Why Christian theism entails a perishable creation

Ian Thompson has kindly pointed me to a brand new paper, happily accessible online, about animal suffering in particular and the perishability of the world in general – a subject that regularly forms the basis of attempts, from deism to atheism, to distance God from nature on the grounds of the latter’s “immorality”.

It’s actually an exposition of the thought of Thomas Aquinas on this subject – accurate, as far as my limited knowledge goes – which shows how our modern mindset is simply looking at the problem wrong. Since it is pretty clear and readable, I’ll simply recommend it to your attention without further comment.

Jon Garvey

About Jon Garvey

Training in medicine (which was my career), social psychology and theology. Interests in most things, but especially the science-faith interface. The rest of my time, though, is spent writing, playing and recording music.
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19 Responses to Why Christian theism entails a perishable creation

  1. Noah White says:

    Haven’t read beyond the abstract yet, but I can’t stress how much I wish Aquinas was around today to tackle these issues head-on. I’m stunned over and over again at how much his thought cuts through the noise and gets to the root of the problem. Thanks for sharing, Jon! If I have some more thoughts after I read the whole thing I’ll post them!

  2. drnmud says:

    In the Conclusion, the author says of animal suffering/death

    “However, it was shown that this problem for theism can be answered through the
    thought of Thomas Aquinas who argued that theism entails the necessity of a hierarchy of beings. Aquinas concluded that the only reason God could have chosen to create is to communicate His goodness.”

    If that is so, then I don’t understand how God was communicating his goodness during the millions of years of animal suffering/death before the arrival of man.

    • Jon Garvey Jon Garvey says:

      Thanks for comment, drnmud. It’s good that a few more people have already been pointed to the article from the blog than would otherwise have happened.

      The first thing to say is that Aquinas would of course have had problems with modern evolutionary ideas, as I wrote here. However, his philosophy allowed the possibility that the world had always existed, whereas I’m sure he would outright deny that man always had, so your question might have been relevant to him and have prompted a serious answer, were he around today.

      Secondly, it’s amazing how our mindset immediately thinks of “millions of years of suffering and death” rather than “millions of years of astonishing life”, even though it’s life that biologists study, and life that astronomers are searching for elsewhere – not death!

      Third, the idea of God’s “communicating” his goodness is not primarily to do with “telling others about it”, so much as communicating what he is by the very act of creating from that fullness. Therefore, even in the absence of humans, the creation of a cosmos full of life would still meet the case being made in the article. The irrational Creation gives glory to God simply by being what it is. But in fact there are a couple of extra considerations:

      Fourthly, that rational angels existed even when humans didn’t – that hierarchy of creation from material to rational (which as the article points out does not have to be seamless and complete for Aquinas, contradicting the old “principle of plenitude”) would therefore still have existed, and the angels would have understood it and given God rational worship and thanksgiving. But…

      Fifthly, even if man appears late on the scene, he is capable of apprehending the cosmos as it was before through investigation: a palaeontologist can understand and appreciate the old flora, fauna and, in fact, the ecosytem as it was, and give the same honour to God for it as the natural historian visiting the living veldt or the barrier reef today. And even a peasant can give thanks for the warmth from burning the coal that comes from long-dead vegetation.

      • drnmud says:

        “Secondly, it’s amazing how our mindset immediately thinks of “millions of years of suffering and death” rather than “millions of years of astonishing life”, even though it’s life that biologists study, and life that astronomers are searching for elsewhere – not death!”

        Considering the larger context of creation (i.e. everything, not just living things), I should have said billions of years, not millions.

        I think that many, perhaps even Aquinas, may hold the view that all of creation is directed toward man, that creation is for man (and ultimately for man’s redemption through Jesus Christ).
        That is, not directed toward and not for angels, animals, or inanimate matter.

        If this view is true, I would think that any of God’s creational goodness communicating would likewise be directed at man. So, like before, I don’t understand how God was communicating his goodness during the billions of years of material appearances/ destructions before the arrival of man.

