As we continue our series on God and Creation, this post will explore the early understanding of Creatio Ex Nihilo (Creation from Nothing) and Creatio Continua (Continual or Ongoing Creation). These two understandings of the relationship between God and creation go back to the earliest writings of Christianity after the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. These theologies are developments upon the core understanding of creation found in Genesis. Here is a summary of those points from The New Dictionary of Theology.
1. The whole of creation was brought into existence by a free, loving act of God.
2. When we explore the genre of Genesis, it is not a book of history or science, but is of the same genre of the ancient creation stories of its time.
3. Creation is fundamentally good and expresses the continual goodness of God to creation.
4. God is not the source of evil, but evil is the absence (or privation) of the good in the world.
5. Creation is made for the human person and humanity is called in return to be good stewards of creation. (The New Dictionary of Theology. Komonchak (editor), (Liturgical Press 1987). 247-248)
From these points of interpretation come our understanding of the fundamental nature of creation and creation’s dependence upon God. However, a clear Biblical reference to a theology of creatio ex nihilo does not appear until the second book of Maccabees.
I beg you, child, to look at the heavens and the earth and see all that is in them; then you will know that God did not make them out of existing things. In the same way humankind came into existence. (2 Maccabees 7:28)
Much more could be said about the Biblical foundations of creatio ex nihilo, but for the sake of brevity, I will continue on from this foundation. To help us understand the idea of creatio ex nihilo, we need to ask a basic question of clarification: What do we mean when we use the word “nothing”? This question may seem simple, but once we start to delve into its meaning, it becomes a bit more complicated. In short, nothing literally meaning nothing. As soon as you place a qualifier on the term nothing you then have something. For example, if someone were to say “nothing is a void in space,” that statement ceases to express nothing because a void is still something. A void implies some type of understandable state and space that can be defined, thus it cannot be call nothing. In short, nothing is much more difficult to define as one may initially think.
As I discussed in my treatment of Stephen Hawking’s book “The Grand Design,” Dr. Hawking puts forward a “creation from nothing” philosophy by arguing that from a zero universe state (a state in which the potential of a universe is present) the law of gravity is able to explain how all things can come into existence from nothing with no need of a creator (the coming into existence of a universe from a zero universe state). I do not question the science behind Hawking’s thought, but I do question his application of philosophical terms since a zero universe state, though it lacks the existence of a universe, is still something and not nothing. Therefore, the coming into existence of creation is not a change from one existence to another existence. Rather, creation is the full coming to be of all things from nothing. (There are also fundamental problems with Hawking’s presentation of God, but we’ll save that for another time.)
The understanding of creatio ex nihilo is well known and embraced by all mainline Christians. However, what is less understood is the next logical question that follows from creatio ex nihilo: If God created all things from nothing, did God create everything in one instant or is God’s creative act ongoing? This question opens the door to many other foundational questions about God and creation: How do we account for the coming into existence of new species throughout history? Why would God allow certain species to become extinct? How do we understand change in relationship to time? And so forth. To help us answer these questions, we will enlist the help of the Eastern Church Fathers and St. Augustine.
In regard to the Eastern Church Fathers, two significant authors we can draw upon are Clement of Alexandria (150A.D. – 215A.D.) and Origen (184A.D. – 253A.D.). In addition to embracing creatio ex nihilo, Clement also introduced an understanding of a “continual act of creation” called the creatio continua. This understanding was that God’s act of creation did not cease at the first moments of existence, but rather the act of creation is ongoing with things constantly coming into existence. Origen takes this understanding of creatio continua and places it within a Trinitarian framework, developing his theology of “exitus-reditus” in which all of creation comes from God (the exitus) and ultimately returns to God (the reditus). Therefore, our understanding of creatio ex nihilo and creatio continua also includes an exploration of why things come into existence in addition to exploring philosophically how things come into existence. If all things come from God and return to God, then there is a reason why this “going out” and “coming in” relationship exists. Also, this continual act of creation helps us understand that it is necessary for certain things to exist at certain times of history. (Example: There is a reason I exist at this point of history and did not exist at the time of Jesus Christ.)
Lastly, we come to the Church Father Augustine. From the Biblical foundations we have laid out and the writings of the Eastern Fathers, we see in Augustine another development in our understanding of God and creation. Augustine affirms that all things receive their being from God, but he also adds a fascinating reflection on the relationship between time and the universe. Augustine argues that time does not have a spacial relationship with creation, but rather is a function and measurement of change. I was reminded of this while being interviewed by Bob Berman from Slooh. While discussing the scientific and theological understandings of time, Bob shared with me that the prevailing theory of modern physics is that time is an illusion and that the universe is eternal in nature. When talking about this interview with one of my student parishioners from the University of Wisconsin – Stout, he added that time is merely the study of decay, creating the illusion of time. I don’t understand physics well enough to definitely state that this theory is in concert with the thought of Augustine, but in both instances I find it interesting that Augustine and modern physics see time as a function of how the world changes.
To conclude, a key difference between modern physics and Augustine is that Augustine’s understanding of change also implies the change of our spiritual lives and our relationship with God. Therefore, what we find in the early Church is a tantalizing exploration into how and why things come into existence (from a philosophical and theological standpoint). This change does not happen in a moment, but is an ongoing process of continual creation by God. Therefore, we once again find in the early Church a clear framework to argue that the unfolding of God’s plan of salvation (the Economy of God) implies a necessary change in the world.
In my next post on “God and Creation,” I will explore the thought of Thomas Aquinas and how he takes these foundations and, through the philosophy of Aristotle, fleshes out our understanding of how things go from potentiality to actuality. For now, take some time and reflect on why God has brought you into existence. If you are here, God created you for a reason and purpose. What is the reason and purpose for your existence? As we reflect upon these and other questions, may we give thanks for the gift of our lives and, as we prepare to return that gift to the Lord in the future, may we embrace the change of heart that God seeks to accomplish in us and through us, continuing to unfold, to quote St. Irenaeus of Lyons, the Economy of God.
To prepare for our next reflection (in two weeks) on Thomas Aquinas, enjoy this video of Bishop Barron who beautiful reflects upon themes I will draw upon next time.
*Note: The majority of this reflection is a summary from The New Dictionary of Theology. Komonchak (editor), (Liturgical Press 1987). 247-250