Creatio ex nihilo: A Critique of the Mormon Doctrine of Creation

Introduction

In an article entitled “Creatio ex nihilo: A Critique of the Mormon Doctrine of Creation”, published by Reasonable Faith, William Lane Craig offers “A critique of the Mormon doctrine of the eternity of matter in light of philosophy and science.” 1 Parts of the article are also featured in the book, The New Mormon Challenge.  

Any attempt to define or refute Mormon doctrine suffers difficulty as explained by David L. Paulsen:

While Mormons recognise four ‘standard works’… as scripture and believe in a resumption of prophetic revelation (via Joseph Smith and his successors), they have no creeds… And while Mormons do share many doctrinal beliefs… they have nothing like clear consensus, let alone an official Church position, on most of the views attributed to them. 2   

The debate between creatio ex nihilo and creatio ex materia is not a debate between “Mormons” and “Christians”, but is an ongoing debate among all even within mainstream Christianity. As an example, along with many others the theologian and christian philosopher Thomas Jay Oord (professor at Northwest Nazarene University) argues that Christians should reject creatio ex nihilo and offers several reasons including:

  • Theoretical problem: absolute nothingness cannot be conceived.
  • Historical problem: Creatio ex nihilo was first proposed by Gnostics – Basilides and Valentinus – who assumed that creation was inherently evil and that God does not act in history. It was adopted by early Christian theologians to affirm the kind of absolute divine power that many Christians – especially Wesleyans – now reject.
  • Empirical problem: We have no evidence that our universe originally came into being from absolutely nothing.
  • Creation at an instant problem: We have no evidence in the history of the universe after the big bang that entities can emerge instantaneously from absolute nothingness. Out of nothing comes nothing (ex nihilo, nihil fit).
  • Biblical problem: Scripture – in Genesis, 2 Peter, and elsewhere – suggests creation from something (water, deep, chaos, invisible things, etc.), not creation from absolutely nothing 3

Blake Ostler has commented on the particular arguments as formulated in the New Mormon Challenge:

…it is not just Latter-day Saints who argue that the doctrine of creatio ex nihilo is essentially a philosophical innovation dating from the end of the second century AD that was not contained in scripture—it is the accepted view of virtually every scholar who has reviewed the evidence at length, except Copan and Craig.

It seems to me, therefore, that Copan and Craig have overstated their case. They speak in their essay and book as if anyone who disagrees with them is simply in error and ignorant of the facts, heedless of the overwhelming number of respected scholars who do in fact disagree. 4

With this in mind, we are able to review the article “Creatio ex nihilo: A Critique of the Mormon Doctrine of Creation” in the correct context. The article is split into several sections which will be reviewed below.

Biblical Arguments (for creatio ex nihilo)

The article states:

…it is a serious distortion to portray the doctrine of creation out of nothing as a purely post-biblical phenomenon, as Mormonism does…the biblical data indicate that God was in some way prior to all that is (i.e., there was a state in which God existed and nothing else), which is the basis for the doctrine creatio ex nihilo. Just as the doctrine of the Trinity is clearly found within Scripture (despite the fact that Arianism later flourished) though it was not formulated until Tertullian’s time, so the doctrine of creation out of nothing is biblical (despite the flourishing of Middle Platonist thought and its influence on Jewish and Christian thinkers) even though it was clearly articulated and expanded upon in the latter part of the second century. 5

There are many scriptures which can be included as part of a Biblical assessment for and against creatio ex nihilo, therefore without having to conduct a thorough examination, suffice as to say that the Bible does not provide an unambiguous argument for or against creatio ex nihilo. However there are many scriptural references that imply that God created through pre-existing material rather than an inconceivable nothingness, such as 2 Peter 3:5

But they deliberately forget that long ago by God’s word the heavens came into being and the earth was formed out of water and by water. 

