When John 1:3 says that God made all things, does that mean that uncreated abstract objects don’t exist?
A friend today brought my attention to his question, put to William Lane Craig, on whether or not the existence of uncreated abstract objects is compatible with biblical teaching. The question concerns a disagreement that Bill Craig has with Peter Van Inwagen of Notre Dame University. It might be helpful, therefore, if I outline the background to the disagreement.
Peter Van Inwagen believes in platonic or abstract objects. These are non-physical, eternal things that do not need to be created but just exist. Examples would include the number 1, properties, and even possible worlds. These objects exist necessarily, says Van Inwagen. They exist in all possible worlds. This means, for example, “that the number 510 would exist no matter what.”1
Now we should be careful how we characterise this notion of “existence.” Van Inwagen adds:
If the notion of an abstract object makes sense at all, it seems evident that if everything were an abstract object, if the only objects were abstract objects, there is an obvious and perfectly good sense in which there would be nothing at all, for there would be no physical things, no stuffs, no events, no space, no time, no Cartesian egos, no God. When people want to know why there is anything at all, they want to know why that bleak state of affairs does not obtain.2
Abstract objects, according to Van Inwagen, are not “out there” in the world of things in creation. If they were the only things that existed, then in the same sense that people ask why there is something rather than nothing, nothing would really exist. Speaking this way, then, “all things” that exist can be thought of in an everyday sense not to include abstract objects. This clarification is necessary in order to avoid misunderstandings of Van Inwagen’s view.
Bill Craig doesn’t think this is an acceptable position for a Christian to hold. He believes that the existence of uncreated abstract objects is at irreconcilable odds with both the Nicene Creed and – more importantly for most Christians – with the teaching of the Bible. The opening words of the Nicene Creed affirm that God is the creator of all things, both “seen and unseen.” What is more, the author of the Gospel of John, in chapter 1 verse 3, says that through the logos (seen as a reference to Christ)ings were made.” Van Inwagen then, holds to a view that is incompatible with historic and biblical Christianity, says Craig.
But Peter Van Inwagen thinks that he has a way out. People often speak in all-encompassing terms even though they have a limited scope in mind. Sometimes we say “everyone knows that…” knowing full well that not literally everyone knows it. If I address a piece of legislation about the standards that cars must meet before they can be driven on the road in New Zealand, and while I am speaking I say “all cars need to meet these safety standards,” you could always say that this isn’t quite true because cars that are not driven on the road don’t have to meet those standards. But in context I never intended to speak about those cars, so what I say is still true. According to Van Inwagen, we can read the Nicene Creed as only intending to speak in terms of concrete objects, and not abstract objects. The same would have to be said of biblical texts like John 1:3 that declare that God made “all” things. Recall that in Van Inwagen’s view, there is a straight forward sense in which if everything apart from abstract objects were to cease to exist, then nothing would exist.
Now, Dr Craig has historical objections to reading the Nicene Creed this way, and I will not be addressing that issue. My comments here are prompted by a question that appeared in the Q and A section of Craig’s Reasonable Faith website. This is a question about whether or not John 1:3 really poses a problem for Van Inwagen or not. Now let me be clear: I make no pretensions about being an expert in biblical Greek. I am absolutely dependent on the scholarly resources of others who are experts, along with my capacity to question the quality of the arguments they use based on the data that they mine from the Greek text. The question comes from my friend Andrew, and is listed as question 210. Andrew writes:
In order to provide theological evidence against van Inwagen’s contention, you cited John 1:3 to the effect that all things came into being through The Word. However, I am not entirely convinced that the verse you cite supports the strong stance you take against abstract objects. John 1:3 says: “Through Him all things were made; without Him nothing was made that has been made” (NIV).
When I checked the dictionary, something was defined as “made” if it was in some way “contrived” or “invented”. As such, it could be argued that the domain of universal quantification in John 1:3 is restricted to objects that are “made” and thereby contingent since it seems plausible to suppose that a necessary condition of an object being “made” is that it’s contingent.
Thus when John 1:3 says that “…without Him nothing was made that has been made”, it essentially says that without God, contingent objects would not exist but says nothing about the existence of necessary objects.
My question then, is “why is it illegitimate to suppose that the wording of John 1:3 does not itself contain a restricted domain of quantification (namely to contingent objects)?”
A good question! In fact after seeing this question, I checked all the translations of the New Testament that I have at home, and observed that as a pattern all the traditional translations of John 1:3 do make this qualification that the verse speaks only of the things that were created:
English Standard Version: “All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made.”
King James Version: “All things were made by him; and without him was not any thing made that was made.”
New International Version: “Through Him all things were made; without Him nothing was made that has been made.”
New American Standard Version: “All things came into being through Him, and apart from Him nothing came into being that has come into being.”
Revised Berkeley Version (Gideon Bible): “Through him everything came into being and without him nothing that exists came into being.”
The pattern is fairly consistent in all of these versions. In each case the translation committee has decided that when saying that without the logos nothing exists, the writer meant to refer to all the things that were created or came into being at some point. Thus, this particular verse does not present a problem for someone who thinks that there are uncreated abstract objects, for they would be beyond the scope of John’s claim.
