Question: How did the mainstream Christian view that God created the universe out of nothing originate?

Table of Contents

Question: How did the mainstream Christian view that God created the universe out of nothing originate?

The concept of Creatio ex nihilo appeared suddenly in the latter half of the second century

Mainstream Christianity teaches that God created the universe from nothing (ex nihilo), while Mormons teach that God organized the universe from pre-existing matter. The LDS God is therefore claimed to be "less powerful" than the God of mainstream Christianity, or "unbiblical."

One non-LDS scholar's conclusion is apt:

Creatio ex nihilo appeared suddenly in the latter half of the second century c.e. Not only did creatio ex nihilo lack precedent, it stood in firm opposition to all the philosophical schools of the Greco-Roman world. As we have seen, the doctrine was not forced upon the Christian community by their revealed tradition, either in Biblical texts or the Early Jewish interpretation of them. As we will also see it was not a position attested in the New Testament doctrine or even sub-apostolic writings. It was a position taken by the apologists of the late second century, Tatian and Theophilus, and developed by various ecclesiastical writers thereafter, by Irenaeus, Tertullian, and Origen. Creatio ex nihilo represents an innovation in the interpretive traditions of revelation and cannot be explained merely as a continuation of tradition.[1]

The concept of Creatio ex nihilo is not taught in the Old or New Testaments, or by the early Christian Fathers

Creatio ex nihilo is not taught in the Old or New Testaments, or by the early Christian Fathers, unless one assumes it. The doctrine was a novel idea that altered the beliefs and doctrines of the Jews and early Christians.

The problem of a pre-existent 'something'

The reason why most of modern Christianity demands ex-nihilo creation stems from arguments dealing with the sovereignty of God. If something exists apart from God—i.e., pre-exists the first act of creation, it must be co-eternal with God (and by extension, perhaps co-equal, or potentially co-equal). Likewise, LDS scripture teaches that there exists something which is co-eternal with God and potentially co-equal with God in the Book of Abraham. Is God absolutely transcendent over the material with which he works? Is there only one that pre-exists creation (God) or is there more than one?

The Old Testament makes no direct statement of ex-nihilo creation

The Old Testament makes no direct statement of ex-nihilo creation, and so the creation account is scrutinized for clues. Much of the debate over ex-nihilo creation stems from the first few verses of Genesis. And the controversy starts with the very first word: bereshit. The interpretation of Genesis 1:1 faces two questions. 1) Is Genesis 1:1 an independent sentence or a dependent clause, introducing the first sentence? And 2) What is the relationship of verse 1 to verse 2 (and even the remainder of the creation narrative in Genesis chapter 1)?

The Hebrew word roshit occurs some 50 times in the Old Testament. The vowels in the word indicate that is a construct form - that it means "beginning of" and not just "beginning". Of the other 50 occurrences, 49 of them follow this pattern. The exact same construction with the prefix be- occurs in four other places (Jer. 26:1; 27:1; 28:1; 49:34), and in each instance is generally translated as "In the beginning of the reign of ..." The other instances of roshit follow this construct pattern except for one in Isaiah 46:10, where we read: "I am God ... declaring the end from the beginning." Here there can be little doubt that the word cannot be read as a construct. And this one occurrence is often used to justify reading bereshit in Genesis 1:1 as an absolute and not a construct. To which we respond, is a grammatical error in one location reason to justify an adoption of a similar reading here? Why should we adopt the reading favored by one example over the dozens of alternatives?

If beroshit is a construct state, then verse 1 and verse 2 are both subordinate clauses describing the state of everything at the moment which God begins to create, and the beginning of verse 3 becomes the main clause for the first sentence of the Bible. Read this way, the beginning of the Bible reads:

When God began to create the heavens and the earth (the earth being without form and void, and darkness was on the surface of the deep, and the spirit of God moved upon the surface of the waters), God said, "Let there be light".

The first act of creation then is the command for light to exist. And all the rest - the earth as a desert and a wasteland (terms that imply an absence of both plant and animal life), the darkness, the deep, and so on, all exist prior to that first act of creation - and by definition are pre-existent.

Apart from this passage, there is often discussion over the meaning of the word bara - "to create". The Hebrew term bara itself is rather indifferent to the question of ex-nihilo creation. Often the claim is made that the word is used exclusively of God, but this clearly isn't the case (see for example Ezekiel 21:19). The meaning of bara here is dependent entirely on how we read the rest of the first line of the Old Testament.

In the absence of any Old Testament expressions of ex-nihilo creation, it seems preferable to follow the view that Israelite religion had not developed this theology. Joseph Smith resolved the interpretive crux in Genesis 1:1 in a rather unique fashion. In the Book of Moses, rather than defining creation in absolute terms (either from nothing or from something), he limits the description of creation in Genesis to a particular place and time. Creation is no longer universal:

And it came to pass, that the Lord spake unto Moses, saying, 'Behold, I reveal unto you concerning this heaven and this earth; write the words which I speak. ... Yea, in the beginning I created the heaven and the earth upon which thou standest. (Moses 2:1,3)

The New Testament doesn't provide much additional help in resolving the issue

The New Testament doesn't provide much additional help in resolving the issue. It relies heavily on the language of the Old Testament when discussing creation. And the same sorts of ambiguities arise. As James Hubler's Ph.D. dissertation on this very issue noted:

Several New Testament texts have been educed as evidence of creatio ex nihilo. None makes a clear statement which would have been required to establish such an unprecedented position, or which we would need as evidence of such a break with tradition. None is decisive and each could easily be accepted by a proponent of creatio ex materia...The punctuation of [John 1:3] becomes critical to its meaning. Proponents of creatio ex materia could easily qualify the creatures of the Word to that "which came about," excluding matter. Proponents of creatio ex nihilo could place a period after "not one thing came about" and leave "which came about" to the next sentence. The absence of a determinate tradition of punctuation in New Testament [Greek] texts leaves room for both interpretations. Neither does creation by word imply ex nihilo...as we have seen in Egypt, Philo, and Midrash Rabba, and even in 2 Peter 3:5, where the word functions to organize pre-cosmic matter. [2]

Notes

  1. James N. Hubler, "Creatio ex Nihilo: Matter, Creation, and the Body in Classical and Christian Philosophy through Aquinas" (PhD diss., University of Pennsylvania, 1995), 102; cited in Blake T. Ostler, "Out of Nothing: A History of Creation ex Nihilo in Early Christian Thought (review of Review of Paul Copan and William Lane Craig, "Craftsman or Creator? An Examination of the Mormon Doctrine of Creation and a Defense of Creatio ex nihilo," in The New Mormon Challenge: Responding to the Latest Defenses of a Fast-Growing Movement, edited by Beckwith, Mosser, and Owen)," FARMS Review 17/2 (2005): 253–320. off-site
  2. James N. Hubler, "Creatio ex Nihilo: Matter, Creation, and the Body in Classical and Christian Philosophy through Aquinas" (PhD diss., University of Pennsylvania, 1995), 107–8; cited in Blake T. Ostler, "Out of Nothing: A History of Creation ex Nihilo in Early Christian Thought (review of Review of Paul Copan and William Lane Craig, "Craftsman or Creator? An Examination of the Mormon Doctrine of Creation and a Defense of Creatio ex nihilo," in The New Mormon Challenge: Responding to the Latest Defenses of a Fast-Growing Movement, edited by Beckwith, Mosser, and Owen)," FARMS Review 17/2 (2005): 253–320. off-site