One of the pressing challenges of climate change and ecological destruction is how to speak of a God of life in the midst of ever-accelerating devastation of the very life that Christians affirm as good. In other words, how is the economy of God worked out in the midst of catastrophic breakdown in relationships where injustices become ever clearer and sharper and the voice of other creatures fall silent in their witness? Are theologians rendered speechless in the face of such tragedy? The number of practical examples where there is a distortion in human relationships to the life in which we are grounded is legion. Take, for example, the case of the tar sands in Canada, where the extraction of gas and oil for the sake of consumptive energy needs has devastated habitats of other species and furthered the production of particularly noxious greenhouse gases in its wake.

The Athabascan oil sands of northern Alberta hold one of the largest unconventional fossil fuel reserves on the planet, containing what US climatologist James Hansen describes as “twice the amount of carbon dioxide emitted by global oil use in our entire history.”2 Tar sands pose a pressing ethical challenge for Christians not only because of climate change but also because of destruction of vast tracts of boreal forest and pollution of rivers that are home to First Nations peoples. An ecumenical delegation of Canadian church leaders visiting the oil sands in 2009 called for better government regulation of tar sands extraction and greater attention to indigenous communities' rights.3 The ecumenical organization KAIROS has called for a complete moratorium on any further expansion of oil sands exploitation.4

Government incentives and subsidies have encouraged rapid expansion of the mining of bitumen, the viscous black tar extracted either by steam (in situ mining) or open pit mining. Yet even with new technologies, production of oil from tar sands requires at least 15%–20% more energy per barrel than conventional oil production, as well as large quantities of water.5 Two proposed pipeline projects to export bitumen to international markets – the Keystone XL Pipeline south to the US or the Northern Gateway Pipeline west for export to Asia – would increase production exponentially. Given the abundant size of the tar sands reserve (at least 170 billion barrels) climatologist James Hansen warns that building the Keystone XL pipeline would mean “game over for the planet.”6

Oil sands industry supporters seek to brand tar sands oil as “ethical oil,” in contrast to “conflict oil” from countries with oppressive regimes. The campaign underscore's the industry's respect for the rights of women, workers, indigenous peoples, and other minorities. But studies by several Canadian institutes suggest the overall effect of Canadian tar sands on society has been to increase poverty and income inequality in Alberta, rather than to increase social wellbeing.7 The prospect of unconventional oil, like other environmental challenges, poses questions regarding how we understand abundance theologically, biblically and ethically.

Abundant Life in John's Gospel

  1. Top of page
  2. Abundant Life in John's Gospel
  3. The Feast of the Sabbath
  4. Traces of the Trinity
  5. The Tree of Life
  6. Conclusions
  7. Biographies

If we are to explore more fully what life means theologically, a good place to begin is the gospel of John, where the term “abundant life” is used to describe the promise that Christ brings to believers. But in an ecological context, this phrase is also relevant to the hoped for flourishing of the natural world as such.

“I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly,” Jesus declares in the shepherd discourse of John 10. The theme of “life” resounds throughout the entirety of the fourth gospel, beginning in the prologue with the hymnic declaration, “In him was life, and the life was the light of all” (John 1:4). The whole purpose of the gospel is summed up in John 20 as “that you may have life in his name” (John 20:31). How God's economy of life is construed puts Jesus in frequent conflict with religious and political authorities, and with the powers of death. In John 10 Jesus' description of his mission to give life abundantly follows immediately after a major conflict between Jesus and the Pharisees over Sabbath healing of the man born blind (John 9). Invoking the biblical “I am,” Jesus calls himself the door of the sheep and the shepherd. He gives life abundantly by laying down his life.

The word “abundantly” (perisson) in John 10:10 links Jesus' shepherd discourse to the rich biblical trajectory of God's abundance, beginning with the Exodus story and manna in the wilderness. In John's gospel the theme of abundance connects this text to the story of the feeding of the five thousand in John 6. In that story the disciples gathered up the fragments that were “left over” or “abounding” (perisseusanta, John 6:12), filling more than 12 baskets with the barley fragments that “abounded” (eperisseusan, John 6:13). The word perisson can also be translated as “exceedingly” or “overflowing.” Jesus transformed a situation of scarcity into one of abundance, giving hungry people an overflowing eschatonlogical banquet symbolized by the loaves and green pastures. Like the fragments that overflowed the baskets, life abundant means life beyond our imagination. It is eternal life in community with others, in Jesus' shepherding love.

Abundant life in John is closely connected to “eternal life” (zoē aionion), a frequent term in this gospel. English translations do not fully convey the sense of this Greek term. The term literally means “life for the ages” or “life that can last.” What is most striking in this gospel is the sense of eternal life as a relationship experienced already in the present.

