I’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.
The 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.