The relationship of creation to salvation

It’s often said that the doctrine of creation is of relatively minor importance compared to the gospel of salvation. What we believe about creation doesn’t make any difference to eternal life. But this view is because creation doctrine is not properly understood. In fact the two things are inextricably entwined – it is not for nothing that the Bible, the story of salvation, begins and ends with creation.

In the first place God is entitled to worship not just because he is great or good, but because he is our maker, and we are his. As Jacobus Arminius wrote:

This creation is the foundation of that right by which God can require religion from man, which is a matter that will be more certainly and fully understood, when we come more specially to treat on the primeval creation of man; for he who is not the creator of all things, and who, therefore, has not all things under his command, cannot be believed, neither can any sure hope and confidence be placed in him, nor can he alone be feared. Yet all these are acts which belong to religion.

You’ll remember those Star Trek episodes in which a some pathetic alien expects worship from our heroes because he is so powerful and dressed in a toga. But it is because he is our Father and the Author of creation that God deserves worship. As an aside, it’s also central that God be not a creature himself, as the Star Trek aliens are. In (I think) an Isaac Asimov story, the protagonist was shocked when the robot he’d made expressed his greater loyalty to God, and the ultimate maker of them both. The robot got it right.

The degree to which God is worthy of our worship is logically related to the degree to which he was responsible for creating us. The atheist, believing that an unplanned and impersonal process that didn’t have him in mind made him, has no reason to be grateful to it.

For the Gnostic, the Demiurge was not an object of worship because, although our maker, he has “misinterpreted” the perfect will of the highest God, and our material nature is inherently corrupt, and something to be escaped. True worship, to the Gnostic, is only to do with the spirit that comes from God. From Wikipedia:

Several systems of Gnostic thought present the Demiurge as antagonistic to the will of the Supreme Being: his act of creation occurs in unconscious semblance of the divine model, and thus is fundamentally flawed, or else is formed with the malevolent intention of entrapping aspects of the divine in materiality.

So to whatever extent God may be suggested to have not intended me, as the entire human individual I am, to that extent I do not owe him worship. Likewise, to the extent that nature is my “co-creator,” nature is also rightly the object of my worship. And if I am my own co-creator (as part of nature), then it is legitimate to worship myself. This is the logic of the self-made man.

The duty of worship is therefore inextricably linked to ones doctrine of creation, as of course is its joy. Praise stems from admiration for who God is, and we know that through what he has done in both nature and human affairs, as well as what he has said. That’s why it is so essential that God be seen as the sole Creator of all things, and that any secondary causes that might be involved are recognised to be used by him as instruments, not delegates.

Similarly God is able to judge us not just because he is righteous, but because he created us righteous and, as our Creator, is entitled to expect that we will live according to our nature. The Bible account, of course, makes that clear: the first couple in the garden were given original righteousness, life and communion with God. Their judgement came through their disobedience, which was nothing but a denial of their created nature.

Since Darwin, many versions of theology dependent on his theory have given an alternative view of sin and judgement, in which sin, usually reinterpreted as “selfishness”, is the natural outworking of our animal origins. The command of God – whether a specific command as in Genesis, or some revelation of moral law through conscience or something else – is often added on to that. But that renders our subsequent disobedience a sin against only grace, and not against nature. For God to take away our very nature through death was, therefore, unjust if all we did was follow its primaeval dictates.

In many, or most, such evolutionary theologies, judgement is airbrushed out of the picture anyway. One example of this is the currently popular and completely non-Irenaean “Irenaean theodicy,” in which the Fall was just part of God’s “soul-making” process and so, indirectly, a fall upwards from nature. But if nothing else, the amount of Edenic imagery in the Bible, and the need and the promise of a new creation, show that “how we were created” is the baseline by which we are held accountable. Sin came into the world through one man, not through God’s creation.

