Creation Theology in the Old Testament: A Neglected Issue

I’ve just begun reading my friend Terry Fretheim’s volume God and World in the Old Testament: A Relational Theology of Creation (Abingdon 2005). I’ve just finished the introduction (that’s still pages numbered with Roman numerals!) and I confess I find myself in entire agreement with Fretheim’s sentiments about the centrality of creation in the OT. I am, admittedly, a covenantal theologian; whereas Eichrodt emphasized the Mosaic covenant, I see the Ancestral covenant (Gen 12:1-3 and parallels in 26:2-5 and 28:13-15) as central. Or, to put it another way, I operate with a latent sense of salvation history (Heilsgeschichte) as the organizing principle for the canon. While I wouldn’t say I have a conventional understanding of what that entails in comparison with others (at its most basic, I see Gen 12:1-3 as a blessing for Israel that ultimately has cosmic implications; see Moberly, Theology of the Book of Genesis and Gruneberg, Abraham, Blessing and the Nations on this point most recently, as well as a brief diddy in my forthcoming book), that is often the lens through which I read the biblical text. I have always understood creation as a part of this process . . . creation as a part of Heilsgeschichte. Those familiar with von Rad’s theology will see well where I am influenced by him. Yet upon reading just these first 10 pages in Fretheim’s volume, I have realized the need to refine my position. Or, to put it another way . . . Fretheim is spot on.

For Fretheim, creation is typically put in the service of salvation history; creation is subservient to it. Fretheim writes:

“Yet, the question remains as to the point at which this experience and Israel’s reflections upon it drew creation into its most basic confession of faith or was integrated with other key dimensions of the faith. It has probably been most common to suggest that Israel’s experience of redemption in the exodus events constituted the initial core of its faith, into which various other dimensions of the faith were grafted over time (such as creation.) To put it too baldly: [YHWH] is redeemer, therefore [YHWH] must be creator. An inference is then often drawn; namely, creation was theologically dependent upon redemption, or even subordinated to redemption, in Israel’s reflection and witness” (xv).

Fretheim challenges this conviction within scholarship in this way:

“That the Bible begins with Genesis, not Exodus, with creation, not redemption, is of immeasurable importance for understanding all that follows. At least from the perspective of the present shape of the biblical witness, creation is as basic and integral to Israelite faith and its confession as is the first article of the creed to Christians” (xiv).

He also cites two other seminal scholars on creation in the OT who, in my estimation, are precisely right. First, Rolf Knierim:

“[YHWH] is not the God of creation because he is the God of the humans or of human history. He is the God of the humans and of human history because He is the God of creation. . . . The most universal aspect of [YHWH’s] dominion i snot human history. It is the creation and sustenance of the world. This aspect is at the same time the most fundamental because creation does not depend on history or existence, but history and existence depond on and are measured against creation.”

and second Rolf Rendtorff:

“The Hebrew Bible begins with creation. Old Testament Theologies usually do not. How is that? The answer is obvious: because of the theology of the respective authors of Old Testament theologies.”

Let me be clear . . . Fretheim is not proposing to replace one proposed center–salvation history–with another, that being creation. He is seeking to show the primacy and centrality and undergirding nature of creation in the Old Testament’s theological vision of world and God. Creation provides the why of God’s engagement with and concern for creation, a concern that will pervade the entire OT. Again, this is how I have most often understood the issue: God’s purposes in and through Abraham and his family (Gen 12:1-3 and parallels) are a part of the divine desire to reclaim creation and all of its components, human and non-human. After the constant starts, restarts, and false starts in Gen 1-11, God chooses another mechanism, a covenant with Abraham, to bring about this same task. And while I have thought about it this way, Fretheim has already sharpened my thinking on the topic . . . and for that I am grateful. If the next 300 pages are as good as the first 10, then this will be a truly incredible and transforming book.

