Creation and Biblical Theology

The first few chapters of Genesis are setting up the rest of the book. So, just as a film or novel will return to key places and characters and just as a particularly melody will keep appearing in a musical, so too, we can look forward to the themes we discover in these first few chapters being repeated and built upon throughout Scripture.

To understand better how this is happening, we need to know a little about something called Biblical Theology.

What is Biblical Theology

We already know what Systematic Theology is because that’s essentially what we’ve been doing as we’ve looked at the Doctrines of Revelation and God. As Graeme Goldsworthy explains:

“Christian doctrine (systematic or dogmatic theology) involves a systematic gathering of the doctrines of the bible under various topics to form a body of definitive Christian teaching about man, sins, grace, the church, sacraments, ministry and so on.”[1]

So, what we do, is to look across the whole of Scripture and for every issue, we attempt to summarise, explain and defend it.  Biblical Theology does something a little different. Here’s Goldsworthy again:

“Biblical theology as defined here, is dynamic not static. That is, it follows the movement and process of God’s revelation in the bible. It is closely related to systematic theology (the two are dependent upon one another), but there is a different emphasis. Biblical theology is not concerned to state the final doctrines which go to make up the content of Christian belief, but rather to describe the process by which revelation unfolds and moves towards the goal which is god’s final revelation of his purposes in Jesus Christ.”[2]

So, Biblical Theology will follow the whole storyline through discovering how the Bible’s message of Redemption is progressively revealed over time. It will pick up on specific threads, themes and characters and follow them through Scripture until they find their fulfilment and explanation in Christ.

“Biblical theology seeks to understand the relationships between the various eras in God’s revealing activity recorded in the Bible”[3]

Biblical and Systematic Theology should not be seen as rivalling each other but as complimentary. We need Biblical Theology to help us do the necessary Biblical groundwork before drawing our systematic conclusions. We need Systematic Theology to provide the framework for our Biblical Theology and to ensure that we reach useful conclusions.

“It is on the basis of biblical theology that the systematic theologian draws upon the pre-Pentecost texts of the bible as part of the material from which doctrine may be formulated.”[4]

In other words, for the believer who wants to help encourage, teach, challenge and care for his fellow believers there is a process to follow in order to ensure that our care and advice is Biblical.

This could be shown as follows:

Textual Exegesis — Biblical Theology — Systematic Theology — Pastoral Theology

Our aim is to apply Scripture to the hearts of others. Biblical Theology and Systematic Theology are part of the process that takes us from the text to the heart.

So what does a Biblical Theology of Creation look like?

The Big Picture

In Genesis 1-3 we have seen that God creates and rules his Creation by his powerful word. At the heart of Creation, he places humanity.

“The creation of man in the image of God distinguished man from the animals. Man is not the end of a chain of evolution for he is qualitatively distinct from the animals. Man was created in fellowship with God and with dominion over the rest of the created order.”[5]

Humans are special.  They reign over creation under God.  They are told to fill and subdue the Earth. Adam is given responsibility for naming and classifying the animals.  The trees provide fruit for his nourishment and enjoyment. However, human rule is not unfettered. As Goldsworthy explains,

“However, we cannot ignore the similarity between man and the animals -man is never more than a creature and, as such, totally dependent upon the creator. For instance, the word of God to Adam forbidding him to eat from the tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil expresses the fact that man, the creature is bound by the limits of his creaturehood. There are real limits set by the Creator. As such they are expressions of the sovereignty of God -of his absolute Lordship. But this Lord is good and he establishes his creature-man in a relationship which brings both rule and blessing. God is king, man his subject and the place where all this happens is the very best place of all -it is the garden paradise of Eden.”[6]

Goldsworthy sums this up as being the first experience of God’s Kingdom or

(a)    “God’s people

(b)    In God’s place

(c)     Under God’s rule”[7]

Chris Wright sees this as providing a paradigm for life in God’s creation that will be followed throughout the Bible.

The Fall then can be seen as a rebellion by God’s people against his just reign.  They reject the rules and boundaries that he has created for living in The Land and seek to use its produce for their own fulfilment without him and in rivalry to him.

The consequence of the Fall is death which includes exile from the paradise garden of Eden. “Dead man is man outside of the Garden.”[8] Human rebellion results in “progressive exile from Eden, the arable land (adamah)  and climatically the world itself in a deluge.”[9] However, there is still grace and mercy because “Even in the Fall, God’s grace permits the world to continue and sustain an order in which man may live and multiply.”[10] However, The Land is now cursed so that “The world becomes a fallen world for fallen man to live in.”[11]

Wright represents this as: [12]

God (Theological themes)

People (Social themes) à Now fallen humanity

Land (Economic themes) à Now a cursed world

 

Note that each of his categories now relate to a broader theme. Under “God”, we can think about what it means to know and worship God,[13]what does it mean to live under his rule in a fallen world.[14]  “People” represents the social order, how we relate to each other and the rules for a good society.  “The Land” represents God’s provision for us, it also relates to the world of work and so this gives us an “Economic” perspective on life.[15]

Creation and the Storyline

We can now see how those themes are developed through the Bible storyline. Here we are going to primarily focus on what happens to the Land and we’ll pick up on the detailed story of people later. However, we will also see that the three themes are closely interrelated so that we cannot completely separate them out.

