The Doctrine of Creation (part 2)

September 06, 2008     Time: 00:41:31


Biblical basis for Creatio Ex Nihilo. Absolute beginning of the universe. Exegesis of Genesis 1. Ordered cosmos. Creation in Genesis verse 1 vs. verse 2.

Last week we began a new section in the class. This is on the doctrine of creation. We began by explaining why this is an important doctrine by contrasting it with non-biblical perspectives on the world such as dualism or monism. We explained that in the biblical view the world is not something that is set over against God as an independent, eternal, self-existent reality. Nor is it a manifestation of God in the sense of being divine – being an expression of his being – or being merely an illusion as in Hinduism or other monistic beliefs. Rather, the world is a creation of God. It is distinct from God but real and dependent upon him for its existence. We began to look at the Christian doctrine of creatio ex nihilo, or creation out of nothing. This is the Christian doctrine that says God made the world – God is the cause of the world – but he did not use any sort of material stuff to make the world. He brought the universe into being without any kind of material substratum or substance.

We began to look at the biblical basis for this doctrine by examining the first verse of the bible – Genesis 1:1 – which says, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” In the Hebrew this is bereshith bara elohim – “In the beginning, created, God,” and the rest of the verse goes on hashamayim weth herets or “the heavens and the earth” which is a Hebrew expression for the world or the universe. “In the beginning God created the universe.” The question is: how do you understand this first sentence. Traditionally, it has been understood to be an independent clause which states that there is an absolute beginning of the universe and that it is the creative product of God. But certain commentators have suggested that verse 1 should not be understood as an independent clause but rather as a subordinate clause meaning something like this: “In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth,” and then it goes on to the main clause in verse 2, “the earth was without form and void and darkness was upon the face of the deep.” By interpreting Genesis 1:1 as a subordinate clause rather than an independent clause it might make it appear that it is not a creation out of nothing after all. Rather, when God began to create there was already this formless, primordial, uninhabitable Earth or water – these primordial depths that already existed. God then simply brings order out of chaos as is described in the remainder of the chapter. So the really crucial question here is whether or not we should be understanding this first sentence in Genesis 1:1, beresith bara elohim, as an independent clause or as a subordinate clause.

As I indicated last week, there has really been, I think, a new consensus emerging on this question by commentators that, in fact, the traditional understanding of this as an independent clause has been emerging. I am going to share with you some of the arguments from Claus Westermann in his commentary on Genesis 1-11. Westermann makes the following six points in defense of taking verse 1 as an independent clause. You will want to get your Bible to look at what he has to say.[1]

1. He points out that there is no reason to think that bereshith – the word for “beginning” – cannot be used at the beginning of a sentence to indicate an absolute point in time, an absolute origin of the universe. For example, look at Isaiah 46:10 for a similar use of this word. In Isaiah 46:9-10 the prophet says in the name of God, “I am God, and there is none like me, declaring the end from the beginning and from ancient times things not yet done.” There bereshith is used to indicate a sort of absolute beginning and shows that it could be used similarly here in Genesis 1:1 to indicate an absolute beginning – “in the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” This conclusion is also supported by the earliest Old Testament translations which translated this always as an absolute beginning – “in the beginning.” Also the earliest Hebrew text with the vowel points (it is called the Masoretic text) . . . Let me explain that. Hebrew is a language that is composed of consonants. It doesn’t have any vowels in it. The Hebrew alphabet is just consonants. So the original Hebrew text is just consonants. You had to kind of fill in the vowels yourself based upon the spelling of the consonants. But the Masoretes were early scribes who added vowel points to the text. These vowel points would be tiny little dots and dashes under the consonants or around them to indicate what the sounds would be when you would speak the text orally. In the Masoretic text, the way they punctuate or vowel point beresith bara elohim is to indicate an absolute beginning – “in the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” So the earliest translations of the Hebrew text, the earliest Masoretic vowel pointing on the text also indicate an absolute beginning. As we will see later on, the authors of the New Testament, when they read their Hebrew Bible, also took this to indicate an absolute beginning. The first point that Westermann wants to make is that beresith can be understood here to indicate an absolute beginning of the universe and that is how it was traditionally understood.

