God and World in the Old Testament: A Relational Theology of Creation

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Birch, professor of Old Testament emeritus, Wesley Theological Seminary "Who better than Fretheim to take up the hard contemporary question concerning the destructive forces on exhibit in creation! The author has spent his life thinking about these issues and reading these old texts forward toward our time and place. He begins with the conviction of the goodness of God's creation, and from there he launches into the dangers of reality and takes us with him.

He encourages readers to reconsider their traditional understanding of the relationship between God and suffering. I enthusiastically recommend Creation Untamed to all who want to be honest with the Bible and with life. Gundry Professor of Biblical Studies, Westmont College "This is vintage Fretheim: provocative theological reflection combined with a careful reading of the biblical text. What does human suffering say about God? At a time when hard questions lead some to turn away from the Old Testament, Fretheim finds rich resources for probing the depths of the person of God and for rethinking the relationship of the divine to the world.

Daniel Carroll R. Fretheim brings together a wide range of biblical texts and ably mines them for their wisdom about God's ways in the world. Such wisdom is critically needed when so much misunderstanding characterizes religious discourse today. Brown, professor of Old Testament, Columbia Theological Seminary "Throughout history and yet today people have tended to view natural disasters as vengeful 'acts of God.

Not all readers will agree with all of Fretheim's proposals, but all will benefit from the fresh perspective he brings to the biblical texts, the unsettling questions he invites us to consider, and the magnificent portrait of a loving, power-sharing, relational God who brings into being a dynamic creation full of beauty and risk. Paul, MN. Terence E.

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Paul, Minnesota, where he taught for over fifty years. He is the author of more than twenty books, including commentaries Continue reading about Terence E. Writing as an exegete and biblical theologian, he deals with the biblical texts as they stand in the Bible, though he is thoroughly conversant with the debates regarding their historicity. Rather, he forces us to rethink like Job who God is and how God relates to us and our world. Harrington, SJ, America "Terence Fretheim's very useful book on God and natural disasters can be read with profit by believers with a wide range of views on sovereignty and 'divine action.

It is well written, in a conversational style; it is timely, and will remain so; there is outstanding exegesis on key sections of the Old Testament, the fruit of the author's life-long study and more academic publications. The pastor will return to Creation Untamed for preaching and for giving pastor care to those who suffer and a suffering world. In a world where we are seeing a plethora of natural disasters, many of which are the type forecast by climate scientists to be what we can expect more of in the future, Fretheim's excellent volume is timely indeed. The relational, loving character of God is what comes through most in this book.

This is quite an achievement in a book about the relationship between God and natural disasters. Fretheim's book encourages us to trust in a God who is good, despite what we see around us, despite the indescribable pain of those in the midst of suffering. His explanations are biblical, well thought through, and compassionate. I recommend this book to anyone seeking to understand how it is that we can worship a God of love in a world where disasters fall indiscriminately on the just and the unjust.

I was challenged, inspired, and scared by many aspects of this investigation--theologically and pastorally. If you are prepared to take the risk, it's a good read. That is a good summary. Unfortunately, evangelical and Reformed Christians often work with a truncated story. Creation and restoration, the beginning and the ending of the biblical story, are virtually ignored, and often consciously dismissed as bearing any import for our lives.

And this calling informs and shapes the people of God throughout the entirety of the biblical story. Should we miss our first calling, a calling that informs the nature and purpose of our very existence, we will in fact impoverish the biblical portrayal of calling. The first mention of human beings in the Bible is not hard to find. In fact it is right there on the first page, the creation story of Genesis 1.

Even though Christians often seem to miss it, the opening story of Scripture could not be more clear regarding human beings. We belong to the creation. Whatever else we might wish to say about humankind, we must begin with the reality of our creatureliness. We have been bodily placed within a material creation, a creation without which we are inconceivable.

