10. Genesis 1-2 part 10

I. A. continued

3. The Doctrine of Creation

I do agree with creationists in one sense, however, in spite of the negative comments I made in the previous section. I do believe that the doctrine of creation is the central, the fundamental doctrine on which the rest of Christian theology rests. The polemics of the present age dictate that most works on systematic theology begin with the doctrine of revelation, but for me the doctrine of revelation grows out of the doctrine of creation. Because systematic theology is systematic it has to have a beginning and a middle and an end, and because it is a system it is inevitably circular and has no natural beginning or end. Each theologian will seek to present theology in the most natural progression that he can unless the world forces him to modify his style to accommodate its priorities. All I am saying is that for me the most natural place to begin the discussion of what I believe is with the creation.

The primary point of these first two chapters of the Bible is that God created everything, that God and only God is uncreated. This is an idea that is shared by Christians, Jews and Muslims, varying in some of the details, of course. Hence, the doctrine of creation serves to distinguish the eastern from the western religions. The western religions share the view of God as the Creator distinct from His creation. This concept of creation is so central to the character of western religions, and is so vividly emphasized in the Bible, that eastern and western religions cannot be made compatible on this point. Eastern and western religions may have similar looking leaves, they do arrive at similar conclusions about certain ethical dilemmas and give similar answers to some questions, but at their roots they are completely distinct organisms.

How Christians should think about other religions is a question that can be postponed to another time. We focus first on the differences between the east and the west and that will help clarify the similarities we can find. Of course there are variations within western religions on how the doctrine of creation is presented and naturally the presentation here is just one form of the Christian approach, but I present my views on the assumption that the biggest enemy to understanding each other or the truth is vagueness.

The most fundamental and profound idea regarding creation found in Scripture is that God and the creation are entirely distinct from each other. The creation is not merely some extension of God; nor is God merely the totality of what has been created, a sort of cosmic consciousness. The view that creation and Creator are just different sides of the same coin is called pantheism and is entirely alien to the biblical view. From a pantheistic viewpoint, if the creation ceased to exist then God would also cease to exist; but from a biblical viewpoint, the creation is utterly unnecessary to God. God did not need to create anything at all in order to be complete in Himself, and if everything that has been created simply disappeared God would go on as perfect as always. This idea is usually expressed by saying that God alone is uncreated. God alone, and no part of anything else, exists absolutely; you and I and stars and demons and crabs exist only at God’s command.

To emphasize the point I just made, we believe that God made the Creation ex nihilo, out of nothing. He did not use some pre-existing “glop” to make the world as He is imagined doing in the ancient myths; He made it from less than scratch, creating the ingredients as well as the product. Before He made it, there was simply nothing, not even vacuum, not space, not time; these are all as much created things as atoms are. We are all made literally of nothing at all; only He exists in Himself, not depending on anything outside of Himself, not contingent.

The most ancient mythologies that we have, the Sumerian creation myths, have nothing that even approaches the biblical understanding of creation. In all the most ancient myths, the gods were all part of a pre-existing, rather formless matrix of existence within which and from which they arise and make the world and stars and such like. To the Sumerians the gods and people all inhabited the same space, the same system of relationships and patterns. In person-hood, the Sumerian gods were very much like people except that the gods were immortal and more powerful. The Canaanite and Indo-European gods were very human as well, and even less mature. Before these most ancient gods created, there was a universe already existing, a boring one but  a kind of existence nonetheless. The Egyptian mythology was much more sophisticated in its conception of the gods (in fact, more nearly an eastern than a western religion), but it still did not imagine the gods as creating all things. In every case, the primeval god or gods were part of some pre-existing matrix of reality.

The gods of the non-biblical ancient world, except in Egypt, were more like the super-heroes of the modern comic books than like anything Christians, Jews, or Muslims could accept as God. Among ancient literature, the Bible is utterly alone in its conception of God as standing apart from His creation. The first chapter of Genesis seems to make a point of asserting that God created all those things that the other ancients were most inclined to associate with their gods and to worship: the sun, the moon, the stars, the seas. The Bible presents all those gods as mere creatures on the same plane as we are, and emphatically not on the same level as Yahweh, the Creator. From its first words, Genesis 1  challenged paganism.

The other side of the coin to the emphasis on the distinction between creature and Creator is the emphasis on the actual existence of the Creation. The Scripture insists that the material universe is not some kind of illusion. Though we might well define existence as “the state of being in the mind of God” and though we speak of being made of nothing, the balancing side of the equation is that the universe is not nothing anymore.  It is part of the glory of God that He is powerful enough to make creatures that stand apart from Himself and look back at Him. From a biblical perspective, attaining union with God, attaining “nirvana”, can only be done from inside creation. Our material existence is something that the Bible describes as being fundamental to who we are, not as a delusion to be escaped.

Though eastern and western spirituality both talk about seeking a “unity with God”, they are talking about very different things. The eastern form of enlightenment envisions the complete merging of the creature and the Creator, more like a cup of water uniting with the ocean as it is poured in; the individual creature ceases to be distinct as an individual.  In contrast, the revelation given through Scripture portrays sexuality as an image of the unity of creature and Creator. The Christian seeks to be “one” with God, but the unity the Christian seeks is something like the unity of husband and wife, a merging of intimacy rather than a merging of identity. Fundamental to the relationship between Creator and creature is that they are two, they stand apart and come together and stand apart again. Just as in marriage, it is the distinction between the two, their “twoness”, which gives meaning to their becoming one. To make the creation an extension of the Creator, or to make the Creator an extension of the creation, destroys the glory and beauty of what the Bible describes.

