God is either transcendent or immanent. We cannot have our theological cake and eat it too. Or so we are inclined to think. And since it seems obvious that God is God and we are not, we mostly opt for the former, ignoring the latter.
God either rested on the seventh day (Gen. 2:2), or he never stopped working (John 5:17). We cannot have our exegetical cake and eat it too. Or so we are inclined to think. And since the Genesis paradigm seems to offer the dominant biblical motif, we mostly opt for it, ignoring John’s Gospel.
The two paradoxes are linked, as is the way we treat them.
Let’s begin with the exegetical paradox: God rests yet works. It’s not a paradox we can dismiss lightly. After all, Jesus himself is the one making the claim: “My Father is working until now, and I am working” (John 5:17). The truth of the second part of his statement was obvious to the bystanders: Jesus had just healed a paralytic of 38 years, by the pool of Bethesda. More puzzling was his claim that the Father, too, kept working. It was the Sabbath day, and one only needs to go back to Genesis (God “rested on the seventh day from all his work that he had done”) to unmask the buffoonery of Jesus’s statement.
Most of us refuse to countenance the idea that John 5:17 might contradict Genesis 2:2. Devotion to Jesus as well as to Scripture prevents us from undertaking such radical surgery. And so, we are left to assume a paradox, an apparent contradiction. For us moderns, this is a most uncomfortable predicament. Our dissecting ratio approves only of literal, straightforward, propositional statements of truth and is at a loss how to deal with the muddle resulting from linguistic complexities such as a paradox.
Augustine did not suffer from this modern handicap. He reveled in paradoxes, and so it is hardly surprising to see him discuss the apparent contradiction between Genesis 2:2 and John 5:17 on at least four occasions and offer four possible understandings of the statement that God “rested” on the seventh day. Of these options he rejected only one, namely, the Manichaean notion that God must have been tired of the six days of hard work.
I will limit myself to the most intriguing possibility offered by the African bishop. Two things are helpful to know by way of background. First, Augustine was convinced that Genesis mentions six days not because it took God time to create—everything created in these six days, God made all at once (“simultaneously”)—but simply because God created the world by way of a perfect order (six being a perfect number). Augustine, therefore, was unlikely to read God “resting” as meaning that he took a 24-hour break.
Second, Augustine believed that the six creation days do not describe the material world as we know it but refer to the creation of intellectual, seed-like forms or principles (rationes seminales). They serve in a mediating fashion: They are patterned on uncreated ideas or forms eternally existing in the Word (“in the Beginning”), while in turn they functioned as animating forces that propelled the visible, material universe into existence. In other words, Augustine suggested that the intellectual principles that God made on the creation days (detailed in Genesis 1) unfolded into the material world of the senses (which we read about in Genesis 2).
Augustine uses the creation of seminal forms on the first six days to explain the paradox of God resting-yet-working: God, so Augustine suggests, rested from bringing seed-like forms into existence (thus explaining Gen. 2:2). He continues to work, however, in providentially guiding the unfolding of these seminal principles within the sensible world (thereby making sense of John 5:17).
I am not sure what to make of Augustine’s complex trio of eternal ideas, created seminal principles, and material creation. He feels strongly about the framework, rhetorically trying to overpower any possible literalist reader of Genesis 1 who might be tempted to disagree. Whatever we may make of his exegesis, it makes more sense to me than a fundamentalism that ends up with a god who takes a break after a productive week. (I also think that the way Saint Augustine solves the paradox of God resting-yet-working is ingenious and thought-provoking.)
Mostly, I like Augustine’s resolution because it underscores, at one and the same time, divine transcendence and divine immanence. In fact, for Augustine, God is transcendent precisely in his immanence.
What I mean is this: Modern understandings of creation are Manichaean in propensity. Whether fundamentalist (literal) or liberal (mythological), modern readers typically agree: The word day must be a 24-hour period; the created contents must be the material world. Such an approach guarantees transcendence (of a sort): God as a being who makes other beings, completely separate from himself. The result is transcendence at the cost of immanence.
Augustine’s trio of forms, seminal principles, and material creation safeguards both God’s transcendence and his immanence. Remove forms and seed-like principles, and a twofold problem emerges: God has no prior knowledge of the creation he was about to make (loss of transcendence), and he is excluded from the world that he has made (loss of immanence). Augustine’s reading of the Genesis narrative may be complex. But it does what a Christian theology of creation should do, namely, provide support for the belief that God is transcendent precisely in his ability to make himself present in and through the things that he makes. The creator God truly makes himself at home within created things.
More often than not, it really is possible to have our cake and eat it too.
Hans Boersma is the Saint Benedict Servants of Christ Professor in Ascetical Theology at Nashotah House.