Creation Untamed: The Bible, God, and Natural Disasters

  • Terence E. Fretheim
  • May 16, 2011
  • Series: Volume 14 - 2011
Book Cover-Creation Untamed

Terence E. Fretheim, Creation Untamed: The Bible, God, and Natural Disasters. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2010. xvi + 160 pp. Paperback, $19.99. ISBN 978-0-8010-3893-8.

This work, which is part of the Theological Explorations for the Church Catholic series, represents material given in two lecture series—one at Nazarene Theological Seminary in October 2008 (chapters 1, 4, 5), another at Luther Seminary in January 2009 (chapters 2, 3). The chapters are a bit repetitive, which one would expect from a lecture series; at the same time, this feature makes the author’s points clearer. Fretheim is Elva B. Lovell Professor of Old Testament at Luther Seminary and one of the most creative theologians of the Hebrew Bible today.

Creation Untamed is dedicated “to those who ask why,” in particular those who have questions about the existence and character of God because of the pain and suffering caused by natural disasters. Why do terrible natural disasters—earthquakes, tsunamis, droughts, volcanic eruptions, and disease—occur, and do they come from the hand of God? What kind of God would let such things happen, or be directly involved in them? What kind of control does God have over creation? How does human sin fit into the discussion? These are a sample of the kinds of difficult—and extremely important—questions that people ask about the God of the Scripture and of the Christian faith. Indeed, these are issues that humans throughout history and around the globe have pondered. Fretheim explores these theological conundrums through careful readings of Old Testament texts.

In Chapter One (“God Created the World Good, Not Perfect”), the author makes the important observation that the creation account declares that everything was “good,” not perfect (this is God’s own evaluation; Gen. 1: 4, 10, 12, etc.). Everything had a function, and there was an order (both physical and moral) put in place, but, at the same time, creation was left unfinished and unsettled. The commands to “subdue” and “rule” (1:28-30) and “work” (2:15) the earth and to “multiply and fill” it (1:28) meant that not all was finished or perfect. The result was, on the one hand, that there is disorder and randomness within creaturely existence. In other words, this messiness, from the very beginning, allows for the potential for wildness and natural disasters. On the other hand, God has freely chosen to limit his actions with his creatures within that reality. The God of the Bible is a God of interdependent relationship with his creation. These two concepts—the openness of creation and the relational character of God—are foundational to the rest of the book. Fretheim will say repeatedly in this work that God has a strong measure of responsibility for what happens, even as he is constrained within his chosen boundaries.

The second chapter has the title “The God of the Flood Story and Natural Disasters.” The flood, of course, is the major natural disaster of the Old Testament, short of the events in the book of Revelation. In this chapter, Fretheim introduces a concept that he will continue to return to throughout the rest of Creation Untamed. His point is that the moral order embedded within creation is one of act-consequence. He appeals to several passages (such as Jer. 6:19; 17:10; Ezek. 22:31; Hos. 10:13) and to the lexical fact that some Hebrew terms can refer both to sin and its effects (e.g., ra‘ah). In his argument Fretheim returns to the relational commitments of God to creation and humanity, and accordingly he points to the grief and suffering of God in the process of judging (Gen. 6:5-6; cf. Ps. 78:40-41; Jer. 9:10). Its ultimate goal is not punitive, but cleansing and restorative. Fretheim also adds that this emotion of God suggests that God did not know beforehand that humanity would take this turn to sin; so, he responds to human actions and is willing to change his strategies, if need be. God works within “the looseness of the causal weave” and so “is at work in the system in some ways without violating or (temporarily) suspending it” (p. 53). God is a good God working within an imperfect creation; he is fully committed to his creation and creatures, and he chooses to work through the cause and effect character of that creation, through natural agents, to effect judgment in “an eternal divine self-limitation” of his power. This makes judgments in history imprecise and messy, but it is consistent with the way God has chosen.

Chapter three turns to the book of Job (“Natural Disasters, the Will of the Creator, and the Suffering of Job”). The author explains that this book helps reframe the conversation. The foundational issue behind the question ‘why do bad things happen to good people in natural disasters?’ is a proper theology of creation. This is touched on in the preceding chapters and is reinforced here in an exposition of God’s words to Job. God, in fact, does respond to Job’s complaints (although many commentators claim God does not) by forcing him to reflect on his place within creation: “Job’s suffering experience and the God speeches in Job 38-41 reveal that God has created a world that, in allowing the creatures to be what they were created to be, is filled with potential dangers and the real possibilities of suffering” (p. 72). And, “since natural disasters are a key cause of Job’s suffering, and since the friends’ point of view is negatively evaluated, the book suggest that natural disasters are, generally, not due to sin and its effects. Such suffering is due to being a part of a complex natural order that God has created” (pp. 73-74). Even faithful followers can be victims of this unpredictability, but in those chapters God also communicates his concern for his creatures in the wild and for Job. God (and the Bible) recognizes the value of hard conversations about the difficult realities of life, but we are to trust in God’s desire to heal and restore.

