It may come as a surprise to my readers to learn that the first Christian theologian to explicitly assert the creatio ex nihilo was the gnostic Basilides—at least it was a surprise to me. Writing in the first half of the second century, Basilides advanced the then-novel doctrine that the supreme Being had created the world (or more specifically, the world-seed) from absolute nothing. It’s probably best to allow Gerhard May to describe the Basilidean doctrine:
In the beginning there is pure, ineffable Nothing. It could be that Basilides already equated this original Nothing with God. … The description of ‘non-being’ can only be understood as theologia negativa pushed to the extreme, as is characteristic of gnostic thinking. The ‘non-being’ God creates the cosmic seed, which contains within itself potentially the whole world, the seed-mixture of the cosmos. (Creatio ex Nihilo, pp. 67-68)
May then explains how from this world-seed the three sonships, the archons, and the various realms of the cosmos emerge. It’s all great esoteric mythology, if one likes that kind of stuff. The cosmogony of Basilides evidently differs from that which was, and will be taught, by his fellow gnostics:
According to the prevailing [gnostic] view, at first only the heavenly world unfolds and only through the rebellion and fall of one of the heavenly beings does the cosmos emerge. Basilides, on the contrary allowed the whole of reality, from the sonships and the archons down to the terrestrial world, to come potentially into being through the single creative act of the supreme God; it only remains for it to unfold in space and time. No precosmic catastrophe happens, but the whole cosmic process develops according to the original plan of God. Creation results from pure, unconditioned Nothing. … The creation of the world results from the will and the word of God. (p. 70)
Basilides thus breaks from both the world-formation theories of Greek philosophy and the emanationist theories of his gnostic contemporaries. At this point he appears to have syncretistically assimilated the teaching of Genesis 1: “In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.” The eternal Creator is not to be thought of as a craftsman, who works on pre-existing material. He creates de novo by a singular act of omnipotent will. Basilides’ speculations contain the two essential elements of the creatio ex nihilo doctrine: (1) rejection of the making of the world through manipulation of preexistent matter and (2) affirmation of absolute creation by the divine will and word.
“Why, then,” May asks, “does Basilides, the earliest Christian thinker we know who was really at home with Platonism, reject the doctrine of world-formation so completely?”
The decisive consideration is first that Basilides understands his supreme God in the common Christian sense as the almighty creator. But to this basic view a further motive must be added which makes his rejection of the Platonic model fully comprehensible: the idea of God’s absolute transcendence and superiority to the world forbids that his work of creation should be conceived according to analogies from the world. Between the doctrine of the ‘non-being’ of God and the thought of creation out of nothing there is an undoubted correspondence. The gnostic supreme God produces in a simply wonderful way, corresponding to his boundless might. His ‘act of creation’ is exalted incomparably above all earthly processes of making and therefore can only be defined negatively. (pp. 74-75)
One might be tempted, as are some of the contributors of the recently published book Theologies of Creation, to propose a gnostic origin of the late second century Christian assertion of the creatio ex nihilo; but May disagrees. “One can certainly reckon with earlier stages of the doctrine,” he writes, “but one may not go on to ascribe them all to a common origin. The idea of creatio ex nihilo presented itself with an inner necessity as soon as people became conscious of the implicit dualism of the doctrine of world formation and recognised that it contradicted the belief in God’s omnipotence” (p. 77). Basilides may, as far as we know, have been the first Christian to explicitly state the creation of the world from nothingness; but that is a mere accident of history. We should think here more along the lines of “multiple discovery” and “recombinant conceptualization.” Once Christians finally began to consider the depths and implications of the biblical doctrine of creation, they quickly came to realize that they could remain content neither with the monistic nor dualistic understandings of divinity then prevalent in the Hellenistic world. The God who spoke the cosmos into being and raised Jesus from the dead does not need the world to be God. His glory and being would have remained undiminished if he had never created the universe. God is not a being trapped within the necessities of Being. The elaboration of the creatio ex nihilo was thus critical to the Church’s appropriation of the “Christian Distinction.” Despite the common affirmation of creation from out of nothingness, the gnostic understanding of divine presence and activity differs dramatically from the views of the orthodox Fathers. For Basilides, God Almighty makes the cosmic-seed in an incomprehensible act of pure origination, but he exercises no further role in the temporal development of the cosmos. The Creator does not intervene in history. The covenantal narrative of Israel is functionally irrelevant to Basilides’ cosmogonic and soteriological speculations. “In the end,” May concludes, “his supreme God is much more like the ‘heimarmene’ of the Stoics than like the God of the Bible” (p. 81).
One must seriously wonder, therefore, whether Basilides’ creatio ex nihilo is really the same doctrine as advanced by the later Church Fathers, despite the verbal similarity. Paul Blowers suggests that Basilides’ understanding of divine creation is best formulated as creatio ex Deo, given that the nothing from which the cosmic seed originates is the transcendent nothingness of God. “By the standards of a negative or apophatic theology that Gnostics too applied,” Blowers comments, “the divine being was so remote that human thinking could only conceive it as non-being” (Drama of the Divine Economy, p. 178). Along similar lines, Blake Ostler suggests that “Basilides is not expressing the concept of creatio ex nihilo but speaking of the limits of language regarding nonbeing” (“Out of Nothing,” p. 307 n. 110). Context here is decisive. Though perhaps breaking with Middle Platonic emanationism, Basiledes does not appear to be presenting divine transcendence in its Christian radicality. He is still thinking within a very Greek mindset. This raises the question: Are the archons that “create” the cosmos from the world seed divine, in some subordinate degree? If yes, then despite the assertion of creation from nothing, Basilides’ system remains within the structures of pagan religiosity. If no, then why does God need created demiurges to bring the cosmos into ordered existence? As we shall see in a forthcoming article, one of the principal purposes of the creatio ex nihilo for the Church Fathers was to support the assertion of the Creator’s direct, immediate, and continuing presence within the cosmos. The exact opposite is the case with Basilides.
If wish to understand why the Church authoritatively defined the creatio ex nihilo, we must look beyond the gnostics.