Wednesday 19 August 2009

Exploring Biblical Themes (2): Creation

[This is a lightly edited transcript of an LICC podcast segment, first uploaded to the website of the London Institute for Contemporary Christianity on 3 August 2009.]

To start with the theme of creation is to begin where the Bible itself begins, in Genesis – with God creating the heavens and the earth – and where the Bible ends, in Revelation – with a new heaven and a new earth.

In its very first verse, the Bible identifies God as creator. On the very first page, God speaks and it happens – he creates through his word. But God is also portrayed as crafting creation. We read in Genesis 2:7 that he formed Adam from the dust of the ground, in the way a potter or a sculptor makes something with clay.

And all of it is declared good, as having value – an important reminder that Scripture is not merely concerned with Israel, nor merely with God saving a people for himself, but that his work embraces the entire creation.

So, it’s no surprise that the topic of creation is not left behind in Genesis 1. It becomes a theme which stretches through the whole Bible.

A strong creation theology undergirds many of the Psalms, for instance, where God is praised as Creator – ‘the heavens declare the glory of God’, ‘the earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it’, ‘by the word of the Lord the heavens were made’ – all sung in celebration – where it’s clear that creation is a result of God’s direct action rather than some accident. Several psalms combine the theme of worship with creation. Because he is the Creator, he is worthy of our worship. In other psalms, God’s act of creation is remembered alongside his saving of his people.

The biblical wisdom literature reminds us that God formed the world through wisdom, with wisdom at his side as a craftsperson, as it were. And that same wisdom is foundational for how we live in the world. God, who possesses wisdom and who created the world through wisdom, gives wisdom back to us for everyday living in his creation.

But neither Psalms nor Wisdom have the future dimension which comes out in the prophets, in Isaiah especially, when God’s work of salvation is spoken of as a new creation. The language of creation is used as God’s people look forward to what God will do in the future, not just what he’s done in the past.

Isaiah understands that God’s work as redeemer, as saviour, and God’s work as creator, are bound to each other. In Isaiah 43:1 we read that the Lord, the one who created Jacob, the one who formed Israel, says: ‘Fear not, for I have redeemed you’. God redeems because he has created, and in the act of creation is a commitment to redeem. As Isaiah addresses the people of God in exile in Babylon, he reminds them that if God can bring order out of chaos at creation, then he can bring his people back home.

Then, at the end of his prophecy, when Isaiah promises a new Jerusalem, the promise is bound up with the renewal of the whole cosmos; in 65:17 we read: ‘Behold, I will create new heavens and a new earth. The former things will not be remembered, nor will they come to mind.’ The people come back from the Babylonian exile not just to a transformed land and a rebuilt city, but to a Jerusalem which is the centre of a new heaven and a new earth! The salvation of the people is portrayed in terms of a ‘new creation’. That’s the image used.

And that relationship between creation and salvation is highlighted in the New Testament, where it’s focused on Christ – the Word of God, the wisdom of God, the agent of creation, the source of life – the one through whom God made all things, and the one in whom God’s purposes of restoration for the creation will be brought to fulfilment – as John 1, Colossians 1, and Hebrews 1 all make clear.

So, in Colossians 1:15-20, in language that reminds us of God creating the world through wisdom in Proverbs 8, Paul says that all things were created in Christ, all things made through him and for him – with reference to him, in relation to him. But not only the origin of the universe, also its goal – as God will reconcile to himself all things on earth and in heaven. How? By making peace through Christ’s blood, shed on the cross.

It’s no surprise, then, that in the gospels, Jesus asserts God’s authority over creation – in nature miracles, like walking on water or stilling the storm – the forces of chaos – with a word of his mouth, in multiplying loaves, in cleansing lepers, in raising the dead.

And his resurrection is a reaffirmation of the created order, something which Paul makes very clear in his letters, and which becomes foundational when he writes about sex and idolatry in Romans 1, for instance, where his argument is grounded in the creation narrative – where Paul doesn’t start with what’s going on in the world and try to make Scripture fit that; rather, he starts with Scripture, understands how it sees the world, and how the world functions best according to God’s original design.

All this means that when Paul declares in 2 Corinthians 5:17, that if anyone is in Christ, that person is a ‘new creation’, his language of ‘creation’ doesn’t appear in a vacuum; it’s part of a rich texture which is woven right through Scripture. Literally, ‘If anyone is in Christ – new creation.’ Those who are incorporated in Christ as the head of the new humanity belong to God’s new creation.

This new creation is bound up with the promise of the new covenant which Paul has already written about in chapters 3 and 4 of 2 Corinthians. Earlier, in 4:6, Paul refers back to creation when he writes, ‘For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” made his light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of God’s glory displayed in the face of Christ’.

So, the same God who created all things at the beginning is now bringing about a new creation in the lives of men and women through Jesus Christ. All those who through faith embrace Christ are heirs of God’s new creation.

The new creation which Isaiah looked forward to has had its fulfilment not in Israel coming back from exile but in all those who have been remade by God. If Isaiah 65:17 promises that the ‘former things’ will pass away, Paul tells us here that in Christ the ‘old things’ have gone and the ‘new things’ have come; the old order has passed; the new order has arrived in the reconciling work of Christ on the cross.

Elsewhere, Paul is very clear (in Romans 8 and 1 Corinthians 15, for instance) that God’s creation will not be done away with, but will be made new.

And that is confirmed in the final chapters of Revelation with its vision of the new Jerusalem at the heart of a new heaven and a new earth. Christians have become a part of the process of the re-creation of the world, which God will bring about. Deliberately echoing Isaiah’s language, Revelation 21:1 speaks of a ‘new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away’.

All this goes to show us that creation is not merely the backdrop for the story of salvation. In fact, it’s bound up with the story of salvation – created, fallen, currently subject to groaning, awaiting its liberation with us, the children of God, new creations in Christ, living in hope for the final restoration of the whole of creation, God’s great work fully restored on that final day.

Further Reading

T. Desmond Alexander, From Eden to the New Jerusalem: Exploring God’s Plan for Life on Earth (Nottingham: IVP, 2008), 13-73.
Well worth reading for an illuminating consideration of the links in Scripture between creation and the temple and the city of Jerusalem.

James E. Davison and Sara Covin Juengst, Journey Through the Word: Exploring Biblical Themes (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2003), 1-9.
Like Williams (below), a brief overview at an accessible level.

Terence E. Fretheim, God and World in the Old Testament: A Relational Theology of Creation (Nashville: Abingdon, 2005).
The most academic book in this list, offering a full discussion of the topic, though focused on the Old Testament.

Carl B. Hoch, Jr., All Things New: The Significance of Newness in Biblical Theology (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1995), 147-67.
A chapter-length mid-level treatment from a New Testament perspective, focusing especially on 2 Corinthians 5:17 and Galatians 6:15.

Robin Routledge, Old Testament Theology: A Thematic Approach (Nottingham: Apollos, 2008), 124-58.
A chapter-length mid-level treatment from an Old Testament perspective.

David Wilkinson, The Message of Creation, The Bible Speaks Today: Themes Series (Leicester: IVP, 2002).
A book-length treatment of biblical passages looking at the beginning of creation, the songs of creation, the Lord of creation, the lessons of creation, and the fulfilment of creation.

H.H. Drake Williams III, Making Sense of the Bible: A Study of 10 Key Themes Traced Through the Scriptures (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2006), 13-26.
Like Davison and Juengst (above), a brief overview at an accessible level.

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