        • Jon Garvey Jon Garvey says:

          drnmud

          The idea of creation being entirely for man has indeed a significant history – even Alfred Russel Wallace saw evolution in such terms. But it’s an exaggeration of what the Bible, and especially the creation account, actually says. It has been often abused, to our loss, in simplistic ideas such as “If we don’t see the use of it, it’s disposable.” Yet Leviathan and Behemoth, in Job, only serve mankind by proving that God makes some of nature for his own sake and not man’s.

          For a start, Genesis 1 is deliberately geocentric and anthropocentric, for the simple reason that its teaching focus is on the earthly creation and the human role in it, which was not only as ruler, but as custodian (so man was created for earth as much as vice versa). It is possible to see the account as concerning only “the particular creation relative to man”, as for example in the Gap Theory in which previous creations had gone before whose purposes were now known only to God, or even the Day Age Old Earth Creation theory in which earth manages very well on its own (or under God’s providence) for billions of years as it is gradually prepared for mankind.

          Many 17th century Christians, like the Puritan Richard Baxter, greeted the Copernican possibility of other worlds with the assumption that God would populate them beings, rational or irrational, in their own special relationship to him apart from mankind.

          As regards angels, granted that they are described as ministering spirits to man in Hebrews, but untold multitudes are also represented (eg in Revelation) as being orientated entirely towards their service and worship of God. We have our place – but God also has other business afoot.

          The “imageness” of man, which is closely linked to Christology and the eternal purposes of God for creation, does indeed give mankind, in the fullness of time, an astonishingly privileged place in the scheme of things. But that does not make the rest of creation just a foil to mankind’s utility. That was so even in a young earth scenario, in which the heavens were still known to be vast and beyond any actual use to man, and huge tracts of land and sea were also living (and suffering and dying) entirely beyond our ken.

          And my point remains that the history of the creation is a process that includes time. Some of even the earthly creation has only found a human use in these late times, and we also are promised a glorious future for man – which will include a full understanding of, and praise for, the meaning of the world of the past, distance space and so on.

          Worrying about how God “uses” time is always a risky speculation: leave the assumed “waste” of pre-human history aside, and one could equally worry about why God would create human life across the world to live and die in sin for thousands of years before the gospel became available as a remedy. We may speculate on reasons – but the one sure thing is that God has reasons, and was not simply letting souls go to waste.

          • drnmud says:

            Jon,

            Thanks for that response. I think I understand your points.

            Perhaps we could say then that if Aquinas had been aware of the billions of years of material appearances/destructions before the arrival of man, B. Kyle Keltz would have modified his statement to something like ‘Aquinas concluded that, although the only reason God could have chosen to create is to communicate His goodness, for the first 13 billion plus years of the universe God communicated His goodness only to the angels.’

            • Jon Garvey Jon Garvey says:

              Yeah – quite possibly. As far as I recall, Keltz is mercifully silent on what Aquinas would have said had he not lived when he did.

              Chaberek’s book was prompted by theistic evolutionists getting Aquinas to say what he almost certainly wouldn’t, but of course the truth is that it might be impossible for an Aquinas to have arisen in our culture at all.

  3. GD GD says:

    John,

    I find this line of reasoning compelling:

    If we take human agency and destruction, science has shown us the earth would flourish and there would be a staggering array of plant and creaturely species all existing in harmony. Even long term events such as ice ages and warming periods simply add to the diversity that constitutes the earth ecosystems.

    Within this context naturalism (and Darwinian evolution) simply fail in providing any coherent explicable outlooks.

    Thomas has made a clear point that is supported by observation – the theological dimensions are still biblically based, with little that science can add.

    • GD GD says:

      I meant to say, “If we remove human agency..”

      • Jon Garvey Jon Garvey says:

        I gathered that, George! The point you make is, of course, at the root of the whole concept of “cosmos”, which even when the Greeks first invented the concept was about a household working in, or adorned by, organised harmony.

        I’ll reply to drmud a little later, as I have to rush out now to give a breakfast talk on the word “kosmios” applied to Christian leadership!

  4. Noah White says:

    Okay, after having some time to think about it, one thing has stood out to me.

