Creatio ex Nihilo

It is popular today to think that the doctrine of creatio ex nihilo (creation out of nothing) cannot be found in scripture, with particular emphasis in the first chapter and verse of Genesis. Paul Copan does not leave this unchallenged, adequately answering this counter-prespective. Contra Prof. Gerhard May, who asserts (1) that creatio ex nihilo is not a biblical concept, (2) that the Genesis narrative speaks of God creating order out of chaos rather than out of nothing, and that (3) the doctrine of creatio ex nihilo is not theologically necessary, Copan (among other things) looks at Genesis 1, then moves goes on to look at other Biblical references, when soundly interpreted, affirm the doctrine of creatio ex nihilo, and theological doctrines that connect to this one.

Paul Copan, “Is Creatio Ex Nihilo A Post-Biblical Invention? An Examination Of Gerhard May’s Proposal” Trinity Journal 17.1 (Spring 1996): 87–89

. . . While he [Gerhard May] makes passing reference to certain biblical passages that seem to hint at the doctrine of creatio ex nihilo, he does not seriously interact with them. He focuses on patristic study (as his subtitle indicates) rather than on biblical exegesis. This turns out to be a weakness for May because, if properly done, sound biblical exegesis refutes the notion that creation out of nothing is a mere theological invention. . . . I believe that examining the relevant biblical passages more extensively will adequately show that the traditional teaching of creatio ex nihilo has strong biblical grounds. . . . Claus Westermann agrees: Gen 1:1 does not refer to “the beginning of something, but simply The Beginning. Everything began with God.”[52]

Another OT scholar, R. K. Harrison, asserts that while creatio ex nihilo was “too abstract for the [Hebrew] mind to entertain” and is not stated explicitly in Genesis 1, “it is certainly implicit in the narrative.”[53] The reader is meant to understand that “the worlds were not fashioned from any pre-existing material, but out of nothing”; “prior” to God’s creative activity, “there was thus no other kind of phenomenological existence.”[54]

In contrast to ancient cosmogonies, Genesis posits an absolute beginning. Elohim was not limited by chaos when creating (as in the Babylonian cosmogony) but is sovereign over the elements. Genesis 1 stands as an independent assertion, claiming that God created the entire cosmos. In fact, the very structure of Gen 1:1 argues for creation out of nothing. Grammatically and contextually, a very good case can be made for seeing Gen 1:1 as referring to absolute creation.[55] Consequently, Gen 1:1 should not be translated, “In the beginning, when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless wasteland …,” as the NAB does. (This would mean that Ian Barbour’s assertion that Genesis argues for “the creation of order from chaos” rather than from nothing[56] is misguided.)

He concludes;

“…the doctrine of creation out of nothing was not simply created ex nihilo by post-biblical theologians of the second century to counteract gnostic ideas. We have good reason to believe that the doctrine of creation out of nothing is rooted in biblical passages indicating that God is the ontological Originator of all that exists.”


52. C. Westermann, Genesis: A Practical Commentary

(Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1987) 7.
53. Harrison, Creation, in The Zondervan Pictorial Encyclopedia of the Bible (5 vols.; ed. M. C. Tenney; Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1975) 1.1023.
54. Ibid.
55. See J. Sailhamer’s discussion in “Genesis” in Expositor’s Bible Commentary, vol. 2 (ed. F. Gaebelein; Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1990) 21-23n. See also U. Cassuto, A Commentary on the Book of Genesis Part 1 (reprint; Jerusalem: Magnes, 1992) 20. Cassuto argues that beginning with v. 2, the focus changes from the cosmos to creations relationship to humanity, stressing the themes of “land” and “blessing,” which prevail throughout the Pentateuch.
56. I. Barbour, Religion in an Age of Science (The Gifford Lectures 1989-1991, vol. 1; San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1990) 130.

