It’s “Nothing” All the Way Down!

“In the beginning God made the heaven and the earth. Yet the earth was invisible and unformed, and darkness was over the abyss, and a divine wind was being carried along over the water.” (Gen 1:1-2)

That the one God is the creator of the world Christians have confessed from the beginning of the apostolic mission. What is perhaps not so clear is what the first-century Christians meant by this confession. The classical Christian view asserts that God has created the universe from out of nothing—creatio ex nihilo; but many biblical scholars argue that this view lacks clear support in Holy Scripture. The creation account in Genesis can certainly be read as saying that God created the world by bringing pre-existent matter to form (creatio ex materia), and this is how some of the second-century apologists expressed the doctrine of creation: “And we have been taught that God, in the beginning, in His goodness made everything out of shapeless matter for the sake of men,” St Justin Martyr declared (1 Apol. 10), thus bringing Christian doctrine into conformity with the Timaeus of Plato. And in the early third century Clement of Alexandria affirmed a similar belief:

O King …
Maker of all, who heaven and heaven’s adornment
By the Divine Word alone didst make;
… according to a well-ordered plan;
Out of a confused heap who didst create
This ordered sphere, and from the shapeless mass
Of matter didst the universe adorn. (To the Pædagogus)

The creatio ex materia has long dominated in process theology circles and now appears to becoming increasingly popular among some evangelicals. Philosopher Thomas Jay Oord, for example, affirms the prevailing scholarly exegesis of Genesis 1 that “God creates out of something, even if the ‘something’ is initially vague, disordered, or messy” (“A New Doctrine of Initial Creation“). As an alternative to the traditional creatio ex nihilo, he proposes instead creatio ex creation en amore:

The basic idea of creatio ex creation en amore is that God has always—everlastingly—been creating out of that which God previously created. There was never a time God was not creating, and there was no first creation. Just as God has always existed and is without beginning, God has also been creating out of what God previously created, and this is without beginning. … In the traditional view, God hasn’t been always creating. In my alternative, God has always created out of that which God created previously. And God will continue to do so into the future.

However, the doctrine that God creates something new from something God previously created emphasizes that God acts first in each creative moment. Each moment begins with God’s creative and giving grace. Creatio ex creatione en amore merely adds that this creative process had no absolute beginning. There has been no first moment of God’s creating, because there has never been a first moment in God’s everlasting life. (“An Alternative Doctrine of Creation“)

Oord’s account of creation reminds me of the famous anecdote as recounted by Stephen Hawking:

A well-known scientist (some say it was Bertrand Russell) once gave a public lecture on astronomy. He described how the earth orbits around the sun and how the sun, in turn, orbits around the center of a vast collection of stars called our galaxy. At the end of the lecture, a little old lady at the back of the room got up and said: “What you have told us is rubbish. The world is really a flat plate supported on the back of a giant tortoise.” The scientist gave a superior smile before replying, “What is the tortoise standing on?” “You’re very clever, young man, very clever,” said the old lady. “But it’s tortoises all the way down!”

If one were to put to Oord the unfair question “But what was there before there was matter?” one can imagine him mischieviously replying, “There’s ‘something’ all the way down!”

The Mormon Church also rejects the creatio ex nihilo as a corruption of the biblical revelation, appealing both to contemporary biblical scholarship and early Church testimony (see Keith Norman, “Ex Nihilo,” Blake Ostler, “Out of Nothing,” and Richard Hopkins, “Counterfeiting the Mormon Concept of God“). Of course, the Mormon conception of deity is dramatically different from the orthodox conception. Mormon theologians, like the new evangelicals, believe that the Mormon presentation of God fully accords with the biblical witness.

