The Meaning of 'Creation' in the Bible
God is sovereign over his creation. He brought it into being out of nothing, and He holds it in being. Thus He is both transcendent and immanent; another analogy illustrates this. Nature is therefore not divine: it is something over which man is to exercise responsible stewardship.
The word 'create' in our English Old Testaments is nearly always a translation of the Hebrew word bara. This latter is not, however, the only word used in connection with the subject we are discussing. There are in fact two other common ones: asa, usually rendered 'make' or 'do' but with a wide range of other meanings 1; and yasar usually translated 'form' or 'fashion'. But among these three words bara seems to be a term of special significance. It is used only of God (as is its Greek equivalent ktizo in the New Testament). Wherever it is used it seems to convey strikingly a sense of newness, sometimes indeed expressed quite explicitly2. It is probably true to say that bara (and ktizo) have a significance in the Bible very similar to that of 'create' in modern English, so it is worth looking .into our own usage of this latter word a little more closely.
In current English we allow 'create' and its derivatives to be used of human subjects as well as God; we talk for instance of the 'creative arts'. But we still use the word in a special and rather exciting sense 3. We remark that Beethoven 'created' the great Missa Solemnis; alternatively, of course, we may choose to say that he 'composed' or 'wrote' it. The two statements are not equivalent however; their impact is quite different. The latter conjures up the picture of a man at an untidy desk, pen in hand; the former, of a man with a rapt look in his eyes, deeply stirred by profound ideas. Again, is it quite appropriate to comment that another great musician, Haydn, composed a famous piece in the summerhouse at Eisenstadt while in the employ of the Esterhazy family in the autumn of 1765; but it would sound a little odd if 'created' were substituted for 'composed' in this remark. 'Creation' is too powerful an idea to be tied down to a specific time, place and circumstance like this. In a sense Haydn's masterpiece was the work not of a few particular weeks but of a life; it came to birth not in a small summerhouse but in Haydn's world. It is this aspect of things that the word 'create' (as against 'compose') is used to express. 'Composition' is linked with time, place, circumstance and process; 'creation' tends to soar above them all.
The biblical usage follows this pattern. Thus, when the Bible uses 'create' (or 'make' in a parallel sense) it is not concerned with material and mechanism or even with particularities of time and place. The very furthest it goes in amplifying the mode of God's creative activity is to affirm, 'God said, "Let there be." ' Creation was by Divine fiat. By the word of the Lord the heavens were made, it says, their starry host by the breath of His mouth . For He spoke, and [the earth] came to be; he commanded, and it stood firm 5. The famous prologue to John's gospel 6 emphasizes the same with its striking metaphor of the Word for Jesus Christ, the divine Agent of creation. Again, it is characteristic that when the biblical writers wish to say something of the materials out of which or the methods or processes by which things were given their present visible structure they avoid the word 'create' 7. They use instead the more general terms 'make', 'form' or others similar. Thus they tell us that man was 'formed' (not 'created') of dust from the ground, and woman was 'built up' (not 'created') out of part of Adam's side 8. Again, Jeremiah was 'formed' in the womb; Job was 'made' and 'fashioned', and Jacob 'made' and 'formed' there 9. The writer of Psalm 139 in an oft‑quoted passage 10 uses four words in two verses to describe his development onwards from conception ‑ but not one of these is 'created'. Accordingly it would seem fair to say that in the Bible the creative aspect
of God's activity (and there are other aspects) is never linked to a particular process or material; rarely even to a specified moment or locality 11. The act is seen rather as an unanalyzable movement out of the mind of the Creator into the arena of created 'space‑time' (as we have now come to call it)12. In this movement the only intermediary is God's Word. Creation is thus an ultimate concept; it indicates the furthest back it is possible to go in discussing the origin of things. It is in this sense that in John's vision of Jesus Christ, the Lord speaks of Himself as the beginning of the creation of God, the Word which gave effect to God the Father's creative thought and brought the world into being 13. It is in the realisation of this that 'creation' is seen, emphatically, not to be an alternative to scientific theories of origin. It belongs to the ultimate realm, beyond science; it is undiscoverable by any experimental technique whatsoever. The Bible insists on this 14.
