Question: How did the mainstream Christian view that God created the universe out of nothing originate?

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Question: How did the mainstream Christian view that God created the universe out of nothing originate?

The concept of Creatio ex nihilo appeared suddenly in the latter half of the second century

Mainstream Christianity teaches that God created the universe from nothing (ex nihilo), while Mormons teach that God organized the universe from pre-existing matter. The LDS God is therefore claimed to be "less powerful" than the God of mainstream Christianity, or "unbiblical."

One non-LDS scholar's conclusion is apt:

Creatio ex nihilo appeared suddenly in the latter half of the second century c.e. Not only did creatio ex nihilo lack precedent, it stood in firm opposition to all the philosophical schools of the Greco-Roman world. As we have seen, the doctrine was not forced upon the Christian community by their revealed tradition, either in Biblical texts or the Early Jewish interpretation of them. As we will also see it was not a position attested in the New Testament doctrine or even sub-apostolic writings. It was a position taken by the apologists of the late second century, Tatian and Theophilus, and developed by various ecclesiastical writers thereafter, by Irenaeus, Tertullian, and Origen. Creatio ex nihilo represents an innovation in the interpretive traditions of revelation and cannot be explained merely as a continuation of tradition.[1]

The concept of Creatio ex nihilo is not taught in the Old or New Testaments, or by the early Christian Fathers

Creatio ex nihilo is not taught in the Old or New Testaments, or by the early Christian Fathers, unless one assumes it. The doctrine was a novel idea that altered the beliefs and doctrines of the Jews and early Christians.

The problem of a pre-existent 'something'

The reason why most of modern Christianity demands ex-nihilo creation stems from arguments dealing with the sovereignty of God. If something exists apart from God—i.e., pre-exists the first act of creation, it must be co-eternal with God (and by extension, perhaps co-equal, or potentially co-equal). Likewise, LDS scripture teaches that there exists something which is co-eternal with God and potentially co-equal with God in the Book of Abraham. Is God absolutely transcendent over the material with which he works? Is there only one that pre-exists creation (God) or is there more than one?

The Old Testament makes no direct statement of ex-nihilo creation

The Old Testament makes no direct statement of ex-nihilo creation, and so the creation account is scrutinized for clues. Much of the debate over ex-nihilo creation stems from the first few verses of Genesis. And the controversy starts with the very first word: bereshit. The interpretation of Genesis 1:1 faces two questions. 1) Is Genesis 1:1 an independent sentence or a dependent clause, introducing the first sentence? And 2) What is the relationship of verse 1 to verse 2 (and even the remainder of the creation narrative in Genesis chapter 1)?

The Hebrew word roshit occurs some 50 times in the Old Testament. The vowels in the word indicate that is a construct form - that it means "beginning of" and not just "beginning". Of the other 50 occurrences, 49 of them follow this pattern. The exact same construction with the prefix be- occurs in four other places (Jer. 26:1; 27:1; 28:1; 49:34), and in each instance is generally translated as "In the beginning of the reign of ..." The other instances of roshit follow this construct pattern except for one in Isaiah 46:10, where we read: "I am God ... declaring the end from the beginning." Here there can be little doubt that the word cannot be read as a construct. And this one occurrence is often used to justify reading bereshit in Genesis 1:1 as an absolute and not a construct. To which we respond, is a grammatical error in one location reason to justify an adoption of a similar reading here? Why should we adopt the reading favored by one example over the dozens of alternatives?

If beroshit is a construct state, then verse 1 and verse 2 are both subordinate clauses describing the state of everything at the moment which God begins to create, and the beginning of verse 3 becomes the main clause for the first sentence of the Bible. Read this way, the beginning of the Bible reads:

When God began to create the heavens and the earth (the earth being without form and void, and darkness was on the surface of the deep, and the spirit of God moved upon the surface of the waters), God said, "Let there be light".

The first act of creation then is the command for light to exist. And all the rest - the earth as a desert and a wasteland (terms that imply an absence of both plant and animal life), the darkness, the deep, and so on, all exist prior to that first act of creation - and by definition are pre-existent.

Apart from this passage, there is often discussion over the meaning of the word bara - "to create". The Hebrew term bara itself is rather indifferent to the question of ex-nihilo creation. Often the claim is made that the word is used exclusively of God, but this clearly isn't the case (see for example Ezekiel 21:19). The meaning of bara here is dependent entirely on how we read the rest of the first line of the Old Testament.

