Saturday, January 1, 2011

The Identity of God: Creator

We have followed Mark Smith's study of the development of monotheism in Israelite religion and have seen that monotheism eventually developed under the pressure of historical challenges to the continued survival of Israelite political entities. In the face of the overwhelming might of the Mesopotamian and, later, Hellenistic World Empires, Israelite thinkers engaged in a type of ideological warfare in which Yahweh—previously a national god, one of many in the West Semitic pantheon under the fatherhood of El—developed into the supreme god and eventually the only god. However, this ideological victory of Yahweh did not save the Israelite kingdoms in historical existence and it therefore became necessary to articulate the ultimate vindication of Yahweh's people as a future event. We summarized Smith's account as follows:

The Religion of Israel VI: Synthesis Part Three

In Chapter Three of Memoirs of God (MG), "Biblical Monotheism and the Structures of Divinity," Mark Smith attempts to explain the development of monotheism in Israel, a process which we have touched upon repeatedly in this examination of Israelite religion. As Smith observes in his introductory remarks, a major difficulty in dealing with this aspect of Israelite religion is that "monotheism was a development in Israelite religion that was read back into its earlier religious tradition." Briefly, monotheism developed within an elite segment of the Israelite population during the late monarchy. However, from the perspective of these relatively late thinkers, monotheism was read back into earlier times, although the writings of the Israelite scriptures clearly preserve important information that shows that earlier Israelite religion was not monotheistic. As a result, the Israelite scriptures must be approached with caution in order to separate out genuine early traditions from later interpretative developments based on Judaic monotheism. Later Christians unfortunately adopted late Jewish interpretations of the early traditions uncritically, as well as reading Christian meanings back into the Israelite scriptures. Smith's approach to this issue views the development of monotheism as part of a "survival strategy" for Israel, one intended as a response to historical challenges to Israel's continued survival--in particular, the fall of the dual kingdoms of Israel and Judah.


Smith views this movement in Israelite religion toward a true monotheism--in which not only the female consort but also the various deities who were previously on the second, third and fourth levels of the pantheon are gradually demoted until they are no longer even regarded as deities--as a response to the crisis of Israel's existence. As Israel and Judah's political importance became ever more marginal Yahweh, the god of Israel, assumed greater stature than ever before. No longer was Yahweh merely the god of the nation, under the headship of El. Gradually Yahweh usurped El and the national god of Israel became the head god, the god over all other gods--even over the gods of Assyria. Israel might be increasingly powerless, but the god whom Israel alone knew and worshiped became omnipotent, giving Israel hope for the future when the future, in worldly terms, appeared bleakest.

The ultimate ideological victory of Yahweh came about as the result of a theoretical insight that represented a significant advance in thought over what Eliade terms the “archaic ontology” of archetypes and recognition. This insight wasn't fully articulated until Maccabean times with the development of the idea of creatio ex nihilo. In 2 Maccabees we find this concept apparently fully articulated for the first time:

I beg you, child, look at the sky and the earth; see all that is in them and realize that God did not make them out of existing things [ouk ex onton epoiesen auta], and that man comes into being in the same way. (7:28) 

This passage appears to expressly rule out the notion of God forming creatures out of a preexisting reality of some sort, such as may be presupposed in the Genesis account of the beginning of all things. After all, the passage loses its point (regarding God's power to raise the righteous dead) and certainly its punch if changed to read:

I beg you, child, look at the sky and the earth; see all that is in them and realize that God formed them out of some preexisting primordial chaotic matter and that man comes into being in the same way.

The idea of one God who truly creates, as opposed to gods who shaped and formed a preexisting reality, signaled the death of myth and polytheism as theoretically viable explanations of reality, since only one god can be creative in this absolute sense. However, this ideological victory of Yahweh had other consequences, which Second Temple Judaism struggled with and which Rabbinic Judaism has never been fully at ease with. For the idea of a universally creative god leads inexorably to the idea of a universal human nature and casts doubt on the credibility of national gods. Late Israelite thinkers wrestled with these ideas in various writings (Genesis, Jonah, some of the late prophets and Wisdom literature), but Judaism has ultimately had difficulty in coming to terms with these implications of monotheism.

