Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Created out of water

I'm rather enjoying my break this summer, but I did want to share one thought on a NT understanding of creation.

A while ago I noted that (I think) most OT scholars think Genesis 1 – together with the other known myths in Akkadian literature – reflects a belief that creation was not there understood as creation ex nihilo, but rather as the command of order on chaos. This view reflects a more popular reading of Genesis 1:1 as 'In the beginning when God created' or 'in the beginning of God's creation, the earth being ...'. 'The narrative', as OT scholar John Goldingay argues, 'indeed presupposes the existence of matter, of raw material for God to use' (Old Testament Theology. Volume 1: Israel's Gospel [Downers Grove, Illinois: IVP, 2003], 80).

Rather interestingly, though many jump to passages in Paul to defend creation ex nihilo in the NT (which I suspect only suggest the seeds for a later ex nihilo doctrine), such as Romans 4:17, have you ever meditated on 2 Peter 3:5?

'They deliberately ignore this fact, that by the word of God heavens existed long ago and an earth was formed out of water and by means of water'

Richard Bauckham comments in his Word commentary:

'According to the creation account in Gen 1, and in accordance with general Near Eastern myth, the world—sky and earth—merged out of a primeval ocean (Gen 1:2, 6–7, 9; cf. Ps 33:7; 136:6; Prov 8:27–29; Sir 39:17; Herm. Vis. 1:3:4). The world exists because the waters of chaos, which are now above the firmament, beneath the earth and surrounding the earth, are held back and can no longer engulf the world. The phrase ξ δατος ("out of water") expresses this mythological concept of the world's emergence out of the watery chaos, rather than the more "scientific" notion, taught by Thales of Miletus, that water is the basic element out of which everything else is made (cf. Clem. Hom. 11:24:1)' (Bauckham, R. J., Jude, 2 Peter, p.297).

I find it particularly interesting that the context of 2 Peter 3 links this to God's faithfulness to his promises, which once again links God's faithfulness to his covenant to the whole of creation. But in terms of creation, what are we to make of the (later) doctrine of ex nihilo in light of such biblical themes. One can either:

  1. Reject ex nihilo as a doctrine in light of scripture, which would, for example, perhaps help deal with the knotty problem of theodicy. 'God did not created chaos', it could be argued, his creation power was its limiting.
  2. Argue that ex nihilo is an entirely new doctrinal development, yet can be embraced as a correct doctrine on the basis of the Spirit's guidance of the church
  3. Maintain that ex nihilo, while a later development, is consistent with seeds of truth already to be found in the NT and Apocrypha. This the doctrine reflects a legitimate and further nuanced development of the understanding of creation (ex nihilo only being clearly formulated, so maintain I think the majority, in the 2nd century AD). Perhaps the church's developing formulations of Trinitarian faith is an inadequate potential comparison.


At 7/29/2009 11:53 PM, Anonymous Doug Chaplin said...

Hmm. I'd say that we don't really get to a full-blown ex nihilo doctrine until Augustine also makes time part of what is created.

Personally I think a mix of Paul, John and modern cosmology leave us with no option but your third choice.

At 7/30/2009 12:17 AM, Anonymous jonathan said...

Good, post.
It is worth pointing out though, that even if the chaotic waters pre-existed God's creative command in Gen 1, there is no suggestion that God is anything other than sovereign over those waters. Would not the best explanation for that sovereignty be that they were created by God also? Leading one to conclude that everything that exists only exists at God's creative command. Otherwise God's sovereignty must be something imposed either on something that exists independently of God, or something that exists in competition with God.

At 7/30/2009 3:43 AM, Anonymous Nathan Eubank said...

Chris - It's hard to get more inclusive than "all things", re: Paul.

Doug - Augustine was not the first to include time in "all things". It was an important part of the Christological arguments of the Cappadocians; if all things were created through Christ, that must include time, and, if so, then there could not have been a "time" when Christ did not exist.

