On Warfare and Weakness: Part 6, Let There Be Light

Summarizing our work to this point. A warfare theology--a theology where God in not implicated in evil but wholly opposed to it--presupposes limits on God's power, control, and influence in the world. While there are various indirect ways to envision these limitations (e.g., Greg Boyd in God at War posits the free will of angelic creatures), in the last post we took a cue from John Caputo and posited the weakness of God more directly. This, I believe, sets up a warfare theology that should, theologically, resonate more with progressive Christians.

But a strong vision of the weakness of God is going to create quite a few questions about how we understand God's omnipotence, particularly the show of power at the start of the biblical narrative. If God is not force and power how was the world created by God ex nihilo (i.e., out of nothing)?

There is an interesting convergence on this question in Boyd's God at War and Caputo's The Weakness of God. Both authors focus two different readings of Genesis 1.1-3 (KJV):
1. In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.

2. And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters.

3. And God said, Let there be light: and there was light.

And God saw the light, that it was good...
The issue has to do with how Genesis 1.1 relates to 1.2 and/or 1.3. In traditional readings 1.1 sets up 1.2. In this reading the first act of creation (1.1) is God creating a chaotic and formless world--the deep (found in 1.2). From there God begins to impose order on the chaos (1.3 and following).

But there is a second reading of these opening verses, one that originated with Jewish theology, where 1.1 is not read as an act of creation but read as a sort of Preamble or Chapter Title: "This is the Account of How God Created the Heavens and the Earth." The formal creation account then starts in 1.2 rather than in 1.1. Such a reading sets up like this:
This is the Account of How God Created the Heavens and the Earth:

And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters.

And God said, Let there be light: and there was light.
What is interesting about this second reading--where the creation account formally beings with Genesis 1.2 rather than with 1.1--is that the chaos and void are there with God at the beginning. To be clear, this is not to say that chaos is co-eternal with God. Simply that chaos pre-dates the biblical creation narrative in Genesis 1.

More evidence for this reading is found in that the timing of creation is synchronized with the artistic acts which start in Genesis 1.3. The clock doesn't start with Genesis 1.1 and 1.2. We don't read: "In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth. The first day."

So in this reading first act of creation occurs in Genesis 1.3: The bringing of light. And this is less a creation ex nihilo than bringing order to chaos. Chaos is sort of the raw material for the Creator, like a lump of clay. Creation is bringing artistic order to that clay, the making of something beautiful and "good" out of that which was previously "formless."

In short, the creative acts of God recounted in Genesis 1 are less acts of creation ex nihilo than the artistic and moral ordering of chaos. Creation, biblically understood, is turning chaos into something "good."

Of course, this raises some questions: Where did the chaos come from? Did God create it or not? And when did God create it?

Those are interesting questions, but on this reading we can't answer them. On this reading, these aren't biblical questions as the biblical account of creation assumes the raw material of chaos and recounts God's ordering of that chaos into something beautiful and "good." Beyond that, we can't really don't know what else to say.

Maybe the source of the chaos was, as Boyd speculates, the cosmic battle of Satan's fall from heaven, a battle that destroyed the pre-Genesis world. Boyd suggests, speculatively, that Genesis 1 recounts God's "re-creation" of the world after this cataclysmic battle. Or maybe you go in scientific directions and think of the chaos as the primordial void or vacuum prior to the Big Bang. Opinions will vary about "the void," but the answers don't much impinge upon the theology of creation found in Genesis 1.

I think progressive Christians will find this bracketing helpful. It allows them to reconcile their sympathies with science with their desire to root their faith deeply in the biblical narrative.

And most importantly for our purposes, such a reading of Genesis allows us to praise God as the Creator of all Good Things in a way that is consistent with a robust understanding of the weakness of God.

God is creating goodness out of chaos, but that chaos isn't eliminated. That chaos is still with us, always there in the background, the raw material of physical existence. God is "at war" with this chaos, seeking to order, structure, shape, tame and redeem it. Even as the chaos resists. All of creation groans, as in childbirth, indifferent to or actively resisting the work of God and God's children.

For both Boyd and Caputo, creation is broken at deep structural levels. Just why the bible doesn't say. The bible simply takes as a given that there are chaotic forces at work in the world, forces untamed and hostile to the good ordering of God's Kingdom. The bible confesses that God is not the creator of this chaos. God is the creator of order and goodness. "It is good, very good." And God's children are called to participate in this creative work, bringing order and goodness into the chaos. God's children are called to participate in this battle, called to speak with their Father the primordial words of creation into the satanic and chaotic darkness around them:

Let there be light.

