Creatio ex Nihilo: Alternative Proposals (1)

The new book Theologies of Creation, edited by Thomas Jay Oord, presents ten essays by different theologians addressing the doctrine of creation, with critical attention to the creatio ex nihilo. The majority of the theologians find the traditional doctrine problematic, if not dangerous, and propose various alternatives. In this review I will focus on those proposals with nifty Latin titles.

Mary-Jane Rubenstein: creatio ex multitudine

If you are acquainted with feminist literature, you will immediately recognize Rubenstein’s ideological critique—it’s all about power. Expressing the position of the critics of the creatio ex nihilo (among whom she counts herself), she writes: “Far from being a divine revelation, the doctrine is the product of a series of power plays among early church communities vying for dominance over Christian teachings, practice, and posterity” (p. 9). Thus the great second century debates had little to do with the revelatory truth of the gospel and everything to do with the quest for (male) dominance. After describing the plural and multigendered deities of gnosticism and the nonhierarchical communities that worshipped them, she then describes their catholic opponents:

Against all this plurality and gender insubordination, on the divine and human planes alike, church theologians like Tertullian and Irenaeus asserted the absolute supremacy of a single God—presumably genderless, yet the subject of exclusively male pronouns. And the theological linchpin of this anxiously guarded supremacy was creatio ex nihilo.

Ironically, the idea that a supreme God must create out of nothing seems to have originated with a “Gnostic” teacher. Having heard the “heretical” Basilides proclaim creatio ex nihilo, Tertullian adopted the teaching while excoriating the teacher, appropriating the creation story of the very community he was trying to do away with. “Nothing,” in fact, seemed the perfect solution to the Gnostic problem of a deadbeat creator struggling to shape his mother’s effluvia into something substantial. Whoever that shady character is, the logic goes, he is not God, because God must create out of nothing. In short, then, Tertullian deployed one Gnostic teaching against another to dismantle the whole system. (p. 11)

Oh my. Someone has overdosed on Elaine Pagels. Reading the above extract, one might easily draw the conclusion that Tertullian actually heard Basilides teach; but that is unlikely, if not impossible, given that Tertullian is believed to have been born around A.D. 155, whereas Basilides’ active teaching is usually thought to have occurred in the first half of the second century. But the more important question is, where did Rubenstein get the idea that Tertullian appropriated the creatio ex nihilo from Basilides? She provides no documentation, and I have been unable to find an authentic citation that would support the claim. A third century document that was appended to one of Tertullian’s works, but known by scholars to be spurious, does devote a paragraph to Basilides but does not mention his teaching on creation from nothing. Nor does Gerhard May link Basilides and Tertullian in his book Creatio ex Nihilo. Hence the claim is unsubstantiated. By the time Tertullian spoke of the creatio ex nihilo, it had already become accepted as an element of the Rule of Faith, at least in North Africa (see his Prescription Against Heretics 13). After such an egregious, polemically-inspired blunder, it’s hard to take Rubenstein’s essay seriously.  And regarding the assertion that Christian theologians of the second century directly borrowed the creatio ex nihilo from Gnostic sources, this possibility is dismissed by May (also see my article “The Gnostic Contribution“).

Rubenstein names her positive proposal creatio ex multitudine. I honestly do not know what she means by this expression. She does indicate her approval of the cosmological proposal of physicist Laura Mersini-Houghton, in which the cosmos is born out of a pre-cosmic, multi-versal bath. “Two forces vie for dominance in this bath,” Rubenstein explains: “gravity, which pulls patches of proto-space-time back into the primordium; and a repulsive force (lambda), which tries to push the patches out into their own universe” (p. 14). But ultimately Rubenstein is suspicious of all such theories, given their encodement of societal values. “In this spirit,” she continues, “one might suggest that while the orthodox creatio ex nihilo reflects the values of oneness, independence, and unilateral power, the quantum-tehomic creatio ex multitudine reflects multiplicity, interdependence, and negotiation” (p. 14). Pick the values we want society to embrace, then create your theory. There are always more stories to tell.

Catherine Keller: creatio ex profundis

Keller is also a feminist theologian, so I thought I would be immediately unsympathetic to her essay. But she writes so very well, it’s hard to be drawn into her metaphoric world. It’s sort’ve like reading William Blake.

