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Genesis 1:1 &
Big Bang Cosmology
When historians of science look back on the 1970s and '80s," stated physicist Heinz Pagels, "they will report that for the first time scientists constructed rational mathematical models based on the laws of physics which described the creation of the universe out of nothing." These new theories in "quantum cosmology" attempt to combine elements of general relativity, quantum mechanics, and elementary particle physics in order to extrapolate the known laws of nature back to the initial "big bang," the moment of the creation of the universe itself.
Genesis 1:1 states that "in the beginning God created the heavens and the earth." Do the biblical account of creation and modern cosmologies agree that the universe had a singular beginning, that the universe was "created out of nothing"? If there is such a convergence, what is its nature, and what, if any, is its theological significance? This chapter aims to explore these questions by examining biblical scholarship on Genesis 1:1 and current big bang cosmologies. Conclusions on such issues are by no means obvious, since, as subsequent discussion will show, the idea of a true beginning of the universe is contested both in recent biblical scholarship and modern physics.
Some Preliminary Considerations
Before examining these trends in biblical interpretation and scientific cosmology, we need to take note of two perspectives that, for different reasons, would consider the questions we are exploring as either illegitimate or notworthwhile. Jewish scholar Nahum Sarna has stated that it is a "naive and futile exercise" to attempt to correlate the biblical creation accounts and the findings of modern science. Any such correspondencessay, on the concept of a true beginning of the universe in timewould be nothing more than mere coincidence. Sarna's comments reflect what might be termed a "two realms" approach to such mattersthe view that science and faith represent such dissimilar realms of discourse that no direct correlation or comparison is either possible or worthwhile.
"Two realms" approaches are exemplified in twentieth-century Protestant theology by Rudolf Bultmann and Paul Tillich. According to Bultmann, while it is the case that the Bible uses objective language to speak of God's acts, such language is not to be understood by the modern reader in terms of modern scientific theories about external events in an impersonal world; rather, they must be translated into the "existential" language of human self-understanding. For Paul Tillich, the doctrine of creation is not the story of an event that took place "once upon a time." Rather than describing an event, the doctrine of creation is the "basic description of the relation between God and the world"; it is the symbolic and metaphorical expression of a timeless truth.
While such "two realms" approaches may have the apparent advantage of avoiding conflicts between science and religion, they have the grave defect of drawing the lines too sharply between these two areas of human experience. While the biblical writers and modern scientists clearly have markedly differing languages, methods and purposes, they all are making references to a shared physical world existing outside the subjectivity of the speaker. An approach that allows for dialogue or even possibly integration between the two fields of human experience seems much more satisfactory, and is the approach presupposed here.
As Langdon Gilkey has pointed out, dichotomistic "two realms" approaches run the risk of evacuating the biblical language of "God's acts" (including creation) of all real meaning and leaving it empty, abstract and equivocal. To say that God "creates" without any reference to events relating to space and time is to reduce the biblical language to vacuity. "Biblical theology must take cosmology and ontology more seriously," writes Gilkey; "... cosmology does make a difference in hermeneutics."
Another source of reluctance to investigate possible areas of convergence between the Genesis creation account and modern science is concern about the tentative nature of scientific theories. As Ian Barbour has correctly noted, "much of contemporary cosmology is tentative and speculative." Similarly, Eman McMullin is reluctant to see any direct linking of cosmology and theology, due to the "tentative nature of scientific theories" and his view that Scripture does not have a "directly cosmological intent." At most, both theology and cosmology may make their different contributions to a more comprehensive view of the world.
It is, of course, worthwhile to draw attention to the tentative nature of scientific theories. The history of both science and theology attest to the very real danger of a facile reading of current scientific theories into the text of Scripture. Davis Young, for example, has documented a long history of failed attempts since the seventeenth century to read then-current geological theories into the text of Genesis. On the other hand, there is the equally real danger that the tentative nature of science will be overemphasized, such that the genuinely cumulative nature of scientific knowledge is overlooked. While it is true that scientific theories change, it is also true that an average scientist today has a more extensive and accurate knowledge of the physical universe today than did Galileo or Newton, despite their genius as individuals.
In the present matter of big bang cosmology, while there are various versions of the theory, and all versions have their scientific problems, it is still the case that the model in general has very strong empirical support. As astronomer Joseph Silk has pointed out, if "a better theory of the universe is forthcoming, there seems little doubt that it will incorporate the big bang theory as an appropriate description of the physical universe." Such a revised theory would likely encompass the big bang model in the same way that Einstein's theory of gravitation (General Relativity) encompassed and generalized the concepts of Newtonian gravitation.
