Creation Ex Nihilo & the Vicarious Humanity of Christ

Eighth Day of Christmas and Feast of the Circumcision of Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ and Feast of Sts Basil the Great and Gregory the Theologian

Creation_Square_4.jpegCREATED LIFE does not generate itself. It is beholden to the One who is Life in himself. Humanity is first of all a creature that receives: “then the Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being” (Gen 2.7). God, the source of life, bestows upon humanity their breath. The breath of life is something that is given; it can only be received. To receive, therefore, is at the essence of creatureliness and humanity, just as the Son receives from the Father. “God’s breath gives to the man formed of dust that which he does not possess and cannot give himself as such” (Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, III/1, 245). At the beginning of creation God is involved in a vicarious act—doing what we cannot do for ourselves—in bestowing upon us the very breath of life.

We should not limit the vicarious work of God to salvation alone. Just as Jesus the Vicarious One is “the true witness” (Barth, CD, IV/3.1), so too humanity in its creation becomes the vicarious human being that bears witness to God, giving voice to a mute creation (Barth, CD, III/1, 247).

Yet this free gift can always be withdrawn, as we see in the history of the judgment upon Israel (Barth, CD, III/1, 247-248). The only hope of all humanity in judgment is the One who on the cross cried out, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit” (Lk 23.46). His obedient spirit (breath) was given back to God. Even in the utmost extreme of estrangement from the Father, Jesus lives vicariously in giving back our rebellious spirits to God. Hence Stephen, at the point of his martyrdom, imitates his Lord by crying out, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit” (Acts 7.59). He prays to Jesus because he is the mediator, not simply because he is God, as in so much contemporary worship that deemphasizes the mediatory worship by Jesus to the Father.


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The doctrine of creation comes out of belief in God. And belief in God, made known through God’s self-revelation, reveals that we should be more certain about knowledge of God than we are about the creature (Barth, CD, III/1, 6)! The knowledge of God we have through Jesus Christ (and this immediately raises the distinctiveness of Christology for the doctrine of creation) is knowledge of the God who is Trinity. The desperate attempts, therefore, of many to find the analogy between creation and the human creature, are not as promising as the analogy between creation and “the eternal begetting of the Son by the Father,” in “the inner life of God Himself” (Barth, CD, III/1, 13-14). This is no lonely God who is forced to create out of need, as the “let us” of Genesis 1 reminds us (Barth, CD, III/1, 183). He is the free God who is free to create as a demonstration of his deity, yet to create as a correspondence to his inner life as Father, Son, and Spirit, a life lived in belonging and relationship (Barth, Dogmatics in Outline, 52: Barth CD, III/1, 13ff; cf. T. F. Torrance, The Trinitarian Faith, 93). God, as the uncreated life, is free to do something new: to become a creator.

T. F. Torrance further suggests that the Fathers advocated creatio ex nihilo, creation out of nothing, because of the stupendous effect of God raising Jesus from the dead, demonstrating “the absolute power of God over life and death, over all being and non-being” (T. F. Torrance, The Trinitarian Faith, 97). The very nature of biblical faith, Paul contends, is expressed in Abraham’s faith in analogy with creation, faith in the God “who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist” (Rom 4.17; Barth, CD, III/2, 153). Hebrews 11.3 confirms this relationship between creation out of nothing, faith, and resurrection: “By faith we understand that the worlds were prepared by the word of God, so that what is seen was made from things that are not visible.” The invisible word of God is the source of creation, but we can only know this by faith (Barth, Dogmatics in Outline, 52). Creation is accessible to us, but the belief in God as creator is not. God the creator is an object of faith, which is why the Creed does not speak of believing in heaven and earth but in God, “the maker of heaven and earth.”   

All of this is to say that the Bible is grace from beginning to end, one covenant of grace in which Jesus Christ is always present, including creation (Barth, CD, III/1, 44-45). He is, in fact, the goal of creation: The “mystery” of God’s will has become known “in Christ, as a plan for the fullness of time, to gather up all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth” (Eph 1.10). As Irenaeus taught against the Gnostics in the second century, the Creator and the Deliverer are the same. Therefore, as Barth points out, history is not to be understood from my standpoint. Instead, “my own standpoint, my existence, has been given to me by the One who in this history has already dealt with me . . .” (Barth, CD, III/1, 45). Since God has delivered me, as the people of the exodus knew, I now know God the creator (Ray S. Anderson, The Soul of Ministry: Forming Leaders for God’s People, 54-59; cf. 35-42 for “The Covenant of God Which Precedes Creation” and Moses as “the first theologian” of ex nihilo). As Barth confesses, “I always come from God the Creator when I am confronted by God the Deliverer” (Barth, CD, III/1, 45).

[. . .]

Creation out of nothing and faith are intertwined in the vicarious faith of Christ which exists in the midst of the “barrenness” of our faith, much like Sarah’s (Anderson, The Soul of Ministry, “The Grace of God Which Presupposes Barrenness,” 43-51). The divine will, and the divine will only, is the source of creation. “Not man and not a wisdom or folly, a power or impotence, immanent in the world of man, willed and accomplished in the creature, but God—the God who rejoiced in man as in His own image” (Barth, CD, III/1, 99). God is the one who rejoices; therefore we can rejoice. God rejoices in his “pure act of creativity” (Barth, CD, III/1, 100).

The ex nihilo of creation is the same as the ex nihilo of redemption: both are founded in the faith and obedience of the Son to the Father in the Spirit, a faith and obedience that needs no cooperation from us. Justification by faith rightly recognizes our inability, as demonstrated in our very creation ex nihilo. Faith is not based on anything that is perceptible but on “the conviction of things not seen” (Heb 11.1), which is where we find so much of our despair, in our perceptions of reality, which may or may not be accurate. Melancholy has been defined as “fear and sadness without cause,” but it is more appropriate to add, as Joshua Wolf Shenk does in his book on Lincoln’s melancholy, “without apparent cause, or disproportionate to apparent cause” (Lincoln’s Melancholy: How Depression Challenged a President and Fueled His Greatness, 212).

Our perceptions, as postmodern critics do not tire of reminding us, are notoriously unreliable, and at least biased. That is why we need the vicarious faith of Christ. We do not have accurate perceptions of God, his nature, or of ourselves, our pathologies. Our angst and alienation will not be healed by a correct worldview. That is why Paul exhorts his readers to set their minds on Christ, seated at the right hand of God in the heavenlies and seek those things that are above (Col 3.2ff.). What does Christian existence mean but to build it upon God alone, not on any “worldview” or comprehension of creation, for our lives are “hidden with Christ in God” (Col 3.3; Barth, CD, III/2, 156).


Dr. Christian D. Kettler is Professor of Theology and Philosophy at Friends University. Excerpted and adapted from his forthcoming Pickwick Publications book, For Us and In Our Place: The Vicarious Humanity of Christ in the Church, the World, and the Self.

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