Eternal life is to know God (John 17:3). Eternal life does not mean primarily life after death, nor life in heaven. It is rather a deeper life, abundant life experienced in relationship with God and with one another in this world. It is a “quality of life … that cannot be annihilated by death.”8 Scholars have puzzled over what the realized eschatology of John's gospel reflects about this community. For purposes of ecological sustainability, what is important is John's re-definition of eternal life and abundant life to focus on a vision of long-term life in community with God, with one another, and with all creation.

Abundant life implies a way of looking at life that is life on its way to eternal life, so presents a hopeful perspective that can spur our action and energize our commitment in the midst of the practical realities that face us.

In order to fill this idea out theologically, we suggest three possible icons that can give different but complimentary insights. The first icon is that of the Sabbath, which has been used to good effect by the theologian Jürgen Moltmann. The second icon is that of the vestiges of the Trinity in the work of Thomas Aquinas, building on the Franciscan theologian and mystic Bonaventure. The final third icon is of the tree of life, developed as a mystical reflection on the significance of Christ by Bonaventure. We will suggest that all three icons help to articulate what it means to speak of a God of abundant life and offer complimentary perspectives that are a way of reading creation through an eschatological lens. The movement of all three icons is a movement from darkness to light and expresses the hoped for transfiguration that is most characteristic of an Eastern Orthodox approach to creation.9

The Feast of the Sabbath

  1. Top of page
  2. Abundant Life in John's Gospel
  3. The Feast of the Sabbath
  4. Traces of the Trinity
  5. The Tree of Life
  6. Conclusions
  7. Biographies

The Sabbath motif is an appropriate first word in any reflection on what it means to see life theologically, since it is a reminder to let go of our own presuppositions and let creation be. In our frenetic activities and activism sometimes it is hard to forget the art of contemplation, of allowing the natural world to speak to us in the depths of our hearts, and so transform us into self-conscious participants in a living community. Jürgen Moltmann used this idea to good effect in developing his ecological doctrine of creation. In the first place, he points out that God did not just rest from God's works, but rests in the face of those works.10 It is, in other words, an appreciation of what those works are in themselves, a co-existence between God and works so that “a finite, temporal world co-exists with the infinite, eternal God.”11 The created order is in a sense vulnerable before and with God, but the mode of God's approach is one of enabling, rather than intimidation. So, “In his present rest all created beings come to themselves and unfold their own proper quality. In his rest they all acquire their essential liberty.”12 But Moltmann goes further than simply suggesting that creaturely beings come to their fullness and most abundant form of life in God in the Sabbath. Rather, he suggests, echoing process elements in his thought, that “he allows the beings he has created, each in its own way, to act on him … God begins to experience the beings he has created … he ‘feels’ the world, he allows himself to be affected, to be touched by each of his creatures.”13

The creaturely world is therefore not simply “outside” God in some way, but creation becomes incorporated into God, so that “He adopts the community of creation as his own milieu.”14 But lest we think that he has verged rather too close to pantheism, he qualifies this by suggesting that the close intimacy suggested here does not do away with tensions or even opposition between created things and the Creator, or between created things. The direction of movement, though, is still one that is expressed in strong language: it “thrusts” towards identity between God and creatures. Such a movement is held in tension with the manifestation of the works themselves that Moltmann insists is still one that expresses the Creator's transcendence over creation.

If the works express transcendence, then the Sabbath expresses God's immanence, so the eternal presence is joined to temporal creation. Moltmann goes further and expresses this philosophically, so that while the works of creation are a manifestation of God's will, the Sabbath is a manifestation of God's being. But Moltmann is not content just to leave the topic here; rather, he moves to express Sabbath as consummation in the glory of God, the future hope of the whole creation:

But the sabbath, in its peace and its silence, manifests the eternal God at once esoterically and directly as the God who rests in his glory. Creation can be seen as God's revelation of his works; but it is only the sabbath that is the revelation of God's self … That is why the sabbath of creation is already the beginning of the kingdom of glory – the hope and the future of all created being.15

But the abundance of that life is not simply infused by God; rather, the fertility of creation arises from within, and this activity receives God's blessing. But a further significance of the Sabbath is that it is a time that is blessed by God, hence inaugurating holy time into the rhythm of the week.16 But what is remarkable is that Moltmann also suggests that the resting place sought by creatures is not “heaven,” or even “God,” but rather a specific time of God's Sabbath, so “In the resting, and hence, direct unmediated presence of God all created beings find their dwelling.”17 He seems, then, to be modifying the Augustinian idea that our hearts are restless until they rest in God by suggesting that our rest is in the Sabbath that is created by God, but it is in this Sabbath that we find an unmediated presence of God, and so the Sabbath “preserves created things from obliteration and fills their restless existence with the happiness of the presence of the eternal God.”18 In blessing time the Sabbath blessing is available to all creatures, not just those who are intellectually predisposed towards attaining union with God.

