Friday, December 15, 2023

A Brief Evangelical Doctrine of Creation

Evangelical Christians share fundamental doctrines concerning creation, namely the belief that God is the ultimate Creator of all existence. Further, a consensus emerges within evangelicalism on key tenets, such as the divine creation of the universe, the unique formation of humanity, and the recognition that humans, in some way, deviated from God's intended purpose. Despite these broad agreements, delving into the theology of creation reveals a great many distinct perspectives, sparking rigorous discussions among faithful evangelicals. Should we then be satisfied with the most basic understanding of creation? If we are, we will certainly be able to avoid a lot of arguments. However, what we sacrifice by refusing to examine the doctrine of Creation further far outweighs the potential ecumenical benefits. Baptist theologian Millard Erickson urges us to explore in depth our doctrines of creation for several reasons. First, there is a profound significance to creation as the opening sentence in the Bible. Second, historically, the church has placed great emphasis on understanding creation, viewing it as a foundational element that illuminates other theological concepts. Further, the revelation of God's creative acts serves to distinguish Christianity from other belief systems. So, exploring creation can build faith as we see the uniqueness of our doctrine of creation against those of antiquity. Finally, Erickson posits that creation serves as a nexus for potential dialogue between Christianity and science. Creation offers a unique vantage point for shared exploration. Embracing his argument, our objective is to look deeply into the details of God's revelation regarding creation and to unravel the profound implications of both the act of creation and the subsequent fall. In doing so, we should be able to cultivate a deeper unity within evangelical Christianity by collectively grappling with the nature of God's creation.[1]

As a first principle, we must start with the understanding that God is good and further that all of God’s works are good. It is logically deducible that because God is infinitely good, all that God creates is not capable of being anything but good. Beyond the logic of this assertion is also the Scriptural record of the goodness of God’s uncorrupted creation. In Genesis, following God’s creative acts he observes the goodness in his creation, “God saw that it was good.” This is echoed in 1 Timothy 4:4 where Paul declares that “everything created by God is good.” 

After we accept the truth that “God created,” and that God’s creation is good. We should look to how God created. Fortunately, there is no shortage of Biblical passages on the subject. There is also no shortage of theological, historical, and philosophical speculation. As with all doctrine, the safest and most correct place to start any investigation begins with Scripture.

A predominant thematic thread within Scriptural depictions of creation accentuates the pivotal role of the "Word" of God in this cosmic overture. This emphasis is particularly manifest in the Book of Genesis, where a recurring motif of divine utterance is encapsulated in the phrases "God said" and "God called." Implicit in these linguistic articulations is the profound notion that God's utterances possess not only expressive potency but also a transformative agency in the act of creation. The very words of God, constitute a creative force throughout the narrative of Scripture.

This thematic resonance is elaborated most fully in the Gospel of John, a narrative that, begins with an echo of Genesis—both invoking the first moment with the phrase "In the beginning." John, amplifies and clarifies the concept of God's “Word,” asserting that the "Word was with God and the Word was God." Here, God's Word takes center stage, as a person endowed with agency. In this declaration, Jesus, identified as God the Son, emerges as the incarnate embodiment of God's Word, intimately engaged in the creative genesis of the cosmos (John 1:3). This ontological revelation begets a Trinitarian framework for understanding the creative process, where God the Son functions as the divine Word through whom all creation unfolds. Concurrently, the presence of God's Spirit, as depicted in Genesis 1:2, hovers over the primordial waters, illustrating the collaborative agency of the whole Triune God in the creation event.

The Bible goes on to detail the sequential unfolding of the creative process. Distinct days are consecrated to discrete acts of creation, culminating in the formation of humanity—an entity created “in the image and likeness” of God. While a more in depth exploration of this divine image and likeness will be seen later, it suffices for now to accept the Scriptural testimony that there is a distinctive relationship that humans, as recipients of divine creation, share with their Creator.

What has been discussed to this point is directly from Scripture as a result it will generally be met with a consensus among Evangelicals. However, when delving into the specific mechanisms of God's creative acts, the literary structure of Genesis, and the semantics of Genesis 1 and 2, divergent opinion arise. The temporal nature of the mentioned days, the potential gaps between verses, and the role of natural phenomena in creation are all points of possible dispute and discourse. Interpreting these aspects entails a careful examination of scriptural language and inevitably will foster a varied response within the Evangelical framework. There are several points of possible contention here. For instance, were the days mentioned in Genesis literal 24-hour days? Were there gaps between the verses of Genesis and between God’s creative pronouncements? What natural phenomena, if any, did God employ in His creation?

