A Theology of Creation in 12 Points
It’s Friday, and time for another Friday phone call with Don Carson. This special episode of the Ask Pastor John podcast comes to you in partnership with our friends over at The Gospel Coalition. Dr. Carson is the co-founder and president of The Gospel Coalition. He is also the editor of the new NIV Zondervan Study Bible which focuses on biblical theological themes as they develop in the Bible from Genesis to Revelation. On Fridays every three weeks or so we will pick up one of these themes for discussion.
Dr. Carson, Tony Reinke, at Desiring God. Hello and thanks for joining us again. Last time you shared a historical overview of the Bible — the whole Bible. Today we need to focus on the implications of creation in the first two chapters of Genesis. Ready?
All right, take it away.
All right. Let’s say something about creation.
Today when Christians talk about the doctrine of creation, a lot of the discussion immediately turns to when creation took place, how it relates to claims of evolutionists, old earth, young earth, and things of that order. And certainly such questions are important, but it is not the place where the Bible itself lays the primary emphasis. Let me explain what I mean by that.
About 50 years ago Francis Schaeffer wrote a book called Genesis in Space and Time. And in it he asked a question that I have increasingly come to see as fundamental: What is the least, he asks, that we must make of Genesis 1–11 in order for the rest of the Bible to be coherent and true? Now he is not asking what is the most that you can draw from Genesis 1–11 and Genesis 1–3 in particular, but: What is the least that we must be certain about, clear about, for the rest of the Bible to be coherent and true? That is a very shrewd question, because it is a way of saying: Those are the things that we must most emphasize and that are least negotiable.
So let me outline some of those kinds of things. This is a mere survey. Each of the points I am about to mention could easily be expanded into an hour’s address. And instead, I am going to go through a handful of them rather quickly.
1) God comes first. It is such an elementary point, but it needs to be articulated. Before anything else was, before there was a universe in the beginning: God. He comes first. And that is teased out in other Scriptures to show that God in eternity past was not dependent upon us. It is not that God needed the universe so he wouldn’t be lonely. Eventually, the Bible fleshes out the notion of God in all kinds of ways to show that in the past the Father loved the Son and the Son loved the Father. So there was a perfection of love in the past.
That’s very different from, for example, the vision of Islam where Islam is slow to speak of God being a God of love, because that assumes the importance of another. And in their insistence on God’s uniqueness and sovereignty and separateness, then they can stress God’s big and greatness. It is hard for them to stress God’s love. The Qur’an rarely speaks in those terms. But the Bible as a whole insists that God is love, because in the one God, miraculously, strangely, God is also other. In the oneness of God there is a complexity such that God loves the Son, the Sons loves God, even in eternity past, and he doesn’t need the universe.
2) God speaks. He is a talking God. The first thing he does is speaks and by his powerful word calls the universe into existence. Now that becomes paradigmatic of God disclosing himself in word. Right through the whole Bible God is a talking God, and he dares to speak in words that human beings can understand.
3) God made everything. That is against pantheism, in which everything in the universe is God. That is against panentheism, in which everything in the universe is God, but God is not everything in the universe. That is, there is a little bit of God left over besides everything that is made that is in the universe. But here there is a distinction between God, who exists before everything in the universe, and the created order. It is against any sort of ontological dualism, that is, a kind of dualism in which there is a good force and a bad force, or one force with a good side and the bad side. It is not Star Wars.
4) There is one God who is good, and he made everything good. And so the origin of evil is not intrinsically a good principle and a bad principle that are in competition. Even when the serpent is introduced, he is introduced as the most subtle of the creatures that God made. And thus, there never is any hint of dualism or anything of that sort. There is one sovereign God over the whole.
I know that raises all kinds of questions. How does God stand behind good and evil? Well, on the long haul the Bible lays a lot of emphasis on God standing behind good and evil asymmetrically. That is, he stands behind good and evil in different ways. He stands behind good in such a way that the good is always creditable to him and the evil is always creditable to secondary causalities, like the serpent, even though it can’t sweep away God’s sovereignty.
