in Vetere Novum latet et in Novo Vetus pater

“The New Testament is hidden in the Old; the Old is made accessible by the New.” ~Augustine.

Quoting in Latin makes you sound smart.

Recall that chapter 3 of Alister McGrath’s book A Scientific Theology: Nature was devoted to discussing why “nature” was too vague a concept to employ in discussions about the relationship between science and Christianity. Instead he was going to introduce the more robust concept of “creation”. I found chapter 4, which is basically a historical overview of how Jews and Christians have conceived of creation, very interesting. Next week we’ll hit chapter 5, which discusses the implications of Christian ideas about creation.

So why the Latin quotation in the title? McGrath points out that when Christians discuss creation, we often begin with Genesis 1 – which is actually kind of odd. Because Christ is the basis of all our articles of faith, and because the Old Testament is often unclear to us without the further revelation in the New. Quoting Emil Brunner,

So when we begin to study the subject of Creation in the Bible we ought to start with the first chapter of the Gospel of John, and some other passages of the New Testament, and not with the first chapter of Genesis.

That said, McGrath does begin his survey with the Old Testament, perhaps as a means to emphasize how important the New is to our understanding. He makes a couple points I wanted to share.

1. Most of the Old Testament passages that reference creation do not require a belief that God created the universe out of nothing – rather the passages could be read as indicating that “creation” was really an ordering by God of some chaotic environment that already existed. In fact many, perhaps most, Jews did not believe in creation ex nihilo until relatively recently (McGrath says the final commitment didn’t happen until as late as the 15th century AD). I found this quite surprising.

2. But, the OT does make a couple ideas quite clear – that God created all things, and that the created order is itself not divine. Both ideas distinguished the Jews from many of the cultures around them. The former point was especially important in that it was used to argue that God had authority over all nations, not just Israel, and over all places and all times. In fact, this was the central thrust of the Jewish doctrine of creation – “creation in the Old Testament is not a statement about the natural sciences, but about human history”, to quote Ludwig Kohler.

The New Testament introduces one new idea, and clarifies another, about creation.

In the first place, the New Testament recognizes a Christological dimension to the doctrine of creation; in the second, it points to a pattern of divine activity which is expressed in the doctrine of creation ex nihilo.

Both these ideas are expressed in the famous first chapter of John, where we’re told that the Logos existed before anything was created, and that everything was created through him. And, Christ, who became flesh, is seen not only as the agent of creation, but also it’s final goal. Quoting G.W.H. Lampe,

The Pauline parallel between Christ and Adam implies that God’s design for Adam has been effectively realized in Christ. Adam was intended to be son of God; he was created in the image of God. Christ is God’s son; he is the image of God; he is ‘in the form of God’; he is truly Adam, which means that he is truly and completely human. The sonship to God which was fully realized in Christ belongs to the nature of all; it characterized humanity as the Creator intends it to be.

We have some friends with a son named Adam – named after the new Adam, they emphasize.

From here, McGrath goes on to talk about how the doctrine of creation was articulated with the passage of time. I just want to mention three moments in time.

1. Very early on the Church was threatened, at least intellectually, by Gnosticism. Gnosticism taught that some inferior deity, different than the redeeming God of the New Testament, was responsible for the first creation of this world – this is why the world is filled with evil and defects. In response to Gnostics, Irenaeus “argued for a direction connection between creation and redemption in the economy of salvation”. God created a good world which was blemished by sin through the first Adam. In the incarnation, God came down into his own created order to restore it to the pattern he originally intended. Redemption is not just for individuals, but is happening to all of creation. This rejection of Gnosticism, a rejection of the idea that the universe was created with inherent defects, may have been important for the development of the natural sciences.

Against any idea that the natural order was chaotic, irrational or inherently evil (three concepts which were often regarded as interlocking), the early Christian tradition affirmed that the natural ordered possessed a goodness, rationality and orderliness which derived directly from its creation by God.

2. In the Middle Ages, we have Thomas Aquinas, who is extremely difficult to understand, if you ask me. So I don’t want to spend much time here, except to say that Aquinas argued both that nature is autonomous, working according to the laws of causality, and also that God worked within nature. He did not see these two principles as contradictory. He believed, according to McGrath, that “the explanatory autonomy of the created order is itself a consequence of its creation by God.”

3. Finally, we come to Calvin. Calvin also held to the causal autonomy of the created order, but was aware that such a belief could be interpreted as atheism – the universe humming along just fine with no God to be found. I’ll share one quotation,

…the regularities within nature are not to be thought of as being intrinsic to it, but reflect the ordering imposed upon it by God in creation. Thus Calvin stresses that the rain does not fall, nor the sun rise, by some ‘blind instinct of nature’; rather, such regularities reflect the ordering of the world in creation, and subsequent general influence of God through providence. Non id fieri caeco naturae instinctu, sed quia Deus ita decrevit.

According to Google, that last part means “It is not a blind instinct of nature to be done, but because God decreed that.” Far too much linguistic showmanship in this chapter, I tell you.

Much more than Aquinas, Calvin also emphasized that sin resulted in an intrusion of disorder into creation – both in terms of the actual structure of the world, and in the capacities of our mind to reflect upon it, with a restoration for the whole world hoped for in Christ.

OK, that’s good for now! Next chapter, as I said, is about the implications for the Christian doctrine of creation. And get excited, because I see at least one scientific formula in that chapter…

Previous Posts in this series

Chapter 3 – Nobody knows what “nature” is
Chapter 2 – Preventing another “Galileo Affair” (and other thoughts)
Chapter 1 – Science as the ancilla theologiae
Preface – Blogging Through “A Scientific Theology”


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