Most of us are aware that Genesis 1 lays out the origin of the world as a series of divine acts covering a period of six days. On day one God separated the light from the darkness, day from night. The second day saw the distinction between sky and sea. God called forth the dry land and filled it with vegetation on the third day of the week. The fourth day was dedicated to the filling of the sky with the celestial bodies of sun, moon, and stars. This busy week of God speaking and creation answering by becoming what he had commanded continues on the fifth day with the filling of the waters with every imaginable kind of fish.

As he had filled the seas with life, God would be just as creative with the skies. We are used to five days of work. After that we need a break. On day six he commands the earth to bring forth a vast array of critters: creeping things, reptiles, mammals, the lot. The sun has not set on day six just yet. The Creator has one more wondrous creature in mind, one without whom the rest would be incomplete.

Here is what we absolutely must not miss about the creation of human beings: we are creatures of the sixth day. We belong to the earth. We were made as part of it, made from it, and made for it. The second chapter of Genesis is explicit here. Adam is sculpted from clay. As to our origin and the stuff from which we are made, the human is no different from any member of the animal kingdom. Our creatureliness is worth emphasizing because it is so often seen as a problem for Christians.

One of the central aspects of creatureliness as a constituent part of our humanity is bodiliness, being citizens of the earthly creation through our physical, embodied natures. Yet Christians have often treated the world in which they live, and their own physical presence in that world, as a problem to be overcome. In a provocative and important book written more than a quarter of a century ago now, Douglas John Hall wrote:. Christians throughout history have manifested an extreme uncertainty about the appropriate Christian attitude toward this world, to say the least.

Rarely—very rarely—have they spoken, written, or behaved as if the world should simply be loved. On the whole, the impression lingers both inside and outside the churches that true Christian piety would be marked by a certain detachment from the world, perhaps even indifference toward it. The more zealous of ascetic Christians would want to say disdain! Imagining ourselves as spiritual beings belonging to a transcendent realm of pure soul rather than physical creatures made for the earth, we deny our first calling, the calling of our Creator to worship, praise, and obey him as the very sorts of creatures we are.

And God will hold us accountable for our humanity as much as for our Christianity. For there are things we have been commanded by God to do as human creatures, from which no other Bible text or teaching exempts us. Human beings are people with a mission. Human beings are declared to be creatures of the sixth day, just like the inhabitants of the animal kingdom.

And as Wright intimates, and we will soon explore, the human is a creature with a particular mission in and toward the created order. But this reality is often overlooked, and sometimes intentionally denied, by otherwise Bible-believing Christians. The irony of the denial of our embodied, physical, this-worldly nature is that it so thoroughly turns Genesis 1—2 on its head.

The human is introduced in the biblical story in the context of the creation account. God is the Creator; we are creature. And it will always be that way. We imagine ourselves as spiritual beings, ones who are material or materialized only uncomfortably and, hopefully, only temporarily. God is a spirit, and we, being like him in some way, must be spirit as well, and thus belong to an order of being that is higher and nobler than the physical world. Indeed, Christian piety has often been presented as an intentional detachment from this-worldly affairs and concerns.

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The more pious one is, the less connected to bodily and physical needs and worries. The more godly one is, the more connected to heavenly or spiritual realities one is. And alas, Bible-believing Christians have too often conceived of salvation as a release from this world, a disassociation of the soul—the true or real self—from creation. God created the whole world for his own glory. All things exist to praise him Psalm All things exist for his purposes.

Worship, praise, and obedient service of God are the natural entailments of creaturehood. This is just as true for the bluebird and the wolverine as it is for a human being. Yet Genesis 1 does declare a difference between the human and the nonhuman creature. Human beings enjoy a special place, a privileged relationship and a unique role. Adam appears as not only the last but also the preeminent creature called into existence by God. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.

And God blessed them. Here is the difference between the human and the nonhuman creation. Here is what distinguishes us from the animal kingdom. Human beings have been made after the image of God. This is unique. It is nowhere said of lions or eagles or great whales. Only humans bear the image of God. Nor can the sun or moon. Just us. And to my knowledge, Scripture nowhere speaks of angels—and certainly not demons—as image bearers. Of course it is important to recognize that the image of God, while making us distinct, does not in any way take away from the fact that we are still, like the rest of creation, creatures.

