Creation Untamed by Fretheim

Terence Fretheim Creation Untamed: The Bible, God, and Natural Disasters (Baker, 2010), 160 pp.

The five chapters were lectures given for churches.

Though Fretheim has long affirmed open theism this is the first time I’ve noticed him use some of the vocabulary typical in the literature such as the “future is open,” the “future is partly settled and partly unsettled” (154), and “God knows all there is to know, including all possibilities, but there is a future that is not yet available for knowing, even for God” (58).

Next, he is one of the giants of Old Testament scholarship who provides rich details from biblical texts. He has amazing insights on Genesis 1-2 and the book of Job. Those familiar with his book, God and the World in the Old Testament, will find those ideas repeated here.

His focus is on natural disasters. He explicitly says he is not providing a complete explanation of natural disasters and repeatedly says we “cannot get God off the hook.” He rejects the polarities of (1) total explanation of natural evil such that there are no problems and (2) total mystery (100). By this, he does not mean that views cannot be devised that exculpate God from any responsibility for natural disasters. What he means is that one cannot do so from the biblical texts—his focus. He says that biblical texts can help us rule out some views (e.g. that God specifically ordains each and every natural disaster because of human sin). Yet, he says we cannot “explain it away” and so we are still left with questions. “The Bible does give its readers some room to speak between silence and ‘explanation,’ though it does not propose a single place to stand” (100).

Chapter one focusses on Genesis 1-2. His basic framework is that God created natural forces and gave them tremendous creative abilities to produce. For instance, volcanoes and atmospheric processes are vital for life but they can be harmful to other creatures as well. The world, he says, was “created good, not perfect.” God grants incredible freedom to creatures (not just humans). Again, his attention to the details of Genesis 1-2 are illuminating. God is “self-limiting” and makes promises to the creatures to uphold the freedom God gave them, even though these can produce events that are both good and bad for other creatures. The biblical texts affirm that God could control natural forces but that “God limits the divine power and opens up space for chance and freedom” (26).

Chapter two examines the flood story to see what the text says God does and does not do. “Some of these convictions that I detail make us all a little uncomfortable theologically, or perhaps very uncomfortable” (47). The flood story involves a natural disaster which brings about divine “judgment” (not divine “punishment”) on human sin. Yet, the biblical text does not say God is the direct agent of the flood because floods are part of the natural working of creation (55). God takes risks with creatures and becomes grieved and angry as a “parent” in response to some of what they do. God promises never to allow the world to be destroyed so “God must find a new way to deal with the problem of sin and evil, including the problem of natural evil. That is the way of suffering and death” (63).

Chapter three is on the book of Job and the key role natural disasters play in the book. He says that God speaks to Job out of the whirlwind which Fretheim prefers to translate “storm” (a natural force). God’s reply to Job involves the points Fretheim discussed about Genesis 1-2. Not all suffering is due to sin—it just happens because God created a world that has natural phenomena that can be beneficial and harmful to us. That is the price we pay for living in this kind of world (89) “[I]t is not entirely clear why God created this kind of world” (86). God provides some answers to Job but not all the answers we would like. The “why” questions are legitimate to explore and God asks Job to trust God in the face of such unanswered questions (88).

Chapter four is on the way God suffers because of, with, and for creatures. He discusses a number of favorite biblical texts used by proponents of meticulous providence and argues that these texts do not support the idea that God “micromanages” creation. The bulk of the chapter explores the “why” questions and says it is helpful to inquire even though we cannot resolve all of them. Believers should not hide from them and can even argue with God—this, he says, can result in healthier relationships with God.

The final chapter is on the practice of prayer. Following Heschel, he says “the issue of prayer is God.” “Prayer is a means in and through which God gets things done in the world….God accomplishes less if we don’t pray” (129). He discusses several biblical texts of prayers to see what they say about God. What I did not find clear is exactly what Fretheim believes God might do in response to our prayers (e.g. might God miraculously heal someone?). He is clear that God is not following a script or formula “as if our prayers trigger in God some already-programmed responses.” (144). “What we do and say makes a difference in the shape that the future will take. Indeed, they make a difference in the future of God” (italics his, 154).

Fretheim’s position is very similar to Polkinghorne’s free process creation (whom he quotes favorably several times). Though he does not cite Hasker, it resonates with his natural order explanation of natural disasters (The Triumph of God over Evil). Again, Fretheim does not believe the biblical texts get God off the hook completely but they do rule out some explanations. For those interested in what the Old Testament says about natural disasters this is a very useful book.

John Sanders

John E. Sanders is an American theologian who is a professor of religious studies at Hendrix College. He has published on four main topics: (1) open theism, (2) Christian views on the salvation of non-Christians, (3) Christian views on the nature of hell, and (4) applying cognitive linguistics to theology.

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