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Dictionary of the History of Ideas

Studies of Selected Pivotal Ideas
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7 occurrences of Dictionary of the History of Ideas
[Clear Hits]


1. To the ancient Indian and Greek thinker the
notion of creatio is unthinkable. Yet what captured the
imagination of the dominant theistic strand in Jewish,
Muslim, and Christian thought was expressed in the
first two chapters of Genesis. “In the beginning God
created the heavens and the earth. And the earth was
waste and void; and darkness was upon the face of
the deep: and the spirit of God moved upon the face
of the waters. And God said, Let there be light: and
there was light. And God saw the light, that it was
good” (Genesis 1:1-4). The picture that unfolds in this
first chapter is that of a Creator-God responsible for
every created being.

What is further distinctive in this vision is the pas-
sage: “And God created man in his own image, in the
image of God created he him; male and female created
he them.... And God saw everything that he had
made, and, behold, it was very good” (Genesis 1:27,
31. See also Genesis 2; Jeremiah 27:5, 31:35; and Isaiah
40:12-31). The phrase creatio ex nihilo is not a biblical
phrase (though it does occur in Maccabees II:vii, 28).

The dominant if not exclusive image in the biblical
account stands clear. God and the world are not iden-
tical; nor are the world and man “modes” of God's
being. Furthermore, in creating man in his own image,
God makes man free in a world ultimately governed
by God's purpose. When man freely chooses to abide
by God's purpose for him, he will realize the best in
himself and in Nature.

Thus in postulating creatio, Judeo-Christian-Muslim
theism protects both God's unlimited freedom to create
and man's limited freedom to be creative (or destruc-
tive). This postulate is also directed against the view
that the human soul has existed in some form before
its present existence. This view also leaves the door
open to annihilation for, since man comes “from noth-
ing,” he may return to “nothing.” Most theists, how-
ever, hold that God will grant personal immortality.

Furthermore, early Christian apologists, like Saint
Augustine (De civitate Dei XI:24; XIV II) used creatio
in order to stress that creation is God's own “free act,”
born of his goodness. They hold that the “stuff of his
own being” is never involved in creating either the
world or man. Or the stress, as in Philo, is on the fact
that no inner “fate” governed God's creating this
world. God could have created a different one, and
he can override the laws of this present world if he
sees fit.

2. In the Timaeus Plato seeks an account of the
generation of the space-time world that is “inferior to
none in likelihood” (Timaeus 29d). A good but not
omnipotent Demiurge desired that all should be “so
far as possible, like unto himself” (29d). He was limited
by the fact that he must deal with two other kinds
of being: the Receptacle and the Forms. The Recepta-
cle is the “mother” of all becoming, a kind of “mould-
ing-stuff” of everything “invisible and unshaped, all
receptive.” It could never be a cosmos unless “in some
most baffling way” (51b), it could partake of Forms
or Ideas. Plato's Demiurge, keeping his gaze fixed on
“these co-eternal Forms” (29a), “persuades” the in-
choate Receptacle to take on as much form as possible
(48a). The world thus generated is “planned” as “a
movable image” (37d) of the perfect Forms.

In postulating three co-eternal Beings, Plato departs
from his contention in the Republic that the Good is
the source of everything's being and being known. The
imperfect world is there likened to the manifold radia-
tions of the Sun (the Good). The theory in the Timaeus,
of a Demiurge persuading a somewhat recalcitrant
Receptacle to take on form, seems better able to ex-
plain imperfections in the world.

But a good Demiurge offends the religious conscious-
ness of most theists. God, to be God, must be perfect,
limited by nothing but his own will and reason. At
the same time, Plato's view, even as a “likely” account,
faces theoretical difficulties. For if God, the Forms, and
the Receptacle are co-eternally independent of each
other, why can God know the Forms? Or why should


the Receptacle be such that it could be persuaded to
take on the Forms?

To avoid such religious and theoretical difficulties
the traditional theist substitutes creatio ex nihilo. He
concedes that creatio too is baffling, that the how of
creation is unknowable. But three co-eternal Beings,
interacting and yielding a cosmos like ours, compounds
mystery. Mysterious as the how of creatio may be, it
offends no theoretical norm, and protects the absolute-
ness and perfection of God.

3. The words creatio ex nihilo are intended, then,
to deny the existence of any other Being co-eternal
with God, or any world identical with God.

For example, the theist cannot with Spinoza say
Rdeus sive natura (“God or Nature”). Spinoza held that
a God who created the world must have been imperfect
before its creation. If God is perfect the world must
follow from his nature “as the nature of a triangle that
its two angles should be equal to two right angles”
(Ethics, I, Prop. 17 Scholium).

In similar vein, the emanationist argues that the
mystery of ex nihilo can be avoided by thinking of the
world as “radiating” the unchanged One in different
degrees. For Plotinus, influenced by Plato's image of
the Sun, the world is the efflux of the ineffable, tran-
scendent, “creative” One. Such emanation should not
be confused with the “creative” or “emergent” evolu-
tion in which real novelty is produced “in time.” For
the emanationist the temporal order of “descent” is
not real; the One and the many stages of “evolution”
are in fact one. Hence, emanation hardly escapes
monism in its attempt to avoid the ex nihilo that defies
imagination and intellect.

