It may come as a surprise to most Orthodox and Catholic believers that the ecumenical dogma that God created the world from “out of nothing” (creatio ex nihilo) is now disputed by some theologians in the name of the Bible—at least it came as a surprise to me. I describe the creatio ex nihilo as a dogma, even though I cannot cite a conciliar dogmatic definition that affirms it as such. I personally believe that the doctrine is presupposed in the Nicene anathema directed against those who deny the eternal generation of the Son: “But those who say, There was when the Son of God was not, and before he was begotten he was not, and that he came into being from things that are not, or that he is of a different hypostastis or substance, or that he is mutable or alterable–the Catholic and Apostolic Church anathematizes.” In other words, Jesus Christ is not like those beings who have been created from out of nothing—he is God. In the second century St Irenaeus clearly affirms the doctrine of the creatio ex nihilo, and Tertullian states that it belongs to the Rule of Faith. In the third century the great Origen also asserts the doctrine, and I am unaware of any mainstream theologian after him who disputed it. Yet some theologians today claim that inasmuch as the doctrine is not explicitly taught in Holy Scripture, the Church is free to abandon the confession that Almighty God has, by his grace, created the world from out of nothing. See, for example, the blog site of evangelical theologian Thomas Jay Oord. I doubt, though, that many Orthodox or Catholic theologians would agree, and there are still plenty of Protestant theologians who also affirm the doctrine. Even if Holy Scripture does not explicitly express the creatio ex nihilo, this does not mean that it is unbiblical. The confrontation of the gospel with the ontology of Hellenistic philosophy compelled catholic theologians to formulate the teaching that underlies the declaration of Genesis 1: “In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth …” Met John Zizioulas explains:
In accordance with biblical theology, of which the Fathers cannot have been ignorant, the world is not ontologically necessary. Although the ancient Greeks assumed with regard to the ontology of the world that it was something necessary of itself, the biblical doctrine of creation ex nihilo obliged the Fathers to introduce a radical difference into ontology, to trace the world back to an ontology outside the world, that is, to God. They thus broke the circle of the closed ontology of the Greeks, and at the same time did something much more important, which is of direct interest to us here: they made being—the existence of the world, existent things—a product of freedom. … With the doctrine of creation ex nihilo the “principle” of Greek ontology, the “arche” of the world, was transposed to the sphere of freedom. That which exists was liberated from itself; the being of the world became free from necessity. (Being as Communion, pp. 39-40)
St Athanasius the Apostolic inherited the teaching of the creatio ex nihilo and made it the cornerstone of his soteriological, christological, and trinitarian reflections. Every page of Contra Gentes and De Incarnatione bespeaks the doctrine. The world is not a necessary emanation of the deity nor something that God has crafted out of pre-existent matter: it is the product of his absolute love and gracious will. By his Word the Father has freely brought all beings into existence from out of nothing:
The making of the world and the creation of all things have been taken differently by many, and each has propounded as each has wished. Some say that all things have come into being spontaneously and as by chance, such as the Epicureans who, according to themselves, fantasize that there is no providence over the universe, speaking in the face of the clear and apparent facts. … Others, amongst whom is Plato, that giant among the Greeks, declare that God made the universe from preexistent and uncreated matter, as God is not able to make anything unless matter preexisted, just as a carpenter must already have wood so that it may be used. They do not realize that saying such things is to impute weakness to God: for if he is not himself the cause of matter, but simply makes things from pre-existent matter, then he is weak, not being able without matter to fashion any of the things that exist, just as the weakness of the carpenter is certainly his inability to make any required thing without wood. According to the argument, unless there were matter, God would not have made anything. … And if this is so, as they thus have it, according to them God is only a craftsman and not himself the cause of matter. He could in no way be called “Creator,” if he does not create matter, from which created things come into being. …
These things, then, they fantasize. But the inspired teaching and faith according to Christ casts out their vain talk as godlessness. For it knows that neither spontaneously, as it is not without providence, nor from pre-existent matter, as God is not weak, but from nothing and having absolutely no existence God brought the universe into being through the Word, which it says through Moses, “In the beginning God made heaven and earth” (Gen 1.1), and through that most useful book of the Shepherd, “First of all believe that God is one, who created and framed all things, and made them from non-existence into being,” as also Paul indicates when he says, “By faith we understand that the worlds were framed by the Word of God, so that what is seen was not made out of things which appear” (Heb 11.3). For God is good, or rather the source of all goodness, and one who is good grudges nothing, so that grudging nothing its existence, he made all things through his own Word, our Lord Jesus Christ. (Inc. 2-3)
Athanasius suggests that the restriction of divine creation to pre-existent matter in fact imputes imperfection to the Deity and limits his omnipotence and sovereignty. He would not truly be the Almighty Creator if he were unable to bring the world into being from non-being. But the God of the Bible does not need pre-existent matter with which to work. He only has to speak the word by his Word, and the world springs into being. But why would he do so? Out of his goodness, Athanasius answers. It is his nature to give existence and life—not because he is compelled to do so but simply because he is love. He does not begrudge existence; he delights in bestowing it and rejoices in all he has made: “But the God of all is good and exceeding noble by nature,—and therefore is kind. For one that is good can grudge nothing: for which reason he does not grudge even existence, but desires all to exist, as objects for His loving-kindness” (Gent. 41).
