Debating Creatio Ex Nihilo

Debating Creatio Ex Nihilo May 22, 2012

In response to my quote bomb, Tripp has bombed me back with a very good post debating the merits of the traditional doctrine of creatio ex nihilo — that is, the belief that God created the cosmos out of no pre-existent material. That God created everything that is out of nothing but Godself.

I agree that there are some problems with creatio ex nihilo, and I’ll be exploring them with my DMin cohort next month (as we canoe in the BWCAW – jealous?). For now, I encourage you to read Tripp’s post, and let me know if you agree with him that creatio ex nihilo is problematic.

Creation Out of Nothing isn’t Biblical, as in it isn’t in the Bible. If you read through the Bible you will not find the affirmation that God created the world out of nothing. It’s just not in there. In fact, even Biblical scholars who in the end want to affirm the doctrine for theological reasons will not point to the idea being present in the Bible. Just re-read Genesis 1 and ask yourself ‘where did the darkness and waters come from?’ They weren’t created but were there when God began to create.

Read the rest of Tripp’s objections: Creation Out of Nothing is Overrated (For Tony Jones).

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  • It seems that referring to Gen. 1 as proof against creatio ex nihilo is just the inversion of the fundamentalism claiming 7-day creation. If Gen. is not a scientific explanation on behalf of 7-day creation, then it is not a scientific creation describing pre-existing materials. So yes, I’m calling Tripp a fundamentalist! 🙂

    Certainly it is a theological claim that is not strictly biblical, but is a consequence of biblical claims (just like the Trinity).

    Anyway, I’m willing to discuss it either way but could we please not do the Gen. 1 thing.

    • Korey

      Agreed. Ironic to read Gen. 1 metaphorically in light of science and then insist on a literal reading to bolster a philosophical stance.

  • I’m not to much for ex nihilo as a doctrine of creation, but I don’t think it should be put aside completely. It can be appropriated and put to good use in different areas like politics, as Badiou does and Critchley also explores in his latest book “The Faith of the Faithless.” For Badiou it becomes a sort of political association ex nihilo. And of course, there is also that lovely Pete Rollins parable about the man who gets to see his neighbour naked for $400 that he already owes her husband.

  • A Medrano

    Of course it’s not biblical, these people were not scientist.

  • Creatio ex Nihilo isn’t a scientific claim so I have no idea how it is similar to a 7 day creationist. I am simply pointing out that the doctrine isn’t in the Bible and originated historically because of theologians over reacting to Marcion. That theological move can’t be equated to the Trinity…at least I hope not. Not only that but CEN sets up for the problem of evil that the church has been dodging with crappy answers ever since.

    • Sure it is a scientific claim. Ethan Siegal argues “yes” here and “no” there.

      • Scot Miller

        Of course, Siegal is playing with the ambiguity of what “nothing” means. “Nothing” for him (and for most scientists) means undetermined chaos, not the absence of being. Indeterminate chaos is “nothing,” but it is from this “nothing” that “something” (ordered) comes into being. He can’t answer the question of where the “nothing” came from in the first place.

        • If you say God is Omnipotent then I say the truth of Pantheism, whether “Creation” is distinct from “His Substance” or not, is likewise playing on your choice of definitions.

          There is another difference in view between those two posts, if you look at the beginning of the timeline in the “no” post; our Universe emerges as an episode within continuous creation, or as they call it, “inflation”. (Which I believe is Ethan’s personal guess.) Whereas in the “yes” post you are free to imagine the Big Bang as a unique event which brought “nothing” into existence.

          Whether or not Science can answer the question or not, it is certainly something Rationalists make claims about vs. theism. Eg, PZ Meyers or Lawrence Krauss.

    • ME

      If you don’t have CEN you still have a problem of evil because you still have a powerful God who can stop evil choosing not to stop it.

      • Scot Miller

        Not really. Process theologians redefine “omnipotence” as all power which is logically (or metaphysically) possible for God to possess. If actual entities have the power of self-determination to any degree, then God does not have that power. Nature shows its power in events like hurricanes and earthquakes and tornadoes and other “natural evil.” God does not “permit” this to happen in process theism; God does not have the power to stop it. Human beings also have the power of self-determination (which is what makes us morally responsible), but God cannot override the freedom of a human being. God’s power is the power of love, the power of persuasion, the power of Christ dying on the cross, not the power of coercion. (Process theism has a pretty impressive theodicy.)

