The classical doctrine of creation has suffered much since the twentieth century. While Bruce Ashford and Craig Bartholomew are willing to speak of the “travails and glories” of the doctrine in this period, it is evident that they are concerned with the former. Moltmann’s panentheism and process theology’s notion of a di-polar God, for example, have either undercut or distracted from historically grounded dogmatic accounts of creation. Yet, the authors perceive a larger problem, a trend that Philip Rieff dubbed “de-creation” (p. 104). There are, they say, “external forces such that the church finds itself needing to regain the doctrine [of creation] in order not only to safeguard the faith once for all delivered but also to promote the common good and safeguard the public interest” (p. 104).
The culprits are none other than the likes of Nietzche, Joyce, Picasso, and Derrida. These figures, as well as others who follow their direction, have led us to an era in which God’s creational design is either ignored or dismissed. With these issues in mind, Ashford and Bartholomew have written The Doctrine of Creation: A Constructive Kuyperian Approach. Their goal is to provide an account of creation which draws from the historical Christian tradition but especially draws from the Kuyperian tradition. The result is a constructive account of creation which is grounded in scripture and tradition, and is capable of speaking to contemporary cultural concerns.
IVP Academic, 2020
The book begins by examining the creedal affirmation, “I believe in God, the Father Almighty, creator of heaven and earth.” Engaging Scripture throughout the chapter, they show that the creation account provides fodder for the doctrine of God. God, according to the creation account in Genesis, is radically other than his creation, is the royal king, and is immanently involved with his creation. In Chapters Two and Three the authors survey key figures’ doctrines of creation: Plato, Plotinus, Irenaeus, Tertullian, Origen, Athanasius, Basil of Caesarea, Augustine, Maximus the Confessor, Thomas Aquinas, Calvin, Luther, the Anabaptists, and the Puritans all make cameos in this chapter. What Ashford and Bartholomew discover is that the “doctrine of creation shines brightest” when it is fully Trinitarian, affirms the goodness of the material and spiritual, has a robust account of the image of God, and is eschatologically oriented (p. 42). While there are certainly bright lights in the modern period, the authors’ survey of the doctrine in modernity is more pessimistic. The answer to the travails of the doctrine of creation are to be found in the Dutch Reformed tradition. What does this tradition contribute? Broadly speaking, its contribution can be seen in seven propositions:
- The Creator is the triune God.
- God’s creation is ontologically good.
- God’s creation is a coherently ordered diversity.
- God intends his image bearers to develop his good creation.
- Since the fall, God’s good creation is twisted toward wrong ends.
- Sin and evil cannot corrupt God’s good creation structurally or substantially.
- God’s restoration of creation will be an elevation and enhancement of creation in its original form (pp. 99–103).
These seven “Kuyperian” convictions weave their way throughout the rest of the book’s chapters. A Trinitarian account of God and a conviction about the ontological goodness of creation is present in Chapter Four where they discuss the doctrine of God’s omnipotence and accounts of theodicy. Points 2, 3, and 4 are the focus of Chapter Five, Ashford and Bartholomew’s largely exegetical account of the seven days of creation. Chapter Six addresses humanity’s relation to the rest of creation. The chapter adds to the increasing literature on humanity’s place in creation and its vocation as priests of creation, leading creation to fulfill its God intended end. Chapter Seven makes a contribution to an oft-neglected topic in contemporary theology: Angelology.Graham Cole’s recent volume, Against the Darkness: The Doctrine of Angels, Satan, and Demons might serve as an additional resource for readers whose interest is piqued by this chapter. The eighth chapter introduces the Kuyperian notion of antithesis in order to think about the fallen state of creation. The radical opposition to God which constitutes the antithesis is evident in Marxist and Secular Humanist ideologies. The authors reflect on how these ideologies undermine not only the common good, but the very doctrine of creation. In light of the antithesis, in Chapter Nine Ashford and Bartholomew present a Kuyperian account of how Christians “participate in the redemption of all things” as they “heed Gods call to develop culture under his rule, patiently waiting for him to restore all things” (p. 252).The authors ought to be commended for providing a comprehensive account of creation, all within the limits of one volume! Chapters Ten and Eleven address providence and eschatology. The final chapter is aptly titled “Creation And…” In this concluding chapter, the authors take the time to gesture towards how the constructive account of creation they have provided might speak to other topics including the nature and function of philosophy, food, time, science, the self, and human dignity.
