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Ted Davis
 on July 17, 2014

On Creating the Cosmos: Excerpts from Ted Peters

Discussing Ted Peters’s affirmation of the central Christian doctrine of creation from nothing and presents edited excerpts from Peters's classic essay, “On Creating the Cosmos."


Introducing Ted Peters

Last year I introduced readers to one of the leading voices about Christianity and science, John Polkinghorne. I also helped BioLogos bring in another leading voice, Robert Russell. This new series introduces a third prominent Christian thinker, Lutheran theologian Ted Peters, Research Professor Emeritus in Systematic Theology and Ethics at Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary, the Center for Theology and the Natural Sciences, and the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, California.

Presently co-editor (with Robert Russell) of the journal, Theology and Science, Peters was a student of Langdon Gilkey. Gilkey is probably best known today for surviving a Japanese prison camp in China during World War 2, where he knew the famous missionary and Olympic champion Eric Liddell. I spoke to Gilkey myself just once, when I was fresh out of graduate school and he was one of the best known theologians in America. I knew of his experience in China, so I asked him whether he had known Liddell. Gilkey replied that Liddell was “the only saint I ever knew.” A few years earlier, Gilkey had testified at the famous Arkansas creationism trial, arguing that creationism is religion, not science—a crucial opinion for the subsequent legal fate of both creationism and intelligent design. Consistently with that position, Gilkey sharply distinguished science from theology, a stance that Peters criticizes below.

Langdon Gilkey

Langdon Gilkey looked pretty much like this when I met him at a small conference held near San Francisco in December 1987.

For more than 35 years, Peters has published insightful books and articles about an intriguing range of topics related to Christianity and science. For example, his early work on UFOs and God has just been reprinted, giving him opportunities to engage with audiences that most theologians never encounter. With Catholic biologist Martinez Hewlett, he wrote an excellent little book about theistic evolution that deserves to be better known. They also collaborated on a second book, an uncommonly fair analysis of the origins controversy that has been praised by both Michael Ruse and William Dembski. His book about bioethics, Playing God?, which opposes genetic determinism, grew out of a major project on “Theological Questions Raised by Human Genome Initiative” that was funded by the National Institutes of Health, a rare instance of federally-funded research in Christian ethics.

The focus of this series, however, is Peters’ powerful affirmation of the central Christian doctrine of creation from nothing. Over the next few months, I’ll present edited excerpts from his classic essay, “On Creating the Cosmos,” originally published 26 years ago in a book from the Vatican Observatory. Although parts of it are dated, much is still timely and important. In this introductory excerpt, Peters emphasizes the equal importance of two ways of understanding the doctrine of creation: both creatio ex nihilo (“creation from nothing”), the classic notion that God created all things from nothing, and creatio continua (“continuing creation”), the idea that God is still creating new things now. In his view (which I share), many modern theologians have tended to elevate creatio continua over creatio ex nihilo, in some cases to the complete neglect or even denial of the latter. The main goal of his essay is to rehabilitate creatio ex nihilo for our own day.

French Bible moralisée

God creating the universe, using the compass to measure its dimensions, manuscript illumination from an Old French Bible moralisée (c. 1208-15), Codex Vindobonensis 2554, fol. lv, Österreichische Nationalbibliothek, Vienna.

We are living in a time ripe with opportunity to seek significant rapprochement between science and theology. The unlocking of nature’s secrets by the physical sciences seems to be opening up new doors for common exploration. British scientist Paul Davies says that “science has actually advanced to the point where what were formerly religious questions can be seriously tackled.” [Paul Davies, God and the New Physics, p. ix.] On the religious front, too, we see healthy enthusiasm. The Second Vatican Council acknowledged the need for academic freedom and declared the “legitimate autonomy of human culture and especially the sciences.” [Gaudium et Spes, p. 59.] Pope John Paul II has gone considerably further. To the Pontifical Academy of Sciences meeting at Castel Gandolfo on September 21, 1982, the Holy Father announced that “there no longer exists the ancient opposition between true science and authentic faith.” He went on to say to the scientific community, “the Church is your ally.” [“Science Must Contribute to True Progress of Mankind,” L’Osservatore Romano, October 4, 1982, p. 3.] In short, there now exists an atmosphere of readiness on the part of many in both laboratory and church to explore avenues toward rapprochement.

Karol Józef Wojtyła, Pope John Paul II, was known for his very positive attitude toward science.

It is in this atmosphere, conducive to fruitful conversation, that we undertake the explorations of this paper. Our thesis will be that the Christian doctrine of creation out of nothing (creatio ex nihilo) is sufficiently intelligible to warrant continued probings for complementary notions in the natural sciences. We will open by identifying our methodological stance as one of hypothetical consonance between theology and the sciences, a stance which corrects the excesses of the dominant two-language theory [i.e., the idea often associated with Langdon Gilkey that science and theology speak two entirely different languages about entirely different topics, such that genuine conversation is all but impossible]. We will then proceed to cosmology proper by tracing the theological origins of the idea of creation out of nothing. We will argue that the Christian idea of the creation of the whole world derives from the basic experience of divine redemption within history, especially the resurrection of Jesus on Easter. What is at stake in cosmology for the Christian theologian, then, is an understanding of the cosmos which is consistent with our understanding of a redeeming God as revealed in the event of Jesus Christ. This will lead to an examination of the logic of creatio ex nihilo and the possible consonance of this religious idea with the second law of thermodynamics and Big Bang cosmogony in physics. In particular, we will focus on the question of the relationship between the concept of ex nihilo and the temporal beginning of the cosmos.

As we proceed, we will assume two things about the Christian doctrine of creatio ex nihilo. First, in its abstract form it stresses the ontological dependence of all things upon God. Second, one concrete form for expressing this dependence is the cosmological assertion that, although God is eternal, the created universe began at a point of temporal initiation, i.e., the world has not always existed. In this paper we intend to get to the idea of dependence through the idea of beginning. It is, of course, possible for a theologian to speak metaphysically about the utter dependence of the creation on its creator without reference to a temporal beginning. However, it is the very idea of a temporal beginning which in our generation draws us toward possible consonance with scientific cosmology. The scientist cannot, within the canons of the discipline of physics, say anything about the utter dependence of the cosmos upon God. But the scientist can intelligibly discuss the possibility of a temporal initiation to all things, and this in turn raises the question of creation out of nothing in such a way that the theologian might be called upon.

We will then review arguments raised by some contemporary theologians which are contrary to creation ex nihilo and in favor of the notion of continuing creation (creatio continua). We will criticize these arguments on two grounds: first, these are false alternatives and they do not exclude one another; and, second, the theological idea of creation out of nothing—especially in the form of a temporal beginning—is just as consonant with contemporary science as is continuing creation. We will conclude that a healthy contemporary theology should advocate both creatio ex nihilo as well as creatio continua and seek possible consonance with science on both counts.

Hypothetical Consonance

Just what kind of accord may be established between lab stool and pew is still too far beyond the horizon to see. Yet we need to start somewhere. What I suggest is that we begin by seeking hypothetical consonance, that is by listening for the sounds of consonance, for those moments when we sense a harmony between disciplines. We begin listening for some preliminary resonating sounds. Then we proceed with the hypothesis that further accord can be discerned. We spell out the possibilities with the assumption that both scientists and theologians are seeking to understand one and the same reality; therefore, we should hope for, even expect, some sort of concord to arise from serious conversation.

The method of hypothetical consonance can be distinguished from the two-language theory—what Ian Barbour calls … the “independence” relationship—which seems to have been the operative assumption of most serious scholars for much of this century. This is the assumption that the language of science and the language of faith exist in independent domains of knowledge and that there is no overlap. One version of the two language theory is the commonly accepted separation of fact from value. [SNIP]

Perhaps the strongest advocate of the two-language theory among today’s theologians is Langdon Gilkey. It is not only the difference between fact and value which distinguishes the two modes of discourse, according to Gilkey; there is also the difference between proximate (or secondary) causation and ultimate (or primary) causation. There is no translation between them.

All modern religious discourse, according to Gilkey, is limited to speaking about limit experiences, to the dimension of ultimacy in human experience. Religious or mythical language speaks only about “ultimate or existential issues,” he says. This means that it speaks only to us as persons. It does not speak about the world. Theology “possesses no legitimate ground to interfere with either scientific inquiry or scientific conclusions, whether in the fields of natural or of historical inquiry.” [Religion and the Scientific Future, p. 18.] Religious truths do not contain information. They are best classified as myths or symbols which make no authoritative assertion about concrete matters of fact. Gilkey’s position represents the paradigm example of neoorthodox dualism which has confined matters of faith to the transcendent-personal axis and consigned all other matters dealing with the world we live in to the province of secular science.

