The Mormon Challenge, Part 1: Creation

A piece of creation: the Andromeda Galaxy

A piece of creation: the Andromeda Galaxy

Continuing with my project to actually read the LDS books I buy, I’m now reading The New Mormon Challenge (Zondervan, 2002), a serious book about Mormonism by a bunch of Evangelical scholars, edited by Francis J. Beckwith, Carl Mosser, and Paul Owen. Apart from our mere existence, two things about us really trouble Evangelicals: our relentless growth (which has apparently leveled off since the book was published) and our huge corps of missionaries (which has ballooned since the book was published). We are a threat. That perhaps explains why Evangelicals feel justified in disparaging Mormons from their pulpits, classrooms, and publishing houses. But this book is by academics, not pastors, and is a serious discussion, not a slam. So I was a little disappointed with Chapter 3, the first meaty chapter, which defends ex nihilo creation and critiques the LDS belief in creation out of preexisting but unformed matter.

Chapter 3, “Craftsman or Creator? An Examination of the Mormon Doctrine of Creation and a Defense of Creatio ex nihilo,” is authored by Paul Copan and William Lane Craig. They insist that ex nihilo creation “has been proclaimed by Christians in all centuries and has almost always been understood to mean that God created all things out of nothing (ex nihilo). That is, God did not work with uncreated, preexisting materials but created literally everything by divine fiat” (p. 96). They review Old and New Testament passages, plus various Christian commentators, then conclude: “We have tried to show that the LDS belief that God created the whole world out of eternally preexisting, unorganized material or chaos does not square with the biblical text and that the literature cited by LDS scholars consistently fails to grapple with it. To the contrary, in the Bible we find the doctrine of creation ex nihilo clearly set forth” (p. 126). Throughout the chapter, the impression is given that the view of the authors is the broadly accepted reading of Genesis 1 and the widely accepted Christian view of the doctrine of creation, with the Mormons quite out of step. They go so far as to flip the common LDS charge that the ex nihilo doctrine came into Christianity from Hellenistic philosophy with the claim that “it is the LDS conception of creation that is obviously in line with Greek thought — a variation of neo-Platonic thinking, to be exact,” with supporting references to Plato’s Timaeus.

So I decided to test that claim against a variety of commentaries and reference books in my library. Surprise! They largely endorse the “created out of preexisting matter” reading of Genesis 1 and attribute the Christian view of ex nihilo creation to later post-biblical doctrinal developments. If you want to believe ex nihilo creation, that’s fine, but don’t tell me Mormons are out of line with all other Christians or that the Mormon view misinterprets Genesis. Here are some quotations from my sources.

From Alister McGrath’s Christian Theology: An Introduction (Blackwell, 3rd ed., 2001), pages 297-98, it is clear that creation ex nihilo was not the original Christian view:

The general Greek understanding of the origins of the world could be summarized as follows. God is not to be thought of as having created the world. Rather, God is to be thought of as an architect, who ordered preexistent matter. … This idea was taken up by most Gnostic writers, who were here followed by individual Christian theologians such as Theophilus of Antioch and Justin Martyr. They professed a belief in preexistent matter, which was shaped into the world in the act of creation. In other words, creation was not ex nihilo …. However, the conflict with Gnosticism forced reconsideration of the issue. In part, the idea of creation from preexistent matter was discredited by its Gnostic association; in part, it was called into question by an increasingly sophisticated reading of the Old Testament creation narratives. Reacting against this Platonic worldview, several major Christian writers of the second and third centuries argued that everything had to be created by God.

From the entry “Creation” by J. R. Porter, in the Oxford Guide to the Bible (OUP, 1993), edited by Bruce M. Metzger and Michael D. Coogan:

The biblical accounts of the creation of the world have their background in ancient Near Eastern mythology, in which creation is often depicted as the deity’s victory over the forces of chaos, represented by threatening waters, as a result of which the god is established as a supreme king. A large number of references show that this concept was well-known in Israel also. … Although the watery chaos is still there [in Genesis 1], there is no conflict between it and God, as in the ancient myth. God creates in unfettered freedom by his word or command, and creation is brought about by the separation of the elements of the universe, which produces an ordered and habitable world. Hence creation is not so much dealing with absolute beginning, creation from nothing — though this idea appears later, as in 2 Maccabees 7:28 — as with the world order as perceived by human beings.