The story of “Land” or Creation is all about what happens when those that God has placed in his world to populate it and care for it rebel against his rule.  This brings consequences for the wider creation.

By Genesis 6, we discover that there has been a partial fulfilment of God’s Creation mandate. Humans are multiplying and filling the earth but because of sin, they are filing creation with wickedness not goodness.

Just as in the Garden of Eden, there is a crossing of boundaries when “The Sons of God” have sexual relations with “The Daughters of Man.”[16]  This looks like an example of the order and separation that God’s creative word brings being breached.[17] There are echoes of Eve’s sin here as “the sequence of ‘saw….good…took’ parallels most closely the terminology in 3:6 and suggests the sinfulness of the actions of the sons of God. ”[18]  Meanwhile, the acquiescence or consent of the women and presumably their families reflects Adam’s passive acquiescence in the Garden.[19]

The growth of wickedness as exemplified here leads to God’s decision to send a great flood.  This is important because what we are seeing here is a reversal of the ordering, separating and bringing forth life that we see in Genesis 1.

“The flood, in essence, represents an undoing of creation. Back in Genesis 1, the creation was narrated as God’s shaping the formless mass (tohu vabohu) by moving back the waters that completely surrounded the world. The flood is thus a reversal of creation.”[20]

After the flood, there is an act of recreation as the land re-emerges from the waters and Noah becomes a new Adam with the responsibility of multiplying and filling the earth.[21] We may even see echoes of God’s Spirit hovering in the Dove that Noah sends from the ark.

We then have find Abraham who is also called to multiply with the promise that he will be the father of many nations. [22]  Goldsworthy notes that

“God’s promise to Abraham involved:

(a)    a people who are his descendants

(b)    a land in which they will live,

(c)     a relationship with God in that they shall be God’s people”[23]

Once again, the themes of God’s rule, people and land re-appear. However, Abraham will find that for long periods he is forced to leave the land because of drought, taking refuge in Egypt and later his descendants will again find themselves taking refuge from famine in Egypt where eventually they become slaves to Pharaoh. Just as Adam’s death means exile from the Garden, so “death” for God’s people means exile from the land, “the land of promise is far off and inaccessible”[24] This becomes the paradigmatic too with God’s people later exiled because of sin to Assyria, Babylon and Persia. [25] The promise to Abraham can only come through rescue and redemption as seen in the Exodus and the later return to the land under Ezra and Nehemiah. [26] This is also important for our New Testament reading where the “Now and Not Yet” of New Creation means that God’s people have been redeemed but are often both physically and spiritually portrayed as a diaspora of exiles and aliens.[27]  Practically, it will also challenge our concern for and approach to both economic migrants and political refugees in our own time.

God acts to deliver the Israelites from Egypt by first bringing de-creation. The order and structure of the land breaks down as frogs, insects and darkness break the boundaries of their natural habitats and the land produces death instead of life culminating in the death of the first-born. [28]  On the darkness, Fretheim comments:

“It is the darkness of chaos, a pre-creation state of affairs. That is why it is the most serious plague but one. God is at work in the darkness, however, and God’s new creation will burst forth in the light of day”[29]

This is a stark message to the Egyptians about the powerlessness of their own so-called gods to rule over creation.

Exodus 20 sets Torah obedience firmly in the context of Creation. The Creator-Creator distinction is enforced as Israel are told not to worship representations of created beings[30] and the Sabbath commandments follow the 7 day pattern of Creation and rest.[31] The book of Deuteronomy enlarges on the roots of Israel’s existence in the Genesis narrative. James Robson explains,

“At critical moments in Deuteronomy Moses refers back to the promises Yahweh made to Abraham. These form the bedrock of the claims to the land, whether in Moab or after the Exile…There are glimmers of a history behind these promises in Deuteronomy with talk of creation (4:32) and of Yahweh referred to as Most High, allocating nations and receiving Israel as his inheritance (32:8-9)…This (his)story consists in a large measure of a cycle of Yahweh’s creative activity, humanity defying that order, Yahweh’s judgement and, finally, Yahweh’s fresh (re-)creative act. Together, humanity’s defiance and Yahweh’s judgement constitute a kind of ‘decreation’, with death, exclusion and fragmentation of relationships in stark contrast with the very goodness of creation.”[32]

Robson cites a number of “Creation” or Genesis echoes in Deuteronomy including:

“The analogy of Yahweh’s ‘hovering’ like an eagle matches the Wind of God ‘hovering’ over the water (rhp; Gen, 1:2; Deut 32:11); the ‘formlessness’ of creation matches the formlessness of the wilderness (tohu; Gen. 1:1; Deut 32:10); so at the end of Deuteronomy God’s act of redemption is associated with his act of creation.”[33]

