The Creation Narrative - Genesis 1 & 2 (Part 7)

Read the series so far.

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 descendants, 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.

Notes

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.

5201 reads

There are 6 Comments

Aaron Blumer's picture

EditorAdmin

Thanks for the food for thought, Paul. These things get me wrestling with questions.

First, what do the continuity fans do to account for the apparent distinctions between things and with uniqueness? Is it supposed to be illusion?

Second, isn't this a bit understated?

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

What I mean by understated is, surely we would say He is transcendent in more ways than in authority. I guess I'm balking a bit here because I have never used the term "transcendent" with supreme authority in mind. Rather, I have used the term to mean that He is fundamentally different from all of us in a superior way. His thoughts are higher than our thoughts. He is "not a man that He should..." and so forth. So I've always seen it as shorthand for the Creator-creature distinction and all that goes with that.

I want to avoid Barth's "wholly other" because it's a loaded term and, frankly, I do not understand what Barth meant by it.

So if I'm "going there" in my thinking, it's purely coincidental. I don't believe He is so "other" as to make all that He has revealed about Himself in Scripture meaningless, but that He is so other that we need not hesitate to let our minds run wild with in response to "There is none like Me."

Another question: I'm not completely understanding the problem with the hierarchy concept. Readily concede that I lack some background on this (forgot it, or just didn't read it!). But how is the hierarchical concept you reject here different from the idea that all being derives from and depends on Him? And how does this passage relate to the whole topic:

for in Him we live and move and have our being, as also some of your own poets have said, ‘For we are also His offspring.’ (Ac 17:28)  

Mark_Smith's picture

si_sitedev? I thought poster names had to be derived from the person's real name?

Jim's picture

Mark_Smith wrote:

si_sitedev? I thought poster names had to be derived from the person's real name?

Aaron was logged on with a development account and forgot to switch

Aaron Blumer's picture

EditorAdmin

Sorry about that. 

...fixing that now.

(It's sort of the digital equivalent of working under the hood and then forgetting to take your coveralls off.... a bit embarrassing.) :pardon:

Paul Henebury's picture

Hi Aaron,

just returned from a nice vacation in Tennessee and had determined not to get on the internet.  You ask some interesting and tricky questions.  I'll try and be brief:

1. On the distinction between the essence and the individuation of things i think it fair to say that on the whole they thought either that there was a primal substance that was 'shaped' by something or other; or that there was a realm of forms to which the things we experience conform (Plato); or that the 'thingness' of a thing (it's substance) was due to the interplay between its actuality and potentiality (Aristotle).  In Aquinas this is altered at the level of the Creator - creature distinction, although many less careful men influenced by him would see a line of continuity reaching up to God (who is pure Act - pure Being).  The problem with continuity is that it implies that the gods can be influenced by those below them in the line of being by certain leveraging techniques (e.g., sacrifice, spells, etc).  

2. When I speak of God's 'Lordship' I mean more than just His authority.  I accept John Frame's triad of "Lordship, Authority & Presence" and therefore see a distinction (though connection) between these "Lordship attributes".  therefore I would see God's Lordship as His Creatorly difference from what He has made.  Yet we cannot say that God is so "other" that we cannot speak of Him in direct terms (although we cannot plumb the depths of His Being).  This is where Frame's triad helps because it is linked with His presence, just as transcendence and immanence cannot be separated.  The God who is present (esp. in Jesus Christ) can be spoken of directly to an important degree.  Hence, although we only know what is revealed of God, the content of what we know is true not apparent.

3. Acts 17:28 says that things rely on God's upholding of it all, but this is not to say that there is no distinctness between God and His creation.  God's creation has its own created integrity independent of God even as it is dependent on God.  And certainly, God is independent of His creation (He is transcendent, holy, simple).  If that were not the case the Creator - creature distinction would only be one of distance; it would not be an actual distinctness.  Remember Van Til's helpful diagram of the two circles, the larger one on top of the other.  They are separated by a gap.  The top one is God, the bottom one is the creation.  Two parallel arrows pointing down from the top circle indicate the creation's reliance upon God via revelation and preservation.  This insures the distinction is ontological too.  

Don't know if this helps, but there it is!

 

God bless,

 

Paul H   

Dr. Paul Henebury

I am Founder of Telos Ministries, and Senior Pastor at Agape Bible Church in N. Ca.

Aaron Blumer's picture

EditorAdmin

Your response is very helpful, Paul. & I hope you had a good vacation.
I don't recall seeing the Van Til diagram you mentioned but I can probably google it. Very interested in the immanence/transcendence/knowability problem.

Help keep SI’s server humming. A few bucks makes a difference.