I: WHAT THE BIBLE TEACHES ABOUT CREATIONRobert J. Schneider Photos © by Robert J. Schneider
Revelations for a Doctrine of Creation
There is a sense in which every Christian is a "creationist," for every Christian believes that he or she lives in a universe that is a creation, and that the Source of creation is the God who is revealed in the Bible as "maker of heaven and earth." This is true, whether the Christian is a young-earth creationist, an old earth creationist, an intelligent design creationist, or an evolutionary creationist. While these various creationists may strongly disagree among themselves about the "how" of creation, and subscribe to different portraits or models of creation, they do agree on certain essential beliefs or doctrines about creation, beliefs that they find anchored in the revelations of Holy Scripture. So, to look at creation from the perspective of Christian faith we begin with the Bible.
|Jezreel Valley from Nazareth Hills|
But Christian theologians, both ancient and contemporary, declare that this understanding of the act of creation as a past event is limited and inadequate, for the Bible sets out a more complex understanding of "creation." I shall survey some perspectives from the history of Christian theology on the meaning of creation in the second essay, but here I focus on creation as understood in Holy Scripture.
There is a consensus among biblical scholars that the revelation about creation in the Bible refers primarily to the relationship between the Creator and the creation,
and that the Bible declares that this relationship, as I shall explain below, is both intimate and covenantal. Furthermore, in the Bible "creation" is revealed not only as the calling forth of the universe into being but also its sustaining in existence and its eventual transformation: original creation, continuous creation, new creation. While some Christians emphasize the verse in Genesis that states, "God finished his creation," the Bible witnesses in other places that God continues to create, and will "make all things new." Also, "creation" for those of Christian faith also includes God's calling humanity into covenants, enduring bonds of promise and fidelity, especially the covenant God established with the Israelites at Sinai and the new covenant Christ established with all who believe in him. Out of these covenants the good news goes forth that the God who creates heaven and earth is the same God who saves-from bondage in Egypt, from bondage to sin.
The popular emphasis that is placed on the first chapter of the Book of Genesis has encouraged this misunderstanding about the meaning of creation. But as important as that narrative is, it is only one of many passages in both the Old and New Testaments that reveal the relationship between the Creator and the creation. An appendix at the conclusion of this essay lists them. Here I shall try to summarize the major themes of creation that are to be found in these and other passages in the Bible.
Major themes of the first creation narrative:
|Hills of Samara with Mt. Gilboa (center) from Jordan Valley|
It might seem redundant to those of you who are Christians if I should summarize the content of Genesis 1, but there is a pattern in this creation narrative that is often not recognized, and it is worthwhile to point it out. The account begins with that part of the creation that is other than the heavens, here spoken of as "the earth" but including "the Deep," in a state of "utter chaos" (Wenham I, 15-16), translated in the KJV as "without form and void" (Heb. "tohuwabohu"). Many scholars have noted a pattern to the "six days": in the first three "bohu," i.e., "formlessness," is given form: (1) light emerges from darkness, (2) the waters are separated to form the lower and upper seas-the latter supported by the "firmament," and (3) land emerges from the lower sea and is adorned with plant life. In the latter three days "tohu," i.e., the state of being "empty," is filled: (4) the sun, moon, and stars fill the firmament, (5) fish and other sea creatures fill the lower sea and birds the sky, and (6) wild and domestic beasts, other land creatures, and human beings fill the earth (Hyers 67-71). The seventh day of rest hallows and validates the commandment of a Sabbath rest (Exod. 20:11) by weaving it into the very structure of creation.
Because of this pattern, many evangelical biblical scholars have been drawn to some version of a "framework hypothesis": the six days are to be seen not as a chronological account of the steps of creation but as a framework in which the various categories of "creature"--the word refers to both inanimate and living things--are laid out in a logical order that in itself declares that creation in the beginning involves the bringing of order out of chaos. The "utter chaos," the "formless and empty" undifferentiated mass of the beginning of creation is a "problem" God moves immediately to solve, and the solution is to differentiate matter through separation and to fill it with both inanimate and animate creatures. Seen in the light of this hypothesis, Genesis 1 provides a theological declaration of God's creativity rather than a scientific description of events (Hyer, ibid; Wenham I, 39-40).