In this article I will not argue that the ecumenical doctrine of the creatio ex nihilo is explicitly stated in Holy Scripture. I accept it as the dogmatic teaching of the Holy Orthodox Church. That the doctrine does not explicitly appear in the extant writings of the Church Fathers until the second half of the second century does not give me a moment’s pause. As John Henry Newman observed a century and a half ago: “The absence, or partial absence, or incompleteness of dogmatic statements is no proof of the absence of impressions or implicit judgments, in the mind of the Church. Even centuries might pass without the formal expression of a truth, which had been all along the secret life of millions of faithful souls.” Perhaps the most impressive aspect of the creatio ex nihilo is how easily and quickly it was embraced by Christian theologians, once it was formally proposed as a faithful expression of the apostolic revelation. It does not appear to have generated much controversy at all. Rather, the response of the Church was more like “Yes, of course that is what we believe. Thank you for putting it into words. This is what must be true if Jesus be risen from the dead.” Thus at the end of the second century Tertullian speaks of the doctrine as belonging to the rule of faith (Praescr. 13).

The dogmatic status of the creatio ex nihilo is demonstrated not just by the consensus of Orthodox bishops and theologians, but by the fact that the doctrine became the (often unstated) presupposition for theological reflection on the Trinity, christology, life in the Spirit (theosis), and eschatology. Remove this foundation stone from the theological edifice, and the building comes crashing down around us. That’s why it is irreformable dogma.

It’s “nothing” all the way down!

(Go to “Much Ado About Nothing”)

Advertisements
This entry was posted in Philosophical Theology and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

25 Responses to It’s “Nothing” All the Way Down!

  1. Here’s my question on the Justin Martyr quote, was he rejecting creation ex nihilo by making that statement or did he perceive there to be nothing before there was matter?

    Like

    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      I do not know. Here’s another quote:

      And that you may learn that it was from our teachers— we mean the account given through the prophets— that Plato borrowed his statement that God, having altered matter which was shapeless, made the world, hear the very words spoken through Moses, who, as above shown, was the first prophet, and of greater antiquity than the Greek writers; and through whom the Spirit of prophecy, signifying how and from what materials God at first formed the world, spoke thus: In the beginning God made the heaven and the earth. And the earth was invisible and unfurnished, and darkness was upon the face of the deep; and the Spirit of God moved over the waters. And God said, Let there be light; and it was so. So that both Plato and they who agree with him, and we ourselves, have learned, and you also can be convinced, that by the word of God the whole world was made out of the substance spoken of before by Moses. And that which the poets call Erebus, we know was spoken of formerly by Moses. (The First Apology, 59)

      Like

  2. Fr Aidan Kimel says:

    This blog article by Mark Wauck helpfully summarizes the development in the Church’s doctrine of creation: “Creation Ex Nihilo in Early Christian Thought.”

    Like

  3. Dan S. says:

    I think it becomes a challenge for us to describe the eternal creativity of God with temporal terms. God created from nothing, can really only be understood in temporal terms, since we do not have the experience of eternal “time”. It is for that reason that I see no real contradiction between the two proposals.

    Like

  4. john burnett says:

    There is no ‘eternal “time”‘ because God created time itself. That’s one of the things that makes it impossible for us to ‘understand creation’, because we can’t help think about a ‘process’ of some sort, and ‘process’ means ‘time’, and ‘creation’ is ‘before’ or ‘prior’ to time.

    But the Jews got it right in the first place. Somewhere in the Talmud they’re arguing about what the ‘greatest’ day was— was it the first, because that was when God created light, or the sixth, because that’s when he created man, etc. One of the rabbis said, ‘Great are all the days God created, but the greatest is the seventh, because on that day he showed he didn’t *have* to create.’

    Like

  5. Agni Ashwin says:

    If a “thing” is some material or spiritual entity, then a “no thing” would transcend material or spiritual entities, correct?

    Like

    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Hence Meister Eckhardt could provocatively say: “God is being beyond being: he is a nothingness beyond being.” And John Scotus Eriugena could say: “We do not know what God is. God Himself does not know what He is because He is not anything. Literally God is not, because He transcends being.”