In the balance of this discussion, consequently, it will be assumed without further argument that the investigation of possible convergences between the Genesis creation account and modern cosmology is a justifiable enterprise. This assumption is, in fact, quite in keeping with the revival in the last twenty to thirty years in a "new style natural theology" that seeks, in the words of physicist-priest John Polkinghorne, "insight" rather than logical demonstration and that sees theology not as a rival to science but as a discipline that complements the natural sciences in a search for understanding of the physical world. Such an understanding of the nature of the relationship between science and religion is presupposed in the present work.
Genesis 1:1 in Recent Scholarship
Historically, Jewish and Christian scholars have translated the opening words of the Bible as "In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth," understanding the verse as an independent clause in relation to the following verse, "The earth was formless and empty" (NIV). However, since the 1960s a number of translations have taken verse 1 as a dependent clause in relation to what follows, so that the text reads, "When God began to create the heaven and the earththe earth being unformed and void. God said ..." (New Jewish Version, 1962). In a similar vein, the New English Bible (1970) renders the verses as "In the beginning of creation, when God made heaven and earth, the earth was without form and void."
To the casual reader the difference in meaning between the traditional and "revisionist" translations may seem slight, but in fact the differences have great theological significance. The newer translations imply that the beginning of God's creative work was not an ex nihilo creation but the shaping of a chaotic or formless earth whose prior existence is assumed and left unexplained. In other words, the newer translations take the "beginning" of God's creative work in a relative rather than absolute sense. As a consequence, the absolute transcendence and sovereignty of God over the entire creation is somewhat muted, in comparison to the ex nihilo concept presupposed in the traditional rendering.
Interpreters representing a broad variety of theological presuppositions tend to agree that the syntax of Genesis 1:1-3 is difficult, and that syntactically and grammatically both the traditional and revisionist translations can claim justification. Translation decisions tend to be influenced by lexical, theological and especially source-critical considerations. "Source-critical" considerations involve assumptions that the Genesis account of creation is substantially influenced by Babylonian or other ancient Near Eastern myths of creation involving a struggle with primeval chaos or chaos monsters.
In an important article on Genesis 1 that influenced revisionist translations, P. Humbert argued that of the approximately fifty instances of the word reshit (beginning) in the Hebrew Bible, only twelve are to be understood in the sense of a true temporal beginning. Humbert argued on the basis of this statistical usage that this was strong warrant for taking verse 1 as a dependent clause, having the meaning "In the beginning, when God began to create ..." However, as Walther Eichrodt has pointed out, such an argument places too much weight on lexical statistics and not enough on the contexts of the passages in question. Eichrodt further points to Isaiah 40:21 as a clear example of reshit used with reference to an absolute beginning in time: "Do you now know? Have you not heard? Has it not been told you from the beginning? Have you not understood since the earth was founded?" The reference to the foundations of the earth, an obvious allusion to Genesis 1, clearly presupposes a true beginning of the earth's history. This use of reshit is also in evidence in Isaiah 46:9-10: "I am God, and there is none like me. I make known the end from the beginning, from ancient times, what is still to come." In this text God's complete transcendence over the created temporal order is the basis for the prophet's assurance to Israel in exile that God is able to redeem. Likewise in Proverbs 8:23 the personified Wisdom says, "I was appointed from eternity, from the beginning, before the world began." These usages show that Humbert's argument is far from compelling.
Revisionist translations of Genesis 1:1 have tended to assume that the biblical account has borrowed from or has been significantly influenced by creation myths of the ancient Near East. In Hermann Gunkel's influential work of 1895, Creation and Chaos, he argued that the tehom ("the deep") of Genesis 1:2 was derived from Tiamat, the goddess slain in the Babylonian creation epic Enuma Elish. In such ancient Near Eastern mythologies, creation is not ex nihilo but often begins with a preexisting watery chaos from which the gods and the earth eventually emerge.
