From Nothing—Part 3

660f29b8f3989c777e347c34a1279b10Here’s the final portion of McFarland’s Intro. It’s an insightful and informed book. Not an easy read. I hope to share a few of his statements on divine transcendence. Some of his thoughts resonated with me. Some seemed a bit much. I’d like to finish the book and think through it before coming to any conclusions. For now, I hope this final portion of his Intro gives you a better picture of where he’s going.

While the whole of this book is my answer to this challenge [see Part 2 for the challenge], two preliminary observations, one logical and the other exegetical, will help to frame that answer. The logic point is fairly straightforward. Within process metaphysics, God’s ability to interact with the world is conditional on a fundamental metaphysical continuity between God and all that is not God. Only if God and the world operate on the same metaphysical plane is it possible for God to engage the world both directly and without compulsion. According to process thinkers, if God is transcendent in the way implied by creation ex nihilo, other entities lose the autonomy required if their actions are to avoid being subsumed without remainder into God’s activity. This line of reasoning reflects the fact that as much as process thought breaks with Plato’s privileging of Being over Becoming, it fully shares the Platonist conviction that the two represent exhaustive and mutually exclusive alternatives. Therefore, in order to secure the possibility of God’s direct and non-coercive engagement with the realm of becoming, process thinkers must render God subject to its laws. The metaphysical framework that defines becoming as the measure of all reality is primary, and God too is bound by it structures—even if God relates to them from a position of vastly greater knowledge and power than other entities and is, correspondingly, able to engage them with unspeakable range and intensity.

A crucial implication of this postulate of metaphysical continuity is that God is not finally sovereign over creation. It was in opposition to this conclusion (promoted in the second century on different grounds by Platonists and gnostics alike) that Theophilus and Irenaeus insisted on creation from nothing. For these theologians the claim that the ontological autonomy of matter marked a fundamental limit on God’s sovereignty was inconsistent with Christian confidence in God’s power to save, and they posited creatio ex nihilo as a means of affirming that no reality was ultimately capable of thwarting God’s will. In so doing, then implicitly rejected the either/or of Platonist metaphysics by refusing to make God’s ability to engage directly with the world of change conditional on God’s inclusion within it. The upshot was a God conceived neither in opposition to nor as an example of becoming, but as its sole, direct, and immediate source. Because (in the world of a latter theologian) “all things are distant from God not by place, but by nature,” God’s engagement with the world is neither impeded by nor subject to the metaphysics of becoming.

Early promoters of creation from nothing like Theophilus and Irenaeus were far from being either comprehensive or even altogether consistent in addressing the issue raised by the doctrine. Nevertheless, insofar as their theologies point to God’s transcendence of the Platonic contrast between Being and Becoming, it is precisely the metaphysical discontinuity between Creator and creature (a discontinuity marked for both Theophilus and Irenaeus by the fact that God does not depend on existing materials in order to create) that becomes for them the basis for God’s ability to interact directly with creatures. It follows that the realm of becoming is not an inescapable feature of reality in the face of which God and the rest of us do the best we can, but a gift that is the proper mode rather than a more-or-less recalcitrant medium for creaturely flourishing.

To be sure, the identification of creation as a gift does not by itself answer the charge of divine arbitrariness: since it is part of the definition of a gift (in contrast to a wage or reward) that the giver is under no obligation to make it, it is certainly possible for the gift of creation to be arbitrary. God’s creating the world would, on this reading, be analogous to my giving fifty dollars to a person chosen at random from a crowd. Indeed, some recent theorists have suggested that a genuine gift must be arbitrary. According to this line of argument, genuine gift giving can be distinguished from economies of exchange (in which “gifts” either function as payment for benefits received or impose an obligation of return) only when every motive has been eliminated—when the gift is not only anonymous but also made in complete ignorance of and disregard for the condition of the recipient. Otherwise the given will always be suspected of a self-interest that vitiates the purity of the gift. Interpreting creation as a gift in this sense would imply a divine indifference to creatures that is both unworthy of worship and incapable of inspiring it.

Whatever one makes of this account as a general theory of gift giving, it has serious implications for the doctrine of creation since Christian convictions about the freedom of God’s creative work that underlie the interpretation of creation as a gift seem to render the act of creation inherently arbitrary. After all, if it is true that God creates from nothing, then God’s desire to share the benefits of existence cannot be conditional either on any prior merits of the gift’s recipients (since apart from God’s gift of existence there is no recipient to which such merit might be ascribed) or on future benefits they might return (since in a world where everything is created by God, any possible return made by creatures will itself be rooted entirely and immediately in God’s own action). Therefore, insofar as the gift of created existence is, by virtue of its complete dependence on the will of giver, utterly unconditioned, it might well seem to be the epitome of arbitrariness.

One might counter that this case for divine arbitrariness is logically misplaced since it is based on an anthropomorphic model of choosing from a range of options external to the Creator (e.g., deciding to paint with oils rather than acrylics, or to construct a table instead of a chair). Such a picture arguably fails to reckon with the full implications of the claim that God creates from nothing, which implies that in creating the world, God is not confronted by any reality, real or notional, in relation to which God may be said to “choose.” Even if this point is conceded, however, it is still possible to view the charge of divine arbitrariness as meaningful insofar as the essential goodness of creaturely existence is in doubt. How do we know that in creation, God is seeking the benefit of creatures? This question can only be answered by attending to the character of Divinity, showing that kind of creator this God is. An adequate defense against the charge that creation from nothing implies an arbitrary or tyrannical God will therefore need to combine analysis of the doctrine’s logic with an exposition of the identity of the God who is its subject. Thus, in much the same way that it is possible in the human sphere to deflect the charge that a person is arbitrary by appeal to the character that underlies and shapes her actions, so, too, with God.