The authors ought to be commended for providing a comprehensive account of creation, all within the limits of one volume! They deftly deal with historical and contemporary concerns. They ground their constructive work in exegesis. While much contemporary systematic theology assumes exegetical conclusions or leans heavily on the exegetical work of biblical scholars, Ashford and Bartholomew have placed exegesis at the heart of their project. Much like Barth—whom they acknowledge—they have prioritized scriptural exegesis. I would warmly recommend this text to anyone who is looking for an introduction to the doctrine of creation. Despite my appreciation for this book, which covers a wide range of topics within the doctrine of creation, I am slightly disappointed that the authors minimally address the relationship between Christ and creation. They recognize that “the incarnation is inextricably intertwined with the doctrine of creation” (p. 3), that creation “can only be known truly in its relationship with Christ” (p. 85), and that “creation is only fully understood as such in light of the Christ event” (p. 23), yet they are also concerned that a Christological emphasis in the doctrine of creation “deprives creation of its own meaning and status” and that it subordinates “creation to redemption” (p. 84). This need not be so. In what follows, I build upon their suggestion regarding the importance of Christology for the doctrine of creation and briefly gesture toward how Christology, and more specifically the incarnation, is an epistemological key to the doctrine of creation. I also gesture at the notion that Christ himself is the telos of creation. These two affirmations, I believe, do not necessarily fall into the trap of subordinating creation to redemption, nor do they deprive creation of its own meaning and status; in fact, the way I sketch out these two features of a Christological doctrine of creation shows precisely opposite. The result, I believe, is a Christological doctrine of creation that is compatible with Ashford and Bartholomew’s project, yet goes slightly beyond what they have argued for.
A Christological Doctrine of Creation
First, Christology is an epistemological key to understanding several key features of creation. Consider for example the issue of God’s relation with the world, the relationship between Creator and creation, between infinite and finite. Rowan Williams has recently argued that model of the God-World relation developed in Christology is the model that clarifies all we say about God’s relation to the world.Rowan Williams, Christ the Heart of Creation (London: Bloomsbury Continuum, 2018), xiii. Whereas some would conceive of the God-World relation as one in which the two stand in a competitive position, almost as if they were rivals, Christology reveals that we can speak of the infinite and finite existing in a non-competitive relation with one another. Thus, Williams calls Jesus the “heart of creation” because he is the one “on whom all the patterns of finite existence converge to find their meaning.”Williams, Christ the Heart of Creation, xiii. Williams spends much of his book developing Christology, which serves as an “analogue of createdness.” He explains:
The relation between Creator and creation is in one significant sense like that of the eternal hypostasis of the Word to the human substance that is Jesus, as this is described by the Byzantines and by Aquinas: the Word is what it is independently of any created state of affairs, and the created state of affairs that is Jesus’ life depends wholly upon this prior unified action.Williams, Christ the Heart of Creation, 222.
Not only does Christ reveal something about the non-competitive nature of God-World relation, Christ also reveals what it looks like to live as a creature in alignment with God’s purposes. Again, Williams says, “Christology is a key to the ‘logic of creation’ because Christ appears as perfectly creaturely.”Williams, Christ the Heart of Creation, 226. What does this mean? Jesus, by his nature, lives in and out of filial love. His life lived out of filial love is one which is aligned with the divine act of self-giving. To live as creatures involves living out of filial love as well, not by nature as Christ does, but as created beings. To be a creature requires that one exist in a state of giving—creatures cannot live a solipsistic life. Christ reveals that creation is itself when it is “most fully and consciously aligned with the divine act of self-giving.”Williams, Christ the Heart of Creation, 223.
For Williams, Christ is the key to understanding the non-competitive relation between God and the world. Christ, however, is the epistemological key to other aspects of the doctrine of creation too. Consider for example the contingent nature of creation. The fact that the universe was created as a free act of grace is not only established upon the doctrine of creation ex nihilo; it is also established on Christological grounds.For Williams, Christ is the key to understanding the non-competitive relation between God and the world. Alexander Irving, for example, has recently argued that T. F. Torrance’s notion of contingence ought to be considered in relation to the conceptual structure of the hypostatic union, specifically the anhypostasia and enhypostasia couplet. Irving rightly states that for Torrance the hypostatic union is a methodological key for all theological loci. This methodological key should also be applied to the creational doctrine of contingence.
