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Recovering the Doctrine of Creation: A Theological View of Science, Part 1

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January 31, 2011 Tags: Creation & Origins
Recovering the Doctrine of Creation: A Theological View of Science, Part 1

Today's entry was written by Robert C. Bishop. Please note the views expressed here are those of the author, not necessarily of The BioLogos Foundation. You can read more about what we believe here.

This is the first post in a series taken from Robert Bishop's scholarly essay "Recovering the Doctrine of Creation: A Theological View of Science", which can be downloaded here.

In teaching at an evangelical liberal arts college that holds firmly to the inspiration and authority of Scripture, I find most of my students think the biblical doctrine of creation (DoC) is limited to two points: (1) God created out of nothing (ex nihilo) and (2) God created the world in six days (whatever they think “days” is supposed to mean!). My students are fairly representative of contemporary evangelicals’ understanding of the DoC. This contemporary understanding is problematic, however, because it is much narrower than the full doctrine as it was developed by the Patristic fathers. Given that the DoC is perhaps one of the most helpful pieces of theology for thinking about science, it’s worthwhile recovering it in all its glory. What follows over the next few parts of this blog is a brief tour through the elements of this amazing doctrine.

Two preliminary comments to get started. First, we have a tendency to cut up doctrines into chunks like the DoC, the doctrine of providence, the doctrine of salvation, the doctrine of eschatology, etc. Nevertheless, we need to realize that this is somewhat artificial on our part as we strive to understand one grand doctrine of God and His activity. All of these doctrines interpenetrate and inform each other as can be seen in what follows (e.g. much of God’s ongoing work of creation is continuous with His providence in creation; likewise, if God hadn’t created, there would be no providence, salvation or sanctification).

Second, all of the elements composing the DoC have been hard fought, won and then lost over and over in the history of Christian thought. If many of the following elements seem surprising or new to you, that’s largely because since the eighteenth century the DoC has suffered significant decline such that contemporary Christians usually only have a very atrophied version of the doctrine in mind when they think about creation, God’s work in creation, and science.1

Creator/Creature Distinction

Let’s start with the creator/creature distinction, something that is familiar to us and that we recognize as part of the DoC when we think about it. This distinction actually has some important yet often missed implications. For example, the distinction implies that God intends for creation to be something different from rather than similar to Him. God didn’t make creation with the same infinite being or nature as Himself. Creation’s being distinct from God implies it is to be distinctly itself, literally to become uniquely what God calls it to be in Christ.

Moreover, the creator/creature distinction implies that all of creation is valued—it has the kind of nature and functionality God intended it to have. After all, “God saw all that he had made and it was very good” (Gen. 1:31), is a proclamation of His valuing all of creation. The Hebrew term in Genesis 1 and 2, tob, often translated as “good,” has a variety of meanings in different contexts including moral goodness and craftsmanship. However, it is commonly used in the OT in the sense of functioning properly. For example, “It is not good [tob] for the human [adam] to be alone, I shall make him a sustainer beside him” (Gen. 2:18). The man isn’t fully functioning without a sustainer appropriate to his created nature. So the repeating refrains of “good” in Genesis 1 and 2 primarily mean value, as in properly functioning or working as intended, fulfilling assigned purposes. From the beginning, God is telling us that creation does—and will do—what He intends.

Moreover, we see God’s valuation of creation especially in Jesus’ incarnation: what higher affirmation could there be of the value of the material order than the second person of the Trinity taking on the material nature of creation and inhabiting its order, an order that Jesus Himself established and blessed in the beginning?

A final implication of the creator/creature distinction is that creation has what theologians call contingent rationality. Creation is contingent in two senses: (1) it is utterly dependent on God such that if Christ ceased sustaining creation it would disappear instantly and (2) God could have made any kind of creation He wanted but chose to make this particular creation. God didn’t need or have to create anything. He was under no compulsion or necessity. Rather, being a loving communion of three persons, out of the overflow of that love God brought into existence a particular kind of creation for His glory and for its own sake. Furthermore, creation has its own rationality, its own particular order, structure and functionality, which is at least partially intelligible to us.

The creator/creature distinction has implications for science as well. First, since creation is so valuable to God, its study is a worthwhile human activity. Second, the contingent rationality of the created order is what science seeks to uncover and understand (whether or not scientists realize that both this order and its intelligibility are good gifts from God).

Ex Nihilo Creation

That creation was made ex nihilo—literally out of absolute nothing—is implied by the creator/creature distinction. The Patristic fathers inferred the ex nihilo nature of creation from this distinction and various passages like John 1:1-3, 1 Cor. 8:6, Col. 1:16, Heb. 11:3, Rev. 4:11 in their struggle with ancient Greek natural philosophy (the latter maintained that matter was eternal). This element of the DoC was not easy to achieve and required the Patristics to “think away” what was false from the Greek philosophical ideas that so permeated their world and their education.

