Evolving Evangelicalism (part 6): Creation “Out of Something” Not “Nothing”

The following series is based on my senior paper for Seminary. You may remember a video where I invited people to contribute their stories to help make my case. For the next couple weeks, I’ve decided to share my findings with you all. There will be a “thesis/problem” section, a “biblical theology” section, and an “application” section. I hope you will read along and share this with others! You can read the rest of the series here.
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Chaos, Creation, and the Beginning

Verse two contains a counter-intuitive claim: God created by bringing order to pre-existing chaos. According to the NIV, the world was “formless and empty” at creation. This description should not be confused with physical nothingness, but “refers to the earth as ‘void/empty’ in the sense of something desolate and unproductive.”[1] The historical despair of Israel being expelled from their land parallels the chaos that must again be tamed by God. Only a fresh creative act enables the restoration of the people of God. For Israel in exile, they appealed to the ultimate beginning of the world, from chaos to order, as a way of speaking to the need for stability in the midst of disarray.

For many evangelicals, the phrase “In the beginning God created…” does not evoke the contextual reality of exile experienced by the ancient people of God. Instead this verse regularly leads to a disregard for evolution. Some might say: If God created “in the beginning,” what else is there to discuss? I say, there is much to discuss! To start, we must discern the beginning to which the writer is referring. For much of Christian history, the church assumed an original beginning and an ex nihilo (out of nothing) creation.

One helpful perspective is that the opening phrase, specifically the word beginning (Re’shiyth), “does not refer to the absolute beginning of all things, but to the beginning of ordered creation.”[2] The chapter communicates “a relative beginning” after the pre-Genesis world of chaos.[3] This is radically different from the gap theory (the view that there is a significant time-lapse between Genesis 1.1 and 1.2). There is no gap in this text; rather pre-historic matter or chaos is assumed preexist at creation. More will be discussed on that point in a moment.

Evangelical scholar John Walton provides a related, but slightly nuanced, perspective. Walton persuasively demonstrates that the word “beginning” is used to introduce “a period in time, rather than a point in time.”[4] Therefore, it is evident that, “verse 1 serves as a literary introduction to the rest of the chapter.”[5] Throughout the rest of Genesis is a phrase: “this is the account of,” which introduces the eleven sections of the book that follow, beginning with verse 2.4. Therefore, verse 1.1 uses beginning to introduce the initial period outlined in the whole of the book of Genesis. The following eleven sections are also introduced by the above phrase. Consider Walton’s proposed translation of the first verse in the Bible: “In the initial period, God created by assigning functions throughout the heavens and the earth, and this is how he did it.”[6]

Functional Ontology

The above translation assumes God created by assigning functions. Bara’, the word English Bibles translate “created,” only refers to God’s own activity in the Old Testament. Up until the time just prior to Jesus (2 Maccabees 7.28), bara’ never implied a creation out of nothing. Rather, it was understood as the bringing of order to the world.[7] One source argues for the traditional meaning of the word arguing that its “primary emphasis… is on the newness of the created object.” However, Laird-Harris concedes that such a “concept is not necessarily inherent within the meaning of the word.”[8] We might avoid the tendency to hold onto the ex nihilo perspective if we scrutinize our presuppositions as moderns compared to that of the Ancient Near East. Bara’ occurs 50 times in the Hebrew Bible and never refers to “physical manufacturing” but rather to “assigning roles” or functions in various contexts.[9]

This assigning of functions out of pre-existing chaos, again, demonstrates God’s all-powerfulness in direct confrontation to the gods of Mesopotamia.[10] This should not be taken to say that God is not also the source of materiality; this particular text does not attempt to make the same point that moderns often do in interpretations. Exilic Jews certainly would have affirmed God as the source of material origins, but their questions focused on the functional realities of the cosmos. Eventually, the New Testament states that God created out of nothing (Rom. 4.17, Heb. 11.3), but that was a relatively new claim.[11] The Old Testament never makes this claim.

Moderns hold to a view of existence called material ontology,[12] “the belief that something exists by virtue of its physical properties and its ability to be experienced by the senses.”[13] In contrast, ancients held to what is called functional ontology, “the ancient world believed that something existed… by virtue of its having function in an ordered system.”[14]

Imagine that a grocery store is going to be constructed down the street from your home. Perhaps you notice a foundation being laid or the walls going up. Later, you see a sign on the building that says “Whole Foods.” Is this now a grocery store or simply a building? It does not function as a grocery store, so perhaps at this point, it is merely an empty building with the potential to become something more useful. It will finally become a grocery store when the employees are in place to make the building function so that it is stocked with food and ready for customers. This sort of ordering is comparable to a functional view of reality. Walton explains:

In this sort of functional ontology, the sun does not exist by virtue of its material properties, or even by its function as a burning ball of gas. Rather it exists by virtue of the role that it has in its sphere of existence, particularly in the way that it functions for humankind and human society… In a functional ontology, to bring something into existence would require giving it a function or a role in an ordered system, rather than giving it material properties. Consequently, something could be manufactured physically but still not “exist” if it has not become functional.[15]

Genesis 1 is not concerned with material origins, but with functional origins. Genesis 1 is about God taking unorganized preexistent materials (which also originated in God) and organizing them into their various functions.[16]


[1]. Fretheim, The New Interpreter’s Bible: A Commentary in Twelve Volumes – Volume I, 342.