Auckland Event: Jeff Tallon on Creation and Christianity

This Sunday and the next, Jeff Tallon, former Professor of Physics at Victoria University, will be speaking at East City Wesleyan Church in a series on Christianity. Dr Tallon began the series last weekend with a discussion of God as Creator and this week he will be addressing the case for the Bible. Dr Tallon is both an internationally renown scientist and a Christian who is committed to thinking deeply about the integration of biblical and disciplinary knowledge-claims. We’ve enjoyed hearing from him at our Thinking Matters events and can’t recommend him enough. For more details, check out the Facebook page.

26 September – God and Scripture: the rational case for taking the Bible seriously

3 October – Jesus: a scientist’s personal view

Location: East City Wesleyan Church – 219 Burswood Drive, Auckland

Time: 7pm

More about the speaker: Dr Jeff Tallon is Distinguished Scientist at Industrial Research Ltd and a former Professor of Physics at Victoria University. He is internationally known for his research in high-temperature superconductors, is a Fellow of the Royal Society of New Zealand and in 2002 was awarded the Rutherford Medal, New Zealand’s highest science award.


Video from the Bradley v Flannagan Debate

The video footage of the Bradley & Flannagan Debate entitled “Is God the Source of Morality? Is it rational to ground right and wrong in commands issued by God?” is now available for viewing on Youtube. Held at the University of Auckland, in New Zealand, on 2 August, 2010, many people have been eagerly anticipating watching this entertaining and important debate between atheist philosopher, Raymond Bradley and Christian philosopher and blogger, Matt Flannagan. (over 100 people have viewed Part 01/12 before the Part 12/12 is loaded and anyone pointing out it was there.)

Apologies to those to whom the wait has been unbearable.

Flannagan vs Bradley Debate “Is God the Source of Morality” Part 01/12

Flannagan vs Bradley Debate “Is God the Source of Morality” Part 02/12

Flannagan vs Bradley Debate “Is God the Source of Morality” Part 03/12

Flannagan vs Bradley Debate “Is God the Source of Morality” Part 04/12

Flannagan vs Bradley Debate “Is God the Source of Morality” Part 05/12

Flannagan vs Bradley Debate “Is God the Source of Morality” Part 06/12

Flannagan vs Bradley Debate “Is God the Source of Morality” Part 07/12

Flannagan vs Bradley Debate “Is God the Source of Morality” Part 08/12

Flannagan vs Bradley Debate “Is God the Source of Morality” Part 09/12

Flannagan vs Bradley Debate “Is God the Source of Morality” Part 10/12

Flannagan vs Bradley Debate “Is God the Source of Morality” Part 11/12

Flannagan vs Bradley Debate “Is God the Source of Morality” Part 12/12

This debate was brought to you by the Evangelical Union and the Reason and Science Society with the support of Thinking Matters. Written forms of the opening statements and first replies can be found at MandM.

Auckland Event: John Warwick Montgomery on the claims of Jesus

Just a head’s up for those in the Auckland or upper North Island regions. This Sunday, Dr John Warwick Montgomery will be speaking at the Auckland Baptist Tabernacle. This is his only New Zealand event, so if you’re free, you really won’t want to miss the chance to hear one of the world’s top international apologists.

Title: Can We Trust the Claims of Jesus Christ about Himself in the New Testament?
Time: 2.15pm -4.30pm, Sunday 26 September
Location: Level 3, Baptist Tabernacle, 429 Queen Street, Auckland CBD.
Cost: $10 for adult workers, $5 students.
For more info, email

About the speaker: Dr John Warwick Montgomery is Distinguished Research Professor of Philosophy and Christian Thought at the Patrick Henry College and Emeritus Professor of Law and Humanities at the University of Luton. He has earned eleven degrees in multiple disciplines, including philosophy, librarianship, theology, and law. Internationally regarded for both his work as a lawyer and as a Christian apologist, Dr Montgomery has debated many scholars – notably Thomas Altizer and situation-ethicist Joseph Fletcher. He is the author of over one hundred scholarly journal articles and more than fifty books, including Christianity for the Tough Minded and Human Rights and Human Dignity. Currently,  Dr Montgomery serves as the director of the International Academy of Apologetics, Evangelism, & Human Rights in Strasbourg, France.

