From Nothing: A Theology of Creation.
In a memorable episode from the hit television series Seinfeld, Jerry and George are presented with the daunting task of pitching their pilot for "a show about nothing" to the executives of NBC. One suspects that Ian McFarland may have had a somewhat easier time convincing the editors of Westminster John Knox Press to publish his book, because in attempting to retrieve the classic doctrine of creation ex nihilo (from nothing), he has actually produced a book about everything that is and the God who freely creates out of the plenitude of the life that has been eternally shared between the Father and the Son in the Holy Spirit.
From Nothing: A Theology of Creation is a work of "systematic theology" in the best sense of the term. McFarland draws upon a chorus of voices from across the Christian theological tradition (e.g., Irenaeus, Maximus the Confessor, Anselm, Thomas Aquinas, Karl Barth) to present a nuanced and compelling defense of the doctrine of creation ex nihilo. The symmetry and elegance of the book's organization reflect something of both the marvellous ordering of creation and the book's central material conviction that the doctrine of creation from nothing is best understood within the context of the doctrine of the Trinity. The book is divided into two parts and, fittingly, each part is divided into three chapters. The first part is given the superscription Exitus (outflow), as it is primarily concerned with the rootedness of creation within the life of God. The three chapters in the first part are devoted to unpacking in succession the component parts of the statement, "God creates from nothing." Part Two, Reditus (return), marks a "shift from creation's rootedness in God to the contours of its existence under God" (p. xiv) and includes chapters entitled "Evil," "Providence," and "Glory." The two parts are bookended by a substantial introduction and a brief conclusion; the latter is followed by a thorough bibliography and helpful scripture and subject indices.
Following an introductory chapter that outlines some of the exegetical, historical, and contemporary challenges associated with the doctrine of creation ex nihilo, McFarland turns in the second chapter to the question of the identity of the God who creates from nothing. McFarland's recourse to the doctrine of the Trinity at this point will seem relatively uncontroversial to those trained in theology following the great Trinitarian revival of the twentieth century. However, this identification of the Triune God as the Creator and the corresponding implications of this identification are frequently overlooked or obscured in debates surrounding creation and the relationship between faith and science as they play out at a more popular level. While the doctrine of creation from nothing affirms that God was under no compulsion to create, the affirmation that the Creator is Triune God, who is intrinsically living, productive, and present, allows one to see that there is a certain fittingness to God's creative work, which helps to counter charges of divine arbitrariness and divine determinacy.
The existence of creatures called into being from nothing by the Triune God is characterized by a contingency marked by movement and place. The radical dependence of each created being upon the Creator is the great ontological equalizer, as reflected in the refrain of John of Damascus, which recurs throughout the book: "All things are distant from God not by place, but by nature." Echoing the diversity in unity which marks the life of the Triune God, God's desire to create naturally results in a glorious diversity of created beings which, in faith, can be perceived as participating in a larger and harmonious whole. This Trinitarian construal of creation from nothing allows McFarland to acknowledge the distinctive role assigned to human beings in the divine economy in a way that does not diminish the integrity and value of the nonhuman creation. The first part of the book concludes with a chapter that stands as the outworking of the Trinitarian commitments articulated in the second chapter through the lens of Christology.
If God is in no way limited in his creative work, as the doctrine of creation from nothing affirms, how then do we account for a world, which, as scientific evidence suggests, has been characterized by suffering and death from long before the first human beings appeared on the scene? The second part of the book begins with an exploration of this question. While McFarland contends that theodicies (attempts to provide a solution to the problem of evil) are mistaken, he does find in the biblical books of Proverbs, Job, and Ecclesiastes three distinct and mutually enriching accounts of evil from within the context of the doctrine of creation.
God's resistance to evil in the present for the sake of the creatures' attainment of their proper ends has historically been treated under the doctrine of providence and is the subject of chapter six. McFarland draws upon the scholastic categories of conservatio (preservation), concursus (accompaniment), and gubernatio (direction) to explicate God's providential activity. McFarland's exploration of the issues raised as a result of a wholehearted commitment to both divine sovereignty and creaturely integrity may make this the most interesting chapter of the book for readers of this journal. For example, in his treatment of concursus, McFarland stresses that a proper understanding of the doctrine requires the recognition of the metaphysical discontinuity between God and creation. Recognition of this discontinuity allows for a noncompetitive understanding of divine and creaturely causation that allows us to speak of primary and secondary causation. This distinction can be brought to bear on Einstein's famous dictum that God does not play dice with the universe. In terms of primary causation, Einstein's assertion is obviously true, since all that exists depends upon God for its continuing existence. But from the perspective of secondary causation, God could very well play dice with the universe by bringing about created effects in the absence of any created cause, or what modern science has identified as the truly random event.
Since creation has been created for an end that lies beyond its inherent capacities, namely sharing in the life of the Triune God, McFarland includes a brief chapter devoted to the topic of glory. The glorification of creation is not merely an event that awaits us in the future. Even now, a part of the creation--heaven--is transparent to the glory of God. Eastern iconography and the Eucharist also serve as case studies for exploring a vision of glorified matter and the presence of glorified matter in the midst of the not-yet-glorified earth, respectively. As a result of this investigation, it becomes apparent that "the point of glory is not to negate the present form of creation but to perfect it" (p. 180).
At the very outset, McFarland makes clear that his intent is to provide a theological account of the doctrine of creation from nothing. As a result, he has very little interest in staking out a position within debates surrounding temporal origins. According to McFarland, the doctrine of creation ex nihilo is not the description of a process, but fundamentally "a proposal about the character of God's relationship to the world" (p. xiv). However, this does not mean that McFarland has no interest in the fruit of scientific exploration. At various points in both the body of the text and perhaps even more frequently in the footnotes, he is informed by and drawn into dialogue with the findings of various scientific disciplines. In fact, one of his major emphases in the book's conclusion is that a commitment to scientific investigation into the conditions of creaturely flourishing is a necessary correlate to the affirmation of creation from nothing. The reader lacking theological training may find From Nothing to be demanding reading, but for those who persevere, the theological payout is far from nothing.
Reviewed by Robert Dean, ThD, Wycliffe College, University of Toronto, Toronto, ON M5S 1H7.
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|Publication:||Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Jun 1, 2015|
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