As an example of an argument against creatio ex nihilo, see the essay by Ellen Van Wolde “Why the Verb ‘ bara’ Does Not Mean ‘to Create’ in Genesis 1.1-2.4a” in the Journal for the Study of the Old Testament

Blake Ostler commented:

The New Testament does not teach creation ex nihilo. On the contrary, 2 Peter 3:5–6 expressly teaches that God created out of the already existing chaotic waters, Hebrews 11:3 expressly teaches that God created the visible world from the already existing invisible world, and Romans 4:17 teaches that God created from an already existing substrate 6

For an in-depth analysis, see the following articles/essays:

Theological Arguments (for creatio ex nihilo)

The article states:

…there is good warrant for asserting that the doctrine of creation out of nothing was not itself constructed ex nihilo by second-century Christian theologians; this view was held by Jewish and Christian writers alike prior to this time. It is, rather, the LDS view which is found to be incompatible with Scripture. 7

James N. Hubler has commented:

Creatio ex nihilo appeared suddenly in the latter half of the second century c.e. Not only did creatio ex nihilo lack precedent, it stood in firm opposition to all the philosophical schools of the Greco-Roman world. As we have seen, the doctrine was not forced upon the Christian community by their revealed tradition, either in Biblical texts or the Early Jewish interpretation of them. As we will also see it was not a position attested in the New Testament doctrine or even subapostolic writings. It was a position taken by the apologists of the late second century, Tatian and Theophilus, and developed by various ecclesiastical writers thereafter, by Irenaeus, Tertullian, and Origen. Creatio ex nihilo represents an innovation in the interpretive traditions of revelation and cannot be explained merely as a continuation of tradition. 8

Argument (for creatio ex nihilo) from the Impossibility of an Actual Infinite

The argument is formulated as follows:

1. An actual infinite cannot exist.

2. An infinite temporal regress of events is an actual infinite.

3. Therefore an infinite temporal regress of events cannot exist. 9

The argument is valid but regarding premise 1 should be rejected, James E. Faulconer has said:

As The Encyclopedia of Philosophy article “Infinity in Mathematics and Logic” points out much of Georg Cantor’s theory of the “actual infinite” is now almost universally accepted by philosophers of mathematics and logic the burden of proof therefore lies with (those) who want to say that the infinite can only be potential. 10

Atheist Quentin Smith said of an actual infinity:

Cantor, in the late 19th century, proved it was consistent and it was accepted by mathematicians and is in part of physics ever since the beginning of the 20th century its been part of Einstein’s theory, special theory, the general theory of relativity, Friedmann’s Big Bang cosmology, and you have to say that in that case all of 20th century science is all false because I have this philosophical belief…that there can’t be an actual infinite.

The very fact that those theories which require…continuing infinities to construct and that they are verified by observations, that is very high empirical evidence that the world does have an actual infinite. 11

Argument (for creatio ex nihilo) from the Impossibility of the Successive Formation of an Actual Infinite

The argument is formulated as follows:

1. The temporal series of events is a collection formed by successive addition.

2. A collection formed by successive addition cannot be an actual infinite.

3. Therefore, the temporal series of events cannot be an actual infinite. 12

Regarding premise 1, James E. Faulconer has said:

This question of whether time is created by addition – in other words whether it is a countable set – is a complex philosophical issue but in addition to the philosophical arguments that have been made that it is not, I think the intuitive answer to the question is no. Time does not appear to be a set of discrete moments added to one another though any individual’s history is.

Any history, any collection of events added to each other would seem to require a beginning but it does not follow that time must begin. Time is not formed by the addition of one moment of time to another, for there seem to be no such things as moments of time except in reflection in designating events and gathering them into a set. And even if there were such moments, the addition of one moment to the next could only itself take place in time. In addition to seeming to be factually false, the belief that time is formed by the addition of one moment to the next begs the question of the nature of time. 

Beside the question of whether time is created by addition, the question remains whether time is a collection – a set – of any kind. Briefly, to assume that time is a set is to assume that there is something exterior to time, something that, so to speak, “does the collecting” that makes that makes the set. That collector could be a Platonic form. It could be an algorithm. It could be God or another person. But the collector is not itself part of the set; it is exterior to it. To assume that time – as a whole and not as any discrete set of events – is a set, is therefore, to beg the question as to whether there is anything, such as God, outside of time. Alternatively we could say that if time is a set then there is by definition something outside of that set – at least a universe of discourse – that is not itself a set. But why not suppose that time is the “universe of discourse” for all events and series of events? That supposition seems to offer a coherent understanding of time as opposed to assuming that time consists of a set of countable time points or even of a noncountable set. 13

In his paper: Moreland on the Impossibility of Traversing the Infinite: A Critique, Felipe Leon said:

Moreland’s unique arguments against beginningless traversals depend upon one or more of the following dubious assumptions: that all traversals require a start or a first member; that any series formed by successive addition is (at least initially) a potential infinite; that traversing a beginningless past must involve the transformation of a potential infinite into an actual infinite; and that it’s just as easy or hard to traverse a sequence in one direction as it is to traverse it in the other.

