Creation Ex Nihilo
The doctrine of creatio ex nihilo is not just saying that there was no matter for God to work from, it is articulating how different God is from the kinds of things we find in the universe today.
I’ve been reflecting on David Fergusson’s recent book Creation the last couple of weeks. These reflections don’t aspire to be careful reviews of the book. Rather, I’m reading a chapter per week and writing something related to the topics covered in that chapter. Today’s is probably better described as a reflection “inspired by” Fergusson’s chapter (think of the difference between a movie that is based on a true story versus one that is inspired by a true story).
After an introduction to the topic and some thinking about Scripture’s creation narratives, his chapter two is titled “Creatio Ex Nihilo” or as we say in English, “creation out of nothing.” This is a heavy, metaphysically dense topic, so let’s start with a joke:
Some atheist scientists wanted to show church people that they no longer needed any supernatural component to explain things in the world. So they got an audience with the pope to demonstrate that they could form a human being out of dirt just like God supposedly did. The pope was interested enough to see their demonstration, so the scientists set up the contraption that would sort out the chemical elements from the dirt and recombine them into a human being. Just as they were scooping up some dirt to put into the hopper, a booming voice from the sky said, “Hold on a minute… get your own dirt.”
There are lots of variations of that old joke, and I’m not sure how funny it is, but it illustrates the point that any creative work we might attempt today begins with some material already. The doctrine of creatio ex nihilo says that God had no such pre-existents to work with.
Most of us have intuitions that you can’t get from nothing to something via strictly natural explanations. Lately it has been scientifically fashionable to challenge that intuition. Just last week a story got some attention which claimed “Physicists proved God didn’t create the universe”, arguing the same sort of thing that Lawrence Krauss did in his 2012 book, A Universe from Nothing. But both of these suffer from having a “nothing” that is fairly well endowed. This NYT review of Krauss has been the go-to philosophical take-down of the position that scientists have explained how to get something from nothing.
I think it is more honest and forthright to go the route that atheist cosmologist Sean Carroll did in an article he wrote for my Blackwell Companion to Science and Christianity called, “Does the Universe Need God?” Considering our desire for an ultimate account that explains why this universe came into existence he says,
The ultimate answer to “We need to understand why the universe exists / continues to exist / exhibits regularities / came to be” is essentially “No, we don’t”. . . It is always nice to be able to provide reasons why something is the case. Most scientists, however, suspect that the search for ultimate explanations eventually terminates in some final theory of the world, along with the phrase “and that’s just how it is.” (p. 193)
We Christians say there must be something eternal and uncreated to explain why the universe exists; Carroll and others say, “the universe just is.” Of course that’s getting dangerously close to investing the natural world with qualities traditionally reserved for the divine (the Great “I Am”). They say, “you have your god that is eternal and uncreated; we’re just skipping a step and saying the universe itself fills that role.” The problem is that matter and usable energy are not eternal and uncreated. Eternality and uncreatedness have to inhere in a completely different kind of being. And that is the real work that the doctrine of creatio ex nihilio attempts to do. It is not just saying that there was no matter for God to work from, it is articulating how radically different (philosophers say “ontologically different”) God is from the kinds of things we find in the universe today.
My reflection so far has been related to the doctrine of creatio ex nihilo only insofar as the natural order needed a spark to get it started. This is one version of the cosmological argument (usually called the Kalam argument), but by itself it could be used to support deism just as much as Christian theism. Classical Christian authors were more concerned with the doctrine of creatio ex nihilo as an expression of the otherness of God and creation’s continued dependence on God. Let’s see what that looks like in a familiar section of Thomas Aquinas’s Summa Theologica.
The first of Aquinas’s “Five Ways” that show the necessity of God is generally called the Argument from Motion. That may sound as though he argues that since some things are in motion, something else had to put them in motion, and ultimately there will have to be a First Mover, which is God. But that is only superficially correct about Aquinas, who is much more subtle than that. He uses the Latin word motu which can mean “motion” or “change”, and he clearly has in mind the second more comprehensive meaning, because the example he gives is a piece of wood that grows hotter because of fire. He observes that when things change, they become what they previously were not, and he argues that the only way that could happen is if there is something else which makes possible the new reality. So don’t think of his argument in a mechanistic and temporal, billiard ball way that says something had to get all this started. What Aquinas has in mind is more along the lines of understanding the motion of the billiard ball because of the existence of the game of billiards. The motion and existence of the billiard ball depends on the fact that there is a game of billiards. And then the existence of the game of billiards depends on something else, namely the people who created and play the game. And so the hierarchy of being continues with things that only have derivative being, until there is something that has Being in itself, not derived from any other source. That thing is God—the ultimate ground of all change and existence. And so all things depend on God for their existence.
So, creatio ex nihilo asserts a radical distinction between created things, which depend on God for their very existence, and God himself, who does not depend on anything else. If God had created the world out of pre-existing stuff, that dependence relationship would be murkier. In addition to starting this off, ex nihilo is clear that all created things ultimately depend on God for their continued existence.
Fergusson says that creatio ex nihilo’s clear distinction in the status of created things from the Uncreated brings with it the implication that “it belongs not to theology but to natural science to discover how the world works” (p. 20). The world is not divine, and the tools for learning about it are what we today call “science”. I think this is a really important implication of creatio ex nihilo, and one that is not often noted. It would take us off in the direction of methodological naturalism to explore it further here. The relevance to this post is this: A commitment to explaining the workings of the created order through natural means does not at all suggest that the natural world exists independently of God and God’s providence, or that God merely wound it up and let it go on its own. The doctrine of creatio ex nihilo states the opposite: created things are utterly dependent on God.
In Fergusson’s next chapter, he grapples with the doctrine of the Fall. I’ll see you then.
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