Doctrine of Creation (Part 1)

August 19, 2012     Time: 00:22:34

Today we begin a new section on our survey of Christian doctrine entitled the Doctrine of Creation.

Creatio ex nihilo

Scriptural Data

Genesis 1

First we want to look at the biblical material pertinent to the Doctrine of Creation. I would invite you to take your Bibles and to turn to the very first book of the Bible, the book of Genesis, the very first chapter and the very first verse. Genesis 1:1, the first verse of the Bible, says “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” With that terse and majestic statement, the author of Genesis 1 differentiated his outlook from all of the ancient creation stories of Israel’s neighbors. The expression “the heavens and the earth” denotes in Hebrew the total of physical reality. Hebrew had no word for “the universe” so when they wanted to express the totality of physical reality, they would use this expression “the heavens and the earth.” So verse 1 says simply “In the beginning God created the universe.”

Notice that there is no preexistent material that is presupposed. We find no warring gods, no primordial dragons, as we do in other ancient creation myths; only God who simply creates the universe. The word for create there is bara, a word which is used with only God as its subject and which does not presuppose any kind of material substratum – it does not presuppose a material cause in addition to God who is the efficient cause, who simply creates his effects. So at face value, at least, the opening line of the Bible seems to teach the doctrine of creatio ex nihilo, that is to say, creation out of nothing. It was certainly understood in this way by later biblical authors as we will see in a minute. But many modern commentators have denied this face value reading of Genesis 1:1. Usually their claim will be that verse 1 should not be read as an independent clause. Rather, verse 1 is a subordinate clause that modifies verse 2. So the passage should properly be translated “When God created the heavens and the earth in the beginning” or “In the beginning, when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was without form and void” and so forth. In that way it might appear that God’s creation of the world was not a creation out of nothing but it was simply fashioning an orderly cosmos out of this preexistent chaotic state which was without form and void. This issue has been long discussed and it seems to me that Claus Westermann, in his very thorough discussion of this text in his commentary on the book of Genesis[1], has convincingly shown that verse 1 should be understood to be an independent clause rather than a subordinate clause. Let me summarize Westermann’s five main points.

Number one, the first point that he makes is that there is no evidence that the word bereshith – which means “in the beginning”, the verse begins bereshith bara elohim or “in the beginning God created” – can’t be used in an absolute state at the beginning of a sentence to indicate a point in time. For example, he says, Isaiah 46:10 appears to use bereshith to indicate such an absolute beginning.[2] In Isaiah 46:9-10 it speaks of “I am God, and there is none like me, declaring the end from the beginning” and there it appears to be an absolute beginning that is meant. So a definite article with the word bereshith is not necessary in order to indicate an absolute definite beginning point. Bereshith can indicate an absolute beginning point in time. Confirmation of this conclusion, Westermann says, comes from the oldest textual witnesses that we have to Genesis 1:1. He speaks here, for example, of the Masoretic punctuation. When the Masoretic text of Hebrew was produced in which the vowel points and the punctuation was introduced into the consonants, they punctuated verse 1 as an independent clause and not as a subordinate clause. Similarly, the oldest translations of the Hebrew text render verse 1 as an independent clause. Undoubtedly he is thinking there of the Septuagint which is the translation of the Hebrew Old Testament into Greek which treats verse 1 as an independent sentence. And finally, the New Testament as well took verse 1 as a main clause and bereshith as designating an absolute beginning. One thinks, for example, of John 1:1, “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God.” So the Masoretic punctuation, the oldest translations of the Hebrew text and the New Testament all took verse 1 to be an independent clause with bereshith designating an absolute beginning. That is the first point.

The second point Westermann makes is that the syntax of verse 1 does not prove that bereshith is part of an adverbial construct chain as it would be in a subordinate clause. He says an argument that is often given in favor of taking verse 1 as a subordinate clause is that you have an identical construction appearing in Hosea 1:2 which expresses such a circumstantial idea. In Hosea 1:2 this same construction is translated “When the LORD spoke at first through Hosea”, etc, etc. Westermann points out, however, that this argument is inconclusive because, after all, Genesis 1 has to be read in the context of the book of Genesis, not of Hosea. The book of Hosea is written by a different author at a different time in history for a different audience and so it is quite illegitimate to impose it upon the book of Genesis. You need to read the book of Genesis in its own context. When we do this he points out that in Genesis 5:1, when the author wishes to express a circumstantial idea, he uses a grammatical form that is called an infinite construct which is the usual form for such circumstantial clauses. In Genesis 5:1 it says, “When God created man, he made him in the likeness of God.” So it really is Hosea’s syntax that is unusual and it provides no grounds for re-interpreting Genesis 1:1 in its light. The author of Genesis 1:1, had he wished to express a circumstantial idea, would have used the normal infinite construct just as he did in chapter 5, verse 1. That’s the second point.

The third point that Westermann makes is that theological arguments alone cannot resolve this question simply because that presupposes we already understand verses 1 to 3. So you cannot say that the idea of an absolute beginning or creation out of nothing would have been theologically unintelligible for ancient Hebrews – you can’t avoid an exegesis of these verses in order to determine their meaning. You have to first understand them before you can decide what is and is not possible theologically. This exegesis has to be carried out within the context of the chapter and then the wider context of ancient creation narratives.[3] That’s the third point – theological arguments alone can’t resolve the issue.

