The Doctrine of Creation (part 1)

August 31, 2008     Time: 00:43:10


Everything else that exists, that is not God Himself. Pagan alternatives to the biblical doctrine of creation.

I want to just mention one other thing that was very exciting and of an apologetic significance that we discovered during our time at the AARSBL conference in Philadelphia. We were standing in a lunch line with Bob Gundry, who is a professor of New Testament Studies of great repute, and I was asking him about his work and what was going on. He told us about his, I think it was, son-in-law who works at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary and has an archaeological dig in Israel. He said the last day of the dig – this just happened recently, just a few weeks ago – he said they unearthed the oldest Hebrew inscription ever found. He says it probably dates to around 1,000 BC – that is the time of David’s monarchy. That is about the time of the monarchy of David. He said it is a complete Hebrew alphabet. In fact, he said it is what you call an “Abcdery” – it is a sort of Hebrew alphabet for like memorizing the letters, like learning your ABC’s. So it is the whole Hebrew alphabet on this inscription. He said why this is so significant is that many of the radical critics who want to deny the historicity of the Old Testament and the monarchy have claimed that Hebrew didn’t even exist as a language in 1,000 BC. This of course just obliterates that out of the water because here we have this whole Hebrew alphabet now discovered. The oldest inscription ever. This hasn’t even hit the newspapers yet. He told us it hasn’t been published. He was aware of it because it was his son-in-law who was on the dig. Can you imagine the last day of the dig finding something like that? It would be pretty hard to say, “OK, let’s go home” instead of “Let’s dig deeper.” That was exciting.

I heard another fellow at this apologetics conference – Bryant Wood. He gave a talk on archeology in the Old Testament. This year at the conference we introduced three papers on Old Testament apologetics. He gave a sort of archeology history of much of the Old Testament. Boy, it was so interesting and encouraging to hear about all the finds that have been made confirming the historical reliability of these ancient Hebrew records. That was very interesting to me. I really enjoyed it and learned from it.

It is just one more little thing that is happening that is relevant to the defense of the faith.

Let’s go ahead and have a word of prayer and then we will turn to our new lesson today.

[Opening prayer.]

In this class we have been studying Christian doctrine for a couple of years now I think. I am not exactly sure when we started. One sort of loses track in the misty annals of the past. But what we began with was the topic of revelation. That is to say, how do we know about God? How has God revealed himself? We talked about God’s general revelation in nature and conscience as well as his special revelation in his Word, both the living Word Jesus Christ and his written Word, the holy Scriptures.

Then having talked about the doctrine of revelation, we turned to the doctrine of God. Here we looked at the attributes and nature of God, arguments for the existence of God, and the Trinity.

That led naturally to the doctrine of Christ where we looked at the second person of the Trinity and discussed the incarnation, the atonement of Christ, his work, and his resurrection from the dead, as well as the subject of Christian particularism (that is, salvation only through Christ).[1]

Now we are ready to move on to a new topic area today. Let me just ask, how many people have been in the class since we started on doctrine of revelation? That is great! That is quite a good number. I am very glad. If you were not part of those folks who have been with us all this time – if you’ve come in somewhere in between – I would encourage you to look in the archives that are on the website or to get in touch with one of those people who raised his hand and ask him for his past notes because some of these folks are real good note-takers. I am sure they would be more than willing to share their notes with you if you want to get this past material and add it to your notebook. If you all have your new outlines for today, we are going to start a new area. This will be the doctrine of creation. It seemed to me that this was very appropriate because it can lead up to the intelligent design conference. We are moving in a sense outside of God now to God’s creation – to everything else. This is everything else that exists that is not God himself. That is part of what we call creation.

