Bible, Christianity, Mindset, Spiritual Life

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.

 

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