Christianity, on the other hand, beginning with Jesus himself, fully embraced both the idea of a universally creative god as well as the corollary of a universal human nature. This in turn led to the development of a distinctive tradition of thought which differed from archetypal (and Platonic) “archaic ontology.” The Christian embrace of a God who is truly and uniquely creative culminated in the thought of Thomas Aquinas with its distinctive emphasis on God's causative creativeness. However, it is, as we will see, also true that from a fairly early period Christian thought absorbed Platonic influences at odds with this fundamental Christian teaching. The struggle between the Christian doctrine of God as creative and countervailing Platonic influences has continued down to the present.

The Identity of God in the Synoptic Gospels

In general, discussion of God in the New Testament centers around the relationship of Jesus to the God he calls “Father,” and thus of the relationship to the Father of those who are “in Christ.” However, when the focus is on the identity of God himself, that identity is that of Creator: God is He Who Is and, thus, he who causes to be.

There are instances in which references to “the Creator” or uses of the word “created” are arguably not clear references to actual creation ex nihilo, but instead are related to the older conception of God as forming what exists from preexisting matter. Nevertheless, the NT authors often insert subtle changes that point in the direction of creation as a quasi-technical term. For example:

Mt 19:4 portrays Jesus as incorporating part of Gen 1:27 into his teaching on divorce,

From the beginning the Creator made them male and female.”

Thus, while Jesus quotes Genesis accurately ("made"), in his own words in the lead up to the quote he identifies God specifically as “the Creator,” substituting for the word “God” a characterization of God's identity. Even supposing that the original reading is that of some textual witnesses that preserve the OT wording, “the Maker,” the impression is even stronger that a need was perceived to change that wording to a more technical and accurate description of God's identity: Creator.

In his parallel to Mt 19:4, Mark (also quoting Genesis) writes:

But from the beginning of creation "male and female he [God] made them...”

The point to emphasize is that, whereas the Septuagint (Greek OT) uses the generic Greek word for “made,” both Matthew and Mark, when they are writing freely and are not directly quoting Genesis, insert a form of the word for “create” to characterize that event or the actor (God). Strikingly, Mark uses an even more absolute phrasing at Mk 13:19,

since the beginning of the creation God created.

It's hard to escape the impression that Matthew and Mark are making a point, or are attempting to be especially accurate, with their choice of words. While it is true that the Greek word for "create" originally had an architectural association, the fact that it had taken on an additional more technical meaning is apparent from the early Christians' strong preference for this word as applied to God and not to Man--in marked contrast to OT modes of expression (see below). Mk 13:19 in particular appears to go out of the way to avoid using more generally anthropomorphic terms such as “made.” By way of contrast, Paul at 1 Cor 11:9, while using the word “created,” employs a poetic style of parallelism that makes it more difficult to conclude that he had technical distinctions in mind when he wrote:

for man is not from woman,
rather, woman [is] from man;
and man was not created for woman,
rather, woman [was created] for man.

1 Ti 4:3-4 may also be considered at least non-technical in its use of “created” and “Creator,” although the preference for these terms over “made” is surely indicative of a tendency toward a more technical meaning.

Hymns of Creation?

The prologue to the Gospel of John, Jn 1:1-10, also contains language of interest to our inquiry:

At the beginning [of all things] the Word was [existing],
and the Word was with God
and the Word was God.
All things came to be through [the Word],
and without [the Word] not one thing that has come to be came to be.
[The Word] was in the world, and the world came to be through him...

The Gospel of John (The Revelation to John is a different matter) never uses any word related to the root for “create,” but John also avoids the common OT usage of “make.” In the prologue John first signals that we are dealing with a cosmogony by clearly referring to the opening verse of Genesis (“in the beginning”), but he just as clearly signals the Christian nature of this cosmogony by introducing “the Word” and immediately identifying “the Word” with God. Of great importance, he states that when the universe began—at the beginning of “all things” (ta panta)--the Word already existed, a clear indication of a radical existential beginning for "all things" that cannot be posited for the Word. And the final verse sounds a theme that will be consistent throughout early Christian thought: not only did the Word already exist, but “all things,” the entire universe, came to be (egeneto) through the Word and through nothing (or no one) but the Word--most likely an exclusion of any intermediate “powers” between God/the Word and creation. Any "powers" that exist must be posited as having been created by God, and therefore are themselves incapable of creating anything.

