Creatio ex Nihilo
The doctrine that everything that exists was created out of nothing cannot be proven from Scripture alone. It is a product of over 500 years of theological development beginning around 200 BCE, and prior to that time was of little to no concern to the Jewish people.
This might be hard for biblical literalists to take, but nothing in the Genesis creation accounts support the idea of creation ex nihilo, creation out of nothing. This is an interpretation passed on by tradition rather than a position derived from exegesis — the critical explanation of the text.
“In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.” (Gen 1:1) This is a summary statement, one that sets the stage for everything that is to follow. And what follows does not support creation out of nothing. “And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters.” (Gen 1:2) This verse is a description of the typical near-eastern concept of the primordial state which existed before creation. The Greeks called this chaos (χάος), a word that means formless, void, darkness. The Greek philosopher Pherecydes of Syros describes chaos as being like water — formless, yet capable of differentiation. John H. Walton says this was a feature of near-eastern cosmology, that the act of creation involved not the creation of matter, but the differentiation and ordering of matter. In this view, creation is functional rather than ontological; creation is an act of separation, of differentiation, of the initiation of an “operational system”.
Justin Taylor says Genesis 1:1 is not a summary statement, but rather a background statement describing the initial act of creation of matter out of nothing. There are multiple problems with this interpretation. First, this interpretation is foreign to the ancient cosmologies. Paul Copan notes that “Jewish thought was preoccupied with the God of the cosmos rather than with the cosmos itself.” Second, the creation accounts are about God and God’s relationship with the created order; and about humanity, about God’s relationship with humanity, and about humanity’s relationship with the created order. In other words, the creation accounts are theological and anthropological first, and only distantly related to the question of “how” God created. Third, Philip Jenkins notes that for early Jewish thought, “Adam’s story made little impact.” It wasn’t until around the 2nd century B.C. that the creation accounts became an issue in theology. Prior to that time, the focus was Torah and Temple, on what Jacob Neusner refers to as “eternal Israel.”
Beginning in the 2nd century BCE, there was a difference of opinion on the matter. Philo of Alexandria, the great Jewish theologian (c. 20 BCE – 40CE), appears to be of two minds on this issue. In his work On the Eternity of the World, he writes: “For it is impossible that anything should be generated of that which has no existence anywhere.” Yet in his work On Dreams he writes: “And besides all this, as the sun, when he arises, discovers hidden things, so also does God, who created all things, not only bring them all to light, but he has even created what before had no existence, not being their only maker, but also their founder.”
There are differences of opinion on this issue presented in the Apocrypha (a.k.a. the Deuterocanonical books), most of which were written in the 200 years before Christ. In 2 Maccabees we have the story of a woman encouraging her son to accept martyrdom rather than recant. She says: “I beseech thee, my son, look upon the heaven and the earth, and all that is therein, and consider that God made them of things that were not; and so was mankind made likewise.” (2 Macc 7:28) Contrast this with the Wisdom of Solomon, which states: “For Your all-powerful hand, Which created the world out of unformed matter…” (Wis 11:17a, OSB)
New Testamental Support
Unlike what many people think, the New Testament does nothing to resolve this issue, as the passages used to support creation out of nothing do not say this explicitly. In many cases they could be interpreted as supporting either position; in other cases, their support for creation out of nothing is tenuous at best. Let us examine first the passage from the book of Romans.
(As it is written, I have made thee a father of many nations,) before him whom he believed, even God, who quickeneth the dead, and calleth those things which be not as though they were. (Rom 4:17)
If we examine this passage out of context, the phrase “calleth those things which be not as though they were” seems to support creation out of nothing. But the context suggest otherwise. First, this refers to Abraham’s being the father of nations when as yet he not only had no children, but that his body and that of his wife were as good as dead (Rom 4:19; Heb 11:12). It is their bodies, which were as good as dead (incapable of childbearing) which were touched by God, “who quickeneth the dead.” The passage is not speaking of the creation accounts, but of God’s granting a child to Abraham and Sarah by quickening their dead bodies, by calling those things which be not (fertility) as though they were.
Another passage often used to support creation out of nothing is found in the book of Colossians.
