Engaging the Doctrine of Creation

Cosmos, Creatures, and the Wise and Good Creator

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Matthew Levering
  • Ada, MI: 
    Baker Academic
    , July
     384 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


As the third in a series of related investigations published by Baker Academic, internationally renowned scholar Matthew Levering has followed up his two previous installments in his “Engaging the Doctrine” series with his latest offering, Engaging the Doctrine of Creation: Cosmos, Creatures, and the Wise and Good Creator. As Levering notes at the outset, the present book is “an exercise in faith seeking understanding,” and he sums up the issue as follows: “Given our modern worldview, is it not the more reasonable course to regard the authors of Genesis 1-3… as products of their ‘axial age’ worldview, a worldview which has little to say to educated people today?” (2). What follows in the book is a veritable tour de force of theological investigation, composed of seven distinct (yet related) chapters which examine the most pressing questions and objections surrounding the doctrine of creation.

As usual, Levering distinguishes himself from many of his contemporaries by engaging contemporary questions and issues within a Thomistic framework, though without falling into historicism. This is not a work of historical theology, asking what various figures from the past have said on certain topics in order to critique them or come up with some kind of synthetic judgment. This is, in fact, a very speculative work which treats the voices of Thomas Aquinas and his interlocutors as conversation partners in noble pursuit of the truth of things.

The first two chapters treat God primarily as God is in himself, discussing the topics of the divine ideas and divine simplicity, two doctrines that Levering argues have been challenged and yet are required for a proper understanding of creatures in relation to their source. As he states, “No theology of creation can succeed without distinguishing the wise and good creator from every kind of creaturely mode of being” (2). In the divine ideas, he argues that it is only God’s infinite intelligence that allows for the multiplicity of creatures, and far from limiting creatures because of their necessary foundation within the Godhead itself, this grounding of all creaturely presence in the divine allows them to participate in the superabundant life and freedom given as gift to creation (cf. 68-71). This dovetails with the doctrine of divine simplicity, for “if God were not simple, then God could not be infinite actuality, infinite power, and fecundity” (107). These starting chapters provide solid footing for the rest of Levering’s work to unspool when treating of creatures as they are in themselves and in their eventual return to God.

The next three chapters deal with questions concerning the cosmos as a whole in all its quantitative and qualitative glory, and the privileged place of the human person within this ordered whole, including the divine injunction concerning procreation. If Levering’s argument over these chapters could be distilled into a single phrase, it would be this: all creation constitutes a cosmic theophany. From the very first single-celled organisms, through the dinosaurs, and all the way up to human beings, from the smallest speck of dust to the largest galaxy, all creation is an instance of cosmic theophany. Far from being a universe filled merely with death and chaos and inanity, “each creature that has ever lived, and each nonliving thing, makes its theophanic contribution to the whole” (135).

The crown jewel of creation, and the most perfect instantiation of creation as theophany, is of course the human person created in the image and likeness of God. This particular chapter demonstrates well Levering’s deft ability to weave together scientific, biblical, and theological sources in a manner that is clear and compelling, and that ultimately pushes the conversation forward. Synthesizing the traditional emphasis (imago as memory/intellect/will) with the contemporary emphasis on relationality (humans are created to be in communion with one another), the author concludes: “Aquinas’ account of the image of God as being in the (embodied) soul and its powers also accords with Genesis’ depiction of the first humans as distinguished from the other animals solely by rationality and linguistic communication” (190). It is the traditional account of the imago Dei which actually makes possible the contemporary development that emphasizes human community and relation. Finally, in what is in my opinion the weakest link in the book, Levering addresses the topic of procreation in the fifth chapter. Approaching the topic mainly from a practical and sociological perspective (as opposed to a speculative one), the chapter simply feels out of place.

Having dealt thus far primarily with the inherent goodness of creation, the final two chapters deal specifically with questions concerning disorder and sin which have damaged the created order. Bringing the book to a close, Levering finishes strongly with his discussion of original sin (chapter 6) and atonement (chapter 7). In parsing the issues involved in the transmission and effects of original sin, the author offers compelling responses to even the thorniest issues (e.g., monogenism versus polygenism). Regardless of the ways in which this topic develops in the future, I think that Levering’s conclusion will remain valid: that the opening chapters of Genesis should be read theologically, affirming that “God ensured that his rational creatures possessed full freedom, a freedom which the first humans then subsequently used to rebel against God, with consequences (disharmony, exile, alienation, death) for the entire human race that extend right down to the present” (268). Finally, the author addresses the relationship between the doctrines of creation and atonement, two seemingly disparate topics. Concisely, it is only the fact that the God who redeems the world is simultaneously the God who creates the world that makes any sense out of any notion of atonement: “The incarnate Son’s free act of satisfaction is the Triune God’s free gift to the entire human race, healing and elevating humans (by the grace of the Holy Spirit) into a just relationship with God, self, neighbor, and world” (275).

In conclusion, Engaging the Doctrine of Creation is not only a must-read for those interested in the topic of creation, but proves to be a masterful work of systematic and speculative theology as well. It should find a place on every scholar’s shelf.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Joshua Madden is an independent scholar of biblical theology.

Date of Review: 
December 4, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Matthew Levering is the James N. and Mary D. Perry Jr. chair of theology at Mundelein Seminary, University of Saint Mary of the Lake, in Mundelein, Illinois. He previously taught at the University of Dayton. Levering is the author of numerous books, including Engaging the Doctrine of Revelation, Engaging the Doctrine of the Holy Spirit, Proofs of God, The Theology of Augustine, and Ezra & Nehemiah in the Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible series. He serves as coeditor of the journals Nova et Vetera and the International Journal of Systematic Theology and has served as chair of the board of the Academy of Catholic Theology since 2007.


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