Is Creation from Nothing Obsolete?

| By on Reading the Book of Nature

God creating the animals, fresco (1480s) from Vittskövle Kyrka, Kristianstad Municipality, Sweden.

Once the work of the six days was finished, did God really stop creating? Or, is God still creating new things now?

The last excerpt ended with Ted Peters saying, “We may speak intelligibly of both a beginning creation and a continuing creation.” When I started my academic career in science and religion thirty years ago—not long before Peters wrote this essay—I landed in the middle of an ongoing “debate” (Peters uses that word here with good reason) among Christians and others about how best to understand God’s creative activity. According to the traditional view, God created all things from nothing (creatio ex nihilo) “in the beginning,” by great miracles spread through the six “days” of creation, which almost all serious voices in modern times have interpreted as encompassing vast spans of time. The alternative view was not the YEC view that it was all one and done, with the work of creation completely finished at the end of the sixth “day.” Those folks had all but abandoned the larger conversation and were preaching only to their own choir. The alternative was continuing creation (creatio continua), the idea that God’s creative work is ongoing and never ending.

Generally speaking, proponents of Theistic Evolution like continuing creation, but this does not necessarily mean that they reject creation from nothing. Some (including Peters and me) believe that both understandings of creation are fully biblical and equally important. Others see this as either/or, not both/and, such that one must choose between creatio ex nihilo and creatio continua. This is hardly a necessary choice. Indeed, continuing creation has long been an important strand of classical Christian theology, especially within the Eastern Orthodox tradition. However, modern advocates have sometimes linked it closely with process theism, a very important and highly non-classical player in the modern “dialogue” of science and religion. We take that up in my next column, where Peters will focus specifically on process theism vis-à-vis creatio ex nihilo.

Today’s column focuses on scientific, not theological, aspects of the ongoing debate. Peters defends his view that “these two concepts are complementary and that we need not substitute one for the other.” The underlying question: is creation from nothing obsolete? Peters’ text begins after the next heading.

The Scientific Debate: Creation out of Nothing vs. Continuing Creation

We have already discussed how the Christian doctrine of creatio ex nihilo developed through a process of explicating [trying to understand] implications inherent in the ancient Hebrew experience of God’s saving acts in history. In our own epoch, characterized by modern science and an emerging postmodern culture, we are also engaged in interpretive explication. Therefore we must ask: does creatio ex nihilo help make the Gospel intelligible today? It is my own position that it does. However, not everyone agrees. We must acknowledge that some contemporary thinkers believe the doctrine is outdated due to the change in worldview. Because we moderns allegedly have more dynamic understanding of reality than did the ancients, many are recommending that creatio ex nihilo be replaced by one or another version of creatio continua. I do not believe we need to choose between them. I believe these two concepts are complementary and that we need not substitute one for the other. This complementarity is true for both Christian theology and natural science.

Photo: Fred Hoyle and Georges Lemaître
Fred Hoyle (left) and Georges Lemaître, two of the greatest astrophysicists of the twentieth century, held opposing views on the history of the universe. A Belgian veteran of World War One who became a Roman Catholic priest after the war, Lemaître studied with Arthur Eddington at Cambridge and withHarlow Shapley at Harvard before earning a doctorate in physics at MIT. In 1927, he wrote the groundbreaking paper on the expanding universe that soon led to what is now called the “Big Bang” theory. Ironically, it got that name from its biggest critic—Hoyle—who coined the term on a BBC radio broadcast in 1948.

We make the observation here that the debate between creation from nothing and continuous creation is not limited to theologians. It occurs among scientists as well. For several decades astronomer Fred Hoyle, for example, argued for a theory of continuous creation under the banner of the “steady state theory.” He thereby opposed any notion of an absolute beginning. Rather than think that all the matter in the universe appeared at a given point of origin, his position was that matter isalways coming into being uniformly throughout infinite time and infinite space. Hydrogen atoms are appearingde novo at a constant rate throughout space, condensing, combining, and giving birth to new stars.

Hoyle argued against the Big Bang by saying that the theory of a unidirectional expanding universe rests on a time-singularity beyond which the history of the universe cannot be traced; but Hoyle’s opponents countered by showing how his spontaneous creation of hydrogen atoms violates the laws of local conservation of mass and energy and, further, that the phenomenon of continuing creation is as yet unobserved. For most scientists the debate was decisively won in 1965 with the discovery of the cosmic background radiation by Robert W. Wilsonand Arno A. Penzias. Their discovery confirmed earlier predictions that such a universal microwave radiation would be a relic of an early stage in cosmic expansion. Hoyle has sought since to revise his approach by constructing other cosmologies in competition with the Big Bang model, but most scientists cede the final victory to some variant of the Big Bang view. [This remains true in 2014, despite many changes in the details of Big Bang cosmology.]

