PART 4 OF THE SERIES OF MEDITATION ON ‘FAITH TO LIVE BY’
THE Creed declares that God is the Creator of the universe and the originator of all that there is. It is of paramount importance at the very outset to maintain that this too is the knowledge of faith, made possible only through God’s revelation.
This means that the truth of God the Creator is as great a mystery as the truth of the incarnation, the virgin birth and the resurrection, and should never be taken as a truth that is more accessible to human reason than the rest. The starting point for understanding this truth is therefore not the existence and reality of this empirical world, but the reality of the Triune God – Father, Son and Holy Spirit – who has made Himself known as Creator “Heaven and Earth” here does not refer only to the universe, but to all of reality, as the expanded phrase “of all things seen and unseen” in the Nicene Creed makes clear. Thus, the Christian faith’s declaration of God as Creator is an acknowledgement that He alone is the Author of all reality other than Himself.
In the light of this, the fathers of the church taught that God created the world “out of nothing” (ex nihilo), that is, without the use of any pre-existing material for whose existence He was not responsible. This is where the analogy of the master craftsman that is often employed by theologians and philosophers alike to describe the divine creative activity shows itself to be inadequate. A craftsman, however skilful, is always dependent on some pre-existing material – clay, stone, wood, canvas – to “create” his masterpiece, and therefore does not create ex nihilo, out of nothing.
Similarly, the popular media has used words like “creation” to describe the ability of scientists to generate organisms and even to clone mammals. But genetic science and bio-technology cannot “create out of nothing”, and are ever dependent on some pre-existing genetic material, however basic. Human imagination, likewise, cannot “create out of nothing”, but must work with experiential knowledge of the world. Only God can create out of nothing – originality belongs to Him alone.
There is, however, a more profound theological significance to the assertion that God creates ex nihilo. This doctrine helps us to properly conceive of the relationship between God and the world. “Creation out of nothing” tells us firstly that God is not the world, and the world is not God. In other words, it rejects pantheism, that philosophy which maintains that “all is God and God is all”. The Christian doctrine of creation maintains on the contrary that the being of the world is distinct from the being of God its Creator.
Secondly, “creation out of nothing” also prevents us from embracing an absolute dualism. Dualism teaches that there are two equal, if opposite forces, that co-exist eternally: matter and spirit, evil and good. Reality is depicted as the constant struggle between these two forces. The Christian doctrine of creation informs us that before God created the world, there was no-thing. That is to say, there was only God.
Finally “creation out of nothing” prevents us from embracing deism. Deism postulates that God created the world with all the natural laws to govern it, and then left it to run on its own. It presents a view that after God had created the world, He withdrew himself and did not have any further interactions with His creation. The Christian understanding of “creation out of nothing”, however, maintains that God continues to sustain and provide for His creation after He has brought it into being. The created order is constantly dependent on God and will slip back into nothing should God choose not to sustain it.
“Creation out of nothing” makes possible the modern scientific enterprise, for it alerts us to the profound truth that the physical world is not a god to be worshipped, but a creaturely reality that can be investigated. Some, however, have sought to press the argument further. They insist that the very doctrine that has made modern science possible is also responsible for the exploitation of the environment that brought about the current ecological crisis.
Avoid 2 errors when thinking about doctrine of creation
But this reasoning is untenable, for it is not the Christian doctrine of creation that has inspired the exploitation of the environment and its natural resources, but a cocktail of scientism and secularism. (Without going into the complicated and protracted debate, I define “scientism” simply as a form of scientific positivism. Scientism is based on two fundamental presuppositions, both of which, in my view, must be rejected.
The first is that the scientific method is the only reliable method for obtaining truth, and the second is that material entities are the most basic entities that exist. Scientism gives birth to philosophical reductionism and materialism, and is therefore a suitable bedfellow of secularism).
The Christian doctrine of creation emphasises that this world is God’s world. God has not given humankind the liberty to rape the earth, but the awesome responsibility to be stewards of His good creation. Far from opening the door to wanton exploitation and abuse, the doctrine of creation enables us to understand our relationship with nature and with non-rational creatures. The doctrine of creation helps us to understand our solidarity with the created order and our responsibility towards it.
A discussion on the Christian doctrine of God as Creator will not be complete without dealing with the theory of evolution. Since the publication of Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species in 1859, controversies surrounding evolution have raged unabated.
It is important for Christians to avoid two errors when thinking about the doctrine of creation. The first is a literal reading of the first two chapters of the book of Genesis. Such an approach has led to the conclusion that they provide some scientifically verifiable programme of the creation of the world in six days. The first chapters of the Book of Genesis, it must be emphasised, were written in poetic, not scientific language, and therefore neither provide a “calendar” of God’s creative activities, nor the basis for the dogma that the universe was created in six days. The view that these chapters teach that the world was created in six 24-hour days is based on a hermeneutical error: it fails to appreciate the genre in which these chapters were written. The unhappy outcome is that it makes the text say more than it intends to.
These chapters reveal that God is the Creator of the universe, that nothing came into being except through the divine will, and that as God’s handwork, the universe is “good”, that is, the created reality corresponds to the will and the purpose of its Creator.
The second equally serious error that Christians have made in this regard is to take the latest scientific theories – like the theory of evolution or the Big Bang theory – as absolute or near absolute truths, and consequently revise their theology so that it may be accommodated to these theories. Many theologians have attempted to do this in relation to the theory of evolution, and the outcome is often that theological truths are sacrificed on the altar of scientism. Theologians – and also scientists and philosophers – must remind themselves that scientific theories are always provisional, and are therefore subject to change as new data is acquired and interpreted, and as new theories oust older ones.
The trouble with associating our theology with particular scientific theories is that whenever one of these theories becomes outdated or obsolete, the theology that has aligned itself to it will also become defunct. This is not to discourage Christians from engaging with modern science, but to urge that they do so critically. Critical engagement requires the Christian to be aware on the one hand of the truth, stressed at the beginning of this essay, that “God as Creator” is a theological truth that cannot be attained by secular scientific methodology. On the other hand one must also recognise the provisional nature of scientific theories.
The doctrine of creation does not require Christians to embrace the notion that the world was created in six days. But neither does it demand blind allegiance to the theories of evolution and the Big Bang. The doctrine of creation affirms that this contingent world came into being because of the free will of God, and not because of some chance occurrence or some random natural selection.
It affirms that God has brought into being this world for a purpose, and that this world is not simply “the wonderful wedding of chance and necessity, happening in a trillion places at once, at a trillion different levels”, as the neo-Darwinian philosopher Daniel Dennett understands it. Most supremely, the doctrine of creation points us to the Lord of Creation, in whom we live, and move and have our being, and from whom our existence and that of our world derive their true meaning.
Dr Roland Chia, a lecturer at Trinity Theological College, is also the Director of the Centre for the Development of Christian Ministry at TTC. He is a member of Fairfield Methodist Church.