Bavinck the Dogmatician: Key Features of the Doctrine of Creation

In my previous articles on Bavinck’s doctrine of the covenant and election, I took something of a detour in my exposition of his Reformed Dogmatics. Rather than turning to Bavinck’s treatment of the doctrine of creation, which deals with the first of the triune God’s works in the realization of his sovereign counsel or decree for all things, I spent some time on the way Bavinck articulates the covenant relationship between God and his people. In the actual sequence of topics in his dogmatics, however, Bavinck deals with the doctrine of the covenant after the doctrine of creation in a section entitled “human destiny.” The purpose and fulfillment of human life requires the blessedness of fellowship and communion with God, which is only effected by way of the covenant that God establishes between himself and his people. Bavinck also deals with the doctrine of the covenant in the third volume of his Reformed Dogmatics, where he takes up the topic of God’s work of redemption in Christ. Through Christ, the “last” Adam, God aims to restore his people to covenant fellowship and thereby achieve his ultimate aim for human life in the state of glorification.

Though it was fitting to consider Bavinck’s view of the covenant within the setting of his doctrine of election, we need to return to the order that Bavinck follows in his dogmatics and consider now his doctrine of creation. The triune God’s work of creation is the first of the great works of God in the accomplishment of his eternal counsel or decree. The work of creation is also the foundation and presupposition for all of God’s subsequent works in time whereby he glorifies himself and infallibly achieves all that he has willed for the course of history. In Bavinck’s estimation, the doctrine of creation is an integral and basic feature of the biblical worldview and therefore of all Christian theology. Therefore, it requires our attention and careful reflection.

In order to summarize accurately Bavinck’s treatment of the doctrine of creation, we will consider three topics in this and subsequent articles. First, in this article, I will offer a sketch of Bavinck’s theological formulation and reflection on the doctrine of creation in general. Second, in a subsequent article, I will pause to consider the way Bavinck interprets the biblical account of creation in the book of Genesis. Bavinck’s handling of this sensitive and difficult topic is a model of careful scholarship and biblical fidelity, which deserves our attention and respect. And third, I will conclude my treatment of Bavinck’s doctrine of creation with an article on his understanding of the creation of human beings in the image of God.

Creation and Its Religious Alternatives

Bavinck begins his treatment of the doctrine of creation, not with an exposition of the biblical account of creation in Genesis, but with a comprehensive theological reflection on some of the key features of the doctrine. After observing that the “realization of the counsel of God begins with creation,” Bavinck emphasizes the pivotal and preeminent place of the teaching of creation in Scripture (RD 2:407). The teaching of Scripture places the doctrine of creation at the foreground, not as a theoretical explanation of the “problem of existence,” but as a primarily “religious” and “ethical” teaching. The biblical authors are not interested in creation as the solution to a problem of the mind (Why does anything exist? What accounts for the existence of the world?). Rather, in the biblical approach to the doctrine of creation, the emphasis lies on the implications of this teaching for the worship and service of God as the Creator of all things. The teaching that God is the sovereign Creator of all things, and particularly of human beings as his image-bearers, summons believers to a life of radical dependence on God and undivided devotion to his service. To paraphrase Calvin’s well-known emphasis on the inseparability of the knowledge of God and of ourselves, Bavinck observes that to know God as Creator is tantamount to knowing oneself as a creature with all that such knowledge entails for life in a world that belongs wholly to God.

In his exposition of the doctrine of creation, Bavinck first contrasts the biblical doctrine with its religious alternatives. Though the Roman Catholic Church insists that the doctrine of creation can by known “from nature by reason” (RD 2:408), the history of religions and the traditional views of philosophers belie this claim. In the course of human history, a variety of alternative religious and philosophical views to the biblical doctrine of creation have been advanced. These views are substantially at odds with the biblical understanding of creation. According to Bavinck, the principal alternatives to the Christian understanding of creation fall into one of three broad types: first, various pagan “cosmologies” or “theogonies” that view the creation as the product of the work of “god” or the “gods”; second, a number of “pantheistic” views that conceive of the creation as a kind of “overflow” of the divine life or being of God; and third, the emergence in the modern, post-Enlightenment period of various forms of “materialism,” which deny the existence of a distinct Creator and ascribe the world’s existence to naturalistic forces inherent in the material world itself.

