Divine freedom

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Forgive the infrequency of my posts. For me blogging is like the tide – it swells up and down under the force of issues that bring their urgency to bear upon me at a regularity I can’t make out. But here I am.

The most vexing theological question I’ve been confronting for some time now is the question of divine freedom relative to Creation. As I dance around it, its different aspects come out to greet me, but I can’t resolve them into a contradiction-free view. I know the options on offer but am not completely happy with any of them.

On the one hand:

• God creates ex nihilo (out of nothing) and so freely and unnecessarily.
• This has to at least mean that God’s triune fullness (God as infinite love and beatitude) is not achieved in or through his determination to create, for per ex nihilo the determination to create expresses that triune beatitude; it cannot also constitute it. So it cannot be that the determination to create is co-terminous with the begetting of the Son (as John Milbank recently tweeted) if that means the Father begets the Son ‘with a view to’ creating. This would effectively write the determination to create into the Triune relations in and as their content and telos, as sharing in the content of that act by which God is the God he is. (McCormack and Jenson are already here; God determines himself as Trinity in and via the determination to creation. I’m unable to say this, for it obviously denies creation ex nihilo and the triune plentitude implied therein.)

On the other hand:

• The logoi (God’s creative intentions for the world) of the Word/Logos/Son are uncreated and abide essentially in the Word. This constitutes for me the vexing question regarding divine freedom. For though the determination to create as free and unnecessary does not define the begetting of the Son (and I don’t see how it can), the logoi (which are the very possibility of creation) do have their shape and form in that begetting. If we say creation ex nihilo means the divine logoi may abide unrealized/unactualized in the creation they envision, what’s that really mean? The possibilities of creation define the Word within the scope of his begotten filial identity, but the fullness and beatitude of that identity is indifferent to the realization of these logoi?

You may see the problem. And I’m not uploading unsavory assumptions about some temporal before and after here. Let’s leave that aside for now. We need only contemplate the relationship in God between his triune fullness and his free determination to creation.

Enter divine teleology. What is the ‘end’ of these logoi if not Creation? But if they’re realized freely and unnecessarily, what can their realization in creation be unnecessary to but God’s own triune fullness and beatitude? I wonder if we may imagine the ‘end’ for which the logoi subsist as fulfilled ad intra. After all, we say the end/purpose of all things is God. If Creation is unnecessary, then its very possibility in God has to have God, always and already, as its satisfaction. This may seem strange, but what about any of this isn’t? It would mean the logoi are fulfilled in the Word, as the Word, as possibilities, but the possibility they represent for us is in God a fulfilled end, and that the Word as begotten is that end fulfilled.

In any event, I can’t imagine the divine fullness (or my own salvation in Christ) apart from creation ex nihilo, but I also find it increasingly difficult to imagine the generation of creative potentialities (logoi) in the Son that logically entail nothing whatsoever about God’s determination to create, as if the fullness that begets the logoi is indifferent to their actualization as creation – and yet they must be so. (I’m not entirely satisfied with this, but McCormack and Jenson only exacerbate the problem.)

All I can think to say is that in begetting the Son, the Father constitutes himself as an infinite disposition for creative self-expression ad extra and that this just is God’s freedom, not a reflection of it, but that freedom itself, and that as freedom it must be the case that creating is unnecessary to it, but that as teleological it must be the case that every creative act realizes ends constitutive of it. Hence, God creates freely/unnecessarily in the sense that the ‘end’ for which he acts expresses rather than realizes his own plentitude. Whichever aspect we confess, we confess a mystery and paradox.

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What doesn’t exist can’t be known

91HvBls+5-L._AC_UL320_SR208,320_You Aquinas experts out there, help me out. I know Aquinas held God to be timeless and to have timeless knowledge of the world’s entire history of becoming. But there’s an interesting passage in the Summa (1.89.7.3) that has me stumped. For those unfamiliar with citing the Summa, that’s Part 1, Question 89 [on the knowledge of the separated soul], Article 7 [on whether local distance impedes the knowledge in the separated soul], and then Aquinas’ reply to Objection 3).

The Objection:

Further, as there is distance of place, so is there distance of time. But distance of time impedes knowledge in the separated soul, for the soul is ignorant of the future. Therefore it seems that distance of place also impedes its knowledge.

Aquinas’ reply

The future, which is distant in time, does not actually exist, and therefore is not knowable in itself, because so far as a thing falls short of being, so far does it fall short of being knowable. But what is locally distant exists actually, and is knowable in itself. Hence we cannot argue from distance of time to distance of place.

