Last month, I published Craig Carter’s response to Gwilym Davies’ critique of his book Interpreting Scripture with the Great Tradition. Dr Carter has now written a follow-up piece giving a worked example of how the theological interpretation of Scripture actually works. As before, it is an honour to publish Dr Carter’s thoughts and I hope that it sparks discussion about something that, I believe, is an increasingly important topic in contemporary British evangelicalism.
Does Genesis 1 Teach the Doctrine of creatio ex nihilo?
Craig A. Carter
This blog post started out as a Twitter thread that got out of control. When it grows up, it aspires to be part of a chapter in a book. We shall see. In an earlier post I responded to a talk on my book, Interpreting Scripture with the Great Tradition: Recovering the Genius of Premodern Exegesis, given by Gwilym Davies. My comments revolved around the nature of the divine Author’s intention and its relation to the human author’s conscious intention and how they go together to make up the meaning of the text. What I want to do here is not to continue the debate, but rather to describe how my understanding of ‘Theological Interpretation of Scripture,’ (TIS), works in with regard to a key biblical text. This is a kind of ‘thinking out loud’ and I invite comments and feedback. I wish to argue for a contemplative exegesis that makes use of doctrine in interpreting Genesis 1.
The question of whether Genesis 1 teaches the doctrine of creatio ex nihilo is important for several reasons.
- This is a classic interpretation held by most of the orthodox tradition prior to the modern period that is widely questioned today in historical critical scholarship and, increasingly, by many who would self-identify as Evangelicals.
- This chapter is utterly foundational to the Bible and to our understanding of the nature of God because it presents bedrock teaching on what it means for God to be the “Creator of heaven and earth,” as the Apostles’ Creed puts it.
- The issue of the relationship of God to the creation is fundamental to the classical theist concept of God that was integrated with Trinitarian theology by the pro-Nicene fathers of the fourth century as the classically orthodox doctrine of God crystalized.
So, the stakes for exegesis could hardly be higher. Is the church right to teach that Genesis teaches creatio ex nihilo? Is the orthodox doctrine of creation grounded in Scripture? This is no trivial debate, but one of the most fundamental exegetical questions in theology.
What is Theological Interpretation of Scripture?
TIS, as I understand it, is simply the interpretation of Scripture according to the method commonly practiced in the Great Tradition of Christian orthodoxy before the reductionist pressures of the Enlightenment began to constrict the conception of what exegesis should be. Classical or premodern exegesis investigates the literal sense of the text paying close attention to the conscious intention of the human author but does not fall into the trap of thinking that its task has been completed at that point. The historical context is one of the relevant contexts to be considered, but not the only one as much modern exegesis would have it. (In fact, the historical contexts of certain texts are practically inaccessible to us and thus cannot guide our interpretation in any case.) Two other crucially important contexts besides the historical context are the canonical context (the Bible as a unified book with Jesus Christ as its central theme) and the context of the creedal and confessional tradition of historic, Christian orthodoxy.
The consideration of the text in these further contexts, (i.e. canonical and confessional), constitutes what I call a “second exegesis” in which the interpreter reads the text together in the light of biblical theology and settled doctrine. Every interpreter comes to the text with certain working presuppositions and it is better to come with historic orthodoxy as one’s presupposition than it is to come with materialism, mechanism, nominalism, skepticism and relativism as one’s presuppositions. The latter set of presuppositions are essentially atheistic and therefore they represent a faith stance just as surely as does the orthodox alternative. I approach Scripture on the assumption that the Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds and the Definition of Chalcedon, as well as Reformed confessions such as the Westminster Confession are true. Moreover, I believe that these creeds and confessions have come into existence over centuries as summaries of and deductions from sound biblical exegesis.
Thus, TIS approaches the text from a confessional stance or worldview that is compatible with and actually drawn from the Bible. This creates empathy between the interpreter and the text that is not present in the work of interpreters who come from a naturalistic perspective and this empathy allows for deeper comprehension of the Divine authorial intent and thus a fuller appreciation of the meaning of the text. Much that necessarily remains obscure in a naturalistic interpretation is illumined by the confessional approach. The self-involving logic of the text requires decisions of faith at various points along the way and a refusal to believe the message at one point closes off understanding at later points. As Augustine and Anselm stressed, one must believe in order to understand.
