It just dawned on my a few weeks ago when I finally picked up Robert Jenson’s SysTheo (vol 1) that I hadn’t touched a Protestant author in a few years. And Jenson was my re-entry welcome. I’m still recovering (and still reading him).
I’ve also just picked up and am enjoying another Lutheran, Ian McFarland, his From Nothing: A Theology of Creation (2014). McFarland is Regius Professor of Divinity at the University of Cambridge (Emory prior to that and Aberdeen before that). From Nothing is a re-presentation of the traditional understanding of creatio ex nihilo (creation from nothing) in light of contemporary objections and problems. There are three important passages from his Introduction which nicely summarize where he’s headed, and I’d like to present those here as Parts 1, 2, and 3. Enjoy.
IMPLICATIONS AND PROBLEMS
In deciding for creation from nothing, Theophilus pays a conceptual price. If Tertullian is to be believed, Hermogenes rejected ex nilhilo because it implied that God was responsible for the evident imperfections in the created order, thereby undermining Christian convictions regarding God’s goodness and wisdom. For him (like the gnostics) the doctrine of creation provided a solution to the problem of evil: if God is not responsible for the existence of matter, then the evils that attend material existence cannot be blamed on God; to put it colloquially, God cannot be expected to make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear. In short, while the gnostics used the doctrine of creation as a theodicy, for Theophilus it no longer plays this role. Evil cannot be explained as a natural consequence of creation. It is rather a deeply irrational perversion of creation that emerges as the result of the inexplicable fact that creatures reject God’s will for them.
Instead of using the doctrine of creation to generate a theodicy, Theophilus turns it to the service of soteriology. This is not to say that for Theophilus creation is salvation, as though making the world were itself God’s means of defeating evil. Such a perspective would only reaffirm the basic structure of Platonist cosmology, because treating God’s creative work as a form of resistance to evil implies some (evil) reality existing alongside of God “in the beginning.” The soteriological cast of Theophilus’s account of creation from nothing is more indirect. It is not that creation is itself salvific (since only what already exists can be saved, and creation from nothing means precisely that things exist only after they have been created), but that creation from nothing is a necessary implication of Christian confidence in God’s ability to save. In Theophilus’s work this is revealed in the following attempt to explain the origins of the word “God”: “‘God’ [theos] is so named because he has placed [tetheikenai] all things in dependence on the security he provides; and because he runs [theein], and this running means giving all things power, motion, activity, nourishment, ends, direction, and life.”
The novelty of this perspective cannot be underestimated. The difference from Platonist views is evident from comparison with Justin, who is led by his belief in the ontological independence of matter to argue that God is unable to act directly on or be immediately present to creation: God is and remains outside of the phenomenal world. No less striking, however, is the difference from the vision of creation from nothing developed by Basilides, who also argues (albeit on different metaphysical grounds) against the possibility of direct divine involvement with the created order. Over against both these positions, Theophilus refuses to equate God’s transcendence of creation with remoteness or disconnection from the material order. Although God’s immensity means that God cannot be confined to a particular place, this does not signal divine absence but rather points to the fact that “the heights of heaven, the depths of hell, and the ends of the earth are in [God’s] hands.”
This feature of the catholic doctrine of creatio ex nihilo is even more prominent in the slightly later writing of Irenaeus of Lyons. He, too, describes the whole of the created order as in God’s hand, arguing that God’s power as Creator means that God contains the whole of creation: “There is nothing either above [God] nor after [God]; not…[was God] influenced by anyone, but of his own free will he created all things, since he is the only God, the only Lord, the only Creator, the only Father, alone containing all things, and himself commanding them into existence.”
For Irenaeus, a crucial corollary of this all-containing immensity is God’s incomprehensibility: because nothing is outside of God, the divine cannot be encompassed by human thought. And yet far from placing God at a distance from the world, this divine fullness establishes the most profound intimacy between Creator and creature: the same God “who fills the heavens and views the depths…is also present with everyone [sic] of us…For his hand lays hold of all things…is present in our hidden and secret parts, and publicly nourishes and preserves us.” God’s transcendence does not imply distance from creatures, but is rather the ground for God’s engagement with them.
