Exploring the theme of ‘Creation and New Creation’ in Isaiah 40-55 and the Gospel of John.

This essay was submitted in my third year (April 2014) of my undergraduate degree in Theology for a module called ‘The Bible and the People of God’. This is the second of two essays for the module, and focuses on the themes of ‘Creation and New Creation’ in Isaiah 40-55 and the Gospel of John. The first examined the theme of ‘The Law’ in Romans and Deuteronomy. I hope that you find it interesting and do feel free to comment at the end. 

Explore the theme of creation and new creation in Isaiah 40-55 and the gospel of John, and investigate ways in which one or two of its strands could be hermeneutically valuable for the shaping of Christian faith today.

Introduction

The first utterance of God in Genesis is, “Let there be light” and there was light. He created the heavens and the earth and saw that all that he had made was good. However, through Adam’s sin, all of creation passed away from goodness into death and corruption.

While worshiping in the Spirit, John of Patmos sees that the first heaven and the first earth had passed away and there was a new heaven and a new earth. The presence of God now lives with his people and the One on the throne says “I am making everything new! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end”.

Thus the Christian scriptures start and end with successive acts of creation. God is revealed initially as creator, he is continually sustaining his creation, and he will bring about a new creation. These dual and symbiotic themes of creation and new creation are woven throughout scripture and, in particular, the gospels. John’s Gospel opens with its very own genesis account and climaxes with the death of Jesus upon the cross before joyfully presenting the empty tomb and the resurrected saviour. The theme of creation permeates the whole gospel and draws upon, to an extent, similar themes of creation and new creation to those found in Isaiah, particularly chapters 40-55. As the theme of creation permeates these texts, is there any merit or utility to be gained by using elements of creation as a hermeneutical tool to help contemporary Christians to understand and evaluate their faith in the risen and ascended Lord of all creation, Jesus Christ?

Identifying Creation

Creation entails the genesis of existence, be it general or particular, but it can also be a restructuring of one thing into another thing, either similar or dissimilar to the original. As such there are several different aspects of creation that are found within scripture. Primarily there’s the absolute creative power of God himself who wills beings, matter and situations into existence. There is also the creative action of God upon what is already present where it is transformed into something else or healed and restored to how it was originally intended to be. However, this transformative power of God acting upon and within his creation is a two-edged sword. In causing something new to arise out of something old that which was, is no longer; it has been destroyed. This is the obverse of creation in transformation and occurs throughout both the Isaiah and Johannine texts. It is this transformative action of God by which Adam and Eve were formed out of dust and into human persons and it is this transformative act of creation which Humanity mimics, often, at least in Isaiah, idolatrously.

Creation

In Deutero-Isaiah, the strand of originating creation is portrayed perhaps most clearly within chapter 45. Here it is declared that ‘I am The Lord, and there is no other. I form the light and create darkness… It is I who made the earth and created mankind upon it. My own hands stretched out the heavens, I marshalled their starry hosts… For this is what The Lord says – he who created the heavens, he is God; he who fashioned and made the earth, he founded it; he did not create it to be empty, but formed it to be inhabited.’ (Isa 45:6-8, 12, 18). This is not the only reference to God as creator but comes after references to being ‘creator, shaper, and maker’ in verses 40:28, 42:5, 43:1 and 44:2, 24.[1] However here God is presented as the creator of light and dark, something that Goldingay suggests conveys authority and transcendence.[2] His Lordship over both light and darkness provides a useful thematic link between Deutero-Isaiah and John’s gospel where the Word that was God is true light entering the world and ‘though the world was made through him, the world did not recognise him’. Despite the world of darkness not recognising him, it is still ‘his own’ and remains under his creative authority demonstrated in John 1:3. In turn, this links back to the Genesis account of creation,[3] and thus establishes a relation between the act of actual creation, creation that causes and sustains existence, and the creator; God.

