Rowan Williams on Creatio ex Nihilo

In the essay “On Being Creatures”, Williams tackles various misunderstandings of the doctrine that he claims was “unquestionably a distinctive Jewish and Christian view in the late antique world.” This clarity was muddied by tendencies toward Neoplatonism and now, in more recent years, by Process and feminist critiques. Williams surmises that the doctrine emerged around the time of Israel’s unexpected return from exile. “…this act is not a process by which shape is imposed on chaos: it is a summons, a call which establishes the very possibility of an answer. It is a short step to the conclusion that God’s relation to the whole world is like this: not a struggle with pre-existing disorder that is then moulded into shape, but a pure summons.”  One of the most common arguments against ex nihilo from the perspective of Process and Relational theologies is the argument that the doctrine implies a despotic view of God in which human freedom cannot exist.* Thomas Oord, for example, has written, “The kind of divine power implied in creatio ex nihilo supports a theology of empire, which is based upon unilateral force and control of others.” Are we locked into an infantile, or even diseased, dependence? Williams distinguishes here the typical human dependencies that we are involved in from the fundamental dependence on God.

“‘Limitless dependence’, in the sense of accumulating dependent relationships to things, persons, institutions, is something quite other than the fundamental dependence we cannot avoid, dependence on whatever it is that enables our sense of being an agent, a giver. And perhaps it is how we can conceive that primary dependence that determines how vulnerable or how destructive our ‘illusion’ of agency is — how much of an ‘illusion’ in the ordinary sense of the word rather than the subtler Freudian sense of a belief constructed to meet or cope with the demands of what lies beyond the psyche. Sebastian Moore, in The Inner Loneliness, identifies our need to imagine ourselves as agents by imagining ourselves as self-regulating individuals is to misconceive our fundamental need, which is for identity in relation, conversation, mutual recognition … We cannot, as it were, get behind this and conceive a human identity that is primitively and only an object to itself…When I think I am imagining myself ‘for myself’, I am actually taking up the position of someone who looks at or speaks to me; and I couldn’t do this if I did not know what it is to be looked at or spoken to.”

It would seem possible to keep alive the best impulses of the doctrine while rescuing many of the concerns about it. The move made here is to remind us that our language about God is often insufficiently apophatic. When we are speaking of God “feeling”, “changing his mind”, or “creating”, we ultimately have to remember that God is not like us. But we also need to recall that we are frequently not like our own images of ourselves.

A recent symposium that features creatio ex nihilo defenders can be found in the 2015 Notre Dame lecture series: Dr. Gary Anderson “Is Creatio Ex Nihilo Biblical?”David Bentley Hart “God, Creation, and Evil”John Cavadini “Where Do Stories Come From? Augustine on Creation ex Nihilo”

Ian McFarland’s comprehensive book From Nothing: A theology of creation (2014) is one of the better surveys of the doctrine available. McFarland separates the t=0 “Big Bang” from the doctrine, declaring that the issue revolves around a particular relationship between God and the world rather than an explanation of how that relationship came to be.

* It is important to point out that definitional problems abound in these discussions. It may be possible for Process thought to affirm the doctrine. See for an examination of Whitehead, oscillationism, and ex nihilo, for example.