The Doctrine of Creation (part 12)

November 16, 2008     Time: 00:40:05

[Opening prayer]

We’ve been in a long series on doctrine of creation. I had been discussing with you creatio ex nihilo, or creation out of nothing. I want to turn now to another aspect of the doctrine of creation, and this is called continuing creation.

By way of introduction, God in Christian theology is conceived to be the creator of everything outside of himself – everything else that exists. Christian doctrine has traditionally affirmed the doctrine of creatio ex nihilo which means creation out of nothing. God created everything else, created the world, even matter and energy themselves, without any need of a material cause. Under the doctrine of creatio ex nihilo there were two subdivisions that were traditionally made. First was creatio originans and creatio continuans. I think you can discern what these Latin expressions mean. Creatio of course means “creation.” You see the word “origin” in originans which means “beginning.” So creatio originans was the original creation – the originating creation of God’s bringing everything into being initially. That is what we’ve been talking about the last several weeks – the beginning of the universe, the philosophical and scientific confirmation of the doctrine that in the beginning a finite time ago God brought the universe (space, time, matter, and energy) into being out of nothing. In creatio continuans you see the word “continue” in there. The English word “continue” comes from this. This would be God’s continuing creation – his on-going creation. That is to say God’s on-going work of creating the universe.

This was typically divided into two subsections or two parts. The first is conservatio and the other part was called concursus. Again, I think we can see from these Latin words what they mean. Conservatio is the word we get “conservation” from. God’s conservation of the world in being means that God didn’t just create the world originally and then let it go on its own. Rather, he preserves the world in being moment by moment. He continually creates the world as he conserves the world in being throughout its existence. Were God to withdraw his conserving power, the universe would vanish in the blink of an eye. It would be annihilated immediately were God to withdraw his conserving power. So the first aspect of continuing creation is God’s conservation of the world in being. Concursus is the word from which we get our English word “concur” which means “to agree with.” If you concur with someone you agree with them.[1] Concursus was the doctrine that God causes everything that happens in the universe by agreeing with, or co-causing, the events that causes in the universe bring about. So, for example, if a match were to light some gasoline and it would combust, God concurs with the causal power of the flame to ignite the gasoline. God must concur with the causal activity of everything in the world in order for everything in the world to happen.

So the on-going work of creation would be God’s preservation of the world in being, and then his concurring with the actions of causal agents in the world.

That is the traditional breakdown of the doctrine of creation. Let me say that while I think this is a handy scheme, it does cause problems if you press it for technical precision. For example, it would seem that we should say that a thing is created if and only if it comes into being at the moment of its creation. If God creates something at a certain moment – call it T (at time T God creates an entity) – then that entity comes into existence (comes into being) at that time. That would be the first moment of its existence. But if we think of continuing creation as literally a type of creation, that would mean that at every moment of a thing’s existence God is literally bringing something new into being at that moment. He is creating a new thing at that moment. That would land you in a very bizarre doctrine called occasionalism. Occasionalism is the doctrine that there really aren’t any causes in the world. For example, when the flame comes into contact with the gasoline, the flame doesn’t really cause the gasoline to ignite. Rather, God causes the gasoline to ignite on the occasion of the flame coming in proximity with the gasoline. So there really isn’t any causal activity in the world. Nothing really causes anything else. God is the only cause there is, and he just causes these things on the occasions these entities coming into proximity with each other. If God recreates something anew every instant then a thing cannot exist from one instant to the next so as to have any sort of effects. It just exists at that instant. What you have is a totally new thing at the next instant. This was a doctrine that came to characterize medieval Islam. This is what Muslim theologians of the Middle Ages believed. Hence you have the doctrine of Allah being all powerful – he is the only cause there is. Everything that happens is the will of Allah because he is the only cause. Things in the world don’t really cause anything at all.

What does that do for personal identity? It means nobody exists over two instances of time. You have a different person at every instant of time. Really, it is a series of replicas. You are not really the same person that walked in here this morning. You are a replica of that person that exists at that earlier instant. You just have a series of duplicates at every instant rather than something really persisting through time.