And so it is that creation is closely related to the Incarnation, too, and in more ways than we sometimes appreciate. In his important work on the Incarnation, St Athanasius shows how the excellence of our created nature, beyond the limitations of the rest of the earthly creation, came from the life of Christ imparted to us:

This, then, was the plight of men. God had not only made them out of nothing, but had also graciously bestowed on them His own life by the grace of the Word. Then, turning from eternal things to things corruptible, by counsel of the devil, they had become the cause of their own corruption in death; for, as I said before, though they were by nature subject to corruption, the grace of their union with the Word made them capable of escaping from the natural law, provided that they retained the beauty of innocence with which they were created. That is to say, the presence of the Word with them shielded them even from natural corruption, as also Wisdom says:

“God created man for incorruption and as an image of His own eternity; but by envy of the devil death entered into the world.”

His source here is primarily John 1, in which the creation of all things is done through Christ the Logos, and in particular he is the “In him was life, and that light was the light of men.” To Athanasius, then, what was lost in the Fall was the life of Christ himself, and so it was that only Christ himself could restore his Creation through the Incarnation.

We will begin, then, with the creation of the world and with God its Maker, for the first fact that you must grasp is this: the renewal of creation has been wrought by the Self-same Word Who made it in the beginning. There is thus no inconsistency between creation and salvation for the One Father has employed the same Agent for both works, effecting the salvation of the world through the same Word Who made it in the beginning.

Indeed, as I’ve pointed out before a strand of teaching in the Bible subordinates the original Creation itself to the role of Christ as Saviour: he is the “Lamb chosen from before the creation of the world,” (1 Pet 1.18-19, Rev 13.8). Creation happened consequently to the setting apart of the Son for sacrifice.

Part of that salvation, though, is the re-founding of creation itself – salvation has cosmic consequences. This is most notably described in Romans 8, in the “groaning creation” passage. This is often taken as evidence that nature was corrupted in the Fall (and is therefore a problem passage that leads YECs to doubt evolution, with its pre-Fall death, and leads TEs to doubt Paul’s inspiration or to compose novel theodicies). But note how Athanasius treats the idea in the first passage of his that I quoted above. “…[F]or, as I said before, though they were by nature subject to corruption, the grace of their union with the Word made them capable of escaping from the natural law, provided that they retained the beauty of innocence with which they were created.”

Nature, as constituted by God, then, was subject to “corruption” (ie to mortality), but man was exempted in Eden because of the life of Christ in him. But the work of Christ in the flesh has achieved something even more wonderful than the salvation of human souls: it has accomplished the eventual transformation of the natural creation into incorruptibility. The resurrection life of Christ flows out not only to those who believe in him, so that they too will rise and live eternally, but it somehow also floods into the domain of which man was originally created vice-regent, the natural creation.

A return to Eden would be a worthy aim for God’s salvation plan. The creation was “very good,” and man was not only good but potentially eternal. But God planned something more. The state of creation is described in Romans 8 in negative terms, as “subjected to vanity”, which is, I think, intended comparatively rather than absolutely.

Part of that “groaning” (admittedly expressed as a personification, but surely metaphorically) is no doubt because man’s sin has polluted it as an unblemished expression of God’s wisdom and goodness. Part of it is because the sorry tale of sin has delayed a transformation that (who knows?) might have been accomplished through sinless human stewardship. But the major element is that, in his wisdom, God initially created it in subjection to the bondage of decay (Rom 8 20-21, NIV) so that, through the liberation of the children of God, it too might gain the same freedom.

Now I admit, I don’t know exactly what that means for the future of the cosmos. I’m not alone in that. But what I do know is that from beginning to end, Christian teaching about God’s salvation is intimately associated with Christian teaching about creation. Get one wrong, and the other will certainly be wrong too. Conversely, understanding either one aright will cast light on the other.

