Creatio ex nihilo, Hebrew, and Greek

In my PhD one of the themes that reoccurs is that God creates from nothing, ex nihilo. Scripture gives witness to this but one thing that keeps bothering me is when people say that this is proven by the fact that the word used in Genesis 1:1 is the Hebrew word bârâ. This, it is claimed, means ‘create from nothing,’ and it is distinguished from the more ‘Greek’ notion of forming or making. This is often, it seems to me, invoked to create a distinction between ‘Hebrew thought’ and ‘Greek thought.’

The problem, though, is that baráh does not mean ‘create from nothing.’ It can mean many things: create, form, do, make. I do agree that in Genesis 1 it means ‘create from nothin,’ but that it not because the word is special. The word occurs 54 times in the Old Testament and not all of them include creation from nothing. An example is Joshua 17:15, where Joshua speaks to the tribe of Joseph: “If you are a numerous people, go up to the forest, and clear ground there for yourselves in the land of the Perizzites and the Rephaim, since the hill country of Ephraim is too narrow for you.”

The fact is, we do not do theology purely through textual analysis. We do so through philosophy, metaphysics, tradition. And if you want a direct expression of creatio ex nihilo in the Old Testament, you (perhaps ironically) have to go to the Greek 2. Maccabees 7:28: “I beg you, my child, to look at the heaven and the earth and see everything that is in them, and recognize that God did not make them out of things that existed. And in the same way the human race came into being.”

The word uses for ‘make’ is poiéō, ‘to make, do, form.’ It has the exact same function as the bârâ does in Genesis 1. Furthermore, we need to go to the New Testament (again, a Greek text), where St. Paul teaches us that God is the one “who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist” (Rom. 4:17).

So no, there is no ‘magic’ distinction between Hebrew and Greek here. Both are perfectly capable of putting into words one of the central themes of the Christian faith; that God creates everything from nothing, ex nihilo, and that He keeps it in existence ex nihilo.

Christ is risen!

This is a slightly edited translated version of a sermon I held at the Paschal Vigil in 2014.

Do not be ashamed, then, of the testimony about our Lord or of me his prisoner, but join with me in suffering for the gospel, relying on the power of God, who saved us and called us with a holy calling, not according to our works but according to his own purpose and grace. This grace was given to us in Christ Jesus before the ages began, but it has now been revealed through the appearing of our Saviour Christ Jesus, who abolished death and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel.

That is the Paschal Gospel, as formulated by St. Paul in 2 Timothy 1:8-10. But what does he mean when he says that Christ has “brought life and immortality to light through the gospel”? What does that mean for us here and now? What, exactly, is the Gospel?

For us the word has become a Christian one, something only understood by those on the inside. But for the recipients of the letters of St. Paul, this was very real and very common. The word, which basically means ‘good news,’ was used by kings, princes, and emperors to mark important occasions and particularly their accession to the throne.[1] After the ‘chaos’ that followed the death of his predecessor, the new ruler would come and promise to introduce peace and stability. That, at least, was the rhetoric used. Life, however, remained the same for most people. And by the same, I mean equally bad. We have probably all heard the saying of Tacitus: “To ravage, to slaughter, to usurp under false titles, they call empire; and where they make a desert, they call it peace.” But with Christ we see something different, something new.

He made the claim to be Christ, the Messiah, the representative of Israel. But he did not claim to be one of many ‘messiahs’ – just another political figure, just another man to free us from physical captivity; from Romans, corrupt Jewish rulers, etc. To use a descriptor someone used of Neo from the Matrix series, he was not a Messiah with a machine gun.

