David Opderbeck
 on August 14, 2018

God and Creation

If we want to talk about God, creation, and science, where should we start? The place to start is the place where all good Christian theology must start: with God.


If we want to talk about God, creation, and science, where should we start? It’s easy to begin with conflict. We can claim that the rise of modern science is the root of cultural decline. We can dive right into some of the contentious questions about how the Bible and science relate to each other. We can adopt a posture of defensiveness about what Christians believe and the ways in which some people think science threatens our beliefs.

But this is not a good place to start. The place to start is the place where all good Christian theology must start: with God.

“In the beginning, God….” These are the first words of the Bible. “I believe in God….” These are the first words of the Apostle’s Creed. If we want to develop wisdom and understanding about the relation between God and creation, then we need to start with the source of everything: God.

But how do we know anything about God? And how can we say anything about God? As we go about our daily lives, we can’t converse with God in exactly the same way that we might talk with our families, friends or neighbors. We can’t touch or smell God like a patch of green grass or taste Him like an apple. We can’t see him like an image on our TV screens. In theological terms, there is a sense in which God is “hidden” to our human senses. Many great Christian thinkers, such as Martin Luther, spent a good part of their lives reflecting on the “hiddenness” of God.

It may surprise you to hear God described as “hidden.” Those of us who have been in the Church for a while often are much more familiar with talk of how God has revealed Himself to us. We seem to gravitate towards detailed and systematic explanations of what we think we can know about God. God has, of course, revealed Himself to us—or else there would be very little point in trying to speak about Him. In scripture, in the proclamation of the Church, in the created world, and most importantly, in Jesus Christ, God has made Himself known. So why start with how God is “hidden?”

The very fact that God cannot be directly perceived by our ordinary human senses tells us something important about God and creation. God is “hidden” because He is “other.” God is not a patch of grass, and a patch of grass is not God. God is not an apple, and an apple is not God. God is not a television image or painting or statute, and a television image, painting or statute is not God. God is not a human being, and human beings are not God. God is not matter, the stuff of the created world, and matter is not God.

In theological terms, God is transcendent. “God” and “creation” are not the same thing. This is a basic idea that distinguishes Christian understandings of God from many other philosophies and religions. In fact, this emphasis on God’s transcendence is one important difference between the Hebrew and Christian theologies of creation and the prevailing ideas in the ancient near eastern world of the Biblical writers. It also distinguishes Christian thinking about God and creation from some of the important ideas that are common today.

In many ancient near eastern creation myths, the material creation was derived from the body of a god. In the Babylonian Enuma Elish, for example, the female god Tiamat is killed by another god, Marduk, and the two halves of Tiamat’s corpse become the earth and the skies. In Egyptian mythology, many of the gods were related to material entities. Ra, for example, was the god of the Sun, Nut was god of the sky, and Geb was god of the earth. These stories reflect an ontology in which there is no sharp distinction between the gods and the material world. The Biblical literature, in contrast, separates the nature and being of the creator-God from the nature and being of His creation.

In contemporary popular Western culture, two of the most common ideas about God and creation really are very old notions dressed up in new clothes.

One is a thought you might hear on TV talk shows, in self-help books, or in popular music or movies: that “everything is one” or that “God is in everything and everyone.” This usually sounds like “pantheism”—the notion that God and the world around us really are essentially the same thing. In American popular culture, this often boils down to God becoming the same thing as our own individual selves. How often have you heard a line like this in a song or TV show or movie: “what you’ve been looking for has been right inside yourself all along” or “the most important thing is to find out who you are?

The truth of God’s transcendence means that the real basis for a meaningful and good life lies outside of our selves. We are part of creation, and therefore we are not God. We must look outside ourselves to find the source of life. Before we become too critical here, we need to preview for a moment another important theme in Christian theology: that God is also immanent. It is true that creation is an interconnected system and that God is always present throughout all of creation. It is also true that in our created humanity we are made for an intimate connection with God. It is right to look into ourselves as we seek God. As Augustine described in his Confessions, an honest search of the self should reveal a nature that is not self-sufficient, that is not meant to be alone, that longs for relationship with a beauty and harmony and love that the individual self cannot sustain. Augustine called this a “God-shaped void” at the heart of every person.

