In Chapter 5 of Understanding Scientific Theories of Origins John Walton argued at length that in the opening chapter of Genesis God is ordering the cosmos and creating sacred space. It does not describe creation ex nihilo – out of nothing. In fact, Walton argues that it does not really describe material creation at all. Whether this is accurate or not, it is clear that both creation from nothing and an interpretation of Genesis 1 in the context of creation from nothing has a long history in the Christian church. In Chapter 5 of Early Christian Readings of Genesis One Craig Allert describes the importance of creation from nothing in the writings of the early church fathers.
In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters.
The interpretation of Genesis 1:1-2 to support the doctrine of creation from nothing was important to many of the early church fathers. The Greeks held several different views of creation with two major schools of thought. Lucretius provides an example of one school with a cosmos described as an accident with matter-in-motion explanations, infinite universe, transient cosmos, flat earth, and an evolution of process within the cosmos. He is explicit in his denial of divine agency and divine purpose. Plato and Aristotle provide examples of the other school where the cosmos has is unique, has purpose, is finite and either eternal or repeating with a spherical earth and often an immaterial soul. (summarized from p. 209) If the earth is thought to be created by a god or gods, it was produced from and constrained by preexisting matter.
This means that Plato’s creator is not really free, because he was limited to matter that possessed certain properties and dictated the way in which he could use it. The substance with which the creator worked did not have a starting point and thus the creator did not give the world its existence in the full ontological sense. Not only was Plato’s creator limited by preexistent matter, he was also limited by the space in which the matter existed. This space possessed movement and expansion and thus change. (pp. 211-212)
Neither of these options were acceptable in the early church any more than they would be today. Given this background we can see the importance of the opening line of the Apostles’ Creed “I believe in God, the Father Almighty, Creator of heaven and earth” expanded in the Nicene Creed: “We believe in one God, the Father almighty, maker of heaven and earth, of all things visible and invisible.” To acknowledge God as creator of everything was and is an important element of Christian belief.
Craig Allert looks at Theophilus of Antioch, Ephrem of Syria, and Basil of Caesarea to explore creation ex nihilo in the early church. Theophilus is the earliest of the three (died ca. 183-185 AD). A brief summary from Allert’s chapter:
Theophilus of Antioch is of special importance because he is usually identified as the first post-New Testament Christian writer to unambiguously argue for creatio ex nihilo in the ontological sense. One can see that the doctrine is clearly set in opposition to the previously mentioned ideas concerning the eternality of matter. (pp. 214-215)
Theophilus puts forth this argument for creation out of nothing for three reasons: First, if matter is preexistent (and therefore uncreated), this places matter on the same level as God, and he can no longer be thought of as the Creator of everything; second, since God is uncreated he is, therefore, immutable (similarly, if matter was uncreated it would also be immutable); third, God creating out of preexistent matter is no different than a human craftsman fashioning something out of a given material. Because God creates out of nothing and fashions “whatever he wished in whatever way he wished,” he can, unlike human craftsmen, create a being that is rational, breathing, and capable of sensation. In other words, for Theophilus creation out of nothing must be seen in parallel with the conferring of life. (p. 220)
Ephrem the Syrian (ca. 306 – 373 AD) and Basil of Caesarea (ca. 329-379 AD) represent a more completely developed doctrine of creation out of nothing. Ephrem looks to Moses as the author of Genesis 1 to refute errant cosmologies of his day, particularly a cosmology proposed by Bardasian a century or so earlier. Ephraim is particularly concerned to defend the sovereignty of God as creator of everything that exists. Whereas Bardasian held that God ordered preexisting matter, for Ephraim this was heretical and he argued at length for creation ex nihilo. Allert quotes from Ephrem’s commentary on Genesis:
Therefore, it is evident that heaven and earth came to be from nothing because neither water nor wind had yet been created, nor had fire, light or darkness been given their nature. for they were younger than heaven and earth. These things were created things that came after heaven and earth and they were not self-subsistent beings for they did not exist before [heaven and earth] (p. 224)
Basil argued something similar although he isn’t quite as explicit. God is the creator at all with the cosmos having both a beginning (no preexisting matter) and an end in the age to come. Allert summarizes Basil:
But with the opening words of Genesis, Moses immediately posits God as Creator. As Basil states, “How beautiful an arrangement! He placed first ‘the beginning,’ that no one might believe that it was without a beginning. Then he added the word ‘created,’ that it might be shown that what was made required a very small part of the power of the creator.” It was by his will alone that the Creator brought the material world into existence. Thus, we should not imagine a world without beginning and without end. This first statement in the “divinely inspired teaching” of Genesis is “the preliminary proclamation of the doctrine concerning the end and the changing of the world.” (p. 227)
Allert summarizes the views in the early church:
The doctrine of creatio ex nihilo in the early church was established in direct opposition to certain philosophical and scientific views that encroached on God’s providence, sovereignty, and eternality. … In the Fathers discussed in this book, creation out of nothing was well accepted and seen as a necessary counter to certain philosophical and scientific views of God. (p. 228)
Whether Genesis 1 actually teaches creation from nothing or not, it was clearly interpreted and used in the early church and down through the ages as teaching such a view. In many respects it doesn’t matter if their use of Genesis 1 was appropriate. Creation from nothing is a Christian doctrine that can be defended from Scripture independent of the original intent of the author of Genesis 1 – whose culture may well have had different challenges and questions that needed to be addressed. In particular it can be defended from Colossians 1:15-17 and John 1:1-4. We say with the church Fathers that We believe in one God, the Father almighty, maker of heaven and earth, of all things visible and invisible.
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