What about the language of science according to the Gilkey scheme? Scientific language is informative. It seeks to inform us regarding facts which are measurable, objective, and publicly shareable. Science seeks to explain the facts of experiences in terms of laws which are automatic and blind. These laws can appeal only to natural or human causes and powers, forces which exist within the confines of the finite world. Science cannot appeal to supernatural forces nor even to purposes or intentions or meanings. It can support its conclusions only through testing of repeatable experiments, not through speculation about one-time historical events. In short, “the language of science is quantitative, mathematical, precise … it is limited to describing the impersonal system of relations between the things or entities around us.” [Creationism on Trial: Evolution and God at Little Rock, p. 113.] If Pope John Paul II is correct that there is no opposition between science and faith, then Gilkey would say this is because the two cannot talk to one another.

Now the point of establishing the two-language theory is to make it possible for a religious person to speak both languages without cognitive dissonance. By confining scientific language to the sphere of the finite and observable world, it is disqualified from making judgments regarding the existence or non-existence of God. Inherently, science is neither theistic nor atheistic. It is neutral. It is objective. “It is because science is limited to a certain level of explanation that scientific and religious theories can exist side by side without excluding one another, that one person can hold both to the scientific accounts of origins and to a religious account, to the creation of all things by God.” [Creationism on Trial, p. 117.]

But I believe that we must now ask for more than simple avoidance of cognitive dissonance. I believe we should seek for cognitive consonance. [Peters credits the term “consonance” to the late Ernan McMullin, a leading philosopher of science and Catholic priest.] What I am advocating here comes close to the version of the two language theory we find in the work of Ian Barbour. Barbour recognizes the two languages but he will not accept a strict segregation. He wishes to explore the ways in which the two languages are complementary. This means, first, that we search for “significant parallels” in the methods of science and theology. Second, we look for ways to construct “an integrated worldview.” Third, we defend the importance of a “theology of nature.” Fourth, we permit the scientific understanding of nature to help us reexamine our ideas of God’s relation to the world. [Issues in Science and Religion, pp. 4-5.] What Barbour means here by “complementary languages” is akin to what I mean by “consonance.” We should look for those areas of correspondence and then spell out the possibilities which would permit what science says to illumine theological understanding and vice versa.

With this methodological commitment in mind, we will turn our ears now in the direction of resonating sounds regarding the creation of the universe. We will ask if there might exist an edifying consonance between scientific and religious concerns regarding the origin of the cosmos, especially the idea of creation out of nothing.

Libellus de nihilo Charles de Bouelles

“God creating the universe out of nothing,” from Charles de Bouelles, Libellus de nihilo (1510).

In this selection, Ted Peters explains the biblical and theological origins of creation from nothing, underscoring the deep connection between creation, redemption, the resurrection of Jesus, and eschatology. Many Christians don’t fully appreciate the connection between these four doctrines, but it’s crucial to our faith—and crucial to the conversation with science.

Peters realizes this. As he wrote recently, “The link between the historical Jesus and the advent of the new creation is a theological link; it is a link between a probable historical judgment [that the resurrection happened] and an eschatological hope” (The Resurrection of Jesus: John Dominic Crossan and N. T. Wright in Dialogue p. 149). Relating this more fully to science, he adds, “Theologians working with a Humean definition of miracle would look on the Easter resurrection of Jesus as a moment when God abrogated the existing laws of nature. But this misses the eschatological import. It misses the intrinsic connection between what happened historically on Easter and what the Scriptures promise will happen in the eschatological future, namely the advent of the new creation. The biblically envisioned new creation cannot operate exhaustively with the laws of nature as we currently know them. The creator will need to do some re-creating” (p. 166). Clearly, Peters understands that the laws of nature are contingent creations that are not binding on the Creator—the same view held by Robert Boyle at the founding of modern science, and the same view held by John Polkinghorne, Robert Russell, and many evangelical advocates of “Theistic Evolution” today.

Let me situate Peters’ position more fully. The modern “dialogue” of science and religion has been dominated for many years by scholars who do not (or did not) believe in the actual divine origination of the universe, the bodily resurrection of Jesus, or the new world yet to come. Peters, Polkinghorne, and Russell have been major dissenting voices, representing an orthodox Christian perspective in genuine conversation with science. In this series of columns, Peters seeks to re-invigorate theology by reviving a robust doctrine of creation from nothing.

Peters’ essay was originally published in 1988, about a quarter century after the discovery of microwave background radiation, a startling confirmation of the “Big Bang” theory that moved more than a few secular scientists to utter the words “God” and “creation” in close proximity. This certainly made Peters’ task a bit less difficult, and in an upcoming excerpt he will talk about it. In this excerpt, however, he sticks with theological and biblical arguments.

He begins by saying something that might sound almost shocking, at first: the idea of creation from nothing “does not come initially from speculation regarding the origin of the cosmos.” To see his point, read carefully—and share your thoughts with us.

Creation Out of Nothing

Some say that Christians should give up the idea of creation out of nothing (creatio ex nihilo), especially when it is formulated in terms of an original beginning of time and space. Because the concepts of ongoing change and evolutionary development have so imbued our modern scientific culture, the argument is that creatio ex nihilo is now an anachronism. It is out of date. It is no longer intelligible to a mind which has been influenced by the scientific worldview. I disagree. I submit that there is surprising and salutary consonance between this theological concept and contemporary astrophysics, especially thermodynamics and the Big Bang cosmogony, and that we should not compromise on this theological commitment.

Where does the Christian idea of creation out of nothing come from? It does not come initially from speculation regarding the origin of the cosmos. What provokes the idea is, in fact, the experience of divine redemption. It is the intra-cosmic experience of God’s redeeming activity which leads eventually to the idea of God’s act of cosmic creation.

In the Old Testament, for example, Hebrew consciousness begins with the Exodus, with the creation of Israel, not with the creation of the world. “The Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm,” we find in the credo statement of Deuteronomy 26:5-9. Remembering the Exodus comes first in Hebrew consciousness; thinking about the ordering of the cosmos comes later. But it does come. The book of Genesis does get written. Genesis gets written because what we speculate about the creation must be consistent with what we have experienced with redemption. Psalm 136 opens by offering doxologies to the creator who “spread out the earth upon the waters … who made the great lights … the sun to rule over the day … the moon and stars to rule over the night.” Then the Psalm follows immediately by telling the Exodus story, how God “brought Israel out … with a strong hand and an outstretched arm … and gave their land as a heritage.” No one in Israel experienced the actual creation of the cosmos at the beginning. Rather, the biblical writers described creation on the basis of their experience with redemption.

Schnorr von Carolsfeld Moses

Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld, Moses crossing the Red Sea, from his Picture Bible (1851–60).

The key point of continuity between redemption and creation is the idea that the future can be different from the past, i.e., the key is eschatology. More abstractly put, God does new things. The prophets constantly reiterate the theme of newness: there will be a new Exodus, a new covenant, a new Moses. [SNIP] The God of our future salvation—the God beyond the present state of reality—is not dependent upon what already exists. Looking backward toward the beginning, then, God must not have been dependent upon any past before there was a beginning. The origin of the cosmos was not limited to making order out of a pre-existing chaos. The origin was itself the advent of something new. This is the point made by II Maccabees 7:28, which emphasizes that God did not create heaven and earth out of anything that already existed (“I beg you, child, to look at the heavens and the earth and see all that is in them; then you will know that God did not make them out of existing things,” etc.). This is reiterated by St. Paul in the New Testament who describes God as calling “into existence the things that do not exist” (Rom. 4:17b).

Turning to the New Testament, we can further reconstruct the movement from redemption to creation. Here the Gospel is the experienced power of new life in the Easter resurrection that provides the foundation for our faith and trust in God to fulfill his promise to establish a new creation in the future.

della Francesca The Resurrection

Piero della Francesca, The Resurrection (1467-68), Museo Civico, Sansepolcro, Italy

The world as we know it is replete with death, with the precedent that dead people remain dead. But now something new has happened. God has raised Jesus to eternity, never to die again, and God promises us a share in this resurrection when the consummate Kingdom of God comes into its fullness. Now we can ask: What does it take to raise the dead? What does it take to consummate history into a new and everlasting kingdom? It takes mastery over the created order. It takes a loving Father who cares, but who is also a creator whose power is undisputed and unrivaled.

