Thursday, January 13, 2011

Creation Ex Nihilo In Early Christian Thought

Our position is that creation ex nihilo is a fundamental insight into the structure of reality and that it is essentially unique to Israelite religion.  This insight stands as opposed to the conception of origins in traditional thought (Eliade's "archaic ontology"), which portrayed the origins as a shaping of preexisting matter by a god or gods. This insight did not develop from Israel's roots in archaic ontology until relatively late in the pre-Christian history of Israelite thought—shortly before the time of Jesus. Further, we will contend that creation ex nihilo became absolutely fundamental to Christian thought from its earliest times.

In reviewing the New Testament evidence, we pointed out that these early writers were primarily concerned with the person of Jesus and the significance of his life and message. Nevertheless, we concluded that the Christian view of God's basic identity--from Apostolic times--focused on God as Creator and that this view had turned decisively toward an explicit doctrine of creation ex nihilo. We will now survey the evidence from the early Christian writers of the first three centuries, in support of our contention that the idea of creation ex nihilo had a fundamental, formative influence on the early development of Christian thought, setting it on a course which it has followed ever since.

Jewish Thought

Before proceeding to these developments it will be well to briefly mention two influential Jewish thinkers, Rabbi Gamaliel and Philo of Alexandria, who lived and taught during the early years of the Christian era, during the lifetime of Jesus. Both these thinkers were well known to early Christians—Paul claims, with evident pride, to have studied under Gamaliel—and they are known to have been influential among Christians as well as among Jews.

Paul Copan, responding to the claim that Jewish thinkers never developed a concept of creation ex nihilo cites the example of Gamaliel. Gamaliel the elder was a prominent Jerusalem Pharisee who died c. 50 AD. Gamaliel is mentioned several times in the Acts of the Apostles, always in a favorable light:

The noted first-century rabbi, Gamaliel, seems to have reflected this concept of creation in his thinking (although May calls this an "isolated" reference [p. 23]). A philosopher challenged him, "Your God was indeed a great artist, but he had good materials [unformed space/void, darkness, water, wind, and the deep] to help him." Gamaliel, responded, "All of them are explicitly described as having been created by him [and not as preexistent]."

The case of Philo (20 BC – 50 AD), who was heavily influenced by the Middle Platonic thought then current is, in comparison, ambiguous. Philo is often considered to have essentially derived his account of “creation” from Plato's Timaeus, and there is support for that view in Philo's On Creation. There, Philo compares the Creator to an architect, working from a plan, and speaks of the amorphous “substance” which God used to make his plan perceptible. It is reasonable to conclude from his words that, for Philo, this “substance” was co-eternal with God and was brought, not ex nihilo, but from a state of indetermination to a state of order:

... if any one were desirous to investigate the cause on account of which this universe was created, I think that he would come to no erroneous conclusion if he were to say as one of the ancients did say: "That the Father and Creator was good; on which account he did not grudge the substance a share of his own excellent nature, since it had nothing good of itself, but was able to become everything." (22) For the substance was of itself destitute of arrangement, of quality, of animation, of distinctive character, and full of all disorder and confusion; and it received a change and transformation to what is opposite to this condition, and most excellent, being invested with order, quality, animation, resemblance, identity, arrangement, harmony, and everything which belongs to the more excellent idea.

This would certainly appear at first glance to be an obviously Platonic account of creation. However, Copan cites Philo's statement in On Dreams (I provide two alternate translations, since I don't have access to the Greek):

"God, the begetter of all things, not only brought them into sight, but even made things which previously had no existence, being not merely an artificer but the Creator Himself." (On Dreams 1.76)
“And besides all this, as the sun, when he arises, discovers hidden things, so also does God, who created all things, not only bring them all to light, but he has even created what before had no existence, not being only their maker, but also their founder.”

as evidence that--when specifically addressing the issue of creation--Philo was able to distinguish between true creation (ex nihilo) and “making,” and that Philo's views on this matter were not as decidedly Platonic as some believe. Moreover, Copan cites the study by an historian of ancient philosophy, R. Sorabji, Time Creation and the Continuum (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1983) 20-39, and notes that “Sorabji concludes on the basis of Philo's de Providentia 1 and 2 that Philo implies that the universe - including its matter - had a beginning; he admits, however, that Philo in a few minor passages is not always consistent (p. 208).” It would appear that Sorabji had this passage in mind:

But concerning the quantity of the essence, if indeed it really has any existence, we must also speak. God took care at the creation of the world that there should be an ample and most sufficient supply of matter, so exact that nothing might be wanting and nothing superfluous.