The monist and emanationist usually urge that the
One cannot be described in terms that reflect, as human
thinking must, only a part of the world. The One is
super-personal. The human at best is part of the world
and can provide no adequate analogy to the nature
of the One. Hence Spinoza declared that to conceive
of the one Substance as a person is like comparing the
constellation The Dog to a barking dog. Similarly, the
most noble ideal of human goodness, or will, or reason,
cannot serve to characterize the One.

The theist agrees with the monist and emanationist
that God cannot be One among equals, or co-eternal
with any other being or beings. But he counters that
mystery is not decreased by considering an imperfect
world, manifesting the One, ultimately good. Nor does
he see how human freedom is consistent with emana-
tionism or monism. Creatio allows him to think of the
Unity as the ultimate Agent who in creating is self-
guided by his ideals of goodness and of reason. God
is not even, as Aristotle seems to have held, the Thinker
whose perfection is the unifying lure of all finite beings.
God is the Creator who thinks and acts in accordance
with goals intrinsic to his being. In creating the order
of Nature which supports human effort without anni-
hilating man's freedom, God expresses his loving pur-
pose—a mutually respecting and responsible commu-
nity of persons. Hence, this world, as Leibniz put it,
is the best possible world once it is seen as the arena
for the development of persons who cannot escape the
responsibility for their own actions.

In the theistic view, the natural world may be con-
ceived as the order of interacting nonmental entities
(in Thomistic realism) or as part of the mental nature
of God (as in Berkeley), or as a world of psychic unities
of different grades (as in Leibniz' panpsychism).

The conception of man's interaction with Nature and
with God varies in each of these theistic views. But
the religious and moral relation of men to each other
and to God is not significantly affected by viewing the
natural world as mental or nonmental. Yet man's con-
fidence that the natural world expresses God's reason
and goodness, supports the scientific conviction that
man's disciplined observation and reflection is not alien
to the order of Nature.

In sum, then, the classical theistic model of the uni-
verse is of a self-existent God who, in accordance with
his rational and loving nature, relates himself con-
stantly to a world contingent on his creative activity.
His general providence for free persons is expressed in
the natural structure of things and persons. His individ-
ual providence depends on the fellowship each person
freely seeks with God in prayer, worship, and action.
Even when theists, like Calvinists, denied human free-
dom, the ethical effect seemed to be strenuous effort
by individuals who used their worldly accomplishment
as an index to their divinely ordained destiny.

This emphasis on responsible fellowship, as the ideal
of worship and of human community, influences the
theist's interpretation of the religious and mystical
experience. Many mystics hold that in their experience
of God the finite self is literally lost in God or the One,
and they argue that this “union” favors monism. The
theist objects: religious “union” is also frequently ex-
perienced, and interpreted, as interaction with, and not
absorption in, God. In any case, the experience of love
and worship is meaningless if the lover and the beloved
are in fact one. Furthermore, to say that man is, and
is not, identical with God is more mysterious than
creatio and self-contradictory. How can the perfect
God “somehow” include all the imperfection in man
and in the world? Must not responsibility for all human
error and for evils in Nature be God's? Indeed, if
whatever happens in Nature and in man is ultimately
good, there is neither final distinction between good
and evil nor any standard for human progress.


4. Such reasoning in support of the doctrine of crea-
helps to clarify what it is intended to mean: God
creates what was not in existence and could not exist
unless God created. Nothing less than a radically new
model of coming-to-be and passing-away is advocated.
A finite being is a no-being, a no-being, until it is
created; it cannot come into existence or continue to
exist on its own initiative.

This model, the creationist argues, is mysterious only
in the sense that any ultimate state or quality of being
is mysterious. Given this model of ultimate Being and
coming-to-be, problems such as those indicated above
can reasonably be resolved. Creatio itself cannot be
understood by reference to any event within the world.
The theist often refers to the creative activity of an
artist as providing only a faint analogy, because the
artist perforce uses materials not of his own making.

Indeed, the creationist is at pains to suggest that
unfortunate picture-thinking leads to misunderstanding
of creatio. Picture-thinking leads to the question: How
can any being, however powerful, make something out
of nothing, or, to put it crudely, how can he make
something out of little bits of nothing? As Anselm said,
ex nihilo does not mean de nihilo ipso (Monologium,

Incomplete understanding underlies the objection
that “from nothing, nothing comes.” Lucretius, for
example, argues (I, 154), “if things came from nothing,
any kind might be born of anything, nothing would
require seed” (Oates, 1957). The creationist grants this.
But creation, he argues, is the activity of the self-
existent God, not of nothing. This God creates what
was not existent. Hence, no beings come “from noth-
ing”; the Creator-God creates, and this means that
what was not, is now because of his act.

This model of creatio is intended to replace all
others. But theists have nevertheless moved toward
deism, emanationism, and pantheism as they dealt with
such questions as: Having created, is God then indiffer-
ent to his creation? Does God need the world? Are
the world and God thinkable without each other? How
can the unchanging God remain unchanging if he is
immanent in his changing world? The thought of sev-
eral great thinkers makes such theoretical tensions
within theism clearer.