This week’s lectionary blog is produced with gratitude to the Archdeaconry of Gibraltar, who, by inviting me to lead Bible studies for them a year ago, led me down some interesting and important pathways in exploring the biblical understanding of the relationship between human beings and creation. The comments draw on this coming Sunday’s lectionary readings, Proverbs 8.22-31; Colossians 1.15-20; John 1.1-14.
Clare Amos, Director of Lay Discipleship,
Almost exactly a year ago I was speaking to the Archdeaconry Synod of the Archdeaconry of Gibraltar, which took place in Alicante. Yes, there really was a time, in what seems these days like a parallel universe, when meetings happened in person! There was a very good feel to the Synod; I particularly remember the efficient yet friendly way it was organised by Archdeacon David Waller and Joan Berry, and enjoying the unmerciful fashion I was teased by the quiz master, Paul Strudwick, one evening, when my team tied joint bottom in the Synod ‘quiz’ (which is an established tradition of such events).
I had been invited to come and lead the Bible studies for the Synod. Because the particular topic being explored at the meeting was ecology and the environment I was asked to take this into account when choosing the texts for the two Bible studies I was being asked to offer. It was slightly daunting, as the keynote speaker at the Synod was Dave Bookless of A Rocha, with wide credentials in this particular area, and of course I was offering my studies in his presence. In the end all was well, Dave was very gracious and I think our contributions complemented each other.
I am (particularly in retrospect) very grateful for the invitation to offer those studies on that topic. Like many others who enjoy teaching, I often discover that the work involved in pulling things together to present them (reasonably) coherently, leads to new discoveries and new learning for myself. So it was in this case.
Before the preparation I needed to do for those Bible studies a year ago I, like many other people, had partially fallen into the trap that is identified by John Gatta in his excellent book The Transfiguration of Christ and Creation :
‘To a surprising degree, exegetical discussion of Christianity’s relationship to environmental ethics and practice has been confined within a narrow band of Old Testament texts. In fact the scriptural site of this debate rarely extends beyond the creation stories and ‘dominion over the earth’ language clustered in those first two chapters of Genesis. Even fewer New Testament passages have attracted serious reflection on the topic.’
To be fair to myself, I could say that I hadn’t completely fallen into Gatta’s trap. I have long been fascinated by the celebration of the wildness of creation in the Book of Job, especially chapters 38-42, and have read Job’s insights as offering a sharp challenge to the view, based on Genesis 1.26-28, that human beings have been given unfettered ‘dominion’ over the earth.
But what I certainly had not done previously is to look at any depth into New Testament perspectives on the subject. The Old Testament is of course important to us as Christians, as part of a heritage we share with Jewish people. We can certainly draw from it perspectives, rooted in the theology of creation, that are significant as part of our exploration as Christians of creation and the environment. But what does the New Testament, in which the specificities of the story of Christ, after whom our faith is named, have to say about the human role in creation and the environment? Until I found myself having to dig deep to prepare for the Gibraltar Synod last year, like many other people, my primary New Testament reference point for the subject was the verse in Romans 8 which speaks of ‘the whole creation … groaning in labour pains until now’ (Romans 8.22). That is indeed important – but I think it needs also to be set in a wider context. I will begin to explore that context in a moment…
But first a diversion. Although there is a degree of serendipity in that I am writing this in the same week as this year’s Gibraltar Archdeaconry Synod, which is of course happening ‘virtually’ this year, I was not aware of this date link when I first decided to explore this topic now. What led me here is in fact the Common Worship lectionary readings for this coming Sunday: Proverbs 8.1,22-31;
Psalm 104.26-37; Colossians 1.15-20; John 1.1-14. These are the readings for the Second Sunday before Lent, and each lectionary year, A, B and C there is a clear focus in the readings on creation.[i] It is interesting to note that this year, Year B, in which there is frequently a focus on the Gospel of Mark, the Gospel passage selected for this coming Sunday is actually John 1.1-14. I can see why that is the case, and as it happens it is helpful for the comments I want to offer, but it is worth noting that just as John’s first word ‘beginning’ clearly echoes Genesis 1.1, so also, in fact, does the first word of the Gospel of Mark, which is also ‘beginning’. In parenthesis, much though I personally cherish John 1.1-14, I suspect the appearance of these verses three times in the lectionary in quick succession (Christmas Day; the Second Sunday of Christmas and now the Second Sunday before Lent) provides a bit of a challenge to preachers. In which case I hope the thoughts I share below are useful!