This would be, I think, a very bizarre doctrine and would be theologically problematic as well that we wouldn’t want to affirm. It doesn’t seem right to say that God’s conservation of the world in being is literally a type of creation if creation involves the first moment of a thing’s existence or something’s coming into being at that moment.

We could try to evade this problem by re-interpreting the doctrine of creation so that creation doesn’t involve something’s coming into being at the moment it is created. But that would really seem to lose something, I think. It was emasculate the doctrine of creation if the moment that a thing is created isn’t the moment that it comes into being. I think it is better to take continuing creation to be just a manner of speaking. It is not literally a type of creation. I think instead we need to distinguish creation from conservation.[2]

What I would want to do is to say creatio ex nihilo just is creatio originans, and that conservation and concursus are additional actions of God that are different from creation properly speaking.

How then can we distinguish conservation from creation? What is the difference between the two? I think the difference doesn’t lie in God’s power. His power is the same in both cases. He is bestowing existence on something. It is not in God’s action. It is the same action of bestowing existence. So what is the difference between God’s creating something and God’s conserving something? If we say that creation involves an entity’s coming into being at a certain moment then I think we can use that to distinguish creation from conservation. What I would want to say, I think, is this. Let’s pick some entity e and some time t and say God creates e at t. For some time t and any entity e that you might want to pick, “God creates e at t” means God brings it about that e comes into being at time t. That is what it means to create something. What does it mean for something to come into being at t? I think it involves three elements:

(1) e exists at t. Obviously, if something comes into exist (comes into being) at a time t that means that the thing exists at t.

But more than that, it means:

(2) t is the first time at which e exists. e doesn’t exist before t. It is the first time.

The last thing I think we need to say is:

(3) e’s existing at t is a tensed fact.

I’ll explain what that means. What do we mean by a tensed fact? The tense of something tells how close or far something is from the present – how it is related to the present. For example, you use the past tense to say that something happened before the present. You use the future tense to say that something will happen later than the present. You use the present tense to say that something is happening right now. Tenses are used to locate events with respect to the present. To say that e’s existing at t is a tensed fact means that when t is present that is a moment occurring now – that is a present moment. Let me contrast this with an opposing point of view that will help to make this contrast clear. When we were talking earlier about different views of time and the universe we would often draw a picture of the universe that, say, began at the Big Bang and then expanded and then contracted back again to the Big Crunch. Space would be these horizontal dimensions or slices and time would be the vertical dimension in this continuum. On this picture of the universe, time begins at t=0 and then it ends at, say, some time t=N (in the future). People who do not believe in tensed facts think that all events in time exist.[3] They are all equally real. From the Big Bang to the end of time, they are all equally real and what is present is just a subjective matter of your consciousness. The now is not really an objective reality. The now is like the here. There isn’t any place in the world that is objectively here. It is where you are is here. Somebody else would say you are there, not here. Here is where they are. There isn’t any objective here or there in the world. These people would say there isn’t objective present in the world. For the people existing, say, in 2006, well, the events of 2006 are now. But for the people existing, say, in 3006, the events of 3006 are now and the people in 2006 are [past]. But for somebody existing, say, in 1006, 1006 is present and the events of 2006 are future. It would just be purely subjective. It is not an objective feature of the world. On this view, to say that God created the universe at t=0 doesn’t mean that the universe really came into being at t=0 because God would just exist outside the universe and all of the moments in time are equally real to God. They are all equally present. In that sense, the universe doesn’t really come into being on this view because there aren’t any objective tensed facts. There is no objective present. In order to have a serious doctrine of creation, e must not only exist at t, t must not only be the first time that e exists, but e’s existing at t must be a tensed fact. That is to say, it happens now in an objective and real way. You don’t have this sort of tenselessly existing timelessly real eternal universe. All you do is just have the first event. Then after that the second event. Then after that the next event. And so forth. This, I think, would capture the idea of something’s coming into being. Something comes into being at a time t. If it exists at t, t is the first moment of its existence, and that is a tensed fact – something that happens now or is objectively present. God creates something at t if and only if he brings it about that something comes into being at that moment.