Creatures of the sixth day we are. Not only does the human appear on the sixth day with the animals, but humankind is fashioned from the ground, nurtured by it, and even named for it: Adam man is taken from the adamah earth. Henri Blocher writes that this note of human solidarity with the natural world is an intentional aspect of the Genesis text:. This one is exalted above all others. Now we need to be careful here. Genesis —28 is certainly drawing a distinction between human beings and all the other creatures that the Lord has made.

But it is not a distinction between the human and creation and the creaturely, or between the human and what is earthly and physical. Remember, what Genesis 1 says about human beings is in the midst of the creation story, and apparently for the sake of creation. Genesis 1 is seeking to situate the human within the material creation, not separate us from it. Further, the phrase is used just a handful of times in the Bible.

Along with Genesis —28, only Genesis , 1 Corinthians , and James explicitly speak of the creation of human beings in the image of God.

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At different times the image of God in human beings has been identified as rationality, the soul, personhood, love, relational abilities, dominion over creation, moral sensitivity, representation, conscience, an orientation toward worship, the gift of speech, artistic and technical creativity, the ability of make culture—and this list is just off the top of my head. But basically, the suggestions come down to two sorts of ideas: the image of God is something about us, something we are , or the image of God is something we do.

The image of God is something about our being, or it is some function or activity we carry out. In short, the image of God is a noun , a thing, or it is a verb , an action. The immediate problem with any nominal concept of the image of God in human beings is that no Scripture identifies the image of God with some aspect of our being, say a soul or rationality. Remember, when we talk about the image of God in human beings we are talking about something peculiar to humankind. But there is probably no thing about us that is absolutely unique to our species. Further, the nominal interpretation allows us to treat the image of God as a more or less static thing, an endowment or entitlement that exists autonomously in humankind, devoid of relationship with our creator.

The verbal, or functionalist interpretation, however, moves the focus to the human in relationship with God. Fortunately, Genesis —28 does associate the image of God with a calling, a task that God entrusts to Adam. He was created to perform a task. Image bearing is his reason for being. It is his very identity. Thus the language of image bearing in Scripture bears a dynamic, active, functional trajectory. Imaging God is serving him and our fellow men.

Yet we should not be too quick to dismiss a structural or ontological aspect to the image of God, as Middleton appears to do. Founded as it is in the garden story that constitutes us all as sons and daughters of Adam, creation in the image of God defines us all. However, Genesis —7 and James , both of which assume the reality of human sinfulness in that they speak of fallen human beings as bearing the image of God, will not allow such a conclusion.

Even apart from how we function in the world, whether we are obedient or disobedient to the Word of God, whether we relate to God in faith and love or in sinful rebellion, there appears to be some constant about human beings that is irreducibly connected to the image of God. But we are getting needlessly ahead of the story. To identify the image of God with a calling or task, to pursue a singularly functionalist understanding of the image of God in human beings, is to ignore the important question: what is it about us that permits the calling to have dominion in Genesis 1?

To perform a task one must enjoy the necessary abilities or endowments required for the task. Thus Hoekema writes that. One cannot function without a certain structure. An eagle, for example, propels itself through the air by flying—this is one of its functions. The eagle would be unable to fly, however, unless it had wings—one of its structures. Similarly, human beings were created to function in certain ways: to worship God, to love the neighbor, to rule over nature, and so on. But they cannot function in these ways unless they have been endowed by God with the structural capacities that enable them to do so.

So structure and function are both involved when we think of man as the image of God. What are those capacities? As we said, Scripture does not explicitly tell us. All the abilities we previously mentioned, from rationality to the gift of language, from moral sensibility to creativity and curiosity, from the need to worship to our need to bond together as families and societies, all make us human.

They all make us the kind of creatures who are able to image God in the world. Any number of the things we might imagine that would fall into this category are capacities that we share with members of the animal kingdom. It is not the possession of some particular thing, some special and unique capacity or substance, that makes us different from the animals and makes us image bearers.

