Historic Age Debate: Creation Ex Nihilo, Part 1 (of 4)
In October 2007, I began a TNRTB series discussing my research into how the church has understood Genesis 1 and the age of the earth throughout its history. The first two articles gave a quick overview of this topic (see “Overview,” part 1 and part 2). From here on, this series will focus on how earlier theologians interpreted specific Bible verses or wrestled with issues pertaining to the age of the earth.
The subject of creation has received considerable attention throughout church history; however, one issue consistently stands out as the most important— creation ex nihilo. Creation ex nihilo (literally “creation out of nothing”) holds that matter is not eternal but that God brought it into existence by His own power. This doctrine received universal affirmation from the earliest days of Christianity and from Judaism before that. It was even placed on the same level as other essential doctrines, such as Jesus’ incarnation, virgin birth, physical death, and resurrection, and was formulated before the doctrine of the Trinity.
Creation ex nihilo receives its strongest support from Genesis 1:1, which states that God created (Hebrew bárá’) “the heavens and the earth” (i.e. the entire physical universe). Bárá’ is the strongest Hebrew word used to convey God’s creative activity. Many other Bible verses support this picture of creation, such as Nehemiah 9:5-6; Psalms 33:6; Proverbs 3:19; Isaiah 44:24; Jeremiah 32:17; John 1:3; Colossians 1:16; Hebrews 1:2; 11:3; and Revelation 4:11.
The most important testimony to a belief in creation ex nihilo comes from church creedal statements. Early church creeds are short statements developed to define Christian orthodoxy and refute heresies. We find God as Creator affirmed in three early creeds.
Apostle’s Creed (1st or 2nd century) teaches God as “Creator of heaven and earth.”
Creed of Nicaea (325 AD) and Nicene Creed (381 AD) declares God to be the “Maker of heaven and earth, and of all things visible and invisible.”
These declarations of beliefs are important because they are accepted by all believers (Protestants, Catholics, and Orthodox). Starting with the Reformation, creeds were replaced with longer and more detailed catechisms and confessions of faith, which were developed to systematically set out Protestant Christian belief. Among these, we find the most definitive declarations of creation ex nihilo.
Augsburg Confession (Germany, 1530) declares God to be the “the Maker and Preserver of all things, visible and invisible” (article 1).
French Confession (France, 1559): “We believe that God … created all things, not only the heavens and the earth and all that in them is, but also invisible spirits…” (article 7).
Scots Confession (Scotland, 1560) affirms “… all things in heaven and earth, visible and invisible to have been created…” (article 1).
Belgic Confession (Netherlands and Belgium, 1561): “We believe that the Father created heaven and earth and all other creatures from nothing, when [or as] it seemed good to him” (article 12).
Heidelberg Catechism (Germany, 1563) holds that God “out of nothing created heaven and earth and all that is in them…” (question 26).
Second Helvetic Confession (Switzerland, 1566): God is creator of “all things both visible and invisible” (chapters 3 and 7).
Thirty-nine Articles (England, 1563): God is “the maker and preserver of all things both visible and invisible” (article 1).
Irish Articles (Ireland, 1615): “In the beginning of time when no creature had any being, God by his word alone, in the space of six days, created all things…” (article 18).
Westminster Confession of Faith (England, 1647): “It pleased God … to create or make of nothing the world, and all things therein, whether visible or invisible, in the space of six days, and all very good” (4.1).
So, twelve prominent creedal statements (out of the 17 I studied) teach God as Creator with three very explicitly teaching creation ex nihilo (none claim that matter is eternal). These statements span a wide range of denominations (Lutherans, Anglicans, and Calvinists) across much of Europe, and are very representative of the church as a whole rather than of individuals.
I wish to make one important point before moving on. Today, the length of the days of creation, the nature of the Genesis genealogies, and the extent of the Flood take center stage in the modern age debate. Unlike creation ex nihilo, none of these issues were ever considered to be issues of orthodoxy, nor were they included in any prominent creedal statements. The early church fathers considered creation ex nihilo a key doctrine and placed it alongside the Jesus’ incarnation, death, and resurrection (described in parts 2 and 3 of this series), but these other issues were never spoken of in exclusive and dogmatic terms— until recent times.
The information presented here is based on unpublished research. Inquiries regarding it should be directed to the author ([email protected]).
|Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4|
- William S. Barker, “The Westminster Assembly on the Days of Creation: A Reply to David W. Hall,” Westminster Theological Journal 62, no.1, (2000): 113-20.
- Robert Bradshaw, “Creationism and the Early Church”.
- Robert Lethem, “‘In the Space of Six Days’: The Days of Creation from Origen to the Westminster Assembly,” Westminster Theological Journal 61, no. 2, (1999): 149-74.
- Kenneth Richard Samples, A World of Difference, (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2007).
- W. E. Vine, M. F. Unger, W. White, Jr., Vine’s Expository Dictionary of Biblical Words (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1985), 51-52.
- Two important caveats here. First, my survey of creedal statements currently only goes up through the Reformation, so my statement only applies to the ones in that time frame. Second, the statement that creation took place “in the space of six days” does appear in the Irish Articles and the Westminster Confession of Faith. In neither case, however, is the meaning of days defined, so the statements only requires that creation took place over a span of time (i.e. not instantaneous) without specifying the length of those periods (see Barker).