Final (Unconvincing) Reasons Some Affirm Creatio Ex Nihilo

February 28th, 2017 / 10 Comments

In two previous posts, I offered a total of six reasons some believers affirm the theory that God created our universe from absolutely nothing. I also said why I’m not convinced by those reasons. In this essay, I look at the final three reasons some give for why they accept creation from nothing.

If you’re curious about the two previous posts, you can access them here1 and here2. For each reason given, I acknowledge the strength of the reason and its weakness. This is part of a book I’m writing that offers a new theory of initial creation to replace creation from nothing.

Now to the final three reasons some theists accept creatio ex nihilo...

God Doesn’t Depend on Others

Some scholars believe creatio ex nihilo protects God’s essential independence from creation. The God who can bring something from nothing does not depend upon creatures. God existed alone before creating the universe, they say, so God doesn’t need anybody or anything else.

Whenever I hear this claim, I wonder, “Is depending upon others an inherently bad thing? And are independent individuals our paradigm of greatness? Besides, if we believe God loves in relation to others, why think God is essentially independent?”

Some theologians appeal to the Trinity as a way to talk about God relating before creating our universe. God relates within Godself. Most say God is dependent within Trinity but essentially independent from creatures. God always and necessarily relates in Godself, these theologians claim, but voluntarily and contingently relates to creatures.

The Trinity can help us to think about God’s relationality. But it doesn’t answer this question: “Is depending upon creatures a bad thing?” And “What’s the harm in thinking God always loves creatures, and love always involves dependence?”

To account for God’s relational love, I’m not satisfied by appealing to intra-Trinitarian relations alone. I see good reasons to think God necessarily relates and loves externally. God essentially relates ad extra, to use the Latin words, not just ad intra.

Some forms of independence are praiseworthy. But some forms of dependence are also praiseworthy. We need to identify how a loving God may depend on creation in some ways and not others. As I see it, depending on others is not always a bad thing, even for God.

Creation is a Gift

Some Christians think creatio ex nihilo tells us something important about God’s motive for creating. Creation is a gift, they say. If God must create, creation is required. Because God’s creating is a gift, the motive for creating must come entirely from God. True gifts are not forced.

I mostly hear scholars offer the “creation is a gift” reason for affirming creation from nothing. But some in the wider Christian community also find it attractive. Saying creation is a gift seems to support the idea that love motives God’s creating. I can why this view is appealing, because I also affirm love as God’s motive for creating.

“Creation is a gift” can mean many things, however. If it means nothing external forces God to create, I like the idea. I think God’s nature of love motivates God to create. But we don’t have to affirm creation from nothing to say love motivates God’s creating. We’ll need to examine God’s motivations more closely and what their source might be.

The Creator Differs from the Creatures

Some Christians affirm creatio ex nihilo because it identifies a way the Creator differs from creatures. We creatures always create out of something. God alone can create something from absolute nothingness, say some. Despite biblical texts and common speech to the contrary, some even claim that the word “create” means bringing something from nothing.

Theologians use “transcendence” to identify how God differs from creation. The Creator transcends creation and creatures in many ways. Conceptual problems immediately arise, however, when we say God differs in all ways from creatures. If this were true, we’d have no language to talk meaningfully about God. Numerous biblical passages – such as saying we’re created in God’s image or that we should imitate God’s love – would make no sense. We are wise to believe the Creator does not transcend creatures in all ways.

Problems also arise if we say God differs from creatures in no way. If this were true, much of the Bible would also be meaningless. God would simply be another creature and in no way transcendent. Consequently, just about every theologian – whether explicitly or implicitly – assumes there are differences and similarities between Creator and creatures. God transcends creatures in some respects but not in others.

This leads us to ask: Why insist that the ability to create something from nothing is one way God must be transcendent? There are many other ways the Creator transcends creation. For instance, God transcends creation by being omnipresent, omniscient, sovereign, perfectly loving, blameless and pure, everlasting, etc. Is adding “can create something from nothing” to the list of divine transcendence identifiers necessary?

Conclusion

These three reasons for affirming creatio ex nihilo and the six from previous essays have varying degrees of helpfulness. Some are rather weak; others have more strength. I’ve hinted at my alternative creation theory as I surveyed them. And I’ve promised richer explanations.

In future blogs, I’ll lay out my alternative theory…

Thomas Jay Oord

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Comments

George

Tom, I have read all your recent published blogs on this. But I have not read all of the responses. So, forgive me if I am repetitive.

