t f p g+ YouTube icon

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

Bookmark and Share

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.

Next post in series >

View the archived discussion of this post

This article is now closed for new comments. The archived comments are shown below.

Page 5 of 5   « 2 3 4 5
Roger A. Sawtelle - #50829

February 11th 2011

Gregory wrote:
“Now, here is the question, Roger: are you saying that Popper thought’ natural selection’ was a tautology?”

Yes, Gregory, Karl Popper said that Darwin’s natural selection is a tautology.  i.e. Life forms are selected, that is they survive and reproduce, because they are fit.  We know that they are fit, because they are selected, that is, they survive and reproduce. 

Please check it out on the internet if you doubt my word.  The article “Natural Selection and the Emergence of Mind,” appeared in the magazine, Dialectica, #32.

Jon Garvey - #50884

February 12th 2011

@Roger A. Sawtelle - #50829

Roger, after several months I’m still not sure how your view of evolution differs from what I learned in the VI form: that “natural selection” is short for “natural selection by the environment.”

That could be a nuclear winter after a meteor - all the dinosaurs, say, die. But it’s not just new species for new environments, because if the cold spell passes, there are no dinosaurs left to move back into the niches - it’s all mammals.

But the environment could be tall trees, in which case tall giraffes survive. And then taller trees, and taller giraffes - a passive animal/veg arms race.

Or the environment could be a fast predator, in which case the fastest gazelles (and cheetahs) survive (which is self-evident - you don’t find cheetahs giving slow gnu a headstart). The alternative would be that predators create new niches by snaffling all the deer so new species have to evolve to fill them.

It could even be an unnatural environment like the research lab where most wild bunnies rushed round the cages until they became experiment-fodder, except the aberrant rabbit that held his paw up to the keepers, who refused to give him over to the scientists. It’s always been about environment.

Gregory - #50892

February 12th 2011

Thanks for the link, Roger. You might want to have a look at this one too: http://www.talkorigins.org/indexcc/CA/CA211_1.html

Does Popper’s use of ‘recantation’ in the essay influence your position at all?

I find it fascinating that those two papers -  “Natural Selection and the Emergence of Mind” & “Natural Selection and Its Scientific Status” - were published in the same year. What I am not enamoured with is Popper’s old-school treatment of ‘evolution.’

E.g.: “My solution was that the doctrine of natural selection is a most successful metaphysical research programme. It raises detailed problems in many fields, and it tells us what we would expect of an acceptable solution of these problems.” - Popper

A challenge to Popperians: which fields does Popper mean to refer to when he says “It raises detailed problems in many fields”?

Iow, what are the disciplinary or academic field limitations or boundaries of ‘natural selection’? What can ‘nature’ *not* ‘select’ for? What is ‘non-natural’? Does putting it that way make a difference, Roger?

? remains: Is ‘ecology’ smth ‘natural’ or smth ‘else’?

I accept Jon’s clarifying point re: environment, plus human (free will) choice.

Roger A. Sawtelle - #50895

February 12th 2011


I agree basically with what you were taught.  However Darwin, Dawkins and Dennett do not and thus far most people including BioLogos have a different definition of natural selection than you and I. 

One of the main points I have been trying to make is that Dawkins and Dennett are using the confusion around the nature of natural selection to advocate a scientific view that is not supported up by the real evidence, which supports natural selection as we understand it, but not as they see it. 

Ecological natural selection which is what I call the view that you have been taught is a clearly defined and well documented mechanism.  Malthusian survival of the fittest is not.  I thank you for your support and I challenge those who still believe in the Darwinian Malthusian myth of natural selection advocated by Dawkins and the Darwinists to bring forth their evidence. 

The fight of the Darwinists such as Dawkins against ecology must end.  BioLogos needs to decide not to side with Dawkins, but to accept ecology as a legitimate scientific discipline which can open the door to our understanding of evolution.  The truth about evolution is the issue, not Darwinism.

Roger A. Sawtelle - #50926

February 12th 2011

I accept Jon’s clarifying point re: environment, plus human (free will) choice.


You still don’t get it.  Jon’s is not a clarifying point.  Jon’s view is directly opposed to the way Darwin saw natural selection.  Darwin’s view of natural selection was an invisible hand that perfected the species through conflict.  He said the human beings are the product of “nature’s war” against itself.  Ecology is based on the view of life fulfilling itself, and is not based on atomistic genes or creatures struggling for survival.  It is the difference between liasse faire capitalism and the modern social state. 

The primary concept of ecology is the niche, where all the life forms work together symbiotically to create an environment suitable for each and every one.  Presumably if one inhabitatant of the niche cannot adapt to it, it will move on or perish.  The niche reduces or eliminates conflict and competition, which are the basis of Darwinian thought.  Ecology is a non zero sum games opposed to Darwinian zero sum. 

Ecological selection is sharing.  The apple tree shares its fruit with many.  Darwinism is the selfish gene, which might in some circumstances work with others.  The ? is the character of Nature.

Gregory - #50930

February 12th 2011


It is ‘laissez faire,’ not ‘liasse faire’. Please do not tell me what I supposedly ‘don’t get’, when you are clearly making things up.

Likewise, you bring in Adam’s Smith’s ‘invisible hand’ & Dawkins’ ‘selfish gene,’ demonstrating your confusion over them in attributing them both to Darwin. 

“Ecological selection is sharing.” - Roger

It sounds cute, warm & fuzzy, but it is *not* an ‘answer’ to the huge problems you are suggesting. It is one thing to focus on symbiogenesis (which personally I think is a decent thing for biologists and other natural-physical scientists to do), another thing entirely to promote a view of Christianity that is ‘eco-centric’. As it is, you’ve returned to basically ‘preaching’ ecology. 

Again, how do you define ‘ecologism’? What are the limits to ‘ecological selection’ that differ from the limits of ‘natural selection’?

“the character of Nature”?!?

Papalinton - #50951

February 12th 2011

Censorship - akin to book-burning.  The Alexandrian library all over again.

Roger A. Sawtelle - #51013

February 13th 2011


I am not preaching anything, although sharing is not a bad sermon.  Sharing might sound warming and fuzzy to you, and there is nothing wrong per se with warm and fuzzy, which is much better than cold and hard.  However humans, in particularly the West is sharing its ecochanging pollution with the rest of our world.  The polar bears do not appreciate this.

I do not know why you insist in me defining ecologism.  I am not talking about any kind of ism.  We are talking science.  If you want to compare Darwinism with ecology fine, but it has nothing to do with ecologism, whatever that is.

“It may be said that natural selection is daily and hourly scrutinizing, throughout the world, every variation, even the slightest: rejecting that which is bad, preserving and adding up all that is good; silently and insensibly working, whenever and wherever opprtunity offers at the improvement of each organic being in relation to its organic and inorganic relations of life.”  Darwin, Origin of the Species

This what Darwin said that natural selection did.  Dawkins and E.O. Wilson agree.  Do you and BioLogos?  How does it do it?

Page 5 of 5   « 2 3 4 5