How creation out of nothing matters

This is a re-post.

For as long as I have been involved in theological circles to any degree there have been people who have questioned the historical and biblical veracity of creation ex nihilo. Even though my theological sensibilities depend significantly on creation ex nihilo, such questioning has, in and of itself, never upset my theological sensibilities. I generally wonder what all the fuss is about. I’ve also started to worry that maybe I’ve missed something – the extent of the critique, the implications of creation ex nihilo, or something else. This post is to try to articulate why I am not theologically bothered by biblical nitpickings of the doctrine of creation. Hopefully if I am missing something (or many things) someone will let me know.

As I understand it, the biblical critique of creation ex nihilo boils down to claiming that God created the world out of chaos and not out of nothing. Some also argue that God uses a plural pronoun (1:26) because God is addressing the heavenly court, which would directly imply that (non?)-creatures pre-existed God’s creation. It seems to me that such technical alterations of creation out of nothing do little (if anything at all) to alter the theological significance of that doctrine. That is, the biblical narrative presents the same important themes and implications of creation ex nihilo even if God did create out of chaos and in front of a royal court. Here are seven important and closely related theological claims that stem out of (or are at least tied to) creation ex nihilo. I don’t believe that a creation out of chaos significantly alters them.

  1. God is sovereign. Everything in the creation accounts – from the sun being created days after light is created to God’s creation of sea creatures and ordering of the waters (the ancient symbol of chaos) – seems designed to emphasize this point.
  2. Our being is contingent on God. This is another way of saying that God is sovereign. It is also another way of saying that we are creatures. It is also another way of saying that we are utterly dependent on God – something emphasized in the creation accounts, particularly when Adam and Eve come into the picture.
  3. Outside of God there is nothing. To say that God formed chaos does alter this claim in some technical sense. But, I’m not sure how significant the difference between “formless” and “non-existent” is. Perhaps absolute chaos is a meaningful way to speak of nothing?
  4. God’s creates non-competitively. For me, this may be the most important theological claim that comes out of creation ex nihilo. Without it, all of the others fall apart; with it, I do not see how they are meaningfully challenged. And this again is something that is not only present in the creation accounts, but is specifically emphasized. (This is made particularly apparent when one reads the Babylonian creation myth, as I was made to do in grade 11.) God speaks all aspects of creation into being; nothing opposes God’s creation. Nothing outside of God moves God to create; nothing outside of God moves God at all. Again, the fact that God creates the sea creatures is particularly significant, emphasizing that even if God creates out of chaos, not even chaos challenges God.
  5. We are teleologically oriented towards God. This is simply the consequence, as far as I can see, of being the creatures of a God who is in no way forced to create. It is also a theme I see throughout Scripture, but I want to return to that later.
  6. God is not an object. Interestingly, it is not any verse from Genesis 1-3, but Exodus 3:14 that is most often invoked to proof-text this point (which has its own complications). The reason creation relates to this point is that two other points – independent human action and God’s sovereignty – that do follow from the Genesis creation accounts force us to conclude that God is not an object. As Thomas Aquinas says, if God is an object “it evidently follows that either providence is uncertain or that all events are necessary.” We know from creation that God is sovereign and we know from the actions of Adam and Eve that creation is not deterministically ordered, and so we are forced to conclude that God is not an object. There most certainly are other, more interesting, discussions that could be had around this point (can God change? can we describe God? can we engage with God?), but I do not think the claim that God is not an object disallows us from having these conversations. It is also not clear to me that claiming that God is an object opens up promising avenues of exploration (though it does tend to entangle us in all sorts of difficulties).
  7. Participation provides a meaningful framework for understanding the being of creation. In many respects, I think this point simply follows from points one through six. It is another way of saying that we can never be completely cast off from God or escape God; this is a consequence of us being God’s creation, created in God’s image. It is also an important way of saying that we most truly are what we are when we walk in God’s ways; when we love God and keep God’s commandments we find true life.

I don’t think that nitpicking creation ex nihilo changes any of these themes in any substantial way. Even if it did, however, I would still be hard-pressed to reject any of them outright, for I find these themes decisively throughout Scripture. Natural theology comes as much (if not more) from the wisdom literature and the letters of Paul (including the disputed letters) as it does from the first three chapters of Genesis. God’s absolute sovereignty is found powerfully in the prophets and especially in the apocalypses. Our utter dependence on God is emphasized again and again in the histories of Israel. That we are meant for (or teleologically oriented towards) God is present in all of the redemptive eschatological passages that I can think of, and is particularly present in the New Testament epistles. God has not been thought of as an object since God went into exile with God’s people, as Ezekiel dramatically documents. Jesus sending the Holy Spirit further complicates any way that we might want to objectify God. The flights of Jonah and Jacob teach us in very concrete ways that we cannot escape from God. The point of this is not to simply proof-text those theological themes that are tied to creation ex nihilo; I’m sure there are texts that do not straightforwardly align with these themes. Rather, I want to suggest that creation ex nihilo does not come exclusively from a (mis) reading of Genesis 1-3. It also comes from a careful reading of the whole sweep of Scripture that then asks “how might the God I see in these texts create?”

Finally, I want to say a bit about the language of “gift.” I find this language helpful in bringing together these seven points. Part of the reason I find it so helpful is that it is a language and theme I find throughout Scripture. I don’t know how to speak of God creating a world, choosing a people, delivering them from bondage, giving this people land and a way of life, and then sending Messiah to deliver us from the bondage of Sin and Death without the language of gift. Another name for gift is grace, and I don’t see how we can speak coherently of divine grace without something that very closely resembles the doctrine of creation ex nihilo.

[Minor editorial changes for clarity and style.]

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