Greek apologists and creation out of nothing

I need to think about this.  Culver makes an interesting observation:

“Very early, Christian theologians had to deal with the views of the origin of the world held by pagan authors and schools as well as heretical views among Christian teachers who were affected by the pagans.  The Greek ‘Apologists’ of the second century and other early writers felt particularly obliged to clarify and to defend the absolute beginning of the world by an uncreated eternal divine being who brought the world into being by speaking it into existence.  Of these Christian scholars (Marcianus, Aristides, Justin Martyr, Tatian, Athenagoras, Theophilus), and others shortly after them (Clement of Alexandria, Tertullian), Jaroslav Pelikan says:

Apologists . . . recognized that the coeternity of God and matter was inconsistent with the sovereignty and freedom of God.  In spite of the difficulties raised by the doctrine of creation ex nihilo for any attempt to cope with the problem of evil, the alternatives to this doctrine appeared to be a pantheism . . . or a dualism.

“Theophilus of Antioch found explicit Christian creationism in direct conflict with six philosophical theories among the Greeks.

“These theories Thomas Oden has parsed out as: (1) there is no God; (2) God cares for none but himself; (3) the world is uncreated and nature is eternal; (4) God exists only in each person’s conscience; (5) God is a spirit which pervades all things; and (6) both God and matter are uncreated, i.e. coeval.  Oden’s grasp of both theology and modern philosophy led to this comment:

All these views were late to appear and grow into major challenges to the Christian teaching of Creation and remain as modern challenges in the voices of 1) Nietzsche, 2) Freud, 3) Hume, 4) Kant, Schleiermacher, Feuerbach, 5) Wieman and 6) Schelling.


  1. Systematic Theology: Biblical and Historical by Robert Duncan Culver (2005).

    And here is another quote for Greg, taken from the same page of this book:

    “Though seldom first in any general treatment of Christian doctrine, and even found in a special development of the doctrine of God, ‘God the creator of heaven and earth’ is fundamental and primary to all Christian teaching and a Christian world-view. E. P. Siegfried, a Roman Catholic scholar, rightly said:

    “[B]elief ‘in God the Creator of heaven and earth’ is the theoretical basis of all religious and theological truth, the real foundation underlying all other truths concerning God, and the objective principle whence all other truths proceed.”

  2. “Apologists . . . recognized that the coeternity of God and matter was inconsistent with the sovereignty and freedom of God.”

    Why would this be the case?

    I don’t see how this follows.

  3. Seth: I’ll give that a quick shot….these are my thots, obviously, not Fr.G’s

    the earth is the LORD’s and all it contains, the world and those who dwell in it…..except to x.y. or z……if these are not created by the LORD, how are they HIS ?? what right does HE have to say “you are MINE…” just because HE has the power to control it ?? that doesn’t look like sovereignty to me…more like coercion. God can justly rule, because it all belongs to HIM by rights….thru creation…

  4. Thanks Todd, I’ll add it to my “maybe” pile. If I do go to TEDS in August, I’m going to try to test out of the systematic theology requirements, so perhaps I can use that as a study aid.

  5. Jack: by TEDS, you don’t mean Trinity Evangelical Divinity School do you ???? not to be nosey…..I went to the undergrad ‘sister school’ there…. back when you were into the Spice Girls, I’d imagine…..

  6. Yes Germit, I’m applying to TEDS; I just need to send in my transcript from the U to complete my application. I’m probably going to take a trip to Deerfield and visit them next month.

    I’m also applying to Multnomah Biblical Seminary in Portland and maybe the Seattle campus of Fuller. In fact, the admissions counselors from both Trinity and Multnomah have read my blog. I’m not sure if I should be nervous about that or not.

    And who told YOU about me and the Spice Girls? Ugh, woman can’t have her secrets these days.

  7. “if these are not created by the LORD, how are they HIS”

    You don’t have to create something out of nothing to lay claim to it or have dominion over it. All things are God’s because He is in harmony with perfect principles of righteousness and power.

    And there is nothing inherently more coercive about exercising power over something independently existent than there is in manipulatively constructing something out of nothing to be the way you want it to be. I don’t see that your God germit, is any less coercive.

    But in any case, the Mormons don’t see the power of their God as particularly coercive either.

    But I don’t get why traditional Christians repeatedly refuse to recognize power unless it comes bundled with the power of unmaking as a package deal. Why this obsession with the void? What is wrong with things simply “being?”

  8. Obsession?

    I like the opening words of Genesis in the KJV. In English, they go back to Tyndale 475 years ago (1534). Early Christians, two thousand years ago found comfort in the Septuagint translation of those Hebrew words.

    Why did Joseph Smith feel like he needed to change those opening words of God? Who cares about the things. Let God be God.

  9. Seth: you wrote

    You don’t have to create something out of nothing to lay claim to it or have dominion over it. All things are God’s because He is in harmony with perfect principles of righteousness and power.