There is, then, a theme of liberation in Moltmann's interpretation of the Sabbath that is both hopeful but at the same time grounded in creaturely being and becoming. He also presses for its archetypal meaning as an internal liberation, rather than the external liberation of the Exodus. But there is something hidden here as well, in that the Sabbath “conceals an unheard of promise for the future” and in that it opens up the dream of completion that is to come.19 What he does not explore is the possibility of a double movement between internal and external liberation. If the internal liberation provides an important and hopeful vision of a promised future, how might this impact on actual conditions of injustice, ecological destruction, and so on? Further, has the Sabbath motif, while being constructively connected with the land and so in that sense grounded in ancient practices of cultivation and rest, not become too detached from the historical basis of its emergence in Moltmann's speculative rendition of the Sabbath as a resting place where we find the unmediated presence of God?

Traces of the Trinity

  1. Top of page
  2. Abundant Life in John's Gospel
  3. The Feast of the Sabbath
  4. Traces of the Trinity
  5. The Tree of Life
  6. Conclusions
  7. Biographies

A second icon that bears on the theme of abundant life in relation to God is that of the Trinity. Speculation on the significance of the Trinity goes back to the struggles of Church fathers in their attempts to make sense of the significance of Christ. But it is the relationship between God and creation that is of interest in the present context, and in order to fill this out further the work of Thomas Aquinas comes to our aid. Aquinas argues that creation is the work of the Trinity and creative power is “common to them all.” However, the different persons of the Trinity are involved in different ways, so that the creative power of the Son is derived from the Father, and that of the Spirit from them both. He holds to the primacy of God the Father, but the involvements of the other two persons in the work of creation: so, “to be the Creator is attributed to the Father as to one not having the power from another. Of the Son we profess that through him all things were made … Then of the Holy Ghost, who possesses a power from both, we profess that he guides and quickens all things created by the Father through the Son.”20 He also acknowledges that it is “wisdom, through which an intelligent cause operates” and therefore is specially related to the Son, while goodness comes particularly from the Holy Spirit, who guides things to their proper end or purpose.

Given that the creative act of God involves all three persons of the Trinity, it is logical that a trace of the Trinity is also found in creaturely beings. Hence, Aquinas, drawing on Augustine, elaborates, “In all creatures, however, we find a likeness of the Trinity by way of trace in that there is something in all of them that has to be taken back to the divine Persons as its cause. For each created thing subsists in its own existence, has a form which makes it the kind of thing that it is, and bears on something other than itself.”21 The fact of it being created speaks of the Father, its form speaks of the Logos, but in as much as it “goes out from itself,” it speaks of the work of the Holy Spirit as love. Creation is therefore not so much an exercise of divine power,22 where power is thought of as an imposition of God on matter, but rather an expression of simple dependence, so “God's sovereign purpose is what the world is becoming.”23

There is a hint here, then, of the theology of Irenaeus, where salvation is inextricable from a theology of creation, and who spoke of the two hands of God, the Son and the Spirit understood as the Word and as Wisdom. But in this context Colin Gunton is quite incorrect to oppose Irenaean and Thomistic theology as sharply as he does when he states that Platonic forms are dominant in Aquinas's doctrine of creation and that “Aquinas' trinitarianism is not strong enough to extricate him from the danger of a slide into pantheism.”24 Aquinas' Commentary on the Sentences shows up another facet of his trinitarian theology that strongly disputes such a view.25 Here Aquinas teases out carefully the relationships between inner relations in God and that in creatures. In God relation has the “being of the divine nature.” But, as Gilles Emery has suggested, “Thomas does not only treat the divine relations in their efficient causality, but also as exemplar causes. The divine relations, and thus the distinctions which flow from these relations, are the cause of the procession and the diversification of creatures.”26 There can be little doubt, then, of the strong role of the Trinity in the creative process. Furthermore, the first distinction between the persons of the Trinity is the cause of the distinctions that are found in creation. The plurality of persons in the Trinity provides a fundamental basis on which the abundant variety of life issues forth, including the plurality of genus and species amongst creatures and the multiplicity of individuals within species that was apparent even in the medieval era. What is significant, also, is that Aquinas linked this variety and multiplicity with the variety and multiplicity within history, both finding their ultimate source in the Trinity.