|Dead Sea, mountains of Moab|
God's intimate companionship with the creation and creation's grateful response:
Christians disagree whether the story of Eden in Genesis 2:4-24 is a second creation story that differs from the account in Genesis 1:1-2:3. Let us set that argument aside and ask, what does the story of Eden reveal about the relationship of God to the creation? I think the answer is clear: God's relationship is an intimate one. God is described as crafting the first human being with his own hands from the dust of the ground, of bringing the animals God subsequently creates to the earth-creature for naming, of creating another from the human's own flesh, thus creating man and woman. As the narrative continues in the following chapter, God is described as walking with the man and the woman in the Garden in the cool of the evening. If the creation narrative in Genesis 1 depicts God as transcendent, that is, wholly other than the creation, "standing apart," as it were, from the creation he calls into existence, then the creation story of Genesis 2 emphasizes God's immanence, his presence within the creation, his intimate interaction with the creation. Both of these notions are present, as we shall see in the second essay, in the theology of creation that develops in early Christian thought.
|Judean Wilderness near Arad|
When you hide your face they are dismayed
When you take away their breath they die;
When you send forth your Spirit they are created,
And you renew the face of the earth
Yes, God's covenant with the earth is a covenant of faithful sustenance and continuous creation. The biblical God is always making things, sustaining things, renewing things, blessing things.
Creation's grateful response is to praise its creator. In Ps.148, the psalmist eloquently calls upon every element of the creation--sun and moon, fire and hail, snow and frost, creeping things and flying fowl, "every thing that hath breath"--to praise the Lord.
The biblical writers live in a world whose every creature is alive to the presence of its Creator and rejoices at his manifestations.
"The heavens declare the glory of God, and the firmament shows his handiwork" (Ps. 19:1). At the coming of the Lord, the morning stars sing together (Job 38:7), the mountains skip like rams (Ps. 114:4), and the trees of the field clap their hands (Isa. 56:12).
These and many other passages may show us how differently the ancient Israelites and we ourselves experience the creation. So many of us today are so little connected with the natural world. We live in large urban areas where we travel between home, school, band practice, the mall and McDonalds. Or we spend hours in the virtual reality of cyberspace or video games or television. Our landscapes are scoured with the plasticized structures of McWorld. Light pollution blots out our view of the Milky Way and other stars. Or we live in our heads, intellectually or imaginatively, in the realm of ideas or fantasies. When I taught the course that inspired these essays, I assigned students to spend a brief period of time weekly gazing at the heavens at night or at some thing of beauty in nature during the day. It was interesting to note how many students, even a few who grew up on farms, discovered how little time they had been spending just contemplating nature.
|Sheep and goats on the road to Jericho|
The One who creates is also the One who saves:
The message proclaimed in Genesis 1 is made explicit also in the words of the prophet of the Babylonian Exile (6th century BC) preserved in the Book of Isaiah. Isaiah 40-45 contains words of comfort the prophet offers to his fellow Judahites exiled in Babylon: his ringing proclamation that their God is the One who has created the heavens and the earth:
I am the Lord who made all things,
Who alone stretched out the heavens,
Who by myself spread out the earth.
(Isa. 44:23; cf. 42:5-6)
Who has measured the waters in the hollows of his hand,
And marked off the heavens with a span,
Enclosed the dust of the earth in a measure,
And weighed the mountains in scales and the hills in a balance?
�The Lord is the everlasting God,
The Creator of the ends of the earth
(Isa. 40:12, 28).
The prophet goes on to say that God will create rivers in the desert and straighten crooked paths. He will make a new thing. When he freed Israel from bondage in Egypt centuries earlier, God created of them a people for his own and made a covenant with them. Now, his act that liberates their Judahite descendants from exile in Babylon will be at the same time an act of creation. He will renew his people as he renews the creation, and will give them a new covenantal responsibility, to be a light to the nations (Is. 42:6). Thus, creation and salvation are closely tied together in the understanding of the biblical writers.
God creates the universe in wisdom:
O Lord, how manifold are your works!
In wisdom you have made them all...
An important theme in the Old Testament is that God creates all things in wisdom, an expression of God's own nature. God is the source of all wisdom (Prov. 2:8), and wisdom is one of the most important of God's gifts to humankind (Prov. 8:11-12). Specifically, wisdom's role in creation is highlighted in key passages. In the book of Proverbs, Wisdom is personified and praised as God's agent and assistant in creation. "The Lord created me at the beginning of his work," Wisdom declares, "the first of his acts of old." "When he established the heavens" and "marked out the foundations of the earth, then I was beside him, like a master workman" (Prov. 8:22ff). In the magnificent love song to the creation in Job 38-41, God reminds Job that only God's wisdom knows the creation in its entirety and in all its parts, and that the knowledge and understanding of human beings is limited.
|Judea: the Shefalah|
The Word and Wisdom of God is revealed in Jesus Christ, the Lord of Creation:
"Christ, the power of God and the wisdom of God"
(1 Cor. 1:24)
In the New Testament, these themes of creation found in the Old Testament are recapitulated in the person and work of Jesus Christ. Once his disciples proclaimed their Nazarene teacher to be Lord and Messiah following his Resurrection, some early Christians soon came to perceive him in more cosmic terms. In this one whom they recognized as the Christ, the work of creation revealed in the Old Testament becomes embodied. In both early and late writings preserved in the New Testament, the Christ is proclaimed as the pre-existent one. In the Letter to the Colossians he is lauded as
the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation;
for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created,
things visible or invisible�
all things have been created through him and for him.
