Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Implications of Ex Nihilo Creation

By faith I believe that God created the world out of nothing, from no material that previously existed.

I believe this because it is the consensus of Christendom since the Gnostic debates of the second century. It is not in any of the creeds exactly. It is not clearly taught in the Bible. A very strong argument can be made that it is not what Genesis 1:1-2 was saying, although Victor Hamilton has given a very intelligent argument that it is what Genesis 1:1-2 was saying. But it is not clear that this is what any biblical text was saying.

But let's assume by faith that it is the Christian position. It seems to me that a number of things follow.

1. If God created the world out of nothing, then it seems to me that He must at least have as much power as the universe He has created. I can't lift 500 pounds unless I am 500 pounds strong. So in order to create the universe, God must at least have as much power of the universe.

This only implies that He is "all powerful" in relation to the universe, not that He is all powerful in relation to whatever "domain" He might occupy, if it makes any sense even to speak of His "domain" outside this universe.

2. If God created the world out of nothing, then it seems to me that He must understand everything there is to know about the universe's structure, fabric, and possibilities. I might coincidentally make something that tastes good in the kitchen because I did not invent the laws of how ingredients mix. But if God created the universe, then He created the rules for how things are and how they mix.

This implies that God knows what it is to be human. God knows what it feels like to sin. God knows what it feels like to suffer. The suggestion that God might have to become human to identify with us seems preposterous--God made every possibility of human existence and experience from nothing. Indeed, God must have made the possibility of evil and thus, in a somewhat figurative sense, "made evil."

Now, perhaps God also knows every specific thing that will happen before it happens (by faith I believe He does), but it seems to me that is not a necessary consequence of God creating everything out of nothing. Creation ex nihilo only requires that God know every possible event. Creation ex nihilo also does not imply whether God determined everything that would happen or whether He built randomness into the created order. Quantum physics currently suggests that He built randomness into the creation, which might possibly serve as a basis for some sense of free will.

3. It is difficult from this "natural revelation" perspective to know whether it makes sense to say
that God might "circumscribe" or envelop that which He has created. However, this idea doesn't seem ridiculous, whatever it might literally mean.

To say that God circumscribes His creation in space is perhaps to suggest that He is aware and has access to every space, whatever this might mean (and I am very uncertain whether we can really speak of space in these terms). From our perspective, we might call this "omnipresence."

To say that God circumscribes His creation in "time" is perhaps to suggest that He is aware and has access to every "point in time,"whatever this might mean (and I am very uncertain whether we can really speak of time in these terms). From our perspective, we might call this "timelessness."

If God has access to every point in time and space, then we might suppose that He is omniscient, not merely in the sense of the Open Theist for whom God knows every possible sequence of events. But if God "circumscribes" both time and space, then we might reasonably suggest that He knows every actual sequence of events.

In this case such foreknowledge does not necessarily imply predestination, for God could simply play the role of observer. However, it does pose the question of whether God gains specific knowledge of the actual sequence of events at the point of creation, at the point when He creates time.

4. If God created the world out of nothing, then in some fundamental sense He exists independently of the creation. "Heaven," at least in the sense of God's fundamental "dwelling" must be "elsewhere." We have no rational basis to say what the rules or nature of such a dwelling are for God, although certainly He is welcome to reveal a bit to us about it. We should strongly suspect, however, that such revelations will come by way of analogy, since it is not clear that we have any firm point of reference from which to understand them.

What we are saying is that we can draw few inferences about what God is in His essence or nature from the perspective of creation ex nihilo, and we strongly suspect that revelations about His "nature" are far more metaphorical than literal. It is indeed possible that what we think of as God's nature is really the face He shows to the world, the "nature" of God as we understand it from where we sit in this universe, the self He has revealed to us.

5. One benefit of this line of thinking is the foolishness of the skeptic's question, "Then who created God?" The cosmological argument suggests that because every effect needs a cause, therefore, there must be a first Cause that is uncaused. David Hume replies, "Then who made God?"

But an ex nihilo perspective renders this objection itself as foolish. The cosmological argument is now, "We observe that effects in this universe generally need a cause (although we can question this idea on the quantum level now). Indeed, it is currently the consensus of astrophysicists that the world had a beginning at a "point in time." It is at least possible that the question, "What caused that beginning?" is a coherent one.

But to say that the universe needs a cause says nothing about that Cause outside this universe. The very argument has been that things in this universe need causes, which says nothing about things outside this universe. The question of where God comes from thus turns not to understand the nuance of the argument.

6. But indeed, most of Christian theology to the present has continued to speak of God as if he were inside the universe in His fundamental "being." Discussions of His nature are of this sort. We must at least set a question mark at the end of any comment in the current rage of using Trinitarian models to talk about everything. We remember that the language of Nicaea and Chalcedon itself was expressed in the world views of the fourth and fifth centuries. I suspect that there will be much ribbing in heaven of all those who have gone beyond the metaphors of "one substance," "three distinct persons" to what will turn out to be gross oversimplications of the reality.

7. In this same vein, one might use the perspective of ex nihilo creation to suggest the possibility that the goodness of God is a matter of how He has created this universe, that good is good here because God says so. Whether language of His nature outside this universe makes sense, we cannot determine. We cannot determine it by reason for we have no point of reference. We cannot determine it by revelation for revelation is "incarnational" in nature and thus often metaphorical without any clear criteria by which to know when revelation is true on a literal level and when it is true on a metaphorical level.

