Genesis as absolute beginning out of nothing
Christianity has historically affirmed that the first chapter of Genesis describes God speaking the material universe into existence for the first time out of nothing. What is traditionally called creation ex nihilo by divine fiat. So: when Genesis 1:1 states In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth, this was God speaking into existence the absolute beginning of all things both in space and on our planet earth. Nothing in our known, material universe existed before Genesis 1:1. There was only the eternal, Triune Godhead.
The doctrine of creation ex nihilo has been held by the Christian Church since its formation on the day of Pentecost. Early Christian apologists clarified and defended the absolute beginning of creation ex nihilo against the pantheistic cosmologies when they interacted with the Roman-Greco philosophies that entailed belief in gods creating out of eternal matter. The Shepherd of Hermas, written sometime between 90-150 A.D., was one of the first extra-biblical, non-canonical sources affirming creation ex nihilo. The second book of The Shepherd called Commandments, under the first command states,”First of all, believe that there is one God who created and finished all things, and made all things out of nothing.” This view of creation was articulated and defended by such men as Tatian, Irenaeus, Theophilus of Antioch, Tertullian, Athanasius, John Chrysostom, and Augustine.
Even the major theological creeds and confessions of the Christian Church affirmed the doctrine of creation ex nihilo. For instance, the opening lines of the Nicene Creed state, “I believe in one God, the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth, and of all things visible and invisible.”
Later, during the time of the Reformation, many of the major confessions affirmed the doctrine of creation ex nihilo. The Belgic Confession under Article 12: The Creation of All Things, states, “We believe that the Father created heaven and earth and all other creatures from nothing, when it seemed good to him, by his Word– that is to say, by his Son.” The Westminster Confession of Faith 1646, in Chapter 4 on creation, even expands on the understanding of creation by affirming six day creationism. It states,
- It pleased God the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, for the manifestation of the glory of His eternal power, wisdom, and goodness, in the beginning, to create, or make of nothing, the world, and all things therein whether visible or invisible, in the space of six days; and all very good.
The same is affirmed in the cousin confessions of The Philadelphia Confession of 1742, and The London Baptist Confession of Faith of 1689.
During the last two and half centuries, however, uniformitarian philosophy and Darwinian evolution have ascended as the governing principles over the various scientific disciplines. Since that time, the truth claims made by scientists regarding the origin and history of the world have been granted a certain intrinsic infallibility that allows those claims to not only challenge Scripture, but to also correct the biblical record of creation. As a result, the Church has slowly conceded the propositional teaching of creation as revealed in Scripture to those so-called scientific constructs. Across the broad spectrum of denominational conviction, what the historic creeds and confessions have taught about creation has largely been abandoned, or radically modified and redefined.
Instead, accommodational perspectives have been adopted in order to find common ground between modern, scientific ideas about origins and the Genesis narrative.
Typically, the opening chapters of Genesis are re-interpreted in some manner so as to fit in the millions and billions of years of earth’s history the scientists proclaim is undeniable. One of those re-interpretative methods is to say Genesis 1:1 is not addressing the absolute beginning of the creation. Rather, what is being outlined in Genesis 1 is a re-creation of some sort or a re-telling of creation in a theological fashion modeled after ancient near-eastern cosmologies. Theologian, John Walton, who is one who takes the position of a re-telling in Genesis 1, states that though God certainly was the original creator billions of years ago, Genesis is not recording that initial event in the first 2 chapters. It is an event that just hasn’t been revealed to us.
But is that view sustained by the whole of biblical doctrine? Or is it merely a clever capitulation to what has been misperceived as scientists speaking authoritatively regarding the “inerrancy” of the alleged “scientific” evidence? I believe a clear, comprehensive survey of God’s Word teaches without doubt that Genesis 1:1 is a statement of God creating from an absolute beginning out of nothing. There are six reasons I say that:
The Hebrew phrase In the beginning speaks to an absolute beginning. There are a number of reasons why the Hebrew phrase bereshith, or as is translated in our English versions, In the beginning, means an absolute beginning. I’ll highlight two important ones.
First, the word “beginning” is often paired in the O.T. with its antonym, “end,” acharith. For example, Job 8:7, 42:12, and Ecclesiastes 7:8. The idea being that the author, in the case of Genesis, our Creator, the LORD God, has at the outset initiated specific activity that has a beginning with a future goal intended, or what would be an end. This is particularly seen in Isaiah’s contrast of God with the pagan false deities in chapters 40-50 of his prophecy. Isaiah 46:10 states, Declaring the end from the beginning, And from ancient times things that are not yet done, Saying, My counsel shall stand, And I will do all My pleasure.
