Creato ex Nihilo: Alternative Proposals (3)

Michael Lodahl: creatio ex amore

So what’s wrong with saying that God creates the world out of love? Almost nothing. Is this not the gospel? Has not this message been proclaimed to the world for two millennia? “Creation is an aspect of the goodness of God,” St Irenaeus writes (Haer 4.39.2). He even goes so far as to say that God created the world so that the divine Son might save it: “Since he had pre-existence as a saving being, it was necessary that what might be saved should also be called into existence, in order that the being who saves should not exist in vain” (3.22.3). It’s not that God is compelled by his nature to create; but, as M. C. Steenberg explains, “God’s good nature leads naturally to the creation of a universe in which such goodness can be fully expressed” (Irenaeus on Creation, p. 34). The language of necessity must therefore be interpreted figuratively, in accordance with the divine nature that transcends all necessities. Creation is all about love and goodness and giftedness and salvation. As St Maximus the Confessor so beautifully phrased it:

God, full beyond all fulness, brought creatures into being not because He had need of anything, but so that they might participate in Him in proportion to their capacity and that He Himself might rejoice in His works, through seeing them joyful and ever filled to overflowing with His inexhaustible gifts. (Centuries on Love 3.46)

Hence it seems appropriate to speak of God creating the world out of love: from the plenitude of his trinitarian being God speaks the cosmos into existence—not from any deficiency or need but simply from the desire to bring others into his eternal joy and goodness.

Michael Lodahl begins his essay in Theologies of Creation expressing his appreciation for the creatio ex nihilo. He sees it principally as exercising a negative function in the life of the Church, specifically, the exclusion of any suggestion that God creates the world from a preexistent something, a something whose existence, perhaps, not even God understands:

So let us assume that creatio ex nihilo represents, at base, the necessity that theologians within many religious traditions have felt to reject the idea of some mysterious element—whether we call it matter, energy, chaos, whatever—existing outside of God’s purview and independently of God’s creative, loving will. The doctrine of creatio ex nihilo rejects the idea that there is this “something else” that just is, on its own, apart from God. Put another way, ex nihilo upholds the notion that whatever exists, exists precisely and entirely as a divine gift. God graciously grants existence to all that exists as other than God; thus, everything that is not God is entirely beholden to God for its very being. (p. 101)

Well said.

But Lodahl is troubled by the doctrine or, perhaps more accurately, troubled by how the doctrine is sometimes preached and taught. He cites one of John Wesley’s sermons:

God acts everywhere, and, therefore, is everywhere; for it is an utter impossibility that any being, created or uncreated, should work where it is not. God acts in heaven, in earth, and under the earth, throughout the whole compass of his creation; by sustaining all things, without which everything would in an instant sink into its primitive nothing; by governing all, every moment superintending everything that he has made; strongly and sweetly influencing all, and yet without destroying the liberty of his rational creatures.

What troubles Lodahl about the passage is the implication “that God could, in principle, ‘blink’ the universe away in one millisecond and then ‘blink’ it all back in the next” or, even more alarmingly, might at any moment call in his loan of creation (p. 102). Though an extreme interpretation, Lodahl concedes, it is by no means ruled out by the doctrine.

But why, one might ask, should the failure of the dogma to do what it was not designed to do be judged a flaw inherent to the dogma? Lodahl has already acknowledged the dogma’s limited function—to exclude all expressions of ex materia. Surely it is unreasonable to expect the creatio ex nihilo to pull the full freight of the gospel.

