What Does Creation from Nothing Really Mean?

| By Ted Davis on Reading the Book of Nature

What Does Creation from Nothing Really Mean?


God, the great mathematician, wields his compass to impose order on the chaotic and unformed matter from which he made the world. Although Christians have often adopted this aspect of Plato’s thought, the only biblical text depicting God explicitly in this manner is in the Apocrypha: “thou hast ordered all things in measure, and number, and weight” (Wisdom 11:21). Nevertheless, this might be the single most frequently quoted biblical text on the part of scientists since Christians began doing science in the Middle Ages. Bible moralisée de Tolède (ca. 1252-70), Primate Cathedral of St. Mary of Toledo, Spain.

The last selection ended rather abruptly, with Ted Peters identifying the “challenge” to the Christian teaching of creation from nothing that “came from two competitors to the Christian view in the early centuries of the church: dualism and pantheism.” Today’s selection examines those two challengers, starting with Plato’s dualism of God and nature, as seen in his great dialogue, Timaeus, in which a slave named Timaeus tells a creation story. Plato’s god is called δημιουργ?ς, or “Demiurge,” the same Greek word used in Hebrews 11:10 (“For he [Abraham] looked for a city which hath foundations, whose builder andmaker is God”). The Demiurge orders pre-existent, chaotic, uncreated matter using pre-existing, uncreated ideas, including certain geometrical forms. Because matter is recalcitrant (it resists his efforts), he is not wholly successful. As a result, the world is not completely intelligible, for it merely “participates” in form. This has significant consequences for Plato’s view of scientific knowledge, implying that genuine “knowledge” of physical nature is ultimately impossible, but I’ll pass over that for now. Suffice it to say that the conception of God and nature in Genesis differs fundamentally.

The Platonic Solids
In Plato’s Timaeus, the Demiurge creates three-dimensional atoms for each of the four chemical elements (earth, air, fire, and water). He uses two kinds of triangles—one equilateral and the other isosceles (combined in pairs to form squares)—to assemble the faces of four of the five regular polyhedra that are consequently known as the “Platonic solids.” The fifth solid, the dodecahedron with its twelve pentagonal faces, becomes the body of the heavens, with each face carrying one of the twelve signs of the Zodiac.

In spite of this, Timaeus is the single most important work in all of Greek philosophy, if we consider the magnitude of its influence on Christian thought down to the Renaissance. Prior to the High Middle Ages, it was the onlywork of Plato for which a large portion existed in Latin translation. Thus, whenever Augustine mentions Plato, he’s talking aboutTimaeus. Nearly all the works of Aristotle and Galen were likewise unavailable to scholars in the Latin West. Christian scholars regarded Timaeus as a Greek Genesis, ultimately inspired by the influence of Moses, from whom (it was widely believed) the Egyptians and the Greeks had obtained much of their knowledge in the first place.

About halfway through this selection, Peters explains the distinction between generation and creation, analogous to the distinction between reproducing and making. The Nicene Creed gets at the same thing, when it refers to Jesus as “begotten, not made.” Christians believe that a personal, immaterial God lies behind the impersonal, material world. Unlike the whole of creation, however, Jesus is “of one substance with the Father by whom all things were made,” to borrow again from the Creed.

Now, let’s hear what Peters has to say:

God and the Demiurge

The heart of dualism is the belief that God or the gods create the cosmos by ordering pre-existing matter—the word “cosmos” means order. For Plato, it was the demiurge which fashioned the stuff of the world into an ordered habitat. This is dualistic because it posits two or more equally fundamental or eternal principles, the world stuff as well as the divine being.

The heart of pantheism (or monism) is that everything is fundamentally identical with the divine. But, by identifying God and the world, pantheism collapses all the plurality and multiplicity of the cosmos into a singular unity, and this singularity finally denies the independent reality of the world and its history.

In apologetic reaction to dualism and pantheism the early Christian thinkers proffered the concept of creatio ex nihilo. Against the dualists, the apologists held that God is the sole source of all finite existence, of matter as well as form. There is no pre-existing matter [that is] co-eternal with and separate from the divine. If the God of salvation is truly the Lord of all, then he must also be the source of all. Theophilus of Antioch in the middle of the second century, for example, praised Plato for acknowledging that God is uncreated. But then he criticized Plato for averring that matter is coeval with God, because that would make matter equal to God. “But the power of God is manifested in this, that out of things that are not He makes whatever He pleases.” [Theophilus,Autolycus, book 2, chap. 4.]

William Blake, Elohim Creating Adam (1795/c.1805), Tate Gallery, London

Against the pantheists, in parallel fashion, the Christians held that the world is not divine. It is a creation, brought into existence by God but something separate from and over against God. The world is not equa-eternal with God, because it has an absolute beginning and is distinct from God. Irenaeus put it this way: “But the things established are distinct from Him who has established them, and what have been made [are distinct] from Him who has made them. For He is Himself uncreated, both without beginning and end, and lacking nothing. He is Himself sufficient for this very thing, existence; but the things which have been made by Him have received a beginning … He indeed who made all things can alone, together with His Word, properly be termed God and Lord; but the things which have been made cannot have this term applied to them, neither should they justly assume the appellation which belongs to the Creator.” [Against Heresies, book 3, chapter 10.]

