Ostler’s approach suffers from many problems. First, it is a critical mistake to appeal to etymology to determine word meaning. For example, the word “nice” is derived from the Latin word nescius, which means “ignorant.”[i] The etymology of a word is not a statement of its meaning but rather its history.[ii] Second, the word bara is never associated with pre-existing material such as God forming man from the dust of the earth or an artist creating, but rather bara is used exclusively to represent divine activity.[iii] God is always the subject of bara for any OT reference when one might expect that if forming was all God did, the same word would be used for other agents as well. Ostler also appeals to medieval Jewish commentators in the Middle Ages[iv] (without listing one) who interpreted God as forming using existing material, yet fails to inform the reader that these same individuals held a two-step view of creation — one in which God creates everything and then prepares it for human habitation.[v] This was also the view of Irenaeus and Augustine.
When Ostler addresses the NT evidence for creation ex nihilo, he appeals to 2 Peter 3:5 as evidence against creation ex nihilo, which reports that “the earth was formed out of water and by water.” The context of this verse is important as it is difficult to fathom that Peter would suggest that God creates ex aquis.[vi] Peter is making a parallel between God creating (possibly meaning organizing by separating the waters below and above) and the destruction caused by the flood (waters) in verse 6, which states, “By these waters also the world of that time was deluged and destroyed.” In any case, even if one were to concede Ostler’s point, from Proverbs 8:24 it is clear that the “deep” did not always exist, thus pointing to a two-step view of creation.
Ostler’s consistent approach to other NT passages is to deny that things that are invisible do not exist, i.e. he claims that eternal matter was invisible and was used by God to form the universe and then became visible. He calls attention to that fact that when NT writers refer to invisible things (such as Colossians 1:16 or Hebrews 11:3), they presuppose their ontological existence. Thus, these invisible things exist as a potentiality, which God uses to create visible things. Ostler explains, “God calls to ‘that which did not yet exist’ and it obeys him!”[vii] This is quite creative (in an ex nihilo sense) of Ostler, for one wonders what invisible matter is. Is it an idea in the mind of God as a potentiality? If so, then he seems to be affirming creation ex nihilo. In any case, Ostler’s arguments fail. Similarly to the OT, the NT writers clearly presupposed creation ex nihilo.
Third, I will focus on the philosophical evidence for creation ex nihilo by proving that the universe began to exist. This premise, if shown to be true, demonstrates that God created whatever exists including matter, i.e. creation ex nihilo.[viii] Craig establishes the truth of this premise by distinguishing an actual infinite from a potential infinite. A potential infinite is one that is not yet infinite but is counting toward the infinite. An example is our eternal existence in that we have a starting point, and (assuming we have a future in heaven) our existence will continue forever, yet at every point we will have a finite existence while climbing limitlessly toward infinity. On the other hand, an actual infinity is a fully formed completed unity such as the set of natural numbers.[ix] If the universe or matter is eternal, then it follows that the temporal series of past physical events would be an actual infinite, so that the philosophical argument is to demonstrate that an actual infinite cannot exist. The argument can be formulated as follows:
- An actual infinite cannot exist.
- An infinite temporal regress of events is an actual infinite.
- Therefore an infinite temporal regress of events cannot exist.[x]
It is important to note that when one says an actual infinite cannot exist, this means it cannot “have an extra-mental existence” or “be instantiated in the real world.” For instance, Pegasus exists in our mind and we can conceptualize a horse with wings, but Pegasus does not exist in the real world. Modern set theory allows for infinites to exist as a universe of discourse in a conceptual manner, but this does not dictate that infinites actually exist in our real world. As an example, we know mathematically that when we subtract five from three, we get the answer of negative two. But this doesn’t work for material things. For example, suppose Jack has three apples and that Jill takes five apples from him; how many apples does Jack have left? Negative two? No. Obviously in the real world Jill cannot take more apples from Jack than he has. Negative numbers work in a conceptual mathematical world and can have applicability to the real world, but negative things cannot exist in the real world.
Craig uses several examples to confirm the absurdities that would prevail if an infinity did exist in reality. One example is from the great German mathematician David Hilbert who demonstrated the paradoxical nature of a hotel that had an infinite number of rooms. Hilbert’s hotel can have half the guests check out and through shifting of guests, can be full again. Other bizarre consequences occur in this hotel as well (see Appendix A). A typical layman response is that we do not really understand the nature of infinity, such that these absurdities result. But as Craig explains, “Infinite set theory is a highly developed and well-understood branch of mathematics, so these absurdities can be seen to result precisely because we do understand the notion of a collection with an actually infinite number of members.”[xi]
Ostler attempts to answer Craig’s argument in various sources. One objection by Ostler is that Hilbert’s Hotel is not analogous for the type of infinity involved with a beginningless past, since all the past events are not present as the rooms are and because time cannot be shifted around like the guests can.[xii] But, Ostler is mistaken about Craig’s intent in this example such that Ostler is attempting to rebut points #1, 2, and 3 together (above). The Hilbert’s Hotel example is only meant to prove point #1, which is that an actual infinite cannot exist. Once we show this, we can apply this proof to other examples, such as guests in a hotel, or books in a library or an infinite temporal regress of events.
