Much Ado About Creation Ex Nihilo

Robert Boylan in Ireland makes some salient points in his review of a recent debate between the Latter-day Saint Kwaku El and the Evangelical Jeremy Howard. I especially liked Robert’s scholarly insights into Romans 4:17, which is often misused to support the doctrine of creation ex nihilo. What follows is that portion of Boylan’s post (footnotes deleted), which contains some useful scriptural, theological, and historical insights:

When the Bible speaks of God “creating,” [Jeremy Howard] reads into that “ex nihilo.”


Blake T. Ostler, Out of Nothing: A History of Creation ex Nihilo in Early Christian Thought

Daniel O. McClellan, James Patrick Holding refuted on Creation Ex Nihilo

With respect to Rom 4:17, as Blake wrote in his article, Paul is speaking of the future resurrection:

Romans 4:17. Copan
and Craig next cite Romans 4:17 KJV: “even God, who quickeneth the
dead, and calleth those things which be not as though they were
(καλοῦντος τὰ μὴ ὄνταὡς ὄντα).” There are two possible translations of
Romans 4:17. The majority translation does not entail creation out of
nothing: “[Abraham] is our father in the presence of God whom he
believed—the God who makes the dead alive and summons the things that do
not yet exist as though they already do.”
[15] Another
translation indicates that God “calls into existence the things which
do not exist” (New American Bible, NAB). The first translation is
preferred for several reasons. First, Keith Norman has pointed out that
it is contradictory for God to call to that which does not exist.
[16] Second, as Moo stated, “this interpretation fits the immediate context
better than a reference to God’s creative power, for it explains the
assurance with which God can speak of the ‘many nations’ that will be
descended from Abraham.”
[17] Thus,
the preferred translation merely states that God summons the future
reality of the resurrection as if it already existed. This seems to me
to be a far better fit with the context.

Third, as Hubler comments: “The verse’s ‘non-existent’ need not be understood in an absolute sense of non-being. μὴ ὄντα (mē onta)
refers to the previous non-existence of those things which are now
brought into existence. There is no direct reference to the absence or
presence of a material cause.”
[18] In other words, the Greek text suggests the view that God has brought about a thing that did not existas that thing before
it was so created. For example, this use of μὴ ὄντα is logically
consistent with the proposition that “God called forth the earth when
before that the earth did not exist.” However, the fact that the earth
did not exist as the earth before it was so created does not address the type of material that was used to make it.

also that Romans 4:17 uses the negative μή, which refers to merely
relative nonbeing and not to absolute nothing, as required by the
doctrine of creation ex nihilo. At
this point it is important to understand a bit about the ancient
concept of matter in the Greek-speaking world and the distinction
between relative nonbeing (Greek μὴ ὄντα) and absolute nothing (Greek
οὐκ ὄντως). Platonic philosophy—both Neoplatonism and Middle
Platonism—posited the existence of an eternal substratum that was
material but was nevertheless so removed from the One Ground of Being
that it was often said to not have “real” existence. As Jonathan
Goldstein observes: “Platonists called pre-existent matter ‘the
[19] This
relative nonexistence is indicated by the Greek negative μή, meaning
“not” or “non-,” in conjunction with the word for existence or being.
[20] When
the early Christian theologians speak of creation that denies that
there was any material state prior to creation, however, they use the
Greek negation ουκ, meaning “not in any way or mode.” As Henry Chadwick
explained the usage in Clement’s Stromata: “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, so shadowy
and vague that it cannot be said to have the status of ‘being’, which
is imparted to it by the shaping hand of the Creator.”
[21] Edwin
Hatch explained that, for Platonists, “God was regarded as being
outside the world. The world was in its origin only potential being (το
μὴ ὄν).”
[22] He explains more fully:

