Creatio ex Nihilo: The Grammar of Transcendence

“The Rule of Truth that we hold is this: There is one God Almighty, who created all things through His Word. He both prepared and made all things out of nothing, just as Scripture says: For by the word of the Lord the heavens were made, and all their host by the breath of His mouth. And again: All things were made through Him and without Him was made not a thing. From this all nothing is exempt” (Against Heresies I.22.1).

Thus declared St Irenaeus of Lyons. While even as late as A.D. 150 it was possible for Christian theologians to entertain the creation of the world from pre-existent matter, within only a few decades the creatio ex nihilo had become a foundational dogma of orthodox Christianity. I emphasize both foundational and dogma, as subsequent theological reflections on the doctrine of the Holy Trinity, the Incarnation, grace, sacraments, deification, providence presuppose the creatio ex nihilo and are inconceivable apart from it. Given the counter-cultural and counter-intuitive nature of the doctrine, this was a remarkable development. So what was at stake? Gerhard May offers this opinion: “The driving motive which underlies the Christian doctrine of creatio ex nihilo is the attempt to do justice to the absolute sovereignty and unlimited freedom of the biblical God acting in history” (Creatio ex Nihilo, p. viii). It thus represents a critical response to the world-formation theories of Greek philosophy and gnosticism. I suggest an alternative way to express the same: in the collision between the gospel and Hellenistic construals of divinity, the catholic Church came to see the creatio ex nihilo as the key to securing the proper distinguishment between the infinite Creator and contingent beings. Only by the assertion of absolute creation could the Church intimate the radical transcendence of the Deity she worships and serves.

“Divine transcendence,” remarks Kathryn Tanner, “is not a doctrinal affirmation in any ordinary sense: it signals a general linguistic disturbance, the failure of all predicative attribution, in language about God” (“Creation Ex Nihilo as Mixed Metaphor,” in Creation ‘Ex Nihilo’ and Modern Theology, p. 138). To assert the transcendence of God is to bespeak the oddity of divinity, at least as understood by Christians. Within Western Christianity this oddity is expressed by the claim that God is not a kind of thing, that he surpasses all categories, that God and creature do not exist alongside or parallel to each other. God is Ipsum Esse Subsistens, declares St Thomas Aquinas, and for this reason “does not belong to the genus of substance” (ST I.3.5.1). Within Eastern Christianity the oddity of God is expressed by the claim that God surpasses being. In the words of St Gregory Palamas: “For if God is nature, all else is not nature; but if every other thing is nature, he is not a nature, just as he is not a being if all other things are beings, and if he is a being, then all other things are not beings”(Philokalia, IV:382). But whether Western or Eastern, Christians acknowledge, concede, and celebrate that they do not know what they mean by “God” nor know how the language they use for the transcendent Creator effectively refers to the divine being. God is identified, rather, by our failure to mean:

At the most basic level, God’s transcendence means that God is not one instance among others of a general sort of thing, distinguished from (and ranked hierarchically with respect to) those others by the supreme degree to which it exhibits the designated quality. In other words, divinity is not a class term; and therefore things within the world cannot be differentiated and ordered by the degree to which they exhibit such a (non-)predicate.

Affirmations about God, as a result, do not imply corresponding denials. Talk about God violates the Spinozistic dictum, maintained in ordinary language about things, that all determination is negation; and vice verse. In other words, language about God contravenes the way in ordinary speech that the affirmation of certain qualities implies the denial of others, and the denial of certain properties implies the denial of others. For example, when one denies that God is a body it does not follow that God is spiritual (or whatever is ordinarily incompatible with materiality). And the reverse holds as well: when one affirms that God is immaterial one is not denying that God has bodily existence. Similarly, when one denies that God can be rendered by images, one is not implying that God is an abstractly definable concept; and the reverse. In sum, God transcends the application of all ordinarily contrastive terms.

Since God is in this way incapable of absorption into a general category, God has a non-predicative identity. God is identified, in other words, by this very failure to mean. God becomes the paradigmatic inassimilable Other, the (paradoxically non-predicatively grounded) paradigm for all that remains indigestible to sense-making practices that insist on the exhaustive, homogenizing subsumption of particulars under general concepts. (pp. 138-139)

To get a sense of the Christian understanding of divine transcendence we need to contrast it with the Hellenistic construals of divinity over against which it was first asserted and articulated. Tanner provides a short summary, with the stated caveat that her generalization does not capture the breadth and diversity of Hellenistic philosophy:

In Greek and Roman religion and in Greek philosophy to a great extent, divinity refers to a kind of being distinct from others within the matrix of the same cosmos. Divinity characterizes that which is most powerful, self-sufficient and unchanging among beings, providing loci of intelligibility and meaning within an otherwise disordered world. As a distinct sort of being differentiated from others, like any other kind, within the same spectrum of being making up the cosmos, divinity is a predicate determined by commonality and susceptible of difference: it is the sort of thing which can be said to be shared generically with specifying differences of degree. Divinity is attributed univocally, in other words, to the realm of Ideas, the World-Soul of the Timaeus, celestial spheres and even human souls in so far as they are all characterized by rationality, permanence and stability in varying degrees of purity. (God and Creation in Christian Theology, pp. 39-40)

Instead of a sharp chasm between the divine and non-divine, we should think of the two as existing within a continuum of cosmological being, with the ingenerate God at one end, exhibiting the fullness of divinity, and matter at the other end, exhibiting the fullness of non-divinity, with various semi-divine beings in between. Divinity is contrastively differentiated from non-divinity: “Divinity in Greek thought is often set off oppositionally, as a realm of eternal, changeless intelligibility, over and against the world as a whole characterized by the contrary predicates of becoming, uncertainty and instability” (p. 40). This contrastive methodology generates a dynamic that Christian theologians ultimately found unacceptable:

Divinity characterized in terms of a direct contrast with certain sorts of being or with the world of non-divine being as a whole is brought down to the level of the world and the beings within it in virtue of that very opposition: God becomes one being among others within a single order. Such talk suggests that God exists alongside the non-divine, that God is limited by what is opposed to it, that God is as finite as the non-divine beings with which it is directly contrasted. A cosmology influenced by such suggestions will characterize a divine agency in the terms appropriate for a finite one. Like that of a finite agent God’s influence will be of a limited sort: it may not extend to everything, it may presuppose what it does not produce, it may require the intervening agencies of others. (pp. 45-46)

The more divine something is, the less involved it can be with the existence of the non-divine—and vice versa. Transcendence thus becomes a kind of distance. Transcendence and immanence are set against each other. Aristotle’s unmoved mover is a good example, as is also the primal God of the Middle Platonist Albinus. A third, albeit different, example is the non-being God of the Christian gnostic Basilides.

In rejection of these Greek construals of divinity, the catholic theologians of the late second-century Church asserted the eternal Creator of the Bible. A key player here is Irenaeus. Irenaeus adopts the contrastive predicates commonly used by Greek philosophers to speak of God (God is ingenerate, impassible, simple, etc.), yet he denies “the implications such a contrastive use would have for an account of divine agency” (p. 56). Tanner elaborates:

Irenaeus’ Gnostic opponents assume the need for mediating agencies between God and the world because of the contrast between a simple, impassible, ingenerate God and a world of change, multiplicity and what comes to be. Irenaeus in the second book of Against Heresies argues that this Gnostic limitation on God’s power and presence does not follow from the characterization of divinity in such terms. Applying terms of this sort to God suggests to Irenaeus, instead, a principle of universal and immediate divine agency. It is this connection that shows Irenaeus’ non-contrastive use of apparently contrastive terms. For Irenaeus, what makes God radically different from every creature—the Fullness without limits of eternal and ingenerate unity—is exactly what assures God’s direct and intimate relation with every creature in the entirety of its physical and particular being. Because divine transcendence exceeds all oppositional contrasts characteristic of the relations among finite beings—including those of presence and absence—divine transcendence, according to Irenaeus, does not exclude but rather allows for the immanent presence to creatures of God in his otherness. (pp. 56-57)

Christian theologians thus introduced to the world a non-contrastive understanding of divinity—a new grammar of transcendence. The difference between the God and the world is not like the many differences that obtain between things of the world. It is not the kind of difference that distinguishes different kinds of beings. “God is neither like the world nor simply unlike it,” remarks Tanner. “God is beyond the difference between like and unlike, beyond simple identifications or simple contrasts. That is just what makes God different from anything else” (“Mixed Metaphor,” p. 148). The world is not a part of God; it is not divine to any degree whatsoever. It has been created by God from out of nothing. In place of the Greek presentation of the chain of being, Christianity posits the absolute distinction between Creator and creature.

The critical point of the creatio ex nihilo, suggests Tanner, is to assert the immediacy and unlimited scope of God’s immanent presence and activity in the world. Nothing is beyond his reach because all has been made by him from nothing. Everything is his domain. As the apophatic source of all being, God is radically different from the world. He does not exist alongside the world within the same metaphysical matrix and thus may be intimately present to the world in ways utterly surprising to the Greek mind. The relationship between Creator and creature should be formulated as noncontrastive, nonoppositional, noncompetitive, neither monistic nor dualistic.

The unique transcendence of the biblical God imposes two grammatical rules on Christian theologians and philosophers (God and Creation, p. 47):

(1) When speaking of God and creatures, avoid both univocal attribution of predicates to God and the world and simple contrast of divine and non-divine predicates.

(2) When speaking of divine agency in the world, avoid all suggestions of limitation of scope or manner.

Speak thusly that the  living God in his radical transcendence may be intimated and known.

(Go to “The Grammar of Agency”)

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2 Responses to Creatio ex Nihilo: The Grammar of Transcendence

  1. tsoigitli says:

    Also important to note that this mixed relationship with Hellenistic philosophy is the bread and butter of Hellenistic Judaism. Wisdom of Solomon displays this gorgeously: adoption of Stoic language and ideas about the pneuma but modifying and even rejecting the core principle of Stoicism by asserting the ontological superiority of pneuma to cosmos and the distinction between pneuma and theos. By the time the Church springs into being, this fight to establish the transcendence of God over against the pagan philosophers has already been raging three hundred years.


  2. Fr Aidan Kimel says:

    I revised this article today in light of subsequent reading. It has become clear to me that the differences between Basilides’ construal of creation ex nihilo and the churchly dogma are so great that it is wrong to assert that he is the originator of the doctrine. The two doctrines function in very different ways for Basilides and, say, St Irenaeus.


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