Concerning "Creation, Cosmology, and the Insights of Thomas Aquinas"

This is an article by Dr. William Carroll. In the article on creation Dr. Carroll states, "When God’s creative act is said to be “out of nothing,” what is meant is that God does not use anything in creating all that is: it does not mean that there is a change from “nothing” to “something.” I don’t understand this statement. What is the difference between the two?



(Did you intend to include the link to an article?)

Maybe it could be said that God created out of himself, not that he loses anything or that what he creates could exist independently of him.1

To my knowledge, the Bible never says God created ex nihilo. What it does say is this:

By faith we understand that the universe was formed at God’s command, so that what is seen was not made out of what was visible…
Hebrews 11:3

If you have been ‘lurking’ here for any appreciable time, you may have seen a version of my frequent post saying I like the suggestion that quantum mechanics may be hinting that the fundamental reality of the universe is information, and the mind of God fits the bill quite nicely.


1 This echoes the idea of information being the fundamental reality of the universe as well:

…and he upholds the universe by the word of his power.
Hebrews 1:3

How about the concept of the shadow of a cloud. It is itself a reality that contains information from the cloud, and the cloud ‘creates’ it, not out of nothing but out of the reality of the information contained in the cloud. And if the cloud ceased to exist, so would its shadow.

What a delightful surprise to see that Dr. William E. Carroll is a BioLogos contributor:

Sometime this weekend I must give the article my full attention. I glanced at another one he wrote here, and the subject is super interesting to say the least.


Ah, thanks for clarifying about the citation.

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Clearly it is a not a change from nothing to something because before the creation of the world/universe there is God. Creation ex-nihilo never meant a creation of both God and the universe from nothing. Instead it means that God did not require something He did not create Himself in order to create the universe.

As I have explained before the scientific concept of energy removes the philosophical distinction between matter and action. And thus theological idea of creation ex-nihilo makes sense in the context of modern science where the action of God’s creation can itself be the source of all the substance of the universe. This has the full confirmation of science, for we see it the example of a particle accelerator where the energy of the action of motion is converted to the energy of particulate matter.

Creation ex-nihilo refers to the universe we live in coming into being by the will of God. God is the uncreated being. He is eternal, i.e. never came to be but always was, is and ever shall be. My question is what is the difference between the two statements, “God does not use anything in creating,” and “this does not mean there is a change from nothing to something” ? If He does not use anything to create the universe (because there was no-thing he could use), how is this different from saying, "Before God created the universe there were no things and after there were things, i.e. a change from nothing (no-thing) to something (some-thing)?

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God is very definitely a ‘thing’, just not a material one?

I’m not seeing a difference, either. The only alternative to there being a change from nothing to there being something is that something besides God has eternal existence, yet that contradicts the meaning of His Name, that He is the only self-generating one.

Without a link to the article I wouldn’t want to venture a guess at what he’s trying to say, but I don’t at this point see a way to make sense of it

I’m blanking on which church Father said it, but one stated that God created out of Himself, yet not that He used His own substance but that all things arose through His Word and are also maintained by that same Word.

The concept of ex nihilo comes from the meaning of God’s name, that He is the openly self-generating entity and all other entities are derived from Him. If ex nihilo is not the case, then something besides God has eternal existence, and that existence does not depend on God. I think it was Athanasius who commented on the passage where Paul wrote that all things came into being through the Word and nothing that has being came into existence apart from the Word, saying that there are not two Eternals, only one Eternal who is God.

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(@heymike3 provided it in his comment above):

Have you seen how Augustine writes about it in The Confessions?

For thou [God] didst make heaven and earth, not out of any material, since there was no material, but out of thyself, yea, and not out of thyself as one thing made of another, but out of thyself as thy Word, co-eternal with thee and by whom thou didst make all things.

And that is the question I answered. Before the creation of the universe there is something not nothing, because there is God. The point is that creation ex-nihilo is not an example of something from nothing. It was NOT a change from nothing to something. It was a change from God to God + what God created. The only thing that doesn’t make sense here is your insistence upon excluding the only difference by forcing it into being some hidden assumption of the question. No I do not have to accept your imposed assumptions.

