|Glory All Around|
Celts and Creational Theology
The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims His handiwork. Day to day they pour forth speech . . . (Psalm 19:1,2).
We are currently in the midst of the latest renaissance of interest in Celtic Christianity. These periodic revivals have come around with regularity since the halcyon days of Patrick, Columba, Columbanus, Cuthbert, Maelruib, and Eriugena came to a close somewhere around the ninth or 10th century.
Both the Roman Catholic Church and various strains of Protestantism have, from time to time, tried to connect their roots to this dynamic, expansive, enduring period of Church history. And with good reason: The period of Celtic Christianity, which lasted some 400 years between the fifth and the ninth centuries, is one of the most fascinating and fruitful of epochs, and one which continues to appeal to Christians in all kinds of communions for a variety of reasons.
One of the very alluring aspects of the Celtic Christian experience is their acute sensitivity to the revelation of God in creation. Theologians from every era have acknowledged, to a greater or lesser extent, the teaching of the Bible that God makes Himself known through the things He has made. Most don’t go much beyond that, however.
Celtic Christians, on the other hand, not only emphasized the revelation of God in creation, but they celebrated it in poetry and the arts and incorporated what theologians refer to as “general revelation” into their devotional practices. You get the impression, reading the works of Celtic Christians, that if God is making Himself known through the things He has made, then we need to be studying those things carefully, in order to discover His glory, encounter His presence, and learn what we can. Let’s look at some examples from the Celtic Christian period of this commitment to what I’ll call creational theology.
For the next 12 years he labored at preaching, evangelizing, training missionaries, chastising irresponsible priests, and founding monasteries in France, Switzerland, and Italy. Columbanus left behind a string of disciples and provoked a flood of missionaries who followed him from Ireland to the continent, and whose work extended his own even further. Columbanus’ biographer, the monk Jonas, often remarked his intimacy with created things. He seems to have loved forests and animals and felt a close kinship with God in the company of all kinds of creatures.
In one of his extant sermons, Columbanus exhorted his monks to press on in seeking to know the Lord, beginning by discovering His glory and encountering Him in the creation 'round about. God, Columbanus declared, “is everywhere present and invisible . . . He fills heaven and earth and every creature . . . Therefore God is everywhere, utterly vast, and everywhere nigh at hand, according to His own witness of Himself.”
Many priests and theologians sought to know God mainly by prying into mysteries they could not understand and promulgating teachings that were more the constructs of their pet philosophical projects than their experience with the living God. But Columbanus believed that to know God one needed to experience Him in all His multi-faceted beauty, wonder, and might.
If his monks wanted to know the depths of God, they first had to meet Him in the shallows of the creation: “Seek no farther concerning God; for those who wish to know the great deep must first review the natural world . . . If then a man wishes to know the deepest ocean of divine understanding, let him first, if he is able, scan the visible sea, and the less he finds himself to understand of those creatures which lurk beneath the waves, the more let him realize that he can know less of the depths of its Creator . . .”
Columbanus did not mean to suggest that we could not know God by looking at the sea and its creatures; he merely wanted to say that taking a creational theology approach to God will keep us from thinking that we know more about Him than we do, since it will be obvious that we can’t really know that much about the creation itself.
Nevertheless, Columbanus insisted, “Understand the creation, if you wish to know the Creator; if you will not know the former either, be silent concerning the Creator, but believe in the Creator.” And let those who seek God in the creation pray continuously as they study, “that He would bestow some ray of His light upon our darkness, which may shine on us in our dullness and ignorance on the dark roadway of the world, and that He would lead us to Himself.”
CELTIC CHRISTIAN COSMOLOGIES
The Liber de Ordine Creaturarum is one of the earliest theological cosmologies of the ancient world. While not exhaustive, it provides a concise explanation of the origins and nature of things, so as to enable men to know where they fit in the divine economy, and to understand how they must comport themselves on earth in relation to the Triune God.
The purpose of this little exercise is not to provide a detailed account of every living thing or all the stuff of the cosmos. Instead, just enough information is provided to accomplish the Celtic cosmologist’s task, which is to magnify the greatness of “one everlasting God, who is wholly everywhere without limitation of place, disposing all movements without movement of His ow; who sees the past, present, and future ages of His creatures equally, for whom nothing is past, nothing remains to come, but all things are present.”
