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The Doctrine of Creation in Historical Perspective

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January 15, 2010 Tags: Creation & Origins
The Doctrine of Creation in Historical Perspective

Today's entry was written by John Wesley Wright. Please note the views expressed here are those of the author, not necessarily of BioLogos. You can read more about what we believe here.

Christians have lost their ability to speak the “faith given to the saints.” It is not that this language has lost its intellectual poignancy. It remains as persuasive today as it did in the centuries when it formed some of the greatest human minds in history. The problem is that the historic faith has become fragmented. Having passed through the flotsam and jetsam of history, various permutations, great and small, have become attached to it. The historic Christian tradition’s rational structure still stands strong. Nonetheless, it has been obscured by a dust cloud that swirls in and around. Today bits of faith float free in various configurations to be grabbed and reassembled like a box of Lego toys by intellectuals and laity—friend and foe alike.

This is especially noticeable when we speak about the Christian doctrine of creation, a teaching that the Church shares in its most basic outline with Jews and Muslims. Historically all these traditions have confessed that God has created all that is - “the heavens and the earth”- from nothing. This insight into the very nature of things came into the world with the force of a scientific revolution. The ancient Greek world, in contrast, made an alternative claim: something cannot come from nothing – all that is exists eternally.

Ancient Greek philosophical traditions promote the belief God and the world always belong together. God ultimately shares in the same system as the world. God and the world are both “natural” – God necessarily implies the world and vice versa. Inevitably one will place God into an already required category to ensure the stability of the system. Since the world is viewed as necessary, the primary questions are where and how God fits into the system, and perhaps how humans can work with or against, if required, God. All mystery dissolves under the rational coherence of the system.

One example of this today is found in the Intelligent Design movement. The Intelligent Design God becomes a Cause within the world to help explain how the world developed; God and creation naturally belong together. God becomes like Hansel and Gretel, leaving bread crumbs within creation that might lead the truly rational person to a level of intelligence that God and the rational person share. Human reason can grasp this God without faith. One uses reason to find “black boxes” where God serves as a force within creation, a very wily and obscure agent that leaves mysterious clues for scientific deciphering. God the agent is not mysterious; the clues that God left behind provide a riddle that inquiring minds can solve. Rather than the mysterious Source behind and in and through and before creation, Intelligent Design develops a modern conception of God as a Cause amid other causes. Though it has an apologetic Christian intent, this God is much closer to the ancient Greek divinity than the God witnessed to in the faith handed over to the saints who creates from nothing.

When ancient Jews, Christians, and Muslims encountered the world, they did not encounter something that is necessary or “natural.” They discovered a world that does not have to be, a world that God has gifted with existence out of God’s own graciousness and mercy, a world that becomes fully comprehensible through faith in the Creator God. Jews, Christians, and Muslims encounter “creation,” not “nature.” Creation calls us to investigate the cosmos as a whole with the wonder, amazement, and thankfulness that is appropriate to creation’s nature as gift. The beauty of its parts participating in the whole becomes a sign of creation’s Creator, perhaps a sign perceived dimly but still very visible through faith. God is not an agent within creation to be investigated or excluded by electron microscopes and evolutionary logarithms or the opening of black boxes. As Creator of all that is from nothing, God is the mystery that is the source, sustainer, and end of all creation. As the Christian Scriptures state, “For from God and through God and to God are all things” (Romans 11:36). It is no accident that the passage ends with an articulation of praise: “To God be the glory forever!” God is God, the ultimate mystery through whom all things become fully understandable.

The doctrine of creation does not deny scientific reason. Such a reason is easily rendered intelligible by the historic Jewish, Christian, and Muslim traditions. As God creates from nothing, God has made and sustains creation as that which is other than God. Creation has a certain autonomous existence from God, not of necessity but because God has freely granted it. Here is a truthful paradox: creation is “self-contained” as that which is not God, even as it is fully and solely dependent upon God as its source, sustainer, and end. Obviously this means that God is not an agent at all like other agencies found within creation. With relentless wonder, humans are free to examine, investigate and theorize about agencies within creation without reserve. We will never “see God” or God’s agency directly – God is not creation. God is so radically other than that which is within creation that any human attempt to describe God is always characterized by an infinitely greater inadequacy.