      Like

  6. William says:

    Dan and John already commented on what first struck me when reading Oord’s quote, which is that it describes a god within time, with a past, present and future. He mentions “God’s everlasting life,” which can be conceptually distinct from “God’s eternal life.” Even if the timeline is “everlasting,” it still circumscribes God to describe him as Oord does. But something else that seems really strange about Oord’s account of God’s everlasting recreation from previous creation is the notion that this numberless series of recreations would seem to be an endless perpetuation of suffering and decay, if earlier universes were like the current one and future ones will be similar. Perhaps he’s taken such an objection into account. It was just a first impression I had. I wonder how ideas of reincarnation might dovetail with this sort of recreation account.

    In any case, even if scripture is open to these kind of creato ex materia readings, it still says often enough that “all things” were created “through him and for him” (Christ) and “for from him and through him and for him are all things,” etc. I would think even formless primordial matter falls under the heading of “all things.” That seems to be what Justin Martyr might have been getting at in the second quote above (the one in the comments) when he basically says that the primordial matter Plato talks about is the invisible and unfurnished earth that Moses first mentioned — after first mentioning that God made that earth. The suggestion is that he first made it formless and “invisible” (because there was no light?) and then proceeded with the rest of creation.

    Like

  7. Thanks for the good piece! I often use variation of that tortoise story when I talk about this issue. I think it helps us think about some of the metaphysical presuppositions at play.

    I think it would be more accurate to say of my own version of creation is that “it’s God creating out of that which God previously created… all the way down.”

    Blessings,

    Thomas Jay Oord

    Like

  8. whitefrozen says:

    I got intoa discussion with some idealists (in the Berkleyan sense) who denied CEN and instead opted for what they termed ‘creation ex deo’, since they identified reality with God’s mental activity. Odd stuff.

    Like

    • john burnett says:

      i think a lot of people have that idea. i’ve had big arguments on FB with friends who espouse it. For some reason the idea that God could just make something that was simply not there before is unacceptable. He had to make the universe out of *something*, and since there was *nothing*, he had to make it out of himself!

      For some reason, this Hinduism is quite popular these days. It “explains” everything!

      Like

      • Whitefrozen and John Burnett – Although I personally don’t embrace the view, there is actually biblical support for creatio ex deo. The statements about all things being created in, through, to, and for Christ can be interpreted in that way.

        If this stuff really interests you, may I recommend a book I’m editing on creation theories due out next year and to be published by Routledge?

        Thomas Jay Oord

        Like

        • john burnett says:

          Yes, but the issue is not whether things are made ‘in’, ‘through’, or ‘for’ Christ, but whether things are made *out of* Christ, or whether Christ is *made into* things, no?

          It’s possible to find “support” for all kinds of things in the Bible— as we’ve all heard too many times to bother quoting again, “There is no God” (Ps 14.1).

          But there is a point where the logical precision and the principle of non-contradiction in Greek philosophy have valid effect in theology.

          What i find amazing is the inability— or rather, the *unwillingness*— to accept that God actually just “made stuff up”— radically.

          Or, to put it another way, that he is radically *transcendent*— and what he implications of that are, for our knowledge— which was sort of Fr Aidan’s point in another post a few days ago.

          Your book sounds interesting.

          Like

          • John and Aidan,

            Thanks for your good responses. Your objections to creatio ex deo are some of the reasons I find it unsatisfactory.

            In my view, those who hold to creatio ex nihilo should do so much more tentatively than most do. There is no biblical justification for it; none! On this point, I think the majority of biblical scholars agree. The few passages some say describe it only seem to do so if one begins by affirming creatio ex nihilo.

            In various papers, I’ve pointed out more than ten problems with creatio ex nihilo. But I have to admit that the strongest argument in favor of it (at least the strongest argument that cannot be accounted for by other creation doctrines) is the historical one. That is, the majority in the church have affirmed it for most of Christian history. If there were no major problems with creatio ex nihilo, I’d probably affirm it on historical grounds.

            Thanks for the conversation!

            Thomas Jay Oord

            Like

          • john burnett says:

            thomas and fr aidan, you both seem to be assuming a cataphatic approach to theology, and this is problematic, because cataphasis assumes a continuity where there is discontinuity.

            fr aidan, there is no ‘substance’ of the father, and no ‘nature’, of which the son could be begotten. the word οὐσία literally just means ‘being’, and it’s a kind of empty, placeholder concept that has no particular positive content, as if we could define (however metaphysically) the ‘substance’ that the father is supposedly ‘made out of’, especially such that the son would also be ‘made’ or even ‘begotten’ out of that same ‘substance’ also. i’m sure you know this, but i’m not sure i’m hearing it in your words.

