It was a moment of crisis in my faith. As a young doctoral student in astrophysics, I had just read some work by Stephen Hawking that would eventually go into his classic A Brief History of Time. Up to this point in my Christian life, I had relied on a solid argument to use with my atheist friends. In response to, "The universe began with a Big Bang," I countered with, "But who started it all off—who lit the explosion?" And at the time, science seemed to support my answer: There was no way to combine quantum theory and relativity and therefore no way of describing the first moment of the universe.
Hawking, however, was speculating on how the universe might have lit its own Big Bang. If that was true, did I need a Creator anymore? I asked Sir Robert Boyd, a leading physicist and Christian, about whether Hawking might be wrong. Sir Robert simply replied, "The biblical Creator doesn't need to hide in little gaps in science."
The Christian doctrine of Creation has often been hijacked by controversies over how old the universe is. It has been hollowed out by the theory that God simply ignites the universe and then goes off for a cup of coffee, never touching his masterwork again. It is interesting that attacks on belief in a Creator, whether from Hawking, Richard Dawkins's The God Delusion, or Lawrence M. Krauss's recent A Universe from Nothing, tend to target this diminished deity. But the Bible has a much bigger understanding of God as Creator. Not only does the doctrine of Creation feature in Scripture beyond just Genesis 1, God's creative activity permeates every moment of the history of the universe.
My Hawking-induced crisis of faith spurred me to move beyond a "God of the gaps"—a shrunken deity enlisted merely to fill any remaining pockets of mystery that science has yet to illuminate. Indeed, my experience has been that recapturing the doctrine of Creation in its scriptural fullness points us toward a much more exciting understanding of creation. It points us toward a God for whom science is a gift rather than a stumbling block. And perhaps most importantly, it points to a Creator God who is worthy of worship, enjoyment, and trust.
Let me identify a number of themes within the Bible that have been foundational in Christian history to understanding this Creator God.
A Dynamic and Practical Doctrine
First, the Christian doctrine of Creation is never an abstract, academic concept. Western thought loves a simple philosophical understanding of things. But Scripture employs a rich diversity of styles in discussing creation. Even within the Old Testament, the relevant texts (Gen. 1-3; Prov. 8:22-36; Pss. 8, 19, and 148; Gen. 9:8-17; Job 38-42; Isa. 40:9-31) run a broad stylistic gamut, drawing from both the wisdom and prophetic traditions. This diversity testifies to the doctrine's dynamic and practical nature. The Bible's discussions of Creation always have a larger purpose: to inspire worship, to encourage the weak, to call for holiness, and to offer reassurance in times of trouble. Too often, Christians have forgotten this, especially when they have reduced creation narratives to attempted proof texts for God's existence. Christians have disagreed, for instance, over the historical nature of the early chapters of Genesis. I am saddened, though, that such controversy has obscured their power as hymns of praise, capable of engulfing us in wonder at such an amazing God.
Anglican theologian Dan Hardy once wrote that, at its heart, the action of God in creation demands a worshipful response. The call to worship is written into the very fabric of the universe. In light of this, we need to guard against letting discussions of Creation stray from its implications for worship and lifestyle. Now, of course that does not bar Christians from actively and enthusiastically participating in scientific and apologetic debates. But the scientific exploration of origins can never be conducted merely for its own sake. Put another way, we need to be very careful about focusing on the Creator—not on just creation.
Look to Jesus
Second, the Christian doctrine of Creation has Christ at the center. Focusing on the Creator poses the fundamental question of how that Creator is known. In Colossians, Paul is explicit in saying that the Creator God is known supremely in Christ. Jesus is the "image of the invisible God" (1:15), the projection of God himself into space and time in a way that reveals his true nature. To know, then, what our Creator is like, Christians must look to Jesus. In the third volume of his Church Dogmatics, Karl Barth put this clearly: "I believe in Jesus Christ, God's Son our Lord, in order to perceive and to understand that God the Almighty, the Father, is the Creator of heaven and earth. If I did not believe the former, I could not perceive and understand the latter."
This means that I do not need to prove God through some kind of logical argument. In fact, this kind of argument is always vulnerable to someone like Hawking finding a scientific way around it. This was exactly what happened with Charles Darwin. Many Christians had put their faith in the axiom that a created object—whether a single watch or a whole world—implies a creator. When Darwin suggested that natural selection explained the biological world better than God's design, they felt very threatened. Those whose faith stemmed from biblical revelation were much more relaxed.
My belief in the existence and nature of a Creator God comes from his own self-revelation in Jesus. This is a word of caution to Christians who want to use science as an evangelistic strategy, whether through creationism or intelligent design. We need, of course, to speak with integrity about the relationship of science and faith. And indeed, there may be pointers to God embedded in creation: its beauty, its mind-bending magnitude, its finely tuned hospitality for various species. But any apologetic that stems from the doctrine of Creation must have a key place for Jesus. It will not suffice to look for gaps in the scientific account into which God can be squeezed. Modern science, in its speculations about the intelligibility of the universe or the origin of the laws of physics, raises questions that lie beyond its capacity to answer. Christians should expose, and rebut, the unwarranted atheism that commonly results. But we can never isolate our efforts in this area from a Creator God who reveals himself in Jesus.
