Doctrine of Creation (Part 4)

September 10, 2012     Time: 00:22:20

We have been talking about the Doctrine of Creation and in particular we have looked at the biblical material supporting the doctrine of creation out of nothing. Now we are going to look at a systematic summary of this biblical material.

Systematic Summary

Originating Creation and Continuing Creation

How should we understand the doctrine of creation out of nothing? Traditionally, Christians have believed that God is the creator of the world in two senses. First, he initially brought the world into being and then subsequently he sustains, or conserves, the world in being moment by moment. These are usually thought to be two species, or types, of creatio ex nihilo, which is creation out of nothing. The first is called creatio originans, or originating creation. This is bringing the universe, or the world, into being initially – the original creation. But then following creatio originans is creatio continuans, or continuing creation – God’s ongoing creative activity. Creatio continuans was typically divided into two further categories. The first is conservatio which is God’s conservation of the world in being – his sustaining the world in existence moment by moment. Were he to withdraw his sustaining power, the universe would vanish; it would be annihilated in an instance. The second aspect of creatio continuans was called concursus. This is the notion that God concurs with the operation of causes in the world to produce their effects. For example, the fire wouldn’t actually burn unless God concurred in burning the leaves or the paper along with the power that the fire has. God concurs with the secondary causes in the world so as to bring about their effects and without that they wouldn’t have any effects.

We will set aside concursus for the time being and we want to ask about these two aspects of creation: creatio originans and creatio continuans. While this is a handy rubric easily memorized, I think if you begin to press it for precision it quickly becomes problematic. Think about creation. It seems to me that inherent in the idea of creation is that if God creates something at a certain time then that is the first moment at which it exists. It did not exist before that because God had not created it yet. So if God creates something at a certain time that is the first time at which that thing exists. But, what that would mean then is that if conservation of the world in being is a type of creation then everything is re-created anew at every moment of its existence. It would mean that at every moment there is a new thing that is created and therefore nothing really endures through time. Rather, you just have replicas of the previous thing produced at every subsequent moment. So it would imply you are not really the same person who walked into this room, you are just another one who looks and acts and thinks a lot like that person that came in the room. Indeed, you are not even the same person who just heard that sentence a moment ago because at every moment God would be creating something anew.[1] This leads to a doctrine called occasionalism, which has been held by certain philosophers down through history, that nothing endures through time and that, therefore, really there is no causality in the world and everything is determined by God just recreating everything anew at every subsequent moment – which is a very bizarre doctrine I think you’d agree.

How should we elude this problem? We could say, “Alright, creation doesn’t involve something’s existing for the first time at the moment it is created. Something can be created by God even if that is not the first moment at which it exists.” But it seems to me that then you have really lost an essential element of the Doctrine of Creation. Biblically, at least, the Doctrine of Creation certainly does involve this temporal aspect that when God creates something that is the first moment at which it exists. That is when it comes into being. So if you remove that you have really lost something in creation. It seems to me that what we have to do is just break this rubric apart and say in fact that conservation is not really a type of creation. It is a misnomer to speak of creatio continuans. Although that is a nice rubric, it doesn’t really work.

Creation and Conservation

Conservation and creation, therefore, are two distinct acts – two distinct concepts. Conservation is not a type of creation, is what I am trying to say. How can we understand these two notions? After all, from God’s point, it doesn’t seem there is any difference between creation and conservation. God produces the effect in being. His action, his power, seems to be exactly the same in creation as in conservation. So what is the difference between conservation and creation if the difference doesn’t lie in God and his action? I think that the difference between conservation and creation lies not in God or his action; rather, it lies in the object of his action. Namely, creation involves bringing something into being so that when God creates some entity, call it e, God brings that entity into being at the time at which he creates it.

We can analyze this notion in the following way:

e comes into being at a time t if and only if:

(i) e exists at t. Obviously, e has to exist at t if it comes into being at t.

(ii) t is the first time at which e exists. That’s inherent in the notion of creation; that when God creates an entity at a certain time, that is the first time at which that entity exists.

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

I will say something more about that in a minute, but if this is an analysis of what it means to come into being – if these are the three conditions that are met for something’s coming into being – then we can say that God creates an entity e at t if and only if God brings it about that e comes into being at t. Creation is essentially the act of bringing it about that some entity comes into being. So God creates an entity e at t if and only if he brings it about that e comes into being at t. If you want to know what it means to come into being at t that is what it means – these three conditions.

God’s creating some entity involves that entity’s coming into being and notice that, therefore, this is an absolute beginning of existence for e. It is an absolute beginning of its existence. It is not a transition of e from non-existence to existence. Creation is therefore not a type of change.[2] We should not think of e as some entity which first has the property of non-existence and then it trades in that property for the property of existence and so comes into being. Creation is not a change because there is no enduring subject that goes from non-being to being. That is a complete misconception. Rather, creation is an absolute beginning of existence for the entity that is created at that moment.


Question: [off-mic] You mean this applies to creation ex nihilo?

Answer: Actually, I think this applies to any kind of creation, even if God is creating something out of prior stuff, but I am thinking primarily in terms of creation out of nothing. So, yes, I am thinking of primarily creation out of nothing but I actually think it would apply even if he creates this thing out of prior stuff because even if the stuff out of which a thing is made pre-exists, the thing itself doesn’t pre-exist.

Question: I was wondering which of the church fathers came up with these ideas and was Calvin one who believed that creation is continual because it seems like that would fit into his other ideas.

