Paying close attention to the detail of the scriptural text is almost invariably rewarding and illuminating. This is perhaps especially the case for passages such as Genesis 1, for which the details of the text bear even more weight than they do elsewhere. Beyond the basic structure of the creation—three days of forming and dividing, followed by three corresponding days of filling—there are numerous other things to be observed here.
One of the most significant things to observe is the fact that the creation account involves a diversity of creative acts, acts which often take quite strikingly different forms. While we are inclined to speak of God’s creation as an act—or series of acts—of a single uniform character, the text itself presents matters otherwise. For instance, one feature that the first three forming days of creation share that is absent from the latter three days of filling is that each involves an act of naming (Day and Night on day 1; Heaven on day 2; Earth and Seas on day 3).
Reading Stephen Holmes’ stimulating book, The Quest for the Trinity, earlier, I was reminded of Francis Watson’s discussion of the modes of creation in Genesis 1. Holmes summarizes:
Watson notes first that there is throughout the text a privileging of speech as the primary mode of divine creativity: ‘God said, let there be…’ is the repeated refrain. Under this, however, three distinct modes of divine creative action are visible: transcendant command (‘God said, “Let there be light,” and light was’); bodily involvement (‘God said, “Let there be a firmament…” And God made the firmament’); and mediation by indwelling (‘God said, “Let the earth put forth vegetation…” The earth brought forth vegetation…’). Divine action towards the creation, on this account, is at once utterly transcendant, profoundly involved, and immanent in the sense of God exercising his power through the granting of potency to created intermediaries.
The differing role of intermediaries is also worth reflecting upon. While rule is delegated to the sun and the moon on the fourth day (vv.14-19), the earth’s function as an intermediary is different. Rather than exercising rule, the earth is given a generating power (cf. vv.12, 24). The capacity of generation is closely associated with the life-giving activity of the Spirit. Later on in the chapter we will see that humanity is given both the role of rule (exercising dominion through rule and naming) and the capacity of generation (being fruitful, multiplying, and filling the earth), representing the forming and filling aspects of God’s creativity rule.
This merits much closer attention than I will give it here, as do the significant differences in the mode and manner of the creation of male and female in chapter 2. However, my aim in this post is to make a very specific point, namely that, if we were more attentive to the varying modes of God’s creative actions, we might be more cautious about the analogies with which we frame God’s creative work in the creation (similar comments could be made about tendencies to think of God’s inspiration of Scripture as if it took only one form, rather than several).
In particular, the notion of God as ‘designer’ is a fairly dominant yet under-interrogated metaphor in many circles of Christian thought. While more architectural imagery is highly important in understanding the creation (as I have reflected upon elsewhere, the establishment of the tabernacle and its worship follows the seven day pattern of creation) and the notion of design is more appropriate in such a context, such imagery tends to be focused principally upon the inanimate creation (‘laying the foundations of the earth,’ etc.).
When we are dealing with the land animals in particular, what we see is a far more mediated mode of creation—‘let the earth bring forth…’ The earth is like a life-giving womb (something to reflect upon when we consider the parallels between the curse on the woman and the curse on the man in Genesis 3:16-19 and also the doctrine of the resurrection): it is not inappropriate to think of the earth as our ‘mother’.
In such a case, the metaphor of the ‘designer’ is less apt. Rather, the formation of animals occurs more by means of an immanent action of God’s Spirit. It is for this reason, among others, that I find talk of ‘intelligent design’ unhelpful and unpersuasive, especially as such language is almost invariably focused upon the animate creation. In many respects, God’s creative work in this case is less akin to an external action upon passive material as an internal empowering of a process that arises within nature itself.
Perhaps we need to adjust our language to reflect this fact.