When Paul finds himself evangelizing pagans in Acts 17 in the great city of Athens, one of the things that he stresses is that God is so sovereign and other, the Creator of all things, that he doesn’t need anything. The pagan gods are finite. They have their needs and their fears and their lusts and their joys and their sorrows and their triumphs and so on. So a lot of pagan religion is just an attempt to make the gods happy. A lot of religion is: You scratch my back, I scratch your back. You offer the right sacrifices to the gods, and you end up with a fat, healthy baby. That is what religion is and what a pagan world looks like. It is arranged in terms of swaps. But if God made everything and needs nothing, how on earth do you trade with him?
5) So already the beginning of the necessity for the doctrine of grace is established by the storyline in the doctrine of creation. God made everything good. And that means, in the fifth place, that human beings are accountable to God. The grounding of our accountability to God is the doctrine of creation. It becomes the source of believer’s praise (Psalm 33; Revelation 4). Repeatedly it is built into the story line.
Praise God because we are made by him and for him — and are accountable to him. It is only right and good and sensible. And within this framework, then, when people say today, “Listen, I don’t mind if you have your religion, your Jesus, and your Bible. But I am a spiritual person, too. I have my own religion. I have my own approach to the divine and spiritual. Don’t keep cramming your Jesus down my throat,” then sooner or later, although it might be the part of wisdom and discretion and care and love to back off a little and have a go another day, yet sooner or later the loving Christian is going to have to say — very gently over coffee and within the framework of trusted relationships — the Christian is going to have to say: The one thing I can’t do is back off, because God made you and therefore you owe him and you will give an account to him.
So the grounding of our accountability to God, our responsibility to him and the fact that, because he is God, he is the final judge of our reactions to him, are all laid, in principle, in the opening chapters of the book of Genesis.
6) Then in the sixth place there are hints — not more than that — there are hints of God’s complexity in an expression like, “Let us make man in our image” (Genesis 1:26). Some people have tried to understand that to be a royal “we,” but there is no real hint of that in the context or that it is God and the quark of heaven or something like that — but there is no real hint of that in the context. I think that in the book of Genesis 1–3, there are many, many themes that are introduced without making them clear. That is, they are pregnant expressions. They are expressions that are fleshed out. It would be wrong to read into it: Let us make an entire doctrine of the Trinity. It is not there. The components are not there.
But there is a hint of it. There is an adumbration that God is not simply oneish. He is one God. And yet there is in God complexity such as there is also other. You find those things teased out already in an incipient way in the Old Testament and very clear in the New Testament when you find a passage like John 5. God is determined that all should honor the Son even as they honor the Father, and before, “In the beginning,” John’s Gospel says, “was the Word, and the Word was with God,” God’s own fellow, “and the Word was God,” God’s own self (John 1:1).
And so you have more and more and more adumbrations until you get to the kind of formulation that you get in the fourth century AD. But although the New Testament is much clearer on such things, you have seedlings planted already in the doctrine of creation. And I would argue that you have other seedlings. I will just list three or four of them. They will come up later in this series.
For example, Christians have long argued whether there is a covenant of works, it is often called, with Adam in Genesis 2–3. And some have said very strongly yes, some have said very strongly no. Those who say no point out the fact that the word “covenant” isn’t used. It is true that the word “covenant” isn’t used, but nevertheless there is a kind of established agreement imposed by a sovereign God that demands obedience with threat of judgment unless there is obedience and so forth. Many of the elements of what goes into covenantal thinking are already there in Genesis 1–3.
Or again, you don’t get mention of the tabernacle till the time of Moses and then temple not until the time of David and Solomon. And yet many have pointed out that the tabernacle and temple is the meeting place between God and his image bearers. And now the garden of Eden is the kind of meeting place between God and his image bearers. And so then they start pointing out many, many adumbrations of kinds of temple theology that are already beginning to take place in the garden. And if you want to, you can point out that the word “temple” isn’t used. Nevertheless, the adumbrations, the first steps toward this sort of thing, are already built right into the account in Genesis 1–3.
