Creatio ex Nihilo: The Gnostic Contribution

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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.

(Go to “From Story to Doctrine”)

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9 Responses to Creatio ex Nihilo: The Gnostic Contribution

  1. All we have of Basilides’s works exist in other Christian writings that are in opposition to Gnosticism.

    Question:
    Can we know for certain Basilides believed this?
    Can we know for certain Basilides was the first? (Supposing that his works can be lost, cannot other works be lost as well?)
    Can we know for certain Basilides’s position was accurately represented?

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    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Daniel, you are right to point out that May’s thesis is dependent on a goodly amount of historical reconstruction. As far as I can tell, his reconstruction has been well received by historians; but nothing can claim “certainty” is matters like this.

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  2. Andrew says:

    Is this series going to get to Bulgakov’s understanding of creation ex nihilo and Florovsky’s response Fr. Aidan? It’s only 1800 years away from the present discussion after all.

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    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Probably not, Andrew. I foresee two, maybe three, more articles in this series, culminating in my review of Tom Oord’s new book. But feel free to share here your thoughts about Bulgakov and Florovsky on the creatio ex nihilo.

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    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Andrew, today I came across this blog article on Bulgakov and Florovsky which might be of interest to you: “A Matter of Nothing.”

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      • Interesting article. I feel, however, as though Bulgakov is slightly misrepresented. Bulgakov walks a fine (dialectical) line regarding the “interdependence” of God and creation. God, he will assert, is entirely self-sufficient and does not require anything outside of Himself in order to “complete” Himself. And yet, in another sense, God cannot but create the world because God is not arbitrary will but Love itself, and it is proper for Love to actualize all its possibilities, to overflow its limits. This overflow into spatio-temporal otherness is not some sort of necessary stage in God’s self-completion (as per the German idealists) but rather a free and gratuitous act of love. For love, says Bulgakov, is “freedom as necessity” “free necessity.”

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        • Andrew says:

          This is the very article I had in mind when I asked you about further posts, thanks Father. Thank you Caleb for that very helpful summary. This is the feeling I get whenever I read dismissals of Bulgakov, that he is being misrepresented somehow. I also found it interesting that one of the main sources in the article was a journal article by Nikolai Sakharov which I assume by the title had good things to say about Bulgakov. Bulgakov’s influence on Elder Sophrony’s work fascinates me I have to say, especially when it appears that many of Florovsky’s intellectual descendants (Metropolitan Hierotheos Vlachos etc) were devoted spiritual children of Elder Sophrony.

          Christ is Risen!

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  3. Fr Aidan Kimel says:

    David of Katachriston asked that the following comment be added to this thread:

    In fact, Justin distances himself from the Platonists with regard to creation. Unlike the traditional Middle Platonic worldview, Justin maintains that God and unformed matter are not coeternal. Elsewhere he states that ‘God alone is unbegotten [agennetos] and incorruptible [aphthartos] but “all things after Him are created” [Dial. 5]. ‘For that which is unbegotten [agenneton] is similar to, equal to, and the same with that which is unbegotten; and neither in power nor in honour should the one be preferred to the other; hence there are not many things which are unbegotten: for if there were some difference between them, you would not discover the cause of the difference, though you searched for it; but after letting the mind ever wander to infinity; you would at length, wearied out, take your stand on one Unbegotten [epi henos stese agennetou kamon], and say that this is the Cause of all’ [ibid]. There are not two unbegotten entities (God and matter), but one–God alone. Justin tells Trypho (in AD 135): ‘There will be no other God, O Trypho, nor was there from eternity [en ap’ aionos] any other existing Demiurge (which fashions from whatever eternal hyle [primordial matter] is available, the true Creator is different. In his Second Apology, Justin writes of God, ‘the Father of all, who is unbegotten’ He is the unbegotten and ineffable God’ [2 Apol 13 -a footnote clarifies Justin on the Word’s procession]. In light of this very plausible ex nihilo understanding of Justin we see that he is actually correcting Plato in light of the Scripture (as he does on other matters). Torchia writes, ‘From this standpoint, even a commitment to the idea of preexistent matter does not rule out a doctrine of creation ex nihilo. Indeed God could have created matter prior to its formation or ordering'” [Torchia, “Theories of Creation, 194]. Cf. William Lane Craig and Paul Copan, Creation Out of Nothing: A Biblical, Philosophical, and Scientific Exploration, p. 132: [Eric] Osborne, who has written a monograph on Justin (Justin Martyr, Tubingen, 1973) asserts that we cannot isolate Justin’s account of matter from the rest of his outlook, which includes God as the solely Unoriginated…” There is much more discussion there than I can share in a message; you might find Craig’s work worthwhile -it presents numerous caveats and counterpoints to other points you made, which reflect the very common POV I encountered about 30 years ago in Protestant seminary.

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