From How to Read the Jewish Bible by Marc Zvi Brettler (OUP, 2007), page 41, contrasting order and chaos in the Genesis 1 account of creation:

The opposite of structure is chaos, and it is thus appropriate that 1:1-2 describe primeval chaos — a world that is “unformed and void,” containing darkness and a mysterious wind. This story does not describe creation out of nothing (Latin: creatio ex nihilo). Primeval stuff already exists in verses 1-2, and the text shows no concern for how it originated. Rather, it is a myth about how God alone structured primordial matter into a highly organized world. Only upon its completion is this structure “very good.”

Walter Brueggemann, in An Introduction to the Old Testament: The Canon and Christian Imagination (Westminster John Knox Press, 2003), quotes the first two verses of Genesis from the NRSV (“In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep”) and offers this commentary at page 34:

It is widely agreed that Genesis 1:1-2 constitutes a remarkable premise for creation, namely, that disordered chaos (expressed in Hebrew onomatopoetically as tohu wabohu) was already “there” as God began to create. That is, God did not create “from nothing,” but God’s act of creation consists in the imposition of a particular order upon that mass of undifferentiated chaos. For much of the Bible, the energy of chaos (antiform) continues to operate destructively against the will of the Creator, and sometimes breaks out destructively beyond the bounds set by the decree of the Creator. It is an interesting example of “imaginative remembering” that much later, in 2 Maccabees 7:28, the tradition finally asserts “creation out of nothing,” a view that since then has predominated in later church traditions of theological interpretation.

Finally, here is what John H. Walton says at page 42 of The Lost World of Genesis One: Ancient Cosmology and the Origins Debate (IVP Academic, 2009), reading Genesis 1 as an account of functional rather than material creation:

It has long been observed that in the contexts of bara no materials for the creative act are ever mentioned, and an investigation of all the passages mentioned above [which use the Hebrew word bara] substantiate this claim. How interesting it is that these scholars then draw the conclusion that bara implies creation out of nothing (ex nihilo). One can see with a moment of thought that such a conclusion assumes that “create” is a material activity. To expand their reasoning for clarity’s sake here: Since “create” is a material activity (assumed on their part), and since the contexts never mention the materials used (as demonstrated by the evidence), then the material object must have been brought into existence without using other materials (i.e., out of nothing). But one can see that the whole line of reasoning only works if one can assume that bara is a material activity. In contrast, if, as the analysis of objects presented above suggests, bara is a functional activity, it would be ludicrous to expect that materials are being used in the activity. In other words, the absence of reference to materials, rather than suggesting material creation out of nothing, is better explained by indication that bara is not a material activity but a functional one.

Walton goes on to make an important distinction:”An important caveat must be noted at this point. If we conclude that Genesis 1 is not an account of material origins, we are not thereby suggesting that God is not responsible for material origins. I fully believe that God is fully responsible for material origins, and that, in fact, material origins do involve at some point creation out of nothing. But that theological question is not the one we are asking. We are asking a textual question: What sort of origins account do we find in Genesis 1?” Yes, it is best to avoid confusing theological reasoning with textual interpretation.

No doubt some readers have other other sources they can pull off their own shelves to consult. My point is that, in fact, creation from preexisting matter is widely endorsed by biblical scholars as the proper textual reading of Genesis 1. Furthermore, creation ex nihilo is not widely viewed as how the Hebrew Bible was originally read or understood. That was a later Christian innovation that did not appear until well into the second century at the earliest. So the idea that the LDS view is based on a textual misreading of Genesis 1 and is out of step with the broad Christian view is simply misleading. Worse, in this case it appears to be intentionally misleading: the authors are certainly aware of the wider scholarly views of the issue (which I sampled above) but gave no indication in the chapter that their Evangelical view of the text and doctrine are not shared by the larger community of Christian scholars.

So: -1 for William Lane Craig and for the credibility of The New Mormon Challenge. Let’s see if later chapters can do any better.