Yet we also need to be clear that, while the search may begin within our selves, it must not stop there. God is “other,” so we must continue beyond ourselves, in fact beyond everything we think we see, in order to find Him. And the paradox here is that we can only find the true meaning and purpose of our own selves by going beyond ourselves and finding the God who is other than us and who made us.

The other idea often expressed in our popular culture is that “matter is all there is.” Unfortunately, for some people this idea has become the standard for supposedly “scientific” thinking about the world. But this is not a “scientific” idea at all—it is a metaphysical statement (“metaphysical” just means “beyond the physical”) with roots going back to the ancient Greek Stoics. For many educated people in Western culture, if something cannot be verified with the human senses, it is not “real,” or at least it is not worthy of consideration as a matter of “fact” or “reason.”

There are many reasons why this way of thinking about what counts as truth or knowledge has become so influential. Our modern intellectual, political and social systems were shaped by the period from the seventeenth to eighteenth centuries known as the “Enlightenment.” Even modern Christianity has been tinged in significant ways by Enlightenment thought.

The Enlightenment, of course, was not all bad. It gave us some great gifts, including the contemporary scientific method and the political frameworks, such as the U.S. Constitution, that support the freedoms we now take for granted.

But like many exciting moments in history, the Enlightenment produced some unbalanced perspectives. The ways in which human beings can know things in addition to observation of the tangible world around us were lost. The sorts of intuitions and experiences that human beings throughout history had understood to reach beyond reason were discredited. The thought that a transcendent God might have broken into history to reveal anything about Himself was mostly set aside.

Christian theology has always asserted that because God is transcendent, human observation and human reason are neither the starting point nor the ending point for true knowledge, wisdom and understanding. If matter is not all there is, then our search for truth cannot be limited to the material world alone. In fact, the beginning of knowledge and wisdom is the realization that God is beyond and other than the created world. Again, a word of balance is in order. Human observation and reason do matter, precisely because God created us as part of a world that is in important ways orderly and knowable. The great Christian thinker Anselm said that knowledge is the act of “faith seeking understanding.” “Understanding”—the sometimes difficult process of bringing all our resources, including reason, to bear on the search for truth—depends on and follows “faith.”

God’s transcendence means that the physical world does not represent the limits of what is true and real. Indeed, the physical world is not the beginning or end of what is true and real. The “beginning and end,” the “alpha and omega,” is the God who is beyond all our thoughts and imaginings.

God’s “immanence” refers to God’s presence in creation. If we were to speak only of the ways in which God is “transcendent”—how He is other than, above, and hidden in creation—we would be left with a god that seems more like an abstract force than a person. Such a being might resemble the pre-Christian metaphysics of Platonism or the Enlightenment Deist’s post-Christian God. The God of the Bible, the God revealed in Jesus Christ, however, is a personal and relational God. This sort of God does not merely wind up creation like a watch and then sit back to watch it run. This sort of God is always intimately involved with His creation. God’s immanence in creation is bound to God’s character as a relational being characterized by love. In scripture, various properties or states are attributed to God, but perhaps the most amazing summary is in 1 John 4:8: “God is love.”

Creation is a product of love. God did not need to create. God in Himself knows no shortage of anything. The fact that God did create, then, reflects an outpouring of God’s generosity and love. Indeed, this is echoed in the poetic refrain of Genesis 1: God declares the creation “good.” It is profitable to let this truth sink deep into our souls: the world God made is good because all of it participates in God’s love. It is sadly true, of course, that the creation is affected by our sin. But it is still God’s creation, and therefore it is still in its essence good.

In fact, creation is continually sustained by God’s love. An important corollary to God’s immanence in creation is the contingency of the creation. If God were an absent watchmaker, the creation could run on its own, without anything from God beyond the initial wind-up. But if the creation is such that God is immanent in and throughout it, then the creation does not exist apart from God. The entire creation depends utterly on God’s sustaining will and power for its ongoing existence. From the perspective of Christian theology, there is simply no such thing as “nature” without God. And despite our sin, God has not abandoned the creation. This too is a thought worth meditating upon: God has never withdrawn His presence from the creation (if He did this, creation would cease to exist!); He has not given up on what He has made; it all remains entirely His and it all continues because of His love.

