Theology of nature – call and response

Indirectly critiquing , perhaps, the positions I’ve stated in this series, Josh Swamidass over at Peaceful Science opts for a model of creation as God’s “call and response”, exemplified by Genesis 1:11, in which God says, “Let the earth bring forth vegetation…”, and it obediently does. I think he has in mind a natural process of evolution, and/or biogenesis, set in train by God’s command or invitation.

I think, to begin with, I must challenge the rather accommodationist use of Gen 1.11 in this context. The whole message of the creation, whether seen simply as Israel’s origins story or as a polemic against pagan myths, is of Elohim as the sole Creator. There is no hint that we are intended to think of creaturely co-creation here, an idea that only exists in post-Darwinian Christian thinking, and in Gnosticism.

More specifically, the phrase “Let so and so happen…” occurs in conjunction with statements of God’s making or creating throughout the chapter, so one cannot press the significance of the omission of a divine act in this place. The word used in 1:11 for “bring forth” is dasha, which is derived from, and used alliteratively with, the word for grass, deshe. It means something like “grass over” (cf Joel 2:22), making the verse say something like, “Let the earth grass over with grass,” the same kind of alliterative intensification as in Yahweh’s warning of 2:17, “Dying you shall die.” So the writer is thinking simply of vegetation sprouting from the earth, not of some demiurgic role for the planet (and remember that eretz, of course, means “[dry] land” rather than “planet.”)

Nevertheless, the “call and response” model is a valid theological one, since it reflects the sense of the divine fiat, God’s creative word of power. God commands, and it is so. This encompasses the metaphors – and more than metaphors – that I attempted to explore in the three posts on language (start here), which include the ideas of royal command, of creative utterance (in the general sense that the poetic bard creates a new reality in our imagination, or the orator stirs us to act), and of the prophecy that actually brings about events – not to mention Christ the Logos as God’s agent of creation.

So “call and response” is very much in line with the speech-act theory that informs much discussion in biblical studies nowadays, and in the theology of divine power in which God has only to conceive of something, and it is done.

It is, however, important to remember that this kind of analogy has limitations. If a king issues a decree, it is obeyed because there are subjects who understand it and have the power and will to act on it. And the king’s own “pure” intention is, in fact, the result of processes of mental deliberation or madness (as the case may be!), which emerge from his mind as speech only by complex neurological and muscular processes which are so automatic as to be unconscious. In other words, speech is subject to the principle of sufficient means – King Knut could command the sea to withdraw all day, but it would not have ears to hear.

That the same principle of sufficient means applies to any creative acts of God through secondary causes, such as the earth, is easily established by considering creation ex nihilo. God originally created the heavens and the earth from nothing (or for anyone wishing to cavill that this is not overtly stated in Genesis 1, he certainly created light from nothing by his “Fiat lux!“). If it were simply the case that God commands or invites, and creation obliges obediently, then in such a case there is literally nothing to be obedient. If “Nothing” becomes, simply through its obedience, the heavens, the earth or light, we’re in a kind of Lawrence Krauss nonsense situation where “nothing” is actually “something.”

And so if God were to command the earth he had created to bring forth life, it would be because he had already created the earth with that capacity – or conceivably, that he gave it the capacity in his very command.

This is logically obvious. If God, in a vision, commands you to jump over Mount Everest, you will be unable to do so even if a totally obedient servant – unless God should also give you capacities beyond the human norm. That, of course, is why supernatural manifestations in Christians are works, or gifts, of the Holy Spirit, not simply a capacity for perfect obedience.

So then, if God creates a secondary cause, let’s say “the earth”, and commands it to bring forth life, it will be able to do so if, and only if, it has been created with whatever powers are necessary, within its nature, to do so. But actually such natural properties of secondary causes are what we study in science (broadly understood as empirical study). So in principle we will be able to investigate the earth’s obedience to God’s command by studying its regular operations (laws of nature or general providence), and contingencies in which God’s guidance is required (special providence). If we discover that some operation is beyond its powers, but has neverthelss occurred, we will have to invoke God’s direct powers of creation apart from the secondary cause in question.

You will note that these are the very categories of divine action I have dealt with hitherto in this series. In other words, for “call and response” to be logically coherent, as well as celebrating God’s power rhetorically, it must be fleshed out with the something like the processes I have described. So it is really an alternative way of expressing the act of creation, not an alternative explanation.

The most important dysanalogy from human speech and response in this, as will be obvious, is that ultimately there are no secondary causes that do not originate in God himself. I can order a pizza without knowing anything more than the number to call because I am only a man, and Pizza Hut and all its minions are of an equal ontological status with me. But were God to order a pizza, the delivery boy, the cook, the CEO and the whole universe in which they operate came from God in the first place. In him they live, and move, and have their being.

Classical theology says that God’s omniscience is perfect because he knows himself perfectly, and because all possible knowledge of the world derives from him through its creation by him. God knows all things by knowing himself. In this way, God does not simply know infinitely more than we do – he is knowledge. One modern writer has therefore described his knowledge of the world as “causal knowledge”, since he is the first and only ultimate cause of all that is. That includes even we humans in our freedom, which is why the psalmist knows that:

Even before there is a word on my tongue,
Behold, Lord, you know it all. (Ps 139:4)

For You formed my inward parts;
You wove me in my mother’s womb.
I will give thanks to You, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made;
Wonderful are Your works,
And my soul knows it very well.
My frame was not hidden from You,
When I was made in secret,
And skillfully wrought in the depths of the earth;
Your eyes have seen my unformed substance;
And in Your book were all written
The days that were ordained for me,
When as yet there was not one of them. (Ibid. 13-16)

Accordingly, God’s word of command is not to be understood as a mere expression of his will, which “automatically” elicits a result from whatever part of creation is called by him, regardless of its natural endowments. Rather, the will of God always works through the Logos who embodies not only the power of God, but his wisdom and love, and equally through the Holy Spirit, whom Isaiah reminds us is:

The Spirit of the Lord …
The spirit of wisdom and understanding,
The spirit of counsel and strength,
The spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord.

So, if the earth, or any other secondary causes, have the natural powers to bring forth new things in any sense we might call “creation”, it is because the wisdom of the Lord planned it to be so – a matter that is empirically investigable or a matter of revelation, for:

“The Lord possessed me at the beginning of His way,
Before His works of old.
“From everlasting I was established,
From the beginning, from the earliest times of the earth.
“When there were no depths I was brought forth,
When there were no springs abounding with water.
“Before the mountains were settled,
Before the hills I was brought forth;
While He had not yet made the earth and the fields,
Nor the first dust of the world.
“When He established the heavens, I was there,
When He inscribed a circle on the face of the deep,
When He made firm the skies above,
When the springs of the deep became fixed,
When He set for the sea its boundary
So that the water would not transgress His command,
When He marked out the foundations of the earth;
Then I was beside Him, as a master workman;
And I was daily His delight,
Rejoicing always before Him,
Rejoicing in the world, His earth,
And having my delight in the sons of men.” (Prov 8:22-31)

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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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