The creatio ex nihilo directs us to the radical contingency of the universe and the unique reality of the uncreated Creator. To put it simply, God might never have created the universe, with no diminishment to his glory and infinite being. The world might not have been; it does not exist necessarily. That we can now think and feel this possibility is not something that we might have discovered on our own through metaphysical reflection. It could only have come by divine revelation. Philosopher Robert Sokolowski names it the Christian distinction:

According to the natural and spontaneous understanding, the divine and the nondivine form parts of a larger whole. The divine may be recognized as the exemplary, the controlling, the encompassing, the best, and even in some sense the origin, but it is not normally conceived as that which could be, in undiminished goodness and excellence, even if everything else were not. Natural religious thinking and experience, as well as philosophical thinking about the whole, do not attain to this extreme turn of the dial. Natural and spontaneous thinking accepts the world as simply there. … But over against this pagan and spontaneous understanding, Christian belief distinguishes the divine and the world in such a way that God could be, in undiminished goodness and greatness, even if everything else were not.

The Christian understanding introduces a new horizon or context for the modes of possibility, actuality, and necessity. Each of these modes is understood in a new way. The being of things is now questioned in a new setting. Questions are raised that are different from those that, say, Aristotle would raise. If we were to think as Aristotle thought, we might ask how it is that the elements and powers of the world—of the world that is always there—become congealed into being this animal or that building, and how they acquire the centeredness and intelligibility of being one substance or one artifact. This is how Aristotle would inquire into the being and substance of things. But in a Christian understanding one can ask why the animal or the building exists at all. Things are profiled not against the world and its elementary forces, but against not being at all. Their possibility is rooted not only in the potentialities of what already is and always has been, but in the power of God to make them. The necessity against which their contingency is contrasted is not the iron bonds of fate that border the world, but the still more extreme necessity of the self-subsistent God whose choice is the source of everything else that is, everything that is now understood as not having to have been. The introduction of this sense of Creation introduces a new slant on being, on what it is to exist, and on all the modalities of being. (“Creation and Christian Understanding,” Christian Faith and Human Understanding, pp. 41-42)

Asking the question “Why something rather than nothing?” was not inevitable in human history.  Most cultures, past and present, do not ask it of the whole of reality.  It arises only as the biblical revelation of divine creation challenges the default monistic worldview and introduces a new and unexpected way of distinguishing deity and the universe—introducing us, directly, to the Maker of heaven and earth and, indirectly, to the nothingness into which everything would in an instant sink apart from his preserving work.

When Lodahl hears the declaration of the Christian distinction, he apparently hears it as threat, and no doubt preachers have construed it as such. Doctrinal clarification might help to a modest degree, but ultimately what is required is more effective preaching of the good news of Jesus Christ. If I am fearful that God might blink me out of existence, then that is either because the gospel of God’s unconditional love has never been spoken to me or because I have refused to believe it. And if the latter is the case, no amount of doctrinal tinkering can save me.

But I need not hear the Christian distinction in distrust, suspicion, and fear. I might, instead, receive it as an invitation to radical gratitude and joyous praise. Sokolowski observes that the attitude of the pagan toward his gods is necessarily different than the attitude of the Christian to his Creator. This is so not because the Christian is morally or spiritually superior to the pagan but because he knows that absolutely everything he possesses, including existence itself, is a gift from the Creator, whereas the pagan knows that “there is something in him that is not due to the god, something that precedes both him and the god, something for which the god is not responsible” (p. 42). The pagan does not know the nothing and therefore cannot receive the entirety of creation as gift.

At this point Lodahl makes an unfortunate turn. Instead of welcoming the gratuitousness of creation, he introduces necessity into the God/world relationship: because God is infinite and eternal Love, he must always have been Creator. This was Origen’s great error:

We can therefore imagine no moment whatever when that power was not engaged in acts of well-doing. From this it follows that there always existed objects for this well-doing, namely, God’s works or creatures, and that God, in the power of his providence, has been always dispensing his blessings among them by doing them good. … It follows plainly from this, that at no time whatever was God not Creator, nor Benefactor, nor Providence.” (quoted by Lodahl, p. 100)

Lodahl thinks Origen is speaking good news, but in fact the opposite is the case. A love that is necessary is no longer free, and a love that is no longer free is no longer love. All lovers know this. Even in those moments, especially in those moments, when I know I am truly loved by my beloved, her love still surprises me. It comes to me as sheer and utter grace.

