Creaturely Dignity

Objects of Divine Love

When some hear the presentation of the doctrines of God and creation discussed in previous articles wherein we said God is perfect and without need of creatures, some may think that creation is being stripped of its honor or drained of its dignity. From what has been said, some might see creatures as nothing: lacking worth and intrinsic value. Thoughts that might flow from this may say that God is indifferent to the world or lacks in love for it.

Robert Sokolowski saw this as a potential critique: “it might seem to drain the world of its goodness and perfection. It might seem that the being of the world is said not to add anything to God’s perfection because the world is understood to have no value in itself.”[1] Would not creatures have real dignity if they actually were needed? Although such a view’s thoughts are understandable, these realities of God’s perfection and non-necessity of creatures do not give rise for angst, but rather happiness, for it is precisely because God is perfect and has no need that creatures have worth.

Creation: Divine Benevolence and Creaturely Benefit

The notion that God does not need creatures does not negate creaturely honor and worth, but is the very ground of it. Only when this is understood, the existence of creatures can be seen to be giftfor creatures.[2] In Webster’s words, “it is precisely because God’s relation to creatures is not ‘real’ that his love is of infinite scope and benevolence.”[3] How might this be? Sokolowski begins to clarify: 

The reason the world does not add perfection to God does not lie in any poverty of the world; the reason that God’s goodness, perfection and independence are understood to be so intense that nothing could be added to them. God is so understood that it would be meaningless to say that creation added to his goodness, that he created out of any sort of need. It is because of the greatness of God, not because of any worthlessness of the world, that creation does not better the perfection of God.”[4]

From this, one can see that there is no “indifference” in God here, but rather, there “is really the condition for a greater generosity and benevolence in creation.”[5] How can this be? Sokolowski adds, “If God is not perfected by creating, then he does not created out of any sort of need, and his creating is all the more free and generous.”[6] God has no need, and therefore creation is not a work of “self-interest.”[7] God is so great and boundless in his life that he “does not have his being in competition, reserving being and life to himself. Beyond threat, God is also beyond envy, no other possible reality having the capacity to enhance or diminish his perfection.”[8] Because God is a se, “he can give life to the world, he can be infinitely generous without self-depletion.”[9] God does not create for a means to a greater self-advancement. We are not a means to his perfection. God is not obligated to give us life that he might be. He gives freely. Therefore, creation is rather a work completely of generosity: “he makes things for their own sake, not for his.”[10] Creation is thus a work of divine benevolence for the creature’s benefit. And so, far from being unloving, Webster says,

Creation is a work of wholly adequate love. Part of this love’s adequacy is its voluntary character: it is fully spontaneous and self-original, nothing more than God’s will being required for creatures to come to be. But creative divine volition is not caprice but purpose, direction of entire capacity to another’s good; and it is purposive love, most of all because this other does not antecede the gift of its own being but receives the gift of life from God. Love gives life, and love gives life.[11]

By including the divine will in this, as Webster does, we enter into the great mystery of why God created, which also aids the notion that creatures have proper dignity.

Before creation, only God existed in eternity, and God’s eternal “counsel” or thoughts or ideas, which are identical to him.[12] In this, he willed to create. Why God has acted thus “we are incapable of knowing,”[13] however, we can see dimly into this mystery. God has created because he “willed it.” Bavinck goes on to say, “all that exists is ultimately grounded in God’s good pleasure . . . Beyond that we cannot go.”[14] Hence, we can say that God not only willed it, but that it pleased him to do so (Ps 115:3; 135:6; Dan 4:35; Eph 1:5, 9–10).

Creatures have worth because their existence is not a means to an end of divine self-fulfillment, but is lgift. They exist as benefit from benevolence. They are objects of divine generosity, love, and good pleasure. They exist simply because God was pleased to give them life other than his own. They are objects of divine freedom, not divine necessity. Once again, “because [God] is in himself entirely realized and possesses perfect bliss, he has nothing to gain from creating. Precisely in the absence of divine self-interest, the creature gains everything; because of(not in spite of) the non-reciprocal character of the relation of creator and creature, the creature has integrity.”[15] And this “has its foundation in the fact that God creates out of benevolence: not from need . . . Infinitely established in his own worth, God establishes the worth of the works of his hands.”[16] As objects of outward love without measure, restriction, or obligation, creatures have worth and dignity.

[1]Sokolowski, “Creation and Christian Understanding,” 181.

[2]Webster, “Omnia . . . pertractantur in sacra doctrina sub ratione Dei,” in God Without Measure, I:6.

[3]Webster, “Non ex aequo,” I:125.

[4]Sokolowski, “Creation and Christian Understanding,” 181.

[5]Ibid., 184.

[6]Ibid., 184.

[7]Ibid., 184.

[8]Webster, “Creation out of Nothing,” 138.

[9]Ibid., 138.

[10]Webster, “Non ex aequo,” I:126.

[11]Webster, “‘Love is also a lover of life,’” I:110.

[12]See Webster, “Creation out of Nothing,” 139; cf. Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, II:373, III:212–216.

[13]Webster, “Trinity and Creation,” I:92.

[14]Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, II:373.

[15]Webster, “‘Love is also a lover of life,’” I:110–111.

[16]Webster, “The Dignity of Creatures,” II:35.