Among the basic affirmations of the Christian faith is that “God the Father Almighty” is “Maker of heaven and earth.” This affirmation answers to a deep requirement and a deep questioning upon the part of the human mind. The doctrine has a profound significance for the entire structure of Christian thought, and specifically for our understanding concerning his freedom, his self-sufficiency, and his uniqueness as an eternal Existent. As F. R. Tennant points out, the existence of a “general order of Nature” forces upon the human mind the conviction that the universe is the outcome of intelligent design. It will not do to dismiss this as a lingering echo of eighteenth-century rationalism. This generalization is as well established and as widely recognized as any generalization of science (Philosophical Theology, Vol. II, pp. 79 f.).
Non-Christian Systems. These have tended to view “creation” in one of the following ways: they have regarded the universe as being the result of self-origination; they have imagined it to be some sort of unfolding or emanation of a divine being; they have posited some form of eternally existing chaos, which an intermediate “creator” fashioned into a cosmos; or they have regarded the visible universe as an illusion. These find a common denominator of sorts in the belief in the eternity of matter or of “pre-matter.” Ancient paganism could rise no higher than this. Its systems proved to be unstable, particularly in their attempt to defend the belief that the universe contained two eternals, two absolutes, two infinites. Slowly the human mind came to perceive the metaphysical impossibility of such a position.
Historically, the Christian assertion of an absolute creation by a transcendent God was not only a scandal of the pagan mind (for example, the Graeco-Roman mind), but it represented as well a threat to the entire thought-world of ancient civilization. As Galen, of the second century after Christ, says: “Moses’ opinion greatly differs from our own and from that of Plato and all the others who among the Greeks have rightly handled the investigation into nature. To Moses, it seems enough that God willed to create a cosmos, and presently it was created; for he believes that for God everything is possible.… We however do not hold such an opinion; for we maintain, on the contrary, that certain things are impossible by nature, and these God would not even attempt to do …” (De Usu Partium Corporis Humani, XII, p. 14).
This we quote to point out that opposition to the biblical account of an absolute origination of the universe by God is by no means contemporary. True, some contemporary alternatives are based upon slightly other grounds. At the same time, opposition has been in the name of a form or type of world view which seemed to be threatened by the Christian teaching at this point.
The Christian Affirmation. With reference to the origination of the universe, the basic Christian affirmation is that God is the author of the whole cosmos. This is found in the Old Testament and in the Judaism which emerged from Old Testament times. It is continued in the Christian system. The basic elements of the Christian teaching concerning creation are the following: that the universe has its beginning and end in God’s spontaneous will; that the universe is in no sense independent of him, but that its maintenance represents a continuing exertion of his creative power and ability; and that God made the universe, not out of some type of pre-existent “stuff” but out of nothing. This assumes that prior to the “moment” of creation, God existed in self-sufficient and majestic aloneness. It is just here that the Christian understanding of God differs profoundly from that of classical paganism, which assumed, at best, the co-existence of God and the material universe (or its proto-elements): or from radical forms of moral dualism which assumed that evil (or the factors which make for it) were co-eternal with God.
The Christian understanding of God involves the conviction that while God is One, he is not for that reason one thing. Within the fundamental unity of his Godhead there exists a Trinity of Persons; he contains within himself three centers of personal activity, each capable of being denoted by personal pronouns. This means that there is an incomprehensible richness in the inner life of God, and that creation is one of the expressions of this inner richness of self-determination. Karl Barth summarily suggests that the doctrine of creation assumes the tri-unity of God’s being (Christian Dogmatics, III/1, pp. 46 ff.). In any case, God’s eternal self-existence and self-sufficiency do not imply a precreation life of motionlessness upon his part. It does assert that God is in no sense dependent upon his world, and in no sense under compulsion to create except as a spontaneous manifestation of his love.
The Christian understanding of creation implies, we repeat, that prior to the “moment” of creation, God existed in sovereign self-sufficiency. It suggests also that there came a “point” in the divine life in which he determined to project into being that which was not himself and yet which was dependent upon him for its continuing being and existence. This projection represents an absolute origination: that is, it implies a beginning and bringing out of nothing (ex nihilo), and not any mere fashioning of some pre-existent matter or pre-matter. The accent falls here upon his freedom, upon his sovereign intelligence. The consequent universe is real; it is no illusion. Its reality is a conferred reality, which is always relative to his upholding Word. The universe is distinct from God; it is not, properly speaking, continuous with him. That is, in creation God set over against himself in the realm of being that which was not himself.
At this point it must be noted that the biblical account of creation has two aspects: there is the aspect of absolute origination in the initial creation, indicated by the words, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” This denotes the calling into being, in the dateless past, of the basic “finite” which is our universe. Then there is the second and detailed aspect, sketched in the first two chapters of Genesis in terms of six successive creative days (Gen. 1), and specialized in the account of human origins (Gen. 2).
