What is Creation Ex Nihilo?

Creation of Stars IconI’ve often mentioned that the main difference between us as Mormons and other Christians is our rejection of creation ex nihilo. However a lot of people don’t understand what this means nor why we reject it. For that matter a lot of people don’t quite see what the big deal is. After all, don’t we believe that God created everything?

First off the meaning of creation ex nihilo has a fairly long theological history. Probably at least 1700 years if not longer. The exact origin of the idea is a little unclear. Some have tied it to the 1st century Jewish philosopher Philo. However there are strong reasons to think it developed after Philo though. Most probably around the 2cd century as Christians developed theology while trying to oppose various ideas of creation arising in gnosticism.

The idea of creation ex nihilo was literally that there was God and nothing else. God created everything else and it was not created from anything. That is element or at least the principles of element were not eternal but rather were dependent upon God for its existence. An implication of this doctrine is the idea that there is an absolute and unbridgeable ontological gap between creator and creature. Creatures all came into existence at a certain “moment” and are contingent for their very existence and not just form on God. God, however, is not dependent upon anything. Nothing can bridge this gap since it is a logical barrier. Thus nothing can be like God because no matter what a creature does it is always still created unlike the uncreated God.

Now there are many philosophical reasons why Mormons have trouble with creation ex nihilo. The main one is our doctrine of deification. Now there is a doctrine of deification within traditional Christianity (although not terribly emphasized by Protestants but very emphasized by Eastern Orthodoxy). However whereas Mormons typically feel we can become completely like God all other Christians would deny this because of the ontological gap I mentioned. That is no matter how refined and justified you become you can’t escape that you are creature whereas God is creator. While some mystics in the mainstream Christian tradition did tend to efface this distinction they were typically judged as heretical.

So our theology of deification as commonly taught and understood provides one main reason why Mormon theology is incompatible with mainstream Christian theology. Likewise understanding the theology of creation ex nihilo explains why many other Christians look negatively on LDS apologetics on deification that quote early Church Fathers. They feel that while many early Christians do discuss deification – often in terms very similar to how LDS do – that this ontological gap means that we’re ultimately talking apples and oranges. Moreover, the fact we feel this ontological gap can be bridged is very offensive and even blasphemous to them.

Adam and God's FingersThe second reason we tend to reject creation ex nihilo is because Joseph Smith explicitly taught against it. In the King Follet Discourse Joseph Smith mentioned creation ex nihilo by name and taught it was false. In contrast to interpreting the word for create in the Bible as a kind of metaphysical creation Joseph taught that it was better understood as organization. That is that the word for creation ought not be translated through the lens of Greek metaphysical thinking but through our more common daily uses of the term.

Learned Doctors tell us God created the heavens & earth out of nothing. They account it blasphemy to contradict the idea–They will call you a fool– You ask them why they say don’t the Bible say he created the world & they infer that it must be out of nothing. The word create came from the word Barau–don’t mean so–it means to organize–same as man would use to build a ship (King Follet Discourse, Clayton Report)

Joseph went beyond this though. He taught that not only should we understand the creation to be an organization rather than a metaphysical teaching but that our spirits and even the elements (or at least the principles of the elements) were eternal and without beginning. That is Joseph taught that the universe, including us, were organized out of eternal pre-existing things.

hence we infer that God had materials to organize from–chaos–chaotic matter. –element had an existence from the time he had. The pure pure principles of element are principles that never can be destroyed–they may be organized and re organized=but not destroyed. (ibid)

Another subject–the soul–the mind of man–they say God created it in the beginning. The idea lessens man in my estimation. Don’t believe the doctrine–know better–God told me so–Make a man appear a fool before he gets through if he dont believe it. We say that God was self–existent who told you so? It’s correct enough but how did it get into your heads–who told you that man did not exist upon the same principle (refer to the bible) Don’t say so in the old Hebrew–God made man out of the earth and put into him his spirit and then it became a living body The mind of man–the intelligent part is coequal with God himself. (ibid)

So not only was Joseph Smith radical with respect to rejecting the teaching of creation ex nihilo his most audacious teaching was that the mind of God and some principle of element was, like God, also uncreated.

If you are interested I strongly suggest reading the original source accounts of the King Follet Discourse. I consider it one of the most important non-canonized documents we have for Mormon theology. I know it has, of late, become popular to devalue it simply because it never was canonized. But I think it important to note that Joseph bears his testimony of the truth of the particular issues at hand.

