(Unconvincing) Reasons Some Affirm Creatio Ex Nihilo

January 19th, 2017 / 9 Comments

There are good and bad reasons people affirm the idea that God created the universe from nothing. Some have merit. But to me, none are finally convincing.

In this essay, I’ll list three such reasons. I plan to address each in detail in my forthcoming book. And I’ll post other reasons in future blogs.

What I Was Taught

I recently conducted a social media poll asking questions about creation from nothing. I asked why people believe God created the universe from absolutely nothing. I received hundreds of responses, and I’m using some of them for this book. The most common response to my question was this: “That’s what I was taught.”

Those giving this response sometimes added that they hadn’t thought much about creation from nothing since learning of it. They simply accepted creatio ex nihilo without thinking much about the theory’s strengths and weaknesses. I suspect many Christians fail to see why believing the theory even matters, except insofar as it affirms God as Creator.

The good news is that this response to my question indicates that some of us remember what we learned in Sunday school or catechism! (I’m sure our teachers will be surprised.) The curricula of several Christian groups teach creation from noting. Roman Catholic and Episcopal catechisms mention creatio ex nihilo, so does the Westminster Confession. Curricula from other Christian groups may not explicitly promote the theory, but many of their teachers likely taught it. Whatever the reason, what we were taught continues to function as the reason many accept creation from nothing.

Of course, we’ve all encountered ideas long ago we now think inaccurate or implausible. We all must learn to sift the wheat from the chaff. Wise ones know education never stops. The question we need to ask is whether we should continue to affirm the creation from nothing theory today.

I will argue there is a better way to think about God’s initial creation of the universe. But I also retain what I think helpful in the traditional theory. At the least, I hope those who continue to affirm creation from nothing after reading my book will have better reasons for doing so than “that’s what I was taught.”

 

The Bible Says So

Many Christians read the first verse of the Bible and think it means God created the universe from absolutely nothing. The verse actually says this: “In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth…” (1:1). Notice that it doesn’t explicitly say God created from nothing.

The Genesis 1:2 says a “wind” or “spirit” of God hovered over something when creating in the beginning. “The earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters,” says the second verse. Other translations of the Bible use different words. But none says God created from absolute nothingness.

A growing number of biblical scholars – from my count, the majority – don’t think the first verses of the Bible explicitly say God created the universe from nothing. Most don’t think other verses in the Bible explicitly make this claim. The scholars I’m referring to include conservative and liberal, Christian and Jewish.

Because I deeply appreciate God’s revelation in the Bible, I’ll explore in some detail what it says about God creating. I suspect many will be surprised by the diverse views found in Scripture. Biblical writers say God creates from something, and I’ll build upon that idea for my alternative theory.

 

Many Theologians Affirm Creation from Nothing

Christians who study the creation from nothing theory find that many Christian theologians in the last 1,700 years affirm it. Creatio ex nihilo is not explicitly stated in the major Christian creeds. And many Christian denominations don’t mention it in their articles of faith. But some of the smartest theologians in history accept the idea that God created the universe from absolutely nothing.

A closer look at the reasons these theologians affirm creation from nothing reveals significant diversity. Some (wrongly) thought the Bible requires this view. Others followed the logic of their philosophical and metaphysical commitments. Some argued from psychological assumptions. Others thought science required creation from nothing. I suspect many in the past and present affirm creatio ex nihilo because they don’t know of a better alternative.

There are understandable reasons to affirm creation from nothing. Theologians from yesteryear were not idiots. But they were also not all-knowing. We don’t share all of their opinions or perspectives today on reality. My alternative creation theory will retain helpful aspects of the traditional view while rejecting what I think are unhelpful. We have good reasons to seek an alternative to creatio ex nihilo.

In a few follow-up blogs, I’ll offer more of the (unconvincing) reasons some Christians affirm the creation from nothing theory.

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Comments

James Bullard

Tom, I suspect some hold to this idea because they believe that only God is eternal. The idea that there was some co-existing matter/forces with God is a challenge to that belief that God is unique in eternal existence.


Mark Hogan

Just leaving this message for the public:

You quoted a particular version that states, “In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth.” I realize this is the NRSV translation, but the when is an insertion not necessitated by the Hebrew text. The ESV, NASB, and KJV all make that clear—it’s a translation decision.

Furthermore, Genesis 1:1 would in fact necessitate ex nihilo creation if Proverbs 8:22ff. is taken as illuminating the Genesis account (which by all means it seems to be doing). Quoting from Meredith Kline, “Proverbs 8:22, 23 interprets this as a time before the developments recounted in vv. 2ff., not as their earliest stage, nor yet the entire creation week.”[1] If you believe that God has a heavenly habitation that he has created (and from other Scriptures I would believe that to be the case), then the distinguishing factor here is that the “heaven” of verse 1 is distinguished from the heavenly firmament of “waters” spoken of later in the same account. This statement in Genesis 1:1 is a reference to the earth being created as a “formless void” and the heavenly places where God sits as king over the world.