Hmmm... maybe not, Apologies to Chesley Bonestell, an early inspiration

Hmmm… maybe not. Apologies to Chesley Bonestell, an early inspiration

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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6 Responses to The relationship of creation to salvation

  1. GD says:

    The notion of creation theologically commences with the understanding that God is the Creator of all through His Word. This understanding is grounded in our understanding and comprehension of the attributes of God, and our innate understanding of salvation.

    The seeming-less endless discussion/arguments regarding mechanisms, causes, Darwinian outlooks, ID, TE and what have you, seem to me to go ‘of the track’ by positing questions that are based on an undercurrent that questions the Orthodox understanding of the attributes of God. Such outlooks may be ‘dressed’ in rhetoric such as ‘open theism’, ‘theistic evolution’, or perhaps the atrophic phrase ‘conflict between science and faith’. None of this makes sense to me. If one commences with faith, than it follows that God is Creator. Science then shows us the wonders of the creation, and we may contemplate the seeming mystery of why God made His Creation intelligible to us. Perhaps one reason is that we may ‘get the sense of wonder’ as we get a deeper and deeper appreciation of the creation. This itself is a form of worship.

    It follows that if a person commences without any belief that there is a God, than none of the above is possible – this is simple logic. Such belief systems may take the form of naturalism, nihilism, a meaningless and pointless existence, or whatever – the point is these belief systems are not grounded in a faith that God is creator.

    Such a huge divide is obvious, and I am puzzled that so few evangelicals spend time considering this. If they do, than any apparent disagreements amongst theists would be related to their particular traditions, especially if these are do not adhere to Orthodoxy. Otherwise, the link between God as Creator, and our understanding of the creation through science, is obvious and self-evident. Consequently where is the conflict and disagreement? Is it because some of us are determined to tell the world we know ‘how God goes about creating?’ If this is the project then it will fail – human beings would be wise to acknowledge the awe and majesty of the Creator, as testified to us by His creation.

  2. Jon

    Scriptural grounds are fairly solid for your suggestion that sin delayed a transformation of the natural order that might have occurred through unfallen man.

    Psalm 8, speaking about man’s privilege of stewardship of material creation, looks both backward at Genesis 1:28 and forward to the exaltation of Christ, the true “Son of man” and second Adam (John 5:27; 1 Cor 15:45). Hebrews 2:8-9 reveals that the subjection of the creation to man has never been realized except as Christ is poised to exercise it. Christ is the man “crowned with glory and honor” as per Psalm 8:5b.

    Paul says in Philippians 3:21 that Christ has the power to glorify our humiliated physical bodies “by exertion of the power he has to subject all things to himself.” In other words, having something in subjection means not only having the power to destroy it but the power to transform and glorify it. Fallen man has never had the power to liberate material creation from its bondage because he has never truly had it in subjection–instead he is subject to pain and groaning along with it. Only by participating in Christ’s power and exaltation will human beings enjoy the original mandate over creation from Genesis 1:28.

    Romans 8:18-23 wraps this up quite nicely. The transformation of our physical bodies into a glorious state anticipates the subsuming of the created order as a whole into a new mode of existence.

    The challenge has long been to accommodate the “very good” state of creation in Genesis 1 with predation, parasitism, and (at least the appearance of) suffering in the animal world.

    Predation is part of natural economy reflecting God’s wisdom according to Psalm 104:21-24. Nor can the entry of death in Romans 5:12 be extended to all forms of natural death. In two places the Bible describes the germination of seeds as a kind of death (John 12:24; 1 Cor 15:36-37), so unless seeds were failing to germinate in the world of Genesis 1 one kind of death–in biblical definition–was already occurring. All the same, lampreys and filarial flies have always been a hard sell as part of a good creation.

  3. Jon Garvey says:

    Thanks for these comments, and especially to Darek for his expansion on the Scriptural material.

    On your last point, Darek – “problem predation and parasitism” I have some work scattered across the blog under “fallen creation” , but which I mainly put in a chapter length, fully-referenced piece a couple of years ago. It’s now, belatedly, due to be published in the ASA journal with some other pieces on “Natural Evil” by real scholars – but not till next year, so I can’t print it here.

