Tag Archives: God’s Action

Believing in a Creator God (Part 1): Introduction

Is God done creating, or does he continue to create? Did God create you and the people you know and love? How about the people you don’t know and the people you don’t love? Is God creating the babies that are being born in hospitals and elsewhere all over the world at this very moment? Is God creating the animals that are born, both the wild and the domesticated? Did God create the birds my wife and I saw perched on a dock in Amelia Island, Florida?

I pose all of these questions to set up this one: Just what does it mean for God to “create,” and what does it mean for a person to believe in a Creator God? These questions about God “creating” are really a subset of a larger question about divine action: Just what is it that God is or is not doing in our world and in our lives? It is this question about God’s action that is one of the most fundamental concerns in the science / faith relationship, and in all thinking about God (i.e., theology). Even the debate about creation and evolution is, among other things, a debate about God’s action.

Just what does it mean for God to “create”? What is it that God is or is not doing in our world and in our lives?

In conversations about science and faith, the words “create” and “creation” have special currency. People who believe that God has created often call themselves “creationists”: there are young-Earth creationists (e.g., Answers in Genesis), old-Earth creationists (e.g., Reasons to Believe), and evolutionary creationists (e.g., BioLogos). You might hear the terms “creationism” and “creation science.” You find organizations dedicated to “researching creation.” There is even a young-Earth-creationist effort at classifying Earth’s life forms, “baraminology,” dedicated to discovering what its adherents believe to be the “created” kinds of life that God originally made.

Given the importance of “create” terminology, then, and since it is derived largely from the Bible, it would be helpful to examine how passages in the Bible actually use the terminology. Our earlier question was, What does it mean for God to “create”? This question now becomes, What do various biblical passages mean when they state that God “creates”? Some people who care about these things might be surprised to learn what these passages do and do not say, and what implications might follow from the meanings of these passages. Believing in a Creator God might become more nuanced, interesting, and complex than previously imagined.

Some people might be surprised to learn what biblical passages do and do not say about God “creating.”

For several reasons, my focus will be on the Old Testament. In Hebrew, the original language of most of the Old Testament, the verb of our focus is bārā’, normally translated “create.” (I will not go into details of Hebrew verb forms and tenses, but those who know Hebrew will find notable differences of meaning corresponding to the Piel and Hiphil forms of br’. I will focus on the Qal and Niphal.) We are seeking to understand what kind of action bārā’ is, and since God is, for our purposes, the sole subject of this action, we are seeking to understand what God does when God bārā’.

The basis for what follows is a study I just conducted on bārā’, a study organized into a Word document table to assist my thinking. I am also consulting Old Testament scholars for their expertise on bārā’. Much good-quality work has been done on this word, and I will commend their work to you along the way.

What I will do next to complete Part 1 of this series is give a brief overview of bārā’ and pose some questions and implications that follow from this overview. Part 2 will begin sampling passages that display ranges of meaning and relevant implications for theology, and especially for science / faith relationships.

bārā’: An Overview

The verb bārā’, “create,” occurs in 13 Old Testament books (or 11, depending on the forms included). As you might expect, it occurs in Genesis (11x) and Psalms (6x), books that readers frequently associate with God creating. What you might not expect is that the verb does not occur in other books with passages that are commonly (and rightly) regarded as creation passages: neither Job 38-41 nor Proverbs 8:22-31 uses the verb bārā’. You might also be surprised to learn that bārā’ occurs most often, not in Genesis, but in Isaiah (21x). Isaiah has more to say about God creating than Genesis does.

The larger framework for these many occurrences of bārā’ in Isaiah is the fate of the Kingdom of Judah before, during, and after its destruction and exile. The governing concern is what God is or is not doing in relation to the complex sequence of experiences that Judah has during this period of its history. Statements about God creating fit within this larger, basic theological interest. They, like all other theists, wonder what God is up to.

For the forms of bārā’ that are most relevant to our questions, God is always the subject of the more basic, active mood of the verb: God (subject) creates (verb) something (direct object). In what we would call the more passive mood, entities other than God are always the subject of the verb, but subjects function differently for passive verbs: Something / someone (subject) is created (verb).

When God creates in Old Testament passages, then, what do we find him creating? Here is a partial list of direct objects: God creates the heavens and the earth; the great sea monsters; the water swarmers; the flying creatures; humans; the entirety of the natural world; a clean heart; the north and the south; individual persons; a special cloud, smoke, and shining fire; the people of Israel; redemptive care for Israel; and new heavens, a new earth, and a new Jerusalem.