Part 7

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19 thoughts on “On Warfare and Weakness: Part 6, Let There Be Light”

  1. I love this reinterpretation of Genesis 1:1 - one of those mythopoeic moves that seems to express a truth already known but which was previously unformulated in conscious thought. It seems to correct the distorted anthropocentric thinking of the early (and not so early) Biblical translators. I also love the mind-boggling questions this raises about chaos. Looking forward to reading comments from others, too...

  2. What a very good read. Very precious information here! It's really informative. It's always good to read interesting articles like this. I hope I can read more of your articles. :)

  3. I agree that the peaceableness of the Genesis narrative--a rejection of the myth of redemptive violence--is very important here.

    At the end of the day more questions remain than have been answered. The very limited point of this post isn't to answer what happened way back at "the beginning" but, rather, to say that the biblical thread runs out before that point, that the confession "I believe in God the Father, Creator of Heaven and Earth" is, from strictly biblical perspective, the confession that God is the creator of light and life and is the origin of goodness ("And God saw that it was good."). Beyond that confession we just run out of biblical material to say anything more.

  4. Great. And to be a bit more precise, I think the point of the post is to suggest that this is one available, speculative, reading of the text. I think there is a subtle elision that often happens between saying, "this is an option," to saying, "that's what the Bible says." I'd suggest that the other option, that the Bible suggests that God created the void and the chaos as well, is also a live option. And also, it is what the BIble really says ;)

  5. This is certainly a different take on Creation and reading of Genesis 1:1-3. Perhaps there is a lot of context missing (due to space limitations, of course), but this seems to be ignoring numerous references to God *creating* the world, not just imposing order onto chaos. I mean, I was with you for the last several days regarding the weakness of God and the that a limit to God's power may help explain evil. This, however, just comes across as Boyd and Caputo attempting to force a square peg into a round hole in order to make the overall thesis work. I mean, if they are going to use the bible to build a case, shouldn't the argument remain somewhat consistent with other passages? Forgive me if I'm missing something here. Perhaps ironically, I am very sympathetic to science and can appreciate the apprehension of progressives to all the issues you have raised so far. I am also aware that I don't understand all the theological nuances that are being argued by Boyd and Caputo. That being said, this just seems like a really big stretch.

    For those with knowledge of Hebrew, perhaps some assistance with how these would fit into their argument. These appear to argue for actual creation - not imposition of order - but real, ex nihilo creation.

    Exodus 31:17 -- 'It is a sign between Me and the children of Israel forever; for in six days the LORD *made* the heavens and the earth, and on the seventh day He rested and was refreshed.'"

    2 Kings 19:15 -- Then Hezekiah prayed before the LORD, and said: "O LORD God of Israel, the One who dwells between the cherubim, You are God, You alone, of all the kingdoms of the earth. You have *made* heaven and earth.

    1 Chronicles 16:26 -- For all the gods of the peoples areidols, But the LORD *made* the heavens.

    Nehemiah 9:6 -- You alone are the LORD; You have *made* heaven,The heaven of heavens, with all their host, The earth and everything on it, The seas and all that is in them, And You preserve them all. The host of heaven worships You.

    Job 9:8,9 -- He alone spreads out the heavens, And treads on the waves of the sea; He made the Bear, Orion, and the Pleiades, And the chambers of the south;

    Psalms 33:6 -- By the word of the LORD the heavens were made, And all the host of them by the breath of His mouth.

    There are clearly plenty of others, but these passages imply (to me, anyway) the general idea is that God MADE creation - not just imposed order on it.

  6. I think they both would say that we should be forcing any metaphysical peg into any metaphysical hole at all, which is what most people do. They are, actually, espousing a sort of quietism rather than forcing anything.

    As for the texts you cite, again, those are "ordering" and "artistic" acts that begin in 1.3 so they don't go to the point of the post.

  7. Loving this series. For the first time in a long time a "progressive" approach doesn't just strike me as a lame attempt justify personal desires. Two comments. First one of overlap. The "weak God" might be a stretch for American Evangelicals coming as they do out of the Calvin/Reformed camp, but anyone who still has sacraments confesses a paradox of an omnipotent God who has limited himself to word and sacrament. (The Noah to Abram transition is the primordial story of that limitation as God goes from direct application of power to promise alone.) Accepting the idea of self-limitation, the state of humiliation otherwise known as the incarnation, makes both positing angelic beings with free will or monkeying with ex nihilo unnecessary. You might have to ask why God has limited himself, and that is the invite into a personal God and not just a machine. Second thought, playing with the ex nihilo, I think, quickly degenerates into Hinduism or eastern syncretism. If God is not "other" outside of the material, then it is all just Brahman finding Atman. And that is a very old problem of turning Christ the savior into another Buddha or agent of enlightenment. I don't think you have to throw out the ex nihilo to get the rest of this post.

