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Creatio ex Nihilo and Romans 4.17 in Context

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  20 November 2015

Jonathan Worthington*
2031 Eaglebrooke Parkway, Celina, Ohio 45822, USA. Email:


Rom 4.17d is often read as referring to creation, perhaps even creatio ex nihilo. Others argue that this doctrine was not yet conceptually available. After exploring what ‘nothing’ means in similar phrases in Paul's ancient context (2 Macc 7.28 and Philo), the first conclusion is that if Rom 4.17d refers to creation then Paul's ‘nothings’ most likely do not refer to an absolute nihil. However, after exploring Rom 4.17 in the context of Paul's argument, the final conclusion is that in Rom 4.17d Paul does present absolute ‘nothings’, though in God's speech to Abraham, not at creation. Paul's theology encompasses God's authority and causation ex nihilo.

Copyright © Cambridge University Press 2015 

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1 C. Cogliati, ‘Introduction’, Creation and the God of Abraham (ed. D. B. Burrell, C. Cogliati, J. M. Soskice, W. R. Stoeger; Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010) 1.

2 W. Hendriksen, Exposition of Paul's Epistle to the Romans, vol. i (New Testament Commentary; Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1980) 158; cf. S. Chester, Conversion at Corinth: Perspectives on Conversion in Paul's Theology and the Corinthian Church (London: T&T Clark, 2003) 77–9; E. Adams, ‘Paul's Story of God and Creation: The Story of How God Fulfils His Purposes in Creation’, Narrative Dynamics in Paul: A Critical Assessment (ed. B. W. Longenecker; Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 2002) 35; B. Witherington, Paul's Narrative Thought World: The Tapestry of Tragedy and Triumph (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 1994) 233.

3 E. Käsemann, Commentary on Romans (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1980) 122–3.

4 So N. T. Wright, Paul and the Faithfulness of God, vol. i (London: Fortress, 2013) 640–1; H. Schwarz, Creation (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002) 168; P. Haffner, Mystery of Creation (Leominster: Gracewing, 1995) 47; B. Byrne, Romans (SP 6; Collegeville, MN: Liturgical, 1996) 159–60; P. Stuhlmacher, Paul's Letter to the Romans: A Commentary (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 1994) 74; J. Ziesler, Paul's Letter to the Romans (NTC; London: SCM, 1989) 132; J. D. G. Dunn, Romans, vol. i (WBC 38; Dallas, TX: Word Books, 1988) 236–7. For more advocates, see P. Copan and W. L. Craig, Creation out of Nothing: A Biblical, Philosophical, and Scientific Exploration (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2004) 75–8.

5 C. E. B. Cranfield, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans, vol. i (ICC; Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1975) 244.

6 J. Becker, Die Auferstehung Jesu Christi nach dem Neuen Testament: Ostererfahrung und Osterverständnis im Urchristentum (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2007) 165–8. Becker's method of importing Rom 4 into 1 Cor 15 is unsound and unnecessary. Regardless of what Paul means in Rom 4.17, 1 Cor 15 clearly shows which aspect of God's creative activity Paul means to apply to resurrection: God's intentionality and ability to craft diverse fleshes, bodies and glories. Paul does not refer to ‘from what’, except Adam's ‘from dust’-ness. See J. Worthington, Creation in Paul and Philo: The Beginning and Before (WUNT ii/317; Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2011) 180–5, 191–5.

7 N. T. Wright, ‘The Letter to the Romans’, NIB, vol. x (Nashville, TN: Abingdon, 2002) 498.

8 N. T. Wright, The Resurrection of the Son of God (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2003) 314, 335.

9 J. D. G. Dunn, The Theology of Paul the Apostle (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998) 40 n. 59. Byrne, Romans, also lists Wis 11.25; Jos. Asen. 8.9; Philo, Op. 81; Mig. 183; Her. 36. See also 2 Apoc. Bar. 21.4; 48.8.