In short, we find that aspects of just about every dimension of life are touched on as occurring by creative acts of God. We have not yet clarified what kinds of acts these are; we have simply noted the objects of God’s action. If we start to feel a comprehensive weight to the verb bārā’, we are feeling its weight accurately. Whatever else we discover about God creating, we can expect that Israel saw God’s creating as something that related to the totality of their world. This will be important as we continue to revisit our first question: Is God done creating, or does he continue to create? After all, in the totality of Israel’s world, events are constantly starting and ending, and life forms are constantly coming into and going out of existence.

Whatever else we discover about God creating, we can expect that Israel saw God’s creating as something that related to the totality of their world.

As I lean into what’s to come, then, we can go ahead and begin asking this question: If God’s creating relates somehow to the totality of the world you inhabit and the totality of the life you live, then what are the implications you can already start detecting for such a belief? How do our imaginings about God start to shape up in response to such a comprehensive view of God?

Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5

Psalm 139: Thinking Theologically, Thinking Scientifically (Part 4)

If my goal as a blogger were to produce a steady stream of blog posts, then I suppose the past two months without a post would render me a failure — not least because of the beauty and power of the last one, a guest-post from a friend of mine.

The last three posts explored a biblical psalm as a rich text for thinking theologically and scientifically about human life. In Part 1, we worked through Psalm 139 as a whole to understand the flow of the author’s theology and prayers. In Part 2, we examined verses 13-16 in greater detail to consider the interrelationship of theological and natural views of human origins and development. In Part 3, a friend mine, and neonatal nurse practitioner, invited us into her way of thinking about embryonic and fetal development as someone who holds together faith, science, and professional care.

As the final post in this series, Part 4 will respond to Part 3, and in a way that draws together the whole series into a suggestion for how Bible readers approach scientific discovery and knowledge.

In Part 3, Sarah did a monumental job of thinking through Psalm 139:13-16, given what she understands through her scientific education and professional practice. What a gift for us as readers to be invited into the sensitive and compassionate thoughts of one who is on the front lines of care for developing and new-born human life!

Lessons on Science and Faith from Sarah

Practical science. The science that informs Sarah’s work is practical. It enables her and her coworkers to understand more (but certainly not everything) about what is going on during development, pregnancy, and birth. As a result, Sarah and others are able to care for human life in highly specialized ways. These practical fruits of science did not arise through studying the Bible. God did not use biblical writings (including Psalm 139) to tell people everything they might want or need to know. A proper respect for the Bible admits what its passages cannot do. If God values and supports the kind of care that Sarah and others give, then perhaps God values scientific inquiries that enable such care. A necessary corollary of scientific inquiry is that people will learn things they did not know, things that are different than what they previously thought.

A proper respect for the Bible admits what its passages cannot do.

Limits to our knowledge. As Sarah indicated throughout her post, she and her fellow caregivers do not always understand what is going on with pregnancies, nor why some things happen the way they do. There are limits to our knowledge. If I am right about Sarah and her line of work, I think she and her colleagues would welcome more scientific knowledge, especially if such knowledge would help them give better care and treatments and save more lives.

Shifting from Sarah to my experience with many other Christians, some Christians and Christian groups look to the limits of our knowledge as evidence of God’s role in the world. A word of caution here! Do not use God as a convenient “explanation” when you cannot otherwise explain something. First, this cheapens God and turns God into little more than a rescue for our ignorance. It is better to think of God more holistically, the God who is sovereign over all things, whether we can explain them or not. Second, science continues to gain more knowledge, advancing beyond previous limits. Science in 2017 knows more than science knew in 1917. The limits of our knowledge in 1917 did not all continue to be limits after that time. Perhaps some limits are common to 1917 and 2017, but even those limits might someday be transgressed. Believers in God and Bible readers should not bank on the limits of our knowledge as some sort of proof that God is doing something.

Using God as a convenient “explanation” when you cannot otherwise explain something cheapens God and turns God into little more than a rescue for our ignorance.

Faith within our limitations. Sarah concluded her article by affirming her faith in God despite the limitations of her knowledge. Hers is a mature faith: she recognizes that she will never have enough answers to satisfy her most troubling questions. From Sarah, we can learn about the nature of faith. If answers to all of our questions is a necessary precondition for believing in God, then, to be logical at this point, we would never believe in God. Indeed, some people choose non-belief precisely for this reason. And, let me say, I understand and respect many people who are atheists because they find their troubling questions unanswered. Some more militant atheists consider believers cowards, incapable of facing the truth of our unanswered questions.

