Ex nihilo  

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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel

Ex nihilo is a Latin term meaning "out of nothing". It is often used in conjunction with the term creation, as in creatio ex nihilo, meaning "creation out of nothing". Due to the nature of this term, it is often used in philosophical or creationistic arguments, as many Christians, Muslims, and Jews believe that God created the universe from nothing. This contrasts with "creatio ex materia," which is creation out of eternally preexistent matter, and "creatio ex deo," which is creation out of the being of God.

History of the idea of creatio ex nihilo

Ancient Near Eastern mythologies, classical creation myths in Greek mythology envision the creation of the world as resulting from the actions of a god or gods upon already-existing primeval matter, known as chaos, often personified in the form of a fight between a culture-hero deity and a chaos monster in the form of a dragon (the chaoskampf motif). This is also the scenario envisaged by the authors of the Hebrew Genesis creation narrative.

The classical tradition of creation from chaos first came under question in Hellenistic philosophy (on a priori grounds), which developed the idea that a primum movens must have created the world out of nothing.

An early conflation of these tenets of Greek philosophy with the narratives in the Hebrew Bible came from Philo of Alexandria (d. AD 50), writing in the context of Hellenistic Judaism. Philo equated the Hebrew creator-deity Yahweh with Plato's primum movens (First Cause) in an attempt to prove that the Jews had held monotheistic views even before the Greeks.

The first sentence of the Greek version of Genesis in the Septuagint starts with the words: ἐν ἀρχῇ ἐποίησεν, translatable as "the primary cause caused to be". A verse of 2 Maccabees (a book written in Koine Greek in the same sphere of Hellenised Judaism of Alexandria, but predating Philo by about a century) expresses a similar idea:

"I beseech thee, my son, look upon the heaven and the earth, and all that is therein, and consider that God made them of things that were not; and so was mankind made likewise." (2 Maccabees 7:28, KJV)

The Church Fathers from the 2nd century seized upon this idea and developed it into the idea of creation ex nihilo by the Christian God. Church Fathers opposed notions appearing in pre-Christian creation myths and in Gnosticism - notions of creation by a demiurge out of a primordial state of matter (known in religious studies as chaos after the Greek term used by Hesiod in his Theogony).

Jewish thinkers took up the idea,

which became important to Judaism, to ongoing strands in the Christian tradition, and - as a corollary - to Islam.

Max Weber summarizes a sociological view of the overall development and corollaries of the theological idea:

[...] As otherworldly expectations become increasingly important, the problem of the basic relationship of god to the world and the problem of the world's imperfections press into the foreground of thought; this happens the more life here on earth comes to be regarded as a merely provisional form of existence when compared to that beyond, the more the world comes to be viewed as something created by god ex nihilo, and therefore subject to decline, the more god himself is conceived as a subject to transcendental goals and values, and the more a person's behavior in this world becomes oriented to his fate in the next. [...]

See also

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