It’s not clear in my own mind precisely when I began to make the connection between creatio ex nihilo and the metaphysical revolution initiated by the first two ecumenical councils and the theologians we now identify as the Pro-Nicene Fathers (St Athanasius the Apostolic, St Hilary of Poitiers, St Basil the Great, St Gregory the Theologian, St Gregory of Nyssa); but I’m confident it goes back to the late 70s and early 80s when I immersed myself in the Trinitarian theology of Robert W. Jenson and Thomas F. Torrance. Crucial confirmation came in the early 90s when, on the recommendation of now Archbishop Joseph Augustine DiNoia, I read Robert Sokolowski’s illuminating book The God of Faith and Reason. The connection was later wonderfully deepened by David Bentley’s Hart’s lecture “The Hidden and the Manifest: Metaphysics After Nicaea,” which I heard delivered at the Fordham conference Orthodox Readings of Augustine a decade ago. My subsequent reading has only reinforced my conviction: in particular I mention Kathryn Tanner, God and Creation in Christian Theology; Khaled Anatolios, Retrieving Nicaea; Lewis Ayres, The Legacy of Nicaea; and, more recently, Basil Studer, Trinity and Incarnation.
My unoriginal thesis: the Trinitarian reflection of the second- and third-centuries, elaborated in a subordinationist conceptuality, created a theological problem for the Church’s proclamation of the gospel that could not be resolved except by a transformation of Hellenistic metaphysics.
The crisis began in the fourth century among the followers of Origen. Grabbing hold of one trajectory within Origen’s presentation of triadic divinity, Arius said what catholic theologians had always refused to say: Jesus Christ is a creature—the first and greatest creature of God but a creature nonetheless, generated out of nothing. Arius unequivocally locates Jesus on the creaturely side of the uncreated/created chasm: “If the Father begat the Son, he that was begotten had a beginning of existence: and from this it is evident, that there was a time when the Son was not. It therefore necessarily follows, that he had his substance from nothing” (quoted by Socrates of Constantinople, Church History I.5). The Son, in other words, is a contingent product of the Father’s will: he might never have been; he might never have been created. The transcendent Deity might have chosen not to generate his hypostatic Word and Wisdom, just as he might have chosen not to make the world. Arius thus resolves the instability of Origen’s speculations by divorcing Jesus and the divine nature, and he appeals to the Bible for support: “The Lord created me as the beginning of his ways, for the sake of his works” (Prov 8:22 LXX). Khaled Anatolios elaborates:
The internal consistency of Arius’s doctrine comes into view once we see that his project is fundamentally concerned with integrating a strict definition of divine transcendence with a relativized but, in his view, scripturally adequate conception of the primacy of Christ. The highest level of divine transcendence is defined in terms of absolute simplicity and unqualified priority: the one God is therefore unbegotten/uncaused/monas. Therefore, God is not always Father; the Son did not always exist; the three hypostases are unlike each other in substance. In relation to this one God, the Son/Word/Wisdom, as secondary and caused, is a creature whose existence has a beginning as the effect of the will of the one God. But the son is also “God,” albeit in a secondary sense, as the created and necessarily incomplete representation and mediation of divine glory. Like all created beings, the Son is alterable by nature. But the primacy of Christ consists in his being granted an original and unsurpassable share in divine glory, which is not a participation in divine substance but in the freely bestowed grace of God’s benefits. The Word is therefore not like the other creatures but is the exemplary and uniquely “perfect creature.” (p. 52)
The response from others within the camp of Origen, representing the alternative trajectory, was immediate and emphatic: Arius has denied the gospel—anathema! Not only does Arius’s doctrine leave the Church worshipping a creature (idolatry!), but it subverts the baptismal gift of salvation! How can a creature save us from sin and nothingness? How can a creature, no matter how exalted, incorporate mankind into the eternal life of God? As Athanasius would later write: “For humanity would not have been deified if joined to a creature, or unless the Son were true God. Nor would humanity have been drawn into the Father’s presence, unless the one who had put on the body was the true Word by nature” (C. Ar. 2.70).
