What does the story of Scripture tell us about creation?

I write a column for Preach magazine, in which I explore a significant word or phrase in the Bible and the ideas that it expresses. The first one was on the phrase ‘Word of God’, and second on ‘Justice’, the third on ‘Mission’, the fourth on ‘Apocalypse‘, the fifth on ‘Healing’, and the sixth on ‘Welcome’. This one, which was published in issue 26 (Spring 2020) explores the issue of Creation.

The foundational Christian belief about God is that God is creator.

We believe in God, Father Almighty, creator of heaven and earth, of all things visible and invisible. (Nicene Creed)

This belief is the fons et origo of the whole Scriptural narrative of God’s dealings with the world and humanity—it is where the story must start and flow from—and if we get our understanding of creation wrong, then we end up with a misunderstanding of God and a misconception of humanity’s place in the world. There are four convictions which emerge from the biblical narrative.

The first is that God is separate from his creation. ‘Separation’ is a repeated theme in the both creation narratives in Genesis 1 and 2, and it reflects the separation of God and creation. In contrast to other creation narratives in the ancient near east, creation is not part of God and so worship is to be reserved for God alone and not given to any part of the created order. That is why Gen 1.16 is emphatic that ‘God made the two great lights’; the sun and the moon are the means of God’s provision, not providers in themselves.

This separation has been expressed in the doctrine of creation ex nihilo; God is not moulding  pre-existing material that is self-generating, but is the source of all things. And it is the reason why we cannot describe creation as a ‘first incarnation’ of God, as though creation were part of God. As theologian Roger Olson puts it:

Creation is the free act of a personal creator who acted out of his own goodness. And the free, good creator created the world, the universe, out of nothing (“ex nihilo”). The metaphysical structure of the Bible is duality without dualism. The world is not God; God is not the world.

Because of this, the second conviction of Scripture is that God is sovereign over creation. God is absolute; creation is not. ‘The earth is the Lord’s and everything in it’ (Ps 24.1). When God creates humanity, male and female, in God’s image, the first command that God gives is for humanity to ‘be fruitful and multiply; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over [it]’ (Gen 1.28). A vicar once saw a parishioner tending his garden.

‘What a good job you and God are doing in the garden Mr Smith’.

‘That’s true, vicar, but you should have seen the mess when God was left to himself!’

We are invited to share in God’s sovereign rule over creation—not exploiting and destroying it, but taming its wildness and ordering its fruitfulness. We are to be agents of God’s just, gentle and gracious rule.

That is because, thirdly, God has compassion for his creation. Ps 104 is a sustained hymn of praise to God who provides for all his creatures:

All creatures look to you to give them their food at the proper time. When you give it to them, they gather it up; when you open your hand, they are satisfied with good things. (Ps 104.27–28)

A proper reading of Genesis shows us to be on the same side of the creator/creature divide; God’s care for his creation assures us of his care for us, as Jesus highlights in his own teaching about God’s provision (‘Look at the birds of the air…’ Matt 6.26).

It is this compassion which led God to come to his creation in the person of Jesus. The one through whom the world was made came to that world in flesh and blood (John 1.10); without the separation of God from the world, the incarnation loses the power of its paradox. ‘Hands that flung stars into space/to cruel nails surrendered’ (Graham Kendrick).

And our failure to reflection this compassion brings judgement. The weekly Sabbath commanded by God was to be rest for the land, not just the people, and the failure to honour the seventh-year Sabbath of Lev 25.4 is given as a reason for the 70 years of exile in 2 Chronicles 36.21. When God comes to judge the world, he will ‘destroy the destroyers of the earth’ (Rev 11.18).

Yet in the end, God will redeem the creation. All of creation ‘strains on tiptoes’ (J B Philips) to see the redemption of which we have had a first taste (Rom 8.22) through Jesus, in whom the ‘whole of creation holds together’ (Col 1.16), and who ‘sustains it by the word of his power’ (Heb 1.3). Through him there will be a ‘new creation’ (Rev 21.1), the fulfilment of what we have already known (2 Cor 5.17).

Our care for creation does not arise from merging creation with God, but from God’s sovereign care which he invites us to share in, pointing towards the End in which all things are made new.

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7 thoughts on “What does the story of Scripture tell us about creation?”

  1. The hoary anecdote about the vicar and the gardener is as misleading today as it always has been. In this dialogue, the vicar is closer to the truth than the (Edwardian?) gardener. Mr. Smith is comparing his present garden to a time when it was an untended garden. The untended garden may have been the failing of the previous gardener, or more likely, the result of his own inattentiveness as a younger man. Mr. Smith’s vicar is not necessarily naïve. Traditionally, clergy played a significant role in the development of plant hunting and gardening; they are commemorated in the names of many popular plants today.
    Gardens are artificial constructs and gardeners often need to correct the mistakes of previous good gardeners. The original Mr. Smith probably got his results through the extensive use of pesticides and weedkillers, and by introducing plants that got out of control, terrorizing the wider countryside and waterside. The modern gardener is likely to be organic (or nearly so) and know how to put the right plant in the right place, working with nature rather than against it. Today’s gardener is far more likely to be a woman than a man (the same may be true of the interested vicar).
    The relationship between natural beauty and human intervention is a complex one. Many a natural English landscape owes its beauty to artists like Capability Brown. Conversely, untended land, left long enough, can change for the better. The area around Chernobyl, devastated by human error, is now regaining a majesty of its own with only minimum rewilding through human intervention. Today, we all share the same back-garden, its beauty and fruitfulness a God-given responsibility for us all.

  2. I think this is such a lovely and helpful overview. It fills me with encouragement. Thank you.

    One of the things I reflect on is the way God is vastly separate to us, and often numinous, and yet God also draws so close, so personal, so alongside: even choosing to dwell within us.