Therefore, at the very least, it has to be said that these ideas regarding creation (did God “create” from pre-existing matter or did God create ex nihilo) were in general currency at the time of Jesus and the NT writers—not to mention somewhat later early Christian writers—and that their knowledge of these issues should be presumed rather than doubted. Anytime a Christian writer uses the term “creation” we cannot assume that his meaning is simply that of current Greek thought nor of earlier Israelite thought. Moreover, the difference in vocabulary between thinkers who were writing under the influence of Greek philosophy as compared to those who clearly taught a form of creation ex nihilo is manifest and should guide us in considering the intent of the authors.

Platonic Influence on Christian Writers

The example of Philo shows that, in assessing the early Christian thinkers, we will have to bear constantly in mind the issue of Platonic influence. Copan notes that Middle Platonism had taken on much of the character of a religion, so that it was natural for Christians to confuse Platonic references to God making the world with Christian teaching:

In tracking the development of the doctrine of creation out of nothing, Middle Platonism, which flourished from the latter half of the first century BC to the first half of the third century AD, figures significantly in our discussion. In Middle Platonism the central metaphysical theme of Plato, the doctrine of Ideas, came to be replaced by God. Even though God was the Ground of all Being, in Platonic influenced thought the eternity of matter was generally accepted. May argues that the Christian doctrine of creation was came to its full expression in the context of controversy with Middle Platonism, when "God" had come to replace the "Ideas" or "the Good" of Plato's original writings. Plato's Demiurge, "the Maker and Father of All" in his Timaeus, came to be equated by many Christian thinkers with the supreme God (p. 4).

It also became common for early Christian thinkers to read their Christianity back into Plato, even claiming that Plato had “borrowed” from Moses! May is unquestionably correct that some Christian thinkers regarded the Platonic Demiurge as equivalent to the Christian God. The question, of course, is whether they read Christian ideas into Plato or Platonic ideas into Christianity, and that isn't always an easy question to answer. The fact is, the concept of creation ex nihilo is a difficult one for the human mind to come to grips with—certainly a difficult concept to express clearly. These early Christian writers often lacked the tools to address the issue in all its complexity, and it would be foolish to expect the same degree of clarity that we have come to expect after nearly two millenia of debate on the subject. Nevertheless, we have already seen that the New Testament texts unquestionably support the view that creation ex nihilo in substance if not in explicit terms was supported by important authors, including Paul and John.  We will now see that there was a steady development in the direction of an explicit doctrine of creation ex nihilo from late Israelite thought through the first several centuries of Christianity.

The Early Non-New Testament Texts

The Didache, an early compilation of Christian teaching written in the mid to late first century which focuses primarily on moral and liturgical practice, contains the text of a portion of an early Christian liturgy. The Eucharist Prayer contains this statement:

You almighty Master, created all things for your name's sake (Didache 10.3)

While this is not an explicit claim that God created the universe ex nihilo, it nevertheless continues the theme of the NT writings which emphasizes that creating is central to God's identity.

Far more explicit is the Shepherd of Hermas, a “vision” that was written no later than the middle of the second century, which twice repeats that God “created,” “brought into existence,” out of nothing (or, “out of what doesn't exist”) all the things that are, or exist:

God who dwells in the heavens and created out of nothing [ek tou me ontos] the things that are [ta onta]... (Shepherd of Hermas 1.6)
First of all, believe that God is one, who created [ktisas] all things and set them in order, and brought [poiesas] all things [ta panta] into existence [eis einai] out of what did not exist [ek tou me ontos], and who contains all things but is himself alone uncontained.(Shepherd of Hermas 26.1)

The careful, explicit language is notable. We find the contrast between creating and “setting in order,” for example, and the use of the infinitive einai imparts a more active sense of actual, active existing than does the participle. These statements must be considered about as close to a formal statement of creation ex nihilo as there can be, without the use of those precise words. Just as important, there is no indication that these statements are novel or a departure from earlier teaching that would require explanation for the reader, much less persuasion. It is no surprise that several later writers cite these passages in support of their own position in favor of creation ex nihilo.