[2]. Fretheim, The New Interpreter’s Bible: A Commentary in Twelve Volumes – Volume I, 342.

[3]. Waltke, Genesis: A Commentary, 58-59 and n. 12.

[4]. Walton, The Lost World of Genesis One: Ancient Cosmology and the Origins Debate, 45.

[5]. Ibid.

[6]. Ibid., 46.

[7]. Theodore Hiebert, “Create, To,” in The New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible: A-C, ed. Katharine Doob Sakenfeld (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 2006-2009), 1:779-80.

[8]. R. Laird Harris et al., eds., “278,” in Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament (Chicago: Moody Press, 1980), 1:127.

[9]. John H. Walton, “Creation,” in Dictionary of the Old Testament: Pentateuch, ed. David Baker and T. Desmond Alexander (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2003), 161.

[10]. Ibid., 163.

[11]. Brueggemann, Genesis, 29.

[12]. Ontology is a particular theory about the nature of being or the kinds of things that have existence. Merriam-Webster, I. (2003). Merriam-Webster’s collegiate dictionary. (Eleventh ed.). Springfield, Mass.: Merriam-Webster, Inc.

[13]. Walton, The Lost World of Genesis One: Ancient Cosmology and the Origins Debate, 24.

[14]. Ibid., 26.

[15]. Ibid.

[16]. Ibid., 45.

  • Tommy

    The “clear” reading (yes, I know that is a charged word, and only means “clear” to me here)  says to me that the following things happened:

    1. God created the heavens and the earth, formless and void. 
    2  (v 3) After the formless and void earth was created, God began his “speaking into creation” acts.

    I see no reason to reject ex nihilo based on reading the text.  It is not at all clear to me that “formless and void” refers to a time before “In the beginning” nor a time before “God created the heavens and the earth.”  Rather, to me, ex nihilo is counter-indicated by the words and wording themselves.

    I have not dived into your exigesis, but let me have your best single shot at why I should not interpret as I have.

    • Tommy

      OK that made no sense because I am a moron and did not write what I meant.  Please replace “to me, ex nihilo is counter-indicated…” with “to me, a rejection of ex nihilo is counter-indicated…”

      That is what happens when I engage in theological discussion while I should be working…

    • http://patheos.com/blogs/thepangeablog/ Kurt Willems

      @b9ba96f72e690aa9344fbd2704bce320:disqus … as I make clear above… the word “bara” NEVER means “out of nothing” like we moderns think it does. Never in the Old Testament or in any of its forms in ancient culture. That is the primary reading. Then, also, when you read the Hebrew text in a natural way, every commentator listed reminds us that the chaos is what must be tamed and it is there from the “beginning” in the text. Finally, we must remember that this is not writen to describe something historically but theologically. Not sure if you read the rest of the series, but that makes a bit of difference. This poetic narrative confronts Babylon and Egypt while making the claim that God is the only Organizer and Sustainer of all reality.  Their questions (the writers) have nothing to do with material origins and everything to do with “making meaning” out of their circumstances. God orders the world so we order our lives around that God.

      • Tommy

        Thanks Kurt.  So how did what was there before “the beginning” come to be?  Whence commeth the stuff that was chaotic and formless?

        • http://patheos.com/blogs/thepangeablog/ Kurt Willems

          God is the source of everything… but if you read the rest of the series… we see that the Jews were using an “origins” story to answer identity questions/issues in Exile… not to present scientific historical facts for how it happened. My point is that Genesis is not speaking to science for sciences sake. The New Testament affirms that God is the source of creation as we think about it (material) but this is not what we have in Geneis 1… and thats ok.
          Thanks Tommy…

          Kurt Willems

  • ReasonDisciple

    God tells us that even all the physical things in creation are signs of His spiritual divinity.

    “For the invisible [spiritual] things of Him from the creation of the world are clearly seen, being understood by the [visible. physical] things that are made, even His eternal power and Godhead [By the way, “Godhead” is not a proper translation of any Greek word, it should be translated ‘Deity’ or ‘Divinity’]; so that they are without excuse.” (Romans 1:20).

    Contrary to human logic, physical things are not made out of solid matter. God says they are made out of things [‘things’ not out of nothing] which “do not appear”—invisible things, things of God. God is invisible and therefore “visible things” are made out of the invisible Creator God.

    “Through faith we understand that the worlds were framed by the word of God, so that things which are seen were not made of things which do appear.” (Heb. 11:3).

    Scientists know this for a fact. Physical, tangible, material substances can be reduced down to atomic and subatomic invisible energy—SPIRITUAL ENERGY, if you will!