However, it is important to recognize that in speaking of the notion of 'creation' as the furthest back we can go we must not think exclusively, or even primarily, in terms of time (i.e. historical time). Why must we not do this? Because Scripture tells us that God's creative word is still being spoken, and will be to the end of the age 15. It was being spoken, for example, in the great public drama of national regathering after the captivity of Babylon.; and it was spoken in the private experiences of King David as he sorrowed for his sin 16. Particularly where there is a notable new beginning, as in these cases, the Bible proclaims God as Creator. Even more significant for us are the references to recurring events in the living world. To each generation the call comes with immediate relevance: Remember also your Creator in the days of your youth17. In every spring as the new leaves burst forth, or the new baby rabbits appear the Bible recognizes the creative activity of God. "A new generation takes the place of the old. Creation continues, for God is perpetually sending forth His Spirit and renewing the face of the earth with fresh life" 18.
Creation in the Bible is therefore an idea which comes into its own when we think not so much backwards in time as upward (or outward) to God. In reflecting on the idea of ultimate origin the tendency to look backward in time has become natural and almost universal only because we and our world have so clearly the character of growing old. If we lacked this character (and we were still interested in the possibility of creation) we would be readier to grasp what has just been stated ‑ that the essential direction to look is not backward in time but away to God. This conclusion would seem to follow from the biblical handling of this topic: to repeat, the idea of creation involves essentially a look in the direction of God, not of prehistory.
To clarify this further, let me use an analogy to illustrate the relationship of creation to another biblical concept, providence. Suppose we regard our world's on‑going history as 'His Story', a story which the divine Author, unseen, is Himself writing. (This is not, in passing, an unbiblical analogy: see Ps.139.16; Heb.10.7; Rev.5). His book is before us, incomplete; the ink is still wet where it lies open. Seeking to understand what is in the process of being written we try reading what has gone before, turning back the pages one by one. The narrative grips us. Indeed we cannot pause until, alas! we find the writing becoming too faded, intermittent or archaic in style for us to decipher. At this point we stop; or rather, our interest, with less to hold it, becomes aroused in a new direction. "Whose book is this?" we ask. "Who wrote this story?" The question of authorship has met and challenged us as we turned back the pages to the beginning; but in fact, this question could have confronted us at any point, even where the ink was still wet ‑ only then we were too preoccupied with the tale itself. From any page we could have reorientated our thoughts, looked up, and exclaimed, "Hey, who wrote this?" Better still, at the very start we could have called out, "Is anybody there, writing this?" For we notice of course that the story hasn't finished.
Though this analogy has imperfections (for example, we are not merely readers of God's story but characters in it), its interpretation should be plain. God, of course, is the Author of the tale, the Creator of the world it portrays and of the characters and encounters which enliven it. All is of his conceiving 19. As we contemplate the story we note that fresh characters constantly appear, and new situations constantly develop. Where do they come from? At this point in our discussion the most obvious answer is, from the Author's fertile mind. This answer denotes creation: it explains in fact what is meant by that term. But the Author is not projecting into his created history a jumble of things and notions isolated, disparate, incommensurable, lacking relation and compatibility. He has thought (and written) into being a coherent story, in which everything is linked intelligibly and meaningfully with everything else. That fact introduces the possibility of a second answer not a consequence of mere logical necessity of the first: the characters and situations come from their antecedents in the story, and can be understood in terms of them. To the reader the dramatis personae and their circumstances do not appear suddenly from nowhere, as stones dropped into a pool might seem to do to a fish. They are engendered within the story itself in a way usually quite comprehensible to him 20. Accordingly, as we trace with admiration the way the Author has skilfully and lovingly made one situation develop from another we find ourselves answering the question "Where did this come from?" in terms not of creation as before, but in terms of what the religious believer, in real life, calls Providence ‑ God's previous and continuing activity in things which influence his circumstances.
