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Is Creation Ex Nihilo (out of nothing) Important in Everyday Life?

July 20, 2007

My good friend Steve, who is working on a Ph.D in OT at Aberdeen, recently asked a very good question: “I have noticed that many people who try to bring theology to bear on culture (if you know what I mean) often emphasize creation as a major theme. Within this stream of theology, creation ex-nihilo plays a pretty big part (I think). My question: is creation ex-nihilo really important for this type of engagement? How much would change without this doctrine?”

I thought this was an outstanding question, so I gave it a bit of thought and issued the following reply:

Great question, Steve. I haven’t really thought about that angle much. Where have you picked up on the ex nihilo doctrine being prominent in theologies of culture? Not that I disagree, but certainly it’s not in the pop xn publishing world. Here are a few thoughts:

1) There is not a theology of culture per se in the Bible, so we are forced back to the origins of culture-making, back to creation.

2) If God did not make creation “ex nihilo” this would mean that creation was either made from him (emanation/panentheism) or that it was always around (eternal creation/pantheism). Both have been views held by the church at various points in history.

If creation is an emanation of God, then God is directly implicated in all of its shortcomings and successes; there is no real distinction between God and the world(s). As a result, creation is deified and is degraded, and in turn, culture is deified or degraded, depending on the state of creation or culture considered. For example, majestic peaks in the swiss alps mean God is majestic and terrible town-wrecking tornadoes mean God is the author of evil. All that occurs in societies and cultures through governments, media, inventors, artist, etc would be directly divine or deplorable and associated directly with God. A very Greek view of God and creation.

If creation is eternal, then this posits a impersonal, divine rival to God. Thus, panthesits are right to worship creation because it has always been and is self-sufficient, not dependent upon a Creator. A very Eastern view of “God” and creation.

What does this all have to do with culture? Culture is mankind’s manipulation of creation for good or for ill. Because both pantheism and panentheism view creation as part of God, these views would lead to a deification of cultural products, beliefs and behaviors. In this line of thinking, created beings are little gods making worship-worthy things out of God/creation. A beautiful series of notes, arranged by a composer, should be worshipped for what it is–divine. The ontological distinction between culture and God is blurred and we end up with God/Creation getting all the credit for culture.

On the flipside, gross cultural practices like child pornography would ultimately be God/Creation’s fault, with humanity as a inconsequential participant in what is a product of the divine. Human responsibility is marginalized when creation is not distanced from God by a mediator.

3) Creation ex nihilo gives creation free-standing purpose and ontological value, since it isnt made from some other more important substance, like God, while also preventing a deification of creation/culture because it is an historical rival to God–it always has been. This, in turn, give meaning and purpose to culture making, allowing for culture to be both good and bad, depending on how it reflects the creator’s design and ethics.

4) Without creation ex nihilo, creation and culture collapse into God, making the three ontologically indiscernible. God becomes eternal stuff; not a divine community. Personal value and communal participation in culture-making are rendered obsolete, since creation and culture come from an impersonal force, not a tripersonal god. For instance, without creatio ex nihilo by a triune God, sports are reduced to a “battle of the gods”, creation versus God, man versus man. With ex nihilo via the Trinity, sports have value in their creative and community building nature.

A triune Creator who makes creation out of nothing produces cultures that are necessarily marked by a communal creativity, by humanity made in his image. As a result, culture is neither deified nor degraded on the whole, but can (1) be valued as free-standing creativity in the image of God (2) foster human community as a product of a divine community (3) not be rejected out of hand as “the bad culture” because it is made from stuff that God made out of nothing (4) should not rule our lives, since God is greater that creation and culture.

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