How creation out of nothing matters

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. These “radical” musings never upset my theological sensibilities. Over the past few months, the theme of questioning the “biblical origins” of creation ex nihilo has come up quite a bit, and generally I’ve been left wondering 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; on the other hand, God could simply have been using the royal “we.” However, it seems to me that these technical alterations of creation out of nothing do little (if anything at all) to alter the theological significance of that doctrine. I can think of seven important and closely related theological claims that stem out of (or are at least tied to) creation ex nihilo; I don’t think that any of them are significantly altered by the biblical critique.

  1. God is sovereign. Everything in the creation accounts – from the sun being created days after light to God’s creation of sea creatures and ordering of the waters – 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. Now, obviously this claim is altered in some technical sense when we say that God formed chaos rather than created out of nothing. But, I’m not really sure if this alteration matters; in other words, I don’t see that much of a difference between what is formless and what is non-existent. Perhaps a meaningful way to speak of nothing is as absolute chaos?
  4. God’s creates non-competitively. This point 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 my grade 11 religion class.) 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; the sea was the ancient symbol of chaos and this emphasizes 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 exciting, new avenues of exploration, though it certainly does 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 ways. 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 (especially 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, as does any time we ask God’s presence to be with us. 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 that the eager radical can find verses 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.” One way of bringing my seven points together that I find very helpful is with the language of gift. 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. Further, another name for gift is grace; and I simply don’t see how we can jettison grace on biblical grounds. More importantly, as far as this post is concerned, I don’t see how we can speak coherently of divine grace without something that very closely resembles the doctrine of creation ex nihilo.


8 comments on “How creation out of nothing matters

  1. Two brief responses,
    1) Creation ex nihilo is already a theological creation both biblically and theologically. As you mentioned it is in the genealogy of other creation myths with its own (and unique from what we have surviving in extent lit) theological project. The beginning is created in the middle. The same is true of the theological doctrine itself.
    2) There is an increasing concern among many theologians that this doctrine emerged out of a more destructive logic, namely the ability to possess access to the this transcendent God and set the terms of ‘creation’ so as to be able to also set the terms for the present.

    These do not undermine many of your valid points but I also don’t know if your points demand the doctrine as I understand it.

    • Gerald Ens says:

      I agree entirely with your first point. Part of what I was trying to say in this post is that the fact that creation ex nihilo comes “in the middle” does not undermine it. This is what I meant with the “how might the God who has revealed himself to us create?” question. There is not any Christian canon or doctrine that I know of that is “original” in some sort of absolute sense. I’ve always taken this to mean that Christian understanding comes from a people’s experience with God that is then roughly and laboriously hammered into some sort of shape. I’ve also always thought that this served to validate those same doctrines, though, again, not in some sort of absolute sense.

      Point two makes me think a bit more. I have not encountered this argument, though I suppose essentially any doctrine could be used in this way. Is there something specific about creation ex nihilo? Most of the time, I’ve understood creation ex nihilo to disrupt our attempts to possess and neatly conceptualize God.

  2. […] Ens considers the doctrine of creation ex nihilo and why it […]

  3. Gerald,

    I agree with almost everything you’ve said in this article, especially around the concept of “gift” (are you reading Radical Orthodoxy, here)?

    It seems to me there’s another way to read Aquinas that might mean the syllogism fails, even though I agree with him that God is not a created object within the universe (unless–in Jesus–he chooses to be). Does saying “God is sovereign” mean “God has exhaustive definite foreknowledge”? I’m not sure why “providence” being “uncertain” would disable the theological claim “God is sovereign.” Can you explain further what you meant?

    In peace,

    • Gerald Ens says:

      Rob, Radical Orthodoxy is certainly there in my reading of “gift.” However, part of what I was trying to do was rescue the very important language of gift from some of its less good uses by Milbank et al. I think that a Christian understanding of gift can very easily become distorted when too much emphasis is given to creation ex nihilo as THE starting point; when the basis of our faith becomes the fact that God spoke the cosmos into being rather than Christ’s death on the cross. (I think this, in part, is what David was pointing to in his comment.) For example, Catherine Pickstock once wrote something along the lines of “God’s act of creation is so amazing and beyond us that even the horrendous event of the cross can be made to fit within its harmony.” I don’t even know where to begin when it comes to how problematic a statement like that is… Creation is important; but it’s important to recognize that it is important in relation to the rest of the Christian story.
      Anyways, on Aquinas: I think that if God is first cause then effects being uncertain would undermine his sovereignty – that is, if God creates as an object. To the extent that a billiards player does not know precisely where all the balls on the table will end up after he or she strikes the cue ball, he or she is fallible. No?

      • Gerald Ens says:

        Here’s the Pickstock quote. It’s a little less brazen than my paraphrase/interpretation, but, hey, if RO’s taught me anything it’s the value of inflammatory rhetoric: “The Christ of the Eucharist is the Christ of the passion, a grotesquely wounded divine-human form. However, by grace even this grotesqueness is transfigured into beauty, just as the destruction visited upon Christ on the cross is transformed into a positive voluntary self-destruction of the body of Christ through our eating…. In the light of the cross, the ugly is not discarded but integrated into the divine beauty itself…. [A]ll our specific human narratives of suffering become suffused with a significance.” – “Liturgy and the Senses,” in Paul’s New Moment, 138-139.

        • Gerald Ens says:

          Compare and contrast with Yoder: “Here at the cross is the man who loves his enemies, the man whose righteousness is greater than that of the Pharisess, who being rich became poor, who gives his robe to those who took his cloak, who prays for those who despitefully use him. The cross is not a detour or a hurdle on the way to the kingdom, nor is it even the way to the kingdom; it is the kingdom come.” – The Politics of Jesus 2nd ed, 51.

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