11 January 2007

Creation but not creationism

A Glasgow branch of Christians in Science is in the process of getting off the ground. Inevitably because of my academic history (astronomy, theology and post-doctoral work on time in theology and physics) I am a part of the process.

Apparently our first task is to put together some kind of position paper on intelligent design. My own take on the subject is that most of the ink spilled in the dispute between creationists and theistic evolutionists has missed the point. The Genesis stories are not a miniature history of the cosmos and the Christian doctrine of creation has more to do with our (and the universe’s) relationship with God than with how we got here. Since I am a theologian rather than a biologist I suspect my role in the discussion will be to remind folk of what the doctrine of creation is actually about.

As it happens, I summarized my take on creation in an article for the New Dictionary of Biblical Theology (Leicester: IVP, 2000):

Introduction: The biblical doctrine of creation at the end of the twentieth century

In the early centuries of Christianity, theologians such as Irenaeus of Lyons made extensive use of the doctrine of creation to distinguish orthodox Christianity from various forms of gnosticism. Their success justifies Florovsky's comment that 'an adequate idea of Creation is the distinctive test of the integrity of Christian mind and faith. An inadequate conception of Creation, on the contrary, is inevitably subversive of the whole fabric of Christian beliefs' (Eastern Churches Quarterly 8, p. 54). With the doctrine of the Trinity, creation was a fundamental element in the self-identification of Christians in the religiously plural milieu of the Roman Empire.

However the secular success of Christianity following the conversion of Constantine and the eventual emergence of Christendom meant that creation suffered a similar fate to the doctrine of the Trinity. For much of the past two thousand years, western theologians have tended to regard the doctrine of creation as relatively uncontroversial. Natural theology developed in such a way that creation came to be seen not as a distinctively Christian doctrine but as a commonsense belief that Christians share with others.

Now at the end of the twentieth century, creation is once again high on the theological agenda. Several factors are responsible for the new urgency with which it is treated.

Profound cultural changes have transformed the West since the eighteenth century. The universe as portrayed by modern science is far larger, older and more dynamic than anything that could have been imagined by educated men or women of the sixteenth century. New ways of perceiving the natural world have swept away the older forms of natural theology and have forced theologians to revise their understanding of God's relationship with the world.

The need for renewed attention to the doctrine of creation has been given far greater urgency by the growing awareness of a global environmental crisis. Various explanations have been offered for this crisis. However, many environmentalists regard the biblical doctrine of creation as the ultimate source of Western environmental irresponsibility. Such accusations demand that we look once again at the way we have interpreted the biblical doctrine of creation.

A third factor is the increasing multiculturalism and religious pluralism of Western societies at the end of the twentieth century. The large-scale migrations of different peoples following the end of the Second World War have led to a rapid increase in the cultural and religious diversity of the West. Western Christians once again find themselves in a pluralistic society akin to that of the Roman Empire. And the renewed need to locate Christianity with respect to these other faiths and worldviews suggests that we turn once again to the doctrine of creation as an element in maintaining the distinctiveness of the Christian faith.

Creation in the Old Testament

Inevitably the early chapters of Genesis dominate the biblical doctrine of creation simply by virtue of their location. However, it is certainly not restricted to these chapters. Belief in creation is implicit in many parts of the Old Testament. It informs the concern for the environment demonstrated in parts of the Pentateuch. It underlies the creation imagery used in the Psalms and, indeed, becomes a major theme in several psalms (notably Pss 8, 19, 104, 139, 148). It is assumed in important prophetic passages. And it appears at several points in the wisdom literature (e.g. Job 38-41).

Creation by Word

At eight points in Genesis 1 God speaks creatively: 'And God said, "Let . . ."' (vv. 3, 6, 9, 11, 14, 20, 24, 26). By using speech as a metaphor the biblical authors are indicating that the divine activity of creation is voluntary, effortless and rational. This is in marked contrast to the creation myths of neighbouring cultures, which tended to characterize creation as a process of inevitable struggle and conflict.

God commands and it is so. The very effortlessness of the fulfilment is indicative of God's sovereignty. God is presented as a king issuing broad injunctions rather than as an architect issuing detailed instructions (the favoured image of God as creator in recent centuries). Thus the Genesis account of creation possesses a degree of openness that is missing from the more deterministic readings that have been common in Christian theology.