Seen in the light of this analogy the biblical concepts of creation and providence appear as two contrasting, but entirely consistent theological accounts of how a given situation arose. The first traces it from the conceiving mind of God into the arena of space‑time; in this it imparts meaning. The second concerns its history within space‑time; here it introduces mechanism. These accounts appear in relationship. They are not alternative to each other, as if we could opt for one or the other according to whim and fancy; they are complementary in the sense that we need both if we are not to miss important truths 21. Remember now your Creator, and Honour your father and mother is how the Bible reminds us of our present duty in both connections. One commandment recalls our creation; the other our procreation, i.e. the way in which God, in His story, has providentially woven our lives into the fabric of what has gone before (i.e. how He has 'formed' or 'fashioned' us, Heb. yasar).
The Bible's doctrine of Creation has often been summarized in the phrase creatio ex nihilo, creation out of nothing. The appositeness of this phrase should be apparent from the foregoing discussion, but some of its further implications need to be made explicit. Firstly, it means that nothing, visible or invisible, shares God's eternity. He alone has immortality22. Without implying that eternity is simply time extended (in both direcions) endlessly, this means that the Creator and His Creation stand on a fundamentally different footing. He is the Holy One 23 (as we saw in an earlier chapter), never to be confused with created things (even the most splendid, like the sun), or with the world process itself (which He controls) 24. The Bible never lets us lose sight of this distinction. The moment we do so, it says, we are in danger of falling under the power of a lie, great and damaging 25. Secondly, God is under no external constraints in His creative work. He hasn't to 'make do', like us, with whatever materials are available. He is absolutely free, bound only to be true to Himself 26. Of course and most importantly, He was under no compulsion to create the universe at all, or to create it just as it is. In other words, He willed it and designed it. This matter will be discussed more fully in Chap.VIII.
Finally, as the Venite (Ps. 95) so magnificently describes, the world belongs to God, and is under His sovereign and omnipotent rule. Having created it, He is never, like the sorcerer's apprentice, faced with situations out of His control 27. He commands, and creation obeys 28 The fact that man can (and does) resist God's will is, paradoxically, not a denial of His omnipotence but an outcome of it. It is He who has given this power to men. He holds them responsible for the use they make of it, but that that is no denial of His omnipotence will be evident when God brings all eventually to judgement 29.Deism
We must now consider a little more closely a facet of the Bible's teaching hitherto noticed only in passing. The Deists 30 had made the mistake, biblically speaking, of regarding the world as a machine created to function on its own according to built‑in laws. God was thought of as a sort of machine‑minder who needed only rarely to 'intervene' to rescue the machine from a malfunction (a seized‑up bearing shall we say), or to supply it with material. He exercised His control from outside. This, however, does scant justice to the richness of the Bible's teaching. This teaching is that God is not only 'over all' (transcendent) but 'in all' (immanent). The relationship to the creation is perhaps something like that of a sponge in the sea. Each is 'in' the other (but not in an equivalent sense). Accordingly the Bible sometimes speaks of the creation being in God (the sponge in the sea); and sometimes of God being in the creation (the sea in the sponge) 31. There are two or three notable passages in the New Testament which stress this continuing dependence of the creation on God. Paul, speaking of Christ as the divine Agent of creation, says, in Him were all things created, . things visible and . invisible, . and He is before all things, and in Him all things hold together, or cohere 32. The great 19th‑century scholar J.B. Lightfoot commenting on this says. "He is the principle of cohesion in the Universe. He impresses upon creation that unity and solidarity which makes it a cosmos instead of a chaos. Thus (to take one instance) the action of gravitation . . is an expression of His mind" 33. No doubt Lightfoot would have agreed that Relativity and Quantum Mechanics are too. The writer to the Hebrews similarly makes of Christ the vast assertion, He reflects the glory of God . . upholding the universe by His word of power 34. In a backward look at the course of world history the elders before the throne of God in the book of Revelation praise Him because, Thou didst create all things; by Thy will they were created and have their being 35. In the New Testament, whenever God's involvement with the dynamics of natural processes is mentioned (in general terms rather than with reference to particular historical instances), the verb is always in the present tense, which corresponds rather to our present continuous than to our present simple (e.g. 'I am doing' rather than 'I do'). Thus God makes His sun to rise, sends rain, feeds the birds and clothes the lilies 36, Jesus tells us. We miss his whole point if we regard all these statements merely as relaying beautiful thoughts. They are intended to disclose hard facts; there is no point in making them if they don't. In the Old Testament it is the same; God's involvement with His creation is not something finished and done with when we reach Genesis 2. He makes springs gush forth; animal life of all kinds looks to Him for food; stormy winds fulfil His command; He gives the fixed order of day and night, and so on 37. He is the God in whose hand our breath is 38. All these usages convey the same impression. God is very much involved in the continuing existence and functioning of His world; and it is again His creative word Peter, tells us, by which he gives effect to His will 39.