    Spiritual essence can be made into something that is tangible, and that is exactly what God did when He made the worlds. The Scripture says that God, by His Spirit, created the worlds out of HIMSELF–Spirit.

    “For of Him, and through Him, and to Him, are all things…” [Greek: ‘For OUT OF Him, and through Him, and for Him, is ALL’—there is no word ‘things’]” (Rom. 11:36). So creation is “IN Christ,” but “OUT of God.” Not, out of “nothing.” The universe consists of the things of God’s already eternally existing SELF. God is SPIRIT (John 4:24). And what is matter but invisible spiritual power and energy?

    “For by Him were ALL things created [Greek: ‘Because IN (not ‘by’ but ‘IN’) Him (Christ) is ALL (there is no word ‘things’) CREATED, that in the heavens and that on the earth…’] … ALL things were created by Him and for Him: and He is before ALL things AND BY Him, ALL things consist [Gk: ‘hold together’]” (Col. 1:16 & 17). So again, creation is “IN Christ,” but “OUT of God.” Not, out of “nothing.” The universe consists of the things of God’s already eternally existing SELF. God is SPIRIT (John 4:24). And what is matter but invisible spiritual power and energy?

    The Spirit has that capability.

    Then in the rest of Genesis Chapter 1, we see the second type of creation. This is where you begin with materials that already exist and you create something new from them.

    So God created the heavens and the earth – all the materials that make up the universe. Then He began to form the earth and to create a new earth out of the materials that already existed. So there are these two forms of creation. 

  • Christopher Cruz

    I’m writing a book which i call it “BIBLE” and yes it is based on The Holy Bible itself and i totally disagree with your post here. The books in the Holy Bible was mostly altered by syaitainin worshipers, i have attained wisdom from Heaven and Holy Ghost are guidence to me, and i used my gift in rewritting The Holy Bible. I have rewritten Genesis and added in a new chapter at the begining and also added 3 more chapters at the end. I’m looking for a reliable publisher or literary agent for my book as i wish to share my knowledge from Heaven to all in this world.

  • Scott Gay

    Up until now process thought has been the group who has most challenged the ex-nihilo assumptions. Up until now process thought has been the group who have explored events and eventualities( which is often expressed in terms of happenings). Are you or have you ever been a Hartshornean?

    • http://patheos.com/blogs/thepangeablog/ Kurt Willems

      I don’t hold to process thought… I’m an open theist. However, I don’t see a ex nihilo creation in Genesis 1. The New Testament makes this claim, but not about Genesis 1… but about the cosmos in general.
      Thanks!
      Kurt Willems

  • http://nailtothedoor.blogspot.com Dan Martin

    While I follow your reasoning I’m not sure I track with the purpose of this point, Kurt. If I’m correctly understanding you, you still hold that at some point (pre Gen. 1:1?) God did, in fact, create un-ordered matter ex nihilo, which he later ordered…but that’s not the theme of Genesis. Is this a correct characterization? If so, so what?

    • http://patheos.com/blogs/thepangeablog/ Kurt Willems

      Sort of Dan… What I am arguing here is that the text portrays pre-existing matter. And in the same text God separates and orders the matter from chaos to order. With that said, I don’t think this is a literal “how he did it” guide of any sort. I simply take note that that is what is happening in the text. All of this serves a literary/rhetorical function not a scientific function.
      I go on to say that I believe God created even the very materials, but this is a background question to the kinds of identity questions the Jews were asking. These questions, of course, are consistent with the sorts of questions we see being asked by Babylonian theology, Egyptian theologies, and the surrounding cultures of the day.
      Dan, you really got to pick up a copy of “the evolution of Adam”. That book was a game changer for me. Between that book and John Walton’s “the lost world of Genesis 1” I’ve totally overhauled my position on this passage.
      KURT WILLEMS
      http://twitter.com/kurtwillems
      http://facebook.com/kurtwillems

      • http://nailtothedoor.blogspot.com Dan Martin

        I couldn’t agree more that Genesis is not a scientific book (nor, for that matter, are all the later chapters strictly historical, but that’s another discussion).  So I totally agree (and have for years) that the message is not a western, creation-process message and to seek that sort of information from it is silly.

        I just am not sure to what extent making the alternative claim, that Gen. 1:1 presumes pre-existing matter, is really a point worth making.  I’d feel more comfortable just making the wholly-accurate claim that mechanics aren’t the point of Genesis, rather than suggesting, as I think this does, a possible alternative mechanics.

        In other words, I’m already a theistic evolution guy…no need to convince me there…I’m just cautious about replacing one misapplication of the text with another.  I prefer to say “if you’re looking for answers to questions of material origin, this ain’t the place to look,” and leave it at that (vis-a-vis Genesis).

        • http://patheos.com/blogs/thepangeablog/ Kurt Willems

          Dan… this is my senior paper for seminary graduation. I had to say all that stuff to get the “A” 😉
          Kurt

          • http://nailtothedoor.blogspot.com Dan Martin

            LOL…mercenary! ;{)