Fruits of Study 5: Creation Ex Nihilo

Fruits of Study 5: Creation Ex Nihilo

The much referenced ‘science versus religion debate’ has at its root a timeless question which we humans feel compelled to answer: where do we come from? Philosophers, natural scientists, theologians, to name but a few, have all quite rightly grappled with this tantalising issue. In recent years it seems to have become more polarised. Creationists and secular Darwinists look across a spectrum of other positions with the Church somewhere in the middle but broadly speaking you’re seen to either be with the science crowd or the religious.

Creation would then seem to be the pivotal issue. However, we would be wrong to think that this debate is somehow new: we just have very short or very selective memories. When Thomas Aquinas was penning his Summa in the thirteenth century the same controversy was very much apparent in the new universities. Indeed, a scientific revolution was under-way across Western Europe as the works of the ancient Greek natural philosophers and mathematicians became available in Latin for the first time. Specifically, many held that there must be a fundamental incompatibility between the claim of the Greek naturalists that something cannot come from nothing, and the Christian teaching of creatio ex nihilo, creation from nothing.

Aquinas couldn’t conceive that there could be an incompatibility between the two positions – what we now may call science and religion. Christian doctrine maintains that God is the author of all Truth; the aim of rigorous scientific investigation is to find the Truth. Why should one side fear the other? In fact, are we not on the same side if we believe in Truth at all? Well, it wasn’t to be that clear cut then and it doesn’t seem that much has changed. In straightforward terms, the problem would appear to be complete confusion by what we mean by the nature of creation and natural change.

Thomas, when speaking of creation, is not pondering how one thing came to be from another thing but what is common to all things in the universe, namely existence. But what is the cause of all existence? Is it a cause in the sense of a natural change or of some kind or an ultimate bringing into being of something from no antecedent state whatsoever by Divine Agency? Here lies the fundamental conflict; there is simply a major misunderstanding in the use of the term creation. By seeking to ground it solely in the realm of the natural sciences and being unwilling to admit it has a place in metaphysics and theology we will continue to grope blindly in the dark.

The Greeks were in fact correct, nothing comes from nothing, if we understand rightly that ‘comes from’ implies a change. Change from one natural state to another requires some pre-existant material reality. A possibility for change must lie in something, there must be potentiality. Creation on the other hand differs as it is the radical causing of the whole existence of whatever there is in existence. We can see the difference if we look at how being the cause of something’s whole existence must in fact be different from causing a change in something that exists. In other words, we are not talking of God taking a bit of this and a bit of that and putting a universe together. Creation then, is not a change in matter but a cause; God produces existence absolutely ex nihilo. This act of creation may also be seen as one of conservation, that is God did not simply create in one distant moment and exit the next. Creation is a continual action by which he gives existence as he upholds the world in being.

Without God, the Cause, there can be no effect. The ability that creatures have to act only comes by virtue of their existence. So yes we can make some things, change some things and observe change in other existing realities but we cannot create. Creation accounts for the very existence of things not for changes in things. Only God can create, he is like the ultimate power source that if it were to cease then out would go the lights – only there would be no lights!

Graham Hunt OP