Well over twenty years ago, on the urging of Fr Stephen Freeman, I purchased and read Being as Communion by John Zizioulas. I was most interested in Zizioulas’s ecclesiological writings, but I was perhaps most challenged by his reflections on personhood. There was, however, one element that I simply did not understand—his emphatic emphasis on the Creator/creature distinction. I of course believed in this distinction, but he seemed to be suggesting that creaturehood itself was the soteriological problem confronting mankind. In the margin I even pencilled “Does Z equate finitude & biology with sin?” (p. 52). I have since discovered that others have raised this question also. For example, Nicholas Loudovikos comments that for Zizioulas “nature and the Fall are completely identified” (p. 3). I was reminded of this concern when I recently re-read De Incarnatione by St Athanasius. “Aha!” I thought. “So this is where Zizioulas got the idea.” Not that Athanasius identifies creaturely being with sin; but he does claim that in his natural state man is mortal, and it is this natural state, this mortality and corruption, that is our soteriological problem (see “The Surd of Sin“). Nature has been sundered from grace. Death is our enemy. In our natural state we are incapable of fulfilling our vocation to ascend into the eternal life of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit (theosis).
And so I thought I would revisit John Zizioulas and see if can better understand his understanding of creaturehood and death. Fortunately, he has a lengthy essay devoted to this question: “‘Created’ and ‘Uncreated,'” in Communion and Otherness.
Why did the Greek Fathers dogmatically advance the concept of the creatio ex nihilo when Hellenistic philosophy and religion found the idea preposterous? Zizioulas offers the following explanation:
When the Gospel began to spread among the ancient Greeks and especially among those who had some philosophical education, the first serious problem which presented itself was that of the relationship between God and the world. In the whole of Greek thought, the world was considered as eternal. It was impossible to speak of any beginning of the world in the full sense of the term, in other words in the sense that the being of the world, its ontological “substance,” had a starting point, nor of whatever it was that would have allowed the statement that the world was created ex nihilo. … Historically, the Greek Fathers were grappling with two incompatible approaches to God, which led to two opposing ontologies; on the one hand, the god of the Greeks who was always linked to the world, submitted to the being of the world, and who remained the absolute being. Even when it went “beyond essence”, Greek thought did not rupture the ontological union between god and the world. On the other hand, there was the God of the Bible, who was so independent of the world that he was “conceivable” without relation to the world (something inconceivable for ancient hellenism) and could do what he wanted, free from any logical or ethical obligation: a shockingly arbitrary God, who has mercy “on whom he has mercy” and who has compassion “on whom he has compassion” (Rom. 9:15), a God who is unaccountable to any Reason or Ethic. (Such was the God of the Bible—notice that we have subsequently “rationalized,” “moralized,” and therefore “hellenized” him!) In such an approach to God, it is not being that holds the decisive place in ontology, in absolute relationship with the truth of existence, but rather freedom. It is precisely the notion of freedom which imposes that of nothing as an absolute notion. Yes, this world might just as well not have existed at all (could an ancient Greek have said that?). The fact of existence, for an object, does not just follow of itself, but is something owing to the free will of someone. This someone, who according to biblical faith is God, is not dependent on the being of the world (nor on his own being) because he gives being to all that is. He is the cause not only of beings but also of being qua being, and even of his own being. (pp. 250, 255)
Freedom is the heart of the creatio ex nihilo. The world might not have been. If the world were eternal, if it had always existed, then we could never ask the question, Why is there something rather than nothing? Those who do not subscribe to the creatio ex nihilo might ask, Why does the world exist as it presently exists? Why does it exist in this form rather than some other form? Scientists ask this kind of question all the time. Yet Christian philosophy asks the more radical question: Why is there something rather than nothing? We might wonder which came first, the question or the doctrine—Zizioulas does not speak to that—but the fact remains that when the gospel began to make converts in the Hellenistic world, this question became meaningful. By patristic apprehension, that the world exists is a mystery: it can only be explained as a personal act of divine grace. I question whether the God of the Bible, at least as he was interpreted by the Greek Fathers, is as “arbitrary” as the Metropolitan of Pergamon intimates; but Zizioulas is certainly correct that the doctrine of the creatio ex nihilo is grounded upon divine freedom and expresses divine freedom.
If the world might not have been, then it enjoys an absolute beginning. But whence came the world? From out of nothing, the Fathers replied. But what is this nothing? The concept of nothing, Zizoulas explicates, “has no relationship whatever to being, it has no ontological content at all. When the Fathers speak of creation from nothing, they are not envisaging the decoration of the universe nor the production of the world from a formless clay, but a production from ‘nothing’ in the absolute sense” (p. 254). Nothingness is easily misunderstood. Some have criticized Zizioulas for proposing an absolute reality parallel to God; but Zizioulas rightly replies that “nothing” does not refer to any thing: “Therefore, since it has no ontological content, nothingness cannot constitute a reality alongside God—it does not constitute a reality in any sense at all; it has no being” (p. 273).
If God has created the world from out of nothing, then God is truly “Creator” and the world is truly his creation, in the absolute sense. Creatures are not an emanation from the divine being, nor have they been crafted from some preexistent matter. Creatures are truly new, enjoying an existence and reality that is distinct from, though utterly dependent upon, their Creator. God is God and creatures are creatures. The creatio ex nihilo gives depth to the Creator/creature distinction and brings to light its true significance.
Once the doctrine is understood and assimilated, a new attitude toward existence becomes possible:
Accepting that my existence is a gift moves my heart to overflow with gratitude as soon as I become conscious of my existence. Thus, the awareness of being, and ontology, becomes eucharistic in the deepest sense of the term: an act of grace, of thanksgiving. … The consequence of this is a very concrete attitude to life and a kind of human being who considers nothing of what he possesses as his own, but who relates everything to someone else, who is grateful for everything and does not think in terms of “having rights.” The consequence is an attitude and a life of grace, overcoming the ego, individualism and all feelings of “superiority” or concupiscence; being ready to give thanks, to give one’s entire existence, to fight against death itself and to offer oneself in an exercise of freedom, analogous to the act which brought one’s own existence into being. Knowing that our existence is a gift of freedom and not an “eternal” and self-evident reality does not just deliver us philosophically and intellectually from the captivity of thinking in terms of obligatory “axioms” and logical “categories”; it frees us from enslavement in our very existence, an enslavement forged by biological necessity and its instincts. It makes us grateful for the gift of existence without enslaving us to it; we can value it while freely making a gift of it. Such is exactly the attitude of the martyrs and the saints, the attitude of the Church, flowing from the created-uncreated dialectic. (p. 256)
One might be excused for beginning to suspect that Zizioulas believes that we are saved by the doctrine of the creatio ex nihilo. This, of course, is not the case, yet the above passage demonstrates how deeply Metropolitan John has appropriated the creatio ex nihilo into his prayer and spiritual life. To know the proper distinction between Creator and creature is to know a truth that changes and informs one’s life.