  8. of course, what is missing from all of this is the classical theology's insistence that god is not an agent among others; that god's being and ours are in anyway comparable. both caputo and boyd are re-capitulating the mistakes of ockham and scotus i.e they reduce god to a thing - however powerful or not - in creation. in such a scheme, voluntarism is inescapable and god's power becomes the central problem. in this situation, talk about god's love is destined to mere sentimentality and we are reduced to living in a disenchanted world. how depressing and ultimately nihilistic.

    why not forget about trying to be 'progressive' or 'attractive' and get in touch with the riches of our wonderful tradition! forget caputo and boyd, read some aquinas!

  9. Tying in to the second way of reading Genesis which you mention ... I've always read the chaos as reflecting not so much a primordial state of being, but rather the chaos of exile in which Israel found itself as the Priestly author began to pull these reflections together. In such a reading, God is helping a community make sense of the chaos in which they find themselves in Babylon. It doesn't eliminate the chaos in any conceivable way, but becomes a way of dealing with a situation which would have been read by their captors as "our god beat yours" ... and in such a state of weakness, Israel's truth-telling becomes a way of saying that in the profound weakness of that moment for Israel, God is nevertheless present to give meaning and order and purpose to a chaotic and weak historical existence. In that sense, it is akin to Elie Wiesel's making sense of the Jewish experience in the holocaust ... this is where God is, on the gallows.

    The story of ordering creation is a vehicle for making sense of a present historical context. Creation becomes a parable, a metaphor, an image of a life which has been unmade and needs to be remade.

  10. I don't think the guys who have the Bible all pegged down tend to hang around here too long!

  11. You know, I just have to keep going back to the language... At this site, http://www.pantheon.org/articles/c/chaos.html, the author states that in Greek "Chaos is or was 'nothingness.'" If Boyd is positing that chaos was somehow made of "stuff", even something like "plasma", I think he's ignoring or changing the text. This is problematic to begin with. Also, the Septuagint text doesn't even have the word "chaos" in it.

    Furthermore, it is known that the phrase "heaven and earth" is Jewish-thought shorthand for "everything invisible and everything visible" - the entirety of reality. In the opening of Genesis, I see this as: In the beginning God created everything that exists - the invisible as well as the visible. [Then the scene shifts specifically to what is visible... ] So as to this visible, material aspect of reality (earth), it was (yet) unseen and unready... And then God sets about ordering it. I like John Walton's (and John Sailhamer's) view, that God was constructing the universe as a temple and ordering things according to function, and setting man within it, who had been made in God's *image*, for a purpose: in union with God, to wisely rule the visible world and bring it to fruition. IOW, the *meaning* goes beyond the literal-historical.

    I know that you & Boyd are trying to get to meaning, and I appreciate that. It just seems to me that this is another case of reinventing the wheel because of ignorance of the teaching/resources of the Eastern church. In the East, God is seen as absolutely not being responsible for evil, and evil is not a thing of any kind - it's an absence. That definition takes into account instances of evil acts done by people or by systems: the absence of ability to love and contain love and give oneself for another sort of presupposes a "void" that can be filled with that which drives people and systems to perpetrate those evil acts.

    The way God overcomes evil is precisely through the Cross - going down all the way to death, which is about as weak as anyone can be, in an act of self-giving love. The icon displayed in Orthodox churches at the beginning of Holy Week is called "extreme humility" and pictures Christ robed in purple, with a reed in his hand and crowned with thorns, standing with his body up to his waist in a kind of box enclosure that represents the prison where he was tortured. And we know what's coming next... It is precisely on the Cross that Jesus comes into his Kingdom...


  12. danaames says, "..God is seen as absolutely not being responsible for evil, and evil is
    not a thing of any kind - it's an absence. That definition takes into
    account instances of evil acts done by people or by systems: the
    absence of ability to love and contain love and give oneself for another
    sort of presupposes a "void" that can be filled with that which drives
    people and systems to perpetrate those evil acts"

    Good, very good.

  13. I'm totally with you up to when you imply that down-playing ex nihilo ends up making God "not other, outside the material. I'm not very familiar with the Hindu references you make, but I don't think that dropping ex nihilo leaves us with a pantheistic God. It's hard to explain what I'm thinking, but basically what we consider "material" (that which is temporal, prone to decay, change, and destruction) is the "void," the vacuum of God's absence that appears as Christ is carved away to reveal creation. The essential being of man is in the image of God and indwelt by God, but the material limitations are not God himself, but "not God."