Furthermore, it is not simply from Genesis 1:1-2 and Proverbs 8:22ff. that the doctrine of ex nihilo creation is derived. There are a string of texts that are fundamental to the idea. Foundational is Christ’s presence as the creative Word through which all things came into existence. John 1:3: “All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made.” The author stresses the all encompassing nature of the Word’s actions in creation twice. Notice the language—“all things” and “was not any thing made that was made.” Stating it a different way, anything that has existence came into existence through the Word.

This is not simply a Johannine conclusion either. The apostle Paul writes virtually the same truth in Colossians 1: 16-17: “For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him. And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together.” There is a firm creator/creature distinction here.

Not only is Christ before (Gk, pro) all things, which according to Friberg’s Analytic Greek Concordance is temporal in its force, but don’t forget that verse 16 stated that all things were created, whether invisible or visible, by him. It’s not easy (nigh impossible) to get away from the conclusion that God created ex nihilo.

You may also want to make sure to cover Revelation 4:11 in your book: “Worthy are you, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honor and power, for you created all things, and by your will they existed and were created.”

All things were created by the Lord and God, and it was through his will that this took place. “All things” would be considered all of the material word, as well as the spiritual (Cf. Col 1:16-17).

Finally, Hebrews 11:3 states, “By faith we understand that the universe was created by the word of God, so that what is seen was not made out of things that are visible.”

What is seen, that is, the material world, was not made out of things that are visible (which, unless I’m mistaking, is precisely what you are advocating), but rather by God speaking it into existence.

The word for “created” in Greek, especially when paired with the second half of the statement, would seem has the idea of ex nihilo creation attached to it—not to mention references back to God speaking the things that come to pass in Genesis 1.

Saying that God fashioned the world out of an existing mass that he did not word into existence doesn’t relieve the problem of him speaking “Let there be light” and then the fact that light then existed. The problem goes beyond mere creation of the earth to the heavenly rulers. Psalm 33:6, “By the word of the LORD the heavens were made, and by the breath of his mouth all their host.”

Collectively, all of the texts I have presented give a good case for ex nihilo creation, at least its rational basis from Scripture. It’s a defensible view. And it is not the bias of Greek philosophy or some necessity of an unmoved mover or first cause. God

Mark H


thomasjayoord

I suspect you’re correct, James. I’ll be making a distinction between God being the only eternal being and an everlasting chain of creatures God creates. No single creature, world, or universe is eternal. But God everlastingly creates out of that which God previously created.


More (Unconvincing) Reasons Some Accept Creatio Ex Nihilo · For The Love of Wisdom and The Wisdom of Love · Thomas Jay Oord

[…] a previous post, I listed three reasons some Christians think God created our universe from nothing. I was […]


Donna Ward

I find this concept of God everlastingly creating out of that which God previously created totally fascinating in that it is an idea I have only been recently exposed to. It fits with scientific knowledge that we likely are not the first universe ever created and our own universe is expanding and may itself have an end someday, but God has no beginning and no end. For God it would seem, to exist is to create because God is self-emptying, others-empowering love. If there is an imaginable “first time” God ever created, it is more likely God created what is “other” from what is Himself (life) than God created from nothing. One can hold this idea and still affirm all the scriptures listed above.


thomasjayoord

I’m glad you like it, Donna. And I think you’re right that it coheres with scripture far better than what some might first think.


Samuel Bess

How fascinating that we presume to speak of knowing God, thereby, whether in argument from silence, or from other biblical text that tends to support the original hypothesis, we continue to reply upon others ( credentialed theologians in this case) none citing special revelation, and for certain the Higher Critical Method, for authority. There still remains His special revelation of truth to each whom he chooses, regardless of their statue in life being planted in history as He has willed.
Now some would say that He is still creating, or rather restoring His fallen creation in this present time. So, why is it so
necessary to pin Him down as to what he permitted to be written or not? What is it about our personal egos that we must
hold Him accountable for an accurate accounting of His actions but not our own? Are we looking for ” alternate facts”
to fill in for our lack of trust in His word, or faith in what he has done, or belief in his power? Letting God be God admits that we do not have to understand every jot and title not recorded, nor every schwa not seen in a source document. Can we trust Him when He has not given us the material we want to know? If not, there-in lies a bigger problem.


Doug Jenkins

Tom,

I would humbly have to say I would tend toward Mark H’s comments in general. I find the theory of using previous creation events and matter merely a moving of the goalposts, for to escape the uniqueness of eternal existence to the Godhead, we must have a point where nothing but the Godhead is extant. In other words, whatever was the first creation of God’s process, it necessarily came from nothing else created; nothing previously extant but the mind and power of God.

This said, the question of which came first (cluck, cluck), is a valid question, but ultimately we must find a critical point of nothing but God.

Doug


thomasjayoord

Thanks for chiming in, Doug. We apparently don’t agree on this issue. I hope you will remain open to my further arguments on this issue, as I post them as blogs and eventually in book form.

Blessings,

Tom


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