While many modern Old Testament scholars have followed Gunkel's lead, his assumptions have been heavily criticized in recent scholarship. As David Tsumura has pointed out in an important study, the etymological similarity of tehom and Tiamat is not a convincing argument for the dependence of Genesis 1 on the Babylonian creation myth. More than one creation tradition existed in ancient Mesopotamia, and in some of the older narratives the creation of the cosmos is not associated with the conflict theme at all. W. G. Lambert, a specialist in Babylonian cuneiform texts, has pointed out that while there is one close parallel between Genesis and the Enuma Elish (splitting of waters/splitting of Tiamat), there is no evidence of Hebrew borrowing from the Babylonian. The separation of heaven and earth motif does not presuppose a cosmic battle; in three Sumerian creation stories, none has the body of a monster slain in battle being cut apart. Lambert concludes that "the case for a battle [in Genesis 1:2] as a prelude to God's dividing of the cosmic waters is unproven." These considerations show that revisionist translations of Genesis 1:1-2 which assume substantial borrowing from Babylonian or other ancient Near Eastern sources are based on highly questionable assumptions.
The traditional rendering of Genesis 1:1 is also contextually consistent with the theology of the overall creation narrative. Eichrodt is correct in seeing the historic independent-clause rendering of verse 1 not as an arbitrary assumption but as a logical expression of the writer's outlook. Creation ex nihilo is clearly implied; the idea of "an absolute beginning of the created world" is an "indispensable link in the working out of salvation on behalf of Israel." The complete sovereignty of God over the creation is the theological basis for God's complete sovereignty in redemption. In a similar vein Gerhard yon Rad points out that Genesis 1:1 shows how God, "in the freedom of his will, creatively established for 'heaven and earth,' i.e., for absolutely everything, a beginning of its subsequent existence." The true subjects of verse 1 are not mythically personified powers from which the cosmos arose through primeval battle but rather "the one who is neither warrior nor procreator, who alone is worthy of the predicate, Creator."
Genesis 1:1 in the History of Jewish and Christian Interpretation
The great majority of both Jewish and Christian commentators have understood Genesis 1:1 as an independent clause that speaks of a true beginning and implies creation ex nihilo. Very significant is the fact that all the ancient versionsthe Septuagint, Vulgate, Aquila, Theodotion, Symmachus and Targum Onkelosconstrue verse 1 as an independent clause ("In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth").
In Jewish interpretation the earliest explicit statement of creation ex nihilo is found in 2 Maccabees 7:28, a text written in Greek and dating from the second century B.C. A Jewish mother urges her son to face martyrdom bravely: "I implore you, my child, to look at the heavens and the earth; consider all that is in them, and realize that God did not create them from what already existed and that a human being comes into existence in the same way." The same God who called the world into being from "nothing" has the power to raise the martyrs from the "nothingness" of death.
Philo, writing in the first century A.D., believed that the idea of an eternal universe was injurious to genuine piety and the biblical notion of providence: "Those who assert that this world is unoriginate unconsciously eliminate that which of all incentives to piety is most beneficial ... namely, providence. For it stands to reason that that which has been brought into existence should be cared for by its Father and Maker." Moses taught that since this world is visible and perceived by the senses, and since visible objects are subject to becoming and change, "it follows that it must have had an origin." Genesis 1:1 shows that there was no time before the world was created; "time began either simultaneously with the world or after it." One might note here the similarity of Philo's view and Augustine's notion that God created the world with time rather than in some "preexisting" time]?
In his Jewish Antiquities the first-century A.D. historian Josephus makes reference to the opening words of the Bible, "In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth." Josephus does not elaborate on the details of the text, but it is significant that, like the later Jewish commentator Aquila (second century), he chose the word ektisen (created) rather than epoiesen (made, produced) used by the earlier Alexandrian translators of the Septuagint. This suggests that Josephus understood Genesis 1:1 as an independent clause and wished to avoid any suggestion that God merely shaped previously existing matter.
Rabbinic commentaries on Genesis reflect an ex nihilo understanding of God's creative work. In Genesis Rabbah 1:9 we find the following account: "A certain philosopher asked Rabbi Gamaliel, ... 'Your God was indeed a great artist, but surely He found good materials which assisted Him?' 'What are they?' said he to him. 'Tohu, bohu, darkness, water, wind ... and the deep [Genesis 1:2],' replied he. 'Woe to that man,' he exclaimed. 'The term "creation" is used by Scripture in connection with all of them.'" This rabbinic discussion is consistent with the Jewish tradition reflected in 2 Maccabees, Philo and Josephus that Genesis teaches that the physical universe had a singular beginning in (or "with") time as the sovereign creation of God.
