The most important biblical doctrine related to creation is creation ex nihilo, which means “creation out of nothing.” This theologically fundamental belief was taught in important creedal statements [part 1]. It represents a clear line of demarcation between Christianity and Greek philosophy, which held that matter was eternal [part 2].
Creation ex nihilo, however, was also very important in responding to Gnostic claims. (Gnosticism represents a group of related heresies that arose around the mid-2nd century and combined elements of Christian theology with Greek ideas.) One belief that the Gnostics inherited from the Greeks was the idea that matter was evil. They rejected any connection between God and matter and therefore denied creation ex nihilo, as well as Jesus’ virgin birth, incarnation, and literal bodily death and resurrection. Creation ex nihilo had apologetic significance in responding to the Gnostics by demonstrating that God could use matter for His good purpose.
The most extensive rebuttal of Gnosticism comes from Irenaeus of Lyons, in his masterwork, Against Heresies. He clearly taught creation ex nihilo as a defining principle of Christianity, in contrast to Gnostic speculation.
“They [the Gnostics] do not believe that God (being powerful, and rich in all resources) created matter itself, inasmuch as they know not how much a spiritual and divine essence can accomplish…For, to attribute the substance of created things to the power and will of Him who is God of all, is worthy both of credit and acceptance. It is also agreeable [to reason], and there may be well said regarding such a belief, that ‘the things which are impossible with men are possible with God.’ While men, indeed, cannot make anything out of nothing, but only out of matter already existing, yet God is in this point preeminently superior to men, that He Himself called into being the substance of His creation, when previously it had no existence.” (Irenaeus, Against Heresies 2.10.3-4)
Irenaeus discusses creation ex nihilo in several other passages as well.
Tertullian (3rd century), the father of the Latin (Western) Church, provides the most significant defense of the doctrine of creation ex nihilo. He wrote extensively against Gnosticism and argued for creation ex nihilo in six of his 30 surviving works. The most important of these works is Against Hermogenes (AH), where he defends creation ex nihilo against Hermogenes’ belief that God created the world out of eternal (preexisting) matter. Tertullian points out that Hermogenes borrowed his view from Greek Stoic philosophers (AH 1) and that it was heretical because it put matter on the same level as God Himself (AH 1-4). He further argues that Genesis 1 teaches that matter is good (not evil) (AH 12, 25) and that Genesis 1:1 specifically teaches that God created matter (AH 19-22). In another passage, he argues that the universe must have a beginning just as it has an ending (i.e. God will destroy this universe) (AH 34).
Tertullian goes one step farther in arguing that creation ex nihilo is not only true but a part of the “rule of faith” (Latin regula fidei), which he states on three different occasions (Against Hermogenes, 33; The Prescription Against Heresies, 13; The Veiling of Virgins, 1). The “rule of faith” represented those key doctrines held in common by all believers (distinct from debatable issues) and served as an important dividing line between Christian orthodoxy and heresy. Tertullian’s views in these three passages can be distilled into four essential points:
Creation ex nihilo is essential doctrine. He placed it in the “rule of faith,” meaning that it was universally accepted from the beginning and beyond debate. He specifically places creation ex nihilo alongside other foundational doctrine, such as the nature of God, Jesus’ virgin birth, and Jesus’ literal physical death and resurrection.
Matter has a beginning. Only God is eternal and uncreated; therefore, matter must have a beginning (i.e. it must have been created).
Matter is created by God. It is not enough to say that matter is created; God must be its creator. This cuts to the heart of Gnosticism, which held that matter was evil and hence that God would not have created it. Tertullian rejects such fanciful ideas and clearly declares God to be the author of matter.
God could have shaped previously existing (but not eternal) matter. Genesis 1:3-31 could represent God forming things from matter that He previously created (Genesis 1:1) but was initially shapeless (Genesis 1:2). This distinction is important because it leaves room for the view previously taught by Justin Martyr and Clement of Alexandria (see [part 2]).
Origen (3rd century) follows closely along the lines of Tertullian in declaring creation ex nihilo to be among the “teaching of the apostles” (First Principles, Preface 4) and “articles of the Church” (First Principles, 3.5.1). In both cases, these statements are synonymous with Tertullian’s “rule of faith.” Origen likewise places creation ex nihilo alongside other essential Christian doctrine.
In addition to those already quoted, we know that Minucius Felix, Lactantius, Victorinus, Athanasius, Ephrem the Syrian, Ambrose, John Chrysostom, Basil, and Augustine also believed in creation ex nihilo. Altogether, 18 early church fathers included in this study taught creation ex nihilo and none taught eternal matter. This widespread acceptance has continued down to recent times.
Part 4 will look at the importance of this doctrine to modern science.
The information presented here is based on unpublished research. Inquiries regarding it should be directed to the author (firstname.lastname@example.org).
- Robert Bradshaw, “Creationism and the Early Church”.
- Robert Lethem, “‘In the Space of Six Days’: The Days of Creation from Origen to the Westminster Assembly,” Westminster Theological Journal 61, no. 2, (1999), 149-74.
- Kenneth Richard Samples, A World of Difference, (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2007).