Creation and grace in Aquinas' Commentary on the Sentences therefore works through a double movement of coming out of God (exitus) and going back to God (reditus), so that God is the fulfilment of all life. He certainly distinguishes spiritual beings from other creatures, but whereas all creatures share in the life of God in terms of goodness, in spiritual creatures there is participation in the very happiness of God.27 It is therefore wrong to interpret Aquinas as either excluding material beings from the life of God in a dualistic neo-Platonism or, its opposite, failing to distinguish adequately between God and creation in neo-pantheism.28 But the idea of creatures in some sense bearing an imprint of the Trinity comes out particularly clearly in the following passage:

[A]ll creatures receive from their Creator an imprint inclining them to seek the good, each after its own modality; and thus a certain “circulation” is found in things; now, issuing from the good, they incline to the good. This circulation is perfected in some creatures, whilst remaining imperfect in some others. For there are creatures which are not ordained to touch upon the first good from which they proceed, but only obtain to some sort of likeness to him; these do not have a perfect “circulation” – this only belongs to rational creatures, who can attain God through knowledge and love – and in this attainment their beatitude consists.29

In this way he is able to argue that all of the creation participates in divine goodness, but union with God is achieved through knowing and loving God – a spiritual activity reserved for humanity but one that is also given by a divine gift, namely, the gift of grace.

We find here echoes of the trinitarian interpretation of creation in the thought of John Duns Scotus. The difference between Scotus and the angelic doctor are well known, for Scotus argued, against Aquinas, that the incarnation would have happened even if Adam had not fallen. The idea here is that an event as significant as the incarnation should not be dependent on human fault. But his interpretation of creation in trinitarian terms bears some resemblance to that expressed in Thomas as discussed above, so that the love that flows from the inner life of the Trinity is expressed in both the act of creation and its goal, which is a sharing in that inner life.30 For Scotus, Christ's incarnation is a “good” very close to the goal for creation, since that goal is participation in the divine life. In this way creation is linked with the inner life of God in a way that echoes the Sabbath motif, but now it is done through a more explicit trinitarian and Christological metaphor.31 Albert the Great also envisaged an analogy between what the Son receives from the Father and the creature from the Creator, so while the generation of the Word becomes reflected in the production of creatures, the giving of the Holy Spirit is the reason for God's gift of love to those creatures.32 So divine bounty, and we might add abundance, finds expression between the trinitarian and creative communication. It is out of the overflowing bounty of God that creation issues forth.

Bonaventure interpreted this overflowing in terms of the fundamental goodness and primacy of the Father, which designates an ultimate perfection.33 Such fecundity in God inevitably produces a person. In this way, while the Son issues from an exemplar principle, the Spirit's appearance takes place by gift, by liberality. At the heart of the Trinity we find, then, an abundance in God that issues in the generation of the Son that forms the foundational basis for the creaturely world. Hans Urs von Balthasar interprets Bonaventure thus: “At the origin lies an experience of overpowering by the fullness of reality, like a sea that emanates gloriously from the depths of God, eternally flowing and not to be restrained.”34 He believes that this ethos is very different from that of Aquinas, whose philosophical views reflect the order of the world as rigorously and clearly as possible. In Bonaventure we find “something defeated at the very start” a tireless proposing of new ordering.35 Yet, while the rationality of Thomas' views is certainly the most obvious and receives the greatest attention from his commentators, his view of the Trinity in places comes close to that of Bonaventure, and, as we develop below, speaks of a similar kind of excess in a way that Balthasar does not fully appreciate. But Balthasar is perceptive in his reflection on Bonaventure that “the last word remains the experience of being out-trumped, of wonder, and of being transported out of oneself (excessus).”36 Such ecstasy is not so much a flight from the world, but an opening of the world for God, or revelation that the world has already been grasped by God.37

While it is easy to see in archetypal views lines of Christian Platonism, where the Trinity is the archetype of the creaturely world, it is the Son that is properly speaking the exemplar. Every act of giving relates back to this the first gift, that of the Holy Spirit, issuing in a principle of gratuitousness flowing from the heart of the Godhead. There are, however, important distinctions compared with Platonic views. In neo-Platonic thought, created reality comes from a primal cataclysm, which in Christian versions is replaced with the idea of the goodness of finite reality. The end or destiny of creation is also modified, so that instead of coming to an end, creation is led back to God.38 Thomas builds on these ideas and also uses the language of wisdom to express this relation between the divine and the creaturely, for it is in the nativity of the Son that the Father engenders wisdom for all eternity. Humanity also has a crucial role to play in the consummation of creation, so that “having restored the condition of mankind, in a certain manner he restored all that which had been made for mankind.”39 Although the thought here is the ancient one of humanity as microcosm, the gathering up of all creatures into God is implied. This represents, therefore, a double, double movement, so that in the first double movement the unity of essence in the exitus of trinitiarian persons issues in the diversity of essence in the exitus of creatures. In the second double movement, reditus, the temporal procession of trinitarian persons, provides the reason for the return of creatures, the mission of persons bringing creatures back to their source in God. The procession of the Son and that of the Spirit provide the principle for creation and the reason for God's loving and willing respectively. The first perfect processions in the Trinity provide the reason for the processes in creation.40 There is not so much a “natural” return to God, but a return of rational creatures capable of receiving the “seal” of divine persons and being united with the Trinity by grace, and glory. In this way, the Father is the principle to which humanity returns, the Son is the form we follow, and the Holy Spirit is the “grace” by which humanity is reconciled.