He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together�.
For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell,
and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things,
whether on earth or in heaven,
by making peace through the blood of his cross"
(Col. 1:15-17, 19-20).
In this remarkable passage, perhaps an early Christian hymn incorporated by the writer of this letter, we see Christ proclaimed as the Agent of Creation (in him all things were created), the Wisdom of God (the firstborn of all creation, as in Prov. 8:22), the Sustainer (in him all things hold together), and the Savior (through him God was pleased to reconcile all things). And the passage itself rings with praise to Christ. He--the One through whom God saves, and not only human beings but all things, the entire cosmos--is also the very Word of God who spoke the whole of creation into existence, as John the Evangelist also affirmed in the words of perhaps another early Christian hymn:
|Sea of Galilee with Plain of Gennesaret and hills of Lower Galilee|
And the Word was with God,
And the Word was God.
He was in the beginning with God.
All things came into being through him,
And without him not one thing came into being
In the earthly ministry of Jesus of Nazareth, who had such a profound sense of intimacy with his Father, the Lord of Heaven and Earth, we also see his intimacy with the creation. The one who stilled the storm on the lake, whom the winds and the waves obeyed (Mark 4:35-41), also spoke of the lilies of the field and the fall of a sparrow, of the search for lost lambs, of vineyards and fields of grain, of the simple yet sacramental elements of water, bread and wine. The intimacy with God's creation he shared with his fellow Jews prefigured the deeper intimacy his followers would come to believe of him: that he is the One who holds all the creation together in himself.
In these New Testament proclamations about the cosmic Christ, the elements of the Old Testament portrait of the creation and its Creator find their completeness.
Is There a "Portrait" of Creation in the Bible?
Up to this point I have focused on those passages about Creation in Holy Scripture that have provided essential themes for a theology of creation. But does the Bible, in particular the Old Testament writings, also offer a portrait of the creation, that is, do these writings contain a conceptual model to account for the variety of natural phenomena the sacred writers observed and described? One does find such a portrait: it was basically the "standard model" the Israelites shared with their Semitic neighbors of the ancient Near East. Although there is no single passage where this portrait is elaborated in detail, there are a number of allusions to its various elements throughout the Old Testament.
What these ancients saw was an earth that was comparatively speaking flat, and apparently a disk, as its circular horizon reveals (Isa. 40:22a). The Earth, here meaning "the land" (and not "the other part of the creation from the heavens") apparently rests upon and is surrounded by a huge body of water, which the Hebrews referred to as "the Deep" (Prov. 8:27; Job 26:10). The portion of this water that lies under the earth is the source of the freshwater springs that well up from below the ground (Gen. 2:5). Above the land is a great expanse of the sky, which appears dome-like, called the Firmament (Heb., "raqi'a" [Gen. 1:5]); it is held up by "pillars," high mountains on the edge of the earth (Job 26:11). That this dome-like expanse was thought to be solid is clear from the fact that one finds another great sea above it, referred to in the Bible as the "upper sea" or the "waters above the heavens" (Gen. 1:6-7; Ps. 148:4). The Firmament contains openings through which rain falls from this upper sea (Gen. 7:11-12) and "storehouses" which hold snow, hail, and lightning (Job 38:22).
In the great expanse of Sky are placed the lights of the stars, and the "greater and lesser lights," the sun and the moon. Elsewhere the sun is described poetically as "running its course" (Ps. 19:5). In Gen. 1:14-18, God is said to have set the stars, sun and moon in the dome; elsewhere, they appear, and are understood, to utilize openings in the expanse or the horizon as they make their journeys across the skies.
There is another area within the disk of the earth that enters into this portrait of the creation, an underworld called Sheol. Located deep within the earth (Isa. 7:11; Prov. 9:18), vast (Hab. 2:5) and dark (Job 10:21-22), it was regarded as the natural resting place of the dead--but not, for the Hebrews, a place of punishment (Job 3:11-19).