This God who wields the power of creation is shown in verses such as Isaiah 40:22-26 to be incomprehensibly greater than his creation, humans are as grasshoppers to the one who made the stars.[4] This is not to diminish Israel but to provide a context to their own origin, they are valuable because one so mighty as The Lord created and formed them (Isaiah 43:1) and regards them as his covenant people.[5] Likewise, in John it is the activity of the Creator that enables people to become his children (John 1:12).[6] However, the supreme example of creation within Detero-Isaiah or John is found in John 1:14; the Word became flesh and dwelled among us. This dwelling is of the same kind described in Isaiah 40:22,[7] the God who uses the stars as his tent now tabernacles among humanity. However, the former part of John 1:14 is far more significant. The impact of this verse for Christian theology should not be understated. It is in this verse that Karl Barth finds the equivalence of Jesus with the Revelation of God that his, and indeed anyone else’s, Dogmatics is (or should be) founded upon.[8] In this verse the Creator becomes hypostatically united to his creation in a manner which there had never been before. The entrance of the eternal and infinite God into the temporal and finite life that is the common experience of humanity is a wholly greater act of creation than had ever been known, greater, even, than the genesis of the world and life itself. Yet this happened for a purpose, so that God might himself be made known (John 1:18).

Transformation; creation and destruction in Isaiah

The process of revelation, of the unveiling of the mysterious that veils it further, occurs when the I AM THAT I AM of Exodus 3:14 is encountered. On that occasion a fire burned and yet the bush was not consumed. However in Deutero-Isaiah destruction is a real and present part of the message given to Israel. Chapter 47 in particular is almost entirely devoted to the destruction of the kingdom of Babylon and the vengeance of God on behalf of his people Israel.[9] In verse 11 the creator God declares, through the mouth of the Prophet, that disaster leave Babylon as barren as a desert wasteland in the aftermath of a great storm.[10] Here the purpose of the destruction is to demonstrate God’s own righteousness and loyalty to his people Israel, the vengeance is no outburst of angry emotions but rather a lawful enforcement of justice.[11]

This is a key characteristic of the passages in Deutero-Isaiah that depict destruction such as chapter 47 but also in 51:22-23 where God’s loyalty and mercy are shown to Israel and judgement to their oppressors.[12] Judgement is not the only cause of destructive change though. In 42:14-16 and 45:1-2 apparently destructive events herald the transforming action of a creator God who not only creates but changes and restores the world, nations and individuals. This dual motif of creation and destruction as ‘two sides of the selfsame divine act’ of salvation serves to make it known that God alone is The Lord (Isaiah 45:5).[13] In Isaiah 51 it is the within the context of the proclamation salvation in verse 5 that verse 6 and the fleeting temporality of creation is compared to the eternal hope of salvation that God will preserve.

Transformation; creation and destruction in John

Within the Gospel of John there runs a similar dual motif of destruction and creation as integral to salvation. In John 16:21, Jesus uses the metaphor of childbirth to express this dichotomy; there will be joy but it ‘is a joy that emerges triumphant from suffering’.[14] This passage itself refers to the clearest example within the Gospel narrative of suffering and destruction as part of the ushering in of a new creation, namely, the Cross and subsequently the empty tomb. As the events in Isaiah 51 are to make God and his salvation known to his people, the Gospel of John is written ‘that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name’ (John 20:31).

At the crux of John’s Gospel there are three key moments of violence which Jesus is subjected to at the will of God the Father (John 10:17-18): the arrest in the olive grove (John 18:3-13), the abuse at the hands of the soldiers (John 19:1-5), and the crucifixion itself (John 19:17-30). In Deutero-Isaiah the destructive events of judgement are the actions of God upon the wicked. In the passion narrative of John it is God himself, as the Word become flesh, who is judged by the authorities around him, both Roman and Jewish, and who is killed. Despite this many scholars, such as Käsemann and Brown, view John’s passion narrative as the least traumatic and claim that Jesus is ultimately still in control of events.[15] Whilst an emphasis on the glorification of Christ is no doubt appropriate, Orchard insists that Christ’s agony is not ‘cancelled out’ by his glory but rather his ‘suffering is an integral part of the glorification process, without which it would not take place’.[16]  This terrible act of destruction is then reversed dramatically by the first true act of the new creation; the resurrection. The resurrection cannot be separated from the Cross in John’s Gospel.[17] Moule claims the significance of the resurrection is essential to Christian theology, ‘namely, that what God creates is not destroyed but is recreated and transformed’.[18]