The relationship we have been speaking about is, of course, what theologians refer to as God's 'immanence', His presence everywhere and in all things. This must be set alongside His transcendence, for the Bible, as we have seen, insists on both. This certainly poses a problem for thought; how are we to conceive of such a complex double relationship? It is natural in such circumstances to look for an analogy or model which embraces as much as possible of its more important features. A book and its author is a useful one to illuminate the relationship of creation to time. What we want is one to illuminate particularly that of transcendence to immanence, and for this purpose I should like to adapt one suggested by the late Professor D.M. MacKay 40. It runs somewhat as follows. Instead of thinking of creation as manufacture (the manipulation of matter into objects, like the Deist's watch) he suggests that we think of the process by which the busy two‑dimensional world of a television screen, full of colour, life and interest, is held in being. The world on the screen has an existence of its own: yet it is clearly a dependent world. It is established by energy from outside; one throw of the switch and it dissolves into nothingness 41. Moreover, its dependence is a moment‑by‑moment affair, and only the continuing goodwill of the broadcasting authorities keeps the show going. Yet this lively world need not be reflecting the goodwill of its sponsors. It may be filled with scenes of violence and hate totally abhorrent to them. Thus the model illustrates (however imperfectly) not only transcendence and immanence (as characteristics of the sponsoring authority, that is) but also that element of freedom to rebel which we know so well in our real world. However, as Professor MacKay himself warned, "Every illustration brings with it a crop of possible misunderstandings which counterbalance its usefulness" 42; so we must not push it too far.
We may attempt to summarize the biblical teaching of God's immanence, so far as it is relevant to our subject, in this way. Nature is so constituted that it is legitimate to think of physical processes as taking place in accordance with fixed laws, laid down by the Creator and giving to Nature a certain in‑built autonomy. Examples of this emphasis are Job 28.25,26 for atmospheric phenomena: Jer.5.22 for terrestrial, Jer.31.35,36 for celestial; Jer.8.7 for zoological; and indeed the original ordinance of Gen.1.11,12 which established for the biological world the fundamental principle that like reproduces like 43. Yet we would be mistaken if we took this to imply that God's relation to Nature is like that of an aircraft pilot who has handed over his machine to automatic controls. This would be seriously to undervalue the Bible's teaching that it is God's ceaseless faithfulness and 'steadfast love' that alone maintain what we regard as the law‑abidingness of Nature 44. Who would think it appropriate to speak of the faithfulness of a pilot whose plane was flying automatically? The most he could mean would be that the pilot was holding himself ready to assume control in an emergency ‑ a quite inadequate representation of the situation of which the Bible speaks. Interestingly, the Greek word automatos (from which we get 'automatic') occurs twice in the New Testament (Mark 4.28, Acts 12.10,11); on the first occasion it suggests the element of autonomy in Nature 45, on the second the divine control over Nature 44. Evidently there is no conflict between the two ways of looking at things: but the whole tenor of Scripture tells us that the second is the more fundamental 46. The ultimate truth is that whatever happens in Nature (whether through 'miraculous' angelic mediation as in Acts 12.10,11 or in the ordinary course of things as in Mark 4.28), God ultimately is the Giver of its actuality (if such an ugly phrase can be pardoned). When Jesus tells us that our heavenly Father "feeds the birds and clothes the lilies", it is clearly unacceptable to interpret his meaning as if he had added, "Circumstances permitting". Jesus knew as well as we do that birds die in hard winters and flowers suffer malformations. His words are empty of power to reassure if they are qualified by any suggestion that in the end, God may be defeated by the vagaries of nature. Nor can he possibly mean that, in such an eventuality, God like a good father will make it up to us in some other way. The only possible consistent understanding of his words is to take him as meaning, "Don't be anxious; your Father controls everything, in wisdom, love and power". And when he later added (in anything but the spirit of hyperbole), even the hairs of your head are all numbered, he indicated that this matter of the divine solicitude extends to the ultimately small. There would seem to be no excuse, on this testimony, for denying it even to the myriad electrons and photons that throng the universe of microphysics 47.