Why has Fred Hoyle been so adamant, especially when the preponderance of scientific evidence favors the Big Bang cosmology? It appears that Hoyle has religious as well as scientific reasons. He opposes the Christian religion. Like so many other scientific humanists of the modem world, he defines “religion” as escapism: “religion is but a desperate attempt to find an escape from the truly dreadful situation in which we find ourselves.” [Peters quotes Hoyle, The Nature of the Universe, p. 125.] What he does not like about the Big Bang theory, curiously enough, is that it looks to him like it might support Jewish and Christian theology. He opposes the idea of a point of origin. He opposes creatio ex nihilo. Over against the theologians he likes to quote the Greek Democritus, who said “nothing is created out of nothing” (ex nihilo nihil fit). He seems to assume that Big Bang and creatio ex nihilo belong together, and to this he objects.

It appears clear that Hoyle wants to avoid giving even the slightest quarter to religious forces. What is significant for us here is that Hoyle assumes there exists a consonance between Big Bang cosmology and Christian theology. He recognizes an inherent connection, and this is what he does not like about it. Thus, as Ernan McMullin points out, the debate among scientists seems to press against the borders of their own disciplines and, further, it seems there is some tacit agreement that the notion of a point of origin with a subsequent history of nature has the greater religious relevance. [Peters cites McMullin, “How Should Cosmology Relate to Theology?” in The Sciences and Theology in the Twentieth Century, ed. A. R. Peacocke (Notre Dame Press, 1980), pp. 32ff.]

Photo: Ernan McMullin and J.E. “Ted” McGuire
Philosopher Ernan McMullin (left) and historian J. E. “Ted” McGuireponder a point during a conference at the University of Pittsburgh. McMullin might have made a wonderful parish priest, but the Church enabled him instead to become one of the greatest Christian scholars of his generation. I cannot name anyone whose all-around knowledge of primary sources in science and Christianity rivalled his. Like Georges Lemaître, with whom he studied astrophysics at Louvain, McMullin was always wary of drawing too strongly on cosmology to argue for the divine creation of the universe. Nevertheless, he saw an obvious “consonance” between Christian theism and the Big Bang, and it was from him that Peters borrowed that term. I was introduced to McMullin in 1981, at the private conference in Madison, Wisconsin, that resulted in the very important book, God and Nature: Historical Essays on the Encounter between Christianity and Science. I was just a graduate student from another university, but the personal warmth and professional advice he so kindly extended led to a long friendship that ended only with his death in 2011. I stand on the shoulders of giants, even if I can’t see half as far.

Looking Ahead

Next time, Peters examines theological rather than scientific aspects of the debate between creatio ex nihilo andcreatio continua, in a lively discussion pitting his own views against those of some leading process theists. If your interest in questions about God and nature runs high, you won’t want to miss that!

References and Credits

Excerpts from Ted Peters, “On Creating the Cosmos,” in Physics, Philosophy and Theology: A Common Quest for Understanding (1988), ed. Robert John Russell, William R. Stoeger, S.J., and George V. Coyne, S.J., copyright Vatican Observatory Foundation, are reproduced by kind permission of Ted Peters and Vatican Observatory Foundation. We gratefully acknowledge their cooperation in bringing this material to our readers.

For a careful study of Hoyle’s famous comments about the Big Bang, see Craig Sean McConnell, “The BBC, the Victoria Institute, and the Theological Context for the Big Bang – Steady State Debate,” Science & Christian Belief 18.2 (October 2006): 151-68; read abstract.

Editorial Policy

Most of the editing for these excerpts from Ted Peters involves removing the odd sentence or two, or in some cases entire paragraphs—which I indicate by putting [SNIP] or an ellipsis at the appropriate point(s). I also insert annotations where warranted [enclosed in square brackets] to provide background information, often citing information from Peters’ own footnotes when it’s important for our readers.


About the Author

Ted Davis

Ted Davis is Fellow of the History of Science for the BioLogos Foundation and Professor of the History of Science at Messiah College. A former high school science teacher, Ted studied history and philosophy of science at Indiana University, where his mentor was the late Richard S. Westfall, author of the definitive biography of Isaac Newton. With the English historian Michael Hunter, Ted edited The Works of Robert Boyle, 14 vols. (London: Pickering & Chatto, 1999-2000), but his interests include the whole 2000-year interaction of Christianity and science. Author of dozens of scholarly articles and essays, Ted is one of few historians who have written extensively about both the Scientific Revolution and modern America. He and his wife Kathy enjoy theater, music, and traveling to new places.

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