But if created beings are made out of nothing, then they do not possess existence in themselves. They cannot guarantee their existence nor sustain themselves in existence. They are always vulnerable to falling back into the nothingness whence they came. “For the nature of created things,” Athanasius explains, “inasmuch as it is brought into being out of nothing, is of a fleeting sort, and weak and mortal, if composed of itself only” (Gent. 41). Creaturely existence is inherently unstable, evanescent, transitory, ephemeral. Or as Zizioulas puts it: “The world always exists in some relation to this nothing, remains exposed to it and liable to revert to nothing” (Lectures in Christian Dogmatics, p. 89). Every being contains within itself the nothingness that can accomplish its dissolution. When God created the world, he did not give it the means by which to secure its eternity. The world is utterly dependent on the grace and mercy of its Creator. If the divine Word were to withdraw his presence even for an instant, the creation would collapse into the void of nihility. But God in his love preserves his creation by his Word and providential care:
So seeing that all created nature according to its inherent structures is in flux and subject to dissolution, and in order to prevent this happening and the universe dissolving back into nothing, he made everything by his own eternal Word and brought creation into existence. He did not abandon it to be tempest-tossed through its own nature, lest it run the risk of again lapsing into nothingness. But being good, he governs and establishes the whole world through his own Word who is himself God, so that creation, enlightened by the governance, providence, and ordering of the Word, may be able to remain secure, since it participates in the Word who is truly from the Father and is helped by him so as to exist. This was done so that what would have happened to creation, apart from the sustenance of the Word, did not happen—namely, a relapse into nothingness: “For he is the image of the invisible God, the first-born of all creation, because through him and in him subsist all things, visible and invisible, and he is the head of the church” [Col. 1:15-18], as ministers of the truth teach in the holy writings. (Gent. 41; quoted in Khaled Anatolios, Athanasius: The Coherence of his Thought, pp. 40-41)
Though his Word the Father is radically immanent to and present in the world, constantly acting to preserve, order, maintain, protect, and guide his creation and bring it to fulfillment. Creation moreover is divinely constituted to receive the preserving and renewing activity of the Word. It “participates in the Word,” as Athanasius states. This participation in the Word does not suggest any sort of distance between the creation and the Father, as if the Word were an intermediate, in-between being, for the Word is the perfect Image of the Father and coinheres in him just as the Father coinheres in his Word.
Man too has been summoned into being from non-being. He does not possess life; he does not possess immortality; he does not possess divinity. He is created and thus like all created beings enjoys an existence held above the abyss of nothingness; yet he is also destined by God for a life beyond his natural finitude. Within the garden God has placed the tree of life. Khaled Anatolios elaborates:
According to its nature (physis), humanity is incapable of knowing and relating to God. This aspect of the human being corresponds to the utter “beyondness,” or transcendence, of God and the incommensurability of divine and human beings; if God’s nature is that of true being, who is utterly self-sufficient and inaccessible, human nature is characterized by its origination from nothing. This ex nihilo is by no means merely a historical datum or a punctiliar “moment” in the story of humanity’s beginning; it is an ontological determination that characterizes humanity’s existence, and that of creation in general, as deriving from and thus inherently tending toward non-being. … However, this aspect of human “nature,” or physis, cannot, by definition, characterize the actual constitution of the human being as such. It merely refers to the radical nothingness which underlies human existence and indicates humanity’s inherent lack of self-possessed being and thus its radical incapacity to preserve itself in being through its own power. For human beings to actually exist, human “nature” must be radically complemented by the dynamic of “grace”, charis, which corresponds to the divine philanthropia. The aspect of “grace” in the human being is the gift that is granted to humanity of participation in God the Word, in whom all created things have their consistence. Thus, humanity is conceived simultaneously as being of a corruptible nature that tends toward nothingness, in contrast to the perfect and transcendent nature of God, and yet as possessing the grace of participating in divine life, because of the divine philanthropia which overcomes the natural disparity between the God who is and the creation that comes to be from nothing. (Athanasius, p. 41)
That humanity is destined for theosis, for eternal participation in the life of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, is the ultimate significance of being created in the image of God:
Among these things, of all things upon earth he had mercy upon the human race, and seeing that by the principle of its own coming into being it would not be able to endure eternally, he granted them a further gift, creating human beings not simply like all the irrational animals upon the earth but making them according to his own image, giving them a share of the power of his own Word, so that having as it were shadows of the Word and being made rational, they might be able to abide in blessedness, living the true life which is really that of the holy ones in paradise. (Inc. 3)
Human existence, therefore, must be understood as one of radical giftedness. Not only has humanity received the gift of existence from out of nothing, but it has also been given the gift of a divine existence that it cannot achieve by its natural capacity and powers. Thus is displayed the philanthropia of the Lover of mankind.
But what would happen if man were to say no to the gift?
Anyone want an apple?