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Creation in the Letter to the Romans

Creation is a fundamental theme in the Bible. Faith affirms God’s creative action. Creationism, on the other hand, is the manipulation of biblical stories by those who pretend to convince others that they have scientific validity. They are involved in a battle that, as I said last month, cannot be won with the boots on. For creationism I have no use. Given the importance of Creation in the Bible, however, I am starting a short series of columns about it. Wishing to contribute, at the same time, to the discussion of the SS lessons of this quarter, I will begin with the Letter to the Romans.

Paul wrote Romans to defend his gospel because other Christians, who like him had come from Judaism, were rejecting it and, apparently, accused Paul of having turned God’s truth into a lie. Being a Jew, he should be ashamed preaching a gospel which denied the history of salvation and denied that the law reveals the justice of God. These Christians believed that the knowledge and truth of God is concretized in the law, and thought that it was a shame for a Jew, circumcised and instructed in the law, to have the temerity to deny this fundamental reality. Having possession of the law, these Christians felt qualified to judge others and teach them how God thinks and acts.

Defending himself from the abuse and persecution of these Christians who pretended to maintain their privileged position before God on the basis of their being Jews who posses the law, Paul declares, “I am not ashamed of the gospel because it is the power of God to save everyone who has faith in God” (1:16). With these words Paul establishes that the gospel does not consist of information but of power to save and that this power is not in the hands of humans but of God. That is, the gospel has to do with God’s actions. God’s activity, however, is being questioned on account of what transpires around us. Looking around we see that the just suffer and the wicked prosper. Apparently, God is not sufficiently powerful to do justice in the world. Paul wrote Romans to argue that the gospel reveals the power of God to do justice (1:17).

To place matters in their proper context, Paul says that the justice of God reveals itself in the midst of the already manifest wrath of God (1:18). To point this out he refers to Creation, the clearest demonstration of God’s power. Of course, basing his argument on nature, he is putting aside the law. According to Paul, since Creation the things created show that which can be known of God. Paul thus tacitly admits that God is, as such, unknowable. That was the philosophical position of many in the first century. What was argued was whether this was due to the nature or will of God, or to the limitations of human knowledge. Along these lines the author of the Gospel of John says, denying the story in Ex. 24:9-11, “No one has ever seen God” (Jn. 1:18). But, while God is invisible, incorruptible and immortal, God has invisible attributes which God has made manifest to the extent that human beings who “refrain the truth with injustice … are inexcusable.” Creation, Paul says, manifests “the eternal power and divinity“ of God.

These words of Paul have, for centuries, been the proof text for natural theology. When humanity, rather than glorifying and giving thanks to God, becomes vain and lets their hearts become dark to pontificate nonsense it is manifesting the wrath of God. Living in the midst of a Creation that manifests the attributes of God, human beings exchange the glory of the Creator God for images of creatures. In other words, it is not necessary to have the Law, the Prophets and the Writings in order to have enough knowledge of God that causes one to give glory and thanks to God. The witness of Creation is enough.

The human pride that turns wise ones into fools who worship idols instead of God and use their bodies unnaturally in human relations shows that human beings do not take God seriously. God responds to their independence “giving them up to” their own devises and passions. To be noticed is that neither the law nor Satan play a role in this description. Here the relation of the Creator with all created things is immediate, without intermediary agents (1:18-32).

In chapter 5, Paul establishes the significance of Christ, as the revelation of the justice of God, by contrast with Adam. The first Adam opened the door and sin and death entered the world. Once in, they reign. As in chapter 1, the entrance of sin and death into God’s creation is not related to the law or Satan. These two forces entered the world by the action of a man, Adam. The entrance of justice and life is also caused by one man, Jesus Christ (5: 12, 15, 19).

The creatures who live in the world where sin and death reign greatly desire liberation from the slavery of corruption (8:21). All Creation has been groaning as a woman at the hour of giving birth until now desiring the redemption of the body. Even Christians who “have received the down payment of the Spirit” also groan desiring redemption (8:23). “In hope we are save” (8:24), affirms Paul.

This is the contradiction of the Creation that manifests “the eternal power and divinity” of God and at the same time groans “subjected to vanity” (8:20) under the wrath of God who gives it up to pride, idolatry and unnatural passions. This same God has also revealed justice, power and life in the second Adam, the Son of God in the Spirit of the resurrection (1:5). The parallelism between the first and the second Adam includes a radical contrast. While with the first the disobedience of one had awful consequences in many, with the second the awful condition of many was undone by the obedience of one (5:19).

The “eternal power” of God to save those who “see fit to acknowledge God” (1:28) makes possible for the Creation that groans desiring the liberation of the sons of God, the termination of their birth pains, to be subject under God “with hope” (8:20). In Romans, even though Adam opened the door for sin and death to enter the world created by God, God is in control of the world. The Creation that groans with labor pains is subject to the God who subjects it with hope. Creation is not fallen into Satan’s hands.

