HomeBeliefCreation by God ‘ex nihilo’ taught by Tertullian (3rd century)
March 17, 2020
Creation by God ‘ex nihilo’ taught by Tertullian (3rd century)
The Christian doctrine of creation ‘ex nihilo’ teaches that God created all things out of nothing (‘ex nihilo’ is just a Latin phrase meaning ‘out of nothing’). We find the belief very clearly stated by the early Christian theologian Tertullian, writing less than two centuries after Jesus’ death, resurrection and ascension. What we don’t always realize these days is how counter-intuitive this belief seems to be.
Georges Lemaître and the ‘Big Bang’
It was the Belgian physicist Georges Lemaître who discovered the expansion of the universe, first publishing the theory in a science journal in 1927. This was the discovery that led to the subsequent inference that the universe had all been produced by what came to be called ‘the Big Bang.’
“Before Lemaître’s discovery, many scientists had — in the face of the Bible’s account of creation at a point in time — held the view that the universe had always existed. Even Albert Einstein, whose work on the theory of relativity had provided the mathematical groundwork for the discovery, was skeptical about the conclusion. He, and many other scientists, suspected Lemaître’s conclusion to be driven by his Catholic faith rather than by objective science.”
Before this discovery, many scientists had — in the face of the Bible’s account of creation at a point in time — held the view that the universe had always existed. Even Albert Einstein, whose work on the theory of relativity had provided the mathematical groundwork for Lemaître’s discovery, was skeptical about the conclusion. He, and many other scientists, suspected Lemaître’s conclusion to be driven by his Catholic faith rather than by objective science. This is in spite of the fact that he didn’t wish his discovery to be used as a Christian apologetic argument, as shown by his resentment at Pope Pius XII’s proclamation in 1951 that the Big Bang theory was consistent with Roman Catholicism.
This gives us an interesting trajectory of thought in the Western world. When by far the predominant modes of thought in Western Europe were Roman Catholicism and Protestantism, the belief in creation ‘ex nihilo’ (a belief held in common by both branches of Christianity) was practically a given.
With the advent of increasing theological skepticism about the Bible particularly from the nineteenth century onward, many in the Western world adopted the view that the universe had always existed. And then, by the mid-twentieth century, as a result of Lemaître’s discovery, Western thought reverted to the view that the universe came into existence (whether ‘ex nihilo’ or not).
It is tempting to see the middle point of this trajectory — the view that the universe had always existed — as a manifestation of the human short lifespan (or if you prefer, human short memories). From our individual human viewpoints, nature looks and feels like something fundamentally unchanging, even though our school textbooks tell us that it is not (think “ice age”). This is in contrast with human science and ‘progress,’ which even within the span of a single human life are obviously moving forward apace. So we picture nature as an unchanging thing; from this is not a great intellectual leap to imagine the world as always having been thus.
From this, it would appear that the only thing preventing Europeans before the Enlightenment from viewing the world as “always having been,” was the Christian doctrine of creation ‘ex nihilo.’ Once the biblical foundations of society, and of belief about the world, were widely rejected as bogus, Western thought readily slipped back into this default belief. It took an observation as radical — and, apparently, as scientifically irrefutable — as the expansion of the universe to shake this belief up again.
Creation ‘ex nihilo’ in Christianity
The Christian idea of creation ‘ex nihilo’ goes back a very long way. This shouldn’t surprise us; it is at least implicitly there in the pages of the Bible. In fact, it’s not even a particularly Christian idea; it goes right back into the Jewish Old Testament:
In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. The earth was without form and void, and darkness was over the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters.
And God said, “Let there be light”, and there was light. And God saw that the light was good. And God separated the light from the darkness. God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, the first day. Genesis 1:1-5
By the word of the LORD the heavens were made,
and by the breath of his mouth all their host.
He gathers the waters of the sea as a heap;
he puts the deeps in storehouses.
Let all the earth fear the LORD;
let all the inhabitants of the world stand in awe of him!
For he spoke, and it came to be;
he commanded, and it stood firm. Psalm 33:6-9
Both these passages say plainly that the heavens and the earth were created by God. The only bit that is not quite ‘ex nihilo’ is in the Genesis passage: it may be read as implying that God created the heavens and the earth from some underlying, pre-existent material.
“By the word of the LORD the heavens were made,
and by the breath of his mouth all their host.”
What may possibly come as a surprise to us is that, just as in more modern times, so in the ancient Graeco-Roman world there was a prevalent, ‘scientific’ view that the world had always existed. I say that it was the ‘scientific’ view; it was held, often, by people who rejected the cosmogonies (creation stories) of ancient poets, such as Hesiod. The philosopher Aristotle, for example, believed that the world had always existed.
Creation ‘ex nihilo’ in Tertullian
It is against this cultural backdrop that the North African Christian theologian Tertullian, writing around A.D. 208 — less than two centuries after the death, resurrection and ascension of Christ, but long before Christianity became the dominant mode of thought in the Roman Empire — asserts the idea that the universe was created ‘ex nihilo’ by God.
