Peters Against the Process Theologians: Did God Really Create the Cosmos?

| By Ted Davis on Reading the Book of Nature


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 lateIan 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 withpanentheism, 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.

Photo of books: Principia Mathmatica volumes 1-3, Whitehead and Russel (Cambridge)
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. After his youngest son was killed in the war, Whitehead turned increasingly to metaphysics, establishing a worldwide reputation almost right away, such that in 1924 he accepted an offer to move from Cambridge to Harvard as a professor of philosophy. His work on process philosophy, which others developed into process theism, dates from his time at Harvard.

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 Protestantmodernists, 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 in an earlier excerpt. 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 theologicalaspects 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 [see part 3], 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.

Photo: Headshot of Arthur Peacocke
The late Arthur Peacocke, a biochemist and theologian, former director of theIan Ramsay Centre for Science and Religion at Oxford, was a leading proponent of panentheism, the idea that everything exists within God. In my opinion, however, the most important aspect of his work was vigorous opposition to reductionism, the idea that living things are ultimately nothing but complex chemical (or physical) systems. As he wrote in Science and the Christian Experiment (1973), “The realisation that our minds can find the world intelligible, and the implications this has that an explanation for the world process is to be found in mental rather than purely material categories, has been for many scientists who are theists, including the present writer, an essential turning point in their thinking. That it does so points strongly to a principle of rationality, to an interpretation of the cosmos on terms of mind as its most significant feature.”

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.

Looking Ahead

Next time, as a way of distinguishing creation from change, Peters defends Thomas Aquinas’ notion of creation against criticisms raised by Langdon Gilkey—yet one more example of Peters’ orthodox theological understanding of modern science.

References and Credits

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

Editorial Policy

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


About the Author

Ted Davis

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


Comments are currently not showing correctly. We are working to address the issue. In the meantime, you can access all comment and discussion boards by clicking the link below: