Creatio ex Nihilo: Alternative Proposals (2)

Stephen H. Webb: creatio a materia ex Christi

Stephen Webb rejects the creatio ex nihilo for the good reason that it prevents him from saying the one thing that Christians have always denied: God is material. Webb does not really explain what this means in his contribution to Theologies of Creation, but according to reports he develops it at great length in his book Jesus Christ, Heavenly Flesh. Scouring the web I found the following quotation from his book:

God the Father is material (in a way we cannot completely imagine or understand) without being fully corporeal, God the Son is anthropomorphically corporeal (and thus material in a way that is different from the Father), and God the Holy Spirit is the love they share—and it is this love that dynamically directs matter toward corporeal form. God the Father is material in such a perfect way that the Father can just as easily be called spiritual, if the spiritual is defined as the perfection of matter. Nonetheless, the Father is not a body in the same sense that we are.

God the Father is material in such a perfect way that the Father can just as easily be called spiritual, if the spiritual is defined as the perfection of matter. Nonetheless, the Father is not a body in the same sense that we are, since the Father has no need to be like anything else and thus is not limited by any particular shape. …

The Father can thus be said to be material but not anthropomorphically corporeal, while God the Son is anthropomorphically corporeal, in the sense that the body the Father gives the Son is the form in which God determines to organize our matter as well. The Son is thus material in a way that the Father is not, since the Son’s divine substance (which he shares with the Father, making them equal and one) has a shape or form (a body) that the Father does not. The Son, however, is not material in a way that is identical with our matter, since the body of the Son is eternal as well as the source, plan, and goal of our bodies.

God the Holy Spirit is the pure potentiality of matter (just as God the Father is matter’s pure actuality). More concretely put, the Holy Spirit is the love that drives matter toward corporeal form. … The Spirit is matter at its most fluid, most enlightened, and most fecund, yet even the Spirit is not shapeless, since it can take multiple shapes in bringing creatures into each other’s live as they journey into the life of the divine. (pp. 269-270)

Talk about a Christian materialism! Divinity doesn’t get much more physical than this. If you are wondering how the above can be reconciled with anything resembling ecumenical Christianity, you are not the only one. See, for example, Philip Cary’s review: “Material God.” But full marks to Webb for creativity and boldness. Not even Robert W. Jenson has been willing to reconstruct trinitarian divinity in such a radical fashion. But where orthodox Christians fear to tread, Stephen Webb rushes in.

Webb’s critique of creation from nothing follows logically: if the world is created from the matter of Christ, then it is clearly not created from nothing. Here is the point of contention. The creatio ex nihilo posits a metaphysical discontinuity between Creator and the world—yet not in the sense that nothing is the source of the world, as nothing did not exist before creation. The world was created by an act of divine will, declares Webb, “but the divine will is not the source of creation any more than my decision to make a cup of coffee is the source of its color, fragrance, or taste. Indeed, it is less so, because there is no common ground that might provide room for a connection between God and the world. None of the persons of the trinity can be the source of creation, because there is no such thing” (Theologies of Creation, p. 73).

I find the above-quoted sentences confusing. Webb seems to be saying that God cannot create anything from nothing. It’s a metaphysical impossibility. It thus makes more sense to think of the universe as generated from the divine substance. Like gives birth to like. We must posit a continuity of being between Originator and originated: “Source implies closeness, intimacy, and contiguity between cause and its effect. Source also implies an ontological sameness between the two. The source of a river is a spring, for example. The origin and the object in question consist of the same basic stuff, as do head and body” (p. 71)—hence the impossibility of creatio ex nihilo. I certainly have to agree with Webb that the notion of creation from nothing violates all commonsense—that’s one reason why it was rejected by Greek philosophy—but what Webb sees as an impossibility, Theophilus in the second century saw as confirmation of the sovereignty of the Almighty Creator: “But the power of God is made evident in this, that He makes out of what does not exist whatever He pleases” (Ad Autolycum 2.4).

G. Michael Zbaraschuk: creatio ex deo

Michael Zbaraschuk proposes yet a different model of creation: God creates from God, from God’s self. It’s always useful to ask what problem a theologian is trying to solve. The problem Zbaraschuk wants to solve is divine immanence. He apparently believes that the creatio ex nihilo results in distance of God from his creation. He doesn’t exactly say this, but it seems to be implied by his approbation of sacramental spiritualities, specifically, the catholic belief in the eucharistic real presence:

Contrary to theologies that see Christ as merely symbolically present in the bread and wine, these sacramental theologies see God’s substance as incarnationally present in the same way that God was present in Jesus. And God’s incarnation not only is in the bread and wine but is transferred to those who partake in it. This example is perhaps the sine qua non of the notion of creatio de deo. Insofar as the believer is a “new creation” in and through her or his participation in the sacrament of the Eucharist, she or he is made new out of God. (p. 82)

I find it curious that Zbaraschuk has not noticed that the ecclesial traditions that affirm the gift of Christ in the Eucharist have not had a problem reconciling their sacramental faith with the creatio ex nihilo. But perhaps he wishes to extend the eucharistic gift to the creation itself, as one finds in the writings of Matthew Fox.

