Sunday, June 01, 2014

C1. God created everything that exists out of nothing.

I've finished some (Wesleyan-Arminian) reflections on God as part of my "theology in bullet points." Today starts Creation, including the creation of humanity.
C1. God created everything that exists out of nothing.

The words of the Bible were ripe for the earliest Christians to hear in them the truth that God created the world out of nothing, although the understanding of the biblical authors themselves arguably developed in relation to creation. In its context, the main point we learn from Genesis is that no other gods were involved in the creation of the world. God alone gave order to the shapeless earth and chaotic waters of Genesis 1:2. [1]

In Hebrews 11:3, we learn that God "mended" the creation by a voice command. What we see now did not come to existence from things that we see now. Christians throughout the centuries have generally taken this verse as an indication of God's creation of the world out of nothing. [2] At the very least, Hebrews is certainly saying that God can make things exist that are nowhere to be seen.

But it was arguably in the Gnostic controversies of the second century AD that the doctrine of creation out of nothing really crystallized within both Christianity and Judaism. The Gnostics argued that matter was not just weak and inferior but that in fact nothing could be good if it partook of a material existence. [3] The early Christian Marcion, in about the year AD150, actually argued that the creator god of the Old Testament was a different god than the Father of Jesus Christ.

In response, both Christians and Jews argued that God had created even the materials of creation. This seems to be a question that had not really been confrtonted before. Before this point, everyone seems to have assumed without thinking that some sort of formless matter was there to begin with (cf. the book of Wisdom 11:17). Now, taking cues from the wording of passages like 2 Maccabees 7:28 and Hebrews 11:3, not to mention the Greek translation of Genesis 1:1-2 that the early Christians used, they argued that God had created the world out of nothing (ex nihilo in Latin).

This shift made possible a fuller understanding of God's power and knowledge. A god who engages materials that already exist does not necessarily know those materials from the inside out. That god's power over those materials is, as it were, exerted on them from the outside in. There is a sense in which a god who merely comes to existing materials is not quite as powerful and not as likely to have all knowledge as one who fashions them by their very nature out of nothing.

We can also see, however, how the problem of evil would intensify after this crystallization, as well as how discussions about the nature of predestination would intensify. Before creation out of nothing, evil was something that could, to some extent, be attributed to the inferior nature of flesh and the world. Before Gnosticism, these materials are not seen as evil, but they were thought to be more susceptible to the power of Sin. To some extent, God was more distanced from evil.

But if God created those materials, then he becomes ultimately responsible for their weakness. We can see how eventually, some would suggest that God predestines evil in a thoroughgoing way. The idea of creation out of nothing arguably took these issues to a new level.

You could argue that the theory of relativity as developed by Albert Einstein also takes the question of creation out of nothing to yet another level. If time and space can themselves expand and contract, then we can begin to think of what it would mean not only for God to create the materials in space out of nothing but for God to create the very emptiness in which God put those materials.

When we picture God creating even emptiness out of nothing, we see the question of what it might mean for God to exist "outside time" and "outside space" in a way Christians would not likely have conceived prior to the twentieth century. Prior to the twentieth century, those who pictured creation out of nothing more or less saw God putting things into an empty space that already existed. The question of the creation of space itself simply wasn't a question they thought to ask.

As we have seen in relation to our discussion of God's power and knowledge, there are significant implications for this development to our understanding of God's power and knowledge. It gives force, for example, to the long suggested idea that God's knowledge of the future does not imply that he determines the future. His essence is not in the flow of time. This robust sense of creation out of nothing also helps us unpack more fully the sense that all aspects of human experience are created and therefore known by God.

It may help us understand the dynamics of the Trinity more fully, although we need to be very careful here.  For example, the biblical understanding of the Spirit arguably served two functions. First, spirit-language served to show that God belonged to the realm of the heavens, not to the realm of the earth. Second, spirit-language serves to indicate that God is everywhere present here among us--he is not limited by a body.

