Note from CM: This is part two of a three-part series by Pastor Dan on Genesis 1. You can read part one HERE.
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Do Some Interpretations of Genesis 1 Deny Creation ex Nihilo?
by Daniel Jepsen
As I have tried to argue in a previous post, creation ex nihilo is in many ways the fundamental doctrine about God. It is more than the bare assertion that He made all things out of nothing. Rightly understood, it also teaches:
- The universe is good, but not ultimate.
- He exists in a way that nothing else does.
- He transcends the universe and every element of the universe.
- And He is therefore completely holy and completely sovereign.
I view this as the basis for all true theology, and the consistent teaching of scripture.
So one of the questions troubling me is the question of whether some interpretations of Genesis are consistent with this doctrine or not. In my opinion, coherence with creation ex nihilo is a necessary condition for an interpretation of Genesis one to be accepted as valid.
It may be helpful at this point to list (in no particular order) of some of the most common ways that Genesis 1 has been interpreted by Jews and Christians over the centuries. This list is not complete, but helps to clarify the issues.
1. The first way to understand it I call the rabbinic interpretation, because it was the favorite of many of the medieval rabbis. This is to understand 1:1 as a general statement of God’s creation of everything, and the rest of the chapter as his recreation of the land of Palestine for his people Israel. So when it speaks of “the earth”, this viewpoint translates that as “the land”, that is the promised land, which is a possible meaning of the word. This is sometimes called the Historical Land Interpretation.
2. A second way to understand whole chapter as describing in scientific terms the historical sequence of creation, and understanding the “days” as solar days of 24 hours. This interpretation will be called the YEC interpretation (Young Earth Creationism).
3. A third way to understand this is to again view the entire chapter as a scientific description of the historical process of creation, but to understand the “days” not as 24 hour time periods, but as events or epochs or long periods of time. So the text gives a scientific description of creation, but without dates. Supporters of this view will point out that the word for “day” [yom in Hebrew], is used two other ways in this passage: as the part of the day when sun shines (in verses 5 and 15), and as an event in 2:4. I will use OEC (Old Earth Creationism) to describe this (though some prefer the term day/age view)
4. The fourth way is to understand the days to describe the re-creation of the world, after some sort of defacing of it. So, 1:1 would describe the original creation, whereas 1:2 would describe it in its ruined state, and the rest of the chapter describes its re-creation. This is sometimes called the gap theory.
5. A fifth way is to understand Genesis one is to view 1:1 as relating the fact of creation (as in the Rabbinic view) while the rest of the chapter is a theological (not scientific) re-construction of that creation. In other words, this view holds that verse 2 through the end of the chapter are a theological interpretation of creation, using the concept of a “creation week” as a literary framework. I call this the temple view, since the main theological point it makes about creation is that it is to be viewed as God’s temple, the place that both shows His glory and serves as His throne (others call it the Framework view). See my analysis of this view here.
6. A sixth way to understand Genesis one is to view it as a story of God’s creation of the universe using the understanding of cosmology present to the original readers to make the point. In this view, God portrayed creation in this way not to canonize a certain view of cosmology, but used their understanding of cosmology to explain what creation means. For lack of a better term, I will call this the accommodation view, since it sees God accommodating his revelation to the level of those he is communicating to. This could also be called the flexible cosmology view. For brevity and clarities sake, I will not be discussing this view in this post.
I am not going to argue which view is correct here, and any technical analysis of the above is not the main point of this post. My concern, rather, is which of these is consistent with the doctrine of creation ex nihilo. This question will center on the relationship between verse one and the rest of the chapter.
The temple view, the rabbinic view, and the gap view all see a disjunction of some kind between verse one and the rest of the chapter. Again, for clarity, that disjunction is:
- For the rabbinic view, verse one is a summary statement of God’s creation of the universe, while the rest of the chapter does not describe the creation of the universe, but the forming and filling of the promised land.
- For the temple view, verse one is also seen as a summary statement of God’s creation of the universe. And again, the rest of the chapter does not then describe the scientific progression of creation, but its theological meaning (i.e., that it is His temple and throne).
- For the gap view, verse one describes the original creation of all things, which, they argue, were subsequently marred or destroyed by Satanic rebellion. The rest of the chapter, then, scientifically describes the re-creation or restoration of the universe from its ruined state.
However, in both the YEC and most OEC models, the relationship between verse one and the rest of the chapter is more of a continuity than a disjunction. For these views, verse one serves as a summary statement of God’ creation of the universe, while the rest of the chapter then describes how he did it. That is, verses 2-31 are a scientific description of the progression of creation. They explain the manner and progression of God’s creative act.
And herein lies the problem. If verses 2-31 describe what creation looked like scientifically, then verse 2 describes how God started creation. And, under this interpretation, He did not create ex nihilo, for matter already existed in the form of a watery earth.
Read Genesis 1:2 again: “Now the earth was without form and void, and darkness moved upon the face of the deep”. In other words, if creation starts here, it starts with matter already existing in the form of earth and water. God’s creation, then, consisted of taking that pre-existent matter and forming it into light, land, sky, sea, vegetation, and then filling it with stars moon, animal life, birds, fish, and finally mankind. The idea that God made all things out of nothing, that matter itself is created during creation, that no-one and nothing exists alongside of God, seems negated by this view.
Quite frankly, I don’t see a way around this. The only possible way for someone to hold both creation ex nihilo and a view that verses 2 through 31 teach a scientific description of creation is to argue for a two-stage creation. That is, it could be argued that verse one describes the first stage of creation in which God forms the materials of creation, and then the creation week describes how he forms this material into the universe.
I see several problems with a two-stage creation. I will list them from less important to more important.
- First, it seems strained. That is, it seems to not be the initial reaction one might have reading this passage, but rather an attempt to meet an objection. This is not a fatal flaw, but it should be noted.
- Second, it does not seem to be the teaching of scripture elsewhere. In other words, our confidence in this two-stage interpretation would be bolstered if it seemed to be taught more explicitly elsewhere, or at least made sense of (and brought light to) another passage or two.
- Thirdly, the logic behind the two-stage creation seems non-existent. If God is capable of forming all things instantaneously (as creation ex nihilo affirms) and if nothing limits that power, then why the two-step process?
- Fourthly, it seems clear that what was formed in verse one was not simply matter. The earth (or land) already exists in verse 2, as does water.
- Fifth, the language of verse one seems to preclude this interpretation. “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth”. But it seems clear from the rest of the chapters that “heavens and earth” refers not to simply matter, but to something like we would the formed and functioning earth in its cosmic setting (see 2:1). The use of the term “heavens and earth” in other Old Testament passages never refers simply to matter, but to the whole cosmos.
Thus, for me at least, thinking through this issue leads me to believe that the days of Genesis chapter 1 do not refer to a scientific description of the physical process and sequence of the creation of the universe, for that would deny the doctrine of creation ex nihilo.
I am open to being corrected in this analysis, but I would rather work through the disjunctive options above (there may be others) rather than weaken a foundational doctrine in my understanding of God.