Has the universe always existed? The ancient pagan philosophers, and with them the Hellenistic world, certainly thought so. In the absence of a belief in a transcendent Creator, how could it be otherwise? And here the Church Fathers found themselves dissenting from the inherited worldview, as Steven Baldner and William Carroll explain:
When the theologians in the second, third, and fourth centuries came to define the Christian view of nature, human nature, and God—as distinct from the views found in the pagan intellectual world in which they lived—they found in the opening verse of Genesis, interpreted in the light of Christian faith, a source for a view of creation they developed into a doctrine of the origin of the universe characteristically their own. The Hellenistic world in which the early Christian theologians sought to understand their faith shared an intellectual patrimony which, despite its diversity, maintained that the universe is eternal. From Heraclitus and Paremenides to Plato and Aristotle, and from the Stoics to Plotinus, the ancient philosophers appeared to speak with one voice. Whether there be nothing but change or change be an illusion, whether we distinguish between a world of becoming and a world of being, or between potentiality and actuality, one thing is clear: there is no absolute temporal beginning of the universe. For the Church Fathers, Christian revelation stood out in stark contrast to this traditional philosophical view. Despite an early flirtation with a Platonic interpretation, according to which God forms the world in the same way as does Plato’s Demiurge in the Timaeus, by the early second century we discover the first clear indications of what becomes the orthodox doctrine of creation out of nothing. (Aquinas on Creation, p. 5)
If the world is eternal, what need for a transcendent Creator? A demiurge will do just fine. But if God creates the world in its entirety, then does it not follow that the world must have a temporal beginning, just as Genesis 1:1 teaches?
The Church Fathers turned the Greek world upside-down by their claim that the One God had created the world from out of nothing. We have explored this theme, with emphasis on the ex nihilo, at great length here on Eclectic Orthodoxy (see especially the multi-article series “Creatio ex Nihilo“). But equally important to the Fathers was the complementary assertion of an absolute beginning—the universe is temporally finite. Walk back in history and we will find a point where t=0. By the one creative act of God, the universe and time begin together. In the words of St Augustine of Hippo:
In the first instance God made everything together without any moments of time intervening, but now he works within the course of time, by which we see the stars move from their rising to their setting, the weather change from summer to winter, and in a fixed number of days the seeds sprout forth, grow, flourish, and wither away. (Gn. litt. 11.27)
Time is God’s creature, conditioning and limiting the existence of all material beings. Hence we must speak not only of creatio ex nihilo but also of creatio de novo. In 1215 the Fourth Lateran Council declared:
We firmly believe and simply confess that there is only one true God, eternal and immeasurable, almighty, unchangeable, incomprehensible and ineffable, Father, Son and holy Spirit, three persons but one absolutely simple essence, substance or nature; … one principle of all things, creator of all things invisible and visible, spiritual and corporeal; who by his almighty power at the beginning of time created from nothing both spiritual and corporeal creatures, that is to say angelic and earthly, and then created human beings composed as it were of both spirit and body in common. [my emphasis]
The temporal beginning of the cosmos was thus received by the Latin Church as belonging to the deposit of faith. It’s unclear to me if the creatio de novo also enjoys dogmatic status in the Orthodox Church.
St Thomas Aquinas faithfully affirmed the creatio de novo on the basis of divine revelation, yet throughout his career he simultaneously maintained that if God had wanted to create an eternal world from out of nothing, he certainly could have—he just didn’t. In other words, Aquinas did not see the creatio ex nihilo and creatio ab aeterno as mutually exclusive. We can conceive a universe without a temporal beginning—it is within the omnipotent power of God—yet such a universe would still have a transcendent cause for its existence. In any case, philosophy alone cannot resolve the matter. In his Writings on the “Sentences” of Peter Lombard, Aquinas explores the various arguments advanced to prove either an eternal universe or a temporally finite universe. He finds all of them less than probative: “I say, therefore, that there are demonstrations for neither side of the question but probable or sophistical arguments on both sides” (II Sent. 1.1.5; p. 96).
If we think of creation along the lines of how things come into being within the world, that is, through motion, then we will understandably conclude that “what causes motion must always precede [the motion] in duration and in nature, and there must be contraries; but none of these,” insists Aquinas, “are necessary in the making of the universe by God” (II Sent. 1.1.5; p. 97). When God creates, he does not change anything; he does not move anything from potentiality to actuality. Creation is not a changing or an altering or a transmuting. Creation is the absolute bestowal of esse; and this bestowal, so Aquinas believes, is congruent with either an eternal or temporally finite universe. Whether the cosmos has always existed or whether it began at a specific initial moment, God is continuously making it be (creatio continua). “God does not give being through motion but through eternal causation” (II Sent. 1.1.5; p. 102). The world is totally dependent upon its Creator as the ontological source and immediate cause of its existence and activity. That is the essential point.
It should be noted that the great contemporary of Aquinas, St Bonaventure, rejects the thesis that the creatio ex nihilo is compatible with an everlasting universe:
To posit that the world is eternal or eternally produced, while positing likewise that all things have been produced from nothing, is altogether opposed to the truth and reason, just as the last reason stated showed. Indeed, it is so opposed to reason that I do not believe any philosopher, however small his intellectual abilities, took this position. For this involves, in itself, an obvious contradiction. To posit, however, that the world is eternal on the supposition that matter is eternal seems reasonable and understandable. (In II Sent., d. 1, pars 1, art. 1, qu. 2; cf. Steven Baldner, “Mediaeval Views of Creation“)
I’m certain, however, that the Seraphic Doctor did not have the Angelic Doctor in mind when he referred to philosophers with tiny intellects.