            The phrase in the creed, ‘ὁμοούσιον τῷ πατρί, ‘of one οὐσία with the father’, is just a way of pointing to the fact that whatever way we want to talk about the father, we have to talk about the son as well, except in the ‘mode’ (if you will) of begottenness, whereas of the father we speak of those things as of the begetter. But there is no positive attribution as to what that ‘nature’ or ‘essence’ or ‘substance’ or ‘being’ consists of.

            Moreover— and the importance of this can’t be stressed hard enough!— the father himself **IS** the source of his own ‘being’; he does not derive from some kind of ‘divine nature’, does not arise out of it; the father as *person* is in this sense *prior* to his nature (if we could speak that way)— in the sense that the father as *person* is the personal Source of his own divinity. In other words, he *personally* **IS** the *source* of the divine ‘nature’ *****and not the other way around!*****, and that is why he is the source of the persons ‘co-essential’ with him.

            And the point is that none of this has anything whatsoever to do in any way at all with creation, which is an act of will, not of his personhood or of his nature. Creation is not like wisdom, a natural ‘energy’ or ‘attribute’ of the common οὐσία or of any of the persons. It is an act of will. Great are all the days God created, but the greatest was the Sabbath, because on it he showed he did not *have* to create.

            But thomas, you claim there is no biblical justification for creation from nothing. I can’t help thinking this is a category mistake, and so nothing can be proved from it, any more than from the fact that there is no biblical justification for some proposition in automotive science— or for evolution, for that matter. As far as i can tell, the OT or perhaps even later hebrew didn’t even have a way of saying something like ‘creation from nothing’, because that’s an answer to a rather abstract question they’re not even directly asking.

            HALOT informs us that there are two roots in hebrew which are spelled identically, one is BR’ (ברא), related to an Old South Arabic root *bry meaning ‘build’, but in the OT, as we all know, ‘a specifically theological term, the subject of which is invariably God’, thus Gn 1.1 and so forth— and the other is BR’ (ברא), related to an Old South Arabic root *bry meaning to ‘shape by cutting’ or carving, thus Js 17.15,18 ‘cut down, clear’ a forest; Ez 21.19 ‘carve’ a signpost; and Ez 23.47 ‘cut’ people down. Given the similarities, i rather suspect native speakers in biblical times didn’t forcefully distinguish the two quite identical roots; in the beginning, God ‘built’ or ‘carved up’ the heavens and the earth. But in saying that, they weren’t doing ‘dogmatic theology’, much less ‘systematic theology’; they were doing the story of Israel, using common ancient middle eastern mythological motifs to make the point, and generally talking about the production of a living space for Israel. Hence the Seven Days are really about the creation of a Temple, and not a treatise on physics or astronomical cosmology.

            But as i said before, if we’re going to ask ‘greek’ questions of this hebrew text, then at precisely that point, the logical precision and the principle of non-contradiction of greek philosophy have to have valid effect in our thinking. And a person who holds to the cataphatic truth of a God who is ‘ineffable, inconceivable, invisible, incomprehensible, ever-existing and eternally the same’ can never affirm any notion of a ‘substance’ of god, out of which supposedly he created (carved, cut, shaped, formed) creation. Because that would involve you in cataphatic assertions about that substance.

            The christian religion is not fundamentalist, in the sense that it is and must remain completely circumscribed by the wording of the Bible; the fathers did ask philosophically inspired questions and had to come up with Greek formulas to express things implied, but not stated, in the Scriptures. But nor is it cataphatic, such that in coming up with those formulas, we could ever affirm anything positive of both God and creatures in a univocal way.