Penal Sanctions in the Mosaic Law Part I

In my recent debate with Raymond Bradley I questioned Ray’s understanding of the death penalty in the Old Testament. Since then a few people have asked me to explain and elaborate on my position. This three-part series is a response to some issues within secular ethicist and philosopher David Brink’s article “The Autonomy of Ethics” in The Cambridge Companion to Atheism, which I wrote last year. Brink’s position is similar to Ray’s so this series should explain my position further.

In “The Autonomy of Ethics,” David Brink writes that a literal reading of the Old Testament,

[Y]ields problematic moral claims, such as Deuteronomy’s claims that parents can and should stone to death rebellious children (21:18-21) and that the community can and should stone to death any wife whose husband discovers that she was not a virgin when he married her (22:13-21). We have more reason to accept secular scientific and moral claims than we do to accept a literal reading of these particular religious texts.[1]

In a footnote Brink refers to several other references to capital punishment in the Old Testament for various different crimes.[2]

I respect Brink’s stature as an ethicist, however, as an interpreter of scripture his work has left a lot to be desired. That said, I find the kind of hermeneutics he employs common in sceptical literature, so I will address what he says here.

One principle of interpreting literature is to interpret a text according to its genre. One does not read poetry, for example as science or scientific theorems as songs or math texts as romantic fiction. The book of Deuteronomy, in terms of its structure, literary form and language, parallels the structure and language of Ancient Near Eastern (ANE) legal texts. Many of the cases given are similar to the cases and laws in these texts. As such, this raises the issue as to how references to capital punishment function in such texts.

In a study of ANE legal corpus, Raymond Westbrook notes that seemingly harsh penalties are common in such codes. In old Babylonian law, the hand that assaults is severed; a man who kisses another’s wife has his lips cut off; a person who steals bees is to be stung by bees; a person who had thrown his victim into an oven was to be thrown into an oven; a man who raped another’s wife would be sentenced to having his own wife or daughter raped; a negligent builder whose house collapsed and killed another’s son would be sentenced to having his own son killed, and so on.[3] In fact, the Code of Hammurabi states that if a man knocks out the eye of one of the upper classes, his eye must be knocked out.[4]

Not only are these punishments harsh but they both appear inconsistent with the legal practice that occurred in these cultures and also with themselves in some instances. Westbrook notes “[s]ome law codes impose physical punishments and others payments for the same offenses, while some codes have a mixture of the two.”[5] Westbrook notes that the contradiction is only apparent because “in highlighting one or the other alternative, the codes are making a statement as to their view of the gravity of the offence.”[6] The laws “reflect the scribal compilers’ concern for perfect symmetry and delicious irony rather than the pragmatic experience of the law courts.”[7] The method used in legal texts was “to set out principles by the use of often extreme examples.”[8]

Westbrook points to the practice of “ransoming” as providing an explanation of how this worked in application. In ANE legal practice a person who committed a serious crime would be considered to have forfeited their life or limb, this, however, did not mean they were executed or mutilated. Instead they could ransom their life or limb by making a monetary payment and/or agreeing to some lesser penalty, usually decided by the courts. This background was implicitly accepted and understood to apply.

