Dionysian Ponderings: Plotinian Emanation and the Creatio ex Nihilo

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.

(Go to “Creatio ex Nihilo, Divine Energies, and the Erotic God“)

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4 Responses to Dionysian Ponderings: Plotinian Emanation and the Creatio ex Nihilo

  1. Forgive the hasty thought, and all of it’s sloppiness here: in the first paragraph of the Perl citation I’m sensing an eternality of creation in the ‘mind’ of God. Granted, ‘mind’ is probably a gross anthropomorphism that might be better deemed as will. But, if I might interject a loose hypothesis from a Reformed and soft determinist perspective, all beings that derive their existence from ‘the One’ exist eternally in their entirety in the mind of God, though they are actualized in time. Perhaps in a compatible schema, there is a determined indeterminacy moving to a determined end in creation, where rational beings are known fully and freely before they are actualized in time and grow freely toward their determined end, which is to returned to the One in the vicissitudes of cosmic history where all things are summed up in Christ. In this loose, and perhaps limited hypothesis they are determined fully as characters in the Divine story that will vindicate the whole of creation by the Creator because these rational beings derive their entire existence in the One who their being is ‘written’ by the Divine will. This is all to say that the relation of the creature is subsumed in the dialectic of freedom and determination through which they are actualized in time. In this sense determination seems at some level to be a feature of creation in eternity, though free in a compatible sense in their actualization in creation. Perhaps this is a sloppy way of saying that secondary causation and the fredom entailed therein is a basic feature of creation that subsumes all indeterminacy that exists in the liminal and chaotic space where choice has authentic meaning in spite of a prior determinism that moves them on into their ultimate end, which through a long process enables them an authentic freedom to lay hold of the determination of their being that is resolved in their determined future end of falling into a sensible world where this freedom moves to their determined end. Don’t have much confidence in the truth of this hypothesis, but it seems to me that some form of determination is hardwired in creation to return to God, which has much to say with a form of both determination and freedom that moves to a determined end that comports well with a Reformed concept of Divine sovereignty which is entailed in simplicity and might be a substantial but faithful relationship between creation and determination in the will of God in which we are all genuinely free to exist in time for the sake of ourr beholding of the Absolute and creations mysterious place in the ecomomy of apokatastasis and the redemptive act of God moving a kind of creational existence that exists in the determined existence of God in his eternal acts in his own Divine will. I’d love some pushback on this as I grapple with a Christocentric economy of creation that inexorably leads to Universalism.


  2. Fr Aidan Kimel says:

    Jed, this sentence of yours jumped out at me: “Perhaps in a compatible schema, there is a determined indeterminacy moving to a determined end in creation, where rational beings are known fully and freely BEFORE they are actualized in time and grow freely toward their determined end …”

    Now compare David Burrell’s thoughts on divine foreknowledge and the metaphysics of actuality:



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    • Thanks Fr. Kimel for the links. A couple of things stand out as I read through them:
      1) I’m in agreement with you in your first post about Molinism. It seems to me to be an attempt to preserve human freedom and Divine sovereignty in such a way that undermines both. I also find the way it is articulated by contemporary analytic philosophers unsatisfying, along with the whole line of possible-worlds semantics, because it abstracts all possibility out of the actual world into any number of hypothetical worlds.
      2) I’m still grappling with indeterminancy, but it’s not something I believe exists in God, but that if it does exist, it exists in creation and is the existential basis of human freedom. We are after all created in the Divine image, and in some sense our freedom, though contingent and necessarily conditioned by a wide variety of factors, is existentially authentic.

      When it comes to my own intuitions, my understanding of compatibilism is still probably more of a Calvinist/determinist variety. This is why, I think the Calvinist is in something of a dilemma if he wants to assert that God is good in any meaningful way if he falls short of affirming universalism in the form of an eventual apokatastasis – something I owe very much to DBH’s paper on creatio ex nihilo. I don’t think it is possible to abstract exactly how God has determined all things, but I find it almost impossible to escape the final logic that God determines all things because he creates all things freely from his own simple, eternal plenitude (which I think does comport with some kind of emanation, which is one of the primary matters you’re exploring in this Dionysius series).

      My own understanding of indeterminacy at this point, is that it is the liminal space between the goodness of creation and the privation of evil, from which human freedom is experienced. This interval between good and evil that exists in creation is necessarily a chaotic space from which the variation toward the good and the real or toward the evil and irreal exists. My own views might be rather exotic, but they are more informed by my reading of the OT especially, where creation and the establishment of a habitable cosmos is depicted in chaoskamph language, where God brings order out of disorder and shows forth his mastery over all chaotic forces. These concepts are taken up in the NT, where Jesus as Yahweh Sebaoth wages war with demonic forces in the Gospels, where Paul speaks of God’s saving work in humanity through Christ as the vindication of his wisdom in creation against the rebellious Archons, and where the apocalyptic climax of this chaoskamph reaches it’s canonical crescendo in Revelation.

      How my own exegetical/canonical reading of the Scripture comports with classical theism is perhaps more difficult to square than those who rely on a more allegorical reading. However, I think that my own eschatological and apocalyptic reading winds up in the same place precisely because I do affirm the theological tenets of classical theism, and I am willing to allow the tensions between God as he has revealed himself in Scripture, and God as we have come to understand him through theological discovery to stand alongside each other, and both be vindicated as equally true even if, at present they seem paradoxical.

      Apologies if this has steered far afield from your discussion on Dionysius, these are just some of the places my mind jumps to as I read the series.

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      • I should also say, that this story of creation has it’s existence eternally in the will of God as the Author of all things, but is now unfolding in the actuality of creation. I think you alluded to this when you brought up Tolkien’s Ainulindale in the Molinism link. All opposition to God’s will finds it’s uttermost place in his, and serves the story he has willed to tell and is telling. This is where I do think that emanation has to be qualified, because there is a distinction between God and creation, even if creation can never really take place outside of himself. Perhaps this is why eschatology and apokatastasis have become so central in my thinking – the story God is telling in creation cannot receive its final meaning until the end is revealed, and for those of us who have been dropped into this story mise en scene, the contours of the plot and our place as characters in God’s story are often quite baffling.

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