Contemporary biblical scholars and theologians routinely deny that the Old and New Testaments plainly teach the creation of the cosmos from out of nothing. The following statement from Thomas Jay Oord may be deemed representative:
The Bible does not affirm creatio ex nihilo. Instead biblical authors consistently say that God creates out of something. When exploring options for how Christians might best think about God as creator, it’s difficult to overemphasize this biblical point: According to Scripture, God creates from something.
Biblical writers offer various descriptions of the “something” out of which God creates. In Genesis, the Spirit works with tohu wabohu (formless void), or what is often translated “primordial chaos” or “shapeless mass” (1:2). God creatively transforms chaos and shapelessness into something new: the heavens and the earth (1:1). God creates out of something, even if the “something” is initially vague, disordered, or messy.
Genesis also speaks of the tehom, the “face of the deep,” over which God hovers when creating (1:2). The “deep” is a something, not literally nothing. Many biblical scholars believe tehom signifies the presence of primeval waters as God creates the heavens and the earth. The New Testament’s most explicit theory of initial creation, 2 Peter 3:5, supports this view: “Long ago by God’s word the heavens came into being and the earth was formed out of water and by water.” Water, of course, is something not nothing. … In sum, we search Scripture in vain for passages supporting creatio ex nihilo. Biblical writers say that God initially (and continually) creates from something. (“God Always Creates Out of Creation in Love,” in Theologies of Creation, pp. 109-110; also see “Creatio Ex Nihilo: The Problem“)
Oord cites several authorities in support of his position, including Jon Levenson, Joseph Blenkinsopp, Mark Smith, and Terence Fretheim.
I wish to register immediately my discomfort with Oord’s reading of the relevant biblical passages. He seems to be reading the texts as metaphysical speculation instead of as poetry and mythological speech. It’s like asking of Genesis 1, “How long is a ‘day’?” The query simply misses the point. In his magisterial commentary on the book of Genesis, Claus Westermann notes that the priestly author was not concerned with the question “Did God create from nothing or something?” It’s a question that the author did not address and for which he most likely had no answer. To answer it we must move beyond the scope and intentions of the text:
What is peculiar to biblical talk about the creation of the world is that it looks wholly and solely to the creator: God created the world; and so everything has been said that one can say. If one wants to know more one must move outside this framework. The sentence, God created the world out of nothing, does not say more but rather less than the sentence, God created the world. The question, “Is it creatio ex nihilo or not?” is not relevant to the text. (Genesis 1-11, p. 109).
If Gerhard May is correct in his presentation and analysis of the historical data, the formulation of the dogma of the creatio ex nihilo required faith’s confrontation with Platonic emanationism, Stoic pantheism, and Gnostic cosmogony; and this confrontation did not occur until the middle of the second century A.D. Even the great Jewish philosopher Philo did not explicitly assert the creatio ex nihilo, though he seems to have come closer than May acknowledges. “[Philo] is not entirely consistent,” writes Janet Martin Soskice, “but the basic tenets of creatio ex nihilo are already present in his writings: God has created the world out of non-being, creating as well as moulding formless matter” (“Creatio ex Nihilo,” in Creation and the God of Abraham, pp. 33-34). Soskice also cites an exchange between a Greek philosopher and Rabbi Gamaliel: “Your God was indeed a great artist,” states the philosopher, “but surely he found good pigments which assist him.” The rabbi replies, “God made the colours, too!” (Genesis Rabah 1:9).
