The Doctrine of Creation as Foundational Doctrine

Diogenes Allen begins his book Philosophy for Understanding Theology with a chapter on the Christian doctrine of creation. One might initially think this an odd decision. When I ponder the theological use of philosophical conceptuality, I immediately think of the Nicene doctrine of the Holy Trinity—hypostasis, ousia, and that kind of stuff. But Allen believes that in order to grasp the the theological employment of philosophy, we must be very clear about the doctrine that undergirds and qualifies all doctrines—the creation of the world from out of nothing. The doctrine advances an ontological distinction—between the eternal Creator and the contingent cosmos—that Hellenic philosophy did not and could not make.

Consider, for example, Aristotle. As a philosopher Aristotle seeks to understand the order of the universe as we experience it:

Aristotle is concerned to account for the order of the world we perceive. It never occurred to Aristotle, one of the greatest minds in history, to raise the question of why we have a world at all rather than nothing. He takes the world’s existence for granted. For him its existence is in no way problematic. Accordingly, what concerned him was to discover the principles of the world’s operation. This involved an investigation of the various kinds of beings in the universe (hence the practice of the discipline of ontology), and it led him to infer that there is a first unmoved mover as the highest and most exalted kind of being. The grounds for the claim that there is an unmoved mover are a series of intricate distinctions and arguments, but finally all the reasoning rests on the epistemological principle: we assert only what must be asserted to account for the operations of the world. A search for the principles of the world is what motivates Aristotle. What validates the claims he makes is their success in explaining its operations. (p. 3)

Aristotle deduces a creator of sorts, based on his metaphysical reflection upon the world. God and world participate in an ontological continuum, the former understood as securing the order of the world in which we live. We may think of the unmoved mover as the “top story of the universe.” It is not independent of the eternal cosmos but an eternal part of it.

Israel, on the other hand, offers no such justification for her belief in God. She is not concerned to investigate the principles of the operations of the world (though perhaps the Wisdom literature is a start in this direction). Metaphysical reflection does not ground her confession. She believes in God because she believes that he has graciously revealed himself to her. The faith of Israel is a response to the divine self-communication. The Creator therefore implicitly enjoys a radically different ontological status than the unmoved mover of Aristotle. The second-and third-century theologians of the Church would eventually clarify and make explicit the nature of this ontological status. Allen succinctly summarizes the Christian understanding of God and world:

God the Creator is ontologically not part of the world, nor is the world part of God. There is a distinction between God and the world which is more fundamental than any distinction between any two things which are both part of the world. However great the ontological difference may be between things that are part of the world, it is dwarfed in comparison to the ontological difference that exists between the Creator and creatures. (p. 9)

Modern science tells us that the individual existents that have a beginning and ending within the universe—planets, animals, trees, politicians—may be contrasted to matter and energy, which are “conserved in all transformations.” But according to the doctrine of creation, even this matter and energy are radically dependent upon the creative action of God. “Matter and energy, like leaves and trees, are contingent,” explains Allen. “Even though they are conserved in all transformations of various things within the universe, they and indeed the entire universe began, and they and it may end, should God so will” (p. 9). Only the Creator is truly everlasting and necessary.

The radical contingency of the world is brought out even more clearly by the assertion that God created the world freely. He did not have to create anything. He was not compelled by any kind of force, whether external or internal. Given that God is the ontological source of everything that exists “outside” of himself, there can be nothing external to him that could compel him to create, nor is he subject to an interior instability or incompleteness that might pressure him to create an “other” for his enrichment. Allen writes: “But the God of the Bible acts freely and thus is inherently stable and inherently full, complete, or perfect” (p. 10). His creation of the world is thus an expression of sheer generosity. The world did not have to be:

Since the world began and since God made it freely, God can exist without a world. The relation between God and the world (the relation of Creator and creature) is less basic than one of the terms of the relation, namely God. In other words, God is more fundamental than the relation between God and the world. The Godhead in itself—in its very being or essence—is without a relation to the world, i.e., to anything outside itself. God fully establishes a relation by the act of creation itself. So God is not more with a world than without a world. God is not incomplete without a world. A God who creates freely is full, complete, and perfect, and so is not made more by creating nor less by not creating. The world plus God is not more than God alone. God less the world is not less than God alone. However paradoxical it may appear at first sight, it follows directly from the claim that the world began and that God created it freely. However harsh it may appear to say that God does not need a world, it is only because God does not need a world that we can say that the existence of the world is the result of an act of sheer generosity or grace. So it does not mean that God is not concerned about us, but quite the contrary.

