Posted by: rogermitchell | July 1, 2010

created out of nothing

This post carries a brain warning. Expect it to challenge mindsets!

Yesterday I was at a Theological Texts seminar at the University of Chester. I have been part of this seminar, open to academic staff and research students from North West Universities of the UK,  for the last two years. This year we have been reading through Walter Brueggemann’s An Unsettling God.  Yesterday was the last of the series for this year and looked at his last chapter “The drama of Partnership with YHWH.”  Among other challenging topics we talked about his commendation of one H. H. Schmid’s conclusion that “creatio ex nihilo, justification by faith, and resurrection of the dead” are synonymous phrases. Brueggemann reckons that they are all “ways in which YHWH’s characteristic propensities of generosity are made visible in different contexts.”

This sparked a brief but helpful (to me anyway) conversation about the usefulness of the phrase creatio ex nihilo – created out of nothing. I have long had a problem with this phrase, and clearly had only partially grasped the reason for its development and use. Professor David Clough, who facilitates the seminar in a really humble and encouraging fashion, explained its use by systematic theologians to indicate that nothing else existed beside God in the creation process. That the creation was thoroughly and emphatically God’s creation and no other material predated it. But while this helped me understand its use, it in no way dispelled my unease with the phrase. While it rightly signifies that God created all material things, it seems to go beyond that and suggest that nothing of deity passed into the creation. This seems to undermine the fullness of the biblical statement “in his image” which I have always taken to include the materiality of humanity. Putting this another way, that the material world is  created ex deo – out of God. This is something that many theologians have been very unwilling to suggest, mainly, I think, because they see human flesh as having some dishonourable and unsavoury characteristics that are unfitting to be in any way associated with the deity who created us. This seems to be something that the fall alone is insufficient to deal with and particularly focuses around sexuality. Asserting that God created out of nothing makes it possible to separate God from the fleshly nature of his creatures. I don’t think that God means us to do this. There is a good deal more to be said about this, and one place to go on it will be Augustine who I suspect is part of the origin of the problem.

More later, and of course in the meantime please respond, correcting, nuancing, setting the direction, the more the merrier!



  1. I like this stance! I too have become increasingly uncomfortable with the phrase creatio ex nihilo – created out of nothing. I admit though to having unthinkingly used it in the past. It was just something that I was taught and, uncritically, I accepted it for many years.

    However, I then started to consider how God created Adam and it was *out of* the dust of the earth, similarly Eve came *out of* one of Adam’s ribs and thus it is perfectly consistent that God should create *out of* His very being. I guess this is also why even the stones of the earth have the latent ability to cry out, etc. This has, of course, implications for other creative miracles like new bodily organs for old ones etc too. This is topical too …

    You see interestingly, I was listening this morning to the ‘Today programme on Radio 4’ where someone was being questioned about the whole area of research associated with so-called regenerative medicine in both animals and humans and the body’s inherent ability to heal itself. Apparently, researchers have discovered that this ability is lesser in humans than some other entities like newts. What is the place of the fall and sin in differentiating between the biological taxonomies in this respect I wonder?

    We have already seen across the face of the earth where identificational, individual and corporate repentence, together with intercessory and prophetic prayer have facilitated the intervention of God to bring healing to the land, streams, rivers in particular places etc. This to my mind is a pre-requisite to the creation being renewed, but in some places the earth and some folk themselves are so damaged that nothing short of a creative miracle will do. The implications of this seem enormous to me …

    I am not sure that I can articulate the detailed theology behind what I have written, that is not really my role here I think – which is, perhaps, to stand alongside Roger on this one and again provoke/call for a response!

  2. Fascinating points – as always!

    Maintaining belief in creatio ex nihilo helps us to maintain the stance against pantheism – or so I was taught. Also that only God is eternal.

    It was Moltmann (I think) who said that since only God existed prior to creation, he had to ‘make room’ within himself for creation to exist, that he somehow withdrew into himself in some part to make space for creation to happen.

    It was Greek philiosophy that held that matter/flesh etc is bad and spirit is good – thus the need for the spirit to escape this material world. We are so suffering from the introduction of this belief into the church!

    We find justification for our belief in the goodness of creation in: a) creation story itself – God created; b) God calls it ‘very good’; c) God dwells/interacts within and with his creation; d) the incarnation of the logos in the man Jesus and in his physical resurrection; e) the promise of a new heaven and new earth (new being re-new) and the beginning of that process in the resurrection of Jesus.

    I too heard the story about regenerative medicine. I like the thought that humanity has lost this aspect compared to other creatures due to the fall. Maybe this is an aspect of humanity suffering in sin and the rest of creation suffering/groaning because of our sin – but the effects for us are worse because of this difference.

  3. Roger:

    I like the way this is going. Creation out of God is exciting. But I want more on how ‘justification by faith’, and ‘resurrection of the dead’ are part of the same thing. Yes, I think they are, but we might understand how creation works if we keep these statements all together.

    It is this nature of creation, that it is God’s space, that calls us to live differently. I have read psychological theory that explains that it is important how we each keep our own spaces (our homes/rooms) because the space is an extension of our selves, whether you are neat or messy says something about you. Our space is a phenotype of ourselves. A phenotype (here is the wikipedia definition of that): is any observable characteristic or trait of an organism: such as its morphology, development, biochemical or physiological properties, behavior, and products of behavior (such as a bird’s nest). Phenotypes result from the expression of an organism’s genes as well as the influence of environmental factors and the interactions between the two.

    So Creation is God’s phenotype. It expresses His qualities and is an outcome of His behaviour. And that is why it is so critical that those who walk in the Kingdom live rightly with creation. And that is politically radical. And perhaps it involves some of those pre-tree and post-tree boundaries we were exploring recently.


    • Fascinating.

  4. I too partially blame Augustine, though he does make it do easy, thanks to his peculiar neurotic shame about his sexuality! And I am certain that sexuality is the key obscuring identity/difference concern here. How we deal with sexuality is so fundamental to how we deal with social order between ourselves, moral codes and other constructions/methods of control, let alone our view of ourselves relative to the divine. It’s been lurking in the background to much of the discussion on this blog and might be good to explore… Over to you though!

  5. dear roger
    i had a dream about a boundary line being moved and wondered what on earth it ment,i have read ur blog but still dont get it,the boundary line.
    i met u and sue when u visited cornwall penzance yrs ago,i live in london now,it sure is strange being out of the old church set up ,i sometimes wonder what on earth i am doing,but still hearing god thank goodness…..i wonder why i had the dream as above.

    • Good to hear from you Suzanne. I think the subject of boundary lines is key. We need to know which ones are God’s demarcations of love, and which are drawn out of the need for identity. Once we are swept up into our identity in his love then we can live, at last, without the protective boundaries of difference. Easily said….

  6. Ok then, if we adopt the stance that God created *out of * himself – which is where I am positioned – how do we guard against one of the various Pantheistic views creeping in via the back door as it were and also continue to maintain that God is immutable?! I was waiting to see if someone else picked this up, but …

    For example do we not believe that God exists apart from His creation (ie the universe and nature) and that we do not worship the creation, but rather the God who is both creator and sustainer? Also do we not believe that because of God’s omnipresence the fullness of God fills all things and that He is not limited to or by space or time (ie space-time)? However, with the stance that God creates *out of*, which I believe is correct, it appears to me that we get jolly close to what I understand is termed Hylozoism or Panpsychism, but perhaps I am wrong. So I repeat, How do we guard against this and moreover, how do we explain the distinction between God creating *out of* and Hylozoism to others?

    What do those more learned than I think?

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