Creatio Ex Nihilo and Creation Care
A growing number of Christians see the need to care for creation. But most of these Christians affirm the ancient idea that God created the universe out of nothing (creatio ex nihilo). Does care for creation fit well with creatio ex nihilo? I don’t think so…
I’ve been writing a book chapter for a new book on the influence — for good or ill — of Christianity’s creation doctrines on climate change, ecological degradation, and species extinction. In that essay, I address four creation theology issues, one of which is the creation from nothing view.
Implicit in these issues are three questions: Does God’s love entail plans, desires, and purposes for creation? Does God have the power to control creation to accomplish those purposes? Do creaturely actions – for good or ill – ultimately matter to God’s purposes?
Since the third century, most Christians have said God initially created our universe from absolute nothingness. The Bible doesn’t explicitly support this claim. Instead, biblical writers speak of God creating out of or in relation to creation (water, invisible things, chaos [tehom], the deep, and more) rather than from nothing. Nevertheless, the doctrine of creation from nothing prevails among liberal and conservative Christians.
Historians argue about the origin of the creation from nothing view. Gerhard May’s widely influential thesis is that two Gnostic leaders introduced the idea. Gnosticism typically regards matter as inherently evil, so Gnostics would understandably be averse to the idea a holy God used unholy materials when creating. Most Christians reject the Gnostic belief that matter is inherently evil, but they retain the creation from nothing view.
In the second century, Irenaeus proved influential in establishing creatio ex nihilo among Christians. “[God] was influenced by no one but, rather, made all things by his own counsel and free will,” argues Irenaeus. “God made those things that were made in order that all things might exist out of things that did not exist, just as he willed, making use of matter by his own will and power.”
The sovereignty of God was especially important for Irenaeus’s claim that God created from nothing. “The will of God must rule and dominate in everything,” he argued, “everything else must give way to it, be subordinated to it, and be a servant to it.”
Alternatives to Ex Nihilo
Christians propose alternatives to creatio ex nihilo. Some of yesteryear and some today suggest that God creates from Godself or ex Christi. The idea that God creates out of Godself seems to lead to pantheism, however. Most Christians want to distinguish between the transcendent Creator and creation, believing God differs in important ways from creation and alone is worthy of worship. Consequently, creatio ex deo/christi theory has few adherents.
Other Christians argue that God creates out of chaos, possibilities, profundity, love, previously created things, eternal matter, and more. The motivations they have for proposing these theories vary, but some appeal to their favorite theory for its fruitfulness for ecological concerns.
These theories also often provide a middle way between an entirely transcendent or entirely immanent God. Labels such as “panentheism,” “a sacramental universe,” “theocosmocentrism,” or “deep incarnation” describe this middle way.
Ex Nihilo Implies Creation is Insignificant
Those who offer alternative theories to creatio ex nihilo note two problems the traditional view presents for motivating Christians to care for creation. The first problem is that creation from nothing implies creation is ultimately insignificant. That which comes from nothing is finally superfluous.
Proponents of creatio ex nihilo typically regard creation’s lack of necessity as positive. Creatio ex nihilo tells us, they say, that creation is a free divine gift from a transcendent God. God could have decided not to create, and God could decide, at any moment, to send creation into nonexistence. Creation is a wholly divine gift bestowed and supported by God’s omnipotence.
Thinking God created the universe from nothing, however, easily leads to thinking creation does not ultimately matter. Michael Zbaraschuk puts it this way: “If the world is created out of the nothing in a free expression of the divine power, its radical contingency means that it is, at the end of the day, not very important. If God made it once unilaterally, so God can make it again.”
It’s understandably difficult for some Christians to feel motivated to care for and protect what ultimately doesn’t matter. The lack of motivation becomes especially problematic when caring for and protecting creation requires considerable self-sacrifice.
Does the Bible Explicitly Teach Creation Care?
Some respond to this charge by arguing that earthly-oriented motivations ought to be secondary. Christians ought to be primarily concerned with what God commands, they say, not with whether creation is radically contingent. “Who cares how the universe was created or if it ultimately matters,” they say, “we must obey God and not worry about understanding our world.”
Making a biblical case that God commands care for creation, however, requires interpretive moves not obvious to many Christians. While important scholarly work has been done, much of the biblical witness seems unconcerned with creation care. Anthropocentrism reigns.
Ecologically-oriented theology would find strong scriptural justification had Jesus said, “Love all creatures great and small, care for the earth and its ecosystems, and learn to live sustainably with creation!” While biblical writers say God cares for nonhuman creatures, explicit commands that humans love animals, ecosystems, and the planet are rare if present at all.
Ex Nihilo Implies God Could Singlehandedly Prevent Ecological Destruction
The traditional creation from nothing view implies a second problem: If God has the power to create something from nothing, it stands to reason God has the power to prevent ecological degradation singlehandedly. Such prevention might mean overpowering humans to stop them from harming creation, or it might mean creating from nothing obstacles to thwart such harm.
