Part 2 of TGCA’s series on The Apostle’s Creed

The Christian understanding of creation is revolutionary. If we do not get it right, we will lose the gospel.

In the history of missions whenever Christians evangelised people groups untouched by the gospel, one of the first doctrines to be hammered out has been creation. A missionary friend of mine, who worked amongst indigenous Australians, told me that one indigenous pastor in every sermon would always quote Genesis 1:1, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth”. Why? Because for him and his people the Christian understanding of creation was so revolutionary. In the book of Acts when Paul preached to Jews he makes no mention of creation. But when he preached to Gentiles, unfamiliar with the OT, Paul started his sermons with creation (Acts 14:15; Acts 17:24). Indeed, the Bible itself begins with creation. Creation is so important, that if we do not get it right, we will lose the gospel. Let us see why.

The Context

Why was the Apostles’ Creed written? In the early church when people were baptised, they would make a public confession of belief in Christ. But as heresies arose and Christian beliefs were clarified, these clarifications were added to various confessions used at baptism. Eventually, the baptismal confessions took on a set form of words, which eventually became the Apostles’ Creed. In other words, the Apostles’ Creed was largely shaped by controversies in the early church.

In the first and second centuries as the gospel spread throughout the Greco-Roman world, one of the first great controversies concerned creation. What was the dispute about? Much of the Greco-Roman world at this time believed that the material world was eternal. Matter had always been there, and always would be there. This was the common teaching of the great Greek philosophers and philosophies: Plato, Aristotle, Stoicism, and Epicureanism. It was also the teaching of the powerful second-century heresy that so afflicted the church: Gnosticism.

Indeed, so pervasive was the idea of an eternal material world, that even Christians assumed it was so. Some believers thought that God formed the world as we see it from eternal unformed matter. One eminent Christian thinker of the second century, Justin Martyr, believed just this:

And we have been taught that in the beginning [God] of His goodness, for people’s sakes, formed all things out of unformed matter …[1]

Genesis 1:2 was read by some Christians as teaching that God simply shaped the world from shapeless eternal matter:

Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters. (Genesis 1:2, NIV)

But isn’t this really a small error to make? Shouldn’t we cut Justin Martyr a bit of slack? Aren’t there more important errors to worry about? The early Christians replied with a resounding “no”!

The Clarification

The existence of eternal matter would mean there is something over which God has no power.

Why is believing in eternal matter such a problem? For simply this reason: the existence of eternal matter would mean there is something over which God has no power. If matter always was and will be, then God cannot destroy it and therefore he cannot be almighty. And if God does not have complete control over matter then perhaps he cannot bring about a new creation where there is no evil and sin? To put it simply: if matter is eternal, as God is eternal, then there really are two gods (or two eternal realities).

This second-century controversy over creation helped clarify what makes God, God. It is that he, unlike everything else, is uncreated. Because if God alone is uncreated he alone must be eternal or unbounded or infinite. And if everything else is created, it must be temporal, bounded, and finite. This is what the great second-century theologians clarified. For example, Tatian the Syrian reasoned:

For matter is not, like God, without beginning, nor, as having no beginning, is of equal power with God; it is begotten [born], and not produced by any other being, but brought into existence by the Framer of all things alone.[2]

Theophilus of Antioch put it this way:

But if God is uncreated and matter uncreated, God is no longer, according to the Platonists, the Creator of all things, nor, so far as their opinions hold, is the monarchy [single rule] of God established. And further, as God, because He is uncreated, is also unalterable; so if matter, too, were uncreated, it also would be unalterable, and equal to God; for that which is created is mutable and alterable, but that which is uncreated is immutable and unalterable.[3]

The second-century theologians used a variety of verses to prove their point. But in particular, they argued that Genesis 1:2 cannot be read apart from Genesis 1:1:

In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. 2 Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters. (Genesis 1:1–2, NIV)

The first verse of the Bible affirms that God made all things signified by the words, “heaven and earth”. And the second verse clarifies that the earth God originally made, was “formless and empty” which God then shaped into a habitable world for humanity over the six creation days. Theophilus of Antioch puts it this way:

In order, therefore, that the living God might be known by His works, and that by His Word God created the heavens and the earth, and all that is therein, he said, “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.” Then having spoken of their creation, he explains to us: “And the earth was without form, and void, and darkness was upon the face of the deep; and the Spirit of God moved upon the water.” This, sacred Scripture teaches at the outset, to show that matter, from which God made and fashioned the world, was in some manner created, being produced by God.[4]

God creating everything from nothing … there is only one God.

