Gen 1 as ancient cosmology
Although I agree with the quoted LDS scholar Dr. Dan McClellan that Gen 1:1 is verbally better understood as a temporal clause specifying the condition of formless matter (in the ancient near east author's mind), I STILL believe that the Bible teaches creatio ex nihilo. It is just the primary meaning of Gen 1 is a symbolic description of God's purpose vis a vis the earth and humanly-visible sky rather than the creationists' concordist understanding.
Thus, it is an accommodation, not scientific history of creation. It is theology of creation; a Biblical ancient cosmology, not narrative that needs to be made to FIT (concordant) with modern scientific cosmogony. A growing number of theologians posit that the original author of Genesis 1 was adapting the prevalent and older Mesopotamian mythology for the Israelite's belief in YHWH. Thus Gen 1 is a story of how God brought order out of the chaos represented by the formless earth and dangerous deep waters (Gen 1:2). The story can be read as narrated symbolically (not literally), using this Framework Interpretation of the 7 days.
Canonical vs. ancient author's understanding of "In the beginning"
Faithful exegesis is guided by what the ancient author had in mind; in this case, his purpose for composing Gen 1 is the theological purpose of creation rather than the "blow by blow report" of how creation progressed in time or about providing secondary origin of "formless matter" (apart from the ultimate origin who is God).
Ancient Hebrew author of Gen 1 conceives God as spirit (Gen 1:2), so when he symbolically described creation as God "speaking" things into existence this is yet another sign that we are dealing with metaphor since God doesn't have a mouth. It is more faithful exegesis to extract the theological meaning of God's "speaking things into existence" without projecting modern scientific concordism.
Rather, God's agency in creation is highlighted:
- God is the cause of all things,
- Who hold all things in existence, and
- Who imposes order in "raw matter" (however science construes it) instead of a blind process.
Then we can focus on theological meaning without being distracted or improperly committed to a particular precise way of HOW God does it.
At the same time, we do not do exegetical violence to interpreting Gen 1:1's "In the beginning" to yield its secondary meaning as indicating creatio ex nihilo even though the author most likely didn't intend this meaning. This is because in several other verses in the Bible (see the next section), God is believed to have created "all things", which naturally lend itself to include the pre-existing earth & sea mentioned in Gen 1. By the time John 1:1 alluded to Gen 1:1, we can then properly interpret John to understand Gen 1:1's "In the beginning" as creatio ex nihilo in this secondary meaning.
THEREFORE, the canonical interpretation is: yes, we can interpret Gen 1:1 as indicating creatio ex nihilo.
Other Bible verses supporting creatio ex nihilo
Several example verses listed in this apologetics article Creation Ex Nihilo is in the Bible by Dave Armstrong:
- Psalms 33:6 (RSV) By the word of the LORD [i.e., not by existing matter] the heavens were made, and all their host by the breath of his mouth.
- Isaiah 44:24 . . . “I am the LORD, who made all things . . . “
- Wisdom 1:14 For he created all things that they might exist, . . .
- John 1:3 all things were made through him, and without him was not anything made that was made.
- Romans 11:36 For from him and through him and to him are all things. . . .
- 1 Corinthians 8:6 yet for us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist.
- Ephesians 3:9 . . . God who created all things;
- Colossians 1:16 for in him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or principalities or authorities — all things were created through him and for him.
- Hebrews 2:10 . . . he, for whom and by whom all things exist . . .
- 2 Peter 3:5 . . . by the word of God [i.e., not by existing matter] heavens existed long ago . . .
- Revelation 4:11 . . . our Lord and God, . . . didst create all things, and by thy will they existed and were created.
While Socinian Biblical Unitarians may not agree that John 1:3 refers to creatio ex nihilo (see this question), there are plenty of other verses that highly suggest this, such as Isa 44:24, Ps 33:6, and Col 1:16. Therefore I think it is safe to conclude that there is Biblical basis for creatio ex nihilo even though the primary meaning of Gen 1 is not.
For a recent scholarly resource covering Biblical background, ancient Hebrew theological context, NT context, early church fathers theological context, philosophical interpretation, down to 21st century scientific cosmology, please consult this 2017 book Creation ex nihilo: Origins, Development, Contemporary Challenges edited by Gary A. Anderson and Markus Bockmuehl.