Creation ex nihilo (Out of Nothing)
The doctrine of creatio ex nihilo or creation out of nothing provides a suitable starting point for our study. Not only did it prove to be important in distinguishing the Biblical from pagan concepts of origins, but it also illustrates a crucial principle in the study of church history - the development of doctrine. Three factors are usually identified as the catalysts for the development of Christian doctrine:(1)
The Bible, it is often pointed out, is not a scientific text book, but neither is it a work of systematic theology. Rather it is the source of systematic theology which is born out of a process of harmonising the biblical evidence to form a coherent world view. Pauls letters, for example, contain theology directed to specific people and situations - task theology as it is often known.(4) The Bibles teachings are quite complex in places, as even the New Testament writers themselves admitted (2 Peter 3:16) and often required unpacking before they could formulated into a doctrine. For example, nowhere in the Gospels does Jesus actually explicitly claim to be God. However, by accepting the titles and prerogatives of deity (e.g. John 8:58; Matthew 14:33; John 9:38): Jesus made that a claim implicitly.
As we will see below this process of formulation took time. The priority assigned to the systematisation and definition of particular doctrines was often determined by external factors, particularly periods of persecution, that diverted attention away from the finer points of theological debate. This is evidenced by the rise of the Arian controversy shortly after Constantine ended State persecution of the church in 313 AD. This issue of the relationship of the members of the Godhead had been brewing for some time, but it was the new freedom that allowed it to be argued openly. It is important to realise that just because it took time to make explicit what was implicitly taught in Scripture does not make the doctrine itself unbiblical or unimportant.
The explicit formulation of an implicit biblical doctrine appears to go through three distinct stages:
The three stage process described above can be seen clearly in the development of such doctrines as the Trinity and justification. Like creation ex nihilo both of these doctrines have also been challenged as being unbiblical later additions to Christianity and continue to be challenged as such in some quarters. However it can easily be shown that centuries before the fourth century Christians lived Trinitarianly, referring to Christ as God(5) and baptising their converts in the threefold name.(6) As Alister McGrath notes:
Similarly with the doctrine of justification, which took an extremely long time before an adequate definition was arrived at.(8) When these doctrines are viewed as the products of the historical process of the definition of biblical doctrines such charges of novelty can be easily shown to be false.
It is generally agreed that the doctrine of creation ex nihilo - that God created all things out of nothing - is taught implicitly rather than explicitly in Scripture. Genesis 1:1 tells us that it was God who created the world in the beginning. The question of what the cosmos was made from is not one that this verse was intended to answer.(9) However, at least one prominent modern Old Testament scholar has argued persuasively that the verse speaks of an absolute beginning and therefore creation ex nihilo.(10)
The first clear reference to the doctrine is found in the non-canonical Jewish work 2 Maccabees:
I beg you, my child, to look at the heaven and the earth and see everything that is in them, and recognise that God did not make them out of things that existed. And in the same way the human race came into being. (2 Macc. 7:28 NRSV)
It is also found in the teachings of Essenes of Qumran. The Community Rule (1QS 3.15) reads as follows:
From the God of Knowledge comes all that is and shall be. Before ever they existed He established their whole design, and, when, as ordained for them, they came into being, it is in accord with His glorious design that they accomplish their task with change.(11)
Scholars disagree as to whether Philo of Alexandria believed in creation out of pre-existing matter or simply stating that through Gods creative act the world which had not existed previously came into being - a statement vague and woolly enough to cause no problems for either Jews or Platonists.(12) Several other pseudepigraphical and apocryphal works also make explicit references to creation out of nothing, a fact that demonstrates that the doctrine was not foreign to Jewish thinking on the subject of creation.(13)
Although the New Testament does not state creation out of nothing in so many words, as Paul Copan has pointed out, the language used has an all-embracing nature to it.(14) Although Romans 4:17(15) and Hebrews 11:3(16) strongly imply creation ex nihilo they could still be - and sometimes were - taken in a vaguer sense.(17) The fact that such clear evidence can be misinterpreted proves little, except that you can be a Christian and still have a very bad theology.