The Greek Apologists

In the early to mid second century there were a number of Christian thinkers who embraced the Christian faith after having had exposure to formal philosophical education before their conversions. These thinkers attempted to engage in dialogue with pagan thought and to justify Christian teaching in terms that could be understood readily by educated non-Christians. The teaching of these early Christian thinkers is somewhat ambiguous with regard to creation ex nihilo. On the one hand, they are clearly ardent Christians who intend to provide a faithful account of Christian beliefs, yet they are also clearly influenced by their philosophical (Platonic) education and by a disposition to believe that Platonism has much in common with Christian faith.

The first of these thinkers is Aristides of Athens, who died c. 133-134. Based on the testimony of Eusebius and Jerome, as well as the flavor of the text, it is generally believed that Aristides' Apology dates to the reign of the Emperor Hadrian, probably c. 124-25.

A major emphasis for Aristides is the total otherness of God—like Paul, Aristides maintains that there is no similarity of God to “things that are created.” God is in no way dependent on created things, but created things are in a state of constant dependence on God. Moreover, Aristides states regarding the Jews that “they know and trust in God, the Creator of heaven and of earth, in whom and from whom are all things ...” This idea of being “in ... and from” appears to contain the idea of existential dependence.

Aristides also engages in a lengthy critique of the Greek gods, drawing upon standard critiques of anthropomorphism. His critique extends to the pre-Socratic thinkers, including the thought of early pre-Platonic thinkers such as Thales and Heraclitus. In this connection he insists that physical phenomena (such as Thales' water and Heraclitus' fire) are not only not divine, but are created by God. Interestingly, while Aristides does not raise the issue of the creation of matter, neither does he make any mention of Plato nor of any concept of a maker of the universe, such as the Demiurge of Plato's Timaeus, in Greek thought.

Justin Martyr (103–165), on the other hand, who considered himself to have been a Platonist before his conversion, talks at length about Plato and maintains that Plato's ideas on the origins of the cosmos were “borrowed” from Moses. Justin is quite explicit in espousing Plato's views:

And that you may learn that it was from our teachers— we mean the account given through the prophets— that Plato borrowed his statement that God, having altered matter which was shapeless, made the world, hear the very words spoken through Moses, who, as above shown, was the first prophet, and of greater antiquity than the Greek writers; and through whom the Spirit of prophecy, signifying how and from what materials God at first formed the world, spoke thus: In the beginning God made the heaven and the earth. And the earth was invisible and unfurnished, and darkness was upon the face of the deep; and the Spirit of God moved over the waters. And God said, Let there be light; and it was so. So that both Plato and they who agree with him, and we ourselves, have learned, and you also can be convinced, that by the word of God the whole world was made out of the substance spoken of before by Moses. And that which the poets call Erebus, we know was spoken of formerly by Moses. (The First Apology, 59)

What jumps out from this passage is just how different it is from the NT texts and other early Christian texts we've looked at. It is remarkably similar in general to Philo's presentation, and one is left to wonder whether Justin actually understood the issues involved. Moreover, two of Justin's students, Tatian and Theophilus, were early and very explicit supporters of the idea of creatio ex nihilo—a fact which must increase doubt as to the exact nature of Justin's position and the strength with which he held it.

Tatian (c. 120–180) was, according to May, the "first Christian theologian known to us who expressly advanced the proposition that matter was produced by God" (p. 150). And certainly Tatian's statements leave no room for doubt:

“For matter is not, like God, without beginning, nor, as having no beginning, is of equal power with God; it is begotten, and not produced by any other being, but brought into existence by the Framer of all things alone.” (Address to the Greeks 5)
“The case stands thus: we can see that the whole structure of the world, and the whole creation, has been produced from matter, and the matter itself brought into existence by God; …” (Address to the Greeks 12)

Theophilus of Antioch (died c. 183 - 185) was a contemporary of Tatian and also studied with Justin Martyr. Like Tatian, Theophilus asserted both that God created all things and that matter itself is created by God--it is not co-eternal with God:

And further, as God, because He is uncreated, is also unalterable; so if matter, too, were uncreated, it also would be unalterable, and equal to God; for that which is created is mutable and alterable, but that which is uncreated is immutable and unalterable. And what great thing is it if God made the world out of existent materials? For even a human artist, when he gets material from some one, makes of it what he pleases. But the power of God is manifested in this, that out of things that are not He makes whatever He pleases; (To Autolycus, 2, 4)