A second reason comes from the history of translation. Since about 1920, a few liberal oriented modern translations like the New English Bible and the Anchor Bible render bereshith as a temporal clause so that the opening verse reads something like, In the beginning of creation, when God made heaven and earth. That translation has more to do with the higher critical idea that Genesis reflects ancient, near-eastern cosmology like the Babylonian Enuma Elish, rather than the actual exegesis of the text.
The implication of rendering Genesis 1:1 as a temporal clause would be the possibility that some matter pre-existed the creation narrative and thus God used pre-existing material to shape the earth. That in turn supports the reconciliation of Genesis with the idea of the earth being 4 billion years old as maintained by modern science.
Even though one can still affirm Genesis 1:1 as absolute beginning if the verse is rendered as a temporal clause, the grammatical grounds to translate the verse as such is problematic. Theologian Robert Reymond points out the reasoning for translating Genesis 1:1 as a temporal clause cuts against the vast majority of translations of Genesis both ancient and modern that regarded bereshith as an absolute. He further notes that bereshith is accented with a disjunctive accent indicating that the word has its own independent accent and was constructed by the Masoretes as an absolute noun [Reymond, 390]. Isaiah 46:10, noted above, is constructed in the exact same way. Isaiah makes it clear that God has established an absolute beginning and distinguishes that beginning from an absolute end that is the stated goal of His counsel.
The uniqueness of the word bara to God’s creative activity. The word bara, or “create” in our English translations, is use 38 times in the Hebrew Qal stem and 10 times in the Niphal stem. The word bara in those two stems is used only of God. The biblical writers reserved bara exclusively for God’s creative activity.
As it pertains to creation, God’s activity must be supernatural and miraculous. Meaning Genesis must be the initial creation of the heavens and earth and not some event of re-creation. A re-creation implies matter was already in existence from which God formed or fashioned the world and its inhabitants. Such would mean matter existed eternally with God, which would make God no longer unique as a creator as He is revealed in Scripture.
If God’s “creating” in the Genesis narrative was from matter He had created billions of years before as John Walton and other theistic evolutionists suggest, that would cut against the entire testimony of the Old and New Testaments that places the creation of the world at that starting point of Genesis 1:1.
The testimony of the Old Testament. Genesis is not the only place in the O.T. addressing God’s creative activity. Throughout the entire O.T., the writers of Scripture clearly identify God as the unequaled, sovereign Creator. They contrast His eternality and power as the sovereign creator to the impotence of the false gods of the pagans and they mark creation at the beginning as recorded in Genesis. Allow me to point out a small handful of passages.
For example, Psalm 90:2 states, Before the mountains were brought forth, Or ever You had formed the earth and the world, Even from everlasting to everlasting, You are God.
Psalm 33:6-9 speaks of God’s creation by divine fiat, or the creation directly by His Word, By the word of the LORD the heavens were made, And all the host of them by the breath of His mouth. He gathers the waters of the sea together as a heap; He lays up the deep in storehouses. Let all the earth fear the LORD; Let all the inhabitants of the world stand in awe of Him. For He spoke, and it was done; He commanded, and it stood fast.
Citing the Genesis narrative, God explicitly tells Moses in Exodus 20:11 that everything created in the heavens, the earth, the sea was created during that sequence of activity as recorded in Genesis 1 and 2, For in six days the LORD made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested the seventh day. Therefore the LORD blessed the Sabbath day and hallowed it. The phrase “all that is in them” covers the entire created realm in the physical universe. Exodus 31:17 further reaffirms that truth.
The testimony of the New Testament. The N.T. also has an exhaustive list of references to Genesis 1:1 being the absolute beginning point of creation ex nihilo. I’ll focus our attention upon some key passages.
Acts 4:24 reads almost word for word as Exodus 20:11, So when they heard that, they raised their voice to God with one accord and said: “Lord, You are God, who made heaven and earth and the sea, and all that is in them. The testimony of the primitive church was one that recognized God as the ultimate creator who put His creative activity at the first week of Genesis 1.
Revelation 4:11 is a doxology identifying the creation of all things by the hand of God, what the Christians, as we just saw, affirmed in Acts 4:24 which was taken from Exodus 20:11, You are worthy, O Lord, To receive glory and honor and power; For You created all things, And by Your will they exist and were created. Again, the phrase “all things” is all encompassing: everything in the known universe and the world.
Probably one of the clearest proclamations of the absolute creation of the world ex nihilo in Genesis 1 is recorded in Hebrews 11:3. By faith we understand that the worlds were framed by the word of God, so that the things which are seen were not made of things which are visible.
That verse is direct in affirming what Genesis 1 says regarding the creation. First it states that “all things” are created by God. “All things” being a comprehensive expression describing the entirety of the whole created realm. Next, it affirms creation by divine fiat, or by God’s very word, when it says the worlds were framed by the word of God. Then lastly, the verse affirms creation ex nihilo when it states that the things seen (the material universe) were not made of things which are visible (or pre-existent matter or eternal matter).
