“Creation out of nothing.” I love this doctrine and I think the hope of the gospel requires it, for the gratuity of creation is the grace of the gospel. But, as we’ve argued here a lot, you only get that kind of absolute gratuity (and grace) if God is, correspondingly, absolutely full. So far so good.
But we also think this is true only because the corresponding divine fullness is a concrete, lived, experienced fullness, an existential fullness (to use what words we have). That is, what grounds creation’s gratuity is what God actually is apart from creation (or any determination to create). But such an actuality is ruled out by Protestants and classical theists for whom God isn’t actually anything apart from creating because there is no actual God who has not determined to create. On the Orthodox side this is gotten at by viewing God as absolutely, timelessly immutable (in terms of God’s being actus purus or ‘pure act’). But in this case the freedom and fullness of God’s life independent of creation (which actual freedom ought to ground creation’s own freedom) reduces to mere abstraction. And that’s the problem, because no abstraction has the power to save. On the Protestant side this is gotten at (variously by Jenson or some readings of Barth’s actualism) by barring the door to speculating what God is or isn’t independent of his determination to create.
In making God absolutely timeless and immutable, everything that is ever true of God in relationship to creation is timelessly/eternally true of God, and everything God ever experiences in relationship to creation is timelessly/eternally known to (and thus experienced by) God, in which case God has no experience of himself that doesn’t include us (via his determination to create). For us this poses a real problem, because it forces us (to borrow a phrase from Robert Jenson, though not to engage his related arguments for the same conclusion) to “perform an abstraction upon the living/biblical God.” Jenson doesn’t perform the abstraction. For us, however, the grace of the gospel just is the concrete, lived/experienced fullness of God’s triune being as God, and this grace (in turn) is grounded in the gratuity of creation, which is what CEN is about. But this life is never an actuality for God classically understood, nor as understood by many Protestants who reject classical metaphysics, because in either case God never knows himself without knowing himself as the God determined to create. God has no knowledge of himself, no actual experience of himself as God, in terms of any concrete freedom from the determination to create (which determination is one and the same with creation’s ‘actual being’). In classical theism, the wonderful truth of ‘divine aseity’ (understood as the fullness of God’s triune life sans creation) thus reduces to mere abstraction. There’s no ‘actual’ God who is ever free ‘in his actuality’ from the determination to create. God doesn’t know what it’s like to be God apart from having determined to create. We think this is bad news precisely because it offers us a God who has no experience of being actually free and infinitely full apart from being determined to create us. And what he is not he cannot offer.
One last thought. David Hart (representing the Orthodox tradition) rejects understanding God’s freedom from creation in any crude libertarian manner, conceived as God being free to choose from among a menu of “possible words” given to him. But whatever crudeness needs to be avoided can be avoided without depriving God’s self-sufficient fullness of its actuality as ground of the gratuity of creation and the grace of the gospel. If we need to, let’s not suppose there to be an infinite number of ‘possible worlds’ that God deliberates over to finally settle on this world. Let this world, or the initial created state from which this world evolves, be the only contingent creation conceivable. Fine. Just conceive this one possibility as contingent, grounded in the fullness of God’s life as actual apart from any determination to create. This is no abstraction performed upon the living God. It is the truth of God’s actual freedom and our freedom in God.