The fourth point that Westermann makes is when we do carry out such an exegesis within the wider context of ancient creation stories what you discover is that Genesis 1:1 is unique. It is without parallel in ancient creation myths. The usual form of these ancient creation myths according to Westermann was as follows: “When _____ was not yet, then God made _____.” This was the typical way these myths were formulated – “When _____ (and you fill in the blank) was not yet, then God made _____.” The first clause would express the state of affairs prior to God’s action and then the second clause would describe God’s subsequent activity in making something out of that state. Interestingly enough, we find this very typical narrative form in the second chapter of Genesis verses 5 to 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,” etc, etc. So according to Westermann, this was the more typical form of ancient creation stories. He believes that the author of Genesis 1 took this typical formula “when _____ was not yet” and he made this 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.” Then he took the typical formula “then God made” and he made that verse 3, “and God said let there by light.” So in verses 2 and 3, you have a vestige, or a reflection, of this typical ancient creation narrative formula “When _____ was not yet then God made _____.” But the author then prefixed both of these with his own sentence in verse 1, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” Therefore, verse 1 is not a temporal subordinate clause. It lies completely outside the typical formula, the typical structure; it is the author’s own formulation. 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]

This fourth point that Westermann makes is that when you compare the structure of Genesis 1:1-3 with the other creation stories then he believes the answer to the question is certain that verse 1 stands outside the typical formulaic structure and is an independent clause formulated by the author.

Finally, the fifth point that he makes, number 5, is that the style of the author of Genesis 1 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.

Therefore, for all five of these reasons, the most plausible interpretation of verse 1 is that it is not a subordinate circumstantial clause. Rather, it is a main clause and an independent sentence which asserts God’s creation of everything there is.

As important as this conclusion is, it doesn’t yet decide the question decisively in favor of creatio ex nihilo. For now we have to consider the relationship of verse 1 to verses 2 and 3.[6] Here it might be thought that what verse 1 does is simply describe the raw material out of which the earth and the rest of the world was made. In the beginning, God made the universe – he made the raw material – and then he fashions this into a world in verses 2 and following. But against this interpretation, it has been objected that the expression “heavens and the earth” in verse 1 doesn’t designate just sort of raw material but it designates an ordered cosmos. Also, the creation of chaos is a contradiction in terms. God doesn’t create a chaos. So the thought is that verse 1 doesn’t describe simply the raw material of the universe being created, rather, perhaps verse 1 is to be thought of as a sort of title or heading to the chapter which summarizes the contents of what is described in verses 2 and following. So “in the beginning God created the heavens and the earth” would be a sort of subheading or a title for what is then described in the rest of the chapter. And, on this understanding, creation itself actually only begins at verse 3 and maybe thought not to entail creatio ex nihilo. So we are right back to where we started again if we take verse 1 as simply a chapter title or heading. We are back to thinking of creation as really beginning with the earth in this formless and void state.

How should we assess this question? Against taking verse 1 to be merely a title or a chapter heading, I think it can be objected that the grammatical relationship between verse 1 and 2 then becomes an insuperable problem. For verse 1 is connected to verse 2 by the Hebrew word waw, which is the Hebrew word “and.” In the Hebrew it actually says “in the beginning God created the heavens and the earth and the earth was without form and void.” This “and”, this conjunction, indicates a relationship of connection between God’s primary act of creation and then his subsequent acts of creation. What is suggested by the Hebrew grammar has actually been rigorously proved by computer-aided grammatical analysis. My colleague John Sailhammer at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School carried out such a study and he said that the computer analysis shows that in Hebrew, whenever you have a construction that consists of waw, this conjunction “and”, plus a non-predicate and a predicate, like a subject and a verb, waw plus a non-predicate and a predicate, then the clause that precedes the waw furnishes either background information or circumstantial information to what follows, depending upon the relation of this construction to the main verb. Whenever this construction precedes the main verb, as it does in verse 2, then he says it is background information which is being given. So, accordingly, verse 1 is not simply a chapter heading or a title. Rather, it is a historical statement which gives background information to verse 2 so that it does mean that in the very beginning God created the heavens and the earth and then it goes on to describe what he does with the earth.

What about the tension then between verses 1 and 2 that we mentioned before – that heavens and the earth already denotes an orderly cosmos and that the creation of chaos would be a contradiction in terms? I think that when you reflect on the meaning of the Hebrew words here that in fact the tension, I think, really doesn’t exist. We could take verse 1 to be universal in its scope and designate God’s creation of the entire cosmos and then what happens in verse 2 is a radical narrowing of the focus down to God’s creation of the earth, or some commentators have even suggested the land (that is, the Promised Land).[7] So in the beginning God created the universe and then suddenly the focus dramatically narrows and the earth was without form and void, etc. So we have a general creation of the universe in verse 1 and then what is described in verse 2 and following is what God does with the earth.

As for the problem of chaos, the description of the earth as “without form and void”, or in the Hebrew tohuwabohu, in Hebrew this doesn’t connote a primordial chaos in the Greek sense. That is to say, a state of affairs in which there are no laws of nature in which anything can happen. That is not what is meant by tohuwabohu. Rather, it means that the earth was an uninhabitable wasteland or desert waste, a desert wilderness or something of that sort. That is how this word is normally used. In the succeeding verses what is described is God’s transforming this uninhabitable waste into a paradise for man to dwell in. So what we have described in verse 2 is not the creation of some sort of a chaos but rather it is the transformation of an uninhabitable earth into a paradise and a habitable place fit for human activity.

Someone might object to this interpretation of the first chapter by saying, well then what about the creation of the heavenly bodies in verse 14 where it says God says “Let there be lights in the firmament of the heavens” and it describes how God created the sun and the moon? Doesn’t that indicate that a more universal creation is in view after all and not simply the transformation of the earth into a habitable place for human beings? Well, that is the question that we will take up next time.[8]



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

[2] 4:56

[3] 10:02

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

[5] Ibid.

[6] 15:02

[7] 20:02

[8] Total Running Time: 22:34 (Copyright © 2012 William Lane Craig)