Later, he interrupts his brief exposition on the tides to write, “But in this and many matters nothing else is granted to our knowledge except to proclaim the power and greatness of the Creator who has disposed everything in number, weight, and measure, and in the mean time to say with the illustrious teacher of the nations: we know in part and we prophesy in part; but when what is perfect comes, then I will know just as I am known” (1 Corinthians 13:9,12b)
The writer known as “Augustine Hibernicus,” the Irish Augustine, took up a similar task at about the same time. His On the Miracles of Holy Scripture is an effort to explain the nature of miracles by insisting they are not magic, like much pagan Celtic lore embraced, but manifestations of God’s sovereign working upon, in, and through things He had already made. God, by an “unaccustomed governance of things,” through sheer sovereign will and might, changed the natural way of things into something else, and all according to His own purposes.
Hibernicus explains many of the miracles of the Scriptures in a way that exalts the power of God to do with His creation what He will. For the creation, he insists, was brought into being in the first place, so that God “might reveal through created things all the vast goodness and power and benevolence which beforehand He possessed within Himself alone.” Creation exists to make God known. If we understand the creation, we will understand God, and how we are to relate to Him.
In a more popular vein, an anonymous 10th-century Irish poet celebrated the goodness and mercy of God as revealed in His many gifts of creation: lovely woods, ample food, the singing of birds and breezes, the peaceable environs of the countryside. Writing to a friend at royal court, he insisted, “Though you delight in your own enjoyments, greater than all wealth, for my part I am grateful for what is given me from my dear Christ.” This lovely song celebrating the glory of God in creation is one of many that extol the grace, wisdom, might, and wonder of God in everything from birds and berries to storms and seasons.
His massive Periphyseon (On the Division of Nature) is an attempt to categorize all created reality according to a strict philosophical and theological scheme. In it he can be seen to have been an early advocate of what today is referred to as “intelligent design.”
Eriugena explained that the order, complexity, and beauty of the cosmos argue the case for an intelligent designer, and, further, that that designer must be nothing other than divine and triune. Nothing exists by itself; everything that is has its being, as well as its purpose and explanation, from God, the Creator. God the Word, Eriugena explained, “in an ineffable way runs through all things that are, in order that they may be.”
In his series of devotional writings on John 1:1-14, he fairly echoed the words of Columbanus: “. . . the eternal light reveals itself in a twofold manner through Scripture and through creation . . . Observe the forms and beauties of sensible things, and comprehend the Word of God in them. If you do so, the truth will reveal to you in all such things only He who made them, outside of whom you have nothing to contemplate, for He Himself is all things.”
The Scriptures explain that the glory of God is woven—even hidden (Proverbs 25:2)—in the things of creation. This is real revelation, and the careful study of created things can yield valuable insights into the nature and will of God. Such studies must be undertaken in the greater light of Scripture, and the focusing light of Christ. When they are, they help to enlarge our experience of God and His grace, and to draw out from us deeper devotion and more fervent obedience.
The powerful witness of the Celtic Christian period—in piety, evangelism and missions, community life, and cultural expression—bears testimony to the potential of an active creational theology for bringing greater urgency, fullness, and power to our walk with the Lord and our mission in the world.
Would you like to receive a free pamphlet introducing the subject of creational theology? Write to T. M. at firstname.lastname@example.org, and put in the subject line, “creational theology.”
T. M. Moore is dean of the Centurions Program of the Wilberforce Forum and principal of The Fellowship of Ailbe, a spiritual fellowship in the Celtic Christian tradition. He is the author or editor of 20 books, and has contributed chapters to four others. His essays, reviews, articles, papers, and poetry have appeared in dozens of national and international journals, and on a wide range of websites. His most recent books are Culture Matters (Brazos) and The Hidden Life, a handbook of poems, songs, and spiritual exercises (Waxed Tablet). Sign up at his website to receive his daily email devotional Crosfigell, reflections on Scripture and the Celtic Christian tradition. T. M. and his wife and editor, Susie, make their home in Concord, Tenn.