Reflection on this Sunday’s Readings, by John G. Gibbs, PhD.
It is notable that during an extended discussion of Abraham’s faith the Apostle Paul includes reference to God the Creator. Abraham “is the father of all of us,” and his faith was in the God “who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist” (Rom. 4:17).
This circumstance is one of many instances within the Bible that have the creation at the periphery of vision, as a presupposition of the major matter being presented. For instance, while describing the general inadvisability of eating food that had been offered to idols, Paul again refers to the work of creation. He does so by citing an already existing early Christian confession of faith: “…for us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things, and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist.” (I Cor. 8:6). That is what Christians believe, but since “not everyone…has this knowledge,” we do well not to give a misimpression about our real beliefs, as if eating at a banquet in honor of a pagan god could mean that we honor that god rather than the “one God.”
A footnote on I Cor. 8:6 in The New Oxford Annotated NRSV (NY: OUP, 1994) well states the significance of this confession of faith: “Basic Old Testament (Deut 6.4) and early Christian confessions (Phil 2.11) are expanded (see Mal 2.10; Rom 11:36) and combined to speak of God and Christ, each with regard to creation (see 10.26).” For other such references to the creation see the article on this website, “Creation Texts within Scripture.”
Sometimes in our thought processes what is presupposed, and what is included in a peripheral position, is foundational and essential – so much so that it need not be under discussion, for something else is presently in dispute rather than that peripheral or presupposed thought. When the first sentence of the U. S. Declaration of Independence, for example, presupposes “the laws of nature and of nature’s God,” it is clear that the framers of that document regard such “laws” to be foundational for the “separation” being declared. Their “decent respect to the opinions of mankind” assumed that other nations would also acknowledge such “laws” as determinative or foundational for international relations.
The indispensable importance of “creation faith” is clear in that it forms the guiding presupposition for so much else in scripture. The Apostle Paul as a rabbinic student well knew the creation sagas with which the Pentateuch opens. It is not surprising, then, that references to the creation appear during his discussion of other matters, though they also may occur as his main point, as in Romans 8:19ff.
Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16. A major presupposition for the covenant with Abraham was the prior covenant that God had established with “every living creature” (Gen. 9:10), indeed with “the earth” (9:13). Both covenants were “everlasting” (9:16; 17:7). Prior to both covenants was the work of creation (Gen. 1-2), described in two quite different poetic ways. In the first, humanity was created to image God by its life of stewardship for the original “goodness” of the creation. In the second, humanity is one among other creatures, made out of the same topsoil with which God created both plants and animals. [See Theodore Hiebert, “Reclaiming the World: Biblical Resources for the Ecological Crisis,” Interpretation: A Journal of Bible and Theology, 65 #4 (October 2011), p. 350.]
Abraham is presented as “the father of us all,” then, not in cold dark neutral space, but only within the context of God’s grace establishing everlasting covenant with all creation. That is how foundational the creation is to Abrahamic faith, to the apostle Paul, and to the Church. Especially the Christological Hymn in Colossians (1:15-20) underlines creation as foundational presupposition of called community, the Church.
“All the ends of the earth shall remember and turn to the Lord; and all the families of the nations shall worship before him. For dominion belongs to the Lord, and he rules over the nations.” (Psalm 19:27-28) Yes, but what kind of dominion, what kind of rule? Already the psalmist answered such a question: “For he did not despise or abhor the affliction of the afflicted; he did not hide his face from me, but heard when I cried to him.” (19:24) “The poor shall eat and be satisfied…” (19:26) “In you our ancestors trusted; they trusted, and you delivered them. To you they cried, and were saved…” (19:4-5) “On you I was cast from my birth, and since my mother bore me you have been my God.” (19:10)
Any human “dominion” that images such a God will never despoil the earth, nor disregard the need of future generations of plants and animals (including our kind) for earth’s sustenance.
Lent is especially the season within which we can learn how to live gratefully on earth, both as one among other creatures, and as gardeners who treasure the topsoil under their feet, and who “tend” and “keep” it. The pattern for that life was laid down in Christian discipleship: “For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. ” (Mark 8:35)