2. He points out that the grammatical syntax of verse 1 does not suggest that we should understand this to be an adverbial subordinate clause. Those who say that this is an adverbial clause – a kind of subordinate clause – could appeal to Hosea 1:2 in support of their position. Let us turn over to Hosea 1:2 where we see a kind of similar adverbial subordinate construction to what we have in Genesis 1. In Hosea 1:2 you have in your English Bible, “When the LORD spoke at first through Hosea the LORD said . . .” The construction there is just like in Genesis 1:1. It doesn’t mean “in the beginning God spoke to Hosea.” The way it is translated is “When the LORD first spoke to Hosea, the LORD said . . .” Those who want to take this as an adverbial subordinate clause could appeal to Hosea 1:2 in support of their position that this is an adverbial subordinate clause, not an independent clause. What Westermann points out is that it is illegitimate interpretation of literature to compare what the author of Genesis says with what the author of Hosea says in order to interpret Genesis. You can’t interpret the author of Genesis by seeing how Hosea wrote and the way he used certain constructions. Rather, Genesis needs to be interpreted in terms of itself. When you look at how the author of Genesis wants to express this sort of subordinate clause, he doesn’t use an adverbial subordinate clause.[2] He uses an infinitive clause. I want to give an example of this in Genesis 5:1, the second half of that verse. When he wants to express a kind of subordinate circumstantial idea, this is the way the author of Genesis does it: “When God created man, he made him in the likeness of God.” What he uses here is not an adverbial construction. Rather, what he uses here is an infinitive for expressing the subordinate clause. So if you read Genesis in light of Genesis, if the author in chapter 1 wanted to express the idea “When God created the world in the beginning” he would have used an infinitive clause like he does in chapter 5, verse 1. You cannot interpret him in light of Hosea. You have to interpret him in light of his own style. So the second point Westermann wants to make is when you interpret Genesis in light of the author’s own style, you see that he expresses a circumstantial idea by using a different grammatical construction than what we have in verse 1.

3. He says that you cannot determine based upon theological arguments whether or not the author is wanting to express creation out of nothing or not. You can’t import theological arguments to make this decision simply because we don’t know what the author’s theology is until we interpret the writing or the passage. We must do, he says, an exegesis of Genesis 1 in order to determine what the author means. You cannot presuppose in advance that the author doesn’t have any idea of creation out of nothing and try to impose your theology on it.

4. When you do carry out an exegesis of Genesis 1 what you discover is that Genesis 1:1 has no parallel in ancient creation stories. When you look at ancient creation myths from the pagan religions around Israel you find nothing parallel to Genesis 1:1. What Westermann points out is that the usual form of these creation myths was something like this: “When _____ was not, then God did _____.” And you fill in the blank. The typical form of these ancient creation myths was “When something was not yet (did not yet) exist then God acted to do something.” It would express perhaps that there was not yet perhaps life, or not yet light, or something of that sort. Then it would describe how God acted to change the situation. The first clause would express the circumstances – when something was not yet in existence; then the second clause would express what God did to bring order out of that state.

He points out that we find this typical construction in Genesis 2. Look at Genesis 2:5-7. Genesis 2:5-7 says, “When no plant of the field was yet in the earth and no herb of the field had yet sprung up . . . then the LORD God formed man from the dust of the ground,” etc, etc. There you have the typical formula that appears in these ancient creation stories. “When _____ was not yet then God did _____.” That would be the typical form that you would find in ancient creation stories.