For by him were all things created, that are in heaven, and that are in earth, visible and invisible, whether they be thrones, or dominions, or principalities, or powers: all things were created by him, and for him: And he is before all things, and by him all things consist. (Col 1: 16-17)
The primary context of this passage is Christological. The Son of God is “the firstborn of every creature” (Col 1:15), just as He is “the firstborn from the dead” (Col 1:18) The creation of all things “visible and invisible” is a reference to the entirety of the created order, both spiritual and material. This creation is then recapitulated in the reconciliation of all things (Col 1:20). While creation out of nothing can be supported by this passage, it is an improper hermeneutic to derive a normative theology from a passage that is not explicitly addressing that subject.
The book of Hebrews is often used to support creation out of nothing, and at first glance this seems to be the case.
Through faith we understand that the worlds were framed by the word of God, so that things which are seen were not made of things which do appear. (Heb 11:3)
The verb “were framed” (καταρτιζω, katartizo, kat-ar-tid’-zo) has to do with an object’s function rather than its ontology. The idea is to mend, to complete, to arrange, to prepare. This is in line with the ancient cosmological ideas that the primordial stage was formless, void, and undifferentiated, and that the “things which are seen” were made of this primordial chaos, which we do not see. One can certainly read into this passage the idea of creation out of nothing, but the passage can readily be interpreted otherwise.
The issue of whether the world was created out of nothing remained unsettled in the ante-Nicene era. Some early church fathers such as Justin Martyr held that creation has to do with God’s ordering or fashioning the world out of the preexisting chaos (Origen also supported this position.)
We have been taught that He in the beginning did of His goodness, for man’s sake, create all things out of unformed matter. (Justin Martyr, First Apology, X)
Other church fathers such as Irenaeus of Lyon (c. 130 –c. 202 AD), Tatian the Assyrian (c. 120 – c. 180 AD), and Theophilus of Antioch (c. 181) argued against the both Greek philosophy and the Gnostics using the concept of creation out of nothing. Irenaeus of Lyon is quite explicit when he writes:
While men, indeed, cannot make anything out of nothing, but only out of matter already existing, yet God is in this point pre-eminently superior to men, that He Himself called into being the substance of His creation, when previously it had no existence. (Irenaeus, Against Heresies: Book II, X)
In describing the content of the Christian faith, Irenaeus used some language from the Psalms, which itself is derived from Genesis:
Happy is he that hath the God of Jacob for his help, whose hope is in the LORD his God:
Which made heaven, and earth, the sea, and all that therein is: which keepeth truth for ever. (Ps 146:5-6)
The idea that God “made heaven and earth” was used in the proto-creedal formulations of Irenaeus, which inaugurated the language which was later folded into the Nicene Creed. In his Against Heresies, Irenaeus wrote:
The Church, though dispersed through out the whole world, even to the ends of the earth, has received from the apostles and their disciples this faith: [She believes] in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven, and earth, and the sea, and all things that are in them. (Irenaeus, Against Heresies: Book I, X)
These have all declared to us that there is one God, Creator of heaven and earth. (Irenaeus, Against Heresies: Book III, I)
Tatian the Assyrian makes the argument that even if the world was formed out of unformed, undifferentiated chaos, it was God that brought that chaos into existence.
The case stands thus: we can see that the whole structure of the world, and the whole creation, has been produced from matter, and the matter itself brought into existence by God; so that on the one hand it may be regarded as rude and unformed before it was separated into parts, and on the other as arranged in beauty and order after the separation was made. (Tatian, Address to the Greeks, XII)
Theophilus of Antioch ridicules the Greek philosophers and their concept of the eternity of matter. He writes:
God, because He is uncreated, is also unalterable; so if matter, too, were uncreated, it also would be unalterable, and equal to God; for that which is created is mutable and alterable, but that which is uncreated is immutable and unalterable. And what great thing is it if God made the world out of existent materials? For even a human artist, when he gets material from some one, makes of it what he pleases. But the power of God is manifested in this, that out of things that are not He makes whatever He pleases. (Theophilus, Theophilus to Autolycus, Book II, IV)
The Nicene Creed
This issue was not settled until the First Ecumenical Council, which laid forth the idea of creation out of nothing as follows:
We believe in one God, the Father Almighty, maker of all things visible and invisible; and in one Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, the only-begotten of his Father, of the substance of the Father, God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God, begotten (γεννηθέντα), not made, being of one substance (ὁμοούσιον, consubstantialem) with the Father. By whom all things were made, both which be in heaven and in earth. (The First Ecumenical Council, The Creed)
By claiming God to be the maker of all things visible and invisible, both in heaven and in earth, the council settled the issue, using the terminology found in Scripture as filtered through Irenaeus. By using the language of Irenaeus, they were implicitly endorsing the theology of Irenaeus over against those who believed that creation was a mere ordering of unformed, undifferentiated chaos.
