Did St Dionysius the Areopagite teach the creation of the cosmos from out of nothing? This is a live question for readers of the Corpus Areopagaticum. Dionysius does not explicitly cite the creatio ex nihilo and therefore can easily (some would say too easily) be read as expressing a Neoplatonic emanationism. Given the possibility of misunderstanding, one might have expected the author to have thrown in a mention or two of the creatio ex nihilo. On the other hand, Dionysius might well have believed that his strong affirmation of the creatio ex Deo (“from God”) essentially satisfied the orthodox doctrine. By way of distinguishing a Christian vision of Deity over against pagan construals, Christian theologians began to advance the novel teaching of creation from nothing as early as the mid-second century (see my series Creatio ex Nihilo; also see Paul Blowers, Drama of the Divine Economy, esp. chap. 6, and Harry Wolfson, “The Identification of Creatio ex Nihilo with Emanation in Gregory of Nyssa”). By the time the Areopagite was writing his treatises (6th century), creation from nothing had achieved the status of nondefined dogma. Consensual teaching included the following elements:
1) Against pagan philosophers who asserted that God, or his demiurge, made the world out of pre-existing matter, Christian theologians declared that in his omnipotence the living God did not require pre-existing matter with which to work. God is Creator, not a craftsman. From nothing he spoke the world into being. In the words of St Augustine of Hippo: “Even if the world was made from some shapeless matter, this matter itself was made entirely out of nothing. … Thus all that does exist, insofar as it exists, and all that does not yet exist, insofar as it is able to exist, is from God. This can be said in another way: all that is shaped, insofar as it is shaped, and all that is not yet shaped, insofar as it can be shaped, is from God” (The True Religion 18.36).
2) Against pagan philosophers who asserted that the cosmos had always existed, Christian theologians declared the revelation of the Book of Genesis: Ἐν ἀρχῇ ἐποίησεν ὁ Θεὸς τὸν οὐρανὸν καὶ τὴν γῆν (“In the beginning God made the heaven and the earth”) (Gen 1:1 LXX). As illogical as it might seem, the past is finite. If we were able to take a time-machine back through history, we would eventually reach a point beyond which we could not go. Spatio-temporal reality will have disappeared into nothingness—not the nothingness of the physicists (which still includes quantum fluctuations) but the inconceivable nothingness of the philosophers (see David Albert, “On the Origin of Everything”). Let’s call this point “absolute beginning.”
3) Against pagan philosophers who asserted a necessary relationship between divinity and the nondivine, Christian theologians declared the absolute freedom of God. God does not need the cosmos in order to be the one God he eternally is—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. He might have freely “chosen” not to be Creator, with no attenuation of his glory, being, and identity. Yet he did create, and does create, and so we are. That the Holy Trinity has originated the world ex nihilo is sheer gratuity and grace. As David Bentley Hart beautifully writes: “The Christian God is never a God of abstract subjectivity, an unexplicated simplicity requiring an ‘exterior’ medium of determination, because God is Trinity, who explicates himself, utters himself, and responds eternally, and has all fellowship, exposition, and beauty in perfect sufficiency; and so creation can never be ‘necessary’” (The Beauty of the Infinite, p. 256).
Do we find these three elements in the thought of the Areopagite?
But a word first about Plotinus, whose Enneads informed the reflections of Dionysius, though perhaps less directly than the writings of Proclus. The orthodox teaching on the creatio ex nihilo is often contrasted with the Neoplatonic understanding of the Deity-world relationship: Intellect, Soul, and cosmos derive from the One by way of emanation or going-forth, like the sun radiating light, fire generating heat, or a lake overflowing a dam, creating rivers and streams. Like generates like, though with lesser degrees of likeness. As the multiplicity and composition increases in the differentiating process, so the similitude decreases. Eventually the process reaches its term. Emanation, I have long thought, belongs to a monistic worldview in which the divine and non-divine exist in necessary relationship within the context of the whole, whereas the creatio ex nihilo belongs to a properly Christian worldview (see “The Christian Distinction“). At least with regards to Plotinus, the matter may not be quite as black and white. It is certainly the case that on the grounds of divine revelation, patristic theologians emphatically rejected the Neoplatonic assertion of the eternality of the world; but if we temporarily bracket that question, it becomes more difficult to specify the substantive difference between Neoplatonic emanation and Christian creation: neither presuppose pre-existent matter; both posit the One as the transcendent source of the cosmos. As Hart states: “Between the ontology of creatio ex nihilo and that of emanation, after all, there really is no metaphysical difference—unless by the latter we mean a kind of gross material efflux of the divine substance into lesser substances” (“God, Creation, and Evil,” p. 4).