This appears to be a clear identification of God/the Word as the unique source of existing, and not as the mere former or maker of “all things” who exists in conjunction with an eternal universe. This conclusion is strengthened by John's repeated contrast between the Word who existed (“was”) and “all things” that came to be. “All things” come to be, but the Word is with God and always has been with God and is God. This is the same contrast that we see later (8:58) when Jesus states,

before Abraham came to be, I am [ego eimi, with the emphatic pronoun].

For John to have stated that the Word existed before "all things" were formed or even made would not be new, and would not separate Christian faith from pagan beliefs, nor would it explain the language that John chose to use.  John's prologue is written with Genesis in mind, but for John the Word preexists the world, whereas in Genesis God exists and "makes" the world "in the beginning" from an already existing "deep" or "void." There is in Genesis no mention or suggestion of a "before," nor is there a mention or suggestion of a "coming to be" where nothing had existed before, but only of a forming of a formless void, of God's spirit hovering over a seemingly preexisting or coexisting "deep." This distinction in John clearly implies that, unlike in Greek thought, God is not a part of the universe or cosmic system but is totally other.

Nor is this view unique to John, for Paul, in his letter to the Colossians (1:15-17), makes precisely the same point in strikingly similar terms regarding the Son. The difference, however, is that Paul uses the more technical word “create,” repeatedly:

[The Son] is the image of the unseen God,
the firstborn of all creation,
for in him all things in the heavens and on earth were created,
both the seen and the unseen,
whether thrones, dominions, rulers or powers,
all things were created through him and for him.
He is before all things,
and in him all things subsist.

All the elements of John's prologue are present in this early Christian hymn: the identity of God and the Son (the Word), the existence of the Son before “all things,” the Son's role in the creation of “all things” and the exclusion of any “thrones, dominions, rulers or powers” from any role in creation. As with John, God/the Son is before “all things.” The Son alone is (as is God), whereas “all things” are created. Most strikingly, the fact that “all things” subsist in and for the Son indicates a continuing and constant existential dependence that is unprecedented in the usual origin myths, as well as the radical otherness of the God who is Creator.

As with all early Christian literature, these hymnic passages are not intended as philosophical treatises, and so we hesitate to characterize them as cosmogonies or, more precisely, creation hymns in a specific sense. The hymn from Colossians does contain at least one phrase-- the firstborn of all creation—that could be said to suggest that the Son is begotten or created: before the creation of “all things,” to be sure, but nevertheless begotten. In this regard it is useful to refer to Proverbs 8:22ff., which is generally believed to serve as a sort of background to the type of thought that we find in the Colossians hymn:

The LORD made me as the beginning of His way,
the first of His works of old.
I was set up from everlasting,
from the beginning, or ever the earth was.
When there were no depths, I was brought forth;
when there were no fountains abounding with water.
Before the mountains were settled,
before the hills was I brought forth;
While as yet He had not made the earth,
nor the fields, nor the beginning of the dust of the world.
When He established the heavens, I was there;
when He set a circle upon the face of the deep,
When He made firm the skies above,
when the fountains of the deep showed their might,
When He gave to the sea His decree,
that the waters should not transgress His commandment,
when He appointed the foundations of the earth;
Then I was by Him, as a nursling;
and I was daily all delight, playing always before Him,
Playing in His habitable earth,
and my delights are with the sons of men. (JPS)

When we compare the two passages it's immediately clear that we're in different conceptual universes. In Proverbs the verbs are all anthropomorphic in character, invoking the ideas of making, forming, laying foundations, giving birth. With the sole exception of the reference to “the firstborn of all creation,” the hymn in Colossians avoids all such anthropomorphisms in favor of “creation” and “created.” And, in fact, by introducing the idea of the Son being the “image” of the Father, the metaphor of birth is weakened in favor of the identity of Father and Son--as in John's prologue. It is notable that the passage in Colossians, although hymnic or poetic in form, eschews the greater variety of vocabulary that we see in Proverbs in favor of a a much narrower vocabulary that focuses carefully on existential connotations--surely a sign that a technical meaning is intended or certainly in process of development. The Son existed before "all things," and now that "all things" exist (having been "created") they "subsist" or have their existence in the Son. This may not be a theoretical definition of creation ex nihilo--that can hardly be expected in a letter of pastoral intent--but there can be no doubt that that is the direction intended. 