No, he made the claim to be the Lord of lords, the King of kings. He claimed to be God Himself. And that made Him, and his followers, a dangerous threat. For the kingship of Christ relativises the rule of all earthy kings, princes, and emperors. So threatening was this that Herod the Great ordered the death of all male children in Bethlehem up to the age of two just so he might get rid of Christ.[2] And later his grandson, Herod Agrippa, had James killed and Peter imprisoned.[3] He attacked Christians because they proclaimed the Gospel of Jesus Christ, because they dared to say “Jesus is Lord.” By using this word, ‘Gospel,’ St. Paul, and all Christians, are saying that the true Lord, the true King, is Christ. It is not Herod, not Caesar, not Augustus, not Napoleon, not Elizabeth, not Harold. And He is not only the king of Israel, of Rome, France, the United Kingdom, or Norway. No, he is the Lord and King over the entire creation, over the entire universe (or multiverse if that exists). He is the King of kings, the Lord of lords. The Paschal Gospel is this; that this King of kings and the Lord of lords accepted death on our behalf to save us and that he rose again for our justification. The crucified and risen saviour is Lord and King.

But what does this mean for us here and now? To understand how fantastic the resurrection is, not only for Christ but for us, we also need to understand the seriousness of our own sin. Sin is more than just bad behaviour. Sin is to choose sides, againt God. As humans we have a central purpose: to give thanks and praise to God for who He is and for what he has done for us and to love and serve our neighbour. But we have not lived up to this. I know I haven’t. What we need to hear tonight is that there is a deep connection between the Eucharistic celebration of Maundy Thursday, the darkness and despair of Good Friday, and the light of Easter Sunday, represented in many churches by the easter candle. What the disciples thought was the end was lifted up as a sacrifice to God.

In 2003, while he was still Cardinal Ratzinger, pope (em.) Benedict wrote masterfully about how Christ, through the institution of the Eucharist, offered Himself to God and thereby transformed what was about to happen. He does not say that the offering was to appease an angry God out for his pound of flesh but that Christ offered what we could not and would not. Through a life of obedience and love He gave Himself fully to God, in thanksgiving, in praise, in adoration.

Christ ‘interpreted’ His death through the prayers and actions of the Last Supper, particularly through the institution of the Eucharist. To quote Ratzinger, “in these words [Christ] undergoes a spiritual death, or, to put it more accurately, in these words Jesus transforms death into the spiritual act of affirmation, into the act of self-sharing love; into the act of adoration, which is offered to God, then from God is made available to men.”[4] What was the biggest sin of history, the murder of God Himself, became “a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God” (Ephesians 5:2). We need both the Upper Room and the Cross, as Ratzinger reminds us:[5]

Both are essentially interdependent: the words at the Last Supper without the death would be, so to speak, an issue of unsecured currency; and again, the death without these words would be a mere execution without any discernible point to it. Yet the two together constitute this new event, in which the senselessness of death is given meaning; in which what is irrational is transformed and made rational and articulate; in which the destruction of love, which is what death means in itself, becomes in fact the means of verifying and establishing it, of its enduring constancy.

Christ gave Himself for us. A mortal sin became a loving act of adoration. And this act was perfect and complete. This act was strong enough to atone for all of our sins. The sacrifice of Christ is not about an angry God that needs appeasement but about how Christ lives the perfect life of love, on our behalf. And this way he abolished the sin of Adam. Where Adam was disobedient, Christ was obedient. He “became obedient to the point of death,” writes St. Paul, “even death on a cross.” And God answered Him by raising Him from death to life: “Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name.”[6]

We can also have a share in this if we are joined to Christ. We need, as St. Paul says, to be ‘in Christ.’ For, he says, there is “no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.”[7] Through Christ we may be renewed and restored. Through Him we are enabled to stand before God in thanks and praise. We have died with Christ in Baptism, we have had our sins washed away and we have been risen from baptism to new life.[8]

This is the night that Christ offered humanity back to God. Our thanksgiving and praise will never be enough to express the magnitude of this act but we will still continue, hoping that death is not the end and that if we remain ‘in Christ’ we will one day rise up to a new heaven and a new earth.

Christ is risen! He is Risen Indeed!

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Notes:

[1] Read this interview with N.T. Wright and watch this video where Wright elaborates on the word ‘Gospel.’