“Biblical revelations,” Keller tells us, “are not neon announcements of doctrines to believe in, but stories to live by amidst the play of light and shadow, knowledge and mystery, that compose—life” (p. 32). One immediately senses where she is going. She wants us to indwell the poems and stories of creation, rather than discursively theorizing about them. She has a particular love for the story told in Genesis 1, with its interplay of tohu va bohu and tehom and “the pulsing wings of a Spirit rocking over the rocking waves of the sea” (p. 34). All of this stunning, life-illuminating imagery got pushed into the background when the Church imposed the doctrine of creation from nothing. It’s not that Keller wants to exclude totally the creatio ex nihilo from consideration, though she believes it’s responsible for great evil in the world. She just wants it to stand as one of many possible interpretations of the biblical story.

Thus Keller proposes her creatio ex profundis: God steps into the depths and chaos of our lives and brings new possibilities for life and creativity. Isn’t this really what the origin story of Genesis is about? She closes with these words:

Not all propositions, religions, or sciences are equally true. But any of them that may be communicating something, not nothing, we need to hear. Any, therefore, may enrich the fabulous multiplicity of the creation itself. If our truths, even truths about “the creation,” matter now—then they may materialize carefully, not from nothing but from the depths of our shared becoming. A profundity of nonsense? Or perhaps a sense of the profound that precedes and exceeds what human knowledge can master. We have here no neon certainty but—no matter what chaos we face—a darkly luminous faith” (p. 39).

I find it difficult to categorize Keller, and perhaps I shouldn’t try. One does not need to agree with her explicit theology in order to benefit from this essay. I am almost tempted to borrow her book The Face of the Deep from the library. Almost. Keller’s vision does not tempt me, but I’m glad to have spent a little time with her.

Marit Trelstad: creatio ex potentia

The doctrine of creatio ex nihilo, Trelstad tells us, “assumes a worldview with neat categories of existence and nonexistence that simply do not hold when one views the world through the lens of quantum physics” (pp. 41-42). The latest cosmologies suggest that the present universe emerged from a quantum vacuum. Some physicists speak of this vacuum as “nothing,” but this identification, she rightly notes, is inaccurate and approvingly quotes physicist Alan Krum, who speaks of the pre-big bang cosmic void as a “perpetual tempest, seething with activity” (p. 42). The universe is filled with potential, as far back as we can see and speculate. Given the latest scientific research, “the idea of a pure nothing state, from which God creates, loses tenability” (p. 42).

Trelstad does not speak with the metaphoric power of Keller, but she makes up for it with an impressive acquaintance with contemporary physics. Her reflections, however, are vitiated by a serious error. Trelstad understands her project as the reconciliation of physics and theology, and what better place to do so than to unite divinity and the cosmic fecundity. She thus brings God into the physical process and identifies nothingness as the quantum potential from which God brings the world into being. Perhaps “identifies” is too strong a word, but given that God does not create the pregnant void ex nihilo, what else can she mean? Her deity in some sense stands alongside the universe, on the same ontological plane.

The exponents of the creatio ex nihilo, however, never intended their reflections as a scientific description of cosmic beginnings. In his usual incisive way, David B. Hart identifies the confusion of categories: the doctrine of divine creation is a metaphysical, not scientific, claim:

Herein lies the annoyingly persistent logical error of those physicists (like Alexander Vilenkin, Victor Stenger, or Lawrence Krauss) who claim that physics has now discovered how the universe can have spontaneously arisen from “nothingness,” without divine assistance. It does not really matter whether the theoretical models they propose may one day prove to be correct. Without exception, what they are actually talking about is merely the formation of our universe by way of a transition from one physical state to another, one manner of existence to another, but certainly not the spontaneous arising of existence from nonexistence (which is logically impossible). They often produce perfectly delightful books on the subject, I hasten to add, considered simply as tours of the latest developments in speculative cosmology; but as interventions in philosophical debates those books are quite simply irrelevant. As a matter of purely intellectual interest, it would be wonderful some day to know whether the universe was generated out of quantum fluctuation, belongs either to an infinite “ekpyrotic” succession of universes caused by colliding branes or to a “conformally cyclic” succession of bounded aeons, is the result of inflationary quantum tunneling out of a much smaller universe, arose locally out of a multiverse in either limited constant or eternal chaotic inflation, or what have you. As a matter strictly of ontology, however, none of these theories is of any consequence, because no purely physical cosmology has any bearing whatsoever upon the question of existence (though one or two such cosmologies might point in its direction). Again, the “distance” between being and nonbeing is qualitatively infinite, so it is immaterial here how small, simple, vacuous, or impalpably indeterminate a physical state or event is: it is still infinitely removed from nonbeing and infinitely incapable of having created itself out of nothing. That the physical reality we know is the result of other physical realities has more or less been the assumption of most human cultures throughout history; but that, unfortunately, casts no light whatsoever on why it is that physical reality, being intrinsically contingent, should exist at all. (The Experience of God, pp. 96-97)

Trelstad, of course, understands that the nothing of the physicists is not the nothing of the philosophers, but she still insists that the new cosmological theories represent a challenge for the creatio ex nihilo. I do not see why. Apples and oranges.

