Creation Out of Nothing

‘The Introduction of Being Entirely’

Editor’s Note: This is the first installment of four articles on the doctrine of creation.

Christian faith affirms a particular manner in which all things were created: “By faith we understand that the universe was created by the word of God, so that what is seen was not made out of things that are visible” (Heb 11:3). Focusing on the latter half,[1] the author tells us from what we were made of—things not visible. The Christian faith has thus affirmed creatio ex nihilo—God created everything out of nothing. We might understand the principal meaning of creatio ex nihilo (creation out of nothing) by first understanding “nihil” and “ex.”

First, we can often be eager to take the term “nothing” and make it into some sort of “thing” or “stuff.” But nothing is simply just that—nothing. “Nothing is pure negation.”[2] We cannot say that “nothing” is some sort of something or matter already existent, but it is nothing.

Second, we also tend so see “ex” and think it indicates from what we were made of, implying some sort of relation to preceding material (since we often misunderstand nihil). However, “ex” signifies a special sequence from nonbeing to being. In Bavinck’s words:

the expression ex nihilo was not the description of a preexisting matter from which the world was made, but it only meant that what exists, once did not exist, and that it was only called into existence by God’s almighty power. Hence the expression ex nihilo is on a level with the term post nihilum: the preposition ex does not designate [the cause] but only excludes a material cause; the world has its cause, not in itself, but only in God.[3]

More briefly: “the sequence [of creatio ex nihilo] is: there was nothing at all . . . now there is something.”[4]

Third, with this in mind, we might clarify and say what creation is not. Since nothing is nothing, creation is not a modification or an alteration, for there was nothing besides God before creation in eternity. Creation, then, is not an emanation “as if God’s own being flowed out into his creatures and so unfolded in them.”[5] From this, we can make three more statements about creatio ex nihilo.

First, since nothing was other than God, but then there was something else after the divine work of creation, creatio ex nihilo is what Aquinas calls it, “the introduction of being entirely.”[6] Once again, this means nothing else was other than God before creation. 

Second, and this is perhaps the principal implication of creatio ex nihilo, nothing is needed for creation to be other than God.[7] Put differently, God needs nothing other than himself to create. He did not need any tools or “stuff” in order that he might form something. “God needs ‘absolutely nothing to start with.’”[8] Therefore, the doctrine of creatio ex nihilo is an extension of the doctrine of God’s perfect life. In his aseity and fullness of life, God is not restricted, but gives life because he is Life. Once there was only a se life, and then there was also created life, and for this to be, only God is required. 

Additionally, this is neither a loss of nor an addition to God’s life because third, if creatio ex nihilo will say one more thing, it would show us that uncreated being (i.e., ipsum esse subsistens) and created being are fundamentally different[9]; hence, created being adds nothing to God’s being because it is not his being nor is it essentially ordered to his being.

[1] Also see Heb 1:2; cf. John 1:1–3, 10. I choose not to focus on the first half here because in a number of other articles, I have already established that God is subsisting being itself, and so, he is the principium and cause of all other things. For an interesting thoughts on all things being created through or by the Word of God, see St. Thomas Aquinas, Commentary on the Gospel of John: Chapters 1–5, trans Fabian Larcher and James A. Weisheipl (Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 2010), 30–35.

[2] Webster, “‘Love is also a lover of life,’” I:106.

[3] Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, II:418.

[4] Webster, “‘Love is also a lover of life,’” I:106.

[5] Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, II:419. This is not to say that creatures do not have their existence by participation from God as their exemplary cause, but rather that creatures do not have the life solely belong to God by which it flowed out and became creatures (see ibid., II:419; cf. Aquinas, ST Ia.45.1).

[6] Aquinas ST, Ia.45.1, quoted in Webster, “Creation out of Nothing,” 142.

[7] Webster, “Non ex aequo,” I:120.

[8] Webster, “Creation out of Nothing,” 146, quote of Aquinas, ST IIIa.75.8. Webster elsewhere will say, “the act of creation does not presuppose something other than God, and is not an act which forms antecedent matter, for it has no material cause, there being no patient entity to receive the mastery over contending forces” (Webster, “Non ex aequo,” I:121).

[9] Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, II:419.