What does it mean to say that God "creates"?


An Old Testament scholar in the Netherlands has suggested that the opening line of Genesis has been generally mistranslated and that it actually does not say that God "created" the heaven and the earth (but rather that God "separated" an already existing heaven and earth) . The implication is that this passage serves as a biblical refutation of the doctrine of creatio ex nihio, since the this translation implies that the universe already existed in some form and that God worked with this existing universe rather than creating it out of nothing. I am not a scholar in such matters and I cannot comment on the accuracy of this claim about the translation, but several things leapt to my mind as I read the this news item in the UK daily the Telegraph.

The Religion Editor for the same newspaper, George Pitcher, responded in a followup article by correctly pointing out correctly that "just because Genesis is a myth doesn't mean it's untrue". He writes:

Genesis is a transcription of ancient Hebrew creation myth. Calling it a myth doesn’t mean it’s “untrue”; it means that its truth is contained in the timeless quest for understanding of transcendental things like God’s provenance over time and space, the mystery of why something exists in the universe rather than nothing, human responsibility for stewardship of the planet and the origins of life. But, sorry Creationists, it isn’t and was never intended to be a piece of reportage about the first week of the universe. And, sorry secularists, a mistranslated Hebraic word doesn’t mean there is no God.
That's all well and good, but I also think that the we should consider the possibility that believing that God necessarily created the universe out of nothing reflects a bias about what God's nature necessarily must be. There is an assumption that some have that God must be by definition independent of the world and that the universe had to have been created out of nothing by an all powerful deity. However, as the process theologians conceive of God, neither God nor the world can be comprehended independently of one another.

There is thus no need under process theology to posit a doctrine of creation out of nothing. In fact, process theology views divine creativity not as a coercive act of forcing something into existence, but rather a collaborative act between God and the world. Thus God is not so much the "Creator" as the chief co-creator of the world, or perhaps it is better to say chief co-creator with the world. Without God, under this view, there could be no true creativity because God plays a central role as the source of novelty in the creative process, but similarly there could not be creativity unless the world also actively participated in that same creative process.

I think there are a lot of problems with the doctrine of divine omnipotence, and it seems to me that it would be useful to jettison the doctrine of creation out of nothing once and for all. As a creation myth, the first chapter of Genesis serves as an interesting starting point for discussion among monotheists in the Western tradition. But I don't think that an entire theology should base itself on the accuracy of a translation of a single sentence written thousands of years ago.


PrickliestPear said...

Translating the opening words as a temporal clause is widely recognised as very plausible, and I think most scholars would agree that the "order out of chaos" interpretation preferable to "creation out of nothing."

I doubt the author of this story was too concerned about that, though.

I agree that the creatio ex nihilo doctrine is problematic and lends itself to a very dualistic, supernatural-interventionist theology. I'm not sure if a mistranslation of the Bible is really to blame, though. The insistence on creatio ex nihilo by the early Church owes more to Hellenised philosophical/theological speculation than Biblical exegesis.

Mystical Seeker said...

The insistence on creatio ex nihilo by the early Church owes more to Hellenised philosophical/theological speculation than Biblical exegesis.

Good point.