…by the very nature of the case, a beginningless series has no beginning point from which it “got started”. For if such a past is possible — which is the very issue under dispute — then it has always been going, in the sense that for every event, there is another event that preceded it. 14

Blake Ostler has said:

Just what does it mean to “traverse” an infinite time or to “arrive” at the present? If “traverse” means to “pass through” or “complete” a temporal series beginning with an event and ending with an event – as I believe the term implies – then the infinite past cannot be traversed in this sense. However, the argument then would not apply to the infinite past since the infinite past has no beginning term. 15

Inductive Argument (for creatio ex nihilo): The Expansion of the Universe

The article states:

According to the Friedman-Lemaitre model, as time proceeds, the distances separating galactic masses become greater..As the universe expands, it becomes less and less dense. This has the astonishing implication that as one reverses the expansion and extrapolates back in time, the universe becomes progressively denser until one arrives at a state of “infinite density”at some point in the finite past. This state represents a singularity at which space-time curvature, along with temperature, pressure, and density, becomes infinite. It therefore constitutes an edge or boundary to space-time itself.

…Standard Big Bang cosmogony thus presents what Mormon theologian Keith Norman has called “a serious challenge to the Mormon version of the universe.” 16

Blake Ostler has commented on problems in using using the standard Big Bang model to support creatio ex nihilo:

…the standard theory of Big Bang cosmology adopted by C&C as a sword against Mormonism is a good case in point of a theory that has been superseded. Because the standard model preferred by C&C is beset by theoretical problems that are resolved by inflationary theories, almost all astrophysicists now accept some form of inflationary theory instead of the standard model. This shift has occurred largely in the last two decades, since Craig began to write about the Big Bang theory. Thus, the argument given by C&C is largely already outdated.

The inflationary theory has been widely accepted by cosmologists because its predictions were confirmed by the COBE satellite in 1994. The data taken over a four year period are in very good agreement with the predictions of the inflationary theory. For these reasons, the inflationary theory of the universe is better supported than the standard theory of cosmology for which C&C argue. 17

Inductive Argument (for creatio ex nihilo): Thermodynamic Properties of the Universe

The article states:

According to the Second Law of Thermodynamics, processes taking place in a closed system always tend toward a state of equilibrium. Now our interest in the law is what happens when it is applied to the universe as a whole. The universe is, on a naturalistic view, a gigantic closed system, since it is everything there is and there is nothing outside it. What this seems to imply then is that, given enough time, the universe and all its processes will run down, and the entire universe will come to equilibrium. This is known as the heat death of the universe.

…if given enough time the universe will reach heat death, then why is it not in a state of heat death now, if it has existed forever, from eternity? If the universe did not begin to exist, then it should now be in a state of equilibrium. Like a ticking clock, it should by now have run down. Since it has not yet run down, this implies, in the words of one baffled scientist, “In some way the universe must have been wound up. 18

Blake Ostler comments:

the vacuum fluctuation theory neither predicts nor implies that our local universe is eternal; rather, it is the multiverse within which our local universe is nested that is eternal 19

Conclusion

In conclusion, the article is not purely a critique of a particular Mormon doctrine, it is a critique of a viewpoint shared by the majority of Christian scholars. Despite the number and range of attacks, no compelling reason is given for refuting the doctrine of creatio ex materia in favour of creation ex nihilo.

