If God creates, is everything permitted?
A charge frequently leveled at theistic evolutionists is that of the inconsistency between accepting both the uniformitarian geological and biological evidence for the age of the Earth and the miracles performed by Jesus and other biblical figures. In the latter presumably God acted by divine fiat, bypassing or overriding the usual creaturely processes by which objects are linked by cause and effect with other objects. Now if-so goes the objection-the miraculous multiplication of the loaves and fishes involved the creation ex nihilo of fully formed loaves and fishes, presumably such that if a person were to examine them without knowledge of their miraculous origin they would seem to be completely normal loaves and fishes, how can we trust the appearance of age and the natural unfolding of Earth's long history that science presents? Can we indeed rule out the possibility, daringly put forward by Philip Gosse, that creation ex nihilo implies a similar scenario to the loves and fishes, except for the entire Universe? Perhaps this world is like a novel in God's mind, where we can enter the story in medias res right from the first chapter, with its world stretching back into the past and on into the future by projecting from the context of that chapter, but with that world only existing as the context of the actual story laid out in the pages of the novel, and nothing more.
So the question is, as the title suggests: if God creates (ex nihilo), is everything permitted? Can we in fact trust that the sun will rise tomorrow and the next day after that? Or is this world like the Matrix, where new programming can be introduced on a whim and seamlessly integrated into the collective illusion?
I think it's pretty clear that God, as God, can do whatever he sets his mind to. The Bible provides ample evidence of that. It is also clear, both from the Bible and from the very idea of an omnipotent Creator, that Creator and creation are vastly asymmetrical ontologically. Compared to the blazing sun of God's power and reality, the creation is nothing more than a flimsy, gossamer tapestry. This is not to say that the world we know is not real and not good: it is both. But in comparison to God, the nations indeed are as a drop in the bucket, and the Earth could roll up, old and wrinkled like a garment, and God would remain, the same yesterday today and forever. It follows that yes, strictly speaking, if the Biblical God is real then everything about creation is entirely contingent, even the coming and going of sunrise and sunset. This truth is expressed as the doctrine of creatio continua, which states that the world's existence depends on God's continually upholding it in existence. If he were to cease to uphold it, it would simply blink out of existence like a lightbulb going out.
But there is another, equally prominent motif in Scripture that tempers the implications of the above ideas: throughout the Bible, we see that God is intensely committed to his creation, despite the ontological asymmetry, even if this means he has to put up with some serious challenges that arise due to man's disobedience and the unruliness of the powers and forces of creation.
We can see this motif of commitment already in Genesis 1. True, there is the stark image of God speaking things into existence merely by divine fiat, the sheer exercise of divine power. But equally in the very beginning we see God already committing to work with, not around or despite, the things that he has created. Just after the first, primordial statement of God's creating the heavens and the earth, the text tells us that the earth was "without shape and empty" (or as Robert Alter literally translates the expression, 'welter and waste') and "darkness was over the surface of the watery deep." (Genesis 1:2; NET translation) Clearly this primordial state of existence does not have the form and ordering that God wants for creation. And yet, mysteriously, this is how God begins to create. That God subsequently works on this raw material, somewhat as a sculptor works with a piece of marble, instead of directly speaking into existence the world exactly as He wanted it, shows clearly that God creates something and then commits to work with it to further his purposes.
This pattern of creating and then committing continues in Genesis 1. God speaks light into existence, but then proceeds to 'divide' the light from the darkness (1:3-5). God initially creates a vast, watery deep, but then gathers the waters and strictly determines their boundaries in order for dry land to appear (1:9-10), implying that somehow the dry land emerges from the water, not as an ex nihilo creation. The potentiality of all creation is already present in that primordial water, as we also see further on. When God creates the 'vault' or 'dome', he puts it "in the midst of the waters," specifically in order to divide the waters under the dome from the waters above the dome. This is quite a striking example of God's commitment to work with what he has already created: again, God 'separates' or 'divides', verbs that presuppose God working with and through creation rather than above or against it.
Then we move to plants and vegetation. Does God create these things ex nihilo? No! God says, "Let the earth put forth vegetation..." (1:11) Just as dry land was already inherent in the potentiality of the primordial deep, so vegetation was inherent in the potentiality of dry land, and God calls forth this potentiality. He does not cause it to come into existence on its own, independently of everything else he has created. God then 'makes' the two great lights and the stars, and 'puts' them in the dome of the sky. It is not clear where these lights come from, but there is reason to think that the Israelites thought of these lights as 'holes' in the 'vault' of heaven, from which the primordial light would peak through, sometimes with great intensity (the light ruling the day) and sometimes with much less (the 'lesser' light ruling the night). If so, then God's creation of the lights still reflects his fundamental commitment to working with his creation. Then as we move on, the sea puts forth swarms of living creatures and the earth puts forth cattle, creeping things and wild animals (1:20-25; the creation of birds in v.21 constitutes a possible exception to this motif, as the author does not specify where birds sprung from; nevertheless, the overall trend of the text is clear). Only with man at the very end do we have God creating directly (1:27), although this image is complicated by God's fashioning man out of the dust of the ground in Genesis 2:7.
