Modes of divine action – creation

If a word means everything, it means nothing. “Creation” is in danger of becoming such a word in evolutionary accounts of origins. When I asked for people’s own working understandings in a post on BioLogos not long ago, one atheist suggested it means no more than “efficient causation,” as in “the tree’s fall created mayhem.” And it’s not uncommon amongst TEs to find the word “creative” applied to truly random mutations that happen to lead to functionality – but clouds are not creative when they happen to resemble faces.

Although I did not specify divine creation in my post at BioLogos, most people included the ideas of novelty and purpose in their replies, together with references to artisanship, implying of course that something useful and original is made, rather than destroyed, in an act of creation.

The biblical words for “create” carry these implications, Greek ktizo coming from the word for the foundation of a city or colony, and the Hebrew bara, according to John Walton’s word study, primarily referring the organisation of function. This is important because it confirms the intuitive understanding that one creates the finished city or artifact, not simply the raw materials for others to use.

Both these Hebrew and Greek words are used in the Bible exclusively of God, which echoes the biblical stress on God as the sole Creator. As Isaiah 42 says:

This is what God the Lord says—
the Creator of the heavens, who stretches them out,
who spreads out the earth with all that springs from it,
who gives breath to its people,
and life to those who walk on it…

…“I am the Lord; that is my name!
I will not yield my glory to another
or my praise to idols.”

Even angels were said to sing for joy at the creation – but not to participate in God’s work, for:

“I am the LORD, the Maker of all things, who stretches out the heavens, who spreads out the earth by myself.” (Isa 44:24).

The biblical usage of “create” does not absolutely entail the classical theological concept of creation ex nihilo (but see Heb 11:3), but in these days of IT I think we can understand that it implies novelty that could only come from God’s wisdom, bringing something new into nature. Whilst in the case of the universe itself that might mean ex nihilo material creation, it could also mean what we would now, in human terms, call his “intellectual property.” And so Adam, though formed from dust, was a new kind of being from God; and Israel, though created from the existing slaves in Egypt, was a new kind of nation, brought into being in remarkable ways which could not have occurred otherwise.

The question, then, with respect to our theology of nature, is whether God has done all his creating already, for example at the Big Bang, or whether such special acts have continued in time. Once, such a question would have seemed absurd: creation occurred in seven days and ceased. But since then, we have enfolded origins into a long cosmic history, to the extent that Christians now talk about “Evolutionary Creation” – and palaeontologist Keith Miller set this in the widest context with his anthology, Perspectives on an Evolving Creation. By that people more often than not mean change by natural processes more akin to generation (descent with accidental modification) than to divine innovation, but that is not the same thing.

Certain events in the world enjoy a more widespread acknowledgement of the possibility of special divine action, notably the origin of life, and the origin of mankind as a rational and/or spiritual being. Such events may be beyond the secondary powers of nature. But also, that such events would be acts of creation, and not “miracles,” lies in the definition of miracle as extraordinary sign, and the definition of creation as the formation of a new normality. The divine power involved is the same.

The real point at issue, in the light of the last post on special providence, is whether the latter is always sufficient to bring about new things in nature, or whether de novo creation is ever required. The difference is that special providence works through the existing powers of nature, divinely directed by something like concurrence to produce what would otherwise be unlikely to happen. Creation, however, would be the divine production of something that nature is in principle incapable of doing.

Both, of course, are examples of contingent divine action rather than the lawlike operations of nature, and so the distinction is of relatively minor importance. Furthermore, the distinction may be influenced by our empirical knowledge of nature, not simply by showing new mechanisms formerly deemed impossible, but by the reverse: remember that spontaneous generation of life was once thought to be well within the common powers of nature, but is now treated as a possibly unique, extraordinary, event 3 billion years ago. An act of special creation for the origin of life is more plausible now than it was 200 years ago.

For my part, I see the atomistic view of evolution – that species are changed piecemeal by changing the components of their genome – as quite likely to be mistaken, or at least incomplete. There is an holistic aspect to individual organisms, and to the species they comprise, which suggests to me they arise from some unified vision in the mind of the Creator – not to mention that infamous intuition of design that makes a whale or a diatom or an oak tree appear an integrated creature of beauty and function. Physiology also provides universality to a species (defining what is normal and what aberration), and the fossil record stubbornly continues to provide evidence of frequent stasis and rapid change.

All these things correspond to the old Aristotelian concept of formal causation, which is by no means incompatible with evolution (understood as descent with modification), but which may require more than the purely natural efficient causes which are alone admitted by evolutionary science. In other words, it could be that God has, in advance, a very clear concept of a badger or bumblebee, and brings it about in ways that nature would never even approach. The arrival of the fittest may, then, be a genuinely creative act of God, and not some natural process (ie the operation of secondary causes) to which the term “evolutionary creation” may be loosely applied.

My conclusion, then, is that whilst the biblical concept of nature beyond the lawlike and regular largely revolves around the special providence described in the last post, our impression that there are original things happening within nature suggests we need also to leave room for true, ongoing, acts of creation in our theology. I would prefer, for clarity and precision, that we cease to talk about “evolutionary creation” unless we are considering it in this restricted way. To postulate the unfolding of created “natural” laws in “emergent” ways (often a cover for ignorance!) is legitimately seen as evolution, but not as creation – unless you wish to join the atheist in defining creation as merely “efficient causation.”

And the still all-too-common “open process theism” that describes random changes to which organisms are subjected as “creation”, or even as “co-creation” (implying that the organisms themselves are creators) appears such a great temptation to many that it can end up meaning creation without a Creator. That has no relationship whatsoever to the Christian doctrine of creation:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made.

For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him.

For thus says the Lord,
who created the heavens
(he is God!),
who formed the earth and made it
(he established it;
he wdid not create it empty,
he formed it to be inhabited!):
“I am the Lord, and there is no other.

The God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in temples made by man…

“Worthy are you, our Lord and God,
to receive glory and honor and power,
for you created all things,
and by your will they existed and were created.”

Jon Garvey

About Jon Garvey

Training in medicine (which was my career), social psychology and theology. Interests in most things, but especially the science-faith interface. The rest of my time, though, is spent writing, playing and recording music.
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