From an early period in church history, Christians have confessed belief in a God who created “out of nothing.” God doesn’t need pre-existent matter to work with like a human artisan does; rather, God both calls into existence the material substrate he intends to work with, and he fashions whatever he wishes from it. Genesis 1:1 is commonly adduced in support of this view. As traditionally rendered (“In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth” [ESV]), Genesis 1:1 is thought to teach an initial act of creation ex nihilo, which prefaces the divine activity of separating and filling narrated in the remainder of the chapter.
There are difficulties, however, with supporting creation ex nihilo from Genesis 1:1.The problem can be illustrated by the NRSV’s rendering of the opening verses of Genesis: “In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep…” (emphasis added).Taken in this way, Genesis 1:1 describes not an initial act of divine creativity, but the circumstances which pertained at the time when the narrative of Genesis 1 commences. The text presupposes—it is claimed—an already existent “chaos,” and is not directly interested in explaining how the unformed earth came into existence in the first place.
A proper translation of Genesis 1:1 is a problem I do not intend to tackle here. I point to the difficulty merely to acknowledge that there are some formidable headwinds to defending ex nihilo on the basis of Genesis 1. But if Genesis 1:1 doesn’t offer an unarguable proof-text for ex nihilo, how do we go about defending the doctrine? One option might be to appeal to texts such as Hebrews 11:3 or Romans 4:17—or, if it’s in your canon, to 2 Maccabees 7:18. But if we took that approach, we might still properly ask on what basis these later Jewish authors affirmed Yahweh’s mastery over (non-existent) matter. We rightly want something from the Old Testament itself—something that can support later Jewish and Christian belief.
It may be helpful at this point to recollect some history.
A reading both of Jewish texts from the Second Temple period and of early Christian texts reveals that there were Jewish and Christian writers who knew Genesis 1:1, but who didn’t think that it entailed creation ex nihilo. Even so, the biblical account was quite capable of challenging the categories in which philosophically-minded Greeks and Romans conceived the cosmos. Take for example the second century physician-philosopher Galen. Robert Wilken has offered the following explanation—worth quoting at length—of the physician’s disdain for the Mosaic account of creation:
“Viewed from the perspective of Plato’s Timaeus, the Mosaic cosmogony appears to be the work of a capricious and unbridled deity who brought the world into being by an act of will without reference to the consequences of his actions. He simply spoke and things came to be. Because there is no mention of the reasons for creation, the account in Genesis suggested to the Greeks that if God had willed things to be another way he could, out of his unlimited power, have made them so. But this would place God completely beyond the cosmos and exempt him from the laws that govern the universe. In the Greek view, God is not above the laws of nature. . . . Certain things are impossible by nature and God does not—indeed cannot—do such things. He chooses the best possible way, the way according to reason. . . . The world of nature cannot be understood unless it is recognized that all things, including the creator, are governed by unalterable laws according to reason. These laws determine the way things are and always will be, not because God decided they should be this way, but because that is the best way for them to be. God is part of nature. He is, in the hymn of the Stoic Cleanthes, ‘leader of nature, governing all things by law’” (The Christians as the Romans Saw Them, 86-87).
Clearly, the Jewish scriptures presented an affront to pagan assumptions about the relation of God and cosmos. Yet, it wasn’t only the pagans who had eventually to rethink their cosmological speculations. Christians and Jews themselves had to endure a revision of their metaphysics—especially those (many) who were prepared to interpret Genesis 1 as an account of a demiurgic fashioning of pre-existent matter. Commitment to ex nihilo was the fruit of a long reflection on the Scriptures taken as a whole—fruit we find developing in the thought of Galen’s rough contemporary, Theophilus of Antioch. To quote from Wilken again, “Theophilus wished to preserve God’s transcendence, his sole rule or sovereignty (monarchia). If matter was introduced as a principle alongside God, it would imply that matter had existed prior to the creation. Only God is eternal” (89). Less than a century later, in the work of Origen of Alexandria, we find a well-considered Christian response to a cosmology positing eternal matter.
The reflections above suggest that, if we wish to articulate and defend a doctrine of creation ex nihilo, we would do well to offer a thick description of Yahweh’s divine monarchia. Rather than basing our affirmation of ex nihilo on Genesis 1:1 alone, we need to be broadly attentive to the Old Testament’s witness to God’s exercise of absolute mastery over his cosmos. We can—and should—develop this exposition from many angles, but in my next installment I plan to focus exclusively on the evidence found in the fourth book of the Psalter (Psalms 90-106). There is a great deal of biblical material available for this topic—especially to be found in the remainder of the Psalter and in the book of Isaiah—and my sketch of only a limited section from the Psalter is intended as a provocation to more exposition of the topic.
Stephen Long is a PhD candidate in Christianity and Judaism in Antiquity at the University of Notre Dame.