Monday, March 31, 2014

God the creationist

We know the story of Jonah: God calls him to preach in Nineveh, but he flees; eventually he comes around to preaching an oracle of doom, but he is greatly angered by the fact that the people repent and God relents from punishing them. Now it is ironic that Jonah describes his allegiance to the other sailors during the storm as belonging to "the LORD, the God of heaven, who made the sea and the dry land" (1.9), because it is precisely creation theology that motivates God to relent of punishing Nineveh in the narrative of the book.

God attempts to make his decision not to punish Nineveh intelligible like this:

You are concerned about the bush, for which you did not labor and which you did not grow; it came into being in a night and perished in a night. And should I not be concerned about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also many animals? (4.10-11)

The reasoning here is fascinating, because, as I've said, it is creation theology that motivates God's decision; it is the fact that the Ninevites are God's creatures, "a hundred and twenty thousand persons," including "many animals" as well, that moves God to keep from destroying them. Jonah is not himself a creator, and yet he is upset about the plant which sprouts and dies in the course of a day. But Yhwh is the Creator, and how can he fail to care to for his creation?

Athanasius said it well when he argued that the fallen condition of humanity in general was a motivation for the incarnation, in light of God's goodness as creator: For it were not worthy of God's goodness that the things he had made should waste away, because of the deceit of the devil. Especially it was unseemly to the last degree that God's handicraft among men should be done away, either because of their own carelessness, or because of the deceit of evil spirits. . . . it was, then, out of the question to leave men to the current of corruption; because this would be unseemly, and unworthy of God's goodness (On the Incarnation, 6).

For Athanasius, whether man's downfall was self-inflicted or other-inflicted, it was not an option for the good God merely to stand and watch as his creation is undone. Likewise Yhwh in Jonah claims that he has pity for the Ninevites, even if and perhaps precisely because they do not know left from right, that is, they are gravely morally corrupted and do not know what is right and wrong. It is the mere fact that they are his creatures, and he is their creator, that is sufficient for God to desire their salvation, their deliverance, their repentance, and not their destruction.

This theology is miles away from a kind of Augustinianism according to which some persons, equally God's creatures, are nevertheless consigned to eternal destruction for the display of God's justice. No, the author of Jonah and Athanasius would insist that creation theology is what motivates divine ethics: God loves his creatures, and because he is a good creator, it would be beneath him to see his works undone and destroyed, whether they deserved it or not.

Importantly, too, this episode gives a critical insight as to the nature of the covenant with Israel. As Barth would say, the covenant with Israel is only instrumental, a means to accomplishing a greater covenant made with the world at large. God's dealings with the Israelite people have a greater scope, a greater purpose which extends beyond them only, just as Jonah the Hebrew is here sent for the reconciliation of the pagan sailors (1.14-6) and the Ninevites (3.6-10) to their Creator whom they had previously not known. God's salvific purposes include the world at large, and the covenant people are a means to accomplishing that goal, not the whole of God's salvific dealings.