As one who cut his Old Testament eye teeth on scholars like Gerhard von Rad and Walther Eichrodt, I admit to more than a little skepticism regarding Oord’s strong claim that the Scriptures teach some version of creatio ex materia. That the biblical writers may have appropriated a mythological form of discourse by which to express their understanding of divine creation does not authorize us to assume that they are affirming all of the narrative particulars of that discourse; but perhaps even more importantly, this assumption ignores the clear anti-mythological thrust of the biblical accounts. As Elizabeth Achtemeier notes: “While the Old Testament writers borrow the language of their time, they have completely demythologized it. In the Babylonian myth, the gods emanate out of the chaotic waters; in Genesis and elsewhere, God’s Spirit is above the chaos, and he is Lord over it. In the myth, the fight between Tiamat and Marduk takes place in the timeless realm of the gods; in Genesis, the creation is the first act in time. In the myth, Marduk has to struggle with Tiamat; in Genesis, God merely speaks and creation is accomplished” (Nature, God, and Pulpit, pp. 12-13). A new vision of divinity is thus spoken into the world, a vision of transcendent sovereignty and absolute freedom. Thus the great Brevard Childs:
The most basic form of Israel’s witness to God as creator is given in the opening chapters of the book of Genesis. … From a theological perspective it is significant to note that the present canonical shape has subordinated the noetic sequence of Israel’s experience of God in her redemptive history to the ontic reality of God as creator. This is to say, although Israel undoubtedly first came to know Yahweh in historical acts of redemption from Egypt, the final form of the tradition gave precedence to God’s initial activity in creating the heavens and earth. …
Another fundamental feature of the dominant Priestly witness emerges in the terminology and structure of Genesis 1. The chapter is not primarily a testimony to creation, but rather praise to God, the creator. Through the power of his word God brought forth the heavens and the earth in an act commensurate only to himself (bara’) according to his own will and purpose. According to the structure of the chapter it is out of the question to suggest that creation resulted from a reforming of chaos (contra Welker, ‘Was ist “Schopfung”?’. 209ff.). The biblical author set the act ‘in the beginning’ to establish that God’s creation was not to be understood merely as a ‘constitutive relationship’, or an expression of ‘a mode of being’ characterizing creator and creature. Rather, creation marked the beginning of time, the start of an ongoing history, and the movement of origin before which there was no such reality apart from God. (Biblical Theology of the Old and New Testaments, p. 385)
No matter where the historical-critical exegetes may finally land on the biblical doctrine of creation (and clearly no consensus yet exists), the fact remains that we do and must ask questions of the Bible which the inspired authors and redactors may never have considered. By the end of the second century A.D., Christian theologians had arrived at the conclusion, against Plato and the Gnostics, that God had created the world from out of nothing. No demiurges. No primal matter. Just pure, absolute creation. Perhaps on strictly historical-critical grounds we might judge their judgment as going beyond the biblical evidence, yet that is virtually always the case when it comes to Christian doctrine. The real question is not whether the dogma of the creatio ex nihilo can be read off the surface of the text, but whether, negatively, it does violence to the text or, positively, it illumines the text and expands our horizons. Consider, for example, Nahum Sarna’s exegesis of Genesis 1:1-2 in the JPS Torah Commentary:
create: The Hebrew stem b-r’ is used in the Bible exclusively of divine creativity. It signifies that the product is absolutely novel and unexampled, depends solely on God for its coming into existence, and is beyond the human capacity to reproduce. The verb always refers to the completed product, never to the material of which it is made. As Ibn Ezra observed, bara’ does not of itself denote the creation of something out of nothing (creatio ex nihilo). This doctrine seems to have been first articulated in the late Second Temple work, 2 Maccabees: “Look up to heaven and earth and see all that is therein, and know that God made them out of things that did not exist” (7.28). However, the Genesis narrative does contain intimations of such a concept. Precisely because of the indispensable importance of preexisting matter in the pagan cosmologies, the very absence of such mention here is highly significant. The conclusion is reinforced by the idea of creation by divine fiat without reference to any inert matter being present. Also, the repeated biblical emphasis upon God as the exclusive Creator would seem to rule out the possibility of preexistent matter. Finally, if bara’ is used only of God’s creation, it must be essentially distinct from human creation. The ultimate distinction would be creatio ex nihilo, which has no human parallel and is thus utterly beyond all human comprehension. (p. 5)
unformed and void: Hebrew tohu va-vohu. This compound phrase appears again in the Bible in Jeremiah’s prophetic vision of the return of the primal chaos (Jer. 4:23-27), thus leaving no doubt that the phrase designates the initial chaotic state of the earth. That God should create disorganized matter, only to reduce it to order, presents no more of a problem than does His taking six days to complete creation instead of instantaneously producing a perfected universe. The quintessential point of the narrative is the idea of ordering that is the result of divine intent. It is a fundamental biblical teaching that the original, divinely ordained order in the physical world has its counterpart in the divinely ordained universal moral order to which the human race is subject. (p. 6)
Intimations—perhaps that is all that is necessary.