By way of introduction, I think it would be helpful to begin by describing some of the pagan alternatives to the biblical doctrine of creation before we look at the biblical data concerning creation out of nothing. Basically, views that deny creation involve either a dualistic view of reality or, in some cases, a monistic view of reality. By dualism what I mean is that these views do not think of God as the source of all reality outside of himself; rather, God is confronted with some other uncreated reality set over against him which is equally ultimate and equally eternal and unoriginated. You have not a single source of all creation, but rather you have at least two or perhaps a plurality of metaphysical ultimates, a number of ultimately realities which are uncreated and independent of one another. For example, in primitive mythology, when you look at the creation myths of Israel’s neighbors, you find that these myths typically oppose the creative principal (call it God or whatever) over against some sort of uncreated chaos, perhaps unformed matter or a primordial sort of stuff which then God shapes into a world and indeed often the gods are born out of this primordial chaos or stuff. So the creation myths of Israel’s neighbors are very, very different from the Genesis account of creation in which everything else that exists is created by God. Rather, on these primitive myths you have uncreated chaos or stuff which is set over against God and God simply attempts to shape it into some sort of form.

Similarly in Plato’s thinking, in Platonism you have the God who is a kind of architect or craftsman who takes matter and imbues it with certain forms that make them into the different sorts of creatures that they are. He will look to these uncreated geometrical or mathematical forms or ideas and then will use those as patterns to shape matter into various things like horses and people and chairs and tables and so forth.[2] But God, or this demiurg as he is called, is not the creator of the forms or of the material stuff.

In Gnosticism, which is an early anti-Christian movement, the material realm was thought to be evil and the immaterial or spiritual realm was what was regarded as good. These were opposed to each other. There was a kind of ethical dualism where these are locked in this great struggle. One type of philosophy that also held to that was called Manichaeism which thought of the good and the bad as being two ultimate principals that are locked in an eternal struggle with one another. The bad is identified with the material or physical world, the good is identified with the spiritual or immaterial world.

Even in modern theology, we have many people who think that the world need not be created, need not have an origin from God, in order to be dependent upon God, but there can be a sort of uncreated stuff along side God out of which God makes the world. All of these would be examples of a kind of dualism where you don’t have a single ultimate source of reality but you have plural sources of reality which are independent and uncreated with respect to each other.

Some of the implications of dualism is obviously that it denies the sovereignty of God because this uncreated stuff that is set over against God is something over which God does not have creative power. It exists independently of him. It is recalcitrant. He has to work with it to shape it into making it what he wants it to be. There is obviously no creation on this view. This view tends to depreciate the material world, especially in Gnosticism and Manichaeism. The body is devalued. Our physical lives and physical world are devalued. As a result, there is a kind of devaluation of the material and physical world that is quite contrary to Hebrew thinking. Remember in the book of Genesis at the end of the first chapter it says that God looked at the world that he had made and he said it was very good. The Bible affirms the goodness and the value of God’s material creation. The body is not evil. Material things are not evil. These are good things that are a reflection of God’s creative power. But in dualism, very often the material realm will be depreciated. Salvation will often represent redemption from the body where we attempt to be freed from the body and the soul will go back to its spiritual source, and the body is discarded like a useless husk. This is very different from the Judeo-Christian idea of the resurrection of the body which affirms the value of our material bodies even into immortality.

The view of Christology that will emerge on Gnostic views of Christianity will again depreciate the incarnation. Since the material realm is evil, Christ could not really have become incarnate and therefore Gnostics who attempted to piggyback on early Christianity would deny the incarnation, would deny the physicality of Christ’s body. You already see this in the New Testament beginning to appear, for example, in 3 John. The author says that anyone who denies that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is not of God, this is the spirit of anti-christ which is already in the world. John was already beginning to see this incipient Gnosticism trying to make inroads into Christianity by denying the materiality of the incarnation.

It will also result often in paradoxically either a kind of asceticism where, because the body is evil, you try to put down the body and live an ascetic life of self-denial, denying yourself physical pleasures, hardship to the body, attempting to fast and punish the body in order to build up one’s spiritual side.[3] Or paradoxically, just the opposite. Since the body doesn’t really matter you can do whatever you want with the body. So in some cases this dualism led to a kind of Libertinism or Antinomianism – that is to say, a view that the law doesn’t matter. You can do anything you want with the physical body because ultimately it is the soul that matters, not the body.

You can see that a dualistic view of reality as opposed to creation has quite serious implications both theologically and how we live.

