Mormon view of the creation/Creatio ex nihilo

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    The Mormon view of "Creatio ex nihilo"

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Questions


Mainstream Christianity teaches that God created the universe from nothing (ex nihilo), while Mormons teach that God organized the universe from pre-existing matter. The LDS God is therefore claimed to be "less powerful" than the God of mainstream Christianity, or "unbiblical."

To see citations to the critical sources for these claims, click here

Answer


LDS doctrine rejects Neo-Plantonic accretions, but this does not make them automatically false

Non-LDS Christian Stephen H. Webb wrote:[1]

Mormon arguments deserve to be examined on their own grounds for internal consistency and biblical adequacy. Not being Platonic is not equivalent to not being rational. [2]:92

One non-LDS scholar's conclusion is apt:

Creatio ex nihilo appeared suddenly in the latter half of the second century c.e. Not only did creatio ex nihilo lack precedent, it stood in firm opposition to all the philosophical schools of the Greco-Roman world. As we have seen, the doctrine was not forced upon the Christian community by their revealed tradition, either in Biblical texts or the Early Jewish interpretation of them. As we will also see it was not a position attested in the New Testament doctrine or even sub-apostolic writings. It was a position taken by the apologists of the late second century, Tatian and Theophilus, and developed by various ecclesiastical writers thereafter, by Irenaeus, Tertullian, and Origen. Creatio ex nihilo represents an innovation in the interpretive traditions of revelation and cannot be explained merely as a continuation of tradition.[3]

Creatio ex nihilo is not taught in the Old or New Testaments, or by the early Christian Fathers, unless one assumes it. The doctrine was a novel idea that altered the beliefs and doctrines of the Jews and early Christians.

A non-LDS Christian's view of Joseph Smith's teachings on creation

Mormons and creatio ex nihilo (creation out of nothing)

Non-LDS Christian Stephen H. Webb wrote:[1]

Thological and philosophical critics of Mormonism often focus on their rejection of the doctrine of creation out of nothing, as if the Mormon relationship to traditional theology is merely negative. What critics miss is the flip side of this rejection, namely, the affirmation of the eternity of matter and how this affirmation functions as the philosophical foundation for a

dramatic revision of the pre-existence of Jesus Christ. [2]:87

[Joseph] "Smith would have held his own in debating with" Neo-Platonists, Gnostics, and early Christian theologians

Non-LDS Christian Stephen H. Webb wrote:[1]

[I]t would be a mistake to think of Mormonism as simply rejecting the Greek heritage of metaphysics. Paulsen has done more than any Mormon thinker to demonstrate how Smith’s idea of divine embodiment would have been in the theological mainstream prior to Origen and Augustine. In fact, [David] Paulsen, who is also a professor at Brigham Young University, has done more

than any theologian of any denomination to rediscover the metaphysical depths of anthropomorphism in early Christian theology, and his work has been extremely helpful for my own project. Paulsen shows how the Mormon version of the restoration of the Church requires a strong reading of the history of metaphysics. Joseph Smith spoke plainly, but that should not disguise the revolutionary nature of his claims. I have discussed emerging ideas of matter in the context of the Neo-Platonists, the Gnostics, and the early theologians, and Smith would have held his own in debating with all three groups. Smith had the imagination of the Gnostics in his multilayered portrait of the divinities that populate the cosmos. Nonetheless, he would have agreed with the Neo-Platonists and the Christians that the Gnostics erred in identifying matter with evil. He would have liked the Platonic concept of pre-existent souls as well as Plato’s portrait of the Demiurge as being not absolutely different from the world. Indeed, his sense of the rhythmic and cyclical movement of spirits from a refined to an embodied state and back again would have led him to express great interest in the circular framework of Plotinus, but Smith would not have accepted the elitism and intellectualism built into Neo-Platonic thought. He would have sympathized with Christians who struggled to identify nature’s inherent goodness, but he would not have shared their solution in attributing infinity to God. Smith absorbed and revised so many Christian traditions, but negative theology has virtually no room in his thought. In the debates over infinity, Smith, ever the concrete thinker, would have affirmed an actual, as opposed to a potential infinity in order to defend his vision of the afterlife as an eternal progression through space and time. His cosmos was big enough for both the eternity of the divine and the infinity of matter, but his materialism left no room for one entity that is both eternal and infinite. In sum, he would have de-Augustinized theology in order to baptize Greek philosophy anew. [2]:91

