Without warning and with unexpected power, the first article of the oldest Christian creed arrested my attention. These opening lines seemed to illumine not subsequent articles of the Apostles’ Creed, but the unity of Holy Scripture from Genesis to Revelation. Creation stood out now, not as a mere preliminary or a merely instrumental feature of divine activity and purpose, nor as a mere stage upon which the triune God would enact redemption – ostensibly the “real” show. No. Here creation stands not only at the beginning, but at the center of all God’s ways. Could it be that in creation we encounter the very heart of divine glory, the fundamental feature of God’s worthiness for praise?
For the first time, for me at least, God the creator emerged, in a powerful new way, as the God of the gospel of Jesus Christ. This conviction animates my purpose in what follows, the pursuit of the good news of God the creator. A pursuit culminating in a happy and wondrous confession that creation lies at the heart of the gospel of Jesus Christ, because without creation there is nothing to redeem. Creation ensures, prompts, and signals both the initiation and final shape of redemption. Redemption serves creation. The implications of this ordering of the relationship between creation and redemption for preaching, discipleship, pastoral care, and missions prove decisive, rich, and far reaching indeed.
All attempts at a comprehensive understanding of the witness of Holy Scripture must start somewhere. And starting with redemption has its advantages. But so does starting with creation and that is what I propose to do…
The Triune Creator
Centering on the first article of the creed illumines a biblically entrenched Trinitarian prolepsis within the creed itself whereby the last two articles (on the Son and the Holy Spirit) reach back and penetrate the first article on the Father. Thus, of the Son we learn, “All things were made through him, and without him was not anything made that was made” (John 1:3). “He is…the firstborn of creation. For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible…in him all things hold together” (Colossians 1:15–17). And “the Spirit was hovering over the face of the waters” (Genesis 1:2). The legitimacy, indeed the hermeneutical necessity of this prolepsis proves itself by its power to make clearer and fuller sense of what the Scriptures teach about God the creator.
All three persons, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, infuse the first article because all share in creation, in the salvaging of creation after the fall, and in the fulfilling of creation’s purpose in its promised future. No aspect of redemption can be rightly or fully comprehended apart from its original, organic, and inextricable grounding in the creator who redeems his creature. No authentic settling in with God the Father and the doctrine of creation forgets, slights, marginalizes, attenuates, or neglects God the Son or the incarnation or the cross or the gospel or any essential dimension of divine being and activity. The same could be said of God the Holy Spirit who “sees to” enjoyment of Father and Son by the elect. The three persons of the one God do not compete with one another. No one person, not really, ever shines at the expense of the glory of the other two or of the three together in their essential divine unity. They are, always and perfectly, in cahoots in all they are and do, including their share in the act of creation and the redemption of creation after the fall.
Creation and Redemption
But what exactly do they do, these three persons of the triune God? The ancient church across time and geography sums up the divine activity in one compound confession: God is creator and redeemer – the triune God creates and redeems. In this book I mean to assert, explore, and celebrate an integrated comprehension of creation and redemption but also, and especially, the unique status of creation at the very heart of all God’s ways. For evangelicals, redemption looms large and even dominates our thinking, our worship – our lives! And why not? Does not God himself insist on being known as the one “who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery” (Exodus 20:2)? Did not the eternal Son, sent by the Father in the power of the Spirit, come “to seek and to save the lost” (Luke 19:10)? Did not the apostle Paul decide to “know nothing” among the Corinthians be- sides “Jesus Christ and him crucified” (1 Corinthians 2:2)? Will not the still-visible wounds of Jesus remind us for all eternity that to know God truly is to know him as the redeemer of us blood-bought sinners?
Yes. A thousand times “Yes!” So, my effort to set God the creator and the creation itself in the center of our attention intends no reverse marginalization of redemption, salvation, or the gospel. Not at all. I mean to serve the gospel. But the gospel suffers where creation loses its proper place in the thinking and doing and worshiping of those for whom Jesus died.
If we wish to offer the most complete and full praise to God the redeemer, we must give due attention to the prominent place creation occupies in the revelation of God in Holy Scripture. It will be crucial for us to consider often that we human beings, though called to rule over creation, remain, according to God’s wisdom and love, creatures ourselves. Recognition that creation includes both invisible/immaterial and visible/material dimensions will also prove decisive for the argument I shall advance. Yet the argument is not really mine. God makes it himself in his word, and the church across the ages hears it again and again. I am just beginning to hear it anew and with power and I seek company.
Creation, in the deepest and most comprehensive sense, is both the object and goal of redemption. Acknowledgement that this is so belongs to the continuous confession of the church. This acknowledgment is repeatedly expressed in the church’s witness and worship reaching back to and through the Apostles’ Creed and on into the canonical period itself – into the four gospels, into the epistles, into the Apocalypse of John, and into Luke the physician’s “orderly account” in Acts.
This Is My Father’s World
Whatever confidence bleeds through the pages that follow arises from the conviction that what I assert is the old, tested, and continually reconfirmed testimony of Holy Scripture. I share Thomas Oden’s fear of innovation and eschewal of creativity. Whatever smacks of novelty, idiosyncrasy, or innovation should evoke not surprised delight but suspicion and resistance. Along with Oden, I am committed to making no new contribution to orthodox Christian doctrine. Whatever contribution might emerge shall surely involve retrieval of the once-possessed but somehow lost teaching of the word of God. We seek not intriguing insights of our own conjuring, but eternal truth, and relevant just for that reason.
Still, the odyssey of my own study included instances of astonishment at seemingly new insights. Bible teachings and connections between teachings heretofore unnoticed now struck me as unavoidable, powerful, and profound. Surely every lifelong reader of Scripture experiences such bursts of fresh light. Confirmation that the Bible is the living word of God is the common experience of Bible believers down through the ages. The famous and perhaps apocryphal declaration of John Robinson, pastor to the Pilgrims, rings true – “The Lord hath yet more truth and light to break forth out of His Holy Word.”
Over time, as insights new to us prove faithful and true, the early experience of newness weakens and gives way to recognition of an ancient pedigree and an initially unrecognized familiarity. What we first experience as a brand new vista opening up as we round a bend in the road turns out to be a worn path back home stirring up a surprising sense of déjà vu. The journey experienced at first as strange, far from taking us away from familiar truth, instead reconfirms and deepens longstanding confession of Bible truth expressed in creed, catechism, and countless spiritual songs and hymns. In the case of shalom, these words, sung since childhood, take on surprising new significance – “This is my father’s world . . . Jesus who died shall be satisfied, And earth and heav’n be one.” Creation and redemption together, with creation first in the sequence. It is not that redemption must not occupy first place in faithful biblical reflection. It may. But so may creation. Letting creation speak first illumines the divinely purposed shalom this book investigates.