Note: After writing up this post, I looked up Blake Ostler’s review (actually, three reviews) of the same chapter. He does compliment the book for serious engagement with LDS beliefs (“The authors are pioneers in the sense that they take seriously modern Mormons and how we portray our own beliefs”) but rejects, in considerably more detail than my brief review, the arguments of the authors in favor of ex nihilo creation. Here is a paragraph summarizing Blake’s critique, which I agree with on all points:

I argue that each of their arguments is a seriously flawed. I begin by showing that Copan and Craig (hereafter “C&C”) have misread the Mormon scriptures and failed to even consider the strongest scriptures against their view. I argue that there are compelling reasons to support the view of the majority of biblical scholars that the Bible teaches creation out of a pre-existing chaos. I next argue that C&C have seriously misrepresented the biblical data to read into it their doctrine of absolutist creation. I add that their argument that the doctrine of creation ex nihilo was not a philosophical development is uninformed and fails to grasp the essential distinctions necessary to make sense of the doctrine as it developed in Patristic theology. I show why the vast majority of scholars agree that the doctrine of creatio ex nihilo was first formulated around 200 A.D. in arguments with the gnostics, Stoics and the Middle Platonists.

21 comments for “The Mormon Challenge, Part 1: Creation

  1. I think what we see is Evangelicals representing Evangelical views and performing Evangelical boundary maintenance. The Ex Nihilo question is exactly why I have problems with the ESV Study Bible. On the Logos boards (support of the electronic publishing company, which is expanding away from narrow Evangelicalism but still has a vocal group there), I tried to raise this in discussion of study Bibles. My first comment as “Ben” at the bottom of this page.

    Watch the responses.

  2. Ben, something about browsing that thread made me realize that I want a study Book of Mormon. But if someone produced one, I’m not sure I’d be happy with what I got (see your comments on study bibles that just recycle dogma).

    Dave, thanks for tackling this. On one hand, I really want my religion’s claims to at least have some historical roots. On the other hand, I realize that some (most?) of the time, doctrines don’t line up with what ancient people actually thought or even really have any textual basis at all (at least in terms of the prooftexts we use to support them). It’s no surprise to me that Mormons and Evangelicals are both really invested in this whole “our position is the actual (or at least “an actual”) ancient/original Christian position” even though sometimes we don’t really care what’s in the text or supported by history.

  3. Dave, this is great and makes me want to pull up my socks and try harder.

    Abu, the “study Book of Mormon” can just be done in your head or you can do your own. The recent posts right here show how many different ways we can approach it. I mean, who ever thought you could do a “Rabbinical Approach” to the Book of Mormon. (Beholding the Tree of Life by Bradley Kramer, Kofford Books, 2014).

    I’ve loved the NMC ever since before it came out when I read, “Losing the Battle and Not Knowing It” (just Google for a pdf.) for the first time. It will open a lot of eyes for those who haven’t seen it yet. I agree with Blake Ostler about it, the authors are respectful in their scholarship.

  4. The problem with the ESV is the same problem Lou Midgley identified in this classic review of an LDS Book of Mormon commentary.

    “Though the Book of Mormon is lavishly celebrated in Doctrinal Commentary, at times in almost worshipful language, these volumes seem to rest on the assumption that the teachings found therein are really shallow or incomplete versions of the real thing. Since the focus is on what the Saints now believe–on Mormon doctrines or on setting forth a dogmatic theology for Mormons, such a thing can be approached more adequately through other and especially through more recent pronouncements. But given their narrow focus and obvious hostility to any other kind of literature on the Book of Mormon, these books constitute a compendium of materials one might already find being repeated, according to their authors, in sermons in Church meetings generally, as well as lessons in “Sunday School and other classes” (1:xv). That is not seen as a limitation, but is given as a justification for the entire endeavor. “

  5. This post seems to gloss over – no, entirely avoid – the elephant in the room with creation: the Big Bang. Evidence for an expanding universe that began from something much smaller and hotter, even infinitely so, is overwhelming.

    Traditional Christianity accommodates this easily: God lit the fuse. But I’m not sure what to make of our LDS position. If God merely reorganized existing matter, then did matter predate God? It would seem so, given our material conception of God who was once like us). But in this view, who then lit the fuse? Someone else? Made of what?

    These are the questions no one seems to address. Hopefully you will in a follow up post.

  6. Do we really think that, by parsing a few words from ancient passages of scripture—texts that have been subjected to frequent editing and that are little more than man’s feeble attempt to convey in his language an impression he once had that may or may not have been divinely inspired—we will have any idea as to how God created the universe??

