Creatio ex Nihilo

It is popular today to think that the doctrine of creatio ex nihilo (creation out of nothing) cannot be found in scripture, with particular emphasis in the first chapter and verse of Genesis. Paul Copan does not leave this unchallenged, adequately answering this counter-prespective. Contra Prof. Gerhard May, who asserts (1) that creatio ex nihilo is not a biblical concept, (2) that the Genesis narrative speaks of God creating order out of chaos rather than out of nothing, and that (3) the doctrine of creatio ex nihilo is not theologically necessary, Copan (among other things) looks at Genesis 1, then moves goes on to look at other Biblical references, when soundly interpreted, affirm the doctrine of creatio ex nihilo, and theological doctrines that connect to this one.

Paul Copan, “Is Creatio Ex Nihilo A Post-Biblical Invention? An Examination Of Gerhard May’s Proposal” Trinity Journal 17.1 (Spring 1996): 87–89

. . . While he [Gerhard May] makes passing reference to certain biblical passages that seem to hint at the doctrine of creatio ex nihilo, he does not seriously interact with them. He focuses on patristic study (as his subtitle indicates) rather than on biblical exegesis. This turns out to be a weakness for May because, if properly done, sound biblical exegesis refutes the notion that creation out of nothing is a mere theological invention. . . . I believe that examining the relevant biblical passages more extensively will adequately show that the traditional teaching of creatio ex nihilo has strong biblical grounds. . . . Claus Westermann agrees: Gen 1:1 does not refer to “the beginning of something, but simply The Beginning. Everything began with God.”[52]

Another OT scholar, R. K. Harrison, asserts that while creatio ex nihilo was “too abstract for the [Hebrew] mind to entertain” and is not stated explicitly in Genesis 1, “it is certainly implicit in the narrative.”[53] The reader is meant to understand that “the worlds were not fashioned from any pre-existing material, but out of nothing”; “prior” to God’s creative activity, “there was thus no other kind of phenomenological existence.”[54]

In contrast to ancient cosmogonies, Genesis posits an absolute beginning. Elohim was not limited by chaos when creating (as in the Babylonian cosmogony) but is sovereign over the elements. Genesis 1 stands as an independent assertion, claiming that God created the entire cosmos. In fact, the very structure of Gen 1:1 argues for creation out of nothing. Grammatically and contextually, a very good case can be made for seeing Gen 1:1 as referring to absolute creation.[55] Consequently, Gen 1:1 should not be translated, “In the beginning, when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless wasteland …,” as the NAB does. (This would mean that Ian Barbour’s assertion that Genesis argues for “the creation of order from chaos” rather than from nothing[56] is misguided.)

He concludes;

“…the doctrine of creation out of nothing was not simply created ex nihilo by post-biblical theologians of the second century to counteract gnostic ideas. We have good reason to believe that the doctrine of creation out of nothing is rooted in biblical passages indicating that God is the ontological Originator of all that exists.”


52. C. Westermann, Genesis: A Practical Commentary

(Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1987) 7.
53. Harrison, Creation, in The Zondervan Pictorial Encyclopedia of the Bible (5 vols.; ed. M. C. Tenney; Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1975) 1.1023.
54. Ibid.
55. See J. Sailhamer’s discussion in “Genesis” in Expositor’s Bible Commentary, vol. 2 (ed. F. Gaebelein; Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1990) 21-23n. See also U. Cassuto, A Commentary on the Book of Genesis Part 1 (reprint; Jerusalem: Magnes, 1992) 20. Cassuto argues that beginning with v. 2, the focus changes from the cosmos to creations relationship to humanity, stressing the themes of “land” and “blessing,” which prevail throughout the Pentateuch.
56. I. Barbour, Religion in an Age of Science (The Gifford Lectures 1989-1991, vol. 1; San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1990) 130.

1 reply
  1. Edgarandrews
    Edgarandrews says:

    Excellent and very necessary today with Stephen Hawking and the like coming up with their bizarre notion that 'the laws of science created everything from nothing'. Readers might like to study E. J. Young on the subject (he was a conservative biblical Hebrew Scholar at Westminster Theological Seminary) and argued strongly for the position that Genesis 1:1 describes the total ex nihilo cosmic creation while the following verses focus on earth and what would be observed from earth (the position I take in "Who made God?")

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