In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters (Genesis 1:1-2).
He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. For by him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things were created by him and for him. He is before all things and in him all things hold together (Colossians 1:15-17).
You are worthy, our Lord and our God, to receive glory and honor and power; for you created all things , and by your will they were created and have their being (Revelation 4:11).
B. Biblical Accounts……………….334
1. Genesis 1 and 2…………..334
2. Other accounts…………….336
C. Theological Contribution………342
2. Dangerous Directions…….345
3. Theological Summary…….347
F. Implications & Response………353
1. Do you read Genesis one differently
after reading C. S. Lewis?
2. Why did God create such a huge
cosmos for the earth and man?
3. What do the other biblical accounts
add to Genesis one and two?
4. Describe the uniqueness of God’s
work of creation.
5. Who are the present competitors to
the Genesis account of creation?
6. How then shall we think and live?
There is a sense in which all of theology is a reflection on these five works of God. Certainly, the whole of our doctrine of God is built upon them. The Psalms throughout the Bible, the wisdom writers, the prophets, Jesus and the apostles all reflect upon these works of God and their relationships with all that we believe and do.
There is not much of a problem in ordering these works. Creation is certainly first and judgment cannot be anywhere else than last. Providence begins with and is part of creation and continues as long as the creation exists. Revelation immediately follows creation within providence. Redemption is promised immediately after the fall and is provided by Jesus Christ in his entrance into history. Judgment is God’s telling of the Metanarrative, the place of each person who has attached themselves to God’s great story, and an evaluation of those who have chosen hell. Each of these works gives us a new look at God. Careful attention to all of them is essential for an obedient and full theology.
On the foundation laid in the preceding chapter, we now turn to two of the great works of the Living God: creation and providence. We have already considered his work of Revelation and placed his other works (Redemption and Judgment) in the context of the biblical self-introduction of God. We will spend more time reflecting on the biblical teaching on Redemption and Judgment in volumes two and three.
Creation is much more important for all of the doctrines of Scripture than we usually expect. We need constantly to keep telling the story of creation to ourselves and to others in order to establish this foundation at the core of our thinking.
Before I tell the biblical story of creation, it may be interesting to let C. S. Lewis tell us the story of the creation of Narnia. This master story teller gives us a little different perspective that not only delights but also helps us to appreciate the Genesis account more. Some children (and others including the witch) have fallen into a magic pool which made travel possible in both space and time. They know they will appear somewhere else in the universe, but have no idea where or when.
Then Polly said, “Oughtn’t we to be nearly there now?” “We do seem to be somewhere.” said Digory. “At least I’m standing on something solid.” “Why, so am I, now that I come to think of it,” said Polly. “But why’s it so dark? I say, do you think we got into the wrong pool?”…. “This is an empty world. This is Nothing.”
And really it was uncommonly like Nothing. There were no stars. It was
It was so dark that they couldn’t see one another at all…. Under their feet there
was a cool, flat something which might have been earth, and was certainly not grass or wood. The air was cold and dry and there was no wind….
In the darkness something was happening at last. A voice had begun to sing. It was very far away and Digory found it hard to decide from what direction it was coming. Sometimes it seemed to come from all directions at once…. Its lower notes were deep enough to be the voice of the earth itself. …. But it was, beyond comparison, the most beautiful noise he had ever heard. It was so beautiful he could hardly bear it….
Then two wonders happened at the same moment. One was that the voice was suddenly joined by other voices; more voices than you could possibly count. They were in harmony with it, but far higher up the scale: cold, tingling, silvery voices.
The second wonder was that the blackness overhead, all at once, was blazing with stars. They didn’t come on gently one by one, as they do on a summer evening. One moment there had been nothing but darkness; next moment a thousand, thousand points of light leaped out—single stars, constellations, and planets, brighter and bigger than any in our world. There were no clouds. The new stars and the new voices began at exactly the same time. If you had seen and heard it…you would have felt quite certain that it was the stars themselves who were singing, and that it was the first voice, the deep one, which had made them appear and made them sing…..
The Voice on the earth was now louder and more triumphant; but the voices in the sky, after singing loudly with it for a time, began to get fainter. And now something else was happening.
Far away and down on the horizon, the sky began to turn grey. A light wind, very fresh, began to stir. The sky, in that one place grew slowly and steadily paler. You could see the shapes of hills standing up dark against it All the time the Voice went on singing….
The eastern sky changed from white to pink and from pink to gold. The Voice rose and rose, till all the air was shaking with it. And just as it swelled to the mightiest and most glorious sound it had yet produced, the sun rose.
Digory had never seen such a sun. The sun above the ruins of Charn had looked older than ours; this looked younger. You could imagine that it laughed for joy as it came up. And as its beams shot across the land the travelers could see for the first time what sort of place they were in. It was a valley through which a broad, swift river wound its way, flowing eastward. Southward there were mountains, northward there were lower hills. But it was a valley of mere earth, rock and water; there was not a tree, not a bush, not a blade of grass to be seen. The earth was of many colour: they were fresh, hot and vivid. They made you feel excited until you saw the Singer himself, and then you forgot everything else….
It was a Lion. Huge, shaggy, and bright it stood facing the rising sun. Its mouth was wide open in song and it was about three hundred yards away….
For the Song had now changed.