The Gospel begins with the story of Jesus told with its significance. Its significance is that in this historical person, Jesus Christ, the eternal God who is the creator of all things has acted in the course of time to bring salvation to all the things he has created. Salvation consists here in the forgiveness of sins and the promise of a final redemption from evil to be attained through the eschatological resurrection of the dead. The logic here is: the God who saves must also be the God who creates. Nothing less will do. Langdon Gilkey expresses it well: “it is because of the knowledge of the love of God gained in Jesus Christ that the meaning and purpose of creation are known, and it is because of the power of God as Creator that redemption through Jesus Christ can be effected and our faith in Him made valid. … Thus the promise of the Gospel that nothing can separate us from the love of God depends upon the belief that all powers in nature and history are, as we are, creatures of God and so subject to his will. Only a creator of all can be the guardian of [our] destiny.” [Maker of Heaven and Earth, pp. 269 and 279.]

Here we have the seeds of what will flower into the idea of creatio ex nihilo and its corollaries: asymmetrical time (a one-way arrow), the historical character of nature and God’s activity in the world, and the promise of an eschatological new creation. What fertilized the seed and caused it to sprout was the challenge of an alternative viewpoint, namely the belief that the material of the universe had always existed. This challenge came from two competitors to the Christian view in the early centuries of the church: dualism and pantheism.

Bible moralisée de Tolède

God, wields his compass to impose order on the chaotic and unformed matter from which he made the world. Bible moralisée de Tolède (ca. 1252-70), Primate Cathedral of St. Mary of Toledo, Spain.

The last section ended rather abruptly, with Ted Peters identifying the “challenge” to the Christian teaching of creation from nothing that “came from two competitors to the Christian view in the early centuries of the church: dualism and pantheism.” This section examines those two challengers, starting with Plato’s dualism of God and nature, as seen in his great dialogue, Timaeus, in which a slave named Timaeus tells a creation story. Plato’s god is called δημιουργ?ς, or “Demiurge,” the same Greek word used in Hebrews 11:10 (“For he [Abraham] looked for a city which hath foundations, whose builder and maker is God”). The Demiurge orders pre-existent, chaotic, uncreated matter using pre-existing, uncreated ideas, including certain geometrical forms. Because matter is recalcitrant (it resists his efforts), he is not wholly successful. As a result, the world is not completely intelligible, for it merely “participates” in form. This has significant consequences for Plato’s view of scientific knowledge, implying that genuine “knowledge” of physical nature is ultimately impossible, but I’ll pass over that for now. Suffice it to say that the conception of God and nature in Genesis differs fundamentally.

Platonic solids

In Plato’s Timaeus, the Demiurge creates three-dimensional atoms for each of the four chemical elements (earth, air, fire, and water). He uses two kinds of triangles—one equilateral and the other isosceles (combined in pairs to form squares)—to assemble the faces of four of the five regular polyhedra that are consequently known as the “Platonic solids.” The fifth solid, the dodecahedron with its twelve pentagonal faces, becomes the body of the heavens, with each face carrying one of the twelve signs of the Zodiac.

In spite of this, Timaeus is the single most important work in all of Greek philosophy, if we consider the magnitude of its influence on Christian thought down to the Renaissance. Prior to the High Middle Ages, it was the only work of Plato for which a large portion existed in Latin translation. Thus, whenever Augustine mentions Plato, he’s talking about Timaeus. Nearly all the works of Aristotle and Galen were likewise unavailable to scholars in the Latin West. Christian scholars regarded Timaeus as a Greek Genesis, ultimately inspired by the influence of Moses, from whom (it was widely believed) the Egyptians and the Greeks had obtained much of their knowledge in the first place.

About halfway through this selection, Peters explains the distinction between generation and creation, analogous to the distinction between reproducing and making. The Nicene Creed gets at the same thing, when it refers to Jesus as “begotten, not made.” Christians believe that a personal, immaterial God lies behind the impersonal, material world. Unlike the whole of creation, however, Jesus is “of one substance with the Father by whom all things were made,” to borrow again from the Creed.

Now, let’s hear what Peters has to say:

God and the Demiurge

The heart of dualism is the belief that God or the gods create the cosmos by ordering pre-existing matter—the word “cosmos” means order. For Plato, it was the demiurge which fashioned the stuff of the world into an ordered habitat. This is dualistic because it posits two or more equally fundamental or eternal principles, the world stuff as well as the divine being.

The heart of pantheism (or monism) is that everything is fundamentally identical with the divine. But, by identifying God and the world, pantheism collapses all the plurality and multiplicity of the cosmos into a singular unity, and this singularity finally denies the independent reality of the world and its history.

In apologetic reaction to dualism and pantheism the early Christian thinkers proffered the concept of creatio ex nihilo. Against the dualists, the apologists held that God is the sole source of all finite existence, of matter as well as form. There is no pre-existing matter [that is] co-eternal with and separate from the divine. If the God of salvation is truly the Lord of all, then he must also be the source of all. Theophilus of Antioch in the middle of the second century, for example, praised Plato for acknowledging that God is uncreated. But then he criticized Plato for averring that matter is coeval with God, because that would make matter equal to God. “But the power of God is manifested in this, that out of things that are not He makes whatever He pleases.” [Theophilus, Autolycus, book 2, chap. 4.]

WIlliam Blake Elohim Adam

William Blake, Elohim Creating Adam (1795/c.1805), Tate Gallery, London

Against the pantheists, in parallel fashion, the Christians held that the world is not divine. It is a creation, brought into existence by God but something separate from and over against God. The world is not equa-eternal with God, because it has an absolute beginning and is distinct from God. Irenaeus put it this way: “But the things established are distinct from Him who has established them, and what have been made [are distinct] from Him who has made them. For He is Himself uncreated, both without beginning and end, and lacking nothing. He is Himself sufficient for this very thing, existence; but the things which have been made by Him have received a beginning … He indeed who made all things can alone, together with His Word, properly be termed God and Lord; but the things which have been made cannot have this term applied to them, neither should they justly assume the appellation which belongs to the Creator.” [Against Heresies, book 3, chapter 10.]

This led the apologists to distinguish between generation and creation. “Generation,” coming from the root meaning to give birth, suggests that the begetter produces out of its essence an offspring which shares that same essence. But, in contrast, terms such as “creating” or “making” mean that the creator produces something which is other, i.e., a creature of dissimilar nature. The patristic apologists applied the term “generation” to the perichoresis within the divine life of the Trinity but not to creative activity without. Hence, John of Damascus ( could state emphatically that the creation is not derived from the essence of God, but it is rather brought into existence out of nothing. [Exposition of the Orthodox Faith, book 1, chapter 8.]

The upshot of all this is that, for the Christian, creator and created are not the same thing. And, more importantly, what is created is fully dependent upon its creator. The cosmos is not ontologically independent. One way to make this point is to draw a contrast between eternity and time: God is eternal, whereas the cosmos is temporal. The world, which is not God, has not existed for all eternity alongside of God. Thus, says Theophilus and Irenaeus, there needs to be an initial point of origin, a point at which something first appears, i.e., an absolute beginning. Following in this train, Augustine can write doxologically: “in the Beginning, which is of you, in your Wisdom, which is born of your substance, you created something, and that something out of nothing. You made heaven and earth, not out of yourself, for then they would have been equal to your only begotten, and through this equal also to you…. There is nothing beyond you from which you might make them, O God, one Trinity and triunal Unity. Therefore, you created heaven and earth out of nothing…” [Confessions, book 12, chapter 7.]

Thus, the creation is just that, a creation, which had a definite “sunrise” and could, if God were so to will, also have a final “sunset.” For Augustine, the creation of all things from nothing includes the phenomenon of time. Time is not eternal. Time comes into existence when material in motion comes into existence. Neither time nor space are containers into which we dump the course of events; rather, they themselves belong to the finitude of the created order. Time starts when space starts. The result is that creatio ex nihilo—looked at from inside the creation, our only perspective!—has come to refer to a singular beginning of time and space, as well as to the matter and form out of which all the things of the world are made.

Horace Pippin The Holy Mountain

Horace Pippin, The Holy Mountain, III (1945), Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington, DC. A veteran of World War One, the great African-American painter Horace Pippin often looked to the Bible for an alternative to the grim battlefields of France, especially to the haunting vision of the peaceable kingdom found in the eleventh chapter of Isaiah. Here, in the third version of his painting of that scene, we find “a God who redeems, who creates a free people out of slavery and who raises the dead to life,” as Ted Peters puts it, the omnipotent God who made the universe out of nothing, and who will remake it again someday. Note the cluster of crosses in the woods behind the shepherd’s crook—a faint but visible reminder of the world that has been transformed into the peaceable kingdom.

