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#210 Biblical Basis of God’s Unique Aseity

April 25, 2011

Dear Dr. Craig,

I have a question regarding your podcast entitled "Peter van Inwagen and Uncreated Beings".

In this podcast you argued that van Inwagen's exegesis of the Nicene creed was un-justified. (Note: van Inwagen had argued that the implicit domain of universal quantification in the Nicene creed was restricted to concrete objects).

In order to provide theological evidence against van Inwagen's contention, you cited John 1:3 to the effect that all things came into being through The Word.

However, I am not entirely convinced that the verse you cite supports the strong stance you take against abstract objects.

John 1:3 says: "Through Him all things were made; without Him nothing was made that has been made" (NIV).

When I checked the dictionary, something was defined as "made" if it was in some way "contrived" or "invented". As such, it could be argued that the domain of universal quantification in John 1:3 is restricted to objects that are "made" and thereby contingent since it seems plausible to suppose that a necessary condition of an object being "made" is that it's contingent.

Thus when John 1:3 says that "...without Him nothing was made that has been made", it essentially says that without God, contingent objects would not exist but says nothing about the existence of necessary objects.

My question then, is "why is it illegitimate to suppose that the wording of John 1:3 does not itself contain a restricted domain of quantification (namely to contingent objects)?

God Bless,



Dr. craig’s response


In my as yet unpublished response to Prof. van Inwagen’s paper I argue that his exegesis of the Nicene Creed itself is unjustified and, moreover, implausible in light of the statements of the ante-Nicene and Nicene church fathers, which indicate that they thought of God as the sole agenetos (uncreated thing). The question of the exegesis of the Johannine prologue is a separate question, one that is at least as important as the exegesis of the Creed. I’ll actually be reading a paper on this subject for the Johannine Literature section at the Society of Biblical Literature convention in San Francisco this November (coincident, by the way, with the annual apologetics conference of the Evangelical Philosophical Society). Let me give a preview of my remarks.

Speaking of the pre-incarnate Christ as the Logos or Word (1.14), who in the beginning was with God and was God (1.1-2), John writes,

All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being (1.3).

Consider the first clause of v. 3. “All things” (panta, neuter plural) connotes all things taken severally, not simply the Whole (as could have been indicated by a definite article ta panta). Of course, God is implicitly exempted from inclusion in “all things,” since He has already been said to have been (én) in the beginning (en arché) (v.1). God and the Logos are not the subject of becoming or coming into being, but of being simpliciter. They simply were in the beginning (cf. Gen. 1.1, which is reflected in v. 1). So “all things” designates everything there is aside from God Himself. Everything other than God and the divine Logos “came into being” (egeneto) through the Logos.

The verb is the aorist form of ginomai, whose primary meaning is “become” or “originate.” As indicated, it serves to contrast all other things with God, who simply was in the beginning and so never came into being. The aorist tense implies that everything that exists (other than God) came into being at some time in the past. V. 3 thus carries the weighty metaphysical implication that there are no eternal entities apart from God, eternal either in the sense of existing atemporally or of existing sempiternally. Rather everything that exists, with the exception of God Himself, is the product of temporal becoming.

The verb ginomai also has the sense of “be created” or “be made.” This meaning emerges in v. 3 through the denomination of the agent (di’ autou) responsible for things’ coming into being. The preposition dia + genitive indicates the agency by means of which a result is produced. The Logos, then, is said to be the one who has created all things and brought them into being. Such agency need not preclude God’s being the ultimate cause of things’ coming to be and the Logos the instrumental cause (cf. I Cor. 8.6; Col. 1.16; Heb. 1.1-2). A second, equally significant metaphysical implication of v. 3 thus emerges: only God exists a se; everything else exists ab alio, namely, through the divine Logos.

So the first clause of v. 3 states that everything that exists (God excepted) came into being through the Logos. With this in mind turn now to the second clause of v. 3: “without him not one thing came into being.” The verb is again egeneto, the clause stating that nothing came into being without or apart from (choris) the Logos, oude hen being merely more emphatic than ouden (“nothing”). The second clause of v. 3 is thus simply the negation of the contradictory of the first clause.