The Letter to the Romans both at the beginning and the end exhorts Christians not to judge their fellows. As an incentive it reminds them that they themselves will have to stand before the righteous judgment of God (2:5; 14:9-11) The Christian Jews who exempt themselves from judgment and judge gentiles as sinners, as well as all Christians who judge or despise their fellow Christians because they adopt a different posture about the identity of the Sabbath or the purity of meats, are exhorted by Paul not to judge or to injure each other (14:3, 15). It must be noticed that Paul, who is defending himself from those who accuse him of making a lie of the gospel and denying his Jewish heritage, makes a digression and uses emphatic language to affirm something that could provide gasoline to the fire of his opponents. He writes, “I know and am persuaded in the Lord Jesus that nothing is unclean in itself; but it is unclean for any one who thinks it unclean” (14:14)

With these words he declares that in the realm of being, that is in creation, nothing is unclean. This, Paul says, “I know”. As important as this radical declaration that negates one of the boundary markers between Jews and the rest of humanity is the basis on which Paul knows this truth. He knows this by his faith in Jesus Christ. The New Creation in the resurrection of Christ gives him a new vision of reality, and on that basis Paul affirms that the distinction between clean and unclean does not exist in the realm of being, even if for some it exists in the realm of ideas.

In the same way in which in chapter 1 Paul distinguishes between what is known and what is not known of God, that is that while revealing some attributes God remains unknown, in chapter 14 Paul establishes that some meats may be unclean in the realm of ideas, but that is not the case in the realm of being, in Creation. The way Paul makes these fine distinctions lets us know that Paul assumes his readers are capable of appreciating that the realm of knowledge and the realm of being are not the same.

In chapter 8 Paul finishes his argument about the effectiveness of God’s justice to save sinners extolling the love of God. The “eternal power and divinity” of God not only create; they also love. The triumph of love, Paul says, is secure because no other power in the universe is capable of overpowering the love of God. Considering the possible candidates for this battle, Paul distinguishes two groups. In the first he considers circumstances of daily life: tribulation, anguish, persecution, famine, nakedness, dangers, swords. These challenges of earthy life are not really believable rivals of love. In the second group Paul considers challengers that come from outside the earthly realm and are beyond human control or will. Now he declares, “neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor potentates, not the present, nor the future, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature has the power to separate us from the love of God” (8:35-39).

When challenged by anguish, famine or nakedness we can do something. Before death, angels and the future we feel helpless. In the cosmology of the first century the heavenly spheres between earth and God’s throne were under the control of “powers of the air”, here called principalities and potentates. It is difficult to decide to what is Paul referring when he includes “height” and “depth” in the list of creatures of the universe with power to attempt to break the bonds of love that unite human beings to God. A cosmology of principalities, potentates, height, depth, etc. is difficult to be visualized by those who live in the XXI century. We can safely dismiss the cosmology, however, and understand perfectly the apostle who assures us that no power in the universe is superior to the love of God that saves every one who has faith in God, and which at the same time reveals God’s justice

Therefore, when Paul tells us that Abraham, the father of those who have faith, believed “the one who gives life to the dead and names both the things that are not and the things that are” (4:17), we can do no other than be silent before the vacuum that separates the creation of the world of things created from that of those not created. The One who controls this frontier is the One in Whom we, like Abraham, must have faith.

Christian theology of the II and III centuries, trying to defend what Christians believe as different from pagan myths, appealed to 2 Maccabees 7:28, where the mother of the seven martyrs reminds the seventh son of God’s power to create that which is not (ouk on). Out of this came the doctrine of creation ex nihilo (out of nothing) in contradiction to the biblical accounts. In Gen. 1 God creates using the primordial ocean, and in Gen. 2 God comes to a pre-existent desert and forms man out of its dust. Paul, on the other hand, has no need to fight against pagan myths. He emphasizes God’s power to give life to the dead saying that God is not only the Creator of the things created but also has power over the things that are not (me onta), those things that we can not even imagine or name. The undetermined abyss between the things created and those not created is the realm of liberty. The realm of potentiality, where any thing is possible and actuality is absent, is where liberty has its habitation. This is the realm of the Holy Spirit who moved over the face of the waters before Creation, raised Christ from the dead and gives life to those dead in their sins. In the things that are not is where God’s power to create and to save are still one and the same and all miracles are possible. In the totality of being and not being is where the realm of knowledge faces the mystery of God and keeps silence.

To acknowledge God as the One who names both the things that are and the things that are not is to recognize the One Being with complete freedom. It is precisely because we were created out of the freedom of not being that as creatures we received the image of God, and we have, as part of our being, freedom for not being. The Letter to the Romans calls us to gather our senses and be grateful creatures for the gift of being and being saved in the hope of becoming Children of God who no longer live in the flesh, no longer groan in the creation subject to God’s wrath (8:19).

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