Report from the Symposium on Creation and the Reformation

We are grateful for Euan Grant for authoring this report on the recent Creation and the Legacy of the Reformation Symposium held in St Andrews.


The doctrine of creation provides not only a glimpse into the ways of God with the world but also a vital lens through which the broader and sometimes more diffuse theological questions raised by our contemporary situation can be brought into focus. That was, to my mind, the central affirmation of last week’s public forum (available to view online here: http://vimeo.com/275212632) and symposium on the doctrine of creation and the legacy of the Reformation. With the particular panel of eminences assembled, Professors Christoph Schwöbel, Simon Oliver, Katherine Sonderegger, Paul Nimmo, and Oliver O’Donovan, could it have claimed any less?

Interestingly for an event probing the significance of the Reformation, the focus remained more cosmological than theological: more at issue were the results of the Reformation as theological, cultural, and historical moment than the doctrine of the Reformers themselves, though the significance of Luther’s thought for Professor Schwöbel shone through at a number of points. Disenchantment appeared early as a theme in the opening questions of the public session, and meta-narratives of one sort or another were in constant attendance thereafter.

In connection with the various narratives – and attitudes to narratives – offered in the symposium, the question of the location of ‘meaning’ within creation, and of how we understand ourselves to be addressed by it, appeared as a central point canvassed, in one way or another, by each of the papers in the private session. What, for example, is the relationship of meaning to teleological thinking – and its eclipse in the scientific culture of the seventeenth century? How is it to be related to the divine economy in creation? Both a broader and a more Barthian, Christocentric trinitarianism were offered as models, while the spirit of John Webster informed the question of whether and how creation might appropriately be treated as a cardinal doctrine, in the full etymological sense of the term. Perhaps this was the most strictly doctrinal or dogmatic theme of the discussions – where, within the ordering of theological material, is what one might call, from another tradition, the relative integrity of creation to be located? How does all of this, finally, fit into the historicist paradigm not only of the modern natural sciences but of Christian doctrine itself?

As ever, different themes will appear with greater clarity or fascination to each of us. That my interests run towards the metaphysical and eschatological implication of claims of meaning and teleology in the created world I can hardly deny. On this Professor Schwöbel’s Luther-inspired stress on ‘inherent meaning’ set up a fascinating contrast with Professor Oliver’s more Aristotelian-Thomist focus on teleology. The intervention of Professor O’Donovan’s warning against an over-reliance on the category of ‘nature’ (especially in the Aristotelian sense) in Christian reflection further pressed the looming question of what sort of relationship it is to God’s creative action which guarantees the presence and discernible nature of meaning, purpose, and significance within creation. Cosmology leads back to theology, and as the majority of the scholars involved are either pressing towards, in the midst of, or coming down from large-scale constructive projects, the symposium provided a fresh impetus and context for turning to and attempting to understand their larger works.

Thanks are due to Professors Schwöbel, Oliver, Sonderegger, Nimmo, and O’Donovan for a highly stimulating discussion, and also to Dr Tim Baylor for bringing together such an impressive panel on so central a theological theme. The papers will be forthcoming, Deo volente, in a forthcoming issue of the International Journal of Systematic Theology. We look forward to its release with considerable anticipation.

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