That is how I would understand the doctrine of creation. Creation is an absolute beginning of the existence of something. It is not a change technically speaking because something doesn’t move from non-existence to existence. There is no enduring subject. Rather, God just constitutes the subject by bringing it into being at the first moment of its existence.


Student: [inaudible]

Dr. Craig: I don’t think that would be a problem. It would just mean that the entity that is created would be time itself, and it would be created at the first moment of time. At t=0 (again, to revert to our diagram) God creates t. It may seem somewhat trivial in the sense he creates t at t but as long as that is a present tensed fact there isn’t any problem. It is also the moment matter and energy come into being, too.

Student: [inaudible]

Dr. Craig: It would mean that that person literally comes into being. It would be wrong, for example, to think that souls have always preexisted and then are, say, incarnated into bodies. This is what, for example, Hinduism believes. Human beings aren’t created anew; they are just souls that are recycled as they take new bodily forms. Mormons believe the same thing – there are preexistent souls that then fall into this world and exist as human beings. But Jews and Christians reject this idea. We would say that a human being is created anew at the instant at which that person comes into being and he doesn’t preexist in any way.[4]

Student: [inaudible]

Dr. Craig: That is right. I would say that when God creates something anew that that is an act of creation. He doesn’t create the universe as a whole again and again. That would be occasionalism. But, for example, if you believe a human being comes into existence, say, at the moment of conception, that is a creation of a new person at that moment. That is the first moment at which that person exists.

Student: [inaudible]

Dr. Craig: I think we would have to say that what that means is God rests after creation in the sense that he has created all of the matter and energy – all of the stuff – in the universe. He doesn’t recreate that over and over again moment by moment. But obviously within the creation new things will happen and come into being that hasn’t existed before. But all of the stuff – all the matter and energy – is there, so the laws of conservation would apply to them. From that moment on, matter and energy is not going to be destroyed, or created for that matter if you don’t think of conservation as creation.

Student: [inaudible]

Dr. Craig: I don’t agree with Lewis’ analysis of miracles at all. I think that that is quite mistaken. It seems to me that when God does something like multiply the loaves and the fishes, that this is clearly not just a speeding up of natural processes in the universe, say. But this is something non-natural. This is something that nature left to its own devices would never do – to multiply five loaves and two fishes to feed this multitude or for Jesus to walk on water or to heal leprosy by a verbal command. These are non-natural events. I don’t have any problem (given the doctrine of creation, and that is why in a sense miracles are part of the doctrine of creation) given that there is a God who created the universe and established the laws of nature, I don’t have any problem in thinking that such a being can act in ways that nature itself is unable to act in. It seems to me obvious that once you have a transcendent God who has created the laws of nature and the universe himself that he is not bound by those laws. He has causal abilities and capacities that the created world doesn’t have. Yet, that skepticism concerning miracles lies right at the heart of the skepticism of, like, a Bart Ehrman about the resurrection of Jesus and the viability of giving historical evidence to it, for example.


Let me go on to explain how to distinguish conservation from creation. Remember I said that in creation there is no enduring subject that goes from a state of non-existence to a state of existence. Rather, it is just the beginning of existence for that subject. I think it is precisely in that respect that conservation differs essentially from creation because conservation does presuppose a subject which is preserved from one moment of its existence to another moment of its existence. In creation, God does not act on a subject; rather, he constitutes the subject by his action. In contrast to that, in conservation God acts on a subject to preserve it in existence over time. So conservation ought to be understood, I think, in terms of God’s preserving an entity from one moment of its being to another.