Scripture assumes that God created all that exists–both spiritual and material, Thus, the reference in Heb 11:3 to the invisible (“By faith we understand that the worlds were prepared by the word of God, so that what is seen was made from things that are not visible.” [NRSV]) need not refer to creation from nothing. It could refer to divine creation by intermediate spiritual beings.

Nevertheless, Hebrews seems to allude to 2 Enoch 24:2: “And the LORD spoke to me: ‘Enoch |Beloved|, whatever you see and whatever things are standing still or moving about were brought to perfection by me. And I myself will explain it to you. Before anything existed at all, from the very beginning, whatever exists I created from the non-existent, and from the invisible the visible’” (translation from James H. Charlesworth, Old Testament Pseudepigrapha, vol. 1). This, would suggest that, perhaps, Hebrews does, in fact, assert creation ex nihilo.

Whether or not this is the case, your suggestion in blog 1 that the theological notion was only 1700 years old, seems to be off by at least three-hundred years. Although the dating of 2 Enoch is notoriously difficult, most authorities date it to the pre-Christian era.

Frankly, I am most perplexed by your assertion that God always creates with what God has previously created. This seems (to me) merely to push the question backward without solving anything. Ultimately, it seems to presume that God and matter are co-eternal. Logically, I cannot understand how this does not deny the claim that God created all that exists. And I do not understand how your central thesis serves your central theological agenda. I take this to be concerned with the non-coercive character of divine love.

As Ricky used to say to Lucy, “You’ve got a lot of ‘slaining to do” to see why this non-traditional claim needs to defended.


thomasjayoord

George,

Thanks for your good note and for reading my thoughts.

I agree that the Hebrews passage need not refer to creatio ex nihilo. It need not even refer to creating invisible spiritual beings, because if we’re thinking literally, there are many things that exist today that we cannot see. I cannot see the air between my eyes and this computer screen, but I believe God created those air molecules.

I’m familiar with the Enoch passage. But those Enoch commentators I’ve read say the “non-existent” reference does not literally refer to nothingness. But I’ll keep reading the commentaries. If you have more suggestions, please send them.

Of course, how one thinks of the Enoch passage affects whether one thinks the idea of creatio ex nihilo is about 1700 years old. On the historical emergence of creatio ex nihilo, I’m relying upon Gerhard May’s widely cited book on the history of the view. According to him, the view arises first among Gnostics who can’t stand the idea that a pure God would associate with evil matter. According to May, creatio ex nihilo is later adopted by influential writers like Tertullian and through them becomes the accepted position among theologians. Tertullian liked the view of divine omnipotence creatio ex nihilo provides. But many contemporary theologians think we need to reject that view of omnipotence.

On the last point, I’m appealing to an everlasting creating process, whereby God always creates out of what which God previously created, and creation contributes in some way. My view “pushes the question backward,” as you put it, in the same logical way that the question of God’s existence is pushed backward by saying God had no beginning and exists everlastingly. In other words, I’m offering a metaphysical assumption that I think better accounts for existence than the traditional one. All metaphysical assumptions have to start someplace without “pushing the question backward.”

I do believe God creates everything that exists. I don’t think matter or world predates God. And I don’t think any particular entity, creatures, or world is eternal. I can understand how this may be difficult to fathom when one first considers it. But upon further reflection, I believe these can all be affirmed without contradiction.

Perhaps an analogy might help explain my view and how it overcomes contradiction:

Suppose Jim’s nature includes being married. And suppose Jim lives for 100,000 years. Each wife that Jim marries lives on average 60 years, however, though Jim is always married to at least one woman. In this case, we could say no single woman exists throughout Jim’s life, because each is born and dies. But the string of women married to Jim is a necessary expression of Jim’s nature to be married. (In fact, if we’re impressed by multiverse theory in contemporary cosmology, we could say Jim is a polygamist who marries multiple women simultaneously, each of which lives a specific period of time.)

Analogously, I think God always relates to some entities, creatures or world. But no entity, creature or world is itself eternal. Instead, they are part of a string of creatures or creations who live and die relating to God. Of course, in my view, God’s life is everlasting. So the string of creatures with whom God relates is everlasting, while no single creature or world exists everlastingly.

As for your point about divine love, you’re precisely right that my motive for rethinking the tradition theory of initial creation comes from wanting a coherent view of love. There many reasons I think creatio ex nihilo undermines a coherent view. Some reasons have to do with the power God must have to create something from nothing but then failing to use such power to stop evil now. Some have to do with God’s nature of love for creation, which cannot be essential to God if creatio ex nihilo is true. Some have to do with the loving motives and goals God has for creating. Some have to do with imitatio dei. Some have to do with the intrinsic value of creation. Etc.

