodies, or at least mass, however discontinuous; they are neither timeless nor immaterial in the way that Thomists have long supposed.

First in being, the angels also were first to fall into rebellion against God. The result is the devastation. Humans, created in a fleeting haven from the devastation (what we call Eden), fell more or less immediately, too, allying themselves with the being-towards-death definitive of the devastation. Such life, falsely so called perhaps, is an irresistible tending towards non-being, towards self-annihilation, towards the void from which creatures come and over which they are held at all times. This tending is existential quicksand; struggle as they may, humanly speaking there is no way out.

Not by their own efforts, then, but by grace are they saved: God enters timespace as a fellow creature, becomes flesh as Mary’s son. The whole of cosmic history, in Griffiths’ view, turns on this event, the passion above all. He pictures it as a sort of great white sheet, originally smooth, clean, and unlined—only now crumpled and folded at the center, with ripples in every direction, creases and bunches in the oddest of places. Now, starting with the center fold, imagine such furls and pleats colored blood red. These are the sites, the moments, of greatest transparency between the devastation and the cosmos restored, which is heaven, where the ascended flesh of Jesus now abides, along with the assumed flesh of his mother. They are the sacramental geography of creation, landmarks of the celebration of the Eucharist here below, in the time between the times, as the church awaits the consummation of all things.

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Once Griffiths has provided this metaphysical backdrop, he proceeds to discuss the last things of all creatures: not only angels and humans, but other animate and inanimate beings as well. His key is the liturgy—more properly, the Catholic Mass—in which he sees the end of glorified human creatures and, in turn, all others:

attending to the liturgy is the closest we can get, here below, to attending to heaven. In examining it, we approach as close as we can get to examining the life of the saints in heaven as it is once they are resurrected and enjoying both sensory and nonsensory modes of knowing and seeing the LORD. This is because most of the elements of the life of the world to come are present in nuce in the worshiping assembly: the ascended LORD is present in the flesh; the gathered people is an assembly of those who know and love him as he is, at least to some degree; and the fabric of the event is woven from the threads of love exchanged—love given preveniently by the LORD, whose creature the church is, and love given responsively by the people, who have collectively and individually been brought into being by the LORD. The leitmotif of the words and actions of the liturgical gathering is adoration. All this is also true of the gathering of the resurrected saints around the LORD’s ascended flesh in heaven.

Arguably the governing premise of Griffiths’ speculations is that a last thing must truly be so, must actually be the end of the new. On the one hand, this leads him to deny one major option in the Christian tradition, often associated with St. Gregory of Nyssa, namely of glorified life as epektasis: the unending journeying into the inexhaustible depths of the divine life, expanding the self’s contours and capacities without limit, deification as eternal asymptotic union with God. On the other hand, the alternative is not a kind of paralysis, frozen in ice like Satan in the Inferno. It is the ceaseless recurrence of the liturgy, what Griffiths calls “repetitive stasis.” Heaven is the Mass, forever, only stripped of the need for sacramental mediation, for the presence, the very flesh, of Jesus, together with that of his mother and all the saints, is there, immediate, available, delectable. The glorified will not do nothing in heaven; they will worship Jesus, together, cycling without end through the movements of the divine liturgy. And in doing so, their joy will be so complete that they will lose awareness of what they are doing, indeed of their very selves.

Griffiths affirms the possibility of damnation, both for humans and for angels, but not of eternal conscious torment, which he finds repulsive and unrequired by Scripture or church doctrine. What hell means is for a rational creature so to turn away from God, the source and end of its being, that it finally passes into nonexistence. Having passed out of existence, there is no coming back. This is a creature’s truly last thing. The technical term for this view is annihilationism, which Griffiths, through close (and perhaps overly formal) reading of the magisterial tradition, argues is available to Catholic Christians. No less controversially, he also affirms the in-principle possibility of the salvation of all rational creatures, including fallen angels, including Satan himself. This is a speculative suggestion, note, that possibly all will be saved—that the hell of nonexistence will, as it were, be unpopulated.

And what of non-rational creatures? Here Griffiths runs on parallel tracks. He grants that the Christian tradition has operated according to what he calls the anthropocentric principle. He has worries about this, and believes most people today share these worries (globally speaking, I think he overstates this intuition). So he offers arguments for animate and inanimate creatures’ last things both with and without the anthropocentric principle. And in each case, though for different reasons, he speculates that non-human animals, plants, and inanimate creatures (those made by God, importantly, not artifacts made by us) will find their place in the new creation, albeit transfigured, either giving glory to God in their own way apart from us, or giving glory to God by constituting the environment of our own glorified existence, or both.

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Christian theology,” Griffiths writes, “is reasoned discourse about the god who is the triune LORD.” Its “first purpose is elucidation,” its “second purpose is devotional.” Theologians’ “first and last audience is ecclesial, but they welcome, sometimes with enthusiasm, eavesdroppers.” For in “reading them, pagans can be instructed in how Christians think; and Christians can be moved toward greater intellectual intimacy with the LORD.”

Theology, in short, is an instrument of wonder. Done faithfully, it proceeds from awe and elicits the same in its readers. What to some—whether they be outside the church or merely some of its more staid members—may appear odd, bizarre, or mythological, is a goad to the heart as well as to the mind. Sometimes the bended knee is a more apt location for understanding than the lectern.

Since theology has as much in common with the poetic as with the philosophical, one of its more felicitous side effects is to de-instrumentalize the work of the intellect. Utilitarian considerations are never far from scholarly assessment. But used as sole criterion of excellence, “what can I use this for?” is fatal to intellectual labor. Not only is knowledge worth pursuing for its own sake. Valuing knowledge solely for its practical or political uses narrows the field of vision and distorts the subject matter in question, cutting it down to manageable size. Late capitalism’s reputed knowledge economy is a contradiction in terms.

Where do we come from, and where are we going? Who are we, and what should we be doing in the meantime? These are perennial questions. They are always worth asking; they ask themselves through us, and they are being asked in so many words in the daily lives of our neighbors, friends, and students. McFarland and Griffiths take them up and risk an answer, and we would do well to listen. We come from nothing but God, and our destiny is either nothing or God. We are creatures, devastated but blessed, gifted beyond measure, supremely with being itself. God seeks nothing but our good, to the point of sharing our lot, surrendering to the void and then triumphing over it. In the present, every victory of life over death, however small, is a cause for celebration. And in the end, life will be exhausted in celebration, a feast of self-forgetfulness anticipated even now in bread and wine, the tokens of earth’s bounty.

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Brad East is Assistant Professor of Theology at Abilene Christian University in Abilene, Texas. His writing has appeared in Modern Theology, International Journal of Systematic Theology, Scottish Journal of Theology, Pro Ecclesia, Anglican Theological ReviewLos Angeles Review of BooksMere Orthodoxy, and elsewhere. He is currently editing a volume of Robert Jenson’s essays on Scripture for Oxford University Press. He blogs at Resident Theologian.

 

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