The theological significance of ex nihilo creation is hard to overestimate. For one thing it protects God’s sovereignty showing us that all things in creation are subject to Him. Moreover, it distinguishes God’s creative activity from all other religious creation stories. There is no pre-existent matter giving rise to divinities as in the other ancient Near East creation accounts. Creation is pictured as originating in covenantal love (Jer. 33:25) rather than conflicts among deities. God is never once seen to be struggling to shape recalcitrant matter (a constant theme in other ancient Near East creation accounts).

Another important implication of ex nihilo creation is that there can be no creation out of nothing without purpose. Creation was no accident on God’s part. He has reasons for what He’s doing, one of which is for creation to become what God destines it to be in Christ (more in part 3).

Finally, a creation made out of nothing is particularly fragile! Its tendency is to always fall back into nothing meaning that creation requires God’s constant preserving care. Here, there is a clear connection between God’s creating out of nothing and His general providence sustaining the being and order of creation.

Sovereignty in Creation

God’s sovereignty in creation contrasts with all the ancient creation myths and cosmologies, where divinities are always struggling with each other and with recalcitrant matter. Instead, the Bible pictures God as in control of all things: “See, the Sovereign LORD comes with power and his arm rules for Him” (Is. 40:10a), “He stretches out the heavens like a canopy, and spreads them out like a tent to live in” (Is. 40:22b), and

Blessed are you, O LORD, the God of Israel our father, forever and ever. Yours, O LORD, is the greatness and the power and the glory and the victory and the majesty, for all that is in the heavens and in the earth is yours. Yours is the kingdom, O LORD, and you are exalted as head above all. Both riches and honor come from you, and you rule over all (I Chron. 29: 11-12a).

From Genesis 1 to Revelations 22, God is king and ruler over all! One of the most relevant implications of this for thinking about science: God rules over all natural processes! Therefore, anything a scientist says about processes in creation can only be describing something that is sustained by God and subject to His sovereignty.


1. Although not his main theme, James Turner’s masterful history, Without God, Without Creed: The Origins of Unbelief in America, Johns Hopkins University Press (1986), reveals much of the DoC’s decline during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

Robert C. Bishop is the John and Madeline McIntyre Endowed Professor of Philosophy and History of Science and an associate professor of physics and philosophy at Wheaton College in Illinois. He received his master’s degree in physics and doctorate in philosophy from the University of Texas at Austin. Bishop's research involves history and philosophy of science, philosophy of physics, philosophy of mind, and metaphysics. Bishop is the author of The Philosophy of the Social Science and co-editor of Between Chance and Choice: Interdisciplinary Perspectives on Determinism.

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Roger A. Sawtelle - #49732

January 31st 2011

What strikes me is that philosophy grew out of Greek pagan dualism as opposed to Hebrew faith in YHWH.  Much of our way of thinking in the sciences and theology is deeply colored by Greek thought, rather than our Biblical faith.

Steve Ruble - #49738

January 31st 2011

[E]x nihilo creation ... distinguishes God’s creative activity from all other religious creation stories.

Perhaps, although there are some problems with that.  There is plenty of debate over whether Genesis actually describes ex nihilo creation (hinging in part on whether you see Genesis 1:1 as a summary or a part of the story). The NT might help (e.g., John 1:3), but by the time the NT was written the idea of ex nihilo creation was available from extra-biblical sources, so that doesn’t really make the case.

Anyway, I think the interesting thing here is the acknowledgement of similarity between the Christian creation myth and others - while contrasting their content, the writer must admit that they are all stories. The fact that some people find the god(s) in some stories more appealing than others doesn’t actually increase the probability that those stories are true by one whit. You need to provide some other evidence, and evidence for the actions of a god has always been in short supply.

Steve Ruble - #49742

January 31st 2011

That’s leaving aside the problems inherent in the idea of ex nihilo creation itself. For example:

A. Before God created the universe, nothing existed.
B. If nothing exists, then there are no entities which exist.
C. God didn’t exist before he created the universe.

I trust the problem is obvious.

The concept of “nothing” is as unintuitive and difficult as the concept of “infinity” (although it is easier to drop into a conversation). I know that Christians are not typically dismayed by the possibility that their dogmas contain internal contadictions (Trinity? Hypostatic union?), but I feel compelled to point them out nevertheless.

Tim - #49758

February 1st 2011

We really need to get Dr. Robert Bishop and his fellow Wheaton colleague Dr. John Walton together to debate the whole Ex Nihilo thing.  As I understand it, they fundamentally disagree on this issue with respect to Genesis 1.