            So i have to disagree that the idea of creation from nothing should or could be held ‘tentatively’ in any way. It should be forcefully asserted. And i also have to disagree with the idea that there is no biblical justification for the idea in the first place, and that the strongest reason for holding it is merely traditional. If you want to argue that, then you might yourself having to explain in some other context why walking to school is better than carrying your lunch, or drinking lemonade is superior to writing cursively. What has to be held ‘loosely’— or rather, not at all— is the notion that Genesis 1 or Isaiah 42.5 or 45.18 or 65.17 has anything directly to do with the question of creation out of nothing in the first place.

            Like

      • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

        I imagine that an orthodox construal can be put on the creatio ex deo–I can imagine, Dionysius, e.g., using this kind of language–but it’s vulnerable to all sorts of heterodox interpretations. On first glance it suggests that the creation is divine. Compare the 325 Creed of Nicaea, which declares Christ to be begotten “of the substance of the Father”–the point being that Christ is not created from out of nothing (i.e., he is not a creature) but possesses the same uncreated nature of God. So it seems to me that creatio ex deo needs creatio ex nihilo, but the latter does not need the former.

        Like

      • William says:

        To say that “there is no biblical justification for it; none!” is just a touch brash. Such minds as Irenaeus and Athanasius and so many others have not seen it that way, and that simply cannot be just because they brought their own presuppositions in without regard for the texts they clearly revered. I can only conclude that by “justification for it,” Dr. Oord must mean “explicit formulation of it.” And if that’s the case, there are a lot of things Christians believe that are not explicitly formulated in scripture. Even so, those of us who include 2 Maccabees 7:28 in our Bibles do have a relatively explicit passage that can justify creation out of nothing. Anyway, I also can’t see Oord’s idea explicitly formulated in the Bible either, so I am wondering if it can be also said of that idea that “there is no biblical justification for it; none!”

        But what I’d like to know a little bit more of (if it can be explained fairly succinctly) is how (or whether) the view of God always creating out of the “stuff” he’s already created (and “all the way down” at that!) avoids temporalizing God or eternalizing the stuff. It seems explanations can be offered that might satisfactorily show this scheme avoids temporalizing God, but I can’t see how it avoids eternalizing the stuff, such that the “creation of the stuff” is on a par with the “begetting of the Son” and the “procession of the Spirit.”

        Like

        • Thomas jay Oord says:

          Yes, you’re right. My claim sounds overly brash. Your phrase gets closer to what I should have said, instead of saying there is no justification for creatio ex nihilo.

          Let me try again: the bible never claims that God creates something from absolutely nothing. (Even the Maccabees passage, say most biblical scholars, does not support creatio ex nihilo.)

          The biblical authors DO always talk about God creating from something.

          So when constructing a biblically consonant doctrine of creation, I’m persuaded we should work with the general notion that God creates from something.

          It is true that biblical authors do not explicitly say God always creates from that which God previously created. But that notion is consonant with scripture, whereas I cannot see how creatio ex nihilo is consonant.

          If by “temporalizing God,” you mean the idea God had everlastingly existed as the Living God with successive moment-by-moment experience, I do affirm this.

          For my view on “eternal matter,” see the original article.

          Thanks again for the conversation!

          Like

      • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

        I’m am delighted that a couple of our readers have decided to enter into conversation with Thomas on his views on creatio ex materia. May I suggest to them, and to any others who might decide to enter into the conversation, to please read carefully the two articles by Dr Oord that I cited in my article before responding to his latest comment. I for one would like to see his arguments thoroughly and soundly thrashed, though with all civility and gentleness, of course. 🙂

        Like

    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      For some reason John’s lengthy comment got inserted by WordPress between Thomas’s comment and mine, even though it was written after mine. I don’t know how to fix that (some kind of WP glitch, I guess), but I initially found it confusing.

      John, your comment forced me to go back to re-read what I have written, as I do not understand your criticism that I am assuming a cataphatic approach to theology. I find this a curious criticism, given what I have written over the past couple of weeks; but it also seems quite beside the point. If you re-read my brief comment on the 325 Creed of Nicaea and it’s assertion that Jesus is begotten of the substance of the Father, you will see that the point I was trying to make is, I think, uncontroversial: namely, the council uses the language of substance to place Christ on the creator side of the creator/creature divide. Whether this assertion is cataphatic or apophatic I honestly have no idea. We do not need to know what the divine ousia is in order to predicate it of Christ.