In the absence of any Old Testament expressions of ex-nihilo creation, it seems preferable to follow the view that Israelite religion had not developed this theology. Joseph Smith resolved the interpretive crux in Genesis 1:1 in a rather unique fashion. In the Book of Moses, rather than defining creation in absolute terms (either from nothing or from something), he limits the description of creation in Genesis to a particular place and time. Creation is no longer universal:

And it came to pass, that the Lord spake unto Moses, saying, 'Behold, I reveal unto you concerning this heaven and this earth; write the words which I speak. ... Yea, in the beginning I created the heaven and the earth upon which thou standest. (Moses 2:1,3)

The New Testament doesn't provide much additional help in resolving the issue

The New Testament doesn't provide much additional help in resolving the issue. It relies heavily on the language of the Old Testament when discussing creation. And the same sorts of ambiguities arise. As James Hubler's Ph.D. dissertation on this very issue noted:

Several New Testament texts have been educed as evidence of creatio ex nihilo. None makes a clear statement which would have been required to establish such an unprecedented position, or which we would need as evidence of such a break with tradition. None is decisive and each could easily be accepted by a proponent of creatio ex materia...The punctuation of [John 1:3] becomes critical to its meaning. Proponents of creatio ex materia could easily qualify the creatures of the Word to that "which came about," excluding matter. Proponents of creatio ex nihilo could place a period after "not one thing came about" and leave "which came about" to the next sentence. The absence of a determinate tradition of punctuation in New Testament [Greek] texts leaves room for both interpretations. Neither does creation by word imply ex nihilo...as we have seen in Egypt, Philo, and Midrash Rabba, and even in 2 Peter 3:5, where the word functions to organize pre-cosmic matter. [2]

List of Quotations from Scholars that affirm that the Bible does not Explicitly Support Ex-Nihilo

The following quotes from scholars demonstrate the near-consensus view that the Genesis in particular and/or Bible as a whole does not explicitly support Creatio ex Nihilo. The quotations are divided into scholars that are commenting on Genesis alone and those that comment on the Bible as a whole. These lists are meant to be representative and not comprehensive/exhaustive.[3]

