“The Genesis Creation Accounts”—New Essay on Creation Theology

I have a new essay on the Bible’s creation theology, called “The Genesis Creation Accounts,” published 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.

What—not another essay on creation, Middleton! How much longer are you going to write on this topic? Do you really have anything new to say?

It’s true, I’ve been teaching and writing on creation theology for a very long time.

In a recent blog post I recounted how I got interested in creation theology in the first place and how my teaching and writing on the topic developed.

This T&T Clark Companion contains essays surveying the history of Christian thought for how various thinkers and traditions have understood the relationship of theology to the sciences. There are also essays on contemporary issues in science, from various Christian perspectives.

You can take a look at the Table of Contents here.

John P. Slattery , the editor of the volume, is currently Senior Program Associate with the Dialogue on Science, Ethics, and Religion (DoSER), a program of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), in Washington, DC.

I met John Slattery at the the Society of Biblical Literature in 2018, where I gave a paper on New Testament eschatology grounded in creation. Based on that paper, John invited me to contribute an essay on New Testament cosmology. After I explained that my expertise was actually in Old Testament, he changed the invitation to that topic.

However, I suggested that the topic was big enough to warrant two essays and I nominated Bill Brown of Columbia Seminary to join me in the project. Bill wrote a beautiful essay on creation in the wisdom literature (“Wisdom’s Wonder and the Science of Awe”).

This allowed me to focus on Genesis 1–2. My essay, “The Genesis Creation Accounts,” addresses the ancient “world picture” (Weltbild) implicit in Genesis 1 and 2, in order to explore the “worldview” (Weltanschauung) or abiding theological vision of these chapters, which is relevant for our thinking about contemporary science.

Did I actually write something new on the subject of creation theology?

Yes and no.

The essay integrates new material from unpublished presentations I’ve given on Genesis 1 and 2 with some of my previous reflections on these chapters.

It’s a new synthesis,  articulating in one compact essay a contextual understanding of the symbolic world of the first two chapters of the Bible (as would have been understood by ancient readers).

The discussion of Genesis 1 addresses the relevance of the ancient biblical understanding of the world for contemporary readers who are aware of the immensity of the universe. The discussion of Genesis 2 focuses on parallels between ancient and contemporary understandings of our ecological embeddedness in the created order.

It is my hope that this synthesis will be helpful for pastors, students, and laypeople interested in thinking about the subject of creation in Genesis 1–2.

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.

My Six Degrees of Separation from Malcolm Gladwell

I started working on this blog post a long time ago. But I never completed it, due to a variety of writing commitments that took priority.

However, a recent turn of events has brought Malcolm Gladwell, and his family, to the forefront of my mind.

On March 11, 2017 Malcolm Gladwell’s father, Graham, passed away, after suffering from Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s for a number of years. My heart goes out to the family, as I remember vividly the passing of my own mom and dad (Jack and Phyllis Middleton) a few years back.

My wife, Marcia, and I met Graham Gladwell and his wife, Joyce, in Jamaica, while walking on the beach at Silver Sands in February 2016. They had been visiting from Canada, where they lived for almost fifty years (Graham was a Brit, and they met in England when Joyce was studying in London). It turns out that both our families were frequent visitors to that beautiful (and relatively inexpensive) Jamaican resort (though Malcolm didn’t accompany them that year).

 

Marcia and Richard Middleton with Joyce and Graham Gladwell

It was after meeting the senior Gladwells that I began thinking more seriously about doing this blog.

The way we met them is interesting. Las Newman, newly retired president of the Caribbean Graduate School of Theology (CGST), was with us. He stopped the couple and asked: “Is that Faith Linton?” “No,” the answer came back. “It’s her twin sister, Joyce.”

What the Preacher Forgot to Tell Me

Previous to that chance meeting, I had met Faith Linton (Joyce’s twin and Malcolm’s aunt), also in Jamaica.

While on Sabbatical in February 2009, I taught a three-week course at CGST in Kingston. While I was there, Las Newman (who was then CGST president) brokered an introduction to Faith.

CGST had recently hosted a launch of Faith’s new book, What the Preacher Forgot to Tell Me: Identity and Gospel in Jamaica (BayRidge Books, 2008). Las had written the Foreword, and Malcolm Gladwell introduced and promoted the book at the event.

What the Preacher Forgot to Tell Me is a semi-autobiographical meditation on the importance of creation theology—especially the human status as the image of God—as the basis for proclaiming the Gospel. Having taught at girls’ summer camps in Jamaica for many years, Faith came to see the difference it made to invite young girls from broken families (who had often been abused), with low self esteem, to be open to God’s surpassing valuation of them as his image, rather than trying to guilt-trip them into the faith by focusing on how sinful they were (that’s something they already knew very well).

Since I had written on what it means to be made in God’s image (in chap. 3 of The Transforming Vision, in chap. 6 of Truth Is Stranger than It Used to Be, and in The Liberating Image), Faith had wanted to meet me, and I likewise wanted to meet her.

Three of us drove from CGST in Kingston, up and over Mt Rossa (appropriately nicknamed Mt. Diablo), to Ocho Rios on the north coast (this was before the opening of the new highway from Kingston to Ocho Rios). From there we traveled eighteen miles into the rolling hills of the parish of St. Ann, to Cranbrook estate, a farm with surrounding lands that had been converted to a botanical garden and ecological park by proprietors Ivan and Faith Linton (both of whom were retired school teachers).

