Did the Lord God Almighty have to create the world? This is the question I now wish to pose to St Dionysius the Areopagite. It is a pressing question for Christian students of the Areopagite because he is so deeply steeped in Greek philosophy. Since the early days of its confrontation with paganism, the catholic faith has asserted the absolute freedom of the one God—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. In the plenitude of his Trinitarian aseity and joy, God need not have created the world; he might have willed otherwise and yet remained who and what he always is. But this was not always clear to the theologians of the Church. The great Origen, for example, appears to have suggested that God exists in a necessary relationship with his creation. Commenting on Wisdom 7:25, “For she [Wisdom] is a breath of the power of God, and a pure emanation of the glory of the Almighty [Pantocrator],” Origen comments:
Let us examine the saying that [Wisdom] is the απόρροια (that is, the emanation) of the purest glory of the Almighty, and let us first consider what the glory of the Almighty is, and then we shall understand what is its emanation. In the same way that no one can be a father if there is no son, nor can one be a lord if he owns neither possessions nor a slave, so even God cannot be called ‘Almighty’ if there are not those over whom he can exercise his power; and, therefore, that God may be shown to be almighty, it is necessary that all things exist. For if anyone would have it that some ages or periods, or whatever else he likes to call them, passed away, ages when those things that have been made had not yet been made, he would undoubtedly prove that during those ages or periods God was not almighty but became almighty afterwards, from the time when he began to have those over whom he could exercise power; and in this way he will appear to have received a certain increase and to have come from a lower to a higher state, since it is not doubted that it is better for him to be almighty than not to be so. And how would it not seem absurd that God, not having something of those things fitting for him to have, should afterwards, by a kind of progress, come to have it? But if there never is a ‘when’ when he was not almighty, by necessity those things must also subsist by which he is called the Almighty, and he must always have had those over whom he exercised power and which were governed by him as king or prince. (On First Principles 1.2.10; bold emphasis mine)
Therefore we call this blessed and ἀρχικέ (that is, sovereign, sustaining all things) the Trinity. This is the good God and benevolent Father of the universe, the δύναμις both εὐεργετικὴ and δημιουργική, that is, the power that does good and creates and provides. It is both absurd and impious to suppose that these powers have been idle at any time even for a moment. Indeed, it is unlawful to entertain the slightest suspicion that these powers, through which primarily God is worthily known, should at any time have ceased from workings worthy of him and have become inactive. For neither can it be supposed that these powers which are in God, more, which are God, could have been hindered from without, nor, on the other hand, with nothing obstructing them, can it believed that they were reluctant or neglected to act and work things worthy of themselves. It is therefore not possible to imagine any moment whatsoever when that beneficient power did not work good. Whence it follows that there always were those for whom it worked good, that is, his works or creatures, and that, doing good by order and desert, God dispensed, in the power of his providence, his benefits upon them. And by this it seems to follow that at no moment was God not creator, nor benefactor, nor provident. (1.4.3; bold emphasis mine)
If God is Almighty, as the Scripture declares, then “he must always have had those over whom he exercised power and which were governed by him as king or prince.” If there once was a “time” when the world did not exist, then there was a “time” when God did not exercise authority and power over creatures; and therefore there was a “time,” per impossible, when God was not Pantocrator. But given divine simplicity, omnipotence is an essential attribute of God (“not only in God, but is God”). It is always active and actual. The conclusion logically follows: it is “necessary that all things exist.” The biblical title implies an everlasting actualization of the cosmos.
Now as John Behr rightly points out, in these passages Origen is not advancing a philosophical argument but exegeting the Scripturally-given titles of Christ and correlating them to the God who is eternally the Father of the Crucified. And Panayiotis Tzamalikos argues that these passages must be interpreted within the wider context of Origen’s work:
Origen’s doctrine of the divine being has certain aspects which are quite clear: Wisdom was timelessly in God apart from any creation, be it providential or actual. This means that God is visualized apart from any creation or even thought of creation. He created because he willed so. Wisdom ‘was in herself in no relation to anyone’. This is the state in which God is conceived in Himself, not as Creator.
It is out of God’s decision to create that the Son of God, as Wisdom, ‘became’ (γενόμενοσ) ‘God’s benevolent decision’ (ευδοκία) and ‘wanted’ (ἠβουλήθη) and ‘willed’ (ἠθέλησεν) ‘to establish a creative relation to future creatures (τὰ ἐσόμενα)’ [frJohn I]. Creation then is but a product of an act of volition. This act then is fundamentally imbued by the essential predicate of contingency. Which means that had the divine will wished otherwise, it could have brought it about that the world never came into existence at all. … Origen understands the creation of the world not as the unfolding of a cosmic essence, but as an act of volition. This concept of freedom of will stands in the core of this doctrine of creation. … This particular notion of action emerging out of self-motivation, not out of any compulsion, in Christianity takes the form of creation ex nihilo: the uncaused production of the world solely out of the divine will. The world exists because God willed so; the world is as it is, because God wills this to be so. (Origen on Cosmology and Time, pp. 120-121)
Yet the protests of Origen’s opponents were not unreasonable. In the two passages from First Principles quoted above, Origen does seem to be saying that the act of creation is necessary to the Trinity’s existence as Deity and Lord, that he must exist in conjunction with the world in order to be the God the gospel declares. Given the Greek worldview in which divine and nondivine beings exist in a happy continuum, most pagans would have been perfectly comfortable with an always-existing cosmos. But Origen’s logic did not sit well with his fellow believers. It violated something deep and true in the Church’s apprehension of the biblical God, namely, his sovereign freedom. Matters came to a head in the Arian controversy.