    “In harmony with perfect principles…etx” just doesn’t spell OWNERSHIP to me….If it makes sense to you, well, GERMIT is not an arm twister, but this just looks “scaled down” to me. Also the idea of ME worshipping an entity who’s claim to sovereignty is “I’m in harmony….” just has no zing, no punch….no joo-joo……no Emeril finishing off his jambalya… what I mean ????

    but you’re kind in showing me more of the lds cosmology…for which I say “gratsi”

    JACK; grad school… go girl…wish I could go back and get something other than the bachelor’s in psych that I’m sitting on…. my GOD give you abundant wisdom as you make the choice…. sunny CA. is attractive, but I know you want to be where the SON is shining as well..

  10. Okay, honest question:

    If matter is uncreated and more can’t be made, does it exist in a fixed amount? Or is it automatically expanding/creating itself?

    If it exists in a fixed amount, isn’t that problematic considering that the LDS system has people ultimately obtaining bodies made of matter and creating worlds without end into eternity? Doesn’t that mean that the matter will run out?

    Point in fact, if intelligences are eternal and uncreated and more can’t be made, won’t they eventually run out?

    Not meant to be a trick question, I’ve really not spent much time studying the LDS philosophy on this.

  11. Jacks question is like one of several threads that one could pull

    have there been GODS co-eternal with this matter, or was ALL the matter there first, and then GOD(s) came from that matter ?? With more coffee , I could think of more and better questions……back later…

    BRIAN: so Emerill is NOT meek ?? Maybe i can forgive him….I just LOVE his dry rub…..

    still looking for the holy joo-joo

  12. Why did one have to come before the other.

    Eternity is eternity. Infinity is infinity. It’s not a matter of being “first.” It just is.

  13. This is why I don’t do philosophy. Infinite matter makes no sense to me.

    But as a Trinitarian I probably have no right to be telling other people that their philosophies of God and creation make no sense, so I guess I’ll shut up now.

  14. Seth wrote

    Why did one have to come before the other.

    I guess it’s tied up in how one defines “GOD”
    for the LDS , there is no problem here, for the orthodox, the word GOD means that there is no one , and nothing, BEFORE HIM….that’s how we define the term.

    BECAUSE I accept this definition, I’m with JACK, eternal matter is an oxymoron…..just can’t be, because of WHO GOD is. Now that this is clear as mud………

  15. Hi Todd,

    I have some sincere concerns with Culver’s analysis. First, Justin did not teach creatio ex nihilo. Second, Gerhard May in his book, Creatio Ex Nihilo, presents a very strong case that it was some Gnostic Christian theologians who were the first to develop the doctrine of creation out of nothing, The catholic apologists after Justin, it seems, owe a great debt to their Gnostic counterparts.

    Grace and peace,


  16. David, give me some quotes on what Justin did teach. Secondly, I don’t consider Gerhard May the final authority on the matter. I think the issue is far from settled, friend.

  17. germit,

    “for the orthodox, the word GOD means that there is no one , and nothing, BEFORE HIM….that’s how we define the term.”

    Redefinition is not a free hall pass. Orthodox Christians cannot simply rig the game by appropriating all the definitions, and then throw a fit when not everyone agrees to play by their imaginary rules.

  18. Junia !!!

    My-oh-my…longtime no chat. I just moments ago visited your blog, and added it to my ‘favorites’. Hope you get a chance to check my blog out; your presence in the combox would be greatly appreciated.

    God bless,


  19. Actually Greg, Mormons don’t typically do a lot of philosophy generally.

    So I guess the answer to that question would be – you guys.

  20. Hi Todd,

    Thanks for responding. You posted:

    >>David, give me some quotes on what Justin did teach.>>

    Justin: “And we have been taught that He [God the Father] in the beginning did of His goodnesss, for man’s sake, create all things out of unformed matter.” (First Apology, ch. 10 – ANF 1.165.)

    “But Sunday is the day on which we all hold our common assembly, because it is the first day on which God, having wrought a change in darkness and matter, made the world…” (First Apology, ch. 67 – ANF 1.186.)

    It is important to keep in mind that Justin was writing to an educated Greek audience; and that Plato’s Timaeus was certinaly on his mind, as well as his audience. Hence Justin also wrote:

    “And that you may learn that it was from our teachers— we mean the account given through the prophets— that Plato borrowed his statement that God, having altered matter which was shapeless, made the world, hear the very words spoken through Moses, who, as above shown, was the first prophet, and of greater antiquity than the Greek writers; and through whom the Spirit of prophecy, signifying how and from what materials God at first formed the world, spoke thus: In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth. And the earth was invisible and unfurnished, and darkness was upon the face of the deep; and the Spirit of God moved over the waters. And God said, Let there be light; and it was so. So that both Plato and they who agree with him, and we ourselves, have learned, and you also can be convinced, that by the word of God the whole world was made out of the substance spoken of before by Moses.” (First Apology, ch. 59 – ANF 1.182.)

    >>Secondly, I don’t consider Gerhard May the final authority on the matter. I think the issue is far from settled, friend.>>

    Agreed. Yet with that said, the evidence that May has presented is substantial, and solid. I would be interested in your thoughts on his exegesis of the ‘traditional’ texts that are usually brought into this issue…

    Grace and peace,


  21. Seth, your reply is a complete non sequiter. That said, while Mormons may not do much philosophy, statements from Joseph Smith, such as “spirit is matter” and others are indeed philosophical statements.

