The Creation Narrative: Genesis 1 and 2 (Pt.7)

Part Six

God’s Transcendence versus Continuity

It is very important to notice the links between the creation accounts and ethical accounts.  In one way or another all non-biblical systems of belief paint a metaphysical picture of reality that is at once unified and diverse.  The unity is found in the indissoluble connection between heaven and earth, between man and the “higher powers”, or between the human animal and the Cosmos.  The diversity is seen in the various ways this connection is explained.  It may be explained by saying that we are merely the consequence of blind, purposeless matter coming together and developing in a certain way.  This is the secular evolutionary explanation in which man is no more significant than a slug (to cite atheist moral philosopher Peter Singer) because men, slugs and stars are composed of the same stuff arranged in different combinations.  The same feature is found in ancient pagan depictions of reality.  There is a real connection between the gods and the earth.  There are no exceptions, everything is connected; nothing is truly transcendent.

Old Testament scholar John W. Oswalt, defines “continuity” in this way:

Continuity is a philosophical principle that asserts that things are continuous with each other.  Thus I am one with the tree, not merely symbolically or spiritually, but actually.  The tree is me; I am the tree.  The same is true of every other entity in the universe, including deity.  This means that the divine is materially as well as spiritually identical with the psycho-socio-physical universe we know.[1]

The ancient myths reflected an outlook on the world, and they memorialized that outlook.  Thus, “myth depends for its whole rationale on the idea that all things in the cosmos are continuous with each other.  Furthermore, myth exists to actualize that continuity.”[2]

Oswalt demonstrates that this “continuity” or connection between gods and humans and rocks is the key difference between the biblical worldview and its rivals, ancient and modern.  Rituals, however debasing they became, were thought to affect the god for whose benefit they were performed.  Just as the rumbling of thunder was construed as something happening among the pantheon above, so a festival or dance or sacrifice was believed to be noticed by those same gods.  This is the ancient idea of “the Great Chain of Being” which unfortunately got introduced into Christian thought through a misunderstanding of the thought of Thomas Aquinas and the Scholastics.

This “hierarchy of beings” is well described by David Bentley Hart:

God was understood as that supreme reality from which all lesser realities came, but also as in a sense contained within the hierarchy, as the most exalted of its entities.  Such was his magnificence and purity, moreover, high up atop the pyramid of essences, that he literally could not come into direct contact with the imperfect and changeable order here below.  He was in a sense limited by his own transcendence, fixed up “there” in his proper place within the economy of being.[3]

When Hart refers to God being “limited by his own transcendence” he is highlighting the incongruity of putting Him atop any chain of being.  In biblical terms, what we call God’s transcendence is His Lordship over everything He has made and upholds, together with His immanent working in providence.

Although there are things in common that the biblical creation narrative with ancient creation myths, these similarities shouldn’t surprise us once it is understood that these creation myths are partly derived from the original truths passed down from Adam and his descendents, twisted of course and corrupted as man rebelled against God and became polytheistic and superstitious, and lost the framework for true transcendence.

How different all this is from the creation accounts of surrounding nations!  Those all assume the eternity of matter in some guise.  This is why things like transcendental meditation, non-Christian prayer, voodoo, magic, sorcery, etc., are practiced in the belief that one can directly affect the world or the god in some way.  Even many atheists have a mystical side to them which reflects this idea.  Only within biblical spirituality does this continuity of being evaporate.[4]   God is the transcendent Lord over all He creates and He cannot be maneuvered or coerced to do anything which is contrary to His will.

So the doctrine of Creation as found in Genesis 1 and 2 sets up a theological and philosophical platform which ought to produce a way of looking at things which has radical divergences from those which are conceived of by the world.

In verses 28-30 we see that God the Creator makes everything, and then made the creature who was like Him.  Man had a vital role to play and a response to give in the project.  We see, then, an ethical dimension introduced at the start; the role and response were to be worshipful.

—————————————————————————–

[1] John W. Oswalt, The Bible Among the Myths, 43

[2] Ibid, 45

[3] David Bentley Hart, Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and Its Fashionable Enemies, 203-204.

[4] Of course, where certain Christian formulations may be overly reliant on Greek thought (e.g. some Thomistic reliance upon Aristotle).  This is still a problem in some quarters.

Part Eight

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3 comments

  1. G’day Paul – it’s been a while since I’ve stopped by! I’ve enjoyed this series, thanks for your work.
    To clarify your point re. Aquinas, when you say it “a misunderstanding of the thought of Thomas Aquinas” – do you mean others misunderstood Aquinas’ teaching, or Aquinas’ himself misunderstood (/ was in error)?
    I’ve been reading Etienne Gilson’s God and the Philosophers, as well as The Unity of Philosophical Experience, and my mind has been blown into a whole other sphere of thinking (Gilson being a Thomist philosopher). I’m very comfortable within my Protestant-evangelical seat, but have found that there is some really thought provoking work in Catholic scholarship, who have mastered men of old, like Aquinas. For e.g.: Brian J. Shanley, “Eternal Knowledge of the Temporal in Aquinas,” American Catholic Philosophical Quarterly 71 (2):197-224 (1997).

    In a sentence or two, do you have a 2cent opinion on Aquinas?

    1. Ha. A sentence or two!

      Well, I also think that the contributions of Thomas and some recent Thomists like Gilson are important. I like his ‘Thomist Realism and the Critique of Knowledge’ a lot. He includes an interesting challenge to ‘critical realism’. My favorite book from that perspective is Edward Feser’s ‘The Last Superstition’, which is a decisive answer to Dawkins using a teleological (final causes) approach.

      My issues with Thomism begin with its natural theology, which places human intellect at the center of its epistemology. It is a top-down epistemology only in that it sees a function in things (over against evolutionism and scientism), but it is not a God’s-eye view; it reasons to God. This allows its defenders to have a rather loose view of the role of revelation in its theory of knowledge. This can be seen in Michael Augros’s interesting but (to me) ponderous book ‘Who Designed the Designer?’ which exemplifies the “unaided intellect” method which characterizes the school.

      Hope that helps a bit.

      Paul H

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