Creation and the Verba of Scripture

The late John Webster offers this statement about the relationship between Scripture and “dogmatic reasoning” about creation (Christian Dogmatics, 134–5):

Dogmatic reasoning is a further act of following in which, directed by the prophetic testimony and with the aid of the Spirit’s sanctifying grace, theological reason endeavors to build a conceptual account of the matter that the scriptural words present, to elaborate or enlarge on the scriptural res. Because it attempts to reconceive what it hears in Holy Scripture, dogmatics does not necessarily retain the rhetorical sequence of particular biblical texts, or the narrative-dramatic order of the canon as a whole, or the soteriological idiom of a good deal of the biblical creation material. Rather, as reconception and enlargement, it seeks to display the anatomy of the prophetic words by transposing it into a conceptual idiom, ordering it systematically so that its unity and interconnections become more immediately visible. Dogmatic reconception gives formal clarity to what is usually informally or occasionally expressed in Scripture by elaborating, for example, the identities of the agents or by tracing its metaphysical implications.

He adds, importantly, that “dogmatics is not improving on Scripture, which retains its primacy as prophetic instruction.” And, dogmatics must always lead back to the verba of Scripture. . . . No doctrine of creation out of nothing can retain its Christian character unless it cleaves to the words of the prophets and expects these words to decide matters.”

As with most statements of method, this has its strengths and weaknesses, and the proof is in the pudding. And it seems to me that Webster has forgotten some of his premises when he says, a few pages later (140), emphasizing that creation doesn’t require “effort” from God, “Creation is not protracted toil but an act whereby ‘at the will of God the world arose in less than an instant’” (quoting Basil’s Hexameron).

But that’s not what the verba of Genesis 1 say. To be sure, a dark tohu-w-bohu, a dark and formless void, comes instantaneously into being in the beginning (Genesis 1:1–2), but that doesn’t qualify as a “world.” Only after a series of six evenings-and-mornings do we get a cosmos, with a full heaven, a fertile earth, and teeming seas. 

Admittedly, this comes in a brief essay on a big topic. Webster may have believed that what Genesis 1 recounts is actually timeless, despite the temporal structure, and he may have defended that belief elsewhere. It appears to me, though, that he fails to bring his dogmatic reasoning back to the words on the page.

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