God everlastingly exists in his divine nature as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; but he became Creator by an act of will. St Athanasius fought Emperor and Arian for this fundamental truth (see Georges Florovsky, “St Athanasius’ Concept of Creation“). Christians need never fear that God will one day blink humanity out of existence, for we know that in his inner trinitarian being God is a holy communion of love and faithfulness. Yes, God might never have created the universe, just as he might never have become our Savior in Jesus of Nazareth; but these counterfactuals only inspire wonder, awe, and thanksgiving.

“Creation is a song,” declares St Bonaventure, “that God freely desires to sing into the vast spaces of the universe.”

(Go to “Oordian Demiurge”)

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9 Responses to Creato ex Nihilo: Alternative Proposals (3)

  1. Fr. Kimel,

    You say,
    “God everlastingly exists in his divine nature as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; but he became Creator by an act of will.”

    I’ll admit, I’m a bit puzzled by the language of becoming here, not because I think of creation as necessary, but because I have trouble understanding what precisely is meant by the word. I’m not contesting notion of God becoming creator, but wondering how to enunciate this while paying proper respect to divine transcendence. To wax scholastic (If you’ll permit), how do we avoid speaking of creation as a mere “potency” in the mind of God, only to be “actualized” at some later time.

    Thank you,
    Jonathan.

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    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Jonathan, I knew someone smart would pick up on that. Well done. I used “become” to make a point that we probably can’t speak in any other way, even though God literally transcends all becoming. Hence Aquinas’s insistence that the relationship between God and creature is (from God’s end) logical, not real. But I’m open to other ways of saying all of this.

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    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Jonathan, when I wrote that sentence, I had the following passage from Thomas Torrance in mind:

      Athanasius shows that in virture of his intrinsic and eternal Fatherhood, God always had the power to create, and did actually create because he was and is the Father of the Son. God is, and always is, Father, but to create something out of nothing utterly different from himself is an act of his will and freely follows from what he eternally and intrinsically is. Hence, “for God to create is secondary, and to beget is primary” [Con. Ar., 2.2]. …

      The truth of the matter, then, is that while God was always Father, he was not always Creator or Maker. That is not to say that the creation was not in the Mind of God before he actually brought it into being, but that he brought it into being by a definite act of his will and thereby gave it a beginning. Quite clearly words like “was,” “before,” “when” and “beginning” are time-related, and present us with problems when we speak of God, for the time-relations they imply may not be read back into God. These terms have one sense when used of God when they are governed by the unique nature of God, and another sense when used of creatures in accordance with their transitory natures. Thus when the Scriptures tell us that “in the beginning God created” we must understand “beginning” in a two-fold way: with reference to the creating act of God, and with reference to what he has created or his works. Hence Athanasius could say that “while the works have a beginning in being made, their beginning precedes their coming to be” [Con. Ar., 2.57]. Behind the beginning of creation there is an absolute or transcendent beginning by God who is himself eternally without beginning. This is what makes the creation of the world out of nothing so utterly baffling and astonishing. It is not only that something absolutely new has begun to be, new even for God who created it by his Word and gave it a contingent reality and integrity outwith himself, but that in some incomprehensible way, to cite Athanasius again, “the Word himself became the Maker of the things that have a beginning” [Con. Ar., 2.57]. God was always Father, not always Creator, but now he is Creator as well as Father. It is in similar terms that we may speak of the eternal Son who became Man. The Son was always Son of God, but now he is Man as well as God. “He was not man previously, but he became man for our sake” [In ill.om., 3]. …