[2] Matthew 2:1-18.

[3] Cf. Acts 12.

[4] Joseph Ratzinger, Theology of the Liturgy: The Sacramental Foundation of Christian Existence (Collected Works, vol. XI. San Francisco, CA: Ignatius, 2014), 251-252.

[5] Ratzinger, Theology of the Liturgy, 252.

[6] Philippians 2:8-9 (cf. Romans 5).

[7] Romans 8:1, cf. 3:24; 6:11; 6:23; 8:1; 12:5; 1 Corinthians 1:2; 1:4; 2 Corinthians 5:17; Galatians 2:17-20; 3:26-28; Ephesians 1:3; 2:6-7, etc.

[8] Cf. Romans 6:1-11.

“He took bread…”

Tonight marks the beginning of the Paschal Triduum, with the Maundy Thursday or Holy Thursday Mass.[1] This year the Paschal celebration will be very different, as churches across the globe is closed. But what we can do today, as many people plan to watch streamed celebrations of Mass on social media, is to reflect on what the Eucharist means for us, also when we are in the middle of a pandemic. First, I want to quote the Psalm for tonight’s celebration, 116:1-2, 12-19 (according to the Revised Common Lectionary), before I reflect on how ‘online celebrations’ of Mass actually have value for those who watch them.

Now, let’s turn to Psalm 116:12-16:

1 I love the Lord,
because he has heard my voice and my supplications.
2 Because he inclined his ear to me,
therefore I will call on him as long as I live.

12 What shall I return to the Lord
for all his bounty to me?
13 I will lift up the cup of salvation
and call on the name of the Lord,
14 I will pay my vows to the Lord
in the presence of all his people.
15 Precious in the sight of the Lord
is the death of his faithful ones.
16 O Lord, I am your servant;
I am your servant,
the child of your serving-maid.
You have loosed my bonds.

This Psalm is part of the Hallel (Psalms 113-118) which is sung during the Passover Seder or Passover Meal. And this Psalm is sung specifically in conjunction with the blessing for the fourth cup.

But how can ‘online celebrations’ have any effect on us? In her seminal work on the liturgy, After Writing: On the Liturgical Consummation of Philosophy, Catherine Pickstock notes that the Eucharistic celebration is not for the individual alone but is a communal celebration. She cites a rhetorical question supposedly posed by Martin Luther (but actually from British cleric and Protestant reformer Thomas Becon): “Can my eating slake your hunger?”[2] The claim made by Becon is that your eating of the sacrament cannot do me any good. But this is a very individualistic understanding of liturgy. The mere fact that liturgy is being celebrated on our behalf – even if we cannot be there physically – is beneficial. Yes, we cannot partake at the moment, and that is a loss, but we can still remain assured that priests all over the globe is celebrating on our behalf and that Christ’s sacrifice is lifted up.[3] Therefore, let us tune in tonight – on Facebook, YouTube, or wherever – and let us pray together with those who celebrate on our behalf.

And as we do so, we can pray this simple prayer of spiritual communion from the Confraternity of the Blessed Sacrament (found at this resource for praying at home, p.8, produced by the Anglo-Catholic Church Union and the Society under the patronage of S. Wilfrid and S. Hilda):

My Jesus, I believe that you are in the Blessed Sacrament. I love you above all things, and I long for you in my soul. Since I cannot now receive you sacramentally, come at least spiritually into my heart. As though you have already come, I embrace you and unite myself entirely to you; never permit me to be separated from you. Amen

Notes:

[1] ‘Maundy’ refers to the foot washing (from the Latin mandatum, ‘command’ in Vulgate version of John 1:34). In Norwegian we call it ‘skjærtorsdag.’ Skjær means ‘clean,’ coming from the Norse word skíra.