Earlier it was mentioned that external influences often formed the catalyst for the process of formulation of definition of a doctrine. In the case of the doctrine of creation ex nihilo the stimulus was provided by the interaction of Christianity with Gnosticism and Platonism. It appears that prior to this interaction in the second century the subject was given little attention.(18) The majority of Gnostics and Platonists considered matter to be evil and were forced to explain how God could be good and yet create something that was evil. The most common solution to this problem among pagan writers was to assign the physical creation to an inferior deity, called the demiurge.(19) The exception to this general rule is the Gnostic Basilides (2nd century), who made an explicit reference to creation out of nothing, but it is not certain whether he based his belief on an older tradition or formulated it himself.(20) On other points, however, Basilides doctrine of creation differed radically from that of later Christian writers.(21)
The stages in the interaction of Christianity with Gnosticism and Platonism that led to the acceptance of creation ex nihilo can be traced in the writings of the early church. Hermas, the first Christian writer to the doctrine explicit, wrote: First of all, believe, that there is one God who created and finished all things, and made all things out of nothing.(22) Later in the second century Justin Martyr, steeped as he was in Platonistic philosophy, apparently failed to recognise the contradiction involved in an omnipotent God being forced to utilise pre-existing matter in His purposes.(23) Tatians contribution - the proposition that matter was produced by God(24) - marked a significant step towards creation ex nihilo, which was finally established as part of the Rule of Faith by Irenaeus of Lyons and Theophilus of Antioch.(25) After them only Clement of Alexandria (again deeply influenced by Platonism) dared to reject creation ex nihilo. Table 2.1 will help to illustrate the historical development of the doctrine. The doctrine of creation ex nihilo was not an invention of the church of the second century as some recent writers have claimed.(26) It is a doctrine which has a firm biblical foundation. The Christian writers of the second century having formulated what they had come to recognise as a biblical doctrine, pointed to Hermas to prove that the earliest Christians had also believed it.(27)
KEY: X indicates acceptance of this view
© 1998 Robert I. Bradshaw
(1) This subject is discussed at some length by Maurice Wiles, The Making of Christian Doctrine: A Study in the Principles of Early Christian Development. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1967), 18-40.
(2) Origen, Principles, Preface 10; (ANF, Vol. 4, 241).
(3) Alister E. McGrath, The Genesis of Doctrine: A Study in the Foundation of Doctrinal Criticism. (Vancouver, British Columbia / Grand Rapids, Michigan: Regent College Publishing / Eerdmans, 1997), 61.
(4) Gordon D. Fee & Douglas Stuart, How To Read The Bible For All Its Worth: A Guide to Understanding The Bible, 2nd edn. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1993), 48.
(5)2 Clement 1.1: Brethren, it is fitting that you should think of Jesus Christ as of God,--as the Judge of the living and the dead. And it does not become us to think lightly of our salvation; for if we think little of Him, we shall also hope but to obtain little [from Him]. ANF, Vol. 10, 248).
(6) H.E.W. Turner, The Pattern of Christian Truth: A Study in the Relations between Orthodoxy and Heresy in the Early Church. (London: A.R. Mowbray & Co., Ltd, 1954), 27-28.
(7) Alister E. McGrath, Understanding the Trinity. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1988), 116-117.
(8) For a detailed discussion of the history of the doctrine of justification see: Alister E. McGrath, Iustitia Dei: History of the Christian Doctrine of Justification. The Beginnings to the Reformation. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986). On a more popular level see: Alister E. McGrath, Christian Theology: An Introduction, 2nd edn. (Oxford: Blackwell Publishers Ltd., 1997), 437-449.
(9) Claus Westermann, Genesis 1 - 11: A Continental Commentary. John J Scullion, translator. (London: SPCK, 1994), 108-109.
(10) Walther Eichrodt, In the Beginning: A Contribution to the Interpretation of the First Word of the Bible, Bernard W. Anderson, ed. Creation in the Old Testament. (London: SPCK, 1984), 72-73.
(11) Translator G. Vermes, The Dead Sea Scrolls In English, 3rd edn. (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1987), 64.
(12) Gerhard May, Creatio Ex Nihilo, trans. A.S. Worrall. (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1994), 17-18.
(13) Paul Copan, Is Creatio Ex Nihilo A Post-Biblical Invention? An Examination of Gerhard Mays Proposal, TJ, Vol. 17 ns. (1996); 84-87.
(14) Copan, 90.
(15) Leon Morris, The Epistle to the Romans. (Leicester: IVP, 1988), 209: Paul is speaking of God as creating something out of nothing by his call. This applies to the physical creation, though that does not seem to be particularly in mind here.
(16) F.F. Bruce, The Epistle to the Hebrews, NICNT, rev. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1990), 279-280: Greek speculation about the formation of the ordered world out of formless matter had influenced Jewish thinkers like Philo and the author of the book of Wisdom, the writer to the Hebrews is more biblical in his reasoning and affirms the doctrine of creatio ex nihilo, a doctrine uncongenial to Greek thought. The faith by which he accepts it is faith in the divine revelation; the first chapter of Genesis is probably uppermost in his mind, since he is about to trace seven living examples of faith from the subsequent chapters of that book.
(17) For an helpful discussion of Hebrews 11:3 see further: William L. Lane, Hebrews 9-13, WBC, Vol. 47b. (Waco: Word Books, 1991), 331-333. Also Bruce, Hebrews, 280, n. 24.
(18) May, 35-38.
(19) May, 39-41.
(20) May, 76-77.
(21) May, 80.
(22) Hermas, Shepherd, Book 1, Commandment 1 (ANF, Vol. 2, 20).
(23) Justin Martyr, 1 Apology 59 (ANF, Vol. 1, 182). May, 132-133.
(24) May, 150.
(25) May, 177-178.
(26) Notably May, but also Frances Young, Creatio Ex Nihilo: A Context For The Emergence of the Christian Doctrine of Creation, SJT, Vol. 44 (1991): 139-151;
(27) Irenaeus, Heresies 4.20.2 (ANF, Vol. 1, 488).