In his treatise On the Resurrection of the Flesh, written around that year, Tertullian is arguing for the Christian doctrine of the resurrection of the body — a doctrine denied by the mid-second century heretic Marcion and other groups.
“Firmly believe that [God] produced [the world] entirely out of nothing, and then you have found the knowledge of God, by believing that he possesses such mighty power. But some people are too weak to believe all this at first, owing to their views about matter. Like the philosophers, they would rather have it that in the beginning the universe was made by God out of underlying matter.”
Tertullian, ‘On the Resurrection of the Flesh,’ chapter 11
In chapter 11 of this work he writes:—
“Faith in [God] must rest on no other basis than the belief that he is able to do all things. No doubt you have amongst your philosophers men who maintain that this world is without a beginning or a maker. However, it is much more true that nearly all the [Christian] heresies allow it an origin and a maker, and ascribe its creation to our God.
“Firmly believe, therefore, that he produced it entirely out of nothing, and then you have found the knowledge of God, by believing that he possesses such mighty power. But some people are too weak to believe all this at first, owing to their views about matter. Like the philosophers, they would rather have it that in the beginning the universe was made by God out of underlying matter.
“Now, even if it were possible to hold this opinion in truth: Since [God] must be acknowledged, in his re-formation of matter, to have produced substances far different, and forms far different, from those which matter itself possessed, I should maintain with no less persistence that he produced these things out of nothing. Because prior to his production of them, they absolutely had no existence at all.”
Here we have, clearly stated, the doctrine of creation ‘ex nihilo.’
To some extent this is, for Tertullian, a hypothetical proposition. As we have indicated above, he does not assert this doctrine within some kind of ‘systematic theology’ of the Christian faith. He makes the assertion in order to show, a fortiori, that the resurrection of the body is possible.
The argument runs, in effect:— Since God created the entire universe out of nothing, and indeed created humanity in the first place with its human body, surely it is an easy thing for God to remake, in the resurrection, what he has already made?
The position is hypothetical for Tertullian in that, even if you don’t grant that God created ‘ex nihilo,’ but read the text of Genesis 1 as if God made the universe out of some underlying matter already present, still his argument holds. For even if this were the case, still out of that underlying matter God created a new thing when he formed the universe and made humanity. So in either event, he is quite capable of restoring the human body.
“For if God produced all things whatsoever out of nothing, he will be able to draw forth from nothing even the flesh which had fallen into nothing. Or if he moulded other things out of matter, he will be able to call forth the flesh also from somewhere else, into whatever abyss it may have been engulfed. And surely he who created is fully competent to re-create, insofar as it is a far greater work to have produced than to have reproduced, [and] to have imparted a beginning than to have maintained a continuance. On this principle, you may be quite sure that the restoration of the flesh is easier than its first formation.”
So, a hypothetical position yes; Tertullian proposes it in order to argue for the resurrection of the body. But also certainly a position which he genuinely held.
“Turning away from Christians to the philosophers, from the Church to the Academy and the Porch, [Hermogenes] learned there from the Stoics how to place matter [on a par] with the Lord, just as if it too had always existed both unborn and unmade, having neither a beginning nor an end at all, [and] out of which, according to him, the Lord afterwards created all things.”
Tertullian, ‘Against Hermogenes,’ chapter 1
We see this if we go to another treatise of his, written at a similar time (perhaps A.D. 207), Against Hermogenes. Of the Hermogenes in question we know almost nothing, other than the fact he was a Christian heretic who maintained that matter existed eternally and was the base material from which God made the universe. This much we learn from what Tertullian says of him.
In the opening chapter of this work, Tertullian writes of this Hermogenes — and note again the reference to the belief in the eternity of matter in pagan philosophy, namely Platonism and Stoicism —
“He does not appear to acknowledge any other Christ as Lord, although he holds him in a different way. But by this difference in his faith he really makes him into another being; nay, he takes from him everything which is God, since he will not allow that he made all things from nothing.
“For, turning away from Christians to the philosophers, from the Church to the Academy and the Porch, he learned there from the Stoics how to place matter [on a par] with the Lord, just as if it too had always existed both unborn and unmade, having neither a beginning nor an end at all, [and] out of which, according to him, the Lord afterwards created all things.”
This passage proves to us that Tertullian held the belief of creation ‘ex nihilo,’ not merely as an argumentative device, but actually and truly.
In contrasting this belief with the teachings of the Platonists and the Stoics, it also shows — then as now — how radical and unintuitive a belief it really is.
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On the Resurrection of the Flesh, chapter 11. Tertullian, The Ante-Nicene Fathers Vol. III: Latin Christianity: Its Founder, Tertullian (T&T Clark, Edinburgh; Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, Grand Rapids, MI, 1997), 553. Note, in this and subsequent quotations of Tertullian I have slightly altered the translation there found in order to make it easier for the modern reader.
Graham is an evangelical Christian believer living in Sussex, UK. He is passionate about helping people to understand what the Bible really says, and about explaining what the Christians of the early centuries believed and taught.