Augustine's views about matter are perhaps less coherent than Joseph Smith's

Non-LDS Christian Stephen H. Webb wrote:[1]

Augustine’s position is actually not as sound as it first appears. If God makes the world out of himself, does it necessarily have all the attributes of the divine? Does it necessarily follow that matter is a substance that equals God’s own power? The problem with Augustine’s position (and the whole of classical theism on this issue) is that he can imagine no middle ground between creating and shaping. From the perspective of classical theism, if God does not create matter out of nothing, then God merely shapes (or adds form to) the matter that is already there, and that means that God is neither infinite nor omnipotent. If matter is too close to God, then God must not have complete mastery over it. Likewise, if matter comes from God, then God must be tainted by it, which means that God shares in its corruptibility. Either way, God would not be God, or at least, God would not be infinite. But what if there is a middle ground? What if matter is one of God’s perfections without the world being divine? If the perfection of matter is already an expression of who God is (indeed, if it is the substance of the Father’s relation to the Son), then matter can come from God without compromising God’s nature. Moreover, God would be neither master nor victim of matter’s nature, since God’s relation to matter would be nothing more than a reiteration of the Father’s relation to the Son.[2]:92–93

Creedal Christians can learn from LDS views about Jesus Christ and creation

Non-LDS Christian Stephen H. Webb wrote:[1]

[In LDS doctrine] Matter as we know it has a beginning, an origin, in Christ, but matter as it can be, in its perfected form, is eternally an attribute of the divine. In this way, the eternity of matter can be conceived without falling into the trap of pantheism, and this possibility, I am convinced, is precisely what Joseph Smith saw, even if he did not put it into these words or this theological context.

Th Mormon Church stakes its whole theology on the coherence of the idea that God formed the world from a material substance that is not totally unlike his own divine nature. That makes Mormonism either a religious oddity in Western history or an utterly crucial metaphysical correction to our understanding of the role and value of matter in God’s creation of the world. At the very least, Mormonism presents a prod to theological thought at the precise time when materiality is more central to public awareness than ever before. Our relationship to the material world, whether it goes by the name of environmentalism, ecology, sustainability, or evolution has never been so urgently pressed before us as today. To respond to this urgency, we need not only an ethic but also a metaphysics of matter.

We cannot know how to treat matter unless we know what it is, and the nature of matter has to include but ultimately go beyond the specificities of science. We need to know what matter is for, where it comes from, and to what extent it is identical to what we are. These are the central questions of our time, and creedal Christians can answer them only in a self-critical and mutually beneficial dialogue with Latter-day Saints—and that dialogue has to begin with an assessment of the life and thought of Joseph Smith. [2]:94–95

Joseph Smith's theology is not pagan—his theology is vast as the multiverse, and eliminates Neo-Platonism and Augustine

Non-LDS Christian Stephen H. Webb wrote:[1]

Far from reverting to paganism or simply falling into sloppy thinking, Smith was carrying his confidence in Christ to its fullest possible expression....All things are possible not only for us but also for God, in that this universe does not exhaust the divine creativity. The universe is not big enough to hold the majesty of God’s ingenuity. Rather than reacting negatively to the apparently infinite expansiveness of the universe, Smith called astronomy’s bluff and multiplied the universe by the same expansive factor. Smith was wiping the theological slate clean of the Neo-Platonic metaphysics that had so influenced Augustine.[2]:96–97

Sub-articles



Creatio ex nihilo

Mainstream Christianity teaches that God created the universe from nothing (ex nihilo), while Mormons teach that God organized the universe from pre-existing matter. The LDS God is therefore claimed to be "less powerful" than the God of mainstream Christianity, or "unbiblical." (Click here for full article)

  • Colossians 1:16
    Brief Summary: Does Colossians 1:16 teach that Jesus: 1) created all things out of nothing and 2) was responsible for the existence of all beings? (Click here for full article)
    ∗       ∗       ∗
  • Creation of spirits
    Brief Summary: Joseph Smith taught that spirits were not created, and that spirits did not have a beginning because they will not have an end. In scripture, however, there are many verses which stated that God created spirits. Did what Joseph taught contradict the scriptures? (Click here for full article)
    ∗       ∗       ∗


Detailed Analysis

The problem of a pre-existent 'something'

The reason why most of modern Christianity demands ex-nihilo creation stems from arguments dealing with the sovereignty of God. If something exists apart from God—i.e., pre-exists the first act of creation, it must be co-eternal with God (and by extension, perhaps co-equal, or potentially co-equal). Likewise, LDS scripture teaches that there exists something which is co-eternal with God and potentially co-equal with God in the Book of Abraham. Is God absolutely transcendent over the material with which he works? Is there only one that pre-exists creation (God) or is there more than one?