In the history of paganism, a variety of polytheistic explanations of the world’s existence have been embraced. In pagan mythologies such as the Enuma Elish, the Chaldean alternative to the biblical account of creation in Genesis, the world is created (perhaps better: birthed) through the co-operative labor of the “gods’ (polytheistic) who fashion the “stuff” of the world into its present form. Or in the tradition of ancient Greek philosophy, the world is not so much created as it is formed by the influence of “spirit” on “matter,” or the action of the philosopher Plato’s divine “Demiurge” who crafts the world after the pattern of the eternal ideas much as a child fashions sand into the form of a castle at the beach. In all of these pagan doctrines of creation, the world is thought to have obtained its present state of existence through the actions of the gods, or the interaction of mind and matter. But in none of them do we find the strict idea of creation, namely, an act of God’s power and wisdom in which all things are called into existence “out of nothing” (creatio ex nihilo). To some degree, all of these pagan doctrines of creation view the world as the product of the “gods” fashioning a kind of primordial stuff into its present form, or as the “birthing” of a world through the (sexual) union of the “gods.” Such alternative views of creation invariably reflect polytheistic, dualistic (matter precedes the act of creation), or “theogonic” (the world represents the coming-to-be or birthing of the gods) conceptions of the world’s existence.1

According to Bavinck, a second alternative to the biblical view of creation is pantheism. Throughout the history of human thought, pantheism has taken a variety of forms. In the more recent history of philosophy, pantheism is often associated with the German philosophers, Schelling and Hegel, who viewed the world and its history as the self-expression of the divine Spirit. Even though pantheism can take a great number of forms, all of these forms deny the idea of creation as a distinct act of God’s sovereign will and power. The relation between God and the world is similar to the relation of the soul to the body, or the mind to its thoughts or expressions. Rather than the creation being distinct in being from God, who alone exists in radical independence from all things and on whose will everything depends, the creation is a necessary self-expression of the divine Spirit or the Absolute. In pantheism, all things exist “in” God and all things “are” a necessary manifestation or overflow of the divine being. In order for God to be God, he needs the world, even as the world exists as a revelation or manifestation of the divine being. Accordingly, pantheism denies that the world is the result of a distinct act of God’s will or that God could be who He is without creating the world. The world and God are ultimately one and the same in being, and the history of the world is the history of God’s “becoming” or of his self-development through time.

In the modern period, a third alternative to the biblical view of creation has emerged in materialism. Though materialism represents itself as the fruit of modern science and its study of the mechanism of material and chemical processes, it actually exceeds the boundaries of scientific study of the created order and amounts to a “philosophy” or “worldview” that is naturalistic and anti-theistic in spirit. According to Bavinck, materialism is a worldview that endeavors to seek the “final elements of all being in eternal (without beginning) and indestructible material atoms, and attempts to explain all the phenomena of the entire universe in light of atomic processes of mechanical and chemical separation and union in accordance with fixed laws” (RD 2:412).

In spite of materialism’s claim to be a strictly scientific view of the world, materialism illegitimately transgresses the boundaries of legitimate science. The task of science is to proceed from the world as it actually exists, to describe and account for its characteristics and properties, and to interpret the phenomena of the various sciences in terms of their objective qualities and patterns. But when science proceeds to go beyond these limits it becomes a form of “metaphysics,” a religious or pseudo-scientific endeavor to explain how the world came into existence and assumed its present form. Like pantheism, materialism is a worldview that aims to explain how the world came into existence (or always existed). Whereas pantheism tries to explain the existence of the material world as a product of a universal Mind or Spirit, materialism tries to explain the existence of the mind and the ordered character of the material world by appealing to the random action of “atomic particles” and mechanistic physical systems. Neither worldview can offer an account of the world’s existence that compares with the biblical worldview and its doctrine of creation. As Bavinck observes regarding materialism, it “remains utterly unable to explain how purely material, and therefore unconscious, inanimate, unfree, aimless atoms could produce that spiritual world of life, consciousness, purpose, religion, morality, and so on, which surely thrusts itself upon our inner consciousness with no less force than the physical world upon our senses” (RD 2:415).

Creation “Out of Nothing” (creatio ex nihilo)

Contrasting the religious alternatives to the biblical doctrine of creation, Bavinck emphasizes the unique feature of the biblical view that is expressed in the traditional formula, “creation out of nothing” (creatio ex nihilo). None of the alternatives to the biblical worldview truly expresses the strict idea of creation, namely, that God as Creator called the world into existence and gave it the form and character that it exhibits.