TIS, then, involves a “second exegesis” in which the text is read in the light of the canon of Scripture as a whole and in the light of sound doctrine. In general, if our initial exegesis includes a point that is contradicted by other biblical texts or by the doctrines we believe to have arisen from sound exegesis, that probably means that we need to revise our exegesis. Occasionally, after an increasing number of anomalies indicating dissonance between exegetical results and a doctrine, we might become convinced that a doctrine needs tweaking or revising. That is not impossible, but it is comparatively rare. (You might be a second Martin Luther . . . or you might have missed something. The odds heavily favor the latter possibility.)
It is common for “second exegesis” to deepen our insight into the meaning of the text. This does not usually entail overturning or completely rejecting our original exegesis, but it often means deepening our understanding of the meaning of the text. We are not manipulating or torturing the text in this process, but reverently contemplating its meaning. This is a delicate and complex process and should not be rushed or done frivolously. The word “contemplation” captures the nuance of awe and wonder before the Word of God that should characterize our attitude at this stage.
Interpreting Genesis 1 Theologically
Now, let us apply these ideas to Genesis 1. Premodern exegesis from the second century onward saw Genesis 1:1 as teaching creatio ex nihilo. Let us quote Calvin as representative of the tradition:
When God in the beginning created the heaven and the earth, the earth was empty and waste. He moreover teaches by the word “created” that what before did not exist was now made; for he has not used the term yatsar, which signifies to frame or form, but bara, which signifies to create. Therefore his meaning is, that the world was made out of nothing. Hence the folly of those who is refuted who imagine that unformed matter existed from eternity; and who gather nothing else from the narration of Moses than that the world was furnished with new ornaments, and received a form of which was before destitute. This indeed was formerly a common fable among heathens, who had received only an obscure report of the creation, and who, according to custom adulterated the truth of God with strange figments; but for Christian men to labour (as Steuchus does) in maintaining this gross error is absurd and intolerable. (Commentary on Genesis, Baker reprint 2005, p. 70).
Here we see all the key elements of the premodern exegesis of Genesis 1:1. The discovery of the various ancient Near Eastern myths such as the Babylonian myth, Enuna Elish, in the nineteenth century would not have surprised Calvin; it would simply confirm his statements here about the “obscure reports of the creation” among the heathen. He did not know as much as we do about the historical context, but nothing in his interpretation depends on the details of the historical context. For him the historical context does not limit the ability of God to reveal something new to the prophet. He distinguishes between the meaning of yatsar and bara, which is a valid distinction. He specifically says that matter is not eternal, which is essential to the idea of creatio ex nihilo.
If it was pointed out to him that the verse does not specifically contain the words “out of nothing” he would probably have argued that the idea is there even if the actual words are not. However, he might have appealed to Romans 4:17, which speaks of God “who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist.” It is correct to speak of creatio ex nihilo as a true doctrine either way, but in my understanding of TIS we should side with the premoderns in seeing creatio ex nihilo as being taught in Genesis 1:1 and not only in other texts such as Romans 4:17.
Many modern commentaries on Genesis 1 spend all their time arguing that that Genesis 1:1 doesn’t mean “creatio ex nihilo.” They stress the fact that the exact words “out of nothing” are not present in the text. But if you boil down the arguments to their essence, the logic works like this. We are supposed to interpret the text in the light of its historical context and there is no concept of anything but eternally existing matter in the ancient Near Eastern context. This is the essential point. Arguments about philology and dating and literary structure all lead back here eventually. There was no concept of creatio ex nihilo in either the time of Moses or in the Babylonian exile, so there cannot be such a concept in the text. It would have had to have been created (“ex nihilo,” so to speak!) by a miracle. The orthodox Christian, at this point, will want to say: “So what is the problem with that?” If that is your reaction you are a Christian and not a philosophical naturalist at heart. That is the premodern answer.
The words “out of nothing” are not there in Genesis 1:1, but I believe that the idea is. If you ignore the canonical and confessional context and simply focus on the isolated text by itself and if you read your Pritchard diligently enough and fill your mind with ancient mythology, you just might be able to convince yourself that it is doubtful whether or not the text teaches creatio ex nihilo. But my question would be, if you do that are you being a good interpreter? And that raises the question of what good interpretation is.
Genesis 1:1 is not a free-floating text, but rather a text solidly embedded in the Book of Genesis and in the Old Testament and in the Bible. The placement of this text at the beginning of the entire Bible testifies to the foundational importance of the concept of the creation of the cosmos by the Transcendent Creator for understanding the Bible as a whole. As we ponder the cumulative effect of John 1:1-3; Acts 14:15; Rom. 4:17 and Heb. 11:3, we come to realize that creatio ex nihilo can “by good and necessary consequence be deduced” (Westminster Confession, I.6) from what the Bible as a whole says. Then the interpreter recalls that the entire mainstream of the Christian tradition has taught this doctrine for the entire history of the church. You recall that the church from the second century onwards has taught that Genesis 1:1 teaches creatio ex nihilo. You think of the meaning of the Nicene Creed’s “all things visible and invisible.” You wonder if it is possible that Genesis 1:1 is correcting, rather than reflecting, the pagan ancient Near Eastern myths of eternal matter being re-arranged by the gods to produce the currently existing order of the cosmos.