The Old Testament

The Old Testament makes no direct statement of ex-nihilo creation, and so the creation account is scrutinized for clues. Much of the debate over ex-nihilo creation stems from the first few verses of Genesis. And the controversy starts with the very first word: bereshit. The interpretation of Genesis 1:1 faces two questions. 1) Is Genesis 1:1 an independent sentence or a dependent clause, introducing the first sentence? And 2) What is the relationship of verse 1 to verse 2 (and even the remainder of the creation narrative in Genesis chapter 1)?

The Hebrew word roshit occurs some 50 times in the Old Testament. The vowels in the word indicate that is a construct form - that it means "beginning of" and not just "beginning". Of the other 50 occurrences, 49 of them follow this pattern. The exact same construction with the prefix be- occurs in four other places (Jer. 26:1; 27:1; 28:1; 49:34), and in each instance is generally translated as "In the beginning of the reign of ..." The other instances of roshit follow this construct pattern except for one in Isaiah 46:10, where we read: "I am God ... declaring the end from the beginning." Here there can be little doubt that the word cannot be read as a construct. And this one occurrence is often used to justify reading bereshit in Genesis 1:1 as an absolute and not a construct. To which we respond, is a grammatical error in one location reason to justify an adoption of a similar reading here? Why should we adopt the reading favored by one example over the dozens of alternatives?

If beroshit is a construct state, then verse 1 and verse 2 are both subordinate clauses describing the state of everything at the moment which God begins to create, and the beginning of verse 3 becomes the main clause for the first sentence of the Bible. Read this way, the beginning of the Bible reads:

When God began to create the heavens and the earth (the earth being without form and void, and darkness was on the surface of the deep, and the spirit of God moved upon the surface of the waters), God said, "Let there be light".

The first act of creation then is the command for light to exist. And all the rest - the earth as a desert and a wasteland (terms that imply an absence of both plant and animal life), the darkness, the deep, and so on, all exist prior to that first act of creation - and by definition are pre-existent.

Apart from this passage, there is often discussion over the meaning of the word bara - "to create". The Hebrew term bara itself is rather indifferent to the question of ex-nihilo creation. Often the claim is made that the word is used exclusively of God, but this clearly isn't the case (see for example Ezekiel 21:19). The meaning of bara here is dependent entirely on how we read the rest of the first line of the Old Testament.

In the absence of any Old Testament expressions of ex-nihilo creation, it seems preferable to follow the view that Israelite religion had not developed this theology. Joseph Smith resolved the interpretive crux in Genesis 1:1 in a rather unique fashion. In the Book of Moses, rather than defining creation in absolute terms (either from nothing or from something), he limits the description of creation in Genesis to a particular place and time. Creation is no longer universal:

And it came to pass, that the Lord spake unto Moses, saying, 'Behold, I reveal unto you concerning this heaven and this earth; write the words which I speak. ... Yea, in the beginning I created the heaven and the earth upon which thou standest. (Moses 2:1,3)

The New Testament

The New Testament doesn't provide much additional help in resolving the issue. It relies heavily on the language of the Old Testament when discussing creation. And the same sorts of ambiguities arise. As James Hubler's Ph.D. dissertation on this very issue noted:

Several New Testament texts have been educed as evidence of creatio ex nihilo. None makes a clear statement which would have been required to establish such an unprecedented position, or which we would need as evidence of such a break with tradition. None is decisive and each could easily be accepted by a proponent of creatio ex materia...The punctuation of [John 1:3] becomes critical to its meaning. Proponents of creatio ex materia could easily qualify the creatures of the Word to that "which came about," excluding matter. Proponents of creatio ex nihilo could place a period after "not one thing came about" and leave "which came about" to the next sentence. The absence of a determinate tradition of punctuation in New Testament [Greek] texts leaves room for both interpretations. Neither does creation by word imply ex nihilo...as we have seen in Egypt, Philo, and Midrash Rabba, and even in 2 Peter 3:5, where the word functions to organize pre-cosmic matter. [4]

