Is there a covenant at creation?

A covenant is the formal initiation and regulation of a relationship that does not occur naturally. It stipulates who the parties in the relationship are, and what kind of relationship they are entering.

In the Bible, God makes a number of covenants with various people at particular times. In each case, God doesn’t merely initiate a relationship. In all instances, God and the people with whom he entered into covenant were already known to each other. But, as is the case with marriage, a covenant brings two parties together in a new and specific type of relationship that the covenant then regulates. So also God initiated specific types of relationship through the various covenants in the Bible.

For example, in the Abrahamic covenant, God becomes the private family deity of Abraham’s household, and Abraham becomes the clan leader who is led by God and his promises. At Sinai, God becomes Israel’s head of state and national deity, and the Israelites become his subjects and citizens living in his land. With David, God becomes the father figure of Israel’s ruling dynasty, and the Davidic king becomes the ruling ‘son of God’ by adoption.

In light of this, was there a covenant at creation?

When I mean ‘creation’, I’m specifically thinking about the early chapters of Genesis. There are a few creation accounts elsewhere in the Bible, such as the ‘conquest of chaos’ idea (see Job 26:12–13; Ps 74:12–17; 89:10). But I want to focus attention on the beginning of Genesis, which lies at the heart of most theological discussion about creation and covenant.

There is no specific mention of a covenant in Genesis 1 and 2. This, however, is not enough to say that there was no covenant. Notice, for example, that the Davidic covenant in 2 Samuel 7 does not use the word ‘covenant’, but it clearly is one. It is explicitly called a ‘covenant’ in Psalm 89:3–4. So we need to delve a little deeper to see whether the concept of a covenant is there at creation, even if the word is not.

When we realise that a covenant initiates a particular relationship that does not occur naturally, we begin to see that creation does not actually need a covenant. That is, God does not need to enter into a specific legal agreement with creation in order to be its creator. God simply is the creator because he created. Similarly, creation does not need a covenant to be recognised and regulated as being a creation. It simply is a creation because God created it. So all of creation is by nature in a creaturely relationship with God, because he created it.

Furthermore, in the act of creation, God imparts an inherent nature to each created thing. Notice, for example, how God creates various ‘kinds’ of things in Genesis 1, each of which is distinct from all other things. In fact, Genesis 1 portrays creation not merely as God bringing things into existence, but more so about distinguishing things from each other, and assigning to each a place that is appropriate to its nature. The result is a very good order of things—an intricate, beautiful, and dynamic configuration that we call ‘nature’.

God creates human beings in Genesis 1 to be his image within creation—something that nothing else in the rest of creation has. So when God creates, he doesn’t just create generic stuff. Rather, he creates specific things that have a specific nature, function, and place.

creation

What does this mean for the relationship between God and creation? It means God relates to everything in creation not simply as a creator of generic ‘things’. Creation is not God’s factory conveyor belt! God relates to creation as a talented creator of a multitude of masterpieces that each has its own distinctiveness. There is no need for a covenant to stipulate how God should relate to all of creation, for the relationships all flow naturally out of the fact that God created all things. God no more needs a covenant to relate to creation as its creator than an artist needs a covenant with his canvas.

In Genesis 2, God creates the man and commands him not to eat from a particular tree in the garden. Many people see this as a covenant. However, it’s just a command—not a covenant. It is not initiating or regulating a specific kind of relationship. Rather, God issues the command because he is the man’s creator. The natural creator-creature relationship means God is the one who commands, and human beings are the ones who obey.

An analogy might help to illustrate this point. Think of a mother telling her young child not to play with the power point. What is it that gives the mother the authority to demand this? It’s the fact that she is the child’s parent. There is no need to establish a covenant between the mother and her child to give the mother this authority. She simply has the authority because of the natural relationship she has with her own offspring. In the same way, the command that God issues to the man is not based on a covenant, but on the simple fact that God created the man.

When people talk about a covenant in Genesis 2, they do so for good theological reasons. For example, they might want to talk about the faithfulness of God towards creation. Covenant is actually a good category for this, because adherence to an agreed contract is a good way of describing faithfulness. However, such discussion uses covenant terms in a purely metaphorical sense. We might say figuratively that God has a ‘covenant’ with creation to obey him, in the same way we might say a sculptor has a ‘covenant’ with the stone to obey him. When humans sin, we might describe this as ‘breaking the rules’. These are all healthy, didactic ways of looking at things, but they are figurative.

Alternatively, some may see a covenant at creation as providing the means for God, who is completely divine and holy, to interact with his creation, which is quite simply not divine. Without such a covenant there may be no means for God’s creation to understand him as creator and what he requires of them. Yet this almost implies that God did not really endow his manifold creations and creatures with their own distinctive natures. Yet each created thing or being receives its being and nature from the creator—not from a covenant. So God requires no covenant to interact with his creation, and did not use one in the beginning. He simply relates to all of creation as its creator by virtue of creating everything and endowing everything with its respective being and nature. God and creation are in a natural relationship, making a covenant at creation superfluous.