And if I had time, I could show you that there are about a dozen of these themes that are already built right into the structure of things. I will mention one more just in passing. The word “king” is not used — God presenting himself as King. Yet there is no doubt that he reigns. And he reigns over that which he has made. And so the notion of God as King is built into the story line.
7) Then in the seventh place human begins are introduced as made in the image of God. That becomes a major theme that runs right through the entire Scripture. God makes human beings in his own image and likeness so that in some ways they are very much like the rest of creation — made by God out of the dust. And in other ways they are unique and it would be well worth our while to tease out some of the things that are bound up with this notion of the image of God.
One of the reasons why Christians have such a hard job agreeing on exactly what goes into this notion is because, once again, I think that it is a pregnant expression. It is an expression that adumbrates what will be filled out in much more detail in subsequent chapters and subsequent books that run right through the entire Scripture, so that human beings are unique creatures. On the one hand, we are supposed to reflect God. We are his image. And on the other hand, we too belong to the dust. We are made from the dust. We are part of the created order and not to be confused with God. So this sort of created order is extraordinarily important.
8) Then in the eighth place there is stewardship over creation.
9) In the ninth place there is in Genesis 2 a kind of ordering and structure. In 1:26–27 we read, “Let us make man in our image.” So men and women are both made equally in the image of God, but in a kind of binary way. There is a male and a female, and both of them are made in the image of God. In chapter 2 then the account of creation is teased out in greater detail so that one is made first and the other is made for the one. That is, Adam is made first and she is made from him — thus, part of humankind and for him in a way that is unique. It is not a reciprocal relationship at that point.
So the relationship of man and woman gets teased out in a variety of ways. And that is part of the set up, likewise, for the account of the fall. And those sorts of things are teased out in terms of the man and woman relationship later on in Scripture, too (1 Corinthians 11; 1 Timothy 2; and elsewhere).
10) Then there is eschatology that is anticipated by all of this. It is not for nothing that the prophet Isaiah in the eighth century BC anticipates that what God will do at the end for his people is provide a new heaven and a new earth. And that language is full of anticipation and glory of what is yet to be revealed. And finally it shows up in Revelation 21.
But it is harking back to the first creation, and even when the expression new heaven and new earth does not occur, as it does in Revelation 21 or 2 Peter and so forth, yet the theme is bound up with the details of Romans 8, for example. The whole created order is subjected to death and decay by God’s decree, because of sin and rebellion. And it groans waiting for the adoption of sons, that is, the culmination of the glorification of believers. So that anticipates the Bible story line in huge ways.
11) Two more: The beginning of Sabbath is bound up with God’s rest. The text does not say that Sabbath is imposed at this point. It says that God rests on the seventh day. But when the Sabbath is instituted legally in the Decalogue, the text self-consciously looks back to creation. You are to remember the seventh day and keep it holy, for in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, and so on and so on and so on (see especially Exodus 20:8–11). That is picked up, likewise, even in Revelation 4 to build a whole theology of rest that we can’t tease out at this juncture. But it begins in the opening chapters of Genesis.
12) And finally, this is not an exhaustive list, but an apostolic number will do for us: There is a huge emphasis in the rest of the Bible on the greatness of God testified by his creation. You think of passages like Psalm 8 or Psalm 19 worth reading at this juncture and meditating quietly on them, or some of the spectacular texts in Isaiah 40–45. Reading through those chapters reminds us that God is sovereign over creation, knows the end from the beginning, and everything is accountable to him. He is the sovereign pottery maker. The created order is simply what he makes.
Texts like Isaiah 40:12, Isaiah 43:15, chunks of Isaiah 44:2–24, Isaiah 45:11–12, and so on — these are texts that call us back to worship God because of his greatness and the display of his own glory in creation, which is a point that is also found in Romans 1. God has not left himself without witness because his existence and glory are already displayed in the created order itself.
So in other words, Genesis 1–3 — I haven’t even mentioned much about the fall — but Genesis 1–2 and the focus on creation is itself the seedbed of a vast number of biblical, theological themes that tell us a great deal about God, human beings, the structure of the story line that issues finally in the coming of Christ and in the denouement of all things issuing in glory that is yet to come in the new heaven and the new earth.
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