The Doctrine of Continuous Creation - by Dr. C. Matthew McMahonArticles on the Christian Walk, Systematic Theology and Practical Theology
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In the realm of Christian Theology there are certain theological subjects that stretch our minds further than our capacity. These subjects move above and beyond our conception for complete thought about a given subject. For instance, we can understand things about God, but cannot comprehend Him completely – to attempt such is beyond our capacity as human beings. We are finite in our thinking and thus finite in our thoughts about Him. Yes, we can understand that He is holy, but to understand His holiness comprehensively is impossible. The reason is obvious – we have finite brains which cannot contain an infinite amount of data concerning God’s holiness. Only God can rightly interpret the fullness of His own being. However, there are other subjects which stretch our mind in the exercise of thought. For instance, there are doctrines that are hard to understand, but they are understandable if we press our minds to grasp the concepts surrounding those doctrines. It is never true that we will grasp the whole measure of any doctrine. However, that should never stop us in the exercise of our minds on difficult topics, or even those topics which may not be in the popular realm of Christian thought. One of these topics is called the Doctrine of Continuous Creation.
The Doctrine of Continuous Creation is akin to the idea of God’s preservation. God has created all that exists out of nothing by the Word of His power. In creating all things, He also upholds all things. He holds them all together throughout their existence. The Bible is very clear on this (Col. 1:17; Acts 17:28, etc.) The providence of God’s preserving power covers every area of the created order. Now, Continuous Creation exists as a further thought of what preservation teaches. Not only does God preserve the created order, but that God’s preserving things in existence is no different from His continuously creating them. This is where it is important to make a distinction. It is very easy to believe that God made the apple tree and then, by His power, He continues to hold it together, otherwise it would cease to exist. God is the power behind the apple tree’s consistency. The question arises, though, is this really a preserving, or is it a recreation of the same substance continually? Questions like that receive two immediate results; 1) they give us a migraine, or 2) they are dismissed as something not needful to think about. Option 1 I can understand. Option 2 is not really an option. Understanding how this all really works would help us magnify the Creator and Sustainer of the universe to a greater degree by those He has created. Yet, we should never stop thinking just because our capacity for thought is challenged.
First, let us be sure the Bible teaches that God continually preserves creation all the time. This is fundamental to the Bible and easy to prove. Two New Testament verses come to mind; Colossians 1:17 and Acts 17:28. Colossians 1:17 states, “And he is before all things, and by him all things consist.” The verb “consists” is an imperfect verb. That means it was initiated in the past but continues to be active from that time into the future with no ending point. That is an important tense to understand. This doctrine will make no sense unless you grasp this. God is still working, even now, to uphold creation. Christ attests to this continual work in John 5:17 when He said, “But Jesus answered them, “My Father has been working until now, and I have been working.”
Also, the “all things” of the verse is not “some things.” In Him everything consists, from mice to rocks to super novas – He continually holds their being in place. There is nothing working out there on its own. There is no maverick molecule or autonomous atom running around outside of the consistency of the power of God.
Acts 17:28 also speaks to this issue very poignantly where Paul states, “For in him we live, and move, and have our being; as certain also of your own poets have said, “For we are also his offspring.” The climax and point Paul makes here is that creation, all of creation, which includes all men, is continually upheld by the power of the “unknown God.” All men have their being in God. That does not mean they are God, but it does mean that without God’s sustaining power, men would not exist. They are continually upheld in their being in Him. It is His power of preservation that holds the fabric of cells, water, blood, veins, organs and the like to continue in their respective being.
Now we put on our deductive thinking caps. We have some ideas to run through. Jonathan Edwards and Richard Sibbs wrote on this subject to a great degree. They found the Doctrine of Continuous Creation a cornerstone in their whole thought processes about the preservation of God’s power over the created order. It caused them to magnify Him all the more. In thinking thoughts after God, and other men, I thought it would be helpful to use some of Edwards’ ideas while thinking through this on our own as well.