10 Ibid. Cf. Byrne, Romans, 154, 159–60.

11 Treatment of 2 Macc 7.28 as creatio ex nihilo can be traced to Origen's In Iohannem 1.17.103 and De principiis 2.1.5 (J. Goldstein, ii Maccabees (AB 41; Garden City: Doubleday, 1983) 307) and Clement's Stromata 5.90.1 (N. Janowitz, ‘“You Are Gods”: Multiple Divine Beings in Late Antique Jewish Theology’, With Letters of Light: Studies in the Dead Sea Scrolls, Early Jewish Apocalypticism, Magic, and Mysticism (ed. D. V. Arbel and A. A. Orlov; Berlin: de Gruyter, 2011) 358 and n. 23). See also J. Soskice, ‘Creatio ex nihilo: Its Jewish and Christian foundations’, 24–39 (see 33) and E. McMullin, ‘Creation ex nihilo: Early History’, Creation and the God of Abraham, 11–23 (see 16; note his caution); D. Moo, The Epistle to the Romans (NICNT; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1996) 282; K. Mathews, Genesis 1–11:26: An Exegetical and Theological Exposition of Holy Scripture NIV Text (The New American Commentary 1A; Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman, 1996) 141 n. 117; J. Polkinghorne, Reason and Reality (Philadelphia: Trinity, 1991) 72; Ziesler, Romans, 132; Cranfield, Romans, 245 n. 1; G. von Rad, Old Testament Theology, vol. i (New York: Harper & Row, 1962) 142; J. Pelikan, ‘Creation and Causality in the History of Christian Thought’, Evolution after Darwin, vol. iii:Issues in Evolution (ed. S. Tax and C. Callender; Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1960) 34; F. J. Leenhardt, The Epistle to the Romans: A Commentary (London: Lutterworth, 1957) 123; J. Skinner, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on Genesis (ICC; Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1910) 15. Copan and Craig, Creation out of Nothing, 97–100 list more.

12 I. Barbour, Issues in Science and Religion (New York: Harper & Row, 1971) 384. Cf. id., Religion and Science: Historical and Contemporary Issues (New York: HarperCollins, 1997) 201.

13 G. May, Creatio ex Nihilo: The Doctrine of ‘Creation out of Nothing’ in Early Christian Thought (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1994; original Schöpfung aus dem Nichts (Berlin: de Gruyter, 1978)); D. Winston, The Wisdom of Solomon (AB 43; Garden City: Doubleday, 1979) 38–40; Goldstein, ii Maccabees, 307. Winston (Wisdom, 39–40) supports his claim by pointing to Tatian, Oratio ad Graecos 5 and Theophilus, Ad Autolycum 2.4, 10 (ἐξ οὐκ ὄντων τὰ πάντα ἐποίησεν … τρόπῳ τινὶ ὕλην γενητήν, ὑπὸ τοῦ θεοῦ γεγονυῖαν).

14 P. Studtmann, ‘Aristotle's Categories’, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (ed. E. N. Zalta; Summer 2014), available at; J. Palmer, ‘Parmenides’, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (ed. E. N. Zalta; Summer 2012), available at

15 H. Wolfson, Philo, vol. i (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1962) 100–10.

16 Kister, M., ‘Tohu wa-Bohu, Primordial Elements and Creatio ex Nihilo’, Jewish Studies Quarterly 14 (2007) 229–56CrossRefGoogle Scholar, at 245 (emphasis original). So also Bockmuehl, M., ‘Creatio ex Nihilo in Palestinian Judaism and Early Christianity’, Scottish Journal of Theology 65.3 (2012) 253–70, at 258CrossRefGoogle Scholar; M. Niehoff et al., ‘Philo’, Early Judaism: A Comprehensive Overview (ed. J. J. Collins and D. C. Harlow; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2012) 270; R. Radice, ‘Philo's Theology and Theory of Creation’, The Cambridge Companion to Philo (ed. A. Kamesar; Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009) 144–5; D. Runia, Philo of Alexandria: On the Creation of the Cosmos according to Moses. Introduction, Translation and Commentary (Philo of Alexandria Commentary Series 1; Leiden: Brill, 2001) 152–3; D. Fergusson, The Cosmos and the Creator: An Introduction to the Theology of Creation (London: SPCK, 1998) 12; R. Clifford, Creation Accounts in the Ancient Near East and the Bible (CBQMS 26; Washington, DC: The Catholic Biblical Association of America, 1994) 141; R. Clifford and J. J. Collins, ‘Introduction: The Theology of Creation Traditions’, Creation in the Biblical Traditions (ed. R. J. Clifford and J. J. Collins; BQMS 24; Washington, DC: The Catholic Biblical Association of America, 1992) 13; Young, F., ‘Creatio ex Nihilo: A Context for the Emergence of the Christian Doctrine of Creation’, Scottish Journal of Theology 44.2 (1991) 147–8CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Goldstein, J., ‘Creation ex Nihilo: Recantations and Restatements’, Journal of Jewish Studies 38 (1987) 187CrossRefGoogle Scholar (cf. id., ii Maccabees, 307).