With the doctrine of creation, Jews, Christians, and Muslims who are true to their roots are free to utilize scientific reason with abandon. But we confess that human reason is also more than a mere instrument. Our reason, lifted and perfected by faith, accounts for creation’s origin and end beyond its own confines. Formed by faith in the Creator God, reason opens humans to that which is radically ”other”—creation’s truth, goodness and beauty that point beyond the created order to culminate in the worship of the indescribable mystery of God. We can understand the wonder that the scientist experiences in her study of genetic structures and the beauty that a mathematician finds in the elegance of a mathematical formula. We understand by faith why creation, being from God and through God and to God, would bear witness to its Creator. We even understand why these signs do not come upon us coercively or necessarily – for that would reduce God to an agent within creation, and thus ironically deny what we confess in the Creator God who creates from nothing.

Affirming the doctrine of creation from nothing, it is impossible to have a conflict between what empirical investigation describes and our confession of the God who creates from nothing. It is possible to have a conflict between scientists and the culture of scienticism – a culture that wants to reduce all rationality to its own powerful but limited instrumental reason that refuses an origin and end beyond itself. Ultimately humans must discover from within their own embodied experience of “nature” that the cosmos as a whole points beyond itself in its truth, goodness, and beauty as the creation of God, the mystery that elicits from within the praise and wonder and meaning with which we participate in life.

John Wesley Wright, Ph.D. is Professor of Theology and Christian Scriptures at Point Loma Nazarene University. Dr. Wright has published numerous articles and edited a number of books, including Priests, Prophets, and Scribes: Essays on the Formation and Heritage of Second Temple Judaism in Honor of Joseph Blenkinsopp, which he co-edited with Eugene Ulrich, Robert Carroll, and Philip R. Davies. (JSOT Press, 1992) and Conflicting Allegiances: The Church-based University In A Liberal Democratic Society, co-edited with Michael Budde (Brazos Press, 2004).

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Gregory Arago - #2675

January 15th 2010

“Though it has an apologetic Christian intent, this [ID] God is much closer to the ancient Greek divinity than the God witnessed to in the faith handed over to the saints who creates from nothing.” - J.W.W.


The ID God is a formal & final cause God not an efficient and material cause God.

“the Christian doctrine of creation [is] a teaching that the Church shares in its most basic outline with Jews and Muslims.” - J.W.W.

Amen to that!

“Human reason can grasp [this] God without faith.” - J.W.W.

Most IDists are protestant (evangelical) Christians who believe in sola fides. How can U suggest that they are now suddenly rationalists? It is a great contrast, one that is captured *within* American Christendom. You argument appears to persist *only* within, not without.

God *IS* mysterious. Prayers for Haiti. Amen!

“Jews, Christians, and Muslims encounter “creation,” not “nature”.” - J.W.W.


This speaks of “the necessary presuppositions of philosophy as the science of totality…to expose the disguise of a supposedly scientific neutrality with respect to faith and religion, and to uncover the true starting points of theoretical systems.” “God created humankind in God’s own image.” (1967, 2002)

Steve - #2677

January 15th 2010

Beautifully written and well considered, but I do think the problem has been misdiagnosed. No doubt many evolution critics are out of touch with their heritage in many ways, but in this case, they have chosen one area in which to be faithful to tradition and orthodoxy that most of us who accept evolutionary theory cannot.

I hope this doesn’t sound dismissive of something I do think is a part of the puzzle, but the simple fact is that if Adam weren’t mentioned in the NT, we wouldn’t be talking about this.

Special creationists I’ve talked to will argue against evolution as though the problem were with the method of God’s authorship of creation; they’ve armed themselves well with every possible way of finding problems with non-historiographic readings of early Genesis. But I still confidently contend that, although there would no doubt remain a subsect of Fundamentalist Christians who rejected nuanced readings grounded in sound literary analysis, most of what was argued wonderfully above would be presented by many who as it stands now are evolution’s sharpest critics specifically because of the single, pesky issue of a guy named Adam.

pds - #2698

January 15th 2010

Rather than the mysterious Source behind and in and through and before creation, Intelligent Design develops a modern conception of God as a Cause amid other causes. Though it has an apologetic Christian intent, this God is much closer to the ancient Greek divinity than the God witnessed to in the faith handed over to the saints who creates from nothing.

More ID bashing based on misrepresenting ID.  ID says nothing about the nature of God.  ID detects design in nature.  The rest is based on the implications of it, about which ID proponents disagree.

Read Dallas Willard about the value of design arguments:


Also in his recent book, Know Christ Today.

pds - #2699

January 15th 2010

My link as a link, hopefully:

Dallas Willard on design arguments with a very positive mention of “intelligent design” and Michael Behe.

