Creation Ex Nihilo and the Sciences:
An Interview with Yonghua Ge
Dr. Yonghua Ge recently visited Regent College to lead our research seminar in theology and science. This term we are considering how to talk about divine action in relation to natural cause, so we wanted to begin by discussing the theological notion of creation “out of nothing” [creatio ex nihilo], the subject of Dr. Ge’s research.
Yonghua Ge (PhD, University of Cambridge) is Assistant Professor of Theology and Director of the Mandarin Theology Program at ACTS Seminaries of Trinity Western University. The interview was conducted by Dr. David Robinson, Post-Doctoral Fellow in Theology and Science at Regent College.
Part One: Clarifying the Doctrine of Creation
David Robinson: You have argued that many of the conflicts between science and theology arise from confusion about the Christian doctrine of creation. What is one of the ways that contemporary theologians misrepresent this doctrine?
Yonghua Ge: I think one of the ways that contemporary theologians tend to misrepresent this doctrine is the tendency to understand the doctrine as a scientific theory about the universe. By seeing this doctrine as scientific, or, we can say, as physical instead of metaphysical, we bring the concept of creation into conflict with contemporary scientific theories such as the Big Bang or Evolution. In classical Christian theology, however, the doctrine of creation is above all about God’s divine action, which cannot be described in scientific ways, given God’s transcendence.
The Christian doctrine of creation, I believe, is more about God than about the universe itself. It is first and foremost about a relationship between the creation and the Creator – particularly the ontological dependence of all that is on God Himself. Creation is concerned with existence rather than change. Science is essentially about change – it is about matter in motion, as is especially evident in physics. Creation is not a change, however, since creation is out of nothing. If nothing exists before creation, creation should not be seen as a change. Those kinds of misunderstanding lead to misrepresentations of the doctrine and result in unnecessary clashes between science and theology.
Is such a theological misrepresentation also prevalent among scientists who claim that our current scientific knowledge “disproves” the doctrine of creation? Could you give us a recent example?
Because of the misrepresentation of the doctrine among theologians and Christians, non-Christians adopted the same understanding of creation—as if creation is about the beginning of the world and how the world evolved in time—seeing the doctrine of creation as a competing scientific theory. In doing so, however, they are not really talking about the traditional Christian understanding of creation, but a much more flattened view of creation.
There are many recent examples. For example, Stephen Hawking, in his recent book, The Grand Design, argued that because of the law of gravity, the universe can and will create itself out of nothing. For this reason, he argued, there is no need for a Creator, since science can explain the existence of the universe. But his reasoning is based on a faulty understanding of the concept of creation. First of all, the Christian doctrine of creation is not about change—though it can also include “a beginning.” But at its heart the doctrine of creation is about existence—why there is something rather than nothing. When Hawking says “because of the existence of laws of nature,” he is assuming that there is something pre-existent, so this is not really “out of nothing.” His understanding of “creation” has nothing to do with the traditional Christian doctrine of creation.
As an example from biology, Richard Dawkins argues that all things evolve naturally and there is no need for a Creator overseeing or “pushing” the process. Again, this argument is based on a misunderstanding of the doctrine of creation. The traditional Christian idea of Creation is about existence, that is, the transition from non-being to being, not about a change. To evolve is to change, which assumes the persistence of something. But creation is not about changes. Bringing creation and evolution into a direct conflict is a category mistake—it is putting two things on the same plane when they shouldn’t be.
In an article for Regent’s academic journal Crux, you make the provocative claim that “creation is not about how the world began.” But many people read Genesis 1:1 to say precisely that. How, then, could we better understand the opening words of the Bible?
That statement from the Crux article is perhaps a slight overstatement. There, I was reacting against a deistic view of creation. After the scientific revolution, people began to understand the world in light of laws of nature and it seemed that God was gradually pushed out of the picture. Since we could now use science to explain nature, God became superfluous. So in order to save room for God’s action in the world, people started to say, “Well, we need a first cause – someone who ‘pushes’ the button to start the process. But once it is started, God can rest, not having to be involved in the running of the world continuously.” It is this kind of deistic worldview that I was reacting against and critiquing.