      If God was not always Creator, the creation of the universe as reality “external to God” was something new in the eternal Life of God. If the Son or Word by whom he created all things was not always incarnate, but became man in the fullness of time, then God’s communication of himself to us in Jesus Christ who is of one and the same being and nature as the Father, is something new to the eternal being of God. Thus the incarnation and creation together, the latter interpreted in the light of the former, have quite breath-taking implications for our understanding of the nature of God. They tell us that he is free to do what he had never done before, and free to be other than he was eternally: to be the Almighty Creator, and even to become incarnate as a creature within his creation, while remaining eternally the God that he is. (The Trinitarian Faith, pp. 87-89)

      There may be better ways to make Torrance’s point, but it does have the virtue of getting the point across. 🙂

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  2. tgbelt says:

    Good review! I think the (existential) concern that our contingency means the real possibility that God might just blink us out of existence is a false fear. It doesn’t follow from God’s not needing to create us and our radical contingency that once created God’s deciding to blink us away is at all possible. I’d argue this possibility is not in fact a real ‘possibility’, that God can be free not to create at all but not free in the same sense to abandon his love for and pursuit of what he creates should he create. I was never able to convince Tom Oord of this.

    However, I do question the criticism of Lodahl for believing God is always Creator (i.e., never not Creator). I agree with the criticism of course. I’m just not sure how consistent the Orthodox are for making it when they themselves agree God is eternally, essentially and unchangingly Creator. (You can find statements like Lodahl’s verbatim in Bulgakov by the way—part of my problem with him.) It does seem to me that once we view God as absolutely timeless (and God’s determinations all equally timeless), the distinction between what God is/does ‘by nature’ and what he does ‘by will’ ceases to be helpful on this issue. It’s a good distinction per se, and I agree it’s where we ought to go to ground God’s freedom to creation/not create. But when the act is made timelessly eternal, God’s freedom from Creation gets reduced to an abstraction we make. God is never actually free from Creation. There’s a problem there (for some of us at least).

    We’ve chatted about this before a bit, so I’ll leave it there. I understand some Orthodox believe the essence/energies distinction addresses my concern here. I would pay good money (maybe buy you a cigar?) to see a two or three part series on the question of how that distinction understands God’s essential actuality to be free from the determination to Create.

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    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Hi, Tom. Thanks for the comment. You write:

      I’m just not sure how consistent the Orthodox are for making it when they themselves agree God is eternally, essentially and unchangingly Creator.

      Perhaps instead of looking first for some sort of consistency, you should instead simply accept that the Church Fathers make two assertions: (1) God creates the world with an absolute temporal beginning and (2) God transcends all temporal change and becoming. Why should the two claims conflict, given the radical transcendence and incomprehensibility of the divine nature? On what basis could we even determine that the two claims conflict?

      Regarding your comment on the divine essence and energies, I have not suggested that this distinction in any way makes the creatio ex nihilo more comprehensible than Western presentations. It remains as wondrous and mysterious as it ever was. I have only suggested that if one believes that the creatio ex nihilo results in “distance” between God and creation, then the Palamite presentation offers a way to think of God’s immanent presence in an exceptionally intimate way. But ultimately I think that the distance problem only results if one fails to think transcendence in a noncontrastive way.

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  3. brian says:

    All this talk is complicated by the fact that we do not really know what eternity is.
    For that matter, time itself remains enigmatic and difficult to think.
    Part of understanding creatio ex nihilo is understanding the becoming of being.
    Philosophers like Hegel and Heidegger emphasized this aspect of being, albeit with serious, unfortunate errors from a Christian perspective.

    In any event, eternity is other to time, but the actual relation between time and eternity and what we are experiencing now is open to interpretation. It makes a difference, for example, if one thinks of eternity as a static, unchanging reality that provides the eidos or pattern for temporal being. Is time then always trying to catch up to eternity? Is the eternal reality then a clear, isolated exemplar from which time necessarily comes up short as it asymptotically approaches an ideal?