Creation from Nothing?

It has to be admitted that the Old Testament is less than explicit in its support for the Christian doctrine of creatio ex nihilo. The Hebrew text of Genesis 1:1-2 is much less clear than is suggested by most English translations. There is scope for interpreting these verses as speaking of uncreated raw material from which God moulded the heavens and the earth.

Against this view, it is worth noting that the translators of the LXX avoided the use of demiourgos when referring to God as creator. Further, the majority of contemporary Old Testament scholars interpret verse 1 as a principal sentence prefixed to the chapter as a whole (C. Westermann, Genesis 1-11, pp. 94-97). Thus the first verse of the Bible makes an assertion quite unprecedented in ancient Near Eastern literature: it ascribes the entire work of creation exclusively to the one God. While this does not amount to an explicit statement that God created all things from nothing, it does lend support for the later development of such a doctrine as a means of defending divine sovereignty against Hellenistic insistence on the eternity of matter.

Creation, Time and History

Another striking feature of the Genesis account of creation is the priority given to the category of time. Light and darkness are the first of all God's creations because from their alternation flows the temporal succession which is the fundamental context of created reality. That time is, indeed, fundamental to creation is demonstrated by the fact that the activity of creation is placed within a clear temporal sequence.

The pervasive temporality of the biblical doctrine of creation clearly distinguishes it from the cosmological myths of the ancient Near East. In contrast to the essentially atemporal (hence mythological) creation accounts of their contemporaries, the Hebrews worked with an account of God creating the world over a period of seven days, which was clearly intended to be related to subsequent history.

This need not imply that the text be taken literally. Since Augustine, commentators have recognized that the pattern of days in Genesis 1 is a literary device. The number seven occurs repeatedly in the passage – e.g. seven days, seven fulfilment formulae, seven approval formulae – drawing upon its symbolic significance to indicate the completeness, the perfection, of God's creative activity. Nor are the days defined as 24-hour periods.

The effect of this temporal framework is to bind creation and temporality together. God creates time but also creates over a period of time. Creation becomes a process moving towards a goal in time. Thus creation is transferred from the mythological realm of transcendent realities, integrated into history (or, more precisely, pre-history) and the way opened for creation to be seen as continuing in history - justifying the conception of continuing creation that was already an important part of Israelite worship and wisdom.

Creation, Order and Goodness

Again in contrast to the elaborate cosmogonies of the ancient Near East, the Old Testament paints a stark picture of creation as a process of ordering by separation. Creation is thus presented as a differentiated totality (H. Blocher, In The Beginning, p. 71) – its very diversity is part of the process that God declares good. Seven times in the course of Genesis 1 God declares this process of differentiation in response the divine command to be good (vv 4, 10, 12, 18, 21, 25 and 31). This does not mean that creation is good in itself. Rather, it is a divine judgement about creation. The creature is good by virtue of its standing in appropriate relationship to its creator. Thus the divine sight that enables God to make this judgement is not detached contemplation but active engagement. Bonhoeffer rightly relates this divine act of seeing to the preservation of creation: 'It does not sink back again into the moment of becoming, God sees that it is good and his eye resting upon the work preserves the work in being. . . . The world is preserved not for its own sake but for the sake of the sight of God' (D. Bonhoeffer, Creation and Fall: A Theological Interpretation of Genesis 1-3 (ET, London, 1959), p. 23).

Belief in this divinely ordained order in creation pervades the Old Testament. While rarely explicit, it was one of the assumptions on which faith in the social order of the Hebrew monarchy was founded. Thus creation imagery is invoked as a guarantee for the social order in Psalms 74, 77 and 89. The prophetic use of creation imagery offers even more striking examples, e.g. in many parts of Isaiah 40—55, the prophetic promise to the exiles is built upon reminders of God's creative activity – if God can bring this cosmic order to be, God can certainly restore order to Judah. The correspondence between cosmic order and social order is also implicit in the Old Testament concept of shalom.