This is not to say that God’s immanence in creation deprives creation of its own integrity. Creation is characterized by a beauty and order that reflects God’s own character. In His love, God has graced creation itself with causal freedom, within the probabilities of quantum physics and emergent physical laws.

Consider, for example, the Bird of Paradise, which engages in elaborate mating displays involving the construction of bowers out of colorful flowers and other materials. A female might be courted by several males, and ultimately will choose one as a mate based in some way on the quality of its display. We should not imagine that God somehow directly instructs the female about which mate to choose. The causal relationship between the male’s display and the female’s choice of mate possess an inherent integrity, as does the evolutionary history of the birds’ plumage and social rituals. We can understand these causal relationships without invoking immediate Divine intervention. Classical theologians such as Augustine and Aquinas called this “secondary” causation.

But creation cannot run on its own, because there is a deeper, “primary” level of causation, which is God’s creative and sustaining will and power. In classical theological terms, all “secondary” causes, because they are entirely dependent on God’s “primary” causation, are subsumed within God’s “primary” causation. In this way, we can think of creation as possessing inherent created freedom while at the same time existing entirely under God’s sovereignty and as a product of God’s creative will.

Yet, if creation possesses causal integrity at least at the level of secondary causation, why should we invoke God at all? Does God become an unnecessary appendage, to be elided by Ockham’s Razor? Should we repeat the famous adage of the astronomer Laplace—who, when the Emperor Napoleon asked where God fit into the cosmos, replied, “I have no need of that hypothesis?”

No, for several reasons. First, the brute fact of the universe’s existence alone does not adequately explain all—or even most—of what we as human beings believe is important. We might suggest that the universe as brute fact alone cannot explain the fact of itself. Why does this universe exist? Why does this universe seem so finely tuned to produce the sort of carbon-based life that results in human beings who are able to reflect on the meaning of it all? The best responses of materialist scientists to date are variations on the multiverse theory—a fascinating set of ideas that, even if it is “scientific” and in some way correct, merely push the “why” question, and indeed the “how” question of the origin of physical laws, further back into the mists.

Perhaps more importantly, the universe as brute fact alone cannot explain what is “good” or “just” or “beautiful” or “true,” unless we strip those terms of any real meaning. The universe as brute fact alone cannot account at all for “love”—again, unless we reduce and redefine the meaning of “love” to a mere interaction of brain chemicals, in which case we are no really speaking of “love” at all.

Finally, from a Christian perspective, most importantly of all, the universe as brute fact alone cannot explain the incarnation, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Indeed, a truly Christian perspective is one that views the universe through the lens of the incarnation, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, and not the other way around. We start where the Gospel starts: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (John 1:1). We understand the immanence of God in creation most directly through Christ, the Word, the Logos, by whom all things were created, in whom all things hold together, and who himself took on flesh and became both creator and creature.

And this brings us back to the notion of God’s immanence. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son…,” we read in John 3:16. Everywhere in creation, we should see the cross of Christ. We should see God present to such a degree that God Himself was willing to suffer and die in the person of the Son, in union with the groaning of all creation. All of creation—all of its beauty, all of its majesty, all of its power, all of its complexity, all of its simplicity, all of its suffering—points to the Logos, the Christ, who shaped it, who suffered with it and for it, who continually sustains it, and who will redeem it. This means that Christ himself is never far from any of us. He is not absent or far off; he has not abandoned what he has made. With the eyes of faith, wherever we look, we can see him; with the expectation of hope, in every season we can turn and find him right there; with the delight of love, we can enjoy and care for all the good things he has made as though he were enjoying them and caring for them along with us—for he is indeed Emmanuel, God With Us.

That God is Triune is among the most basic of Christian confessions. Christians confess that there is one God—God is “one in essence”—distinguished in three persons—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Certainly the idea that “God is one in essence distinguished in three persons” is far easier to state than to understand. As theologian Robert Jensen says, “’[t]he doctrine of the Trinity’ is less a homogeneous body of propositions than it is a task: that of the church’s continuing effort to recognize and adhere to the biblical God’s hypostatic being.”1

It is easy to paint incorrect pictures of what it means for God to be Triune: pictures of three persons of the Trinity having different hierarchical ranks (called “subordinationism”); or pictures of the three persons representing merely different manifestations of God (called “modalism”); or pictures of the three persons as individually separate gods (called “tritheism”). Against these incorrect pictures we need to understand that the persons of the Trinity are equal with and inseparable from each other—that they are “coequal,” “coessential,” “coinherent.”