17 Copan, P., ‘Is Creatio Ex Nihilo a Post-Biblical Invention? An Examination of Gerhard May's Proposal’, Trinity Journal 17.1 (Spring 1996) 7793, 87Google Scholar.

18 Some manuscripts invert οὐκ and ἐξ, making this a positive statement (‘it was out of not-existing things’) rather than a negative one. I have opted for the reading that appears to be more challenging for my own conclusions.

19 See n. 11 above.

20 Soskice, ‘Creatio ex nihilo’, 31. Haffner claims, ‘This affirmation [from 2 Macc 7.28] is not just an isolated case but rather expresses the climate of thought which was present in Israel even earlier on’ (Mystery, 46).

21 The final clause immediately refers to resurrecting activity, but πάλιν (‘again’) shows that this was also God's original creative work.

22 Contra Copan and Craig, Creation from Nothing, 98, who confuse origin and manner in their discussion of this.

23 So May, Creatio ex Nihilo, 6–7; Kister, ‘Tohu wa-Bohu’, 245.

24 Dunn, Theology, 40 n. 59; Byrne, Romans, 154, 159–60.

25 See n. 11 above.

26 See Worthington, Creation in Paul and Philo, 101–3 and nn. 110–19; Janowitz, ‘Multiple Divine Beings’, 358–60; Runia, On the Creation, 152; Winston, Wisdom, 40; id., ‘Philo's Theory of Creation’, Philo of Alexandria: The Contemplative Life, Giants, and Selections (New York: SPCK, 1981) 7–21; P. Frick, Divine Providence in Philo of Alexandria (Texts and Studies in Ancient Judaism 77; Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 1999) 91; P. Blowers, Drama of the Divine Economy: Creator and Creation in Early Christian Theology and Piety (Oxford Early Christian Studies; Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012) 167.

27 Niehoff et al., ‘Philo’, 270. In 1981 Winston rejected the idea that Philo advocates creation ex nihilo but also suggested there is no need to postulate pre-existing matter: ‘God by thinking eternally brings matter into being and simultaneously orders it’ (‘Philo's Theory’, 16–18 and n. 38). See Philo's Prov. 6–8.

28 H.-F. Weiss, Untersuchungen zur Kosmologie des hellenistischen und palästinischen Judentums (Texte und Untersuchungen 97; Berlin: Akademie-Verlag, 1966) 60–2. Cf. Käsemann, Romans, 122.

29 D. Runia, Philo of Alexandria and the Timaeus of Plato (Philosophia Antiqua 44; Leiden: Brill, 1986) 146.

30 H. Rackham, Cicero – De Natura Deorum (LCL; London, 1967) 385.

31 Janowitz, ‘Multiple Divine Beings’, 360; Kister, ‘Tohu wa-Bohu’, n. 83.

32 Niehoff, ‘Philo’, 270.

33 ‘Those lacking existence suffer primarily the non-existence of social exclusion’ (Chester, Conversion, 79).

34 Moo, Romans, 282 (emphasis added). The creational reading of Rom 4.17 has not gone unchallenged (even though challengers are in the minority): e.g. T. Schreiner, Romans (BECNT 6; Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 1998) 237; L. Morris, The First Epistle of Paul to the Corinthians: An Introduction and Commentary (TNTC; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1985) 209; J. Murray, The Epistle to the Romans: The English Text with Introduction, Exposition and Notes (NTC; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1959) 146–7; W. Sanday and A. Headlam, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans (ICC; Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1896) 107.

35 Cf. Sanday and Headlam, Romans, 113.

36 Cranfield, Romans, 244. Cf. M. Zerwick and M. Grosvenor, A Grammatical Analysis of the Greek New Testament: Epistles, Apocalypse (Rome: Biblical Institute Press, 1979): Paul is ‘not speaking of non-existent things as if they existed, but calling them into existence’ (468; emphasis original), followed by Chester, Conversion, 78 n. 88.

37 Moo, Romans, 282 n. 67, citing BAGD as well as LSJ.

38 Cranfield, Romans, 244.

39 Cranfield, Romans, 244 n. 4 (emphasis added).

40 Without specifying this situation explicitly, Paul gives evidence of his knowledge of Abraham's nation-less situation when writing that Abraham trusted that he ‘would become’ (εἰς τὸ γενέσθαι) such a father (4.18) – i.e. he was not yet.

41 Abraham had Ishmael already, but Gen 17 asserts these ‘many nations’ will be through Sarah – which Paul assumes by discussing Sarah and not Hagar in Rom 4.

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