Ostler, following philosopher Graham Oppy, also laments that if Copan and Craig claim actual infinites are coherent in the mathematical realm, they must also really be possible.[xiii] Craig responds to Ostler (as he did to Oppy previously) that this objection conflates strict logical possibility with broad logical possibility. Copan and Craig affirm “Cantorian set theory is internally consistent; but that says nothing about whether actual infinites are metaphysically possible, that is to say, whether there is a possible world containing actually infinites.”[xiv]
Most of Ostler’s attacks are simple repetitions of the arguments of others (Graham Oppy, Wes Morriston, Quentin Smith) to address Craig’s arguments, which have been answered, such that Craig challenges, “Mormon philosophers cannot rest content with merely citing authorities but must be willing to get their hands dirty by grappling with the arguments.”[xv]
Thankfully, Ostler does put up one argument for the existence of an infinite universe:
It seems that no matter how far back in time one goes to any particular past moment, it is logically possible that the world existed at that moment. But how large is the series or collection of moments at which it is possible that the world existed? The number certainly appears to be unlimited or infinite. But if the collection of times at which it is possible that the world exists is infinite, it follows that it is coherent to assert that the world is infinitely old.[xvi]
This example means to show that if we regress in time to any time point in the finite past, it is possible that there could have been an earlier moment that a possible universe existed. The next step in the argument claims that if there are infinitely other possible worlds with longer and longer finite pasts, then one with an infinite past would exist. Copan and Craig point out the logical fallacy Ostler commits by assuming there must be an infinitieth number just because one can count higher and higher finite numbers.[xvii] This also seems to confuse a potential infinite with an actual infinite such that Ostler’s example could be constructed instead to moving forward in time, much like counting the natural numbers, so that one can never reach infinity, but can continue without limit.[xviii]
Oster’s rebuttals fail against premise one of Craig’s argument that an actual infinite cannot exist. Although infinities can exist in the conceptual realm of mathematics, this does nothing to prove their ontological existence. Assuming premises two and three, which seems self-evident, it follows that the universe had a beginning at some finite time in the past, i.e. began to exist. The philosophical evidence points toward a creation ex nihilo.
[i] Paul Copan and William Lane Craig, Creation Out of Nothing: A Biblical, Philosophical, and Scientific Exploration (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Academic, 2004), 50.
[ii] James Barr, The Semantics of Biblical Language (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1961), 109.
[iii] Paul Copan and William Lane Craig, Creation Out of Nothing: A Biblical, Philosophical, and Scientific Exploration, 51-53.
[iv] 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”, 13.
[v] Paul Copan, “Creation Ex Nihilo or Ex Materia? A Critique of the Mormon Doctrine of Creation”, 32-54.
[vii] 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”, 34.
[viii] For our purposes it is not relevant to pursue other ways the universe could have come into existence uncaused as Mormons would not assert this. Also, “began to exist” assumes the universe or all that there is (including matter) did not exist before, thus God must have created it “out of nothing.” Mormon philosophers would agree on this point, therefore they argue against premise two of this argument. Obviously, they do not use the kalam cosmological arguments in support of God’s existence.
[ix] William Lane Craig, The Kalam Cosmological Argument, 67-69.
[x] Ibid, 69.
[xi] Paul Copan and William Lane Craig, “Craftsman or Creator?” in The New Mormon Challenge, 131.
[xiii] Ibid, 9.
[xiv] Paul Copan and William Lane Craig, “Craftsman or Creator?” in The New Mormon Challenge, 134.
[xv] Ibid, 133.
[xvi] Blake T. Ostler, review-essay of Francis J. Beckwith and Stephen E. Parrish, The Mormon Concept of God: A Philosophical Analysis (Lewiston, N.Y: Edwin Mellen, 1991) in FARMS Review of Books 8/2 (1996): 127.
[xvii] Paul Copan and William Lane Craig, “Craftsman or Creator?” in The New Mormon Challenge, 137.
[xviii] Copan and Craig do not point this out, but seems evident to me.