  22. Seth: no fit thrown here, I just noted the difference between us. and I’ m aware that throwing out a definition doesn’t end anything (see wikipedia…)

    as for redefining, I’d say JS was maybe amatuerish by some standards, but expert by others. this is not a realm owned by pure philosophers

    peace and grace to you and yours

  23. Okay, here’s the rub: Justin, although a witness to the Tradition, does not represent the Tradition as a whole, and neither does any other Church Father. None of them, by themselves, are infallible. What we look for is Patristic consensus. When Justin speaks as he does above, he is outside that consensus. When he speaks about the consecrated elements of the Eucharist being the Body and Blood of Christ, he is speaking within that consensus, and thus, with the whole of the Apostolic Tradition.

  24. Frere: You miss the point of citations to Justin Martyr and other Patristics by Mormons. The consensus at the time he wrote was that divine creation was by organizing matter. That consensus changed — but not due to new revelation or superior reasoning. It changed due to adopting middle Platonism as the matrix for all discussions about theology. Your notion of consensus seems to really be a notion of later prevailing “orthodoxy” that was not orthodoxy when Christ and the apostles roamed the earth. That may or my not be important in discussion of the ultimate issues — but it is the point of the citations by Mormons I believe.

  25. It didn’t have to “teach” it Greg. What Blake said was that Neoplatonism provided the matrix of worldview from which creation ex nihilo sprang.

    But I agree with his main point. Evangelicals often assume that we Mormons are quoting people like Origen, or Justin Martyr, or Tertullian the same way we would quote a modern general authority – as a source of authoritative early Christian doctrine.

    This is untrue. Mormon apologists rarely quote any of the men mentioned above with the thought that they are supposed to be somehow authoritative or definitive. We merely quote them to show that certain viewpoints amenable to Mormonism were NOT ABSENT from the primitive Christian mix.

    It’s not an attempt to set authoritative bounds on early Christian thought. Merely an attempt to refute extremist assertions from Evangelicals that Mormon views and claims are utterly without historical support in early Christianity. Quotes from all the above mentioned Christian fathers show that this is not the case.

    Don’t make our scholarly aims more ambitious than they actually are.

  26. The irony here is that middle Platonism is being treated as a source of corruption in early Christian thought, yet it was Platonism from whence we have the the idea of creation ex materia (not creation ex nihilo). Can’t we then say that Mormonsim is what has been corrupted by middle Platonsim?

    I would also suggest that the early Christian apologists (Justin Martyr, et al) were first and foremost Platonists who adopted Christianity; not the other way around. This may not seem relevant, but I think it matters in terms of the trajectory of their theology.

  27. You’re missing the point Steve. Mormon critiques of Neoplatonism are not directed at particular assertions it made, but rather the set of philosophical ASSUMPTIONS it put in place, which then naturally developed into notions like creation ex nihilo and an ontologically different God.

  28. Seth, you may be right that I am missing the point. Perhaps it’s because I view “a set of philosophical ASSUMPTIONS” as made up of “particular assertions”. One particular philosophical assumption of Platonism is creation ex materia which Mormons believe and traditional Christians do not. So, maybe creation ex nihilo is just a bad example of how Platonic assumptions have corrupted early Christian thought.

    One thing that might be helpful is to demonstrate a logical line of reasoning used by the early church that based its premises on Platonic philosophical assumptions in order to show creation ex nihilo as a natural conclusion. But even if you could do that, it wouldn’t render creation ex nihilo false.

    -In Domino

  29. No one here is claiming something is false just because the Greeks thought of it.

    As it so happens, I think Greek influence was beneficial to Christianity’s survival in many important ways.

  30. oops, I meant to “irrelevant” in my first comment.

    “No one here is claiming something is false just because the Greeks thought of it.”

    Perhaps not explicitly, but it has certainly been implied in past conversations I have had with Mormons. I’ll try to do better to not assume anything here.

  31. *sigh*

    I must be more tired than I thought. I did mean “may not seem relevant” which is what I wrote…

  32. Steve and Frere: I’ve documented at some length how creatio ex nihilo arose out of the assumptions of middle Platonism. It’s fairly clear that the first century Christians didn’t accept creatio ex nihilo and adopted creatio ex materia as the basis of their scriptural views (which at that time was limited to Old Testament texts with some pseudepigrapha like I Enoch and the Assumption of Moses from which the book of Jude quotes). See here:

    The quotations from Justin Martyr (and we could add Athenagoras for good measure) demonstrate that the view of creatio ex materia remained the received view well into the middle of the second century when a radical change in Christian thought occurred regarding this issue.

  33. Seth, I would say that Blake’s scholarly aims are ambitious.

    Wouldn’t you?

    And Blake, I will get through your third book. It just gets me fired up everytime I start reading. I am not a dispassionate reader.

  34. Todd, Blake’s books are still on my to-do list. So I can’t say I really know what his scholarly aims are, truthfully.

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