Aquinas seems pretty matter-of-fact about the unknowability of non-existent/non-actual entities, and obviously I want to agree with him. Future events and objects are simply not actual, and are thus unknowable. They have no ‘being’. This has obvious consequences for one’s knowledge of the future. We don’t know the future not because there is in fact something to know of which we’re ignorant. We don’t know because there’s nothing there to know. I was surprised to find this passage though. John Sanders mentions it in an article on his site.

My guess is that Aquinas qualifies all this when it comes to God. God is not limited in his knowledge of creation to creation’s own temporal perspectives. It’s only finite knowers who exist at a time who cannot know future actualities because those actualities do not exist at the knower’s time. But God is not a finite knower located at a time. If anything, he’s at all times and so is immediately present to Creation’s entire timeline (as it were). So God doesn’t fall within the scope of Aquinas’ comments.

Yes? No?

You experts out there?

Memory lane

lib3-3a1I apologize for my absence. New job. Learning curve has me pretty busy. I’ve been reflecting on some previous thoughts regarding the ‘will’, ‘freedom’, issues related to ‘libertarian’ choice, and – no surprise – Incarnation. If such questions interest you, here are a few previous  posts (teasers included) you might enjoy

Creation ex nihilo
“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 us.”

God’s creative options
“God either creates to bring all he creates to fulfillment in/through Incarnation, or he doesn’t create at all. All other varieties and created distinctions don’t constitute a range of options God chooses between. They are all potentialities inherent in the capacities and dispositions God breathes into his one determination to create for Incarnation. It should then be impossible not just to speak of this creation apart from Incarnation/Christology, but to speak of God’s creating at all apart from the intention to incarnate. Indeed, I’m suggesting that all possibilities for creation derive from and return to the one possibility of Incarnation.”

God wills our improvisation
“God’s will in sustaining creation as such embraces created improvisation on our part, which means—I’m afraid to utter it—the divine will (viz., logoi) is given to us to improvise upon. I mean, if you want to retain mystery, there you are. The endless possibilities are God’s, their final arrangement is ours. But if this is his will, then it seems to me that the mode of God’s knowing creation would reflect the mode of his willing; that is, God would know the improvisational form which divine logoi finally take in us as a knowledge of form ‘apprehended’ or ‘received’ and not only a knowledge of created being as ‘given’. What the world gives to God is what it gives back to God in improvisation upon and within the grace of being.”

God at the improv
“…so God gives himself (as divine logoi) without reservation to the free determination of created others — viz., God gives himself to be improvised upon. And there’s really no way the trajectories which the world actually ends up taking (this route as opposed to that route) can be eternally known even if the scope of all possible trajectories derives from and is known to God. That actual trajectory is the creature’s discrimination among possibilities, something over and above the possibilities themselves.”

Freedom as creative liberty among loving options
“Would spontaneity in this situation be a violation of freedom if the motivation remains love throughout? What else would a perfected creative liberty be but a certain species of playful spontaneity if God’s will for us terminates in a scope of beautiful possibilities and our truest freedom amounts to a creative choice among them? It seems to me that if our perfected wills can creatively express themselves in this sense, then spontaneity per se would be a fulfillment, not a violation, of our truest freedom.”

Incarnation or nothing at all
“…theologians feel themselves forced to give an account of the faith in terms of innumerable ‘logically’ possible worlds, worlds the possibility of which have to be accounted for theologically so long as they generate no logical contradiction (strictly speaking) but which are unthinkable Christologically.”

Living, moving, and having being in God—Part 2

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Fr Aidan has a nice review of the (Thomistic) classical position on God’s relatedness to the world. I’d like to pick out a portion of it for comment. He summarizes:

Of every being and of the universe as a whole we may ask why? but of the One who is the answer to that question, why? may not be asked. It may not be asked because God can only be the answer if he lacks all the features of finite being that raises the question to begin with. And that, I think, is what actus purus effectively means. God is the infinite plenitude, fullness, and perfection of being and thus the ultimate and final explanation for why finite beings exist. He does not contain potentiality, because that potentiality would in turn evoke the metaphysical question. Potentiality requires the action of another agent to bring it to fulfillment. A rubber ball cannot realize its potency to bounce unless someone throws it against a wall; a stick of butter cannot realize its melting potential unless someone spreads it on a hot slice of toast. “Potency does not raise itself to act,” explains Thomas; “it must be raised to act by something that is in act” (SCG I.16.4). If God were not the infinite actualization of existence, then not only would we find ourselves wondering “Why does God exist instead of nothing?” but so would God! We might even imagine Deity as enduring an eternal existential crisis: “Why do I have all of this unfulfilled potential?”

