September 2017 Credo
The Apostles’ Creed begins with the acclamation: “I believe in God, the Father Almighty, Maker of Heaven and earth.” To believe in God as Creator is to affirm that God is the Lord of the earth and not merely the tribal God of the Christians.
The belief that the Triune God created everything out of nothing (ex nihilo) by his word (ex verbum) has long been a key tenet of historic Christian teaching. “By the word of the Lord the heavens were made … For he spoke, and it came to be” (Ps. 33:6 & 8; Ps. 104:30). All things were made through Jesus the Word, “without him was not any thing made that was made” (John 1:3; cf. 1 Cor. 8:6; Col 1:15-17).
The notion of creatio ex nihilo, though not explicitly stated in the Genesis creation account, is nevertheless consonant with it. “The universe,” we are told, “was created by the word of God, so that what is seen was not made out of things that are visible” (Heb. 11:3). The Lord himself asserts “I am the Lord, who made all things, who alone stretched out the heavens, who spread out the earth by myself” (Isa. 44:24; cf. Acts 17:24; Rev. 4:11).
That creation emerged “out of nothing” at the command of God means that there was no eternal pre-existent matter prior to God bringing forth everything that exists. As theologian Colin Gunton puts it, the Creator is not simply the Potter who works with clay but also the One who brought clay into existence in the first place.
Creation “out of nothing” is in sharp contrast to the ancient Greek belief that matter is eternal rather than created. This notion of the cosmos as self-generated and self-managing is one that surfaces as well in modern atheists like Richard Dawkins. According to them, the origins of the world lay not in the will of a personal transcendent Creator but in the random natural processes of the material world.
While claiming to be speaking scientifically, these atheists’ assertion of a self-caused world is at heart a strident philosophical naturalism that takes as an a priori the impossibility of the existence of God or the reality of the spiritual. Because God cannot exist, He does not exist, and the idea that God created all things is therefore impossible. Such is the tautological ‘logic’ of unbelief!
Christian theology maintains vigorously the distinction between the Creator and His creation without confusion. The world is not merely an extension of God; it has an objective existence distinct from the Creator, though not outside of His control.
This guards against any pantheistic conflation of the two, as in the various forms of religious or philosophical monism in which the world is seen as an emanation of God. Neither does it allow for any divinization of the cosmos, as in the modern green environmentalist veneration of Gaia. To deify the cosmos is to replace the worship of the Creator with reverence for the earth, which is idolatry.
The relationship of creation to the Creator is one of contingency and marked by total dependency. The world owes its origins to God, and it continues to exist only because God sovereignly upholds and sustains it by His Word and the Holy Spirit. In Christ, “all things hold together” (Col. 1:16-17), which points to a Creator-God who is engaged and involved in the running of the universe.
This goes against the deistic notion that the Creator, after bringing the universe into being, maintains an essentially hands-off policy vis-à-vis the universe. Thankfully, God in His mercy sovereignly ensures that all the physical conditions necessary for human life are in place and in full functioning order for the sake of His creation.
In this sense, we may understand the universe not merely as a fait accompli, a once-for-all act, but as one that continues to come into being over time under the superintending hand of God. The early church theologians describe this as a creatio continua, a continuous creation. While creatio ex nihilo underscores God’s transcendent otherness, creatio continua points to God’s immanent presence and work within creation.
Through an act of divine deliberation, God created all things and then upholds and guides it to its intended end. God did not need to create the world. There was no external compulsion that made the creation of humankind and everything else in the universe necessary. He did so freely, as an act of love.
God keeps His own counsel as to why He lovingly and freely created the world in the first place. What we know from Scripture is that creation was meant to glorify God, to declare His power and display His attributes (Ps. 19:1; 33:6-9; Rm. 1:19-20). Creation is as such purposive, and, as shall see below, teleological in the sense of creation finding its destiny in Christ.
This coheres with what we know from the Genesis creation account, that the Creator “saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good” (Gen. 1:31; cf. 1 Tim. 4:4-5). This strong affirmation of the goodness of the physical cosmos goes against all forms of Gnosticism and Manicheanism that elevate the spiritual at the expense of the bodily and physical.
Christians celebrate the creation goodness of the earth. For this reason, there is impetus for the scientific exploration of the wonders and mysteries of the natural world. At the same time, we acknowledge that humans are created as embodied beings who relate to God spiritually in and through the physicality of their bodily life.
The world today on this side of Eden is not what it is supposed to be. Yet despite the distortive effects of sin, God has not allowed His good intentions for creation to be derailed. In Christ, God has begun the process of reversing the effects of sin on creation and redeeming disobedient humanity. A true doctrine of creation is thus irreducibly Christological. In Christ, fallen creation will be restored and creation’s destiny finally realised.
Rev Dr Mark Chan is Earnest Lau Professor of Systematic Theology and Director of the Centre for the Study of Christianity in Asia (CSCA) at Trinity Theological College (TTC). He teaches hermeneutics, homiletics and other theological subjects at TTC.