Creation Out of Nothing is Overrated (For Tony Jones)

Tony Jones quote bombed Moltmann at me about Process theology’s doctrine of Creation. To point out how Moltmann misunderstands Whitehead or give a detailed explanation of a Process theology of nature could be a boring blog…so I figured I would just respond by telling you all exactly how overrated Creation out of Nothing is as a doctrine. Questioning the doctrine may be taboo in theology nerd circles but I think it’s time to let that taboo die. Why?

  1. 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.
  2. Creation Out of Nothing isn’t a part of the Biblical Imagination. Not only is the doctrine absent in scripture but in the quite robust doctrine of Creation in both the Hebrew and Christian scriptures you don’t even see an interest in the question itself. There is plenty of interest in the goodness of Creation, God’s on-going relationship with Creation, Creation’s role in God’s on-going mission, the Cosmic Christ’s relationship to Creation, Creation’s groaning and it’s worship of God but not an affirmation that it came from nothing. It seems odd to me to insist on a doctrinal nuance that isn’t in scripture or even asked. Sure you can hold it but if no author of scripture thought about asking, relax with the dogmatism.
  3. Early Church Fathers didn’t sweat Creation out of ‘something.’ Both the Hellenistic tradition via Platonism and Judaism assumed that God created out of some unoriginate matter. Justin Martyr, Athenagoras, and Clement of Alexandria all explicitly affirm the doctrine. In one of his apologies to Greek philosophers Justin martyr insists that Plato stole the idea from Genesis! If Creation out of Nothing was necessary to preserve Monotheism or the Biblical doctrine of Creation then someone needs to call Justin.
  4. Creation out of Nothing was a Theological Over Reaction to Gnostic Dualism. Creation out of Nothing developed as a response to Marcion’s insistence that the material world and its Creator were evil. Clearly insisting that everything came from a Good God eliminates Marcion’s dualism but it isn’t necessary to go that far. Both Plato and Genesis have no problem envisioning pre-existent matter as lacking qualities that God’s creativity comes to give shape. This idea wasn’t seen as a threat to God’s goodness at all. In fact one wonders that if the insistence of Creation out of Nothing doesn’t itself bring more problems than it solves – namely the problem of evil. If God’s creative activity isn’t a relational one all the way down then is God not in some way the author of evil?

Since the middle of the second century those theologians who came to be seen in retrospect as ‘orthodox’ unquestionably adhered to Creation out of Nothing as if it were a necessary doctrine from scripture and for the Christian faith. There are of course a bunch of theological ways around the problems created by the doctrine, like Augustine’s insistence that evil doesn’t actually exist or that 2 Maccabees 7:28 is the (inter-testimental) affirmation of the doctrine. My concern is that fear of Marcion has led the church to overrate the importance of the doctrine and continuing to do so isn’t necessary…or Biblical!

If anyone is interested in pursuing the Biblical doctrine of Creation check out Jon Levenson’s Creation and the Persistence of Evil. For the early church development of the doctrine see Gerhard May’s Creatio ex Nihilo: The Doctrine of ‘Creation out of Nothing’ in Early Christian Thought. May actually affirms the doctrine but affirms the development I sketched briefly above. A brief summary of the theological side of the argument can be found by David Ray Griffin’s article “Creation out of Nothing, Creation out of Chaos, and the Problem of Evil” in Encountering Evil. All good Homebrewed Deacons will be familiar with John Caputo’s The Weakness of God and Catherine Keller’s The Face of the Deep.

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How does the possibility that genesis is just a poem and not a factual account play into the creation out of something argument? There are many parallels between the genesis account and other creation myths in the ancient world.


Good article--"nothing" is not actually "nothing" in quantum physics and we can thank Einstein for that.

Da stand das Meer
Da stand das Meer

Hi Tripp,

Some pretty stimulating discussion about this one over at Tony Jones' blog (can't be too often you get called a fundamentalist!)... Looking back as at Jürgen Moltmann's 'God in Creation' that started all this off, a couple of points that might help put things in context:


Although I count myself a certified Moltmaniac, I have to admit that there is a tension between the 'confessional' and 'radical' dimensions in JM's thought (to use John Caputo's distinction) which leads to certain ambiguities, and this is an example.


The central reason why Moltmann wants to preserve creatio ex nihilo is that, following Barth, he sees the emphasis on the divine freedom as critical. That I think is what is behind his reaction to process thought (as he reads it, rightly or wrongly) - an allergy to the notion of a necessary rather than covenantal link between God and world.  The passage that Tony bombed at you follows a sustained argument against the analogia entis: 'there is no ontological link between the word of creation and created things' - no metaphysic of participation here. Instead Moltmann sides with the analogia relationis:'As God's WORK, creation is not essentially similar to the Creator; it is the expression of his will. But as IMAGE, men and women correspond to the Creator in their very essence, because in these created beings God corresponds to himself. It is here that the supreme analogy in creation is created. It is an ANALOGIA RELATIONIS.'

