A Catholic response to Process Theology’s denial of Creatio Ex Nihilo

Typically Process theologians will argue that the idea that God created the world Ex Nihilo is imported illicitly into Christian theology via hellenization. They maintain instead that the world is something analogous to the ‘body’ of God, and thus has always existed in some sense, insofar as God himself has always existed (in some sense). Process theologians have tried to claim that the Jewish Scriptures, along with the New Testament, do not obviate a reading which entails a creation Ex Nihilo (out of nothing – or – not out of anything). This idea, so it is alleged, was borrowed from Greek philosophy and imposed unto the text of Genesis. For instance, David Ray Griffin writes:

“When God began to create the heaven and the earth, the world was without form and void.” According to most scholars of the Hebrew Bible, this is the best translation of Genesis 1:1-2a. The prevalent translation, however, has been something like that of the Revised Standard Version, which renders it “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. The earth was without form and void.” The latter rendition, by indicating that the earth’s being “without form and void” comes after God’s initial creative activity, suggests that our universe was created out of nothing (ex nihilo)…
Although it is widely assumed that the doctrine of creatio ex nihilo is the biblical doctrine, or is at least reflected in some biblical passages, this view is now rejected by leading scholars.
~ Encountering Evil: Live options in theodicy, p. 108-109

Although there are good grounds upon which to launch a criticism of this suggestion, I think it might be more useful, even more sobering, for a Catholic to respond in a different way. I am always tempted as a Catholic to capitalize on points where somebody puts a suggestion to me which simply begs a more seminal question, to point that out to them candidly. If a process theologian wants to maintain that they are proposing something legitimately Christian when arguing that the world is just God’s body, and that God doesn’t know the future (even though he is omniscient technically – since he knows all true facts – but the process theologian may be tempted to think that future-tensed facts do not now have truth value assignments), then the question has to be – what qualifies something to be legitimately Christian? If the Process theologian says that it is whatever is an authentic reading of the Bible, and not necessarily a reading which is in step with the solemn definitions at the ecumenical councils (or other synods) – as they are likely to say – then I would want to respond by calling into question first whether the Bible doesn’t teach creation Ex Nihilo, and second what the Bible is, and finally what authority the Biblical canon has if the ecumenical councils do not have infallible authority.

To begin, let us look quickly to the text of Genesis1:1

“In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.”

That is the classical translation of the text, and it is the one implied by the Masoretic Hebrew text. However, since the Masoretic text obviously adds notations and elements which were simply not part of the original Hebrew to facilitate interpretation, some scholars are doubtful that the Masoretic interpretation is reflective of ancient Israelite faith. When looking at the Hebrew without these notations, one finds another translation possible:

“In the beginnings when God created the heaves and the earth, the earth was formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep…”

This is the translation given in the respectable New Revised Standard Version. Notice that in the second sentence, the implication is that God came to a formless earth and formed it, almost as though he was a Jewish Demiurge (architect imposing order on disorder). The translation can go either way, and one’s presuppositions about certain key hypotheses in textual criticism with respect to the Pentateuch and the history of Israel as a whole will heavily influence the outcome. Certainly this previous way of reading it is a very plausible way to read an ancient Near Eastern Myth which may not even reflect monotheism as of yet (again, this is contested). Thus the Process Theologian can point to this alternative interpretation to suggest that an authentic reading of the Bible does not imply anything like creation Ex Nihilo.

My first inclination is to entirely avoid and sidestep all debates surrounding the difficult task of translating this or other contested passages in the Torah. Instead, I would suggest that the Scriptures elsewhere imply a Jewish awareness of creation ex nihilo prior to the time of the ‘hellenization’ of Christianity. Consider this passage in Maccabees:

Antiochus felt that he was being treated with contempt, and he was suspicious of her reproachful tone. The youngest brother being still alive, Antiochus not only appealed to him in words, but promised with oaths that he would make him rich and enviable if he would turn from the ways of his ancestors, and that he would take him for his Friend and entrust him with public affairs. Since the young man would not listen to him at all, the king called the mother to him and urged her to advise the youth to save himself. After much urging on his part, she undertook to persuade her son. But, leaning close to him, she spoke in their native language as follows, deriding the cruel tyrant: ‘My son, have pity on me. I carried you for nine months in my womb, and nursed you for three years, and have reared you and brought you up to this point in your life, and have taken care of you. I beg you, my child, to look at the heaven and the earth and see everything that is in them, and recognize that God did not make them out of things that existed. And in the same way the human race came into being. Do not fear this butcher, but prove worthy of your brothers. Accept death, so that in God’s mercy I may get you back again along with your brothers.’

While she was still speaking, the young man said, ‘What are you waiting for? I will not obey the king’s command, but I obey the command of the law that was given to our ancestors through Moses.
~2 Maccabees 7:24-30

Here, notice the mother’s language to her soon to be martyred youngest son: “God did not make them out of things that existed.” This clearly seems to imply that Judaism prior to Christianity maintained that God did created the world Ex Nihilo. Moreover, it is clearly in the Bible because Maccabees is part of the Bible.

Now, at this point, the process theologian is likely to object given her particular Christian tradition and background that Maccabees is not included among the canonical scriptures, or else that at least it is contested whether it is. However, she must realize first that she has just cut herself off from presenting a case which can be recognized as compelling in the least from a Catholic, Eastern orthodox, Oriental orthodox or other similar perspectives which are characterized by a commitment to Apostolic tradition.

