Creatio ex Nihilo: From Story to Doctrine

Christians thrive on stories. We tell stories about Adam and Eve, about Abraham, Jacob, Moses, David, and Elijah. Most of all we tell stories about Jesus and his Apostles. Our Scriptures begin with the story of God speaking the world into being and conclude with the same God recreating that world.

But the form of story brings with it its own constraints, for it requires us to render the God whose acts we would narrate within the terms of this world. And so when we tell the story of his initial work of creation, we give him nebulous not-nothing-ness to work with—tohu va-vohu and watery chaos. Every artist needs a medium, every craftsman needs material. Within the framework of narrative, even the divine Creator apparently needs “something” he can shape into heavens and earth.

But a critical question must be asked: “Even though the narrative, as narrative, will be unable to describe the actions of a creator in a manner other than presupposing something to work with, need that fact about the narrative imply that there must be something presupposed to the act of creating?” “Clearly not,” answers David Burrell, “or we could never think creator except as demiurge” (Freedom and Creation in Three Traditions, pp. 24-25). And here is the crux, too often missed by contemporary critics of the creatio ex nihilo: story-telling imposes its own burdens. Just as Israel, when she wanted to speak of YHWH’s mighty actions of salvation and judgment in her history, had no imaginative choice but to portray “him” as One who lives in time and across time, so when she wanted to tell the story of how YHWH created the cosmos, she equally had no choice but to render him as transforming formless chaos into the world that we now know. Yet neither assertion need be literally true, and that is what the theologians of the Church eventually came to realize. The God of the gospel is not a demiurge; the God of the gospel is not a god. To create he does not require any thing upon which to exercise his will. “This is what we mean by creatio ex nihilo, explains Burrell, “which intends to state that nothing at all is presupposed to this activity of creating” (p. 25).

This departure from the narrative meaning of the Bible immediately raises a second question for us: “But when would we be warranted to insist that the truth of a narrative did not presuppose that things in fact were as it describes them? What sets these accounts off as intrinsically inadequate? What tells us that they are telling a story which cannot be told in story form?” (p. 25).  Ultimately, only God himself can teach us when the Scriptures intend “something which they cannot say” (p. 25). How he does so would take us into territory we need not traverse in this article.  All that needs to be noted is that once God had brought the Church into an understanding of himself as transcendent origin, formulation of the creatio ex nihilo could not be far behind.  And once so formulated the Church could no longer read the creation stories as descriptions of God’s making of the cosmos:

So the [biblical] accounts of creation can never stand alone, nor can they even be understood from the outset, even when they stand first in order. For neither their form nor their intent is to offer a philosophical account of origins but rather to introduce the most radical sort of beginning: one that is utterly free on the part of the originator and so cannot even be said to be received, so originating it is. So the accounts of creation turn out to be, rather, revelations of the creator, and that modification should keep us from thinking of them as explanations. We may rest content with their narrative structure once we understand that there is no better way to put what they intended to convey. (p. 26)

If we would speak of God in his radical transcendence, we must move from story to doctrine … from doctrine back to story … beginning and concluding with doxology.

Rejoice in the Lord, O ye righteous *
for it becometh well the just to be thankful.
Praise the Lord with harp *
sing praises unto him with the lute, and instrument of ten strings.
Sing unto the Lord a new song *
sing praises lustily unto him with a good courage.
For the word of the Lord is true *
and all his works are faithful.
He loveth righteousness and judgement *
the earth is full of the goodness of the Lord.
By the word of the Lord were the heavens made *
and all the hosts of them by the breath of his mouth.
He gathereth the waters of the sea together, as it were upon an heap *
and layeth up the deep, as in a treasure-house.
Let all the earth fear the Lord *
stand in awe of him, all ye that dwell in the world.
For he spake, and it was done *
he commanded, and it stood fast.

(Psalm 33:1-9)

(Go to “The Grammar of Transcendence”)

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