What about on the other hand monism? Monism would be the view that there is only one reality. All reality is ultimately one. Examples of this would be early materialism. In the pre-Socratic philosophers – that is, the philosophers prior to the time of Socrates – Greek thinkers often held to a materialistic view of reality. All reality is made out of just material stuff. This might be identified with fire or it might be identified with water or something else. In these primitive cosmologies basically everything is just materialism. This materialism that was characteristic of ancient Greek philosophy comes to expression in modern times in things like Marxism. In Marxist-Leninist thought, all that exists are just matter in motion and dialectical materialism that was pushed by Lenin and Marx says that world history is basically the unfolding process of the evolution of material things. So everything is driven by economics. It is just basically materialism.

Or, in non-communist materialism (just modern secularism), you have this same attitude expressed. For example, the late Carl Sagan. You may remember him on his Cosmos television program beginning by saying, “The cosmos is all there is, was, or ever will be.” That is an expression of materialism. The physical spacetime universe is all there ever was, will be, or is.

All of these would be expressions of a monistic view of the world which identifies the stuff of the world as matter and energy just existing in various configurations.

On the other hand, there is (in addition to materialism) pantheism. These are philosophies which regard the world as divine. Again, you will find this in ancient Greek philosophy as well as in the modern age. For example, ancient Greek philosophers like Plotinus held to a kind of Emanationism. What Plotinus believed was that God is the undifferentiated One or Ultimate Reality. He has no differences within him. No distinctions within him. He is a simple One – the Absolute. But this One begins to emanate out of himself different sorts of realities like a mind and then the mind emanated the physical world out of it. There is a kind of declining system of emanations out of this Ultimate Absolute resulting finally in the physical world in which we live and move and have our being.

You also find this in modern philosophers. For example, the Enlightenment philosopher Spinoza. He was a Dutch philosopher that lived during the 1600s. Spinoza used the expression “God or Nature.” For him these were synonymous – the same thing. The physical world is basically God. In Hinduism you also find this kind of pantheistic reality where the physical world ultimately doesn’t exist. In a sense, this is monism because the only thing that exists is God on this type of Hinduism, but the physical world (the world of distinction and difference) ultimately turns out to be unreal.[4] It is really an illusion. This type of monism is just the opposite of materialism. It denies that any material things exist. Really, the physical world is illusory. It is really a kind of illusionism. All that exists is the Absolute and the realm of physical reality that we experience and seems so real to us is all simply a realm of illusion and is unreal.

Again, a monistic view of reality also has serious implications. For example, I think that it is really atheistic. Although here God is worshiped as being identical with the world, there really isn’t any person called God that is distinct from the world. There is no such being as God. Really pantheism is just atheism, but you worship the universe. You express your attitude toward the physical universe by an attitude of awe or worship or reverence, but there really isn’t any person that is distinct from the world called God.

On Hinduism where the world is ultimately illusory, again the ultimate reality behind the illusion is not a personal being that is a personal creator that you could know.

Really, this view is just atheism.

Again on this view there is no creation of the world. Matter is either absolutetized as on materialism where it has always existed – matter is eternal and always will be. Or else matter is turned into illusion as in Hinduism where it has no significance whatsoever. Similarly, on this view man is denigrated because human beings are just matter in motion. There is no soul that is distinct from the physical body. All that exists is just matter in motion. The only religious practice that is left on this view is not worship because there isn’t any person or any being to worship. There would just be mysticism where you would have a kind of perhaps nature mysticism where you feel one with nature or maybe one with reality as a whole. Notice that on this view even evil turns out to be illusory because really there isn’t any difference between good and evil. There is no absolute standard of right and wrong. So for the materialist or for the pantheist, ultimately moral values turn out to be illusions as well or just subjective evolutionary byproducts of our development.

Again, I think monism has some very serious theological and practical consequences.

I think this underlies the importance of getting a correct doctrine of creation. On the biblical view, God is the ultimate reality and God is one, but he has created realities distinct from himself but dependent upon him. All of these other realities are part of the realm of creation.


Student: [inaudible]

Dr. Craig: Yeah, and it was corrupted. My study has not exposed any of Israel’s neighbors in Canaan or Egypt or Mesopotamia that had a comparable doctrine of creation or of God as distinct from the universe. All of these tend to fall into this area of primitive mythology where you have these warring gods. Sometimes chaos will be symbolized with a dragon that is slain and out of the blood of the dragon come the seeds to produce various gods and goddesses or worlds and things of this sort. But you don’t have anything really comparable to this very elevated monotheistic doctrine of creation that you have in Genesis.