        • ME

          ahhh, very interesting, thanks for the overview. I can understand God not being able to override the will of other entities with a spiritual component, like humans, but I see nothing that suggests He does not have power over all “matter”, including the flesh component of myself. What do you think?

          • Scot Miller

            In my understanding of process theism, even one’s fleshly body has its own kind of freedom. Occasionally, the body will suffer from diseases (e.g., cancer) that even God can’t control. God may suffer with us, and God may be “working with” doctors and scientists to come up with good therapies to respond to disease, but God can’t override the freedom of a body.

        • Neat, Scott, you replied to my comment before I posted it! … but I point the finger at you for playing with the definition of Omnipotent, which means to me that God guides the quarks in their orbits or vibrations or whatever it is they do. By your “process” definition, then entities with free will are not part of his substance and it seems that substance must have had its origin outside of God.

          • Scot Miller

            Correct! No creation out of nothing. Matter is eternal and uncreated. God provides the opportunities and eternal aims toward which actual entities may aspire (or not), but God doesn’t create the entities. Actual entities come into being and pass out of being, but God is the being that is exceeded only by Godself in greatness.

            (For what it’s worth, while I like process theism, I don’t know that I would call myself a process theologian or philosopher. I don’t care for thinking of God in metaphysical categories. I think metaphysical thinking is a mistake.)

  • Scot Miller

    Tripp is correct that creatio ex nihilo isn’t biblical, but a doctrine created in the second century. But it’s hard to argue that creatio ex nihilo is a “consequence” of biblical claims. Even St. Thomas Aquinas argued that reason alone (unaided by faith or revelation) tells us that either the world is eternal or the world was created ex nihilo. According to Aquinas, only those “enlightened” by faith would recognize that the world is not eternal. Unfortunately for Aquinas, the revelation doesn’t really support the “orthodox” doctrine.

    Of course it is entirely possible that matter is co-eternal with God, that God calls forth order out of (pre-existing) chaos. That is certainly the assumption in Genesis, and it’s what process theism maintains.

    Creation ex nihilo places God outside of the totality of things that exist, leading to a dichotomy between nature and the supernatural. Process theism includes God within the totality of things that exist, leading to a dialectic between nature and the supernatural. The problem for creation ex nihilo is to explain how it is possible for any entity whose reality is not in time or space (but created time and space) could possibly relate to beings whose nature is temporal and spatial. God could only be externally related to the creation (since God would be outside time and space and not subject to change; if God were affected by the world, then God would be subject to change and less than perfect). The God who creates out of nothing would be like Aristotle’s God, the unmoved mover, the one who moves everything in the universe, but is unmoved by anything in it. (God would be like that person in High School who doesn’t know or care that you exist, but with whom you are madly in love.)

    • thanks Scot for all your comments!

    • You suggest that the burden is on ex nihilo folks to articulate how it is that God is able to communicate with the created world that exists in space and time. Yet, this is indeed what creatio ex nihilo is all about–that God, as the only antecedent cause for the created world freely brings all created things into existence. Creaturely contingency in this radical way establishes God as source of life for all existent things in that for creatures to exist is for them to necessarily participate in God’s own life, which is the ground of being. Moltmann tries to get at this situation of the world within God by positing God performs a kenosis that creates an absence or nothing from which God creates, but I don’t really follow that logic. God’s creation of the world as other from God does not necessarily result in the creation of a distance as a dichotomy, but the distance of difference as the possibility of an intimacy. In my mind, the radical contingency and from nothingness of the created world provides a helpful way of understanding the distance of difference tames the desire to homogenize that is so prevalent in much of society and seeps into theology and liberal ideology today.

