Typically Process theologians will argue that the idea that God created the world Ex Nihilo is imported illicitly into Christian theology via hellenization. They maintain instead that the world is something analogous to the ‘body’ of God, and thus has always existed in some sense, insofar as God himself has always existed (in some sense). Process theologians have tried to claim that the Jewish Scriptures, along with the New Testament, do not obviate a reading which entails a creation Ex Nihilo (out of nothing – or – not out of anything). This idea, so it is alleged, was borrowed from Greek philosophy and imposed unto the text of Genesis. For instance, David Ray Griffin writes:
“When God began to create the heaven and the earth, the world was without form and void.” According to most scholars of the Hebrew Bible, this is the best translation of Genesis 1:1-2a. The prevalent translation, however, has been something like that of the Revised Standard Version, which renders it “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. The earth was without form and void.” The latter rendition, by indicating that the earth’s being “without form and void” comes after God’s initial creative activity, suggests that our universe was created out of nothing (ex nihilo)…
Although it is widely assumed that the doctrine of creatio ex nihilo is the biblical doctrine, or is at least reflected in some biblical passages, this view is now rejected by leading scholars.
~ Encountering Evil: Live options in theodicy, p. 108-109
Although there are good grounds upon which to launch a criticism of this suggestion, I think it might be more useful, even more sobering, for a Catholic to respond in a different way. I am always tempted as a Catholic to capitalize on points where somebody puts a suggestion to me which simply begs a more seminal question, to point that out to them candidly. If a process theologian wants to maintain that they are proposing something legitimately Christian when arguing that the world is just God’s body, and that God doesn’t know the future (even though he is omniscient technically – since he knows all true facts – but the process theologian may be tempted to think that future-tensed facts do not now have truth value assignments), then the question has to be – what qualifies something to be legitimately Christian? If the Process theologian says that it is whatever is an authentic reading of the Bible, and not necessarily a reading which is in step with the solemn definitions at the ecumenical councils (or other synods) – as they are likely to say – then I would want to respond by calling into question first whether the Bible doesn’t teach creation Ex Nihilo, and second what the Bible is, and finally what authority the Biblical canon has if the ecumenical councils do not have infallible authority.
To begin, let us look quickly to the text of Genesis1:1
“In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.”
That is the classical translation of the text, and it is the one implied by the Masoretic Hebrew text. However, since the Masoretic text obviously adds notations and elements which were simply not part of the original Hebrew to facilitate interpretation, some scholars are doubtful that the Masoretic interpretation is reflective of ancient Israelite faith. When looking at the Hebrew without these notations, one finds another translation possible:
“In the beginnings when God created the heaves and the earth, the earth was formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep…”
This is the translation given in the respectable New Revised Standard Version. Notice that in the second sentence, the implication is that God came to a formless earth and formed it, almost as though he was a Jewish Demiurge (architect imposing order on disorder). The translation can go either way, and one’s presuppositions about certain key hypotheses in textual criticism with respect to the Pentateuch and the history of Israel as a whole will heavily influence the outcome. Certainly this previous way of reading it is a very plausible way to read an ancient Near Eastern Myth which may not even reflect monotheism as of yet (again, this is contested). Thus the Process Theologian can point to this alternative interpretation to suggest that an authentic reading of the Bible does not imply anything like creation Ex Nihilo.
My first inclination is to entirely avoid and sidestep all debates surrounding the difficult task of translating this or other contested passages in the Torah. Instead, I would suggest that the Scriptures elsewhere imply a Jewish awareness of creation ex nihilo prior to the time of the ‘hellenization’ of Christianity. Consider this passage in Maccabees:
Antiochus felt that he was being treated with contempt, and he was suspicious of her reproachful tone. The youngest brother being still alive, Antiochus not only appealed to him in words, but promised with oaths that he would make him rich and enviable if he would turn from the ways of his ancestors, and that he would take him for his Friend and entrust him with public affairs. Since the young man would not listen to him at all, the king called the mother to him and urged her to advise the youth to save himself. After much urging on his part, she undertook to persuade her son. But, leaning close to him, she spoke in their native language as follows, deriding the cruel tyrant: ‘My son, have pity on me. I carried you for nine months in my womb, and nursed you for three years, and have reared you and brought you up to this point in your life, and have taken care of you. 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. Do not fear this butcher, but prove worthy of your brothers. Accept death, so that in God’s mercy I may get you back again along with your brothers.’
While she was still speaking, the young man said, ‘What are you waiting for? I will not obey the king’s command, but I obey the command of the law that was given to our ancestors through Moses.
~2 Maccabees 7:24-30
Here, notice the mother’s language to her soon to be martyred youngest son: “God did not make them out of things that existed.” This clearly seems to imply that Judaism prior to Christianity maintained that God did created the world Ex Nihilo. Moreover, it is clearly in the Bible because Maccabees is part of the Bible.
Now, at this point, the process theologian is likely to object given her particular Christian tradition and background that Maccabees is not included among the canonical scriptures, or else that at least it is contested whether it is. However, she must realize first that she has just cut herself off from presenting a case which can be recognized as compelling in the least from a Catholic, Eastern orthodox, Oriental orthodox or other similar perspectives which are characterized by a commitment to Apostolic tradition.
However, when the Process Theologian gives you her list of essential Christian beliefs (beliefs without which one cannot qualify as a ‘Christian’), since she is inclined to open theism, what now does she say about the canon of the Scriptures? How can she pull a John-Calvin and argue that the Holy Spirit is assuring her that everything written in these scriptures, and nothing but these scriptures, is inspired and should be considered ‘canonical’? It becomes difficult to see. Moreover, since the councils (or at least the Church) which decided about whether creation Ex Nihilo was the correct way for the Church catholic to interpret the Jewish revelation, was the same as decided about the Canon, it seems difficult to impugn it and exonerate it all at once without rhyme or reason.
Having taken the conversation away from the issue of creation Ex Nihilo, this response helps orient the whole conversation back to its very terms, and the presumptions which underlie the arguments presented.