Not in Genesis

The following scholars affirm that creatio ex nihilo is not taught in Genesis

  • Itzhak Benyamini: “As for the antiquity of the world, it appears that in backward extending eternity, not only did God exist, but so also did the world, although chaotic in structure. Still, it did exist, and the divine creation merely set boundaries and organized the matter in that chaos. This moment of creation, as noted, is none other than the moment of the establishment of God as separate from chaos and as its organizer…Creation is not ex nihilo, but from confusion, from chaos. It is the differentiation of being from confusion, which is not nothingness but a distortion of being, and, retrospectively, it understands this. Language alone is what creates this substance and is capable of making it non-chaotic."[4]
“The first primordial material is apparently water, which entails the danger of liquidity. At first, the abyss was water, and water is tohu vavohu, and perhaps the abyss (tehom) is close to vohu.
Water, which is most definitely primordial, is now divided in two: order was created within it, meaning that the beginning of differentiation was within water, between water of one kind and water of another kind. This is an extension of the division between light and darkness. Differentiation is from a single thing to a pair of things: water above and water below, like male and female, like light and darkness, in a binary relation.
This can also be viewed from a slightly different angle: the firmament is a tool of separation, like the essence of light and its function. A tool was created, which enters something in order to divide it in half, and then to commingle with one of the halves. Thus, light separates darkness and becomes half of what was created out of the darkness. The firmament separates water from water and then combines with one half of the water.
This shows that the tools were created ex nihilo (but matter was not created ex nihilo), by bootstrapping, produced by the act of separation that they effectuate. The moment before their creation, they did not exist, but at the moment of their creation, they, in turn, create something else, which is separate from its Other but also from within it. Thus, though slightly differently, creation takes place on the following day as well, when the water within the lower water recedes, and the dry land is revealed. In retrospect, it may be said that the water is a tool of separation not just as material but also because of its liquidity, its flow, which reveals the dry land …. It was stated that the earth already existed, but now we hear that it was created. This is because earth was no longer the confused reality that it was at first. Now it is the name erets (land), which was given to yabasha (dry land), in that it is distinct from water. [. . .]
The rivers were not created by God. They existed before creation. They surround the earth and irrigate it. Like God and Adam, they are partners in the work of creation (which is fertilizing and irrigating, and not creation ex nihilo).”[5]
  • Marc Zvi Brettler: “The opposite of structure is chaos, and it is thus appropriate that 1:1-2 describe primeval chaos — a world that is “unformed and void,” containing darkness and a mysterious wind. This story does not describe creation out of nothing (Latin: creatio ex nihilo). Primeval stuff already exists in verses 1-2, and the text shows no concern for how it originated. Rather, it is a myth about how God alone structured primordial matter into a highly organized world. Only upon its completion is this structure 'very good.'”[6]
  • Thomas L. Brodie: “Genesis apparently is not describing creatio ex nihilo, creation from nothing (Sacks, 4; Scullion, 16; however, Jacob, 1, does hold for creation from nothing; and Wenham, 14, is circumspect: 'The phraseology leaves the author’s precise meaning uncertain'). The primary transition is not from nothingness to being but from chaos to order. The creation process begins with something like a formless waste: tōhû . . .bōhû. The first word, tōhû, suggests something shapeless, formless, uninhabitable; and it may also be related etymologically to tĕhôm, 'the deep' (Clifford, 2:4). Bōhû, in rhyming with tōhû—forming an assonant hendiadys—simply reinforces its effect. The text may also be read as referring primarily to emptiness: the earth is 'an empty place. . . unproductive. . . uninhabited' (Tsumura, 1994a, 328).”[7]
  • Walter Brueggemann: “It is widely agreed that Genesis 1:1-2 constitutes a remarkable premise for creation, namely, that disordered chaos (expressed in Hebrew onomatopoetically as tohu wabohu) was already “there” as God began to create. That is, God did not create 'from nothing,' but God’s act of creation consists in the imposition of a particular order upon that mass of undifferentiated chaos. For much of the Bible, the energy of chaos (antiform) continues to operate destructively against the will of the Creator, and sometimes breaks out destructively beyond the bounds set by the decree of the Creator. It is an interesting example of 'imaginative remembering' that much later, in 2 Maccabees 7:28, the tradition finally asserts 'creation out of nothing,' a view that since then has predominated in later church traditions of theological interpretation.”[8]
