Panentheism.  Revisionism.  Anarchocapitalism.


Peter A. Bertocci (left) with Boston University graduate students, October 2, 1959


Essays by Me

Essays by Others


Excerpted from the first chapter of Bertocci, The Person God Is, London: George Allen & Unwin, Ltd. 1970, 30-34.  “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? . . . Our minds demand that Creator, Ideas, and Stuff (or Creator and Stuff) have something in common if they are to interact at all.”  I have given this excerpt its title.  For related insights, see W. Norris Clarke, "Metaphysical Difficulties in Process Theology" on this site.

Anthony Flood

April 4, 2010


Creatio Ex Nihilo: “Not So Utterly Indefensible”

Peter A. Bertocci


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 ex nihilo).

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