Thomas goes further than his predecessors Bonaventure and Albert in that his understanding of procession is deeper than simply the manifestation of the trinity by way of diffusion. His understanding of distinction and relation in God is much more sophisticated. So that he envisages the first distinction between persons as the divine relation in the divine hypostases as the least substantial being possible. However, even while this is in some sense the least, it is also the greatest in its dignity and causality. This divine distinction also causes both the distinction between God and creatures and is the source of distinctions between creatures and their multiplication.41 In the context of this contribution, we can say that from this divine distinction the superabundance of creation flows. It is also relevant here to note that in Aquinas' Commentary on John we find a much richer version of the work of the Holy Spirit compared with that expressed in the Summa Theologiae. He is prepared, therefore, to include the idea of the Holy Spirit filling the earth as well as the specific work of the Holy Spirit working to illuminate hearts and saving humanity from slavery and sin. We might add that his understanding of the Spirit is one that expresses a superabundance of life in that Spirit. The Commentary on John is also important in so far as it starts with the action of God in history in order to show truths about the eternal Trinity, rather than the other way round, as in the Summa.42

Bonaventure develops a similar trajectory except that he contemplates God in the natural world and uses this as a starting point for his reflection on the eternal Trinity. But that cosmic revelation can only be seen once the mind has been purified. Hence,

In Bonaventure's view, the original cosmic revelation has been rendered dark and opaque through the reality of sin. The book of cosmic revelation has become illegible, like an unknown language. One of the primal functions of historical revelation of biblical history is to enable humanity to read the primal revelation of creation in an appropriate way. The book of nature is not nullified but is made legible again by historical revelation.43

Much the same could be said about human perception of the natural world in a contemporary context, except that it is the long dark shadow of anthropogenic sin that clouds our appreciation of the divine luminosity of the natural world.44 But in order to understand more fully the historical revelation in its embrace of suffering and in its relation to creation perhaps we need to reflect more deeply on that central Christian image, namely that of Jesus Christ.

The Tree of Life

  1. Top of page
  2. Abundant Life in John's Gospel
  3. The Feast of the Sabbath
  4. Traces of the Trinity
  5. The Tree of Life
  6. Conclusions
  7. Biographies

Bonaventure's reflections on Christ and creation are perhaps amongst the most profound and creative in the history of Christian thought. While his systematic treatment of the topic lacks the precision of Aquinas, his work still bears a structure that contains his more poetic theological treatise. In face of the vast injustices that we encounter in climate change, affirming a God of abundant life makes more sense if it is interpreted through a poetic, mystical mode. Even that superlative thinker, Thomas Aquinas, recognized that at the deepest level the mystery of God can never be fully fathomed by the human mind. Biographers who recognize that Aquinas also had a mystical side to his spirituality are almost certainly correct. Hence, the famous experience he had before he died rendered him completely silent, and he ceased to write, claiming that all that he had written up to that point seemed like straw.45 Discussion of abundant life theologically arguably needs to take such a form, where it exceeds the capacity for logical or philosophical categorization. But there may still be a structure to theological reflection, as in Bonaventure.46 He views, therefore, the threefold work of the economy of God's word as (i) increatum, the eternal word at the centre of the mystery of God; (ii) incarnation, the word in the centre of creation, both metaphysically and historically; and finally (iii) inspiratum, where the word resides at the centre of spiritual life by the power of the divine Spirit, through whom the word becomes the verbum inspiratum in the human heart.47

Bonaventure's hymns to God in The Soul's Journey to God and his Tree of Life, as compared with his predecessor St Francis' Canticle of Brother Sun, are not as obviously related to the natural world. Yet, even the latter does not, strictly speaking, deal with ecological issues. Sister lark and brother lamb are not even mentioned; rather, in the context of extreme suffering and pain at the end of his life, Francis' poetic composition is honed down to the basic elemental forces of earth, water, air, and fire in the universe.48 Francis believed that each creature can render praise to the Creator, and this perception is a vital element in the notion of life in abundance, as the Sabbath motif makes clear. Bonaventure's appreciation of the traces of the Trinity in all of creation stands at the background to this poem. It is, though, the luminosity of faith that allows us to see God reflected in the world, but once seen, the life of God in the life of the world becomes crystal clear:

Whoever, therefore, is not enlightened by such splendor of created things is blind; whoever is not awakened by such outcries is deaf; whoever does not praise God because of all these effects is dumb; whoever does not discover the First Principle from such clear signs is a fool.49

Above all, he wants readers to apply their hearts so that in creatures the praise of God may become heard and visible once more. Against this background it is significant that Bonaventure uses the imagery of a tree to develop his understanding of the importance of Christ. Through use of an imaginary tree, Bonaventure invites his readers to contemplate the different experiences of Christ's life in a new way, drawing particularly on the fruits of his humility, piety, patience, constancy, and so on as well as specific events, such as his origin, death, resurrection, ascension, and judgment. If ever there was a pastiche of what abundant life might look like, we find it here in Bonaventure's meditation on the mystery of Christ in his earthly and heavenly ministry. Throughout we find Bonaventure making use of imagery from the natural world to reinforce his point: we are encouraged to contemplate with the penetrating gaze of a dove and an eagle (Tree §1.1), we are encouraged to keep watch like a sparrow and a dove (Tree §1.30), to hide offspring of our love like the turtle dove (Tree §1.30), and so on. Nonetheless, Bonaventure is traditional in speaking of a “conflagration of the world” in the divine judgment of the wicked to an eternal hell (§42, 43), but also hopes for the renewal of the earth (§44) when the city of Jerusalem will be united with the Lamb in a wedding feast. The eternity of the kingdom is one where the Son of God is “the book of wisdom and the light that is full of living eternal principles,” manifest in the created world according to the “deep secrets of God” (§46). It is, therefore, a meditation to God as the “Fountain of life and light” and “life vivifying all life, light illuming every life, and keeping in perpetual splendor a thousand times a thousand lights brightly shining before the throne of your Divinity since the primeval dawn!” (§47). Within this fountain we find stress on the pleasure of God in such a banquet, and the end of all desires is happiness through union with Christ. Bonaventure is here writing as a mystic, rather than a systematic theologian in speaking of pleasure in God.50 Although the emphasis here is clearly on the union of the human person with God, there is a double movement that includes all creation: “As all things are produced through the Word eternally spoken, so all things are restored, advanced and completed through the Word united to flesh” where Jesus remains the goal of all things (§48).


  1. Top of page
  2. Abundant Life in John's Gospel
  3. The Feast of the Sabbath
  4. Traces of the Trinity
  5. The Tree of Life
  6. Conclusions
  7. Biographies

Applying our hearts to see life abundant, as Bonaventure teaches, becomes more urgent as the world faces unprecedented ecological threat. The community of John's gospel can help us. Their vision of life locates abundance in the mystical presence of Christ in the community, bearing fruit in the midst of adversity. John's gospel overflows with images and stories of abundant life. An outcast Samaritan woman at a well is promised water that will quench her thirst forever and in whom will spring up the water of eternal life. A dead man is raised to life, restored to community with his sisters. The life of the community is imaged as a living vine whose branches draw life from Jesus, bearing abundant fruit in the world.

Barbara Kingsolver's 2012 novel Flight Behavior explores glimpses of abundance amidst the challenge of climate change. An Appalachian woman's wooded hill unexpectedly becomes the winter hibernation grounds of the entire species of monarch butterflies, thrown off their normal migration pattern to Mexico by weather chaos. The novel explores questions of God's grace and presence as Dellarobia discovers the hillside covered with orange butterflies, and as she and her community struggle through the rainiest winter in memory. By February many of the butterflies have died. Dellarobia and her mother-in-law Hester set off through the rain-soaked woods in search of a tiny flowering plant from which the remaining butterflies might be drawing enough nectar to survive the late winter and take flight.

In the clearing she spied a flower and let out a small oh. Hester must have seen it too, the sole speck of white in the winter-killed monotony, just a handful of little fringed blossoms no taller than a shoe. Dellarobia knelt down to get close … She feared taking her eyes off this one living thing. It could disappear.

… “I see more,” Hester said. Dellarobia removed her pink wool scarf and laid it in a ring around the first one so as not to lose it, but Hester was right, there were more. Salted across the dun floor of the woods she counted three, four, a dozen small bouquets. Once her eyes knew how to see them, they became abundant.51

Abundance in a tiny winter flower with nectar to sustain the butterflies. Abundance in Thomas Aquinas, Jürgen Moltmann, and the community of John's gospel teach us to see in God's creation signs of abundant life from which we can draw today.