  • Umberto Cassuto: "Just as the potter, when he wishes to fashion a beautiful vessel, takes first of all a lump of clay, and places it upon his wheel in order to mould it according to his wish, so the Creator first prepared for Himself the raw material of the universe with a view to giving it afterwards order and life. In this chaos of unformed matter, the heaviest materials were naturally at the bottom, and the waters, which were the lightest, floated on top. This apart, the whole material was an undifferentiated, unorganized, confused and lifeless agglomeration. It is this terrestrial state that is called תֹהוּ וָבֹהוּ tohu and bohu."[9]
  • Paul K. Cho: “There is not an initial conflict and combat between the creator God and the watery forces of chaos….Nevertheless, the primordial sea, תהום, which alludes to Tiamat, and over whose waters the spirit of God purposefully hovers, is there before creation begins (Gen 1:2). And after the creation of light on the first day, which makes the counting off of the seven days of creation possible, God’s first act of creation is to divide the primordial sea in half and to place a firmament in between to keep the halves separate (Gen 1:6–7). The primordial sea, in Genesis as in Enuma Elish, preexists creation, and the initial stages of creation consist of the creator dividing the primordial waters to create a tripartite world, with the celestial waters above, the infernal waters below, and the earth in between.”[10]
  • John J. Collins: “Whatever the origin of the Adam and Eve story, it stands in sharp contrast to the Priestly account of creation that now forms the opening chapter of the Bible. The opening verse (Gen 1:1) is majestic in its simplicity: 'In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.' Originally, the Hebrew was written without vowels. The vowels were added later as points above and below the consonants. The consonantal text can also be translated as: 'In the beginning, when God created the heavens and the earth. . . .' The Babylonian creation myth, Enuma Elish, similarly begins with a temporal clause. (There is another possible reflection of the Babylonian myth in Gen 1:2. The Hebrew word for 'the deep' [tehom] is a cognate of the name of the Babylonian monster Tiamat in Enuma Elish.) If the opening words are translated as a temporal clause, it is clear that we are not speaking of creation out of nothing. Already when God set about creating the heavens and the earth, there was a formless void (tohu wabohu), and the wind or spirit of God was hovering over the waters. God proceeds to bring order out of chaos simply by uttering commands."[11]
  • Robert Crotty: “The story in Gen. 1.1–2.3 is a priestly document. It does not relate a creatio ex nihilo but describes the ordering of a chaotic cosmos. The narrative distinguishes between works of separation (days 1–3) and works of furnishment (days 4–6).”[12]
  • Edwin M. Good: "...It seems clear that the storytellers were not thinking of what later philosophical and theological traditions, speaking Latin as they often did, called creatio ex nihilo, creation from nothing,' namely, that the creator was not working with preexisting stuff. But in this story, something was there—the empty, shapeless 'earth,' darkness, the 'abyss,' the wind across waters.[13]
  • Ronald Hendel: “On the first three days God creates the major domains of the cosmos by creating new things and using them to separate the primeval materials of chaos…. “In the beginning when God created,” or “When God began to create.” The grammar of this temporal clause was clarified by the medieval Jewish commentator Rashi, who noted that the Hebrew word for “beginning” (reshot) required a dependent relation—it is the “beginning of” something–and can be followed by a verb. The traditional rendering, “In the beginning, God created,” dates to the Hellenistic period (as in the Septuagint), when the details of classical Hebrew grammar had been forgotten. The idea of creatio ex nihlo is dependent on the later rendering. The original grammar, creation is a process of ordering and separation that begins with preexisting chaotic matter. This distinctive clause portrays the primordial state as a dark, watery chaos, an image similar to the primordial state in Egyptian, Mesopotamian, and Greek traditions. Unlike those other traditions, the chaos here is not a god or gods, but mere matter. The wind from God (verse 2) is the only divine substance and seems to indicate the incipient ordering of this chaos.”[14]