Jon Garvey - #49784

February 1st 2011

@Tim - #49758

First, to say what an excellent post this is, and what a good series it promises to be, despite the diversion of the thread comments already into the same old same old. Nearly all the comments so far confirm the author’s portrayal of a lack of engagement with 2000+ years of serious consideration of the doctrine of creation in all its richness. As Alf Garnett used to say, “Listen, and yer might learn summink.”

That doesn’t apply to your comment, Tim, but I would say with some confidence that Bishop would have no fundamental disagreement with John Walton on ex-nihilo creation. At several points in both “The Lost World of Genesis 1” and his Geneis commentary, he affirms it. His only point is that it is not that aspect of creation on which Genesis itself majors. I note that Bishop doesn’t use Genesis for his case on ex nihilo creation either, and seems to suggest that the Fathers also didn’t.

Pete Enns - #49792

February 1st 2011

This post is probably not the most profitable venue for debating the basics of evolution. This current post gives us plenty to talk about, and I would suggest we maintain our focus there. The first several comments were very helpful in that regard.

Rich - #49809

February 1st 2011

penman (49788):

I agree with you that evolution in the sense of descent with modification need not be in conflict with orthodox Christian theology.  However, a word of caution is in order regarding one of your phrases.  I suspect that the great Princeton theologian Charles Hodge had “a robust doctrine of divine sovereignty,” and he certainly did have a problem with at least one form of evolutionary theory—the Darwinian.  And he indicates what the problem is:  “It is however neither evolution nor natural selection, which give Darwinism its peculiar character and importance. It is that Darwin rejects all teleology ... it is this feature of his system which brings it into conflict not only with Christianity, but with the fundamental principles of natural religion ...”

(*What is Darwinism?*, p. 54), http://desertphile.org/evolution/what-is-darwinism.pdf

Marshall - #49811

February 1st 2011

Hi Don,

Thanks for addressing my question. The word “man” is not in the Greek in Acts 17:26. Some translators render it as “from one man”, others as “from one blood”, others simply as “from one”. The isolated verse is like a Rorschach blot. If one already thinks humanity came from one man, they might see Adam in this verse. If they don’t, it speaks of the unity of humanity across nations.

Looking at the larger speech, it’s unlikely Paul was expecting his audience to see a reference to Adam. The Greeks did not recognize the Hebrew God or their Scriptures. They saw gods as a more local affair. In this verse Paul claims that both he, a Jew, and the people of Athens, come from common stock. If that is so, then the one Creator must also be more than just a god of the Greeks, or a god of the Jews.

Paul does not go on to connect this truth with Genesis, and 17:26-30 tell of early humanity’s relation to God far differently. Instead, Paul quotes their own philosophers, including Epimenides’s Creatia and Aratus’s Phaenomena. What those poets attributed to Zeus, Paul reveals as the one God. (cont.)

Marshall - #49812

February 1st 2011

While Paul does not reference Genesis, he takes a page out of its playbook. Genesis tells the primeval story in a way that resonates with Mesopotamian mythology even as it challenges it. Paul retells this foundational story to resonate with Greek philosophy even as he challenges it. It’s a deeply interesting passage that shouldn’t be narrowed to a single verse to prooftext a pet issue.

PS: Luke’s genealogy connects Seth to Adam as surely as it connects Adam to God. I doubt any Christian would claim every link in that genealogy is simply stating biological father-son relationships.

Jon Garvey - #49816

February 1st 2011

@Rich - #49809

I used to have a haematology lecturer who would wax enthusiastic about the purpose of clotting systems, immune cells etc, and then cheack herself by saying, “Of course, one mustn’t speak teleologically.” But in practice one must - the idea of purpose is too humanly compelling.

Darwinism has no *right* to discount teleology simply by proposing natural selection as a mechanism (which is the only mechanism that Darwin described), especially in the light of a doctrine of creation that has always encompassed the contingent as an aspect of God’s work in the cosmos. To unravel how a trick is done simply has nothing to say about why it is done.

Conversely, if someone fails to see a purpose behind the trick it doesn’t mean they haven’t correctly discovered the mechanism.

BenYachov - #49817

February 1st 2011

I have no problem with the “heavy handed” removing of posts nice to see you guys laying down the law but Steve Ruble - #49742 has to go too since I don’t see how his invalid & defective philosophical argument should be allowed to stand unchallenged.  It is also off topic.  Post #49738 OTOH is valid & on topic IMHO.  Also remove this post as well.

BenYachov - #49818

February 1st 2011

>Also remove this post as well.