Westbrook is not eccentric in this view. J J Finkelstein makes a similar point reflecting on what appears to be very harsh capital (and sometimes vicarious) sentences in the code of Hammurabi and the absurdity and impossibility of putting them into practice. As Finkelstein notes, one law which states that a physician whose patient dies in surgery or is blinded by surgery is to have his hand cut off. Finkelstein remarks that “it is inconceivable that any sane person in ancient Mesopotamia would have been willing to enter the surgeon’s profession if such a law were literally enforced.”[9] On the other hand, “if a system of ransom were assumed where the life of the builder or his son could be redeemed and the hand of the physician could be redeemed by pecuniary ransom, these laws would not only have an admonitory function (for which the more graphic statement of the penalty–execution or mutilation–is more effective), but would also be practical as law.”[10]

He concludes that Mesopotamian penalty prescriptions,

[W]ere not meant to be complied with literally even when they were first drawn up, [But rather they] serve an admonitory function. If one would be bold enough to restate Hammurabi’s 230 as a direct admonition it might run to this effect: “woe to the contractor who undertakes construction and in his greed cuts corners”.[11]

Interestingly many commentators of The Torah have noted it appears to operate with the same assumption. This is particularly evident with the laws regarding homicide. Ex 21: 29-32 deals with a case where an ox gores another person to death due to negligence on the part of the owner. The penalty stated is that the negligent person shall be put to death. However, immediately preceding this, provision is made for a monetary fine to be paid instead of execution. Joe Sprinkle comments,

[V] 29 applies the principle of [life for life], a man whose negligence has caused the loss of a life forfeits his own life. But v. 30 goes on to show that this operates within a system that permits a payment of money to take the place of the actual execution of the offender.”[12]

Sprinkle goes on to conclude, “In sum, there is good reason to suppose that the death sentence of v. 29 is mostly hyperbole to underscore the seriousness of negligence which threatens the life of another human being.”[13]

A second example cited by Sprinkle occurs in the book of Kings. Here an incident is mentioned where a person has committed a capital crime. The sentence is announced “a life for a life”; however, the immediate context shows what this sentence was. “It will be your life for his life or you must weigh out a talent of silver.” Sprinkle notes that here again “’life for life’ in the sense of capital punishment has an explicit alternative of monetary substitution.”[14]

Perhaps the clearest example is on noted by Walter Kaiser. In Exodus 21:13-14 the law clearly distinguishes between accidental and premeditated homicide. If a man who has struck another and killed that person (an analogous case to a man striking a woman and killing her) seeks sanctuary, he is to be provided it unless he “lay in wait” for his victim. Jackson notes that “lay in wait” referred to premeditated homicide.[15] In Numbers 35 the same law is expounded in more detail; a homicide where a person “lay in wait” is contrasted with a homicide where the assailant “attacked him suddenly without enmity.”[16] This appears to be a reference to an intentional but not premeditated attack such as a ‘crime of passion.’

After laying out clearly and repeatedly that the a person who kills in pre-meditation “shall surely be put to death” the text goes on to state “’Do not accept a ransom for the life of a murderer, who deserves to die. He must surely be put to death… .” Bloodshed pollutes the land, and atonement cannot be made for the land on which blood has been shed, except by the blood of the one who shed it.” Unless there was an assumed practice of “ransoming” the lives of those under a capital sentence, this comment seems superfluous. Sprinkle notes “The availability of ransom seems to have been so prevalent that when biblical law wants to exclude it, as in the case of intentional murder, it must specifically prohibit it”.[17]

In, Towards an Old Testament Ethics, Walter Kaiser draws the same conclusion,

The key text in this discussion is Num 35:31: “Do not accept a ransom [or substitute] for the life of a murderer, who deserves to die. He must surely be put to death.” There were some sixteen crimes that called for the death penalty in the OT…. Only in the case of premeditated murder did the text say that the officials in Israel were forbidden to take a “ransom” or a “substitute”. This has widely been interpreted to imply that in all the other fifteen cases the judges could commute the crimes deserving of capital punishment by designating a “ransom” or “substitute”. In that case the death penalty served to mark the seriousness of the crime.[18]

In Part II I will argue that this understanding of the references to capital punishment in The Torah makes best sense of the laws regarding adultery that Brink cites.