Answer: I can’t say on Calvin. Certainly this rubric that I shared was one that was popular among post-Reformation Protestant theologians; that is true. The doctrine of creation and coming into being that I am explaining here would be Thomas Aquinas’ idea except for the idea of being the first time at which a thing exists. For Aquinas, creatio ex nihilo does involve God bringing something into being but he doesn’t think that it has a first moment of its existence. There I would side with a later medieval theologian named John Duns Scotus[3] who I think rightly criticized Thomas on this respect. I think Scotus is right in thinking that the idea of creation, biblically, has this temporal notion inherent to it that if God creates something at t that is the first time at which e exists.

Question: What is the definition of an entity? If you look at man, God created man. The discussion about right to life – are those creations? Are those entities?

Answer: Yes, by entity here I am using it in a very general sense like the English word “thing.” Any “thing” that comes into existence is an entity.

Question: So births of individuals are creation originans, not continuans, right?

Answer: Yes, that is right, especially if you think of the soul as something that is created specially by God. But this analysis of something coming into being, as I say, really applies whether the thing has a material cause or not. Because even if, say, the chair is made out of prior material, the chair itself doesn’t exist until that material is assembled by a creator in a certain way. When it does then the chair, as such, comes into being and it didn’t exist prior to that even if the stuff out of which it is made existed before it. Similarly with the human person at conception, the sperm and the egg pre-existed but that isn’t you. That may be the stuff out of which your body came to exist but it is not you.

For this reason, I think, we can distinguish conservation from creation because conservation does presuppose a subject which is made to persist from one state to the next. In creation, God doesn’t act on a subject that is already there so to speak. Rather, he creates the subject. But in conservation God acts on a subject to preserve it to a later time. So the difference between conservation and creation lies not in God’s action but it lies in the subject or the object of that action. In creation, there is no presupposed object upon which God acts.[4] That is why creation, as I said, isn’t a change. But preservation, or conservation, does presuppose the existence of an object which God preserves to the next moment.

On this basis, we can provide this analysis of what it is to conserve something:

God conserves e if and only if God acts upon e to bring about e’s existing from some time t until some later time t* through every sub-interval of t to t*.

In both cases the divine action may be the same, namely, he bestows being. He bestows existence. But I think you can see that they are quite different. In the case of creation, God’s bestowal of being can be instantaneous and, moreover, it doesn’t presuppose a prior object is there. But in conservation it is an action that takes place over time from one time to another and it presupposed that there is some object already there which God would then conserve to a later time.


Question: So conservation is that something exists where creation is something new. What about the new creation we are in Christ? We are a conservation of ourselves but we are a new creation with him as Lord. So it is both together. It is not too different from the egg and the sperm but one is God and one is . . .

Answer: I think you are quite right that you are the same person when you turn from being a non-Christian to being a Christian. In that sense, you are not a new creation. You are the same person; there is personal identity from being unsaved to being regenerate. What begins there, I think, would be a new relationship that Paul could speak of as a new creation and you are changed. You undergo a radical change at that point, but you are still the same person.

Followup: You are right because it is not replacement theology.

Answer: Right, you are not replaced with another person.

Followup: Right, we still get to live with him. In fact, all we are is we are crowned with his will because we made him Lord and we accept his will as our own.

Answer: Yes, and we are changed. We undergo a change when we are regenerated by the Holy Spirit but there is not a new person.

Creation and the Tensed Theory of Time

Let me just highlight one aspect of this doctrine that I think deserves comment – that is that this notion of creation is committed to the idea of a tensed theory of time, or as we’ve called it in this class, an A-theory of time or adynamic theory of time. Because if you adopt a tenseless theory of time, according to which all events past, present and future are all equally real, then nothing really comes into being. They just exist at their appointed stations and nothing ever really comes into existence. To say the universe has a beginning on a tenseless theory of time is just to say that there is a front edge to the four-dimensional space-time block called the universe. The universe would begin to exist in no more sense than a piano begins to exist at its edge. It has a front edge to it. But if we say the universe really came into being then I think we are affirming the objectivity, the reality, of temporal becoming and therefore a tensed theory of time. This clause (iii) represents a really essential aspect of the Doctrine of Creation that is often overlooked. I think a serious, robust biblical Doctrine of Creation commits you to a tensed theory of time. On a tenseless theory, I do not think you really have a robust Doctrine of Creation because nothing really comes into being on that view.[5] In fact, the universe just co-exists eternally with God in a relationship of dependency on him. He holds it in being but he never really brings it into being. So a robust Doctrine of Creation, I am suggesting, involves commitment to a tensed theory of time.


Question: Can you apply the notion of transition to something that does not exist? You were saying earlier that when something comes into existence, it comes into existence at that particular time but you said that it could not transition from something that did not exist. But the notion of transition – wouldn’t that infer that it has some properties that allowed it to transition from non-existence . . . ?

Answer: Transition would but I would reject the language of transition and I would reject the language of change. Creation is not a kind of transition or change from non-being to being. That is why perhaps this expression “comes into being” might be misleading to you. That might sound like a transition, right? Like coming into the room – you came in from outside. But when I am using the expression “comes into being”, these three clauses define what that means. It just means e exists at t, t is the first time e exists and e’s existing at t is a tensed fact. That has no language of transition in it. So don’t be mislead by the phrase “comes into being” to think that that is like coming into the room. It is not a change or transition; it is an absolute beginning to be of the effect that God creates.

Next time we will look further at the doctrine of conservation and see to what extent the doctrine of conservation commits us to a tenses theory of time as well.[6]


[1] 4:53

[2] 9:56

[3] John Duns Scotus (c. 1265-1308) was one of the most influential philosopher-theologians of his time.

[4] 14:57

[5] 20:00

[6] Total Running Time: 22:19 (Copyright © 2012 William Lane Craig)