So while talking about a covenant at creation is motivated by good, understandable intentions, it is actually not necessary. Furthermore, it isn’t supported by any biblical texts. Even Hosea 6.7, which is often used as evidence that there was a covenant with Adam, is reminiscing about the violation of a treaty at a place called Adam—a town located on the eastern bank of the Jordan River. A covenant at creation is simply not theologically mandated by Scripture.

How does any of this matter?

Well, if there was a covenant at creation, sin would merely be ‘breaking the rules’. While this might have some significant repercussions, sin would be purely a legal thing. It would be something that is external to the ‘sinner’. Theoretically, then, the remedy for sin could consist of God vetoing Covenant 1.0, thereby nullifying sin and its effects, and then starting again by issuing Covenant 2.0.

richard-dawkinsRichard Dawkins reflects this kind of scenario when he questions the character and justice of God. He asks, quite perceptively, why it is necessary for the God of the Bible to send his Son to die a bloody death for sin. Why could God simply not forgive sins with a wave of his hand, as it were? Can’t God just simply waive the penalty and move on?

It’s a good question!

Dawkins raises it to highlight what he perceives to be the absurd character of the God of the Bible. But Dawkins fails to account for what sin actually is and does. When we realise that there is no covenant at creation, we see that sin is not about ‘breaking the rules’ that are external to the sinner. If it were, sins could be excused, just as a teacher might excuse an unruly student and not put him on detention. But it’s because humans are in a naturally occurring creaturely relationship with their creator that sin is so devastating. Sin damages our inherent being and nature as good creatures of a good creator. This affects us at the core of our being. This is an existential problem—not just a legal violation of an external code. Furthermore, since humanity is over all creation as God’s image, the breaking of human nature affects the rest of creation, too. Human sin has led the entire creation to become ‘fallen’.

If sin were a violation of a covenant, God could upgrade the covenant, issue a new one, or just ‘wipe the slate clean’ and move on. But these are simply not sufficient for dealing with sin. A covenant can alter one’s legal status, but it cannot alter one’s nature. It would be like thinking that a marriage could somehow change a person’s gender. It simply can’t!

incarnation-450x300This is why the cure for sin requires the Incarnation. It takes God himself to become a human being—the image of God—and so redefine human nature. Christ is the new Adam—the one who fixes human nature and relates rightly to God. It is Jesus’ entire human life that is redemptive—not just his death and resurrection. He overcomes the devastation of human nature, which every human suffers. And because of humanity’s place as God’s image over all creation, the redemption of human nature entails the redemption of all creation.

This is why Paul depicts the Christian as ‘a new creation’ in whom ‘everything old has passed away’ and ‘everything has become new!’ (2 Cor 5:7). This is not just a change of status, but a change of nature—a regeneration.

If there is a covenant at creation, sin is an infringement and salvation is about being assigned a new status. But if there is no covenant at creation, sin breaks humanity’s inherent nature and fractures the entire relationship between God and creation. This requires nothing less than God becoming human and recreating humanity. This is precisely what he does in the person of God the Son. To be ‘in Christ’ is to be regenerated into this newly created reality—a new creation.


This is a slightly reworked version of an article I wrote for another blog that is now defunct.

Is there a covenant at creation?

Following on from my blog article, ‘What is a Covenant?’, comes the next instalment. It asks, ‘Is there a covenant at creation?’

To whet your appetite, here’s a short excerpt:

If there is a covenant at creation, sin is an infringement and salvation is about being assigned a new status. But if there is no covenant at creation, sin breaks humanity’s inherent nature and fractures the entire relationship between God and creation. This requires nothing less than God becoming human flesh and recreating humanity.

You can read the whole article HERE.

The Nature of Creation

In the lead up to a seminar on Genesis 1–2 I recently gave, I did some reading about creation in biblical texts and science. One book in particular stood out: Mark Harris’ The Nature of Creation: Examining the Bible and Science (Durham: Acumen, 2013).

This is the most intelligent and theologically consistent treatment of the topic of creation and science I’ve come across. It examines creation texts in the Bible, carefully bringing out what they do and don’t claim. This is done within a carefully articulated Christian theological framework that understand the Bible as authoritative revelation. It looks at the challenge of science, explaining some of the most pertinent ideas affecting a biblical doctrine of creation, such as the ‘Big Bang’ and evolution. It then seeks to bring the two alongside each other, not in a harmonistic manner, nor in a competitive manner. Rather, Harris seeks to explain what each contributes to an understanding of creation.

