Dispatch from Notre Dame's Creation out of Nothing: Origins and Contemporary Significance Conference (part 1)

Blair Smith
In early July the University of Notre Dame's "Institute for Church Life" held a comprehensive, high-octane - and free - conference on the doctrine "Creation out of Nothing" (one of the rare doctrines that might be better known by its Latin appellation: Creatio ex nihilo). Comprehensive because, over the course of four days, the conference's theme was examined from four different perspectives: biblical, historical/theological, philosophical, and scientific. High-octane because it gathered over twenty leading scholars, from Gary Anderson to David Bentley Hart, who presented papers with opportunity for attendee feedback. In this post and the next, I draw out highlights from select papers, interspersed with thoughts on the proper place of this doctrine within evangelical and Reformed theology. 

Unlike many academic biblical scholars of the previous generation, Gary Anderson (Hesburgh Professor of Catholic Theology, University of Notre Dame) approaches the text of the Old Testament with an overarching theological concern. Rather than slicing and dicing books and chapters to reveal mind-numbing minutiae severed from the larger biblical narrative, Anderson asks questions that connect passages to broad biblical and theological themes. In the opening address on "Is Creatio ex nihilo Biblical?" he clearly demonstrates this concern by first examining creation ex nihilo (hereafter CEN) in Genesis 1-2 before moving on to the theological import of this doctrine. 

In his illuminating examination of the creation week in Genesis, Anderson highlights the need to coordinate our reading of the beginning of the creation story (1:1-3) with the end (2:1-3). Conspicuously absent from the seventh day is the refrain of the previous six days ("there was evening and there was morning"). The lack of 'limit' to the Sabbath points back to 1:1-3 where God is not 'limited' by the darkness and formlessness described in 1:2. Whereas other Scriptural passages may carry a stronger theological implication of CEN, the clear 'creation without opposition' found in Genesis's creation account informs the theological concern of God's transcendence. Indeed, the theological heart of CEN, according to Anderson, is upholding both God's transcendence and his immanence. The freedom of God's transcendence demonstrated in creation actually grounds his engagement with his creatures. Because of his eternal and transcendent freedom, God is 'able' to be within those who are spiritual - that is, those creatures who possess the Spirit - giving them eyes to see the world as He sees it. As those 'spiritual eyes' move from the world to the Bible, through the doctrine of CEN they are equipped with the theological tools to, in Anderson's words, "read the Bible better".  From a Reformed perspective, I'm not sure this Roman Catholic scholar could have put it any better. 

Janet Soskice's paper further set the doctrine of CEN in a theological context. Soskice is Professor of Philosophical Theology at the University of Cambridge and highly respected for her wide-ranging work on everything from metaphor in religious language to, recently, a gripping account of two Presbyterian sisters in the 19th century who travelled to the Middle East in order to discover the earliest known Gospels in ancient Syriac. Soskice's erudition was on full display as she spoke on "Why Creatio ex nihilo for Theology Today?". 

The first matter she addressed was carried forward from Anderson's theological concerns: CEN is primarily about God and not the cosmos. That is to say, while asking the 'how' question of creation is important to consider, that is not what CEN is primarily about--it speaks to the God we worship. Soskice stated CEN is a 'first order' teaching that grounds Christian teaching across the board. Quietly in the background, it upholds such matters as miracles, prayer, and the work of God's grace. In the early history of the Church CEN was an emergent doctrine, finding its stride especially in apologetic contexts. As the debates of the early Church marched on, the question of how God comes to us in a time of need sharpened the contours of CEN. For while CEN teaches that God is transcendent, he is not a domineering or distant tyrant as presented by some forms of contemporary feminist theology. God is transcendent and present. Looking to the Psalms, Soskice observed how both God's power and his lovingkindness are at the heart of who he is. All that is is dependent on God. Yet, for all those who are his he is near to them in lovingkindness. The 'immediacy' of God's grace, therefore, is upheld by the reality that everything relies upon God for its existence. The transcendent power that created the universe is what also enables the loving nearness that God demonstrates when he pours grace into the lives of his loved ones. Again, I found a Roman Catholic scholar elucidating the high points of the teaching of CEN in a vein very much compatible with Reformed thought. Of course, there are going to be disagreements over how grace is administered to and appropriated by believers. Nonetheless, a theology robustly informed by CEN cannot help but stress our radical dependency upon God, both in our very existence and in our experience of intimate fellowship with him seen in such realities of our faith as a vibrant prayer life. 

The theological relevance of CEN outlined by Soskice highlights just how dependent our understanding of this doctrine is upon the writings of Athanasius. The great fourth-century father had no small role in the full-fledged emergence of CEN within the early church, especially the doctrine's import for the divine-human relation. Khaled Anatolios (who will be moving as Professor of Theology from Boston College to Notre Dame this Fall), took up in his paper, "Creatio ex nihilo, Divine Goodness, and Creaturely Giftedness in Athanasius of Alexandria", Athansius's early twin work, Against the Heathen and On the Incarnation. There he discerns a shift in the latter chapters of Against the Heathen where Athanasius is awakened to the import of CEN and thereafter a difference is evident in his theology. The difference is especially seen in that human giftedness is no longer primarily colored in with the platonic hues of our intellectual powers transcending physical reality (such as in Against the Heathen 7). Rather, informed by Genesis 1:1 and Hebrews 11:3 in On the Incarnation, the great divide to 'overcome' is between created and uncreated reality. That is to say, humanity is fully dependent upon God - in body and soul - because our whole being finds its source in his creative act. The doctrine of CEN enabled Athanasius to gain a firmer grip on the reality that we, as human beings, are always 'from nothing'. Because created reality is 'from nothing' human beings would have nothing to hold their existence if it were not for God's continued gift of being experienced through participating in the logos of God. Without this gift of participation in God's being we would continually slip back to nothingness. In fact, sin, according to Athanasius, is an ungrateful rejection of God's gift of protection and so the result is a form of de-creation. 

Part 2 to follow shortly...

Rev. D. Blair Smith is an ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church in America and a doctoral student in early christian history and theology at Durham University. He's currently a research visitor at the University of Notre Dame. Follow him on twitter @dblairsmith