Westermann thinks that what the author of Genesis 1:1 did is he took this typical formula – “When ____ was not then God did ____” – and he used it as verses 2 and 3 in Genesis 1.[3] Notice what it says in Genesis 1:2 – “the earth was without form and void and darkness was upon the face of the deep and the Spirit of God was moving over the face of the waters and God said let there by light.” So he took this typical formula and used it to make verses 2 and 3 of Genesis 1 then he prefixed this with verse 1, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” As such, verse 1 stands completely outside this typical formula. It precedes this typical formula and is independent of it. Therefore, as Westermann says, “It acquires a monumental importance which distinguishes it from other creation stories.”[4] He says,

Verse 1 has no parallel in the other creation stories, while all three sentences of verse 2 are based on traditional material. The tradition history of the creation stories provides us with an answer to the question about the inter-relationship of the first verses of Genesis which is certain.[5]

That is a very strong statement. He says it is certain that what we have in Genesis 1:1 is an independent self-standing clause because it stands outside this typical formula that is represented in verses 2 and 3.

5. Finally, the fifth argument that he gives is that the style of the author of Genesis also favors taking verse 1 as a main clause. He says it would be completely out of harmony with the author’s style in Genesis 1 to arrange the first three verses into one complete sentence. It would be a long rambling sentence if you tried to interpret verse 1 as a subordinate clause. That supports this idea that it is a main clause that is independent of verses 2 and 3. Therefore it does represent an absolute initial event of creation - “in the beginning God created the universe.”


Student: [inaudible]

Dr. Craig: Yes, that is true. There are those who say that you have two creation accounts – one in chapter 1 and one in chapter 2. But that wouldn't be pertinent to the issue that we are dealing with. On the contrary, in the account in chapter 2, you do find this typical formula, don't you? In the account in chapter 2 you find this formula. In chapter 1 though you don't find that formula except in verses 2 and 3. Verse 1 prefixes that and therefore stands apart, is independent, and (according to Westermann) is unparalleled in ancient creation stories. There is nothing like it. I think it would only reinforce the point that he is making.

Student: [inaudible]

Dr. Craig: Yes. Well, I would take it that the author is trying to make a theological point. The more you study Genesis 1 you begin to realize that this isn't just sort of a bare police report. This is a story that is filled with theology and is intended to be a counterblast to the mythology and the creation myths of Israel's ancient neighbors. Remember we talked a little bit last week how some of them thought of the world as being created out of the body of a dragon and out of the blood and the seeds of the primordial beasts. In these ancient creation myths the sun and the stars were worshiped as deities. What you have in Genesis 1:1 is a kind of demythologization of these ancient creation stories. The sun and the moon just become things that God made – lights is all they are. God has created everything. There is nothing over against God that he is warring with or fighting with. Genesis 1:1 is such a terse and beautiful statement of creation - “in the beginning God created the universe.” I think that he is making a theological point here by prefixing the typical formula with this first verse, namely, he is asserting the supremacy, the ultimacy, and the unique sovereignty of Israel's God as the creator of everything.[6]

Student: [inaudible]

Dr. Craig: No, I don't buy that, frankly. As I say, the word bereshith simply means “beginning.” That was Westermann's first point. There is no basis for thinking that this cannot designate an absolute beginning as in Isaiah 46:10. Moreover, the expression “the heavens and the earth” doesn't just mean the world as we know it. There is no word in Hebrew for “the universe.” “The heavens and the earth” meant everything there is. I think that what we have in verse 1 is the statement that in the beginning God created the universe. It is the beginning of the universe. Now, that doesn't preclude that there might not be a gap between verse 1 and verse 2. We will deal with that in a moment. But I don't think you can try to support that view based on the vocabulary. I don't think the vocabulary supports that.

Student: [inaudible]

Dr. Craig: That was one thing that someone pointed out after class. Even if you take it as a subordinate clause, that doesn't show that creation ex nihilo is not in view here. But I don't think it is a subordinate clause. As Paul Copan, my co-author in the book Creation Out of Nothing, has documented, more and more Old Testament commentators are coming to realize that the traditional understanding is, in fact, correct, and that we are not dealing with a subordinate clause. You are dealing here with an independent clause.