Early Christian tradition is almost uniform in its affirmation of an ex nihilo concept of creation. Such a concept, rooted in Genesis 1, is presupposed in New Testament texts such as John 1:3, Romans 4:17, Colossians 1:16, Hebrews 11:3 and Revelation 4:11. Writing in the second century, Justin Martyr is an exception to the later tradition in allowing that Plato's theory of preexisting matter could be accommodated to Genesis, since Plato in fact borrowed his teaching from Moses: "it was from our teachers ... that Plato borrowed his statement that God, having altered matter which was shapeless, made the world."
With the exception of Justin Martyr, Christian tradition from the second century onward is essentially unanimous in its understanding that the concept of ex nihilo creation is to be found in Genesis 1:1. The Shepherd of Hermas, probably written in Rome in the second century, states that God "made all things to be out of that which was not." Theophilus, bishop of Antioch in the second century, explicitly criticizes Plato's theory of creation out of preexisting matter, observing that God is more powerful than a human artisan because "out of things that are not He creates and has created things that are." The second-century apologist Tatian in his Address to the Greeks states that matter is not eternal but was "brought into existence by the Framer of all things alone."
Tertullian devotes an entire treatise to the refutation of Greek ideas of the eternity of matter. He states that the creation of all things from nothing at the beginning is consistent with the biblical declarations (citing Mt 24:35, "heaven and earth will pass away") that at the end God will bring all things to nothing. Tertullian relates the sovereignty of God in creation to the sovereignty of God in eschatology and judgment.
Like Theophilus of Antioch, Irenaeus, writing in the second century, argues that ex nihilo creation demonstrates that God's power far surpasses that of human beings: "While men ... cannot make anything out of nothing ... God is in this point preeminently superior to men, that He himself called into being the substance of his creation, when previously it had no existence."
In his Confessions Augustine asks, "How, O God, didst thou make heaven and earth?" His answer is, not out of preexisting materials, but "thou spakest, and they were made, and in thy Word [Christ] thou madest them." Time had no existence before the creation; "time itself was created."
In the medieval period this Christian understanding of ex nihilo creation was continued by Thomas Aquinas. The doctrine was formally defined as a dogma of faith in 1215 by the Fourth Lateran Council and reaffirmed at the First Vatican Council in 1870.
This long and extensive agreement of both Jewish and Christian tradition represents weighty support for the conclusion, also arguable on lexical, grammatical and theological grounds, that Genesis 1:1 indeed does teach a true, singular origin of the universe, a creation ex nihilo.
Genesis 1 and Other Ancient Cosmologies
Before turning to consider recent scientific cosmologies, it will be worthwhile to briefly comment on some features of three ancient cosmological theoriesthose of Plato, Aristotle and the Stoics. These are selected both because they form notable contrasts to the biblical concept of a singular beginning of the universe in time and because they also find parallels in certain modern theories.
Plato's most extensive discussion of cosmology is found in the Timaeus. Here he states that when God "took over all that was visible, seeing that it was not in a state of rest but in a state of ... disorderly motion ... brought it into order out of disorder." Creation is not ex nihilo but involves the ordering of preexisting matter. As we have seen, many of the church fathers drew contrasts between this concept and the biblical view in Genesis.
For Plato the cosmos has "come into existence as a Living Creature endowed with soul and reason owing to the providence of God." His conception of the world as an animated being endowed with reason introduced teleology and purpose into the natural order, elements that had been denied by the Sophists and the earlier Greek atomistic philosophers.
During the medieval and early modern periods, however, it was the cosmology not of Plato but of Aristotle (together with Ptolemy's astronomy) that became "canonical" for the Christian church. For Aristotle the universe as a whole is eternal. After extensive discussion of the views of earlier thinkers, Aristotle concludes, "We may take it that the world as a whole was not generated and cannot be destroyed, but is unique and eternal, having no beginning or end of its whole life, containing infinite time." It should be noted that it is the universe as a whole that is eternal for Aristotle. The upper heavenly spheres, composed of "aither" are ungenerated, indestructible and eternal. Below the eternal, heavenly spheres of aither come the sublunary regions, composed of the elements of earth, air, fire and water, each having its "natural" motion. None of these sublunary elements are eternal per se; they are generated from each other and pass into one another again. The transformations of the four sublunary elements in Aristotle's cosmology would seem to bear some resemblance to the notion of the transformation and conservation of mass-energy in modern physics. The universe as a whole could be said to be in a "steady state," with eternal, unchanging circular motions above and ceaseless transformations (with aggregate "conservation") below.
Excerpted from The Frontiers of Science & Faith by John Jefferson Davis. Copyright © 2002 by John Jefferson Davis. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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