    I attach no more credibility to the LDS point of view on this issue than I do the ex nihilo theory advanced by certain Evangelicals. Both are little more than speculation.

    Though I am Mormon, I have learned, through sad experience, that when church leaders speak on matters outside their primary areas of stewardship and expertise, they are right about as often as they are wrong. So, until somebody comes up with an explanation better than the current Big Bang/Expanding Universe Theory, I’m sticking with it, Elder Nelson’s derision notwithstanding.

    Having said this, I concur with David’s criticism of “The New Mormon Challenge” on this issue. He has persuasively demonstrated that the LDS perspective is not unique among Christian faiths. I sure hope the authors did better in the other chapters of their book.

  7. FarSide, the big bang is essentially the scientific equivalent of ex-nihilism. “In the beginning, there was nothing, which exploded.” I would trust Elder Nelson’s wisdom on that one.

    Also, for what it’s worth, somebody has come up with a better explanation than big bang. The electric universe/plasma cosmology movement is on the right path, based on actual observation and prediction, rather than theoretical math acrobatics. There were many on the right track in the late 1800s like Kristian Birkeland and many others, until the glam of the nuclear age and theoretical math replaced real science. Check out the Thunderbolts Project youtube channel, particularly Wal Thornhill:

  8. Here’s why I love this blog: because cryptic musings of apostate priests from 18 centuries ago are way more worthy of discussion than the consensus views of tens of thousands of living scientists that are based on actual observational data. Go, Clemente of Alexandria, go!

  9. PP, you’re asking the wrong questions of Genesis 1. It’s not a scientific account, so the question of whether ex nihilo or creation from pre-existing materials as it’s supported by the text simply isn’t the right one to ask. The ancient Hebrews weren’t writing a scientific (much less pre-scientific) text describing the details of creation. T&S’s own Ben S has written about this (here:

  10. The Big Bang does not start with “nothing,” but with everything collapsed into an infinitely dense, infinitely small “something,” a singularity. The Big Bang is not ex nihilo.

    Scientific knowledge is neither the only kind of knowing, nor the only kind that matters.

  11. Annoyed – Several straw men are quite upset at you this morning. You are right in everything you’ve said. But how did matter get formed? Who lit the Big Bangs fuse? Our current LDS conception of creation leaves many of the great questions unanswered, just as science itself does. Perhaps these mysteries are just not meant to be known by us. Or perhaps they are, and we have to contine to ask questions and to try to find answers to them.

  12. PP, I don’t see the Big Bang as supporting Ex Nihilo. Ex Nihilo means that God created the world out of nothing (and possibly instantly). Then Joseph Smith comes a long and says that the world was formed out of preexisting matter. So following the Big Bang timeline a whole lot of matter and energy started exploding out of some point at the same time. Then there was a whole lot of unorganized matter. Then after billions of years the unorganized matter started to form into galaxy’s, stars, planets, etc.
    So I find the Big Bang theory supporting the LDS doctrine of the Earth being formed out of existing unorganized matter, way more than it does Ex Nihilo.

  13. @annoyed former astronomy nerd, A singularity is not a physical entity but a mathematical failure. Technically the the primary version of the theory involved existing matter, but for all intents and purposes it the big bang is practically equivalent to ex nihilo.

    Contemporary Astrophsyics in a nutshell is the very definition of ‘ever learning, but never able to come to a knowledge of the truth:’

    1 – Armchair theorizing and computer modeling have replaced actual inquiry and testing based on far superior observation tools.

    2 – Band-aid assumption stuck on top of other bandaids to patch up falsified hypothesis

    3 – Photoshop Artists to create imagery that can’t be seen in the space in spite of amazing imagery technology.

    If one was an unbiased observer that came to visit our society, it would look a lot like Galileo’s right now.

  14. Jader3rd – You and I are proceeding from different understandings of what “ex nihilo” means. For example, I believe plenty of Christians who are also scientists believe that, in the beginning, God was, and that He created all matter, energy, and physical laws designed to govern His creation. God would have preceded all matter, including the Big Bang (which was a result of the laws He created). Everything exists because God made it. This is what I mean by ex nihilo being consistent with the Big Bang.