“Corresponding to תהו ובהו, the [Septuagint] translator wrote ἀόρατος καὶ ἀκατασκεύαστος ‘unseen and unorganized.” Scholars have noted that ἀόρατος is a distinctive philosophical term in Greek, used by Plato to denote the “unseen” preexisting world of ideas (Sophist 246a״ c; Theaetatus 155e; Timaeus 51a; see Hanhart 1992: 367; Harl 1986: 87; Rosel 1994: 31). This choice of a Greek equivalent expresses something of Platonic cosmology in biblical guise, perhaps joining the cosmologies of Plato and Moses, as was a commonplace in Hellenistic Jewish thought, particularly in Alexandria. Hence, we may have a glimpse of the Hellenistic conceptual world of the [Septuagint] translator via the translation of this obscure Hebrew phrase. Note that the phrase is rendered in two words joined with a conjunction, exactly like the Hebrew Vorlage. But within the constraints of a literal translation, something of contemporary Platonic cosmology may shine through."[15]
  • Menahem Kister: “At this point we must address another difficulty posed by Genesis 1:1-3, perhaps a more profound one: does Genesis 1:2 describe primordial elements, such as darkness and abyss, which existed before creation? How are these elements related to God, i. e., are they eternal, coexistent with God, or were these elements created by God? The wording of the biblical verses does not give us a reason for choosing the latter. To be sure, the belief in primordial elements from which the Cosmos has emerged, or was created, is shared by many cultures. Yet, the idea that primordial elements coexisted with God (from which it follows that God was not the only eternal entity before Creation) may be potentially more problematic for a monotheistic religion. The author of Genesis, however, does not give us a clue about the way in which he coped with this subtle theological question, if he recognized it at all.”[16]
  • J.R. Porter: "The biblical accounts of the creation of the world have their background in ancient Near Eastern mythology, in which creation is often depicted as the deity’s victory over the forces of chaos, represented by threatening waters, as a result of which the god is established as a supreme king. A large number of references show that this concept was well-known in Israel also. … Although the watery chaos is still there [in Genesis 1], there is no conflict between it and God, as in the ancient myth. God creates in unfettered freedom by his word or command, and creation is brought about by the separation of the elements of the universe, which produces an ordered and habitable world. Hence creation is not so much dealing with absolute beginning, creation from nothing — though this idea appears later, as in 2 Maccabees 7:28 — as with the world order as perceived by human beings.”[17]
  • Gary Rendsburg: "A close reading of vv. 1-3 (especially v. 2) reveals that water was preexistent matter, in the form of the deep (Hebrew תְהוֹם tɘhom)—which is to say, water is never created in Genesis 1, but rather is the dominant presence on the earth, comprised of תֹהוּ וָבֹהוּ tohu wa-bohu ‘wild and waste’ (v. 2). This water, in turn, represents the cosmic sea or abyss, which in other ancient Near Eastern cosmogonies (most famously, the Babylonian story Enuma Elish) is symbolized by an evil deity (for example, the goddess Tiamat in said story [note that Babylonian Tiamat is cognate with to Hebrew תְהוֹםtɘhom ‘deep, abyss’, which, notwithstanding the lack of a feminine ending, is a feminine noun in Hebrew)"
  • Thomas Romer: “This text does not narrate a creatio ex nihilo, as it can later be found in Judaism and Christianity. Quite the contrary, it emphasizes the fact that God did not create the darkness, symbol of evil, nor the tehom, i.e., the waters symbolizing chaos and darkness (that may allude to the sea serpent Tiamat who Marduk, according to the epic Enuma Elish, has to kill before creating the world and humankind). In Genesis 1, Elohim integrates these things in his creation by transforming them (pushing back the waters and brightening up the darkness), but darkness and chaos are not “good” (on the first day of creation, only the light is characterized as 'good'; Gen 1:4)"[18]
  • Howard Schwartz: "“The very existence of pre-existing elements, such as light, darkness, chaos, void, water, wind, and the deep, raise doubts about the singularity of God’s accomplishment. Yet there is no explicit mention of the creation of these elements in the account of Creation."[19]
  • Hermann Spieckermann: “God’s creation as described at the beginning of the Bible is not a creative act out of nothing. The conception of creatio ex nihilo first came to the fore in Hellenistic Judaism (2 Macc. 7:28). After the heading of Gen. 1:1 comes a description of the world before God’s first deed, the generation of light. Three elements characterize the world at this time: tōhû wābōhû (formless and void), ḥōšek (darkness), and tĕhôm (the deep). Present in Mesopotamian myths and even Old Testament texts, this triad alludes to Chaos. The term tĕhôm betrays an inherent conception of Chaos.”[20]