Student: [inaudible]

Dr. Craig: Yes. John 1:1, as we will see later on, ties in with this in that John's Gospel begins with the words in Greek of the same words that Genesis 1:1 begins with - “in the beginning, God . . .” Here it is “In the beginning was the Word” and then he identifies the Word with God. That is why I said earlier that the authors of the New Testament as well as the oldest translations of the Old Testament and the Masoretic text all took Genesis 1:1 as describing an absolute beginning. John 1:1 would be an indication of that because John 1:1 is also talking about an absolute beginning in which the Word exists and then all things came into being in verse 3 through the Word. So John is looking back to Genesis 1 and imitating it and recalling it.


This conclusion doesn’t quite settle the issue, however, in favor of creation out of nothing. Even if we take verse 1 to be an independent main clause we still have to ask ourselves: what is the relationship of that clause to the rest of the chapter?

One might say, In the beginning God created the stuff – the matter and energy – out of which he then formed the universe. The relationship here is chronological. In the beginning God created the material – the matter and energy – and then in verse 2 and following it describes how he shaped and formed that into a world – into a cosmos. But it has been objected against this understanding via two points.

First of all, the expression “the heavens and the earth” in verse 1 doesn’t just designate the totality of things but it means an ordered cosmos. Already in verse 1 you have an ordered cosmos considered, not just a kind of stuff.

In any case, the second point, the creation of a chaos would be a contradiction in terms for a Hebrew thinker. God doesn't create a chaos. God is a God of order, and he would create an ordered cosmos.

Because of those difficulties some people have said we should understand verse 1 to be a sort of title for the whole chapter. It is a sort of subheading for the chapter. “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth” – that is the title of the chapter. Then the act of creation really begins in verse 2 – “the earth was without form and void; darkness was upon the face of the deep, and the Spirit of God was moving over the waters.” Again you are back to saying maybe this isn't creation out of nothing after all. If creation begins in verse 2 then what we are talking about again is God is standing over against the primordial depths and over against the darkness and is shaping this primordial darkness and chaos into an ordered cosmos.[7] One might say that if we take verse 1 to be just sort of a subheading or a title to the chapter then it is not clear that we really have creatio ex nihilo.

How might we respond to this? A great German commentator in the last century, Franz Delitzsch, pointed out that verse 1 cannot be understood to be merely a heading or title of the chapter. The reason is that in the Hebrew, verse 1 is connected to verse 2 by the Hebrew word waw or “and.” This is sometimes left out in English translations such as mine. But the verse literally reads in the Hebrew “in the beginning God created the heavens and the earth and the earth was without form and void and darkness was on the face of the deep.” My translation leaves out this word in the translation, but it is there in the Hebrew. So it cannot be simply a chapter title because it is connected grammatically to verse 2 by the conjunction “and.”

What Delitzsch understood simply from his mastery of the Hebrew language has actually been demonstrated more rigorously by computer-assisted studies of the Hebrew language. My Old Testament colleague at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School when I was teaching there, John Sailhammer, carried out such computer-assisted studies of Hebrew. John Sailhammer is a very fine Old Testament scholar and has written a commentary on Genesis. What he pointed out is that in Hebrew whenever you have a construction which is this Hebrew word waw, or “and”, which is then followed by a non-predicate (like, say, a subject of a sentence) and then that is followed in turn by a predicate (by a verb) so that you have a clause here and – and then a non-predicate (a subject and then a verb) – whenever you have that construction in Hebrew, then the preceding clause – the material that goes before the “and” – always is something that supplies background or circumstantial information. In other words, it is not in verse 1 a title for the whole chapter. Rather, it is giving background information to verse 2. According to Sailhammer when I examined him on this – I pressed him on the point – he said this is always the case. Computer-assisted studies of Hebrew language shows that this is always the case. I think that settles it decisively that verse 1 cannot just be interpreted to be a heading for the chapter or some sort of a title. Rather, this is a conjunction – “in the beginning God created the heavens and the earth and the earth was without form and void.” Verse 1 preceding the word “and” therefore provides background information to what is going on in verses 2 and 3.


