“In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.”[i] From this and other passages, the Bible tells us that God created all things ex nihilo (out of nothing) and orthodox Christianity has always interpreted these verses this way. In other words, God did not use any pre-existing material, but rather the space/time universe came into being simply by divine fiat. But, Mormonism has traditionally taught that God created the universe using eternally existing matter or ex materia. Thus, the Mormon’s God was an Organizer or Shaper of eternal matter and this is what they call creation.
According to Mormon theologians, Christians have imposed the doctrine of creation ex nihilo upon the scriptures and it represents a “theological add-on” influenced by Greek philosophy.[ii] But the Mormons have it backwards. The Old Testament and New Testament writers implicitly assume (and at other times explicitly state) creation ex nihilo. Also, as Christians began to encounter Greek philosophy they engaged and defended creation ex nihilo. The fourth century theologian Athanasius does this when he writes, “Others take the view expressed by Plato, that giant among the Greeks. He said that God had made all things out of pre-existing and uncreated matter… How could God be called Maker and Artificer if His ability depended on some other cause, namely on matter itself? If He only worked on existing matter and did not Himself bring matter into being, He would not be the Creator but only a craftsman.”[iii] So did the patristic fathers imbibe Greek philosophy, or rather, is Mormonism inebriated by it? I will argue that the biblical, philosophical and scientific evidence supports the conclusion that God is not just the universe’s craftsman but its Creator. First, evidence from the Book of Mormon and other Mormon doctrines will be detailed in support of each view. Second, I will demonstrate that the Bible supports creation ex nihilo versus creation ex materia. Third, I will show that philosophical arguments also rule the Mormon position impossible. Fourth, I will provide an inductive argument using the Second Law of Thermodynamics which points to an initial “winding up” of the universe. Last, I will present the theological implications of each view.
Surprisingly, even passages in the Book of Mormon provide some evidence for creation ex nihilo. In Nephi 2:14 we are told, “There is a God, and he hath created all things, both the heavens and the earth, and all things that are in them are.” Also, In Mosiah 4:9, King Benjamin encourages us to “Believe in God; believe that he is, and that he created all things both in heaven and in earth.” Both these passages use similar language (heaven and earth) to Genesis 1:1, which refers to all of reality. Then, Helaman 14:12 describes God as “the Creator of all things from the beginning.” Not only does this suggest God is the creator (not manipulator) but also that there was a beginning rather than an eternal universe. Last, in early sections of the Mormon Doctrines and Covenants there is similar language.[iv]
It is not until the Book of Moses, Joseph Smith’s translation of Genesis, that the notion of creation of ex materia picks up steam. In Moses 3:5,7 it speaks of God creating every human being “spiritually” before they were created physically, although this does not preclude God from creating the spiritual beings previously ex nihilo. The first clearly stated reference to creation ex materia is in Abraham 3:24 where one of the spirits who was “like unto God” said, “We will go down, for there is space there, and we will take of these materials, and we will make an earth whereon these [others] may dwell.” This reference itself also leaves open the possibility that God created the material he utilized ex nihilo, although Mormons would protest.
Then in Doctrines and Covenants 20:17 we read, “By these things we know that there is a God in heaven, who is infinite and eternal, from everlasting the same unchangeable God, the framer of heaven and earth, and all things which in them are.” The word framer points to a God who formed the universe using existing materials, but this raises a few questions for Mormon theology. How is God infinite and eternal, if according to their doctrine, God was once like us and begotten by another God?[v] There is nothing in this passage that explicitly states that matter is eternal and even if it did, what does eternal really mean on a Mormon view considering their view of the eternality of God? In spite of these apparent difficulties, the Encyclopedia of Mormonism asserts that creation is the “organization of pre-existing materials.”[vi]
The Bible, however, reveals that God is ontologically distinct from creation. The Bible discloses that Creation is dependent upon him for continued existence and all reality outside of God did not exist from eternity but began to exist. These two claims constitute the doctrine of creation ex nihilo.