Two often-overlooked features of this judgement are worth noting. In contrast to the anthropocentrism of much of the Christian tradition, the biblical story of creation unequivocally declares non-human creatures to be good without reference to humankind – they have their own place in God's good creation and were not created merely for our benefit. Secondly, the temporal framework of creation is part of that which God judges to be very good. The change, decay and death that are integral to temporal finitude are part of God's good creation and not the consequence of human disobedience. Furthermore, this implies that the divine purpose for creation is worked out in time.

The Pivotal Role of Humankind in the Created Order

Traditional readings of the primeval history stress the special status it appears to confer on humankind. The creation of humankind is seen as the climax of Genesis 1 and this is reinforced by the prior creation of Adam in Genesis 2. God appears to give us a special blessing; we are portrayed as made in the image of God (in contrast to other creatures); and we are given a dominion over the other creatures which is shown to have disastrous implications for them in the Flood story.

The primeval history clearly distinguishes and elevates humankind over the rest of creation. However, several features also stress the intimacy of the relationship between humans and the non-human creation.

First, humankind is created on the same day as the land animals: suggesting a certain kinship. Second, it is simply wrong to regard the creation of humankind as the climax of Genesis 1: that privilege is accorded not to humankind but to the establishment of God's Sabbath communion with creation as a whole. Third, the very fact that the creation of humankind appears in the same passage as the creation of the non-human contrasts with the ancient Near Eastern tendency to separate accounts of cosmic and human origins. Finally, it is not clear that the divine blessing of verse 28a by itself distinguishes humans from the non-human. God has already pronounced a similar blessing upon sea creatures and birds (v. 22) and it is arguable that the blessing of verse 28a is actually inclusive of the land animals created in verses 24 and 25.

This impression of interdependence is further reinforced by the more detailed account of the creation of humankind in Genesis 2. Adam is placed in the garden in order to maintain it. Elsewhere this role is used to distinguish humankind from the rest of creation. For example, Psalm 104 contrasts God's direct provision for non-human creatures with our God-given responsibility to provide for our own needs. However, this distinction is placed in the larger context of a common dependence on God's providential care.

The command to have dominion is closely related to the divine blessing: ‘Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air and over every living creature that moves on the ground’ (Gen. 1:28). Many environmentalists see this command as a mandate to trample nature underfoot. However, it is not a carte blanche to exploit the environment. The human race is permitted to subdue the earth, but this is a warrant for agriculture and nothing more. We are given the fruit of the earth to be our food. In Genesis 1, dominion does not even extend to the killing of animals for food (or clothing). The command has the effect of qualifying the divine blessing, transforming it (at least as far as humankind is concerned) into a divine vocation. And that vocation to dominion over nature must be interpreted in terms of the concept of kingship familiar to the ancient Israelites – not absolute monarchy but responsibility for one's subjects.

Judgement and the Reversal of Creation

Adam’s disobedience in Genesis 3 and its ecological consequences highlight the ambivalence of nature that was experienced by the Hebrews (and which is shared by country people to this day). It is to be received gladly as a gift of God, but it is also a place of thorns and thistles, of stinging insects and predatory animals. Above all, it threatens us with personal extinction through disease and natural disaster. Remarkably, this ambivalence is explained not in terms of the recalcitrance of matter but in terms of human disobedience. The disobedience of Adam consisted in his rejection of the divine boundaries placed upon his dominion of the earth. It was thus a rebellion against the good order of creation established by God in Genesis 1.

The result, expressed in terms of divine judgement, is the disruption of the relationships established by God (specifically between God and humankind, between man and woman, and humankind and other creatures). Adam no longer has a harmonious relationship with God, Eve or nature: he has lost his dominion over the earth. Furthermore, there is no way in which he can regain that dominion for himself: he is barred from Eden by the cherubim.

The environmental implications of human disobedience are further highlighted by the Flood narrative. It portrays a world in which the vocation of humankind to be stewards of creation has been supplanted by the quest for autonomy. This quest is characterized by the spread of human violence. However, the unique status of humankind means that this violence corrupts the whole of creation.

Since humans have denied the good order of creation in their quest for self-deification, the form of judgement is appropriately a temporary suspension of that order. There is a virtual return to the initial ‘waste and void’ brought about by the temporary withdrawal of the active divine care implicit in Genesis 1. Indeed the Flood narrative consciously parallels the creation story of Genesis 1, presenting God's judgement as the mirror image of his creative activity.

