It has been some months since I last contributed to my series on the meaning of creation. Now, at last, I bring to you my fifth and final post for “Believing in a Creator God.” The reason I have written this series is to share the fruits of private studies and, more importantly, to provide clarity to my readers on what the Old Testament’s word bārā’, “create,” does and does not mean.
This clarity is important to me because numerous Christians in the United States use the language of “create” (e.g., “creation,” “creationism,” “creationist,” etc.) to talk about their faith, and about science, in ways that actually misrepresent what this word meant to Israel. In my view, if Christians are going to use Israel’s words as holy Scripture, as God’s words to them, then they should expend significant energies to understand those words — all the more so when they presume to respond to science on the authority of God.
If Christians are going to use Israel’s words as holy Scripture, as God’s words to them, then they should expend significant energies to understand those words.
Brief Review of bārā’
In Part 1, we met our word bārā’ in overview. Since bārā’ is a verb, in Part 2 we sampled some passages in which it occurs to look for clues to the kinds of action being conveyed. Especially helpful in this connection was seeing other verbs used alongside of bārā’. Beyond the kind of action itself, the meaning of verbs includes the time dimensions involved: when it is that the actions occur. In Part 3, then, we looked at the tenses of bārā’. In Part 4, we discussed direct objects: what kinds of things are acted upon by, or are the results of the action of, the verb bārā’.
I consider several important lessons to have emerged. First, Israel used bārā’ to denote the act of God making and forming things, both entities and events. Second, we learned that Israel quite regularly used bārā’ to refer to occurrences in the world in which agents other than God were fully active at the same time. In other words, “create” was not a way of saying that God had acted alone. Nor was it a way of saying that God did part of the action and something or someone else did the other part (50% God + 50% nature). It was more like overlapping ways of referring to the same occurrences.
Third, Israel used bārā’ in ways that denote past, present, and future action: God created, God is creating, and God will create. God is always active creating, and thus God is always a Creator. New events, ongoing occurrences of regular processes, new generations of living things, etc., are all God’s creative work.
Fourth, Israel identified a fairly comprehensive scope of objects with God’s creating. God creates the universe and everything in it. He creates humans and animals, not just in the past, but in ongoing generations. He creates Israel as his special, covenant people, including their experiences of judgment and destruction and of hope and deliverance. God creates the wind and other regular, mundane features of the larger natural world. It is thus difficult to detect anything that is off limits for the creating action of God.
To support my summary, I quote a summary of bārā’ that appears in a professional theological dictionary of the Old Testament: “Both human and cosmic, natural and historical entities are brought into existence by God; temporally, creation includes not only acts of origination but the ongoing succession of entities and conditions within the cosmos up to the present of the biblical writers. Finally, the OT can describe the same creative events as occurring both by God’s word and by natural means and processes over time (Stek). The OT does not separate, though it may distinguish, divine and ‘natural’ causality in creation” (Van Leeuwen, 1997, p. 730).
The OT does not separate, though it may distinguish, divine and ‘natural’ causality in creation.
Before I proceed with the implications of all of this for Christian thinking about science, I should address what, in biblical studies, is called the overload fallacy. The overload fallacy is a fallacy that occurs when a person (1) sees one word used in different places, (2) observes different meanings for that one word in those different places, and then (3) combines many or even all of those meanings for each individual occurrence of the word.
In the present case, the overload fallacy would occur if we took all of the meanings we have seen for bārā’ and then argued that each use of bārā’ contained all of those meanings. We would be overloading bārā’ with more meaning that it could possibly contain for a single use of the word. That is not how language works. Just because a word can mean different things in different contexts does not lead to the conclusion that a word means all of those things at once.
Here is my point: By summarizing the uses of bārā’ in the Hebrew Old Testament, I am showing the scope of the word, learning how extensive and flexible the word was. This enables us to draw better conclusions about Israel’s beliefs about God as one who creates. I am not, however, trying to suggest that all possible nuances of bārā’ are present with each use of the word.
Christians, Creation, and Science
Given all of the foregoing, I would like to make some suggestions for how Christians think about God’s creating, especially as such thinking relates to scientific investigations of the world.
First, we have seen how Israel often used bārā’ as a way of focusing on God’s action on occasions that still involved fully the actions of other agents (humans, animals, etc.). Since scientists study natural occurrences and try to explain them in terms of natural, observable causes and effects, science will focus on natural agents, and not on the action of God. Science as such is neither equipped nor qualified to make definitive claims about God’s action or inaction. Sometimes, scientists forget this limitation on their part.
Often, though, Christians are the ones at fault here, expecting science to uncover proof of God’s action. When it comes to creation, some Christians want to use science to prove that God must have created something, and, by this, they mean that God must have acted alone, without anything or anyone else being involved or fully active. In light of how Israel actually used bārā’, this is not a defensible use of the Old Testament.