In saying this it is essential to look back and note the path we have taken: we began with the experience of a God who redeems, who creates a free people out of slavery and who raises the dead to life. On the basis of these intracosmic events, we have drawn inferences regarding God’s relation to the cosmos as a whole. The motive of the Christian theologian is not in the first instance to produce a general theory of the origin of the universe. Rather, when the question of the origin of the universe is raised the answer offered must be consistent with what we know to have been revealed by God in the event of raising Jesus from the dead on Easter. We need to keep in mind just what stake the theologian has in the discussion of cosmology.

The old Hebrew idea of creation from nothing is back in the news. Not long ago astrophysicist Lawrence Krauss, a self-described “antitheist”, wrote a book proclaiming that “revolutionary developments in both cosmology and particle physics over the past 30 or 40 years” have “made it clear that there’s a plausible case for understanding precisely how a universe full of stuff, like the universe we live in, could result literally from nothing by natural processes.” Thus, “we don’t need a creator”.

This is a truly stunning claim. It would have shocked the first scientists—the ancient Greek philosophers—who insisted that “nothing comes from nothing”. But it pales in comparison with this: “the question why is there something rather than nothing is really a scientific question, not a religious or philosophical question, because both nothing and something are scientific concepts, and our discoveries over the past 30 years have completely changed what we mean by nothing” (quoting the same interview, but the bold italics are mine).

Is Krauss seriously suggesting that the laws of quantum mechanics—which he takes as a brute given, from which he allegedly derives the universe—amount to “nothing”? It’s a preposterous claim, not to put too fine a point on it. But, don’t take my word for it. Listen to David Albert (who is, like Krauss, not a believer in God), an expert on the philosophy of quantum mechanics—the relevant field, in this instance. Deftly exposing Krauss’ astonishing naivety in nine terse paragraphs for the New York Times, Albert concluded that none of Krauss’ ideas “amount to anything even remotely in the neighborhood of a creation from nothing”.

When someone like Krauss—an excellent astrophysicist, to be sure—presents himself as an expert on “science and religion,” without knowing the first thing about the second part of that phrase, let alone philosophy, you have to take it with a large grain of salt. Far better to read what Ted Peters has to say here about “the bare logic” of creation from nothing. Enjoy!

The Bare Logic of Creatio Ex Nihilo

Suppose for a moment [that] we disregard the historical stake Christian theology has in the doctrine of creation out of nothing and ask about the bare logic of the concept. What do we find?

The fundamental axiom is that the creature is entirely dependent upon the creator in the act of creating. The creative act begins with nothing, yet something created is the result. But more than the created product is the result; so also is the relationship of creator to what is created. The asymmetrical relation whereby the creator becomes the creator and the created becomes dependent upon the creator is established in the event of creation. Prior to the act of creating, God is not yet a creator. He becomes a creator God only by creating a creature. The act of creating is the hinge on which swings the mutually defining terms of creator and creature. This may lead eventually to the notion that, in a certain sense, the creation has a determining effect upon the creator. Just how we understand God to be the creator will depend upon the actual course of events which the history of the creation takes. The fundamental axiom—that the creature is dependent for its existence upon the creator—does not necessarily preclude a temporal reciprocity whereby the creator may also be affected by the history of creation.

Next, the movement from nothing to something is puzzling. To be nothing (no-thing) is to be indeterminate. To be something (some-thing) is to be determinate. To be determinate is to exist in spacetime. The act of creation signals a shift from the indeterminancy of nothing to the spacetime determinancy of the things which constitute the universe. This leads to the question: is the event of creation itself a temporal event? At first, it would seem that it must be temporal, because for one thing to have a determinate effect on another thing they both must share a single spacetime continuum. But if space and time are themselves the result of the creative act, then the creative act itself cannot be subject to the same spacetime determinancy. So, perhaps it is better to speak of the creative act itself as eternal rather than temporal. By “eternal” here we do not mean simple everlastingness but rather supratemporality. As eternal, God’s act of creation is tangential to time and related to time, yet it is not subject to determinancy by time save in the sense already mentioned—that is, in the reflexive sense that the eternal creator is so defined as a result of the existence of temporal creation. In short, the event of creation marks the transition from eternity to time.

Botticelli St Augustine

Sandro Botticelli, St Augustine in His Study (1490-94), Uffizi Gallery, Florence.

If we explore the notion of eternity a bit further, we note how the concept of eternity need not necessarily imply that creation from nothing must occur in a single instant, in a single moment or all in a flash. To say so would presuppose that eternity is subject to measurement by a temporal continuum, which is just what we tried to avoid by introducing the concept of eternity in the first place. This has three implications. First, the concept of eternity stretches us to the limits of our language. We cannot literally speak of the point of origin as the first “moment” or the act of creating as an “event.” We cannot make sense out of talking about what God was doing “before” the event of creation, as Augustine has already observed. Such terms are already time-dependent. There is no way to speak univocally about the point of origin at which eternity had a determinate impact on temporality. [See Augustine, Confessions, book 11, chap 12, where he treats the question, “What was God doing before He made heaven and earth?” As Peters points out in a footnote, “Thomas Aquinas acknowledges that for Aristotle the world is eternal and that good arguments can be raised against the idea that the world has a beginning in time. Nevertheless, Christians should hold that the world is created—i.e., it has not always existed—as an article of faith based on revelation.”]

A second implication of this is that we might not have to confine creatio ex nihilo to the onset of the whole of the cosmos at the temporal beginning. A higher level of abstraction, what the apologists wanted to stress was that the world is utterly dependent upon God and, conversely, God is utterly independent of the world. In principle, one could say the world is infinite in time as long as it can be shown that the world is dependent for its being on the activity of God. To depict creatio ex nihilo as an act of creation at a singular temporal moment is one vivid way of making this otherwise more abstract point.

Thirdly, the concept of ex nihilo may be relevant for understanding newness within the ongoing course of intracosmic events. As we will see later [in a future column], Fred Hoyle can use the idea of ex nihilo to describe what happens within the flow of natural events. Thus, the idea could in principle have some value for interpreting ongoing newness as well.

Perhaps now, considering what we have just said about the limits of language, we should ask about the nature of eternity. It seems that we might not to define “eternity” as everlastingness. Everlastingness simply means more time, an infinite temporal succession. But if by “eternity” we wish to refer to the transition from indeterminate nothingness to determinate spacetime events, then it cannot in any simple way be subject to the temporal continuum. Eternity—along with God’s power to create—must be able to survive the termination or elimination of spacetime.

There is another way to look at this logic. Let us ask: need one assume there was an agent prior to creation? Need one assume that there was a divine being before the creator-creature relationship was established? Could we work simply with the notion of a primordial nothingness as the ground of both creator and creature? <SNIP> The creator’s character derives from the character of the world [that has been] created. But according to the logic of creatio ex nihilo, we cannot actually know the ground of being. What we can know is the creation relation, which only conditionally applies to the creator-ground relation. Thus, the ontological ground is never an object of knowledge. Nothingness is not an object to be known. <SNIP> It would be closer to the logic of creatio ex nihilo, in my judgment, to identify the “transcendent ground” with the event (difficult as it may be to use the word “event” here) of creating. It is nonsense to identify the ground with nothing. The nihilo in ex nihilo functions as a complementary idea to the fundamental axiom that all created things are utterly dependent upon God their creator. <SNIP>

The theologian’s stake in this is to seek an understanding of the cosmos which has consonance with the Christian experience of divine redemption. It is this which sent the patristic theologians in the direction of creatio ex nihilo and to its accompanying notions of a point of origin, temporal history, and consummate eschatology. Let us now turn to contemporary conversations in the natural sciences, where we shall find that these ancient Christian notions are by no means rendered unintelligible by the emerging and reigning scientific cosmology.

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.

Fred Hoyle Georges Lemaître

Fred Hoyle (left) and Georges Lemaître held opposing views on the history of the universe. In 1927, Lemaître 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 is always coming into being uniformly throughout infinite time and infinite space. Hydrogen atoms are appearing de 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. Wilson and 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.]

Ernan McMullin J E Ted McGuire

Philosopher Ernan McMullin (left) and historian J. E. “Ted” McGuireponder a point during a conference at the University of Pittsburgh.

Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson microwave horn antenna

Physicist Arno Penzias (left) and astronomer Robert Wilson (right), standing in front of the microwave horn antenna with which they detected the faint radiation left over from the Big Bang.

When someone mentions the “Big Bang Theory” today, odds are that anyone in hearing thinks first of the popular television show. Few may realize that the scientific theory known by that name has been around as long as television itself, since the late 1920s, although it didn’t get that distinctive name until after World War Two. Basically, it refers to the idea that the whole universe visible to us today expanded from a hot, dense original state billions of years ago. This is not the same thing as cosmic inflation, the idea that the rate of expansion in the first few “moments” was extraordinarily quick, exceeding even the speed of light. Because inflation has become a standard feature of current cosmological theories, however, the two ideas are often linked together.