    I sort of wonder about that in creation too: the idea of God indwelling and inhabiting the creation, along the lines of panentheism in a way, immanent in all creation, or Scotus’s haecceittas.

    Sometimes in nature I sense presence and the numinous that feels so close, in a liminal space, or a short moment in time. It’s as if God longs from within and from beyond the creation to stand on tiptoe as it were, in expectation of the new creation on the verge of breaking through.

    Or as I remember Pope John Paul II quoting, in a moment in a speech that was so resonant it shuddered:

    “When you take away their breath, they die and return to dust.
    When you send your Spirit they are created, and you renew the face of the Earth.” (Ps 104)

  3. You’ve got me thinking poetic thoughts again Rev.!
    Walking in the woods one hears a sound faintly and finds it hard to locate the source. The music comes to you but you have to do the moving to find out where it comes from. As you move closer the intermittent snatches come together. Eventually the whole melody becomes clear but still you can’t see the source. It’s like approaching a village fete hidden just over the next hill. But then it gets louder and you realise it’s more than that. Eventually you come upon a mighty cataract like Niagara Falls. But , it’s musical and understandable. The bible is such a balad read from beginning to end. At first it’s subtle, then in Jesus it’s a melody but by the time you get to Revelation it’s a mighty cataract. Revelation: the portrait of God in Christ. It is the portrait of the invisible God who IS, who WAS and WHO IS TO COME.
    From the beginning, when the Morning Stars (in His right hand) sang together, hovering over the Deep, singing because the Foundation stone was laid, singing from before the foundation of the Earth.

  4. “God is not moulding pre-existing material that is self-generating, but is the source of all things.”

    So true this is of course where the point that those (often people who are not scientists) who say science explains creation. I think of God creating not just matter but all the rules that science has discovered, and that it is still to discover. Yes God created this flower, but what beauty there is in the way in which it’s beauty created by processes which are determined by the dna within the plant.

    To use a term from CS Lewis this is part of the ‘Deep Magic’ that underlies our universe.

  5. Creation,

    I sometimes think that human language is inadequate (at least mine is); inadequate to describe the Goodness of God, who in his Triuness created all that there is, seen and unseen.

    I sometimes think that God in the Beauty or Splendour of his holiness reigns in his joy and delight with a seeming restrained declaration of “very good” over his creation.

    I sometimes think that we do not have much of a sanctified imagination of the sublime fullness of the Glory of God, revealed in Christ Jesus.

    I sometimes think that if Solomon in all his humanly accrued glory was not arrayed in the beauty of a lily of the field, in our humanness, our shattered image of God, in our inability to see ourselves as we really are and were created to be in a union with Christ, we know not what, glory awaits us, chosen before the foundation of the world and purchased for us by Christ, to realize every spiritual blessing in the heavenly realm in Christ. Even now when creation longs and groans for the new creation, for this life now is not the only life that is.

    But moving beyond the poverty of my prose to the words of a scholar from an earlier era.

    1 “All the beauty to be found throughout all creation, is but a reflection of the diffused beams of the Being who hath an infinite fullness of brightness and glory” (Most especially from the beauty of the Trinity giving themselves in love to one another.)

    2 “God is the foundation and fountain of all being and all beauty, and perfection, from whom all is most absolutely and perfectly dependent; of whom and through whom is all being and perfection; and whose being and beauty, as it were the sum and comprehension of all existence; much more than the sun is the sum and summary comprehension of all the light and brightness” (The Nature of True Virtue)

    3 As God delights in his own beauty,(of holiness) he must necessarily delight in the creatures’ holiness which is a conformity to and participation as truly the brightness of a jewel, held in the sun’s beams, is a participation or derivation of the sun though immensely less in degree.”

    4 “Overwhelmed by a glimpse of the beauty of God, drawn to the glory of his perfections and sense his irresistible love in the beauty of Christ.” The irresistible attraction of God. (grounded in the Trinity)

    5 “God is God and distinguished from all other beings, and exalted above them, chiefly by his divine beauty, which is infinitely diverse from all other beauty. This beauty of the Godhead and the divinity of the Divinity (if I may so speak)the good of the infinite Fountain of Good; without which God himself (if that were possible to be) would be an infinite evil”

    All from Jonathan Edwards. Number 5 is quoted from Gerald McDermott, Anglican Chair of Divinity, Beeson Uni.

  6. I think we are well beyond Mr. Smith and the vicar now. A more apt parable would be if the vicar was astonished to note that Mr. Smith had done his gardening with a flamethrower and a chainsaw. The problem is that it is we who are the ‘destroyers of the earth’. If we drive around in a petrol or diesel fuelled car, we are a destroyer of the earth. If we enjoy a nice steak, we are a destroyer of the earth. If we crank up our gas central heating in this cold weather, we are a destroyer of the earth. Because it is now abundantly clear that the continued use of fossil fuels and the demand for meat are destroying the delicate balance of our climate, and the insistent demand for meat is destroying our fragile ecosystems. I’m not sure that it’s really possible to write about the creation at this particular moment in our history without reflecting on this appalling fact, and what we should be doing about it.

    • A new tunnel is going under the Thames. Even before the roads fill with cars new housing estates will
      be full of people wishing to use the new tunnel. Nothing will have changed for existing road users. But technology is a blessing because it allows more people to exist. Just think what life would be like if 65million people lived in a victorian england?
      Looking forward to fusion power …it will enable 300 million people to live in England. I think this will happen. When it does life will adapt to the new normal. Ultimately God is more interested in a bumper harvest of 5he earth than he is in our idea of a green and pleasant, comfortable lifestyle.


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