What happens when we reflect upon the nature of creation from the vantage point of the anhypostasia-enhypostasia couplet? Creation is understood in light of three features: 1) the priority of grace, 2) its dependence upon God, and 3) its own integrity. This is because anhypostasia asserts that the human nature of Christ is entirely dependent upon the divine act of grace and enhypostasia demonstrates that the human nature of Jesus Christ retains its integrity as fully human.T. F. Torrance, Incarnation (Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press, 2008), 84 and 230. Irving explains, “Just as the hypostatic union is characterized by the priority of the grace of God and the integrity of humanity in its dependence, so the entirety of the Creator-creature relation takes a corresponding structure of divine grace within which the discrete existence of creation is established.” Alexander Irving, “The Person of Jesus Christ as the Normative Basis for the Doctrine of Creation: Re-Envisioning T. F. Torrance’s Christocentric Doctrine of Creation,” Evangelical Quarterly (2016/2017): 362.
For Irving, the dual aspect of creation’s contingence—its dependence and distinctive reality—can be understood according to three stages. First, “the relationship between the divine nature and human nature described by the anhypostasia corresponds to the dependence of creation in relation to God, in that the existence of both comes under the priority of grace.”Irving, “The Person of Jesus Christ,” 363. Second, “the relationship between the human nature and the divine nature described by the enhypostasia corresponds to the independence of creation in relation to God.”Irving, “The Person of Jesus Christ,” 363. Finally, “the inseparability and complementarity of the divine nature and human nature described by the cooperation of the anhypostaia and enhypostasia corresponds to the interlocking structure of dependence and independence in contingence.”Irving, “The Person of Jesus Christ,” 363. Irving’s interpretation of contingence in light of the anhypostasia-enhypostasia couplet is suggestive for how Christology is an epistemological key to understanding the nature of God’s creation.
While Christ reveals key aspects about the nature of creation, at least by analogy, Christ does much more for our doctrine of creation. Christ is the telos of creation. Ashford and Bartholomew rightly state that “It is hard to overestimate the importance of the telos or goal of creation” (p. 306). But what is that telos? For the authors, the telos seems to be “perfect communion with God, the saints, and the rest of creation with no fear of breaking this communion ever again” (p. 307).I commend them for how they insist that Christology is important for creation. I hope that my brief comments can help develop the Christological aspects of their doctrine of creation. Christ certainly plays a key role in this telos. Ashford and Bartholomew explicitly state that Christ is the one who restores creation to this perfect communion. He is able to accomplish this because Christ “is the ‘image’ of the invisible God, the dwelling place of God’s ‘fullness’” (p. 324). Christ can accomplish the restoration of communion “because Christ is in fact God, and because he created all things and is master over them, and because his atonement was cosmic in scope, he has and will in fact reconcile ‘all things’ to himself” (pp. 324–25). This view, while giving Christ a role in the teleology of creation, ignores the fact that the teleology of creation is, in a manner, already accomplished in Christ himself. Christ himself is the union between God and creation. Christ is not merely instrumental for the teleology of creation; Christ is the teleology of creation embodied. While Ashford and Bartholomew are right to focus on communion with God as the end of creation, we cannot think of communion with God apart from the incarnation. As Torrance writes, “In him, God and humanity have been indissolubly united, and because he lives, the whole of finite existence suffers a cosmic change, and because he ever lives, that cosmic change is final and cannot be undone.”T. F. Torrance, Atonement (Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press, 2009), 196. Jesus Christ is the at-one-ment between God and human nature, but more than that, Christ is the at-one-ment between God and creation. The hypostatic union, in which God and creation exist in communion, is the embodiment of creation’s telos. As Maximus recognized, “the goal of creation is union with God” (p. 61). The rest of creation, needs to be brought into the fulfillment of its telos. This is not accomplished apart from cross; the cross reconciles fallen creation back to communion with God. Yet, the hypostatic union is the linchpin of that union. Christ is the embodiment of the union between God and creation.
Ashford and Bartholomew express concern for the tendency to make creation secondary to redemption. This is what concerns them about Barth’s Christological doctrine of creation. Yet, as my all-to-brief gestures towards a Christological doctrine of creation above suggest, a Christological doctrine of creation—one which takes Christology as the epistemological key and the telos of creation—need not suffer from this problem. The authors recognize that “the incarnation is inextricably intertwined with the doctrine of creation;” I commend them for how they insist that Christology is important for creation. I hope that my brief comments can help develop the Christological aspects of their doctrine of creation.