Creation Debates are Not New

The first two centuries of the Christian church included serious debates between major theologians — like Justin Martyr and Tertullian — and they debated one essential idea: Did God create out of nothing or did God create from pre-existing material? A problem actually arises from the translation of Genesis 1:1-2.

KJV: In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth. And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters.”

NRSV: 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, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters.

Notice how this works: in the KJV, after God created the heaven and the earth, there was “without form, and void” while in the NRSV God’s creation turned things from formlessness and voidness into created order. The KJV, in some sense, has a problem setting up the possibility of a two-stage creation: first matter, then order out of matter. The NRSV’s translation could well imply the same, but perhaps not. Both translations are legit.

We talk about creation and science often on this blog, mostly through the posts of RJS (who is a professional scientist), but creation is not just a debate. It is an affirmation about God, that God is Life and that God is responsible for creation. Do you see any prospects for a resolution among Christians of a traditional bent to see legitimacy in theistic evolution or evolutionary creation or creationary evolution? Or is this a make or break issue?

All of this is discussed in Ronald Heine, Classical Christian Doctrine, because the first lines of the Nicene Creed says:

We believe in one God,
the Father, the Almighty,
maker of heaven and earth, 
of all that is, seen and unseen.

At the time of Jesus and the apostle Paul, and a set of ideas still central by the end of 2d Century AD, there were two basic views: the Platonic view was that God “created” out of pre-existing materials while the Aristotelian view was that matter existed eternally.

Christians differed, too. Justin Martyr was like Plato in thinking God created out of existing materials while Tertullian argued — and his view captured the church — that God created out of nothing (ex nihilo). Tatian said God created matter and then out of matter created the order we see.

The fundamental issue comes down to the doctrine of God: if God alone is the origin of life, matter depends on and comes from God, and therefore the Aristotelian and pre-existing theories are defined off the map. If God alone is Life and if God is creator, then at some point in time matter did not exist and came to exist. Thus, creation is ex nihilo in orthodox thinking.

Of course, this says absolutely nothing about how God chose to create. A creationary evolution that affirms all comes from God coheres with orthodoxy as much as the creationist’s view.

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  • JL Schafer

    Thanks for this helpful article.

    You wrote, “At the time of Jesus and the apostle Paul… there were two basic views.” Did Jesus or Paul or other NT authors speak to this? In your opinion, does the NT explicitly teach creation ex nihilo?

  • scotmcknight

    The words used in the NT simply don’t reveal they were thinking in those categories. It would be a simple deduction that since there is one God, that God is the origin of all, that God must have created ex nihilo. That, however, does not mean God did not create matter and then order that matter into functions (as in Walton).

  • Rick

    I don’t have my copy of Heine’s book with me, so I could be wrong about this being the source, but I think he also mentions the early church claim in which “eternality” is a characteristic of God. So if matter is eternal, then it is “equal” to God.

  • Jeff Hyatt

    Scot, I wonder if coming to a “resolution” on this issue would be problematic precisely because the Church would be speaking definitively on something that we cannot know. Even if we had a majority-vote of all living Christians on this issue, wouldn’t we be placing too much confidence in our own certainties? This is the source of division because sub-cultures within the Church are ‘resolute’ in their knowledge of creation, both philosophically and ‘scientifically.’

  • Josh Ratliff

    I like the term “evolutionary creation.” It’s more disarming than “theistic evolution” and may allow the conversation to proceed past the first sentence.

  • Jeff Martin

    Saying we evolved from apes is always going to be a hard sell amongst Christians, because those who believe in evolution always have the unenviable task of trying to figure out at which point did God make us in his image? Was it at the neanderthal level or prior to that?
    If God made man to rule over the animals, then who was in charge when there was just animals? Did God hope for the best in the beginning?

  • Balthasar Lewis

    Would you not be better off saying “among Christians of the time” instead of saying “the Christian church”? There was no “Christian church”. Either give the correct name or generally refer to the Christians of the time.

  • Phil Miller

    The bigger question, at least from my perspective, is what does it actually mean to made in God’s image? I think our physical bodies could be completely different than we are now, and we could still be made in God’s image. It’s hard to imagine it simply because we can’t really imagine not being the way we are, but it seems that the imago Dei transcends our physicality.

  • Eric Weiss

    In his Commentary on the Torah (which also includes his translation of the Torah), Richard Elliott Friedman says re: the Hebrew of Genesis 1:2:

    1:2 the earth had been. Here is a case in which a tiny point of grammar makes a difference for theology. In the Hebrew of this verse, the noun comes before the verb (in the perfect form). This is now known to be the way of conveying the past perfect in Biblical Hebrew. This point of grammar means that this verse does not mean “the earth was shapeless and formless” – referring to the condition of the earth starting the instant after it was created. This verse rather means that “the earth had been shapeless and formless” – that is, it had already existed in this shapeless condition prior to the creation. Creation of matter in the Torah is not out of nothing (creatio ex nihilo), as many have claimed. And the Torah is not claiming to be telling events from the beginning of time.

    1:2 shapeless and formless. The two words in the Hebrew, tohu and bohu, are understood to mean virtually the same thing. This is the first appearance in the Torah of a phenomenon in biblical language known as hendiadys, in which two connected words are used to signify one thing. (“Wine and beer” [Lev 10:9] may be a hendiadys as well, or it may be a merism, a similar construction in which two words are used to signify a totality; so that “wine and beer” means all alcoholic beverages.) The hendiadys of “tohu and bohu,” plus the references to the deep and the water, yields a picture of an undifferentiated, shapeless fluid that had existed prior to creation.

