The Etiology of Creation

A study of the source, origin and derivation of the created order,
questioning the traditional explanation of creation ex nihilo.

©1998 by James A. Fowler. All rights reserved.
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Creation ek theos

   From his disputed beginnings man has attempted to understand the beginning, the phenomena and the purpose of the world in which he lives. Despite all that science has explained about the operations of the universe, the questions of origin and objective have been the more difficult to address.

   Recent research and discoveries, especially in the area of astrophysics, have taken scientific inquiry into cosmological considerations of the commencement and duration of the universe, as well as considerations of an ontological dynamic which along with the "anthropic principle" may point to teleological purpose in the universe. In these short studies it will be our objective to briefly consider some of the cosmological, philosophical and theological issues pertaining to the universe in which we live.

   This first study will consider the origin of all that exists. There is undoubtedly a causality to all the effects we observe. One of the chief objectives of scientific study is to attempt to explain the cause of the observed effects. Philosophy keeps pushing the question back to the "first cause." Theology points to the "uncaused cause" of all things in a personal, powerful God. The source from which all is derived is a concern to all disciplines of study.

   Since traditional explanations of cause and derivation have often used phrases which include Greek and Latin terminology, our first consideration might well be to examine two prepositions. The Latin preposition, ex, and the Greek preposition, ek, both have a root meaning of "out of, from within." A primary usage of these two prepositions has been to denote derivation, source and origin. The Oxford Latin Dictionary lists the prime meaning of ex as "out of, from within,"1 and proceeds to note that it was used as "source, origin or derivation."2 The New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology explains that "originally ek signified an exit 'from within' something with which there had earlier been a close connection,"3 therefore "it naturally came to be used to denote origin, source, derivation or separation."4 These prepositions have been employed in the writings of thinkers within varied disciplines over several millenia to explain the source, origin and derivation of all that exists.

   Exclusivistic naturalism which begins with the presupposition that the natural realm is the only realm of reality, limits itself to the observation of natural phenomena and attempts to explain such phenomena by natural causes through natural processes of "natural selection." The explanation of origin and "first cause" can only be ex natura ­ everything is derived "out of nature." This premise is necessarily based on the supposition that an ambiguous concept of "nature" existed before all other things in the natural realm. Such an abstract of "nature" was therefore eternal, infinite and self-existent. The personification of such a deified abstraction is required in order to explain how "Nature" made the "natural selections" to choose which of the fittest would survive. The evolutionism of contemporary scientism must posit such an abstract of "Nature" to explain how all the natural order is derived ex natura.

   Otherwise, naturalism must revert to the illogicality of explaining that everything was originally caused spontaneously "out of nothing." An uncaused cause spontaneously generated all that now exists in a causation ex nihilo, "out of nothing." The "something," which is "everything" in our universe, came from "nothing." Such is an illegitimate explanation of causality; it explains nothing for it cannot explain "nothing."

   What is the difference, then, between this non-explanation of naturalism and the traditional explanation of religion which indicates that a personal Creator, God, caused all things to come into existence, ex nihilo? If the "causation ex nihilo" of naturalism is an absurdity, why is the "creation ex nihilo" of religionism not equally absurd? Though there are pertinent differences, the explanation of "creation ex nihilo" does indeed often mire down in some of the same logical absurdities, which we will henceforth set out to expose.

   You can't get something out of nothing! One wag suggested that "If you think you can get something out of nothing, then I will give you my paycheck."

   Magicians often give the impression of getting something out of nothing, but it is an illusion. God is not a deceiving illusionist who pulled the universe out of His hat!

   Semantic confusion is almost inevitable when we attempt to use "nothing" as an object. In the phrase ex nihilo the object of the preposition ex is nihilo, "nothing." When "nothing" is a grammatical object, the human mind logically tends to objectify "nothing" into a substantive "something," in order to conceptualize such an abstraction. What is derived from nothing? Nothing. Yes, nothing is derived from nothing.

   Why then was this philosophical construction of ex nihilo ever applied as an explanation of creation? The theistic thinkers wanted to avoid the extremes of monistic pantheism as well as detached dualism. To explain creation as ex Deus would lend itself to the Greek idea that the natural order was an emanation or projected extension of God. They also wanted to avoid the dualistic idea that pre-existent matter existed alongside of a pre-existent God, and the pre-existent God used the pre-existent matter to form everything else. The idea of ex nihilo was a denial of the Greek idea of eternally pre-existent matter. Little did they realize that in the formulation of creation ex nihilo, they would be creating a subtler form of dualism which has existed for centuries.

