“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.)