As I write this article, I am sitting on my deck with my two Collies, Tiriel and Fëanor. They are keeping vigilant watch. The clouds are gathering. The thunder is getting closer. With each peal they scramble around the deck, barking vigorously. I try to explain that it’s only thunder, a natural phenomenon that occurs when specific meteorological conditions obtain. They are not impressed. “No,” they reply, “a god is coming.”
At the moment the Church stepped out of her Jewish cocoon and began preaching the gospel to Gentiles, she took up the task of carefully distinguishing her God from both the many gods of paganism and the monistic divinity of the Hellenistic philosophers. She knew that the one God of Sinai, whom she confessed to be the Father of Jesus Christ, was very different from the deities of the Gentiles; yet how to state that difference?
How to explain that the Maker of heaven and earth is not a Platonic demiurge?
How to explain that the Nazarene is not a demigod?
By the conclusion of the second century, Christian bishops and apologists had come to realize that an answer to the second required and presupposed an answer to the first. And this first answer was revolutionary: the world need not have been. It doesn’t sound revolutionary today, but only because the Church has taught us that God’s creation of the cosmos is a gratuitous and free act. God was not compelled by any force either exterior or interior to himself to speak the world into being. He freely chose to do so. With the preaching of the gospel, human beings became free to imagine a transcendent Creator without the world—God by himself with himself, alone. Robert Sokolowski explains the extraordinariness of this moment:
It seems to be obvious that men should observe the contingency of the world and ask themselves why there is something rather than nothing. But such issues do not arise automatically wherever there are men, even if the men are thoughtful. If we examine pagan thinking about the divine, we do not find the issue of creation raised in the way it is raised in Christianity, nor do we find the understanding of God that is maintained by Christians. In Greek and Roman religions, and in Greek and Roman philosophies, god or the gods are appreciated as the most powerful, most independent and self-sufficient, most unchanging beings in the world, but they are accepted within the context of being. Although god or the gods are conceived as the steadiest and most complete beings, the possibility that they could be even though everything that is not divine were not, is not a possibility that occurs to anyone. The being of pagan gods is to be a part, though the most important part, of what is; no matter how independent they are, the pagan gods must be with things that are not divine. (The God of Faith and Reason, p. 12; also see “The Christian Distinction” and “To Be or Not to Be“)
In pagan religion and philosophy, the world exists necessarily, as does the divine. Neither can be thought apart from the other; neither can be imagined without the other. Divinity is comprehended within the matrix of being, alongside all other beings. But with the gospel came a revolutionary interpretation of divine Creation—the world might not have been. That which had been inconceivable becomes meaningful, thinkable, conceivable. Whereas Plato and Aristotle thought of individual beings as existing or not existing within the continuum of existence, Pascha introduced the possibility of thinking of beings as a whole over against their sheer nonexistence. Why something rather than nothing? Sokolowski calls this the Christian distinction:
In Christian belief we understand the world as that which might not have been, and correlatively we understand God as capable of existing, in undiminished goodness and greatness, even if the world had not been. We know there is a world, so we appreciate the world as in fact created, but we acknowledge that it is meaningful to say that God could have been all that there is. Such a “solitary” existence of God is counterfactual, but it is meaningful, whereas it would not be meaningful for the pagan sense of the divine. To use terms similar to those of Anselm, such an idea of God can exist in our minds; we can understand God in this way. Our understanding of God is that he would be “the same” in greatness and goodness whether he creates or does not create, and whether he creates or does not create depends only on his freedom. When God does create, there may be “more” but there is no “greater” or “better.” And the world must be understood appropriately, as that which might not have been. The world and everything in it is appreciated as a gift brought about by a generosity that has no parallel in what we experience in the world. The existence of the world now prompts our gratitude, whereas the being of the world prompts our wonder. (p. 19)
If not an ordinary movement of human reason, may we not then speak of revelation?
In the world things are identified by their otherness and difference, by not being that from which they are distinguished and to which they are related. We speak of natures and types, of genus and species. We specify the properties of an entity and compare them to the properties of other entities. A rock is not a table is not a hippopotamus is not a god. Within the horizon of being such distinctions are fundamental. “But in the Christian distinction,” Sokolowski notes, “God is understood as ‘being’ God entirely apart from any relation of otherness to the world or to the whole. God could and would be God even if there were no world. Thus the Christian distinction is appreciated as a distinction that did not have to be, even though it in fact is. … God is more fundamental than the distinction itself” (pp. 32-33). In creating the world, God permits the distinction to arise, but he is not constituted by it. To be who and what he is, the Creator does not need to be distinguished from the world. God is God, existing beyond contrast with all he has made. Hence the Christian distinction is “capable of being obliterated, because one of the terms of the distinction, the world, does not have to be” (p. 33). The Church now speaks of divine aseity and creaturely contingency. She speaks of a world freely created from out of nothing. She speaks of the one God who is eternally Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
[I love Fr Sokolowski’s short but elegant book, The God of Faith and Reason. I believe it should be read by every student of theology and included in every Theology 101 seminary course. Students of the New Testament should probably read it, too.]