Creatio Ex Nihilo: “Not So Utterly Indefensible”
There are two other ways of conceiving God’s relation to man and the
world other than holding that God creates them “out of nothing” (creatio
According to the first, which follows suggestions Plato made in the
Timaeus, God may be likened to a sculptor who creates not “out of
nothing” but out of the material or “stuff” at hand. This stuff is in
itself relatively inchoate, and by itself would never take on any
structure or order. While more than one specific order can be
introduced into such inchoate being, no pervasive structure is to be
found in its formless nature. Yet, because it is an eternal something
rather than “nothing,” it will “respond” to some forms of order better
than to others. It may be of some help to think of clay or marble,
which will conform to more than one “idea”; yet clay cannot become
exactly what a block of marble can become.
Great philosophers have grappled with the problem of introducing any
specific structure—regularity, order, form—into inchoate being which is
something (not nothing) and yet in itself almost without any form. They
have preferred to postulate some such formless matrix, or “womb of all
becoming,” rather than postulate what seemed preposterous—creation “ex
nihilo,” which they translated literally out of nothing.
Better to suppose that God is somehow co-eternal with such “material
for becoming”; better to hold that God did not create such being and
that it could not create him. Better to hold that God and “matter” are
two eternal Principles, two Kinds of Being, both needing each other if
anything is to be developed in what is.
Such alternatives all sound so much more picturable and conceivable than
“creation out of nothing” until we ask some other questions. Plato, for
example, had to take one more step. For if God is the Sculptor, and the
Material (the Receptacle) is that which lakes on form, whence the Forms,
whence the Ideas or Ideals, that guide the Sculptor in his creative
work? There is reason to suppose that Plato believed that they too
constituted a realm of their own, co-eternal with “matter” and God.
They are not dependent upon God or upon “matter” for their existence—in
part because as Ideals they are to give form to both God and “matter.”
Hence Plato conceived of God as a cosmic Lover of Forms (Ideas or
Ideals) that he did not create. Neither the forms nor the inchoate
Being, then, are dependent upon each other. There results a co-eternal
trinity of beings in Plato’s system at this point. And none of these
beings, by definition, is related to the other.
Nevertheless, says Plato, this imperfect, but relatively orderly world
can be explained by thinking of God as this cosmic Artist or Demi-urge,
who with his eye fixed on the co-eternal Ideals, “persuades” the
co-eternal, inchoate being to take on as much form and order as
possible. For Plato, the complex orderly world which man sees about
him, and man’s own capacity to know and interact with both the world and
God, testify to the “creative” goodness of one member of the co-eternal
“trinity.” Other thinkers decreased the difficulty to be mentioned by
moving the Ideals into the mind of God, conceiving of them as the
eternal Ideals guiding his will. For them God is still co-eternal with
Matter of some sort, and cosmic Trinity gives way to Duality. We need
not stop to elaborate on this view, for our concern is to understand why
either a co-eternal Two or Three gave way to creatio ex nihilo.
It might be urged that any such one-of-two, or one-of-three, view of God
was unacceptable to early Christians because it is unbiblical to make
God finite. But this only skirts the real difficulty, which is the
following. If there are two or three ultimate, co-eternal Beings, is it
not completely incomprehensible that they should be so complementary?
Why should they find that they can interact in a way that does make
this kind of orderly world possible? The mystery of mysteries, opaque
to our human intelligence because it contravenes what we always assume
in our known realms, stuns us. For, when beings are at all related to
each other, we assume that, despite their differences, they are not
separated by chasms as impassable as these co-eternally different kinds
of being must be by definition. Our minds demand that Creator, Ideas,
and Stuff (or Creator and Stuff) have something in common if they are to
interact at all. Indeed, the world as we know it, despite its
dissonances and evils, is sufficiently good and sufficiently orderly to
suggest that a better marriage actually took place than the one to be
expected if both beings are completely independent of each other.
Once more, then, creation “out of nothing” may be mysterious. But on
what grounds may we expect two eternally different principles to be able
to interact in such a way as to produce the kind of orderly world we
observe? If it offends religious sensitivity, on the one hand, to
conceive of God as limited by some co-eternal independent principle,
then the theoretical reason cries out, on the other hand, against
explaining the kind of orderly world we have by postulating two or three
co-eternal, different beings (if we take their independence seriously).
The personalist has no easy task in defending creatio ex nihilo.
It is only when we become aware of difficulties in absolute monism and
in absolute dualism or pluralism that we see why this difficult
alternative became palatable to him. Accordingly, the personalist holds
that God, the cosmic Person, created the world ex nihilo. But
this “out of nothing” is the personalist’s way of emphasizing his
rejection of any co-eternal, independent factor with which God has to
deal. It is not simply that God is rendered finite if there is an
independent non-created matter; it is that we cannot account for the
world’s being an orderly world at all! Difficult as creatio ex
nihilo is, it is not so utterly indefensible once one fully
under-stands what is at stake.
The personalist, accordingly, goes on to explain that God’s knowledge of
all the possibilities and compossibilities guided him in his care to
create the orderly world in which persons are sustained. But, more
important, the doctrine of creatio ex nihilo is also the
personalist’s way of saying that God is not identical with the world and
with persons. Further still, God is not one “alongside” all the created
beings, for they depend ultimately upon his will for whatever
independence they have. Without his continuous creation and involvement
in accordance with his own being and purpose there would be no
“universe.” The personalist in this doctrine, there-fore, seeks to
explain the order of the world in a way that preserves differences
without endangering the autonomy and perfection of God.
Nevertheless, argue the critics of personalism, the cost of this
doctrine is too high. They still find the notion of creation
mysterious. The theist would agree that the doctrine is mysterious.
But he urges that at worst this doctrine, if it is exemplified nowhere
in our experience, nevertheless is not contradictory of anything we do
find. Furthermore, every metaphysics and theology has some ultimate
that is mysterious in that we cannot point to instances of it in the
world. But the personalist does advance one other consideration to take
the edge off this criticism.
Finally creatio ex nihilo does not actually mean that God took
“nothing” and made something out of it. The theist would agree that
“from nothing” nothing can come. Neither God nor man can do what is not
even thinkable, make nothing become some-thing! But creation out of
nothing does not mean that God “took nothing and made something out of
it.” “Out of” nothing, nothing comes, to be sure. But the personalist
does not start with “nothing.” He starts with God and says that this
Person (far from being nothing himself) is the Creator-Ground of all.
In a word, to say that God creates is to say that beings now exist that
did not exist before. Finite beings are not made “out of God” or “out
of some co-eternal being.” They are made, produced, created. There is
nothing contradictory in saying that a Creator beings into being what
was non-existent without the act of creation; to create means just that!
Peter A. Bertocci page