[1] David Brink “The Autonomy of Ethics” The Cambridge Companion to Atheism, ed Michael Martin (Cambridge :Cambridge University Press, 2007) 159.
[2] Ibid, note 17, 164.
[3] See Raymond Westbrook, “The Character of Ancient Near Eastern Law,” in A History of Ancient Near Eastern Law, Vol. 1, ed. Raymond Westbrook (Boston: Brill Academic Publishers, 2003) 74.
[4] Code of Hammurabi, 195-196, also 199.
[5] Westbrook “The Character of Ancient Near Eastern Law,” 71-78.
[6] Ibid.
[7] Ibid.
[8] Ibid.
[9] J. J. Finkelstein The Ox that Gored (Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society, 1981) 34-35.
[10] Joe Sprinkle “The Interpretation of Exodus 21:22-25 (Lex Talonis) and Abortion,” Westminster Theological Journal 55 (1993) 241
[11] Finkelstein The Ox that Gored 35.
[12] Sprinkle “The Interpretation of Exodus” 238.
[13] Ibid.
[14] Ibid, 233-53.
[15] Bernard Jackson. “The Problems of Exodus 21:22-25 (Ius Talionis),” Vetus Testamentum 23 (1973) 288-290.
[16] Num. 35:22.
[17] Jackson “The Problems of Exodus” 239.
[18] Walter Kaiser, “Gods Promise Plan and his Gracious Law,” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 35:3 (1992) 293.

Cross Posted at MandM


Did quantum fluctuations create the universe?

Given the discussion raised by Stephen Hawking’s latest book, some of our readers might find this reply, posted by Professor Edgar Andrews on an discussion thread, useful:

[pk_box width=”600″ align=”none” text_align=”left”]

“Nobody made evolution. It arises as a natural and inescapable consequence of the laws of nature in the universe in which we find ourselves, which themselves are a natural and inescapable consequence of the completely random quantum fluctuation which caused the big bang, at which point the “laws” of causality break down so it is meaningless to enquire who or what caused that.”

“But that really doesn’t wash, does it? In the same breath you say the big bang was caused by quantum fluctuations and then claim that it is meaningless to enquire what caused the big bang. That may be post-modernism but it certainly isn’t logic (or physics for that matter). But there are deeper fallacies with your explanations, as follows:

1) The laws of nature, you say, are the “inescapable consequences” of “completely random quantum fluctuations”. By what logic can inescapable consequences arise from random events? Random events can only lead to contingent consequences but to be “inescapable” the consequences cannot be contingent but must be determinate (necessary).

2) For the laws of nature to be a “consequence” of anything, the principle of causality must operate. Without causality there can be neither causes nor consequences. But you then tell us that back beyond the big bang the laws of causality break down. You really cannot have it both ways.

3) You say the big bang was “caused” by “random quantum fluctuations”. Quite apart from reinforcing my last point by invoking causality prior to the existence of the cosmos, you have to answer a different question … fluctuations in what? Before the big bang there existed neither matter, energy, space nor time, so by definition there could be no fluctuations in any of these entities. (If you claim there was something of a material nature “there” before the big bang, we are no longer talking about the ultimate origin of the universe).

3) Next comes another question. Are not quantum fluctuations themselves a manifestation of natural law (e.g. the laws of quantum mechanics)? How then could quantum fluctuations be the ultimate cause of natural law as you claim? Did the laws governing quantum fluctuation invent themselves? Not even Stephen Hawking believes that.”[/pk_box]

Edgar Andrews is the Emeritus Professor of Materials at the University of London and author of the excellent book, Who Made God? Searching for a Theory of Everything. Who Made God? is available from Amazon and New Zealand bookstores (Grace & Truth Publications has copies available for $24 NZD).

Stephen Hawking, God, and the Origin of the Universe

The controversial claims of Stephen Hawking’s new book, The Grand Design, have been hitting headlines and igniting debate. In an article at The Wall Street Journal, adapted from his book, Hawking (with Leonard Mlodinow) writes:

“As recent advances in cosmology suggest, the laws of gravity and quantum theory allow universes to appear spontaneously from nothing. Spontaneous creation is the reason there is something rather than nothing, why the universe exists, why we exist. It is not necessary to invoke God to light the blue touch paper and set the universe going.”

