It’s Tortoises 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, great Giver of good gifts to men,
Lord of the good, Father, of all the Maker,
Who heaven and heaven’s adornment, by Your word
Divine fitly disposed, alone make;
Who brought forth the sunshine and the day;
Who appointed their courses to the stars,
And how the earth and sea their place should keep;
And when the seasons, in their circling course,
Winter and summer, spring and autumn, each
Should come, according to well-ordered plan;
Out of a confused heap who created
This ordered sphere, and from the shapeless mass
Of matter did the universe adorn. (Pædagogus 3.12)

The creatio ex materia has long dominated in process theology circles and appears to be 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 presuppo­sition for theological reflection on the Trinity, christology, sacraments, life in the Spirit, 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!

(13 December 2013; rev.)

(Go to “Ex Nihilo Nonnihil Fit”)

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7 Responses to It’s Tortoises All the Way Down!

  1. TJF says:

    Perhaps DBH is rubbing off on me too much, but it seems to me more and more that statements like that one attributed to Newman and others I’ve come across in Fr. John Behr, etc. seem somewhat disingenuous to me. A much simpler explanation which involves much less bending over backwards is that maybe people early on really didn’t believe the things we now believe. The Vincentian Canon is false. I know others are much more learned on this topic than I, so please correct me if I’m wrong. But I can’t shake the feeling that really what happened is that people used to believe incorrect things (even things that are now irreversible dogma) and now we (in some cases) believe correct things and that for some reason we feel an intense need to say it was the same all along, when that desire is baseless and history falsifies it.

    Liked by 1 person

    • David says:

      TJF, I tend to agree with you. However – and I’m not sure if this is stretching the statements of Newman and co. more than might reasonably be allowed – one way to think about such things might to be to say that that, while certain elements of dogma might not have been believed (or even have been contradicted) on an intellectual level, on a spiritual or faith-based level they were in some sense nevertheless assented to. Even today many Christians may not give you the perfect Niceno-Constantinopolitan-orthodox response to the question of in what sense ‘Jesus is God’ – but their acts of worship betray on some level they know the answer perfectly, whatever they might make of it intellectually.

      Perhaps this chimes with DBH’s view that many infernalists, on their deepest level, are not actually infernalists at all – not that they are lying or don’t really hold to such beliefs on an intellectual level, but that their actions betray that in some more spiritual sense their souls are already aligned with the truth. So perhaps ‘implicit belief’ doesn’t also mean something as crude as ‘they knew it all along and just didn’t bother to write it down!’, but also includes a wider sense of belief that is focused on praxis and spiritual feeling, not assent to intellectual propositions. Truth is written on the heart first, then the mind.

      Liked by 1 person

      • TJF says:

        That may be the case but still seems like waffling to me. I will have to ponder this for a while. Thank you for your thoughts, I will take them into consideration David.


  2. johnstamps2020 says:

    “Rocks all the way down” is not as funny as “Turtles all the way down,” but I think the story goes back to William James.
    “The moral judgment is irreducible, and independent of
    all judgments of fact. It applies to the subjective interests as
    well as to the phenomena which they measure. Not only is it
    best for my social interests to keep my promise, but best for me
    to have those interests, and best for the cosmos to have this me.
    Like the old woman in the story who described the world as
    resting on a rock, and then explained that rock to be supported
    by another rock, and finally when pushed with questions said it
    was “rocks all the way down,” he who believes this to be a
    radically moral universe must hold the moral order to rest
    either on an absolute and ultimate should or on a series of
    shoulds “all the way down.”;size=100;view=text


  3. Iain Lovejoy says:

    Creation from chaos is not incompatible with creation ex nihilo. Asserting that the world started in chaos and God by degrees and within time formed the chaos into order is not to assert that the chaos was pre-existent or co-existent with God. Time is itself the process of God ordering and forming the universe which he himself created. The OT *may* only assert God formed creation as we now see it from chaos (and despite being slapped down by DBH on this I am still not at all sure this is all it does) but that doesn’t mean it contradicts the notion that God himself first created the chaos from nothing – it neither asks or answers the question as to who did so.


  4. Drew Costen says:

    I personally think Romans 11:36 gives us a hint of what the universe was created out of.


  5. David Kontur says:

    Greetings Father Aidan and All,
    As I read the first posting by Fr Aiden in this series I then happened to read a new posting on Father Freeman’s blog, that while not exactly addressing the same issue seems to compliment and respond to the questions raised – not with a direct answer, but with a “there is more to the story” moment. It can be found at
    I was also thinking of St Paul’s statement that “ in Him we live, move and have our being.” Then the analogy occurred to me (with its limitations of course) – while you could dissect my body and take it apart limb by limb and organ by organ you will absolutely never find me as person. You may learn a lot about how and what the body is made of and how it works (or doesn’t work as I am getting older – lol), but you will never find a “person.” And yet, without the person, all you have left is a corpse. Going back to St Paul’s statement – it is not only people, but the entire universe that “lives, and moves and has its being in God,” and it’s very origin. You can examine the composite parts and phenomena “within” the universe and learn a lot along the way, but at no time can you look at anything and say – ah! Here is God!!


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