As a scientist, I continue to be awestruck by the wonder of our cosmos. Yet what are we to make of it? Did it just “happen?” Do we see it only as merely given, a brute fact and nothing more? Or are we warranted to see it as a gift with a created intelligibility that opens us to a Giver who bestows a gift of love? With an eye to the latter, this short essay examines the classical Christian understanding of creation ex nihilo (“from nothing”).
The idea of “creation” is inexorably bound up with what we conceive “God” to be: creation makes a statement about the relation between God and the world, and thus requires we have some conception of what we mean by each. In the popular mind, the idea of creation may conjure up images of "creationism," to be contrasted with “science” as an explanation of the world. At great risk of oversimplification, let me suggest that such popular views, whether theistic or atheistic, see “God” acting like some “being” in the world—even if a “supreme” one—to “tinker” in it in ways that compete with scientific explanations of how various forces act upon matter and energy to bring about the world. Many argue that science has rendered such a “tinkering God” implausible. But this implausible “tinkering God” is actually quite far removed from how God and creation ex nihilo are conceived by Christian theology, centered on seeing Jesus Christ as God-with-us, the Word-made-flesh.
I teach a basic Anglicanism class at my church, and I like to use the following thought from a sermon Bishop Geoffrey Rowell gave when he was Chaplain of Keble College, Oxford :
Of the churches of the Reformation, the Church of England alone gave great prominence to the doctrine of creation. Its greatest theologian, Richard Hooker, whose work Keble edited, wrote that ‘all things are partakers of God, they are his offspring, his influence is in them.’ The world is important, matter is important; they are in God’s creation, and to be seen and known as such. The world is sacramental, pointing beyond itself to God.
The Elizabethan era theologian Richard Hooker (1554-1600) was rooted in a more ancient tradition where the world had not yet been “atomized” into individual parts to be analyzed in isolation from one another. This older viewpoint, familiar to Hooker through a long Christian tradition going back through Thomas Aquinas and Augustine of Hippo, was still capable of seeing the world as a whole, with all the parts ordered toward a unity. C. S. Lewis expressed similar views in his writings. The material things in the world are not “mere matter” but are good gifts that are ordered to their ends by their Giver.
The doctrine of creation ex nihilo tells us that the very being and existence of everything in the world is strictly from nothing. That is, God did not take some pre-existent material and form it into something. Rather God’s free and non-necessary act of love grants the gift of being to everything in the cosmos. This act of the granting of being is not just a past event but is the complete and continual causing of the being of everything that exists. Thus, on this account, God is creating the universe ex nihilo right now just as much as "in the beginning." God is involved with the world at every moment. Every hair on our head is numbered (Matt. 10:30; Luke 12:7). As Thomas Aquinas puts it: “in all things God Himself is properly the cause of universal being which is innermost in all things; it follows that in all things God works intimately.” [Summa Theologica I.105.5] This is why Augustine could say that God was more interior to him than he was to himself [Confessions III.6.11].
On this view, "nature" and "God" are not opposed to one another, but each natural thing is free to act according to its own appropriate created mode of being. Aquinas tells us, “God works in things in such a manner that things have their proper operation.” [Summa Theologica I.105.5]. Thus, the matter and energy of the universe act in “secondary” ways that can be studied by ordinary science, while God is the primary cause of everything. There is no competition between primary and secondary modes of causation, and thus no necessary or inherent conflict between “scientific” and “theological” modes of seeing what is going on in the world. Since creation ex nihilo is not about how the world develops in time through its contingent physical processes, the idea of creation ex nihilo does not compete with scientific explanation. The doctrine does conflict, however, with reductive metaphysical concepts that insist that “God” or “science” provide alternative explanations of the world that are mutually exclusive.
Aquinas provides an instructive example. In the same section where he tells us that “in all things God works intimately,” he goes on to say “For this reason in Holy Scripture the operations of nature are attributed to God as operating in nature, according to Job 10:11: ‘Thou hast clothed me with skin and flesh: Thou hast put me together with bones and sinews.’” Job can correctly be said both to be made by God and to be made by natural biochemical processes through their given and appropriate operations in the world. God so understood is not the distant God of Deism who winds up the universe and lets it go on its own. Job’s existence is a gift of God’s faithful love granting and sustaining the order of the world; Job’s development through natural processes reflect God’s self-emptying love by which the things in the world are permitted the freedom and autonomy to be what they are, precisely as created things in relation to God.
We see that creation ex nihilo implies that God is intimately present to and immanent in the created order while simultaneously infinitely transcendent of it. This is analogous to the relation of the human and divine in Christ as expressed by the Council of Chalcedon in 451 AD. As discussed in one of my previous BioLogos posts, the logic of the Word-made-flesh in Christ provides the lens through which we should see the relation between God and the world. As Saint Paul says, “He is before all things, and in him all things hold together.”(Col 1:17). Creation ex nihilo in the light of Christ opens us to see creation as a gift of love, a donum, whereas without this sense science can only proceed by taking the world simply as something given, a datum.
Thus, creation ex nihilo tells us what the world is, not about the processes of the cosmos. It gives us the spectacles through which we can see what is going on in the world, why science is possible in the first place and why our lives are significant and meaningful. It is a matter of vision, theoria.
It seems to me, from the standpoint of contemporary science, that what the sciences have actually learned about the world makes the most sense if seen through a holistic lens. Science helps us see that our cosmos of matter and energy is an ordered and fine-tuned whole that supports human beings who can comprehend that whole and participate in it, including learning about it through scientific exploration. To me our remarkable world looks more like a donum than a datum. The world becomes an icon, pointing beyond itself to God. That is the way great minds like Thomas Aquinas, Richard Hooker and C. S. Lewis saw it. Such a vision points towards wonder and worship where head and heart are integrated to appreciate the gift that the world is. This way of seeing does not devalue science but enhances the scope and depth of its insights.
Finally, as I reflected upon these themes, a short poem came to me. Sometimes poetry can capture something far better than vast volumes of prose. Enjoy.