The theological dogma of creation ex nihilo, of creation out of nothing, developed over time, in opposition to near-eastern cosmologies, to Greek philosophy, and to the Gnostics. The argument predates Christianity, and was not settled until the First Council of Nice in 325 A.D. The doctrine is nowhere explicit the Scriptures, and can barely be said to be implicit. It can be read into the Sacred Scriptures only insofar as one has this thought already in mind.
The fact that Christianity accepts the idea of creation out of nothing cannot be attributed to Scripture Alone, for those who through otherwise could also support their position from scripture. This position developed in opposition to heresy — specifically, the Gnostic heresy, which derived its cosmology from Greek philosophy and various near-eastern cosmologies. The idea of creation ex nihilo, of creation out of nothing, is therefore a product of the Church, and is part of Holy Tradition.
Copan, Paul. 1996. “Is Creatio Ex Nihilo A Post-Biblical Invention? An Examination Of Gerhard May’s Proposal.” EarlyChurch.org.uk. Accessed January 29, 2015. www.earlychurch.org.uk/article_exnihilo_copan.html.
Jenkins, Philip. 2015. “Enter Adam.” Patheos.com. January 23. Accessed January 29, 2015. http://www.patheos.com/blogs/anxiousbench/2015/01/enter-adam/.
Neusner, Jacob. 1993. A Rabbi talks with Jesus: an intermillennial, interfaith exchange. New York: Doubleday.
Philo of Alexandria. n.d. “On Dreams.” Early Jewish Writings. Accessed January 29, 2015. http://www.earlyjewishwritings.com/text/philo/book21.html.
—. n.d. “On the Eternity of the World.” Early Jewish Writings. Accessed January 29, 2015. http://www.earlyjewishwritings.com/text/philo/book35.html.
Schaff, Philip. 1884. ANF01. The Apostolic Fathers with Justin Martyr and Irenaeus. Edited by Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson. Vol. 1. 10 vols. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company.
—. 2004. ANF02 Fathers of the Second Century: Hermas, Tatian, Athenagoras, Theophilus, and Clement of Alexandria (Entire). Edited by Phillip Schaff. Vol. 2. 10 vols. Grand Rapids: Christian Classics Ethereal Library.
—. 2005. NPNF2-14 The Seven Ecumenical Councils. Vol. 14. 14 vols. Grand Rapids: Christian Classics Ethereal Library.
Taylor, Justin. 2015. “Biblical Reasons to Doubt the Creation Days Were 24-Hour Periods.” The Gospel Coalition. January 28. Accessed January 29, 2015. http://www.thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/justintaylor/2015/01/28/biblical-reasons-to-doubt-the-creation-days-were-24-hour-periods/.
Walton, John H. 2009. The Lost World of Genesis One: Ancient Cosmology and the Origins Debate. Downers Grove: IVP Academic.
 (Walton 2009, 29)
 (Taylor 2015)
 (Copan 1996)
 (Jenkins 2015)
 (Neusner 1993, passim)
 (Philo of Alexandria n.d., II.5)
 (Philo of Alexandria n.d., I.76)
 The King James Version translation of this verse is less clear, translating the phrase “out of formless matter” as “of matter without form”. “For thy Almighty hand, that made the world of matter without form …” (Wis 11:17)
 (Schaff 1884, 252)
 (Schaff 1884, 609)
 (Schaff, ANF01 1884, 541)
 (Schaff, ANF01 1884, 684)
 (Schaff, ANF02 2004, 108)
 (Schaff, ANF02 2004, 146)
 (Schaff, NPNF2-14 2005, 39)