The Lion was pacing to and fro about that empty land and singing his new song. It was softer and mor lilting than the song by which he had called up the stars and the sun; a gentle, rippling music. And as he walked and sang, the valley grew green with grass. It spread out from the Lion like a pool. It ran up the sides of the little hills like a wave. In a few minutes it was creeping up the lower slopes of the distant mountains, making that young world every moment softer. The light wind could now be heard rippling the grass. Soon there were other things besides grass. The higher slopes grew dark wild heather. Patches of rougher and more bristling green appeared int he valley… trees….
There was plenty to watch and listen to. The tree which Digory had noticed first was now a full-grown beech whose branches swayed gently above his head. They stood on cool, green grass, sprinkled with daisies and buttercups. A little way off, along the river bank, willows were growing. On the other side tangles of flowering currant, lilac, wild rose, and rhododendron closed them in…..
All this time the Lion’s song and his stately prowl, to and from, backwards and forwards, was going on…. Polly was finding the song more interesting because she thought she was beginning to see the connection between the music and the things that were happening. When a line of dark firs sprang up on a ridge about a hundred yards away, she felt that they were connected with a series of deep prolonged notes which the Lion had sung a second before. And when he burst into a rapid series of lighter notes she was not surprised to see primroses suddenly appearing in every direction…. When you listened to his song you heard the things he was making up: when you looked round you, you saw them…..
In a few minutes Digory came to the edge of the wood and there he stopped. The Lion was singing still. But now the song had once more changed. It was more like what we should call a tune, but it was also far wilder….
Can you imagine a stretch of grassy land bubbling like water in a pot? For that is really the best description of what was happening. In all directions it was swelling into humps…of different sizes…and from each hump there came out an animal. The moles came out just as you might see a mole come out in England. The dogs came out barking the moment their heads were free…the stags…the frogs…the panthers…showers of birds…butterflies…bees…the elephant. 1
This is a long selection and much has been deleted that would have meaning for the reader of the whole volume and the entire seven volume series. But I have included enough to see an imaginative reconstruction of creation. The Word is there as the Lion. The Spirit of God is there as the wind. Everything is sung into existence. Evil is there watching in the person of the witch representing Satan and the darkness. Most of all, we see our cosmos and our world springing into existence at the Word of God. It is an attempt at entering the story and watching creation. It is a perspective from which we can appreciate the things that God has included and excluded in the only really good description of creation—the Scriptures.
THE BIBLICAL DESCRIPTIONS OF CREATION
The biblical descriptions of creation are unique and powerful interpretations of a stupendous event given by the Creator himself. Westermann wrote about the first of those narratives:
The first chapter of the Bible is one of the great pieces of world literature. All questions which have directed to this first chapter of the Bible, all doubts as to whether what is there is “right,” all emotional explanations that it is utterly outmoded, in nowise affect the validity of what is there. When one hears that chapter read aloud and in an appropriate context, one realizes that something has been expressed that has never really been said before or since.2
THE GENESIS ACCOUNT
I have already discussed the Genesis account of creation (pages 267-271).
I need to restate the structure of Genesis one and two here as a foundation for this theological look at God’s act of creation. In the former account, my goal was to tell the story in which the name “God” translating the Hebrew “Elohim” was born and in which its meaning is revealed. God is always to be remembered as the one who created all things and still stands in that same relationship with everything other than himself.
I. Creation of the Heavens and the Earth (1:1-2:1)
J. The Cosmos (1:1-2)
K. The heavens and the earth (1:1)
L. The earth was formless and empty (1:2a)
M. The Spirit was at work (1:2b)
N. The Forming of the Earth (1:3-13)
O. Day One – Light and Separation of day and night (1:3-5)
P. Day Two – The Sky: separation of the waters (1:6-8)
Q. Day Three – The land: separation of land and sea (1:9-13)
R. The Filling of the Earth (1:14-31)
S. Day Four – the sun and the mood (1:14-19)
T. Day five – living creatures in sky and water (1:20-23)
U. Day six – living creatures on the land
V. The animals (1:24-25)
W. Humans in God’s image (1:26-31)
X. “Thus the heavens and the earth were completed….” (2:1)
II. The Seventh Day (2:2-3) “…the Sabbath was made for man”
III. Creation of Adam and Eve (2:4-25)
Y. “The generations of the heavens and the earth (2:4a)
Z. Creation of the man (2:4b-7)
AA. Creation of the garden (2:8-14)
BB. God’s fellowship with Adam and Eve in the garden (2:15-25)
CC. Command to care for the garden (2:15)
DD. Do not eat from the tree of knowledge (2:16-17)
EE. God creates a “partner” for Adam (2:18-24)
FF. Determination to give him a partner (2:18)
GG. Naming the animals—no partner there (2:19-20)
HH. Creation of Eve and marriage (2:21-24)
II. They were naked and not ashamed (2:25)
God has given us two creation accounts separated by the sanctifying of the seventh day. The first account moves from the creation of the cosmos to the earth and culminates in the creation of man, male and female, in God’s image and likeness. The second account gives its entire attention to Adam and Eve in the garden in relation to each other and in conversation with their Creator. These accounts are not contrary to each other, but tell the story of the same work of God from two different and important perspectives.
The sanctification of the seventh day completes the seven day cycle of the first creation account, but follows the completion of creation. It also introduces the second creation account and sets a pattern for the life the human race.
The act of creation was immensely more complex than is indicated in this brief summary. God spoke into existence the untold billions of galaxies of stars in the immensity of space and the intricacy of the atoms—both mysteries beyond anything we have been able to describe or every will fully understand. We read these chapters with thousands of questions that must go on unanswered because only the Creator knows the answers. But God has told us “everything that we need to know for life and godliness” (II Peter 1:3) on this subject also. If we trust God’s wisdom we will stop worrying over the things that he has not said and will rather meditate on the things that he has said. We have done well in this double responsibility.