    Our current LDS teachings aren’t necessarily inconsistent with the Big Bang. Its entirely possible to imagine the Big Bang occurring, and then having God organize the worlds. Its just that this “explanation” does not explain how energy or matter came into being, or why the Big Bang occurred, or how the laws of the universe came about. Other Christians at least say, “God did it.” If not God, then who or what?

    Ultimately, science has not answered what created matter/energy/physical law, and no religion that I know explains what created God (or the infinite regress of Gods one can imagine in our theology).

  15. Cosmologist here. I think LDS people would be wise to be careful how hard they push an anti-“ex nihilo” stance. More and more cosmologists are being convinced that the universe must have had finite past with “nothing” proceeding it.

    Mathematical theorems such as this one suggest that it is impossible for a universe such as ours to have anything other than an finite past.

    Then there are philosophical arguments such as the observation that an infinite universe would have infinite entropy making life impossible.

    Thus every prominent cosmologist including atheists are trying to explain the universe as coming from “nothing” because this seems like the most viable reality.

    That said, it could be all these theorems and people are wrong. However, it would be most unfortunate if we back ourselves into a corner defending the hill of an un-canonized position when we there was no absolute reason to. This is not the atonement or something crucial like that.

    Thus I think it would be wise for LDS people to say that Mormonism is compatible either way.

    PS. Cameron is right: singularities are probably not physical but instead mathematical failings. Also, I keep putting “nothing” in quotes because what “nothing” means at the universe’s finite-ago origins is still unclear. But since it might be a nothing in the ex nihilo sense… I urge caution.

  16. The false doctrine of creation from nothing is helpful in supporting other false doctrines such as that God is immaterial and that the vast gap between His nature and ours can never be bridged. As Dave has pointed out, this ex-nihilo idea did not originate in the Bible, but rather from scholars trying to accommodate Christian belief to man-made philosophies. The Bible was first revealed for people like the Christmas shepherds–people with far less scientific knowledge than we now have. Where it suggests God created everything, for the early readers this everything could be no more than the earth, the solar system, and the few thousand stars visible to the naked eye. By today’s scientific understanding these were all created from thin clouds of already existing matter.
    Wise men of today may enjoy going beyond the creation stories of the scriptures and speculating on the origin of the universe and a possible Big Bang, but in our personal religious lives I think the shepherds view is enough. They found Christ long before the wise men did.

  17. All these discussion would be over, if LDS Church leaders simply stated (again) that there is no discrepancy between true science and true religion. Whether the Big Bang is ex nihilo or not doesn’t seem like a real productive discussion. You either believe that God help create the universe or He didn’t. Let science work out the details.

  18. I agree with the author’s conclusion, but would add that the creation story is a spiritual text, not to be taken as a literal retelling of actual events.

  19. Re. #16 (and a number of PP’s questions on who lit the fuse), I don’t think LDS cosmology, unformed as it is, is incompatible with the notion that there might once have been a beginning. It certainly isn’t incompatible with the notion that our Creation and our Heavenly Father may not be that beginning; i.e., there may once have been a Heavenly G’G'[G’…]-Grandfather who lit the fuse, and our God organized our Creation out of the Legos lying on the rec room floor.

    It would be the height of irony if, in our quest to refute those who argue for a narrow literal interpretation of Scripture, we ourselves apply a narrow interpretation of it or (as Fred implies above) make the mistake of thinking it a scientific treatise rather than an ancient myth, in the sociological sense.

  20. Another possibility is suggested by Moses 1: 35, 40, wherein God tells Moses that He is only giving Moses knowledge about the formation of our earth. Thus, to the extent that Genesis has any relation to physical history, it would only be to the formation of our solar system and planet, which according to current scientific views occurred only 4 to 5 billion years ago, long after the proposed date of the Big Bang event over 13 billion years ago. In this view Genesis says nothing about the origins of the universe. It might be further noted that this is how the biblical creation account is used in the temple – referencing only the formation of our solar system and planet, not the entire universe.

    Also, as long as we are playing amateur cosmology here, note that many modern cosmologists are becoming more persuaded that something did exist before the Big Bang, and that our universe is embedded in a larger “multiverse.” Given the pace at which scientific cosmological thinking is changing, it is probably wise not to rely too much on such thinking to support either view in the ex nihilo debate.

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