So… I’ll do my best to ‘slain myself! : )

Warm regards,

Tom


BroKen Berggren

“There many reasons I think creatio ex nihilo undermines a coherent view. Some reasons have to do with the power God must have to create something from nothing but then failing to use such power to stop evil now. ”

I really think you are trying too hard to figure this out. Really, the Problem of Evil is a mystery, a paradox kinda like the Trinity or freewill and the sovereignty of God. Yes, God is perfectly loving. Yes, God is all-powerful. You’ve gotta hold them both together even though they don’t fit inside our puny little heads. It only seems incoherent to us. I’m am pretty sure God has it figured out. At least that’s what I get from Job.


thomasjayoord

Have you had a chance to read my book, The Uncontrolling Love of God? In it, I offer a solution to the problem of evil rather than appealing to mystery.


Ken Berggren

No, I haven’t read it, but I’m as skeptical that it is a “solution” as I would be of a “solution” to the Trinity. That is to say I suspect your solution to the Problem of Evil will be unconvincing. 🙂

Your discussion of creation ex nihilo strikes me as strange. I can’t see the point. You seem to agree that ULTIMATELY creation is not eternal (that’s what created means) so it must have come from nothing. I don’t see how an infinite series of creations helps solve any problems. But it does strike me as sort of Neo-platonic.

Also, I didn’t see anywhere in your discussion a treatment of Romans 4:17 “…who calls into existence that which does not exist.” That seems to give a pretty convincing reason to accept creation ex nihilo.


Brandon

First, a thank you: I have read your book and found it intriguing. Just this morning, I counseled with a 22 year-old, newly-married young woman about to graduate college. She lost her best friend the third day of this semester in a car accident. This semester has been a real struggle and she came for spiritual direction to address her debilitating anger at God and deep grief. Your explanations helped me help her see that God is as angry about death as she is and that God is unable to have caused or prevented her friend’s death. That both comforted and rattled her — as I am sure you have experienced multiple times in helping others in similar grief.

Second, a question. It seems to me your responses to creatio ex nihilo have two consistent features: (1) a bit of hedging on the common meaning of the word “create” and (2) a metaphysical assumption of the co-eternal existence of matter and God. The first is not terribly bothersome to me, but the second raises a question.

If my second observation is correct, I surmise that the essential difference is the inherent-ness of life. Would you agree generally with these statements:
1. God, in accord with God’s nature as love and the creative power inherent in love, combines inert material in ways that are capable of receiving and temporarily sustaining life.
2. God’s creating/creative efforts, as expressions of God’s essential love, are always ‘toward life’; that is, God’s influence on inert matter is intended to continually to infuse(?) combinations of inert matter with God’s own life? and that
3. ‘Death’ is the natural state of all inert material apart from being ‘under the influence’ of God’s love.

I appreciate your ability to make me think new thoughts about old beliefs.


thomasjayoord

Thanks for the response, Ken. There are several reasons I think we should deny creation from nothing. I haven’t yet published online all of those reasons.

As for Romans, the text doesn’t explicitly mention creatio ex nihilo. And I know of no biblical scholar who claims so. The context of the passage is calling into existence the people of Israel, which sounds much more like organizing people who already exist than bringing something from nothing.

Thanks for the conversation.


thomasjayoord

Thanks for your good note, Brandon. I’m sorry to hear about the car accident. And I’m grateful my work could prove helpful as you dealt with it.

As for your three statements, I generally like them! The word “life” may be too strong for all that I think God creates, because I think God creates inanimate (or what you call “inert” matter).

Your last statement is the only of the three that gives me pause. I don’t want to say God could prevent death unilaterally. And I don’t want to say anything exists without divine influence/love. So to say death is natural apart from God doesn’t quite match what I’m thinking.

I appreciate your good thoughts!


Brandon

Thanks for your reply. I believe I understand your caveats and agree with them. Let me take another run at my third statement and ask your take again.

Begin with the assumption that God and matter are co-eternal. God by nature is alive, sentient, purposeful; matter in its essence is inert, inanimate, lifeless. God, as love itself, is always at work to fashion inert matter into increasingly complex combinations that run the gamut from inanimate compositions without self-will to animate compositions, some with self-will.

Death, then, it would seem, is that state experienced by animate creations (“creatures”) that are, for whatever reasons, unresponsive to God’s life-giving love.

Whether I’m in the ball park with your thoughts or not, are you willing to share your thoughts on the origin, meaning, and final ‘status’ of death?


thomasjayoord

Thanks, Brandon. I hadn’t thought about the possibility you raise. It’s got some potential. Let me think about it some more!


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