In response to the heretical teachings of Arius, St Athanasius of Alexandria decisively distinguishes between the Father’s eternal generation of the Son by nature and his creation of the world through the Son by his good will and pleasure. The Son is internal to God and proper to his essence; the world, external and contingent. In the course of defending the consubstantiality of the Son with the Father, Athanasius found himself having to respond to the charge that if the Son is intrinsic to the divine being, and if the world is created by and through him, then the world is necessarily eternal, just like Origen said. Athanasius formulates the objection: “But look, they say: If God is always Maker, and the power of framing does not come to him, then must we not also say that, because he is the fashioner of all things, therefore his works also are eternal, and is it wicked to say of them too, that they were not before they came to be?” The Arians thus seek to hoist Athanasius by his own petard: you can’t have it both ways—you can’t have both an eternal Word and a nonnecessary creation. Here’s Athanasius’s reply:
These Arians are senseless … However, so as not to leave even a weak argument unnoticed, they must be told that although God always had the power to create, yet the things made had not the power of being eternal. For they are out of nothing and before they came to be, they were not. And things which did not exist before they came to be—how could these have the power to co-exist with the ever-existing God? … But the Son, being not a creature but proper to the substance of the Father, always is. For since the Father always is, what is proper to his substance must always be: and this is his Word and Wisdom. That creatures should not be in existence does not detract from the Creator, for he has the power of shaping them when he will. But for the offspring not to eternally co-exist with the Father is a disparagement of his substance. His works, then, as he willed, were shaped through his Word: but the Son is eternally the proper offspring of the Father’s substance. (Against the Arians 1.29; bold emphasis mine)
The Father is always Father, for he is always and eternally the Father of Jesus Christ. His divine paternity is independent of his making of the world. And the Son is always Son, for he is eternally begotten of the substance of the Father. Their constituting relationship belongs to the transcendent life of the Godhead: hence Athanasius’s repeated claim that the Son is proper to divinity. The Trinity’s volitional creation of the world ex nihilo, on the other hand, belongs to a different order of being. Even though God grants created beings an absolute beginning—for they are created from nothing and tend toward nothingness—he always possesses in the Son the power and active potential to make. In this sense God may appropriately said to be Maker, even in that inconceivable noninterval between not-creating and creating. By an act of will, the Father creates the world through the Son. One might even be tempted to attribute to Athanasius an early version of the Byzantine distinction between essence and energies, but the temptation should probably be resisted. For Athanasius the divine will is inseparable from and identical to the divine Word:
It should be clear then that God, being Maker, has his creative Word not from outside but as proper (idion) to him—this must be repeated yet again. If, on the one hand, the willing belongs to him, and his will is productive and sufficient for constituting the things which come to be, and, on the other hand, his Word is producer and creator, then it is beyond doubt that this Word is the living will of the Father, and Essential Energy, and True Word, in whom also he constitutes and governs all things excellently. Indeed, no one should doubt at all that the One who arranges is prior to the arrangement and to the things that are arranged. So, as I have said, God’s creating is second to his begetting. For the Son is proper to (idion) and truly from that blessed and everlastingly existent essence, whereas those things that are from the will have come to be constituted from outside [the divine essence], and are made through his proper (idion) offspring, who is from [the essence]. (Arians 2.2)
The Son is the essential will and Power of the Father and thus the ultimate ground of the creatio ex nihilo. God’s creation of the world, Khaled Anatolios comments, must therefore be thought as encompassed, contained, enfolded “within the intra-divine relation of the Father and the Son” (Athanasius, p. 123). While Athanasius frequently speaks of the world as external to God, a deeper truth obtains: the world “subsists ‘in’ the Son through participation” (p. 120). To be other than God is to share in the eternal Word of the Father; to be outside is to be inside: “For he is himself the Father’s Power and Wisdom, and by partaking of him things originate are sanctified in the Spirit; but the Son himself is not Son by participation but is the Father’s proper Offspring” (Arians 3.1).