First question: do created “things” (and things can be anything, but for our purposes “things” are going to be apple trees) have power in and of themselves to exist? The answer to this is “no.” If that is true, then this next proposition comes into play: apples trees exist either by an antecedent existence or by the power of a Creator. This seems to be obvious and just a more sophisticated way of saying the former but keeping with the line of thought. Edwards states, “It is plain, nothing can exert itself, or operate, when and where it is not existing [because] what is past entirely ceases when present existence begins…it does no more co-exist with it, than it does any other moment that had ceased twenty years ago.” What Edwards is saying is that the past has no power to sustain that which is in the present or that which is in the future. If this is true, and no thinking person could say otherwise, then each successive moment must be the effect of God’s power. God, then, is continuously upholding the apple tree upon every moment of its existence. Edwards then says, “God’s upholding created substance, or causing its existence in each successive moment, is altogether equivalent to an immediate production out of nothing, at each moment, because its existence at this moment is not merely in part from God, but wholly from him; and not in any part, or degree, from its antecedent existence.” God, then, continually recreates the apple tree in each moment that it exists. Its existence hinges on the reality that God continues to create it in that manner. Its past existence does not hold the existence of the tree in its present state, thus God must recreate the tree instantaneously moment to moment. Edwards explains this “philosophically” in this way, “If the existence of created substance, in each successive moment, be wholly the effect of God’s immediate power, in that moment, without any dependence on prior existence, as much as the first creation out of nothing, then what exists at this moment, by this power, is a new effect; and simply and absolutely considered, not the same with any past existence, though it be like it, and follows it according to a certain established method. And there is no identity or oneness in the case, but what depends on the arbitrary constitution of the Creator; who by his wise sovereign establishment so unites these successive new effects, that he treats them as one, by communicating to them like properties, relations, and circumstances; and so, leads us to regard and treat them as one.” I agree.
A helpful illustration would be a movie film “in the can.” Movies “in the can” mean they have been finished and are ready to be distributed. The movie is one movie and should be treated as such. It is not a sequence of 18,000 movies, but the 18,000 frames make it one whole movie. The individual segments, or frames, give the movie its actual substance. Like the one movie, the one apple tree is one apple tree made up of successive moments which all combine together to make the one complete life of the tree – even if it grows, bears fruit, is chopped down, etc. God upholds the tree. He preserves the tree in every successive moment of the tree’s existence. Like the individual frames make up the movie, so the individual successive moments, which have nothing to do with the previous moment, make up the whole life of the tree.
I like to illustrate this whole concept of God’s continual recreation of the substance of tree in the form of an illustration based on light and reflection. In helping my wife understand this difficult concept I used a visual aid of her standing in front of the mirror while the lights were on. Then I shut the lights off and we could no longer see her image in the mirror because it was night and now it was pitch black in the room. Then I turned the lights back on and her image again appeared because of the light bouncing off her.
Imagine we have stick man standing in front of a mirror with a small light on next to him illuminating the room. The reflection of the stick man is in the mirror because the lamp is on. The light is hitting the stick man, and in turn the spectrum of color is bouncing off his image and creating the reflection in the mirror. The light that is traveling from the lamp to the man is continuous. It is not the same light bouncing off him as he stands there, but new light recreating the image every time the new light particles bounces off him and reflects his image in the mirror. As energy and heat travel through the bulb’s filament in the lamp, out into the “air” as light, it hits his image and then reflects this image off the visible mirror; it is only then that we see his image. Now to us, it looks as though the image does not move. It looks like it is just there in the mirror. However, the particles of moving light are traveling at such a high rate of speed that the image looks that way, but is really being replaced by new light as it travels in the reflection. New particles of light continually bounce off the stick man into the mirror to create the image.
Now lets shut the light off. What do we have now? Since the light is off there is no more reflection. As a matter of fact everything in the room is “gone” because there is no light bouncing off of anything. Thus, no images are created. Not one particle of light is reflecting in the mirror and creating the image of the stick man any longer. Rather, the darkness proves to us that the light has a beginning and an ending. The particles of light bounce off the stick figure into the mirror and the new light which emanates from the lamp continually creates the image while the light is on. We cannot see those particles because they are too small and seem to us as simply “the light” and not a zillions of particles floating around through the space. However, we know that while the lamp is off, those particles are not traveling or bouncing off anything anywhere in the room – that is why the room is dark. The same thing would happen to the universe if God stopped the continual use of His creating and preserving power. Nothing else would exist because the “light” stopped. The reflection of the stick man, while the light is out, does not “exist.” The universe, in turn, would not exist if God stopped His successive creation of it in each moment. Though we have years, months, weeks and days (even hours, minutes and seconds) where we divide time up, though it may seem one “day” to us, in reality, like the reflection in the mirror, the day is made up of a host of “moments.” In each individual moment (however long a “moment” may be) God continues to “create” or “preserve” the universe by continual creation.
