I: WHAT THE BIBLE TEACHES ABOUT CREATION
Robert 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.
First, we need to understand what the word means. "Creation," as I shall use the word in these essays, refers both to the process and product of creation: we apply it both to the creation of the universe and to the universe as a creation. And I must make an important clarification from the start. Too often, "creation" as process is popularly understood, and thus misunderstood, to refer simply to the origination of the universe. Many people, it appears, think of creation as something that happened in the past. To them "In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth" (Gen. 1:1) means "God did this way back then." Christians have been arguing rather vociferously in recent years over how far back "then" is, as many believers accept the scientific evidence for a universe some 13.7 billion years old, and others claim that the Bible teaches that the universe is only about 6,000 to 10,000 years old. In fact, the Bible doesn't teach this, but that is another matter, and we'll review this controversy in a later essay.
|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:
Let me start where most people start, but ask you to reread Genesis 1:1-2:4a, the first creation narrative, with fresh eyes. Set aside any preconceptions as to how you would ordinarily interpret it, and ask the question as if for the first time, "What is this narrative about?" I shall take the position, common among most Christian scholars, including many evangelicals, that Genesis 1 is not "a straightforward, historical and scientific account of how God created," the view espoused by young-earth creationists. Rather, this magnificent hymn-like passage is a theological proclamation, a manifesto, a statement of faith about both the creation and the Creator. Disagreements among Christians over the interpretation of Genesis 1 often fall into an either/or argument: either it's history, people argue, or metaphor (or poetry); those who think it is not an account of what actually happened call it "just a story."
I should like to sidestep this rather misleading dichotomy. First, what is historical about Genesis 1 is the context in which it was framed, and it needs to be understood within that context. Second, the word "metaphor" does not do justice to this powerful and majestic proclamation. I agree with the widely accepted view that Genesis 1 is a narrative that combines the rhythms and repetitions of a worship text with a theological declaration. This revelatory narrative challenges and rejects the theologies of Israel's polytheistic neighbors, both the Canaanites among whom they lived as a free people and the Babylonians among whom they lived as exiles. It is anti-mythological, in that it rejects the mythological truth claims of its neighbors' creation stories; but it proclaims theological rather than chronological truths. As I shall argue below, in agreement with the great majority of biblical scholars, including evangelicals, Genesis 1 is a theological hymn of praise to the God of creation and a celebration of creation.
|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).
If we read and interpret Genesis 1 theologically rather than scientifically, then what sort of revelation can we expect to find in it? Genesis 1 teaches what is the common faith of all Christians (and also Jews and Muslims): that there is one God, not the many, combative divinities Israel's Semitic neighbors believed in and made actors in their creation myths. The creation is called forth by this one God in a placid and orderly manner and given structure; it is not the expression of contending divine forces that Israel's neighbors believed accounted for the changes and upheavals they experienced within nature. The "utter chaos" of undifferentiated matter God marshals and makes fertile by simple but powerful and royal declarations of "Let there be!" God does not have to battle other forces in order to bring cosmos (order) to creation. Even the sea monsters are not divinities (as in the creation myths of Israel's neighbors) but products of God's creative word (Gen. 1:21). Further, this creation is entirely natural; no portion of it is to be understood as divine. While it is sacred because it is the product of the Holy One, it is not composed of divine beings. Genesis 1 also implies that the entire creation is contingent, wholly dependent upon its Creator for its very being and continuing existence and for all of the forms, capacities, capabilities, and potentialities it possesses-all of its elements, living and non-living--and that it is given all these solely by the will of its Author. Finally, this majestic narrative proclaims that in the eyes of its Maker, each element of the creation is essentially good, and that looking upon the whole of creation God declares that it is very good.
|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.
God's intimacy with creation is an important theme throughout the Old Testament. God's address to Job (chapters 38-41) reveals God's intimate relationship with all of his creation, and, even more, God's joy in everything that he has created, whether it be in the "majestic snorting" of the horse or the soaring hawk or the wild ass that scorns the city (Job 39:7, 20, 26). Many of the Psalms also emphasize God's love and intimate relationship with the creation, and the latter's utter dependence upon God for its existence and its operation. Psalm 104, an extended hymn to creation and the Creator, lauds God's creative activities. This psalm is an important witness to the revelation that God's creative activity is ongoing: significantly, nearly every one of its verbs is in the present tense. For the Psalmist, God continually creates, making the springs gush forth in the valleys, causing the grass to grow for all hoofed beasts, planting the cedars of Lebanon (Ps. 104:10, 14, 16). Creation's utter dependence is emphasized:
|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.
But the biblical writers and their fellow Israelites did not have these distractions and barriers. They lived in intimate relationship with the landscape that surrounded and sustained them. They were attuned to the changes of the seasons, the flights of birds, the fury of storms, the silence of the heavens and of the desert wastes, the bleating of lambs and goats, the hot, dry desert wind, stretching the dust out like a curtain, the breezes blowing through the cedars that adorned the hills and high places. They looked up at the night sky and saw the parade of stars that moved across its great dome. They were aware of the expanse of the heavens and of the deserts that stretched from horizon to horizon, and some may have viewed the magnificent vista of the Jordan Valley from the heights of Mt. Zion with awe, as I once did. This creation seemed small enough that they could feel its intimacy, could feel close to the God whose throne was heaven and footstool earth. This is the God who spoke to them in a burning bush and in the sound of a still, small voice, who accompanied them in cloud and fire, who made prophets his friends and kings his sons. It is no wonder these inspired writers proclaimed a God whose relationship to the world was so awesome and yet so intimate.
|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.
The creation as the expression of God's Wisdom is also developed in the books of the Apocrypha, recognized as part of the Old Testament by Roman Catholic and eastern Orthodox Christians. In the book of Ecclesiasticus, Jesus son of Sirach writes that Wisdom alone has "made the circuit of the vault of heaven and … walked in the depths of the abyss" (Sir. 24:5). Thus, whatever human beings are able to comprehend about the creation, wisdom teaches them, as the author of the book of Wisdom also declares (Wis. 7:22). In this same passage, an eloquent psalm of praise, the author describes Wisdom as "a breath of the power of God and a pure emanation of the glory of the Almighty, … a reflection of eternal light, a spotless mirror of the working of God, and an image of his goodness" (25-26).
|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:
In the beginning was the Word,
|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.
Rather, they were spokespersons of the message that the world they perceived was created and sustained by the God who led them from bondage to freedom, and showed his power in every aspect of the creation. In my view it is a mistake, and truly misguided, to try to read modern scientific knowledge into these ancient depictions, as some Christians try to do (Schneider 159-169). The Bible does not contain this sort of knowledge. Evangelical Bible scholar Gordon Wenham's comment on this practice expresses my own view:
|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.