There’s a lot to agree with here. I like the explanatory approach centered on asking ‘why?’ and seeking answers that explain our actual experience (including our finitude, temporal becoming, aesthetic appetite, consciousness, etc.). ‘Why’ is an intuitive and clarifying question, and Aquinas understood (as did all Christian thinkers before him) that neither any particular thing in the universe, nor the material cosmos as a whole, is sufficient to account for why there is anything at all rather than nothing. Given the nature of created becoming, some explanation is required – some reality that is its own reason for being, not requiring an explanation for its existence from outside itself, a self-sufficiently transcendent reality that explains both itself and all else – i.e., God.

We can and must ask ourselves ‘why?’ of God as well. But with God we get a different answer because a God capable of answering why the material-sentient universe exists without begging the question of his own existence is unlike the universe in profound ways. Where the ‘why?’ question asked of the universe derives its answer outside itself, God – properly understood – is the answer to his own ‘why?’. In this sense every sane theist agrees with Aquinas. It is a point I have urged open theists to explore at greater depth with seriousness and an open mind.

compassionOne could (and probably ought to) for the sake of argument ask whether the cosmos itself can be its own explanation. After all, if theists can posit God as uncreated and self-sustaining, let’s just suppose (as Carl Sagan asked us to) that the universe is self-sustaining and exists necessarily. Why multiply explanations beyond necessity?

By all means, one ought to explore this option. We won’t do that here, but it’s been done at great length by others, and we agree the cosmos does not give evidence of being self-sufficient/self-sustaining. My comments here are directed to theists who already grant this and who agree that God is the world’s transcendent creator.

The question that continues to be debated today by some, and which we here are most interested in, is: What sort of relations might a transcendently self-sufficient God have with the world he creates and knows? Certainly there would be a certain asymmetrical relation. That’s already entailed in God’s being the end-of-the-line sort of answer to our question ‘why?’. God explains why there is anything at all rather than nothing. Creation does not, however, explain why there is a God. Obviously, a non-mutual relation obtains: God creates and sustains the world, gives it being, and explains why it is at all. The world cannot explain God in any such respect.

For some, this is all there is to say about the manner of relations that might obtain between God and the world. However, while divine aseity (as self-sufficient transcendence) is true and essential, many don’t feel that it follows that God “does not contain [any conceivable] potentiality.” The reason some, like me, think this doesn’t follow is because it doesn’t seem that all potentiality evokes the specter of a mover other than the agent. We can imagine the realization of unrealized potential in God which does not require that God, like created beings grounded in him, “be moved” by a power outside himself. In our view it is false, as Fr Aidan argues (following Aquinas), that “[all p]otentiality requires the action of another agent to bring it to fulfillment.” That rule would follow for created beings certainly, but it’s conceivable, we think, that some potentialities (namely, divine potentialities) may be self-sufficiently motivated and actualized from within, freely and contingently.

Examples that demonstrate Aquinas point with respect to creatures are innumerable. Fr Aidan describes a few – rubber balls, sticks of butter, etc. With respect to created entities, Aquinas has to be right when he says “Potency does not raise itself to act; it must be raised to act by something that is in act.” But does it follow that a self-sufficient reality (God) – a reality whose essence is self-sufficient act – cannot be thought to have any unfulfilled potentiality since it must them be dependent upon something outside itself to raise any supposed potency to actuality?

It depends on the potency. If we mean a self-constituting potential, then God would require some reality already in act to bring his potential to fulfillment, and obviously we do not want to say that. But not all unfulfilled potentiality need be self-constituting. Potential may be self-expressive and not self-constituting. We think there are good reasons to suppose, given the existence of the kind of world we live in, that God is more than necessary (i.e., God transcends his own necessity), and as such his essential, antecedent, triune actuality both determines the scope and nature of his potential for self-expressive acts and that this antecedent actuality is the only realized ‘act’ we need to reference in explaining the movement of such potentiality to actuality.