Now the way the early church emphasised that nothing else was eternal except God was by speaking of God creating everything from nothing. This highlighted that matter was not eternal, only God was. Put another way, it clarified that there is only one God. Theophilus of Antioch said it like this:

But the power of God is shown in this, that, first of all, He creates out of nothing according to His will, the things that are made.[5]

Notice that God created all “according to His will”. God was not forced to create by any pre-existent being. God himself chose to create the world according to his good pleasure. Against Gnosticism, the second-century bishop Irenaeus of Lyons shows that the Bible teaches creation from nothing:

There is one God Almighty, who created all things through His Word; He both prepared and made all things out of nothing, just as Scripture says: For by the word of the Lord the heavens were made, and all their host by the breath of His mouth [Psa. 33:6]. And again: All things were made through Him and without Him was made not a thing [John 1:3]. From this all nothing is exempt.[6]

 So now we can understand why the Apostles’ Creed came to open with these particular words:

I believe in God, the Father almighty, creator of heaven and earth.

“Father” referred to the one eternal God who was uncreated (or in the language of the second century “unbegotten” unborn). “Almighty” because God has power over all things in the world. Nothing in God’s world can overpower God. This means God did was not forced to create the world but chose to from his good pleasure. “Creator” because everything, “heaven and earth”, was made by God from nothing. Matter was not eternal. Theophilus of Antioch summarises this theology:

And [God] is without beginning, because He is unbegotten [unborn or uncreated]; and He is unchangeable, because He is immortal. … But he is Lord, because He rules over the universe; Father, because he is before all things; Fashioner and Maker, because He is creator and maker of the universe; the Highest, because of His being above all; and Almighty, because He Himself rules and embraces all. For the heights of heaven, and the depths of the abysses, and the ends of the earth, are in His hand, and there is no place of His rest.

The Consequences

Visual representations of God are so heinous because they reduce the infinite God to a finite picture or image.

The classic Christian teaching of creation from nothing (ex nihilio) has enormous consequences, particularly for our understanding of the gospel. The first implication is that there is a categorical difference between the God and his world, the creator and the creation. This is what Christians call the creator—creature distinction. We must never confuse creator and creation. God is infinite, the creation is finite. As we cannot pour the ocean into a teacup, so we cannot fit God into the creation.

That is why visual representations of God are so heinous because they reduce the infinite God to a finite picture or image. As Paul said to the pagan philosophers at the Areopagus:

“The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples built by human hands. (Acts 17:24, NIV)

The infinite God cannot be confined to a temple or a church building for that matter. If God is infinite then we finite, created humans cannot fully understand him:

8 “For my thoughts are not your thoughts,

  neither are your ways my ways,”

              declares the Lord.

9 “As the heavens are higher than the earth,

  so are my ways higher than your ways

  and my thoughts than your thoughts. (Isaiah 55:8–9, NIV)

God alone is infinite. To worship something other than God, is a horrifying way to treat God.

If we could understand God we would be God. It should not surprise us when we encounter teachings (like the Trinity) that we cannot fully grasp. When humans attempt to completely comprehend God, they will inevitably shrink him to a human size and produce an idol. Teachings we find difficult to understand should bring us to our knees in awe of God.

Secondly, creation ex nihilio helps us to grasp the nature of sin. If God alone is infinite then, he alone deserves our worship. To worship something other than God, is to make some part of creation divine—a horrifying way to treat God. In fact, if God is infinite he does not need our worship. But we cannot live truly without worshipping him:

24 “The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples built by human hands. 25 And he is not served by human hands, as if he needed anything. Rather, he himself gives everyone life and breath and everything else. (Acts 17:24–25, NIV)

Thirdly, we cannot preach a true gospel without the foundation of creation from nothing, because it gives us a right understanding of God and sin. If Christ came to save us from God’s wrath, creation from nothing shows us the kind of God who is angry. The creator’s anger (like all his attributes) is infinite. It is not limited human anger. But a full understanding of God’s anger also shows us a full understanding of his love. Christ on the cross endured an infinite punishment in our place. And he did it for us! That’s how immeasurable God’s love is for us. It is an infinite love, fitting for an infinite God. What better news could possibly get us out of bed each day?

[1] Justin, First Apology 1.10.

[2] Tatian, Address to the Greeks 5, ANF 2:67.

[3] Theophilus, To Autolycus 2.4, ANF 2:95

[4] Theophilus, To Autolycus 2.10, ANF 2:98.

[5] Theophilus, To Autolycus 2.13, ANF 2:99.

[6] Irenaeus, Against all Heresies 1.22.1.