  • Marvin A. Sweeney: “Interpreters are accustomed to read the first statement of the creation account in Gen 1:1 as a statement of creatio ex nihilo, or 'creation out of nothing,' which presupposes that nothing existed prior to G-d’s creation of the world. In English, Gen 1:1–2 would then read, 'in the beginning, G-d created the heavens and the earth, and the earth was formless and void …' But such a statement conflicts with other depictions of creation in the Bible, e.g., Job 38; Ps 74; and Isa 51, which indicate that G-d overcame a chaos monster as part of the process of creation in which a pre-existing world of chaos was brought into order. Close analysis by the medieval biblical commentator Rashi (Rabbi Solomon ben Isaac, 1040–1105) of the initial words of Gen 1:1, beˇre ̄”sˇît ba ̄ra ̄” “lhym, indicate that they cannot be read as 'in the beginning G-d created,' because the term beˇre ̄”sˇît is a construct form that lacks a definite article. The verb, ba ̄ra ̄”, cannot be read as a perfect verb, but it must be rendered as an infinitive that forms a construct chain with the terms that precede and follow. Consequently, the verse must be read as, 'in (the) beginning of G-d’s creating the heavens and the earth, the earth was formless and void …' The result is a statement in which the earth pre-existed creation in a state of chaos that was put into order by G-d. G-d’s act of creation then becomes a model for human action in the world, viz., the task of human beings modeled on G-d becomes one of overcoming chaos in the world and placing the world into order.”[21]
  • William A. VanGemeren: “The root בָּרָא, Genesis 1, or creation by the word (contra Foerster) cannot explicitly communicate a doctrine of creatio ex nihilo."[22]
  • John H. Walton: “It has long been observed that in the contexts of bara no materials for the creative act are ever mentioned, and an investigation of all the passages mentioned above [which use the Hebrew word bara] substantiate this claim. How interesting it is that these scholars then draw the conclusion that bara implies creation out of nothing (ex nihilo). One can see with a moment of thought that such a conclusion assumes that 'create' is a material activity. To expand their reasoning for clarity’s sake here: Since 'create' is a material activity (assumed on their part), and since the contexts never mention the materials used (as demonstrated by the evidence), then the material object must have been brought into existence without using other materials (i.e., out of nothing). But one can see that the whole line of reasoning only works if one can assume that bara is a material activity. In contrast, if, as the analysis of objects presented above suggests, bara is a functional activity, it would be ludicrous to expect that materials are being used in the activity. In other words, the absence of reference to materials, rather than suggesting material creation out of nothing, is better explained by indication that bara is not a material activity but a functional one.”[23]
  • Claus Westermann: “If this is correct—and there is no other convincing attempt to trace the derivation of ברא—then the Priestly ברא is based on a concrete idea, something like יצר. We do not know if the word was used of creation by God in this concrete sense before Deutero-Isaiah and P. One must be cautious about attributing too much to the word as if it could of itself say something about the uniqueness of the creative act of God. It is clear that it was P’s intention to use a special theological word for creation by God. But it is not correct to regard this word as the only one and to neglect such words as עשׂה or יצר. Nor is it correct to read creatio ex nihilo out of the word as such as, for example, does P. Heinisch: “If not always, then for the most part, the word indicates creatio ex nihilo.” On the other hand A. Heidel is correct: “This concept (creatio ex nihilo), however, cannot be deduced from the Hebrew verb bārāʾ, to create, as it has been done.… There is no conclusive evidence in the entire Old Testament that the verb itself ever expresses the idea of a creation out of nothing."[24]
  • R.N. Whybray: [Genesis] 1:2 refers to the situation before God’s creative action began. There is no question here of a creatio ex nihilo, a ‘creation out of nothing’. The earth (h ̄aʾ ̄ares) already existed, but it was a ‘formless void’ (t ̄ohˆu w ̄ab ̄ohˆu)—not a kind of non-existence but something empty and formless, without light and covered by the water of the deep (t ̆ehˆom). There are echoes here of the Near-Eastern cosmologies. The word rˆuah, rendered by ‘wind’ in NRSV, can also mean ‘spirit’ (see NRSV marg.). Whichever is the correct interpretation, NRSV’s ‘swept’ is a participle, denoting a continuous action; it should perhaps be rendered ‘was hovering’.”[25]
  • Ziony Zevit: “'In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.'On the basis of this well-known rendering, it can be argued that the ancient Israelites believed in creation ex nihilo, that is, creation out of nothing. This happens not to be the case. . . . A stricter, non-interpretive translation of the same verse is 'In the beginning of God’s creating the heavens and the earth,' which indicates that this verse is not a sentence but a circumstantial clause in a long, complicated sentence spread out over three biblical verses. It describes the state of matter in the cosmos before God set about ordering the chaotic mix of darkness, earth, wind, and water to create the heavens and the earth.”[26]