There is, however, a significant question of how the sentence of v. 3 is to be punctuated. Does the sentence end with oude hen, as I have it, or should the following phrase ho gegonen (“which has come to be”) be the terminus of the sentence? Contrary to the statements of some commentators, the exclusion or inclusion of this phrase significantly alters the meaning of the second clause of the sentence. Absent the phrase, clause two is plausibly to be understood as simply the negation of the contradictory of clause one. But if the phrase is included, the domain of the second clause’s quantifier is restricted to things which have come into being (ho gegonen): “without him not one thing that has come into being came into being.” Here the claim is that of those things which have come into being, none has done so apart from the Logos. Everything that has come into being has been created by the Logos. This is consistent with the view that there are things which never came into being and so were never created by the Logos: these entities would exist eternally and a se. If a full stop comes only after the words ho gegonen, the second clause is vastly weaker than the first clause, lacking both of the metaphysical implications of clause one.

The majority of the editorial committee of the fourth edition of the United Bible Societies’ The Greek New Testament assign a {B} rating to the punctuation of the text which places a full stop after oude hen, indicating their near certainty of the text so punctuated. Since the original Greek text contained no punctuation at all (which is characteristic of the earliest manuscripts), the committee verdict must represent their confidence that the text, properly understood, should be so punctuated. In this they follow the consensus of the many ante-Nicene fathers who cite the text. According to Metzger, the majority of the committee for the third edition were impressed by “the rhythmical balance of the opening verses of the Prologue, where the climactic or ‘staircase’ parallelism seems to demand that the end of one line should match the beginning of the next.”[1] The pattern is striking: “Word” (logos), “God” (theos), “life” (zoé), “light” (phos), and “darkness” (skotia) all stand in this repetitive pattern. Adopting the suggested punctuation would add ginomai (in different tenses) to the list, though as a verb it would be exceptional.

Metzger demurs, however, noting John’s fondness for beginning a clause or sentence with en + a demonstrative pronoun (13.35; 15.8; 16.26; 1 Jn 2.3, 4, 5; 3.10, 16, 19, 24; 4.2, etc.). Metzger’s argument strikes me, however, as weak because most of these examples are from 1 John and are instances of a characteristic phrase like “by this we know,” and autos is not in any case a demonstrative pronoun. More persuasive is Metzger’s claim that the perfect tense gegonen would seem to require the present tense estin in v. 4 rather than the imperfect tense én. Metzger finds the sentence beginning with ho gegonen to be “intolerably clumsy and opaque.”[2]

Defenders of the minority punctuation might also note that in Stoic literature we find a similar construction: fate, says Chrysippus, is “the logos according to which all things that have been made have been made, and all things that are being made are being made, and all things that are to be made will be made.”

On behalf of the committee majority’s punctuation, it has been urged that John uses the Semitic device of positive and negative parallels (1.20; 3.18; 6.50; 1 Jn 1.8; 2.4). But, in fact, none of these alleged examples says the same thing twice, so that John’s style is loose enough to permit the addition of a phrase like ho gegonen. A better argument for excluding the phrase is that without it panta and oude hen form a nice inclusio: “all things through him came to be, and without him came to be not a thing.”

Perhaps some guidance to the punctuation and, more fundamentally, to the question of John’s attitude toward the reality of uncreated abstract objects is available from the philosophical and literary background of John’s Logos doctrine. For the doctrine of the divine, creative Logos was widespread in Middle Platonism,[3] and the similarities between John’s Logos doctrine and that of the Alexandrian Jewish philosopher Philo (20 B.C.-A.D. 50) are numerous and striking.[4]

In particular, John and Philo alike connect the Logos with the beginning of the world. John says that the Logos existed in the beginning and that the world came to be through him (vv. 2, 10). Likewise, Philo, citing Gen. 1.1: “in the beginning God made the heavens and the earth,” connects the Logos with the beginning of the world (On the Creation of the World 26-27). They both understand the Logos to be the agent of creation, through whom the world was made. The use of dia + genitive to express instrumental creation is not derived from Jewish Wisdom literature but is an earmark of Middle Platonism; indeed, so much so that scholars of this movement are wont to speak of its “prepositional metaphysics,” whereby various prepositional phrases are employed to express causal categories:[5]


to huph hou

to eks hou

to di’ hou

to di’ ho


to aition
efficient cause

to hulé
material cause

to ergaleion
instrumental cause

hé aitia
final cause


God the Creator

four elements

Logos of God

God’s goodness

Philo identifies the four Aristotelian causes by these prepositional phrases, stating that “through which” represents creation by the Logos (On the Cherubim [De cherubim]124-7). References to the Logos as the instrumental cause of creation are prevalent in Philo.[6] Although some commentators on John’s Gospel have rightly insisted that John is not interested primarily in metaphysics but salvation, we cannot ignore his explicitly metaphysical affirmations that all things came into being through the Logos (di’ autou) and that the world (kosmos) came into being through him (di’ autou) (1. 3, 10).