Early Christian beliefs about creation

Contrary to the critics' claims, their belief in ex nihilo creation was not shared by the first Christians. The concept of creatio ex nihilo

began to be adumbrated in Christian circles shortly before Galen's time. The first Christian thinker to articulate the rudiments of a doctrine of creatio ex nihilo was the Gnostic theologian Basilides, who flourished in the second quarter of the second century. Basilides worked out an elaborate cosmogony as he sought to think through the implications of Christian teaching in light of the platonic cosmogony. He rejected the analogy of the human maker, the craftsman who carves a piece of wood, as an anthropomorphism that severely limited the power of God. God, unlike mortals, created the world out of ‘non-existing’ matter. He first brought matter into being through the creation of ‘seeds’, and it is this created stuff that is fashioned, according to His will, into the cosmos.[5]

Thus, the doctrine of creatio ex nihilo was first advanced by a Gnostic (a heretical branch of Christianity), and did not appear until more than a century after the birth of Christ.

The idea of God using pre-existing material in creation was accepted by at least some of the early Church Fathers, suggesting that beliefs about the mechanism of creation altered over time, as Greek philosophical ideas intruded on Christian doctrine. Justin Martyr (A.D. 110—165) said:

And we have been taught that He in the beginning did of His goodness, for man's sake, create all things out of unformed matter; and if men by their works show themselves worthy of this His design, they are deemed worthy, and so we have received-of reigning in company with Him, being delivered from corruption and suffering.”[6]

Justin continues elsewhere with such examples as:

  • “by the word of God the whole world was made out of the substance spoken of before by Moses.”[7]
  • [the earth,] “which God made according to the pre-existent form.”[8]
  • “And His Son, who alone is properly called Son, the Word who also was with Him and was begotten before the works, when at first He created and arranged all things by Him, is called Christ, in reference to His being anointed and God's ordering all thing; through Him...”[9]

Justin was not the only Father to reject ex nihilo creation. Clement said in his "Hymn to the Paedagogus":

Out of a confused heap who didst create This ordered sphere, and from the shapeless mass Of matter didst the universe adorn....[10]

And, Blake Ostler comments on 1 Clement:

Clement stated: "Thou . . . didst make manifest the everlasting fabric of the world. Thou, Lord, didst create the earth." The terms used here by Clement are significant. He asserts that God did "make manifest" (ἐϕανεροποίησας) the "everlasting fabric of the world" (Σὺ τὴν ἀέναον του κόσμου σύστασιν). He is referring to an eternal substrate that underlies God's creative activity. Clement is important because he is at the very center of the Christian church as it was then developing. His view assumed that God had created from an eternally existing substrate, creating by "making manifest" what already existed in some form. The lack of argumentation or further elucidation indicates that Clement was not attempting to establish a philosophical position; he was merely maintaining a generally accepted one. However, the fact that such a view was assumed is even more significant than if Clement had argued for it. If he had presented an argument for this view, then we could assume that it was either a contested doctrine or a new view. But because he acknowledged it as obvious, it appears to have been a generally accepted belief in the early Christian church.[11]

The doctrine is altered

Non-LDS author Edwin Hatch noted the influence of some Greek philosophical ideas in the change to creatio ex nihilo:

With Basilides [a second century Gnostic philosopher], the conception of matter was raised to a higher plane. The distinction of subject and object was preserved, so that the action of the Transcendent God was still that of creation and not of evolution; but it was "out of that which was not" that He made things to be . . . . The basis of the theory was Platonic, though some of the terms were borrowed from both Aristotle and the Stoics. It became itself the basis for the theory which ultimately prevailed in the Church. The transition appears in Tatian [ca. A.D. 170][12]