The doctrine of creation is not about a deistic God setting the universe off and then letting it run on its own. In the Christian understanding, the creation is much more than just an initial kick-off by God; rather, it is about God bringing the creation from nothing into being, and continuously sustaining it in existence. If creation is really from nothing, then nothing within creation cannot sustain its existence. Left on its own, creation would fall back into nothing. So creation is much more of a relationship of dependence of the creation on God. It is not a scientific description of a one-time moment, as if it is “all done already.”
We don’t deny that the world began. If we take Genesis 1 literally, we confess, as Aquinas did, that there was a temporal beginning of the universe. But the temporal beginning of the universe is not essential to the idea of creation. I would say, what is the most important or at the heart of the concept of creation is the ontological dependence of all that is on God Himself. Again, as we know, there have been many interpretations of Genesis 1. For instance, how do we interpret the opening phrase “In the beginning”? Of course, as many have done, you may understand it as the temporal beginning of the world. But many theologians in the past, especially patristic Fathers and Medieval theologians, did not simply interpret “the beginning” in the temporal sense but as “the first cause” of all things in an ontological sense. Particularly, they identified “the beginning” as Christ and therefore interpreted Genesis 1 as “In Christ, God created the heaven and the earth.” Christ is the Word in which and through which the world was created. So I don’t think there is necessarily a conflict between science and theology if we interpret creation as more of an ontological dependence rather than a temporal beginning of the universe.
Part Two: The Relevance of Thomas Aquinas
In our seminar discussion with you we are focusing on Thomas Aquinas’ interpretation of Genesis 1:1. How does an exercise in Medieval scholastic theology and philosophy speak to our current scientific paradigm?
To speak of creation, we have to understand that creation is not a scientific theory. That is the key contribution that we can draw from Aquinas and bring into the dialogue between science and theology. I think that much of the unnecessary so-called clash between science and theology is based on a misunderstanding of creation as a one-time event that is done and finished. In like manner, creation is misunderstood as happening in time in a sense that competes with the theory of evolution. Clarifying the definition of creation would help us engage in the dialogue between the Christian doctrine of creation and scientific theories, seeing that they are not two competing theories. Aquinas shows us that these are two different things, because creation is more of an ontological reality than a scientific theory.
You’ll also be guiding us through how Aquinas differentiates between several types of “cause,” as did Aristotle before him. Could you describe these briefly in relation to what contemporary scientists mean when they speak of “natural cause”?
In Aristotelian thought, there is the theory of four causes: first, efficient cause – that which makes something to happen; second, material cause; third, formal cause; and fourth, final cause or the purpose of the thing. As an Aristotelian, Aquinas clearly follows this pattern when he talks about causes. But if we read the Summa carefully, we can see that he is not slavish to Aristotle. In fact, Aquinas is able to combine Aristotle with Plato, because in the third article in question 44, he does not use “formal cause” but “exemplar cause,” which is more of a Platonic term. The reason he shies away from the concept of formal cause in creation is because it may run the risk of pantheism. For to say that God is the formal cause of all things seems to imply that creatures have a share of God’s essence. So in order to uphold God’s absolute transcendence, he uses “exemplar cause,” making clear that there is no continuity between God’s essence and created essences. In addition, Aquinas differs from Aristotle in the way in which he uses the four-cause theory. Whereas Aristotle uses the theory to explain particular things, Aquinas applies it to the whole universe – an innovation Aristotle would not have imagined.
