Below is an excerpt from the plenary address I gave at this year’s Summer Gathering of the Ekklesia Project, held in early July at DePaul University in Chicago.

The problem with Creation, I want to suggest, is that it comes at the beginning. The Bible opens with the familiar, majestic hymn of Genesis 1: “In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth.” Each “stanza” recounts, with increasing attention to detail, what divine speech has brought forth:

Sky and seas and earth.
Plants and fruit trees.
Sun and moon.
Sea creatures, birds, and land animals.
And, finally, humankind, made in the image of this God who speaks a world into being.

Another creation story comes immediately on the heels of this one: a much earlier story, it turns out—an “earthier” one in which Yahweh (not the transcendent deity of the Priestly hymn) is down and dirty in the mud, fashioning Adamh, the red-earth man, and breathing life into his nostrils. There’s a beautiful garden. Birds and animals appear. And, after a bit of divinely-elected surgery, a woman is created and “brought to the man” (Gen. 2:22).  

That there are two creation stories has been a source of confusion, denial, and disappointment throughout the centuries. Unsuspecting undergraduates and many first-year seminarians are regularly ambushed by this revelation in Genesis that two very different stories of origin sit side by side in the sacred text. Biblical critics and historians tell us why this is so and yet, as commentator Rusty Reno suggests and as Genesis itself seems to insist, these two accounts can be seen as “complimentary portrayals of the same, stage-setting divine act.”[1]

God spoke. God acted. Creation happened. Seems straightforward enough, even when we allow that the two stories—the liturgical poem[2] of Genesis 1 and the older, Yahwistic tradition of chapter two—are not geological accounts of earth’s origins but ways of “seeing the world” with God and in relation to God.

But it’s hard to shake the idea of Creation as something that God did once, way back when. Creationists, evolutionists, and advocates of intelligent design all assume that the Christian doctrine of Creation is a theory about how everything got started a long time ago. So do most people in the pews.

But what the Church confesses is that God speaks. God acts. Present tense. Creation, as Aquinas insisted, is the ongoing action of God that establishes a relationship between God and what is not God. God speaks and calls into being a world that is other than God. God is not bound to this created world, but the world is bound utterly to God. Rowan Williams helps us to grasp not only the power but the poignant beauty of this truth when he says that

It should be a rather exhilarating thought that the moment of creation is now—that if, by some unthinkable accident, God’s attention slipped, we wouldn’t be here. It means that within every circumstance, every object, every person, God’s action is going on, a sort of white heat at the centre of everything. It means that each of us is already in a relationship with God before we ever thought about it. It means that every object or person we encounter is in a relationship with God before they’re in a relationship of any kind with us.  And if that doesn’t make us approach the world and other people with reverence and amazement, I don’t know what will.[3]

In the beginning, out of freedom, out of nothing, God created the heavens and the earth. But we don’t really start at the beginning. The truth of God’s creating work meets us in “the anxious middle”[4] between the beginning and the end. And it is the end, we believe, which explains the beginning. The Church, as Bonhoeffer puts it, “bears witness to the end of all things. It lives from the end, it thinks from the end, it acts from the end, it proclaims its message from the end.”[5] It is the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth that make known the God of Creation’s beginnings, that reveal God’s purposes for the whole created order.  “All creation breathes with the life of the Logos, apart from whom there is no life.”[6] As John’s prologue has it: “What has come into being in him was life” (John 1:3b).

Again, this seems straightforward enough. But we’re rather used to thinking of Creation and Salvation as if they didn’t have much to do with each other, as if they were discrete plot points on a storyline that goes something like this: A long time ago God created the world; soon enough sin entered the picture and a “fall” occurred, necessitating a rescue; God sent Jesus to do the saving work on the cross; and now, through his resurrection, we have the hope someday of heaven. But if Creation and Salvation are different sorts of “events” in this way—albeit existing along a continuum—then it is not at all evident that there is a real relationship between the Creator and the Savior. Or, as James Alison has put it, “it’s not clear what God has to do with Jesus.”[7]

We see from the perspective of the end, and “only from Christ can we know what the beginning is.”[8] Creation is not something that God did once, but is what God is doing now in and through Jesus. Creation is being brought to completion through the life, death, and resurrection of a first-century Palestinian Jew who was tortured and executed by the imperial powers. The free gift that Jesus makes of his death on the cross is the same divine graciousness that brings the world into existence from nothing.  “It is not as though creation were a different act,” Alison reminds us, “something which happened alongside the salvation worked by Jesus, but rather that the salvation which Jesus was working was, at the same time, the fulfillment of creation.”[9]

Scripture shows us this. John the Evangelist sets the resurrection story in a garden, grounding Easter’s hope in, well, the ground. “The tree of life,” as Vigen Guroian observes, “still stands in a garden.”[10] The hope of resurrection is that the material creation in all its fullness participates—now partially, then perfectly—in newness of life, in communion with the Source of all that is. Heaven and earth are joined, through the mystery of Jesus’ rising from the dead, in the shalom of God.

Because the Church reads Genesis with the help of John’s gospel we can say, as Bonhoeffer does, that “only in the Word of creation do we know the Creator, in the Word in the middle do we have the beginning.”[11] And the Word that was in the beginning with God and that was God is, we believe, “God’s self-statement in the flesh and texture of our history.”[12] What God has spoken to us is not some particular message (behind which he might have a rather different message up his sleeve)[13]—God’s Word is God’s self, the Logos who dwelt among us, full of grace and truth.

[1] R.R. Reno, Genesis. Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible series. (Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2010), p. 22.

[2]Ellen Davis, following Walter Brueggemann, uses this term in her book Scripture, Culture, and Agriculture: An Agrarian Reading of the Bible (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2009), pp. 42ff.

[3] Rowan Williams, Tokens of Trust: An Introduction to Christian Belief (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2007), p. 35.

[4] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Creation and Fall (New York: Collier Books, 1959), p. 16.

[5] Bonhoeffer, Creation and Fall, p. 11.

[6] Richard Hays, The Moral Vision of the New Testament (New York: Harper Collins, 1996), p. 156.

[7] James Alison, Raising Abel: The Recovery of the Eschatological Imagination (New York: Crossroads, 1996), p. 49.

[8] Bonhoeffer, Creation and Fall, p. 12.

[9] Alison, Raising Abel, p. 56.

[10] Vigen Guroian, “Lenten Spring: The Christian Gardener” in The Christian Century, May 15, 1996, 

[11] Bonhoeffer, Creation and Fall, p. 23.

[12] Nicholas Lash, “Considering the Trinity” in Modern Theology 2:3 (July, 1986), p. 190. (Italics in original).

[13] Lash, “Considering the Trinity,” p. 190.

[14] Lash, “Considering the Trinity,” p. 187.