Now if Genesis 1 describes God as constantly working through his creation to bring about his purposes, Genesis 2 does it to an even greater extent. We already noticed how God formed man from the dust of the ground. But then we have that God 'planted' a garden in Eden (2:8) and God 'made things to grow' out of the ground (2:9)! These verbs again do not suggest God simply speaking, and bringing something into existence ex nihilo, but rather God is 'getting his hands dirty' and working the ground and planting a garden, the very tasks that will be then be assigned to God's image or viceroy, the human. But especially astonishing for our purposes is the story of how woman was created. God says that man should not be alone, and resolves to make him a helper (2:18). One would think that God had ordained ahead of time exactly the right companion for the man, and created her directly in sheer perfection. But no! In vv.19-20 the image we get is of God creating every animal and every bird, and parading them before man "to see what he would call them" (2:19) Now to understand this passage we need to jump ahead to the man finally meeting woman, where we see him say that "This at last is bone of my bones, and flesh of my flesh." (2:23) The man calls the woman 'bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh' with a tone, astonishingly, of exasperation and relief! The image we get is of God creating animals and parading them before the man one by one, to see if the man would call one of them his helper and companion, almost like a merchant parading goods before a skeptical customer. But even though man does call them different things, and each animal does have something important to do with his happiness and well-being, "for the man there was not found a helper as his partner." (2:19) We can only imagine his frustration at this point. After this unusual 'process of elimination', God finally creates woman, but again not ex nihilo, but using as raw material a bone from the man's chest. Why didn't God simply form another human from the dust of the ground? Why create woman in such a 'messy' way? The answer seems clearly to be that God is committed to working with and through what he has already created, even if that means bringing about one of his most important purposes (the creation of a helper for man) through such an apparently clumsy and even comical process of parading the animals before the man one by one, to see if he would 'bite'.
And the motif does not stop there. In Genesis 3 we have a description of the first humans' disobedience, and God's plan for humans to be his viceroys on earth appears on the verge of collapsing. This would seem to be a good time for God to 'start the level again' in video game parlance, scrapping his creation as a faulty first draft and starting from scratch. After all, what could possibly be gained by continuing to invest in this flawed, disordered creation? Astonishingly, God does continue to invest in his creation and persists in using it to fulfill his purposes. Thus he sets a plan in motion to eventually crush the serpent who incited the first humans to disobedience and restore the humans to a right relationship with him. So much trouble, when God could have wiped everything out and started again! Again we are compelled to ask, why?
Actually, the thought of starting from scratch apparently did occur to God, when he resolved to destroy his wicked creation through a great flood. Given the significance of the primordial waters from which dry land emerged in Genesis 1, we should not think of this water as mere water. The picture of the 'fountains of the great deep' opening up and the 'windows of heaven' opening suggests that the order of the universe was about to be fundamentally undone, the waters that had been contained at creation rushing in to overwhelm the stable order of dry land and living things. But God pulls back from this complete destruction, makes the waters subside and dry land emerges once more. Upon smelling the sweet savor of Noah's offering, God makes a promise that "As long as the earth endures, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night, shall not cease." (8:22) Why does God pull back and resolve never again to destroy his creation? The answer is two-fold, and reinforces the theme of God's commitment to his creation: first of all, as Robert Alter comments, "after the Flood, God, once more recognizing the evil of which man is capable, concludes that, given what man is all too likely disposed to do, it is scarcely worth destroying the whole world again on his account." (Five Books of Moses, p.49) This implies that the created world apart from man is precious to God: he will not destroy it if it would not also wipe out the evil which man was disposed to do. Second, despite his acknowledgment of their inclination to evil, God takes compassion on the humans and allows himself to be pacified by the sweet savor of the sacrificial fire. Even though before the deluge God had only found one man to be "a righteous man...blameless in his time," (6:9), God was eager on account of that one drop of goodness in a sea of iniquity to refrain from destroying all mankind, just as later on he would show himself willing to spare the wicked cities of Sodom and Gomorrah if only ten righteous people were found in them (18:32-33).
