Theologies of Creation?

Lake and SkyA little over a month ago I began a series on Mark Harris’s new book The Nature of Creation: Examining the Bible and Science (see The Nature of Creation for the first post).  Mark Harris is a lecturer in Science and Religion at the University of Edinburgh. He began his career as an experimental physicist, trained for the ordained ministry and is currently running the Science and Religion program in the School of Divinity at the University of Edinburgh.  The view of creation that Harris takes is that the bible doesn’t present a neatly packageable theology of creation that can be summarized as a propositional doctrine of creation. Rather, the bible presents multiple theologies of creation that focus on the nature of God and his relationship with his creation.  Now there is a key underlying theme – God is the creator – but a great deal of diversity in the description of God as creator.  In his discussion of creation in Genesis Harris uses the designations P for priestly and J for Yahwist, but doesn’t mean by this to imply commitment to any specific formulation of the Documentary Hypothesis. It is, however, a recognition of the fact that the form and language of these accounts differ significantly and that there is not one smooth simple connection between them.

Genesis 1. The diversity is seen in the very beginning of Genesis with the creation accounts presented in Genesis 1 and Genesis 2-3. Genesis 1 portrays God as a skilled builder. “God is the active agent in nearly every sentence; the world, by contrast, is entirely passive, entirely at the whim of God’s (verbal) command.” (p. 37)  Many have argued that it is a polemic against ancient views that bestow a divine nature on the part of creation. A skilled builder is not the only possible metaphor for the portrayal of God in Genesis 1: “… we might even compare this God with a film director encouraging actors to interpret their roles and realize their potential through creativity of their own, within the limits God sets down. There is much that can be said of the God of Genesis 1, and no single human metaphor is exhaustive of all of the divine qualities portrayed.” (p. 37)

Harris outlines two common approaches to science and Genesis 1 – (1) a concordist approach that seeks agreement between modern science and the creation account of Genesis 1 or (2) a mythical, metaphorical, poetic description of creation.   He argues that neither approach does justice to the text, either forcing it to cohere with modern ideas of science or isolating it from any scientific claim. “But neither response engages the claims the the text itself makes, which are informed by ancient science, and ancient functional and ontological categories.” (p. 40)  Harris also argues that it is difficult to understand if the ancient authors and audience thought about creation accounts as “a comprehensive, literal description of the world.” (p. 47)  Genesis and other ancient creation accounts contain a backdrop of ancient cosmology – but we don’t really know how the people thought about the world. Recent arguments from John Walton and others suggest that Genesis 1 is not about cosmology and material origins, but rather that it describes formation of a cosmic temple, sacred space, and a holy vision for the world. Harris concludes that it is hard to categorize Genesis 1, “but if a description is insisted upon, then it is a theological portrait of God as Creator before it is anything else.” (p. 49)

Genesis 2-3. The interpretation of the creation story in Genesis 2-3 hasn’t engaged science to the depth that Genesis 1 has. In part this is because it is much harder to see any connection between modern science and the storyline of Genesis 2-3. However, Harris notes that “there has been a widespread desire to retain one particular aspect of J as historically authentic, namely the existence of a historical first human couple.” (p. 53)  This will be dealt with in greater detail in Chapter 7 of Harris’s book. The major point here is that Genesis 2-3 is complex and multilayered.

Moreover, it sets up threads which are woven tightly into the material which follows, even into the more plausibly historiographical material in Genesis 12-50. This is why it is unwise to see Genesis 2-3 too much as a self-contained literary unit with a genre all of its own, which is, after all, exactly what Western Christianity has done with it since Augustine, seeing it as the “Fall.” The wider narrative context suggests that it should be seen as part of a longer story telling of the many ways in which humankind oversteps the boundaries imposed on it by God, and of how God responds with both judgement and blessing (Chapter 7). Like Genesis 1, then, Genesis 2-3 is also a portrait of God. (54)

Genesis 2-3 isn’t a description of The Fall after which we can skip forward to Matthew 1. It begins the description of God interacting with and relating to the humans he has created. God is portrayed as changeable – both in Genesis 3 and in the narrative that follows.

This changeability is not haphazard or fickle, but always a reasoned response to a human situation, and is often more moderate or more merciful than what is expected. The point being made in J is that God is not static and monolithic, but dynamic and personal, someone with whom one might converse, or at least could pray to and hope for a favourable answer. (p. 55)

This isn’t to separate Genesis 1 from 2-3. They are part of the same story. But while Genesis 1 portrays a majestic beginning, Genesis 2-3 makes connection with life as we know it.

P ends with God’s verdict that all of creation was “very good” (Gen. 1:31); J’s account ends with the opposite: the blessing is withdrawn from humankind and they are expelled from God’s presence in the garden. God’s verdict describes human life as we know it, with hardship, suffering and death (3:15-19) Morally it introduces the questions and problems which require further exploration, and this is just what the rest of Genesis 1-11 seeks to do as the lives of all families of the earth come into view. … And the notion of obedience to God based on a supportive relationship between God and humans, followed by punishment for disobedience is basic to the covenant theology developed elsewhere in the Pentateuch and the Bible. If P is relatively self-contained, J is anything but. (p. 56)

The theological portrait of the world and of God as Creator is front and center in Genesis 1-3. To reduce the interpretation to the science of material origins or to an ancient myth concerning material origins is to miss out on the major points of the text. There is far more going on in the text than a description of the origins of either the earth or humankind.

Is Genesis 2-3 best described as a self-contained story of the Fall (from which we can jump to the New Testament)?

What do we lose in such a view?

What do we gain from seeing the connection between Genesis 2-3 and the rest of the narrative of the Old Testament?

If you wish to contact me, you may do so at rjs4mail[at]

If you would like to comment please see Theologies of Creation at Jesus Creed.

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