Terry Fretheim and the Renewal of Creation Theology

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.

After The Suffering of God, I read numerous journal articles by Fretheim, many of which were spin-offs from his wonderful commentary on Exodus (1991) and were incorporated into his magnum opus, God and World in the Old Testament: A Relational Theology of Creation (2005).

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.

My own early interaction with Brueggemann took the form of a critique of his creation theology, first given at the Society of Biblical Literature (SBL) in 1992 and then published a couple of years later as “Is Creation Theology Inherently Conservative? A Dialogue with Walter Brueggemann.”

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.

RIP until the resurrection!

“The Genesis Creation Accounts”—New Essay on Creation Theology

I have a new essay on the Bible’s creation theology, called “The Genesis Creation Accounts,” published in  The T&T Clark Companion of Christian Theology and the Modern Sciences, ed. by John P. Slattery, Bloomsbury Companions (London: Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2020), 15–31.

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.

You can take a look at the Table of Contents here.

John P. Slattery , the editor of the volume, is currently Senior Program Associate with the Dialogue on Science, Ethics, and Religion (DoSER), a program of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), in Washington, DC.

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.

Why I Love Creation Theology—How This Theme Is Interwoven Into My Life, Teaching, and Writing

As anyone who has taken my classes knows, I talk a lot about the theology of creation. Indeed, in my publications (both books and articles), I keep returning to creation theology either as an explicit focus or more indirectly as a foundation for other topics. 

In this blog post, I give an accounting of the theme of creation in my life, my teaching, and my writing.

Why I Got Interested in Creation

It all started when I was an undergraduate student at Jamaica Theological Seminary. I got hooked on creation theology in my third year of studies (at the tender age of twenty). There were two main reasons for my interest.

First, as a Christian who wanted to serve God, but had no calling to pastoral ministry, I wanted to understand why God had put me in the world. What was my purpose as a human being? And how should this impact my life today as a Christian?

Creation seemed the best place to start, especially what the Bible means when it says that we are created in God’s image (imago Dei).

The second reason I was attracted to creation theology is because creation grounds the entire story of the Bible—a complicated story with many twists and turns, covering many different types of literature. Like most Christians, I was introduced to the Bible in lots of bits and pieces–a psalm here, a parable there, isolated verses from the Pauline epistles, various episodes from Old and New Testament narratives, especially the death and resurrection of Jesus. But I wasn’t really clear how it all fit together.

As a teen and young adult, I was a detail-oriented person, very focused on the concrete. I naturally noticed particularities—an interesting sentence in a book, the crinkling of a leaf, a one-legged grasshopper. But I often found it difficult to see patterns.

Looking back, I have sometimes said that my developmental task as an adolescent was to find coherence—in my experiences, in life, in society, in history. Also in the Bible.

As Inigo Montoya said in The Princess Bride, when things go wrong, you have to go back to the beginning.

So grounding the complexity of the Bible in its beginningGod’s creation of the worldwas a most helpful way to understand what was going on in the biblical story.

Teaching Creation—In Southern Ontario

I started teaching biblical creation theology a couple years into my graduate studies, when I became an Inter-Varsity Christian Fellowship (IVCF) staff worker. I had the opportunity (facilitated by Brian Walsh) to develop and teach informal (non-credit) courses on the Christian worldview at various universities in Southern Ontario (University of Toronto, McMaster University, and the University of Guelph).

The initial course title was “The Christian Worldview in a Secular Culture.”

After an introduction to worldviews and the rationale for the course, the first substantial topic was the Bible’s view of creation and the human role in God’s world. I was exploring the topic for myself as I taught the course. I grew in my understanding of creation theology year by year, through this teaching.

Teaching Creation—In Upstate New York

Later, while living in upstate New York and studying at Colgate Rochester Divinity School, I continued teaching non-credit worldview courses as a chaplain at the University of Rochester and at some local churches.

I was also invited to teach a more focused non-credit course on the Bible and science, specifically for Christian graduate students (and some professors) in the sciences at the University of Rochester and Cornell University. This opportunity was facilitated by Bob Fay, who was then Professor (now emeritus) of Chemistry at Cornell.

In these courses on the Bible and science I was able to explore further the role of creation in grounding the scientific vocation and how the sciences studied the world God created. While I taught the Bible and an overview of the history of the Bible and science, my “students” (all aspiring or practicing scientists) taught me a great deal about what science was and how it actually functioned.