The Big Bang nicely accounted for Edwin Hubble’s expanding universe, but it probably wasn’t the dominant view until the 1960s, when the accidental discovery of cosmic microwave background radiation by Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson took the scientific community by storm. The radio noise they found, coming from outer space, was powerful evidence that the universe had indeed begun in a hot, dense state: they were observing remnants of the cosmic fireball that gave birth to the universe. For perhaps the first time in the history of science, someone had found observational evidence that the universe might not have been here forever, suggesting even to some religious skeptics that perhaps the universe had actually had a beginning, after all. The famous remark of the late Robert Jastrow, an agnostic Jew who founded NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, was not entirely impertinent: “The scientist’s pursuit of the past ends in the moment of creation. This is an exceedingly strange development, unexpected by all but theologians. They have always accepted the word of the Bible: ‘In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth’.” (God and the Astronomers, p. 115 in the first edition of 1978) Prior to that point, to be fair, one could invoke the second law of thermodynamics to suggest that the universe isn’t infinitely old. A number of prominent scientists had done that, but having empirical evidence for a moment of origin takes the argument to another level. Ted Peters’ essay was written less than twenty-five years after that spectacularly important discovery.

Things have changed somewhat since then, with cosmic inflation and various forms of multiverse theory having been proposed for discussion. Perhaps the most important development happened just a few weeks ago, when astronomers announced the discovery of evidence for the existence of large gravity waves in the early universe; for more information, see here and here.) Gravity waves could indeed account for the observed polarization in the microwave background radiation. They are also linked with theories of cosmic inflation, such that finding evidence for their existence in the early universe makes inflation more plausible. And, in turn, inflation is often linked with the multiverse.

Nevertheless, it’s too soon to bet the house on the multiverse. Although the evidence for gravity waves now appears to be very strong, they are deucedly difficult to observe directly and no one has yet done that. Nor are gravity waves the only possible explanation for the recently observed polarization. More to the point, the surprisingly large magnitude of the polarization eliminates certain theories of cosmic inflation, while keeping others in play. Not all theories of inflation necessarily include parallel universes. According to Science News, “One version [of inflation] that does [predict such large polarization], called natural inflation, was proposed in 1990 by Katherine Freese (now of the University of Michigan) with collaborators Joshua Frieman and Angela Olinto of Fermilab. It would be nice to know if that version predicts parallel universes. Freese says she doesn’t know. But she’s going to get to work on it right away.”

Even if some version of multiverse turns out to be true, it’s still appropriate to ask about a “beginning.” According to the Borde-Guth-Vilenkin theorem, any process undergoing gravitational inflation necessarily had a beginning a finite amount of time in the past. Critics have argued that some possible quantum effects may allow loopholes to the theorem, but with each additional paper the BGV team produces, those loopholes are being closed. So, it still seems that a cosmic “beginning” of some sort is more likely than not: the ultimate question remains on the table.

As an historian of science with quite limited experience at an astrophysics research center, I’m inclined to remain a bit skeptical of the multiverse, even though the recent evidence for gravity waves seems pretty convincing. So far, no multiverse theory has done half as well as the theory of the luminiferous aether, which led James Clark Maxwell, the greatest physicist of the nineteenth century, to predict the existence of electromagnetic radiation—a prediction confirmed experimentally by Heinrich Hertz. In spite of this truly impressive prediction, physicists today no longer believe that the aether exists at all. Why not? No one has ever been able to detect it! Likewise, most forms of multiverse are entirely incapable of being detected in principle, let alone in practice.

Occam's razor All Saints Church

The fourteenth-century English philosopher William of Ockham famously advocated using the principle of parsimony (simplicity) to judge which of two competing explanations is more likely to be true. Stained glass window from All Saints Church, Ockham, Surrey.

Just for the record: I don’t speak for BioLogos on this. We have no organizational view of the multiverse. In his book, The Language of God, published several years ago in 2006, BioLogos founder Francis Collins concluded (p. 76) that the multiverse “certainly fails Occam’s Razor,” apparently by multiplying explanatory entities beyond necessity—an opinion I fully share. That doesn’t necessarily make it bad science: Ockham’s razor is a metaphysical claim about science, not a scientific claim in itself. But, many scientists and philosophers would rather not touch its sharp edge, so it counts for something. On the other hand, some Christian cosmologists think that some type of multiverse might actually exist, and that the idea warrants serious consideration. For pertinent examples, read Gerald Cleaver’s enthusiastic proclamation that God created the multiverse or Don Page’s interesting paper, “Does God So Love the Multiverse?

Regardless, the Big Bang theory looks better than ever now. In this selection, Peters looks for “consonance” between creation from nothing and the Big Bang.

Consonance with Thermodynamics and Big Bang Cosmology

The last three decades of scientific research [1960s to 1980s] have witnessed increasing support for a cosmology that includes a specific point of origin, the contingency of natural events, an overall irreversible direction of temporal movements, and the forecast of an eventual dissipation or heat death for the cosmos. In particular, the application of the second law of thermodynamics measured in terms of entropy to the macrocosmos leads to the notion of temporal finitude. If the universe in its entirety is moving irreversibly from order to disorder, from hot to cold, from high energy to dissipative equilibrium, then we may draw two significant inferences. First, the universe will eventually die. Even though in far-from-equilibrium sectors or microcosms within the larger whole we will find creative activity and the emergence of new structures, the overall advance of the cosmos is in the direction of eventual dissipation and heat death. Second, the universe must have had a point of origin. It has not always existed. It could not have existed with an infinite past, otherwise it would have suffered thermal death a long time ago. Such scientific speculations open up to intelligibility questions regarding an original creation and a final eschatology.

So also does the theory of an expanding universe, the standard Big Bang model. When we retrace the trail of the expansion backward in time, we eventually find ourselves able to speculate about a point of origin about the beginning of time (not a beginning in time). We can surmise that the expansion we witness today is the result of an explosion which occurred yesterday, a bang which began it all. Astrophysicists believe they have advanced our knowledge to a time as small as 10-35 or perhaps even 10-43 seconds after the very onset of the creative movement.

Furthermore, the complementary research in both astronomy and physics has led to the strong hypothesis that at the beginning the universe was completely singular. [In the period since Peters wrote this, quantum gravity theories, including string theory have been developed to deal with the singularity he refers to. Specific versions of those theories are of course speculative, but physicists now view the singularity as an indicator that classical gravity doesn’t work at short distance/high energy scales, where it must be modified by quantum effects.] The idea of an initial singularity characterized by infinite density and temperature is produced by extrapolating backwards from the currently observed expansion of the cosmos. The bang, or initial singularity, is the event at which space and time were created. Now this marks the end of the line for scientific research, because astrophysicists cannot within the framework of their discipline talk about the singularity, let alone what was going on before it.

We may not be talking about the very beginning, however. We are not yet talking about the “origin” of the original singularity. There are initial conditions which have an ontological (though perhaps not a temporal) priority. The Big Bang model will not permit us to do what Augustine forbade, namely, to ask intelligibly about what was happening before the beginning. Scientifically speaking, we can go as far back as the initial singularity, not to the nothingness which may or may not have preceded it. [SNIP]

We have reached a limit to scientific method. Although we can point to a beginning, it is difficult to say much about it. If scientific explanations are grounded in the principle of sufficient reason, then to speak of an absolute beginning for which there is no explanation is to exceed the boundaries of the method. Thus, a phrase such as “the beginning of the cosmos” must be considered a form of expression which points to the limit of the standard Big Bang theory. Nevertheless, though we can acknowledge the limits of scientific discourse here, we have entered a conversation in which questions of ultimate origin have become intelligible. The principle of hypothetical consonance does not require that science and theology produce a single coherent worldview at the outset; it requires only that we find sufficient commonality so as to pursue respective questions in an intelligible dialogue. This we have on the question of temporal origin.