  1. 1

    We would like to thank Rebecca Artinian-Kaiser for her meticulous work putting our article into the required style prior to submission and Ernst Conradie for the invitation to contribute.

  2. 2

    James Hansen, “Game Over for the Planet,” The New York Times, 9 May 2012, A29.

  3. 3

    Concluding Statement: KAIROS Ecumenical Delegation to the Athabasca Tar Sands, 11 June 2009, at:

  4. 4

    See “Christian Faith and the Canadian Tar Sands: A KAIROS Reflection on Sustainability and Energy,” Toronto: KAIROS Canadian Ecumenical Justice Initiatives, September 2008; and “Drawing a Line in the Sand: Why Canada Needs to Limit Tar Sands Expansion and Invest in a Green Economy,” KAIROS Position Paper, July 2010.

  5. 5

    John Dillon, “Poverty, Wealth and Ecology in Canada: A Study for the Alternative Globalization Addressing People and the Earth,” (AGAPE) programme of the World Council of Churches (Kairos Canada, November 2011).

  6. 6

    Hansen, “Game Over,” A29.

  7. 7

    See the study by Diana Gibson of the Parkland Institute, The Spoils of the Boom: Incomes, Profits, and Poverty in Alberta (Edmonton: Parkland Institute, 2007).

  8. 8

    Robert Kysar, John the Maverick Gospel, 3rd ed. (Westminster John Knox, Louisville, 2007), 120.

  9. 9

    A detailed comparison with Eastern Christian perspectives is outside the scope of this article. The following article is highly instructive in this regard: Andrew Louth, “Between Creation and Transfiguration: The Environment in the Eastern Orthodox Tradition,” in Ecological Hermeneutics: Biblical, Historical and Theological Perspectives, ed. David G. Horrell , Cheryl Hunt , Christopher Southgate , and Francesca Stavrakopoulou (T & T Clark/Continuum, London, 2010), 211222.

  10. 10

    Jürgen Moltmann, God in Creation (London: SCM Press, 1985), 279.

  11. 11


  12. 12


  13. 13

    Ibid. This raises intense debate about the passibility of God that falls outside the scope of this article. Moltmann goes rather too far in spelling out what God may or may not experience in speculative terms. The point is that while this could arguably be hinted at in mystical writing, his work here is strictly systematic, implying that humanity does indeed have open access to such insights about God's inner workings in a way that we find somewhat unconvincing.

  14. 14


  15. 15

    Ibid., 280.

  16. 16

    For a discussion of this aspect of the Sabbath in other articles, see Celia Deane-Drummond, “Living from the Sabbath: Developing an Ecological Theology in the Context of Biodiversity,” in Biodiversity and Ecology as Interdisciplinary Challenge, Interface 7/1, ed. Denis Edwards and Mark Worthing (Adelaide: ATF Press, 2004), 113.

  17. 17

    Moltmann, God in Creation, 282.

  18. 18


  19. 19

    Ibid., 288.

  20. 20

    Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, Vol. 4, Knowledge in God, trans. Thomas Gilby (London: Blackfriars, 1967), 1a, 45:6.

  21. 21

    Ibid., 1a, 45:7.

  22. 22

    Aquinas uses the word “power” (potentiam) in ascribing the creative act of God the Father. However, it seems to us that Rowan Williams is correct in interpreting the language of power here as non-oppressive, for its ultimate origin is in the love of God. See Rowan Williams, On Christian Theology (Oxford: Wiley/Blackwell, 2000).

  23. 23

    Williams, On Christian Theology, 69.

  24. 24

    Colin Gunton, The Triune Creator: A Historical and Systematic Study (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1998), 102. He also states that Platonic forms or Aristotelian and Stoic rationes tend to replace Christ as the framework for creation. In making this claim he clearly has confined his reading to the first book of the first part of the Summa Theologiae, and ignored the third part altogether.

  25. 25

    Gilles Emery, The Trinitarian Theology of St Thomas Aquinas (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007).

  26. 26

    Ibid., 357. Material, formal, efficient and final causality bear an analogous relationship with each other (344). While efficient causality is appropriated to the Father, formal causality is appropriated to the Son (335). Aquinas draws on Aristotle who understood the formal cause as what a thing is, the material cause as the matter from which something is made, the efficient cause as how a thing is made, and the final cause as the purpose for which it is made. Aquinas adds a fifth cause, namely, the exemplary cause, because he believed in the possibility of immaterial being in a way that Aristotle did not. The exemplary cause is the idea in the mind of the artist that exists prior to the work of art being made. In the case of creation, God is the exemplary cause.

