Rescuing Genesis: Creation (ex nihilo)

Someday, I would like to write an essay or book or something that rescues Genesis 1-3 through a reading informed by ancient/mediaeval Christian/Jewish exegesis, both in terms of content and technique. The wars over these early chapters of Genesis have left many people befuddled at the sidelines; some thoughtful Christians are uncertain as to whether they would be willing to say, ‘I affirm the creation account of Genesis,’ because that all-too-often means, ‘I believe that the creation account of Genesis is literally true and the Earth is 6000 years old.’

Genesis’ alleged ‘friends’ often do a grave disservice to the Genesis account by arguing that its theological content is meaningless without historicity attaching itself to the events portrayed there. Some go so far as to say that Christians who do not believe in a literal six-day Creation followed by 6000 years of history on this earth are not real Christians who do not take the Bible seriously. In all of this talk, the grave importance of what we are being taught about the universe in Genesis gets left at the side in favour of apatosauroi in the Congo or proving that Leviathan and Behemoth are dinosaurs (cf. Kent E Hovind).

Genesis’ critics also do a grave disservice to responsible reading. Rather than arguing, ‘Certain readings of Genesis have led to the oppression of women by men,’ Thomson Highway (who has the best name of all) says that Genesis necessarily leads to the oppression of women by men, so we should, instead tell Cree creation stories (see the closing chapter of Me Funny). Thomas King argues that believing the universe to have been created by a God who basically commands things into being inevitably leads to the sort of messed-up systems of white, western society (see the opening chapter of The Truth About Stories — both this book and Me Funny are worth reading).

Responsible reading of Genesis does not necessarily lead to a vision of a totalitarian God and women subservient to men. Bad reading of Genesis can.

There is thoughtful engagement going on in these conversations, though, as seen in this post by T. M. Law, who graciously and carefully takes on the arguments of Kevin DeYoung regarding the ‘Historical Adam.’ If more such courteous discussion could be had I think the conversation would be less vomit-inducing (the following pages, sadly, are vomit-inducing: Creation “Science” Debunked and people who give cryptozoologists a bad name).

I have one point to raise regarding Law’s post about Kevin DeYoung, and it is simply the statement that creation ex nihilo is a Patristic innovation. I’m not going to argue that this is wrong — I have not read the pre-Christian exegesis of Genesis, so I can’t say whether anyone before the Fathers believed in creation ex nihilo. And I’m not saying that Law says that the Patristic exegesis is false.

What I would like to say about creation ex nihilo is that if it is a Patristic innovation, it is a specifically Christian innovation, created as the result of prayerful, Christian reading of Sacred Scripture in response to the problems facing Christians of the day. The Fathers did nothing without a reason, and I don’t want people walking away from Law’s article thinking that they should turn away from believing in creation ex nihilo since it is a Patristic innovation.

I think, in fact, that creation ex nihilo is a quite sensible innovation. While Thomas King seems to think that it leaves the Creator at a dangerous remove from the natural world, I think it gives us a view of a Creator who is all-encompassing and bolsters a belief in an all-powerful divine Person(s). If God by speaking creates matter afresh, then we see that he is not limited in any way. The pastoral application is that the Being Who flung the stars in the sky would have no trouble dealing with one’s own illness of relationship problems or whatnot.

YHWH creating out of nothing is bigger and better than everything. Elohim making the stuff of the universe with the breaths of Their mouth also makes Him more intimately connected with us and our surroundings, I believe. All this everything was completely and utterly, down to its atoms and electrons, down to the fabric of all matter, envisioned by This Person(s) Who fashioned it by His Word.

If God fashions the universe by His Word, and if John 1 is true, then the very fashioner of all matter and energy is the Person Who has pitched His tent amongst us as the God-man Jesus Christ.

If God, like the Platonic deity, has fashioned the world out of pre-existent matter, he is still a powerful divine being, but there is limitation to him. And where did matter come from in the first place? Matter is suddenly co-terminous with the god. Matter is eternal if the god did not create it. How can we be sure of the god’s absolute almightiness if he did not create matter itself? Even a great artist working with marble can screw up. Could not a god who did not create his own matter? The pastoral implications are great.