Student: [inaudible]

Dr. Craig: Right.[5] Yes, these were doctrines that arose in Greek culture during the first few centuries AD. Actually, Manichaeism comes from Persia, but Gnosticism would be a Greek idea. These were movements that were attempting to piggyback on Christian theology so that you get Christian Gnosticism though its origins are really Greek rather than Christian. Manichaeism was the religion out of which St. Augustine was converted. Before he was a born again Christian, Augustine was a Manichaen and believed in this ultimate duality of good and evil. But he found that none of the Manichaeian teachers could answer his questions, so he eventually had a dramatic conversion and came to Christ. But it was out of Manichaeism that Augustine came.

Student: [inaudible]

Dr. Craig: I think I would. The question was: would you say that New Age thinking tends to be pantheistic. I think I would identify New Age thinking with a sort of pantheistic view where we are told that we are all expressions of the divine, we are all God, God is everywhere and everything. It seems to me that this is just a kind of Westernized pantheism.

Student: [inaudible]

Dr. Craig: I don’t know enough about Wiccanism. This is witchcraft. I don’t know enough about that to be able to answer that question.

Student: [inaudible]

Dr. Craig: On monism, there isn’t any doctrine of creation there either because all reality is ultimately one and it is uncreated and eternal. Neither of these views has room for creation. That is why we list them as alternatives to creation.

Student: [inaudible]

Dr. Craig: I take scientism to be more a doctrine of knowledge than a metaphysic. That is to say, scientism is the view that only scientific truth can be known. There is no truth outside of what can be established scientifically.

Student: [inaudible]

Dr. Craig: His point was this would incline toward monism and materialism. Maybe, although I don’t think necessarily. I don’t agree with a philosophy of scientism. But you are right. Scientism is very often conjoined with what I would call physicalism. Physicalism would be the doctrine that all that exists is what physics describes. I suppose that there is a very close tie between scientism and physicalism, though I guess my reluctance is that many people who, I think, would describe themselves as being scientistic would agree that there are things like mathematical entities – like numbers and sets and so forth – and these are not material or physical objects. In a sense they would have a dualism. They would have a physical world and then they would have this realm of abstract objects like numbers and sets and other sorts of things and these are quite independent of each other. In fact, that is one of the challenges for that worldview – how do you understand the way these two realities work together. How in the world does the mathematical realm and the physical realm combine since mathematical entities (if they exist) don’t have any causal effects on anything. That is one of the major challenges for that view. It is radically dualistic in that sense. But I think you are quite right that a lot of scientistic people would be physicalists.

Student: [inaudible]

Dr. Craig: Yes, to empty your mind of all desires in particular in Buddhism. He was pointing out that in these pantheistic Eastern religions like Buddhism and Hinduism meditation is not like Christian meditation where you would say, “Think about a verse of Scripture or an attribute of God” and you would reflect on it and think about it for your upbuilding.[6] Rather on the contrary, in Buddhism and Hinduism (remember what I said a moment ago) they don’t really have room for worship as such but rather for mysticism. Meditation would be a way of emptying the mind so as to have some sort of mystic sense of oneness with The Absolute or with The All. It is really a very anti-intellectual activity in that sense. You are voiding the mind often by thinking about a mantra until it becomes meaningless, or thinking about some seemingly absurd situation like the sound of one hand clapping until your mind is just voided of meaning and understanding. You can arrive at this state of mystical oneness with The Absolute. So it is very different from Christian meditation.


In contrast to this, the biblical doctrine of creation is creatio ex nihilo which is Latin for “creation out of nothing.” This is the first aspect of the doctrine of creation that we want to deal with.

Genesis 1:1 says, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” With that terse statement, the author of Genesis differentiated his viewpoint from the viewpoint of all of Israel’s neighbors. The expression “the heavens and the earth” is an idiom in Hebrew meaning “the universe.” There wasn’t any single word in Hebrew for “the universe.” So when the Hebrew wanted to speak of all of physical reality he would say “the heavens and the earth.” What the author of Genesis says is that in the beginning God created the universe. You will notice in this story there are no primordial sea monsters or dragons, no warring gods, no uncreated stuff. God simply creates. The word there is barah. This is a word, when it is used, is only used with God as the subject. It does not presuppose any kind of a material substratum out of which things are made.

