Creation Untamed 4

“… if God cares for so much for all creatures, why didn’t God create a world in which there would be no natural disasters?”

One of the more significant passage in the Old Testament for shaping our understanding of God — or perhaps a passage that if we take it serious will shape our view of God — is the Flood Story.

What do you think of his sketch of the God of the Flood Story? How do you explain Genesis 6:5-7?

Terence Fretheim in Creation Untamed: The Bible, God, and Natural Disasters (Theological Explorations for the Church Catholic), is probing into the question above and he does it through the lens of the Flood Story. He generates idea after idea in this study, so I’ll keep it to a minimum:

First, he begins by exploring how “judgment” by God in the Old Testament is about the effects of human sin, not so much a penalty or punishment by God. This means that the relationship of sin and its consequence is more intrinsic than forensic. [That's a big idea, but this post would get too long if we developed it.]

Second, God chooses to subject himself to this just created order [which God designed]. God gives creatures freedom; there’s a looseness to the causal weave in the created order; God uses agents and God is at work in the agent, but the agent is the one who does the deed. Thus, one text can say God did something and another one that a human (or flood) did it: Jer 13:14 and 21:7. That is, God portrayal is conformed to the agents God uses. [Another big idea.]

Thus, in the Flood story: God is at work but God doesn’t act until later in direct terms. The actions are those of the “flood of waters” and the “fountains of the great deep burst forth” and the “windows of heaven were opened” (cf. Gen 6:11-13; 7:11, 17-20, 24).

So, for Fretheim, we get a reshaped characterization of God in the Flood Story:He develops ten themes:

1. Relationships: God creates a world where there is a web of relational networks, and God is in that web.

2. Agents: God uses agents: storm and flood and water; the moral order of sin and consequences gets tied into cosmic and natural orders; and God uses Noah, the righteous man, to redeem.

3. Emotions: God is affectable in the Flood Story. This means God is involved in the network.

4. God’s regret: can’t get around this one so I’ll quote it. Gen 6:

6:5 But the Lord saw that the wickedness of humankind had become great on the earth. Every inclination of the thoughts of their minds was only evil all the time. 6:6 The Lordregretted that he had made humankind on the earth, and he was highly offended. 6:7 So the Lord said, “I will wipe humankind, whom I have created, from the face of the earth – everything from humankind to animals, including creatures that move on the ground and birds of the air, for I regret that I have made them.”

5. God’s plans: Fretheim says God’s regret assumes God not know for sure that humans would turn to evil; he puts it this way: “God knows all there is to know, including all possibilities, but there is a future that is not yet available for knowing, not even for God” (58).

6. Human resistance: humans can and do resist God’s plan and will. He speaks here of “divine vulnerability” (58).

7. God’s change of strategy. There is change within God in this Flood Story.

8. God’s grief: God’s “heart was filled with pain” and the word “pain” is the same as the one found in Gen 3:16-17. Grief is the godward side of judgment and wrath.

9. God’s suffering: a big theme for Fretheim. Since humans resist God and sin after the Flood, the pain of God about sin continues. Suffering is central to the theme of God in the Bible for Fretheim.

10. God’s promises: God makes promises and this limits God; a divine self-limitation. God will contain himself within his promises. This broaches God’s utter faithfulness.

He sees natural disorders as reflecting part of this divine self-limitation of how God will act in this world. God will not bring the world to an end, as God did before, and that means God will permit the world to wreak vengeance on itself in the sin and consequence moral order.

About Scot McKnight

Scot McKnight is a recognized authority on the New Testament, early Christianity, and the historical Jesus. McKnight, author of more than forty books, is the Professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lombard, IL.

  • Luke

    Gotta love Fretheim. He’s so nuanced, fresh, and intellectually robust. Those who say open theists (or perhaps “process theologians” in Fretheim’s case) are those with no intellectual rigor, bad arguments, & poor scholarship need to rethink that statement in light of such a genius.