In response, I say: Unanswered questions about God do not by necessity serve as evidence against God. (There are logical reasons not to equate unanswered questions with evidence against the existence of something.) Now, are some believers naive in their faith? Sure. But choosing faith within limitations is not necessarily naive or cowardly. And, to return to Sarah’s situation, her faith is not something she dons in order to stop the progress of science or compensate for ignorance. No, hers is a faith that changes with her knowledge, a commitment to the belief that God exists despite the troubling questions. An, in the spirit of many biblical passages, her faith expresses itself in active caregiving.

The value of human life. Sarah’s article has a magnificent way of stressing the value of human life. Sarah sees God amid defects and disabilities. Her God is not just the god of “normal,” the god of a fully-functioning and self-sufficient humans. Her God is not a god whose character is seen only when things go right. Sarah’s thoughts invite us to think more carefully and critically about humans as “the image of God” (Genesis 1:26-27). Just what does it mean for a human life to resemble God in this world? Does any human life successfully and equally make God evident and visible? Might instances of defect and disability rightly challenge our assumptions about what it means to be human and what it means to display God’s character?

Might instances of defect and disability rightly challenge our assumptions about what it means to be human and what it means to display God’s character?

Ethics. If Sarah’s insights challenge our assumptions about what it means to be human, then they also challenge our ethics, our actions toward each other as fellow humans. Sarah has written about the choices that biological parents make that influence how their baby is “knit together” (Psalm 139:13). If God has chosen to make more humans through the willful actions of humans, then God has chosen to knit those babies through the choices their parents make. Human parents are acting by God’s sanction and with responsibility to God for how their actions impact their developing child. In addition, and as just intimated, the way in which we view and value human life will influence how we act for those lives that need special care.

God as creator. Sarah’s job puts her on the front lines of what it means for God to create humans by letting humans make more of themselves. It is conceivable that God could have created a world in which God made each new human himself. That is not our world. God has made a world that can make more of itself. God has made humans such that humans can make more of themselves. This means, among other things, that it is, technically, God’s will that it be possible for defects and death to occur in developing babies. I hope this statement does not sound too sharp or insensitive. Indeed, my stomach churns a little as I write it. Even biblical passages that speak about curses on human existence (Genesis 3:14-19) or the groanings of human life (Romans 8:19-23) do not address explicitly the issue of defects, abnormalities, and death in developing babies. I would advise against simplistic readings of biblical texts here, especially if motivated by a need to rescue ourselves from the discomfort of thinking that God willfully allows creating to include these risks.

It is conceivable that God could have created a world in which God made each new human himself. That is not our world.

The flip side of these troubling experiences is the beauty of two humans being able to create life together. This is an experience with which I am, thankfully, personally acquainted. To look at my daughter, I am moved quite often at the thought that I helped create her. I do not think I would want to live in a world where it was not possible to do so. To appreciate living in a world where we can truly create new life, where we can be “created co-creators” with God, we accept also the risks that go along with that privilege and joy.

Psalm 139: Thinking Theologically, Thinking Scientifically

Psalm 139 gives us rich space within which we can think about God and science. In particular, the psalmist’s focus on his development in the womb (139:13-16) invites us to think about the relationship between scientific understandings of this process and theological belief. Many people describe humans as “fearfully and wonderfully made,” a statement from this psalm (139:14). The psalm itself invites us into deeper reflection on being fearfully and wonderfully made. Scientific understanding clarifies and purifies this belief, as well as beliefs people have about God’s role in human life. In addition, neonatal critical care brings a powerful and practical perspective on how we apply science to real life, including real-life theology.

I propose that devout Bible readers see in science an ally and friend who can help them read the Bible better, believe in God more clearly, and serve the world more actively and compassionately. Yes, science may learn things about us and about our world that pushes against previously-held beliefs, but even as some insights push us in uncomfortable ways, other insights that are gained through the very same scientific processes clearly enable us to act more coherently and in tune with the way our world actually works. This, it turns out, is exactly what the biblical pursuit of wisdom includes: human life and choices conform to the way the world, as created by God, actually works, and not as we think it should work. There thus emerges a consonance between the life of the person of faith and the world in which that person lives and acts.

I propose that devout Bible readers see in science an ally and friend who can help them read the Bible better, believe in God more clearly, and serve the world more actively and compassionately.

