Question: What were the early Christian beliefs about the creation?

Table of Contents

Question: What were the early Christian beliefs about the creation?

A belief in ex nihilo creation was not shared by the first Christians

Contrary to the critics' claims, their belief in ex nihilo creation was not shared by the first Christians. The concept of creatio ex nihilo

began to be adumbrated in Christian circles shortly before Galen's time. The first Christian thinker to articulate the rudiments of a doctrine of creatio ex nihilo was the Gnostic theologian Basilides, who flourished in the second quarter of the second century. Basilides worked out an elaborate cosmogony as he sought to think through the implications of Christian teaching in light of the platonic cosmogony. He rejected the analogy of the human maker, the craftsman who carves a piece of wood, as an anthropomorphism that severely limited the power of God. God, unlike mortals, created the world out of ‘non-existing’ matter. He first brought matter into being through the creation of ‘seeds’, and it is this created stuff that is fashioned, according to His will, into the cosmos.[1]

Thus, the doctrine of creatio ex nihilo was first advanced by a Gnostic (a heretical branch of Christianity), and did not appear until more than a century after the birth of Christ.

The idea of God using pre-existing material in creation was accepted by at least some of the early Church Fathers

The idea of God using pre-existing material in creation was accepted by at least some of the early Church Fathers, suggesting that beliefs about the mechanism of creation altered over time, as Greek philosophical ideas intruded on Christian doctrine. Justin Martyr (A.D. 110—165) said:

And we have been taught that He in the beginning did of His goodness, for man's sake, create all things out of unformed matter; and if men by their works show themselves worthy of this His design, they are deemed worthy, and so we have received-of reigning in company with Him, being delivered from corruption and suffering.”[2]

Justin continues elsewhere with such examples as:

  • “by the word of God the whole world was made out of the substance spoken of before by Moses.”[3]
  • [the earth,] “which God made according to the pre-existent form.”[4]
  • “And His Son, who alone is properly called Son, the Word who also was with Him and was begotten before the works, when at first He created and arranged all things by Him, is called Christ, in reference to His being anointed and God's ordering all thing; through Him...”[5]

Justin was not the only Father to reject ex nihilo creation. Clement said in his "Hymn to the Paedagogus":

Out of a confused heap who didst create This ordered sphere, and from the shapeless mass Of matter didst the universe adorn....[6]

And, Blake Ostler comments on 1 Clement:

Clement stated: "Thou . . . didst make manifest the everlasting fabric of the world. Thou, Lord, didst create the earth." The terms used here by Clement are significant. He asserts that God did "make manifest" (ἐϕανεροποίησας) the "everlasting fabric of the world" (Σὺ τὴν ἀέναον του κόσμου σύστασιν). He is referring to an eternal substrate that underlies God's creative activity. Clement is important because he is at the very center of the Christian church as it was then developing. His view assumed that God had created from an eternally existing substrate, creating by "making manifest" what already existed in some form. The lack of argumentation or further elucidation indicates that Clement was not attempting to establish a philosophical position; he was merely maintaining a generally accepted one. However, the fact that such a view was assumed is even more significant than if Clement had argued for it. If he had presented an argument for this view, then we could assume that it was either a contested doctrine or a new view. But because he acknowledged it as obvious, it appears to have been a generally accepted belief in the early Christian church.[7]

Notes

  1. Gerhard May, Schoepfung Aus Dem Nichts: Die Entstehung Der Lehre Von Der Creatio Ex Nihilo (Arbeiten Zur Kirchengeschichte, Vol 48) (Walter De Gruyter Inc, 1978), 63-85. ISBN 3110072041; as quoted in Robert Louis Wilken, The Christians as the Romans saw Them (Yale University Press, 2003), 88–89. ISBN 0300098391.
  2. Justin Martyr, "First Apology of Justin," in Chapter 10 Ante-Nicene Fathers, edited by Philip Schaff (Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1886)1:165. ANF ToC off-site This volume
  3. Justin Martyr, "First Apology of Justin," in Chapter 59 Ante-Nicene Fathers, edited by Philip Schaff (Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1886)1:182. ANF ToC off-site This volume
  4. Justin Martyr, "Hortatory to the Greeks," in Chapter 30 Ante-Nicene Fathers, edited by Philip Schaff (Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1886)1:286. ANF ToC off-site This volume
  5. Justin Martyr, "First Apology of Justin," in Chapter 10 Ante-Nicene Fathers, edited by Philip Schaff (Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1886)1:165. ANF ToC off-site This volume
  6. Clement, "Hymn to the Paedagogus," in ? Ante-Nicene Fathers, edited by Philip Schaff (Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1886)2:296. ANF ToC off-site This volume
  7. 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; citing 1 Clement 60, in J. B. Lightfoot, The Apostolic Fathers, ed. J. R. Harmer (1891; repr., Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book, 1956), 1:176. Lightfoot translates this text as: "Thou through Thine operations didst make manifest the everlasting fabric of the world" (1:303). See Oscar de Gebhardt and Adolphus Harnack, Patrium Apostolicorum Opera: Clementis Romani (Leipzig: Hinrichs, 1876), 1:100.