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Such contingency in God would be of a peculiar kind. It would realize self-expressive, not self-constitutive, potential, and it would do so unlike created potentialities which require ‘being moved’ by some actuality other than God. There seems no a priori reason to suppose that a God self-sufficient to explain why the world is at all could not himself possess unrealized potentialities for a contingent expression extrinsic to the necessary plenitude of his essential triune act, and that these potentialities would require nothing outside this plenitude to raise them to actuality. Like the classical tradition, God would not be subject to finite, created becoming (he would not become a mere ‘god’ who requires a mover other than himself), but unlike the classical tradition God would possess potential for duration without loss, duration that includes contingent, gracious, wholly self-expressive relations.

Would those relations with the world be “real”? If ‘real’ relations are defined as relations that affect or determine what a thing is essentially, then I’m happy to say God is not so affected by his relations with the world, because I do not suppose God to be essentially affected by us. But if ‘real’ relations are defined simply as relations one truly has (i.e., relations that involve one in acts of mind and will vis-à-vis what one is related to) but which remain extrinsic to what one is essentially, then I’m fine with positing God’s real relations with the world. Does this commit me to a notion of divine simplicity unacceptable to classical theists? I’d be surprised if it did not. I know these terms (“real” for example) have long established meanings and many are loath to adjust/expand meanings and vocabulary to accommodate new insights. I don’t have any pretenses about affecting the conversation at that significant a level. I confess, I’m more interested in working out my own salvation with fear and trembling.

Jesus, Savior, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner.

Living, moving, and having being in God—Part 1

insidegodsheartii2074pxI’m just thinking through the metaphysics of being and becoming. It’s not something I’ll ever finish (pun intended). For the moment I’d like to express temporal becoming in Process terms because I think in some respects PT articulates ‘becoming’ fairly well (even if Process has no real concept of transcendence).

We (irreducibly temporal creatures that we are) ‘become’ in that we possess our being and existence as an unending process of negotiating between the perceived data of past occasions (memory) and the perceived possibilities of the future. That determination, our present experience, is a “creative synthesis” (Hartshorne) between past occasions and future possibilities. In PT these future possibilities are God-given. They are “divine subjective aims” (Whitehead) for things – their ideal states of becoming. God provides all things (from the small, simplest ‘actual occasion’ to larger societies of occasions) an ideal state in light of which it freely determines itself. This process continues without end. (To briefly stand on the classical side of this conversation, Dwayne and I agree that God cannot be a subject of such becoming.)

Several thoughts come to mind.

(1) For beings that ‘become’ temporally in this way, as classical theism observes, their ‘essence’ is not their ‘existence’. That is, the actual existence of temporal beings is always changing. We are always a ‘becoming’ toward some end, whereas our ‘essence’ (to the extent process theists posit an ‘essence’ to things) is just an abstraction that supervenes upon the ever-changing process of becoming.

(2) Since the possibilities that ground our becoming are God’s “subjective aims” and do not derive from the actualities for which they are ‘ends’, in an important sense temporal becoming is asymmetrically related to God. Our existence as such, even the possibility of our becoming, are “given” to us. We do not generate or constitute the possibility of our existence, however free we are to determine ourselves within the range of God-given possibilities we enjoy. For us ‘possibility’ and ‘actuality’ are distinct, however inseparable they are.

(3) This distinction, in an important sense, cannot be the case for God as it is with us. Any necessary being has in some sense to be his own possibility and that possibility is convertible with an essential-necessary actuality. For God, the possibility of his existence and his actual, essential existence are identical, since (a) God is possible, (b) God is actual, and (c) God is self-sufficiently necessary. It follows that nothing other than God can give God the possibility of his own necessary existence. God’s essential actuality is not another instance of a temporal ‘process’ of becoming.

(4) We must, then, posit some antecedent necessary actuality (call it the divine ‘essence’) which is convertible with God’s essential existence, some divine experience not the subject of temporal becoming, not a process of creative synthesis which negotiates between its own past occasions and its perceived possibilities of becoming in the future what it presently is not. God cannot be reduced to such a process of temporal becoming, for there are no candidate possibilities for God to consider outside his own actuality which would fill the necessary role of “subjective aims” to define his future possibilities. Every act of ‘becoming’ requires a telos, and every telos is grounded in some actuality which does not itself become in this created sense. We’ve discussed before (from Greg’s Trinity & Process) why Whitehead & Hartshorne’s view of God failed in this sense – neither posited an antecedent divine actuality as the ground of the divine perfections, perfections which on their view were simply logically assumed abstractions that supervened upon the divine actuality (entirely a process of becoming).

ingod(5) Even if we posit a necessary God-world relationship in PT fashion, or even a necessary God-series/of/worlds relationship as Oord does (though his ‘series’ reduces to a single world), it’s still the case that non-divine reality cannot provide God subjective aims for God’s becoming, nor can a God who is irreducibly temporal provide himself his own subjective aims for his own future, for possibilities by definition are what a thing is not yet but which it may become. Thought through consistently, it follows that not only can nothing other than God provide an irreducibly temporal God of becoming the “subjective aims” or “end” for his own becoming, but neither can such a God be his own subjective aim, for no merely temporal God can be in the present an actuality sufficient to offer itself possibilities to become what it is not.