   The Greek philosophers had used the concept of the natural world's derivation ex nihilo.5 Their concepts ranged from the nihilism of Xeniades, who wrote that "the world is created from nothing; it is a sham," to the Platonic idea that the world was an emanation of God and came into being ex nihilo, i.e. out of the non-substantiality of the divinized spiritual abstract.

   A few of the early Christian writers utilized the phrase of "creation ex nihilo." The Shepherd of Hermas, for example, refers to "God...who brought the universe out of nothing into existence." As they tried to distance Christian thought from Greek Gnosticism and the docetism thereof, it appears that most of the early Christian apologists avoided referring to creation ex nihilo because of the false impressions it might engender. It was not until the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215 AD that the Roman Catholic Church adopted creatio ex nihilo as the standard explanation for creation.6

   Protestant theological explanations have, for the most part, adopted this Medieval extension of Greek thinking. Several have questioned the legitimacy of the explanation, though:

   H.E. Ryle states in his commentary on Genesis, that "it is a mistake to suppose that the word bara necessarily means 'to create out of nothing.'"7 George Bush likewise explains in his commentary on Genesis that "it is a matter of rational inference rather than express revelation that this means 'created out of nothing.'"8

   Systematic theologian, Louis Berkhof states clearly that "the expression 'to create or bring forth out of nothing' is not found in Scripture. It is derived from the Apocrypha, namely, II Maccabees 7:28."9 The apocryphal account, though possibly historical, refers to a mother who lost seven sons in one day to the butcherous genocide of Antiochus, and she says to the last son in her native language, "I beg you, child, look at the sky and the earth; see all that is in them and realize that God made them out of nothing, and that man comes into being in the same way."10 This is no biblical ground for a theological concept of creation ex nihilo; in fact, it can be interpreted as the pessimism of nihilism.

   We have previously noted the tendency of man's thought to objectify "nothing" into a substantive "something," in order to conceptualize the abstraction. A.H. Strong notes in his Systematic Theology that "Creation is not 'production out of nothing,' as if 'nothing' were a substance out of which 'something' could be formed. The phrase is a philosophical one for which there is no Scriptural warrant."11 Emil Brunner likewise explains that "Creation 'out of nothing' does not mean that there once was a 'NOTHING' out of which God created the world ­ a formlessness, a chaos, a primal darkness. This idea of creation as the shaping of formless matter, is the content of all creation myths. God is conditioned by nothing, not even a 'NOTHING' ­ He is self-determining."12 These theological reactions against the objectification of the "nothing" in ex nihilo, are certainly warranted when one notes the apparent objectification of Das Nichtige in the writings of Karl Barth, and statements such as that of Paul Tillich when he refers to "the nihil out of which God creates."

   Rather than explaining the creative process as ex nihilo, the more accurate Biblical explanation is that of creation ek theos. All things were brought into being "out of God." God created "out of Himself." Such is the clear statement of the New Testament. Writing to the Corinthians, Paul explains that "there is one God, the Father, out of (ek) Whom are all things..." (I Corinthians 8:6). Again in his epistle to the Romans, Paul states that "out of (ek) Him, and through (dia) Him, and unto (eis) Him are all things" (Romans 11:36). These are clear Biblical statements on which to base a theological understanding of creation ek theos.

   The writer of the Hebrew epistle amplifies this concept when he explains that "the worlds were prepared by the word of God, so that what is seen was not made out of things which are visible" (Hebrews 11:3). God is indeed not visible; "No man has seen God at any time" (John 1:18; I John 4:12). All visible things have been derived out of the invisible God, ek theos. "Since the creation of the world His invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made" (Romans 1:20).

   Theologians have apparently shied away from the Biblical statement of creation ek theos because of their philosophical fears of monism and pantheism. Granted, that which is derived from God as source is not constituted of the same essence as God. God did not create God-extensions or divine emanations which are constituted with deity or are partakers of divine nature or essence. Creation does not imply any form of essentialism wherein the resultant product is of the same essence of that from which it is derived or caused. God, as the greater, can create that which is lesser than Himself and distinct from Himself.

   Neither do we want to so detach and disconnect the Creator from His creation as to create a dualism of separation between Creator and creature. Having created all things ek theos, the Creator God maintains a vital connection with His creation, sustaining them ek theos. This reveals the ontological necessity of the ek theos creation interpretation. The divine Being is the ground of all being. It is illogical to think that being can be derived from non-being. Out of the "I AM" Being of God (Exodus 3:14), all ontological "being" is derived ek theos. Paul explains that "God calls the things not being as being" (Romans 4:17), and "in Him we live and move and have our being" (Acts 17:28). In the creative action, God said "let there be...." (Genesis 1), and in that creative process all other being was derived out of His Being. All being was expressed into being out of the Being of God and is sustained by the ontological presence of God. The ex nihilo interpretation provides "nothing" to make the connection between Creator and creation, and thus establishes a dualistic detachment.

