Priests of Creation – A Reflection for Earth Day

Man has been called to be a kind of midwife to creation, in assisting nature out of its divinely given abundance constant only to give birth to new forms of life and richer patterns of order. – T.F. Torrance, The Goodness and Dignity of Man

On this day, Earth Day 2019, I want to suggest–by drawing on the work of T.F. Torrance– that humanity’s task is to act as the “priests of creation.” By this I mean that humans serve a mediating role between God and creation. Humans fulfill this mediating role by 1)discerning order within creation, 2)instituting order where order has not fully developed, and 3) rectifying disorder in creation all 4) for the purpose of glorifying God.

Discerning Order

Creation is both contingent and orderly. As a contingent thing, creation simultaneously points towards God and away from God. It displays dependence upon some transcendent source while at the same time displaying a level of freedom. The fact that creation is contingent points to the fact that God created as free act of love and grace. As an orderly being, creation contains a particular sense of rationality which is gifted to it by the Logos. When the natural sciences explore creation, they are faced with the contingent and ordered nature of creation, as Torrance says, scientific theories “are formulated only under the dictates of the rational order found immanent in the universe.”  How is the rational order discovered? When humans open themselves up the universe, “allowing their minds to tune into” the order that is present there. When they do this the universe “divulges the secrets of its vast range of intelligibility.”

When the order of the universe is discerned it becomes increasingly clear that there is a transcendent source of this contingent entity, not only that, but once the order is associated with the Word. The one who studies creation comes to understand that God not only upholds and sustains created reality but that God has arranged creation in such a way as to “serve his supreme purpose of love in the communion of the creation with the creator.” Thus the task of discerning the order of God’s creation allows the inquirers to gain clarity about God’s purpose of communing with his creation. This is the end of creation, communion with God, discerning the order latent in creation allows humans to perceive God’s creative ends.

In addition to providing a window into God’s creative ends, discerning the order of creation allows humans to perform the other tasks of being priests, namely instituting order and re-ordering disordered creation. It is only when God’s intended order is discerned that humans can begin to envision God’s desired order for creation, the proper ways to bring about more order, and how to re-order a disorder creation. A simple example of this three-fold manifestation of discerning order concerns issues of global climate change. In order to re-order the disordered climate, humans must discern God’s desired order for creation and the best ways to establish that proper order.

Instituting Order

Biblical scholars are almost unanimous in believing that the notion of the “image of God” in Genesis 1 and 2 is tied to a particular function. This function is best described as that of being “vice-regents” or “stewards” of creation. As stewards of creation, humans have been created for the purpose of developing and cultivating creation in such a way that it can serve as the dwelling place—i.e. cosmic temple—for God’s presence. Torrance himself says, “man has been called to be a kind of midwife to creation, in assisting nature out of its divinely given abundance constant only to give birth to new forms of life and richer patterns of order.” When humans institute these forms of order, “the marvelous rationality, symmetry, harmony, and beauty of God’s creation are being brought to light and given expression in such a way that the whole universe is found to be a glorious hymn to the Creator.”

For Torrance the task of instituting order in creation is not only grounded in the functional image of God. It is also grounded in his understanding of the way the universe is ordered. Torrance believes that the universe has various levels of order and that the lower levels of order derive meaning from higher levels of order. Human beings stand at the top level of this order. Thus, it is through human beings that “the universe knows and unfolds itself in developing rational order and expression.”

Humans institute order in various ways, including, for example, developing culture. Much has been written about this idea from Reformed (i.e. Kuyperian) perspective about the cultural mandate. Additionally, Eric Flett has provided a through argument for a Torrancian understanding of cultural development. Humans also institute order by helping nature flourish according to its God given order. Two issues that ought to be considered in this priestly task include: 1) The specific ways that humans can help nature flourish and 2) How the task of instituting order (especially by technological means) can quickly turn into creating more disorder in creation.

Rectifying Disorder

Despite the fact that God has made creation to be ordered, it currently suffers from disorder. As the ones who are tasked to bring order to creation, human beings have the special task of instituting order where disorder has taken a hold of creation. As Torrance explains, it is humanity’s task “to save the natural order through remedial and integrative activity, bringing back order where there is disorder and peace where there is disharmony.” Torrance provides two examples of how humans can re-order disorder. First, humans can help develop ways to prevent and cure disease and suffering, not only among human beings but among animals as well. Second, humans can work to reverse the “ecological chaos” brought about by humanity’s exploitation of the natural order.

For the Glory of God

These three “order” related tasks enable creation to sing “a glorious hymn to the Creator. As humans discover the complex intelligibility of creation, they discern the Christological basis of creation. As they discern its contingence, they come to understand that God brought it about because of his grace and love. When creation is developed by human beings, it points to the one who inculcated within it the very possibility of being ordered in complex ways. When disordered creation is rectified, it participates, proleptically, in the reordering which is grounded in the saving work of Christ.

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