Every once in a while, I meet someone who, while exhibiting every sign of being a true Christian, denies the traditional Christian doctrine of “creatio ex nihilo” – creation out of nothing.
This belief that God is before all things, combined with the idea that God created in the beginning out of nothing is not directly taught in Scripture.
However, the early church fathers insisted on it against Greek philosophy and Roman religious myths.
Gradually, it was raised to the status of dogma by most branches of Christianity. Why?
Creation out of nothing is the only alternative to four alternative beliefs about creation that are absolutely untenable for Christian thought.
1. Pantheism or panentheism is the belief that God and the world are either identical or interdependent. In either case, the world is part of God or so inextricably united with God eternally that God is dependent on it.
2. God created the world out of some pre-existing matter that he did not himself create by organizing an eternal something that was chaotic and stood over against him.
3. God created the world out of himself in which case the world is made of “God stuff” – God’s own substance.
4. A mostly modern, secular view is that some world (or substance, energy) has always existed and God, if he exists at all, has nothing to do with its origin or development.
Many Christians, to say nothing of non-Christians, embrace one of the alternative beliefs about creation, and feel permitted to do so because neither Scripture nor creedal orthodoxy explicitly requires creation out of nothing.
So is creation out of nothing speculation on the part of orthodox Christian theologians?
Why has this idea been so prominent and defended so strongly by traditional Christian theologians if Scripture and creeds do not explicitly require it?
Why do I believe in it while admitting it is not explicitly taught in Scripture and points to an impenetrable mystery?
Creation out of nothing is not mere speculation; it is based on other beliefs that are explicitly taught in Scripture and that are part and parcel of traditional, orthodox, classical “Great Tradition” Christianity.
Here is where I think many modern Christians, both conservative and progressive, across that spectrum, fail to realize there are necessary Christian beliefs that are not explicitly taught in Scripture.
Creation out of nothing is derived from revelation but not explicitly revealed. Without it, certain revealed truths cannot be maintained or defended.
Creation out of nothing is necessary because without it one will believe in one of the alternative views mentioned above and will eventually find crucial gospel tenets dissolving.
It is the only alternative to those views of creation and alone supports and defends the revealed gospel of truth about God, Christ and salvation.
So what revealed truths, held and taught by all branches of Catholic and orthodox Christianity (including the Reformers) make creation out of nothing necessary in spite of its impenetrable mysteriousness?
First, the transcendence of God – God’s holiness, wholly otherness, majesty, power, glory and freedom.
Throughout Scripture, God is revealed as not dependent on anything in creation for his existence (Acts 17:22-31).
God is “above” creation and does not need anything outside of himself to be God. A God who needs the world for anything is not the God of the Bible.
Second, the gratuity of grace – the revealed truth that redemption is solely gift and that grace for salvation cannot be forced or necessary.
This belief is integral to Christian soteriology (understandings of salvation) and arises out of biblical revelation and the meaning of grace itself (see Ephesians 2:8-9).
If creation out of nothing is not firmly held and defended, the freedom of God in redemption and salvation, grace itself as sheer gift, slips away.
Third and finally, the reality of evil and God’s non-involvement in and non-participation in evil. Creation out of nothing protects the reality of evil from being reduced to illusion or necessity.
These three Christian ideas, derived from revelation, if not directly revealed, depend on creation out of nothing.
One or more of them completely undercuts and undermines all the alternative perspectives.
Only creation out of nothing protects God’s holy freedom and wholly otherness, the gratuity of redemption, and the reality of creaturely opposition to God as evil/sin.
Creation out of nothing was discovered, not invented, by the church fathers as they examined the worldviews, religions and philosophies around them in Hellenistic culture.
Today we need to rediscover, embrace and defend it as we examine modern and postmodern worldviews, religions and philosophies.
We can no longer take creation out of nothing for granted; alternative beliefs about God and the world are seeping and creeping into Christian churches.
We need to correct Christians who are confused about God and creation, especially those who are coming to believe that creation (e.g., our souls) are “part of God” or that God “did his best with what he had” in creation, which is their explanation for evil.
Roger Olson is the Foy Valentine professor of Christian theology and ethics at George W. Truett Theological Seminary in Waco, Texas. He is the author of numerous books, including “Against Calvinism” and “The Story of Christian Theology.” This article is edited from a longer version that first appeared on his blog. It is used with permission.
Roger Olson is the Foy Valentine professor of Christian theology and ethics at George W. Truett Theological Seminary in Waco, Texas. He is the author of numerous books, including “Counterfeit Christianity” and “The Story of Christian Theology.”