It is that we possess all of these capacities, and possess each in just the right measure. Oh, and let us not forget our physical make-up. While Christians have often been wont to find the image of God in decidedly nonphysical aspects of our nature, surely that is a mistake. I dare anyone to try to be fruitful or multiply without a body. Certainly, there is more to the difference than that I do not have a long, bushy tail , but let us not underestimate the fact that in the human being God has quite marvelously and perfectly fashioned a creature for the job of imaging him and ruling the world he has made.

That we are image bearers of God means that the image of God is about everything we are. Nothing in human being is excluded from the image of God. While all creatures display vestiges of God, only a human being is the image of God. And he is such totally, in soul and body, in all his faculties and powers, in all conditions and relations.

Man is the image of God because and insofar as he is truly human, and he is truly and essentially human because, and to the extent that, he is the image of God. Where does this leave us on the question of the image of God as noun and verb? The idea of image as a noun calls up a reflection or a copy. As a verb we might say that it simply calls up the function of reflecting or copying. Our suggestion is that neither of these will do. It is the height of presumption to speak of human beings as copies of God.

It is equally wrong to think just in terms of function or task. Rather than a bare copy or a copying, image as noun or verb, let us entertain the analogy of a copier, a machine meant for the purpose of making copies. The image constitutes both our constitution and our function, our being and our doing. A copier exists to make copies; that is both what it is and what it does.

As image bearers of God, human beings are copying, reflecting, imaging creatures. The analogy of the copier allows us to see both the structural and the functional reality of our being made after the image of God. We exist for the purpose of imaging God, reflecting him into the world, copying something of him into the lives of the people and societies around us. Of course, all of us can also imagine a malfunctioning copy machine, one that has run out of paper or toner, or is perhaps jamming paper.

The copier is still a machine for the purpose of making copies, but now it is failing to do it properly. Just so, a human being may image well or poorly, but he or she is always—and at all times—a creature made for the purpose of imaging or reflecting God.

Old Testament Theology 5: God and Creation

This imaging God is serious business, so serious that it sits at the very heart of the biblical story. Thus we need repair and tending, the very thing that Jesus—the one who is himself the express image of God 2 Cor. And such notions may well serve as a basis for treating human life with respect. The assertion that we are created in the divine image operates both as an assertion of the way things are—an ontological given—and as an ideal regulating personal and social conduct.

For its fulfillment and its disruption are both possible since it is an ethical as well as an ontological given. God speaks or summons the universe and all its inhabitants into being. The calling of Abraham is depicted in the language of creation by both Isaiah and Paul Isa.

Isaiah not only brings creation and calling together, but also pairs them with naming:. Os Guinness notes that, more than simply assigning a label, to name is to create. As modern secularists, we often locate this sense of calling in our occupations or professions. We are a called species. Imago Dei therefore describes our normal state. It points not to something in us or about us, but to our very humanity. Guinness rightly insists that the fundamental meaning of calling in Scripture is relational.

A telephone call provides us with a handy and suitable illustration. There are a number of elements in a telephone call assuming that it is neither a wrong number nor a recorded message. At its most basic level, a telephone call includes a caller, a called party, and a message, a reason for the call. A connection or relationship between the parties is established by the call, even if that connection extends only over the duration of the conversation.

But the point is that without relationship being established there is no call. To know ourselves as image bearers is to know ourselves as called by God. It is only as we are addressed by God, claimed by him to be the bearers of his rule and presence in the world, that we are truly human beings. The imager reflects or echoes the original. Nothing distinguishes us from the rest of creation until we come under his call. In that God calls Adam, the human being, to have dominion over the earthly creation and its nonhuman inhabitants in Genesis —28, we may say that the human is intended to be an imitative creature.

What this means is that the biblical depiction of what it is to be human cannot be grasped or even begin to be broached without reference to God. Biblically, human beings cannot be understood in any other way than as creatures called to image God. We are dependent upon God and his calling for our very being and identity. All attempts to secure a place for human beings within the world purely in terms of the self are futile and finally idolatrous.