This intimacy is central to the way in which, for both Theophilus and Irenaeus, the idea of creation from nothing turns the focus of the doctrine of creation from theodicy to soteriology. At one level this leads to a profoundly free act of God’s will, the question naturally arises as to the purpose for which God willed it, and Theophilus has no doubts here: God made the world so that through it God might come to be known by human beings, a view in which Irenaeus concurs. Crucially, however, the fulfillment of this purpose is dependent on God’s presence and power within the created order…
All this is not is not to claim that appreciation for God’s power to save emerged only after Christians formulated the doctrine of creation from nothing. Justin, for example, was no less able than Theophilus or Irenaeus to cite Jesus’ claim that “for God all things are possible” (Matt. 19:26) and thus to affirm the principle that God’s power exceeds all human expectation. Yet as much as a theologian like Justin could stress God’s power as a matter of piety, his emphasis on matter’s ontological independence of God rendered him conceptually incapable of viewing God as directly active in creation. Like Hermogenes (even if not as explicitly), he sees the character of matter as fundamentally incompatible with God’s unmediated presence to it, even though he affirms God’s lordship over it. By contrast, Irenaeus’s defense of creation from nothing makes it easier for him to affirm, as a matter of logic (and not simply of piety), that nothing constrains God’s ability to effect what God wills. For him, as for Theophilus, it is not simply that God’s power is greater than human imagination, but that there simply is no factor independent of God that might limit that power.
Irenaeus goes on to explore some of the implications of this position, and in the process effectively answers Hermogenes’ primary objection to creation from nothing: How is it, if God is both good and omnipotent, that creation is so obviously imperfect? For Irenaeus the world’s imperfection in no way impugns God’s benevolence or power, but is simply a corollary of its having been created: “Created things must fall short of the one who created them, from the very fact of their later origin; for it was not possible for things only just created to have been uncreated. And because they are not uncreated, for this very reason they fall short of the perfect.”
Irenaeus acknowledges the imperfection of the created order, but he does not attribute this to matter’s ontological independence, as Hermogenes thought had to be done in order to avoid tracing the world’s imperfections back to some deficiency in God. For Irenaeus, the world’s imperfection is simply a matter of logic: tat which is created cannot by definition possess the property of being uncreated. Nevertheless, creatures can acquire something of God’s perfection as the result of subsequent modification of their created status over time. According to Irenaeus, creatures come to participate in God’s uncreated being through God’s commitment to perfect their created existence—something that can only happen after God has first brought them into being, when God, through God’s utterly gracious love for creatures, gives them the glory of uncreated existence through God’s own loving presence to them.
In this way, Irenaeus understands the world’s present imperfection as a function of its subjection to God’s will rather than evidence that matter lies outside the scope of that will. Given God’s own perfection, moreover, for Irenaeus it is integral to God’s ongoing work in and with the world that creation’s imperfection will ultimately be overcome: God will act so that human beings will be “accustomed gradually to partake of the divine nature,” and since human beings subsist as creatures within and dependent on the wider panorama of the created being, this work of perfecting will include the whole of the created order. At one level, the result is a remarkably confident and optimistic cosmology, in which God’s power ensures not only the existence, but also the ultimate well-being of all things. At the same time, this stress on God’s power can also be viewed as problematic in at least two respects: first, it raises the specter of divine despotism, in which God’s sovereignty is so uncompromising that it threatens to undermine belief in creaturely freedom; and second, it fails to fully confront the problem of evil, since creation’s present imperfection is not simply a matter of immaturity, but of extraordinary pain and suffering, which is capable of inflicting apparently irrevocable damage to creatures’ well-being. Admittedly, neither of these problems seems to worry either Theophilus or Irenaeus, both of whom go out of their way to insist on creaturely freedom before God as a defining feature of rational creatures in particular and as the source of evil in the world. But it is certainly possible to question whether this position is finally coherent, whether the emphasis on divine sovereignty that attends these two theologians’ support of creation from nothing is consistent with their emphasis on human freedom. Similarly, if one follows them in tracing the origin of evil to the necessary imperfection (and thus mutability) of created beings, this naturally raises the question of whether or not evil is to be viewed as somehow “natural” and therefore ultimately good. Although the doctrine of creation from nothing triumphed in the wider church, these questions have continued to generate problems for its defenders.
Prayer: Who really knows his own nothingness? Who isn’t thrown into panic and despair at the slightest realization of it? But drag me through it in your mercy, Jesus. It is the death of every false self. May I suffer their burial joyfully for you. For only on the other side of nothingness is the light and freedom of groundedness in you, my everything, my all, my only.