When we read the story of creation attentively, we find some surprises. Why does he move so quickly from the creation of the entire cosmos to this little planet? Why is this planet formless and empty as it first comes into existence? Why does he spend several days forming and filling it? Why not create it immediately formed and filled? He certainly did not need six days to do this. Why is “darkness over the face of the deep? Why does he speak of the sun and the moon on the fourth day when they were obviously a part of the “heavens” that he spoke into existence on the first day? Why did he make a garden for Adam and Eve? Would it not have been better to make the entire earth into a garden? There are dozens of other questions that perplex us as we read this double account.
OTHER ACCOUNTS AND REFERENCES
We need to augment this creation narrative with other passages of Scripture.
God meets Job and his friends to respond to the problem of Job’s suffering. In his two speeches, God never mentions Job’s suffering. He does tell Job that his real problem is a failure to understand the significance of creation. If he would take God’s work of creation seriously he would not have this problem that had so plagued him the
past six months. The whole book of Job is a reflection on creation by Job, his friends and, finally, by God himself.
God (Elohim, the Creator) challenges Job with great ignorance. Job was one of the wise men of his day and stood above his contemporaries in understanding. But now he is being evaluated by God and by the complexity of his creation. By that standard, Job is ignorant. Job hears and understands what God is saying. He responds:
Then Job answered Yahweh: “I am unworthy—how can I reply to you? I will put my hand over my mouth. I spoke once, but I have no answer— twice but I will say no more” (Job 40:4-5).
Then Job replied to Yahweh: “I know that you can do all things, no plan
of yours can be thwarted. You asked, ‘Who is this that obscures my counsel without knowledge.’ Surely I spoke of things I did not understand, things too wonderful to know. You said, ‘Listen now, and I will speak; I will question you and you shall answer me. My ears had heard of you but now my eyes have seen you. Therefore I despise myself and repent in dust and ashes” (42:1-6).
Job learned to trust his Creator. Job could not understand creation and how could he understand the ways of the Creator with people. If God is our Creator, then we can only bow before him and listen. Since God is Creator we must trust him wholly. Job did and God blessed him.
Solomon observed life and wisdom. Seeing it whole in the light of the brevity and vulnerablity of our lives, he decided that everything was meaningless. But he begins his recovery from despair by remembering that God is his Creator. When he turns from things and experiences to God’s act of creation, he has the beginnings of a foundation for a fulfilled life: “Remember your Creator in the days of your youth” (Ecclesiastes 12:1). See also Proverbs 3:19-20 and 8:22-31.
The Psalmist told the story of creation from a slightly different perspective in Psalm 104. He calls upon his soul to praise Yahweh for his majesty and his laying of the foundations of the earth. It is interesting that this psalmist uses the personal name: Yahweh rather than Elohim. He is reminding his hearers that the great Creator of Genesis one is none other than Yahweh, Israel’s covenant God.
Praise Yahweh, O my soul!
O Yahweh my God, you are very great
you are clothed with splendor and majesty.
He wraps himself in light as with a garment;
he stretches out the heavens like a tent
and lays the beams of his upper chambers on their waters
He makes the clouds his chariot
and rides the wings of the wind.
He makes winds his messengers,
flames of fire his servants.
He set the earth on its foundations
it can never be moved…. (Psalm 104:1-5)
After a summary of the six days of creation in verses 2-30, the psalmist closes his hymn to God’s work of creation with a doxology of praise:
May the glory of Yahweh endure forever;
may Yahweh rejoice in his works—
he who looks at the earth and it trembles,
who touches the mountains, and they smoke.
I will sing to Yahweh all my life;
I will sing praises to my God as long as I live.
May my meditation be pleasing to him
as I rejoice in Yahweh.
But my sinners vanish from the earth
and the wicked be no more.
Praise Yahweh, O my soul
Praise Yahweh. (Psalm 104:31-35)
See also Psalms 9; 19; 24; 29; 33; 36; 74; 77; 89; 90; 93; 96; 97; 98; 99, 147 and 149. Isaiah develops a powerful theology of creation in chapters 40-55. See especially chapter 40, verses 12-26. Jeremiah’s theology of creation is developed in 4:23-38; 5:21-25; 18:1-12, 27:5-6; 32:17 and 51:15. Amos wrote three great hymns to the Creator that dominate the whole message of his book.
Therefore this is what I will do to you, Israel,
and because I will do this to you,
prepare to meet your God, O Israel.
He who forms the mountains
creates the wind
and reveals his thoughts to man
he who turns dawn to darkness
and treads the high places of the earth—
Yahweh El-Shaddal is his name (Amos 4:12-13)
(He who made the Pleiades and Orion,
who turns the blackness into dawn
and darkens day into night,
who calls for the waters of the sea
and pours them out over the face of the land—
Yahweh is his name—
he flashes destruction on the stronghold
and brings the fortified city to ruin) (Amos 5:8-9, see also 9:5-6)
When the disciples were warned not to preach any more on pain of serious punishment, they responded with praise to their Creator:
When they heard this, they raised their voices together in praise to God. “Sovereign Lord” they said, “you made the heaven and the earth and the sea, and everything in them…. (Acts 5:24-31).
