Ex nihilo

Fr. Kimel quotes Thomas Jay Oord as representative of a current in Contemporary theology:

The Bible does not affirm creatio ex nihilo. Instead biblical authors consistently say that God creates out of something. When exploring options for how Christians might best think about God as creator, it’s difficult to overemphasize this biblical point: According to Scripture, God creates from something.

Biblical writers offer various descriptions of the “something” out of which God creates. In Genesis, the Spirit works with tohu wabohu (formless void), or what is often translated “primordial chaos” or “shapeless mass” (1:2). God creatively transforms chaos and shapelessness into something new: the heavens and the earth (1:1). God creates out of something, even if the “something” is initially vague, disordered, or messy.

Genesis also speaks of the tehom, the “face of the deep,” over which God hovers when creating (1:2). The “deep” is a something, not literally nothing. Many biblical scholars believe tehom signifies the presence of primeval waters as God creates the heavens and the earth. The New Testament’s most explicit theory of initial creation, 2 Peter 3:5, supports this view: “Long ago by God’s word the heavens came into being and the earth was formed out of water and by water.” Water, of course, is something not nothing. … In sum, we search Scripture in vain for passages supporting creatio ex nihilo. Biblical writers say that God initially (and continually) creates from something.

Two claims:

1.) The Bible gives no support for Creation from nothing

2.) The Bible supports creation from something.

I think both fail.

Oord speaks as though Genesis said “in the beginning there was a formless void, and God created the heaven and earth from it”. But the text clearly doesn’t say that. God creates heaven and earth (presumably, all there is) and within this there is a void or deep. I think Oord is right to see Genesis as asserting that the void is non-created or somehow “just there” (more on that in my conclusion) but he is wrong to take it as some sort of material that God initially worked with. If one takes “heaven and earth” as being everything (and what else is there?) then Scripture gives no indication there was any matter from which they were made, and this is exactly what creation ex nihilo means.

Just to stress the point: God doesn’t make things out of water as a material (except for the sea, but more on that in a moment). He doesn’t pick up a lump of watery chaos and then roll it between his palms to make a snake, or scatter the water into the sky to make stars.

But then what do we say about the sea which is separated from the land, or the waters of heaven and the waters of the earth? These are described as separated, which seems to imply that the waters, at least, are a sort of matter God worked with in forming things. An initial response is just the one given in the first paragraph: God works with them only after creating heaven and earth. But a deeper response has to identify the mythic role that the waters are playing in this account. Specifically, I think Oord thinks this passage is talking about material when in fact it is speaking about privation and a failure to exist.

The Genesis account makes the analogy of light : darkness :: earth : waters by separating each from the other. Following Augustine, we note  that God does not call the darkness good or bless it, which indicates that the light and darkness in question are metaphors for moral and ontological goodness, like privation and existence, evil and good. But doesn’t this sort of analysis break down in the opposition between earth and sea? After all, the sea brings forth life, just as the earth does, and it seems to be called “good” for doing so. But this proves false on a closer reading, for two reasons (1) when God commands the earth to bring forth, it brings forth life of itself, but when he commands the sea to bring forth, God himself creates (cf. Genesis 1: 11 with 1:21) the implication is that the earth will bring forth good things from a goodness it has of its own while the sea will only bring forth good by someone acting against what the sea is of itself. Furthermore, (2) when God blesses the earth he blesses it, but when he has the sea bring forth animals he blesses them. And so both the light/darkness and land/ sea parallels are in fact ways of speaking about moral and ontological categories: the first divides the blessed from the cursed, the second shows that God imposes an order on evil and goodness such that the former will always end up giving rise to the latter. Evil (and indeed, any failure to exist) is not just divided from goodness, but forced to be an instrument for bringing it forth.

In other words, I’d level three objections to Oord’s claim: (1) his argument arises as though from a text that says “in the beginning, there was the waters”; (2) it fails to see the significance of God not using the water or chaos as a material, which is a support for the idea of creation ex nihilo; and, (3) by seeing chaos as somehow material, one can’t do justice to the ways in which Genesis uses darkness and water to speak of moral and ontological categories. Water isn’t material: it’s the privation and the failure to exist that is a necessary consequence of giving rise to something other than God – and this is why Scripture seems to speak of them as uncreated. In fact, a further analysis of the use of “the waters” in Scripture and the Church will point to it as a symbol of the death that life in Christ arises from.

Some might point to 2 Peter 3 as a text that speaks of water as a material, “Long ago by God’s word the heavens came into being and the earth was formed out of water [LXX “ek”] and by [dia] water.” but it’s clear from the above that a material account of “out of” is not necessary. “Out of” does not need to indicate a material cause, and might even indicate the opposite of one. “A man being out of prison” does not indicate the prison entering into some man’s being, but his separation and division from it; and making “through” or “by” water is perfectly consistent with the account we gave above of evil being a sort of instrument by which God brings forth good. Further, this interpretation is more consistent with the text of 2 Peter, since the author immediately proceeds to say that these waters overwhelmed and destroyed the earth in the flood.

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