I want to spend a couple of posts looking at what the Bible teaches about the purpose of creation. This is multifaceted, so bear with me for building the picture gradually and, perhaps, appearing to ignore or downplay certain aspects as I do so. There is method…
My first task is to point out that in the Bible God’s will and purpose in creation predominate over all other aspects of creation itself, especially the material, which of course is the opposite of the scientific approach, in which teleology is absolutely excluded. There’s maybe room for a separate post on just how this, and other key aspects of creation teaching, are absent from the usual science-faith discussions: “evolution as God’s means of creation” is a pretty inadequate concept if it omits much of the creation and all of the reasons for it.
Today I want to tease out the ultimate purpose of creation from its subsidiary purposes. In the first place that’s because one can surely only understand a “system” properly when one knows what it is for. For example, the chemistry of Factor X only makes sense in the context of the blood clotting cascade, which again depends ultimately on the concept of the homeostastis of the functioning human body. In that case, we take our knowledge of human life for granted, and so the function of reductionist chemistry is clear even when we don’t keep “human life” in mind. In the case of creation, though, God’s purpose for making the Universe is known by revelation, not experience. We are quite likely to misunderstand what’s around us badly if we don’t fit it into the big picture.
In the second place, it is unfortunately necessary to apply a corrective to much contemporary theological discussion of creation, which majors on God’s love of creaturely freedom, his desire to communicate, his avoidance of coercion, his delight in being surprised, his capacity to experience change, his need to remedy suffering etc, etc. I suggest that most of these aren’t even subsidiary purposes of creation as far as the biblical revelation goes. As for the ultimate purpose, that can be summed up in one word: Glory.
The main Hebrew word for glory is kabod, signifying weight, heaviness or honour. The New Testament equivalent is doxa, “the honour arising from a good opinion” (Vine). Glory appears in the Old Testament around 155 times, with a dozen occurrences of the equivalent verb, glorify. The New Testament has 144 occurrences, and maybe half a dozen of the cognate verb. So proportional to the number of pages, “glory” is more of a New Testament idea than an old, despite the humility of the Christ displayed there.
It’s rather important to get an idea of the content of glory, because it’s very possible to debase it in our minds. At its very heart is the concept of pre-eminence, in the very same way as the sense we’d use that of an Olympic record holder for simply being the best of the best. It’s a personal attribute, and one that God maintains jealously. Twice in Isaiah Yahweh says he will not yield his glory to another, in ch 42 for his first creation, and in ch 48 for the new, coming, creation. The words linked with this glory are (in ch 42) faithfulness, justice, righteousness, praise, might, triumph, anger; and (in ch 48) knowledge, understanding, “my own name’s sake”, wrath, peace and righteousness.
In the New Testament, too, we can see the sense in which “glory” subsists. The following keywords, omitting doxa itself, which is in nearly all, appear in doxologies: power (1 Peter, twice); majesty, power and authority (Jude); dominion (Rev 1.6); honour and power (Rev 4.11); blessing, honour and might (Rev 5.13); blessing, wisdom, thanksgiving, honour, power and might (Rev 7.12).
We can see every bit as much “jealousy” about glory on the lips of Jesus – both his Father’s glory and his own – especially in St John’s gospel, the gospel of the incarnate Logos. Though his glory may be temporarily veiled, he longs for his disciples to see it, and to return to its manifestation himself. Check out John 5.22; 8.50,54; 11.4; 14.13; 12.28; 13.32; 15.8; 16.14; 17.1,4-5; 17.10; 17.24 for starters.
Now such a desire for glory seems unsuitable in a human, and maybe in theistic personalism too, for all I know. Certainly one doesn’t often see the associated words like “power”, “might”, “strength”, “authority” or “dominion” on their lips, so maybe English modesty is one of that God’s characteristics. If God is so much like us as to lack foresight and change his mind, then he can hardly be respected for exhibiting megalomania too, and neither does he deserve boundless praise if his attributes are so bounded.
Classical theism, of course, has no problem with this, for God is the source of all that is excellent. Whatever glory comes to God also comes to love, justice, wisdom, knowledge, grace, holiness and the rest in themselves considered as virtues. Conversely, any diminution in God’s attributes, were that possible, would not only empty God, but lessen the total all that is good. Therein lies the worst error of kenoticism. It robs God of his glory, and robs us of our glorious God.
If we turn to the creation, the Old Testament relates the natural realm to God’s glory as often as it describes it. You have set your glory above the heavens (Ps 8); The heavens declare the glory of God (Ps 19); The voice of the Lord is over the waters; the God of glory thunders (Ps 29); Let all the people of the world revere him. For he spoke, and it came to be. (Psalm 33); May the glory of the Lord endure forever; may the Lord rejoice in his works. (Ps 104); All you have made will praise you, O Lord… they will tell of the glory of your kingdom… might… mighty acts… glorious splendour… everlasting kingdom… and your dominion endures through all generations (Ps 145), and so on and on. It is not only that such a good God would axiomatically create a Universe maximally wise and good, but that a Universe that wasn’t so would not fulfil its intended function of demonstrating “the eternal power and divine nature” of God (Rom 1). The creation was intended to increase the sum total of good (through glory), not to diminish it through kenosis.
But as we shall see in subsequent posts, the Bible actually teaches about a double-stage creation, and the final purpose of the first creation is the second, and the means by which the first becomes the second is, once more, Christ the Logos. Glory is as much bound up in this as the original creation. Revelation puts the goal of the creation this way:
The kingdom of the world has become
the kingdom of our Lord and of his Messiah,
and he will reign for ever and ever.
We give thanks to you, Lord God Almighty,
the One who is and who was,
because you have taken your great power
and have begun to reign.”
1 Timothy talks about:
…the appearing of our Lord Jesus Christ, which God will bring about in his own timeGod, the blessed and only Ruler, the King of kings and Lord of lords, who alone is immortal and who lives in unapproachable light, whom no one has seen or can see. To him be honour and might forever. Amen.
The putative source of kenotic theology, Philippians 2 also describes the new creation:
Therefore God exalted him to the highest place
and gave him the name that is above every name,
that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.
Here the glorification of Jesus (which means the subjection of all things under Christ) redounds to the glory of the Father as well. But Paul also sees a stage beyond that in 1 Corinthians 15:
For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive. But each in turn: Christ, the firstfruits; then, when he comes, those who belong to him. Then the end will come, when he hands over the kingdom to God the Father after he has destroyed all dominion, authority and power. For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death. For he has put everything under his feet. Now when it says that everything has been put under him, it is clear that this does not include God himself, who put everything under Christ. When he has done this, then the Son himself will be made subject to him who put everything under him, so that God may be all in all.
Now we get a hint of the final purpose of creation for us, here, which I have avoided so far because it is so easy to lose sight of the fact that the reason even for our creation and salvation is, in the end, the greater glory of Christ and, through him, the unchallenged glory of the Father. That truth gives us a perspective – the only valid perspective – for understanding the rest of creation. That’s the genius of that famous section of the Westminster Greater Catechism:
Q. What is the chief end of man?
A. Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever.
Yet that enjoyment, nor the full understanding of creation, cannot be gained apart from Christ himself, and it’s to that I will turn in the next post.