Curiously, Trelstad attempts to enlist St Thomas Aquinas into her project. She correctly observes that Aquinas acknowledges that an everlasting universe is not logically excluded by the affirmation of divine creation, but she then wrongly infers that a divine “ground of existence is friendly to the understanding of a quantum field” (p. 50). In fact, though, it is neither friendly nor unfriendly to it. For Aquinas, even if the universe exists everlastingly, it is still created by divine fiat from nothing, including quantum fields and cosmic singularities (see William E. Carroll, “Thomas Aquinas and Big Bang Cosmology“).

Trelstad’s positive proposal creatio ex potentia articulates a process construal of divinity and its relationship to the world.  Not surprisingly, therefore, its persuasive power depends on one’s openness to process theology.

(Go to “Alternative Proposals [2]”)

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6 Responses to Creatio ex Nihilo: Alternative Proposals (1)

  1. Thanks for this first segment of the review. I’m looking forward to your future posts!


    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Thanks for stopping by, Tom. If you think I have misrepresented or misunderstood one of the contributors, please do let me know, either here in the comments or via email. One of the nice things about being a blogger is that one can go back and correct what one has written. 🙂


  2. MorganHunter says:

    I have found this discussion of creation very interesting, and have one question to pose. I have heard mathematical physicists assert that the physical universe is in reality simply a mathematical object like any other, and so exists necessarily. It seems that this denial of the contingent nature of creation presents serious theological difficulties. More generally, what is your opinion about the ontological status of mathematical objects? If they exist by logical necessity, must they be in some way divine? Given the Platonic sympathies of the Church Fathers, it would be interesting to know their views on this issue.
    I have long enjoyed lurking on your blog!
    –Morgan Hunter


    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Hi, Morgan. Thanks for unlurking. Alas, my metaphysical skills are lacking here. As I understand the matter (correct me here if I’m wrong), mathematical objects of logically necessary in the sense that they are true or must exist in every possible world. Is that right? But is this logical necessity not different from the metaphysical necessity of the self-existent God? But I know so little I cannot even speculate. Hopefully others might jump into the conversation.

      P.S. I can see where a Platonically-inclined philosopher might have a lot of fun with mathematical objects. In what sense do they exist in the mind of God? etc.


    • brian says:


      I think mathematics provides logical necessities, but that does not imply an ontological necessity. Although, even the logic of mathematics is unproblematic only in a univocal understanding of being. Science seeks after clearly defined, determinate being. Newtonian science deals in unchanging, abstract essences. Quantum physics introduces an equivocity that was already evident to artists (and real people,) but denied by an ideology that came to the forefront along with the advent of modern science.

      In any event, mathematics or concepts, language itself, is always inadequate as a means for pinning down and capturing reality. Mathematics is particularly useful for a certain approach and it “works,” but just because men have limited nature to a certain kind of question and experimentation does not mean that what we glean from those procedures is the “truth” of nature.

      All this is metaphysically incoherent, in any event.
      Most scientists begin with the “stuff” that is shaped in various ways.
      They just assume the stuff is there without any actual wonder about it.
      The contingency of being is not really addressed, but erased through an act of willful forgetfulness. In a similar fashion, even before the advent of modern science, the late medieval world experienced an enthusiasm for logic. But one does not begin with logic.
      One begins with a far richer and more confusing experience.
      Logic is derivative, not primordial. Men forget that because they want to control and not to pray. They want to leave the child and delight and our never ended need for gift and forgiveness behind. The Enlighteners are all grown up.

      And there are different logics. The logic of a positivist will make nothing of a “theo-logic.”
      A more metaphysical understanding of the givenness of Being will note a generosity that gives, a One that is not an isolated, solitary atom, a One that is more than one.
      Mathematics will begin to break down, but then again, it is an act of hybris to think one can capture reality in an equation.

      As for Plato, he did say one needed to know mathematics to enter the Academy, but his teaching did not end with geometry — and his number had a qualitative/symbolic dimension lost on moderns.


  3. Hmmm…power-dominated is the creatio ex nihilo view? Would the feminists say the same if God was described in more feminine terms like as a “she” instead? I’m not certain if I entirely buy into the idea that creatio ex nihilo was the result of a few power-hungry men striving to create a male-dominated society based on their creation dogma. I mean, even many radical egalitarian theologians still affirm creatio ex nihilo.


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