Gregory Arago - #2708

January 15th 2010


Thanks for the link to your blog and to Willard’s comments.

I found other things of value there too.

Are you, like NT Wright, “perfectly happy to say that species have evolved”? I am.

The issue on the table doesn’t seem to be ‘design arguments,’ as you say. But rather, ‘design in biology.’ The IDM insists ‘design’ belongs conceptually in biology. Many biologists disagree.

Are you a biologist?

This rejection of ‘design’ in biology, however, does nothing to limit the concept of ‘design’ elsewhere. You seem to be protecting apologetic usage of ‘design.’ Is this a fair guess?

One can likewise reject ‘evolution’ in some spheres, while accepting it in others. So it seems we are seeking a golden ratio here, aren’t we?

What ‘BioLogos’ means in this is still mysterious to me! : )

Knockgoats - #2711

January 15th 2010

“ID detects design in nature.”

No: it claims to do so. None of its claims stand up to scrutiny and historically, it is simply a dishonest attempt to smuggle religion into science lessons, thought up when it became clear that this was not going to be possible with straight YEC creationism. Anyone who doubts this should simply google “cdesign proponentsists”.

pds - #2768

January 16th 2010


Glad you liked the quote.

I accept that limited common descent is plausible.

I am not a biologist. 

I don’t see why we should separate design arguments from biology from design arguments from other areas of science.  Maybe you can clarify what you mean?

Gregory Arago - #2785

January 16th 2010


Yeah, me too!  : )

You wrote that you “accept that limited common descent is plausible.”

Yeah, that seems a safe & responsible position. The meaning of ‘common descent’ is fuzzy in various contexts, but the notion that there were pre-humans or pre-Adamites seems a necessary part of the ‘scientific map of the world.’

You said you “don’t see why we should separate design arguments from biology from design arguments from other areas of science.”

In human-social sciences we can *speak* with ‘designers,’ while in biology we can’t.

Surely you admit that logically there cannot be ‘design’ without a ‘designer.’ M. Gene (& any other ID-sympathizer) will likely pop in here & argue that one can ‘detect design’ without knowing anything about the ‘designer/Designer.’ That’s not the main point.

The fact is that there *must be* a ‘designer’ & in some areas of science we can ‘test’ this, while in others we can’t.

Ironic that the ‘Wedge’ document predicted ID would soon flourish in social sciences, where ‘design’ is obvious. It hasn’t. How do you explain that PDS?

God is still in the house either way!

Knockgoats - #2791

January 16th 2010

“The meaning of ‘common descent’ is fuzzy in various contexts”

In what contexts? Fuzzy in what way? As far as I can see, its meaning is quite clear: that all life is descended, in literal, geneological terms, from a common ancestor. Evidence for this is of course absolutely overwhelming; only religious dogmatism stands in the way of its acceptance.

Emile - #2979

January 19th 2010

It seems to me, as someone who does not subscribe to a religion, that while I can find more common ground with such a mystical interpretation of Christianity it doesn’t look very much like Christianity as practiced or understood by most Christians.

What does it mean to believe that Jesus Christ redeems one from sin if God is a mystical, totally separate from nature, “uncaused cause”?

What confuses me about peoples attempts to reconcile science and religion is the starting place.  Science seems nothing more nor less than that body of practices which we have developed over time to generate our best explanations of how the world actually is.  Doing good science means being honest about not just ones best explanation, but also about ones level of uncertainty.  And being willing to say “I don’t know” when no theory is yet available to explain the data.  Religion (as opposed to mysticism) seems to not be very good at that.

(... continued below due to comment length restriction…)

Emile - #2980

January 19th 2010

(... continued from above ...)

While mystical experiences are omnipresent in humanity and are clearly profoundly important to people, nothing leads me to believe that they provide a reliable source of “objective” knowledge, if you will.  So while I’m sympathetic to social organizations devoted to exploring our capacity for mystical experiences and concerning themselves with ethics and philosophy, I don’t see how you get from there to specific dogma:  ie. to explicit claims about whether the universe is caused or uncaused, had a beginning or is eternal, that a certain historical person is an incarnation of God, etc..

Matthew Crockett - #3300

January 24th 2010

My problem with Intelligent Design is that with the idea of special acts you have a view of Creation as initially broken and God as some sort of handyman running around making sure the system keeps going. My own view is to interpret the concept of a design as something the parts of the universe follow as a default. The one question mark in the process is us as free-willed beings. God interacts with us. The rocks don’t have the ability to change what they are doing.

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