    That being said, I’m finding his thoughts quite fascinating. I think the “self-limitation” theme can pay very fruitful dividends. Scot, will you offer your analysis of Fretheim’s work? You seem to customarily review books without much comment. I’m glad you to this to a degree since your commentary would draw more personal attacks upon yourself and lead things away from the topic of the book, but I’m curious sometimes what it might be. Any chance here?

  • http://krusekronicle.com Michael W. Kruse

    I think the notions of relational networks and agency are critical pieces but I think I would embrace every point he makes here.

    I also think in terms of predestination. The underlying word is destination. It is the destination that is set, not necessarily the journey to the destination. Rather than seeing God as prior to everything, designing and directing each step forward, maybe God is ahead of all that is unfolding, calling all things through his agents toward a set destination. And God is present with his agents in this unfolding journey, molding and transforming them.

    God will prevail but there is freedom and response in arriving at the destination.

  • tscott

    He presents a theology in a thoughtful and succinct manner. Isn’t God’s plans(5) the panentheism that is so often misunderstood as pantheism? I really do like his way of putting his theology in plain speak(ala Wesley in his day). You know this makes one think of alot of others in “new Christianity” and emerging cultures.

  • http://krusekronicle.com Michael W. Kruse

    “… and that means God will permit the world to wreak vengeance on itself in the sin and consequence moral order.”

    I would add that while this comports well with the traditional narrative of Scripture … a pure natural order that became corrupted … it does not fit with the evolving order of creation we now know. When was the time that humans were not subject to natural disasters?

  • Luke B

    Another interesting dynamic of the above themes is the relationship/covenant with the non-human creatures post-flood. Even as God presents the animals to Noah and co. to eat, God makes a covenant with “you…and every living creature.” In Ch. 9, it is repeated again and again: “the birds, the livestock and all the wild animals..every living creature on earth.”

    What is the rainbow a sign of? “..the sign of the covenant between me and the earth.” The earth? Interesting.

  • http://LostCodex.com DRT

    I am convinced that there is a mystical entanglement of some sort that goes far beyond what most Christian religions teach. It looks to me like Fretheim thinks the same way.

    The only quibble I have with him is in number 3. I think emotion as we say it is anthropomorphic. The words I am now using to describe it to myself is he is in relationship and participation with us. He says “This means God is involved in the network.”, and I like that too.

  • PaulE

    Point 5 seems really difficult to reconcile with passages like 2 Timothy 9-10, 1 Peter 1:19-20, or Ephesians 1:3-10 which all speak to God’s purpose in Christ before creation began. If “grace was given us in Christ Jesus before the beginning of time” – and there Paul is writing about grace that “saved us” – it seems a contradiction to say God didn’t know before it happened that we would turn to evil (and thus need to be saved). I realize I’m probably not adding anything new to the discussion, but to me any theodicy worth its salt needs to reconcile with the centrality of Christ and the cross in creation.

  • Jeff

    Those are some interesting points, much of which I am in agreement. Perhaps you shortchanged this point or were not clear but this is problematic:

    “God will not bring the world to an end, as God did before, and that means God will permit the world to wreak vengeance on itself in the sin and consequence moral order.”

    The fact that God will not bring the world to an end as he did before does not mean God will not bring the world to an end! Is that the implication?

    He will bring judgment on creation, eventually. Rom. 8 declares that God subjected the world to futility that it might be redeemed; Rev.6-16 recounts, figuratively, judgments unleashed upon the earth that are designed to induce repentance (these I read in harmony with Romans 8). This is where the flood fits in.

    Such judgments are, in part, to induce repentance and result in redemption. But, ultimately, this will end as Rom. 8; 1 Thess. 4-5, 2 Pet. 3:8-14 and other NT passages point to (whether each of those are to be read hyper-literalistically is another matter). But, the point remains, There will be an end and a final declaration. So, this summary above is not complete.


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