“In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth” (Gen 1:1)—not by a titanic struggle with the deified powers of nature but by the effortless word of command: “Let there be …” The priestly author of this first chapter of Genesis presents us with neither mythology nor philosophical speculation but doxology. As Jewish commentator Nahum Sarna writes:
The biblical Creation narrative is a document of faith. It is a quest for meaning and a statement of a religious position. It enunciates the fundamental postulates of the religion of Israel, the central ideas and concepts that animate the whole of biblical literature. Its quintessential teaching is that the universe is wholly the purposeful product of divine intelligence, that is, of the one self-sufficient, self-existing God, who is a transcendent Being outside of nature and who is sovereign over space and time. (Genesis, p. 3)
As the biblical story began to be shared with the Hellenistic world, it became necessary for Jewish and Christian thinkers to clarify the meaning of divine creation over against philosophical theories of ontological emanation and gnostic dualism. For Christians this creative exposition began in the second half of the second century. One question in particular needed to be addressed: Did God fashion the world from some kind of primordial matter, much like a craftsman takes wood and shapes it into a piece of furniture? St Justin Martyr appears to have believed something along these lines, interpreting the Genesis account through the lens of Plato’s Timaeus:
And that you may learn that it was from our teachers—we mean the account given through the prophets—that Plato borrowed his statement that God, having altered matter which was shapeless, made the world, hear the very words spoken through Moses, who, as above shown, was the first prophet, and of greater antiquity than the Greek writers; and through whom the Spirit of prophecy, signifying how and from what materials God at first formed the world, spoke thus: In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth. And the earth was invisible and unfurnished, and darkness was upon the face of the deep; and the Spirit of God moved over the waters. And God said, Let there be light; and it was so. So that both Plato and they who agree with him, and we ourselves, have learned, and you also can be convinced, that by the word of God the whole world was made out of the substance spoken of before by Moses. And that which the poets call Erebus, we know was spoken of formerly by Moses. (Apol. 1.59)
Though Justin is willing to take Greek philosophy to task when it contradicts consensual Christian teaching, he does not do so on the question of divine creation. Instead he suggests that Plato actually borrowed his understanding of creatio ex materia from the Bible. “Obviously at this point,” Gerhard May remarks, “Justin had not perceived any difference between Christian and Platonist teaching” (Creatio ex Nihilo, p. 123). May goes on to observe that Justin’s emphatic affirmations of the unlimited creative power of God and his status as the sole unoriginate being would “seem to urge the doctrine of creatio ex nihilo. But Justin did not take the last step towards its formulation; in that he was obviously hindered by the Platonist preconceptions of his thinking” (p. 132). But Justin was not alone. Athenagoras and Hermogenes offered similar accounts of world formation. Hermogenes expressly appealed to Gen 1:2: “But the earth was without form and void.” “Earth,” he said, refers to preexistent matter; “was” signifies eternal duration; “without form and void,” the chaotic state of pure potentiality. But other Christian theologians—particularly, Theophilus of Antioch, St Irenaeus of Lyons, and Tertullian of Carthage—found these Platonic accounts of divine creation unacceptable.
Since the time of Parmenides, Greek philosophy had accepted the axiom “nothing comes from nothing” (ex nihilo nihil fit). Beings cannot emerge from absolute nonbeing. This would seem to be a self-evident truth of reason. (Some contemporary physicists think they can conceive of the universe arising from nothing, but they think so only because their nothing is not the inconceivable nothingness of classical theism.) From nothing, nothing comes, yet late second-century Christian apologists dared to advance a counter-intuitive thesis that quickly captured the mind of the Church: “In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth … from out of nothing!” Janet Martin Soskice explains the revolutionary nature of this move:
It is often claimed that the Church Fathers and medieval theologians uncritically adopted Aristotelian metaphysics when it came to creation and the doctrine of God. Those who make such claims have not considered the originality of creatio ex nihilo. The doctrine does not originate in Greek philosophy. Aristotle thought the idea absurd, for if there were ever a time when nothing existed then there would be nothing now—“from nothing, nothing comes.” In classical formulations creatio ex nihilo excludes both Neoplatonic emanationism in which the world flows inevitably from the Godhead and the Aristotelian cosmology in which the world and God necessarily co-exist. (“Creatio ex nihilo,” in Creation and the God of Abraham, pp. 24-25)
But is this novel doctrine of creation biblical?