In these interviews, Fretheim unpacks quite carefully his understanding of God’s relationality (meaning that God enters into the sort of relationship with the world that gives humans and other creatures significant agency, so that what they do matters and that God is not the only one with power).
Tripp gives a brief introduction to Fretheim in the first three minutes or so.
The first interview (with Chad Crawford) starts at the 3 minute 23 second mark and goes up to about the 50 minute mark. The second interview (by Tripp Fuller) goes from there to the end.
I have found Fretheim’s emphasis on creation is the universal horizon of the Bible to be crucial for how we read the rest of the Bible, including the history of salvation.
Fretheim admits that although the Old Testament certainly focuses on Israel as God’s elect people, through whom blessing will come to the nations, Genesis opens with a universal horizon, addressing not only the creation of humanity and the cosmos, but also the development of human history prior to Israel. The story of Abraham (the ancestor of Israel) doesn’t begin until Genesis 12.
One of Fretheim’s most important statements, which crystallizes the above point, is that the election of Abraham and Israel was an “initially exclusive move” in the service of a “maximally inclusive end”—the redemption of creation. This statement is repeated many times in his book, God and World in the Old Testament: A Relational Theology of Creation (2005), (pages 19, 29, 103 etc.), and I myself have quoted it many times in my writings.
In my tribute post to Fretheim, I mentioned the difference between his approach to the Bible and that of Walter Brueggemann, which I illustrated by reference to their commentaries on Jeremiah.
Interestingly, the second interviewer (Tripp Fuller), who had recently interviewed Brueggemann, asks Fretheim about the difference between their approaches to divine sovereignty. This fascinating discussion can be found around the 1 hour 30 minute mark.
One of my favorite Old Testament scholars, Terence Fretheim, died yesterday (November 16, 2020).
Terry was both a wonderful person and a brilliant biblical scholar. He excelled both in detailed exegesis of the Old Testament and in his reflections on the theological and ethical meaning of of this ancient text.
The first book of his that I read was The Suffering of God: An Old Testament Perspective (1984), which was a short but profound study of how God is affected by us. Although the book focuses on the Old Testament, it helpfully lays the foundation for understanding the coherence of both Testaments, since the same God who allowed himself to be affected by humanity at the flood (God’s heart was grieved by human evil) and by Israel’s unfaithfulness (see the prophet Jeremiah), ultimately became incarnate and went to the cross for our sake.
I found some similarity between Fretheim’s interest in reading the Old testament theologically and the work of Walter Brueggemann. In Nijay Gupta’s recent interview with me, I cited Brueggemann as the first Old Testament scholar whose work deeply impacted me, especially on the relevance of the Old Testament for its claims on our lives today.
I read Terry Fretheim a bit later and he impacted me in a similar way. But what was distinctive about Fretheim was that he grounded his understanding of the Old Testament in a creation theology, a topic I was coming to see as crucial.
The latter book is so good that I view it as one of the best works of biblical theology I have ever read. On almost every page, as Fretheim works through Genesis, Exodus, the Psalms, and the wisdom literature, there are reams of exegetical insights that could serve as a sourcebook for years of sermons on the Old Testament. And it is all exegetically rigorous and theologically thoughtful.
Fretheim was a Lutheran and the Lutheran tradition has been notoriously weak historically on the doctrine of creation (with a few exceptions, like Gustav Wingren). So I have often thought that Fretheim was addressing this lack in his own tradition by mining the Scriptures for their teaching about creation and the God-creation relationship.
An example of the difference between Brueggemann and Fretheim can be seen in their respective commentaries on Jeremiah. Brueggemann’s Jeremiah commentary (which is immensely helpful) focuses on the radical (almost Barthian-like) challenge the prophet brought to Israel back then and that he brings to us today. Fretheim’s commentary, however, focuses on God’s complex relationship to Israel and to the created order, showing much more of divine compassion in the midst of judgment. Indeed, Fretheim often takes Brueggemann to task (gently) in the commentary about his glossing over aspects of the text.
Brueggemann graciously accepted my critique, both in his unplanned response to my paper (the person presenting after me was absent and the chair asked him if he had anything to say), then, after I published the paper, in a more formal print response.
Interestingly, although my first interaction with Fretheim was at the SBL (in 1995), it wasn’t a critique, but rather encouragement. I had just given a paper on a rhetorical reading Genesis 1, in a session on the ethical reading of Scripture, which was followed by a respondent who was somewhat negative towards my paper.
Just as the floor was opened for questions, Fretheim came up to me, introduced himself, and told me he had to leave for an appointment. But he wanted me to know that I was onto something important in my reading of the text and that I should not be fazed by the response I got. He handed me his business card and told me to be in touch.
So, when I published the paper in 2000, called “Creation Founded in Love,” I sent him a copy. I received a wonderful Christmas card from him, dated December 15, 2000, with this encouragement:
“Thanks for the offprint of your article—an important piece of work! Thanks, too, for your kind reference to my own work. We can hope with some confidence, I believe, that a more open understanding of creation, and the God of creation, will become more prominent in both church and academy.”
For his astute biblical scholarship and for his winsome personality, I will miss Terry Fretheim.
What—not another essay on creation, Middleton! How much longer are you going to write on this topic? Do you really have anything new to say?
It’s true, I’ve been teaching and writing on creation theology for a very long time.
In a recent blog post I recounted how I got interested in creation theology in the first place and how my teaching and writing on the topic developed.
This T&T Clark Companion contains essays surveying the history of Christian thought for how various thinkers and traditions have understood the relationship of theology to the sciences. There are also essays on contemporary issues in science, from various Christian perspectives.
I met John Slattery at the the Society of Biblical Literature in 2018, where I gave a paper on New Testament eschatology grounded in creation. Based on that paper, John invited me to contribute an essay on New Testament cosmology. After I explained that my expertise was actually in Old Testament, he changed the invitation to that topic.
However, I suggested that the topic was big enough to warrant two essays and I nominated Bill Brown of Columbia Seminary to join me in the project. Bill wrote a beautiful essay on creation in the wisdom literature (“Wisdom’s Wonder and the Science of Awe”).
This allowed me to focus on Genesis 1–2. My essay, “The Genesis Creation Accounts,” addresses the ancient “world picture” (Weltbild) implicit in Genesis 1 and 2, in order to explore the “worldview” (Weltanschauung) or abiding theological vision of these chapters, which is relevant for our thinking about contemporary science.
Did I actually write something new on the subject of creation theology?
Yes and no.
The essay integrates new material from unpublished presentations I’ve given on Genesis 1 and 2 with some of my previous reflections on these chapters.
It’s a new synthesis, articulating in one compact essay a contextual understanding of the symbolic world of the first two chapters of the Bible (as would have been understood by ancient readers).
The discussion of Genesis 1 addresses the relevance of the ancient biblical understanding of the world for contemporary readers who are aware of the immensity of the universe. The discussion of Genesis 2 focuses on parallels between ancient and contemporary understandings of our ecological embeddedness in the created order.
It is my hope that this synthesis will be helpful for pastors, students, and laypeople interested in thinking about the subject of creation in Genesis 1–2.