Given the way in which modern science broke away from ancient science, scientists have largely dropped the material, formal, and final causes in scientific investigations. Scientists are now only concerned about efficient causes. When they speak of “natural cause,” I would assume that they refer to what Aquinas calls “secondary causality,” the causality in which one creature causes another creature to happen. It differs in nature from what Aquinas calls “the first cause,” through which God causes things to happen. But these two causes are in no way in competition with one another. God’s first cause is the foundation or ground of secondary causes, but secondary causes are also real in themselves, which means that natural phenomena can be genuinely explained by laws of nature. God gives creatures the integrity to truly function as secondary causes. This view of God’s relation to nature help us avoid Deism on the one hand and occasionalism on the other. Science is possible because secondary causes in nature are real. But scientific explanations by no means exclude God’s causality, which undergirds secondary causes and acts in all things through secondary causes in nature.
Part Three: Creation ex nihilo and Evolutionary History
You have written that “creation and evolution cannot be in direct opposition, because they are different types of things.” Could you explain what you mean by this? Relatedly, would drawing such distinction mean that to speak of “evolutionary creation” would be a misleading combination of categories?
As I stated earlier, “creation” is, by definition, out of nothing. Creation assumes no pre-existent matter or thing that undergoes transformation. For this reason, creation is not a change, because a change always assumes something already existent that undergoes some kind of transformation. But creation is from nothing and is thus not a change. In contrast, evolution is a change, since to evolve is nothing but to change. To put these two things together as if they were similar kinds of things is really a categorical mistake, because creation, as Aquinas describes it, is more a relation than a change. So it is really a mistake to pitch creation and evolution directly again one another, for only same kind of things can be contrary to each other or in direct opposition.
To take an example from my Crux article, a two-dimensional figure cannot be at the same time a square and a circle, because a square and a circle are in the same category. However, something can be a square and red simultaneously, since redness is not in the same category as a square is – one is color; the other, shape. The two things can by no means be in direct opposition. Likewise, to place creation and evolution directly against each other is to commit the same kind of mistake. It is based on a misunderstanding of what creation is.
I think you are right to say that the notion of “evolutionary creation” is problematic in itself. It is again based on the assumption that creation is a physical event that happened over time. To add “evolutionary” to “creation” is to add the concept of change to creation, which is essentially an oxymoron. For this reason, I don’t think that “evolutionary creation” is a useful concept, as it is largely rooted in a misunderstanding of creation.
In responding to evolutionary science, some contemporary theologians have spoken of the notion of “continuous creation.” However, Genesis 2:1-4 seems to indicate that creation is “finished” and that we should now speak of God’s action in terms of providence. Would you say that creation is an ongoing process, or a completed act?
Again, I think that the concept of “continuous creation” is based on a misconception of the traditional doctrine of creation—it assumes that creation is a kind of a temporary event. To add “continuous” to “creation” is to assume that creation is a physical event that happens in and over time. What’s more, the suggestion that in one moment the creation is brought into existence and in the next moment falls into things so that God has to continue to create the world from nothing is unhelpful. In classical theology, God is eternal and so to say that God continues to create is to diminish his eternal nature. God completes creation in one action and there is no need for him to continue to bring things out of nothing. In fact, Aquinas argues that once God has created a creature, the creature does not tend to fall back to nothing because God gives the stability of existence to a creature when he creates it. There is no tendency for the creature to fall back into nothing. God is not only transcendent but also immanent; He is sustaining the whole creation.
It might be helpful for us to separate these two concepts: creation and providence. But these two actions are not separate for God, as we cannot divide God’s action into two parts. The distinction is for us. Because we live in time, we see and describe things in a temporal order. But for God, as Aquinas points out, creation and providence are not two separate actions but one thing. From our perspective, creation is one thing and providence is another, since the universe had to be created first and then continue to exist. But because God is timeless, there is no procession of time in his action of creation and providence.
For this final question, I’d like to look ahead to a potential future project of yours. If you were to write a systematic theology, how would you locate the doctrines of creation and providence, respectively?
That is a good question. I am not sure if I have thought through the question enough to give an adequate answer. Again, if we assume creation and providence are one, then we don’t have to separate the two. For me, the doctrine of creation and providence should provide the framework and foundation for a systematic theology: God created the world and everything happens within the framework of creation and providence. As such, the doctrine of creation will be foundational to systematic theology, as it is a platform on which the rest of the drama takes place.