By the positing of a clear distinction between divine generation and divine creation, it became possible for Athanasius to entertain the counterfactual of the world’s nonexistence: “Even if it was the Father’s conception not to make things that come into being, the Word would none the less still be ‘with God’ and the Father ‘in him'” (Arians 2.31). Neither creation nor noncreation alters the Trinitarian identity of God. Athanasius boldly declares that while God is essentially and eternally Father, he freely “became Creator” (Arians 2.2). The “became” shocks. God is immutable; he does not change. Athanasius is clear on this. God is everlastingly and unconditionally Father, Son, and Spirit. Yet the word may nonetheless be used in order to highlight the difference between the divine generation of Son and Spirit and the creatio ex nihilo, as Thomas F. Torrance explains:
The truth of the matter, then, is that while God was always Father, he was not always Creator or Maker. This is not to say that the creation was not in the Mind of God before he actually brought it into being, but that he brought it into being by a definite act of his will and thereby gave it a beginning. Quite clearly words like ‘was’, ‘before’, ‘when’ and ‘beginning’ are time-related, and present us with problems when we speak of God, for the time-relations they imply may not be read back into God. These terms have one sense when used of God when they are governed by the unique nature of God, and another sense when used of creatures in accordance with their transitory natures. Thus when the Scriptures tells us that ‘in the beginning God created’ we must understand ‘beginning’ in a two-fold way: with reference to the creating act of God, and with reference to what he has created or his works (ἔργα). Hence Athanasius could say that ‘while the works have a beginning in being made, their beginning precedes their coming to be’ [Arians 2.57]. Behind the beginning of the creation there is an absolute or transcendent beginning by God who is himself eternally without beginning. This is what makes the creation of the world out of nothing so utterly baffling and astonishing. It is not only that something absolutely new has begun to be, new even for God who created it by his Word and gave it a contingent reality and integrity outwith himself, but that in some incomprehensible way, to cite Athanasius again, ‘the Word himself became the Maker of the things that have a beginning’ [Arians 2.57]. God was always Father, not always Creator, but now he is Creator as well as Father. (The Trinitarian Faith, pp. 87-88; bold emphasis mine)
Something “new even for God?” It’s a provocative statement, but it makes the point that must be made once absolute divine freedom is asserted: the universe is not the consequence of an involuntary emanation but a free, gratuitous, ad extra work of the Holy Trinity—”let it be!” The universe need not have been made but gloriously was and now contingently is. Latin and Byzantine theologians would later struggle to express this divine freedom within their respective metaphysical conceptualities.
Georges Florovsky proposes that the Alexandrian patriarch was the first theologian of the Church to reflect consistently upon the eternal tri-unity of the Father, Son, and Spirit independently of God’s economic self-revelation, i.e., “to discriminate strictly between the inner Being of God and His creative and ‘providential’ manifestation ad extra, in the creaturely world.” What if God had never created the world? Would he still be the same God we see disclosed in the history of Israel and Jesus Christ? Athanasius’s answer—yes! By this theoretical bracketing of theologia and economia, Trinitarian theology comes into its own. Florovsky summarizes the decisive breakthrough:
God does not need His creatures. His own Being is perfect and complete in itself. And it is this inner Being of God that is disclosed in the mystery of the Trinity.” But the actual mystery is double. There is, indeed, the mystery of the Divine Being. But there is another concomitant mystery, the mystery of Creation, the mystery of the Divine οἰκονομία. No real advance can be achieved in the realm of “Theology” until the realm of “Oikonomia” had been properly ordered. This, surely, was the reason why St. Athanasius addressed himself to the problem of Creation even in his early treatises, which constituted, in a sense, his theological confession. On the one hand, the meaning of the redemptive Incarnation could be properly clarified only in the perspective of the original creative design of God. On the other, in order to demonstrate the absolute sovereignty of God it was necessary to show the ultimate contingency of the created Cosmos, fully dependent upon the Will of God. In the perspective of the Arian controversy two tasks were closely related to each other: to demonstrate the mystery of the Divine Generation as an integral feature of the Divine Being itself, and to emphasize the contingency of the creaturely Cosmos, which contingency can also be seen in the order of existence. It was precisely in the light of this basic distinction between “Being” and “Will” that the ultimate incommensurability of the two modes of existence could be clearly exhibited. The inner life of God is in no way conditioned by His revelatory self-disclosure in the world, including the design of Creation itself. The world is, as it were, a paradoxical “surplus” in the order of existence. The world is “outside” God; or rather it is precisely this “outside” itself. But it does exist, in its own mode and dimension. It arises and stands only by the will of God. It has a beginning precisely because it is contingent, and moves toward an end for which it has been designed by God. The Will of God is manifested in the temporal process of the Divine οἰκονομία. But God’s own Being is immutable and eternal. (“St Athanasius’ Concept of Creation“; cf. David Bradshaw, “Divine Freedom in the Greek Patristic Tradition“)
Or to put the matter in the language of contemporary philosophy, the God of the Bible could have libertarianly done differently. Is this also true for the Areopagite’s understanding of divine creation?