Before any kind of “application” is drawn from this concept (and there are many), I do want to raise an issue concerning the most solid objection to this doctrine. A. A. Hodge best states the objection; both he and his father Charles Hodge were of one mind on this against Edwards and Sibbs. A.A. Hodge says this in his work The Confession of Faith, “Some true Christian theologians have taken a view of the relation of God to the world which comes perilously near, if it does not coincide with, this great Pantheistic heresy. This view is, that God’s power is constantly exerted in continually creating every individual thing again and again every fraction of duration; that created things have no real being of their own, and exist only as thus they are each moment the product of creative energy; and hence that the immediate cause of the state or action of any creature one moment of time is not its state or action the previous moment, but the direct act of divine creative power. If this be so, it is plain that God is the only real agent in the universe; that he is the immediate cause of all things, including all evil passions and wicked thoughts and acts; that consciousness is a thorough delusion, and the free agency and moral accountability of man vain imaginations.” (page 92, Banner of Truth Edition) This is a very important charge. Hodge is saying that “some true Christian theologians” (i.e. Edwards, et al.) are either coming perilously close to Pantheism, or have crossed over (ouch!). Yes, this is a serious accusation indeed. If it were true, then these “true Christian theologians” would not be “true Christian theologians” at all but heretics. They would be Pantheists.
In looking at Hodge’s statement, the misapplication of his idea, and of his father’s for that matter, is the following phrase, “…that created things have no real being of their own, and exist only as thus they are each moment the product of creative energy…” However, the phrase itself is a contradiction in the thinking mind. Hodge is mixing things up at this point. First, Edwards nor Sibbs, or anyone else holding this view, ever equates the being of God with the being of the created thing. The created thing, the apple tree for instance, is not God. Its being, in whatever manner an apple tree is an apple tree, is a product of divine power, but not equal to the divine essence. Otherwise, Pantheism would be true. “God is the tree and the tree is God” is completely pantheistic. No true Christian theologian would ever say this or even concede to it generally. But to say that the apple tree is the product of divine power, but has its owns being in and of itself in that particular moment as a cause of the creative power of God, is not in any way, even to assert, that the tree is of the same substance as God. If God created any “thing”, and let’s assume the doctrine of continuous creation was not true, but that we were deists, what difference would it make if God created something to exist on its own for a single moment, or created something to exist on its own for 5 minutes? The duration of time is immaterial to the idea at hand. Hodge missed this completely. The Creator/creature distinction is not at odds at all with the Doctrine of Continuous Creation. The only difference is the duration of time that the being of a thing exists.
Some theologians take a different angle on the objection. Some like Paul Quinn, a more modern thinker, argues that the “thesis is absurd” since he believes no human action would be warranted – not even the fall of Adam in the garden. But again, thinkers in this arena are not making the Creator/creature distinction. If this distinction is not made, and men are merely robotic creations, then by all means both these men have a case. But neither Edwards nor Sibbs would ever state such a thing, or see this doctrine inevitably resulting in such a quandary. And it makes no difference whether someone thinks it is “absurd” if Scripture attests to it. Certainly it is true that we lie and move and have our being in Him. There is no other manner in which to adequately account for such language.
Hebrews 1:3 is a bulwark for the Doctrine of Continuous Creation in that it shows how God upholds everything, “who being the brightness of His glory and the express image of His person, and upholding all things by the word of His power, when He had by Himself purged our sins, sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high…” The power of upholding the universe is through the spoken word. It is the same spoken word by which the Genesis account is narrated as the manner of creation. God spoke and things come into existence. God continues to speak and, by the power of His Word, all things are continually created as such.