      In the context of this thread, I raised this point simply to advance a reason why the Church has generally avoided saying things like “God created the world out of himself or from himself.” This way of speaking suggests that the world shares in the substance of deity. Hence while it is proper to say that Christ is generated from the substance of the Father, it is improper to say that the world is generated from the substance of the Father.

      You go on to write:

      Moreover— and the importance of this can’t be stressed hard enough!— the father himself **IS** the source of his own ‘being’; he does not derive from some kind of ‘divine nature’, does not arise out of it; the father as *person* is in this sense *prior* to his nature (if we could speak that way)— in the sense that the father as *person* is the personal Source of his own divinity. In other words, he *personally* **IS** the *source* of the divine ‘nature’ *****and not the other way around!*****, and that is why he is the source of the persons ‘co-essential’ with him.

      I’m unclear why you have raised this interesting claim in the context of our discussion, but it is an interesting claim. Having read my fair share of Zizioulas, I am fairly well acquainted with his position on the divine monarchy and briefly discuss it in my article “The Monarchy of the Father According to John Zizioulas.” But every patristic scholar I have read says that Zizioulas’s claims about a patristic personalist ontology well exceeds the 4th century evidence. Lewis Ayres seems to speak for most: “[Zizioulas] argues that in Basil’s theology for the first time all things originate from a ‘person’, and ‘person’ is now the fullest expression of existence. Zizioulas’s proposal quickly falls apart in the face of the evidence” (Nicaea and its Legacy, p. 313). This doesn’t mean that Zizioulas is wrong; but it is important to acknowledge that he’s engaging in more than a fair bit of speculation.

      Like

      • john burnett says:

        yeah i noticed too that WP had put my response in the wrong order. I wonder where this one will go?

        anyway, i’m aware of what you wrote about apo/cataphaticism earlier, but in fact it’s often a thought that comes to me when i read your stuff. I don’t have time to go back and work on it this morning, but i’ll try to catch the thought more clearly if and when it comes up again. Maybe it’s the fact that the *pattern* of apophaticism is something you said was a but new to you, that you were coming to appreciate more and more as you served the liturgy of st john. Paradigm shifts don’t always happen overnight.

        Regarding my final point about the Father as personally the source of the divinity, i got all that from Florovsky, Lossky, Romanides, and Yannaras. I haven’t actually read everything of Zizioulas, though i like him.

        Like

  9. tgbelt says:

    Good to see Tom Oord join in the convo. I’ve enjoyed getting to know TomO (I’m a Tom too!) the past couple of years. Wonderful guy. And a lover of John Wesley!

    We’ve chatted our way through a lot of the CEN stuff before and he knows why I don’t think his view is workable. But for now I just want to question his claim that “The biblical authors DO always talk about God creating from something.” That surprised me. I’m still trying to think of an example of a biblical author naming the stuff out of which God creates, or even making the general comment that God created “from something.” This is different than statements of origin and ontological dependence, like Rm 11.36’s “for from him and through him and for him are all things.” I can think of examples though of biblical authors not describing God’s creating in terms of his creating “from something.” Genesis 1.1 is an obvious example. It’s stated simply that God creates, that he creates in the beginning (and there’s a great convo to be had here!), but nothing is said explicitly about his creating “from” something.

    Like

    • Thanks for chiming in, Tom.

      Probably them most explicit reference to the “what” from which God originally created is 2 Peter 3:5: “Long ago by God’s word the heavens came into being and the earth was formed out of water and by water.”

      You also have a vague reference to making something from unseen things.( Hebrews 11:3).

      There’s the formless mass (tohu wabahu) and deep (tehom) of Genesis 1. Some think “the deep” is a watery mass, but I don’t think it’s clear what the deep refers to, except it’s a something not a nothingness. The repeated references to water in Gen. 1 are probably what prompt this speculation.

      Thomas Jay Oord

      Like

Comments are closed.