If you are interested in more detailed discussions I really recommend reading Blake Ostler’s paper “Out of Nothing: A History of Creation ex Nihilo in Early Christian Thought”. For a briefer discussion check out the FAIR entry on ex nihilo.

I should also note that the older Jewish view of creation is very much more in line with the Mormon and not the mainstream Christian view. One book I can not recommend enough is the award winning Creation and the Persistence of Evil. It’s amazingly interesting from an LDS perspective and also addresses some important issues with respect to the problem of evil.

14 thoughts on “What is Creation Ex Nihilo?

  1. Clark, I want to thank you for these very interesting posts.

    An interesting story: I was on a plane from Rio to Sao Paulo five years ago and there was a Jewish man reading a Hebrew scroll. And I asked him about the word “bara,” which I know I am writing incorrectly but which supposedly means “create” in Hebrew. Anyway, I asked him does he believe that the Lord made the world from nothing or does he believe that the Lord organized existing elements, ie, my question was, “what do you think the word bara means?” And he said very emphatically (we were speaking in Portuguese) that the Lord created the world from nothing. So, apparently there are many Jews now who have accepted the whole idea of creation ex nihilo. But it is also apparently a debate that Jews have all of the time.

    Creation ex nihilo is one of those things that for me never made sense when I was an agnostic/atheist a decade ago. It seems much more likely to me, purely in a logical sense, that God is a super-scientist and that he learned to deal with the universe in a scientific way, learning things as he went along. It seems to violate so many laws of what we understand about matter to think that something could be created from nothing. Instead, it seems that the more we learn about science we learn that things are not created from nothing — they simply change form. Ice melts and becomes water and then water becomes steam if it is heated up. There appears to be a lesson there about creation. At least that’s my relatively simple take on the matter.

  2. Certainly many Jews over the past centuries have also bought into creation ex nihilo although often their position of what that means is subtly different. But I’d argue that at least by the time of Maimonides it has become a Jewish view. Of course the exact meaning of it depends upon what tradition you are speaking of. Many adopt a basically neo-Platonic view of emergence from the One. (Either Keter – the head aspect of God or the En-Sof or hiddenness that can’t be spoken of) While not all Jews adopt these more Kabbalistic views many do. Such a view might be better said to be speaking of creation out of nothing where nothing isn’t the nothing of the empty set (as in mainstream Christianity) but nothing as the negation of thing. i.e. creation out of what is not a thing.

    This latter point enters philosophy again in a dominant form via Levinas who gets it from Judaism. It also arguably enters in via Heidegger who gets it (I believe) from Duns Scotus.

  3. Fortunately, questions about whether one believes in creation ex-nihilo or Trinity-vs-Godhead are not among the baptism interview questions nor in the temple recommend interview questions.

    If Stephen’s vision of Jesus and the Father can be reconciled by Trinity-believing Christians, then I suppose Joseph Smith’s first vision could too.

    I suppose the bottom line is that yes, you could theoretically still believe in Trinitarianism and creation ex-nihilo, and get baptized/endowed, but just don’t teach it to anybody else.

    Back in the day when I was a district leader doing baptism interviews, Godhead-versus-Trinity type questions or isssues never came up, and were not on the list of interview questions that the mission president gave us.

  4. Then you have modern quantum mechanics and astrophhysics and whole new realms of meaning erupt all vraught with paradox and duality.

    You can believe in a creation from nothing (of the visible universe) and a behind the scenes organization of whatever exists behind the scenes to create it.

    Thank goodness its not on the temple recommend question list. Bishops would have to be philosophers, scientists and theologians to be able to get through the interview.

    So then what is creation ex nihilo?

  5. Speaking as a physicist I don’t see much creation ex nihilo in physics. Despite attempts by Christian apologists to point to the big bang as evidence. (Made more problematic by so many theoretical physicists embracing a multiverse – common in both string theory and loop quantum gravity)

  6. This is a quote Nitsav brought to my attention some time ago:

    Peter Hayman, “Monotheism- A Misused Word in Jewish Studies?” (presidential address) Journal of Jewish Studies, Vol. XLII No. 1 (Spring 1991).

    “Israelite thought (as evidenced by the OT) and early Judaism all held to creation from pre-existent matter. Ex nihilo came post-NT [New Testament], and then entered into Judaism, eventually becoming the mainstream POV [point of view]. But it has not always been so.

