A New Doctrine of Initial Creation – 1
I’m editing a ground-breaking book of essays on initial creation. Like most of the Christian theologians writing essays for this project, I think Christians need a doctrine of initial creation other than creation from nothing (creatio ex nihilo).
Starting with Scripture
To me, it’s important to start exploring the doctrine of initial creation with Scripture. It’s no surprise Christians place a premium on what the Bible says.
It does surprise many who look at Scripture carefully, however, to find the Bible never says God creates out of nothing. The Bible does not explicitly affirm creatio ex nihilo.
Instead, biblical authors consistently say God creates out of something. When exploring options for how Christians might best think about God as Creator, it’s difficult to overemphasize this biblical point: according to Scripture, God creates from something.
The Old Testament
Biblical writers offer various descriptions of the “something” out of which God creates. In Genesis, the Spirit works with tohu wabohu (formless void), or what is often translated “primordial chaos” or “shapeless mass” (1:2). God creatively transforms chaos and shapelessness into something new: the heavens and the earth (1:1). God creates out of something, even if the “something” is initially vague, disordered, or messy.
Genesis also speaks of the tehom, or “face of the deep,” over which God hovers when creating (1:2). The “deep” is a something, not literally nothing. Many biblical scholars believe tehom signifies primeval waters present as God creates the heavens and the earth. The New Testament’s most explicit theory of initial creation, 2 Peter 3:5, supports this interpretation: “Long ago by God’s word the heavens came into being and the earth was formed out of water and by water.” Water, of course, is something not nothing.
A large number of Bible scholars reject the idea that Genesis describes creatio ex nihilo. Terrence Fretheim says, for instance, “God’s creating in Genesis 1…includes ordering that which already exists…. God works creatively with already existing reality to bring about newness.”
Claus Westermann says, “Our query about the origin of matter is not answered; the idea of an initial chaos goes back to mythical and premythical thinking.”
Rolf P. Knierim links creation with salvation: “It can be said that Yahweh is the creator of the world, because he is its liberator from chaos…” The list of Bible scholars denying creatio ex nihilo is long.
The New Testament
The New Testament also does not support creatio ex nihilo. We’ve already seen that the most explicit initial creation passage – 2 Peter 3:5 – says God brings the earth into existence by means of water.
Other New Testament passages say God creates from something, or these passages simply say God is Creator. For instance, God made the universe from things unseen, says Hebrews (11:3). Unseen things exist, even if they can’t be seen. And the verb translated “made” in the Hebrews passage is translated elsewhere in Scripture as organizing, framing, or repairing. Those are activities done to something not nothing.
The Apostle Paul says God “calls into being things that were not” (Rom. 4:17). He says this in the context of God’s promise to make Abraham the father of many nations. This calling does not refer to creatio ex nihilo; calling a people into existence doesn’t literally mean no one existed previously.
Instead, Paul’s remarks mirror God’s creating activity, which brings something new from something else. This is creation out of something. The list of New Testament examples saying God creates from other things is long.
In sum, we search Scripture in vain for passages supporting creatio ex nihilo. Biblical writers say God initially (and continually) creates from something. For those Christians who consider the Bible a primary authority, this fact should significantly influence how they think about God’s creating. And it presents a strong element in the search for a Christian doctrine to replace creatio ex nihilo.
This blog is the first in a series I will write on initial creation. In the next blog essay, I’ll look at reasons why Christians in the past and present continue to affirm creatio ex nihilo, despite lack of explicit biblical support for this view.
 See Jon D. Levenson, Creation and the Persistence of Evil: The Jewish Drama of Divine Omnipotence (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1994; New York: Harper & Row, 1987), xx, and Joseph Blenkinsopp, Creation, Un-Creation, Re-Creation: A Discursive Commentary on Genesis 1-11 (London: T & T Clark, 2011), 30. Some object that the word “chaos” is not quite appropriate to describe what Genesis 1 authors describe as present to God at the initial creation. David Toshio Tsumura and William P. Brown object in this way, but they admit God created from something (“empty space,” “amorphous state,” “undifferentiated mass,” etc.). See Tsumura, The Earth and the Waters in Genesis 1 and 2: A Linguistic Investigation (Sheffield: JSOT, 1989), and Brown, The Ethos of the Cosmos: The Genesis of Moral Imagination in the Bible (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1999).
 Ibid., 122.
 See for instance, Brevard S. Childs, Myth and Reality in the Old Testament, Studies in Biblical Theology, No. 27 (London: SCM, 1960), 33.
 In addition to the scholars cited in the ensuing paragraph, see also Bruce K. Waltke, Creation and Chaos (Portland, OR: Western Conservative Baptist Seminary, 1974); Shalom M. Paul, “Creation and Cosmogony: In the Bible,” Encyclopedia Judaica (Jerusalem: Keter, 1972), 5:1059-63; Frances Young, “Creatio Ex Nihilo: A Context for the Emergence of Christian Doctrine of Creation,” Scottish Journal of Theology 44 (1991): 139-51; Keith Norman, “Ex Nihilo: The Development of the Doctrines of God and Creation in Early Christianity,” BYU Studies 17/3 (1977): 291-318; John H. Walton affirms creatio ex nihilo, but he argues that Genesis 1 doesn’t teach the doctrine (The Lost World of Genesis One: Ancient Cosmology and the Origins Debate [Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2009], 42).
 Terence E. Fretheim, God and World in the Old Testament: A Relational Theology of Creation (Nashville: Abingdon, 2005), 5.
 Claus Westermann, Genesis 1-11. A Commentary, John J. Scullion, S. J., trans. (London: SPCK, 1994), 110, 121.
 Rolf P. Knierim, Task of Old Testament Theology (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1995), 210.
 See Richard J. Bauckham’s analysis in Jude, 2 Peter (Waco: Word, 1983), 297-302; and J. N. D. Kelly, A Commentary on the Epistles of Peter and of Jude (New York: Harper and Row, 1969), 358-59.
 Paul Copan and William Lane Craig offer a defense of creatio ex nihilo in their book, Creation out of Nothing: A Biblical, Philosophical, and Scientific Exploration (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2004). The biblically-based arguments offered by the authors, however, are extremely weak, amounting to little more than reading a view into the text not already present therein. They rely upon arguments by assertion. For a comprehensive review of the Copan and Craig’s book, see Blake T. Ostler, “Out of Nothing: A History of Creation Ex Nihilo in Early Christian Thought,” The Farms Review 17/2 (2005): 253-320. Ostler’s criticism of Copan and Craig gets at the problem with their book: “Asserting that a view is ‘implicit’ in the text without explaining why the implication is necessary to the text amounts to simply reading one’s own view into the text. I believe that is precisely what Copan and Craig have done” (271).