Athenagoras (circa 133-190) was another Athenian philosopher who converted to Christianity. In his Plea for the Christians, addressed to the Emperor Marcus Aurelius to protest the Roman persecution of Christians, he offers philosophical arguments against the eternity of matter and asserts that while God is uncreated, matter is created:

“But to us [Christians], who distinguish God from matter, and teach that matter is one thing and God another, and that they are separated by a wide interval (for that the Deity is uncreated and eternal, to be beheld by the understanding and reason alone, while matter is created and perishable), is it not absurd to apply the name of atheism?” (Plea for the Christians 4)

While the trajectory of the development of Christian thinking on this issue is undeniable, it was not without bumps. Like Justin Martyr before him, Clement of Alexandria (c.150 - 215) was heavily influenced by Platonic thought regarding creation, and also refers to Stoic thought (which is in agreement with Plato on this question). Like Justin, Clement believed that pagan thinkers “borrowed” from the Israelite scriptures and that the two were in substantial agreement. It is, in fact, true that traditional Israelite views on creation had similarities to Greek thought, but Clement, based on his Platonic background, failed to see that Israelite and Christian thought had moved beyond Genesis and was in direct conflict with Plato. On the other hand, some of Clement's statements on creation are ambiguous enough to suggest that he didn't have a very developed understanding of the significance of these differences and was most interested in finding parallels to Scriptural passages in Greek thought than in reflecting deeply on the origins of the universe. This attitude comes through, for example, when Clement somewhat uncritically remarks that Plato “more daringly” said that the original unformed matter of Platonic thought is “non-existence,” without commenting on what this could mean:

But the philosophers, the Stoics, and Plato, and Pythagoras, nay more, Aristotle the Peripatetic, suppose the existence of matter among the first principles; and not one first principle. Let them then know that what is called matter by them, is said by them to be without quality, and without form, and more daringly said by Plato to be non-existence. And does he not say very mystically, knowing that the true and real first cause is one, in these very words: "Now, then, let our opinion be so. As to the first principle or principles of the universe, or what opinion we ought to entertain about all these points, we are not now to speak, for no other cause than on account of its being difficult to explain our sentiments in accordance with the present form of discourse." But undoubtedly that prophetic expression, "Now the earth was invisible and formless," supplied them with the ground of material essence.

Irenaeus, Tertullian, and Origen

Thus far we have seen that the concept of creation ex nihilo was part of the Jewish tradition that the early Christians inherited, and that most early Christian thinkers clearly trended in the direction of supporting the idea of God as the creator of “all things”--including the underlying matter of all things--from nothing. Those few who appear to have maintained the typical Greek view that God (or the Demiurge) was the shaper or former of formless but eternal matter were those who had been exposed to strong Greek philosophical influence, and even in their cases there is reason to believe that they had either not thought through the meaning of the Greek ideas thoroughly or that they may have expressed their ideas unclearly.

The final three thinkers we will look at—Irenaeus, Tertullian, and Origen—are important in a number of respects. First of all, writing at the end of the second and into the middle of the third centuries, they were able to look back and survey the foundations and development of Christian thought, as well as of the heretical forms of thought whose teaching the early Church was increasingly concerned to distinguish from true Christian thought. Secondly, they increasingly insist that creation ex nihilo is a fundamental part of Christian faith—that this doctrine is of Apostolic origin and is therefore essential. Finally, writing in locales that were widely separated geographically, their testimony illustrates how uniform was Christian belief throughout the ancient world—their opponents were mainly non-Christian writers, Gnostics, rather than faithful Christians.

Irenaeus (2nd century AD – c. 202) was a Greek who became bishop of Lyon, in France. In his treatise Against the Heretics, directed against various Gnostics, he stresses that the “rule of truth” of the Christian faith includes the belief that God created everything that exists by an act of will from nothing and that nothing preexisted this act of God's will. Especially notable is Irenaeus' repeated reference to “existence” as the result of God's creative act, demonstrating that his intellectual universe is fundamentally distinct from the Platonic mode of thought.