Paul preached to the philosophers on Mars Hill from the truth of God’s work of creation and his rule over and provision for that creation. He summarized this to the Roman believers at the close of his great exposition of the place of Israel in God’s Story: “For from Him, and through Him and to Him are all things. To Him be glory forever” (Romans 11:36). Later he states this more fully to the Colossian house churches (Colossians 1:15-17). And we have all memorized those great descriptions of creation in John 1:1-10 and Hebrews 1:1-3. The book of Revelation completes the praise to the Creator in 4:11, 14:7 and the completion of his work of creation in the new creation in chapters 21 and 22. This is only a beginning. You should consult a good concordance and a good topical Bible for the many other passages.
HOW DO WE TELL THE CREATION STORY?
The Bible gives us a number of different looks at God’s work of creation. These various accounts are not in contradiction with each other. Rather they look at this great work from several different viewpoints. We need all of these viewpoints to build a doctrine of creation.
We might look back from the perspective of life on the new earth and describe all that God did from creation to the new creation as creation. God created a new thing when he created a cosmos, formed and filled a planet orbiting a star in a small galaxy, and made creatures in his image to be co-creators with him in making the entire planet into a garden, filling it with humans and walking in perfect fellowship with their Creator.
This skips a lot, but it does connect the beginning of God’s work with its completion; Genesis one and two with Revelation twenty-one and twenty-two. We often forget this connection because of those nearly 1200 chapters in between.
When we have made certain that we will see the work of creation whole we can begin to expand the story. In the beginning, God created a whole new kind of creation is our cosmos. He gave his attention to one galaxy, one star and one planet. He formed it and filled it. He then created a man and a woman in his image and likeness and commissioned them to be co-creators with him in a whole race of humans, in turning the whole earth into a garden and in using its resources to build societies and cultures. They obeyed and he blessed them with his personal presence on this earth.
This telling of the story adds the creation mandates and the perfect obedience of the human race in carrying out their commission to be co-creators with God and building an physical and social environment totally pleasing to God. Too often we miss this essential part of the story.
We need to add some things in a third telling of this story of creation. In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. He focused upon this planet, forming and filling it with marvelous new creatures. When he had prepared a garden, he created a man and a woman in his image and likeness. He commissioned them to be his representatives on earth with dominion over all of the other living creatures. He warned them not to eat of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil and waited for their obedience.
But they disobeyed and brought sin, evil and death into their history. And it was not just that one sin, but a whole pattern and practice of sin that intensified in their children. A whole race of humans was born in rebellion against their Creator. They all wanted to be gods or to make their own gods. As generation followed generation it became obvious that there was no possibility of a reversal of this disobedience. The specter of certain death, destruction and hell hung over history.
But then, the Son of God entered history, taking on full humanity and reversed all the sin and evil Adam and his progeny had brought into this world. Jesus Christ reversed man’s disobedience by his perfect obedience. He reversed their lies with his truth. He reversed their condemnation by his death on the cross. He reversed death by his resurrection from the dead. He will reverse the chaos and evil of society by his Messianic Kingdom. He will reverse their death by raising them from the dead. He will reverse all injustice by his final judgment.
When he has done all of that he will complete the creation of Genesis one and two by cleansing that creation by fire and renovating the heavens and the earth. God and the Lamb will come into this renewed earth to live with his people forever in this accomplishment of God’s work of salvation.
We still need a fourth telling of the story in order to understand the creation accounts. We have pictured creation as the perfect work of God. We have looked at it as the result of the perfect obedience of the human race and God’s consequent blessing. We have looked at it from the perspective of man’s disobedience and threatened death in hell and the reversal of all of that by the Lord Jesus Christ.
But there is another actor in creation, history and new creation. We met him as a tempter in Genesis three. But we are prepared for that entrance by the darkness and night of Genesis one. As literalists of a scientific age, we read by the darkness and night quickly, viewing it as some natural darkness that surrounded heaven and God. But, if we have read the whole Bible we know that God intended something more than that. The biblical story is not just a story of God and the human race. There are other actors in this story of creation: angels and demons.
The darkness described in Genesis 1:2 demands a prologue. If there is darkness out there then there must be fallen and rebellious creatures. Anything else is an unthinkable dualism. Before the beginning there was the triune God and no one and no thing besides him, even darkness, space and nothingness. We are so used to thinking of God in little ways that we picture him in heaven surrounded by darkness and empty space. But heaven and space are not eternal alongside of God. They are his creatures. Anything that exists in any way is a creature of God.
Throughout the Bible we read of other creatures who are significant actors in God’s works and in our history: angels and demons. They are all creatures of God who are given the opportunity to be actors in our history as messengers of God or as enemies of God. Job, Isaiah, Paul and John all develop a doctrine of darkness as the place of rebellion against God and the place of judgment.
So, when we read Genesis one from the perspective of the whole Bible, we immediately see much more than some kind of natural darkness existing on its own outside of God. We see fallen creatures who will be permitted to do battle against God in his purposes for this creation. When we come to the end of the biblical story and enter the new heaven and earth we will note that God emphasized the fact that this new creation will be better and best because there is no more night nor darkness.
Now, we must begin the story of creation with a prologue in a heaven created for angels and God’s manifestation of himself to them. We read in the prophets of a rebellion in the ranks of these angels and their defeat. God creates a place of darkness for them and casts them out of heaven. Now he creates our cosmos on the borderlands between the darkness and the light; between heaven and hell, between the angels and the demons. This, again, ties Genesis one and two tightly with Revelation twenty-one and twenty-two.