By speaking of creatio ex nihilo at this point the theologian can achieve some consonance without appealing to a crass God-of-the-gaps method. It is not the acknowledged limit to scientific conceptuality which is the point of departure here. Rather, it is the material content of the standard Big Bang theory. What we can say is this: the universe as we know it has not always existed in the past. It has come to be. Discussions of creatio ex nihilo make sense. Here the nihilo can refer to two things. It can refer first to the absolute non-existence out of which the divine power may have wrought the initial singularity. It is a specific way in which we might be able to speak of the world’s total dependence upon God its creator. Or secondly, it can refer to nothingness (no-thingness) in the sense of the not-yet-determinedness of things, i.e., it can refer to newness, to the contingent character of the path followed by the bang and subsequent cosmic expansion.

big bang major stagesThe microwave background radiation comes from about 380,000 years after “the beginning” of the Big Bang. At that point, the expanding universe had cooled sufficiently to allow electrically neutral hydrogen and helium atoms to form, releasing in the process the photons that we now detect as the microwave background. Although we can’t “see” further back using electromagnetic radiation, we can nevertheless construct a theoretical picture of the very early history of the universe by other means.

The expansion continues. According to the Big Bang theory, our universe started out very hot and has been in an overall one-way process of cooling off ever since. The temperature of radiant heat declines in proportion to the expanding region of space: double the radius and cut the temperature in half. When the temperature decreases past a certain threshold a so-called “freezing out” takes place. Each freezing out involves the appearance of new forms of matter and energy. At the very hot beginning we did not have such things as molecules, atoms, or even nuclei. [The Big Bang produced an enormously hot fireball that cooled rapidly as the universe expanded. The various components of the physical universe, including subatomic particles, can appear only once the universe is “cool” enough. A given particle is said to “freeze out” when this happens.] These appeared at specific points in the thermal history of the universe. The things (and laws of nature that govern the things) of our universe were produced rapidly but unpredictably: When a volume of water freezes and expands, we know for certain that it will crack. Where it will crack cannot be predicted. In the dissipative macrosystem that is our universe the course of events has been unpredictable.

And, we should note, there is even more unpredictability in far-from equilibrium subsystems within the universe where energy is concentrated so that creative things happen. Our sun and the stars, for example, are centers sponsoring continuing creativity. On the earth, living organisms draw energy from the sun and produce new and higher forms of order. As living beings, we survive by exchanging energy and material with our environment. We might say there is a flow of energy through our bodies which results in a concentration – if not creation – of order. This growth in order is paid for by the dissipation of energy in the wider environment. The negative entropy necessary to support life locally is but an aspect of the net entropy increase cosmically. The results are temporal events of ongoing creativity. To put it as does Ilya Prigogine, chaos within the cosmos is capable of producing new forms of order. [Peters cites Ilya Prigogine and Isabelle Stengers, Order Out of Chaos: Man’s New Dialogue with Nature, p. 12, where they say, “In far-from equilibrium conditions we may have transformation from disorder, from thermal chaos, into order.”] Time brings change, and change brings newness.

What this means is that what exists now is largely contingent, i.e., it is not simply the working out of eternal principles already present at the point of origin. It means, in short, that nature herself has a history. We can on this basis anticipate that things might occur in the future which may be different from those occurring in the past. The events of nature’s history are constitutive of what nature is. Not only can we apply the word “creation” to the point of origin, the primal singularity at the beginning of all things, but it applies as well to the ongoing activity of finite natural events. We may speak intelligibly of both a beginning creation and a continuing creation.

Ian Barbour

I first met Ian Barbour at that same conference in California where I also met Langdon Gilkey. Unfortunately I never saw Gilkey again, but I had several other conversations with Barbour. A soft-spoken, genuinely humble person who was invariably gracious and intellectually honest, he did far more than anyone else to create the academic field of “science and religion,” for which he took flak from all sides. For that alone I owe him a considerable debt.

Back in the 1980s, when Ted Peters wrote the article I am presenting in this series, the late Ian Barbour was the dominant voice in the ongoing conversation about God and creation. Undoubtedly the greatest scholar of science and religion of his generation, Barbour threw his considerable intellectual weight behind process theism—a complex, highly abstract conception of God favored at the time by many advocates of Theistic Evolution.

Based ultimately on the ideas of the British mathematician-philosopher Alfred North Whitehead and the American theologian Charles Hartshorneprocess theology is not easily and fairly explained in a few words. A further complication: it is not identical with panentheism, another non-traditional understanding of God mentioned by Peters, but there are common elements and some thinkers have explored both views in parallel. This isn’t the place to delve into this more fully; readers who want more should consult the links I’ve just provided. For my purposes, it suffices to say that process theists usually seecreatio continua as entirely supplanting creatio ex nihilo, because the latter requires divine omnipotence and the process God just isn’t in the miracle business.

Whitehead Russell Principia Mathematica

Prior to his becoming a philosopher, Alfred North Whitehead was known for Principia Mathematica, a great work in the logical foundations of mathematics that he wrote shortly before World War One with his former student Bertrand Russell, an outspoken atheist.

Like most process theists, Barbour had a low view of both divine transcendence andcreatio ex nihilo, and he felt that process theology was actually more in step with modern science than traditional theism. Nevertheless, he recognized some of the dangers inherent in rejecting a robust view of divine transcendence. For example, he quite accurately criticized the Protestant modernists, because they “emphasized God’s immanence, often to the virtual exclusion of transcendence, and in some cases God was viewed as a force within a cosmic process that was itself divine” (Religion and Science: Historical and Contemporary Issues, p. 74). Whether Barbour fell into that trap himself is a debatable proposition that I won’t take up now.

My own view is that Christian theology is done on a wide and fertile plateau bounded by steep cliffs. If one loses sight of divine transcendence (best expressed by an affirmation of creatio ex nihilo), one can easily fall off the plateau into some form of pantheism—the error that Peters wrote about earlier. At the same time, if one loses sight of divine immanence (underscored by an affirmation of creatio continua), one can easily fall into some form of deism. We need both transcendence and immanence—both the transcendent God of Genesis chapter one and the immanent God of chapters two and three. In other words, a proper doctrine of creation has both a “then-ness” and a “now-ness,” if I may put it that way.

Ted Peters would fully agree with what I just said, as today’s excerpt reveals. Here he explores theological aspects of the debate between these two ways of understanding divine creation, further defending his view (stated in the previous excerpt) that “these two concepts are complementary and that we need not substitute one for the other.”

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

Even though [Fred] Hoyle has assumed the relevance of a singular beginning for Christian theology, not all Christian theologians see it this way. Process theologians of the Whiteheadian school, for example, reject what they call the “classical theism” of the apologists and, among other things, the idea of a beginning. Schubert Ogden, for example, advocates a Hartshornian version of panentheism according to which God is internally related to the world. God participates in the world’s ongoing creative advance, though God did not bring the world into existence at a beginning in finite time. Ogden believes that, within this framework, he can uphold the notion of the world’s dependence upon God and, thereby, not violate the intention of the creatio ex nihilodoctrine. [Peters cites Ogden, The Reality of God and Other Essays, pp. 62f and 213.]

John Cobb and David Griffin, however, go further than Ogden. “Process theology rejects the notion of creatio ex nihilo,” they write. [Process Theology: An Introductory Exposition, p. 65.] By this they intend to reject not only a temporal beginning but also the notion of the utter dependence of the world upon God. Rather than the position of Theophilus and Irenaeus, they say they prefer Plato’s notion of making order out of chaos. According to process theology, the term “creation” refers to the ongoing movement of the cosmos and not to something which initiated that movement in the beginning.

Because he deals with the scientific issues directly, the earlier work of Ian Barbour provides us with a better example of a theological position which downplays creation from nothing in favor of continuing creation. In the 1960s Barbour held that there are no strictly theological grounds for favoring either Big Bang or steady state theories. Both theories are capable of either a naturalistic or a theistic interpretation. Both theories push explanation back to an unexplained situation which is necessarily treated as a given—the primeval singularity which exploded in the case of the Big Bang or the constant creation of matter in the case of Hoyle’s steady state. Neither theory asks about the pretemporal or eternal ground or framework for the natural events which occur within the stream of time. So, Barbour concluded, “We will suggest that the Christian need not favor either theory, for the doctrine of creation is not really about temporal beginnings but about the basic relationship between the world and God. The religious content of the idea of creation is compatible with either theory, and the debate between them can be settled only on scientific grounds, when further data are available.” [Peters quotes Barbour’s seminal book from 1966, Issues in Science and Religion, p. 368, adding in a footnote, “Since this book was written, decisive evidence in favor of the Big Bang has come in. Barbour is much more willing now to favor this theory, but his motive is clearly scientific,” rather than theological.]

Now we might pause to ask: could this be an example of two-language segregation, according to which science is science and religion is religion and each is consigned to its independent domain? [Peters adds an important footnote: “Even though we cited Barbour above as best representing the position of hypothetical consonance advocated as the method for this paper, at this point one wonders if Barbour himself sinks back into the two language theory.”] Barbour’s position (at least until recently) has been that theologians have no particular investment in the winner of the debate between absolute beginning and continuous creation. Yet, should we not ask: why not both?

