Some theologians argue that creation “ex nihilo” (out of nothing) is not biblical, is a post-biblical idea imposed upon the text, and we can get along without the teaching. I think they miss the point. Creation is necessarily “out of nothing” or it fails to be creation in the most basic sense. That is to say, you can’t have creation unless it’s the bringing to be of something where there was nothing.
Of course, this is a matter of semantics. We speak of artists as being creative, for instance, when we want to point to a certain genius or unexpectedness in what they bring about. Yet no human being creates in the most basic sense. Even a highly creative painter uses materials already at hand (e.g. oils, brushes, and canvas). Her creations are derivative and not basic.
But God, as creator, brings into existence everything. His creative work is the ongoing activity which gives and keeps giving existence to everything that exists for as long as it exists. He does this without using anything that already exists. The Creator creates, in this precise sense, out of nothing.
Almost every error in thinking about God stems from a failure to realize how strange God is. Many errors come from imagining God to be a force in the universe, something that is like other things just more powerful. These errors take the adventure out of Christianity. True Christian faith proclaims a God who is beyond all our imagining. We know he loves us; “God loves me” is literally true. But we don’t know fully what “love” means when it comes to God. It is like love that we know with other people—although it is better to say, the love we know with other people is like the love of God.
In Losing Susan I tell this story. I am with a group of young adults. One of them is going on at some length about how good God’s love is, but what she is saying about it was all rather tame stuff. There is no adventure in it. It sounds like she thinks she has God all figured out.
In my frustration, I venture that the Bible tells us the following: loving us, God intends to kill us. And he will succeed. (Once you’ve gotten over the shock you can reflect how death is good news for “miserable offenders.” It means we won’t go on forever as such.)
I recently sang again the hymn that begins “They cast their nets in Galilee.” I heard this hymn for the first time when I was in college and new to the Episcopal Church; I have never forgotten the way it captures God’s strangeness. They were “happy, simple fisherfolk”—until they met Jesus! Jesus messed up their lives. “Young John, who trimmed the flapping sail, homeless in Patmos died.” And Peter “head-down was crucified.” The final stanza drives home the point: “The peace of God, it is no peace, but strife closed in the sod.” Nonetheless there is only thing for us to pray for: this marvelous peace of God.
God’s peace is strange—as is his love, as is he himself, creating ex nihilo.
Out & About. I am to preach at the traditional services at Incarnation in Dallas this Sunday, July 24, at 7:30, 9, and 11:15 a.m. My sermon will be on Genesis 4 and is called “Cain and His Sign.”
On the Web. I penned a review of Louise Penny’s The Madness of Crowds and First Things published it as a web exclusive with the title, “Given for Love”: https://www.firstthings.com/web-exclusives/2022/07/given-for-love