Like Marit Trelstad, Zbaraschuk believes that St Thomas Aquinas can be enlisted to his cause: “It is precisely his concept and insistence on participation in being itself as participation in God that lend support to the notion of creatio ex deo. … Even Aquinas’ characterization of creatio ex nihilo is ‘the emanation of being from not-being’ [ST I.45.1]. This being itself is God’s own essence. To say God created from nothing is to say that God creates out of God’s self” (p. 80). But is Zbaraschuk interpreting Aquinas correctly? I suspect not. Aquinas certainly did not think that God communicates the divine essence in his act of creation. That would make creatures into duplications of the Uncreated. What God does do is freely bestow a dependent or contingent form of existence:

God is present everywhere in everything: not indeed as part of their substance, but in the way agents are present to and in causal contact with what they act upon. Since existence itself is what God is by nature, he it must be who causes existence in creatures. During the whole period of a creature’s existence, then, God must be present to it in the way its own existence is. Now existence is more intimately and profoundly interior to things than anything else: everything else is potential compared to existence. So God must exist and exist intimately within everything. (Summa Theologiae I.8.1)

Echoing St Augustine, Aquinas tells us that God is present at the very heart of created being. His transcendence is not distance, for the relationship between Creator and creature is the most intimate relationship conceivable. (Well, perhaps the gift of theosis is even more intimate …) Because God is the eternally subsistent act of existing (ipsum esse subsistens), he is able to summon into reality beings that participate in the act of existing. “This is how things receiving existence from God resemble him,” explains the Angelic Doctor; “for precisely as things possessing existence they resemble the primary and universal source of all existence” (ST I.4.3). Aquinas feels free to speak of created beings as emanating from God only because he has made clear his break from all Neo-Platonic schemes of emanation. Such is the importance of the creatio ex nihilo.

I find it frustrating that neither Zbaraschuk nor the other contributors to Theologies of Creation even mention the Orthodox formulation of the divine essence/energies distinction. If ontological distance is the obstacle to be overcome, then the doctrinal proposal of St Gregory Palamas articulates a powerful way to speak of the transcendent Creator’s intimate involvement with his creation. Met Kallistos Ware can even speak of an Orthodox panentheism:

Permeating the world, the divine energies are precisely the life and power of God, directly and immediately active throughout the natural order. The God of Palamas is not a remote God, not a detached and distant architect, but a living and personal God, an involved God, unceasingly present and at work in all he has made: “My Father is still working, and I also am working” (John 5:17). For the Palamite theologian the act of creation is nothing else than the continuing reality of God’s indwelling. Yet while permeating the created universe through his energies, God also transcends the universe in his ineffable essence, which remains forever unknowable alike to angels and to humankind, both in this present age and in the age to come. Palamas is in this way a maximalist: the whole God is radically transcendent in his essence, and the whole God is radically immanent in his omnipresent energies. (“God Immanent yet Transcendent,” in In Whom We Live and Move and Have our Being, pp. 165-166)

Whatever questions theologians might raise about the Palamite distinction, they are nothing compared to the problems that result from contrastive construals of divine transcendence and the denial of the creatio ex nihilo.

“Creation ex nihilo, writes, Kathryn Tanner, “constitutes itself as the rejection of both creation from or through something, and creation out of God” (“Creation Ex Nihilo as Mixed Metaphor,” in Creation ‘Ex Nihilo’ and Modern Theology, p. 149). Yet she also notes that the doctrine includes the imagery and concepts of both rejected positions. In that sense, perhaps, we can think of the creatio ex nihilo as comprehending the truth creatio ex deo position seeks to express, while avoiding the misunderstanding creatio ex deo almost always generates, namely, the identification of God and world.

(Go to “Alternative Proposals [3])

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7 Responses to Creatio ex Nihilo: Alternative Proposals (2)

  1. The distinction between the material and immaterial is fascinating, especially given that the more we learn about matter the more we have difficulty understanding exactly what it is.

    As a Mormon-to-Orthodox convert I find Stephen Webb’s materialism perplexing, especially since I am something of his opposite. As a Mormon it was easier for me to believe in an immaterial God, the God who is Being and not just “a” being, but my views conflicted with LDS doctrine. On the other hand, Webb claims to be Roman Catholic but espouses a view of the Father that goes against the entire canonical tradition of the Church.

    Keep up the good work. I am enjoying these!


    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Thanks for your comment. I have read that Webb is Roman Catholic, but I do not know how he reconciles his beliefs with the magisterial teaching of the Roman Catholic Church.


      • Jonathan says:

        I feel like I should make a joke here about how many Catholics faithful to the magisterium can dance on the head of a pin, the answer of course being “None, because there are no such Catholics.”

        All I can say (as an asymptotically magisterial Catholic) from having read your quotations from Webb, is that I am dying to know Webb’s version of transubstantiation. It must read like William Blake spliced with Teilhard de Chardin (both of whom occupy revered positions somewhere on my asymptote).

        I like Webb. He’s written good stuff on Bob Dylan.


  2. tgbelt says:

    Fr Aidan: Whatever questions theologians might raise about the Palamite distinction, they are nothing compared to the problems that result from contrastive construals of divine transcendence and the denial of the creatio ex nihilo.

    Tom: Even without the essence/energies distinction (I still don’t understanding how it addresses the issue), affirming CEN and just letting the tension stand is nothing compared to the problems of collapsing God and creation into a single univocal ontology. Honestly, I think most of the stress that motivates the desire to avoid CEN is existential (not purely academic or logical consistency). We just don’t want to embrace our absolute nothiningness, and no cosmology brings you face to face with the Void like CEN.


    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Funny you should mention the existential element, Tom. I’ll be touching on that in my next article, though not in the way that you mention.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Agnikan says:

    I believe in creatio ex amōre.


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