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Thursday, July 22, 2010

Creatio ex Nihil and Christology

R.R. Reno has been one of the senior editors of the journal First Things for quite some time. His articles are rich, thoughtful, and always worth reading. Recently he has taken on the general editorship of the series Brazos Theological Commentary of the Bible (BTCB), a succession of commentaries that are not so much enamored with historical-critical exegesis, as they are with theological exegesis and exegetical theology. In 2004 Reno left his Episcopal church affiliation and converted to the Roman Catholic Church.

 It is because of this last item that I was pleasantly surprised when I ran across something he wrote in his BTCB volume on Genesis. Allow me to set the stage. Reno is commenting on Genesis 1.2, and specifically God’s action of creatio ex nihil. After dealing with those who object that this verse does not teach creatio ex nihil, he then begins to unpack the reasons why earlier pastors/theologians of the Church affirmed this doctrine. One of the early pastors/theologians he refers to is Irenaeus. As Reno points out, Irenaeus used this teaching (creatio ex nihil) to refute the Gnostics, especially the relation creatio ex nihil has with a high Christology and Soteriology to the exclusion of all mediating forces between humans and God. Reno then makes this lucid and exciting observation:

“The analysis that Irenaeus provides grows out of the broad sola gratia emphasis of the New Testament reading of the Old. St. Paul’s account of Abraham’s justification and the larger project of divine blessing through Israel emphasizes the lack of mediating realities between God and finite reality. Upon what might Abraham rely other than God? After all, it is God alone “who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist” (Rom. 4:17). All other things--and this includes our works--are “as good as dead” (4:9), says St. Paul, because God alone has the power of life, the power to create anew. The terms that Paul uses clearly echo the Old Testament’s polemic against idolatry. We cannot rely on worldly powers: neither our own nor the supposed power of idols. Here we can see how the ontological parsimony entailed by creatio ex nihil has a direct soteriological significance. It eliminates the half-measures of Pelagianism, which is but the moral form of idolatry, and as a result creatio ex nihil presses us toward Christ alone as the power of salvation” (44).

It appears that there is still some good, old Protestant marrow in those newly Roman Catholic bones.

But more than the Protestant sola tune Reno recites in this piece, there is the vigorous reminder that solid creation theology goes hand-in-hand with high Christology. For

“…the renewal of creation has been wrought by the Self-same Word Who made it in the beginning. There is thus no inconsistency between creation and salvation; for the One Father has employed the same Agent for both works, effecting the salvation of the world through the same Word Who made it in the beginning (St. Athanasius, "The Incarnation of the Word of God”, p. 26).
If ideas have consequences, truly theology has consequences! If the doctrine of creatio ex nihil is weakened, then, based on Irenaeus, Athanasius and Reno, Christology will be weakened. And if Christology is weakened, then we are primed to enter once again into “the half-measures of Pelagianism” at the least, and at the worst, return to full blown idolatry that “is loyalty to nihil, a devotion to the lifeless, empty abyss of death” (Reno, 40).

Mike the Meagre

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