In his discussion of the traditional formula, “creation out of nothing,” Bavinck acknowledges that it uses language that is not expressly found in the Bible. However, this language is proper expression of what the Bible teaches, since creation is an “act of God through which, by his sovereign will, he brought the entire world out of nonbeing into a being that is distinct from his own” (RD 2:416). In the account of creation in Genesis 1, the Hebrew verb, bara,’ “to create,” is a word that is only used to describe what God does in creating and forming the world, and it does so without ever being accompanied by an “accusative of the matter from which something is made” (RD 2:416). God’s action in creation is utterly different from human action in forming or fashioning a pre-existent material into a new shape or form. When God is represented in the Genesis account as the Creator of heaven and earth, he is not presented as a “cosmic sculptor who, in human fashion, with preexisting material, produces a work of art, but as One who merely by speaking, by uttering a word of power, calls all things into being” (RD 2:417). For this reason, Christian theology has always used the language of “creation out of nothing” to distinguish clearly the biblical idea of creation from the well-known dictum of the Greek philosopher, Aristotle, who claimed that “out of nothing, nothing comes” (ex nihilo nihil fit).

When Christian theology uses this expression, it means to affirm that the world has no other cause for its existence than God’s distinct act of creating. The preposition, “out of,” in the phrase “out of nothing,” has the sense of “after” or “post” nothing. Before the world was called into existence, it had no existence or reality of any kind. It expresses the insuperable difference between God, who is self-existent and independent of all that which he creates, and the creation, which is radically and wholly dependent on God for its existence and form.

The Triune God Is the Creator

Though there is something profoundly mysterious and incomprehensible about the idea of “creation out of nothing,” Bavinck argues that God’s work of creation has its ultimate foundation within the triune being of God. This is the third feature of the biblical doctrine of creation: God can communicate himself to the creation that he calls into existence precisely because he eternally communicates within his own triune life as Father to Son, and as Father and Son to the Holy Spirit. The Scriptures teach a kind of “twofold communication of God,” the one communication being the eternal fellowship that obtains between the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, and the other communication being the creation of the world. We may speak of this twofold communication as an “emanation” within the being of the triune God, and a “creation” in which God, in a manner of speaking, “goes outside of himself” and calls the world into existence. The first of these communications belongs necessarily to God’s being the God he is; the second of these communications belongs to God’s freedom in choosing to create the world as a distinct act of his will and power.

But Scripture, and therefore Christian theology, knows both emanation and creation, a twofold communication of God—one within and the other outside the divine being: one to the Son who was in the beginning with God and was himself God, and another to creatures who originated in time; one from being and another by the will of God. The former is called generation; the latter, creation. . . . Still, the two are connected. Without generation, creation would not be possible. If, in an absolute sense, God could not communicate himself to the Son, he would be even less able, in a relative sense, to communicate himself to his creature. If God were not triune, creation would not be possible. (RD 2:420).

In the biblical understanding of creation, all three persons of the holy Trinity are simultaneously and harmoniously engaged in creating, ordering, and perfecting the world. On the one hand, the unity or oneness of the Trinity allows us to understand the unity and harmony of the whole creation as the one, undivided work of the three persons. For this reason, in the history of Christian theology, it has always been maintained that the works of the triune God are indivisible. But in the work of creation, we may and even must distinguish the unique working of the three persons. “It is one God who creates all things, and for that reason the world is a unity, just as the unity of the world demonstrates the unity of God. But in that one divine being there are three Persons, each of whom performs a task of his own in that one work of creation” (RD 2:422). It is the peculiar office of the Father to “initiate” the work of creation, of the Son to “mediate” the work of creation as the One through the Father’s purpose is achieved, and of the Holy Spirit to “perfect” or “enliven” the creation in bringing it to its appointed end. In this way, the three persons of the Trinity conspire together to bring forth a world that is a reflection of God’s unity and diversity. And thus “the world finds its idea, its principle (archē), and its final goal (telos) in the triune being of God “ (RD 2:425). In creation as well as re-creation or redemption, all things are “of,” “through,” and “unto” God, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

Creation and Time

The fourth feature of the biblical doctrine of creation that Bavinck takes up is the difficult question of the creation and time. In the language of Scripture and of common experience, we often speak of “the beginning” of all things or of a time “before” the foundation of the world. When we use this language, we are unavoidably using a temporal form of speech, which implies that time itself conditions all things, including the work of God in creation. If this language were to be pressed in a literal direction, it would suggest that God himself is subject to the passage of time, that he has a history of “before” and “after” in the same way we do as creatures. Such language also implies that time encompasses and limits all things, not only the creation itself but also the Creator. But if this were the case, if God himself were subject to the passage of time and therefore had to create the world “in” time, then God would no longer be the unchangeable or immutable God of the Scriptures. Nor would God be eternal in the sense that he transcends and is not subject to the limitations of time, of past, present, and future.