At the same time, the faithful Noah is called to exercise human dominion over creation precisely in the preservation of representative animals from the judgement that is about to overwhelm the world. However, there is no suggestion that God has abdicated responsibility for the earth to humankind. Although Noah cooperates willingly with the divine plan, the initiative remains firmly with God.

Similar imagery is used elsewhere in the Old Testament to portray divine judgement. It is particularly prominent amongst the pre-exilic prophets. God is presented as revoking or suspending the harmonious order of creation as an act of judgement upon a faithless Israel. This usage reflects the Wisdom tradition of a correspondence between the moral and the natural: disharmony in the former is presented as having serious consequences for the latter. A stark example of this is Isaiah 24:1–13. The prophet envisages the judgement of the Lord in terms of an ecological catastrophe. Similarly Hosea presents a picture of desolation as a direct consequence of human sinfulness: ‘Because of this the land mourns, and all who live in it waste away; the beasts of the field and the birds of the air and the fish of the sea are dying’ (Hos. 4:3). The same theme appears in Zephaniah and frequently in Jeremiah.

The Continuation and Renewal of Creation

The Flood narrative concludes with the establishment of an everlasting covenant between God and the inhabitants of the ark: Noah and his descendants and every living creature. Covenants that include the non-human are a recurring theme in the Old Testament, particularly amongst the prophets (e.g. Hos. 2:18; Jer. 33:20–25; Ezek. 34:25). It is symptomatic of the pervasive anthropocentrism of our culture that so many commentators simply overlook this fact.

What is the content of this covenant? Generally speaking, covenants are ceremonies that give binding expression to relationships that already exist between the covenant partners. Here the relationships that receive formal expression are those that endured through the Flood, including Noah’s care for the animals. The wording of the covenant recalls the divine blessing of chapter 1. But, in addition to the blessing, God now gives an unconditional promise to maintain for all time the basic conditions of order which are a precondition for being able to respond to the blessing.
The Noahic covenant institutionalizes humankind’s alienation from nature by granting us permission to eat flesh. However, it does not constitute a charter to exploit the non-human. On the contrary, the divine prohibition on the drinking of blood may be taken as a reminder that humankind has not been given arbitrary power over other living creatures.

Finally, it should be noted that the issues raised in the primeval history are not settled there. The reality of human violence and the ambivalence of nature carry forward into the patriarchal history and, thence, to the present. What the primeval history leaves us with is the promise residing in the covenant with Noah. The covenant has redemptive implications, which concern not only humankind but the whole of God's creation. It is an everlasting covenant with the non-human as well. The clear implication is that the final consummation of all things concerns the non-human as well as the human.

The covenant with nature instituted at the end of the Flood narrative is echoed elsewhere in the Old Testament. For example, it appears as the positive corollary to prophetic use of the reversal of creation. It reminds the reader that judgement does not result in final destruction. On the contrary, a faithful remnant will be preserved. And, says Yahweh to that remnant, ‘I will make for you a covenant on that day with the beasts of the field, the birds of the air, and the creeping things of the ground’ (Hos. 2:18, RSV). For Jeremiah the certainty of such promises is based upon the reality of God's prior covenant with the forces of nature (Jer. 33:25). Once again we see how the Israelites interrelated social, moral and ecological orders. The relationships between God and humankind, within humankind, and between humankind and the non-human creation cannot be separated. A failure in any one of these areas implies a breakdown elsewhere.
Perhaps the best-known creation passages in the entire prophetic tradition occur in Isaiah 40—55. There creation imagery is used to express God's promise of redemption to the captives in Babylon. The less certain is guaranteed by the more certain. The very use of such imagery implies an existing faith in a God who created and sustains the natural world. Without such a faith, Isaiah's promises of redemption would be incomprehensible.

But the Old Testament indicates a redemption for the non-human creation as well as the faithful remnant. The writers of the Old Testament simply cannot envisage an immaterial eschaton. Thus creation figures clearly in their eschatological vision. The remnant share the eschatological Sabbath with the non-human – and that sharing is prefigured in the respect for the non-human displayed by the sabbatical laws (Exod. 20:8–11, 23:10–13; Lev. 25:8–55; Jub. 2:19–24).