[2] Pickstock (After Writing, 155-156, n.122) cites an article by John Bossy, “The Mass as a Social Institution 1200-1700” (Past & Present, No. 100, 1983, 29-61, here: 44). He cites Martin Luther: Selections from His Writings, ed. John Dillenberger (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1961), 283. The quotation, however, is not found there but is found in Thomas Becon’s “The Displaying of the Popish Mass,” 280, found in Prayers and Other Pieces of Thomas Becon, S.T.P., ed., Rev. John Ayre, M.A. (Cambridge: The Parker Society / Cambridge University Press, 1844), 253-286. Also see Seymour Baker, “Becon, Thomas” (in Oxford Dictionary of National Biography).

[3] For a Lutheran argument for a sacrificial understanding of the Eucharist, see my article.

St. Thomas Becket, pray for us!

This is a translated and expanded version of what I wrote in 2010 and in 2013.

Meister_Francke_011
Martertod des Hl. Thomas von Canterbury by Master Francke (c.1380-c.1440), painted c.1424-1436.

Today marks the feast day of St. Thomas Becket, bishop and martyr. Thomas was born c.1119 in Cheapside, London, on 21 December, the feast day of St. Thomas the Apostle, and died as a martyr in Canterbury Cathedral, 29 December 1170), as we can see from Wikipedia.

He was born into a Norman family and studied at Merton Priory from the age of 10 and later at a grammar school in London. Later, after some years with jobs and financial troubles, Thomas was able to study canon law in Bologna and Auxerre. In 1154 he was made Archdeacon of Canterbury by Theobald of Bec, then Archbishop of Canterbury, the same year that Henry d’Anjou ascended the English throne (at the age of 21, becoming king Henry II), and because of his skill, Thomas was recommended by the Archbishop to the king for the vacant post of Lord Chancellor. As Lord Chancellor, Thomas “enforced the king’s traditional sources of revenue that were exacted from all landowners, including churches and bishoprics” (according to Wikipedia). This was, according to the website of the Roman Catholic Church in Norway, the first English-born man to have such a high ranking office after the Norman invasion in 1066. (That doesn’t mean, of course, that Thomas was Saxon, as is claimed in the movie Becket, but that his Norman family has moved to England where he was born.)

Eventually, Thomas was made archbishpp of Canterbury in 1162, most likely because the king thought he would get ‘his own man’ in the Church. But Thomas took his appointment quite seriously and his “famous transformation … into an ascetic occurred at this time” (Wikipedia). He laid down his office as Lord Chancellor and said of himself, “From a patron of actors and a follower of hounds, I was made pastor of so many souls.”[1] Thomas eventually became a burden for the king, partly because he pushed for the right of the Church, and the king is supposed to have said to his court, “Who will rid me of this turbulent priest?” (though there’s no record of him saying this).[2] Because of his commitment to his post, and his conflicts with the Crown, Thomas was murdered. This was most likely not the king’s purpose, but four knights – Reginald Fitzurse, William de Tracy, Hugh de Morville, and Richard le Breton – took the king’s alleged question seriously and went to Canterbury Cathedral om 29 Desember 1170 where they murdered Thomas as he was praying vespers.

Becket
Poster for the movie Becket (1964).

Today I plan to pray vespers in his memory, and I plan to watch the excellent movie Becket, though it is not entirely historically accurate. It claims that Thomas was a Saxon, and it portrays him and the king as roughly the same age (and as almost buddies). In reality, Thomas was 14 years older than the king. The picture here is the poster or DVD cover. St. Thomas Becket, pray for us!

Let us pray:[3]

O God, for the sake of whose Church the glorious Bishop Thomas fell by the sword of ungodly men: grant, we beseech Thee, that all who implore his aid, may obtain the good fruit of his petition. Through our Lord Jesus Christ, Who livest and reignest with Thee in the unity of the Holy Spirit, forever and ever. Amen.

Noter:

[1] See The Lives of Thomas Becket. Selected sources translated and annotated by Michael Staunton (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2001), 97.

[2] Ibid., 30, n18.

[3] This is a prayer taken from the Roman Missal. See here.