Why I Love Creation Theology—How This Theme Is Interwoven Into My Life, Teaching, and Writing

As anyone who has taken my classes knows, I talk a lot about the theology of creation. Indeed, in my publications (both books and articles), I keep returning to creation theology either as an explicit focus or more indirectly as a foundation for other topics. 

In this blog post, I give an accounting of the theme of creation in my life, my teaching, and my writing.

Why I Got Interested in Creation

It all started when I was an undergraduate student at Jamaica Theological Seminary. I got hooked on creation theology in my third year of studies (at the tender age of twenty). There were two main reasons for my interest.

First, as a Christian who wanted to serve God, but had no calling to pastoral ministry, I wanted to understand why God had put me in the world. What was my purpose as a human being? And how should this impact my life today as a Christian?

Creation seemed the best place to start, especially what the Bible means when it says that we are created in God’s image (imago Dei).

The second reason I was attracted to creation theology is because creation grounds the entire story of the Bible—a complicated story with many twists and turns, covering many different types of literature. Like most Christians, I was introduced to the Bible in lots of bits and pieces–a psalm here, a parable there, isolated verses from the Pauline epistles, various episodes from Old and New Testament narratives, especially the death and resurrection of Jesus. But I wasn’t really clear how it all fit together.

As a teen and young adult, I was a detail-oriented person, very focused on the concrete. I naturally noticed particularities—an interesting sentence in a book, the crinkling of a leaf, a one-legged grasshopper. But I often found it difficult to see patterns.

Looking back, I have sometimes said that my developmental task as an adolescent was to find coherence—in my experiences, in life, in society, in history. Also in the Bible.

As Inigo Montoya said in The Princess Bride, when things go wrong, you have to go back to the beginning.

So grounding the complexity of the Bible in its beginningGod’s creation of the worldwas a most helpful way to understand what was going on in the biblical story.

Teaching Creation—In Southern Ontario

I started teaching biblical creation theology a couple years into my graduate studies, when I became an Inter-Varsity Christian Fellowship (IVCF) staff worker. I had the opportunity (facilitated by Brian Walsh) to develop and teach informal (non-credit) courses on the Christian worldview at various universities in Southern Ontario (University of Toronto, McMaster University, and the University of Guelph).

The initial course title was “The Christian Worldview in a Secular Culture.”

After an introduction to worldviews and the rationale for the course, the first substantial topic was the Bible’s view of creation and the human role in God’s world. I was exploring the topic for myself as I taught the course. I grew in my understanding of creation theology year by year, through this teaching.

Teaching Creation—In Upstate New York

Later, while living in upstate New York and studying at Colgate Rochester Divinity School, I continued teaching non-credit worldview courses as a chaplain at the University of Rochester and at some local churches.

I was also invited to teach a more focused non-credit course on the Bible and science, specifically for Christian graduate students (and some professors) in the sciences at the University of Rochester and Cornell University. This opportunity was facilitated by Bob Fay, who was then Professor (now emeritus) of Chemistry at Cornell.

In these courses on the Bible and science I was able to explore further the role of creation in grounding the scientific vocation and how the sciences studied the world God created. While I taught the Bible and an overview of the history of the Bible and science, my “students” (all aspiring or practicing scientists) taught me a great deal about what science was and how it actually functioned.

Teaching Creation—In Formal Credit Courses

Once I enrolled in doctoral studies at the Institute for Christian studies (Toronto), I began teaching adjunct courses to students in the masters program, including a year-long introduction the Bible, along with courses on the Bible and Postmodernity, Humanity as God’s image, and Creation in the Bible and the ancient Near East. I was exploring various facets of the topic of creation in all of these.

When I began my formal teaching career at Colgate Rochester Divinity School (now Colgate Rochester Crozer Divinity School), a decade after I had been a student there, and then at Roberts Wesleyan College and Northeastern Seminary some years later, creation continued to be an important topic in many of my courses.

