Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Creation Untamed: God created the world good, not perfect

That is the title of chapter one in Terence Fretheihm's recent book Creation Untamed (See the earlier notice I posted). I began reading the book this weekend and the title and content of this chapter caught my attention. Frethheim's goal is to try to understand the role of God in natural disaster. In chapter one he lays the theological groundwork for understanding God's creation.

So often we are conditioned to think of the existence in Eden as perfect. That there was no room for improvement. This literally becomes a paradise to which we think we want to one day return.

But Fretheim raises some important points. Creation is good , but not perfect. In Genesis 1 God states six times that what has been created is "good" (1:4, 10, 12, 18, 21, 25) and once we read that God said it was very "good" (1:31). Even after the introduction of sin the evaluation of "good" is not lost, particularly in relation to human beings as witnessed in Isaiah 43:5 and Psalm 8:5. The human sinful condition is certainly not welcomed, but it does not change the fact that God still considers creation "good."

But it is not perfect, if by that we mean finished, free from suffering and without need of improvement. Fretheim points out that the command to "subdue" the earth (1:28) suggests that there is an inherent lack of order that needs to be constructed within creation, and God expects the creatures to do it (p. 31). In conjunction with this is the need for creation to participate in the act of creation. The earth is to bring forth plants, seed and vegetation (1:11-13). Creatures, human or otherwise, are to be fruitful and multiply (1:22, 28). Thus, although creation is "good" it is not perfect in that there is nothing for the created to do. The process of creation continues through the created.

And humanity has even greater role to play. Not only are humans to be fruitful and multiply, but God invites humans to participate in the creative activity. In 2:18-20 God allows the man to name creatures (p.25-28).

But not all is "good." In 2:28 God realizes that it is "not good" for man to be alone. And although the man is allowed to participate in the creative process by naming the creatures, it appears that there is a flaw in the creation. In spite of all that God did that was "good," it was not perfect. God realizes that in order for humanity to find its fullest expression there must be yet another creative act, this time bringing forth the woman.

But even after the creation of the woman the world is not perfect, if by that we mean free from suffering. When God speaks to the woman in Genesis 3:16 she is told that her labor pains in childbirth will increase. Note that God is not introducing pain to the human experience here. Although the woman has yet to bear any children, it is already assumed that pain will be a part of the process. What has changed is that pain increases. This means that God's creation is a place in which pain exists and is to be expected. The introduction of sin does not inaugurate pain, it only complicates it more.

It is based on this assessment of creation that Fretheim makes the statement that "God created the world good, not perfect." And the imperfection and incompleteness of creation, he argues, shifts responsibility on to the created. In the closing paragraphs of the chapter Fretheim ponders what this might mean to us and says:

These various texts place the issue of human responsibility for the future of creation directly on the plates of the creatures, especially human beings. We cannot rest back and assume that God will take care of everything or that the future of creation is solely in God's hands. Ultimately it is, yes, but in the meantime, human beings are called no to passivity but to genuine engagement, and the decisions that we make will have significant implications for the future of the earth and the nature of the future of God. (pp. 36-37)

How we understand the "good creation" of God and our role as the created should have an impact on how we continue to participate in the creative process that God has called us to. The world is not, and apparently never was, perfect. We are called to be creative with God as well as responsible for what God has entrusted to us.

I have just finished chapter two and will post some thoughts next week.


  1. The question becomes, then, what did the biblical writer(s) mean by good? If they thought something along the line of, say, Plato, then good would be synonymous with perfect, especially if Eden was the ultimate form. If Adam and Eve were kicked out of the archetypal garden, then Eden would have been perfect, the ultimate form of good. In that case, Eden would have been perfect. Therefore, Fretheim's argument would be invalid.

  2. Jason,

    I don't think the authors mean "good" as in Plato and I am also not sure that Eden is meant to be an archetype. We often interpret it that way, but I am not sure that was the point.

  3. As I read Scripture, and Genesis in particular, I find myself moving away from a philosophical concept of "good" that lies in the abstract. Rather, "good" seems to inhere in the ordering of creation; creation operating as God has designed it to. The impact, as I see it, on Christian ethics is a move away from morality as *merely* following a list of abstract dictates, instead seeing morality as humans operating within the created order as the type of beings that God had desired to create.

  4. I still think that the fundamental question is what the biblical authors, and by extension God, meant by calling creation good. We can not advance the discussion without understanding the meaning of good.

  5. John, if Eden is not archetypal, then how do you suggest we approach it? I had enough classes with you to know you aren't promoting a literal account of Genesis 1 and 2. Are you suggesting that even though the account is not literal that the origins of the Garden are rooted in history? How do you see that informing our handling of the text?

  6. "Perfection" is a term and a concept that comes more from Greek philosophers, namely Aristotle, than from the Old Testament. What Aristotle meant by it was that whatever was perfect would be unchanging, since change would imply moving from a worse state to a better, which would mean that the thing was not perfect. Yet creation is always changing in Genesis. God doesn't create everything all at once. Rather creation happens in stages. Indeed, God tasks humanity, as God's image-bearers, to take part in the create process, charging them to carry on his task of bringing order to creation. None of this is in line with an Aristotelian notion of perfection.

  7. Curt,

    No, I am not suggesting that it is rooted in history. Instead, I see it as human beings trying to provide a theological explanation for what they see around them. It is an attempt to understand what we experience. Genesis 1 & 2 has some interesting elements, including the presence of pain. I think that for too long we have presumed what Genesis "should say" and have failed to read what it does say.

  8. Don't let us forget something here; we are not tackling this issue from the root. We should not blame Adam nor Eve. I put account of creation into question; how on earth would God create a creature and ask him to continue creating other creatures, even to perfection?

    The interpretation above is not valid. The bible did not mention that God instructed Adam and Eve to continue creation when He knows that they would mess it up.

    Something is not right here; God should have known that his creation would turn his beautiful works upside down except He did not see the end from the start.

    God created Adam in His own image and later found out he wasn't good enough, God then added Eve who then made good things bad. Despite the punishment, things never remain the same and God lamented that He regretted creating humans beings. If God regretted, then we are all doomed regardless of wether your are born again or not - some stories here are not right. I strongly believe God would not create his creature to suffer in the first place.

    Since the creation, things never get better despite the intervention of Jesus Christ. Something is not right .... I'm full of questions that I haven't got a certifying answer to, makes me mad.

  9. To the unknown poster.

    God does not tell us to procreate unto perfection. That would deny the rest of the text that tells us we must die before being perfected.

    The Bible specifically states that God told them to procreate so I'm not sure what you mean by this one.

    Where have we turned his works upside down? The OP stated that things were not perfect to begin with and clearly needed our hand in changing. I think there's many things we have done that are not bad things.

    You're right about God having regrets but I don't think that has anything to do with this subject. While it's true that humans have done bad, we weren't created perfectly to begin with which is the entire point here. By not being perfect, we're given free will to carry out as we choose. All of us make poor choices at a given point in time but some ultimately please God and it appears from reading the texts that God is willing to accept the few who choose him and the joy that gives him over the regret that many do. Its comparable to our own lives. We've made many choices we regret but in the end we remember the few things that made us most happy and in those moments we find greater joy than the moments that caused us pain.

    To your last point, of course things don't just dramatically change everyone and every thing being perfect. The text never says that will happen so any expectation that it will is ignoring the texts entire premise.