We need all four tellings of the story of creation. All of them connect the beginning and the end of the story very carefully. God will not permit us to separate the beginning from the end. Each of these tellings teach us something new about the original creation and God’s consummation of that work. Each of them remind us that creation is not only the foundational work of God, but includes in its goals all of the rest of the works of God.
The foundation has already been partly laid in the retelling of the biblical story of salvation. We need to build upon that story and establish the theology of creation and its contribution to all of the doctrines and imperatives of the rest of the Bible and of our Systematic Theology and Ethics.
The theologians of the early church were convinced of the importance ot the doctrine and demanded that we get it right. It was the doctrine that distinguished the God of the Bible from all of the other gods and from all the gods of the philosophers. The earliest versions of the Apostles’ Creed began with the familiar: “I believe in God the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth.” The Nicene Creeds added to that confession “and all things visible and invisible.”
Many of the early pastors preached a series of messages on “The Six Days” (The Hexemaeron). Basil the Great and Ambrose those messages. Augustine was entranced with the early chapters of Genesis. His several attempts to exegete Genesis one through three culminated in his: The Literal Meaning of Genesis4 He was building a full Christian worldview and the foundation was all-important, as the treatments of creation in The Confessions and The City of God indicate.
Orthodox theologians taught that all that exists is God and whatever he has created. There are no other gods. Nothing eternal exists outside of him. It also means that he created with no pre-existing materials, even nothing. Third, it means that he created by his word—speaking every creature into existence. This distinguishes the God of the Bible from every other god of every religion and every philosophy. Finally, it means that everything that exists either is or once was good.
Irenaeus wrote about 190 A. D. In his exposition of the teaching of the Bible as over against the Gnostic heresies. He wrote:
It is proper, then, that I should begin with the first and most important head, that is God the Creator who made the heaven and the earth and all things that are therein (whom these men blasphemously style the fruit of a defect), and to demonstrate that there is nothing either above Him or after Him; nor that, influenced by any one, but of His own free will, He created all things,
since He is the only God, the only Lord, the only Creator, the only Father, alone containing all things, and Himself commanding all things into existence.5
Herman Bavinck gave a good description of God’s work of creation in the first volume of his Church Dogmatics:
Against all these movements (Pantheism and Materialism) the Christian church unitedly held fast to the confession: “I believe in God the Father Almighty; Creator of heaven and earth.” And by creation it meant that act of God through which, by his sovereign will, he brought the entire world out of nonbeing into a being that is distinct from his own being….
Elohim is not presented in Genesis 1 as a cosmic sculptor who, in human fashion, with preexisting material, produces a work of art, but as One who merely by speaking, by uttering a word of power, calls all things into being. And with that view the whole of Scripture chimes in. God is the Almighty who is infinitely higher than all creatures and who deals with his creatures in accordance with his sovereign good pleasure. He is the absolute owner…of heaven and earth (Genesis 14:19, 22) who does whatever he pleases and to whose power there is no limit. He speaks and it comes to be, he commands and it stands forth (Genesis 1:3; Ps. 33:9; Isaiah 48:13; Rom. 4:17. Further, all things in Scripture are described over and over as having been made by God and as being absolutely dependent on him (Ex. 20:11; Neh. 9:6; Col. 1:16-17; Rev. 4:11; Rom. 11:36). Moreover, at no time or place is there even the slightest reference to an eternal formless matter. God alone is the Eternal and Imperishable One. He alone towers above processes of becoming and change. Things, by contrast, have a beginning and an end and are subject to change (Ps. 90:1; Prov. 8:25, 26; Eph. 1:4; John 17:24; Matt. 13:35, 25:34; Luke 11:50; John 17:5; Heb. 4:3, 9:26; I Pet. 1:20; Rev. 13:8; 17:8)….
The expression ex nihilo was eagerly preserved in Christian theology only because it was admirably suited for cutting off all sorts of errors a the root. In the first place, it served as a defense against the paganistic notion of a formless stuff…. Over against this view, the doctrine of creation out of nothing teaches the absolute sovereignty of God and man’s absolute dependence; if only a single particle were not created out of nothing God would not be God. In the second place, this expression rules out all emanation, every hint of an essential identity between God and the world…. God is a self-subsistent necessary being, but the creature is existent by participation.6
Langdon Gilkey, though far from orthodox, has given an interesting outline for our studying of the biblical doctrine of creation. I will quote his headings and summarize his exposition of those headings in my own words.
“GOD IS THE SOURCE OF ALL THAT THERE IS.” 7 Only God exists eternally. Everything other than God is a creature of God, made by his word. This stands against all teachings that posit some other eternal reality, positive or negative, in competition with God or as material out of which he made the cosmos.
“CREATURES ARE DEPENDENT, YET REAL AND GOOD.” 8 Because everything other than God is made by him, it also depends upon him for continued existence, forever dependent upon his gift of life and existence. But, his act of creation also guarantees the reality and goodness of these dependent creatures. Nothing is nor can be intrinsically evil.
“GOD CREATES WITH FREEDOM AND WITH PURPOSE.” 9 God did not create out of some inner need or loneliness. He freely chose to create and did so with a clear purpose which can only be known by him and in his revelation of his work of creation. Science cannot comment on either his freedom or his purpose.
Creation out of nothing (ex nihilo) has had a long history of pointing out the
absolute uniqueness of God’s work of creation. However, the very structure of the phrase seems to deny its purpose. The “out of” immediately turns the “nothing” into something—some Hegelian or Barthian negativity or chaos “existing” outside of God and used by him as a negative material for his creative work. Because of that linguistic problem, may now prefer to describe creation as “by his word alone”10 or “by his command alone.” The Westminster Shorter Catechism and the Baptist Catechism put the two phrases together in question # 9. (See also the II London Confession, ch. 4).
