The creation theology of the psalms and its application

I’ve just read an excellent recent paper  by J Richard Middleton, comparing the views of creation given in Psalms 8 and 104. If you don’t have access to you might not be able to access it, which is a shame as it has a lot to say on the view of creation theology I’ve been developing here over the last three years or so. That view differs from some of the common church teaching on “fallen creation”, but only because it recovers historical Christian doctrine. But it differs far more from the novel and quite incompatible theologies commonly presented in modern Evangelical theistic evolution and – as the last few articles have explored – even Catholic “Modern Thomist” views.

I can’t do justice to Middleton’s work here, but here’s an attempt at a summary, if you can’t download the original. His main thesis is that the apparent incompatibilities between the two psalms are actually aspects of the same radical (in the original context of paganism) doctrine of creation, held in the same healthy tension as they are in Genesis 1 and 2.

So Psalm 8 majors on the heavens as God’s work, and wonders at the exalted status of man, a little lower than the angels who adminster heaven, as the ruler of all that is on earth and in the sea. Psalm 104, in contrast, is primarily geocentric, and God’s provision and rule of the natural realm is stressed. Man appears as just one of the creatures, going about his work under God’s providence just as the animals go about theirs.

Middleton shows how this is not really a dichotomy, but reflects a similar contrast in the accounts of Genesis 1 & 2, whose editor deemed them compatible enough to use one as an introduction to the other. He finds in them both a primarily theocentric focus, with God’s cosmos presented as the temple in which Yahweh dwells (cf Genesis 1), of his own making and under his care and rule. Mankind is presented, as in that same account, as his image and representative in that Temple. Though merely one of the creatures (note the psalmist’s wonder at his exaltation in Psalm 8), God has appointed him to rule and subdue the earth as his vice-regent or steward.

Some interesting insights emerge from this dual-faceted approach. The first is to note the profound theological contrast with the surrounding religions. In neither account is there any hint of creation-as-conflict as in, say, the Babylonian mythology. They had the gods battle against the primordial waters, and especially against the chaos-monster Leviathan. But in these psalms all the elements of God’s creation are his own work – he makes the waters (Ps 104.8) and he forms Leviathan “to frolic there”. A possible translation implies God’s frolicking with Leviathan, and Middleton quotes one scholar who calls the beast “God’s rubber duckie.”

A second insight is to note that it is this very transcendence that renders God’s intimate immanence possible: he is the sole proprietor of all that is, and so has rights of ownership, full understanding of every detail, and a craftsman’s care for his handiwork. And so in Ps 8 the stars are set in place by “his fingers” (in contrast even to the more usual “hands” – this is delicate work, not pebble-dash) and in Ps 140, every detail of life is his concern, including the whole cycle of individual animal life, death and replenishment.

All this could not contrast more strongly with the currently popular, but thoroughly unbiblical, view of a creation left to create itself. There is creaturely dignity here, but not a trace of autonomy, of independence from God – or, importantly, of any deviation from the detailed outworking in creation of God’s own purpose.

Since we’ve recently been looking at Aquinas, we can note that true secondary material causes are there, but they are limited to generation, with no hint of self-creation or self-determination. Rather there are hints at the Thomist doctrine of concurrence, or dual causation – as for example the death that, experientially, comes from obvious physical causes is simultaneously attributed to God’s taking away the breath of life. There are reliable natural processes described, chance events and even human choices – but all are in God’s hands down to the very detail.

A third point Middleton makes is how mankind’s “imageness” works out in practice. The stars, the plants and the beasts all contribute to the worship of God’s temple simply by being what they were created to be before God. Psalm 104 presents that as at least a major part of mankind’s role as well. As the darkness belongs to the predatory work of prowling lions, so in the day man goes out to his work. His “rule” over nature is limited to cultivating the plants God has provided for oil, wine and bread, to husbandy and perhaps hunting, and to building ships from God’s trees to trade on the seas (whilst the sea-creatures carry on their own business beneath). There is a unique privilege in this human control of natural resources, but it cannot be taken as a warrant to enslave nature purely for humanity’s benefit, and still less to re-forge it to our will.

The particular priestly work of mankind is represented in the psalmists’ own reflections on God’s works, and in their rational worship. Such reflection ought to mould our attitude to creation. It ought to guard us against any attempt to distance God, creatively or ethically, from the world around us. It ought to awaken in us a sense of humilty and responsibility, together with “creaturely solidarity” with creation. We are not mere slaves feeding the gods (as in pagan religion), but accountable stewards of the temple of God which provides for the needs of all he has made. There is a clear implication that maintaining the order of God’s world is part of our responsibility – a temple-priest who steals the offerings or damages the furniture is not worthy of his calling – as is one who lets it fall into disrepair.

Which brings me to what, to me, was one of the most significant insights, in the context of The Hump’s agenda to defend the traditional doctrine of creation from its modern perverters. The spirit of the theological age has widely adopted the notion that creation, through evolution, is intrinsically marred by suffering and death. The book I recently reviewed by Lane mentions even within the Reformed camp (eg Robert J Russell) a move to insist that God is accountable for the suffering of every single creature through history, and must “make amends” for this in the eschaton. Close links are made with the suffering of Christ, generalised to the suffering of God in solidarity with creation, not in relation to the Fall as in traditional theology, but in relation to the created order itself.

That’s as may be, but there is not even a whiff of such teaching in these two psalms. Creation is nothing but a source of praise and worship at God’s goodness and wisdom. Yet there is a fly in the ointment: all is not quite well in Eden. The psalmist in 104 ends his meditation with a prayer that it may please God – but then adds:

But may sinners vanish from the earth
and the wicked be no more.

The clear implication is that it is only the presence of mankind’s sin that mars the goodness of creation, and pollutes God’s holy temple. Do we take that seriously, or not? Or is the Holy Spirit misled, or misleading, on this? Christianity has always insisted that only sin damages the goodness of creation (though to what degree has sometimes been disputed). Only nowadays have we imputed evil to the original creation, sometimes even making it the origin of human sin.

I’ve already mentioned the lack of a struggle against primordial chaos in these psalms, and that God actually creates the waters from which, (as it was believed) the cosmos derives (104.6). In the New Testament, one “evidence” that nature is not actually under God’s control – that is, that it’s autonomous and possibly corrupted – is Jesus’s rebuking of the wind and waves when he stilled the storm, suggesting somehow the elements’ rebellious nature.

But in Psalm 104, Yahweh goes on (v7) to gather together the waters he’s created to cover everything by a word of rebuke – in the Septuagint, the very same word used by Jesus in the Greek gospels. The Evangelists are making a conscious allusion to a poetic idiom in this psalm representing not the rebellion, but the obedience of an intrinsically wild nature to its maker. And by putting the rebuke in Jesus’s mouth they destroy at a stroke the “Kenosis” idea that Jesus left behind his divinity in his Incarnation – for it is as the Lord God that Jesus rebukes his own waters. And that’s why the disciples wonder what manner of man he might be.

God, and God alone, is the one who can cause to tremble the earth “that can never be moved.” And these two psalms show that he is about that work to this very day.


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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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