Note from CM: My friend Dan is not only a caring pastor, but also a profound thinker. I encourage us all to exercise our minds a bit today by considering what he has to say about this traditional Christian doctrine. This is part one on the subject. Check out Dan’s blog HERE.
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The Meaning and Value of Creation Ex Nihilo
by Daniel Jepsen
The heretic creates the theologian, they say. That is, it is the error of the heresy which forces the church to refine its doctrine more exactly, and this is why much doctrine uses the language of negation. But, far from simply the negative (but needed) role of guarding truth from error, a careful understanding of God’s revelation to us gives also a deeper understanding of the beauty of God and his plan.
Such is the case with the doctrine of creation ex nihilo. The phrase is based on the Latin and means creation out of nothing: that God used no pre-existing material of any kind when He created the heavens and the earth. Creation ex nihilo is in one sense the very definition of a negatively stated doctrine, yet its full meaning, when understood, gives life and wisdom.
To understand this, we must first trace the development of the doctrine. This doctrine arose as a response to two almost opposite errors: dualism and monism. Let us examine each in turn.
Dualism is the idea that the present universe consists of two primary forces. Professor Langdon Gilkey writes:
The most common conception of creation in the Hellenistic world in which the Christians found themselves can roughly be called the “dualistic” view. This view has had a long and distinguished history in religious and philosophical thought. In mythological form, it appears in almost all the creation myths of the Near East, India, and the Far East, where a God or order subdues some monster or principle of chaos. It reappeared in the dramatic Orphic cosmologies, then was purified into the familiar Platonic picture of creation in the “Timaeus”, and thence provided the groundwork for Aristotle’s cosmology. In Christian times it formed the philosophical basis for most of the “Gnostic” systems with which Christianity carried on a life and death struggle until orthodox thought had successfully formulated its own, antidualistic view of creation.
This viewpoint has one great consistency and one great ambiguity. The great consistency is the belief in the eternality of matter. The great ambiguity is how to describe the person or power that shapes matter into what we call the universe. For some ancient religions, the shaper was a deity of some kind, who “subdued” chaos (often personified as a monster, or the sea, or a sea-monster) and from this “matter” created the world. The more philosophically inclined ancients (especially the Greeks) viewed reality as matter being joined to form, much as a carpenter would create by taking the matter of wood and shaping it into the idea or form of a chair. For them, dualism is more of a philosophy of creation (matter and form coming together) than a religious view of creation (a god subdued the resistant matter by forming it). Plato rather ingeniously combined these two elements. He pictures a Demiurge (a primordial craftsman, not God) who shaped the world out of chaos while gazing at the eternal ideas (or forms) above him, much like a sculptor would gaze at his model (seated either before him or in his mind) as he shaped the recalcitrant marble.
However the details are conceived, reality is conceived of dualistically, because there are two eternal and primary principles in the universe. In other words, individual things (and the world itself) are made out of matter by someone or something imposing form on that matter.
When Christian thinkers began reflecting on what creation meant they almost unanimously (the one exception is Justin Martyr) rejected this idea of creation for two reasons, one theological, and one ethical.
Theologically, the great problem with dualism is that in its scheme, God is neither absolute nor sovereign. This god would not be absolute because if matter is eternal and uncreated, then God is one of two fundamental and primary powers or entities. And he would not be sovereign, for He is not the source of all things, but only their organizer. Just as the marble limits the sculptors freedom (he can create what he likes, yes, but only if he likes marble statues) so dualism limits the freedom of God. He “makes” the universe, yes, but He does so only as a “shaper” of what already “is”. Matter is as eternal and self-sufficient as He is, and thus stands over against God. God cannot be ultimate, nor can He be infinite in a dualist reality.
Ethically, the problem is that an ontological dualism of this kind always tends to become a moral dualism as well, in which the goodness comes from the divine, and evil from the recalcitrant “matter” which He had to subdue. As Gilkey puts it, “By understanding reality as a union of opposing principles, one of which is divine and the other of which is chaotic, dualism seems to make the presence of evil in life rational; but by the same token, it can hardly avoid the gloomy conclusion that existence is by its nature inevitably a mixture of evil with good.” This, of course, contradicted the Jewish and Christian belief that creation was a good thing (“And God saw that it was good”), and hence that evil was, not the natural result of creation, but a fall from the goodness of creation (and a fall which might possibly then be undone). This underlies Augustine’s dictate: “Evil is not a substance; it is the perversion of a nature that is essentially good”.
The reason this is important is that, ethically speaking, dualism must then result in one of two opposing errors. The first is asceticism, the belief that since bodily life is evil, we should shun bodily enjoyment and seek only spiritual enlightenment. The other error is libertinism, the belief that since the body means nothing, bodily sins don’t really matter (Obviously the more popular of the two options). Like a river that splits into two streams, dualism’s view of earthly existence flows ethically into one of these two errors.
Thus, the doctrine of creation ex nihilo argued against any sort of ontological dualism, and the moral confusion which that dualism brought forth.
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The second great error creation ex nihilo corrected was monism (and its religious formulation, pantheism). Monism is the belief that God and the universe are not distinct, but rather one in essence. In this view, creation was not out of nothing, nor was it out of pre-existing matter. Creation was out of God (creation ex deo). That is, creation flows from God like steam from boiling water. Creaturely existence is a manifestation of the divine.
When Christian thinkers encountered this belief, they used the same formula as they used to combat dualism: creation is not out of matter, nor out of God, but out of nothing. As Augustine put it, “non de deo, sed ex nihilo” – not out of God but out of nothing. Or, as he put it more fully, “this soul is not part of God, nor of the same nature of God, but is created by Him and is far different from its creator”. Irenaeus likewise: ”But the things established are distinct from him who established them, and what is made from him who made them. For he himself is uncreated,…and lacking nothing…but the things which have been made by him have received a beginning…and must necessarily in all respects have a different term [applied to them].”