It's too bad the Prots chucked 2 Macc.

At 7/30/2009 3:45 PM, Anonymous Nick said...

Hebrews 11:1 seems hard to read in a way that isn't assuming creation ex nihilo.

Also, even if Genesis 1:1 and following doesn't explicitly affirm creation out of nothing (and I would only point out that not all biblical scholars are convinced of this; the Goldingay quote does not reflect a consensus), it is still nonetheless the case that the text also does not say that God did NOT create the original "stuff" that He then forms creation out of.

At the end of the day, there are only two options: matter is eternal, or it isn't. All of the passages in Scripture that refer to God creating "all things", to calling things into existence from that which is not, etc. make it pretty unthinkable to me that denying creation ex nihilo is a serious option.

At 7/30/2009 5:08 PM, Anonymous Chris Donato said...

A few thoughts:

1) It's true that many scholars do highlight the "polemic" of Gen 1, and it's appropriate so to do. But with respect to the creator God subduing the chaos, which is certainly in the text, unlike the other ANE myths, the creator in Gen 1 is not seen struggling with the chaos. He simply commands it. There is no fight (as Jonathan notes above).

2) The challenge (of which I wrote in your previous post) is to leave off, once for all, that Gen 1 has anything to do with material origins (not only to our minds, but to the minds of the original audience, as well).

3) What this means is that yes, Gen 1, cannot be used to support any notion of creation ex nihilo. But this is not to suggest that such a "doctrine" ought not be deduced "by good and neceessary consequence." Gen 1 isn't interested in such a theological queston as that.

4) The whole idea, therefore, that the waters in Gen 1 are that which God created "out of" again misses the point. The "creating" taking place in Gen 1 has to do with assigning functions, not "building" the material world. But certainly I could see that if one approaches the text in this manner, then it does appear that God is creating ex ăqua.

5) To be sure the creating (assigning of functions) that we see in Gen 1 takes place as God "separates." This creative activity is apparently one of the most common in ANE creation texts (heaven from earth, upper and lower waters, water from land, etc.). So on that score, Bauckham, for example, is right on. Such a concept completely comports with other ANE myths (but it still doesn't speak to material origins).

So, in short (haha), creation ex nihilo can and ought to be affirmed by deduction. No scripture text speaks against it.

At 7/30/2009 11:25 PM, Anonymous Phil Sumpter said...

From memory, some of the biggest names in OT affirm that Gen 1:1, despite its syntactical difficulties, affirms creation ex nihilio: von Rad, Westermann, W.H. Schmidt, G. Wenham ... Even the OT prof here in Bonn (Rüterswörden), who is as critical of the Bible as one can be, affirms that the text depicts creation ex nihilo. So Goldingay (and elswhere Brueggemann) are only presenting one strand of argument. And the argument is very contentious.

At 7/30/2009 11:32 PM, Anonymous Phil Sumpter said...

Robert Jenson opens his chapter on creation with the following (the book I photocopied from you when I came to visit):

"The Bible begins with a straightforward doctrinal proposition: "In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth." Genesis 1:1 should be so translated since it is, almost certainly, to be read as the caption of the following narrative, both summarizing and introducing it."

In a footnote he writes: "That this is the correct reading and translation, rather than that of such versions as the NRSV, has surely been demonstrated for good and all by Claus Westermann, Genesis. The recent preference for translations that make Genesis 1:1 a dependent clause derives from residual prejudices of a now antique form of critical exegesis that tended always to look for the "real" meaning of texts in some stage of the tradition before and outside the structure of the canonical text and then to interpret the canonical text to fit." (p. 3)

I'm not sure this is fair. I personally have no idea. The text is really odd.

At 7/31/2009 5:29 AM, Anonymous Christopher Heard said...

I'm rather inclined toward your #1, Chris.

At 8/01/2009 3:11 AM, Anonymous Nick said...