The book has ten chapters:

  1. Introduction
  2. Creation According to Modern Science
  3. Creation According to the Bible I: Genesis
  4. Creation According to the Bible II: The Creation Motif
  5. The Framework of Biblical Creation
  6. Creation–creation: How can a Relationship be Described?
  7. The Fall
  8. Suffering and Evil
  9. Scientific Eschatology and New Creation
  10. Conclusions

There are three things that really struck me about this book:

  1. Harris does not gloss over difficulties or try to explain them away. He superbly describes both theological and scientific issues in a way that gives adequate voice to both, thus fostering understanding. He is well placed to do so, being Lecturer in Science and Religion at the University of Edinburgh. He capably brings both theological and scientific expertise to bear on the issues in a very constructive way. The result is an articulation of problems that gives more clarity to the issues than anything I’ve read before.
  2. Harris’ theological method is not proof-texting. He discusses biblical texts with a good eye for their texture, and also how they contribute to an overall theology. In his own words, he ‘explores how the Bible’s creation texts may be integrated into modern discussions in the science–theology field, first by discussing ways of understanding the scientific framework of the biblical texts, and then the theological framework‘ (p.83). He is not trying to align his exegesis to a previously determined conclusion, but rather seeking to survey the theological ‘lie of the land’ before picking the best trail across it. He is guided by a good Christian theo-logic that appreciates revelation, Trinitarian theology, soteriology, and eschatology. His conclusion is that the Bible has many complex things to say about creation and the creator. Each of these complexities needs to be appreciated and understood rather than flattened out into a single homogeneous notion. Only then can we bring the Bible into dialogue with science in a fruitful way.
  3. Harris’ handling of scripture is rational, respectful, and riveting. He knows his biblical scholarship and his theology. And because of the first two points above, his discussion is able to blaze some new trails that are productive and profound. Not everyone will agree with some of the ideas he puts forward, but I don’t think Christians can ignore what he says either. He exposes some key flaws in previous thinking that need to be addressed. Harris pushes into new directions, but not for novelty’s sake. He is, rather, seeking to move in the direction that the Bible itself suggests, and seeing how these new directions intersect with science. He is not being a radical—he’s being reasonable.

Mark Harris

I particularly liked Harris’ exploration of the concepts of creatio ex nihilo (creation out of nothing), creatio continua (ongoing creation), and creatio ex vetere (creation out of the old). He sees creatio ex nihilo as a necessary theological conclusion, but not the end of creational discussion. The fact of creatio ex nihilo means that God created a world that is other than him, and therefore not divine. It is, rather, wholly contingent for its being on him. This therefore critiques the concept of Deism (the notion that God created in the beginning, but takes no further part in creation), and necessitates creatio continua—God’s ongoing acts of creation in sustaining and propagating life and the universe. This concept opens the door for a dialogue with evolutionary biology, though Harris recognises that there are difficulties in this dialogue that aren’t easy to digest. Then, on the basis of the death and resurrection of Christ, Harris talks about creatio ex vetere—creating something new out of the old. This is the essential redemptive dynamic involved in framing an understanding of the age to come. Eschatology thus becomes an important factor in considering the nature of creation and should act as a guiding concept in any dialogue between theology and evolutionary science. He does not want to collapse the supernatural act of God into a scientific naturalism, but nor does he want to sideline science. Rather, he sees science as offering valid, though incomplete and constantly updating, perceptions of the world that God has created, sustains, and will ultimately redeem. And though science creates difficult theological questions, Harris’ three concepts of creation provide some good stakes in the ground for focusing the dialogue. For example, the possibility of death and suffering in a ‘good’ world, as proposed by evolutionary biology, should be informed by the nature of life as contingent rather than perfect, and redemption as regenerative. It may not solve all the difficulties, but it certainly moves the discussion beyond an apparent impasse. It gets us to consider the nature of God and the nature of creation, rather than judge the issue purely on how closely it approximates a biblical text.

Some further quotable quotes:

If the science-religion dialogue has proceeded with little engagement so far with Scripture then that is perhaps because Scripture’s cutting edge has not been brought to bear with sufficient accuracy (Heb 4:12). [p.9]

 

These texts [in Genesis] may be controversial in our modern times, but they are of enormous significance to the Bible, since they set out basic features of its worldview…If we fail to appreciate this point, and unthinkingly impose our own worldview on the text, we will quickly misunderstand them, along with their claims about key worldview issues such as cosmology, (ancient) science, and the human condition and its relationship with the Creator and other creatures. Without awareness of this point, we will learn relatively little from the texts. [pp.56–57]

 

[S]cience has played an important part in renewing appreciation of biblical ideas of creation, even if it is unable to shed much direct light on these ideas themselves. Ultimately the texts say rather little about the physical makeup of the world, but much about God’s creative relationship with it and about who God is. [p.186]

In short, this book is profound and intensely thought provoking. Any Christian discussion of creation and science should be engaging with Harris from now on. It’s not always an easy read, because the subject matter is complex. However, it is a very worthwhile read. I particularly recommend that Christians read this book immediately after reading John Walton’s The Lost World of Genesis One: Ancient Cosmology and the Origins Debate (Downers Grove: IVP, 2010).