Objections. It should be noted here that the Christian affirmation has been challenged upon several grounds: some have felt that it represents a too-narrow monotheism. We have given brief attention to this objection earlier in this study. Others suggest that the “Let it be” or fiat of creation is too simple, that it describes in a few words what was in reality most complex. It must be recalled in this connection that the account of Genesis is designedly simple. The New Testament does, however, show an increased awareness of the issues for human thought which the teaching concerning creation implies and involves. Others object to what they consider to be the “childishness” of the Old Testament account, which divides creation, or rather, creative activity, into six successive days. This objection loses much of its force in the light of two things. First, the creative sequence indicates progress in the formation of the world—progress which upon closer study may not be, after all, illogical. Second, it is recognized in nearly all evangelical circles that in Hebrew the term “day” is used to denote more than one quantity of time. In some contexts, the term “day” denotes an era or an epoch. This may be illuminated by the words, “These are the generations of the heavens and of the earth” in Genesis 2:4. Reverent scholars allow for the possibility that the “days” of Genesis 1 may be generic periods.
There have been objections to the Christian doctrine of creation upon more directly philosophical grounds. Some have asserted in more “modern” form the view of Greek paganism, to the effect that prior to and behind the cosmos existed some primordial “world-stuff,” variously understood as Prime Matter, or as “the receptacle”—a formless precondition of all reality. Jakob Boehme (1575–1624), regarded as the first writing philosopher in the German language, has offered a Germanic version of the general view of ancient Greek thought (that is, Platonic thought) at this point. He suggests: “We understand that without [outside of] nature there is an eternal stillness and rest, viz., the Nothing, and then we understand that an eternal will arises in the nothing, to introduce the nothing into something, that the will might find, feel, and behold itself” (Signatura Rerum, p. 14).
This quotation is significant in that it is a prototype of more modern views raised in objection to the historic Christian view of creation. These more modern opinions are, in general, directed at the objective of absolving God from responsibility for the existence of evil in the world. Now no one will pretend that the existence of evil in the universe is something to be shrugged off. No division of the question (as for example, into terms of “natural” and “moral” evil) will eliminate the problem. But the Christian can scarcely content himself with such an explanation as is advanced by Nicholas Berdyaev who, in the general tone of Boehme, suggests that prior to and outside of God there existed a primal Ungrund which accounts for the irrational “freedom” which in turn accounts for evil, and which exists in God as a “tragic conflict” within his nature (The Destiny of Man, p. 177). Nor can the Christian content himself with the view, advanced in our country by Edgar S. Brightman, that within the being of God there exists a “Given” which is irrational and disorderly, and which is an ever-present internal obstacle to the realization of his purposes.
The Christian understanding of God cannot divorce freedom from God, nor can it locate evil with God’s being. The doctrine of creation presupposes God’s sovereign self-determination. Any proper solution to the “problem of evil” must be found elsewhere than in a limitation of God’s sovereignty. In the last analysis, any light cast upon this tragic problem must be found in the self-giving of the divine Son upon the Cross.
God’s Free Will. In reality, the heart of the Christian world view is revealed in this aspect of the Christian understanding of creation. The biblical record is clear at the point of ascribing to God the ultimate and sole will in the matter of creation. Creation reflects and represents his own freedom in action.
It needs to be noted that modern objections to the Christian understanding of creation have been raised at the point of the relation of creation to time. If we reject the classic pagan view of the eternity of matter, we must yet consider the question of whether creation was, after all, eternal. If we reply that the biblical doctrine implies an origination, a beginning of the universe, we answer this question in the negative. The question then arises, did creation occur in time? Christian thought has, in general, suggested that we know too little of the matter of sequence in the career of God to offer a final answer at this point. Some early thinkers (Origen, for example) felt that God’s self-determination to create must have been eternal. Others held that creation was an act which did not fall within the categories of time and space as we understand them. Augustine held that the universe was not created in time, but that time was created along with the universe. This means that time (as we know it) was something which became manifest at the point at which the universe was projected. Perhaps this is the best available answer.
Conclusion. We have noted seriatim some of the alternatives which have been proposed to the Christian affirmation of creation, the basic content of the Christian teaching, some of the objections raised to it, and something of the larger bearings of the doctrine. We need to note, finally, that the doctrine creates no new mysteries. The mysteries are already present and confront the thoughtful with a perennial challenge. Nor does the Christian doctrine suggest that the concept of absolute creation is an easy one. It is ultimately an article of faith, based upon the acceptance of divine revelation. However, as the reverent mind ponders the alternatives, it finds nothing comparably satisfying to the answer given by the Christian faith.
The Christian Scriptures do not attempt to describe the “how” of creation. They do assure us that the entire Trinity, was active in the production of the universe. While it is God the Father who is, in the broad sense, Creator of heaven and earth, it was through the agency of the Word, the eternal Son, that all things were made. During the creative process it was the Holy Spirit who moved upon “the face of the waters,” bringing order out of the formless and empty chaos.
At the core of the doctrine of creation stands the mighty assertion that the universe is the product of the release of creative energies of an infinitely free and completely holy God, utterly self-sufficient in his being and infinite in his ability to perform that which his heart of love dictates. And in the person of the eternal Son, the activities of creation and redemption meet and conjoin.
Bibliography: J. Lindsay, “Creation,” “Creator,” International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, James Orr, ed., Vol. II; O. Zöckler, “Creation and Preservation of the World,” The New Schaff-Herzog Encyclopedia of Religious Knowledge, S. M. Jackson, ed., Vol. III; R. S. Foster, Creation; K. Heim, Christian Theology and Natural Science; C. Hodge, Systematic Theology, Vol. II; L. H. Keyser, The Problem of Origins; A. H. Strong, Outlines of Systematic Theology; F. R. Tennant, Philosophical Theology, Vol. II.
Professor of Philosophy of Religion
Asbury Theological Seminary
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