Question: What is the work of creation?
Answer: The work of creation is God’s making all things out of nothing by the word of His power, and all very good.
The New Hampshire Confession reads:
We believe the Biblical account of the creation of the physical universe, angels, and man; that this account is neither allegory nor myth, but a literal, historical account of the direct, immediate creative acts of God without any evolutionary process; that man was created by a direct work of God and not from previously existing forms of life; and that all men are descended from the historical Adam and Eve, first parents of the entire human race (Article V).
The doctrine of creation is a matter of faith in the truthfulness of God’s revelation. It is not something that we can find out by scientific, philosophical or religious study. It is so different from anything in creation that we have no true analogies for God’s act of creation. So we do not have any words to describe it in our dictionaries, unless they are given new definitions from the Scriptures. Because of this, we tend to move away from the truth in every possible direction. Everything seems to be more reasonable than the biblical creation narrative.
FORMING OUT OF PRE-EXISTING MATERIALS
Everything that we make or create is dependent upon things and ideas that we re-arrange and form into something else. We build our houses, plant our fields, create our art and write our books out of a stock of materials that we have found already existing. We cannot do anything else. Our most radical and creative ideas are either reconstructions of the ideas of others, new reflections on reality, or destructions of the nature and the ideas of others.
It seems obvious to us that God would do the same thing. Plato’s god created out of unformed materials. Bel Marduk created out of the body of his grandma. Science begins with the explosion of a pre-existing reality in the Big Bang. Some theologians begin with some negative reality—nothing—which God forms into a positive reality—our cosmos.
But this god is only a magnificent creature if he needs some kind of material with which to make the universe. If we buy into this teaching we change every doctrine of the Bible into something quite human and pagan.
Dualism is the teaching that there are two ultimate realities, independent of each other. One kind of dualism posits two gods; one evil and the other good. They do battle with each other. One of their battlefields is the earth and the human race. The Gnostics, the Zoroastrians, and the Manichaeans were all strict dualists. Another kind of dualism posits one god along with some eternal realities along side of him, such as heaven, darkness, chaos, or nothingness.
The Scriptures demand that we understand that before God created anything, there was nothing other than the triune God—no heaven, no space, no darkness, no nothingness, and no chaos. Anything that may exist other than God has been created by him.
MAKING CREATURES NECESSARY TO GOD’S FULFILLMENT
To some, it seems that God would be bored and unfulfilled if he were alone. He created in order to have someone to talk to, someone to bring some excitement into his life. It was then reasonable to think that God would have created. It was a personal and logical necessity.
But the triune God was never lonely, bored nor unfulfilled. The inner life of the triune God was totally fulfilling and never boring. God did not need the world and chose to create the world and the human race for themselves and not for himself. Even though we were created to “glorify him forever” (The Westminster Shorter Catechism, question # 1), the work of glorifying God does not add anything to him or give him anything that he does not already have. Looking at him and singing his praises are gifts to us rather than to him.
THE COSMOS IS ALL THAT EXISTS
Throughout history, it has been suggested that what you see is all that there is. But the cosmos is a dependent reality. The Big Bang is an explosion of an already existing and complex matter. We must go back to an eternal person who has life in Himself to explain a cosmos whose life is outside of itself.
We need a summary of the positive doctrine here, summarizing the orthodoxy and responding to the dangerous directions treated above. First of all, we need to note the absolute uniqueness of the Genesis account of creation. Then we need to note the uniqueness of the creative work of the triune God.
UNIQUENESS OF THE GENESIS CREATION ACCOUNT
Moses wrote this record of creation in the latter quarter of the fifteenth century B.C., long after the act and long after some of the other accounts had been written.11 Moses did not create this account out of his imagination, nor did he copy or revise the various extant creation stories.
It is highly unlikely that God left his people without revelation until Moses wrote his book. Revelation is essential to the life of his people. It would be contrary to all that God has revealed about himself in the Scriptures to suppose that the events described in the Scriptures before Moses had not been revealed to Adam and his descendants.
God had spoken to Adam in the garden. He passed that information on to Eve. God spoke to them after the fall. What he said was highly important for their hope of salvation. It would be difficult to believe that God had not told Adam about creation, and just as hard to believe that Ada, had not told his children and their children.
We must presume a long history of oral telling of the creation story. Those who worshiped him kept it (relatively) pure. Those who worshiped other gods perverted it as we see in the various competing creation narratives in the ancient world. God perfected it when he breathed the truth through Moses in the writing of Genesis. Genesis is the only “authoritative” record of creation available.
Evolution is another of the myths about beginnings — with little more foundation than Babylonian or Egyptian stories12. This is not the place to attempt a conversation between theology and science. Science itself makes evolution unlikely and even impossible.13 It continues to be held as a precious alternative to Genesis by those who choose to remove God from life. We need to make a clear difference between science and evolution. If scientists did their other work like they have done evolution, they would have accomplished very little and would have destroyed much.
Any correlation between Genesis and contemporary evolution would be obsolete when science changes in the next decade. Such attempts by theologians and exegetes are nearly always of little value to believers of the following decades because they have only dealt with a science which is quickly outmoded.
More than that, even were we to make a universally-held correlation of Genesis and the best of modern science, we would have failed to understand what Genesis is all about. We would be answering the wrong questions. We would be missing the whole point of the message of God to us in his words about beginnings.