Without Peer or Competitor
Third, the Christian doctrine of Creation affirms that God is the sole creator of the universe. That is, he is without peer or competitor. The belief that God is the source of all creation has developed into the concept of creatio ex nihilo, which means "creation out of nothing." In other words, God could create freely, unconstrained by the limitations of pre-existing matter. If the whole material universe is created by God, then science—the investigation of that universe and discovery of its workings—is affirmed. Indeed, many historians of science would say that the Christian doctrine of Creation was centrally important in the development of modern science. At the heart of the scientific method is observation of nature, something the doctrine of Creation positively encourages. For if this world is the handiwork of God, then the created realm is to be observed in awe and wonder. And if Creator and creation are distinct from one another, we can freely investigate the operations of nature as opposed to blindly worshiping nature itself.
In addition, God is not merely the sole creator, but also the sole sustainer of what he has created. As an astrophysicist, this has always been an important insight for me. The simplicity of the physical laws underlying the complexity of the universe is one of the striking features of modern science. In Colossians, Paul proclaims that in Jesus, "all things hold together" (1:17). The universe "coheres" in such an amazing way, not through impersonal physical "laws" alone, but through the sustaining activity of God. Science is only possible because of the ongoing work of Jesus.
Seen, then, through the lens of the doctrine of Creation, science and technology emerge not as antagonists to belief but as gifts of God. Those who explore the order of the universe (such as scientists) and those who manipulate and reconfigure it (such as engineers) do so because of God, whether they recognize it or not. Science and engineering can indeed be seen as Christian ministries. The German astronomer Johannes Kepler in 1595 wrote to Michael Maestlin, one of his teachers, that he had turned away from a vocation as a theologian, because "through my effort God is being celebrated in astronomy." Likewise, we need to encourage Christian believers to see science as a Christian vocation rather than a secular threat.
The Creator Is also the Redeemer
Fourth, the Christian doctrine of Creation needs to be seen in light of the reality of new creation. To fully understand a story, you need both the beginning and the end. The same is true with the Christian understanding of creation. When we consider the biblical narrative as a whole, we see that the Creator is also the Redeemer. God's work does not stop at Genesis. The agent of creation is also the goal to which the creation tends, its eschatological purpose. The Old Testament identifies Israel's God, the one who delivered his people from slavery in Egypt, as the same God who created the whole universe (Isa. 40:12-31). The New Testament takes this theme much further, seeing the one who dies on the cross as the one who brought the stars into space.
If the same God who created the world has redeemed it, then creation, despite its present bondage to sin and decay, must ultimately be good. Otherwise, it would not have been worth redeeming. And if creation has been redeemed, then we can look forward to a new creation, the "new heaven and new earth" described in Revelation 21. The hope is not of God rebuilding creation from scratch, or helping us escape into some kind of disembodied, immaterial state. No, our final hope is for the transfiguring fulfillment of this present creation into all that it was originally destined to be. Given its redeemed status and promised transformation, the created order is not to be written off as evil or unimportant, but rather to be cared for, respected, and delighted in.
The Gift of Relationship
Fifth, the Christian doctrine of Creation shows that humanity has the capacity for an intimate relationship with God. The question of what makes humans special is one of the central questions of contemporary culture. And because of advances in artificial intelligence, greater understandings of the human brain and the capabilities of animals, and the development of the Human Genome Project, that question can seem more unsettled than ever. Theologians have traditionally listed possessing an immaterial soul and bearing the image of God as the hallmarks of human uniqueness. In the language and context of the ancient Near East, the concept of image refers less to the characteristic features of humanity than to its distinctive place within the created order. Bearing God's image is about relationship with God more than any specific human attribute or pattern of behavior.
According to Babylonian stories of creation, the role of humans was simply to serve the gods. But the Bible views humanity in a very different way. Humanity is that part of creation that is capable of consciously apprehending—and responding to—its relationship to the Creator. This relationship involves sharing in the creative, sustaining dominion of God, and thus acting as the visible representatives of his benevolent care for creation.
All of this adds a further dimension to our thinking about the present environmental crisis. If being made in God's image involves stewarding the natural world, we need to steward in a Christlike way, as servants rather than as dictators. As Christians, we can share with all humanity a concern for preserving the environment for future generations. And we can share with other faith communities a sense of preserving the Earth as a divine gift. But we should want to go further, and proclaim environmental responsibility as a consequence of living under the lordship of Christ.
It is striking that Genesis 1 ends not in the creation of Adam and Eve, but in the Sabbath day on which, as Scottish theologian David Fergusson says, "the whole creation glorifies its maker." That is, resting in, rejoicing in, and living out the Sabbath praise of God is regarded in Scripture as the very summit of earthly existence—the purpose for which it was breathed into being. Viewed this way, we humans are called not just to "use" material reality for our own ends, but to hallow it, to reverence it as God's gift, to work for its flourishing, and, in this manner, to be viceroys of the world over which he graciously superintends.
In the Christian doctrine of Creation, we thus find a common theme. The meaning of the universe is not to be found in an impersonal cosmic force, or in a mathematical theory, or in a philosophical abstraction. Instead, it is found in a personal God who wants relationships with human beings. To be human is to receive the gift of relationship, to love and be loved by the God who created you.
David Wilkinson is professor in the theology and religion department and principal at St. John's College, Durham University.
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