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Kelsey’s Eccentric Existence

The newest issue of Modern Theology (Jan 2011) has an extensive symposium on David Kelsey’s long awaited theological anthropology Eccentric ExistenceI have only read the first two of five engagements which are then followed by a response from Kelsey, and I have not read the nearly 1500 page book (although I know a number of people here at ND read it in its entirety for the anthropology PhD seminar). The opening article on Kelsey’s methodology from John Thiel is incredibly clear and gives a very nice sense of the structure, purpose, and major arguments in the book. I won’t go through all of this; I simply want to highlight one point from Thiel’s summary: Kelsey structures his work on three ways in which God relates to what is not God and in particular human beings: creation, consummation, and reconciliation. This ordering is intentional. From Thiel’s summary: “Once God’s relating to reconcile an otherwise irretrievable human falleness is placed on theological center stage, then God’s relating to create and to bring humanity to eschatological consummation are relegated to the position of shadow beliefs that, at best, enhance God’s reconciling activity. The unbounded power of the Trinitarian God finds itself procrusteanized on the bed of human sin so desperately in need of grace” (6). Thus, Kelsey wants to give priority to creation and consummation in anthropology as the origin of our worthiness (8). 

All of this is background for trying to understand a passage in the second reflection from James Buckley:

God (more precisely, the Spirit sent by the Father in the Son) also draws the world and us to eschatological blessing. God’s consummating and creative activity are “concurrent” (p.450) and equiprimordial (pp. 449, 497, 608) – yet creating remains logically independent of and ontologically prior to God’s consummating activity. For example, ‘Wisdom’s theology of creation lacks teleology’ (p.191), giving the quotidian creation a relative significance independent of long-term purposes in consummating creation. The price of not granting creation this independence is not only that the quotidian along with the (non-teleological) natural sciences are de-valued but also that the God-given dignity of unconsummated creatures is not actual until the eschaton (p.904), with devastating consequences for how we treat human and other creatures in our daily lives (19 – italics mine).

I obviously cannot comment on whether or not Kelsey is being fairly represented here. Regardless I am left wondering what this passage means. Looking at the three parts I emphasized: 1) what does it mean for creation to be “logically independent” and “ontologically prior” to God’s consummating activity? Maybe the use of “activity” at the end is helpful. The act of creation comes first and the act of consummation later (and  maybe also the idea that God creating something does not in and of itself demand that this creation should be brought to perfection). Nevertheless, I am caught up by “logically independent”; if God creates with a purpose (which I assume is consummation) can the two really be described in this way? 2) The worry about the devaluation of “the quotidian” and the natural sciences reminds me a great deal of the modern Catholic notion of “pure nature,” something that I assume Kelsey would not want to affirm. 3) I think the final italicized portion makes a conceptual mistake with the notion of “dignity.” There is a difference between our dignity as creatures (created by and destined for consummation in God) and being given the respect owed to one on account of this dignity (cf. Kathryn Tanner) . If our dignity depends in part upon consummation – what God intends for us – how does this downplay the way we are to be treated now? Maybe I am just missing something here.

UPDATE: for those interested in a more detailed analysis of Eccentric Existence, I just saw via pingpack that there is a online reading group that just started over at Resident Theology.

  1. January 19, 2011 at 10:36 am

    Re. #1, the ‘logical independence’ of creation was, I thought, one of most interesting points in that whole book. The thing is, Kelsey would not say that “God creates with a purpose”—or at least, the whole purpose is the creation, the simple existence, of the world as it is. He makes a big deal about keeping the three strands (creation, consummation, reconciliation) relatively autonomous from one another; the meaning and pattern of each stands on its own. To say that God creates with a purpose, and that purpose is consummation, is for Kelsey just to gloss blithely over the inner significance of the activity of creation itself.

    I suppose that bears some resemblance to the pure nature concept, but Kelsey’s point isn’t to separate ‘nature’ from ‘grace,’ but to respect the integrity of three distinct divine actions attested to in the Scriptures. All of them, I imagined, would count as ‘grace.’ It would definitely be possible, though, to critique Kelsey’s division along a similar line—that even if logically conceivable, the division is purely abstract and distorts more than it reveals. In our seminar, plenty of people felt that way. I actually thought the division was worthwhile.

    • Todd Walatka
      January 19, 2011 at 11:12 am

      From one perspective, it makes total sense to look at creation in and of itself. As creatures we express awe and thanksgiving for the mere fact of existence. This is not dependent upon reconciliation or consummation (and it is starting from our perspective as creatures that we eventually get the notion of pure nature). But from the divine side (from which I understand Kelsey to be starting) it does not make a great deal of sense to me. I guess it does emphasize to a greater extent the value of creation simply as willed and created by God – so maybe it is some meaning on it own. Nevertheless, to argue for logical indepedence seems to create an odd view of God. What does it mean that God creates independent of purpose? That God creates the universe and then at some point decides to do something with it? It makes sense that creation and consummation are logically independent of reconciliation (but not vice versa) since reconciliation involves overcoming human sin. I just don’t see the same working with creation and consummation.

  2. January 19, 2011 at 6:25 pm

    This was the issue I kept returning to in considering Kelsey, actually. I have a great deal of respect for this book, but I remain troubled by this separation. Kelsey’s strong distinction between creation and consummation is tied to his reliance on Wisdom literature for the basis of his discussion of creation. Part of the issue, I think, Todd, is that the “we” Kelsey is concerned about denying dignity to is really far more expansive than humankind — so he uses Job and Qoheleth to critique a view of the dignity of creation that depends upon its consummation, which will necessarily be focused primarily on the human. So, the view of creation here is FAR more speeches-of-God-from-the-whirlwind than it is “First Principle and Foundation.”

  3. Todd Walatka
    January 19, 2011 at 7:19 pm

    This is helpful. I wonder if the anthropocentric focus on consummation is in part due to it usually flowing from reconciliation (which is usually focused exclusively on human beings). If one moves from creation as a whole to the purpose of creation (consummation) I don’t see why this would necessarily downplay the rest of creation.

  4. Todd Walatka
    January 21, 2011 at 7:14 am


    The essay from David Ford affirms a key you mentioned to me the other day as well: “The main thing to be said about this three-plot account of the Bible is that, whatever its problems, it is an hypothesis that is remarkably fruitful to think with…this triple pattern is now deeply imprinted on my thinking and will, I am sure, be regularly recalled while doing theology in the future. At the very least it has heuristic value in assessing how far justice has been done to the distinct concerns of the doctrines of creation, eschatology, and reconciliation” (44 – my emphasis).

    The more I read about this book the more I think I might actually have to read the book!

  5. January 21, 2011 at 4:12 pm

    Thanks for the link, sir. I was glad to be alerted to the MT symposium, so thanks also for the heads up.

    • Todd Walatka
      January 21, 2011 at 4:17 pm

      Your welcome! I’m looking forward to following the reading group.

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