So back to creation. I want to begin with the description of human beings as created in the ‘image’ of God, as suggested in Genesis 1.26. It is because we have been created with the divine ‘image’ that we have also been granted dominion over creation. So what does it mean for us as humanity to be in the ‘image’ of God? A bit of a clue may be offered by the Greek version of Genesis 1, which translates the word ‘image’ as ‘icon’ (eikon). If you know something about ‘icons’ you will have heard that they can be described as offering a visible and physical ‘window’ into the invisible and immaterial divine world. That therefore is what we human beings are called to be: ‘windows’ to enable God to be ‘seen’ on earth. Do we live up to this vocation? It is certain a challenging one!
Although the actual word ‘image’ does not appear in John 1.1-14, it is widely accepted that when these verses speak of the Word becoming flesh and our seeing ‘his glory’, this description is rooted in the understanding of ‘image’ derived from Genesis 1. Glory is ‘the visible presence of God’, and so in the person of Jesus Christ, humanity has at last come into its birthright – to be a ‘window’ making God visibly present in the created world. (Hebrews 1.3 which speaks of Jesus Christ as the ‘reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being’ makes the connection between the ideas still clearer.)
Of course Genesis’ language of ‘image’ is clearly picked up on Colossians 1.15-20, this week’s Epistle. It begins with this concept. ‘He [Christ] is the image of the invisible God’ (Colossians 1.15). But Colossians then continues by suggesting, not simply that Christ has dominion over creation (that is implied though not explicitly stated), but that creation has come into being through him.
It is fascinating to explore how the writer of this Epistle arrived at this conclusion – not least because it is a brilliant example of traditional Jewish exegesis which has found its way into the New Testament. It also draws in this week’s Old Testament reading, Proverbs 8.22-31. In this text Wisdom is speaking and reflects, ‘The Lord created me at/as the beginning of his work’ (Proverbs 8.22). The word beginning used here (in Hebrew reshith) is the same as the first noun of the Bible in Genesis 1.1 ‘In the beginning… One popular method of traditional exegesis was to take a word that was repeated in different parts of Scripture and ‘read’ both examples alongside each other, using each to interpret the other. The double instance of reshith, in both Genesis 1.1 and Proverbs 8.22 offered plenty of scope. The exegesis was further developed by drawing in both the different possible meanings of a word, and its root linguistic relationships. Here Genesis 1.1 offers a field day! For the phrase, with which of course the entire corpus of Holy Scripture begins, is BReshith, which we usually translate as ‘in (the)beginning’.
But… as well as meaning ‘in’ the Hebrew preposition B can mean ‘by means of’ or ‘with’. So… using this traditional methodology, it would be legitimate to understand Genesis 1.1 as suggesting, ‘By means of reshith God created the heavens and the earth’. And since we are told in Proverbs 8.22 that Wisdom states, ‘The Lord created me as the reshith of his works’, it becomes possible to understand that as, ‘By means of Wisdom God created the heavens and the earth’. Then given that at least as early as the writing of I Corinthians 1.24 Jesus Christ is explicitly described as ‘the wisdom of God’ – we arrive at this powerful proclamation of the Epistle to the Colossians, namely that, ‘By means of Christ God created the heavens and the earth.’