Creation in the New Testament

By and large, the New Testament inherits and reaffirms the view of creation presented by the Old Testament. Thus at several points we are reminded that creation took place by the will and word of God (e.g. Rom. 4:17; Heb. 1:3, 11:3; Rev. 4:11). However, much of the evidence for New Testament perspectives on creation is implicit rather than explicit. Thus, for example, Jesus illustrates his admonition not to worry with reference to the birds of the air and the flowers of the field (Mt. 7:25–34). This is not an assertion of God’s care for creation but it is built upon the assumption that God cares even for the lowliest sparrow (Lk. 12:6).

Christ and Creation

Like the Old Testament, the New Testament’s view of creation is thoroughly theocentric. But this very theocentricity entails a transformation of the Old Testament doctrine. That Jesus Christ is the centre of history implies that he is also the centre of creation. The biblical texts do not recognize the modern distinction that separates history from nature. His significance for creation is implicit in the creative power demonstrated in many of his miracles. Healing the sick, raising the dead, stilling storms – all these show Jesus restoring order and harmony to human bodies or natural systems that have become disordered.

Christ’s significance for creation becomes explicit in the Prologue to John’s Gospel. It is none other than the word by which God created that has become incarnate as Jesus Christ (Jn 1:14). He is the agent of creation and the source of life (Jn 1:4) and thus involved not only in the original creative act but intimately associated with God's continuing providential care for creation.

Perhaps the most explicit statement of this Christological transformation of creation is the hymn fragment cited in Colossians 1. It begins by claiming that Jesus Christ ‘is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation’ (v. 15). Both titles offer us perspectives on the relationship between creation and redemption.

As the image of God, Jesus Christ is the point of contact between the Creator and his creation. He is the one who reveals God to creation and, as such, is naturally associated with the creator rather than the creation. Any suggestion that he is in some respect inferior to the creator (e.g. merely the visible image of God) is ruled out by the synonymous parallelism with ‘firstborn’. The latter term, which expresses the concept of pre-existence, is characteristically Jewish and ascribes to Jesus Christ the role reserved in pre-Christian Judaism for divine wisdom (e.g. Wisd. 9:4,9; Prov. 8:22; Sir. 1:4, 24:9).

Since Jesus Christ is the image of God, the restoration of the image of God in humankind becomes part of the Christian vocation: we are called to be conformed to Christ, the paradigmatic image of God. At the same time the close connection made in the Old Testament between the divine image and humankind’s dominion over the material creation means that the latter concept must undergo a similar transformation – the only dominion open to the Christian is that exercised by Christ, a dominion consisting of humble service. Thus the New Testament radicalizes the servanthood already implicit in the Old Testament notion of dominion.

In expounding ‘firstborn’, the subsequent verses present Christ as the agent of God’s creative activity – all things were created through him. Furthermore, they present Christ as the frame of reference for creation – all things were created in him, i.e. with reference to or in relation to him. In other words, Christ is the context of creation.

The passage goes on to refer not only the origins of the cosmos but also its goal to Christ. All things were created for him, i.e. to be subject to and to glorify him. The cosmos is envisaged as in movement towards its eschatological end, namely, Jesus Christ.

In expanding on the creative agency of Christ, verse 17 adds that ‘in him all things hold together’. The use of the perfect tense here makes it clear that a reference to a continuing activity is meant. Put another way, all things continue and cohere in Christ. He is the sole basis of unity and purpose in the cosmos. Again the hymn has substituted Jesus Christ for divine wisdom: he becomes the personal basis of unity which allowed the Hebrews to discern a real correspondence between the moral and natural orders. He is the foundation upon which God has established the earth. Indeed for Christian theology the very notion of ‘cosmos’ must be Christocentric (i.e. it must be defined with reference to Christ as its basis). By thus making Christ the basis of the order of nature this passage appropriates to Christ the creative activity of ordering the cosmos which we noted in both the primeval history and Psalm 104. In other words his role in creation is by no means limited to creatio ex nihilo but includes the continuing maintenance of the cosmic order. Thus Christ is also presented as the divine agent of the preservation of the cosmos.

