Creation Out of Nothing

(This is Neil). Since I haven’t been posting all that much, I should begin by wishing my readers some very belated Easter greetings. I’ll be a little less scarce in the coming weeks.

I wanted to quickly draw your attention to Fr John Breck’s two “Life in Christ” columns from the past month, which concern the doctrine that God created the universe ex nihilo – “out of nothing.” Fr Breck begins by saying that the doctrine isn’t meant to preemptively suggest or dismiss any particular scientific theory. When we say that God created ex nihilo, we confess that the heavens and the earth were in fact created, are continually sustained, and will be redeemed by God, instead of being subject to a final nothingness “devoid of all meaning, purpose or hope.” The doctrine, then, serves as a call to worship, eliciting our praise and thanksgiving, and as counsel to turn aside from the contemplation of nothingness, which can only end in despair. This worship, as we will see, is to the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, because Creation is a “Trinitarian act.” Furthermore, the doctrine of creation ex nihilo lets us see that all things, far from merely being raw material for us to use to prolong a desperate and futile struggle against “nothingness,” are meant to testify to God’s redeeming work. “You have filled the air with birds, which traverse it in every direction,” prays St Basil, before telling Christians to glorify the Creator “through every creature.”

(I would readily agree with Fr Breck that “there is no necessary conflict between the biblical witness on the one hand and the findings of geologists, paleontologists and molecular biologists on the other,” but I wonder if he might agree that theology and science are not isolated from one another, but can partner in, for example, the examination of cooperation and self-sacrifice in the evolutionary process. See my post here.)

Here, then, is part of Fr Breck’s first column:

God, the Father or generator of all things visible and invisible, created through what St Irenaeus of Lyon calls His “two hands,” the eternal Son or Word, and the Holy Spirit. Creation is a Trinitarian act, an act of communion, an act of love. The Father spoke, and through His creative Word He called forth light. That light, which preceded the appearance of the sun (created on the fourth day), can only be understood as a reflection of the divine Light, the Light that defines the very being of God (1 John 1:5). That light, from the first moment of creation until the last, banishes the darkness. It relegates the primeval skotos to its own realm, removed from the sphere of light. That light God called “Day,” and the darkness He called “Night.” During the first day of creation, God separated one from the other, Day from Night, spiritual illumination from darkness, despair and death.

To make that light shine out of darkness, the Father also required His “other hand,” the divine Spirit. At the moment of creation, “the earth was without form and void, and darkness was upon the face of the deep; and the Spirit of God was moving over the face of the waters.” In that primordial moment, the Spirit moved like a great storm over the abyss, the formless void, to bring into being the cosmos, marked by order, harmony and beauty.

From that point onward, the work of creation continued, effected by the cooperative effort of the three Persons of the Holy Trinity. From the outset there appeared distinction and separation: day from night, the waters from the firmament (heaven), and the firmament from the dry land (the physical earth). Then vegetation was brought forth, seed-bearing plants and fruit-bearing trees, “each according to its kind.” God saw the work of His Hands and found it to be good. And there was evening and there was morning, a third day.

These opening verses are not meant to describe historical process or provide a scientific explanation for the appearance and development of the world and human life. The passage says nothing that can be exploited one way or another in the tedious debate between “creationists” and “evolutionists.” Its concern is not with historiography or paleontology, and its curious chronology (water existed before heaven or earth, living things appeared on earth before creation of the sun and moon) should not trouble the minds of any but those who insist on reading the narrative as a description of cosmological or biological development. The Genesis creation story is not concerned with scientifically determinable events. As we shall stress in the next column, it is concerned with salvation history, the creating and redeeming work of God, from the first creation to the last.

In his second column, Fr Breck addresses this “salvation history.” It allows us to redefine the creation accounts in Genesis as “promise,” the heavens and the earth as “prophetic images,” and time itself as a “spiritual pilgrimage.” Fr Breck sees this “salvation history” brought to joyful completion by the Resurrection of Jesus Christ – although one might wonder why he doesn’t finally mention the Second Coming, since this world is undoubtedly still “groaning” (see, of course, Romans 8:19-22).

Here is part of Fr Breck’s “Ex Nihilo (2)”:

We celebrate this pilgrimage with greatest intensity from Holy Saturday through Pascha, the feast of Resurrection that marks the dawn of our salvation. This pilgrimage, however, is first undertaken by Jesus Himself, the eternal Son and Word of God. By His death on the Cross, He fulfills both the work of creation and the work of redemption. “It is finished!” He declares, as He surrenders to His Father His Spirit, the Spirit of Truth that dwelt secretly within Him from all eternity and visibly from the time of His baptism. Then, from the darkness of the tomb, Jesus descends into the primeval darkness of Sheol, the realm of the dead. There, as so poignantly depicted in our Paschal icon, He opens His embrace to welcome Adam and Eve, prototypes of all humanity, and with them David, Solomon, John the Baptist, and all the righteous departed among the people of God, who lived and died awaiting fulfillment of the promise of the Covenant that God made with His people Israel. Finally, by His resurrection from among the dead and His consequent victory over the power of death, Jesus ascends, bearing with Himself and in Himself all those who long to share in His life and His glory. And by that Resurrection, creation itself is made anew.

Thy life-bearing Resurrection, O Lord
Enlightened the whole universe, recalling Thy creation.
Delivered from Adam’s curse, we sing:
O Almighty Lord, glory to Thee!
(Vespers apostikha, tone 3)

That resurrection not only recalled the creation. It fulfilled it and brought it to completion. We begin our Old Testament readings on Holy Saturday with the account of the world’s creation, therefore, not to obtain knowledge of cosmological, biological or historical process. We read this passage for what it promises us about our life and our destiny. We read it to be assured that the eternal Word, who brought all things from non-existence into being, has led us out of our own state of non-being – our nihilistic condition of self-willed emptiness, darkness and sin – and by His resurrection has brought us from an eternal void of meaninglessness and death, into the radiance and joy of the New Creation.

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About catholicsensibility

Todd and his family live in Ames, Iowa. He serves a Catholic parish of both Iowa State students and town residents.
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