The reason that monism was so strongly opposed was because of its dehumanizing of persons, and degradation of creation. Because these two ideas may seem counterintuitive (after all, what could be more exalted than to be part of God?) we should analyze the logic here.
The essence of this belief is that all is God or part of God, even while all things in some way are still finite (or appear to be). The reality and value of finite things, then, depends on the degree to which it is identical or united to God. What is not God is not real or not valuable. Now finite things as finite, that is, as material, individual, partial, historical, or personal creatures, are clearly only a small degree identical with God. For God in Himself (or itself) is the negation of all these things; God transcends these things. The One who is above all cannot be material, individual, personal or temporal. But if finite things are God, yet God is not finite, then inevitably the finite characteristics become, in some sense, unreal and worthless.
This then results in four rather unfortunate ideas. First, physical pleasure is devalued; the goal becomes not to enjoy the physical world as God’s good gift, but to transcend the physical world.
Secondly, knowledge of the physical world is likewise devalued. The physical realm is, in some sense, not real as its own entity; It is an abstraction or an illusion (the word used in the east is Maya). To focus on this realm is meaningless. To study scientifically the interrelations of this realm is merely to systematize error and ignorance.
Thirdly, humans themselves are devalued in their actual physical state. Humans are to transcend their humanity, not be fulfilled in that physical human state. Individual creaturely existence is the obstacle, not the goal.
Lastly, the concept of sin is also devalued. For the monist, the problem with mankind is not sin, but ignorance (of the oneness of all things) and the solution is not forgiveness but enlightenment. The ultimate goal is not that we become a new creature (the very idea brings shudders to a proper pantheist) in part of a new creation, but that we escape creatureliness altogether.
Thus, pantheism or monism always leads in some way to an idea of escape from creaturely existence. By identifying God with the world it results only in the denial of the reality and value of the world. It degrades what it seeks to exalt (the physical world), even as it dehumanizes exactly those it seeks to divinize.
By understanding why the Church developed the doctrine of creation ex nihilo as the meaning of creation, we are now in a place to get a better handle on the positive value of this doctrine. A full understanding of this doctrine not only guards us against intellectual errors, it forms the basis for the right way to understand our place as created beings, and what we are expected to do as such.
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First, the physical world is good and real in its essence. Unlike dualism, creation is understood as fundamentally good. Matter is not something recalcitrant and limiting; it is part of God’s good creation. The Christian life is not about denying physical pleasures, but being thankful and responsible in our enjoyment of them. The fact that God gives us the physical creation in its entirety (form and matter) means that we can avoid the error of denying ourselves the enjoyment of the physical world (the error of asceticism). And unlike monism, creation is understood as fundamentally real, for God has given it an existence of its own, dependent upon Him but also separate from Him. To understand the physical world is not valueless (or systematizing error) but has the great value of seeing the wisdom and power of God, as well as partnering with Him in shaping creation for mankind’s good. And the promise of heaven is not a disembodied, spiritual existence in the clouds, but rather that we shall dwell with God (in some way) as creatures in a perfected creation.
Second, the physical world is not ultimate. It has not always existed (even as bare matter) and does not exist at all apart from His will and ongoing providence. This obviously includes the very powerful and transformative thought that we has creatures are not ultimate. I am not ultimate, and neither is any other creature. Any value I have or another has is less than the value of the one who made all things; our value as creatures (and indeed the value of all things in creation) is real, but derived and secondary. As Kierkegaard put it, there is “an infinite, qualitative distinction” between God and everything not God. It follows that in all of creation there is nothing worthy of our ultimate worship apart from God. Idolatry, whether the crudely materialistic kind exhibited by the primitive with his carved god, or the more modern idolatry practiced by the modern man or woman obsessed with money or position, is a fundamental mistake. Idolatry simply does not understand what is worthy of our worship and devotion.
Thirdly, humans are good, but in need of redemption. That is, our existence as physical creatures is not the problem. Creation was not a fall to be transcended (as it would be in pantheism) nor a necessary evil (as in dualism). Rather, the fall occurred after creation and consisted in man choosing to attempt to live as God and not as creatures in dependence and trust in the creator. In other words, the fall was not into creatureliness, but an attempt to escape creatureliness. But the very fact that mankind once existed as sinless creatures tells us that mankind has hope for redemption. His evil is not inherent, but chosen, and that means it can be undone (though not by him).
Finally, as Christians, we affirm that God not only is more fundamental than the physical universe, but that He exists as a Trinity, and that this existence in Trinitarian form is more fundamental than creation. More specifically, it means that the fundamental aspect of the Trinitarian existence, love, is more foundational, more ultimate, and therefore more important than anything within the physical creation. Why does St. Paul take pains to say that love alone outlasts everything (I Corinthians 13:13)? Because love is the only thing we do that transcends creation itself. Love is not part of creation. Creation is simply love taking on physical form.
Thus, the doctrine of creation ex nihilo, far from being an abstract or meaningless distinction, actually serves to give us great insight into God and mankind. It is the fundamental doctrine about God, the first thing we learn of him, and the foundation to all that He reveals about Himself and His plan or redemption and renewal.
1. The quotes from Langdon Gilkey are from his wonderful work, Maker of Heaven and Earth, now apparently out of print.
2. I have not delved deeply into the biblical verses supporting creation ex nihilo. A good article by Paul Copan is here. A lecture by William Lane Craig is here. To see early Christian quotes on creation ex nihilo, go here.
3. If you want a whole book analysis of the doctrine, check out Creation out of Nothing: A Biblical, Philosophical, and Scientific Exploration by Copan and Craig.