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?

Saint of the Week: Dante Alighieri, Supreme Poet of Italy

The Salutation of Beatrice by Dante Gabriel Rossetti

Throughout Christian history, two ways of living, praying, meditating have co-existed, generally peacefully.  One of these ways is the Way of Negation, the way of denial, of asceticism, of apophatic theology (to describe God only by what He isn’t).  The other is the Way of Affirmation (or something — apologies if I’m wrong; correct me in the comments!), the way of joyful living, of cataphatic theology (to describe God by the attributes revealed in Scripture & reasoned from the universe).  Both are needed, I believe, and most of us fall a little bit in each.

The latter type of believer includes such luminaries as C.S. Lewis and G.K. Chesterton, the other has St. Antony and Dionysius the Areopagite.  In his masterful history of the Spirit at work in the Church, The Descent of the Dove, Charles Williams places Dante Alighieri (c. 1265-1321) amongst those who tread the Way of Affirmation.

Dante lived bountifully.  In La Vita Nuova we do see a little bit more swooning than would be appropriate in our culture or even in actual 13th-century Florence.  However, this swooning was because he was grasping life so fully, not denying what was there in Beatrice and thus living the earthly life given by Almighty God to its very fullest extent.

He is best known, however, not for swooning over Beatrice, but for La Divina Commedia, The Divine Comedy, a work in three volumes: Inferno, Purgatorio, Paradiso.*  The first volume is the only I have yet to read; we begin with Dante’s journeys in Hell, right to Satan’s belly, with Virgil as guide.  Thence Virgil takes him to Purgatory; my friend Andrew finds Purgatory quite amusing — it is rumoured to be the most original of the three.  And Beatrice leads him through Paradise.

I know people who are obsessed with being lame, so they say things like, “Dante’s Inferno is just a really long version of Book VI of Virgil’s Aeneid.“**  Yes, Dante reworks a lot of Virgil’s material.  But he does it in a thoroughly Christian, thoroughly Mediaeval way (since neither the Renaissance nor Florentine Renaissance actually happened [along with the “Dark Ages”], Dante is pure Mediaeval awesomeness).  Dante’s Hell is not simply the place where the wicked are punished in various curious ways.

It is you.

Yes, you are Dante’s Hell.  Don’t worry — you’re also Purgatory and Paradise.  A Christian story is not simply beautiful, but beauty that points to Truth.  And the Truth we see in Hell is the embodiment of all of our sins, from pettiness to treason.  The Inferno is an unveiling of the messy, unpleasant business we call “fallenness.”  Do what you will with Genesis 2-3 — there may be funnier, more “life-affirming” creation stories out there*** — but it relates a basic truth about our lives.  We are all screwed up.  We all have Hell within.

If all Dante did was moan about Hell and how to avoid it, then he would fall firmly in the category of “The Way of Negation.”  But he moves on from Hell, to Purgatory and, ultimately, Paradise.  We have these places in us as well.  Made in the Image of the Living God, there is glory and beauty in the human race.  We are not designed to wallow in the filth of our own sin.  We are designed for the glory and beauty of Paradise, accessed through the work of Purgatory.

Thus, the Divine Comedy.  If this were all Dante Alighieri had written, he would deserve an account in every Church History textbook.  However, he was also a great scholar and populariser of the vernacular, as in De Vulgari Eloquentia (in Latin here).  He also got entangled in local politics, getting himself exiled.  Finally, he was a Third Order Franciscan (and we all know my love for St. Francis) — indeed, if we count Dante among the Great Franciscans, St. Francis died in 1226, St. Bonaventure lived from 1221 to 1274, and Dante was born in 1265.  They all overlapped and all have had a powerful impact upon the thoughtlife of the Christian world.

So read a little Dante today, for there you will find a man plugged into the Fountain of Life.  There you will find a man thoroughly engrossed in the world of his day — political, intellectual, poetic — yet who did not lose sight of the one God worthy of praise.

*In Dorothy L. Sayers’ translations for Penguin, that would be Hell, Purgatory, Paradise.

**This is the lame sort of person who can see nothing but political propaganda in the Aeneid.

***The Blackfoot one related by Tomson Highway in “Why Cree is the Funniest of All Languages,” (in Me Funny ed. Drew Hayden Taylor) is certainly funnier.