On the other hand, there is a lot of popular non-sense these days that overstates the significance of being physical. For example, it is common to portray angels in movies as longing to experience the senses, the sensuality, of being physical, as if God had created angels as an order of being with no joy in their own being, whose very existence was invented as an arid and shallow thing. The Bible does picture the dead in Christ as longing to be re-clothed in flesh (still ignoring the question of the existence and nature of the soul), to have again a physical body, but that is because we are essentially physical, to the center of our being. For us to be dead, to be bodiless, is to be deprived of a crucial part of our being. But the same is not true of angels, whatever kind of beings they are. The angels have an integrity, a wholeness, of their own; they do not envy us anything we are (though there may be exceptions to this general rule we will get to later).

Pantheism has one other form that disguises itself as a legitimate Christian belief. Emergent evolution is the idea that the creation is in a process of evolving toward God, that the universe as a whole will produce God in some sense, or attain unity with God,  by the natural process of evolution. Though some prominent theologians like de Chardin have championed this viewpoint, it is alien to Christianity. It makes the Creator the one with the derivative nature, whose existence is somehow contingent on us rather than the other way around. But the really glaring disconnection between emergent evolution and Christian faith is in the area of grace. We will postpone a more careful discussion of grace, but for now the point is that the unity with God that we expect to attain is a unity that is derived from God much as our very existence is derived from God. We do not grow up into Him. He comes down to us and takes us back up with Him.

The Creation is unnecessary to God. If everything that exists simply vanished as if it had never had been, God would in no way be diminished. We assert that the Creation is unnecessary to God, but we never suppose that the Creation is therefore unimportant to God. In fact, God created things so enthusiastically that it would be more accurate to say that God made all things out of joy rather than that He made them out of nothing. God need not have created, but once He did create there was no going back for Him. The act of creation was also an act of commitment. It is only His commitment to us and to all things that keeps us from returning to nothingness.

Nihilism, if it means anything at all, assumes that things go on existing without God paying any attention to them. And Nihilists are right in their conclusions: if God has indeed ceased to heed or care for the creation, it would be better that it not exist. We know in our hearts that our meaning, our significance, our value rests in God’s commitment to us; without it we are even less than vacuum. But we exist because God has named us, He has announced us as existing by the power of His word; and we cannot cease to exist as long as He calls us by name. Death is not a way out of existence, not so much because we have an immortal soul, but because we do not have God’s permission to cease to exist. Or perhaps we could say that the soul is just God speaking our names after our bodies have died. He is the God of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob because He continues to say their names and His Word is the foundation of their present existence.

We  continue to exist because God keeps creating us from nothing. Every moment is the the same as the beginning of all things. Every moment God says again “Let there be light” and because of this and no other reason, you and I and all things exist right now. And then He does it again. And again. And again. The idea that He maintains by the word of His power the whole universe is another reason that Genesis 1 does not describe a particular period of seven days. Genesis 1:1 describes every single instant. Genesis 1:1 happens right now. And right now. And right now. And so on for all the nows that will ever exist. “This is the day that the Lord has made” is true at the very deepest possible level. This is what it means to say that the creation’s existence is contingent. Without God’s word of command it would simply collapse into nothing at all, vanish.

But the final point of distinction between eastern and western religions is decisive to my mind in showing how irreconcilable they are. The Bible says that the Creation, physical existence, as originally conceived by the Creator, is good. There is nothing intrinsically evil about material existence.  It is not our physical body that prevents us from being fully spiritual; it is the fact that that we are corrupt and evil that prevents us from being spiritual. It is good that we have bodies, and the rest of scripture indicates that we hope to live for an eternity in some kind of material body. Not only does God repeatedly pronounce the Creation to be good, but also He continues to love the creation. Granted that He does not come right out and say so at this point (He does say so later), the fact that this is the description of a covenant implies that He loves it. With God, covenants are always founded on love. Where there is a covenant, there is love, and where there is love there is at least a tacit covenant.

The idea that material existence is itself tainted or unclean originally infected the Christian church from a pagan source, the Greeks. The Platonists regarded our existence in physical bodies as something to be transcended and escaped by the wise. Though the Church has always rejected this idea in its doctrine, the influence of the idea remains with us even to the present. The Fall into sin may have corrupted the whole world, but our hope of redemption is in physical terms. The uncleanness of the present physical order is not inherent to it; it is an uncleanness that we put there and that will be cleansed. In contrast, it is an essential part of eastern religions that unity with God is attained only by escaping the delusion of physical existence. The physical creation is evil in the sense that it hinders us from understanding or merging with God.

The Greek language itself can be a source of confusion on this point. The Greek word translated as “flesh” means both “the sinful nature” as well as “the physical body”, and the Greek word translated as “world” means both “the human order which is in opposition to God” as well as “the created order”. When we read the New Testament we must be careful to distinguish the two meanings or we will misinterpret what we read. The Bible as a whole amply shows that the two meanings are to be kept distinct.

I am now done with discussing these two chapters of Genesis. They take an inordinate amount of space for their consideration because they state most of the themes that will be elaborated in the rest of the Scripture. Genesis 3 is foundational as well, but before we move on to chapter 3 let’s pause a bit to summarize what I’ve tried to say so far: I am suggesting a third alternative to the standard interpretations of these two chapters as history or as allegory; I am suggesting that we interpret them as the terms of a covenant.  What we read here is God creating a way to relate to existence. It is not a fable; it is not a chronological narrative; it is a marriage license.

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