The World as Created, Fallen, and Redeemed

...That night, for the first time in years, I prayed. I knelt down in the chill blackness at my bedside, as my mother had taught me to do when I was a little boy, and attempted to raise my heart and mind toward Him of Whose presence and power I had become so unexpectedly aware (A Testimonial to Grace, pp. 50-54, passm).

Dulles goes on to say that this event, which was the beginning of his conversion even though he did not become a Catholic until he started law school a few years later, did not rest on some sort of rational proof. In his words, "My own acceptance of the existence of God rested on something more like an intuition. It was as though I had seen, at least for an instant, the divine power at work, infusing the whole universe with goodness and being.... I recorded it as best I can" (Ibid., 65).

This well-known theologian, who was raised to the rank of cardinal by Pope John Paul II a few years ago and who just retired from an endowed chair in the department of theology at Fordham University, would be the first to admit that his experience along the banks of the River Charles held but a glimmer of the rich doctrine of creation and divine providence that has developed over the centuries. So, too, in my own short paper I can do no more than point to some of the most salient aspects of this doctrine.

To begin, consider the opening verses of the first book of the Bible: "In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters. Then God said, ‘Let there be light'; and there was light" (Genesis 1:1-3; NRSV translation). In the Bible, the Hebrew word that is here translated as "created" is regularly used of God alone, as distinct from another verb that could be translated as "made" and that applies also to human activity. When we humans "make" something, there is always some material at hand out of which we fashion whatever we intend. God, however, creates merely by his word, as is abundantly clear by the frequently repeated phrase "And God said" throughout this first chapter of the Book of Genesis. By the end of the second century B.C.E., what later Christian theologians called creatio ex nihilo ("creation out of nothing") was expressed by the Jewish author of the Second Book of Maccabees in the following words: "Look at the heaven and the earth and see everything that is in them, and recognize that God did not make them out of things that existed. And in the same way the human race came into being" (2 Maccabees 7:28).

That God created merely by his word eventually had major implications for Christian theology. The Fourth Gospel, commonly called the Gospel according to John, significantly begins in a way that clearly reflects the opening verse of the Book of Genesis. The evangelist writes: "In the beginning was the Word," and then proceeds to say that "the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being" (John 1:1-3).

The prologue to the Fourth Gospel goes on to say that this divine Word became flesh in Jesus of Nazareth and lived among us. One finds here the seeds of a Trinitarian understanding of creation: In Christian terms, God the Father creates though the Word, otherwise called the Son of God, incarnate in Jesus the Christ. The one whom Christians call the third person of the Trinity, the Holy Spirit, is likewise involved in creation. When the Book of Genesis says that in the beginning "a wind from God swept over the face of the waters," the Hebrew word for "wind" could just as well be translated as "breath" or "spirit."

One of the longest and most beautiful of the Psalms, Psalm 104, reflects this understanding when it says of living creatures: "These all look to you to give them their food in due season; ... When you send forth your spirit, they are created; and you renew the face of the earth" (Psalm 104:27, 30). It was natural and even inevitable for Christians to understand such a verse as referring to the Holy Spirit. For this reason, creation is understood to be the work of the entire Godhead: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

There is a solid consensus among Christians that creation is fundamentally good, even as God is goodness itself. Six times in the opening chapter of the Book of Genesis we read that after God created one or another thing, "God saw that it was good," while in the final verse of that chapter this phrase is even intensified: "God saw everything that he had made, and indeed, it was very good" (Genesis 1:31). Often in the course of Christian history saintly writers have exulted over this fact, and not only with respect to what are usually considered the more momentous signs of God's love. The 4th-century Syrian poet and hymnist St. Ephrem once composed some beautiful lines expressing his wonder and gratitude for even the smallest tokens of God's goodness:

9/15/2009 4:00:00 AM