God’s account of creation is a marvelous apologetic against all other worldviews and religions. Many of the critical O.T. scholars have decided that Genesis must have been written during the exile because the message of creation, fall, flood and Babel answer so many of the people’s questions during that time. But it answers just as many problems today, and few would argue that it must have been written in the twentieth century for that reason. The story of creation has met the needs of God’s people as a foundation for their own worldview and an answer to all other gods, religions and worldviews since the fall.
Gordon Wenham has summarized this polemical approach in his commentary on Genesis:
“Genesis 1-11 as we read it is a commentary, often highly critical, on ideas current in the ancient world about the natural and supernatural world. Both individual stories as well as the final completed work seem to be a polemic against many of the commonly received notions about the gods and man. But the clear polemical thrust of Genesis 1-11 must not obscure the fact that at certain points biblical and extrabiblical thought are in clear agreement. Indeed Genesis and the ancient Near East probably have more in common with each other than either has with modern secular thought.
The ancient oriental background to Genesis 1-11 shows it to be concerned with rather different issues from those that tend to preoccupy modern readers. It is affirming the unity of God in the face of polytheism, his justice rather than his caprice, his power as opposed to his impotence, his concern for mankind rather than his exploitation. And whereas Mesopotamia clung to the wisdom of primeval man, Genesis records his disobedience…
If it is correct to view Genesis 1-11 as an inspired retelling of ancient
oriental traditions about the origins of the world with a view to presenting the nature of the true God as one, omnipotent and good, as opposed to the fallible, capricious, weak deities who populated the rest of the ancient world; if further it is concerned to show that humanity is central in the divine plan, not an afterthought; if finally it wants to show that man’s plight is the product of his own disobedience and indeed is bound to worsen without divine intervention, Genesis 1-11 is setting out a picture of the world that is at odds both with the polytheistic optimism of ancient Mesopotamia and the humanistic secularism of the modern world.
Genesis is thus a fundamental challenge to the ideologies of civilized men and women, past and present, who like to suppose their own efforts will ultimately save them. Genesis declares that mankind is without hope if individuals are without God. Human society will disintegrate where divine law is not respected and divine mercy not implored. Yet Genesis, so pessimistic about mankind without God, is fundamentally optimistic, precisely because God created men and women in his own image and disclosed his ideal for humanity at the beginning of time.14
THE UNIQUENESS OF GOD’S ACT OF CREATION
Only God can create. When creatures are described as being creative, the word takes on a derivative and much smaller meaning. C. S. Lewis described the uniqueness of creation in a letter to a nun:
Creation as applied to human authorship seems to me to be an entirely misleading term. We re-arrange elements He has provided. There is not a vestige of real creativity de novo in us. Try to imagine a new primary colour, a third sex, a fourth dimension, or even a monster which does not consist of bits of existing animals stuck together. Nothing happens. And that surely is why our works (as you said) never mean to others quite what we intended; because we are re-combining elements made by Him and already containing His meaning…Writing a book is much less like creation than it is like planting a garden or begetting a child; in all three cases we are only entering as one cause into a causal stream which works, so to speak, in its own way, I would not wish it to be otherwise. If one could really create in the strict sense, would not one find that one had created a sort of Hell?15
Lewis has described two of the four totally unique characteristics of God’s work of creation: (1) A totally new invention, unthinkable by any creature and (2) Its meaning branded upon each of his creatures. The other two characteristics are: (3) Creation out of nothing and (4) Sustaining, or holding in existence, all that he has brought into existence.
God did not work in a pre-existing space nor did he have materials with which to work. He created the place and the material which he would then form and fill. God is not dependent upon any previously provided places or material. All that exists is God and whatever he has created.16
All that exists depends totally upon his work of sustaining his creatures.17 He always stands related as Creator to all of his creatures. We depend upon him to continue to be just as creatures came into existence only at his creative word. Were he to forget us, the cosmos or Satan for a microsecond, none would exist in any way. Our life, yesterday, today and forever is a constant gift of the creating God who preserves and sustains all that he has created. God is the one who has life in himself. All creatures have their life in him and only in him.
This uniqueness does not imply that this is God’s only creation. The “beginning” in Genesis one is the beginning of our space-time cosmos. It is certainly not the beginning of God nor is it likely his “first” or “last” creation. But it is the one creation about which we have certain and authoritative information — from the Creator himself.
Colin Gunton has given a nice summary of the main themes of a biblical and orthodox doctrine of creation. I think that I can do no better than to quote his outline and some annotations and follow with some comments of my own.
All cultures, ancient and modern alike, seek for a way of accounting for the universe that will give their lives coherence and meaning…. But among all the theologies, myths and theories, Christian theology is distinctive in the form and content of its teaching. It is creedal in form and this shows that the doctrine of creation is not something self-evident or the discovery of disinterested reason, but part of the fabric of the Christian response to revelation. “I believe in God the Father, maker of Heaven and Earth.
To understand the distinctiveness of this development, it is important to realize that these three themes — creation as an article of the creed; creation out of nothing; and creation as the work of the whole Trinity, Father, Son and Holy Spirit — are in some way bound up with each other, both historically and systematically. Doctrinally, they produce the following features.
First, the teaching that creation was ‘out of nothing’ affirms that God in creating the world, had no need to rely on anything outside himself, so that creation is an act of divine sovereignty and freedom, an act of personal willing. It further implies that the universe, unlike God who is alone eternal and infinite, had a beginning in time and is limited in space.