These included introductory courses on the Old Testament, the Pentateuch, the Wisdom books, and the Psalms; creation theology was also central to seminar courses I taught on Genesis, Humanity as the image of God, and Creation in the Bible and the ancient Near East.

I even continued to teach my original course on the Christian worldview, significantly revised, under different names, such as “Worldview Foundations” (at the Institute for Christian Studies), “Faith, Culture, and Calling” (at Colgate Rochester Divinity School), “Exploring the Christian Worldview” (at Roberts Wesleyan College), and “Biblical Worldview: Story, Theology, Ethics” (at Northeastern Seminary).

Because of a recent curriculum revision at Northeastern Seminary, “Biblical Worldview” has been renamed “Being in the Story.”

And, of course, much of this teaching grew into writing.

Writing about Creation and Worldviews

The early non-credit Christian worldview teaching for IVCF led to the first book I wrote with Brian Walsh, The Transforming Vision: Shaping a Christian World View (IVP, 1984), where we had a chapter called “Based on Creation.” It was our shared understanding of creation theology that grounded our exposition of redemption and our critique of worldview dualism and modern idolatry.

This is still the most widely read book I’ve written, with translations into Korean (1987); French (1988); Indonesian (2001); Spanish (2003); Portuguese (2009); new Korean edition (2013); new French edition (2017); new Indonesian edition (2020).

When Brian and I wanted to revise The Transforming Vision to explicitly address the postmodern condition and the role of suffering in the Bible, IVP suggested that we write a follow up book, which we did.

Truth Is Stranger than It Used to Be: Biblical Faith in a Postmodern Age (IVP, 1995) contains a chapter on the biblical view of humanity (“The Empowered Self”) and one on creation more generally (“Reality Isn’t What It’s Meant to Be”). This book has been published in a UK edition (SPCK, 1995) and released in two different Korean editions (2007, 2020).

Writing about Creation—Up to The Liberating Image

Just before Truth Is Stranger was published, I wrote an exploratory article in anticipation of my doctoral dissertation, called “The Liberating Image?” The question mark indicated its exploratory character. 

  • “The Liberating Image? Interpreting the Imago Dei in Context,” Christian Scholar’s Review 24 (1994): 8–25.

But when I published my dissertation with the same title (and a different subtitle), I left out the question mark.

I also wrote some other articles on the way to The Liberating Image that addressed creation theology; some of this material was incorporated into various chapters of the book.

  • “Is Creation Theology Inherently Conservative? A Dialogue with Walter Brueggemann,” Harvard Theological Review 87 (1994): 257–277. Published with Walter Brueggemann’s “Response to J. Richard Middleton,” 279–289.
  • “Creation Founded in Love: Breaking Rhetorical Expectations in Genesis 1:1–2:3,” in Sacred Texts, Secular Times: The Hebrew Bible in the Modern World, ed. by Leonard Jay Greenspoon and Bryan F. LeBeau, Studies in Jewish Civilization 10 (Creighton University Press, 2000), 47–85.
  • “Created in the Image of a Violent God? The Ethical Problem of the Conquest of Chaos in Biblical Creation Texts,” Interpretation 58 (2004): 341–55.

Creation theology was important even in an article I wrote on Bob Marley and the Wailers, where I cited song lyrics to show that appeal to creation was one of their strategies for challenging the “Babylonian” status quo.

  • “Identity and Subversion in Babylon: Strategies for ‘Resisting Against the System’ in the Music of Bob Marley and the Wailers,” chap. 9 in Religion, Culture and Tradition in the Caribbean, ed. by Hemchand Gossai and N. Samuel Murrell (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2000), 181–204.

Writing about Creation—After The Liberating Image

Then, once The Liberating Image was published, I started getting requests to contribute Bible dictionary or encyclopedia articles that addressed some aspect of creation theology (especially the imago Dei); even the article on “Salvation” that I wrote with Michael Gorman drew on creation theology as a significant component of the topic.