Genesis isn't a science textbook.

At 8/01/2009 8:11 AM, Anonymous Edward T. Babinski said...

Genesis 1 doesn't care where the primeval waters came from because it simply mimics the way a lot of ancient Egyptian and Mesopotamian creation myths began, with primeval waters and darkness.

It also mimics them in dividing those waters to form the two halves of creation, heaven above and earth below. A flat earth.

I have two documents that cite imagery from Othmar Keel's classic work, The Symbolism of the Biblical World, as well as some paragraphs from Horowitz's Mesopotamian Cosmic Geography, and lastly, a few paragraphs from Mark S. Smith's upcoming work, The Priestly Vision of Genesis 1. Shall I email them to you?

At 8/01/2009 8:32 PM, Anonymous Chris Donato said...

While I agree with your sentiment, Edward, "mimic" is a potentially poor word choice, as it could connote to the reader simple copying on the part of the Gen 1 author.

Rather, it's simply a matter of expectations: we expect the ancient Israelites to hold in common with the ancient world its various concepts and perspectives regarding creation. This is quite different than mere mimicry. The ancient Israelites were simply a part of that ancient world.

At 8/02/2009 4:58 PM, Anonymous Chris Tilling said...

Hi Jonathan,

"It is worth pointing out though, that even if the chaotic waters pre-existed God's creative command in Gen 1, there is no suggestion that God is anything other than sovereign over those waters."

Yes, agreed.

Hi Nathan,

"Chris - It's hard to get more inclusive than "all things", re: Paul."

My only objction is that I don't think Paul is talking about creatin as much as death and resurrection in Romans 4. Not sure he had a doctrine of creation ex nihilo in mind.

Nick (and Chris), I can agree with your comments. I think creation ex nihilo is consistent with biblical teaching, but whether it is explicit is the question.

Hi Phil,
I would respond by pointing out that I think it is the majority opinion is that creation ex nihilo is not present in Genesis 1. It isn't simply a few scholars who are objectionable.

As for Gen 1, perhaps bara is best translated as bere - as cutting, dividing. Any thoughts?

Chris Heard, honour to have you comment here. How would you read Hebrews 11?

At 8/03/2009 12:29 PM, Anonymous Phil Sumpter said...

Hi Chris,

my comments were really a spontaneous response to Nick about Goldingay's views not representing a consensus. But you've looked into this more than I. I personally don't know what to make of the syntax, and I've been under the impression that most people don't. I used to think what Goldingay thought, but then I visited a lecture by Rüterswörden which, as far as I could understand him, seemed to affirm the traditional reading. I remember being confused by it all!

I can't imagine how a piel would make sense here. Where did you read that suggestion?

At 8/03/2009 2:51 PM, Anonymous ChrisS said...

The writers of genesis possibly had no concept of nothing. Such an explanation would mean that genbesis could not be directly interpreted as an argument for creation ex nihilo.

If we try to imagine nothining oursleevs it is extraordinarily difficult. Even if we manage to imagine no extension and no time. Our consciousness is still present and presumably nothingness includes no consciousness. It is not impossible the writers knew this and so could not conceive of a nothing out of which something could be created.

Where that leaves moderns who think they know what nothing is (but do we?) is another quesiton altogether.

At 8/04/2009 4:52 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I am not a scholar. But I have always believed that ex nihilo was a wrong concept. God created the world out of water, which in turn is from himself. Also I wonder if the chaos can be explained by the so called gap theory...

At 8/06/2009 11:13 PM, Anonymous Michael Barber said...

Of course, someone should at least mention 2 Maccabees 7:28: I beseech you, my child, to look at the heaven and the earth and see everything that is in them, and recognize that God did not make them out of things that existed."

The discussion here assumes that this should not be considered a biblical book--an assumption which I think is rather dubious. Of course, even numerous Protestant scholars, e.g., Martin Hengel, would agree with me.


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