Since Christians view Scripture as the definitive witness to God’s identity, the claim that one can affirm creation from nothing while denying divine arbitrariness needs to be made on exegetical grounds. At first glance the prospects for success might seem limited, given both the lack of explicit biblical witness to the idea of creation from nothing and the undeniable presence of biblical passages seeming to suggest that God is arbitrary (see, perhaps most famously, Rom. 9:15-21; cf. Exod. 33:19). Of course, theology is not reducible to proof-texting, and a doctrine’s orthodoxy does not hang on its being taught explicitly in the Bible. The fact that the doctrine of the Trinity is not spelled out in the Bible has no prevented the overwhelming majority of Christians for the last 1,500 years from viewing it as a thoroughly “biblical” concept. Likewise, the propriety with which the church teaches both creation from nothing and the fundamental graciousness of God’s works in which the confession of Jesus of Nazareth as Lord and Savior bears on the question of God’s relationship to the world. Nevertheless, the importance of such systematic considerations does not obviate the need for careful attention to the meaning of particular biblical passages, especially a text as decisive for framing any putative biblical understanding of creation as the first chapter of Genesis.

In undertaking such interpretation, however, it is important to insist that the proper content of the Christian doctrine of creation cannot be decided on the basis of a narrow focus on the Hebrew of Gen. 1:1. Even if this unusual construction were less ambiguous than millennia of competing interpretations suggest, for Christians who work with a two-Testament canon, its doctrinal significance cannot be assessed apart from texts like the first chapter of John, which gives its own account of “the beginning” with a grammar that (at least with respect to the opening prepositional phrase) is utterly unambiguous: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it” (John 1:1-5).


For John, the authority of the Jewish Scripture is clear, yet relative: on the one hand, they bear witness to Jesus (5:39); on the other, it is Jesus who unlocks their true meaning (see, e.g., 2:17). Consequently, John’s “In the beginning…” does not merely echo Genesis 1 (in the way that elements of Genesis 1 may echo earlier Near Eastern creation myths like the Enuma Elish), but interprets it—a pattern repeated in various places throughout the Gospel. Such interpretive elaboration of Old Testament is found throughout the New Testament and seems to be rooted in the conviction that Jesus is not only witnessed to by the law and the prophets (Acts 28:23; Rom. 3:21), but also provides an indispensable reference point for fully grasping their meaning. Given this conviction, it follows that if John 1 is acceptable as canonical Scripture, its testimony about how the world came to be must be taken into account when developing a Christian doctrine of creation.

What exactly does John 1 say about God’s creating? The first thing to note is that the “beginning” in John 1:1 does not refer to the time “when God began to create” (which does not come into view until v. 3), but to the logically prior conditions that form the context of God’s creative work. In describing these conditions, the evangelist makes no mention of any formless waste, water, or swirling deep alongside God; even darkness comes into play only after “all things” have already come into existence. Yet there is one entity mentioned in addition to God: the Word (Logos in Greek). This Word is identified as that which was “with God” in the beginning (v. 1b)—a point evidently significant enough for the evangelist that it is repeated in verse 2. And sandwiched between this repeated claim is a further specification that upsets a straightforward interpretation of the Word and God as two distinct realities: “the Word was God” (v. 1c). No more than any other New Testament text does John contain the later doctrinal language of creation from nothing, but thanks to this final clause, the upshot of the Gospel’s opening verse is that the sole precondition and only context for creation is God.

And yet it remains a crucial feature of John’s first verses that although God is the sole presupposition of creation, the God who creates is not solitary, since the Word who is God is also with God. In this way, at the same time that John 1 stands as the most explicit biblical statement of the unconditional character of God’s creating work, it also signal that creation from nothing is not merely a claim about God’s relation to the world, but also a statement about God’s own identity. This latter point is crucial to addressing the charge that creation from nothing implies a domineering, tyrannical God: In light of John’s Gospel, the claim that God creates from nothing means that God creates through the same Word (1:3) who, because of God’s love for the world, “became flesh and lived among us” (1:14) “so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but have eternal life” (3:16). Following the lead of John, creation from nothing should not be understood in isolation, as an abstract claim about divine power, but as part of a broader story of God’s ongoing commitment to the life of all that is not God.

So it is that where the doctrine of creation is concerned, evaluating what God does is inseparable from knowing who God is—knowledge that for Christians is inseparable from the person of Jesus Christ. For this reason, Christians cannot talk about creation apart from Christology, and this Christological matrix, in turn, shapes whatever formal theological claims are made about God’s nature and attributes. So, for example, in speaking of divine omnipotence, it will be important not to leap to abstract considerations of possible limits (logical, metaphysical, or moral, for example) on God’s power. These sorts of questions obviously cannot be ignored, but Christians find a more plausible starting point for reflection on what it might mean to say that God is omnipotent in a passage like John 10:29, where Jesus says, “My Father is greater than all by virtue of what he has given me, and no one can snatch out of the Father’s hand.” While the Greek text of this passage is not without problems, two things are clear: first (and in line with both Theophilus’s and Irenaeus’s defense of creation from nothing), there is no power capable of defeating God’s will to save; and second, the indefeasibility of God’s power is somehow bound up with the relationship between the Father and the Son. Clearly if omnipotence is understood in this way, the chief concerns of process thought regarding divine totalitarianism seem at the very least rhetorically misplaced. It remains, of course, to show both how these two aspects of the verse are related (How does God’s power depend on God’s identity?), and how their relation helps to address the charge that an omnipotent God is necessarily arbitrary (What difference does it make that God’s power depends on God’s identity?). That will be the task of the rest of this book.


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