Second…creation…was rather purposive, and in two senses: that it derives from the love of God, not simply his will; and that it exists for a purpose…. Because that doctrine teaches that God is already, in advance of creation, a communion of persons existing in loving relations, it follow that he does not need the world, and so is able to will the existence of something else simply for itself. The universe is therefore the outcome of God’s love, but not its necessary outcome.
Third… is that God remains in close relations of interaction with the creation, but in such a way that he makes it free to be itself. God’s transcendence as the maker of all things is not of such a kind that he is unable also to be immanent in it through his ‘two hands’…. The created world is that which God enables to exist in time and through time to come to its completion.
Fourth, a focus on the way the transcendent Creator is involved in the world through his two hands makes possible an understanding of the place of other concepts which are in close relation with the doctrine, especially ‘conservation’, ‘preservation’, ‘providence’, and ‘redemption’. They are all to do with the way God works in and towards the creation and we know about them because they rare revealed in the characteristic forms of action of the Son and the Spirit.
Fifth, the term ‘redemption’ reminds us that we cannot escape some engagement in this context with the question of evil…. Evil is attributed not to a fault in God’s creating activity or in the created order as such, but to something which subverts it and must be overcome. It means that creation’s purpose can be achieved only by its redirection from within by the creator himself. Here, once again, we encounter the centrality of christology and pneumatology…. The final redemption of creation will be completed only at its end, but in the meantime, anticipations of creation’s final perfection are achieved whenever and wherever Christ and the Spirit hold sway.
Sixth, it follows from a number of features of the above that no theology of creation is complete without attention being paid to the place of humankind in the project…. Genesis makes the human race both the crown of, and uniquely responsible for, the shape that creation takes. By speaking of Jesus Christ as the true image of God, the New Testament show that this responsibility takes shape through him.
Seventh,…. If God’s purpose is for the redemption and perfection of the creation, all human action will in some way or other involve the human response to God that is ethics.18
We might add to this summary the unique relationship that the act of creation establishes between God and all creatures and especially between God and humans. Only God has life in himself. All creatures have their life in him, not only in its beginning but in its continuation. This means more than a continual giving of bare existence. It means also that every gift and characteristic, every talent and all of our possessions are second-by-second gifts from our Creator
It appears that once being born we have our lives in ourselves, that our hard work has honed our talents and brought us possessions. We then wonder why God sometimes takes those things away from us. We wonder what bad thing we did to deserve this loss.
But the appearance is the opposite of reality. The wonder is not why God takes things away from us. The wonder should be why God keeps on giving us life, a clear mind, gifts and talents and possessions. As the light bulb gives light as long as it receives electricity and no longer, so we keep going as long as God gives life, and no longer.
Therefore our salvation is a gift of grace by the sovereign Creator based on his original and continuing goodness alone, and never on our works to earn or keep that salvation. John Calvin listened well to this doctrine of creation when he developed his doctrine of salvation. We are totally dependent upon the living, triune God.
However, that is not the whole story. The God who created us, made us persons in his image and likeness. He thus gave us a relative independence and the responsibility of choice and obedience. Even in our rebellion we remain responsible to listen to God and to obey him. We never become mere puppets. John Wesley listened well to this doctrine when he developed his doctrine of salvation. We are responsible to obey. Fatalism is not the answer.
The truth is much more complex than is described by either Calvin or Wesley. We are totally dependent and have choice and responsibility at the same time. This is an impossible relationship between creatures or between Gods. But it is the only relationship possible between God and people. So, we accept both total sovereignty of our Creator and our the reality and integrity of our choice and personhood at the same time. We will have to keep reminding ourselves of this complex relationship throughout all the doctrines of Systematic Theology.
IMPLICATIONS AND RESPONSE
There is a very real sense in which the whole Bible is the story of creation. God created all things against all of the powers of Hell and was totally successful as it is perfected in the record of Revelation 21-22. All of the rest of the works of God are surrounded by his work of creation at the beginning and at the end of the biblical record. All that he planned was accomplished just as he intended. God’s sovereignty is founded solidly in his work of creation.
Everything that we are and have is a gift of the grace of God. We can give him absolutely nothing. He gives us absolutely everything that we have had, have and will have as a free gift. Our life, our character, our gifts and our possessions are his daily and constant gift to us. If we lost any of this, we should not ask: “Why has God taken this from me?” but rather; “Why did God give me this undeserved gift for so long?”
If he is Creator, it will make a large difference in our prayers. We will not approach him as Someone to make our life more comfortable and safe. We will not fill our prayers with requests for health and safety. We will pray the way that Jesus taught his disciples to pray, prayers founded upon his Name, his Kingdom, and his Will. We will not view him as a servant to our needs, but as a Lord who usually has quite different concerns.
Our church services will not be songs and testimonies about our experiences, but worship that bows before him and delights to speak of his holiness and goodness and power and witnesses to his great works. We will love to listen to his Word, not looking for sayings to help us, but looking for ways to understand him, to praise him, to thank him and to worship him. Worship will take on a far more central place in our private lives, our family lives, and in our church life.
What a privilege to be invited to participate in the grand metanarrative of all reality by its Author and Creator. He has delivered us from sin, from the littleness, meaninglessness and boringness of much of our lives. He has invited us to become co-workers with him — the Creator — in all of his great works. He wants to give our lives meaning and significance for all of the ages to come. He wants to give us fellowship with him. What a life! No matter how much goes wrong in this life, it is only a preface to that greater life in the future with him — a life of fulfillment beyond all of our wildest dreams..