Creatio ex Nihilo: From Nothing God Makes

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“In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth” (Gen 1:1)—not by a titanic struggle with the deified powers of nature but by the effortless word of command: “Let there be …” The priestly author of this first chapter of Genesis presents us with neither mythology nor philosophical speculation but doxology. As Jewish commentator Nahum Sarna writes:

The biblical Creation narrative is a document of faith. It is a quest for meaning and a statement of a religious position. It enunciates the fundamental postulates of the religion of Israel, the central ideas and concepts that animate the whole of biblical literature. Its quintessential teaching is that the universe is wholly the purposeful product of divine intelligence, that is, of the one self-sufficient, self-existing God, who is a transcendent Being outside of nature and who is sovereign over space and time. (Genesis, p. 3)

As the biblical story began to be shared with the Hellenistic world, it became necessary for Jewish and Christian thinkers to clarify the meaning of divine creation over against philosophical theories of ontological emanation and gnostic dualism. For Christians this creative exposition began in the second half of the second century. One question in particular needed to be addressed: Did God fashion the world from some kind of primordial matter, much like a craftsman takes wood and shapes it into a piece of furniture? St Justin Martyr appears to have believed something along these lines, interpreting the Genesis account through the lens of Plato’s Timaeus:

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 created 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. (Apol. 1.59)

Though Justin is willing to take Greek philosophy to task when it contradicts consensual Christian teaching, he does not do so on the question of divine creation. Instead he suggests that Plato actually borrowed his understanding of creatio ex materia from the Bible. “Obviously at this point,” Gerhard May remarks, “Justin had not perceived any difference between Christian and Platonist teaching” (Creatio ex Nihilo, p. 123). May goes on to observe that Justin’s emphatic affirmations of the unlimited creative power of God and his status as the sole unoriginate being would “seem to urge the doctrine of creatio ex nihilo. But Justin did not take the last step towards its formulation; in that he was obviously hindered by the Platonist preconceptions of his thinking” (p. 132). But Justin was not alone. Athenagoras and Hermogenes offered similar accounts of world formation. Hermogenes expressly appealed to Gen 1:2: “But the earth was without form and void.” “Earth,” he said, refers to preexistent matter; “was” signifies eternal duration; “without form and void,” the chaotic state of pure potentiality. But other Christian theologians—particularly, Theophilus of Antioch, St Irenaeus of Lyons, and Tertullian of Carthage—found these Platonic accounts of divine creation unacceptable.

Since the time of Parmenides, Greek philosophy had accepted the axiom “nothing comes from nothing” (ex nihilo nihil fit). Beings cannot emerge from absolute nonbeing. This would seem to be a self-evident truth of reason. (Some contemporary physicists think they can conceive of the universe arising from nothing, but they think so only because their nothing is not the inconceivable nothingness of classical theism.) From nothing, nothing comes, yet late second-century Christian apologists dared to advance a counter-intuitive thesis that quickly captured the mind of the Church: “In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth … from out of nothing!” Janet Martin Soskice explains the revolutionary nature of this move:

It is often claimed that the Church Fathers and medieval theologians uncritically adopted Aristotelian metaphysics when it came to creation and the doctrine of God. Those who make such claims have not considered the originality of creatio ex nihilo. The doctrine does not originate in Greek philosophy. Aristotle thought the idea absurd, for if there were ever a time when nothing existed then there would be nothing now—“from nothing, nothing comes.” In classical formulations creatio ex nihilo excludes both Neoplatonic emanationism in which the world flows inevitably from the Godhead and the Aristotelian cosmology in which the world and God necessarily co-exist. (“Creatio ex nihilo,” in Creation and the God of Abraham, pp. 24-25)

But is this novel doctrine of creation biblical?

(Go to “Is it Found in the Bible?”)

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10 Responses to Creatio ex Nihilo: From Nothing God Makes

  1. “But is this novel doctrine of creation biblical?”
    Depends what you mean by biblical. Biblical because the Church has officially given that meaning to the creation account. Not biblical in the sense it can be taken purely from the Bible.

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  2. I’m bored, waiting for class to start and since it’s the first of April, and this is a post about creation ex nihilo, I wanted to share this joke that was also on topic.

    One time, God and Satan were having a contest over who had the most creative power. Satan challenged God to create something first. So God took a handful of dust, threw it up into the air, breathed on it, said abra-kadabra, and boom! A giant, great blue whale appeared in the middle of the ocean! Satan said, “Oh, it’s just a whale. I can do better than that.” So he picked up a handful of dust and right then and there was stopped–God said, “Nah uh uh! Get your own dust!”

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  3. Agnikan says:

    Can “nothing” really exist, if God is Present?

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  4. Michael Bauman says:

    God made ‘something’ wholly other than Himself where before there was nothing other than Himself (in Trinity). Literally no thing(s).

    Do we have trouble with the idea because we anthropomorphize God? … and of course our sheer inability to think of nothing which comes in part from the fact that all we know or can know is something. Even ideas are concrete and physical with defined limits. Most folks tend to get nervous when the subject of the unbounded and the infinite comes up especially as a personal being.

    It is indeed quite a leap to posit creation ex nihilo.

    I am curious Father, why do you bring up the question of its Biblical foundation?

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    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Michael, my concluding question is a lead-in to my next article in the series. Stay tuned. 😊

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  5. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    With a three-week lag in getting started on catching up with this series… And drawing on Nahum Sarna as quoted in the second instalment:

    One answer to “is this novel doctrine of creation biblical?” would seem to be, yes, if we consider 2 Maccabees a book of the Bible: “Look up to heaven and earth and see all that is therein, and know that God made them out of things that did not exist” (7.28) – and depending on what in the source he translates “know that God made them out of things that did not exist” and the Vulgate “intelligas, quia ex nihilo fecit illa Deus, et hominum genus” means.

    Not having (even in translation) reread St. Justin and Hermogenes beyond what you quote here, or looked up Athenagoras, I see no reason why we need suppose they are thinking very differently from Nahum Sarna on Jeremiah 4:23-27: “That God should create disorganized matter, only to reduce it to order, presents no more of a problem than does His taking six days to complete creation instead of instantaneously producing a perfected universe.” That is, the creation “ex nihilo” can be the creation of a “matter which was shapeless” (etc.).

    An interesting question which Eric Voergelin pursues (I have not looked up where) is whether this may not be what Plato (as opposed, e.g., to some later Platonists) intended, or at least considered without certainly deciding upon. Was Plato a dualist, with two distinct and equally eternal principles, ‘matter’ and the Good Beyond Being, or does he see the last named as the creator of the first named? (Incidentally, could one have an eternal created matter?)

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