Bill’s reply is twofold. Firstly he emphasises that the first half of the verse states that “all things” were created by God through the logos. He notes that this is what the Greek terms emphatically state and there is no ambiguity. Of course, this reply is largely unnecessary. Nobody has raised the suggestion that maybe “all things” doesn’t really mean “all things.” But just as we sometimes speak in universal terms in English when we’re assuming that people will think in terms of a limited scope when reading us, the same is perfectly possible in Greek. What is more, John 1:3 is a parallelism, where an idea is expressed by way of two statements, and details that are left out of one of those statements can certainly be filled in with the other. Thus, the second half that states the scope of the claim (i.e. only referring to things that have been made) can quite plausibly be seen as placing a limit on the scope of the first half, no matter how straight-forwardly the first half, all by itself, might appear to have a universal scope. I do not think there is any need, therefore, to dissect Bill’s claim that the first part of the verse states in a straight forward way that God made all things. Nobody disputes this.
The second part of Bill’s response is where I will focus, since this is what carries all the real persuasive force. His argument is that the final words “that was made” does not really belong to the sentence in verse 3, but it really belongs to the next sentence in verse 4. The majority of English translators, he says, have simply gotten it wrong. Although they were not unanimous, the majority of the editorial committee for the United Bible Society share this view, giving a B rating for the ending of this sentence with egeneto oude hen (“not a thing was made”). The B rating indicates strong likelihood (with an A rating indicating something like certainty).
There are indeed some translations that agree with what Bill claims, dividing these passage up differently just as he suggests, pushing the reference to “that was made” into the next sentence. The first such exception to the norm that I noted was the NRSV. Verses 3 and 4 of the NRSV read thus: “All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being (verse 4) in him was life, and the life was the light of all people.”
What? “What has come into being in him was life”? What does this mean? Perhaps realising that this is clumsy English with at best an unclear meaning, the translation committee for the NRSV add this footnote as an alternative translation: “And without him not one thing came into being that has come into being.”
The New English Bible also divides the sentences up this way, but in order to mould this strangely connected series of words into something that makes sense, it reads: “… no single thing was created without him. All that came to be was alive with his life, and that life was the light of men.” This has the advantage of being more intelligible than the NRSV, but this intelligibility comes at a price, and it is not as faithful to the underlying Greek as the NRSV. There’s nothing penned by John that answers to “was alive.” This has been added to smooth over a sentence that would otherwise make little sense.
This, I submit, is the weakness of Bill’s exegetical argument here. He says that the end of the sentence should occur before ho genonen (“that was made”). He considers what verse 3 would mean with these words included, and what it would mean with these words excluded. But this may be a case of being so focused on the wood that one loses sight of the trees. What Bill does not do is to address the question: “OK, so if these words do not belong with verse 3, then exactly where do they belong and what do they mean?” Part of the argument for including them at the end of verse three is that they make sense there, but they make decidedly less sense when combined with the sentence in verse 4. If verse 4 reads, as most translations say, “In him was life, and the life was the light of men,” then it is relatively clear what is being claimed. Christ has life in himself, as John says elsewhere in 5:26 – “For as the Father has life in himself, so he has granted the Son also to have life in himself.” This life gives light to human beings (and elsewhere John speaks both of people passing from darkness to light and from death to life when they come to God through Christ). But if we follow the NRSV, which divides the verses in the manner that Craig suggests, we have John saying that through Christ life itself came into being as a created thing, and this life gives light to all people. But theologically this is quite out of place in John, who says (again, in 5:26) that the Father has life in himself, and hence life did not come into being as a creative act of God through the logos (now of course, this is not to say that life is an abstract object!). That this division of sentences causes both awkwardness and a theological tension within John’s Gospel should give Craig pause, and a reason to give a little more consideration to the eminent Greek scholar and textual critic Bruce Meztger’s rejection of the argument that he advances. Disagreeing with his peers on the UBS editorial committee, Metzger noted that John frequently begins a clause with en, which begins the traditional reading of verse 4, and also offered the more technical observation that the perfect tense of gegonen requires the present tense estin in verse 4 rather than the imperfect en. Metzger makes the observation that we can also make about the NRSV, that if the sentence really began with ho gegonen then what we would have is an “intolerably clumsy and opaque” sentence.3 It is reduced to difficult reading and a highly uncertain meaning.
I haven’t said that uncreated abstract objects really exist. But what I am quite certain of is that John 1:3 does not mean that uncreated abstract objects don’t exist. In the first place, as Van Inwagen noted, they are not to be construed as existing out there in the same way that other things exist in the first place, and if they were the only things that exist then we could honestly say in normal English that nothing exists. Secondly, John really does limit his scope in 1:3 by adding that it is specifically speaking about the fact that through the logos everything that was made – was made. Nobody else created anything else, so if anything at all was created, God did it through the logos. This does not inform us one way or the other on whether or not there are abstract objects that do not belong to the category of things “that were made.”
- Peter Van Inwagen, Ontology, Identity, and Modality: Essays in Metaphysics (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001), 58.
- Van Inwagen, Ontology, Identity, and Modality, 58.
- Bruce Metzger, A Textual Commentary On The Greek New Testament (Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft, D-Stuttgart, 1994, 2nd ed.), electronic edition.