(Readers may find it helpful here to quickly read or reread “Emanation, Cosmos, and the Plotinian One.”)
In his essay “Plotinus’s Metaphysics: Emanation or Creation?”, Lloyd Gerson argues that Plotinus held an understanding of creation that approximates the Christian doctrine of creation, at least in three respects:
First, Plotinus explicitly states that the One possesses will: “If, then, we are to allow activities in the Supreme and make them depend upon will—and certainly act cannot there be will-less and these activities are to be the very essence, then will and essence in the Supreme must be identical. This admitted, as he willed to be so he is; it is no more true to say that he wills and acts as his nature determines than that his essence is as he wills and acts. Thus he is wholly master of himself and holds his very being at his will” (Enneads VI.8.13). The Neoplatonic One doesn’t sound quite as impersonal as Christians like to suppose.
If will and essence are identical in the One, then we are presented with a unique understanding of divine freedom. Recall the Neoplatonic task: confronted with the plurality and unity of the world, the philosopher offers a step-by-step explication of the atemporal ontological dependence of beings. Eric Perl elaborates:
We have already seen that to call the One ’cause’ in fact means only that all things depend on the One in order to be. It follows that the One’s ‘generating’ or ‘producing’ all things is nothing but the existential dependence of all things on the One. The One ’causes,’ ‘generates,’ or ‘makes’ all things only in the sense that all things depend on the One as the condition of integrating determination by which all beings are beings. This ‘making,’ therefore, must not be conceived as a change or a beginning, as if beings first did not exist and then are made to exist by the One: intelligible reality, as in Plato, is eternal in the strict sense that it is not temporally extended, and even the sensible cosmos, as in Aristotle, has no temporal beginning. Being is, eternally; and it eternally depends for its existence on the One. Nor is the One’s generation of being an action or an event, as if the One first is and is itself and then, additionally, acts to produce all things. To think in these terms is both to regard the One as a being and to misunderstand the sense in which it generates all things. The making of all things by the One is not an event but a relation, the relation of dependence of all things on the One as the condition for being.
Consequently, there can be no distinction between the One itself and its productive activity. This is the point of Plotinus’ insistence that being is not made through any ‘choice,’ ‘wish,’ or ‘motion’ on the part of the One. “It is necessary that without [the One] being moved, if something is second after it, without [the One] inclining or willing or in any way moving, it is established” (V.1.6.25–27). Not only would such a ‘motion’ reduce the One to a being and introduce distinction, and hence complexity, within it, but it would mean that this choice or motion, rather than simply the One itself, would be the true cause of beings. “For it did not so to speak will intellect to come to be, so that intellect came to be with the will between [the One] and the generated intellect …” (V.3.12.28–30; cf. V.1.6.23–25). But as we have seen, the One signifies simply unity, in the sense of wholeness or integration, as the condition by which beings are beings. As such, the One itself just is the ‘making’ of all things: not a thing-which-makes, which would imply a distinction between the One and its act of making and thus treat the One as a being and as having activities distinct from itself, but simply ‘making’ itself, not an ontic producer but rather the production of all things. As Plotinus so often says, the One is not any thing but rather the “power of all things” (e.g., III.8.10.1; V.1.7.10; V.3.15.33; V.4.1.36; V.4.2.39; VI.7.32.31), the enabling condition in virtue of which they are beings. Thus if we are to speak of the generation of being in terms of ‘will’ or ‘activity’ at all, we must allow no distinction between the One and its will or activity but say that this will or activity just is the One itself: “His, as it were, existence is his, as it were, activity” (VI.8.7.47), and again, “If we were to grant activities to him … and the activities [are] his, as it were, reality, his will and his reality will be the same” (VI.8.13.5–8). (Thinking Being, pp. 123-124)
Thus it is not the case that the One chooses to generate beings, as if it needed to deliberate upon and decide between alternatives. Not only would such choosing compromise the divine simplicity, but it would subject the One to determinacy. In its absolute, ultimate, and unconditioned reality, the One transcends alternatives and choices. If it did not, it would not be the One.