UPDATE: I’ve now read chapter 1, “Theological Perspectives.” Being well-acquainted with Fretheim’s The Suffering of God: An Old Testament Perspective, I was aware of the basic content of this chapter. But again, Fretheim is exactly spot on! He isolates three points of reference for creation: 1. originating creation (the beginning); 2. continuing creation (the task of creation is an ongoing one, both preserving and innovative); 3. completing creation (new creation). His statement that Genesis and Revelation form a creation inclusio around the entire Bible is a major and worthwhile point.

But most worthwhile in this chapter is the section on ‘Creation, Redemption, and Salvation.’ Redemption/salvation he sees is not an end but rather the means toward which God continues to work toward new creation.

He closes out the chapter by discussing–quite familiar to those who have read The Suffering of God–his idea of the God/creation relationship as one of relatedness. His discussion here, however, put an even sharper edge on the topic than his treatment in The Suffering of God. As I said above, I am at bottom a covenant theologian (though Fretheim is pressing me to rethink a more appropriate label, given that I do take into account the place and role of creation alongside covenant; neither one obliterates the other), but Fretheim’s notice that God’s relatedness precedes covenant in the flow of the biblical text is, while seemingly innocuous enough, a major point with some significant impact. I continue to think through the implications of this. It does not decimate the notion of covenant as a vital interpretive category in comprehending the biblical text, but it does force one to nuance how that label is employed.

Terry Fretheim is one of only two biblical scholars (the other, of course, being Walter Brueggemann) who are, in my view, ‘just so dang right about everything’!

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11 thoughts on “Creation Theology in the Old Testament: A Neglected Issue

  1. Matthew Montonini says:

    John, I read a bit of this when I was writing my MA Thesis on Paul and new creation language and echoes. This is an immensley helpful and wise book. Hopefully, sometime down the road I’ll have a chance to revisit this volume in full. Happy reading!

    • John Anderson says:

      @Matthew: Check above; I’ve added a small update on my reading now of chapter one. And you are correct . . . this is “an immensely helpful and wise book.” I am understanding creation anew in the biblical text. Fretheim is a scholar that every time I read or hear him, there is a transformation. I respect his work deeply, and for that reason I am delighted to be working with him on the Genesis SBL unit. What a gift!

    • John Anderson says:

      @Jason:a very wise move. The only move that would be wiser would be skipping the wishlist entirely and just buying it! But I am glad my words–at least about the first two chapters–have done the book some justice. Fretheim is THAT good.

    • John Anderson says:

      @Joseph: Ha! I was reading Fretheim before you were even a twinkle in your mother’s eye! (wink). But it is indeed a very fine volume that has been on my docket for a few year. I’m glad it’s at the top of the list now.

  2. Jill says:

    John,

    Joel Baden’s recent article in CBQ may interest you. Its called “The Morpho-Syntax of Genesis 12:1–3: Translation and Interpretation.”

  3. hashavyahu says:

    Perhaps creation comes first in Genesis simply because it is ipso facto the first thing that happens. Since the pentateuchal narrative is strictly chronological, therefore, I’m a little skeptical that the placement of the creation narrative is of such central theological importance. That said, I’m also skeptical of the claim that there is a traceable order of theological priority in God as creator and God as redeemer in Israelite or Biblical religion. El as creator of the cosmos and father of humanity is obviously a very old concept.

    • John Anderson says:

      @hashavyahu: I understand your point, though I don’t want my summary above to imply that Fretheim takes the fact that the Bible begins with creation to be determinative for the primacy of creation theology over against, for instance, Heilsgeschichte. It is one–among many–aspects he notes to raise the profile of creation and its rich theological themes. I must say, as one who is familiar with Fretheim’s work, this is a very strong and honest engagement with the text in my view. His aim is to draw out the theological implications of creation and show its importance, not to propose it–as have many past OT theologies–as THE center for the OT. Or, to put it another way, Fretheim is doing A theology of the OT, focusing upon one particular element, rather than attempting to offer THE comprehensive theology of the OT.

      On your second point, at bottom Fretheim is suggesting that creation theology should not be subsumed under salvation history, and vice-versa. That said, the two work in tandem: God is engaged in history and with creation because God is creator.

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