Teaching Creation—In Formal Credit Courses

Once I enrolled in doctoral studies at the Institute for Christian studies (Toronto), I began teaching adjunct courses to students in the masters program, including a year-long introduction the Bible, along with courses on the Bible and Postmodernity, Humanity as God’s image, and Creation in the Bible and the ancient Near East. I was exploring various facets of the topic of creation in all of these.

When I began my formal teaching career at Colgate Rochester Divinity School (now Colgate Rochester Crozer Divinity School), a decade after I had been a student there, and then at Roberts Wesleyan College and Northeastern Seminary some years later, creation continued to be an important topic in many of my courses.

These included introductory courses on the Old Testament, the Pentateuch, the Wisdom books, and the Psalms; creation theology was also central to seminar courses I taught on Genesis, Humanity as the image of God, and Creation in the Bible and the ancient Near East.

I even continued to teach my original course on the Christian worldview, significantly revised, under different names, such as “Worldview Foundations” (at the Institute for Christian Studies), “Faith, Culture, and Calling” (at Colgate Rochester Divinity School), “Exploring the Christian Worldview” (at Roberts Wesleyan College), and “Biblical Worldview: Story, Theology, Ethics” (at Northeastern Seminary).

Because of a recent curriculum revision at Northeastern Seminary, “Biblical Worldview” has been renamed “Being in the Story.”

And, of course, much of this teaching grew into writing.

Writing about Creation and Worldviews

The early non-credit Christian worldview teaching for IVCF led to the first book I wrote with Brian Walsh, The Transforming Vision: Shaping a Christian World View (IVP, 1984), where we had a chapter called “Based on Creation.” It was our shared understanding of creation theology that grounded our exposition of redemption and our critique of worldview dualism and modern idolatry.

This is still the most widely read book I’ve written, with translations into Korean (1987); French (1988); Indonesian (2001); Spanish (2003); Portuguese (2009); new Korean edition (2013); new French edition (2017); new Indonesian edition (2020).

When Brian and I wanted to revise The Transforming Vision to explicitly address the postmodern condition and the role of suffering in the Bible, IVP suggested that we write a follow up book, which we did.

Truth Is Stranger than It Used to Be: Biblical Faith in a Postmodern Age (IVP, 1995) contains a chapter on the biblical view of humanity (“The Empowered Self”) and one on creation more generally (“Reality Isn’t What It’s Meant to Be”). This book has been published in a UK edition (SPCK, 1995) and released in two different Korean editions (2007, 2020).

Writing about Creation—Up to The Liberating Image

Just before Truth Is Stranger was published, I wrote an exploratory article in anticipation of my doctoral dissertation, called “The Liberating Image?” The question mark indicated its exploratory character. 

  • “The Liberating Image? Interpreting the Imago Dei in Context,” Christian Scholar’s Review 24 (1994): 8–25.

But when I published my dissertation with the same title (and a different subtitle), I left out the question mark.

I also wrote some other articles on the way to The Liberating Image that addressed creation theology; some of this material was incorporated into various chapters of the book.

  • “Is Creation Theology Inherently Conservative? A Dialogue with Walter Brueggemann,” Harvard Theological Review 87 (1994): 257–277. Published with Walter Brueggemann’s “Response to J. Richard Middleton,” 279–289.
  • “Creation Founded in Love: Breaking Rhetorical Expectations in Genesis 1:1–2:3,” in Sacred Texts, Secular Times: The Hebrew Bible in the Modern World, ed. by Leonard Jay Greenspoon and Bryan F. LeBeau, Studies in Jewish Civilization 10 (Creighton University Press, 2000), 47–85.
  • “Created in the Image of a Violent God? The Ethical Problem of the Conquest of Chaos in Biblical Creation Texts,” Interpretation 58 (2004): 341–55.

Creation theology was important even in an article I wrote on Bob Marley and the Wailers, where I cited song lyrics to show that appeal to creation was one of their strategies for challenging the “Babylonian” status quo.

  • “Identity and Subversion in Babylon: Strategies for ‘Resisting Against the System’ in the Music of Bob Marley and the Wailers,” chap. 9 in Religion, Culture and Tradition in the Caribbean, ed. by Hemchand Gossai and N. Samuel Murrell (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2000), 181–204.

Writing about Creation—After The Liberating Image

Then, once The Liberating Image was published, I started getting requests to contribute Bible dictionary or encyclopedia articles that addressed some aspect of creation theology (especially the imago Dei); even the article on “Salvation” that I wrote with Michael Gorman drew on creation theology as a significant component of the topic.