Additionally, as I mentioned above, this method of exegesis sought to exploit the range of meanings linked to the Hebrew root of key words. Reshith, ‘beginning’ derives ultimately from the Hebrew word Rosh, which means ‘head’. (You can work out the link for yourselves!). And those amazing verses of Colossians 1.15-20 then also exploit every possible interpretation of the word Rosh ‘head’:
15, He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; 16for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers—all things have been created through him and for him. 17He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together. 18He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that he might come to have first place in everything. 19For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, 20and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.
All the italicised words in the above quotation from Colossians can be linked in some way to the Hebrew word Rosh. And the bold words can be linked in some way to the Hebrew preposition B.
The purpose in pointing all this out is not primarily that it is a brilliant example of biblical literary gymnastics, but that the connections create a profound relationship between our own humanity and that of Jesus Christ. In a deep sense the understanding of what it is to be human derives from of Jesus, and our humanity is incorporated in his. He offers the grounding bass of what it means for human beings to be created in the ‘image’ of God, and invites (or requires?) us to be caught up in his intimate relationship with the whole of creation.
This in turn raises two fundamental questions, What does or should a Christ-like creation look like? And how do we human beings relate to it?
If we read Colossians 1.15-20 alongside the beloved Song of Christ’s Glory of Philippians 2.5-8 we are offered a profound answer to those questions. We don’t get the word ‘image’ in Philippians but we do get the very similar word ‘form’ used to describe Christ both in his relationship to God and humanity. The passage also seems to allude to the creation stories of Genesis, in particular Genesis 3.22… in which God speaks of humanity’s desire to become ‘like’, ‘equal to’ God. Christ however did not take the path followed by the first Adam… instead he chose the path of self-emptying, (kenosis)obedience and death on a cross. So we can put Colossians and Philippians together to suggest that once we begin to think of Christ as representing the ideal understanding of humanity as created in the image of God it must affect also how we understand humanity’s dominion over creation. It is a ‘dominion’ that is shaped by the cross!
I was, and am, grateful to a very thoughtful article by Román Guridi SJ: Imago Dei as Kenosis: Re-imagining Humanity in an Ecological Era 151482074.pdf (core.ac.uk) which helped me to draw these ideas together. ‘… kenosis must come to the fore in theological reflection on humanity before the current ecological crisis. It is a meaningful, sound, and timely interpretation of the imago Dei… It is Jesus’ own kenosis that reveals the true face of divine power – power in love – which decidedly aims at the wellbeing and fulfillment of creation. This twofold movement of self-limitation and self-giving love can certainly inspire the desirable renovation in theological anthropology.’
So yes, that long-standing tradition of starting Christian reflection on human responsibility for creation by looking the ‘image of God’ language of Genesis 1.26 is legitimate, indeed profoundly so, but only if one takes account also of the way that the New Testament reshapes the language of ‘image’ and ‘dominion’.
There is more that could be said, particularly drawing in the insights offered by Eastern Orthodox Christians, that link human care for creation to the biblical story of the transfiguration of Jesus Christ. Fortuitously, however, the Gospel lectionary reading for the coming Sunday after this one, February 14, is Mark’s account of the transfiguration, Mark 9.2-9, so I can reasonably conclude at this point by saying ‘To be continued…’
[i] It is perhaps worth noting, to avoid any confusion, that this is one of the weeks when the Church of England’s Common Worship lectionary diverges from the wider Revised Common Lectionary, which keeps next Sunday as ‘the Sunday between the 4th and the 10th February’ and offers a very different set of readings. But I suspect most readers of this blog will be following the Common Worship lectionary!
You made humanity for yourself
With hearts that are restless till they rest in you.
Male and female,
You made us as your glory,
To reflect and fulfil your longings for our world.
In the life of Jesus Christ,
You offered us a vision of yourself,
A pattern of your generous and profligate love.
Entice us by your Spirit,
The kiss of God renewing all creation,
So that we become more fully human,
More truly what you would have us be,
And discover our beginning, continuing and ending in you. Amen.