However, when the Process Theologian gives you her list of essential Christian beliefs (beliefs without which one cannot qualify as a ‘Christian’), since she is inclined to open theism, what now does she say about the canon of the Scriptures? How can she pull a John-Calvin and argue that the Holy Spirit is assuring her that everything written in these scriptures, and nothing but these scriptures, is inspired and should be considered ‘canonical’? It becomes difficult to see. Moreover, since the councils (or at least the Church) which decided about whether creation Ex Nihilo was the correct way for the Church catholic to interpret the Jewish revelation, was the same as decided about the Canon, it seems difficult to impugn it and exonerate it all at once without rhyme or reason.

Having taken the conversation away from the issue of creation Ex Nihilo, this response helps orient the whole conversation back to its very terms, and the presumptions which underlie the arguments presented.

About tylerjourneaux

I am an aspiring Catholic theologian and philosopher, and I have a keen interest in apologetics. I am creating this blog both in order to practice and improve my writing and memory retention as I publish my thoughts, and in order to give evidence of my ability to understand and communicate thoughts on topics pertinent to Theology, Philosophy, philosophical theology, Catholic (Christian) Apologetics, philosophy of religion and textual criticism.
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3 Responses to A Catholic response to Process Theology’s denial of Creatio Ex Nihilo

  1. rob says:

    Hi – I’ve covered similar material at my website http://processtheologyandbible.com. I’d enjoy your input there if you have time!

  2. Davey Gordon says:

    The correct pronoun for a person of unknown sex is “he” not “she.” Saying “she” in the aforementioned context is nothing less than the sheer torture of the English language. Furthermore its use is a tacit acceptance of radical feminist propaganda- which the real Catholic is called to spurn- since it has led both directly and indirectly to the degradation of the once great culture of the West. This lingual travesty has been forced upon unwitting sycophantic college sophomores by the creepy Marxist ideologues at Universities. The left strives to control language in order to make their agenda more palatable on a subconscious level. Quit being a useful idiot.

    In other words, learn proper grammar before scandalizing the world with your poorly worded and mediocre defense of Creation Ex Nihilo.

    • Thanks for the comment Davey Gordon. I have some sympathy for your outrage, but it is outweighed by experience and maturity (and that isn’t meant pejoratively at all, as I hope to make clear). I have come to believe, first, that the whole English language is an implicit concession to forms of anti-realism, in particular about gender. English is the only language, so far as I know, which does not even have gendered nouns (as though God weren’t ‘really’ masculine, or the sea weren’t ‘really’ feminine). English is already toxic and obnoxious to Catholicism (to put it extremely).

      However, there is a clear apologetic advantage to switching the masculine pronoun with the feminine pronoun. Namely, it tears down rhetorical obstacles for the feminists and others on ‘the left’ (if there is such a thing as ‘left’ outside of politics; i.e., if there is such a thing as ‘outside’ of politics). In other words, using the feminists own trick can and does put the feminist off-guard; he has no subliminal emotional or irrational reason for rejecting what is being said, and may have a subliminal emotional/irrational motivation for being more open to it. Clever as serpents, innocent as doves. All we’re doing when we use the feminine pronoun in place of the masculine one is that we are removing any near occasion of feminist-motivated litanies of complaints which do nothing but distract everyone from the topic at hand (even if they remain ‘background noise’ in the head of the egalitarian).

      I would not use the feminine pronoun for God, since he is clearly and objectively masculine (though clearly trans-sexual in the literal and genuinely English sense). I am more than happy, however, to use the feminine pronoun in place of the masculine one in order to help circumvent subliminal discomfort on the left, and to help people on the right see that this ‘feminist’ victory is clearly a pyrrhic victory at best.

      Moreover, although I am adamantly not a feminist (since I think gender egalitarianism, as opposed to sex egalitarianism, is immoral and contrary to justice, and I am a realist about gender as distinguished from mere sex), and I am in fact an adamant complimentarian, I am sympathetic with some measure of the feminist concern. The feminist at bottom is motivated by, among other things he may be motivated by, a deep concern to humanize women. This concern is properly humanitarian (not properly secular), and given the effectiveness of the linguistic remedy to sanitize the populace of sexist bigotry (however subliminal it may be in the general culture), it seems to me to be a concession we should be ready to make. Do we really care more about the English language than we care about women? If doing damage to the first can mitigate violence done to the second, isn’t that more than a fair trade? Moreover, again, English is hopelessly antithetical to Gender-realism anyway, the battle over whether mankind should properly be regarded, insofar as mankind reflects the image of God, as masculine, has to be won by long and arduous argument, just as the notion that mankind must always be regarded as feminine insofar as she relates to God, has to be argued.

      In summary then, I have noted (i) that the English language is already too far gone down the path of anti-realism for us to bother about any masculine-negating developments it may yet undergo, (ii) that there is an apologetic advantage to using the feminine pronoun, (iii) that there is a humanitarian advantage to using the feminine pronoun, (iv) that the victory those on the left gain by this periphrastic concession is at best a pyrrhic victory (i.e., that we on the right have more to gain, and less to lose, than they do by the same concession).

      That is why I help myself to an exchange of pronouns so readily. I am not a purist about any language, least of all English (a most horrible language indeed). I believe that we can use the very same subliminal trick of the tongue to advance the agenda of the Gospel (if nothing else) when our interlocutors are a little to our left. I believe that the concession actually aims to reduce violence against women (physical and psychological) and insofar as it does it is not only good, but also better than not. The only people who are scandalized by my use of a feminine pronoun are, I suspect, male chauvinists, or people who are so far to the right that I am not even talking to them. Alternatively, perhaps a third kind exist who are simply people on the right who think this linguistic concession does more than it actually does (for the egalitarians), and miss the fact that it does more for the Catholic than the feminist in any case. The real point of doing it is to open minds, including (and especially) minds on the left, in order to use language with rhetorical and aesthetic appeal.

      Oh, and finally, what’s so mediocre about my defense of Creatio Ex Nihilo? 😛

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