Creatio ex Nihilo

The Doctrine of “Creation Out of Nothing” in Early Christian Thought

Book Notice

Creatio ex Nihilo: The Doctrine of “Creation Out of Nothing” in Early Christian Thought, by Gerhard May (T & T Clark, 1994)

The original German text of this book appeared in 1978 with the title Schöpfung aus dem Nichts: Die Entstehung der Lehre von der creatio ex nihilo. Only minor changes occur in the English text. The thesis focuses on the origin and roots of the doctrine of creation “out of nothing.” However, Gerhard May also emphasizes the interplay between ideas about creation and other facets of theology. The key players in the debates are philosophers, theologians, and clerics.

In the second century A.D., many Christian doctrines were unsettled. Even God’s omnipotence and the question of whether he existed alone or in company with other gods were debated. Was the creator the supreme God or a lesser god? Would an omnipotent god create evil? Similar debates concerned the nature of creation. Are man and the cosmos evil or good? Could matter be eternal without itself possessing godhood? If matter is eternal, isn’t God merely an artist? Each of these issues impacted on the doctrine of creation.

Christian Gnostics, under the leadership of Basilides, advanced the concept of creation out of nothing in a form that closely resembled the doctrine later adopted by the mainline church. Gnostic ideas about creation, however, contained other elements that were offensive to a majority of church leaders. Shortly before A.D. 200, an orthodox approach to creatio ex nihilo was initiated by Theophilus of Antioch and was expanded upon by Bishop Irenaeus of Lyons. Irenaeus refuted gnostic philosophy with clear, simple statements about God and His powers but joined Theophilus and the Gnostics to proclaim that God created earth and the cosmos out of nothing. With the blessing of orthodoxy, the doctrine spread quickly throughout the church.

Although Gerhard May’s style is scholarly, any interested reader can gain much from this volume. The topic remains central to LDS studies of the doctrinal changes that occurred in early Christianity.

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