Saturday, May 09, 2009

Mormon rejection of creation ex nihilo

Last night, I was reading "Craftsman or Creator" by Paul Copan and William Lane Craig in The New Mormon Challenge edited by Frank Beckwith, Carl Mosser, and Paul Owen. They were responding to a view commonly held by Mormons that God fashioned the universe out of pre-existing material. He created order out of chaos. Matter/energy is eternal. They deny the common Christian view that God created the universe ex nihilo.

In Genesis 1:1, it says that God created the heavens and the earth. The word for create is "bârâ', and Joseph Smith pointed out that it does not mean "creation out of nothing," but to "organize the world out of chaos--chaotic matter." Steven Robinson made a slightly more modest claim. He said that "bârâ'" does not necessarily mean "creation out of nothing."

Robinson is right. The same word, bârâ', is used to describe God's creation of the people of Israel (Isaiah 43:15), and Israel wasn't created out of nothing. So bârâ' doesn't necessarily mean "creation out of nothing," but Craig and Copan argue that it does carry that meaning in Genesis 1:1 and a bunch of other passages.

A couple of proof texts that Craig and Copan use to demonstrate creation ex nihilo are Romans 4:17 and Hebrews 11:3. Romans 4:17b says, "God, who gives life to the dead and calls into being that which does not exist." That seemed to Craig and Copan as an explicit statement of creation ex nihilo, but I don't agree. Nothing exists before it exists, including the nation of Israel. If God created the nation of Israel out of pre-existing people, then it would still be accurate to say he called into being that which did not exist. And that seems to be what the context demands in this case. Quoting the whole verse, it says, "As it is written, 'A father of many nations have I made you [Abraham]' in the sight of him who he believed, even God, who gives life to the dead and calls into being that which does not exist." So when Paul says God calls into being that which does not exist, he seems to be referring to God's creation of many nations from Abraham, not from nothing.

Hebrews 11:3, I think, is an explicit statement of creation ex nihilo. It says, "By faith we understand that the worlds were prepared by the word of God, so that what is seen was not made out of things which are visible." Of course a person could argue that this pre-existent chaotic matter was invisible in the sense that you couldn't see it with the naked eye, but I really don't think that's what the author of Hebrews meant. I could be wrong, but I think he meant that what exists was not made out of things that already exist.

Most of the other proof texts that Craig and Copan used were some variation on the fact that God created everything, which presumably would include whatever pre-existing matter out of which he created the universe. Saying that the pre-existent matter was created out of something even more primitive only postpones the problem for those who deny creation ex nihilo.

While I was reading this chapter, another argument occurred to me that I'd like to get your thoughts on. It goes like this:

1. If "creation" always means to craft out of pre-existing material, then God is not the creator of all things.
2. God is the creator of all things.
3. Therefore, "creation" does not always mean to craft out of pre-existing material.

My proof for the first premise is the fact that people create all sorts of things out of pre-existing material. We make cars, radios, plows, chariots, clothes, banana nut bread, and all kinds of groovy things. If creation means to make something out of pre-existing material, then clearly God didn't create everything in that sense. He didn't create banana nut bread; we do.

There are plenty of proof texts to support the second premise. A couple from the Old Testament include Isaiah 44:24, which says, "I, the LORD, am the maker of all things, stretching out the heavens by myself and spreading out the earth all alone," and Nehemiah 9:6, which says, "Thou alone art the LORD. Thou has made the heavens, the heaven of heavens with all their host, the earth and all that is on it, the seas and all that is in them." A couple from the New Testament include John 1:3, which says, "All things came into being by him [Jesus], and apart from him nothing came into being that has come into being," and Colossians 1:16-17, which says, "For by him [Jesus] all things were created, both in the heavens and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities--all things have been created by him and for him. And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together."

It seems to me that Paul is trying to be exhaustive in what was created by and for Jesus. He can't be talking about creation out of pre-existing material, or else Paul could not be so exhaustive. After all, we make banana nut bread in that sense, not Jesus. So he must be talking about creation ex nihilo. All these verses which attempt to show the exhaustiveness of what God created must be talking about creation ex nihilo, or else they couldn't be so exhaustive. Lots of creatures create things out of pre-existing material, but only God creates things out of nothing. That's one of the things that makes him unique.


At 6/21/2009 4:20 PM , Blogger James said...

Hi Sam. I am a Mormon, and I don't believe in creatio ex nihilo.

You ought to consider the thorough examination of Copan and Craig's arguments that LDS scholar Blake Ostler provides. I find Ostler's arguments to be excellent. I don't know if Craig and Copan have responded to Ostler or not. Here is the link:

I think that Craig, Copan and Ostler are quite exhaustive in discussing the evidence itself, and so I'd 'd like to call your attention to an argument from authority. It is my view that the majority of biblical scholars (especially OT scholars) do not understand Gen 1:1 to be suggesting creation ex nihilo. Instead, the mainstream view seems to be that the biblical author assumed the same worldview as the rest of the ancient near east (ANE). I'm no scholar myself (just an armchair enthusiast) but I have tried to collect some statements by scholars that support the LDS view:

I urge you to check out Ostler's essays, they will provide what I think is among the very best of LDS scholarship on the issue.


At 6/22/2009 11:38 PM , Blogger Sam said...

James, thanks for the link. I haven't not been able to find any response to Ostler by Craig or Copan.

At 10/20/2013 11:34 AM , Blogger seven7up said...

If you are interested in a video series from an LDS perspective, I believe it goes into some ideas that even Ostler does not cover.


Post a Comment

Subscribe to Post Comments [Atom]

<< Home