The resurrection of Jesus inaugurates the eschatological understanding of the New Creation that accompanies the Johannine Gospel of eternal life.[19] This new creation is a change from the passive entropy of created existence that passes away, into a creation that lasts for ever. The bread of life discourse of John 6 aids this understanding: ‘Do not work for food that spoils, but for food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you’ (John 6:27). The reference to manna in verse 49 refers to the creative and sustaining action of God during the exodus and desert exile and yet this action was only temporary.[20] Jesus, as the bread of life, is superior to this manna.[21] When people feed on and are sustained by him they are satisfied and provided for in their every spiritual need for eternity.[22] Interestingly this also implicitly affirms the claims of the prologue that the Word, Jesus, shares in the creative power and agency of God and thus identifies him with God. As such he says ‘whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life and I will raise him up at the last day’ (John 6:54).

Man creates; in Isaiah and John

It has been demonstrated that both Deutero-Isaiah and John present God as Creator and as the one with the authority to mould and shape creation according to his will. However, Man, made in the image of God, often tries to imitate the divine prerogative of creation themselves. Genesis 11 presents an account of humanity erecting a tower that reaches the heavens in order to make a name for themselves. Calvin observes that in this pursuing greatness for themselves, eventually their ‘profane presumption breaks forth against God himself; so that…, [they] fight against heaven’.[23] This theme of idolatry and of either intentionally rejecting God or passively lacking in faith in him and his promises appears in Deutero-Isaiah. One instance of the latter is found in Isaiah 50:10-11 where people act out of their own capabilities rather than trusting God. Most notably, however, Isaiah 44:9-20 has a whole argument on the folly of crafting idols. Lange observes a distinct parallel in the Hebrew between God as the Maker (יֹצֵר) of Israel and the idol-makers as the makers (יֹצְרִים) of their Gods.[24] The irrationality of idolatrous logic is shown in verses 18-19 where it says that they don’t know anything nor can they see or understand anything.[25] To a degree, this bears similarities with John 2:19-20. In these two verses there is an amalgamation of several creations themes; there is the temple that had been built by the Jews, there will be the destruction of it, and God, in the Person of Jesus, shall create a new temple or place of worship in himself, in his own body.[26] This is not to say that to build the temple was idolatrous in itself, but rather to suggest that when the focus becomes located in the act of humans for and to God and themselves instead of being located in the act of God mediated through human actions then there is a sense in which humans create a God in their own image and thus relegate the living Creator from his throne and crown themselves with their own righteousness that counts for nought.

Hermeneutical exploration

It appears, then, that there are three key strands of creation that permeate the texts of John’s Gospel and of Deutero-Isaiah: God’s generative creation from nothing, his transformation of what is into what will be (which often entails the destruction of the old in the process of causing the new), and, lastly, the creative acts of humanity that mimic God which may, occasionally, err towards idolatry. For Torrance, the hermeneutic value of any of these themes is found to the extent to which they are ontologically coordinated with the reality to which they refer.[27] Thus for Christians today the task is not so much to examine the historical and sociological background of the texts and then to ‘translate’ them from the worldview of their birth into a contemporary worldview, but rather to understand the texts in themselves and to press deeper into them and the realities to which the point and to allow those realities to impact us here and now.[28] Ricoeur also dislikes an over-emphasis upon historical critical methods, he criticises structuralism for the way in which ‘it closes off the text and completely rejects its having any reference to anything extra-textual’.[29] Gray summarises Ricoeur’s hermeneutic task as:

‘to identify the message through the modes of discourse employed and then to confront the horizon of that message with one’s own’.[30]

In the light of this, Torrance’s assertion that the content of the gospels is Jesus Christ himself means that for the Christian today any understanding from Deutero-Isaiah and John on the themes of creation are helpful, and even true, only to the extent in which the texts point beyond themselves to their grounding in the experience of reality to which they testify.[31] This provides a powerful hermeneutic for contemporary Christians reading the Bible because it takes seriously both the human process of writing, as studied through textual criticism and historical examination, and the reality that scripture mediates the Word of God and thus allows for the words on the page to find their objective content and grounding in the living reality of the triune God whom it discloses to us.

Thus when the Christian examines the theme of creation as transformation in Deutero-Isaiah verses such as 49:8-11 they are confronted with a God who makes promises in accordance with his creative authority and these promises are understood to be more than just a rhetorical device to encourage Israel whilst in exile but rather as actually being a promise from God to transform Israel’s circumstances and to set them free from captivity (Isaiah 49:9). When the horizon of this message is encountered today, the Christian can reasonably say that as they are included in the covenant relationship of God’s chosen people and God himself through Christ then these promises of the Creator’s faithfulness to his people are still encouraging today.

The same is also true when Christians turn their attention to John’s Gospel. For instance the claim of Jesus that he is the resurrection and the life (John 11:25) gains a deeper significance for the believer. Rather than simply being a textual device to make the document internally coherent this statement can now be understood as being grounded in an eternally prevailing ontological reality; Jesus is the resurrection. This is further strengthened by his own bodily resurrection in John 20. The ramifications of this resurrection identity is that the Creator of all became one with us ‘in such a way as to effect a renewing of the creation and the setting of it on a new basis in which it is eternally bound up with the life of God himself’.[32]

Conclusion

In Isaiah and John, God is revealed as the Creator who transforms, restores and renews his creation. For the Christian today, a hermeneutic whereby this theme of creation can be explored as having an ontological basis that is external but necessary to the text enables a powerful reading which draws the reader deeper into the reality of the person of the risen Lord whom they worship, and enables an understanding of God that can exhort and encourage them where the horizons of their lives encounter the horizons of the message that they discover whilst reading the scriptures: God has created, God is sustaining and transforming Creation, and God will bring about the new creation.

 


 

Word Count: 3000

Footnotes below, for the bibliography please look here: Bibliography

[1] Goldingay, Isaiah, 267.

[2] Goldingay, Isaiah, 268.

[3] Smith, John, 49.

[4] Watts, Isaiah, 92-93.

[5] Herbert, Isaiah, 49.

[6] Sanders, John, 78.

[7] Brant, John, 34.

[8] Barth, 1.2, 123.

[9] Paul, Isaiah, 287, 291.

[10] Franke, Isaiah, 136.

[11] Baltzer, Isaiah, 272.

[12] Watts, Isaiah, 213.

[13] Westermann, Isaiah, 107.

[14] Brown, John, 731.

[15] Orchard, betrayal, 211.

[16] Orchard, Betrayal, 214.

[17] Carson, John, 631.

[18] Brown, John, 978.

[19] Beasley-Murray, Life, 2.

[20] Lincoln, John, 231.

[21] Sanders, John, 193.

[22] Barrett, John, 297.

[23] Calvin, Genesis, 327.

[24] Lange, Isaiah, 480.

[25] Keil, Old, 438.

[26] Bernard, John, 94.

[27] Gray, ‘Reading’, 302.

[28] Torrance, resurrection, 3.

[29] Gray, ‘Reading’, 304.

[30] Gray, ‘Reading’, 306.

[31] Gray, ‘Reading’, 307; Torrance, Rationality, 151-3.

[32] Torrance, Resurrection, 21.

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