   In like manner we can note the teleological necessity of understanding creation ek theos. If all things are created ex nihilo, "out of nothing," then the logical conclusion is that they are progressing unto the same end, unto nothing. Such is the nihilism that explains that there is no teleological purpose to existence, but that all is meaningless and purposeless. On the other hand, when we recognize that all things are created ek theos, "out of God," we can understand that all things exist for the teleological purpose of glorifying God. Derivation determines direction and destiny. Origin establishes operation and objective. Source determines sustenance and significance. That which is derived ek theos, "out of God," is directed eis theos, "unto God" (Romans 11:36). Etiology is the foundation of teleology.

   The theological necessity of creation ek theos is made evident when we consider that if all things were brought into being from a source other than God, that originator would supersede God. The derivation of all things is from God, or else a greater than God exists. When traditional religious explanation has reverted to creation ex nihilo, they are apparently using the Latin preposition ex in a secondary meaning other than derivation, source or origin, in order to explain how God's process or technique of creating employed no pre-existing material. Most certainly they have not used ex in the sense of derivation and meant to imply an equation that "God is nothing," although it might be argued that God is not a "thing." It could also be explained that in the assertion of creation ex nihilo, the reasoning was that God created out of "nothing other than Himself," in which case the argument is really creation ek theos and should be thus expressed.

   When we understand that all things are derived ek theos, from God as source and origin, it becomes apparent that all things in the created order remain contingent upon God for their continued operation and sustenance. Man is a derivative creature intended to derive his nature, life, identity, behavior and immortality from God in order to function as designed by God and to experience the destiny God intended.

   The Creator acted as Redeemer in His Son, Jesus Christ, and the resultant "new creation" of Christians emphasizes creation ek theos even more explicitly. When Christians are regenerated and become "new creatures" in Christ (II Cor. 5:17), they are "created in righteousness and holiness of the Truth" (Eph. 4:24). In this new creation, that which did not exist in the individual now exists in that person (Romans 4:17). It is not that this life did not previously exist at all, for it has always existed in the essence and character of the living God, who "has life in Himself" (John 5:26). God imparts His own life, ek theos, to cause that life to exist in the spirit of an individual, so that the character of that life can be derivatively expressed and imaged and made visible in man's behavior to the glory of God. The difference in this spiritual "new creation" is that the life is not lesser than Himself, but the spiritual life created in the Christian is the presence of God's very own life dwelling in the spirit of a receptive individual. Though a "partaker of the divine nature" (II Peter 1:4), this does not cause the Christian to become deified, to become God, for the Creator remains distinct from the creature. Christ remains distinct from the Christian, though in spiritual union with the Christian, who is contingent upon the life of Christ for Christian character expression. The distinction of Creator and creation remains alongside of the vital connection of contingency in both physical and spiritual creation.

   God's action, whether as Creator, Sustainer, Redeemer, Savior, Regenerator, Justifier, Sanctifier, Glorifier, Immortalizer, etc., is always ek theos, out of Himself. The contingency of cosmological function as well as Christological function is always ek theos. "Not that we are adequate to consider anything as coming from ourselves, but our adequacy is from Him," ek theos (II Cor. 3:5).


1      Glare, P.G.W. (ed.), Oxford Latin Dictionary. Oxford: Clarendon Press. 1982. pgs. 628,629.
2      Glare, P.G.W. (ed.), Ibid.
3      Brown, Colin (ed.), The New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology. Vol. III.
        Grand Rapids: Zondervan Pub. Co. 1978. pg. 1188.
4      Brown, Colin (ed.), Ibid.
5      Note the historical background cited by Ehrhardt, Arnold, The Beginning. Manchester: Manchester Univ. Press. 1968.
6      Houston, James M., I Believe in the Creator. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Pub. Co. 1980. pg. 273.
7      Ryle, Herbert E., The Book of Genesis. Cambridge Bible for Schools and Colleges. Cambridge:
        Cambridge Univ. Press. 1921. Pg. 2.
8      Bush, George, Notes on Genesis. Minneapolis: James Family Christian Publishers. 1979 reprint. pg. 26.
9      Berkhof, Louis, Systematic Theology. London: Banner of Truth Trust. 1963. pg. 133.
10    The New English Bible with the Apocrypha. New York: Oxford Univ. Press. 1976.
11    Strong, Augustus Hopkins, Systematic Theology. Valley Forge: The Judson Press. 1967. pg. 372.
12    Brunner, Emil, The Christian Doctrine of Creation and Redemption. Dogmatics Vol. II. London:
        Lutterworth Press. 1964. pgs 9,10.