The very fabrics of our souls are held together by the power of God’s Word. Psalm 66:8-9 says, “Oh, bless our God, you peoples! And make the voice of His praise to be heard, who keeps our soul among the living, And does not allow our feet to be moved.” The word keeps is better translated “holds” or “puts.” It is a positive action that God continues to “hold” our soul in life. Psalm 63:8 says this in another manner when it asserts, “My soul follows close behind You; Your right hand upholds me.” Here God’s upholding power is a manner and means of assurance to the Psalmist. And at other times the Psalmist is obvious and blatant when he says, “Your righteousness is like the great mountains; Your judgments are a great deep; O LORD, You preserve man and beast.” (Psalm 36:6)
We should be taken back by the sheer magnitude of this doctrine. We “think” we have a grasp on God’s sovereignty, but in reality, we are barely scratching the surface of these ideas, or just spying the tip of the iceberg. This particular line of thinking came about for me personally while I thought through a statement made in the book of Leviticus. Leviticus 14:34 makes a starting proclamation (at least I thought so) when God says, “When ye be come into the land of Canaan, which I give to you for a possession, and I put the plague of leprosy in a house of the land of your possession…” Did you catch that? God places the leprosy in the house. He puts it there. He is giving instructions on what to do when He does this. (What does this say about cancer, aids, etc.?) My thoughts ran through this verse with the doctrine of Continuous Creation in mind. Here is God upholding the fabric of the house. He is responsible for it moment by moment. Suddenly, by the word of His power, He manipulates, changes, adapts, invokes, the molecules and atoms which make up “leprosy” perse, to be created and present as leprosy in the house. This to me is mind-boggling. It is not enough that God simply knows everything, but thinking through such texts reminded me of how much God keeps in mind and manipulates every second of every moment. Yes, this is something which blows the human mind, but at the same time, it also elevates it to a plane of praise and adoration for the Christian. Are you not exceedingly happy that God is so in control of such things?
There is a skin problem called Sebahoric Dermatitis. It is a skin disorder where cells do not mature. So cells live, wither up and then die rapidly – most of the time overnight. It usually appears around the base of the hairline, eyebrows, ears, etc. These cells simply do not grow, but the body continues to make them because the need for complete healing in that area demands the body’s response. Sometimes this can be behind in all of these places at one time: the ear, along the eyebrows, on the scalp, in a mustache, on the nose, etc. If it is not treated it can be very painful. The cells simply fall away and so in those areas it can sometimes look as if the person has a “road rash.” Sometimes they can even begin bleeding. With proper medication it can be kept relatively under control. I have this “thorn” myself. Here is where I think about God’s preserving power. He continually creates and sustains this in my body every moment. He could simply change the molecular structure of these cells to mature and look like normal skin again, but instead He chooses to create them as immature cells so that this condition continues. It is something I may have to live with the rest of my life unless God allows men to find a cure. But think about the sheer power of God, His purposes, and His care for me. He is truly sovereign – and what am I able to say to Him? I can pray, and ask that the thorn be removed. But as with Paul it may be that He desires me to live through with this thorn, and allow His grace to be sufficient for me. Would that be OK? As difficult as it is to admit humanly speaking since I want to be delivered from this, I must say, “yes, I am OK with that.” But I am only OK with it because I know He has the complete and utter power to either continue to preserve me as such, or to take the affliction away. His power is of the greatest magnitude. It is unfathomable. This doctrine of Continuous Creation helps me to live life in a manner in which I am content in Him and His providences, though they may be hard, whether outward afflictions or inward afflictions. I know He is in control, even down to the very fabric of my being from moment to moment.
I suppose many other applications could be made like how this works with “the will of men”; how God sustains the animals, rocks and trees in their instinctive environments; how this applies to those who have cancer, aids and the like; how God practically continues to uphold the wicked even when they are sinning; how this applies to the second law of thermodynamics, etc. But I think this would be more helpful if you, the reader, took a moment of your time today and sat down and pondered how this doctrine affects you personally. God is holding your eyeballs together right now as you read. His hand is holding your soul in continual life. His sovereignty is residing over every molecule in your body. How does that make you feel? Happy? Joyful? Mad? Angry? Is it OK that God is that sovereign and exercises such sovereignty over you? Does it cause you to pause that God, in His infinite mercy, would continue to create you with breath in your lungs moment to moment? And so when you read this last line, what will you do? Will you go off and praise Him? Will you resound His blessed name? What do you think about this doctrine and the manner in which it so closely relates to who you are? It is very true that in Him we live and move and have our being. AMEN.