    The central argument is that for the first 1500 years of the Church, a central part of Christian teaching was the unfallenness of the natural order. The change began only after 1500 as, I believe, a rather complex reaction to the resurgence of pagan thinking through Renaissance humanism. I’ll e-mail you a copy if you’re interested. Since we’re on Athanasius, here’s a taster from him:

    Now, nothing in creation had gone astray with regard to their notions of God, save man only. Why, neither sun, nor moon, nor heaven, nor the stars, nor water, nor air had swerved from their order; but knowing their Artificer and Sovereign, the Word, they remain as they were made. But men alone, having rejected what was good, then devised things of nought instead of the truth, and have ascribed the honour due to God, and their knowledge of Him, to demons and men in the shape of stones.

    Parasites, though, do stumble many people. Darrel Falk on BioLogos, seeking to distance God from the embarrassing parts of creation by claiming an autonomous evolution (as a demiurge, effectively) challenged me rhetorically whether I really thought the ingenious order of a pathogenic virus is God’s work. My answer was that as sole Creator, he made what he required, not what we wanted.

    Parasites like tapeworms get similar short shrift, but I’ve read papers suggesting they function as top-level predators in balancing many ecosystems. And there’s a wonderful clip on YouTube of a tape-worm researcher tetchily reponding to a “Yuk” comment from the interviewer that they’re “wonderful creatures.”

    Guinea worms are hard to love, I’ll grant. But there’s actually a “Guinea Worm Preservation Society”. I can’t work out if it’s serious or a spoof.

  4. pngarrison says:

    Years ago when there was an infestation of mediterranean fruit flies in California fruit, I remember seeing a cartoon of a hippie carrying a sign saying “Save the medfly.” The California Dept of Agriculture (or whatever they call it) would have taken a dim view of that.

    On the serious points above, it seems to me that the essential reason that God is worthy of worship is because He is good. Power, even creating us, is not enough. The God of Islam, at least in some accounts, is beyond all human comprehension or language; that’s why the fundamental obligation of Islam is submission. When power, even creative power, is seen as sufficient reason for worship and submission, what is being maintained is that God can do anything at all, no matter how wicked it seems to us, and we must call it good and submit. If you believe that kind of thing, eventually you will conclude that you too can do the most horrendous things, if you do them in his name, and of course that’s what we see today.

    That’s not Christianity, not the real thing, although of course various perversions of it have gone there on occasion.

    • Jon Garvey says:

      Nothing to disagree on there pngarrison. In any case classical theism makes goodness so integral to God as First Cause that the Euthyphro dilemma (Is it good because God does it, or does God do it because it is good?) has no real traction. I guess Islam has divorced the freedom of God from holiness, and its preferred occasionalism does help.

      At the same time, there’s an apparent tension between God’s goodness and his Creatorhood. Apart from modern examples (like making med flies), the Bible has several instances of people saying God’s ways are not right, right through from Satan in the garden to Paul’s hypothetical opponents in Romans (or even to those in Revelation refusing to repent). The inspired response usually seems to be some variation on the theme of “shall the clay instruct the potter?”

      At root, the problem is the corruption of our wills by which we call evil good and good evil, but it does mean that’s God’s righteousness has to be revealed to us in order to excite the worship we owe him for it.

      • GD says:

        We tend to understand many attributes, including that of power (to create and destroy) within human attributes, and from this come to conclusions that are ‘what should a human being do that is good, and how does God compare to this’.

        God has been revealed to us in a number of ways, and these include that of holy and total goodness, along with other attributes (including as the Son of Man willing to partake in the suffering of humanity and the creation). The Faith teaches us to search ourselves and come to all possible knowledge of what the revealed Word means within our human context – once we begin to do this, we are bound to face the paradox of total goodness and our limited comprehension. This imo is the starting point to begin an understanding of what Paul meant when he said, “We have the mind of Christ”.

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