Student: [inaudible]

Dr. Craig: Right. You ask whether this matters apologetically. I would say apologetically it could matter in the sense that if it is that God created the sort of matter and energy that then he fashioned into a world, that would be very compatible with contemporary cosmology. When you think of contemporary Big Bang cosmology that is exactly what is described – in the beginning there was light. Photons. That is what God created in the Big Bang. Then as the universe cooled down and expanded, big planets, stars, and so forth began to form. Apologetically, if this interpretation is right, it would be much more consonant to Big Bang cosmology. Notice the way I am approaching this chapter. It is not via apologetics. I think it is bad interpretation to try to read modern science into Genesis.[8] What we want to do is let the text speak to us on its own terms. How would an ancient Hebrew understand this text? Some of you attend Reasons to Believe with Hugh Ross – I think this is one of Hugh’s weak points. Hugh tends to read science back into the text rather than allowing the text to speak to us first. My conclusions aren’t driven by what would be apologetically useful here, but rather, what does the text say? That is why we are doing this detailed grammatical exegesis. I do think that Genesis 1:1 is describing a background to the formation of the cosmos in verse 2.

Student: [inaudible]

Dr. Craig: The word in Hebrew is hashamayim weth herets - “the heavens and the earth” or “the land.” That is literally what it says. But that is an idiom for expressing everything since they didn’t have a single Hebrew word for “universe.”


What about the tension that exists between verses 1 and 2 that I mentioned – the claim that you can’t have a creation of some sort of unformed stuff because the heavens and the earth already designate a formed cosmos? One could say this tension between verses 1 and 2 is just the result of the author’s prefixing verse 1 in front of this traditional formula – “when ____ was not yet, then God did ____.” So this tension is created by the author’s desire to express creation out of nothing and sticking verse 1 at the beginning. So it is just a reflection of the author’s desire to show creation out of nothing.

But I think that probably more could be said about that. I think we don’t have to just simply leave the tension unresolved between verses 1 and 2. I think that when you look at the chapter closely we could take the scope of verse 1 to be universal, and then in verse 2 you have a dramatic narrowing of the focus to the earth. In verse 1 what we have expressed is in the beginning God created the universe. Then suddenly a dramatic focusing down on the earth – “and the earth was without form and void and darkness was upon the face of the deep.” So what you have here is a contrast of generality. The first verse is universal in its scope; the second verse is narrowly focused on what happens on earth.

The expression that the earth was “without form and void” – in the Hebrew this is tohuwabohu. I remember when Jan and I first came to Germany to study with Wolfhart Pannenberg, Frau Pannenberg said something about his office being a tohuwabohu – without form and void! Sort of a chaos! But, in fact, this expression in Hebrew doesn’t describe a primordial chaos in the Greek sense – an unformed chaotic confusion. It is not a Greek chaos in that sense. Rather, to say that something is tohuwabohu in Hebrew simply means that the earth is an uninhabitable waste. That is the sense in which it is without form and void. It means it is an uninhabitable waste. A desert could be described this way. In fact, there are places in the Scripture where the wilderness – the desert – is described in exactly these terms. An uninhabitable wasteland. So it is not a chaos that is described in verse 2. It is an uninhabitable place. What you then have in the succeeding verses is a description of how God transforms this uninhabitable waste into a beautiful garden for human beings to live in. He transforms it into a place for man to live.

Just in answer to the question that was posed earlier – that could in fact presuppose a tremendous time gap between verses 1 and 2, couldn’t it?[9] I am not saying that the author is thinking of it, but it could. If verse 1 were to describe, say, the Big Bang in which God created all the matter and energy in the whole universe, and then in verse 2 the focus narrows to what he is doing to transform the earth to make it a habitable place for humanity, there could be a huge time gap between verses 1 and 2. I think if we understand this to be a change of focus from universal to earthly or terrestrial, who knows how much time there might be between verses 1 and 2.