In the Old Testament (OT), the very first words point to creation ex nihilo, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” Although some translations (e.g. NEB, NAB, RSV) have rendered this verse as a construct (“In the beginning of creation, when…”) rather than an absolute beginning, there is strong evidence to the contrary. Paul Copan outlines several of which I will list a few.[vii] First, the phrase “heavens and earth” is a merism that refers to the totality. This rhetorical device is used to represent the whole by referring to the extreme parts or to the first and the last. This is much like the colloquial phrase, “I searched high and low” to indicate that you searched everywhere. Second, the absolute reading of this verse is the oldest view. From Jewish historian Josephus (late 1st century) to Theophilus (180AD) and Pseudo-Justin (220-300AD), all have rendered this verse in an absolute sense with a beginning to the universe. All things being equal, it is better to side with those who were closer to the writers and the Jewish mindset. Because of these and other facts, temporal renderings of Genesis 1:1 are largely rejected.[viii]
Another Old Testament passage is Psalm 146, which uses a similar merism by stating that their hope should be in God “the Maker of heaven and earth, the sea, and everything in them.” This is a sweeping pronouncement that everything is contingent upon God for its existence i.e. everything owes its existence to God who is ontologically necessary. The difference between God (who is everlasting) versus creation (which is temporal and contingent) is emphasized as well in Psalm 102:25-27, “In the beginning you laid the foundations of the earth, and the heavens are the work of your hands. They will perish, but you remain; they will all wear out like a garment. Like clothing you will change them and they will be discarded. But you remain the same, and your years will never end.”
The New Testament (NT) writers continue this distinction between God and creation with the only difference being that Christ is now sharing in the identity of God in the involvement of creation.[ix] I Corinthians 8:6 demonstrates this Christological aspect of creation, “Yet for us there is but one God, the Father, from whom all things came and for whom we live; and there is but one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom all things came and through whom we live.” How can this passage be interpreted as a divine agent using existing material without missing the point of the entire verse? The emphasis Paul makes is that ultimately Christ has authority over all things because he is Creator. If matter is a thing, and it is, then doesn’t this verse teach that matter came through Jesus? Other passages highlight this as well:
- John 1:3: “Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made.”
- Romans 11:36: “For from him and through him and to him are all things.”
- Hebrews 11:3: “By faith we understand that the universe was formed at God’s command, so that what is seen was not made out of what was visible.”
- Colossians 1:16: “For by him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things were created by him and for him.”
In the next verse Paul explicitly states that Christ existed before all things, which must include the universe or any materials used to form the universe: “He is before all things, and in him all things hold together” (Colossians 1:17). To exclude primordial matter from all things is foreign to these passages, which affirm that God is the source, sustainer and telos of all things.
With the strong cumulative biblical evidence, it is relevant to examine how Mormons respond. Blake Ostler, an attorney in Salt Lake City who received a degree in philosophy, appears to be the most qualified (or at least the most outspoken proponent) for the Mormon position of ex materia. In a response to Copan and Craig,[x] Ostler supports the temporal translation of Genesis 1:1, which was addressed above. He also takes issue with the Hebrew word bara as meaning create, but rather meaning “to cut, divide, or separate.”[xi] Ostler sustains this claim by appealing to its etymology (tracing its development or transmission from one language to another) and appealing to other OT Scripture which use bara with other Hebrew words yatsar (made) and asah (made) such as Isaiah 43:7.[xii]
Everyone who is called by my name,
whom I created (bara) for my glory,
whom I formed (yatsar) and made (asah).
Ostler claims these words can be used interchangeably to describe what God has done, such that when God created (bara) the heavens and the earth, he formed them using existing material.
(I will continue next time with my criticism of Ostler)
[i] Genesis 1:1.
[ii] Paul Copan and William Lane Craig, “Craftsman or Creator?” in The New Mormon Challenge, ed. Francis Beckwith, Carol Mosser, and Paul Owen (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 2002), 97.
[iii] Athanasius, De Incarnatione, 2.3-4.
[iv] D&C 14:9  and 45:1 .
[v] Many references to this belief: Joseph Smith (in Times and Seasons, Vol. 5, pages 613-614)said that “First God Himself, who sits enthroned in yonder heaven, is a man like unto one of yourselves, that is the great secret. . .I am going to tell you how God came to be God. We have imagined that God was God from all eternity. . . God himself; the Father of us all dwelt on an earth the same as Jesus Christ himself did, . . .You have go to learn how to be gods yourselves; . . .No man can learn you more than what I have told you.” Mormon Apostle Orson Pratt (in The Seer, page 23) stated, “We (men on earth) were begotten by our father in heaven: the person of our Father in Heaven we begotten on a previous heavenly world by his father; and again, He was begotten by a still more ancient father; and so on.”
[vi] “Creation, Creation Accounts,” Encyclopedia of Mormonism, 340.
[vii] Paul Copan, “Creation Ex Nihilo or Ex Materia? A Critique of the Mormon Doctrine of Creation”, The Southern Baptist Journal of Theology, Summer 2005, 32-54.
[x] Paul Copan and William Lane Craig, “Craftsman or Creator?” in The New Mormon Challenge.
[xi] Blake T. Ostler, “The Doctrine of Creation Ex Nihilo Was Created Out of Nothing: A Response to Copan and Craig. Part 1: The Scriptural Argument” available from www.blakeostler.com; accessed March 12, 2006, 2.
[xii] Ibid, 6-8.