  • “Salvation,” in the New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, vol. 5, ed. by Katharine Doob Sakenfeld et al. (Nashville: Abingdon, 2009), 45–61. Co-authored with Michael J. Gorman.
  • “Image of God,” in Dictionary of Scripture and Ethics, ed. by Joel B. Green et al. (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2011), 394–97.
  • “Image of God,” in The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Bible and Theology, vol. 2, ed. by Samuel E. Balentine et al. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015), 516–23.
  • “The Genesis Creation Accounts,” in  The T&T Clark Companion of Christian Theology and the Modern Sciences, ed. by John P. Slattery, Bloomsbury Companions (London: Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2020), 15–31.
  • “The Image of God in Ecological Perspective,” in The Oxford Handbook of Bible and Ecology, ed. by Hilary Marlow and Mark Harris (Oxford: Oxford University Press, forthcoming).
  • “What Does the Bible Mean When It Says We’re ‘Made in the Image of God’?” Answer to question #44 in 101 Great Big Questions about the Bible and Science, ed. by Lizzie Henderson and Steph Bryant (Oxford: Lion Hudson, forthcoming). A children’s book sponsored by the Faraday Institute for Science and Religion.

There were invitations to write other dictionary/encyclopedia articles that I had to turn down due to time constraints. These included:

  • “Image of God” for The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Bible and Ethics.
  • “Creation” for The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Bible and Theology.
  • “Concept of the Image of God in the Old and New Testaments” for The Palgrave Handbook of Image Studies.

Writing about Creation in the Psalms, Job, and the Caribbean

I also began to explore aspects of creation theology that were spin-offs from The Liberating Image, such as creation in the Psalms and Job, and the application of creation theology to Caribbean life.

  • “The Role of Human Beings in the Cosmic Temple: The Intersection of Worldviews in Psalms 8 and 104,” Canadian Theological Review 2. no. 1 (2013): 44–58.
  • “Islands in the Sun: Overtures to a Caribbean Creation Theology,” in Islands, Islanders, and the Bible: Ruminations, ed. by Jione Havea, Margaret Aymer, and Steed Vernyl Davidson, Semeia Studies 77 (Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2015), 115–134. Reprint from A Kairos Moment for Caribbean Theology (2013).
  • “Does God Come to Bury Job or to Praise Him? The Significance of YHWH’s Second Speech from the Whirlwind,” St. Mark’s Review no. 239 (March 2017): 1–27. Published with a response essay by Jeanette Mathews.

This last article, which addresses the debate between Job and his friends about the status of humanity as degraded or elevated (and God’s answer to the debate), is now part of a book I have just about completed for Baker Academic, called Abraham’s Silence (scheduled for publication in 2021):

Writing about Creation in the Garden of Eden

My most recent research has been on creation in Genesis 2–3, exploring the account of human origins in the Garden story. So far I’ve written two essays on this.

  • “From Primal Harmony to a Broken World: Distinguishing God’s Intent for Life from the Encroachment of Death in Genesis 2–3,” chap. 7 in Earnest: Interdisciplinary Work Inspired by the Life and Teachings of B. T. Roberts, ed. by Andrew C. Koehl and David Basinger (Eugene, OR: Pickwick, 2017), 139–67.
  • “Reading Genesis 3 Attentive to Human Evolution: Beyond Concordism and Non-Overlapping Magisteria,” chap. 4 in Evolution and the Fall, ed. by William T. Cavanaugh and James K. A. Smith (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2017), 67–97.

The plan is for this material to become part of a book I am working on for Cascade, an imprint of Wipf and Stock:

  • Life and Death in the Garden of Eden: A Theological Reading of Genesis 2–3 (Eugene, OR: Cascade).

Creation to Eschaton

Creation theology has also been significant for my understanding of eschatology, since the beginning (creation) is profoundly connected to the end (eschaton). This is what led to the name of my blog site, Creation to Eschaton.

Most recently, I’ve written a chapter for a new book on eschatology (scheduled to be published in Spring 2021), where I develop the connection between creation and eschaton, with an explicit focus on the coming of the Shekinah, the Rabbinic term for God’s holy presence in the world.

  • “The New Earth: Cosmic Redemption and the Coming of the Shekinah,” in Four Views on Heaven, ed. Michael Wittmer, Counterpoints: Bible and Theology (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, forthcoming). Chapters by John Feinberg, J. Richard Middleton, Michael Allen, and Peter Kreeft. With authors’ responses to other essays.

The Defining Theme 

Of course, I’ve been writing on other topics besides creation, especially the book of Samuel, the problem of suffering, and the lament psalms (more on that another time).

But creation has clearly been the defining theme of my teaching, research, and writing.

Note: For those interested, most of the articles listed in this post are available as PDFs here.