Something from nothing? Creation Ex Nihilo

In Favour of…

Creating something out of nothing?

The religions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam when discussing the creation of the world, speak of creation ex nihilo (out of nothing). This is typified, for example, by the assumption that the first verse of the Bible (“In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth”) indicates that only God is self-existent, and all other things have their being from God.

This is very like the language of the Christian view in Hebrews 11:3, which states, “Through faith we understand that the worlds were framed by the word of God, so that things which are seen were not made of things which do appear”.

Early Christian writers such as Justin Martyr and Clement of Alexandria supported the idea, saying that God created the world out of unformed matter ie that which is completely non existent.

From the point of view of the sort of philosophy you will meet later in the course creatio ex nihilo is pretty crucial. For people like Anselm, Aquinas and even Paley, their whole idea that God is a necessary being, looks a lot more uncertain if one denies ex nihilo. It opens up possibilities that someone or something else was also in the creation business and that for most Christian Philosophers would be unacceptable.

But against…

The belief that God gave shape to pre-existing things was not unheard of, and that idea became more fully articulated especially under the influence of Greek philosophy.

Ancient Near East creation myths and Plato’s Timaeus where the ‘Demiurge’ worked with materials that were not totally compliant to his will.

The Platonic view presents the notion that the pre-existing materials placed limits on what the ‘Demiurge’ could do with them. This is because they were not created ex nihilo and not totally subject to his will.

Some biblical scholars point out that the text of both creation stories in Genesis entertain the idea of pre-creation matter. They see evidence that the biblical account, like other ancient religious views, presumes pre-existence of some kind of raw material, albeit without form: “Now the earth was formless and void, darkness was over the face of the deep, and the spirit of God hovered over the waters.” God then fashions the disordered material, to create the world.

It is, I suppose, another way of looking at things, but in Christian circles it hasn’t really taken off, although I notice that talk of creatio ex nihilo tends not to be pushed to the front when the religion and science debate takes off – or it could be that I just missed it.

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