The Doctrine of Creation in Historical Perspective
Today's entry was written by John Wesley Wright. Please note the views expressed here are those of the author, not necessarily of The BioLogos Foundation. You can read more about what we believe here.
Christians have lost their ability to speak the “faith given to the saints.” It is not that this language has lost its intellectual poignancy. It remains as persuasive today as it did in the centuries when it formed some of the greatest human minds in history. The problem is that the historic faith has become fragmented. Having passed through the flotsam and jetsam of history, various permutations, great and small, have become attached to it. The historic Christian tradition’s rational structure still stands strong. Nonetheless, it has been obscured by a dust cloud that swirls in and around. Today bits of faith float free in various configurations to be grabbed and reassembled like a box of Lego toys by intellectuals and laity—friend and foe alike.
This is especially noticeable when we speak about the Christian doctrine of creation, a teaching that the Church shares in its most basic outline with Jews and Muslims. Historically all these traditions have confessed that God has created all that is - “the heavens and the earth”- from nothing. This insight into the very nature of things came into the world with the force of a scientific revolution. The ancient Greek world, in contrast, made an alternative claim: something cannot come from nothing – all that is exists eternally.
Ancient Greek philosophical traditions promote the belief God and the world always belong together. God ultimately shares in the same system as the world. God and the world are both “natural” – God necessarily implies the world and vice versa. Inevitably one will place God into an already required category to ensure the stability of the system. Since the world is viewed as necessary, the primary questions are where and how God fits into the system, and perhaps how humans can work with or against, if required, God. All mystery dissolves under the rational coherence of the system.
One example of this today is found in the Intelligent Design movement. The Intelligent Design God becomes a Cause within the world to help explain how the world developed; God and creation naturally belong together. God becomes like Hansel and Gretel, leaving bread crumbs within creation that might lead the truly rational person to a level of intelligence that God and the rational person share. Human reason can grasp this God without faith. One uses reason to find “black boxes” where God serves as a force within creation, a very wily and obscure agent that leaves mysterious clues for scientific deciphering. God the agent is not mysterious; the clues that God left behind provide a riddle that inquiring minds can solve. Rather than the mysterious Source behind and in and through and before creation, Intelligent Design develops a modern conception of God as a Cause amid other causes. Though it has an apologetic Christian intent, this God is much closer to the ancient Greek divinity than the God witnessed to in the faith handed over to the saints who creates from nothing.
When ancient Jews, Christians, and Muslims encountered the world, they did not encounter something that is necessary or “natural.” They discovered a world that does not have to be, a world that God has gifted with existence out of God’s own graciousness and mercy, a world that becomes fully comprehensible through faith in the Creator God. Jews, Christians, and Muslims encounter “creation,” not “nature.” Creation calls us to investigate the cosmos as a whole with the wonder, amazement, and thankfulness that is appropriate to creation’s nature as gift. The beauty of its parts participating in the whole becomes a sign of creation’s Creator, perhaps a sign perceived dimly but still very visible through faith. God is not an agent within creation to be investigated or excluded by electron microscopes and evolutionary logarithms or the opening of black boxes. As Creator of all that is from nothing, God is the mystery that is the source, sustainer, and end of all creation. As the Christian Scriptures state, “For from God and through God and to God are all things” (Romans 11:36). It is no accident that the passage ends with an articulation of praise: “To God be the glory forever!” God is God, the ultimate mystery through whom all things become fully understandable.
The doctrine of creation does not deny scientific reason. Such a reason is easily rendered intelligible by the historic Jewish, Christian, and Muslim traditions. As God creates from nothing, God has made and sustains creation as that which is other than God. Creation has a certain autonomous existence from God, not of necessity but because God has freely granted it. Here is a truthful paradox: creation is “self-contained” as that which is not God, even as it is fully and solely dependent upon God as its source, sustainer, and end. Obviously this means that God is not an agent at all like other agencies found within creation. With relentless wonder, humans are free to examine, investigate and theorize about agencies within creation without reserve. We will never “see God” or God’s agency directly – God is not creation. God is so radically other than that which is within creation that any human attempt to describe God is always characterized by an infinitely greater inadequacy.
With the doctrine of creation, Jews, Christians, and Muslims who are true to their roots are free to utilize scientific reason with abandon. But we confess that human reason is also more than a mere instrument. Our reason, lifted and perfected by faith, accounts for creation’s origin and end beyond its own confines. Formed by faith in the Creator God, reason opens humans to that which is radically ”other”—creation’s truth, goodness and beauty that point beyond the created order to culminate in the worship of the indescribable mystery of God. We can understand the wonder that the scientist experiences in her study of genetic structures and the beauty that a mathematician finds in the elegance of a mathematical formula. We understand by faith why creation, being from God and through God and to God, would bear witness to its Creator. We even understand why these signs do not come upon us coercively or necessarily – for that would reduce God to an agent within creation, and thus ironically deny what we confess in the Creator God who creates from nothing.
Affirming the doctrine of creation from nothing, it is impossible to have a conflict between what empirical investigation describes and our confession of the God who creates from nothing. It is possible to have a conflict between scientists and the culture of scienticism – a culture that wants to reduce all rationality to its own powerful but limited instrumental reason that refuses an origin and end beyond itself. Ultimately humans must discover from within their own embodied experience of “nature” that the cosmos as a whole points beyond itself in its truth, goodness, and beauty as the creation of God, the mystery that elicits from within the praise and wonder and meaning with which we participate in life.
John Wesley Wright, Ph.D. is Professor of Theology and Christian Scriptures at Point Loma Nazarene University. Dr. Wright has published numerous articles and edited a number of books, including Priests, Prophets, and Scribes: Essays on the Formation and Heritage of Second Temple Judaism in Honor of Joseph Blenkinsopp, which he co-edited with Eugene Ulrich, Robert Carroll, and Philip R. Davies. (JSOT Press, 1992) and Conflicting Allegiances: The Church-based University In A Liberal Democratic Society, co-edited with Michael Budde (Brazos Press, 2004).