Student: [inaudible]

Dr. Craig: Yes. He says, “How else could he have expressed the idea of an absolute beginning better than this?” I think that is absolutely right.

Student: [inaudible]

Dr. Craig: I don’t think that is heretical at all. She suggests, “Could it be that what is described in verse 1 would be what modern cosmologists say is the Big Bang? And then in verse 2, what is described is God’s creation of the earth as a planet to be habitable for humankind?” I don’t think that is heretical at all. On the contrary, I think that is very plausible. In fact, here is an interesting suggestion for those of you who are six-day creationists who want to interpret Genesis 1:1 as describing six literal days – this exegesis would allow that there was a huge time gap between the Big Bang and the planet earth and then in six literal 24-hour days God made the earth into a habitable place for humanity. So you could actually combine six-day creationism with Big Bang cosmology in that way. I don’t know anybody who does that, but you could do it if you want to have a gap in between verses 1 and 2. So, no, I don’t think that that is disallowed by the text at all.

Student: [inaudible]

Dr. Craig: Yes. We will be saying more about this later on because we will want to talk a little bit about what is the scientific evidence for creation and how does it comport with the biblical text. But the first thing we want to do is to try to understand the biblical text.

Student: [inaudible]

Dr. Craig: Right. In other words, this kind of expression “without form and void” doesn’t describe the kind of chaos that you have in Greek mythology where there is no order, there is no laws of nature, say. Rather, it would be the kind of disorder that you would find in a desert where it is just uninhabitable, but obviously there is order there. There are sand grains there. There are laws of nature that operate. So there is order in verse 2, but it is not habitable. There aren’t any plants yet. There aren’t any human beings. There is no place to live. But it is not a chaos in the sense of no laws of nature and no form at all.

Student: [inaudible]

Dr. Craig: The question was: could we exclude the possibility that as God created the laws might have shifted? Perhaps God made new laws of nature along the way or something of that sort?

Student: [inaudible]

Dr. Craig: He is saying science presupposes in doing cosmology that the same laws of nature that we observe today held right back to the beginning and operate back to the earliest times. If God were to have changed them along the way then that inference would fail. That is obviously correct. If the laws of nature were changed in the past then any inferences we had would be undermined. But I don’t think you are going to find any basis in the biblical text for thinking that God did such a thing. This author is not thinking in terms of things like laws of nature and so forth. That was my expression that I brought in. Your only motive for doing that, I think, would be some kind of an apologetics motive – if somehow the Bible were to look incompatible with modern science, you would try to undermine modern science by saying God changed the laws of nature. To me that would be a very radical move that one would rather prefer to avoid. It is sort of like saying maybe God created the world five minutes ago with all kinds of built-in appearances of age and the whole thing is a deception.[10] Changing the laws of nature rather smacks of that same sort of idea. I think one would want to avoid that if we could. Hang onto that and see if we can avoid that.


To conclude and draw together the strings of this conversation, I think what we’ve seen is in Genesis 1:1 we have neither a subordinate clause nor a mere chapter title, but rather we have a conjunction that describes the background of God’s creating the universe. Then we have a shift in focus to his creating life on earth. There is an objection to understanding it this way, however, namely if you look at the first chapter in the description of the forth day we seem to have described the creation there of the sun and the moon and the stars. So it is not simply talking about creating life on earth making life habitable on earth. It appears that on the fourth day that is when God made the stars and the sun and the moon. That would be sort of out of sync with having made these other things first. How will we deal with that question? That will be the issue that will occupy us when we meet together next time.[11]



[1] 5:02

[2] 10:15

[3] 15:02

[4] Claus Westermann, Genesis 1-11, trans. John Scullion (Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1984), p. 97.

[5] Ibid.

[6] 20:05

[7] 25:16

[8] 30:00

[9] 35:00

[10] 40:01

[11] Total Running Time: 41:31 (Copyright © 2008 William Lane Craig)