Psalm 139: Thinking Theologically, Thinking Scientifically (Part 3)

In Part 1 of this series, we worked through Psalm 139 in its entirety to follow and understand the flow and contours of the psalmist’s theology and prayers. In Part 2, we explored verses 13-16 in more depth to unpack the psalmist’s theology of his own development in the womb, as well as ways in which these verses might assist devout readers in thinking maturely about scientific perspectives on, and discoveries about, a human’s origins and development.

For this post, I am delighted and honored to share with you a guest article by a friend of mine, and a neonatal nurse practitioner, Sarah Bylsma. Sarah shares with us her perspective on Psalm 139:13-16, a perspective that occurs for her at the intersection of her Christian faith, her scientific training, and her professional involvement in caring for newborns, including experience working in a Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU). Sarah, I welcome your voice here, and at this moment offer you my sincerest thanks.

“Faith and Science in Neonatal Practice: A Reflection on Psalm 139”
By Sarah Bylsma

First, a little about me. I graduated with a B.A. in Biology from Lipscomb University in May 2005. I then went to Belmont University and graduated with a B.S. in Nursing in December 2006. In January 2007, I began working as a nurse in a Level III Neonatal Intensive Care Unit. While working full time as a nurse in the NICU, I attended graduate school at the University of Alabama Birmingham from 2009 to 2011. I obtained a M.S. in Nursing with a Neonatal specialty in May 2011. I have been board certified as a neonatal nurse practitioner since September 2011. I currently work full time as a neonatal nurse practitioner. I am also a full-time mom to three little ones ages 5 and under. I have been a Christian since 1990, with evolving beliefs as my worldview has changed, but never questioning the existence of our God.

As I read Psalms 139, the author seems to insinuate three things in verses 13-16: (1) that God is creator, (2) that life begins in utero, and (3) that God knew every detail of that life the moment it began.

I believe that God is creator of all things. My education and experience have shaped HOW I view God as creator, but they most certainly do not change the fact that He is behind the existence of all life.

As a scientist and medical professional, I know that human life forms from two human cells, the egg from the mother and the sperm from the father. Once the egg is fertilized by a single sperm cell, a zygote is formed. The zygote will undergo mitosis, a process a cell undergoes to form two new cells. DNA, our unique genetic code, is replicated in this process. It is here in mitosis, as the zygote grows and divides to become an embryo, that the development of human life can first go awry. Errors during mitosis can result in chromosomal errors ranging from too many / not enough chromosomes to extra / missing pieces of chromosomes — all of which can create a wide variety of syndromes, cancers, and death.

Often, when embryos are created from cells with abnormal chromosomes incompatible with life, a mother will miscarry. This raises a question about life and its beginning. Is an embryo with genetic information incompatible with an earthly life still a life? Conception had occurred and genetic information exists, but no life will be formed. With my scientific knowledge, I believe that life begins in utero, but not at conception. My reading of Psalm 139 does not dispute this. The author understands that life began in his mother’s womb, and the scripture does not explicitly state a time-frame. I believe you would be hard-pressed to find anyone working in neonatology that would dispute that life begins in utero.

God knowing every detail of each life the moment it begins is different than God choosing every detail for that life. This is because God gives us choices (free will). You may be asking questions like: How does that play into embryologic development? What about when the formation of life goes wrong? If God is creator, how can that go wrong? No one chooses how our babies are formed in utero, right?

God has given us free will, and that freedom to make our own choices can and does affect others. This includes the developing fetus. Sometimes these can have devastating effects on the fetus. As Daniel pointed out in Part 2, the psalmist clearly understood that the mother and father played a role in the human-making process. Their role is not just one of providing the cells to be fertilized, but also to create an environment in which proper development can occur. The psalmist describes being knit together in his mother’s womb. Choices help determine the kind of knitting that occurs.

Daniel has already discussed how the materials used in the knitting process affect the end result. Embryonic development and postnatal health is most certainly affected by the parents’ individual choices and environmental factors both before and while the mother is pregnant. Choices from our past can impact our bodies or the environment, which in turn impact embryonic development. The mother and father’s choices (both before and during pregnancy) on lifestyle, nutrition, drug use, sexual activity, etc., can alter fetal development. For example, sexually-transmitted diseases, particularly when acquired during pregnancy, can be especially harmful to a developing fetus.