Chapter four (“Suffering and the God of the Old Testament”) begins by acknowledging that the theme of suffering is one of the themes that negatively affect the message and mission of the church today. Consistent with the preceding chapters, Fretheim calls for a nuanced approach: “the [biblical] texts do not claim all suffering to be the will of God or no suffering to be the will of God. Or that all suffering is due to sin, or that no suffering is due to sin. Or that all suffering is bad and to be avoided at all costs, or that no suffering is bad” (p. 98). The Bible invites its readers to explore the problem of suffering. Once again, Fretheim reinforces the relational commitments of God and his choice to work within the bounds of the created order and to use imperfect agents to accomplish his will. He offers a broad exposition, which includes many points, including: Sometimes suffering is for the good; other times it is random; judgments are neatly tied to the sin and can be messy, but the fact of the connection reveals that the existence of a moral order; and, finally, suffering can be the “effect of a vocational choice.” That is, believers can perceive God’s suffering—expressed most powerfully at the cross—as they suffer for and with others and for doing good.

In “God, Faith, and the Practice of Prayer,” chapter five, the author touches on a number of texts (Exod. 32:9-14; Deut 4:7; Prov. 15:8; Isa. 1:15; 59:1-2; 62:6-7; 65:1-2; Jer. 26:19; Rom. 8:26) to demonstrate that prayer truly matters to us and especially to God. The argument is pushed further than readers may have ever considered: without prayer God will not act. Prayer, Fretheim says, must be located theologically and practically within the kind of interrelationship that God has with the world. Therefore, God wants prayer and will respond to prayer (within the limits that he has explained throughout the book). Though we can trust in God’s desire for our best interests, his position leads to this statement regarding prayer and its expectations in times of trouble: “It is not a question as to whether God wills good in the situation, but whether, given God’s self-limited ways of responding to evil and its effects in the world, what can actually be done and how and when” (p. 147).

There is much to commend in Creation Untamed. Fretheim tackles a prickly issue and does not back down from engaging tough questions. His exposition, as one would expect from Fretheim’s other works, is textually grounded. This reviewer also learned new insights from this book. I mention three among several.

First, I now can begin to appreciate the important distinction that the creation was and is good, not perfect, thus allowing for its unexpected and wild manifestations within a broader physical and moral order. This truth has enormous consequences for theology, as Fretheim correctly recognizes. Second, there is much to explore in a full range of texts about the nature of the relationship of God to creation, to humanity, and to his people and the implications for natural disasters and the life of prayer. How can we best understand and appropriate the significance of God’s committed and caring engagement? Again, this point affects every point of the book’s argument. Third, Creation Untamed offers a new angle on the intrinsic connections between sin and judgment and the concomitant messiness of historical judgments. These judgments are not surgical procedures; they are communal and impact things more broadly. Because they are bound up with social structures, human actions, decisions, and attitudes at many levels, and the realities of an undomesticated natural world, they can be neither neat nor tidy.

At the same time, I have some doubts and disagreements. Some are minor, others more substantive. The primary area of concern is the presentation of the person of God. I find some of Fretheim’s points convincing and extremely illuminating, but I worry that the God of Creation Untamed is too restricted by the constraints that he believes that God has freely chosen to assume, whether in judging, blessing, or answering prayer. There are too many instances in both Testaments, where God and Jesus intervene directly and sovereignly in human affairs, yet the author does not grapple with these contradictions to his thesis and minimizes them in the passages he does interpret (especially the Flood narrative and the opening chapters of Job). He is correct that there are instances where the act-consequence paradigm is clear and others where divine action is later explained in such fashion. Nevertheless, it does not seem to this reviewer that this is not as all-encompassing an explanation as Fretheim would suggest. The minimization of the satan figure (pp.  72-73, 116) is connected to his more restricted view of things. Biblically, in this reviewer’s perspective, there appears to be a more robust and direct interaction of spiritual forces within human existence in history. In sum, I need to integrate some of Fretheim’s arguments into my own theological construct, even as I continue to probe other areas where I do not find them totally satisfying.

This is a thoughtful work by a mature and gifted Old Testament theologian. It is grounded in specific passages and confronts head-on the challenge of discovering what the Bible says about human suffering and, ultimately, about God himself. There is much here that is fresh, creative, and helpful. Some parts of the argument may not convince everyone, but, if it also can provoke further constructive reflection on the issue of human suffering, then it will have served a wonderful service for the church.

M. Daniel Carroll R., Ph.D.
Distinguished Professor of Old Testament
Denver Seminary
May 2011