      Also, while I think there are mischaracterizations on both sides, I think the largest problem I have with process accounts of the doctrine of creation from nothing is their lack of attention to the positive claims creatio ex nihilo provides for God-talk. That God creates out of nothing is not just to counter claims that the worlds is co-eternal with God but is to say something about who God is and how God saves. Thus, the Christian doctrine of creation is not just concerned with Genesis 1, but is more foundationally built on John 1 with the Word as the beginning and source of all creation. That creation is from nothing does establish a radical otherness of God from the world, yes, but it also establishes a radical towardness of God wherein God creates, preserves, and brings the world to completion. This towardness is, for me, the great hope of salvation that is manifest in the Incarnation. The possibility of difference (and the most radical difference at that) communing without the dissolution of the one into the other but in cooperation as freedom.

    • Also, just thought I’d add, I’m not really against process accounts of creation, I just don’t think they do as much work soteriologically or christologically (which is kind of my biggest problem with the little of process thought I’ve read).

    • Korey

      Where can I get a copy of your book or essay that elaborates on this statement “I don’t care for thinking of God in metaphysical categories. I think metaphysical thinking is a mistake.” Or when will it be published? Consider my questions a request if such text does not yet exist.

      • Scot Miller

        Korey, maybe I should have said that I have become increasingly suspicious that any metaphysics or any theology can somehow “describe” or give an account of the way things “really are” with regard to God, humanity, nature, etc. At best they are convenient fictions (Plato may have called them “noble lies”) that help us make sense of things. I’m definitely influenced by the phenomenological tradition out of Husserl and Heidegger and Patocka and Levinas and Caputo and Kearney, who tend to think of metaphysics is not about extra-mental reality as much as it is trying to make sense of the structures of lived experience.

        I do think that process theism is infinitely superior to classical theism in terms of making sense of the relationship between God and everything else. In particular, I like the idea that God’s power is persuasive rather than coercive (or, God’s power is the power of love, not force). I like the idea that creation is an ongoing process, that God is constantly at work in the nature, luring the universe to higher states of harmony, intensity, and beauty. Theologically, I think Christology makes more sense in a process framework, as the incarnation teaches us not only that God’s power is the power of self-sacrificing love, but that God suffers with us. I also find process theodicy makes more sense than most other answers to the problem of evil. Then again, it’s probably nothing but a “noble lie” anyway.

        • Korey

          I resonate with your first paragraph. Indeed I prefer more than one mental model for sustaining the plausibility of faith so that faith, which I find vital to my sanity, remains part of my lived experience. Even if those models I’ve encountered include some features here or there that I find weak and the models themselves may be mostly delusional. So the pluses of process theology appear powerful, yet in its attempt to bolster God’s goodness I still sense that I’m getting more of a demigod. It seems God was coerced into exercising persuasive power, where as I sometimes like the idea that God chooses persuasive power. Though this increasingly problematizes evil as you suggest.

  • Jim Armstrong

    In some ways, this does seem to me to be much ado about …err …nothing. Creation by organizing something into a novel form and function is no less creation. I suggest that “something” could exist when Creation-as-we-know-it was not, and yet be quite beyond our knowing. That could lead to that something (in the divine realm) and nothing (in the realm of our time and space-constrained universe) being simultaneously true. So we might legitimately make our best claim that this was creatio ex nihilo based on what we know, but be quite wrong from the Creator’s perspective. That just points to the fruitlessness of making a claim like creatio ex nihilo. The problematic craziness in my view is that something divinely created and pronounced “good” or “very good”, is somehow subsequently literally subverted and corrupted by something as small in the overall scheme and magnitude of Creation as man. That idea would seem to take human hubris to a quite astonishing level, …especially in light of today’s understanding of the immensity of the universe. Some of this tedium actually seems to get easier when we are confronted with more recent understandings of the magnitude of Creation, and the “otherness” of the entity capable of putting it in place. It forces us to lighten our holds on some of the slightly too convenient anthropomorphisms, but it can be tough on some aspects of tradition.

  • Jim Armstrong

    Wow, Scot! Some kind of cosmic resonance at work! 🙂

  • It occurs to me that if God created out of Not-God Stuff, then solve Theodicy by claiming that Evil is a (passive, structural) property of the Stuff that hasn’t been cleaned out of the system yet. As a matter of fact that’s something like what I actually think.

  • “Nothingness” is impossible, for God fills all.

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  • LoneWolf

    I would assert that calling “darkness” a positive, in the philosophical sense of the word, thing is an error. Darkness is merely the lack of light, like cold is merely a lack of heat. It would be the nothing where the light came from.