Not Found in the Bible

  • James K. Aitken: “Galen (129–c.211) was the first to indicate that the view of creation had to be altered to take into account Christian views of God, leading to the doctrine of creatio ex nihilo.”[27]
  • William P. Brown: "Overall, however, the Priestly cosmogony does not exemplify a doctrine of creatio ex nihilo, “creation out of nothing.” Syntactically, the first verse of Genesis is a dependent clause (“When God began to create the heavens and the earth . . .”) rather than a complete sentence (i.e., 'God created the heavens and the earth.') Indeed, the notion of creatio ex nihilo did not clearly emerge as a doctrine until the second century CE (G. May, Creatio ex Nihilo: The Doctrine of "Creation out of Nothing” in Early Christian Thought [tr. A.S. Worrall; Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1994], 35-38, 62-84). The vigor and intensity with which both modern and ancient commentators have argued opposing positions betrays the fact that more than simply syntactical precision is at stake; deeply conflicting theological convictions underlie the various ways in which God is viewed in relation to the cosmos. For the Priestly author, however, the preexistence of chaos in no way intrudes on or limits God’s transcendent character, but rather underlines the divine role as the creative orderer of the cosmos. Whereas God is comfortable with preexistent 'chaos' in the Priestly cosmogony, many modern interpreters are not.”[28]
  • James N. Hubler: "Creatio ex nihilo appeared suddenly in the latter half of the second century c.e. Not only did creatio ex nihilo lack precedent, it stood in firm opposition to all the philosophical schools of the Greco-Roman world. As we have seen, the doctrine was not forced upon the Christian community by their revealed tradition, either in Biblical texts or the Early Jewish interpretation of them. As we will also see it was not a position attested in the New Testament doctrine or even sub-apostolic writings. It was a position taken by the apologists of the late second century, Tatian and Theophilus, and developed by various ecclesiastical writers thereafter, by Irenaeus, Tertullian, and Origen. Creatio ex nihilo represents an innovation in the interpretive traditions of revelation and cannot be explained merely as a continuation of tradition.”[29]
  • Helge S. Krach: “What little was known about the universe in the early Middle Ages included the idea that it was created in toto in a supernatural act rather than shaped out of some pre-existing state of matter. It was a true creatio ex nihilo. Given that this is a fundamental doctrine of Christianity, and in view of the overwhelming impact of Christian thought on cosmology through a large part of history, it is not irrelevant to repeat that creatio ex nihilo is nowhere explicitly stated in the Bible, neither in the Old nor in the New Testament. It is a doctrine not to be found in the earliest form of Christianity, when the form of creation was rarely a matter of discussion. Only in the second half of the second century can the doctrine be found in its strict sense, as an ontological and theological statement that expresses the contingence of the creation and the omnipotence and absolute freedom of God."[30]
  • Andrew Louth: "“It is, indeed, in the context of the struggle against Gnosticism that many scholars locate the emergence of the Christian doctrine of creatio ex nihilo. Certainly, the way Theophilus interprets Genesis would have served him well in his struggle against Gnosticism, and it may well be that struggle that led him to see the significance of creation ex nihilo. For the critical role of creation ex nihilo in the thought of Theophilus (and Tertullian) needs some explanation: the older apologist Justin seems much close to traditional Platonism with his assertion that God created the cosmos out of 'unformed matter' (1 Apol. 10, cf. 59).”[31]
  • Gerhard May: “The concept of creatio ex nihilo began to be adumbrated in Christian circles shortly before Galen’s time. The first Christian thinker to articulate the rudiments of a doctrine of creatio ex nihilo was the Gnostic theologian Basilides, who flourished in the second quarter of the second century. Basilides worked out an elaborate cosmogony as he sought to think through the implications of Christian teaching in light of the platonic cosmogony. He rejected the analogy of the human maker, the craftsman who carves a piece of wood, as an anthropomorphism that severely limited the power of God. God, unlike mortals, created the world out of ‘non-existing’ matter. He first brought matter into being through the creation of ‘seeds’, and it is this created stuff that is fashioned, according to His will, into the cosmos.”[32]
“To rabbinic Judaism the questions raised by Greek ontology were relatively remote. But the chief reason why it did not come to the formation of a specific doctrine of creatio ex nihilo is to be seen in the fact that it was not demanded by the text of the Bible. The mention of chaos in Genesis 1:1 could also support the view that an eternal material existed, which God had merely ordered in creating the world. Jewish thought is in its entire essence undogmatic; in the question of the creation of the world it did not find itself tied down by the statements in the Bible and so possessed wide room for manoeuvre for highly variant speculations on creation. It was left for the Jewish philosophers of the Middle Ages to develop in controversy with Arabic neoplatonism and Aristotelianism a specific doctrine of creatio ex nihilo. But even then this did not achieve sole validity, but the biblical statements about creation continued to be interpreted in various ways.”[33]
  • Teun Tieleman: “That God created the world out of nothing seems the most natural way of reading the opening chapter of Genesis. However, as May himself rightly stresses, we must exercise caution when we come across the statement that God created the world out of nothing. Early sources in which this statement is found may merely express the idea of God’s omnipotence. In such cases creatio ex nihilo in its technical sense is not in play. This is generally believed to have resulted from the debate between pagans and Christians in the second century CE—which makes Galen an important witness. Indeed, it seems to have been designed in conscious opposition to a fundamental assumption of the Greek philosophical tradition (cf. also Dillon, this volume, §2). From Parmenides (fifth century BCE) onward it had been axiomatic for Greek philosophers that nothing comes into being from not-being. Accordingly, Plato in his extremely influential Timaeus pictures the divine Craftsman (‘Demiurge’) as bringing order to a pre-existing entity called the ‘Receptacle’ or ‘Mother of Becoming’ or ‘the Place’, which was soon identified by Plato’s readers with Aristotle’s material cause (see below, p. 133). This entity prevents God’s best intentions from being completely realized, thereby explaining such imperfections as remain in a cosmos marked by overall purposefulness and beauty. From the Judaeo-Christian point of view, however, the postulate of the Receptacle goes against divine omnipotence. The doctrine of creatio ex nihilo, then, seems to be intended as the exact counterpart of the Platonic and other Greek accounts of creation that were based on the axiom that being cannot come from not-being.”[34]