  • “Salvation,” in the New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, vol. 5, ed. by Katharine Doob Sakenfeld et al. (Nashville: Abingdon, 2009), 45–61. Co-authored with Michael J. Gorman.
  • “Image of God,” in Dictionary of Scripture and Ethics, ed. by Joel B. Green et al. (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2011), 394–97.
  • “Image of God,” in The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Bible and Theology, vol. 2, ed. by Samuel E. Balentine et al. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015), 516–23.
  • “The Genesis Creation Accounts,” in  The T&T Clark Companion of Christian Theology and the Modern Sciences, ed. by John P. Slattery, Bloomsbury Companions (London: Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2020), 15–31.
  • “The Image of God in Ecological Perspective,” in The Oxford Handbook of Bible and Ecology, ed. by Hilary Marlow and Mark Harris (Oxford: Oxford University Press, forthcoming).
  • “What Does the Bible Mean When It Says We’re ‘Made in the Image of God’?” Answer to question #44 in 101 Great Big Questions about the Bible and Science, ed. by Lizzie Henderson and Steph Bryant (Oxford: Lion Hudson, forthcoming). A children’s book sponsored by the Faraday Institute for Science and Religion.

There were invitations to write other dictionary/encyclopedia articles that I had to turn down due to time constraints. These included:

  • “Image of God” for The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Bible and Ethics.
  • “Creation” for The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Bible and Theology.
  • “Concept of the Image of God in the Old and New Testaments” for The Palgrave Handbook of Image Studies.

Writing about Creation in the Psalms, Job, and the Caribbean

I also began to explore aspects of creation theology that were spin-offs from The Liberating Image, such as creation in the Psalms and Job, and the application of creation theology to Caribbean life.

  • “The Role of Human Beings in the Cosmic Temple: The Intersection of Worldviews in Psalms 8 and 104,” Canadian Theological Review 2. no. 1 (2013): 44–58.
  • “Islands in the Sun: Overtures to a Caribbean Creation Theology,” in Islands, Islanders, and the Bible: Ruminations, ed. by Jione Havea, Margaret Aymer, and Steed Vernyl Davidson, Semeia Studies 77 (Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2015), 115–134. Reprint from A Kairos Moment for Caribbean Theology (2013).
  • “Does God Come to Bury Job or to Praise Him? The Significance of YHWH’s Second Speech from the Whirlwind,” St. Mark’s Review no. 239 (March 2017): 1–27. Published with a response essay by Jeanette Mathews.

This last article, which addresses the debate between Job and his friends about the status of humanity as degraded or elevated (and God’s answer to the debate), is now part of a book I have just about completed for Baker Academic, called Abraham’s Silence (scheduled for publication in 2021):

Writing about Creation in the Garden of Eden

My most recent research has been on creation in Genesis 2–3, exploring the account of human origins in the Garden story. So far I’ve written two essays on this.

  • “From Primal Harmony to a Broken World: Distinguishing God’s Intent for Life from the Encroachment of Death in Genesis 2–3,” chap. 7 in Earnest: Interdisciplinary Work Inspired by the Life and Teachings of B. T. Roberts, ed. by Andrew C. Koehl and David Basinger (Eugene, OR: Pickwick, 2017), 139–67.
  • “Reading Genesis 3 Attentive to Human Evolution: Beyond Concordism and Non-Overlapping Magisteria,” chap. 4 in Evolution and the Fall, ed. by William T. Cavanaugh and James K. A. Smith (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2017), 67–97.

The plan is for this material to become part of a book I am working on for Cascade, an imprint of Wipf and Stock:

  • Life and Death in the Garden of Eden: A Theological Reading of Genesis 2–3 (Eugene, OR: Cascade).

Creation to Eschaton

Creation theology has also been significant for my understanding of eschatology, since the beginning (creation) is profoundly connected to the end (eschaton). This is what led to the name of my blog site, Creation to Eschaton.