The similarities between Philo and John’s doctrines of the Logos are so numerous and close that most Johannine scholars, while not willing to affirm John’s direct dependence on Philo, do recognize that the author of the prologue of John’s Gospel shares with Philo a common intellectual tradition of Platonizing interpretation of Genesis chapter one.

Now John does not tarry to reflect on the role of the divine Logos causally prior to creation. But this pre-creation role features prominently in Philo’s Logos doctrine. According to David Runia a cornerstone of Middle Platonism was the bifurcation of the intelligible and sensible realms.[7] To draw the distinction in this way is, however, somewhat misleading.[8] The fundamental distinction here, as originally found in Plato, is between the realm of static being (ti to on aei) and the realm of temporal becoming (ti to gignomenon aei). The former realm is to be grasped by the intellect, whereas the latter is perceived by the senses. The realm of becoming was comprised primarily of physical objects, while the static realm of being was comprised of what we would today call abstract objects. For Middle Platonists, as for Plato, the intelligible world (kosmos noétos) served as a model for the creation of the sensible world. But for a Jewish monotheist like Philo, the realm of Ideas does not exist independently of God but as the contents of His mind. The divine Logos may be thought of as either the divine mind which forms the intelligible world or, more reductively, as the kosmos noétos itself. Although references to this role of the Logos are frequent in Philo,[9] the fullest exposition of his doctrine comes in his On the Creation of the World according to Moses:

God, because He is God, understood in advance that a fair copy would not come into existence apart from a fair model, and that none of the objects of sense-perception would be without fault, unless it was modeled on the archetypal and intelligible idea. When he had decided to construct this visible cosmos, he first marked out the intelligible cosmos, so that he could use it as an incorporeal and most god-like paradigm and so produce the corporeal cosmos, a younger likeness of an older model, which would contain as many sense-perceptible kinds as there were intelligible kinds in that other one. To declare or suppose that the cosmos composed of the ideas exists in some place is not permissible. How it has been constituted we will understand if we pay careful attention to an image drawn from our own world. When a city is founded, in accordance with the high ambition of a king or a ruler who has laid claim to supreme power and, because he is at the same time magnificent in his conception, adds further adornment to his good fortune, it can happen that a trained architect comes forward. Having observed both the favourable climate and location of the site, he first designs in his mind a plan of virtually all the parts of the city that is to be completed—temples, gymnasia, public offices, market-places, harbours, shipyards, streets, construction of walls, the establishment of other buildings both private and public. Then, taking up the imprints of each object in his own soul like in wax, he carries around the intelligible city as an image in his head. Summoning up the images by means of his innate power of memory and engraving their features even more distinctly in his mind, he begins, like a good builder, to construct the city out of stones and timber, looking at the model and ensuring that the corporeal objects correspond to each of the incorporeal ideas. The conception we have concerning God must be similar to this, namely that when he had decided to found the great cosmic city, he first conceived its outlines. Out of these he composed the intelligible cosmos, which served him as a model when he also completed the sense-perceptible cosmos. Just as the city that was marked out beforehand in the architect had no location outside, but had been engraved in the soul of the craftsman, in the same way the cosmos composed of the ideas would have no other place than the divine Logos who gives these (ideas) their ordered disposition. After all, what other place would there be for his powers sufficient to receive and contain, I do not speak about all of them, but just a single one of them in its unmixed state? If you would wish to use a formulation that has been stripped down to essentials, you might say that the intelligible cosmos is nothing else than the Logos of God as He is actually engaged in making the cosmos. For the intelligible city too is nothing else than the reasoning of the architect as he is actually engaged in the planning the foundation of the city (On the Creation of the World 16-20; 24).

Especially noteworthy is Philo’s insistence that the world of ideas cannot exist anywhere but in the divine Logos. Just as the ideal architectural plan of a city exists only in the mind of the architect, so the world of ideas exists solely in the mind of God. Since time, for Philo, has a beginning at creation, the formation of the intelligible realm in the divine mind should probably be thought of as timeless and as explanatorily prior to God’s creation of the sensible realm.