Here is the analysis I would give of divine conservation:

God conserves e if and only if God acts upon e to bring about e’s existing from some time t until some time t* which is later than t.[5]

In conservation, the divine action may be exactly the same as in creation – namely, bestowing being or causing existence. But what is different is in creation the action is instantaneous – it occurs at a time t – and it constitutes the subject whereas in conservation it doesn’t occur at an instance, it occurs over an interval of time, and it presupposes the existence of a subject and God acts on that subject to conserve it in being until a later time.

We saw that a second aspect of continuing creation so-called is divine concurrence. According to this doctrine, God is the cause of everything that happens in the world. That is not to say he is the only cause of everything that happens. That would be what the occasionalist said – God is the only genuine cause. Rather the idea here is that God concurs with the action of every cause in the world, and in the absence of this concurrence by God no effects would be produced. This doctrine of divine concurrence has been almost totally eclipsed in contemporary discussions of creation. You almost never find this discussed today. Yet it was traditionally part of the traditional doctrine of creation. I think concurrence does seem to follow from divine conservation because if God conserves an entity from time t until some time later, t*, he has to conserve e not just in abstraction but he has to conserve e in all of its particularity. Let’s suppose that e is, say, a piece of cotton and that this piece of cotton is brought into proximity with a flame. So it goes from time t to some time t* and as a result of bring brought into proximity to the flame the cotton becomes black and smoldering. In conserving the cotton from t to t* God has to preserve the cotton not just in abstraction (not just preserving e) but he has to conserve the cotton in its particularity. For it to exist in its particularity from t to t* it has to have properties at t and t* that change. God must bring about not just e’s existing at t, but e existing at t with its properties like being fluffy and white and a certain temperature. Then he must bring about its existing at t* with its properties of being black and smoldering. God is not just the cause of e’s existing at t and at t* but also the cause of e’s being white and fluffy at t and being black and smoldering at t*. In the absence of God’s concurring with the effects of natural causes like the flame, these causes really wouldn’t be efficacious. Often the medieval theologians would use the illustration of Daniel’s friends in the fiery furnace where they are thrown into the fiery furnace and normally would be consumed by the flames but instead they are walking around normally. What they interpreted this to mean is God miraculously ceased to concur with the action of the flames so the flames no longer had their causal power to burn. It would only be by concurring with the natural causes that the flames would produce their effects. By withdrawing his concurrence the children of Israel in the fiery furnace were not consumed and burned up. That would be an example of where they saw concurrence or the lack thereof to come into play.[6]


Student: [inaudible]

Dr. Craig: Yeah, that is the difficult thing about this doctrine. It means that therefore when the murderer plunges the knife into the back of some innocent person or the rapist injures his victim that God is concurring in a sense with these effects otherwise they wouldn’t be produced. But it does seem to me that if you hold that God conserves the universe in being, you are committed to that anyway because if he were to withdraw his conservation everything would be annihilated and nothing would exist. In that sense if you have conservation already God is allowing these things to happen, but on this view these don’t represent his primary will because God’s primary will is that people not sin, that they do the good. When he concurs with evil actions he may concur with the physical causes involved but he doesn’t concur with the moral nature of the evil act of the will that the criminal or the person is perpetrating. That is a result of the perverted will of the secondary agent. But God doesn’t concur with that decision, so he is not responsible for these evil actions because it is the genuine secondary agents who freely perpetrate these and they are to blame for them. God simply allows these to occur and concurs with the causes because he has overriding reasons for allowing these things to happen. That would be related, of course, to the ancient problem of suffering and evil that God, in his providence and sovereignty, has a reason for allowing evil to go on in the world. But you are right, that certainly is something that does make one cringe when you think about it – God’s concurring with these sorts of effects.