Spontaneous creation may not be all that new as a theory for the origin of the universe but with an advocate such as Hawking behind them, all that changes. But what of the responses? Although The Grand Design isn’t out yet (and the provocative nature of his statements will no doubt further heighten anticipation), some have addressed Hawking’s incipient claims:

John Lennox, Professor of Mathematics at the University of Oxford, offers some thoughts in a piece for The Daily Mail:

“As both a scientist and a Christian, I would say that Hawking’s claim is misguided. He asks us to choose between God and the laws of physics, as if they were necessarily in mutual conflict.

But contrary to what Hawking claims, physical laws can never provide a complete explanation of the universe. Laws themselves do not create anything, they are merely a description of what happens under certain conditions.”

James Anderson, Assistant Professor of Theology and Philosophy at Reformed Theological Seminary, writes on his blog:

“If Hawking really has proven that the laws of nature are logically necessary, that would be a stupendous scientific breakthrough: a dead cert for a Nobel prize. But then why didn’t he publish it in a peer-reviewed scientific journal rather than a popular science book  (as The Grand Design appears to be)? Furthermore, if the laws of nature really are logically necessary then our knowledge of them couldn’t be based on empirical observation (despite what we’ve always thought) because empirical observations cannot in principle establish necessary truths (such as the laws of logic and the laws of arithmetic). Our observations can only tell us what actually is the case and not what must be the case.

If Hawking thinks there is some law or principle that explains the very existence of the universe, he must have in mind a metaphysical law rather than a physical law. Unless I’m much mistaken, the law of gravity is a physical law. It appears that Hawking intends to leave behind physics (a subject on which he is eminently qualified to speak) and enter the realm of metaphysics (a subject on which he has no particular expertise, so far as I know). It’s more than a little ironic therefore to find Hawking declaring on the very first page of his new book that “philosophy is dead.” If philosophy is dead, why is Hawking now turning his hand to philosophy? No, philosophy is in very good health, despite its frequent mistreatment at the hands of scientists.”

Moral Truth Matters

“Obviously the project of moral persuasion is very difficult — but it strikes me as especially difficult if you can’t figure out in what sense anyone could ever be right and wrong about questions of morality or about questions of human values . . .

There are impediments . . . the main one being that most right-thinking, well-educated, and well-intentioned people — certainly most scientists and public intellectuals, and I would guess, most journalists — have been convinced that something in the last 200 years of intellectual progress has made it impossible to actually speak about “moral truth.” Not because human experience is so difficult to study or the brain too complex, but because there is thought to be no intellectual basis from which to say that anyone is ever right or wrong about questions of good and evil.

My aim is to undermine this assumption, which is now the received opinion in science and philosophy. I think it is based on several fallacies and double standards and, frankly, on some bad philosophy. The first thing I should point out is that, apart from being untrue, this view has consequences.

In 1947, when the United Nations was attempting to formulate a universal declaration of human rights, the American Anthropological Association stepped forward and said, it can’t be done. This would be to merely foist one provincial notion of human rights on the rest of humanity. Any notion of human rights is the product of culture, and declaring a universal conception of human rights is an intellectually illegitimate thing to do. This was the best our social sciences could do with the crematory of Auschwitz still smoking.

But, of course, it has long been obvious that we need to converge, as a global civilization, in our beliefs about how we should treat one another. For this, we need some universal conception of right and wrong. So in addition to just not being true, I think skepticism about moral truth actually has consequences that we really should worry about.”

Sam Harris at the Edge Conference: “The New Science of Morality”

If you’re living in Auckland, don’t forget our event next week with Glenn Peoples addressing Sam Harris’ claims about science and morality.