The rule of truth which we hold, is, that there is one God Almighty, who made all things by His Word, and fashioned and formed, out of that which had no existence, all things which exist. (Against Heresies 1.22.1)
And that they may be deemed capable of informing us whence is the substance of matter, while they believe not that God, according to His pleasure, in the exercise of His own will and power, formed all things (so that those things which now are should have an existence) out of what did not previously exist, they have collected [a multitude of] vain discourses. ...
...but they [the Gnostics] do not believe that God (being powerful, and rich in all resources) created matter itself, inasmuch as they know not how much a spiritual and divine essence can accomplish...
For, to attribute the substance of created things to the power and will of Him who is God of all, is worthy both of credit and acceptance. It is also agreeable [to reason], and there may be well said regarding such a belief, that ‘the things which are impossible with men are possible with God.’ While men, indeed, cannot make anything out of nothing, but only out of matter already existing, yet God is in this point preeminently superior to men, that He Himself called into being the substance of His creation, when previously it had no existence.” (Against Heresies 2.10.2-4)
But the things established are distinct from Him who has established them, and what have been made from Him who has made them. For He is Himself uncreated, both without beginning and end, and lacking nothing. He is Himself sufficient for Himself; and still further, He grants to all others this very thing, existence; but the things which have been made by Him have received a beginning. But whatever things had a beginning, and are liable to dissolution, and are subject to and stand in need of Him who made them... (Against Heresies 3.8.3)

This last selection could be said to reflect the thought of Colossians 1:17, “in him all things subsist,” with its concept of the continuing dependence that “all things” have for their existence.

Tertullian (c. 160 – 220 AD) was a North African from Carthage. Like Irenaeus, Tertullian argued strenuously against varioius Gnostic heresies, as well as against the influence of Greek Stoic philosophy—specifically the Stoic doctrine that God created the world from co-eternal matter. Against these heresies Tertullian propounded the “rule of faith,” the true teaching of the Church, that God created “all things,” including the matter from which they are formed.

Now, with regard to this rule of faith— that we may from this point acknowledge what it is which we defend— it is, you must know, that which prescribes the belief that there is one only God, and that He is none other than the Creator of the world, who produced all things out of nothing through His own Word, … (Prescription against Heretics, 13)
when matter is made equal to God, then you have the teaching of Zeno; (Prescription against Heretics, 7)
Hermogenes, who introduces matter as having no beginning, and then compares it with God, who has no beginning. (Prescription against Heretics, 3)
For God would not have made any perishable thing out of what was eternal, that is to say, out of Matter; ... we may believe that He has actually awakened the universe out of nothing, as if it had been steeped in death, in the sense, of course, of its previous non-existence for the purpose of its coming into existence. (Against Hermogenes 34)
Therefore, in as far as it has become evident that Matter had no prior existence (even from this circumstance, that it is impossible for it to have had such an existence as is assigned to it), in so far is it proved that all things were made by God out of nothing. (Against Hermogenes, 45)

Origen (c. 185–254) was an Egyptian from Alexandria. Like Irenaeus and Tertullian, Origen taught that the idea of creation ex nihilo belongs to the “teaching of the apostles.” This is of interest because in other respects Origen introduced elements of Greek (Pythagorean and Neoplatonic) thought into his teaching, which has been widely influential.

4. The particular points clearly delivered in the teaching of the apostles are as follow:
First, That there is one God, who created and arranged all things, and who, when nothing existed, called all things into being— God from the first creation and foundation of the world... (First Principles, Preface 4)
And now, since there is one of the articles of the Church which is held principally in consequence of our belief in the truth of our sacred history, viz. that this world was created and took its beginning at a certain time... (First Principles, 3.5.1).

In conclusion we may note the remarkable consistency of early Christian thought on this point. It might have been expected that the early Christians—supposedly unsophisticated—would have been more open to the influences of Greek thought in general, and Platonic thought in particular, on the issue of creation ex nihilo. Many of these early Christian writers came to the faith with a background in Platonism, and they continued to have a warm admiration for Plato and his followers. We have seen that some even thought that the Platonists must have “borrowed” from Israelite thought, so congenial did they find Platonic thought to their new faith. Nevertheless, the fact remains that, far from absorbing Platonic thought on the origins of the universe, the Christians became more and more adamant that Plato (and, by extension, traditional thought in general) had been mistaken. Therefore, as we have already noted and will have occasion to repeat, while Christianity did in fact absorb a great deal of Platonism, by the time that happened the first article of the faith was set in stone.


  1. Correct the grammar in the opening page.

  2. I revised the first two paragraphs from a stylistic and conceptual standpoint. If there's a grammatical problem you'll need to be more explicit.