[Platonic] dualistic hypothesis assumed a co-existence of matter and
God. The assumption was more frequently tacit than explicit. . . . There
was a universal belief that beneath the qualities of all existing
things lay a substratum or substance on which they were grafted, and
which gave to each thing its unity. But the conception of the nature of
this substance varied from that of gross and tangible material to that
of empty and formless space. . . . It was sometimes conceived as a vast
shapeless but plastic mass, to which the Creator gave form, partly by
moulding it as a potter moulds clay, partly by combining various
elements as a builder combines his materials in the construction of a

wrote that: “For generation is from non-existence (ἐκ τοῦ μὴ ὄντος)
into being, and corruption from being back into non-existence (εἰς τὸ μὴ
[24] Generation
is the act of a new animal being derived from an existing one, or a
plant deriving from an existing plant. It is new life from life. He used
the phrase from non-existence in
a sense of relative nonbeing, where “things” do not yet exist and there
is only a formless substratum that has the potential or capacity to
receive definite form. This substratum is not absolutely nothing but is
not yet a thing. It is “no-thing.” Thus, to say that God called to
existence that which does not exist, as in Romans 4:17, actually assumes
a preexisting substrate that God, by impressing form upon it, organizes
into a thing that exists. Copan and Craig simply fail to note this
important distinction, and thus their exegesis is critically flawed.

their book, Copan and Craig cite a number of evangelical scholars who
share their theological presuppositions and who opine that this verse
refers to creation out of nothing (CON, pp.
75-78). Yet none of these authors provide any analysis or exegesis
beyond asserting that the “non-existent” must mean that which does not
exist in any sense. For example, Copan and Craig quote James Dunn’s
commentary on Romans 4:17, which reads in the relevant part: “‘As
creator he creates without any precondition: he makes alive where there
was only death, and he calls into existence where there was nothing at
all. Consequently that which has been created, made alive in this way,
must be totally dependent on the creator, the life-giver, for its very
existence and life'” (NMC, p. 117).
[25] However,
it is easy to see that the scriptural analogy of God bringing the dead
to life in the same way that he creates “things which are not” does not
support creatio ex nihilo. Resurrection
does not presuppose that the dead do not exist in any way prior to
their resurrection, nor does it presuppose that previously they did not
have bodies that are reorganized through resurrection. Just as God does
not create persons for the first time when he restores them to life
through resurrection, so God does not create out of absolute nonbeing.

note that Romans 4:17 doesn’t expressly address whether things are
created out of nothing or from some material substrate. It simply says
that God “calls” things into existence that are not. Moreover, such a
statement in no way entails or requires creation out of nothing
implicitly. If I create a table then I create a table that did not exist
before I created it, but it doesn’t mean that I create it out of
nothing. In this text, the word create is
not even used. Rather, what God does is to “call forth” the
non-existent. The verb καλέω means to call out loud to something, or to
[26] It
presupposes something there to be called to or invited. God calls out
to the non-existent by his Word, an act described by a verb used
elsewhere in Paul’s writings (Romans 9:11; 1 Corinthians 12:3; Galatians
5:8; 1 Thessalonians 5:24). Thus, the most natural reading of this text
is that the “non-existent” or μὴ ὄντα refers to a preexisting reality
that does not yet exist as God calls it to be. Such a reading has
nothing to do with creation out of absolute nothing.

Author: Jeff Lindsay

6 thoughts on “Much Ado About Creation Ex Nihilo

  1. The evangelicals are incredibly off base on this one. Even if one accepts their questionable reading of Romans, how can they square it with Genesis 1-2? And why should anyone (evangelical, Mormon, or anyone else) think that Paul or the Priestly writers were writing a scientifically factual natural history? It's all so stupid.

    — OK

  2. The idea of 'physical creation out of nothing' also doesn't mesh nearly as well with science, which suggests that matter/energy can change but cannot be created out of 'nothing'. For that matter, science is finding that even so-called 'empty space' is not actually 'empty'.

  3. Robert Boylan is amazing. His website is full of fascinating facts.

    I recently visited an evangelical church with family. They do hate Mormans. I will definitely attend services at that particular church when I am back in that area.

    The Pastor/Minister was fantastic. This particular church did not cave to the DemoCommiecrat nonsense about homosexuality, transgenderism, abortion, etc. I was told that the attendance was much larger when the church first started out. Half the people left because the Pastor would not give in to pressure from the backwards godless Democrat members.

    It is disturbing that the LDS church has caved to social pressure. Today the LDS church is just like every other church.

  4. Thanks for the info, awesome. Another thing (among many things) about creation ex nihilo, is that the God who creates from nothing is the author of everything: including every war, every torture, every molestation, and etc. Randomness is not freedom and The Lord gave Joseph Smith the only reasonable answer to the problem of pain (and, once again, it’s highly unlikely that Joseph knew what a pearl this was): D&C 93 “Man was also in the beginning with God. Intelligence, or the light of truth, was not created nor made, neither indeed can be.”

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