The Creation Narrative and Human Excellence

Here’s a repost from my old blog:

Before we go on, below is the story of the creation of man in Genesis 1. Go ahead and read it in full as a refresher.

Gen 1:26-31 ESV Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.” (27) So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them. (28) And God blessed them. And God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.” (29) And God said, “Behold, I have given you every plant yielding seed that is on the face of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit. You shall have them for food. (30) And to every beast of the earth and to every bird of the heavens and to everything that creeps on the earth, everything that has the breath of life, I have given every green plant for food.” And it was so. (31) And God saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good. And there was evening and there was morning, the sixth day.

When we read the Bible, it’s important to remember that the stories, while not always portraying morality or exemplary character, are meant to train us in good works. The stories try to give a picture of the good life as well as the internal and external threats to it. By the time the Old Testament as a whole became known as “the law and prophets” four virtues were recognized as paramount for a life of human excellence and character: courage, justice, temperance, and prudence (see Wisdom of Solomon 8:7).[1]

 

In Genesis 1:26-31 one can easily see how these four virtues must be developed for humanity to fulfill its calling on the earth:

  1. Justice:
    Fundamental to man’s relationship with the world in the passage is that humanity is the likeness of God to the world. In other words, man represents God’s rule over the heavens and the earth in relationship to the other living creatures upon the earth. For this hierarchical order to be expressed, obligations must be met. If human beings are to rule the lesser creatures in God’s stead and presumably relate to other people who do the same, then they must treat one another with justice (fairness, non-aggression, etc). They must also show God his due as the highest member of the chain of being.
  2. Courage:
    Courage is required because, at this point in the story, there is no idyllic garden (that’s in a different version of the creation story a few paragraphs later. There is, instead, a creation full of wild animals and plants that need naming, taming, and understanding. There is also a frightening world full of hostile climates and dangerous geography. And if you think in terms of modern cosmology, there is a universe full of dangerous things that will heartlessly destroy you: stars, space, comets, debris, the sun, and so-on. Man must risk greatly in order to accomplish great deeds.
  3. Temperance:
    Man, if he is to subdue the animals and plant kingdoms, also must subdue himself. The human body is of the animal kingdom. So, man must subdue his mind and body and bring them into a right relationship with God and God’s justice. There are poison berries, cold winters, and people with whom to share and none of these situations can be handled without self-control. This, by the way, is why I tell Christians today that unless it is impossible, they really must do physical exercise. Controlling the body takes work and we walk less, work with our hands less, and go outside less than any previous generation of human beings.
  4. Prudence:
    This is the virtue of understanding the world, discerning good from bad, and acting accordingly. It’s a hard virtue, Hebrews 5 says that it can only be developed by practice. Incidentally, the Genesis 3 fall story is so sad because by refusing to eat from the tree designated off limits, man was learning prudence. Nevertheless, this virtue would have been crucial. To subdue the animals and plants they must be understood, placed into categories, and studied. The same is true of plants. To learn to traverse water, make music, cook, and store food all would require prudence.

In short, one can see how the four cardinal virtue are necessarily a part of man’s vocation as man. They must be developed if one is to have the highest experience of humanity in creation.

References

[1] The case has been made by David Oderberg that these four virtues really do constitute the four pillars of human excellence in a definitive way. David S. Oderberg, “On the Cardinality of the Cardinal Virtues,” International Journal of Philosophical Studies 7, no. 3 (October 1999): 305–322.

 

Book Review: The God of the Bible and the God of the Philosophers by Eleonore Stump

The Book

Stump, Eleonore. The God of the Bible and the God of the Philosophers, 2016.

Stump’s volume The God of the Bible and the God of the Philosophers deals with a question that has vexed many for centuries: is the God argued for by philosophical theologians the same being in the pages of Scripture. Atheists will often answer: no. Some Calvinists also answer: no. And open theists frequently say no.

The Problem

It’s important when claiming that a contradiction exists between assertions to understand the meaning of the assertions. The three apparently contradictory assertions are:

  1. The God of the Bible is personal, dynamic, responsive, and active.
  2. The God of the philosophers is being itself (not a being and not a person), uncaused, and timeless.
  3. The God of the Bible is the God of the Philosophers.
Stump solves the problem with Aquinas

Stump uses the writings of Thomas Aquinas, perhaps the most widely read philosophical theist but also a prolific Bible commentator to show that these three assertions can be reconciled and that, indeed, it’s the understanding of God’s simplicity and eternity that can make sense of the Bible’s picture of God.