Most recently, I’ve written a chapter for a new book on eschatology (scheduled to be published in Spring 2021), where I develop the connection between creation and eschaton, with an explicit focus on the coming of the Shekinah, the Rabbinic term for God’s holy presence in the world.

  • “The New Earth: Cosmic Redemption and the Coming of the Shekinah,” in Four Views on Heaven, ed. Michael Wittmer, Counterpoints: Bible and Theology (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, forthcoming). Chapters by John Feinberg, J. Richard Middleton, Michael Allen, and Peter Kreeft. With authors’ responses to other essays.

The Defining Theme 

Of course, I’ve been writing on other topics besides creation, especially the book of Samuel, the problem of suffering, and the lament psalms (more on that another time).

But creation has clearly been the defining theme of my teaching, research, and writing.

Note: For those interested, most of the articles listed in this post are available as PDFs here.

The Liberating Image—The Practical Significance of Being Made in God’s Image

Back in November 2019, when I was attending the Society of Biblical Literature annual meeting in San Diego, I met up with Jim Stump, vice-president of BioLogos. I’ve known Jim for about five years and he asked if he could interview me for the Language of God podcast series that BioLogos sponsors.

The focus of the interview was a topic dear to my heart—what it means to be made in the image of God (imago Dei).

The podcast page introduces the interview this way:

“We were made in the image of God, but what does that really mean? Whom does that apply to? What does that call us to? The Bible is very central to understanding the answers to these questions, as is cultural context. In this episode, biblical worldview professor, Richard Middleton joins Jim Stump in an attempt to answer some of the questions about human identity through both of those lenses.”

This is some of what Jim Stump said on Facebook about the interview.

“Here we talk about the Bible and science (like what each has to say about Adam and Eve), but mostly focus on his specialty: the image of God. I’m biased and prone to believe what I want to be the case, but I think this is a really interesting conversation.”

You can listen to the full interview here on the BioLogos podcast website.

Although Jim does eventually ask me to speculate on how the imago Dei might relate to the development of Homo sapiens, the interview focuses on what the Bible says about the image in its ancient Near Eastern context and its relevance for living in God’s world. I essentially summarize the main thrust of my book The Liberating Image: The Imago Dei in Genesis 1 (Brazos, 2005).

Prior to the book, I had written a programmatic article on the subject, with almost the same title: “The Liberating Image? Interpreting the Imago Dei in Context,” published in Christian Scholar’s Review 24 (1994): 8–25.

Jim Stump is from the Missionary Church, the same denomination that I was a member of as a teen and young adult in Jamaica. I did my undergraduate degree in theology at the Jamaica Theological Seminary, which was founded in 1960 by the Missionary Church Association of Jamaica. It turns out that Jim had spoken at a 2007 commencement ceremony at my seminary.

Although the image of God is the focus of the BioLogos interview, I also talk a bit about what Jamaica is like (in response to Jim’s questions).

If you are interested in further reflections on the applicability of the imago Dei to matters of ethics and justice, you can read the blog post I was invited to write for the Imago Dei Fund. It is called “The Ethical Challenge of the Image of God in the 21st Century – Human Rights and Beyond.

And if you want to explore a bit more about how the imago Dei (and the Fall) might (I emphasize that word) relate to what we know of the origins of Homo sapiens, I discuss these topics in a presentation I gave for the Canadian and Christian Scientific Affiliation, called “Human Distinctiveness and the Origin of Evil in Biblical and Evolutionary Perspectives.”

Mortimer Planno, Bob Marley, and Rastafari Biblical Interpretation

In two previous blog posts I reported on the theology conference held at the Jamaica Theological Seminary in Kingston (where I did my formative theological studies many years ago) and the trip some of us took afterwards to two Rastafarian heritage sites.

One of our presenters at the theology conference, who was also on the trip, was a Canadian named Christopher Duncanson-Hales. As a Roman Catholic theologian, Duncanson-Hales may have seemed a bit out of place among a largely Protestant group; but he was very familiar with Jamaican culture, and especially with Rastafari.