As well as the observation that:

“Deuteronomy describes the land in creation terms as ‘good’ (Deuteronomy 1:25-35; cf. Gen 1), with Edenic abundance.”[34]

He also notes Dumbrell’s observation that:

“Like Adam (Gen 2:8), Israel was formed outside of the land. Placed in the land by God she was given a  code  which was to regulate life there..”[35]

Then in the Covenant re-affirmations, there are further echoes of Eden as choosing good or evil, life or death mirrors the choice between the two trees at the centre of the Garden (Deut 30:15).[36]

Robson sees in Deuteronomy’s use of Genesis an important reminder that God’s plan to redeem Creation goes back to the start and God’s concern for “Land” “There is always a ‘where’ a place where humanity’s relationship with God is lived out.”[37]

This brings us on to a vital point, the story is heading to a conclusion. The cycle of creation-recreation-recreation is not eternal, rather, the New Testament takes us to a final “New Creation.” This is seen in the description of believers as a “New Creation”[38]. It is also seen in Paul’s description of Creation as experiencing birth pangs.[39] Finally, it is seen in the last pictures of the book of Revelation where the New Heavens and New Earth are described as a place of goodness, peace and beauty.[40] There, we discover the New Jerusalem (a picture of the Church) as like a Garden City, a new and better Eden with the Tree of Life at its centre.[41]

 

[1] Graeme Goldsworthy, “Gospel and Kingdom” pages 1-148 in The Goldsworthy Trilogy (Carlisle: Paternoster, 2000), 44-45.

[2] Goldsworthy, “Gospel and Kingdom” 45.

[3] Goldsworthy, “Gospel and Kingdom” 45-46.

[4] Goldsworthy, “Gospel and Kingdom” 46.

[5] Goldsworthy, “Gospel and Kingdom”  51.

[6] Goldsworthy, “Gospel and Kingdom”  51.

[7] Goldsworthy, “Gospel and Kingdom”  54.

[8] Goldsworthy, “Gospel and Kingdom” 61.

[9] Joseph Blenkinsopp, The Pentateuch: An Introduction to the First Five Books of the Bible (London: SCM, 1992), 57.

[10] Goldsworthy, “Gospel and Kingdom” 52.

[11] Goldsworthy, “Gospel and Kingdom” 52.

[12] Adapted from Wright, Old Testament Ethics, 184.

[13] See Wright, Old Testament Ethics, 23-47.

[14] See Wright, Old Testament Ethics,48-75.

[15] See Wright, Old Testament Ethics,76-102.

[16] There are a number of interpretations offered for what this might mean -either spirit beings (fallen angels) with humans or possibly the godly line of Seth and the ungodly line of Cain.  See Wenham for discussion on this.

[17] Nb Longman connects this incident with Jude’s description “of the angels who did not stay within the limits of authority God gave them but left the place where they belonged.” (Jude 5). Tremper Longman III, How to read Genesis (Downers, IL.: IVP 2005), 116.  Though this verse may be referring to the wider context of Satan’s fall and I don’t think this is necessary for us to note the sense of boundary crossing and temptation here.

[18] Wenham, Genesis 1-15, 141.

[19] Wenham, Genesis 1-15, 141.

[20] Longman, How to read Genesis, 117.

[21] Wenham, Genesis 1-15, 207.

[22] Genesis 12:1-3 and Genesis 17:4-5.

[23] Goldsworthy, “Gospel and Kingdom”   53.

[24] Goldsworthy, “Gospel and Kingdom”  70.

[25] Goldsworthy, “Gospel and Kingdom”  100.

[26] Goldsworthy, “Gospel and Kingdom”  72-73.

[27] 1 Peter 1: 1. C.f. Karen H Jobes, 1 Peter (BECNT. Grand Rapids MI.: Baker Academic, 2005), 61-66.

[28] See Terrence E Fretheim, Exodus (Interpretation. Louisville, Kentucky: 1991), 129.

[29] Fretheim, Exodus, 129.

[30] Exodus 20:4.

[31] Exodus 20:11.

[32] James Robson, Honey from the Rock (IVP), 73. Nb. Robson cites Joseph Blenkinsopp, Creation, Uncreation, Re-Creation: A discursive Commentary on Genesis 1-11 (London: T& T Clark), 2011.

[33] Robson, Honey from the Rock, 76.

[34] Robson, Honey from the Rock, 76.

[35] William  J Dumbrell, The Faith of Israel: Its Expressions in the Books of the Old Testament (Leicester: Apollos, 1988), 56. Cited in  Robson, Honey from the Rock 76

[36] Robson, Honey from the Rock, 77.

[37] Robson, Honey from the Rock, 77.

[38] 2 Corinthians 5:17.

[39] Romans 8:19-22.

[40] Revelation 21:1-8.

[41] Revelation 22.

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