For man, made in the image of God and charged with dominion under Him, two serious corollaries follow from the Bible's teaching. The first is that what we have come to call 'Nature' is not to be regarded as divine, and worshipped. Men have often in the past worshipped the sun, moon and heavenly bodies, or certain animals and trees. Some still do. The Bible makes clear that this is a futile practice and a God‑forbidden one 48. The truth is (the Bible implies), that as nature was created out of nothing, so in the form we know it nature will one day vanish into nothing, like a television picture when the power is cut off; or better, when the set is switched to a new channel 49.
The second corollary is that man cannot escape his responsibility as the steward of the physical creation. It has become fashionable in some quarters to call the idea of man's lordship "cosmic arrogance", as that able and influential writer Stephen J. Gould does 50. This is foolish. The biblical teaching must be understood as a whole; and when it is, the denial of man's lordship over nature becomes not cosmic humility (as Gould would imply) but cosmic evasion, dereliction of duty. For further, the Bible clearly teaches (what its critics overlook) that man's lordship is to be exercised on the pattern of his Maker's, for he is made in God's image 51, and it leaves us in no doubt about what this pattern is. The Lord is good to all, and His compassion is over all that He has made; Thou openest Thy hand, Thou satisfiest the desire of every living thing; He will gather the lambs in His arms and gently lead those that are with young52. Is then the charge of "cosmic arrogance" against the Bible's doctrine of man's dominion over nature, justified? Certainly not. The lordship of man over the creation is to be expressed in compassionate stewardship, never in greedy exploitation 53. It is true, like so many of Scripture's great principles, the mandate has been sadly misunderstood and perverted by those to whom it was addressed; but this cannot excuse us from recalling and obeying its implied obligations.
The biblical doctrine of Creation is one of the distinctive glories of the Christian faith, and indeed of the faith of Israel from which it sprang. It is what the Scriptures (1 Tim.4.6) call "good doctrine", nourishing to the spirit and full of health and wholesomeness 54. Men and women who receive it have at once an understanding of their humanity. They know what they are, where they are and why they are here. Gone are the spectres of meaninglessness, pointlessness and absurdity 55. They hear the voice of conscience and duty. It may not be sweet and soothing, but it is no longer something trivial, arbitrary, irrelevant or unintelligible, a mere tormenting accident of existence. It sounds a challenge and points a direction. It gives a reason for behaviour and the promise of peace of heart. Or they feel the pull of romantic idealism, the unbearable longing for something 'beyond' 56; and it is no longer a mere will o' the wisp, a cruel deceit, an unaccountable self‑deception of the human mind. If the Bible is true and God is Creator, however far off the object of desire is, it is at least there, as a Reality to be sought. Otherwise the future is undefined, undefinable, and arguably merely the stillness of final oblivion. Bertrand Russell, in his famous essay A Free Man's Worship 57, wrote that "only on the firm foundation of unyielding despair can the soul's habitation henceforth be safely built." That was in 1903, reiterated in 1917. This outlook, reinforced by the increasing threat of history's violent human antagonisms now becoming global, still seems to hold in thrall many minds today, with Darwinian fundamentalists trying to make the best they can of it. Against it the biblical doctrine of God the Creator stands as a sure defence ‑ reinforced a thousandfold by its promise that one day all things are to be made new (Rom.8.20‑25; Rev.21,22) when Jesus Christ comes to reign. It is hardly too much to say that the choice facing our post‑modern culture lies exactly here: Biblical promise or neo‑Darwinist despair.Postscript
This chapter has discussed not the enfeebled creator‑idea of deism which evidently is all that Prof Dawkins and others who think with him have in mind, but the biblical doctrine which is fundamentallydifferent. Darwinist arguments may damage their deism, but they are powerless against the Bible's theism; it towers above them. If Darwinists wish to engage this they will have to abandon their science‑based arguments, and turn to intuitive ethical ones instead, as indeed Prof Dawkins seems to realize 58. Their God is too small