  27. 27

    Emery, Trinitarian Theology, 359.

  28. 28

    Gunton accuses Aquinas of being in danger of both a “slide into pantheism” and adopting neo-Platonism – which seems somewhat incongruous as well as being a misrepresentation of his thought. See Gunton, Triune Creator, 102120.

  29. 29

    Aquinas, Commentary on the Sentences, Book IV, Distinction 49, Qu. 1, a.3, qla.1, cited in Gilles Emery Trinity in Aquinas (Ypsilanti: Sapientia Press, 2003), 359.

  30. 30

    William Short, “The Franciscan Spirit,” in Franciscan Theology of the Environment, ed. Dawn M. Northwehr , pp. 111127 (Quincy: Quincy University, Franciscan Press, 2002), 121–22.

  31. 31

    We are not implying that Moltmann fails to link Christ and creation, but rather that the Sabbath motif serves the purpose of connecting the life of God with the life of creation as well.

  32. 32

    Emery, Trinity in Aquinas, 3741.

  33. 33

    Ibid., 47.

  34. 34

    Hans Urs Von Balthasar, Glory of the Lord, Volume 2, trans. Andrew Louth, Francis McDonagh, and Brian McNeil, ed. John Riches (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1984), 263.

  35. 35

    Ibid., 266.

  36. 36


  37. 37

    Ibid., 273.

  38. 38

    Zachery Hayes, “Bonaventure: Mystery of the Triune God,” in Franciscan Theology of the Environment, ed. Dawn M. Northwehr , pp. 201248 (Quincy: Quincy University, Franciscan Press, 2002), 209.

  39. 39

    Aquinas, Prologue, Commentary on the Sentences, trans. Ralph McInerny (Washington, DC: Dominican House of Studies, Priory of the Immaculate Conception) at:

  40. 40

    Emery points out that reflection on the procession of the Holy Spirit in relation to creation is not used again in the work of Thomas Aquinas. See Emery, Trinity in Aquinas, 60.

  41. 41

    Ibid., 67.

  42. 42

    Ibid., 289295.

  43. 43

    Hayes, “Bonaventure,” 237.

  44. 44

    Anthropogenic sin means that form of sin relevant to the human impacts on climate change. Particularly relevant in this context is that form of sin leading to habitat and species loss.

  45. 45

    He made this claim on 6 December 1273 to his scribe, Reginald. See Matthew Bunson, The Angelic Doctor: The Life and Work of St Thomas Aquinas (Huntington, Ind.: Our Sunday Visitor, 1994), 104.

  46. 46

    Bonaventure and Aquinas argue over details of philosophical speculation about the world. Both accept that the world is temporal, rather than eternal, on the grounds of faith. Both agree that the world could be eternal from a cosmological point of view. However, Bonaventure thought that the world's temporality could also be known by reason, rather than by faith alone, and for him it is necessarily temporal, so the idea of eternal creation is unintelligible. See Francis Kovach, “The Question of Eternity of the World in St Bonaventure and St Thomas: A Critical Analysis,” in Bonaventure and Aquinas: Enduring Philosophers, ed. Robert Shahan and Francis J. Kovach , 155186 (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1976). While the difference in their views is somewhat obsolete in terms of current cosmological discussion, the affirmation of Bonaventure's insistence on the temporal nature of the world may be one reason why he is particularly fascinated with creation as such.

  47. 47

    Hayes, “Bonaventure,” 237.

  48. 48

    Thomas Murtagh, “Saint Francis and Ecology,” in Franciscan Theology of the Environment, ed. Dawn M. Northwehr , 143154 (Quincy: Quincy University, Franciscan Press, 2002), esp. 147–51.

  49. 49

    Bonaventure, The Soul's Journey into God, in Bonaventure: The Soul's Journey into God, The Tree of Life, The Life of St Francis, trans. Ewert Cousins (London: SPCK, 1978), 1§15; p. 67.

  50. 50

    It is in this qualified sense that descriptions about God make sense, rather than the more explicit process elements as found in Moltmann's God in Creation, for example.

  51. 51

    Barbara Kingsolver, Flight Behavior (London et al.: HarperCollins, 2012), 347348.


  1. Top of page
  2. Abundant Life in John's Gospel
  3. The Feast of the Sabbath
  4. Traces of the Trinity
  5. The Tree of Life
  6. Conclusions
  7. Biographies
  • Celia Deane-Drummond teaches in the Department of Theology, University of Notre Dame in the United States of America.

  • Barbara Rossing teaches New Testament Studies at the Lutheran Theological Seminary in Chicago.