This led the apologists to distinguish between generation and creation. “Generation,” coming from the root meaning to give birth, suggests that the begetter produces out of its essence an offspring which shares that same essence. But, in contrast, terms such as “creating” or “making” mean that the creator produces something which is other, i.e., a creature of dissimilar nature. The patristic apologists applied the term “generation” to theperichoresis within the divine life of the Trinity but not to creative activity without. Hence, John of Damascus (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_of_Damascus) could state emphatically that the creation is not derived from the essence of God, but it is rather brought into existence out of nothing. [Exposition of the Orthodox Faith, book 1, chapter 8.]

The upshot of all this is that, for the Christian, creator and created are not the same thing. And, more importantly, what is created is fully dependent upon its creator. The cosmos is not ontologically independent. One way to make this point is to draw a contrast between eternity and time: God is eternal, whereas the cosmos is temporal. The world, which is not God, has not existed for all eternity alongside of God. Thus, says Theophilus and Irenaeus, there needs to be an initial point of origin, a point at which something first appears, i.e., an absolute beginning. Following in this train, Augustine can write doxologically: “in the Beginning, which is of you, in your Wisdom, which is born of your substance, you created something, and that something out of nothing. You made heaven and earth, not out of yourself, for then they would have been equal to your only begotten, and through this equal also to you.... There is nothing beyond you from which you might make them, O God, one Trinity and triunal Unity. Therefore, you created heaven and earth out of nothing…” [Confessions, book 12, chapter 7.]

Thus, the creation is just that, a creation, which had a definite “sunrise” and could, if God were so to will, also have a final “sunset.” For Augustine, the creation of all things from nothing includes the phenomenon of time. Time is not eternal. Time comes into existence when material in motion comes into existence. Neither time nor space are containers into which we dump the course of events; rather, they themselves belong to the finitude of the created order. Time starts when space starts. The result is that creatio ex nihilo—looked at from inside the creation, our only perspective!—has come to refer to a singular beginning of time and space, as well as to the matter and form out of which all the things of the world are made.

Horace Pippin, The Holy Mountain, III (1945), Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington, DC. A veteran of World War One, the great African-American painter Horace Pippin often looked to the Bible for an alternative to the grim battlefields of France, especially to the haunting vision of the peaceable kingdom found in the eleventh chapter of Isaiah. Here, in the third version of his painting of that scene, we find “a God who redeems, who creates a free people out of slavery and who raises the dead to life,” as Ted Peters puts it, the omnipotent God who made the universe out of nothing, and who will remake it again someday. Note the cluster of crosses in the woods behind the shepherd’s crook—a faint but visible reminder of the world that has been transformed into the peaceable kingdom.

In saying this it is essential to look back and note the path we have taken: we began with the experience of a God who redeems, who creates a free people out of slavery and who raises the dead to life. On the basis of these intracosmic events, we have drawn inferences regarding God’s relation to the cosmos as a whole. The motive of the Christian theologian is not in the first instance to produce a general theory of the origin of the universe. Rather, when the question of the origin of the universe is raised the answer offered must be consistent with what we know to have been revealed by God in the event of raising Jesus from the dead on Easter. We need to keep in mind just what stake the theologian has in the discussion of cosmology.

Looking Ahead

At this point, you’re probably breathless, and perhaps you’re wondering what all this has to do with cosmology. Hang in there. Cosmology’s coming.

References and Credits

Excerpts from Ted Peters, “On Creating the Cosmos,” in Physics, Philosophy and Theology: A Common Quest for Understanding (1988), ed. Robert John Russell, William R. Stoeger, S.J., and George V. Coyne, S.J., copyright Vatican Observatory Foundation, are reproduced by kind permission of Ted Peters and Vatican Observatory Foundation. We gratefully acknowledge their cooperation in bringing this material to our readers.

Editorial Policy

Most of the editing for these excerpts involves removing the odd sentence or two, or in some cases entire paragraphs—which I indicate by putting [SNIP] or an ellipsis at the appropriate point(s). I also insert annotations where warranted [enclosed in square brackets] to provide background information, often citing information from Peters’ own footnotes when it’s important for our readers.


About the Author

Ted Davis

Ted Davis is Fellow of the History of Science for the BioLogos Foundation and Professor of the History of Science at Messiah College. A former high school science teacher, Ted studied history and philosophy of science at Indiana University, where his mentor was the late Richard S. Westfall, author of the definitive biography of Isaac Newton. With the English historian Michael Hunter, Ted edited The Works of Robert Boyle, 14 vols. (London: Pickering & Chatto, 1999-2000), but his interests include the whole 2000-year interaction of Christianity and science. Author of dozens of scholarly articles and essays, Ted is one of few historians who have written extensively about both the Scientific Revolution and modern America. He and his wife Kathy enjoy theater, music, and traveling to new places.