  1. William Lane Craig. Creatio ex nihilo: A Critique of the Mormon Doctrine of Creation. [ONLINE] Available at: http://www.reasonablefaith.org/creatio-ex-nihilo-a-critique-of-the-mormon-doctrine-of-creation. [Accessed 17 December 2016].[]
  2.  Paulsen, David L., and Ostler Blake T. International Journal for Philosophy of Religion 35.2 (1994): 118-20. Web.[]
  3. Thomas Jay Oord. 2010. Creatio Ex Nihilo: The Problem. [ONLINE] Available at: http://thomasjayoord.com/index.php/blog/archives/creatio_ex_nihilo_the_problem#.UQDtUOgRkeM. [Accessed 21 January 2017].[]
  4. Blake Ostler. 2005. Out of Nothing: A History of Creation ex Nihilo in Early Christian Thought. [ONLINE] Available at: http://publications.mi.byu.edu/publications/review/17/2/S00008-5176aad066a7c8Ostler.pdf. [Accessed 21 January 2017].[]
  5. William Lane Craig. Creatio ex nihilo: A Critique of the Mormon Doctrine of Creation. [ONLINE] Available at: http://www.reasonablefaith.org/creatio-ex-nihilo-a-critique-of-the-mormon-doctrine-of-creation. [Accessed 17 December 2016].[]
  6. Blake Ostler. 2005. Out of Nothing: A History of Creation ex Nihilo in Early Christian Thought. [ONLINE] Available at: http://publications.mi.byu.edu/publications/review/17/2/S00008-5176aad066a7c8Ostler.pdf. [Accessed 21 January 2017].[]
  7.  William Lane Craig. Creatio ex nihilo: A Critique of the Mormon Doctrine of Creation. [ONLINE] Available at: http://www.reasonablefaith.org/creatio-ex-nihilo-a-critique-of-the-mormon-doctrine-of-creation. [Accessed 17 December 2016].[]
  8. James Noel Hubler. 1995. Creatio ex Nihilo: Matter, Creation, and the Body in Classical and Christian Philosophy Through Aquinas. [ONLINE] Available at:[]
  9. William Lane Craig. Creatio ex nihilo: A Critique of the Mormon Doctrine of Creation. [ONLINE] Available at: http://www.reasonablefaith.org/creatio-ex-nihilo-a-critique-of-the-mormon-doctrine-of-creation. [Accessed 17 December 2016].[]
  10. James E. Faulconer. 2016. FRANCIS J BECKWITH and STEPHEN E PARRISH The Mormon Concept of God. Reviewed by James E Faulconer. [ONLINE] Available at:https://byustudies.byu.edu/content/mormon-concept-god-philosophical-analysis. [Accessed 8 August 2016].[]
  11.  Quentin Smith. (2014). Quentin Smith Arguing God from First Cause Part 1 of 2. [Online Video]. 8 March 2014. Available from: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tZhZ3KffcbI. [Accessed: 7 February 2017].[]
  12. William Lane Craig. Creatio ex nihilo: A Critique of the Mormon Doctrine of Creation. [ONLINE] Available at: http://www.reasonablefaith.org/creatio-ex-nihilo-a-critique-of-the-mormon-doctrine-of-creation. [Accessed 17 December 2016].[]
  13. James E. Faulconer. 2016. FRANCIS J BECKWITH and STEPHEN E PARRISH The Mormon Concept of God. Reviewed by James E Faulconer. [ONLINE] Available at:https://byustudies.byu.edu/content/mormon-concept-god-philosophical-analysis. [Accessed 8 August 2016].[]
  14. Felipe Leon. 2011. Moreland on the Impossibility of Traversing the Infinite: A Critique. [ONLINE] Available at:http://www.academia.edu/1163168/_Moreland_on_the_Impossibility_of_Traversing_the_Infinite_A_Critique_. [Accessed 7 August 2016].[]
  15. Blake Ostler. 2016. Do Kalam Infinity Arguments Apply to the Infinite Past?. [ONLINE] Available at:http://www.fairmormon.org/reviews_of_the_new-mormon-challenge/do-kalam-infinity-arguments-apply-to-the-infinite-past. [Accessed 7 August 2016].[]
  16. William Lane Craig. Creatio ex nihilo: A Critique of the Mormon Doctrine of Creation. [ONLINE] Available at: http://www.reasonablefaith.org/creatio-ex-nihilo-a-critique-of-the-mormon-doctrine-of-creation. [Accessed 17 December 2016].[]
  17. Blake Ostler. 2016. The Doctrine Of Creation Ex Nihilo Is A Big Fuss Over Nothing: A Response To Copan And Craig.. [ONLINE] Available at: http://www.fairmormon.org/perspectives/publications/reviews-of-the-new-mormon-challenge/the-doctrine-of-creation-ex-nihilo-is-a-big-fuss-over-nothing. [Accessed 28 December 2016].[]
  18. William Lane Craig. Creatio ex nihilo: A Critique of the Mormon Doctrine of Creation. [ONLINE] Available at: http://www.reasonablefaith.org/creatio-ex-nihilo-a-critique-of-the-mormon-doctrine-of-creation. [Accessed 17 December 2016].[]
  19.  Blake Ostler. 2016. The Doctrine Of Creation Ex Nihilo Is A Big Fuss Over Nothing: A Response To Copan And Craig.. [ONLINE] Available at: http://www.fairmormon.org/perspectives/publications/reviews-of-the-new-mormon-challenge/the-doctrine-of-creation-ex-nihilo-is-a-big-fuss-over-nothing. [Accessed 28 December 2016].[]