Basil Studer makes explicit the interior connection between the creatio ex nihilo and the movement of the Church into a deeper comprehension of Trinitarian divinity:
By the turn of the century a new theological attitude to the concept of creatio ex nihilo had emerged in the apologetics directed against the pagans, probably under the influence of philosophical discussion. This made it urgent to give an unambiguous answer to the question still left open in Origen’s cosmology, governed as it was by the problem of the One and the Many: that is, whether the Logos was to be placed on the side of creation or of the Creator. Arius himself decided for the first option. According to him the pre-existent Logos cannot be equal to the Father, who alone is uncreated; thus he cannot possibly have come out of the being of the Father. He was rather created out of nothing like all creatures. However, he is the first creature; he was created before time, while the other creatures came into being through him in time. In short he is only a secondary God, not without beginning like the Father. (pp. 103-104)
The bishops gathered in Nicaea in 325 and promulgated their creed. The key credal statement and condemnation:
And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, the only-begotten begotten from the Father, that is from the substance of the Father, God from God, light from light, true God from true God, begotten not made, consubstantial with the Father, through whom all things came to be, both those in heaven and those in earth.
And those who say “there once was when he was not”, and “before he was begotten he was not”, and that he came to be from things that were not, or from another hypostasis or substance, affirming that the Son of God is subject to change or alteration—these the catholic and apostolic church anathematises.
Arius was excommunicated, but as subsequent writings and events bear out, the dogmatic definition did not resolve the debate. Theology remained trapped in the subordinationist metaphysics of the Hellenistic world. The Pro-Nicene Fathers struggled to find appropriate conceptuality in which to express their faith in the ontological equality of the Father and the Son (and eventually the Spirit). By the conclusion of the fourth century, the metaphysical revolution had been achieved. Subordinationism was rejected and a fresh and bold way to state the unity of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit was articulated. David Hart elaborates:
The doctrinal determinations of the fourth century, along with all their immediate theological ramifications, rendered many of the established metaphysical premises upon which Christians had long relied in order to understand the relation between God and the world increasingly irreconcilable with their faith, and at the same time suggested the need to conceive of that relation—perhaps for the first time in Western intellectual history—in a properly “ontological” way. With the gradual defeat of subordinationist theology, and with the definition of the Son and then the Spirit as coequal and coeternal with the Father, an entire metaphysical economy had implicitly been abandoned. These new theological usages—this new Christian philosophical grammar—did not entail a rejection of the old Logos metaphysics, but they certainly did demand its revision, and at the most radical of levels. For not only is the Logos of Nicaea not generated with a view to creation, and not a lesser manifestation of a God who is simply beyond all manifestation; it is in fact the eternal reality whereby God is the God he is. There is a perfectly proportionate convertibility of God with his own manifestation of himself to himself; and, in fact, this convertibility is nothing less than God’s own act of self-knowledge and self-love in the mystery of his transcendent life. His being, therefore, is an infinite intelligibility; his hiddenness—his transcendence—is always already manifestation; and it is this movement of infinite disclosure that is his “essence” as God. Thus it is that the divine persons can be characterized (as they are by Augustine) as “subsistent relations”: meaning not that, as certain critics of the phrase hastily assume, the persons are nothing but abstract correspondences floating in the infinite simplicity of a logically prior divine essence, but that the relations of Father to Son or Spirit, and so on, are not extrinsic relations “in addition to” other, more original “personal” identities, or “in addition to” the divine essence, but are the very reality by which the persons subsist; thus the Father is eternally and essentially Father because he eternally has his Son, and so on. God is Father, Son, and Spirit; and nothing in the Father “exceeds” the Son and Spirit. In God, to know and to love, to be known and to be loved are all one act, whereby he is God and wherein nothing remains unexpressed. And, if it is correct to understand “being” as in some sense necessarily synonymous with manifestation or intelligibility—and it is—then the God who is also always Logos is also eternal Being, not a being, that is, but transcendent Being, beyond all finite being.
