Question: Did God create ex nihilo (out of nothing)?
Publication Month: July 1999
This question is for July and August 1999.
Dr. Cobb’s Response
In traditional theology God may be recognized as active in the world at all times, but the word “creation” is usually reserved for a single act, the one in which the world is brought into being out of nothing. Mr. Foxwell presuspposes this view and asks whether process thought rejects it. The answer is a qualified Yes.
The rejection is unqualified at one point. For process theology God is creatively at work at all times and places. God is continuously bringing new entities into being and calling them into novel self-actualization. To deny that this is true creation seems wrong to process theologians. We think the Bible is on our side.
The rejection is qualified in that contemporary scientific theories seem to a call for a “singularity” that initiates the only world about which we have any knowledge whatsoever. Whether this is strictly “out of nothing” is not clear, and I would judge that the answer is “probably not.” But the event in which our universe arose certainly seems to be markedly different from all the subsequent events.
Whitehead knew nothing of the “Big Bang” and thought instead of cosmic epochs evolving out of earlier cosmic epochs with no singularities involved. Process theology followed him. Hence until recently, the answer would have been unqualified here, too. But process theology is committed to adapting itself to the most reliable scientific knowledge, and that means that it must adapt itself to the idea of the Big Bang.
Was God’s act in the Big Bang radically different from God’s act in the initiation of every subsequent event? We don’t know, but we cannot exclude that possibility. Whitehead speaks of one divine decision untrammeled by the influence of any other decision. This decision he calls primordial, which means nontemporal. Today it may be that we will need to associate it quite directly with a datable event. That would seem to bring us closer to the tradition.
However, Mr. Foxwell implies that the difference between the two ways of thinking about God are more fundamental than this. That is correct. Even if we agree that God’s act in initiating our universe was quite different from God’s subsequent ways of acting, this will not, for us, change much of religious importance. We will continue to affirm that God is in the world and the world is in God. For Mr. Foxwell, on the other hand, the implication of the doctrine of creation is that God is quite external to the world and the world is quite external to God. For this reason the qualification of the rejection that I have introduced may not be
very relevant to this discussion.
There can be no denial that much of the tradition is on the side of Mr. Foxwell. Nevertheless, process theology claims deep rootage in the religious sensibility of the Bible. The God in whom we live and move and have our being, the God whom Jesus called “abba” seems better understood in the process way. If we affirm with orthodoxy that what Paul calls Christ is divine, then his insistence that Christ is in us and we are in Christ strongly supports the process view. That what happens in the world matters deeply to God is a continuing biblical theme.
From the perspective of process theology, the church has suffered from the exclusive emphasis on divine transcendence encouraged by the doctrine of ex nihilo. It has suffered from locating God in utterly unique acts instead of in the midst of the ordinary world. It has suffered from failing to affirm clearly God’s genuine empathy will all the creatures.
Process theology does not attempt to conceal its divergences from much of the dominant tradition in these respects. Of course, we also find many points of contact within it. And we believe that we can help to vivify elements in the biblical vision that have been obscured by the Hellenization of Christianity that has shaped so much of the tradition.