It’s easy to see why St Augustine and others protested the Neoplatonic construal of emanation. Emanation is, in a sense, only explanation, an answer to a metaphysical problem. Because beings exist, the One must be. Given the absence of alternatives, the necessity of divine emanation, remarks Perl, “could equally well be construed as freedom” (Theophany, p. 51). But Christians proclaim a personal God who, in sovereign initiative, speaks the world into being: “Let there be!” St Thomas Aquinas, for example, was sympathetic to Neoplatonic metaphysics, right up to the point of divine revelation. As a philosopher he believed that creatio ex nihilo was compatible with creatio ab aeterno; but as a Christian he confessed with the Church the absolute beginning of the universe (see “Does Creatio ex Nihilo Exclude …?“). In a way perhaps impossible for us to conceive, the God beyond being might not have created the world—for Christians this counterfactual is both thinkable and meaningful, thanks to the revelation of the Trinity—but for Plotinus the world is “still not understood as being there through a choice that might not have been made” (Robert Sokolowski, The God of Faith and Reason, p. 18).
Second, nothing outside the One compels it to generate finite beings. It is not subject to external forces or constraints (no preexisting matter, e.g.). The One just is overflowing of being and unconditioned condition of finite existence: “And the first generation, as it were, is this: for being complete, in neither seeking nor having nor needing anything, [the One], so to speak, overflows, and its overfullness makes an other” (V.2.1.7–10). If further explanation is needed, the principle of perfection may be cited: “All things when they come to perfection produce; the One is always perfect and therefore produces everlastingly; and its product is less than itself” (V.1.6.37-9). Again, we must not think of the One as subject to a law outside of himself. The One is perfection and all beings participate in its perfection. “The necessity of procession, then,” explains Perl, “is not a condition to which the One is subject but is simply the One itself as pure generosity, as productive Overflow” (p. 51).
Third, the One is not changed by its eternal generation of finite beings, nor would it be disturbed, says Plotinus, if they had never existed: “Not that God has any need of his derivatives: he ignores all that produced realm, never necessary to Him, and remains identically what he was before He brought it into being. So too, had the secondary never existed, he would have been unconcerned, exactly as he would not have grudged existence to any other universe that might spring into being from him, were any such possible; of course no other such could be since there is nothing that has not existence once the All exists“ (V.5.12). Eastern Orthodox and analytic critics of absolute divine simplicity will find Plotinus’s argument unsatisfactory. The Orthodox will want to talk about the divine energies as the condition of genuine divine freedom, and the analytics will want to talk about modal collapse. But that is a post for another day. Again I ask: if the One is Overflow, how can the possibility of the One not generating the world be entertained? Overflow needs beings, otherwise it ain’t Overflow.
On the other hand, Gerson acknowledges that the One’s emanation of beings requires the intermediate causality of Intellect: “When Plotinus analyzes the being of things in the world he will analyze them into essence or image of essence and existence, positing the arché of each as nous and One, respectively. The One, then, is represented as primary cause of existence, but ousia is the instrumental cause of being. Since there is no being without existence, the One’s causal activity is completely instrumental, including even ousia itself, which as such does not require a cause outside itself” (pp. 572-573). I cannot pretend to have grasped Plotinus’s understanding of metaphysical causality (particularly with respect to procession and reversion); but in response to Gerson, I note a decisive difference between Neoplatonism and orthodox Christianity: whereas Neoplatonism posits subordinate hypostases by which to explain reality, Christianity declares the three coequal divine hypostases, perichoretically and indivisibly united in the single act of divine creation: the Father creates the world by his Word in the perfecting power of the Holy Spirit. Thus St Gregory of Nazianzus’s bold image—three suns whose creative and enlightening rays mingle as one (Or. 31.14).
Gerson concludes his analysis by returning to his original question:
Is Plotinus’s metaphysics creationist or emanationist? If it is allowed that instrumental creationism is a legitimate species of creationism, then I think the answer is the former. If, on the other hand, one insists that there is no common genus for a metaphysics that holds that the existence of everything depends on the first principle and a metaphysics that holds that the being of everything depends on the first principle, then Plotinus’s metaphysics is not accurately called creationist. But it is not emanationist either. I do not have a convenient label to offer for this alternative. (p. 574; cf. Brandon Zimmerman, “Does Plotinus Present a Philosophical Account of Creation?”; Richard Taylor, “Primary Causality …”; and Michael Chase, “Abrahamic creation and Neoplatonic emanation“)
If there isn’t a convenient label for Plotinus’s understanding of emanation, I think I’ll just stick with “emanation.”
It’s now time to look at the Areopagite.