Her main picture of this is the book of Jonah. She observes that if the classical picture of God as the uncasued cause is true, it is difficult for many to see how the picture of God in Jonah could also be true. The Lord responds to Jonah’s prayers, changes his mind, has conversations with Jonah, and so-on. She responds to these charges by explaining Aquinas’ doctrines of the Holy Spirit’s relationship to the individual Christian, God’s eternity, God’s immutability, and God’s simplicity.

Holy Spirit

For Stump it’s important to acknowledge that Aquinas believes in the Trinity as well as God’s eternity, immutability, and simplicity. What this means then is that Aquinas believes that the Holy Spirit is eternal, immutable, and simple. Aquinas taught that the Holy Spirit and the person of faith are in a relationship “close enough and intimate enough to be thought of as a uniting in love (49).”

After this she observes that one solution to the apparent inconsistence is to suppose that there are “two Aquinases.” But she points out that Aquinas’ writings don’t hold up to the charge of that he is guilty of “so great an inconsistency (55).”

So for Aquinas, the closeness of the Holy Spirit to the believer in time and the deity of the Holy Spirit indicate that he saw the personal God of Scripture and the God of the philosophers as one and the same being.

If in Aquinas’ view the Holy Spirit can have close personal, responsive relationships with human beings in time, what explanation of the attributes of God (immutability, eternity, and simplicity) make sense of this?

Eternity

Here, Stump argues that “nothing about God’s eternal knowledge of future events rules out human free will…(70).” Her argument is against the idea that God’s eternity (persistent timeless existence) precludes any coherent notion of God’s interaction with beings in time. She utilizes an argument from analogy using one of my favorite books, Flatland, to show how it is possible for time to be present to God all at once (62-63). I’ll leave it to her to explain it to you in the book.

She also uses the psychological concept of “shared attention” to explain what it might mean for God to be personally present with individual persons while being eternal in nature (71). God can also answer prayer “because of prayers” without answering them after the prayers or based on foreknowledge. I found that argument satisfying.

Immutability

Immutability is the doctrine that God does not change or is not caused to change. Stump shows how Aquinas’ understanding of this doctrine does not mean that God cannot respond to prayer or respond to different circumstances in time. Her analogy is that God can at time one (t1) tell Jonah that he will destroy the Ninevites in 40 days from (t1)  and 40 days from then (t2) keep them from destruction upon their repentance in one simultaneous (because of God’s eternal nature), complex (because the results are experienced in time by us) act of will (76).

Simplicity

The notion of God’s simplicity is, at its base, the idea that God is being. Or, as my friends and I concluded in high school, “God doesn’t just exist, God is existence itself.” Now, weirdly, my debate team friends and I didn’t find a problem between saying, “God is existence” and “God exists.” But many philosophers, for good reasons, find those two statements contradictory. One, for instance, is that if God is God’s own nature, it appears incoherent to claim that God can choose between “x” and “not-x.” Why? Because God cannot do other than what God does because God is God’s nature. Stump argues that Aquinas’ understanding of the intellect as always active allows for the idea that God can act because of knowledge which God comes to actively without being acted upon (thus being passive).

Implications

Stump’s reflections on the implications are really quite good. I’ll leave you with a few sentences:

  1. If God is eternal, then God’s having assumed human nature is not something characteristic of God at some times but not at others. It is something characteristic of God always. (100)
  2. The person who wept over Lazarus was God-God in his human nature but still God. And the grief that gave vent to those tears is also always present to God. If it were not so, there would be succession in God; and then God would be temporal and not eternal. (101)
  3. Perhaps more importantly, it [the doctrine of divine simplicity] provides a metaphysical grounding for an objective ethics because it can ground morality in God’s nature, as distinct from God’s will. (101)

Conclusion

The book was brief, pleasant, cogent, and helpful. I highly recommend it for anybody who wants to understand Aquinas, the relationship of philosophy to theology, or who wants to reflect upon God’s relationship to time.