I certainly don’t see why we must accept the interpretation forced on us.

Here is a link to the article.

The context is the question of “why there is something rather than nothing?” The truth is that neither side addresses this question at all. Both start with something. Carrol and Aquinas start with God and only explains that God is the origin of the universe. Krauss and Hawking start with the laws of nature and only explains that the laws of nature are the origin of the universe.

The Christian answer to the question (why something rather than nothing) is that God is self-existing – a necessary being. Can they likewise propose that the universe or natural law is self-existing or necessary being? Yes and it has been done with the ideas of an infinite multiverse and the anthropic principle. The idea in both cases is to remove all particularity from the origin of all things – so it is not one possibility among many – but already containing all possibilities. But if both of these are all inclusive then how are they different? Does this mean that an infinite multiverse implies the inclusion of sentience… super sentience? Does an infinite God imply that this being somehow includes all possible universes within Him?

The issue I raised stemmed from the confusion between God and “thing.” If one includes God in the category of “thing” then Carroll’s statements are clear. I read the article assuming God was not in that category. I was thinking of “thing” as a sensible entity, i.e. an entity existing in time and space.

Even more presumptions…

You are talking to a physicist, for whom time and space are not only things but things with quite a variety of possible structures.

Besides, I believe in other things beside God which are not inside a space-time structure like angels. And being outside a space-time structure doesn’t mean being devoid of space and time. I don’t see why having a ordering of internal events requires existence within an external space-time structure. I think it is possible to dream a dream with space and time even if you exist outside of space-time.

Sounds like your presumptions are comparable to those of Krauss and Hawkings presuming natural law or a space-time vacuum in addressing why something rather than nothing – presumptions which mean they are not addressing the question at all.

No, I have nothing in common with Krauss and Hawking (talk about presumptions, i.e. judgments). I simply wasn’t thinking of the term thing as all encompassing when I read the article. That’s all there is to it. Like I said, if the term thing is used as all encompassing then Carroll’s statements are clear and I have no arguments against them.

All things are comparable.

But nothing in common??? I suspect that is quite an exaggeration. I have much in common with them… being human, speaking English, and being a physicist, but I wouldn’t be surprised to learn there are many more commonalities. But of course, I am also very different in many ways.

It only makes sense to read things in the only way they make sense. I guess you can set out with the presumption that what you read is nonsense, but then it is hardly surprising that you come to the conclusion you have already imposed on the text. I think this is particularly a factor when reading something like the Bible. I was not raised Christian, but I read the Bible looking for meaning rather than looking for nonsense.

I too have my presumptions. I was a scientist first so the scientific worldview was already a part of my perceptual process of making sense of the world. So naturally, when I read the Bible, I took the truth of the scientific worldview as a given and that was a filter through which I read it. Thus creationism was never a possibility for me.

By the time we can read we already have a framework of presumptions and it takes a long time to gain an awareness of them so you at least acknowledge them, even if you don’t challenge them.

For another example… I remember in college, one of my fellow students telling me he learned in philosophy that there was no such thing as meaning. I dismissed this immediately as completely meaningless. Ultimately we just have to make choices. Perhaps we can choose to reinvent some “wheels,” but we cannot reinvent all of them.

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Mitch, I think your underwear is too tight.

Are time and space ‘things’?

I recall a discussion long ago where it was debated whether God was a “thing”. We ended up deciding He isn’t based on the definition that “thing” is something that can be perceived by human senses and their extension via human-devised instruments. The runner-up position was that if there is a noun for it then it is a thing – but that allows for items that are purely imaginary to be called “things” and thus isn’t a very useful definition.

Unfortunately the phrase “ex nihilo”, or “from nothing” is misleading and always has been. It should read “not out of anything” (which could be expressed in Latin!). The unhappy turn of phrase has led people to think that there was a “nothing” which preceded the universe. Not so, of course, time itself started with the start of the physical universe. Nothing is literally nothing, and has no existence at all, whatsoever. All the emergence is from God, and that is the point of the doctrine.