So at face value, this opening verse of Genesis – “in the beginning God created the universe” – teaches creation out of nothing. This was certainly the way that it was understood by later biblical authors. As we will see, later authors in the Old and then in the New Testament took Genesis 1 to be teaching creation out of nothing. But in modern times many modern commentators have denied this face value meaning. Rather than read verse 1 as an independent clause, many modern commentators will read it as a subordinate clause so that it would be translated something like this: “in the beginning, when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was without form and void and darkness was upon the face of the deep.” In that case, it may not sound like creation out of nothing. If you made it a subordinate clause – “in the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth the earth was without form and void” – might make it sound like God is already confronted with a primordial chaos which he will then fashion into an orderly cosmos.

This issue fortunately in very recent years has been much discussed among Hebrew and Old Testament scholars. I think that one of the best discussions of this is given by Claus Westermann in his commentary on the book of Genesis.[7] What Westermann argues is that the interpretation of Genesis 1:1 as a subordinate clause is really quite untenable and has been discredited. Fortunately, we have seen, I think, in very recent scholarship a tremendous move back toward the traditional interpretation.[8] My colleague Paul Copan and I did a book on this subject called Creation Out of Nothing. In the opening part of this book, Paul Copan goes into great detail in the Hebrew text and contemporary Old Testament scholars and shows there has really been a turnabout now back toward understanding Genesis 1:1 not as a subordinate clause but as an independent clause. “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.” Let me just simply share with you Westermann’s five points in support of taking Genesis 1:1 as an independent clause rather than a subordinate clause. I think Westermann’s case is absolutely convincing.

In as much as we are about at the end of the time, rather than give you those five points, I think I will delay that until next week and ask if there are any questions about the issue that we are confronting here – this grammatical question of Genesis 1:1 as a subordinate versus an independent clause.


Student: [inaudible]

Dr. Craig: This is a good question. We will talk about this more later on when we get to an analysis of the biblical data. But when the Jew or Christian says that God created the world out of nothing, we should not understand him to be asserting that there is something out of which the world has been made, namely nothing. That nothing is somehow some sort of a substance. Rather, what it means is God did not create the world out of anything. That is what it means. Not that there is something called nothing out of which he made the world. Rather, God did not create the world out of anything. When we say “out of nothing” we are distinguishing between what Aristotle called an efficient cause and a material cause. This is a very helpful and important distinction that Aristotle made. An efficient cause is the productive cause of something. It is the thing that produces it in being. For example, Michaelangelo is the efficient cause of the statute called The David. The material cause is the stuff out of which the effect is made. The material cause of The David is the marble block that was quarried somewhere in Italy and brought to Michaelangelo’s studio. When we say that the Bible teaches creation out of nothing, we don’t mean that there is no efficient cause. Obviously, God is the efficient cause. Rather, what it means is there is no material cause in the case of the creation of the universe. God is the efficient cause of the universe, and there is no material cause. That is what creation out of nothing means.

Student: [inaudible]

Dr. Craig: The idea is to dilute the notion of creation. If you look at Genesis 1:1 and you read it as a subordinate clause it would go like this. “In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was without form and void and darkness was upon the face of the deep, and the Spirit of God was moving over the face of the waters.” The idea here is the primordial chaos, the waters, the deep were already there and creation just consists in God’s bringing order out of chaos.

Student: [inaudible]

Dr. Craig: It diminishes God’s sovereignty and ultimacy. It lends you back into dualism basically. On this seemingly small grammatical point – is this an independent clause or a subordinate clause? – a lot of theology really hangs. What we want to look at next time will be: what are the grammatical arguments for taking this as a subordinate versus an independent clause.


[There is another unrelated portion of another lecture mistakenly appended to the end of this audio.][10]



[1] 5:25

[2] 10:11

[3] 15:07

[4] 20:09

[5] 25:00

[6] 30:00

[7] See Claus Westermann, Genesis 1-11, trans. John Scullion (Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1984)

[8] 35:11

[9] 39:47

[10] Total Running Time: 43:10 (Copyright © 2008 William Lane Craig)