    This is a caricature of bad Plato, but I don’t think it’s actually what Plato thinks.
    Or, on bad days, Plato is tempted in this direction, but his understanding is more complex and greater. Speculative metaphysics has largely agreed that time is in some sense dependent upon eternity. Historicists and most moderns have simply written eternity out of serious thought. In my view, this renders their thought unintelligible at anything beyond a superficial level. Regardless, our present experience is temporal, but it mediates the eternal in some fashion. How that occurs is beyond human comprehension, though one can perhaps gather hints. Art, philosophy, mysticism, theology, all these will give better answers than the science tacitly granted the position of arbiter of truth by contemporaries.

    A biblical concept of Eternity is not static. The triune God is inherently dramatic and infinitely rich with the fullness of Being. The relation between time and eternity is certainly not just a fully realized pattern for temporal becoming to ape. At minimum, the relational aspect that makes of being a communal reality introduces freedom and an open-ended dynamic of possible relation that the barren, static model doesn’t even imagine as possibility. In my view, Bulgakov’s sophianic teaching is an attempt to wrestle with these difficulties. So far as I can understand them, I am inclined to think he has something, though doubtless one would have to bring critical acumen to such a generously creative speculation.

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  4. Fr Aidan Kimel says:

    Over on Facebook one of my readers pointed out that the Bonaventure citation is most likely a paraphrase by Ilia Delio of sentence or two from one of St Bonaventure’s writings. He is probably right. I think Delio is paraphrasing the following from Bonaventure’s Sentences: “Optime ordinatae sunt rest in finem, salvo ordine universi, quia universum est tamquam plucherrimum carment, quod decurrit secndun optimas consonantias.” This has been translated for me by one of my readers as: “Things have been ordered optimally [best] unto their end, preserving the order of the universe[.] [This is] because the universe is like the most beautiful song, which runs along according to the best [or optimal] consonances [could be harmonies, congruities]….”

    But it’s such a lovely paraphrase. If Bonaventure didn’t say it, he should have!

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  5. John H says:

    This is a kabbalistic take on the creation story. I find it interesting and illuminating. Call it:

    Creatio ad tsimstum

    In the beginning there is only God, who may be pictured as an infinite sphere of light that permeates everything. To make room for the created worlds, God needs to limit his otherwise overwhelming presence. So he withdraws from a portion of himself leaving a hollow space or void. The kabbalists refer to this as tsimtsum; it is the actual process by which God generates the space for creation.

    God then projects a ray of his light into the void generated by the tsimtsum; this is what gives rise to all of the created worlds, including our own. And this ray of God’s energy is what sustains creation at every instant; indeed it is intimately present in all of contingent being throughout the entire created universe. Were God to withdraw this energy for even a nanosecond then the world would collapse into the void.

    On the other had, if God were to fully manifest His glorious presence throughout creation, it would instantly be reabsorbed into the Godhead like a raindrop falling into the ocean. No trace of creation would be left behind.

    Of course this is just a story or metaphor which attempts to express the inexpressible mystery of creation. Created being is contingent being, dependent upon necessary being to sustain it at every moment. Picture this necessary being as the ray of God’s energy projected into the very void that He himself generates through the tsimstum. So God creates both the space in which free created beings like us may exist and he also creates us as well at every moment.

    This story expresses rather well the seeming paradox between the immanence and transcendence of God. The tsimstum is God in His transcendent dimension, the process through which He limits or withdraws His glorious essence so as to make room for creation and for free beings like us. On the other hand, the ray of light projected into the void is nothing other then God’s energy which creates sustains and guides all of creation. It is nothing less then the “source, guide and goal of all that is.” Creation could not be if God were not both transcendent and immanent.

    I hope that these thoughts are not too far astray. Just thought that this kabbalistic view of creation may be of interest to some of your readers.

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    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Thank you, John, for sharing with us the Kabbalistic view of tsimtsum. I recall hearing of it many years ago when I read Moltmann’s book on creation.

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