Academic journal article Anglican Theological Review

Anachronism or Illumination? Genesis 1 and Creation Ex Nihilo

Academic journal article Anglican Theological Review

Anachronism or Illumination? Genesis 1 and Creation Ex Nihilo

Article excerpt

1 In the beginning [bereshit], God created the heavens and the earth.2 The earth was without form and void [tohu vabohu], and darkness was over the face of the deep [tehom]. And the Spirit of God [mach elohim] was hovering over the face of the waters. 3 And God said, "Let there be light," and there was light.4 And God saw that the light was good. And God separated the light from the darkness. (Gen. 1:1-4, ESV)

The opening of Genesis is fiili of ambiguities. Many of these arise from its puzzling second verse. Does the tohu vabohu of verse 2 preexist Gods act of creation in verse 1, or is it, too, created by God? Does it indicate chaos in opposition to the order of verses 3 and 4, or potential for that order? Is the darkness of verse 2 to be identified with or distinguished from the darkness of verse 3? Does the omission of a pronouncement of God that the darkness was good imply that only the light was good? Is the mach elohim the Spirit of God or an almighty wind? Are the waters a threat to creation or a locus for the generation of life? Moreover, there is a grammatical ambiguity introduced by the unusual form bereshit, which can be taken to turn the first verse into a subordinate clause, leading to a translation along the following lines: "At the beginning of the creation of heaven and earth when the earth was without form and void . . . God said 'Let there be ...,nl

Gathering these questions together, we might ask the following: Is the state depicted in verse 2 rejected by God, posited by God, or merely formed by God? And further, is it good or evil?

In this article, my aim is to explore the relation between interpretation, ambiguity, and truth by way of a case study focused on the opening of Genesis and its relationship with the doctrine of creation out of nothing (or creation ex nihilo). I will set out from some broad hermeneutical presuppositions, to be outlined below. These will issue in a more specific hypothesis, to be tested by way of the case study, which will in turn enable the broader hermeneutical framework to be fleshed out theologically. I test the following hypothesis: Christian doctrine has the role of preserving scripture's generativity by holding open its ambiguity. The case study will test the hypothesis with respect to the doctrine of creation ex nihilo and its use as a hermeneutical rule for the opening of Genesis.

The article is structured as follows. Having established the broad hermeneutical framework in the first section, I focus in the second on creation ex nihilo and Genesis 1, responding to the preliminary charge of anachronism. In a third section I expound an alternative theological reading of Genesis 1 by Catherine Keller, in which the doctrine of creation ex nihilo comes under substantive attack. In a fourth section I offer a conceptual-theological response, reconceiving and rehabilitating the logic of the doctrine. And in a final section I offer an exegetical-hermeneutical response, arguing against both Keller and her nemesis, Karl Barth, for the appropriateness of the doctrine as a hermeneutical rule, in the light of its ability to hold open the generative ambiguities of Genesis 1.

Hermeneutical Framework

The ambiguities of the opening of Genesis, I suggest, are not coincidental to its status as Holy Scripture. More specifically, I hazard, they are intrinsic to its ability to sustain flourishing communities over broad stretches of space and time: I link scripture's ambiguity to its generativity or life-giving power, surmising that the character and scope of scripture's truth has to do precisely with its power to give life.

My proposal has two foils. The first is a hermeneutic that reduces a text's capacity for truth telling to its origins, binding its meaning to a putative authorial intention, or to the way it would have been understood in its "original" context. On my account, by contrast, a text is situated within a wider web of signs in interrelation with which the text's own signs gain their signification. …

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