If God has creatio ex nihilo power and yet allows environmental degradation, one might even assume God wants that degradation. If God really cared about creation, the God with ex nihilo power could prevent ecological disaster singlehandedly.
This problem leads some Christians to adopt noninterventionist theologies, whereby God either can’t or won’t interrupt natural processes or creaturely free will. The “God won’t intervene” option doesn’t solve the problem, of course. After all, “won’t” retains the idea God could prevent ecological degradation unilaterally.
The “God can’t intervene” view is conceptually stronger, but it requires a more radical reformulation of divine power. I recommend that reformulation, however. In either case, however, theologians who believe God can’t or won’t prevent ecological degradation unilaterally should find alternatives theories to creatio ex nihilo attractive.
An Alternative to Ex Nihilo that Supports Creation Care
I suggest Christians set aside the view that God created the universe from absolute nothingness. Rather than follow the logic of Irenaeus, Christians should follow the logic of biblical passages, which consistently speak of God creating through, with, and alongside creation.
A more adequate creation theory might say God lovingly creates something new in each moment from that which God created previously, and God’s creating has always been occurring. Our universe began at the Big Bang, but it was preceded by previous universes and will be followed by more.
We might call this theory “creatio ex creatione sempieternaliter en amore,” if we thought the Latin mattered. The everlasting God who everlastingly creates is the ever Creator.
This view not only fits the dominant biblical views of God creating from creation, but it also supports the idea God creates through self-giving, others-empowering, and therefore uncontrolling love. And it says the God who creates from creation cannot prevent environmental evils singlehandedly. (Click for more on this alternative creation doctrine.)
 For essays focusing on particular advocates of creatio ex nihilo in history, see chapters in David B. Burrell, Carlo Cogliati, Janet M. Soskice, and William R. Stoeger, Creation and the God of Abraham (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010) and “Creation ‘Ex Nihilo’ and Modern Theology,” in Modern Theology 29:2 (April 2013).
 Among the many biblical scholars who say creatio ex nihilo is not explicitly found in the Bible, see Joseph Blenkinsopp, Creation, Un-Creation, Re-Creation: A Discursive Commentary on Genesis 1-11 (London: T & T Clark, 2011); William P. Brown, The Ethos of the Cosmos: The Genesis of Moral Imagination in the Bible (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1999); Brevard S. Childs, Myth and Reality in the Old Testament, Studies in Biblical Theology, No. 27 (London: SCM, 1960); Terence E. Fretheim, God and World in the Old Testament: A Relational Theology of Creation (Nashville: Abingdon, 2005); Rolf P. Knierim, Task of Old Testament Theology (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1995); Jon D. Levenson, Creation and the Persistence of Evil: The Jewish Drama of Divine Omnipotence (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1994; New York: Harper & Row, 1987); Keith Norman, “Ex Nihilo: The Development of the Doctrines of God and Creation in Early Christianity,” BYU Studies 17/3 (1977): 291-318; Shalom M. Paul, “Creation and Cosmogony: In the Bible,” Encyclopedia Judaica (Jerusalem: Keter, 1972), 5:1059-63; Mark S. Smith, The Priestly Vision of Genesis 1 (Philadelphia: Fortress, 2010); David Toshio Tsumura, The Earth and the Waters in Genesis 1 and 2: A Linguistic Investigation (Sheffield: JSOT, 1989); Bruce K. Waltke, Creation and Chaos (Portland, OR: Western Conservative Baptist Seminary, 1974); Claus Westermann, Genesis 1-11: A Commentary, John J. Scullion, S. J., trans. (London: SPCK, 1994); Frances Young, “Creatio Ex Nihilo: A Context for the Emergence of Christian Doctrine of Creation,” Scottish Journal of Theology 44 (1991): 139-51; John H. Walton , The Lost World of Genesis One: Ancient Cosmology and the Origins Debate (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2009).
 Irenaeus, Against Heresies, Ancient Christian Writers Series, Book 2, Vol. 64 (New York: Newman, 2012), 1.1.
 Ibid., 10.2.
 Ibid., 34:4.
 For biblical support for creation out of Christ, see 1 Cor. 8:6, Col. 1:15-20, John 1:1-3, and Heb. 1:2.
 Find arguments for these vies in Theologies of Creation: Creation Ex Nihilo and its New Rivals, Thomas Jay Oord, ed. (New York: Routledge, 2015).
 Michael Zbaraschuk, “Creatio Ex Deo: Incarnation, Spirituality, Creation” in Theologies of Creation, 85.
 For examinations of the biblical claims about creation care, see Richard Bauckham, The Biel and Ecology: Rediscovering the Community of Creation (London: Darton, Longman, and Todd, 2010), Norma Habel, ed., The Earth Story in Genesis (Sheffield, UK: Sheffield Academic, 2000).