I’m going to appropriate and extend Alasdair MacIntyre’s notion of a tradition here and posit that to be part of the tradition of Bible-interpretation means engaging in the ongoing conversation and dispute over what it means to love the Bible and to interpret it faithfully.
Such an assumption means that there’s always space at the table for those who differ, to use the metaphor of a seminar room, but there’s never time for sloth. So when I write about the historical doctrine of creatio ex nihilo, I’m aware that I can’t make everyone happy, but that’s not my job. To teach the Bible is to offer frameworks through which the text makes sense, and such an enterprise always invites a fight. So here we go.
It’s hard to tell, from chapter to chapter and book to book, where Brueggemann stands on Patristic theology and exegesis, so I’ll leave it to those bolder than me to speculate on whether I’m extending his project or departing from it here. But taking the notion of theological dialectics and broadening its circle beyond the Scriptural canon, I’m inclined to regard the development of Genesis 1 and the development of creatio ex nihilo as two moments, not identical and not even harmonious but unfolding dialectically, emphasizing different creation-realities depending on the ways that the faithful lean in any given moment.
Thus critics of creatio ex nihilo are right to locate the doctrine’s origins in a strong response to certain strains of Gnosticism that posited a minor, wicked deity, one which created the corrupt world of matter while the true Father of Jesus Christ created only the spirit-world. In the face of that, the Church affirms the inherent goodness of creation by insisting that there is no prior chaos-realm from which folks should recoil but that all matter, because created by the one true God, is very good.
Does that come from Genesis? By no means! Jon Levenson and others are right to note that the Canaanite grammar of Genesis 2 and the Babylonian grammar of Genesis 1 are not concerned with anything so abstract (and post-Aristotelian) as the nature and ontological value of matter as opposed to spirit; they’re concerned with naming the Maker, and they do so brilliantly. Genesis 1 offers the faithful a picture of Elohim, who speaks order into chaos, so powerful that there’s no need for Enuma Elish–style divine combat. Genesis 2 offers a version of the beginnings of things rooted more in Canaanite vocabularies, demythologizing the serpent from a deity to merely the most clever of created sub-human animals and rendering the great struggle in the primordial world not as a contest between rival deities but as a moral test, the challenge of listening to true God rather than the false counsel of a merely created entity. I’ve read Levenson and Nahum Sarna and others, and I find this vision of the text as polemic response compelling.
Now here’s where I might depart a bit from Brueggemann: if one can regard Genesis 1, Genesis 2, Proverbs 8, and John 1 as historically particular Biblical articulations of creation, each for its own historical moment, yet tested by time and proven to be enriching even beyond its historical moment, I’m inclined also to regard creatio ex nihilo as another one of those moments. Thus I’m willing to assert at the same time that Genesis seems to imagine creation as the formation rather than the bringing-into-existence of material phenomena; and that theologically, there might be very good reasons to assert that matter itself emerges from the overflowing generosity of God, that there is no thing visible or intelligible whose existence is a result of anything but the free and uncaused love of the divine. (I’d argue as well that creatio ex nihilo is an inference from John 1 just as much as Levenson’s “primordial material substratum” is an inference from Genesis 1.)
What strikes me as more interesting is the horizon of creation-theology that lies beyond Genesis 1 and John 1 in common. On that horizon, there are times when the truth of reality, of existing as created beings, means dealing with destructive forces that human ingenuity cannot overcome, and denying their fallout harms those wounded, by omission even when not by outright victim-blaming. Brueggemann notes that the Bible often emerges from just such moments when the truth is that of conflict:
Israel bears witness, as did its antecedents, to an enduring force of chaos in its life. This chaos may go by different names–Tiamat, Leviathan, Rahab, Yam, Mot–which we may summarize under the names of Death or Nihil. In a variety of texts, this rhetoric in Israel points to a recognition that something is at work in the world seeking to make impossible the life of blessing willed by Yahweh. Israel, moreover, finds itself helpless in the face of this powerful force. (534, italics original)
Thus in my mind, Genesis 1 and John 1, and their non-identical theological implications, also need to be in conversation with Psalm 82. So theologically, I would posit the following statements as true, knowing that one cannot be true except at the expense of another and knowing that the former could flow from Genesis 1 or John 1. Such is their dialectical relationship:
- All of created reality is “very good” and an ongoing gift of YHWH, and the proper response to that goodness is gratitude.
- Created reality, in its dangerous chaos, calls for the faithful response of calling out to YHWH that the world surrounding us is not good and makes our rescue necessary.
I can say both of those because they’re both true. Doing dialectical theology, the faithful can and must say that the despair that the latter would bring, absent the former, is no more tenable for God’s people than the denial that would emerge were the first to stand without the second.
So ultimately, I consider the Patristic creatio ex nihilo and the historical-critical material substratum both to be valid but both to constitute an intelligible dialectical relationship here. Perhaps creatio ex nihilo is not Biblical theology, strictly speaking, but in the long sweep of Christian theology, other doctrines–certainly the Trinity comes to mind–have likewise served the faithful, negotiating their own moments and living on afterwards as vocabularies with which we can read the Bible better. That the Temple-priests of monarchical Jerusalem would not have read the creation-Psalms in light of creatio ex nihilo does not nullify the fact that, for the sake of thinking about God and God’s creation in our own moment, the doctrine stands to be quite helpful, perhaps even useful for correction and instruction and edification and such.
Such a historical move does not secure the goodness of the doctrine’s content, of course; folks in the twenty-first century have a range of ethical, metaphysical, and other philosophical reasons for imagining a functionally-eternal material substratum which receives its form but not its more radical material existence from divine fiat. (I do wonder what form one uses to imagine formless matter, but that’s another conversation.) For such folks I don’t have a knock-down argument or a clobber passage or any such thing that will convince; instead I have a hunch, one that plays out in my own teaching and piety, that creatio ex nihilo has stood the test of time, that it continues to resonate with the broad sweep of Christian teaching, that it’s less akin to ousia-metaphysics, which are interesting theologically but no longer compelling rhetorically for most folks; and more like the Trinity, which people continue to teach because it discloses something true about God, world, and the faithful.
Now I realize that such is a cop-out, that a brief essay that claims that its question’s answer is beyond the scope of a brief essay is stacking the deck. Even moreso, it’s a copout to claim that I affirm both sides of a dispute that divides Bible-readers in the twenty-first century, that I remain both a historical-critical reader and an interpreter in the tradition of Patristic hermeneutics. So be it; I’m stacking the deck. Show me a way to play this game of cards without doing so, and I’m good and ready to be taught.