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Ex nihilo is a Latin phrase meaning "out of nothing." It is a theological term that refers to creation not being made out of pre-existing matter.
Ancient Near Eastern Literature
There are at least four major types of creation stories in the ancient Near East; creation by begetting, or spilling semen, creation by battle; creation by action (of separation); and creation by word. There is no express mention of ex nihilo creation. Many accounts assume a watery darkness before creation as does Genesis 1:2. Some start out "When there was not yet" as in Genesis Two (Westermann, 1994, 43). These stories will be discussed further in another chapter.
The first mention of "out of nothing" is in 2 Maccabees 7:28 which says, "look upon heaven and earth and all that is in them: and consider that God made them out of nothing, and mankind also" (Douay Version, or DV). The Greek is ex ouk onton. This phrase "out of nothing" is best understood as "out of non-being" or "out of invisible matter" because at that time they still believed in the preexistence of matter. Matter was consider eternal (Goldstein, 1983, 307-10).
The Wisdom of Solomon 11:17 states, "For thy almighty hand which made the world of matter without form" (DV). This verse teaches that God made the world out of formless (eternal) matter (Winston, 1971-2, 185-202; Goldstein, 1984, 127-35). In chapter 7:25 wisdom is seen as a "pure emanation of the glory of the almighty God" (DV).
Philo sees Genesis 1:1-3 through platonic eyes. This is the creation of the invisible world of ideas (On the Creation, 26-37, compare Plato’s Timaeus 29E). The book of Hebrews also seems to follow platonic ideas. The visible world comes from invisible matter (Heb. 11:3). Philo sees preexistent matter alongside of God at the beginning. This invisible matter was eternal (On the Creation, 12). God is the active principle, the formless matter is the passive principle (May, 10). Philo even uses the phrase ek mh ontwn, meaning "out of non-being," and not "out of nothing" (Allegorical Interpretation III. 10). Clearly, there is no ex nihilo creation in Philo.
In Genesis Rabbah Rabban Gamaliel explains by quoting other scripture that everything mentioned in Genesis 1:2 was created, therefore, denying that unformed matter was used by God to create the world. May concludes, "a firm, unambiguously formulated doctrine of creatio ex nihilo is not worked out in ancient Jewry" (1994, 23).
In the Middle Ages Moses Mainmonides wrote The Guide for the Perplexed. He gives three main views of Creation: The scriptural view that the world was created out of nothing; the platonic view that God can not create matter out of absolute non-existence, matter must be eternal; and finally the aristotelian view that agrees with Plato that matter can not be created, but added that it can also not be destroyed, time and motion of the heavens are eternal (Trans. By Friedlander, 1956, 171-73; Burrell and McGinn, 1990, 128). Another great Jewish thinker who came after Maimonides was Gersonides (1288-1344 AD) Gersonides asked some probing questions like "When were the waters created?" Because there was no mention in Genesis of the creation of water, he rejected the doctrine of creatio ex nihilo (Burrell and McGinn, 6; Staub, 1982).
Hebrews 11:3 states, "Through faith we understand that the worlds were framed by the word of God, so that things which are seen were not made of things which do appear" (KJV). It seems here that God made the world out of invisible matter (Romans 1:20), or as Plato would say, "inert gas." It seems that the writer of Hebrews is understanding Genesis 1:2 as the LXX did because tohu is translated as "unseen" or "invisible." Is the "word of God" in Hebrews 11:3 the Logos that created the world in John 1:1-3? It may also be similar to Plato’s world of ideas, the logos, and even more closely to Philo’s use of logos.
Romans 4:17 says, "the God who gives life to the dead and calls things that are not as though they are" (NIV). This is in the context of the birth of Isaac. A similar comparison is found in Xenophon’s Memorabilia that parents "bring forth their children out of non-being" (II,2.3; May, 8). This does not mean that children are creatio ex nihilo.
Early Church Fathers
The early church fathers seem to believe the platonic idea of eternal matter from which God fashioned the world. Justin Martyr is an example. In The First Apology of Justin he says, "He in the beginning did of His goodness, for man’s sake, created all things out of unformed matter" (Chapter 10). Justin and Plato in Timaeus both agree that everything came into being through God (Apology I:20, 4). Justin says that Plato took his ideas about God making the world out of unformed matter from Genesis. Justin states, "Plato borrowed his statement that God, having altered matter which was shapeless, made the world (Apology I:59). The world was made out of preexistent matter.
The successor of Justin Martyr was Athenagoras who was an Athenian philosopher who became a Christian. His Apology or Embassy was presented to Emperors Aurelius and Commodus about 177 AD. He explicitly believed in the pre-existence of matter (Chadwick 1966, 12, 47).
Clement of Alexandria three times "declares that the world is made 'out of nothing', but in each case the phrase he employs is ek me ontos, not ex ouk ontos; that is to say, it is made not from that which is absolutely non-existent, but from relative non-being or unformed matter" (Chadwick 1966, 46).
May in his book Creatio ex Nihilo argues very persuasively for the second century AD development of the doctrine of "creation out of nothing" (1994). It was not until the second century AD that the church fathers saw a theological problem with eternal matter. It was their conflict with the Gnostic and middle platonists that developed the idea of God creating "out of nothing."