Richard with Faith and Ivan Linton

It was a delight to spend an afternoon with Faith and Ivan; and Faith and I exchanged signed copies of our books.

Brown Face, Big Master

I found out from Faith that her sister Joyce (Malcolm’s mother) is also an author, having written a fascinating book about being brown (mixed race) and a Christian. The book, Brown Face, Big Master, was originally published in 1969 by Inter-Varsity in England, and has been reprinted through other publishers a couple of times since (Doctor Bird, 2001; Macmillian Caribbean, 2004).

Faith also gave me a copy of Joyce’s book (the 2001 edition).

In the book, Joyce recounts what it was like to grow up in a mixed-race, privileged, educated family in rural Jamaica (her father was headmaster of the local school), but then to experience racial discrimination in England for being “coloured.”

Joyce grew up in Jamaica during a time when the precise shade of skin color mattered (the lighter, the better). This contrasted sharply with my own experience of growing up in Kingston when black power was significantly impacting people’s self image. I can remember Nina Simone’s song, “(To be) Young, Gifted, and Black”—especially the reggae version by Bob and Marcia (1970), which predated Aretha Franklin’s version (1972)—getting a lot of airplay in my teenage years.

So Joyce’s book provided an important (and very personal) glimpse into race and class in pre-independence Jamaica.

Malcolm Gladwell tells the story of his mother’s life, and recounts an excerpt from Brown Face, Big Master, in the epilogue to his own book Outliers: The Story of Success (Little, Brown, & Co., 2008; paperback 2011). Since Outliers is about how context affects success, the epilogue (entitled “A Jamaican Story”) is Gladwell’s attempt to account for the impact of his mother’s heritage on his own life.

I haven’t (yet) met Malcolm Gladwell, though I’ve read most of his books. But it was a privilege to meet his parents and his aunt, as it was to read What the Preacher Forgot to Tell Me and Brown Face, Big Master.

Six Degrees of Separation

In Malcolm’s first book, The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference (Little, Brown, & Co., 2000; paperback 2002), he writes about six degrees of separation, the idea that everyone is linked together by no more than six steps (via other people).

So, if you are person #1, someone you know (person #2) is connected to another person (#3), who is connected to another person (#4), and through one more step (person #5), you are linked to person #6. And this is thought to be able to account for the links between just about everyone in the world today.

According to Wikipedia, the idea of six degrees of separation can be traced back to a short story called “Chains” by the Hungarian author Frigyes Karinthy, in his book Everything is Different (published in 1929). The idea then became the premise of a 1990 play by John Guare, called “Six Degrees of Separation.” This then spawned the game “Six Degrees of Separation from Kevin Bacon.” And on it goes.

Gladwell himself cites the so-called the small world experiment done in the 1960s by psychologist Stanley Milgram, who tried to find out how many steps it would take to connect 160 people from Omaha, Nebraska to a stockbroker in Massachusetts.

Milgram discovered that half the connections were channeled through just three people, whom Gladwell calls Connectors. Gladwell goes on to illustrate the point by pointing out that thirty of his forty closest friends are ultimately linked to him through one particular person.

This leads to his comment: “Six degrees of separation doesn’t mean that everyone is linked to everyone else in just six steps. It means that a very small number of people are linked to everyone else in a few steps, and the rest of us are linked to the world through those special few.” (The Tipping Point, from chap. 2: “The Law of the Few”)

My Six (or Less) Degrees of Separation from Malcolm Gladwell

So I thought I would share my own “six degrees of separation” from Malcolm Gladwell. It isn’t primarily about my meeting his parents and his aunt.

My connection to Malcolm Gladwell actually precedes those meetings, though I only found out about the connection through my conversation with Faith Linton.

  • The maiden name of Malcolm’s mother (Joyce) and her twin sister (Faith) is Nation.
  • Joyce and Faith Nation are first cousins to Dave Nation.
  • Dave and Barb Nation (Jamaicans who moved to Canada) are aunt and uncle to my wife Marcia.

That may be only four degrees of separation (depending on how you count it)—from Richard to Marcia; from Marcia to her uncle; from Marcia’s uncle to Joyce; from Joyce to Malcolm.

And I don’t even think there was a Connector involved.

An Extra Connection

I’ll just throw in an extra, other bit of linkage—this time between Faith Linton and myself.

Faith’s book What the Preacher Forgot to Tell Me was published by BayRidge Books, an imprint of Castle Quay Books (Canada). This publishing company is run by a husband and wife team—Larry Willard and Marina Hofman Willard.

Marina is an Old Testament scholar, who got her PhD from Wycliffe College, at the University of Toronto.

In October 2014 Marina won the Jack and Phyllis Middleton Memorial Award for her paper presented at the Fall theology conference of the Canadian Evangelical Theological Association. This is an annual award given in honor of my parents.

Then in June 2015 Marina and Larry, being publishers, attended the Word Guild gala awards ceremony for books by Canadian authors (held in Toronto).

It was Marina who first let me know (by email from her iPhone) in real time during the ceremony that my book A New Heaven and a New Earth had won the Word Guild award for best Biblical Studies book.

It really is a very, very small world.