    This is a problem that continually arises when people use the Thomistic defense of imperfection in the natural world. They say it is impossible for God to create a perfect world because he himself is perfect, and couldn’t in principle create a truly perfect world since it would have to be lesser than himself. Logically sound, all well and good; but what about the new creation? Is that not supposed to be perfect? If not, in what ways would it be imperfect? I feel like I’m missing something, but Aquinas was a medieval and I know there was less an emphasis on the resurrection, etc. Any thoughts?

    • Ian Thompson says:

      You ask how a new creation would have to be imperfect, despite being created by a perfect God? How is it less than divine-perfect?
      It is less than divine perfect because:

      1. We are/have not good in ourselves, but must have goodness communicated to us.
      2. God is infinite, we are finite.
      3. God is life itself, and we are only recipients of life itself.

      In particular, the material parts of us are likely to die (to put it mildly).

    • GD GD says:

      This an interesting point – my view is that the new creation has all humanity saved in Christ and the creation is freed and cleaned from sin. Theologically this is understood within the doctrine of the trinity, and the notions of imperfection are removed from the creation – but this means all of the creation is according to God’s will and love, and not that we are God the Father Himself.

      • Ian Thompson says:

        There are various ways to view what goes on with creation and how its imperfections are removed by Christ.

        I think that we only have an eternal life when we are linked internally to Christ at the spiritual level — with the spiritual body that Paul talks about. I don’t think that material life without a fully-fledged spiritual interior can ever be perfect.

        Spirituality is the life that leads us to love what is good, perceive what is true, and do what is good.

        • Jon Garvey Jon Garvey says:

          Agree with you and GD on this.

          If I may address Noah’s point by stealing from the next post, perfection in Aquinas-speak is properly the exclusive possession of God.

          But for a created thing to be “perfect” is, surely, to embody entirely God’s purpose for it. A perfect cabbage would not be like a perfect stick insect. So (for example) the hope of moral perfection in the age to come is the hope of truly being in harmony with God’s law for us.

    • Jay313 says:

      I’ll avoid speculating on the new creation, other than to point out that “no eye has seen, or ear heard, or mind imagined, are the things God has prepared for those who love him.”

      In this case, my thoughts are always drawn to the fact that men philosophize about the current creation as if it were the best of all possible worlds, when the Scripture tells us that it is not.

      • Jon Garvey Jon Garvey says:

        “…men philosophize about the current creation as if it were the best of all possible worlds, when the Scripture tells us that it is not.

        If we’re talking about Leibniz, maybe, Jay. But not in the case of Aquinas, as our author says:

        However, although Aquinas believes that God is omnipotent, Aquinas does not believe it is possible for God to communicate His goodness in certain ways. For example, Aquinas (SCG II, 25) argues that although God is perfect, He cannot create an infinitely perfect world. The reason for this is because, as Pure Actuality, only God is infinitely perfect. Anything besides God will be contingent and fall infinitely short of His perfection. In this regard, Aquinas argues that for any world we can imagine, we could just as easily imagine a world
        with one or two more good things (ST I, 25, 6, ad 3). Thus, there is an infinite number of worlds that God could possibly create which would each fall infinitely short of His perfection.

        • Jay313 says:

          “Aquinas argues that for any world we can imagine, we could just as easily imagine a world
          with one or two more good things (ST I, 25, 6, ad 3).”

          I’m thinking about arguments against God that attempt to use the natural world to disprove his existence. They fall into the category that Aquinas describes here: Look about the world, find something that is “not perfect” or “not good” or even “not optimally designed,” and use it to build your case against the Lord. You could pretty much throw all theodicies into that basket, too. But all arguments of this sort presume that this world is the last word on the subject of God’s creative power, which it is not, according to Scripture.

          • Jon Garvey Jon Garvey says:

            Right – see where you’re coming from. Theodical justifications for naturalistic science go back (in biology) to Darwin himself, and persist more than one would suppose today, as I explored here.

            In fact, it was a platform of such arguments used by Francisco Ayala at BioLogos that really launched this blog as a more-than-personal project.

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