Meaning Post Also remove this post as well. & this as well hurry before I create a Set Theory paradox.

penman - #49821

February 1st 2011

Rich - #49809

Good old Charles Hodge. I know him well… Not one of my heroes, though, largely because he persistently misrepresented & defamed the theology of one of my super-greatest heroes, John Williamson Nevin.

Hodge’s problem with Darwin was Darwin’s construal of natural selection as operating “blindly”, without divine purpose. But that’s a philosophical criticism. One can accept natural selection or any other modus operandi, & say that God’s decree stands behind it. Events that are contingent, or random, when regarded from the standpoint of created causes, can still be what they are, & do what they do, by divine sovereignty - which is outside the nexus of created causes. “The lot is cast into the lap, but its every decision is from the Lord” (Proverbs 16:33).

That’s why Hodge could paradoxically (or perhaps absurdly?) declare of Asa Gray, Darwin’s supreme defender & disseminator in America, that Gray was NOT a Darwinist - because Gray believed in God’s sovereignty!

Good account of Hodge’s Darwin-related views in David Livingstone, Darwin’s Forgotten Defenders, p.102ff.

Rich - #49829

February 1st 2011


I don’t want to argue the case for Hodge; I was only matching your Warfield with Hodge, to indicate that your presentation was one-sided.  Similarly, some columnists here have claimed or implied that Barth & Co. destroyed natural theology once and for all, which is a partisan view, as any neo-Thomist would tell you.

I reject your attempt to solve the problem raised by Hodge by simply laying divine sovereignty and natural randomness side by side and declaring by fiat that there is no contradiction.  That’s the typical argument around here, and frankly, it’s philosophically vacuous.  Also, Darwin himself was aware of precisely the tension Hodge identifies, as his letters and autobiography clearly show.

I also notice a pattern here, whereby both columnists and commenters make undefended large general statements about Christian theology, as if they are self-evident truths.  For example:  “divine sovereignty—which is outside the nexus of created causes.”  How do you know that?  What is your theological authority for saying that?  How do you know that God does not exercise his sovereignty *through* created causes?  Your statement may be true, but it’s unsupported, and unexplained.

Papalinton - #49832

February 1st 2011

“God’s sovereignty in creation contrasts with all the ancient creation myths and cosmologies, where divinities are always struggling with each other and with recalcitrant matter. “

The contrast with all the ancient creation myths and cosmologies is clear, unequivocal.  However, the particular content of this article remains at it core an alternative myth or constructed cosmology.  Nothing more, nothing less.  The notion of ‘contrast’, itself, is not sufficient an evidential marker to distinguish fact from fantasy. 

That of itself, is not a bad thing.  Indeed such belief in a particular creation myth provides the basis for the following story, recounted over the 66 books, that has shown to possess a wonderfully salvific effect on some, if not many people, living with the fear of their own tenuous grip on life and their own mortality.

Alan Fox - #49833

February 1st 2011


I also notice a pattern here, whereby both columnists and commenters make undefended large general statements about Christian theology, as if they are self-evident truths.

I notice that too, on occasion.

I still think Elizabeth Tudor had it right when she said:

“I have no desire to make windows into mens souls .”

dave - #49839

February 1st 2011

It’s not sufficient for humans (or other sentient creatures) that the world works as it should (is good). But, it doesn’t seem sufficient for God, either, because God sees a need to save us into a more adequate world.

RCB - #49849

February 1st 2011

@Tim - #49758

There is no fundamental disagreement between myself and John Walton (we sat together today at an in-house faculty development seminar and talked some about these things). John and I both agree that Genesis 1:1-2 likely wouldn’t have been understood by the original audience as teaching ex nihilo creation. As Garvey - #49784 correctly notes, I was addressing the early Christian community’s struggle to make sense of what it means to say that ALL THINGS were create through Christ and for Christ. In the light of such NT affirmations the early Fathers were led to reject the Greek natural philosophers’ view that matter was eternal. For example, Augustine agreed with his Manichean opponents that a literal interpretation of Genesis 1:1-2—literal as they understood it–taught that matter was pre-existent (perhaps eternal) before God began creating. But given the NT affirmations about Christ creating all things, Augustine argued we had to interpret Genesis 1:1-2 theologically in a way that was consistent with Christ’s role in creation.

RCB - #49850

February 1st 2011

To summarize: Given only Genesis 1:1-2 in its historical context the case for ex nihilo creation is ambiguous at best. However, given the totality of the Bible’s teaching about God and creation, we can see Genesis 1:1-2 as implying that matter was ex nihilo created before God began the ordering and shaping of creation.

conrad - #49867

February 2nd 2011

You need to look at modern cosmology.

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