    I'm not sure that that will make a drop of sense... but I'm ok with that. : )

    Essentially, I'm trying to say that man is like a statue carved (creation by God's self-limiting) from an infinite chunk of stone (Christ) by the hand (Spirit) of God (mind/sculptor). His TRUE substance (the stone he is made of ) is in the image of God but his present form is defined by the bounds of absence. His present finite limitations are what give him shape and freedom as he is "created" by God's self-emptying. Just as the stone that constitutes a statue remains forever undisturbed but a work of art is brought into existence by the removal of stone from around it. This metaphor, I think, really helps make clear what it means for all things to have been created in, through, by and for Christ. We are carved in His image, through his being chipped away in self-emptying death, made to exist as independent autonomous beings by the absence left after his death, for the purpose that we might follow in his steps and thus be rejoined with him in perfect loving union, knowing and loving freely as conscious, autonomous souls.

    This metaphor, as I see it, presents the formless void as the space devoid of God in the wake of His self-death and all of creation as the free-standing statues formed therein. We experience the world as ones who are separated from God, yet Christ has manifested that this experience of separation is itself the product of the greatest act of love possible--God's self-giving death that we might be called forth from non-being. As we come to believe this word, spoken from the dawn of creation but made manifest in Christ's life, death, and resurrection, we become aware that it is not the void surrounding us that defines us (the void that informs us of the finite limitations of our being), but the spiritual substance that we are made from, the same body and blood (stone in the metaphor) as Christ.

    So, what I'm seeing then, is not God creating from nothing, but "nothing" being created from God in order that man might be brought forth from the folds of God's eternal nature. Man, however is bound by walls of finitude, as God himself, in creating, has made himself finite by creating his own absence. For me, this way of thinking does away with the problem of evil in a way similar to an Eastern framework (evil is nothing--that is, evil is the absence of God/Love/Shalom), explains the birth of Satan (he could be thought of as the personification of man's encounter with the void, by who's dismal, empty, blackness is awakened the sensation of distance from God and the felt need to gain back for ourselves what we lack), and helps explain how Christ is with us by his death and absence. In this model we are in a war against the Void, but it is not a war that is won by reaching out into the void and grasping for divinity, but by continuing God's work of creation by emptying ourselves for others.

  14. Chris, have you read Caputo's The Weakness of God? I don't find him to be treating God as a thing in creation, at all. One of the main thrusts of contemporary radical theology is an a/theism that affirms God to be beyond existence/being. One may have theological difficulties with such an a/theism, but arguing that it makes God out as a thing in this existence certainly cannot be on of them.

    I read Caputo AND Aquinas. And Tillich and von Balthasar and Scotus and Marion and pseudo-Dionysius. (For the life of me, though, I can't put Boyd in the same category.)

  15. david, i read the weakness of god a while ago. from what i remember, he spends the first chapters trying to dismantle a view of god's sovereignity or 'rouged theology'. he is absolutely right to do this. this type of theology assumes a univocity of being with god as one end with all the omni's and human at the others.

    however his cure doesn't challenge the fundamental mistake i.e. nominalist / volunatrist foundations which lead to god becoming an incomphrensible power/being/will.

    i read caputo as not challenging the parameters of the debate just substituting weakness for power. there is a complete lack of reflection on the trinity and as such of god as love. a far more productive way forward is the approach of say herbert mccabe or rowan williams or lossky. they don't capitulate to the temptation to follow and baptize heidegger but put us back in touch with classical theology's insistence that god is non aliud. Love instead of power then has a chance of determining the debate and the door is open to maintaining omnipotence (and thus any hope of non-violence) but seen as non-coercive; a kenotic omnipotence as rowan williams has said.

    why look to baptize derrida when the tradition already has pseudo-denys?

  16. I really do appreciate the response. I don't have The Weakness of God in front of me to refresh my memory, but here's what Caputo says he was doing in it: "There’s something, on the one hand, atheistic about what I said in which case it belongs to a death of God tradition and a radical theology and it carries the thing that Tillich started, has no truck with some super being called God as an agent who does things in the sky that affects us sub-lunary beings down here on Earth" (http://commonsenseatheism.com/?p=9750). So it seems that he thinks he's part of the anti-ontotheological tradition. That's also what I took from my reading of the book.

    I confess that I'm not familiar with McCabe or Lossky. I do agree with the priority of love in a Christian understanding of God. I love perichoretic views of the Trinity for this reason. My main research is on Jean-Luc Marion, who is attempting a phenomenological theology of God as love and who is a vociferous critique of ontotheology, albeit coming at it from a different angle than Caputo.

    Regarding your last rhetorical question, Pseudo-Dionysius was already baptizing Plotinus, as Boethius was doing at about the same and as Augustine had done before them both. That's what we do. :) The Great Chain of Being is not the only way for Christians to look at the relation between God and creation. Indeed, it wasn't even a Christian perspective to begin with. It was appropriated from Greco-Roman philosophy.

  17. I couldn't help remembering Selah's song, "Hope of the Broken World."

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