When you place these functions within a universe created out of nothing, spirit is no longer the "stuff of heaven." In relation to the first function, "spirit" becomes a metaphor for the fact that God in his essence does not exist "within" this universe. With regard to the second, the Holy Spirit primarily plays the role of God's presence within this universe.

In the end, however, we should be very cautious about such speculations, although the rise of science has understandably caused us to ask questions that had never really been asked before in this form. The key point of creation out of nothing is that God is the creator of all that exists and thus that God has all power and knowledge in relation to the creation. It also indicates that all God created was, at least initially, "very good" (Gen. 1:31).

The Nicene Creed of AD381 made sure to specify that God created everything "seen and unseen." This added clarification made it clear not only that God created the materials of creation but also that he created all spirit-beings as well, including angels, Satan, and demons. Colossians 1:16 puts it this way about Christ: "all things were created by him: both in the heavens and on the earth, the things that are visible and the things that are invisible. Whether they are thrones or powers, or rulers or authorities" (CEB). [4]

There is thus no question that Christ is superior to everything else in the creation. For our purposes, there is no question that God created all spiritual beings. God created all angels. God created all the fallen angels or demons. And God even created Lucifer, the fallen angel who would become Satan.

God created everything that exists, both seen and unseen. He created it all from nothing, including space itself. He created it all "very good."

Next week: C2. Everything God created was good.

[1] Although Genesis 1 does not explicitly say that God created those chaotic waters. Genesis 1:1-3 can be read grammatically (and especially against its Ancient Near Eastern context) as God giving order to a chaos that already existed. Here is the CEB's translation of Genesis 1:1-3: "When God began to create the heavens and the earth—the earth was without shape or form, it was dark over the deep sea, and God’s wind swept over the waters—God said, 'Let there be light.' And so light appeared."

[2] Although it is easy to read Hebrews 11:3 as a statement of creation out of nothing, many scholars of biblical cosmology think that is an anachronistic reading. The argument is that the issue just did not exist yet at that time. Since we live after such debates, this verse sounds like creation out of nothing (and may in fact have helped give rise to the idea). But the argument is that the author of Hebrews wasn't even addressing that topic. Rather, the argument goes, Hebrews was saying something like 2 Maccabees 7:28.

2 Maccabees 7:28 comes from about 100BC: "I beg you, child, to look at heaven and earth. See everything that is in them and know that God made these things from nothing, and created humankind in the same way" (CEB). Although it is tempting to take this as the first known statement of creation out of nothing, many experts think this is an anachronistic reading. The point, it is argued, is that God could create this son who is about to be martyred and resurrect him, even if he no longer existed, just like God created the world when it did not exist.

The point is that the author isn't having a debate over creation out of nothing or the materials of creation. That just isn't what he's talking about or thinking. Rather, his point is about God's ability to create a living person where there is none. Nevertheless, you can see how easily these verses came to be read in relation to creation out of nothing and may in fact have helped generate the idea in the later context of debates over Gnosticism.

[3] It was arguably not so much the Gnostic view about creation that was of most concern to the early Christians but the fact that Jesus could not therefore have truly become human and remained without sin. Arguably, John 1:14 and 1 John 4:2 were beginning to deal with early forms of Gnosticism.

[4] Most experts on Colossians believe that this "hymn to Christ" literally pictures Christ as the agent of creation. In Colossians itself, it is not clear whether these words are meant literally or whether he is poetically saying that Christ is the wisdom and word of God. These words strongly echo such themes in Jewish literature (cf. Prov. 8:22-31). But in Proverbs and other Jewish literature, wisdom and God's words are not literally beings but personifications of God's wisdom and God's word. So the question in Colossians 1 is whether Christ is pictured literally as the agent of creation or whether the point is that Jesus is the wisdom of God for the creation and Jesus is God's will for the creation.

1 comment:

Martin LaBar said...

And thanks for this one, too.