On Philo’s doctrine, then, there is no realm of independently existing abstract objects. While not part of the created realm, “the kosmos noétos, though eternal and unchanging, must be considered dependent for its existence on God.”[10]

Given the close similarity of the Logos doctrine of the Johannine prologue to Philo’s doctrine, it is not at all impossible that the author of the prologue was not unaware of the relation of the Logos to the realm of ideas. If he took the realm of created things to include only concrete objects subject to temporal becoming, that is only because abstract entities were not thought to be independently existing objects external to God and therefore not a challenge to God’s aseity. Interested as he is in the incarnation of the Logos, John does not linger over the pre-creatorial function of the Logos; but given the provenance of the Logos doctrine, he may well have been aware of the role of the Logos in grounding the intelligible realm as well as his role in creating the realm of temporal concrete objects.

The most plausible conclusion of our exegetical study is that the author of the prologue of John’s Gospel conceives of God as the creator of everything apart from Himself. This is clear if we accept the majority verdict on the punctuation of v. 3. But even if we do adopt the minority position and take John’s quantifiers to be tacitly restricted to concrete objects in the realm of temporal becoming, still the intelligible realm of ideas was not thought to be a realm of independent objects existing co-eternally with and apart from God. Rather these were ideas in the mind of God, the divine Logos. The most persuasive reason for adopting the minority reading of v. 3 is thus, ironically, also grounds for thinking that in the author’s view there is no realm of independently existing abstract objects. Obviously, John, unlike Philo, does not explicitly teach divine conceptualism. But it is plausible that John, like Philo, took God to be the sole uncreated entity and the Creator of all else that exists.

  • [1]

     Bruce M. Metzger, A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament (London: United Bible Societies, 1971), p. 195.

  • [2]

     Ibid., p. 196.

  • [3]

     For references see Gregory E. Stirling, “‘Day One’: Platonizing Exegetical Traditions of Genesis 1:1-5 in John and Jewish Authors,” paper presented at the Philo section of the Society of Biblical Literature, San Antonio, Texas, November 20-23, 2004. The Logos appears already in the work of Antiochus of Ascalon and Eudores, two of the earliest Middle Platonists.

  • [4]

     See, e.g., Jutta Leonhardt-Balzer, “Der Logos und die Schöpfung: Steiflichter bei Philo (Op 20-25) und im Johannesprolog (Joh 1, 1-18)” in Kontexte des Johannesevangeliums, ed. Jörg Frey und Udo Schnelle, WUNT 175 (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2004), p. 318.

  • [5]

     D. T. Runia, Philo of Alexandria and the “Timaeus” of Plato (Amsterdam: Free University of Amsterdam, 1983), pp. 140-3; Stirling, “ ‘Day One’.”

  • [6]

     Runia provides the following list: Allegorical Interpretation [Legum allegoriae] 3. 9; On the Cherubim 28; On the Sacrifices of Abel and Cain [De sacrificiis Abelis et Caini] 8; On the Unchangeableness of God [Quod Deus sit immutabilis] 57; On the Confusion of Tongues [De confusione liguarum] 62; On the Migration of Abraham [De migrationi Abrahami] 6; On Flight and Finding [De fuga et inventione] 12; 95; On Dreams 2.45; The Special Laws [De specialibus legibus] 1.81.

  • [7]

     Runia, Plato and the “Timaeus,” p. 68. The locus classicus of the distinction was Plato’s Timaeus 27d5-28a4, which is in turn cited by Apuleius De Platone et eius dogmate 193; Nichomachus Introductio arithmetica 1. 2. 1; Numenius fr. 7; Justin Martyr Dialogue with Trypho 3. 5; Sextus Empiricus Adversus mathematicos 7. 142.

  • [8]

     None of Runia’s texts draws the distinction at issue as fundamentally intelligible vs. sensible; rather it is being vs. becoming. The problem with the former characterization of the distinction is that it seems to leave no place of immaterial concreta like intelligences, angels, or souls. Given that the intelligible realm exists in the mind of God, such beings cannot be classed as part of the intelligible realm. They must be part of the sensible realm, which is thus more accurately described as the realm of concrete objects subject to becoming.

  • [9]

     E.g., Allegorical Interpretation 3. 96; On the Migration of Abraham 6; On Flight and Finding 12; On Dreams 1. 75; 2. 45; The Special Laws 1. 81; On the Confusion of Tongues 60-3; 172.


  • [10]

     Runia, Plato and the “Timaeus,” p. 138.

- William Lane Craig