The phrase “Before the foundation of the world” as a marker for absolute creation. A more narrow piece of biblical evidence placing the absolute beginning of creation in the first verse of Genesis is the phrase, Before the foundation of the world. It is used in the N.T. at least 10 times. Its primary use is tied to the work of God’s salvation through Christ in at least 8 of those instances: Matthew 25:34, John 17:24, Ephesians 1:4, Hebrews 4:3 and 9:26, 1 Peter 1:20, and Revelation 13:8 and 17:8. The use of the expression in relation to redemption is noteworthy, for within the next two chapters after the record of creation, Adam fell into sin. God had purposed the redemption of sinners before He created the world, a redemption tied directly to the first man’s sin.
The obvious question to ask is: What “foundation of the world” is being referenced in those passages? And, what does the writers mean when he writes that those things took place “before” that foundation of the world? If the initial creation of God was billions of years ago yet is never really revealed in Scripture as some theistic evolutionists argue, the expression would be strange; especially in light of God’s redemptive purposes in Christ. The only “foundation of the world” in the minds of Christian readers could only be the creation as recorded in Genesis. Colossians 1:16, 17, when identifying Christ as our Creator, states And He is before all things, and in Him all things consist.
The testimony of Jesus Christ and the Apostles. Then of course, the ultimate testimony to the absolute creation of the world in Genesis 1:1 is our very Lord and Savior Himself and His apostles who wrote the N.T. documents. This is an important point to consider, because a good many Christians adhering to and promoting some form of theistic evolution or other deep time views of the world are Reformed in their theological convictions and put a high premium upon a Christological hermeneutic where the N.T. interprets the O.T. The words of Jesus and the apostles should have some significance upon this issue.
Probably the greatest testimony concerning Christ and creation is found in John 1:1. The apostle clearly connects the person of Christ to the creation in Genesis when he opens his gospel in the exact same way as Genesis, In the beginning was the Word… John goes on to state this Word was Jesus Himself and John says the Word was our creator: All things were made through Him, and without Him nothing was made that was made.
Throughout the pages of all four gospels, the truth regarding the creation is utilized by Jesus and the apostles. The expressions “From the beginning” and “The beginning of creation” are used by both Jesus in the Gospels (Matthew 19:4, 8, 24:21; Mark 10:6, 13:9; John 8:44), and the apostles who used similar expressions in their epistles (Romans 1:20; Ephesians 3:9; 2 Thessalonians 2:13; Hebrew 1:10; 2 Peter 3:4; 1 John 1:1, 2:13, 3:8; Revelation 3:14).
With this brief overview, I believe it is clear the Bible, God’s infallible Word, teaches the following as summarized by Robert Culver, 1) The world, including heaven and earth, all that exists, was created by God, and 2) the world had a beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, at which moment both time and space came into existence [Culver, 147].
The doctrine of creation ex nihilo also has significant ramifications upon our view of biblical infallibility and inerrancy, because Scripture provides chronological markers with the various genealogical lists recorded in the book of Genesis, 1 Chronicles, and Luke. Though there is a possibility some gaps exist between the names, there is no indication whatsoever long, deep time gaps exist allowing for hundreds of thousands, even millions of years old earth advocates need for their system to work. From the point of the creation week to the coming of Christ is no more than a few thousand years.
Also, Andrew Kulikovsky notes Isaiah 45:18 where the prophet states God did not create the earth to be empty, but formed it to be inhabited. [Kulikovsky, 175]. Yet old earth creationists and theistic evolutionists would have us believe the earth was uninhabited for billions of years, a direct contradiction to what Isaiah wrote.
For a Christian committed to the infallible and inerrant authority of God’s Word, any evolutionary explanation of earth’s history appealing to deep time of billions of years is unsupportable by the biblical data. The two systems cannot be harmonized and it is foolish to think they can. When two opposing “authorities” compete for the acknowledgement of a believer’s convictions, one has to give way to the other, for they cannot be united. Regrettably, for a good many Christians, the “inerrancy” of the so-called evidence takes precedence over the clear teaching of Scripture.
Commentaries on Genesis
Cassuto, A Commentary on the Book of Genesis: From Adam to Noah
Davis, From Paradise to Prison
H.C. Leupold, Genesis 1
Kenneth Matthews, Genesis 1-11:26
Brian Murphy, Genesis 1:1-2:3: A Textual and Exegetical Examination as an Objective Foundation for Apologetic and Theological Studies
Duncan Culver, Systematic Theology: Biblical and Historical
John Feinberg, No One Like Him
Andrew Kulikovsky, Creation, Fall, Restoration – A Biblical Theology of Creation
Jaroslav Pelikan, Emergence of the Catholic Tradition (100-600)
Robert Reymond, A New Systematic Theology
John Walton, The Lost World of Genesis One