Originally published in 1937, Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s study of Genesis 1-3 Creation and Fall was first published in English by SCM Press in 1959.
In this edited extract, Bonhoeffer considers the first two verses of the Bible.
In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. The earth was without form and void, and darkness was upon the face of the deep; and the Spirit of God was moving over the face of the waters.
The Bible begins in a place where our thinking is at its most passionate. Like huge breakers it surges up, is thrown back upon itself and spends its strength. Hardly has the first word of the Bible been visible to us for a moment, when it is as though the waves are racing forward again and submerging it with foaming water. That the Bible should speak of the beginning provokes the world and irritates us. For we cannot speak of the beginning; where the beginning begins our thinking stops, it comes to an end And yet the fact that we are asking about the beginning is the innermost impulse of our thinking; for in the last resort it is this which gives validity to every question we ask. We know that we must not cease to ask about the beginning though we know that we can never ask about it.
Why not? Because we can conceive of the beginning only as something finite, therefore precisely as that which has no beginning. Because the beginning is freedom and we can conceive of freedom only in terms of necessity—as one thing among others but never, simply as the one thing before all others. If we ask why we always think from the viewpoint of the beginning and towards it, and why we can yet never conceive it nor even once get to it by asking, then this question is only the expression of a series of questions which could be pushed back into the infinite and which still did not reach the beginning. Thinking cannot answer its own last ‘why’, because an answer would again produce a ‘why’. The ‘why’ is much more the expression for the beginning-less thinking, par excellence.Our thinking , that is, the thinking of those who must go to Christ to know of God, the thinking of fallen man, has no beginning because it is a circle. We think in a circle. We might then say that in that case there is beginning everywhere. We could equally well say that there is no beginning at all: the decisive point is that thinking takes this circle for the infinite and original reality and entangles itself in a vicious circle.
There can therefore be nothing more disturbing or agitating for man than to hear someone speak of the beginning as though it were not the totally ineffable, unutterably dark beyond of our blind existence. We will fall upon him, we will call him an arch-liar or even a saviour and we will kill him when we hear what he says. Who can say it? Either the one who was a liar from the beginning […] or the other One who, from the bginning was the way, the truth and the life, who was in the beginning: God himself, Christ, the Holy Spirit. No one can speak of the beginning but the one who was in the beginning.
Thus the Bible begins with God’s free affirmation, free acknowledgment, free revelation of himself: In the beginning God Created…But the rock in the sea is hardly visible before it is covered again by the sea brought to turmoil by the vision of him who is unshakable. What does it mean that in the beginning is God? Which God? Your God, whom you yourself created out of your need because you need an idol, because you do not wish to live without the beginning or without the end, because you are afraid of being in the middle? In the beginning God—that is just your lie, which is not better, but more cowardly even than the lie of the evil one. How do you know the beginning, stranger, you who write this sentence? Have you seen it, were you there at the beginning? Does not your God himself say to you ‘Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? answer if you have understanding’ (Job 38.4). What are the first words of Scripture? A delusion of the cowardly imagination of a man who is not able to live in the middle with pride or resignation? Is it the imagination of a man like ourselves when, out of the cowardice of our beginningless and endless lives we cry out to a God who is but our own ego? How shall we be able to answer this reproach? It is true that anyone who speaks of the beginning speaks of his fear within the circle of life, even he who wrote the Bible, he does not speak but God himself speaks, the true primal reality, who was before our life, before our thinking and its fear, who says only of himself that he is in the beginning. He bears witness to himself by nothing but this Word, the word of a book which as the word of a holy man is of itself a word ‘from the middle’ and not ‘from the beginning’. In the beginning God created … That, said and heard as human word is the form of the servant in which God encounters us from the beginning and in which alone he is to be found. It is neither profound nor frivolous. It is God’s truth, in so far as he says it.
In the beginning—God. That is true if he is present to us in the middle with this word as the one who creates and not as one who is remote, reposing, eternally being. We can only know of the beginning in the true sense as we hear of it in the middle between beginning and end. Otherwise it would not be the beginning which is our beginning. Of God as the beginning we know here in the middle, between the lost beginning and lost end only—as of the Creator.
In the beginning, out of freedom, out of nothing, God created the heavens and the earth. That is the comfort with which the Bible addresses us who are in the middle, who are anxious before the false void, the beginning without a beginning and the end without an end. It is the gospel, it is the resurrected Christ of whom one is speaking here. God is in the beginning and he will be in the end. He is free regarding the world. The fact that he lets us know this is mercy, grace, forgiveness and comfort.