What is the Theological Meaning of Creation in Scripture?
If the creation accounts in Scripture are not meant to communicate scientific and historical details the way we expect science and history to be written today, what are they meant to communicate?
Last week I began reflecting on David Fergusson’s recent book Creation by giving some thoughts on the logical connection of a historical Adam and Eve to the rest of Christian theology. Fergusson himself devotes only about a page to this question, culminating with “We can have redemption in Christ without a fall in the historical Adam—the other New Testament writers [aside from Paul] seem to have little difficulty attesting Christ as savior without reference to the fall story. It is sufficient that we are all sinners as illustrated in the Genesis 3 story, and that the scope of Christ’s work is universal” (p. 11). So if that’s not what the creation story is designed to communicate, what is it about?
Fergusson’s first chapter is titled “Creation in Scripture”. He says there are four important features of the doctrine of creation that emerge from the Bible:
- The God-world relationship is distinguished from other rival views. According to the Bible, the world is not divine or otherwise an emanation from God. It comes into being by the will and word of God.
- The world is good, and its goodness is not limited to a pre-fall Eden. While this generates a problem of evil for our understanding, the Bible seems to embrace this problem rather than diminishing either the power of God or the goodness of the world.
- Building further on this, creation is imperfect and incomplete. The world is only the first of God’s creative works, setting in motion a narrative that has its focus on the coming of Jesus Christ.
- The making of the world is a cause of celebration and praise.
The first point is one of the important factors (by no means the only one) often used to explain why modern science arose in the Christian West. The argument goes that in other religious cultures, the physical world was thought to be necessary emanation from the divine, and therefore the way to understand it was just by thinking about it from your ivory tower. Christians, however, believed that God was free to create however he wanted, and therefore if you want to know about the world, you had to actually go out into it and observe the way it in fact operates. Scholars like Reijer Hooykaas and Stanley Jaki made quite a lot of this argument a few decades ago. We should defer to our History Fellow, Ted Davis, to sort out the viability of that thesis, but I’ll say for myself that I’m more persuaded by the recent arguments of Stephen Gaukroger. In his massive book, The Emergence of a Scientific Culture: Science and the Shaping of Modernity 1210-1685 (only the first volume of a series), Gaukroger develops the thesis in rigorous detail that Christianity played a central role in the development of “natural philosophy” by legitimizing it as her “handmaiden.” The theologians of the Middle Ages saw utility in science, and that gave scientists a place at the table of learning.
Fergusson’s second and third points go together to counteract a couple of common misperceptions people have about the doctrine of creation. Goodness is not the same as perfection. Scripture’s witness is that God created the world good, not perfect. My friends who are more adept than I at ancient Hebrew tell me that there is a different word for “perfect” that would have been used had that been the intention. Fergusson notes that neither of the creation stories (Genesis 1 and 2) presents a perfect world. Genesis 1 has the waters of the deep as a symbol of disorder, and the created humans are charged to subdue this newly created earth. This is before any hint of a fall, and the only conclusion to be drawn from this is that God did not create things how he intended them to ultimately be. And in Genesis 2, the presence of the serpent shows that from the very beginning, the created order is threatened by destructive forces.
So, God’s creative work is ongoing. This helps to counter another common misperception about the doctrine of creation: giving a scientific explanation renders God obsolete (or at best confines his work to starting things off). We addressed this concern in our short BioLogos Basics video, “Is God the Creator?” showing how we have no problem saying God is involved in other things for which we have very robust scientific descriptions (like the creation of Hawaiian Islands and human babies). Fergusson notes that the Hebrew word bara is used in Genesis for the creative work of God at the beginning, but it is also used for God’s salvific actions throughout history; for example, creating the new heavens and earth as described in Isaiah 65 (p. 4). God created, is creating, and will create. Scientific explanations don’t challenge this theological truth.
Of course there is still the challenge of integrating our theological discourse about God as Creator and the scientific discourse that describes some of the same events (like the creation of the human species). Rejecting the science might give us the feeling of a temporary victory and a solution to the challenge. But that strategy ultimately pits the Word of God against the Works of God and creates a much bigger problem for any coherent doctrine of creation. So we continue the hard work of understanding God’s two books.
As for Fergusson’s fourth point, let’s give the Psalmist the final word:
Praise the Lord.
Praise the Lord from the heavens;
praise him in the heights above.
Praise him, all his angels;
praise him, all his heavenly hosts.
Praise him, sun and moon;
praise him, all you shining stars.
Praise him, you highest heavens
and you waters above the skies.
Let them praise the name of the Lord,
for at his command they were created,
and he established them for ever and ever—
he issued a decree that will never pass away.
Praise the Lord from the earth,
you great sea creatures and all ocean depths,
lightning and hail, snow and clouds,
stormy winds that do his bidding,
you mountains and all hills,
fruit trees and all cedars,
wild animals and all cattle,
small creatures and flying birds,
kings of the earth and all nations,
you princes and all rulers on earth,
young men and women,
old men and children.
Let them praise the name of the Lord,
for his name alone is exalted;
his splendor is above the earth and the heavens.
And he has raised up for his people a horn,
the praise of all his faithful servants,
of Israel, the people close to his heart.
Praise the Lord.
Next time we’ll move on to Fergusson’s chapter two, “Creatio Ex Nihilo”.
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