Thus, Calvin so famously organized the first chapter of the edition of his Institutes of the Christian Religion around the claim that a knowledge of God is a necessary condition for a knowledge of the self and a knowledge of the self is a necessary condition for a knowledge of God.


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The image reflects its object, thus presenting it to the world for recognition. The reflection mediates its object. Yet the reflection is also thoroughly dependent upon its object, for without the object the reflection has nothing to present. There is a predominantly royal flavor to the entire text, both in reference to God and his delegated human vice-regent. In doing so, we have all but ignored the canonical depiction of God in the creation story as bearing significance to human identity and meaning.

What then is the historical context of the Genesis creation story? The revelation of the book of Genesis was given to the community of the exodus, if we may assume the Mosaic authorship of the story. When Israel heard the creation story, it would have been completely natural for them to hear it as a word from and about a new pharaoh, a counter-king to the sovereign who ruled in Egypt. The people of God had spent more than four centuries having the world defined for them by pharaonic religion and culture.

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Pharaoh dictated the nature of reality, the value and purpose of human beings, the meaning of life—and death. But the exodus of Israel out of Egypt washed all of that away. Nothing made sense anymore in terms of the Egyptian telling of reality. They would have asked themselves: What is the nature of the world we live in? Where did it come from? What is its meaning? If we are no longer the mere beasts of labor that the Egyptians told us we are, then what are we?

And who is the God who was able to do the great things that have transpired? All the assumptions, the myths, the values, and categories that Israel had lived with since the patriarchal family had gone down to Egypt were drowned in the reed sea as well. The world needed to be redrawn, explained, re-spoken into existence—decreed anew. And that is just what the creation story does. It decrees the world. The King speaks, and the world is. The universe is an obedient response to his lordship, to the slightest hint of his kingly speech Ps.

His edicts call forth, establish, and order the world. He sovereignly names, appoints, and delegates subjects, responsibilities, and powers, from the smallest of creatures to the great lights of the sky. Truly, one far greater than pharaoh reigns here. Yet this speech is not an utterly removed affair, something that takes place from afar, uncaring of the effect it will bear upon its subjects, for God sees as well as speaks. We see him appreciating and evaluating his creation, conferring and reflecting within himself in relation to his work, and when the work is done, resting.

Far from being an aloof oriental potentate, this king enters into his kingdom: forming with his own hands, breathing his very breath into creatures, and building with the care, attention, and self-investment of the expert artisan. This is no mere king.

This is Yahweh Elohim, the God of the covenant, the God who forges intimate and morally upright relationships with his people. What kind of rule is Adam called to imitate and represent in the world? The sort of rule we see praised in the halal psalms that close the Psalter Pss. He is awesome in power and wondrous in his works, but also abounding in goodness and righteousness, gracious, merciful, loving.

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It is not too much to say that the moral imitation of God that Adam is called to embody makes God present to the creation, not ontologically to be sure, but royally, morally, and even personally. The tselem is a localized, visible representation of its object. Indeed, the claim of Genesis 1 that human beings are created for the purpose of imaging God in the world undergirds or provides the rationale for the prohibition of images in the Mosaic law. No man-made, lifeless thing can bear the weight of representing the divine presence.

Such things are worthy only of mockery in the biblical record e. As image bearer, an imitator of God, the human is fully dependent upon God. Genesis shows God as working: creating, designing, shaping, building, naming, ruling, relating. Christopher Wright suggests that the creation narratives display God as active, working in the world, pursuing missional objectives right from the very beginning.

And as God is actively seeking a creation that will praise him, so human beings exist both to praise God themselves52 and to work toward the end of all things glorifying God. Adam was created to do something. We exist for a mission. God is a worker, and he has made us as such as well. Doing as God does is part and parcel of what we are. Called and responsible human being is important to the life and development of the creation.

As God has formed and filled the earth, he calls the human to be fruitful fill and have dominion form. As God has named Adam, he invites Adam to name the animals Gen.