Examples could be multiplied, such as the truly heroic patience God exhibits when dealing with the stubborn people of Israel, whose thick-headedness was so great despite all the grace he showed them that, just as with the deluge, God was tempted to annihilate the people of Israel and start over. Moses manages to change God's mind by appealing to his covenant faithfulness which was now a matter of public record all over the world. Though the issue is framed as a matter of God's honor and consistency in the face of scoffing onlookers, at the heart of Moses' appeal is God's commitment to his people, and his resolve to be with them and give them their inheritance, come what may. Even Jeremiah's story of the potter (Jeremiah 18:3-4), usually interpreted to accentuate God's absolute power over his creation, actually confirms our motif of working with creation, because notice that the potter does not throw out the clay when he finds a blemish or hardening. Instead, he sticks with the marred clay and remolds it. Again, this is a 'hands-on' picture of God's power: we can imagine the hands pressing hard into the clay, working to mold it without destroying it. The clay resists, and the potter must exert pressure. He doesn't merely point his finger and shazam! the clay confirms to his will. The potter must strive to enforce his will on the clay. Again, it was the potter's prerogative to throw the clay away and start from scratch, but he seems to want to work with this clay, marred and blemished as it is.
In the fourth century the great bishop Athanasius had to answer a peculiar pagan challenge to the Incarnation: if God wanted to make things right and save mankind, why didn't he directly instruct and save them, through a mere act of his will? The answer he gave serves as a fitting summary of our discussion, and a truly glorious vision of God's love and commitment:
In the beginning, nothing as yet existed at all; all that was needed, therefore, in order to bring all things into being, was that His will to do so should be signified. But once man was in existence, and things that were, not things that were not, demanded to be healed, it followed as a matter of course that the Healer and Savior should align Himself with those things that existed already, in order to heal the existing evil. For that reason, therefore, He was made man, and used the body as His human instrument. If this were not the fitting way, and He willed to use an instrument at all, how otherwise was the Word to come? And whence could He take His instrument, save from among those already in existence and needing His Godhead through One like themselves? It was not things non-existent that needed salvation, for which a bare creative word might have sufficed, but man—man already in existence and already in process of corruption and ruin. It was natural and right, therefore, for the Word to use a human instrument and by that means unfold Himself to all.
When one saves something, one does not destroy it and create something else in its place. Implicit in the very idea of salvation is that what is being saved is preserved. Precisely because of his love of and commitment to his creation, God wanted to save it, this very creation, not throw it away and start again.
What, then, is the conclusion of the matter? And what does this have to do with the challenge of ex nihilo to theistic evolutionism? Simply this: although God is indeed all-powerful and can dispose of his creation as easily as we can blow out a candle, the Bible teaches that God is not fickle in his attitude towards creation: once God creates something, even if that something deviates from his purpose and obstructs his will, God does not simply toss it out and start over. This motif of God working with and through creation, together with God's promise that the rhythms of the world would no longer be disrupted as long as the world lasted, allows us to affirm a substantial amount of creaturely autonomy and uniformity. God does not create and destroy things in the blink of an eye, and creation is not just a story in God's mind. God has chosen to make creation both real and good. Even though he is omnipotent, God has chosen to give creation its own 'firmness' or 'solidity' over against his all-powerful will. This creates the need for God to strive, to wrestle with, to bind and to master his creation, images the Bible continually employs (see John Goldingay, Old Testament Theology, Vol.1, pp. 64-75). The thing we must keep in mind is that this need for striving is not inherent in the nature of things. The 'firmness' or what we might call the 'ontological inertia' of creation is entirely the result of God's free decision.
Now I have not touched yet upon two important issues for the discussion: the coming judgment which will involve the re-creation of the heavens and the earth, and the place of miracles in a world which God has given some autonomy and regularity, but which nevertheless must in the end fulfill his purposes for it. Scholars dispute whether New Testament apocalyptic envisions the complete annihilation and destruction of the current world and its complete replacement by a new one, or whether the final judgment, although cataclysmic, simply transforms the present world, albeit almost beyond recognition. That is the subject of another post, as is the issue of whether miracles can be seen as yet another example of God working with and through creation as opposed to overriding it by divine fiat.
But the point for now is that the Biblical God is not the sort of God who would create an Omphalos-type world in which things only seem to be what they are, and the reliability of natural processes is constantly in doubt, constantly under siege by the ever-present threat of creation ex nihilo. If there is one thing we know about God from the Bible, it is that once he creates, he commits. Nothing about the creation forces him to commit to it: the initiative and the promise are entirely from the divine side of the relationship, an expression of God's perfect, undeserved love. We can trust that creation, after careful and critical study and experimentation, will not deceive us about its character as creation. We can trust the scientific evidence for uniformity and antiquity, because it coheres with the character of God as one who creates by the unfolding of his original creation, as opposed to bringing new things into existence every now and then.