Barbour has said he does not want both. He wants only creatio continua. Why? He says creatio continua, notcreatio ex nihilo, is the biblical view. He quotes Old Testament scholar Edmund Jacob (, who wrote that the meager “distinction between the creation and the conservation of the world … make it possible for us to speak of a creatio continua.” [Peters takes this quotation from Barbour, Issues in Science and Religion, p. 384, in turn citing Theology of the Old Testament, p. 139.] But, on the basis of this, to make us choose between creation from nothing and continuing creation is, I believe, unwarranted. That the formulation creatio ex nihilo is itself post-biblical we have already granted. Yet, this should not lead us to deny that it has biblical roots. Ex nihilo is the result of evangelical explication, according to which the implications inherent in the compact experience of salvation witnessed to in scripture were drawn out by the apologists of the early church. Even if there are only a few references to ex nihilo in the Bible itself evangelical explication ought to count for something. To say that ex nihilo is not a biblical concept is exaggerated.

What Barbour actually advocates is a synthesis of creation and providence in the concept of continuing creation. This does not mean that he abandons the Christian commitment to the notion that the world is dependent upon God. What we have to give up, he says, is the idea of “creatio ex nihilo as an initial act of absolute origination, but God’s priority in status can be maintained apart from priority in time.” [Issues in Science and Religion, p. 458.] What Barbour has done here is virtually equate ex nihilo with initial beginning, discard the idea of initial beginning, and thereby discard ex nihilo.

Arthur Peacocke panentheism

The late Arthur Peacocke, a biochemist and theologian, was a leading proponent of panentheism, the idea that everything exists within God.

Arthur Peacocke comes close to the Barbour position here; but, whereas Barbour nearly eliminates ex nihilo, Peacocke keeps it. Peacocke believes that the essence of the doctrine of creatio ex nihilo is this: the creation owes its existence to God. Once this is affirmed, however, it makes no difference as to whether the cosmos began or not. He says that, scientifically, “we may, or may not, be able to infer that there was a point (the hot big bang) in space-time when the universe, as we can observe it, began … But, whatever we eventually do infer, the central characteristic core of the doctrine of creation itself would not be affected, since that concerns the relationship of all the created order, including time itself, to their Creator—their Sustainer and Preserver.” [Peacocke, Creation and the World of Science, p. 79.] Note that Peacocke does not dismiss creatio ex nihilo per se. He keeps it. But he removes from its stipulated definition any commitment to a point of origin. He then goes on to commit himself to a doctrine of creatio continua following an evolutionary model, according to which nature consists of a process producing new emergent forms of matter.

Both Barbour and Peacocke reject the relevance of an initial origin. Both affirm the dependence of the creation upon God its creator. Both advocate creatio continua. Yet there is a slight difference. Whereas Barbour nearly gives up on ex nihilo, Peacocke affirms it.

Why are we so quick to give up the idea of an initial origin? Or, to put it more precisely, why does a temporal beginning seem to be so expendable when explicating our theological concept of creation out of nothing? To reduce creatio ex nihilo to a vague commitment about the dependence of the world upon God—though accurate—does not help very much. It simply moves the matter to a higher level of abstraction. We still need to ask: just what does it mean for the world to owe its existence to God? One sensible answer is this: had God not acted to bring the spacetime world into existence, there would be only nothing.

Furthermore, it makes sense to talk about the temporal point of origin. The assertion that the cosmos is utterly dependent upon God is familiar to theologians, but such an assertion lies outside the domain of scientific discourse. The idea of an initial origin, however, does lie within the scientific domain. The point I am making here is this: for theologians to raise again the prospects of creatio ex nihilo understood in terms of a beginning to time and space is to be consonant with discussions already taking place within scientific cosmology. We have an opportunity here to bridge the gap between disciplines.

Nevertheless, this opportunity seems to be ignored. Most theologians in our own period are inclined to invest their energies in creatio continua, while either rejecting or at least sidetracking creatio ex nihilo. Theologians seem to assume that the idea of continuing creation has the greater scientific credibility. But, it is not clear yet just what continuing creation could mean for a theologian. Could it mean what Fred Hoyle means by it? Hardly. We will now explore the meaning of the phrase “continuing creation,” and we will do so by first asking about the relationship between creation and change.

Thomas Aquinas Joos van Wassenhove at Louvre

The greatest Christian theologian of the Middle Ages, Thomas Aquinas, as painted (not from life) by Joos van Wassenhove and Pedro Berruguete (c. 1475), Louvre, Paris.

In the mid-thirteenth century, when the works of Aristotle dominated the university curriculum, Thomas Aquinas carefully crafted a synthesis between Christian theology and Aristotelian philosophy in his Summa Theologica (“The Summary of Theology”), a magisterial work of scholarship even though intended as an introduction for students. Despite his great reliance on Aristotelian ideas, Thomas dissented from Aristotle’s dogma that the world is eternal and uncreated: the Bible teaches that the world had a beginning, and this trumps Aristotle. Gilkey’s doubts about Thomas’ conclusion were based in his “two-language” theory. For Gilkey, theology simply doesn’t ask “how” questions, such as “how did the universe begin?” It can ask only “why” questions, such as “why does the universe exist?”

To a significant degree, I think Gilkey was right—not specifically in this instance about Thomas, but about the general situation. We don’t rely on theology to tell us how rocks fall to earth, and we shouldn’t. Nor do we rely on science to tell us why the universe exists; if we did, we wouldn’t get a very deep or interesting answer. Concerning Thomas on creation, however, Peters doubts the basis for Gilkey’s doubt—and so do I. The next words you read are his.

Creation and Change

Christian thinking has not always distinguished between creation from nothing and continuing creation in quite the same way we do today. The prevalent distinction has been that between creation and change. For Thomas Aquinas it was important to make the distinction between absolute creation and changing things which have already been created. In fact, [for Thomas] the term “creation” refers solely to what appears ab initio[from the beginning], to God’s bringing things into being from nothing. “Creation is not change,” he writes, because “change means that the same something should be different now from what it was previously”. God’s role as creator, then, was that of the first cause. If we were to translate Thomas directly into the present context of the Big Bang, we might say that God caused the singularity to explode, but only after creating the singularity itself, of course.

Thomas believes in a point of origin because it is biblical. For this reason he rejects two competing positions, those of Aristotle and Bonaventure. On the one hand, Aristotle held that the cosmos is eternal and argued for it on philosophical grounds. While granting to Aristotle the credibility of his philosophical arguments, Thomas affirms a point of origin and a finite time to the world on scriptural grounds. One could, in principle, hold to creatio ex nihilo while affirming either an eternal cosmos or a temporally finite cosmos and remain philosophically coherent. Nevertheless, special revelation decides the issue for Thomas.

Claude François Saint Bonaventure

Claude François, Saint Bonaventure (1655), National Gallery of Canada

On the other hand, Bonaventure favored the idea of an initial origin and argued for it on philosophical grounds. Thomas agrees with Bonaventure’s conclusion but disagrees with his method. For Thomas, the metaphysical arguments alone cannot settle the issue as to whether the world is eternal or temporally finite. He seems to assume that the biblical position is consonant with what he knows philosophically, but it is the biblical commitment itself which is decisive. The result is a doctrine of creatio ex nihilo with the [following] specific meaning: the cosmos has a point of initial origin.

For Thomas, God transcends the cosmos. As the uncaused cause, the cosmos is originally dependent upon God; yet God is not just one factor among others within the world system. The world process is itself a dynamic process in that it involves change, but in itself it does not create new things out of nothing. No created thing can create something absolutely. Only God can, and God did it already back at the beginning.

Langdon Gilkey criticizes Thomas for using the idea of cause in making the case for God. Gilkey believes the causal analogy for describing God’s relation to the world is misleading for two reasons. First, it separates God from the world. Causality implies external relations. If God is the first cause and the world is his dependent effect, then God and world are set over against one another and God’s immanence is denied. Second, Gilkey says Thomas compromises the transcendence of God by drawing him into the world system. God has become one more factor in the endless chain of cause and effect. Once we have placed God in the causal chain, there is no escape from the inevitable question: what caused God? Thus, the analogy drawn from the spacetime experience of cause and effect, when applied to the eternal divine, is a mistake. [Peters cites Maker of Heaven and Earth, p. 70, adding that physicist Paul Davies makes the same point in his book, God and the New Physics, pp. 33-40. “The answer,” says Peters, “is that God is transcendent to the world of cause and effect; and, though involved in the world, God is not determined by the world of cause and effect.”]