Christians should think of create as a faith claim about God’s action: a way of stating belief that God is the ultimate, sovereign, governing agent acting in and through the world.
“God’s relationship with the world is comprehensive in scope: God is present and active wherever there is world. God does not create the world and then leave it, but God creates the world and enters into it, lives within it, as God. … God is present on every occasion and active in every event” (Fretheim, 2005, p. 23, emphasis in original).
Christians should not look for evidence of God’s action by looking for (currently) scant or nonexistent evidence of the actions of other agents. We may not yet have good understandings of how other agents are involved in the world’s events, but this shortcoming on our part does not somehow constitute evidence of God.
Second, we have seen how Israel used bārā’ for God’s action in the past, present, and future.
Thinking about science and time, science studies the way the world works, and thus conducts its studies in the present. However, since science continues from generation to generation, it builds upon past studies and can preserve ongoing observations of the world, keeping a running record. In addition, science can use its insights from the present to give plausible interpretations of the past, as, for example, in scientific interpretations of rock layers and fossil remains. What is more, scientific methods often make short-term predictions of the future to test hypotheses, as well as make long-term predictions about future occurrences in our world and universe.
Christians who think that God created in the past and ceased creating are mistaken. And, as we have seen already, it is also a mistake for Christians to think that a lack of scientific explanation for things in the past or present are markers of God’s special action then and now. Why? Because, according to Israel, God is always creating. Therefore, any time in the history of the universe is a time during which God is active in creating.
It is a mistake for Christians to think that a lack of scientific explanation for things in the past or present are markers of God’s special action then and now.
Third and finally, we have seen how Israel identified so many direct objects with bārā’ that it seems they saw everything as God’s creation. (This is clear in Gen 1:1-2:3.) If the earth, universe, humans, animals, wind, human morals, and human social and political events are all objects of God’s creating, then it would be remarkable if there were things that Israel did not regard as created by God. At the empirical level, then — the level where science takes place — everything constitutes evidence of God’s creating.
Perhaps some Christians would respond, Now, hang on, Daniel: If everything is God’s creation, then how can we prove God’s creating? This is a good question, but does it not start with the prior assumption that the objects of God’s creating were meant to bear some sort of special mark — a divine signature that might as well say, “Made by God”? Israel did not use bārā’ to divide the world into (A) Objects Made by God and (B) Objects Not Made by God. This whole mode of thinking misunderstands the emphasis of God’s creating.
No, Israel seems to have faced their world, in all of its wonderful and dizzying variety, with all of its complexities and ambiguities, with a fundamental belief about God: No matter what has happened, is happening, or will happen — no matter what has lived, is living, or will live in our universe and world — God is the sovereign Creator, the Maker of the universe and all that it contains and does. bārā’ is a faith word, a courageous statement of belief about the world: courageous because so much of what happens in the world offends or troubles us, and to associate these offenses and troubles with God takes courage — provided this belief is confessed, not as a cop-out, but as a response to rigorous engagement with the world.
Israel was not naïve. Their faith was hardly childish or underdeveloped. In fact, the biblical writings evince a theological maturity and courage that put many modern American Christians to shame (myself included). If we think that scientific discoveries so easily threaten the theological claims of bārā’ in the Old Testament, it is perhaps because we modern readers have a less mature belief about creation than Israel did, not because Israel failed to think about the impact of future discoveries on their faith claims. Perhaps Israel’s comprehensive creation faith is meant to push us readers, to pose questions to our precious assumptions.
If we think that scientific discoveries so easily threaten the theological claims of bārā’ in the Old Testament, it is perhaps because we modern readers have a less mature belief about creation than Israel did.
Believing in a Creator God does not have to be an alternative to practicing scientific investigations of the world. Believing in a Creator God does not have to function as a stand-in explanation when we lack a naturalistic one. Believing in God can be a willful, insistent, even experimental mode of engaging the world, choosing to see God in all of the life forms past, present, and future, to see God in all human lives and human events in all their messy and disturbing variety, to see God as intimately and dynamically interactive with a world that he enjoys seeing be and become as it acts with its own integrity, will, and power.
Believing in a Creator God is the choice to see the world and its happenings as God’s masterpiece, a work of art that is itself fully alive and interactive with God — whether it knows it or not — to see ourselves as God’s creations and our lives as blessings and opportunities to contribute to something bigger than we are, to a world that is not ours but within which we’re grateful to play a part.
Fretheim, T. (2005). God and world in the Old Testament: A relational theology of creation. Nashville, TN: Abingdon.
Van Leeuwen, R. (1997). ברא [br’]. In W. A. VanGemeren (Ed.), New international dictionary of Old Testament theology and exegesis: Vol. 1 (pp. 728-735). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.
Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5