A question to ponder at this point is “What does God intend to teach us in Genesis 1:1 by inspiring Moses to say what he said?” This is a complex question and requires all the steps described above to be done prior to answering it. If we jump to this question too quickly, it could spell disaster. But if we never get to this question, we may well miss the point of the text.
We should note that in Genesis 1:1 there is a miraculous creation ex nihilo followed by a long, detailed, step-by-step development of the formless void (tohu wavohu) into an ordered cosmos and the filling of the darkness (hosek) of the deep (tehom) with light. A miraculous creation is followed by providential ordering and sustaining in existence by God’s Word. It would seem that in Genesis 1 God is portrayed as doing what the ancient Near Eastern gods were commonly supposed to have done (bringing order out of chaos), but here God is portrayed as doing it effortlessly by his Word with a perfectly satisfactory result. The ancient myths portrayed the process as one of struggle and battle, which the gods won against the chaos monsters. But here we see no struggle, just obedience and the sovereign dignity of the Creator.
Technically, the Babylonian and other ancient Near Eastern myths are not really “creation myths.” The idea of creation in the full sense of creatio ex nihilo is not part of those myths but is an invention of the Bible. We call this “special revelation.” And the idea of creation is key to understanding why there is no struggle in the formation of the cosmos, which repeatedly is called “good” in Genesis 1. There is no struggle because it is a creation story rather than a “re-arrangement of eternal matter by struggle” story. In other words, interpreting 1:1 as teaching creatio ex nihilo makes sense of verses 2-31. The unformed matter does not resist its Creator.
This interpretation also makes sense of the Bible as a whole. Throughout the Bible we see a pattern according to which God combines miracle with providence to accomplish his purposes. First, we see in Genesis 1:1 an initial spectacular miracle of bringing matter into existence followed by a long, patient process of unfolding and bringing to perfection – a perfection marked by the refrain “And God saw that it was good.” In the Christian life, we see an initial miracle of the new birth – regeneration – followed by a gradual process of progressive sanctification of the Christian. There is a parallel between creatio ex nihilo in creation and in new creation. What we see in Genesis 1 is an introduction to the one, true God who acts in consistent ways in all his acts, including creation and redemption.
In Romans 4:17 we read of how justification depends on the God “who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist.” We are saved by faith alone and we do not have to change our own hearts precisely because God is the kind of God who creates out of nothing. He can create in us a clean heart (Ps. 51:10) and renew us because he is the kind of God who can create matter out of nothing and shape it into a good form. He can bring Israel back from the dead (of exile) because “the LORD is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth” (Isa. 40:28). This is why Abraham was able to obey the command to sacrifice his only son, Isaac, according to Hebrews. We are told that Abraham “considered that God was able even to raise him from the dead” (Heb. 11:19). God had created Isaac, not quite ex nihilo, but almost so, by causing Sarah to conceive even when she was past child-bearing age. If God could do that, Abraham must have reasoned, God could raise the dead. Indeed, resurrection, which is central to Christian eschatology, is like the bookend to creation. To raise the dead is akin to creatio ex nihilo. The gods of ancient Near Eastern mythology were not able to raise the dead; only the Transcendent Creator can do that. It is surely no coincidence that Hebrews 11 begins with a description of faith as a conviction of “things not seen” and the statement that it is by faith that “we understand that the universe was created by the word of God, so that what is seen is not made out of things that are visible” (Heb. 11:1, 3).
The upshot of interpreting Genesis 1:1 in the canonical and confessional context is that it becomes foundational to biblical theology and Christian doctrine. It does so by revealing an important truth about the nature of God to us. Above all, TIS is a relentless focus on God in the exegesis of Scripture. My main complaint about modern, historical critical approaches to exegesis is that they are subtly, pervasively anthropocentric, rather than theocentric. When conservative, grammatical historical exegesis allows itself to be constricted in imitation of historical critical approaches by focussing exclusively on the human authorial intention, it thereby becomes less God-centered. Resisting the pressures of modernity to ignore the central question: “What is God saying to us in this text?” is paramount to TIS and essential for the health of the church and its preaching.