We can thus imagine--although we have no basis to argue that it is so--that God might create other universes that function on the basis of other moralities and indeed on the basis of rules we can't even anticipate in any way.

8. In a sense, Boethius' and Aquinas' notions of simplicity, that God's essence is His existence now make some sense in relation to this universe. In other words, when we consider God's essence in conjunction with the parts of this universe, it somehow makes sense to suggest that His essence has no parts. What we see, however, is that this claim was, as most Christian theology, formulated from the perspective of God in relation to this universe and parts in this universe. It says nothing about God outside this universe.

9. Finally, we see from the perspective of natural revelation, to say that God is the "greatest possible Being" or the "most perfect Being" carries with it the qualifier, "in relation to this universe." By faith we might further affirm these in an absolute sense.


James F. McGrath said...

That's a big leap of faith you make there at the beginning, Ken! :) Let me ask a few questions about how a panentheistic viewpoint, in which the realities of God and the universe are not so radically separated, might regard the same issues:

1) If God is co-extensive with and more than the universe, then isn't it just as true that God's power is at least equivalent to that of the universe as a whole?

2) If God relates to the world as we do to our bodies, then isn't there a great intimacy that we have with our own selves - our own bodies and the inner workings of our minds - that is beyond what we can have with any other?

3) In your theistic approach, it seems that by distinguishing God from creation in this way you are suggesting that something exists apart from, and over against, God. In a panentheistic approach that is not the case, and there is no limit to God's omnipresence.

4) This point relates closely to the previous one. The view you are advocating might fit well with the metaphor of physical transcendence, of God as 'higher than the heavens'. In panentheism, transcendence need not be contrasted with intimacy and imminence. There is no part of my body that is not "me", yet "I" transcend my body in the sense that I experience consciousness at this higher level of organization that the individual components of my body do not seem to.

5) Something or someone must exist eternally. To have an absolute nothingness give rise to our universe makes little sense. But the use of the complex God of theism as though he were a simple explanation of the contingent universe is not entirely convincing.

6-7) I didn't feel that these were as directly related to the issue of theism vs. panentheism, so I'll just mention my recent post on the incarnation and Trinity.

8) Theism tends to think of God interrupting the causal network of events from outside. This leads to a crisis of faith for some, and movements like Intelligent Design on the other, which are committed to "finding" sings of inexplicable (and thus miraculous) events in the history of biology. Panentheism, on the other hand, sees God as embodied in the universe, so that there is no necessary contrast between divine action and natural processes, any more than a description of the physical processes that occur when my arm moves are at odds with an account, on another level, in terms of that movement expressing my will.

9) From the perspective of panentheism, God is not just the greatest possible being, but "Being itself" and the highest level of transcendence of being/existence.

These are just some thoughts on how the topics you mention might be viewed from another perspective. I look forward to talking more about this!

Anonymous said...

On point 2.), God's creation of the Universe in no way implies understanding of all possible outcomes. As a computer programmer, I daily create little universes in which I define every possible interaction and yet I am continually surprised (and employed) by discovering unintended consequences of these interactions as the lives of these universes unfold. For fun (scary, isn't it) I have even created closed systems with simple rules intentionally chosen to give unexpected results. Chaos Throry, anyone?

Now if we grant God unlimited intelligence then he may indeed know everything that could happen but with that much IQ, he wouldn't need to have created the Universe to figure it out.

I am simply not convinced that this conclusion follows from the premise.

Ken Schenck said...

Hey James--thanks for posting a panentheist view. Maybe we should organize a dinner of the "implied Dunn" since he won't be there! I'll be the first to admit (to you too Scott) that my thoughts here are bound to look as silly at some point as those of Basil the Great's sermon on creation at times sounds to me 1600 years later. Maybe they already seem that silly :-)

Anonymous said...

Point 5.) Aren't you just defining God as uncaused and then concluding that He needs no cause. If I missed the reasoning that undergirds the former, forgive me. In fact, elsewhere you point out that we can only understand the nature God's "domain" through what knowledge He chooses to share with us. God may claim or infer that He is causeless but we only have his word on it.

It is impossible to speak intelligibly about uncaused causes in this context and, hence, "foolishness" is strong language to be throwing around.

Anonymous said...


I am frankly impressed with your attempts to work through such mysteries at such length. I myself never seem to be able to carry through my bloggings in such detail.

Ken Schenck said...

Scott, technically, the argument does not demonstrate that God is uncaused. What it hopes to support is the idea that God does not need to be caused simply because one is using the cosmological argument...

Thanks for the thoughtful engagement!

James F. McGrath said...

Alas, I'll be missing SBL San Diego - I blew my conference money for this year attending one on Religion and Science in Romania. Will you be at the regional meeting, by any chance? (Feel free to let me know via a less private channel of communication, if you prefer!)

So perhaps there can be a dinner at which two empty seats are left, for the two absent Jameses whose return is awaited...someday...

Ken Schenck said...

I always blow my conference money on the national SBL :)

James F. McGrath said...

I will be trying to do that consistently from now on! :)

Keith Drury said...

Reading your blog is like getting a drink from a firehose. ;-)