Note re The Revelation to John: We won't attempt to address the relationship of The Revelation to the Gospel of John. Unlike the Gospel, words derived from “create” do appear in The Revelation:

       Worthy are you, our Lord and God
        to receive glory and honor and power,
        because you created “all things”
        and through your will they were [ησαν] and were created. (4:11)

Once again, we see the avoidance of the typical OT word, “made,” in favor of “created.” Even the use of “were” (ησαν) has more the flavor of coming into existence than of being “made” or formed. Especially striking is the insistence that the existence of "all things" came about through an act of God's will, as well as the unusual and (seemingly) unnecessary repetition of "were created" in the final line. The author appears intent on stressing that "all things" did not come to be through a process of "forming" or "making," another indication that we see here a different conception of God and the "all things."

Early Natural Theology

This insistence of the earliest Christians on the contrast between creation and coming to be, of God (and the Son/Word) who is and who creates and the “all things” of creation that come to be—which we find in the Synoptics, in John and in Paul—is quite remarkable. If anything it is even more remarkable, given the social origins of Christianity, that from the earliest times Christians used the theoretical power of these distinctions to move into the field that can only be called natural theology and even comparative religion. We see this in Luke's account of Paul's encounter with Greek philosophers at the Areopagus in Athens, Acts 17:16-34. Luke portrays Paul as strolling about and observing pagan shrines to their various gods and engaging the Greek philosophers in dialogue. As Luke presents Paul's discourse, it is a typically Jewish polemic against “polytheism,” with its anthropomorphisms. But Paul also shows a genuine sympathy for the Greeks and their thought, portraying their thought as a groping toward the true but “unknown” God and even quoting their poets to that effect. In Luke's telling, Paul's words have a distinctive OT flavor, contrasting the “unknown God” with the God of Israelite religion:
God who made [ὁ ποιησας] the cosmos and all things that are in it, he is the Lord of heaven and earth and he doesn't dwell in temples made by human hands... (17:24)
and in particular we note the use of the typically OT “made,” as opposed to “created.” Of course, Paul is portrayed as going on to present the Good News of Jesus, but the identity of God that Luke presents is quite in keeping with the OT portrait, much as we see in Luke's infancy narratives.

By way of contrast, when Paul speaks in his own words to a Christian community in Rome (Romans 1:18-32) we see a similar but less sympathetic “comparative religion” approach to “pagan” religion as well as a more distinctively Christian portrayal of God's identity:
therefore what is knowable about God is evident to [the Greeks]; for God has made it evident. For those things concerning God that are unseen but knowable--that is, his eternal power and deity--are understood from the creation of the cosmos through the things that God made... (1:19-20)
they exchanged God's truth for falsehood and worshipped and performed service to creation [creatures] instead of to the Creator... (1:25)
Paul, here, makes the significant theoretical point that what is knowable about God from “all things” is not that God resembles any of the “all things” in the way that a pot resembles the potter. Far from it. Rather, what is known is that God is utterly different from his creation, is in fact the all powerful Creator. In what follows Paul goes on to make the further point that from learning about God's divinity and power as Creator we also learn something about our own humanity and what it means to live and act as true human beings. These distinctions would be inconceivable apart from the idea of creation, for from the idea of a demiurgic "maker" no moral implications follow.

In all this we must bear in mind that the major concern of all the authors is to distinguish the true God from false pagan gods and the "elements"--we are not dealing here with investigation into the nature and existence of finite beings per se. God not only exercises dominion over the "elements"--the thrones and dominations--but he created them. God is before all things and brings all things into existence. While the writings of the New Testament may not be philosophical treatises in a theoretical sense, there is no doubt that they are dealing with philosophical issues and that Christianity is and has been from its inception a "philosophical" faith. This will become quite explicit as we move beyond the Apostolic age.

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