From his initial visit to Jamaica as a teenager, when he arrived to work with Father Ho Lung’s ministry in Kingston (called the Missionaries of the Poor), he met up with Rastas and intentionally tried to understand their culture and doctrines.

Later, through an extended stay in Jamaica he was apprenticed to the respected Rastafarian elder Sydney DaSilva (president of the Rastafarian Centralization Organization). His many meetings with Ras DaSilva resulted in research notes that became the basis of his academic career focus on Rastafari.

Besides writing his B.A thesis and M.T.S. thesis on Rastafari, Duncanson-Hales addressed Rastafari in his Ph.D. thesis, entitled “The Full Has Never Been Told: Theology and the Encounter with Globalization” (2011, Saint Paul University, Ottawa, Canada).

After completing his Ph.D., he attended the Rastafari Studies Conference and General Assembly Rastafari, held at the University of the West Indies, in Kingston (2013), where he presented a paper entitled “Naming Jah: Who do InI say InI am?” More recently, his article called “Dread Hermeneutics” was published in the journal Black Theology (2017).

A New Research Project on Rastafari

Duncanson-Hales’s next research project is called Echoes of the Memories: A Hermeneutical Investigation of Rastafari Ethnographic Material in the Smithsonian’s Simpson/Yawney Archives. This project will examine the notes of two important ethnographers, who had significant access to Rastafari “reasoning” sessions, with a view to incorporating their analysis into his own study of Rastafari “productive hermeneutics,” that is, how Rastafarians engage the Bible and the world of oppression to produce an alternative symbolic world of hope, at both the oral and visual levels.

The study will also engage in careful analysis of Ras Mortimer Planno’s famous 1969 handwritten treatise, “The Earth Most Strangest Man: The Rastafarian,” which is the first written Rastafari theological statement, almost 200 pages long (also in the Smithsonian archives).

Mortimer Planno (also known as Kumi) was perhaps the most famous Rastafarian elder throughout the history of the movement. Besides being the spiritual teacher of Bob Marley (both lived in Trench Town), Planno is known for having parted the crowd of Rastas who were dancing and drumming on the tarmac at the Kingston airport, in order to make a path for His Imperial Majesty Haile Selassie I to exit the plane on his historic visit to Jamaica on April 21, 1966.

My father, Jack Middleton, being at the time the head of Special Branch (in the Jamaica Constabulary Force), was in charge of security for Selassie’s visit. Since he knew that Planno was a respected Rasta elder, he asked him to make a path for His Majesty through the crowd of celebrants who had gathered to greet him.

But first he brought Planno up the steps of the plane to meet Selassie in person. After that Planno proceeded to part the crowd of thousands of Rastas so that Selassie could deplane safely.

Ever since, April 21 has been celebrated as Groundation Day by Rastafarians.

My Involvement in the Rastafari Research Project

Duncanson-Hales’s Rastafari projected research project will also involve analysis of the lyrics of Bob Marley’s songs, as they intersect with the Bible and with Planno’s theology.

Although I am not a formal expert on Rastafari, I had many discussions with Rastas on the streets of New Kingston, when I was a teenager. And I have published an essay on the theological vision of the songs of Bob Marley and the Wailers (many of these songs have contributed to the texture of my own spirituality). Also, whereas Duncanson-Hales is a systematic and historical theologian, I am a biblical scholar by training, and can bring my expertise in Old Testament studies to bear on the project.

Therefore I will be lending my expertise as a collaborator on the overall project and as a co-author for selected parts of the study, especially for a book on Rastafari biblical interpretation that would be part of the overall project (Semeia Studies has indicated interest in publishing this).

We are only just in the brainstorming and planning phases for the idea. Given my own prior commitments to book projects, this particular study may be a bit more far off in the future.

We shall see how it develops, Jah willing.