In my opinion, creation ex nihilo preserves both God’s transcendent power as a Person(s) Worthy of our Worship and the immanent care as a Parent Who has carefully fashioned absolutely everything, right down to the electrons flitting through my brain.

This is not necessarily a part of the Genesis war, but it’s something worth thinking about as we consider our God as Creator. To believe in creation out of nothing does not require a belief in a literal six-day creation. Where did the matter come from before the Big Bang? And could it not be the Finger of God (the Holy Spirit, cf. Saint Ambrose) that caused the Bang and set forth in motion this entire universe?


Icon of the Last Judgement: note the bishops going to Hell (on the right)

Thanks to Rob Bell’s book, Love Wins, universalism is big news these days. Everyone and their dog is chiming in on universalism and Rob Bell. Including, it would seem, me.

Many of us seem to think that universalism is some sort of nineteenth-century liberal idea. In some of its manifestations it is, of course. In others, it is older, while in others it is newer. But the idea that everyone, somehow, gets saved in the end is old, and antiquity is no guarantee for whether an idea is mainstream or orthodox, as Kevin DeYoung points out in his review of Love Wins:

Universalism has been around a long time. But so has every other heresy. Arius rejected the full deity of Christ and many people followed him. This hardly makes Arianism part of the wide, diverse stream of Christian orthodoxy. Every point of Christian doctrine has been contested, but some have been deemed heterodox. Universalism, traditionally, was considered one of those points. True, many recent liberal theologians have argued for versions of universalism—and this is where Bell stands, not in the center of the historic Christian tradition.

My thoughts on the subject are primarily concerned with Origen at present.* Origen’s doctrine of ‘universalism’ is called apocatastasis. This is the belief that at the end of all things, all souls will be reunited with God. Origen does not rule out the possibility that among these souls we may find the Devil. No one is beyond the long arm of God’s great, saving grace for Origen.

David at Pious Fabrications points out that others whom we deem quite orthodox — Met. Kallistos and St. Gregory of Nyssa,** to take two big examples — believe in apocatastasis. It is not, then, this belief alone that gets one into a lot of hot, heretical water. In the blog post, David argues that the big difference between Origen and these others is the firmness of his belief on this point. Everyone is saved. Period. Kallistos et al, on the other hand, leave it open. Everyone is saved? It’s a question, a hope, but not stated as a dogma for all to believe. Thus, while the Church may condemn Gregory of Nyssa’s belief in apocatastasis, she will not condemn him.

I think there’s also the fact that Origen is one of the great Neoplatonists of the third century to consider. His system involves a type of salvation that the revelation does not present unto us — we are all restored to union with God as disembodied souls that do nothing but contemplate Him and have no distinctive individuality. Origen, then, is more than a case of damnation by punctuation. Origen has an entire system of cosmology, large portions of which are incompatible with Scripture. This is the ultimate cause of his anathematisation at the separate sessions led by Justinian and the bishops at the Second Council of Constantinople (Fifth Ecumenical) in 553.

Ultimately, the Church cannot affirm apocatastasis and other forms of universalism because either they  run counter to Scripture and are pieces of speculation or they involve bad hermeneutics. As DeYoung’s excessively long review, cited above, shows us, Love Wins involves bad hermeneutics.

Still, ought we not at least to hope for apocatastasis? Maybe, in the end, God will redeem everyone. No, it’s not in Scripture. What we find in Scripture regarding those who die outside of the Faith is varied and largely unpleasant. Nevertheless, to hope for the salvation of all is not an un-Christian hope, even if one finds the possibility unlikely, even if one thinks that it ought not to be preached loudly from pulpits or ensconced as dogma.

*George MacDonald will hopefully be the subject of a later post, if all goes according to plan.

**He lists all three Cappadocian Fathers, but I haven’t heard elsewhere of Sts. Basil and Gregory the Theologian believing this. Until I have corroborated it, I can’t print it.