    Forgive a lengthy quote from Peter Hayman, “Monotheism- A Misused Word in Jewish Studies?” (presidential address) Journal of Jewish Studies, Vol. XLII No. 1 (Spring 1991)[.]

    “God creates order out of a pre-existing chaos; he does not create from nothing. Nearly all recent studies on the origin of the doctrine of creatio ex nihilo have come to the conclusion that this doctrine is not native to Judaism, is nowhere attested in the Hebrew Bible, and probably arose in Christianity in the second century C.E. in the course of its fierce battle with Gnosticism.[5] The one scholar who continues to maintain that the doctrine is native to Judaism, namely Jonathan Goldstein, thinks that it first appears at the end of the first century C.E., but has recently conceded the weakness of his position in the course of debate with David Winston.[6]

    My view is that David Winston is correct to argue that the doctrine of creatio ex nihilo came into Judaism from Christianity and Islam at the beginning of the Middle Ages and that even then it never really succeeded in establishing itself as the accepted Jewish doctrine on creation. Aristotelian views on the eternity of the world were perfectly acceptable in Judaism, as also were neo-platonist views on its emanation out of the One, because creatio ex nihilo could not be demonstrated from the Scriptures. Maimonides (Guide, II.26) concedes that rabbinic texts teach creation out of primordial matter and most commentators, starting with Samuel Ibn Tibbon, the first translator of his work into Hebrew, believe that Maimonides himself privately thought that the world was eternal.[7]″

    His footnotes:

    [5] See H. F. Weiss, Untersuchungen zur Kosmologie des hellenfstischen und palästinischen Judentums (Berlin, 1966); David Winston, ‘The Book of Wisdom’s Theory of Cosmogony’, History of Religions 11 (1971), pp. 185-202; Georg Schmuttermayr, ‘Schöpfung aus dem Nichts in 2 Makk 7,28?’, BZ 17 (1973), pp. 203-28; Gerhard May, Schöpfung aus dem Nichts (Berlin, 1978).

    [6] – ‘The Origins of the Doctrine of Creation Ex Nihilo’, JJS 35 (1984), pp. 127-$5; and ‘Creation Ex Nihilo: Recantations and Restatements’, JJS 38 (1987), pp. 187-94. Winston defends himself against Goldstein in a reply published in JJS 37 (1986), pp. 88-91.

    [7]- See Colene Sirat, ,4 History of Jewish Philosophy in the Middle ,Ages (Cambridge, 1985), pp. 188 ff., 218 ff.


    Thanks for bringing this issue up again Clark. I was expecting you to take up the problems of “creatio ex nihilo” and the problem of evil.

  7. You know while ex nihilo relates to the problem of evil I ultimately don’t find the problem of evil that interesting. That’s because what most people are concerned with isn’t the logical problem of evil. It’s the evils we encounter around us.

    Having said that though even here Levenson’s book is quite interesting there.

  8. I consider it one of the most important non-canonized documents we have for Mormon theology. I know it has, of late, become popular to devalue it simply because it never was canonized.

    It’s a shame, however understandable, that it wasn’t canonized. Even worse, the doctrines taught therein seem to have undergone a sort of anti-canonizing process, at least during GBH’s years as president.

  9. Among the theories which allow for many universes within a larger multi-verse, do such theories allow for cycles of bang->expansion->contraction->bang->etc of individual universes?

    When I learned of a multi-verse of universes, I could see possibilities of how it might relate to generations of gods and eternal progression. And I also saw how the universe-within-a-multiverse correlated to evidence that suggests that _our_ universe is not infinite. (Otherwise the night sky would be fully bright with an infinite number of stars having shined light back to us over an infinite amount of time.)

  10. I’m just glad we are free to beleive Creation Ex Nihilo (as do I) and not worry about dogmatic Nibleyites and their like starting an inquisition to purge us. BTW, there’s a reason the KFD wasn’t canonized.

  11. Steve EM, no Inquisition, ha! They don’t call me Torquemada for nothing! We know who you are and what you believe! You will burn, heretic, burn!

  12. Chaotic matter sounds a lot like the virtual particles known to exist and have been observed in experiments. So creation out of nothing could really be creation out of quantum fluctuations. Bookslinger said the universe cant be infinite because the sky would be filled with stars. Actually if the universe is only about 13 billion years old but goes on forever. We would only see out for about 13 billion light years. The universe expanded and is still expanding faster then the speed of light so it could be infinite in volume.

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