A being who is complete in essence, who is inexhaustibly rich, lacking nothing, is beyond our comprehension. The world consists of beings which we classify according to their likenesses and differences into various kinds of beings. But God is not a being within the world. Deity is not one among other beings but the source of all other beings. Thus concepts by which we understand various kinds of things within the world do not enable us to comprehend God because God does not fall under any classification or genus within which we place the various beings of which the world consists. (pp. 10-11)

The above paragraphs deserve a rereading. “The world plus God is not more than God alone. God less the world is not less than God alone”—here is the key to the logic of divine transcendence. In response to the analytic theologians and theistic personalists who think of divinity as existing alongside creatures (God plus a creature = two existents), Allen would suggest that they have not yet begun to think God.

(cont)

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10 Responses to The Doctrine of Creation as Foundational Doctrine

  1. brian says:

    One will encounter here the same problems associated with Hart’s recent Experience of God.

    That latter work was intended to clear the ground of misconceptions so that individuals would at least not talk past one another by holding radically incommensurable notions. I don’t see much evidence that it was particularly successful. Those groups, whether religious, indifferent, or hostile, that failed to understand the transcendence of God for the most part continue to do so. A discussion on this site between believers and atheists was illuminating. I inferred that many combative atheists were watching from the sidelines. A consistent comment was that believers are always “moving the goal posts.”

    What does this mean? The import from the other side is that they rationally address and answer all possible assertions for the existence of God, objections to atheist positions, etc. Having done so to their satisfaction (which of course, is simply the standard for any rational, intelligent person, no?) the persistence of faith could only be stubborn irrationalism, deficient intellect, pure perversity, a proud unwillingness to acknowledge the superior enlightenment of the rejectors of God. Believers are like the hydra, always coming up with just one more thing in order to perpetuate their particularly annoying neurosis.

    And yet, in spite of claims by polemical atheists to have looked into these attempts to explain the difference between God and the gods, it is hardly evident. There’s a level of perplexity beyond initial wonder. Both Plato and Aristotle acknowledge that the philosopher is drawn to seek wisdom by wonder. (Kierkegaard, living the modern experience, will add anguish as a spur. Both have their points.) Still, there is a difference between Plato and Aristotle. Plato’s wonder is always drawing him away from conclusions — the dialogues typically end incomplete. Attempts to discover reality turn out to be much more complex than initial enthusiasm expects. Consider the Republic which ends with a myth, (after the poets have been supposedly expelled from the ideal city — so, not a moment of inconclusiveness here, but an eschatological image that points beyond human experience.) The original notion was to model the ideal city after the order of the soul. Socrates is agreeing to this and that speculation throughout the night, but he is facetious. All along, he is drawing his interlocutors to recognize that the soul is too mysterious and complex to be captured by human paradigms. Why? Because the soul is not a thing like other things in the world.

    While Aristotle also sees that the soul is somehow a nothing that is everything — i.e., the intellect can somehow hold the universe — he tends to think in a way that anticipates modern science. Modern man thinks in terms of problems and solutions. Knowledge is determinate being. Hence, for Aristotle, his initial wonder subtly morphs into curiosity. Curiosity is not wonder. Curiosity often becomes self-regarding. It can lack reverence for the other. It might murder to dissect. It normally thinks that one can solve for X, whether working out a sum or discovering who killed Mr. Boddy (Col. Mustard in the conservatory with the candlestick.) Once the answer is determined, the mystery disappears. Likewise, the standard scientistic thinking never comes up against a second perplexity. Having answered all the questions, it can only see a perduring mystery as an illicit “moving of the goal posts.” However, the reality is that the originary wonder was never pointing at something that could be locked down by advertence to any possible finite being or intellectual concept. Why is there something and not nothing is not addressed by the Big Bang, for instance. A mechanism for development of the already given misses the point. The agapeic giving of the God who creates out of nothing is not yet thought. Creation is not yet properly thought. “They have not yet begun to understand what it means to think God.”

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    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      I remember the discussions with the atheists who visited the blog and the complaint that Christians are always moving the goalposts. I suppose the complaint has some merit, given the pluralism that exists among the Christian communities. The abandonment among Christians of the classic understanding of divine transcendence has certainly made our apologetic jobs more difficult.

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      • brian says:

        Yes, well, I am often more irritated by the foolishness of fellow Christians than by the jibes of atheists. I would not be a Christian if the Gospel was actually limited to what is typically presented by televangelists, for example. Nonetheless, there’s an ethical imperative for the seeker after truth. Just as Aquinas often sharpened the arguments of his opponents (so much so that careless readers of Thomas sometimes mistake the views he disagrees with as his own,) so one should try to engage the best exemplars of dissenting intellect. If atheist polemicists want to enjoy bashing anti-intellectual fundamentalists or simple believers who are sincere, emotive, and not equipped to defend the faith, then that is a form of cheap bravado. No doubt there is a hapless “moving of the goal posts” that comes from ineptitude and the loss of divine transcendence. There is also, however, an incapacity to bear the limits of the rational ego, a tacit or explicit refusal of divine transcendence that will meet the classic understanding with a charge of mystification.