Addressing these questions is crucial for a meaningful theology of creation. Nevertheless, it is important to acknowledge that individuals holding to Biblical inerrancy may reach different conclusions on these matters. A few disputed doctrines are the belief in a literal six-day creation, young earth creation, the gap theory, theistic evolution, and the day-age theory. While these systems have overlap and can in many cases be adopted together, it is important to recognize that they are not inherently connected. Consequently, they warrant at least some independent consideration.

First, I will discuss day-age and gap theories, which are integral components of the broader framework known as "progressive creationism."[2] These theories strive to harmonize Biblical accounts of creation with contemporary perspectives on evolution and the age of the universe. The "day-age" theory interprets Genesis passages, aligning them with Psalms 90 and 2 Peter 3, asserting that in the divine context, "a day is as a thousand years." Meanwhile, the gap theory posits an indeterminate span between the events described in Genesis 1:1 and Genesis 1:2. This theory contends that a prior creation event in Genesis 1:1 may have suffered damage, leading the extant world to become "formless and void." Advocates of this perspective often argue that the initial creation's demise resulted from the fall of Satan.[3]

Day-age theory, akin to its gap counterpart, seeks to reconcile the Genesis narrative with contemporary beliefs about the earth's age.[4] This alignment is achieved by conceptualizing God as actively engaged in the creation of existence over extended periods, potentially employing naturalistic mechanisms in the process. In both instances, proponents can ostensibly uphold Biblical inerrancy while embracing views perceived as in line with modern evolutionary and geological paradigms. Furthermore, these theories create room for the incorporation of theistic evolution into their theological frameworks.

Both the day-age and gap theories exhibit a significant shortcoming – their foundations rest on a modern secular paradigm rather than a Biblical one. While it might be contended that both can be shoehorned into the context of Biblical inerrancy, aligning them with the theological tenet of "sola scriptura" proves to be a more formidable challenge. A crucial clarification is in order here. Properly understood, "sola scriptura" doesn't assert that the Bible is the source of all truth; rather, it positions the Bible as the sole and final arbiter of truth. Therefore, truths can exist outside the biblical realm, as illustrated by the non-Biblical truth of a sentence like "Brandon drank coffee this morning." In contrast, a sentence like "Animals evolved over a long period of time descending from a shared ancestor" makes claims that contradict the Biblical narrative. Accepting this statement as true prompts us to reconcile divergent beliefs, essentially demoting the Bible to a secondary status beneath the modern scientific paradigm.

A secondary challenge in prioritizing a scientific paradigm over a Biblical one lies in the inherent shiftiness of scientific paradigms, whereas Biblical truths remain absolute. To illustrate this point, a recent article in Cosmos Magazine proposed that the universe might be twice as old as previously believed by scientists.[5] Scientific understandings are contingent on paradigms, and the scientific method is crafted to showcase how well hypotheses operate within a specific paradigm.[6] Fundamentally, science revolves around problem-solving rather than the pursuit of absolute truth. In contrast, theology is anchored in transcendent truths. "Truths" that serve as contingencies to solve scientific problems may not be inherently suited to elucidate absolute truths concerning faith, religion, and God.

Given that I accept Biblical inerrancy and sola scriptura, I believe we are left with two acceptable positions. First that God created all that exists in six literal days, and that the earth is likely younger than modern science would have you believe. The first of these propositions is held firmly as it is spelled out explicitly in the text. The second is perhaps subject to revision as its acceptance is inferential.

Now that we've explored what the Bible tells us about "how" God creates, let's delve into the "why" behind God's creative acts. Two fundamental questions emerge. Firstly, why does God create anything at all? Considering God's transcendent and perfect nature, what compels Him to engage in external creation? Secondly, we inquire into the purpose behind creating humans in His image. This second question naturally leads us to ponder the significance of being created in the image of God and grapple with the implications of humans falling short of their intended purpose: why did God create a people knowing they would reject His fellowship?  Lastly, we seek to comprehend the insights into sin offered by God's nature, His creation, and human frailty. The bulk of this essay will be dedicated to exploring why God created mankind in the manner He did. Fortunately, the answers to both why God created at all and why He created humans in His image are rooted in God's revealed nature. The former is shaped by God's transcendent and exceptional goodness, while the latter finds its basis in God's diversity and love.