These word pictures matter because they point us toward the sort of being God really is. Theologian Daniel Migliore says it this way:

To speak thus of God as triune is to set all of our prior understandings of what is divine in question. God is not a solitary monad but free, self-communicating love. God is not the supreme will-to-power over others but the supreme will-to-communion in which power and life are shared. To speak of God as the ultimate power whose being is in giving, receiving, and sharing love, who gives life to others and wills to live in communion, is to turn upside down our understandings of both divine and human power.2

This relational understanding of God has profound implications for how we understand God’s purposes for creation. This is because God acts as God is. In theological terms, we say that the “economic trinity”—how God is in Himself—is the “immanent trinity”—how God acts in relation to creation. God created not because anything compelled or required Him to do so, but out of the same love that characterizes the coequal, coessential, coinherent Triune persons of his being.

Theologian and writer David Bentley Hart summarizes this theme beautifully:

The God whom Genesis depicts as pronouncing a deliberative ‘Let us…’ in creating humanity after his image and as looking on in approbation of his handiwork, which he sees to be good, is the eternal God who is the God he forever is, with or without creation, to whom creation adds absolutely nothing; God does not require creation to ‘fecundate’ his being, nor does he require the pathos of creation to determine his ‘personality’ as though he were some finite subjectivity writ large, whose transcendental Ego were in need of delimitation in an empirical ego; God and creation do not belong to an interdependent history of necessity, because the Trinity is already infinitely sufficient, infinitely ‘diverse,’ infinitely at peace; God is good and sovereign and wholly beautiful, and creation is gift, loveliness, pleasure, dignity, and freedom…”3

Hart continues:

precisely because creation is uncompelled, unnecessary, and finally other than that dynamic life of coinherent love whereby God is God, it can reveal how God is the God he is; precisely because creation is needless, an object of delight that shares God’s love without contributing anything that God does not already possess in infinite eminence, creation reflects the divine life, which is one of delight and fellowship and love.

Gift. Delight. Loveliness. Fellowship. Love. These words characterize creation because they are what the God who created is in His Triune self.

Creation is gift. It is easy to lose track of this truth in the midst of the violence, anger and war that scars our experience of the world. Have you ever thought it would have been better if you had never been born? Have you ever wondered why God created at all when the result is so much suffering? It is impossible to “explain” suffering and evil, though the Trinitarian, relational understanding of creation points in helpful directions. One important theme is that, even with all its groaning, creation is given freely by God, out of His overflowing perichoretic love, as gift. That we are alive, that we breathe the air of this world and feel its soil under our feet, is good.

Creation is delight. How often do you drink in the simple joy of being? Stand by a window for a moment and feel the warm sun on your skin. This is an expression of God’s own life.

Creation is lovely. From the tiniest one-celled organisms to the inconceivably vast fields of galaxies, creation displays symmetry, light, color, movement, form, shape.

Creation is fellowship. The creatures of the earth and we human beings are bound together in a common share of life. And we as human beings, with all our variety of skin and body types, are fundamentally of the same stuff, sharing the same spark of divinity, made for each other and for God.

Creation is love. Every structure, every particle, everything seen and unseen, all that is, is because of God’s love, and is loved by God. To be loved by the God who is perfected in love within His own being is to be named a thing of unimaginable worth. There is nothing ordinary in the universe or in any universe God has made. Everything that is, is extraordinary and priceless.

Today may you receive with gratitude the gift of being;
May you delight in life;
May you bathe in beauty;
May you know you belong;
May you realize the true measure of your worth, and share in the joyful dance of God’s overflowing, creative love.

Note: This post draws on David’s essays, which are posted on his website. It was first published at BioLogos on May 11, 2011, as a short series. 

About the author

David Opderbeck Headshot

David Opderbeck

David Opderbeck is Professor of Law and Director of the Gibbons Institute of Law, Science & Technology at Seton Hall University Law School. He is also working on a Ph.D. in Philosophical Theology at the University of Nottingham and is Pastoral Science Scholar with the Center for Pastoral Science.

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