On the one hand, if God for Thomas transcends the world, then Gilkey faults Thomas for loss of immanence. On the other, if God for Thomas is a factor in the intracosmic process, then he is faulted for loss of transcendence. Why does Gilkey press this point? The answer is that Gilkey’s own agenda is to avoid mixing science and religion. Gilkey says it is the task of science to answer the “how?” questions, such as “how did the cosmos begin?” It is the task of theology to answer the “why?” questions, such as “why did God create?” Gilkey’s complaint against Thomas is that he sought to answer the “how?” question by saying that God had “caused” the world to come into being.

If we were to follow the path led by [Ian] Barbour and Gilkey, we might end up making no definitive theological commitments whatsoever regarding whether the cosmos ever had an initial origin, or, if it did, just how God was involved in this origin. We would have to carry on our theological discussion in a field of discourse that would be fenced off from scientific speculations on origin and change in nature. Yet, as we shall see, few theologians in our time— including Barbour and Gilkey—in practice hold to keeping the fence very high. To illustrate, we will examine the widely accepted theological postulate that God’s relationship to the world is best described in terms of creatio continua.

Edward Hicks The Peaceable Kingdom

Edward Hicks, The Peaceable Kingdom (1826- 1828), The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, Texas. A committed Pennsylvania Quaker preacher, Hicks painted dozens of versions of this eschatological theme from the eleventh chapter of Isaiah.

Note by Ted: Will the universe have an Easter of its own? Will the present world be transformed someday into a new heaven and earth, in which the lamb will lie down with the lion and there will be no more death? This is the very thought with which Ted Peters concludes his essay: “The primary reason for defending the concept of creatio ex nihilo in concert with creatio continua is that the primordial experience of God doing something new leads us in this direction. The Hebrew prophets promised that God would do something new in Israel. The New Testament promises us that God will yet do something new for the cosmos on the model of what God has already done for Jesus on Easter, namely, establish a new creation.”

To see what this has to do with cosmology, read on…

What Does Creatio Continua Mean?

To Fred Hoyle creatio continua means the constant process of bringing de novo into existence things which hitherto had not existed. Thomas did not use the term creatio continua. Had he accepted Hoyle’s definition he might have argued that it still does not mean changing things which already exist. Hence Hoyle and Thomas would disagree as to when this continuous creation, as creation, occurs. Hoyle would say that there never was a beginning, that the cosmos is now and always has been in a steady state of creative activity. Although there are new beginnings every day, there never was an absolute beginning to all these absolute beginnings. Thomas, in contrast, would say that creation happened once at the beginning of all things, and that today’s intra-cosmic events are watched over by God’s conserving care (conservatio). For Hoyle there is no creator and creation is contemporary. For Thomas there is a creator and creation is past. If we were to avoid the strictures of Barbour and Gilkey and mix science and religion, then we would observe that the Thomistic view has greater consonance with Big Bang theory than it does with Hoyle’s steady state theory.

Why then are theologians such as [Ian] Barbour sympathetic with creatio continua? Oddly enough, one reason for advocating continuing creation has to do with re-mixing science and religion. Theologians today commonly assume that modern understandings of nature reveal a basically dynamic rather than a static worldview. Because it is assumed that the ancients who formulated creatio ex nihilo had lived in a static cosmos, and that we moderns now live in a dynamic cosmos, it follows that we need a modern understanding of creation that is more dynamic. Creatio continua seems at first glance to fit the bill. Barbour supports continuing creation by arguing that, “today the world as known to science is dynamic and incomplete. Ours is an unfinished universe which is still in the process of appearing. Surely the coming-to-be of life from matter can represent divine creativity as suitably as any postulated primeval production of matter ‘out of nothing.’ Creation occurs throughout time.” [Barbour, Issues in Science and Religion, p. 385.]

Is Barbour consistent? Here he asserts that our modern scientifically produced picture of a dynamic world is in fact relevant to the theological doctrine of creation. He is assuming that some sort of dynamism in theology should parallel the dynamism found in science. Having committed himself now to following the scientific lead, one would expect him to affirm a temporal beginning over against continuing creation. After all, that is where the preponderance of scientific evidence lies. But instead he reaffirms continuing creation and not ex nihilo.

What does Barbour mean by continuing creation? From the passage cited above, we can see that this is notcreatio de novo as proffered by Hoyle. It is, following the model of biological evolution, the process of bringing life out of already existing matter. It is what Thomas would call “change.” Barbour wants the doctrine of creation to refer to God’s continuing activity within the world, not the creation of the world per se. What this amounts to, it appears to me, is a merging of creation with providence. Barbour is not alone in doing this. [Langdon] Gilkey also uses the term “continuing creation” to combine creation and preservation. “Creation is seen now to take place throughout the unfolding temporal process … thus, creation and providential rule seem to melt into one another. … The symbol of God’s creation of the world points not to an event at the beginning…” [Gilkey, Message and Existence: An Introduction to Christian Theology, p. 90.] What theologians used to call preservation or providence has been renamed “creation.”

Have we arrived at anything more important than a change in vocabulary, a change which tends to hide the issues? Whereas Thomas used the term “creatio,” to refer to the ultimate temporal beginning of things and to distinguish this from ongoing change, theologians such as Barbour, Gilkey, and [Arthur] Peacocke use “creation” to refer to the process of change within already existing creation. The apparent motive for the switch is to merge creation with preservation or providence, but the result risks a total elimination of any theological commitment to a temporal beginning. In fact, such a beginning cannot even be discussed theologically, because we have lost the word for it. For temporal beginnings we must listen to the scientists.


Perhaps one of the ironic values of seeking consonance between religious and scientific discourse will be the impetus for Christian thinkers to return to the classic commitment to creatio ex nihilo while, at the same time, gaining a deeper appreciation for creatio continua. It simply makes sense these days to speak of t=0, to conceive of a point at which the entire cosmos makes its appearance along with the spacetime continuum within which it is observed and understood. If we identify the concept of creation out of nothing with the point of temporal beginning or perhaps even the source of the singularity, we have sufficient consonance with which to proceed further in the discussion.

Contemporary scientists do not support either a dualist or pantheist alternative, nor do they favor the idea that the stuff of the universe as we know it has an infinite past. On this particular issue, the scientific community of today is not the adversary to Christian theology that the pagan philosophies of ancient Greece and Rome were. Christian theologians can approach the matter with the positive anticipation that further inquiry may lead to constructive results.

The idea of continuing creation may obtain a more profound meaning through Prigogine’s usage of the second law of thermodynamics as it combines the irreversibility of time with the creation of order out of far-from-equilibrium chaos. Cosmic entropy is complemented by local creativity. What happens locally is that genuinely new things appear. The structures of reality are not reducible to, nor fully pre-determined by, the existence of past material. Thus, what Thomas Aquinas understood as mere change in already existing things is qualified: though the cosmic conservation of energy remains intact, there really do arise events in which new structures occur. We might call these new things “transformations” of reality, but the degree of unpredictable newness certainly exceeds what the medieval mind of Thomas conceived.

The Last Judgement Venice

The Last Judgment, eleventh or twelfth century Byzantine-Ravennate mosaic, Cathedral of Santa Maria Assunta, Torcello, Venice. The angel rolling up the starry scroll as the trumpets sound illustrates Revelation 6:14, “The heavens receded like a scroll being rolled up, and every mountain and island was removed from its place.” (NIV)

The primary reason for defending the concept of creatio ex nihilo in concert with creatio continua is that the primordial experience of God doing something new leads us in this direction. The Hebrew prophets promised that God would do something new in Israel. The New Testament promises us that God will yet do something new for the cosmos on the model of what God has already done for Jesus on Easter, namely, establish a new creation. What these things imply is that, when looking backward to the beginning of all things, we speculate that God’s initial act of creation was not dependent upon anything which preceded it. To speak of creation out of nothing is a way of emphasizing this point. Similarly, creation activity, whether divine or natural, has by no means ceased. It continues.

Creation is not simply a thing but rather a whole course of natural and historical events in which new things happen every day, a course of events which is bound by its finite future. The end of the cosmos will be something new too. The question which remains is whether the anticipated heat death constitutes a sort of cosmic Good Friday, and whether it makes sense to hope that beyond it lies an Easter for the universe.

John Polkinghorne

Many contemporary thinkers in the “dialogue” of science and religion are exploring eschatology, speculation about the end times. Probably no one has written more thoughtfully about this than John Polkinghorne. Like Peters, Polkinghorne realizes that science provides no basis for a future hope: this must come from revelation and religious experience.

About the author

Ted Davis

Ted Davis

Ted Davis is 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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