With this context in mind, let's first explore why God created anything at all. Millard Erickson tackles this question by acknowledging that God doesn't have any necessity to create.[7] Instead, God creates for His glory, an intrinsic aspect of His being, rooted in His perfect holiness and unique nature deserving of glory. This divine glory is manifested through everything God creates, as highlighted in 1 Chronicles, where David urges his people to "ascribe to the LORD the glory due his name" (1 Ch 16:29). The term "due" is crucial here, signifying what God rightfully deserves. This notion is echoed in Psalm 19:1, linking God's deserving glory directly to His creation. Even angels are created to convey the glorious nature of God. In Isaiah 6, a seraphim declares to another angel that "the whole earth is full of His Glory." In this passage, the earth itself attests to God's glory, and the angels, created by God, proclaim it to each other, to God, and to the prophet Isaiah.

We can build on the idea of God's glory by highlighting a recurring theme in the Old Testament—God's creation as a force that brings order to chaos.[8] This act of ordering, as depicted in the Bible, provides a glimpse into a functional purpose for creation, ultimately contributing to the primary goal of glorifying God. Theologian Alister McGrath asserts that the theme of God's ordering of creation is best understood through the metaphor of a potter and clay (Genesis 2:7, Jeremiah 18:1-6). Just as a potter shapes a "recognizably ordered structure" from the clay, God, too, has brought order out of disorder in His creation. Given that God is the orchestrator of this order, and His ordered creation is inherently good, we can deduce that God's general revelation through creation serves to bring Him glory.

Since everything was created to bring God glory, we can know that humankind too was created to give God glory. However, we also know according to Scripture, that humanity was made unique among creation. We are God’s image bearers. Only humans are created in God’s image and likeness. So, why are we uniquely created in God’s image? Patristic theologian Donald Fairbairn echoes the voices of the church fathers when he asserts that it was to participate in God’s love through a relationship with the Trinitarian God, and through that fellowship God could reveal his glory to us.[9] This applies to all humanity, as both male and female are created in God’s image (Gen 1:26–27), and even after sin enters the world, we still bear God’s image (Genesis 9:6, James 3:9).

Now, we need to figure out what it really means to be made in the image of God. Numerous ideas have been tossed around about the significance and consequences of this "image and likeness of God" language. Since this is what distinguishes humans from everything else in creation, getting a grip on what it means to be created in this unique way is crucial for understanding our distinct role in the grand scheme of creation.

The language about being made in God's image is fascinating because we see it pop up a lot in the Old Testament. Beyond Genesis, the word "image" is commonly linked to idols (Ex 20:3–5; Num 33:52; Amos 5:26; Ezek 7:20; 1 Sam 6:5, 11). This sheds light on the idea that humans are made in God's image, unlike idols that are made by humans in their own image. The language itself is intriguing because it reveals how humanity has twisted God's creation. It shows that humans crave a connection with God, but because of our messed-up nature, we try to forge that connection with something we've created—a thing we can control to fit our corrupted desires. This inherent human longing for a relationship with God can definitely teach us something about what being made in "God's image" truly means.

There are several possible answers to the question of what it means to be created in God’s image. The three most compelling of these are that God’s image bestows on humanity the ability to reason, that God’s image is found in humanity’s call to dominion, and finally that God’s image is to be found in relationship. At its core, Fairbairn’s book Life in the Trinity attempts to answer this very question. Fairbairn asserts that “God created us to share in [the relationship between the Father and the Son] and gave us a share in the communion of the Trinity at creation.”[10] Of course, in creation there were other charges to people. We are called to have dominion over creation and we are called to be fruitful and multiply. These it would seem are means rather than ends. The true goal, for both our edification and to fulfill God’s purpose, is to share in communion with God just as Adam and Eve did in the garden.

This shared communion with God is so crucial that it informs all subsequent theology. It's because of sin that we lost fellowship with God. Sin also warped all three core aspects of our image-based humanity, but, importantly, it did not destroy them. Even after sin, we still have dominion over the Earth. However, now the world resists our control in ways that were not originally intended. We can still have children, but it comes with pain (Genesis 3:16-19). However, the most significant damage happened when we broke our relationship with God. Because of this disfellowship caused by human sin, God maps out His plan to mend the broken relationship between people and God (Genesis 3:15). God's plan centers on the sacrifice of Jesus Christ. One more thing to note here: our creation in the image of God sets us apart not only from the rest of creation but also from Jesus. We are made in the image of God, while Jesus is the direct image of God (Colossians 1:15). It takes Jesus, the visible image of God, to bridge the gap caused by sin.