In all this Moltmann's Reformed heritage is very clear - but it should be remembered that as with Barth and the Confessing Church there are also definite political commitments in his emphasis on divine transcendence (as a guarantee that God stands in judgment over all idolatrous political systems, i.e. Nazism). So he's not just being reactionary ...


So much for Moltmann when he's doing straight 'confessional' theology. He's going for creatio ex nihilo, no arguments. HOWEVER, because he is such a consistently creative thinker, he doesn't want to leave things there (and is surprisingly charitable towards Tillich in the discussion that follows). So, putting his 'radical' hat on and drawing from the Jewish kabbalistic notion of 'zimsum', he tweaks creatio ex nihilo in a way that nobody here has discussed as far as I can see:

'In order to create a world 'outside' himself, the infinite God must have made room beforehand for a finitude in himself. It is only a withdrawal by God into himself that can free the space into which God can act creatively. The nihil for his creatio ex nihilo only comes into being because - and in as far as - the omnipotent and omnipresent God withdraws his presence and restricts his power.' (God in Creation, 86-87)


I'm not necessarily saying that Moltmann is correct here. For all I know, the universe may have arisen from fluctuations in a quantum vacuum (whether you call that a 'nihil' is a question of definitions). But for sheer theological and speculative creativity, you have to admit that Moltmann's idea is top-drawer stuff. And the notion that God's relationship to creation is characterized by SELF-limitation of divine power - a self-limitation without which there could be no world at all, represents a middle way between classical theism and process theology which still seems attractive to many of us.



Peter B.

Shannon Thomas
Shannon Thomas

Theologically, "creatio ex nihilo" is how to keep God out of debt, not beholding to any previous owner, and with clear title and deed of everything. There is nothing and nobody to which God had to first, before all else, settle all things were already settled, meaning Creation is fundamentally, unsettling. Stil, setting aside the tiny god mentioned above, isn't there something quite wondrous and profound in the newly developing state of "nothingness" being pronounced by today's cosmologists? A multiverse where empty space is far more, exponentially more, abysmally more the norm than the delightful specks of dust that matter to us?

Roger Smith
Roger Smith

Well ... the whole thing is a little straining-a-gnat, to some extent ... plus the article's first point is mistaken. The darkness and chaos in Genesis weren't there from the start; the starting point is "God created", and then the descriptor of murky chaos. In any case, all of that would only push the question further back anyway; either whatever exists had a beginning (meaning, there was no physical anything before that), or it existed from eternity. "Creation ex nihilo" is an entirely biblical perspective, but it's just that it has gotten overblown by creationists who want to force Hebrew terms (like bara') to *necessarily* mean instantaneous creation from nothing ... when, linguistically, such terms can and do mean *both* ex nihilo *and* formed/made/brought into being by other processes, from previously existing materials or resources. (For example, bara' is also used to describe the creatin of the nation of Israel, which obviously was neither instantaneous nor ex nihilo.)


I'd love to know exactly what "pre-existing" means. That is the major difference (whereas Moltmann uses "eternal"). 


"If the idea of creatio ex nihilo is excluded, or reduced to the formation of a net-yet-actualized primordial matter ‘no-thing,’ then the world process must be just as eternal and without any beginning like God himself. But if it is eternal and without any beginning like God himself, the process must itself be one of God’s natures"


This was my concern, too.


I don't understand what is to be gained from ejecting creatio ex nihilo.

Howard Pepper
Howard Pepper

Thanks for this good post, Tripp... and to Tony for starting the topic! 


As far as I'm concerned, you could do the potentially "boring" detailed explanation of a Process theology of nature.  I got some intro to Process way back in the early 90s at Claremont Sch of Theol, but have focused mostly on NT scholarship and Christian Origins since... just now returning to Process and trying to apply it to the serious "two camps" (with many sub-camps, of course) major problem that seems similar both in denominations/churches and in biblical studies and theology.  To me, Process is our best shot at developing more common ground and basis on which to cooperate in LIVING OUT varying ideas of the Gospel that are at least behaviorally similar at core.  (I'm coming from the very progessive side.)


BTW, I was at all except the first evening of the "Celebrating Reenchantment" conf. at CST in April, and loved it!  Didn't see you there... unless you've shaved your beard I'd not have missed you (we met just briefly at Big Tent in Feb, 2011.) 


