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.

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.

God’s creative options


Just thinking out loud here. No commitments. Just speculating.

In the immediately preceding post I noted Hart’s criticism of those who imagine God’s choice to create in terms of a deliberation among infinite options. There are some, for example, those of a more analytic bent, who revel in talk of ‘possible worlds’, logical constructs depicting God’s creational ‘options’. Most suppose these to be infinite, since God is infinite. But certainly they’re innumerable. God could have created, say, a world with no sentient beings in it at all. Or he might have created a world populated with beings capable only of doing his bidding, or he might have — and on and on the possibilities go.

I think talk of an infinite number of possible worlds other than this one is mistaken. I do think there are innumerable possibilities this world faces, possible futures this world’s own inherent dispositions and capacities might or might not realize in time. So talk of possible ways this world might be or become is certainly meaningful. But fundamentally other initial states? A pre-creational slate of infinite and contrary ‘options’ of which our world was but one? This all seems impossible talk to me now. Not only does God not choose from a menu of innumerable possible worlds after deliberating the pros and cons, but there are no such possible worlds, and certainly no (Leibnizian) ‘best of all possible worlds’.

I know this is a big claim. So why make it? The main reason to think God either creates this world or none at all lies in an Incarnational metaphysics of participation. Consider non-human (specifically, non-hypostatic or non-personal) creatures and entities. How do they achieve their end or telos in God? How is God “all in all” (1Cor 15.28) in them? Paul taught (Rom 8.22) that all creation groans “waiting for” the children of God to be revealed, that creation is only finally liberated when it is “brought into the freedom and glory” of humankind. Non-hypostatic realities find their telos not immediately in God, but mediately through human beings. That is to say that creation’s perfection is implicated in humanity’s perfection. I take this to be a fundamental metaphysical principle definitive of created being per se. Romans 8 describes a mediated teleology: all things other than human beings are implicated in humanity’s perfection, and all humankind is implicated in the perfection of the Incarnate One. I want to suggest that this defines the scope of possible worlds because it defines the path of perfection which any creation must take. Why think this?

The word Options on a cork notice board

Certainly no creation is conceivable that is not loved. And nothing is loved by God that is not intended for the greatest possible union with God, i.e., that does not have its end in God, its share in and contribution to God’s being “all in all.” For if God is the summum bonum, all possible worlds end in God’s being “all in all.” But none of this is possible apart from Incarnation. God would not create that for which he would not will himself as end, and as no non-hypostatic reality has its end in God immediately but only through implication as an aspect of the hypostatic existence of another (Rom 8), such created hypostatic reality becomes essential to any conceivable creation as the means by which God brings that order in its entirety to fulfillment in himself. Essentially then,

…there’s only one possible creation—Incarnation. Creation and Incarnation are one and the same possibility in God.

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; rather, they are all potentialities inherent in the capacities and dispositions God breathes into his one determination to create for Incarnation, that is, this world. 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.

What of Leibniz? We talk of the logic of infinite possible worlds and whether there is a “best of all possible worlds.” But God is the best possible world and whatever God creates has its best possible end in him. When God is viewed as summum bonum defining the end of every world (which must be the case), there can be no one best possible world among an infinite number of possible worlds (if we multiply worlds for the sake of argument) since every candidate possibility has God as its end. And thus,

as the value of anything created ex nihilo derives entirely from God and has its end in God, no world-order God brings into being can be better or worse than any other order God brings to be. Hence, there is no ‘best possible world’. Anything God does is as good as anything else God does.

In the end, there is in fact only one possible world to create—an initial state suitably fitted and sustained for the emergence of sentient-hypostatic/personal life for the sole purpose of Incarnation.

Prayer: Be all in all in me today, Incarnate One. May all I do—my seeing, my thinking, my touching, my speaking be your home.

Motivation for creation


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.