Nobody emphasizes the doctrine of ‘creation from nothing’ (creatio ex nihilo) more passionately than the Orthodox. However, while exploring this beautiful and frustrating doctrine through reading and in conversation with Orthodox friends, I have moments of confusion about the consistency with which they articulate the position.
One of the best pieces I read last year was David Bentley Hart’s Notre Dame (July, 2015) paper “God, Creation, and Evil: The Moral Meaning of the creation ex nihilho [sic].” Getting into his introduction, Hart says:
“…while one has to avoid the pathetic anthropomorphism of imagining God’s decision to create as an arbitrary choice made after a deliberation among options, one still has to affirm that it’s free; that creation can add nothing to God, that God’s being is not dependent upon the world, and that the only necessity in the divine act of creation is in the impossibility of any hindrance upon the ability of God’s expression of his goodness.”
Everything but that God is actually free to refrain from creating. I may be nit-picking, sorry. I’ve expressed my concerns over how it is to be consistently maintained that God’s determination to create is both free and an eternal and unchanging aspect of his nature. Today I had one of those moments of confusion while reading Fr Aidan Nichols (Wisdom from Above: A Primer in the Theology of Father Sergei Bulgakov, pp. 33f) on Bulgakov’s view of God’s “motivation to create.” Nichols summarizes:
“Bulgakov begins his account by pointing out that the God who creates from nothing does not do so because he needs the world – meaning by that, through some hypostatic or natural necessity to complete himself in thus creating. God does not need the world in order to be the Trinity. He does not need the world in order to be divine. As we have seen, he is already the fullness of personhood by being the tri-hypostatic God who in his existence as Father, Son and Holy Spirit exhausts all the modes of personhood there are – I, thou, he, we, you. And in his divine nature he is already plenitude, than which nothing greater is possible. No, the world issues from God’s creative freedom.”
So far so good. Nichols continues:
“This said, however, Bulgakov is very keen to emphasize that the world’s creation was in no sense an arbitrary act, the result of a vast divine caprice. The creation is not just a manifestation of God’s power. He calls such an idea blasphemous, an impiety. And the reason is that the God who in no ordinary sense needed the world still in his love longed for it, desired to bring it about from nothing. Here the love of God is the key.”
Not arbitrary. Not the result of caprice. Not just a manifestation of power. No complaint here. Even “longed for and desired,” yes. At this point, however, a slight transition is made to a more positive articulation of God’s motivation to create. Nichol’s quotes Bulgakov (Lamb of God) directly:
“God is love and it is the property of love to love, and to enlarge oneself by love. It is proper to the divine love not only to realise itself within the limits of divinity but to overflow those limits … It is proper to the ocean of divine love to spread beyond its shores….”
This becomes for Bulgakov the motivation in God for creation, that which makes it not arbitrary. The problem, of course, is that God’s being “free” in creating presumably means that it is as proper for God not to create as it is proper that he create. So arguing for a divine motivation to create from its being proper to God’s loving nature is problematic. Otherwise we are in the very difficult position of asserting God’s freedom to do what is not proper to him, i.e., refrain from creating. As it stands, the Bulgakov quote could be construed in Process terms, which I’m guessing the Orthodox don’t want to do. And while it is indeed “the property of love to love,” Bulgakov has already insisted that all the ‘proper’ modes of love are fulfilled in the plenitude of the divine relations. So in grounding God’s creating over not creating in what is proper to his nature as love, Bulgakov implicitly renders the notion of God’s not creating improper, and that’s a problem.
I’m coming to see the Orthodox position on God’s “freedom from creation” as God’s freedom merely from any external constraint of necessity preventing God from doing what God wants. But this is perfectly consistent with a Process view of God and creation as necessarily related where the necessity is construed as the inherent necessity of God’s being as love and not as an outward compulsion. Tom Oord claims that much. But surely the Orthodox want to say something more about God that Process theologians would disagree with, namely, that God’s freedom is a freedom from an internal disposition or orientation of nature that makes creating any more proper than not creating.
But the passage isn’t done. Immediately after the above quote from Bulgakov, Nichols continues:
“Granted the possibility of creation, the divine love by its own inner character must take up that possibility. God’s ‘insatiable’ love moves him to go out of himself, to love elsewhere than himself, to love beyond himself, in the world. So there is a sense in which God ‘had to’ create, after all. But this is an altogether sui generis kind of necessity and freedom.” (emphasis mine)
Sui generis. It’s hard to argue against someone’s position when what they say about God appeals for its intelligibility to the terms applying sui generis. I suppose one could push back here and posit the sort of libertarian choice Hart feels is a “pathetic anthropomorphism” and then save the notion by qualifying it as a sui generis kind of libertarianism, a sui generis kind of deliberation, a sui generis kind of power to the contrary, etc.
Let me finish with Nichols’ summary of Bulgakov at this point:
“The ‘necessity’ of love is really, writes Bulgakov, a ‘fusion of necessity and freedom’. The Absolute need have no relations. But in fact as we know from revelation, the Absolute is God. And God can only be understood not in himself alone, but in his relation with the world as well. If God were simply the Absolute all our theology would be negative theology, saying what God is not. But God is not just the Absolute. He is God, related by his love to the world. And so our theology can be affirmative theology, saying what God is. God is the Absolute who is also the relative or relational, and this makes him a mystery of whom we can only speak in apparent contradictions, statements with two sides either of which, if pressed to its conclusion, would tend to contradict the other. For Bulgakov the most important of these ‘antinomies’ or seeming contradictions is found in the very statement of what the word ‘God’ means. It means ‘the Absolute existing for another: existing for the world’.”
I’m both inspired and troubled.
Prayer: Needing nothing, you create me. Wanting nothing, you desire me. Full beyond measure, you pursue me. Absolute, you invite me into relationship, that you may be all in all. Be all in all in me today.