    Friedman translates Genesis 1:1-2 as:

    1:1 In the beginning of God’s creating the skies and the earth – 2 when the earth had been shapeless and formless, and darkness was on the face of the deep, and God’s spirit was hovering on the face of the water –

    I had a friend ask his Hebrew professor about this, and though I no longer have the email conversation, I think the Hebrew professor felt that Friedman might have been a little too simplistic or forceful re: the past perfect syntax. I don’t know Hebrew well enough to evaluate Friedman’s comments.

  • Levi

    In certain evangelical circles, theistic evolution (or evolutionary creation, if you prefer) is a hard sell, but not normally for that reason. Those who believe God created through evolutionary means believe that those sorts of details are underdetermined by the text.

    That’s not to say the details of Imago Dei are unimportant or uninteresting — to the contrary, there are plenty of ideas thrown around. But it’s not what the text is about.

    I’m not sure what you think the significance of the questions about “who was in charge” before man. Ummm…. God? Yup, pretty sure God was in charge. Just as He always was at all points historic and pre-historic, is now, and always will be.

    I leave it to better theologians than myself to argue whether it’s correct to say that God hopes for anything at all.

  • Jeff Martin

    For Levi and Phil,
    I realize that having God in charge without man is plausible and of course very good, but I think the text hints at a reading where man is a mini-god in charge of the whole earth to reign whatever chaos there is remaining in.
    The text only implies that the chaos was the water, not the earth before man got there. So I am arguing that actually, the text is all about the Imago Dei. Many scholars have suggested based on the straightforward reading of Gen 1:26 that being made in the image of God is basically being a mini-god. A Mini-me if you will. The Updated NIV says it nicely – “Let us make mankind in our image….so that they may rule over….”
    I am not trying to imply that Genesis 1 is trying to argue against evolution. I am arguing from purely a theological-literary standpoint.

  • danaames

    “…it seems that the imago Dei transcends our physicality.”

    Yes, I would agree. However, in the Orthodox Church it is also that humans were created as the kind of beings, and the world was created as the kind of world, into which, in the fullness of time, Christ would become incarnate. The Incarnation was not “plan B” – God’s intention was always to become united with humanity (and with the rest of creation in an appropriate manner), and in such a way that physicality is included. So all creation is somehow in reference to Christ, Col 1:15-23.


  • Levi

    The phrase “fill the earth and subdue it” in Gen 1:28 would seem to militate against that reading. If the earth needed subduing, there’s something else going on besides just chaotic waters.

  • Jeff Martin

    Yes I agree there is still some chaos left over, but what that entails can only range to what man could actually handle.
    Man would not be able to “put the deep into storehouses” as Psalm 33 says. Man was supposed to keep the serpent as one of God’s creation under control, but he slipped up.
    Actually what I have brought up has not been discussed at all regarding this topic but I think is the most powerful argument for a creationist viewpoint. Although I am an old earth creationist just to be clear.
    Hopefully it clears up what I said before. The previous post made it imply all the chaos was taken care of by God. God was saving some cleaning up for man to do, they being a mini-me and all.

  • wolfeevolution

    Fascinating reference, Eric. Though my Hebrew’s rusty, I just read through this detailed linguistics article that surveys relevant literature on this very issue from 20 years ago — — and it explains the past perfect syntax with a bit more technical nuance.

    Based on this article and references therein, Friedman was not really being too simplistic or forceful, as best I can understand it. Both the English past perfect verb form and the Biblical Hebrew noun-plus-perfect-verb sequence are linguistic constructions that serve to background material, i.e., to flag something as not being part of the main storyline. This crucial insight, which came out of 20th century studies in discourse analysis, fits Friedman’s analysis and helps explain the rationale behind this translation shift between KJV and NRSV.

  • residentoftartarus


    “In the Hebrew of this verse, the noun comes before the verb (in the perfect form). This is now known to be the way of conveying the past perfect in Biblical Hebrew.”

    This is a highly dubious claim as it suggests a level of technical precision that biblical Hebrew does not exhibit. In particular, biblical Hebrew is most irregular and contains practically every combination of subject, verb, and object. To say that a particular sequence of these grammatical elements speaks to anything more than the style of the author in question is, in my opinion, unwarranted.

  • wolfeevolution

    Just because a language contains practically every combination of subject, verb, and object does not imply that these word orders are interchangeable. Many languages (e.g., NT Greek and OT Hebrew) have fluid word order, with the word order in a particular instance determined in large part by discourse-pragmatic principles, rather than by a strict fixed-word-order syntax. I think you might be surprised at the “level of technical precision” you’d find in Hebrew if you read different articles, Tartarus, like the one I posted below and the scholarship it references.

  • residentoftartarus

    Yes, word order is fluid and not necessarily interchangeable; however, this doesn’t change the fact that biblical Hebrew is not a technically precise language. In particular, this means that correctly translating/interpreting biblical Hebrew is not a simple matter of mastering even the finer points of the language.

    I know firsthand the experience of agonizing over the correct translation of some of the Bible’s more difficult passages. And it is typical in these cases that the consonantal text admits multiple translations that are all grammatically possible. This sort of thing is not the hallmark of a technically precise language!

  • wolfeevolution

    I agree with you 100% here: “correctly translating/interpreting biblical Hebrew is not a simple matter of mastering even the finer points of the language” and “the consonantal text admits multiple translations that are all grammatically possible.” Absolutely, and by the way I’m sorry if I insulted your intelligence or impugned your knowledge of Hebrew, which probably far exceeds mine.

    The problem is that there aren’t two types of languages, technically precise ones and technically imprecise ones. Every language has bits of technical precision and bits of technical imprecision. All I was saying in response to your comment was, I don’t think Hebrew word order is one of those technically imprecise things.