Notes

  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 1.4 1.5 "Webb is Professor of Philosophy and Religion at Wabash College in Crawfordsville, Indiana. He is a graduate of Wabash College and earned his PhD at the University of Chicago before returning to his alma mater to teach. Born in 1961 he grew up at Englewood Christian Church, an evangelical church. He joined the Disciples of Christ during He was briefly a Lutheran, and on Easter Sunday, 2007, he officially came into full communion with the Roman Catholic Church."
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 2.3 2.4 2.5 Stephen H. Webb, "Godbodied: The Matter of the Latter-day Saints (reprint from his book Jesus Christ, Eternal God: Heavenly Flesh and the Metaphysics of Matter (Oxford University Press, 2012)," Brigham Young University Studies 50 no. 3 (2011).
  3. James N. Hubler, "Creatio ex Nihilo: Matter, Creation, and the Body in Classical and Christian Philosophy through Aquinas" (PhD diss., University of Pennsylvania, 1995), 102; cited in Blake T. Ostler, "Out of Nothing: A History of Creation ex Nihilo in Early Christian Thought (review of Review of Paul Copan and William Lane Craig, "Craftsman or Creator? An Examination of the Mormon Doctrine of Creation and a Defense of Creatio ex nihilo," in The New Mormon Challenge: Responding to the Latest Defenses of a Fast-Growing Movement, edited by Beckwith, Mosser, and Owen)," FARMS Review 17/2 (2005): 253–320. off-site
  4. James N. Hubler, "Creatio ex Nihilo: Matter, Creation, and the Body in Classical and Christian Philosophy through Aquinas" (PhD diss., University of Pennsylvania, 1995), 107–8; cited in Blake T. Ostler, "Out of Nothing: A History of Creation ex Nihilo in Early Christian Thought (review of Review of Paul Copan and William Lane Craig, "Craftsman or Creator? An Examination of the Mormon Doctrine of Creation and a Defense of Creatio ex nihilo," in The New Mormon Challenge: Responding to the Latest Defenses of a Fast-Growing Movement, edited by Beckwith, Mosser, and Owen)," FARMS Review 17/2 (2005): 253–320. off-site
  5. Gerhard May, Schoepfung Aus Dem Nichts: Die Entstehung Der Lehre Von Der Creatio Ex Nihilo (Arbeiten Zur Kirchengeschichte, Vol 48) (Walter De Gruyter Inc, 1978), 63-85. ISBN 3110072041; as quoted in Robert Louis Wilken, The Christians as the Romans saw Them (Yale University Press, 2003), 88–89. ISBN 0300098391.
  6. Justin Martyr, "First Apology of Justin," in Chapter 10 Ante-Nicene Fathers, edited by Philip Schaff (Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1886)1:165. ANF ToC off-site This volume
  7. Justin Martyr, "First Apology of Justin," in Chapter 59 Ante-Nicene Fathers, edited by Philip Schaff (Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1886)1:182. ANF ToC off-site This volume
  8. Justin Martyr, "Hortatory to the Greeks," in Chapter 30 Ante-Nicene Fathers, edited by Philip Schaff (Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1886)1:286. ANF ToC off-site This volume
  9. Justin Martyr, "First Apology of Justin," in Chapter 10 Ante-Nicene Fathers, edited by Philip Schaff (Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1886)1:165. ANF ToC off-site This volume
  10. Clement, "Hymn to the Paedagogus," in ? Ante-Nicene Fathers, edited by Philip Schaff (Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1886)2:296. ANF ToC off-site This volume
  11. Blake T. Ostler, "Out of Nothing: A History of Creation ex Nihilo in Early Christian Thought (review of Review of Paul Copan and William Lane Craig, "Craftsman or Creator? An Examination of the Mormon Doctrine of Creation and a Defense of Creatio ex nihilo," in The New Mormon Challenge: Responding to the Latest Defenses of a Fast-Growing Movement, edited by Beckwith, Mosser, and Owen)," FARMS Review 17/2 (2005): 253–320. off-site; citing 1 Clement 60, in J. B. Lightfoot, The Apostolic Fathers, ed. J. R. Harmer (1891; repr., Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book, 1956), 1:176. Lightfoot translates this text as: "Thou through Thine operations didst make manifest the everlasting fabric of the world" (1:303). See Oscar de Gebhardt and Adolphus Harnack, Patrium Apostolicorum Opera: Clementis Romani (Leipzig: Hinrichs, 1876), 1:100.
  12. Edwin Hatch, The Influence of Greek Ideas and Usages upon the Christian Church, 195–196.



Further reading and additional sources responding to these claims

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