Notes

  1. James N. Hubler, "Creatio ex Nihilo: Matter, Creation, and the Body in Classical and Christian Philosophy through Aquinas" (PhD diss., University of Pennsylvania, 1995), 102; cited in Blake T. Ostler, "Out of Nothing: A History of Creation ex Nihilo in Early Christian Thought (review of Review of Paul Copan and William Lane Craig, "Craftsman or Creator? An Examination of the Mormon Doctrine of Creation and a Defense of Creatio ex nihilo," in The New Mormon Challenge: Responding to the Latest Defenses of a Fast-Growing Movement, edited by Beckwith, Mosser, and Owen)," FARMS Review 17/2 (2005): 253–320. off-site
  2. James N. Hubler, "Creatio ex Nihilo: Matter, Creation, and the Body in Classical and Christian Philosophy through Aquinas" (PhD diss., University of Pennsylvania, 1995), 107–8; cited in Blake T. Ostler, "Out of Nothing: A History of Creation ex Nihilo in Early Christian Thought (review of Review of Paul Copan and William Lane Craig, "Craftsman or Creator? An Examination of the Mormon Doctrine of Creation and a Defense of Creatio ex nihilo," in The New Mormon Challenge: Responding to the Latest Defenses of a Fast-Growing Movement, edited by Beckwith, Mosser, and Owen)," FARMS Review 17/2 (2005): 253–320. off-site
  3. FairMormon thanks Jaxon Washburn for his work in compiling all the quotes used here.
  4. Itzhak Benyamini, A Critical Theology of Genesis: The Non-Absolute God (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016), 9-10.
  5. Ibid., 14-15, 27.
  6. Marc Zvi Brettler, How to Read the Jewish Bible (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007), 41.
  7. Thomas L. Brodie, Genesis as Dialogue: A Literary, Historical, and Theological Commentary (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001), 133.
  8. Walter Brueggemann, An Introduction to the Old Testament: The Canon and Christian Imagination (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2003), 54.
  9. Umberto Cassuto, A Commentary on the Book of Genesis: Part I (Jerusalem: The Hebrew University, 1989), 22-23.
  10. Paul K. Cho, Myth, History, and Metaphor in the Hebrew Bible (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2019) 79.
  11. John J. Collins, Introduction to the Hebrew Bible and Deutero-Canonical Books (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2018), 79.
  12. Robert Crotty, “Creation,” A Dictionary of Jewish-Christian Relations ed. Edward Kessler and Neil Wenborn (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005), 111-112.
  13. Edwin M. Good, Genesis I-II: Tales of the Earliest World (Palo Alto, CA: Stanford University Press, 2011),11-12.
  14. Ronald Hendel, “Genesis,” The HarperCollins Study Bible, Revised Edition ed. Harold Attridge et al. (San Francisco: HarperOne, 2006), 5.
  15. Ronald S. Hendel, The Text of Genesis 1-11 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998), 19.
  16. Menahem Kister, “Tohu wa-Bohu, Primordial Elements and Creatio ex Nihilo,” Jewish Studies Quarterly 14-3: 241.
  17. J. R. Porter, “Creation,” The Oxford Guide to the Bible ed. Bruce M. Metzger and Michael D. Coogan (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993).
  18. Thomas Römer, “The Origin and the Status of Evil According to the Hebrew Bible,” Die Wurzel allen Übels Vorstellungen über die Herkunft des Bösen und Schlechten in der Philosophie und Religion des 1.–4. Jahrhunderts ed. F. Jourdan and R. Hirsch-Luipold (Tubingen, Germany: Mohr Siebeck, 2014), 57.
  19. Howard Schwartz, Tree of Souls: The Mythology of Judaism (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004), 73.
  20. Hermann Spieckermann, “Creation: God and World,” The Hebrew Bible: A Critical Companion ed. John Barton (Princeton, NY: Princeton University Press, 2014), 275.
  21. Marvin A. Sweeney, “Genesis in the Context of Jewish Thought,” The Book of Genesis: Composition, Reception, and Interpretation ed. Craig A. Evans, Joel N. Lohr, and David L. Peterson (Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2012), 661-662.
  22. William A. VanGemeren (ed.), New International Dictionary of Old Testament Theology & Exegesis: Vol. 1 (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1997), 732.
  23. John H. Walton, The Lost World of Genesis One: Ancient Cosmology and the Origins Debate (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2009), 42.
  24. Claus Westermann, Genesis 1–11: A Commentary (Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House, 1987), 99-100.
  25. R. N. Whybray, “Genesis," The Oxford Bible Commentary: The Pentateuch ed. John Muddiman and John Barton (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001), 58-59.
  26. Ziony Zevit, What Really Happened in the Garden of Eden? (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2013), 51.
  27. James K. Aitken, “Ancient Authors,” A Dictionary of Jewish-Christian Relations ed. Edward Kessler and Neil Wenborn (Cambridge University Press, 2005), 15.
  28. William P. Brown, The Ethos of the Cosmos: The Genesis of Moral Imagination in the Bible (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1999), 40.
  29. James N. Hubler, Creatio ex Nihilo: Matter, Creation, and the Body in Classical and Christian Philosophy through Aquinas (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania, 1995), 102.
  30. Helge S. Krach, Conceptions of Cosmos—From Myths to the Accelerating Universe: A History of Cosmology (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007), 33.
  31. Andrew Louth, “The Fathers on Genesis,” The Book of Genesis: Composition, Reception, and Interpretation ed. Craig A. Evans, Joel N. Lohr, and David L. Peterson (Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2012), 566.
  32. Gerhard May, “Schoepfung Aus Dem Nichts: Die Entstehung Der Lehre Von Der Creatio Ex Nihilo” (Arbeiten Zur Kirchengeschichte, Vol 48) (Walter De Gruyter Inc, 1978), 63-85 ; as quoted in Robert Louis Wilken, The Christians as the Romans saw Them (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2003), 88–89.
  33. Gerhard May, Creatio Ex Nihilo: The Doctrine of "Creation out of Nothing" in Early Christian Thought (London: T&T Clark International, 2004), 24-25.
  34. Teun Tieleman, “Galen and Genesis,” The Creation of Heaven and Earth: Re-interpretations of Genesis 1 in the Context of Judaism, Ancient Philosophy, Christianity, and Modern Physics (Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2005), 126-127.