I will add that I much appreciate your bringing in the early Ch. Fathers... I learned some things from that, and never seem to find time to read them directly... tried once on Eusebius and found it interesting but didn't finish even his major work (whichever vol. of his multi-vol. work).  Anyway I am MOST interested in the very earliest, like Justin M, Clement, Iraneaus (even the earlier Igantius), etc.  BTW... have you read the excellent work (I forget the author now, or exact title) on Eusebius as the first to use (or invent) relatively modern spin techniques in a serious way--as media do today, that is?  Knowing this in advance of reading Eus. directly I think made it harder... not knowing what I could take as reasonably reliable or not... not unlike the problem in the Gospels/Acts. 


Final comment: Along with the Griffin article you cited (which I've not read) I HAVE read, since the conf., his "Two Great Truths" and would add that there he gives quite a bit of detail on the development of the "ex nihilo" position and how it was so damaging.  Most of that was new to me, and I have a lot of theology study under my belt (though obviously weak on hist. of doctrine). 


Just an initial impression, need time to digest it more:"Creation Out of Nothing isn’t Biblical,"


Lots of things aren't biblical, so I wouldn't get hung up on that.  Philosophical questions brought to the text, lived experience within the textual community and so forth articulate truths are are at least implicit in the "deposit of faith". Rather than finding the source of the doctrine, I'm more interested in discussing what it means - it can't be a doctrine tied simply to the Genesis creation story because the individual soul is said to be created ex nihilo as well, and we are way younger than any creation of heaven and earth a la Genesis. 


"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."


That passage is full of poetic ambiguity, so again, I wouldn't get hung up on whether or not the doctrine is present in the text as we non-Hebrews read it. The approach you attribute to May - "affirms the doctrine but affirms the development I sketched briefly above" - seems reasonable to me, but I'm not understanding what's at stake, why there is a problem with ex nihilo.


"Both Plato and Genesis have no problem envisioning pre-existent matter as lacking qualities that God’s creativity comes to give shape. This idea wasn’t seen as a threat to God’s goodness at all. In fact one wonders that if the insistence of Creation out of Nothing doesn’t itself bring more problems than it solves – namely the problem of evil. If God’s creative activity isn’t a relational one all the way down then is God not in some way the author of evil?"


I've just been reading up on virtue ethics, which is naturalistically oriented, but also rooted in the concept of evil being a privation of good - all things are created good. Period. Vice is a deficiency of good - the absence of something that should be there in the creature's development toward flourishing. Creation ex nihilo doesn't make God the author of evil in any meaningful way. I'm not arguing for the doctrine, I just don't see the problem with it or how positing primordial matter not created by God is a solution to anything. In fact, removing God from a position such as the ground of being and simply making God the shaper of all things seems to make God into another god or a demiurge - more like a creature which doesn't seem like a step forward.


"There are of course a bunch of theological ways around the problems created by the doctrine, like Augustine’s insistence that evil doesn’t actually exist "


To be fair to Augustine, the distortions of evil and the suffering evil causes are very real, but its reality isn't a "thing", but a condition of distortion.  Augustine talks about the evil of disease - where when health and healing return, disease doesn't go somewhere else - it simply ceases to exist.


"My concern is that fear of Marcion has led the church to overrate the importance of the doctrine and continuing to do so isn’t necessary…or Biblical!"


Again, I'm not necessarily arguing for ex nihilo, but I want to understand the issues at stake and why this is important. I can see an insistence on ex nihilo in reaction to gnosticism's denigration of matter, but in placing matter's origin and nature outside of God, aren't you creating a power other than? Essentially re-creating dualism and a demiurge?


And second, how can a community overrate the importance if it was in fact a reaction to gnosticism and Marcionism? It could be that the grace of God here and now is more important than speculation as to how the world began - I can accept that. But I don't see how positions of "ex nihilo" and "shaping" can be reconciled, so there is a fundamental difference there. The community of the time thought that this fundamental difference had dire theological consequences when encountering dualists, otherwise there wouldn't be a definition of a doctrine or dogma - it'd just be one of those things which doesn't matter.  This is a long way to get around to asking you to explore this notion that "ex nihilo is an overreaction" - as opposed to... ? How would things look different without such a definition.



Thanks for all your work and keep it up. :) 



Thanks for the brief summary of the development of this doctrine.


  1. […] 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).Filed Under: theology Tagged With: homebrewed christianity, tripp fuller 17 Comments « I Sure […]

  2. […] The reason most of us have never given this any consideration is because we have grown up “knowing” that God created the heavens and the earth by simply speaking. But it turns out that this idea of creation ex nihilo, out of nothing, is a theory that was developed well after Jesus walked this earth, perhaps even as late as the middle of the second century. Some believe that creation ex nihilo is a concept that was developed to confront a particular heresy that developed a “dualistic” perspective on creation ( […]