Another way of saying this is that the dogmatic definitions of the fourth century ultimately forced Christian thought, even if only tacitly, toward a recognition of the full mystery—the full transcendence—of Being within beings. All at once the hierarchy of hypostases mediating between the world and its ultimate or absolute principle had disappeared. Herein lies the great “discovery” of the Christian metaphysical tradition: the true nature of transcendence, transcendence understood not as mere dialectical supremacy, and not as ontic absence, but as the truly transcendent and therefore utterly immediate act of God, in his own infinity, giving being to beings. In affirming the consubstantiality and equality of the person of the Trinity, Christian thought had also affirmed that it is the transcendent God alone who makes creation to be, not through a necessary diminishment of his own presence, and not by way of an economic reduction of his power in lesser principles, but as the infinite God. In this way, he is revealed as at once superior summo meo and interior intimo meo; not merely the supreme being set atop the summit of beings, but the one who is transcendently present in all beings, the ever more inward act within each finite act. This does not, of course, mean that there can be no metaphysical structure of reality, through whose agencies God acts; but it does mean that, whatever that structure might be, God is not located within it, but creates it, and does not require its mechanism to act upon lower beings. As the immediate source of the being of the whole, he is nearer to every moment within the whole than it is to itself, and is at the same time infinitely beyond the reach of the whole, even in its most exalted principles. And it is precisely in learning that God is not situated within any kind of ontic continuum with creation, as some “other thing” mediated to the creature by his simultaneous absolute absence from and dialectical involvement in the totality of beings, that we discover him to be the ontological cause of creation. True divine transcendence, it turns out transcends even the traditional metaphysical divisions between the transcendent and the immanent. (The Hidden and the Manifest, pp. 147-148)
This dense but rich passage demands multiple rereadings (as does the the essay itself). I cannot pretend to have comprehended Hart’s analysis at every point, but here is my takeaway: whereas in earlier patristic reflection the Son and Spirit were conceived as subordinate “divine” beings—existing in hierarchical, vertical relationship between the one God at the top of the metaphysical ladder and temporal reality at the bottom—now they, with the Father, are seen as existing in immediate relationship to the cosmos and with each other. Radical transcendence makes possible radical immanence. The ladder, if you will, has been tipped over. In their mutual relations, Father, Son and Spirit are intrinsic to the internal structure of deity. God does not need mediators between the world and himself. The Father creates the world through his Son and by his Spirit: each hypostasis is fully divine; each equally immediate to the world as the ultimate source of existence. The biblical story of the one God who by his Son and Spirit creates, redeems, and transfigures the world reveals God as he truly is in himself. The Father exists eternally with his coinherent Word and Spirit. As Thomas Torrance was fond of saying, there is no God behind the back of Jesus. The Hellenistic notion of degrees of divinity is thus emphatically rejected. In the words of Gregory of Nazianzus: “To compose the Trinity of Great and Greater and Greatest, as if of Light and Beam and Sun …, makes a ‘ladder of deity’ that will not bring us into heaven but out of it” (Letter 101.14; quoted by Jenson, p. 90). And Gregory Nyssen: “Between Father, Son and Holy Spirit, there is no interstice into which the mind might step as into a void” (Ep Pet. 41; see Lewis Ayres, “On Not Three People“).
Some, like analytic philosopher Alan Rhoda, have questioned the connection between the creatio ex nihilo and the ineffable mode of divine difference. The creatio ex nihilo only denies God’s creation of the world out of primordial matter; it implies nothing more. Origen and others, after all, affirmed the world’s creation from out of nothing, but they still maintained their adherence to subordinationist metaphysics. The most one can legitimately say is that the doctrine functioned as a catalyst. It certainly confronted the Church with an unavoidable decision: Is Jesus Christ uncreated or not?
I keep mulling this over in my mind. It still seems to me that the creatio ex nihilo entails more than the denial of creatio ex materia. If God does not fashion the world from primordial matter in demiurgic fashion, and if he does not pantheistically generate the world through the emanation of his substance, then we are talking about a making that is not a making at all. The ex nihilo gestures toward the dissimilarity. Thus St Maximus the Confessor: “For if artists in their art conceive the shapes of those things which they produce, and if universal nature conceives the forms of the things within it, how much more does God Himself bring into existence out of nothing the very being of all created things, since He is beyond being and even infinitely transcends the attribution of beyond-beingness” (Various Texts on Theology 1.6). God is not a cause among causes: he is the transcendent bestower of finite being. He creates by summoning things into existence from the void of nothingness, not just at a moment in the past but at every instant of creaturely existence. In James Ross’s lapidary sentence: “The being of the cosmos is like a song on the breath of a singer.” The Trinity sings into reality that which is genuinely other than himself, yet which depends totally on his creative act and presence. Hence we must speak of an “infinite analogical interval” between Creator and creature, similarity comprehended within apophatic dissimilarity. The creatio ex nihilo points us to the transcendent Mystery who surpasses metaphysical distinctions and categories, who exists beyond unity and difference, the one and the many, motion and stillness, substance and form.