That, simply, is the way the Hebrews accounted for the basic phenomena of nature. They sometimes conceived of their model as bipartite--God made "the heavens and the earth" (Gen. 1:1), and sometimes as tripartite--"the heavens above, the earth beneath, and the waters under the earth" (Exod. 20:4), but it is clear that the creation they saw around them was conceptualized in this way (for more detailed accounts of this portrait, see the books and articles by Bailey, Stadelmann, Stek, Seely, Van Till, and Walton, listed in "Further Reading," below).
These biblical writers were not scientists, and the fact that there is no extensive, detailed description of the physical world in the Bible strongly suggests that they were not inspired to provide a scientific description.
|Oasis of Ein Gedi, Judean Wilderness|
Instead of reading the chapter as a triumphant affirmation of the power and wisdom of God and the wonder of his creation, we have been too often bogged down in attempting to squeeze Scripture into the mold of the latest scientific hypothesis or distorting scientific facts to fit a particular interpretation. When allowed to speak for itself, Gen. 1 looks beyond such minutiae. Its proclamation of the God of grace and power who undergirds the world and gives it purpose justifies the scientific approach to nature (40).
The cosmological model of the ancient Hebrews was not ours. On the other hand, it does not deserve to be dismissed as "pre-scientific" or scorned because it is outmoded; rather, one can respect and honor it for the service it provided in making the created world they lived in intelligible to the Hebrews and their descendents. Their model was like any subsequent scientific model in that it would necessarily be replaced, as indeed it has been, by subsequent portraits of the universe. Yet, and this is so important that I wish to emphasize it,
the Bible's theological truths about the creation do not depend for their validity upon the ancient model in which they are set.
They are accepted as true by faith, irrespective of how each generation may conceptualize the universe they seek to understand and explain.
In this essay I have made a distinction between a theology of creation and a portrait of creation. The first has to do with the revelation that God is the creator of the universe; the second with the way God's creation appeared to and was conceptualized by his covenant people. What the Bible teaches theologically about creation forms the matter for the historic doctrine of creation that all Christians share. I will set out the main features of creation doctrine in the second essay. In the third essay I shall explain how theologians and biblical scholars throughout the centuries have upheld the Bible as truthful scripture in light of the ancient cosmological model the sacred writers describe.
Appendix: Biblical Passages relating to Creation
Old Testament and Apocrypha: Cosmology and Theology (Psalms 104; 102:25-27; 148; Genesis 1-2:4; 2:4-2:24; Sirach 42:15-43:33). God, Creator and Redeemer (Isaiah 40-43; Psalms 33; 74:12-23; 77; 136). Wisdom (Proverbs 8; Sirach 24:1-7; Wisdom 7:7-8:1).
New Testament: Christ the Creator (I Corinthians 8:6; Colossians 1:9-23; Hebrews 1:1-13 [=Psalms 102:25-27; 110:1]; John 1:1-14). Christ and the New Creation (Romans 8:18-25; 2 Peter 1:1-8; Revelation 21-22:5).
Bailey, Lloyd R., Genesis, Creation, and Creationism. New York: Paulist Press, 1993.
The Holy Bible (KJV, NRSV).
Bouma-Prediger, Steven, For the beauty of the earth: A christian vision for creation care. Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2001, Chapter 4.
Hyers, Conrad, The Meaning of Creation: Genesis and Modern Science. Atlanta: John Knox, 1984.
Schneider, Robert J., "Does the Bible Teach a Spherical Earth?" in Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith [PSCF] 53 (2001) 159-169 www.asa3.org/ASA/PSCF/2001/PSCF9-01Schneider.html.
Seely, Paul, "The Geographical Meaning of 'Earth' and 'Seas' in Gen. 1:10," Westminster Theological Journal 59 (1997) 231-55.
Seely, Paul, "The Three-Storied Universe," Journal of the American Scientific Affiliation [PSCF] 21 (1969) 18-22 (www.asa3.org/ASA/PSCF/1969/JASA3-69Seely.html).
Stadelmann, Luis, S.J., The Hebrew Conception of the World. Analecta Biblica, 39. Rome: Biblical Institute Press, 1970.
Stek, John H., "What Says the Scripture?" in Portraits of Creation: Biblical and Scientific Perspectives on the World's Formation, by Howard J. Van Till et al. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1990.
Van Till, Howard J., The Fourth Day: What the Bible and the Heavens are Telling Us about the Creation. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1986. "Part I: The Biblical View."
Walton, John H., Genesis. The NIV Application Commentary. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2001.
Wenham, Gordon, ed., Genesis. Word Biblical Commentary, vol. 1. Waco, TX: Word, 1996.
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