Musings on “Creation out of Nothing”

Deep Thoughts (Musings) about the Metaphysical Implications of “Creation out of Nothing”

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Unfortunately, in my opinion, too many Christians have given up the traditional (and I think biblical) concept that God created everything outside himself “ex nihilo”—“out of nothing.” The early church fathers rightly emphasized this doctrine to avoid metaphysical dualism and metaphysical monism. I still agree with them that creation ex nihilo is necessary—even if not explicitly taught in the Bible—to avoid those heresies.

Simply put, if God created the universe (all things outside of himself) out of some eternally existing something, then God is not ultimate reality and we have no clear reason (as Augustine and C. S. Lewis right argued) to claim that good and evil are really opposites. Dualism leads to cosmic moral chaos. (I have gone over this matter and argument in detail in my most recent book which is now also a DVD “Essentials of Christian Thought” [Zondervan].)

Also, simply put, if God created the universe out of himself, then creation is worshipful and there is no good reason not to worship trees and rocks and mountains and…ourselves!

But! Creation out of nothing seems to have some implications (beyond being beyond our finite comprehension). What follows here are some mere musings about those possible implications.

*Sidebar: The opinions expressed here are my own (or those of the guest writer); I do not speak for any other person, group or organization; nor do I imply that the opinions expressed here reflect those of any other person, group or organization unless I say so specifically. Before commenting read the entire post and the “Note to commenters” at its end.*

First, creation out of nothing seems to require believing that the possible is ontologically prior to the actual—which has been been believed by some Christian scholars in Christian history but has always been controversial. (If you want to go deeper into the history of this idea read the following article by Ingolf Dalferth: “Possibile Absolutum: The Theological Discovery of the Ontological Priority of the Possible.” (Rethinking the Medieval Legacy for Contemporary Theology edited by Anselm K. Min [University of Notre Dame Press, 2014].)

Is that a problem? Well, it depends on whom you ask. Some orthodox Christians think it is a problem because it seems to divide God’s essence from God’s existence and they are supposed to be one—in God only. In other words, it introduces into the being of God, and therefore into ultimate reality itself, becoming whereas much traditional Christian theism has rejected that in favor of being only in God (without becoming). The implications for divine immutability would seem to be tremendous.

Even more troubling, however, for some orthodox Christians, is a second implication. Creation out of nothing seems to justify what is commonly known as “German idealism” (although the Germans didn’t exactly invent it!). Put most simply and basically, that is the idea that thought is primary and takes precedence over matter. Taken to its logical conclusion it could mean that thought is all there is and that matter is a form of thought.

By “matter” here is not necessarily meant “that hard stuff that we experience without senses;” it also means all that exists—reality itself. Think about it. If God’s thought came to expression in the creation of a material universe then it seems the material universe must in some sense, ontologically, have thought as its essence.

I am not pretending here to say anything new; of course this is the pattern of metaphysical reasoning we find in much theistic idealism throughout the centuries. It has taken many, many forms. One of those, of course, is New Thought including so-called “Christian Science.” (But there are many “milder” forms of New Thought than Christian Science which denies the very existence of matter.)

But doesn’t modern physics at least point to the idea that all of reality is composed of what philosopher Alfred North Whitehead called “energy events”—rather than traditional hard substances?

If we simply define “idealism” as any ontology (across a spectrum) that elevates thought above matter…doesn’t “creation out of nothing” seem to support it in some form?

And how is it possible to conceive of matter as being composed of anything but thought if 1) we believe in God, and 2) we believe God “thought” creation into being?

If it is not taken to an extreme, as in, say, metaphysical monisms such as “absolute non-duality” (e.g., Advaita Vedanta or Christian Science), what is wrong with “German idealism” at its most basic level—simply claiming that thought is the basic “substance” of all reality?

Your responses that follow the “rules of this road” are welcome. (See below.)

*Note to commenters: This blog is not a discussion board; please respond with a question or comment only to me. If you do not share my evangelical Christian perspective (very broadly defined), feel free to ask a question for clarification, but know that this is not a space for debating incommensurate perspectives/worldviews. In any case, know that there is no guarantee that your question or comment will be posted by the moderator or answered by the writer. If you hope for your question or comment to appear here and be answered or responded to, make sure it is civil, respectful, and “on topic.” Do not comment if you have not read the entire post and do not misrepresent what it says. Keep any comment (including questions) to minimal length; do not post essays, sermons or testimonies here. Do not post links to internet sites here. This is a space for expressions of the blogger’s (or guest writers’) opinions and constructive dialogue among evangelical Christians (very broadly defined).

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