The implications of the creatio ex nihilo for the Church’s understanding of Trinitarian divinity could be ignored for a time but not indefinitely. If the fourth century Church was to affirm, against Arius, the generation of Christ from the substance of the Father—“God from God, light from light, true God from true God”—then a rejection of subordinationist metaphysics was necessary. “For the God described by the dogmas of Nicaea and Constantinople,” writes Hart, “was at once more radically immanent within and more radically transcendent of creation than the God of the old subordinationist metaphysics had ever been. He was immediately active in all things; but he occupied no station within the hierarchy of the real” (p. 149). Perhaps we should think of the Nicene revolution as a creative moment akin to the movement in modern physics from the Newtonian model of the universe to the Einsteinian model—a matter of insight rather than logic. Paradigm shifts require something more than deduction. What is needed is an act of imagination, a thinking outside the parameters (see Garrett Green, Imagining God). It wasn’t that experimental evidence had disproved the Newtonian model. Einstein, rather, dared to look at the whole of the data in a new way. “Newton, forgive me,” he wrote in his Autobiographical Notes. “You found the only way which, in your age, was just about possible for a man of highest thought—and creative power.” Robert Sokolowski suggests that the distinction between the world (which need not be) and its infinite Creator (who eternally exists in transcendent aseity) is “glimpsed on the margin of reason” (p. 39). It is not merely one mystery alongside other divinely-revealed mysteries but “the condition for our ability to assert the other Christian mysteries as mysteries” (pp. 38-39). The apprehension of the triune God who transcends transcendence and immanence lies in the liminal space between faith and reason.
Finally we may return to the contest between the unitarian and trinitarian models of God. In What is the Trinity? and other writings, Dale Tuggy maintains that the Nicene formulation of tri-hypostatic deity represents a negation of the biblical testimony to the one God and offers in evidence the teachings of orthodox theologians from the second- and third-centuries. He has a point. These theologians did employ the Hellenistic category of graded divinity to assert the inferior status of Jesus Christ. They did not question the inherited ontology of subordination; they presupposed it. This metaphysics thus functioned as an interpretive lens and boundary, and as long as it remained unchallenged, the Christian mind was constrained. The full and equal divinity of the Son and Spirit, upon which the gospel of Jesus Christ firmly rests, remained unsayable. Despite this constraint, the Church of course continued to proclaim the Lordship of the risen Christ and the gift of new creation through faith in his Name; continued to gratefully confess the sheer giftedness of world and cosmos; continued to live in the power of the coming Kingdom; continued to hope for the eschatological judgment when “the Son himself will also be subjected to him who put all things under him, that God may be everything to every one” (1 Cor 15:28); continued to offer the Eucharistic sacrifice to the Father through the Son by the Spirit; continued, in other words, to live in the Holy Trinity—but the catholic doctrine of the Trinity remained tacit, implicit, lived rather than clearly thought. (“We can know more than we can tell,” Michael Polanyi reminds us.) What was needed was a new act of paradigmatic imagination. What was needed was a St Athanasius:
The Trinity is holy and perfect, confessed as God in Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, having nothing foreign or extrinsic mingled with it, nor compounded of creator and created, but is wholly Creator and Maker. It is identical with itself and indivisible in nature, and its activity is one. For the Father does all things through the Word and in the Holy Spirit. Thus the oneness of the Holy Trinity is preserved and thus is the one God “who is over all and through all and in all” (Eph 4.6) preached in the Church—“over all,” as Father who is beginning and fountain; “through all,” through the Son; and “in all” in the Holy Spirit. (Ep. Serap. 1.28)
Orthodox Christianity dares to believe that in this confession the voice of the Spirit may be heard.