So, the next question to be addressed is how sin entered a perfect world created by a perfect God. This is perhaps the most challenging concept that comes out of creation theology. The answer is of course, the fall. The mechanisms behind an all-powerful, all-knowing God creating the potential for sin is commonly termed the "problem of evil." There have been countless attempts to offer solutions to the problem of evil, each of which has far reaching theological consequences. Most in some way or another attempt to understand evil and its source without implicating God in the evil action. Perhaps, as one theologian proposes creating a human is not possible without creating the possibility of sin. This is like asking God to lie or be cruel, it is simply not possible.[11] This leads many in the Reformed Christian camp to embrace a compatibilistic human free-will where God renders “certain what is to happen” but creates humans with the capacity for some level of qualified free-will.[12] As this approach shows, moderating one's Calvinism is one way to help address the problem. However, it does not address the problem fully. Millard Erickson acknowledges this shortcoming as he admits that “a total solution to the problem of evil is beyond human ability.”[13]

It does seem that strict Calvinists have the most challenging time speaking to the problem of evil because of the implications of unwavering determinism. For at least one Calvinist however, this is not a problem of God’s, but of our perception of evil. Gordon H. Clark attempts to reconcile the problem of evil with ridged Calvinism by asserting that it is our understanding of goodness which is deficient.[14] God, in Clark’s view, does cause everything. This is of course a fundamentally flawed, deeply problematic, and unbiblical perspective. The Bible is full of cases where people have rebelled against God. The Bible is also clear that God is not the author of this rebellion (Daniel 9:5, Nehemiah 9:26, Psalm 107:11, Ezekiel 17:15, 1 Samuel 15:23, Isaiah 1:2). The views of Augustine regarding free-will which is perverted by the fall offers an interesting alternative explanation. It would also be of value to examine Athanasius’ view of the fall found in On the Incarnation, which seems to be close to Augustine’s view with the idea of a perverted and weakened “free-will” post fall. This understanding of “free-will,” combined with an understanding that life, even fallen life, is a moral good would go a long way to resolve some of the more troubling issues around the problem of evil. Spelled out briefly, this view entails God creating mankind with free-will, in his image. Man, with his free-will rebelled against God warping God’s perfect creation. It was through this rebellion and rejection of God that sin entered the world. However, because all human life emanates from God, life is still a moral good, even if it is not perfect. It is a moral good in that it finds its source in God alone (2 Peter 1:3). Further, it is a net good in that God, understanding human rebellion as the consequence of freedom, has a plan of redemption that rights the wrongs created by our sin of disobedience.

Moving deeper into a discussion of evil, it is valuable to examine the beginnings of sin, namely the fall. The narrative found in Genesis 3 has reverberations throughout the entire scriptures and throughout all of creation. The core seems to be that Adam and Eve were not satisfied with their status as being created in the image of God and being in fellowship with the uncreated God. They were lured into believing that they could become like the uncreated God himself. This is of course impossible, but it is the lie that was sold to them by the serpent, and it was the lie that they were eager to believe without any reason to believe it. This is one of the most important points that Fairbairn makes in his Life in the Trinity. Adam and Eve had every reason to believe God, and no reason to believe the serpent, and yet, they believed the serpent and disobeyed God. Thus, the fundamental sin was pride of “grasping” at the impossible desire to be an uncreated god. This led to the consequences that were discussed earlier, namely death, broken fellowship, toil, and pain. Here we see humanity creating disorder out of God’s ordered creation. As discussed earlier, we find a great deal of Old Testament passages detailing the “establishment of order” in creation.[15] This established order can be viewed as a reflection of God’s good order. This also connects the origination of sin as a human disordering of creation and a distortion of the image of God present in humanity.

Fortunately, precisely because God is good he does not leave us in this fallen and broken state. He sent his son to right our wrongs. “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Co 5:21). This is the gospel that we find in creation. God in his goodness created us to share in his love. We broke the fullness of that relationship. Then God, without any work on our part, repaired the relationship.


[1] Millard J. Erickson, Christian Theology (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2013), 340-341.
[2] Daniel J. Treier and Walter A. Elwell, Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, s.v. "Entry Title" (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2017), 218.
[3] Erickson, 350.
[4] Treier and Elwell, 218.
[6] See Kuhn, Thomas S. The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. 4th ed. (Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press, 2012).
[7]  Erickson, 344.
[8] Alister McGrath, Christian Theology (Chichester, West Sussex: Wiley-Blackwell, 2011), 217.
[9] See Donald Fairbairn, Life in the Trinity: An Introduction to Theology with the Help of the Church Fathers (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2009)
[10] Fairbairn, Life in the Trinity, 232.
[11] Erickson, 394.
[12] Ibid, 395.
[13] Ibid, 394.
[14] Clark, Gordon H. God and Evil: The Problem Solved. Jefferson, MD: The Trinity Foundation, 1996.
[15] McGrath, 217. 

A Brief Evangelical Doctrine of Creation

Evangelical Christians share fundamental doctrines concerning creation, namely the belief that God is the ultimate Creator of all existence....