The Christocentric nature of the New Testament view of creation has important implications for any contemporary theology of creation. It provides a theological rationale for once again treating creation as a central and distinctively Christian doctrine. Thus it leaves no place for an autonomous natural theology within the framework of Christian dogmatics.

Creation and Renewal

As the centre of history, Christ holds out the promise of a new future. Thus, since he is also the centre of creation, it is natural for New Testament writers to express this a promise of a new creation. Because they associate this new creation closely with the life of the believer, both individually and in community, It is tempting to interpret this New Testament promise in purely anthropocentric terms. However, the cosmic scope of Christ's renewing activity is further underlined by a well-known passage from Paul’s letter to the Romans – Rom 8:18–25.

Paul’s use of ‘creation’ in this passage has been interpreted in many different ways. However, the involuntary nature of the bondage to which he refers (v. 20) suggests that any interpretation including the angelic and/or human dimensions of creation must be ruled out. We must conclude that ktisis is intended to denote the nonhuman created order.

This interpretation of ktisis leads to the strange image of nature suffering. Even more bizarre, nature itself is looking forward eagerly to an eschaton which will, amongst other things, mark an end to its bondage.

What does Paul mean when he speaks of the subjection of nature to ‘futility’? Mataiotes stands in contrast to telos and means emptiness, futility, meaninglessness, lack of purpose. It is the Septuagint’s translation of hebel or vanity (e.g. Ecc. 1:2). Here, it appears to be synonymous with ‘bondage to decay’ (v. 21). With its reference to ‘groaning and travailing’, the passage clearly points us to Genesis 3 for an explanation of this term. Thus it seems likely that creation’s inability to achieve its telos, to fulfil the purpose of its existence is a direct result of the disorder envisaged in Gen. 3:17.

If this is the case, the one who subjected it in hope must be God. However, the responsibility for this state lies firmly with humankind: our place in the created order is such that our disobedience brings with it ecological consequences. Paul does not teach that nature is in itself fallen, rather its telos is inextricably bound up with the destiny of humankind. Our disobedience prevents the natural order from achieving its goal: creation ‘is cheated of its true fulfilment so long as man, the chief actor in the drama of God's praise, fails to contribute his rational part’ (C. E. B. Cranfield, ‘Some Observations on Romans 8.19-21’ in R. Banks (ed.), Reconciliation and Hope: The Leon Morris Festschrift (Exeter, 1974), p. 227).

In spite of this assessment of the cosmic repercussions of evil, Paul emphasizes that this divine subjection does not exclude hope from creation. On the contrary, the subhuman creation was subjected ‘in hope’. The present suffering of creation is a ‘groaning and travailing’: it represents the birth pangs that will ultimately give way to joy and fulfilment. Paul sees Christ’s redemptive activity as effecting not just the reconciliation of humanity with God but, through that, also the consummation of the entire created order. The non-human part of creation is not merely a backdrop to the human drama of salvation history but is itself able to share in the ‘glorious liberty’ which Paul envisages for the covenant community. What we have here is a Christological and pneumatological (and, hence Trinitarian) transformation of the Old Testament concept of the dominium terrae.

This hope for the whole of creation is graphically portrayed by the apocalyptic vision of the Book of Revelation. Rather than a spiritual eschaton, John promises a new heaven and a new earth. This typically Jewish idiom clearly indicates that the transformation and renewal of creation as a whole is intended. Even when he changes his imagery to that of a city, the non-human creation is still represented. The heavenly Jerusalem is no work of humankind standing over against an alien wilderness. Rather his portrayal of the city as having a garden at its centre (a renewed Eden once again open to human kind) reveals it is a divine city reconciling the human and the natural.


Anderson, B. (ed.), Creation in the Old Testament (London, 1984)
Blocher, H. In The Beginning: The Opening Chapters of Genesis (Leicester, 1984)
Brueggemann, W. Genesis, Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching (Atlanta, Geo., 1982)
Fergusson, D. The Cosmos and the Creator: An introduction to the theology of creation (London, 1998).
Gunton, C. E. (ed), The Doctrine of Creation: Essays in dogmatics, history and philosophy (Edinburgh, 1997)
Westermann, C. Creation (ET, London, 1974)
Westermann, C. Genesis 1-11: A Commentary (ET, London, 1984)

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