Student: [inaudible]

Dr. Craig: A miracle could be an absence of concurrence. For example, in the fiery furnace example. But in multiplying the loaves and fishes, there, I think, that is not a lack of concurrence. Rather, what God has done is he has intervened in the series of secondary causes. Say we have the secondary causes E1, E2, E3, and so forth, and they have certain causal powers. These causal powers are not sufficient for two fish and five loaves to feed five thousand people. But what God does is he intervenes in the series of secondary causes to bring about something that those secondary causes couldn’t bring about themselves. I think that would be more than just concurrence. With some miracles at least you have an actual input of causal power by God. Those of you who were here at the intelligent design conference, the fellow that I spoke after (I remember his first name was Marty), his view was precisely that there are no causal inputs from God into the series of secondary causes. All he would admit was secondary causes in the world, and all that Marty would grant you is God’s conservation of the world in being. He wanted to hold to conservation – God conserves all of these secondary causes in being – but God doesn’t act miraculously in the series of secondary causes. That is to say, miracles are impossible on this view. That is why he doesn’t agree with intelligent design; because he doesn’t want to have God getting causally involved in the series of secondary causes. This has real deep implications for lots of different areas – biblical criticism, intelligent design, and so forth. How you think of God as relating to the series of secondary causes.

Student: [inaudible]

Dr. Craig: That would be occasionalism. You are right. On occasionalism where God is the only cause, it does annihilate free will. That is why Islam, for example, is so fatalistic – because everything happens by the will of Allah. But here what I am saying is that there are real causal connections. There is real causation here. But God acts to conserve each of these things in being so that the flame will produce the smoldering blackened piece of cotton by conserving the entities in being over time with all of their specific properties. It doesn’t take away the power of those causes.[7]

Student: [inaudible]

Dr. Craig: If it did take it away then you are right. Then what you would have is you get occasionalism. There aren’t any secondary causes at all. You’ve just got God causing at successive instances these effects. That is what Islamic theology in the Middle Ages came to embrace – complete fatalism. Sometimes people think philosophy is irrelevant. Here you see the huge relevance of deep philosophical thought on a worldview that today threatens Western civilization.

Student: [inaudible]

Dr. Craig: I like that point that you are making. If God failed to concur with the evil acts of people, this would in effect rob them of free will. It would be a denial of their personal integrity as free agents if God were to fail to concur with their free acts of will and interrupt them. I think that is a very good point.

Student: [inaudible]

Dr. Craig: It would be a universe in which rational activity by rational free agents is possible, which will mean things like the fire that can warm you can also burn you and other things of that sort. Good point.


The only thing I need to add is I inadvertently skipped over the biblical data on continuing creation. In our last few minutes, let me just read a couple of verses that do suggest this doctrine. Overwhelmingly the Scriptures, when they speak of creation, speak of originating creation – God’s bringing the world into being. But there are a few passages that speak of God’s conserving the world in being.

Colossians 1:16-17 would be an example: “for in him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things have been created through him and for him.” Notice the past tense verbs – that is talking about originating creation. But then he says, “He is before all things, and in him all things hold together.” There he seems to talk about conservation – in him all things consist; they hold together.

Also Hebrews 1:3, speaking of Christ, “He is the radiance of His glory and the exact representation of His nature, and upholds all things by the word of His power.” There it speaks of the cosmic Christ who upholds the universe by his word of power. That, again, suggests the idea of conservation.

Finally, Acts 17:28 where Paul addresses the Athenian philosophers and he says of God, “for in Him we live and move and exist, as even some of your own poets have said.” There again it speaks of our living, moving, and existing in God which suggests this idea of his upholding the universe in being moment by moment.

Those would be two important aspects of creation. Originating creation (creatio ex nihilo) which is, I think, creation properly speaking, and then (using just a manner of speaking which is not technically correct) continuing creation which consists more properly of God’s conservation of the world in being and his concurrence with everything that happens in it.

What we will do next time is turn to the doctrine of divine providence where we will look at the interplay of God’s sovereignty over creation and human freedom within it and see if we can untangle that old knot of the contradiction between divine sovereignty and human freedom.[8]

[1] 5:02

[2] 10:06

[3] 15:03

[4] 20:03

[5] 25:10

[6] 30:00

[7] 35:19

[8] Total Running Time: 40:05 (Copyright © 2008 William Lane Craig)