It’s clear that bad choices can have an effect on development. But there are other choices that can impact it also, such as age at conception: older mothers have a higher chance of chromosomal errors. Sometimes we do not know why something goes wrong in the development process. There are many intricate steps involved in creating a human life, and thus many places for the process to go wrong. Research has shown us that unknown diseases, illness, hormones, and genetics can all impact a growing fetus. Despite all of the scientific advances, sometimes we do not know why the process goes amiss. Sometimes the process is going normally but gets interrupted, resulting in premature birth.

So we know that embryological development can go wrong, regardless of how it goes wrong. In my line of work, I see so many ways in which the development went awry or was interrupted. I don’t always know how it happened or why. It is our tendency to see these as abnormalities and imperfections, something to be feared and less-than-desired. How can God create a life like that? But I see God in these babies the most. I watch these babies grow and mature, and I know their lives still have purpose and meaning. I see God in that baby who is missing parts of his brain, who can still walk and talk and amaze healthcare professionals with his progress. I see God in that premature baby born 4 months too soon, who through medical advancement and technology is able to grow and develop into a perfectly healthy infant.

Occasionally I see babies that do survive but have severe lifelong and debilitating complications. Why does God allow these babies to survive? WE see these as imperfections, but to our God they are perfect, just like the rest of us. Their lives have purpose, even when we fail to see what that is. We are all fearfully and wonderfully made in God’s eyes.

Often I see these babies live and thrive, but sometimes, they don’t make it. Sometimes, they are simply born too early. Sometimes, their development was affected so greatly that life outside the womb isn’t possible. The complexities of human development sometimes allow life to persist in utero, but not after birth. Why does God allow these lives to exist throughout the duration of a pregnancy, but not long enough to have a life on earth? I have struggled with this question. I have shed many tears over the losses of a life gone too soon. I do not have the answers. Even while writing this, I have spent hours and hours thinking about it, trying to come up with an answer. Science can answer many questions about life, but sometimes…often…you just need to have faith and know that our God has a plan, even when we do not understand it.

Withdrawal Symptoms: A Communion Meditation

A Communion meditation following and building upon a sermon by Dan Cooke, minister of Station Camp Church, on January 1, 2017 (listen to sermon). Credit goes to Dan Cooke for the selection of Genesis 2 and Luke 5 as material on which I reflect below.

In concluding its first creation story, the book of Genesis describes God resting “from all the work that he had done” (2:2 NRSV). Though we might rightly wonder what God did the day after he rested, for now we observe that God takes a break from work. In so doing, it seems that God positively affirms the value of living a life and engaging in work in ways that include rest from work. There might always be more things to work on — and worthwhile things, at that — but to live and work without rest is to keep oneself and one’s identity tied to work and production. For humans, experience teaches us that this kind of life is unsustainable. For God, even if such a pace is sustainable, God does not affirm work and production as the only indicators of a life worth living.

In the story of Jesus, it is not uncommon to find reports of Jesus taking time to “withdraw to deserted places and pray” (Luke 5:16). That is, we see Jesus resting from the work that he does. The one who claims in various ways to be Israel’s Messiah is a king who rests from work. If this king’s subjects choose to imitate his way of life, then this kingdom affirms the value of rest. The value of rest for all people finds affirmation in Genesis 2:1-3. Luke 5 has a way of narrowing the focus, affirming the value of rest for followers of Jesus — yes, even rest from doing God’s work.

The themes on which we now focus are (1) withdrawal and (2) listening to God. In fact, we can even think of these themes in terms of “withdrawal symptoms”: what we have before us are good kinds of withdrawal, and the good symptoms that follow.

In Luke 5, Jesus’ withdrawal is an individual withdrawal for individual prayer. When churches gather, they are engaging in a kind of communal withdrawal for communal prayer — to listen to God together. Indeed, at his last Passover meal, Jesus withdraws together with his apostles in the midst of a city, in an upstairs guest room (Luke 22:7-13). Even so, this particular communal withdrawal serves as preparation for work: bread and wine nourish Jesus as he prepares to give his body and blood for others, starting with these twelve men and including his betrayer. Jesus has given himself to you, to me, to those who love him, and to those who hate him. His withdrawal to his table prepared him to give.

Sometimes, we, like Jesus, need individual withdrawal for individual prayer. Today, we, like Jesus, withdraw communally to this room, to this table — his table — to pray communally, and to prepare for work. May this bread and cup nourish us as we prepare to give ourselves for others, starting with each other and including those who betray and hurt us, those who love us, and those who hate us, those who love Jesus, and, moreover, those who hate him, for love conquers hate. May we help each other listen to and hear God more clearly so that we can discern how to work and how to prepare for our work, and that we may know when to rest from our work.