In his consideration of the problem of creation and time, Bavinck observes that it has received a variety of answers. Pantheism attempts to resolve the problem by affirming that God and the creation are inseparable; there never was a time when the world, as a self-expression of God or the divine Spirit, did not exist. Some Christian theologians even argued that, because it is inconceivable that God should have ever been idle or unrelated to the creation, the act of creation is eternal even as God is eternal. Neither of these answers is acceptable. Because there is an insuperable difference between God’s eternal being and the limitation of creation by its “beginning” in time and its subjection to time, we must view the act of creation to include the creation of time itself.

Following the lead of the church father, St. Augustine, Bavinck insists that time itself is created with the creation. God’s eternity and created time are not to be conceived like two parallel lines, the one infinitely extended in two directions (were that even conceivable) and the other a shorter line that has a point of beginning but no ending. Rather, we should think of God’s eternity as a kind of “immutable center that sends out its rays to the entire circumference of time” (RD 2:229). As Bavinck attempts to explain it, “Time is the necessary form of the existence of the finite. It is not a separate creation but something automatically given with the world, co-created with it like space. In a sense, therefore, the world has always existed, for as long as time has existed. All change, then, occurs in it, not in God. The world is subject to time, that is, to change. It is constantly becoming, in contrast with God, who is an eternal and unchangeable being” (RD 2:429). Once we recognize that time itself is co-created with the world and limits all created things, though God is eternal and the Creator of all things, we will refuse to entertain idle questions like the one posed to St. Augustine, “What was God doing before he created the world?” In the spirit of Proverbs 26:5 (“Answer fools according to their folly”), we will respond with Augustine that he was “making a hell for fools who ask such questions”!

Creation’s Goal

If the creation owes its existence and form to God’s voluntary decision to call it into existence, the inevitable question arises: what moved God to create the world, particularly since the world’s existence is neither necessary nor something that enriches God or makes him to be more than he would otherwise be? In his consideration of this question, Bavinck observes that the most immediate answer must be one that appeals to God’s freedom. The simple and most ultimate answer to this question must be one that appeals to God’s sovereign will and good-pleasure. God was not constrained by anything outside of himself, nor was he moved by any lack in his own being that required the creation of the world.

Whereas Christian theism appeals to God’s will as the ultimate explanation of the world’s creation, pantheism is required to offer a different explanation. On the one hand, pantheism tends to view the creation as a necessary and inevitable “overflowing” of God’s being. God is so “superabundantly rich” that he must express himself in the world and its history (RD 2:430). Creation in this pantheistic framework is not a free act of God’s sovereign will, but a necessary self-expression of God. Alternatively, pantheism sometimes offers a rather different explanation of the reason for God’s expression of himself in creation. On this explanation, God stands in need of the world. God’s “poverty” in himself requires that he be enriched or “become” more than he would otherwise be by going out of himself into the world. The world’s history is a necessary part of the self-development and growth of God through time. In Bavinck’s assessment, neither of these forms of pantheism is compatible with the biblical conception of God’s relation to the creation.
While the ultimate answer to the question, what moved God to create the world?, appeals to God’s sovereign will or good-pleasure, Bavinck does not end his discussion of the goal of creation at this point. Because God’s will is never “arbitrary,” but a will that corresponds to his nature and attributes, God’s free determination to create the world does express his “goodness and love” (RD 2:431). Precisely because God does not need the world to be who he is, his free decision to create the world was not born out of any lack or poverty in his being. God’s voluntary creation of the world is, accordingly, an act of super-abounding goodness in giving the world a distinct existence of its own. In a manner of speaking, God’s act of creation, because God is as perfect and inexhaustibly full as he can be, is an absolutely selfless act of benevolence and love. “God could not be conceived as needing anything; he could not have created the world to receive something from it but only to give and communicate himself. His goodness, therefore, was the reason for creation” (RD 2:431). In creating the world, God provides a splendid exhibition of all his attributes and perfections, and thereby glorifies himself in all the works of his hands. Contrary to the humanism that so often corrupts human thought and even some theological formulations, we must view the creation as an act of God’s sovereign power and goodness that has the glory of God as its central and primary goal. God does not exist for the creation’s good, nor does he exist for the sake of human beings as his image-bearers. The whole of creation and the existence of human beings as image-bearers of God find their final end in the glory and praise of God.
Bavinck concludes his treatment of the goal of creation by noting two questions that often arise when the glory of God is said to be the final goal of all things. The first question that arises is: does this answer not make the ultimate reason for God’s act of creation a “selfish” one? If the goal of God’s act of creation is to glorify himself, does this not ascribe a kind of “self-centeredness” to God? Bavinck replies to this question by noting that God cannot, in the nature of the case, aim for anything other than his own glory. God has “no alternative” in a sense to seeking his own glory, since he is the greatest and highest good. For God to seek anything else before his own glory would be an act that would amount to a denial of his own perfection.