If God, like created things, is essentially subject to temporal becoming, then he determines himself in the present in light of past occasions and future possibilities, possibilities guided by subjective aims which, on Process terms, have no antecedent actuality in God. Whence these possibilities for divine becoming? Who or what can offer God the “aims” for his idea states of becoming? It seems that neither any created being nor God’s own process of becoming at any given ‘present’ moment of becoming can define the perfections in light of which God determines himself as creative synthesis. I’m being brief and to the point, but as our Christmas gift to those reading, we’ll just say that the Process view of God doesn’t make it to the end of the runway. God must in some essential sense be an antecedent actuality that is not subject to becoming. In this essential sense, we have to say God’s necessary essence and his essential actuality are one and the same.

(6) This brings up the most interesting question – What about contingency in God with respect to his knowledge of and relations to the contingent world he creates and sustains? If there can be no contingency intrinsic to a necessary being’s essential actuality, is it possible to conceive of God as capable of freely expressing himself in ways that are not constitutive of him essentially-intrinsically but merely expressive of him contingently, extrinsically?

Classical theism

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On and offline I’ve been following discussions for and against classical theism. Some of these discussions proceed without having established precisely what counts as classical theism. Some make the wild claim that Dwayne and I are classical theists. So if it helps those interested in the question, I’d like to clarify. It’s not that difficult a vision of God to state.

Back a while ago I stated (hear and hear are examples) what seemed to me to be the sine qua non of “classical” theism, and engaging the questions surrounding this has only confirmed things as we’ve focused on understanding and appreciating the classical tradition as best we could. The fundamental conviction of classical theism is:

  • God is actus purus (“pure act,” by which is meant, among other things, that there is no conceivable unrealized potential in God).

Certain things follow from this, most importantly:

  • God is simple (that God is not composed of parts, spatial, temporal, or metaphysical, which any attempt at qualifying would need to be expressed with extreme caution, since no sane theist can suppose God to be assembled from more fundamental parts).

From these of course other traditional affirmations follow:

  • God is absolutely immutable (unchanging in every conceivable way, possessing no accidents).
  • God is impassible (which for the Orthodox, by whom I mean the tradition that produced the Creeds and Fathers, means firstly that God is never passive with respect to knowledge or emotion in relation to the world; i.e. he is never acted upon or determined by creation in any conceivable sense. Typically debates about divine passibility/impassibility proceed as if what is at stake is whether or not God has feelings or emotions at all, but the issue is bigger than that.)

More could be said (about omniscience, essential benevolence, etc.) but not much that a non-classical theist need disagree with. As one pushes beyond these to what is thought to be implied by them the opinions become diverse. But at classical theism’s defining center is the commitment to God as actus purus, admitting no accidents, no experience of temporal sequence whatsoever, and never in any conceivable way being acted upon or determined by creation.

To any working intelligence, Dwayne and I aren’t classical theists. We deny actus purus and its entailments as classically held.

Far on the other end of the theistic spectrum of beliefs is Process theism. If classical theism’s defining center is actus purus (pure act), Process theism can be reduced to the opposite metaphysical claim, namely, that God is processu operis (a “work in progress”). God is “temporal becoming” par excellence. He is the One whose existence and perfections are without remainder historicized, constituted in and as the ever-changing process of ongoing relations with creation, relations which are as consequential and self-constituting for God as they are for the world.

There are theists in both these camps who see these two options as jointly exhaustive of the theistic options. But the vision and burden of this site is to challenge the claim that our theological options are exhausted by these two visions and to suggest that the unchanging perfections of God’s being/existence, those perfections which constitute God’s freedom from creation and creation’s utter gratuity, are absolutely to be maintained, but that these perfections need not be viewed as threatened by temporal experience per se (if carefully stated), but then also to suggest that these traditional perfections needn’t per se threaten or undermine the sense in which open theists view God as knowing and engaging the temporal world.

From Nothing—Part 1

51jlih1UctL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_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-Day1creation. 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.