        And I do believe that atheists interpret genuine Christian mystery as itself a moving of the goal posts because they have a reductionist sensibility that is epistemologically narrow, unable to grant validity to knowledge that falls outside artificially restricted parameters. Recall the very different responses to apophaticism. Christians understand this to be a recognition of ontological richness in God that can never be comprehended by any determinate statement. Moderns only recognize the indeterminate as the indefinite and the incomplete; it could never be a generous plenitude that exceeds capture by a clear idea. Hence, the Christian gesture towards a “darkness” that sources light is only ever interpreted as a retreat to an unassailable magical position. Whereas classical Christian teaching sees this as reason functioning at its height, post-Enlightenment thinkers interpret it as a definitive abandonment of reason.

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  2. I’m wondering to what extent Aristotle’s conception of the cosmos was influenced by the Anaximander’s principle of the “the Boundless” – or “the Unlimited” (Greek: “apeiron,” that is, “that which has no boundaries”) Being a pre-Socratic idea, it appears to have been an impersonal postulation; a (Nous) from which all prima materia emerges. So in that sense, it finds its analog with the eternal Creator and the contingent cosmos (?)

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    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Interesting question, Dave. Alas, I have no idea. 🙂

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    • brian says:

      Dave,

      Pagan conceptions of the infinite were always one in which the boundless was equated with the chaotic. It was the limited that was the domain of order and perfection. Pagans did not really think creation, because one would have to first think nothing and a transcendent Creator. They all generally simply accepted the cosmos as existing. Pagan divinities are never fully transcendent from the cosmos. In the case of Plotinus, the world is a result of a natural overflow. The One is full and from it’s source, many degrees down the line, one gets the material world. It is not a creation in any substantial sense.

      Closest one will get to a creation is something like Plato’s demiurge which shows up in the Timaeus. Aristotle’s divinity is serenely aloof, “thought thinking itself.” Such a conception could never logically discover the resources within itself to think an other, let alone create it.

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  3. Thanks Brian – good food for thought. I’ve been looking at the origin of aesthetics and its relationship to the Greek concepts of Theoria, Noesis, Logos etc… and the role Phenomenology plays in the evolution of those ideas. As an artist and a Christian, I enjoy the exploration of those concepts and how they might potentially link into a greater understanding and appreciation of the Faith. Metaphysical symbolism and universal allegory are currently on the menu.
    Cheers

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    • brian says:

      Couple of longish quotes you may like Dave:

      Heidegger’s proclamation of the poet’s task in the wake of the alleged completion of metaphysics can be seen to ask for a being born again: metaphysics may die into cybernetics, but thinking asks to be reborn beyond calculative mind, and in dialogue with the naming of the holy, said to be the poet’s vocation. Heidegger’s poet is not a post-Kantian aesthete, a specialist of aesthetic experience. The poet is sacerdotal. If the thinker thinks being, the poet names the holy. One might say: the poet serves to mediate the blessing of being, the thinker remains attentive to the communication of being. Heidegger sees himself as freeing thought from the prison-house of “theory,” but his invocation of the poet as the namer of the holy places us back in the neighborhood of religious festival, hence closer to the meaning resonating in the ancient word, theoria.

      (From William Desmond, Art, Origins, Otherness)

      A thought comes to me: is not the bull an odd symbolism for liason, for linkage, for communication? And another thought comes to me: is not much symbolism improbable? How is the bickering dove a symbol of peace? And how is the same mumbling songless bird to be linked with tongues-of-fire? How is the most fierce of stallions, the unicorn, the symbol of chastity? How is the cold-blood fish a symbol of the blood of Christ? And how is the eagle, a scavenger and sky-skulker, frightened of shrikes and terrified of king-birds, a symbol of nobility?

      Now I, in my own profound way, realize why each of these symbols is valid. Symbolism is thought of by humans as simplifying: but it is the total complexity, the all containing nest from which all lesser “realities” are hatched. It is these daily-seen “realities” that are simplifications, so thin that you can see through them. Humans, with their strobe vision that leaves almost everything out, have no way of seeing the basic validity. And yet it was by humans that each of these symbols were selected.

      (From R A Lafferty, Arrive at Easterwine)

      Your interests are also among mine, Dave. Years ago, a young woman walked into a Christian bookstore I was working in. She was an artist and was evidently struggling with hostility in her Christian community towards her vocation. She also needed metaphysical and theological resources to both engage in her art and to explain her gift to a fundamentalist type religious understanding. I think the latter is mainly a lost cause, but I have often wished I could go back and time and share with her what I now know.

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      • brian says:

        I probably ought to have explained that the narrator in the Lafferty excerpt is a conscious computer, hence the strange manner of talking about humans . . .

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  4. “The poet is sacerdotal” – I really like this idea; especially given the fact that so many see
    non-functional “Art” as spurious.
    Thanks Again!

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