The second question that the idea of God’s glory as the final goal of creation raises is: does this not “devalue” the creation in general, and human beings as God’s image-bearers in particular? To this question, Bavinck responds by noting that God’s glory is not at odds with the creation’s good or human well-being. Because God delights in his creation and thereby delights in the works of his hands, he is pleased to reveal his goodness through his creation. The suggestion that the glorification of God would somehow be injurious to the creature’s well-being fails to reckon with who God is in all of his excellencies of goodness, righteousness, and holiness.

A Creation-based Worldview

Bavinck concludes his summary of the main features of the biblical doctrine of creation with a brief treatment of the creation-based worldview that this teaching requires. When Christian theology proceeds from the standpoint of the biblical doctrine of creation, it embraces a distinctive worldview that views all things in relation to God and his glory.

From the standpoint of the biblical doctrine of creation, a number of important components of this creation-based worldview are readily apparent. Since the triune God is the Creator of all things, the creation constitutes a unified and coherent organism. We should not view the creation as a chaos of disordered and disconnected components. The whole of creation exhibits a unity that reflects the unity of the Creator himself. However, the creation is also irreducibly complex and diverse. Though only God is infinite, the vastness and inexhaustible richness of God’s creatures also reflect something of the richness and diversity within God’s being as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The creation is a marvelous reflection or mirror of God’s unity within diversity and diversity within unity.

Furthermore, the biblical doctrine of creation supports a sober recognition of the creation’s absolute dependence on the Creator. This sobriety demands that God alone be worshipped and the creation “de-sacralized.” Contrary to pagan worldviews that often worship some or another aspect of the creation, the biblical worldview insists that God alone is to be worshipped, and the creation is but a faint reflection of his power and wisdom. The biblical worldview opposes the deification of creation. But at the same time, the biblical worldview refuses to adopt a “contemptuous” view of the creation. Because the creation is a most “splendid theater” (Calvin’s expression) in which God exhibits his excellencies to be seen and admired, the biblical worldview has an appreciation for the goodness of the created order, not only as God first created it in the original state of integrity but also as God will re-create and perfect it in the final state of glory. For this reason, it is almost impossible to overstate the significance of the doctrine of creation for all of Christian thought and life. As Bavinck concludes, “creation is the fundamental dogma: throughout Scripture it is in the foreground and is the foundation stone on which the Old and New Covenants rest” (RD 2:438).

Conclusion

It is unfortunate that contemporary treatments of the doctrine of creation among Christian believers frequently begin with debates about the interpretation of the creation account in Genesis 1. Even though these debates are not without importance, the doctrine of creation is far more comprehensive and foundational to the biblical worldview than these debates often suggest. In Bavinck’s treatment of the key features of the biblical doctrine of creation, this becomes readily evident.

Contrary to its alternatives, only the biblical doctrine of creation does justice to the biblical portrait of God’s sovereign power and goodness. There is a radical difference between a worldview that simultaneously affirms the goodness of creation and its absolute dependence on the triune God, and a worldview that makes God depend on the world as much as the world depends on him. Only through special revelation do we come to understand that the triune Creator called the cosmos into existence by his good pleasure and in order to glorify himself in all his works. Only the biblical doctrine of creation can account for the unity and diversity of all things, and for the way the creation manifests God’s perfections and attributes. As the first of all of God’s works in the realization of his sovereign counsel, creation is the foundation and framework for a comprehensive biblical worldview and understanding of all things.
            
1. Though Bavinck does not mention in this connection the language of “holy mother earth,” it is interesting to observe how prevalent some of these doctrines are in the present day where a number of “neo-pagan” views of creation as a form of the “birthing” of the gods have re-emerged. As I was writing this article, the local newspaper was reporting on a lawsuit recently filed in the state of California by Native American religionists and environmentalists, protesting the “desecration” of the earth that would follow on the permission to build solar energy plants in the deserts of southern California.


Dr. Cornelis Venema is the President of Mid-America Reformed Seminary in Dyer, Indiana. He is also a contributing editor to The Outlook.

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