Creatio ex Nihilo: The World Plus God is Not More Than God Alone


Diogenes Allen begins his book Philosophy for Understanding Theology (1st ed.) with a chapter on the Christian doctrine of creation. One might initially think this an odd decision. When I ponder the theological use of philosophical conceptuality, I immediately think of the Nicene doctrine of the Holy Trinity—hypostasis, ousia, and that kind of stuff. But Allen believes that in order to grasp the the theological employment of philosophy, we must be very clear about the doctrine that undergirds and qualifies all doctrines—the creation of the world from out of nothing. The doctrine advances an ontological distinction—between the eternal Creator and the contingent cosmos—that Hellenic philosophy did not and could not make.

Consider, for example, Aristotle. As a philosopher Aristotle seeks to understand the order of the universe as we experience it:

Aristotle is concerned to account for the order of the world we perceive. It never occurred to Aristotle, one of the greatest minds in history, to raise the question of why we have a world at all rather than nothing. He takes the world’s existence for granted. For him its existence is in no way problem­atic. Accordingly, what concerned him was to discover the principles of the world’s operation. This involved an investigation of the various kinds of beings in the universe (hence the practice of the discipline of ontology), and it led him to infer that there is a first unmoved mover as the highest and most exalted kind of being. The grounds for the claim that there is an unmoved mover are a series of intricate distinctions and arguments, but finally all the reasoning rests on the epistemological principle: we assert only what must be asserted to account for the operations of the world. A search for the principles of the world is what motivates Aristotle. What validates the claims he makes is their success in explaining its operations. (p. 3)

Aristotle deduces a creator of sorts, based on his metaphysical reflection upon the world. God and world participate in an ontological continuum, the former understood as securing the order of the world in which we live. We may think of the unmoved mover as the “top story of the universe.” It is not independent of the eternal cosmos but an eternal part of it.

Israel, on the other hand, offers no such justification for her belief in God. She is not con­cerned to investigate the principles of the operations of the world (though perhaps the Wisdom literature is a start in this direction). Metaphysical reflection does not ground her confession. She believes in God because she believes that he has graciously revealed himself to her. The faith of Israel is a response to the divine self-communication. The Creator there­fore implicitly enjoys a radically different ontological status than the unmoved mover of Aristotle. The second-and third-century theologians of the Church would eventually clarify and make explicit the nature of this ontological status. Allen succinctly summarizes the Christian understanding of God and world:

God the Creator is ontologically not part of the world, nor is the world part of God. There is a distinction between God and the world which is more funda­mental than any distinction between any two things which are both part of the world. However great the ontological difference may be between things that are part of the world, it is dwarfed in comparison to the onto­logical difference that exists between the Creator and creatures. (p. 9)

Modern science tells us that the individual existents that have a beginning and ending within the universe—planets, animals, trees, politicians—may be contrasted to matter and energy, which are “conserved in all transformations.” But according to the doctrine of creation, even this matter and energy are radically dependent upon the creative action of God. “Matter and energy, like leaves and trees, are contingent,” explains Allen. “Even though they are con­served in all transformations of various things within the universe, they and indeed the entire universe began, and they and it may end, should God so will” (p. 9). Only the Creator is truly everlasting and necessary.

The radical contingency of the world is brought out even more clearly by the assertion that God created the world freely. He did not have to create anything. He was not compelled by any kind of force, whether external or internal. Given that God is the ontological source of everything that exists “outside” of himself, there can be nothing external to him that could compel him to create, nor is he subject to an interior instability or incompleteness that might pressure him to create an “other” for his enrichment. Allen writes: “But the God of the Bible acts freely and thus is inherently stable and inherently full, complete, or perfect” (p. 10). His creation of the world is thus an expression of sheer generosity. The world did not have to be:

Since the world began and since God made it freely, God can exist without a world. The relation between God and the world (the relation of Creator and creature) is less basic than one of the terms of the relation, namely God. In other words, God is more fundamental than the relation between God and the world. The Godhead in itself—in its very being or essence—is without a relation to the world, i.e., to anything outside itself. God fully establishes a relation by the act of creation itself. So God is not more with a world than without a world. God is not incomplete without a world. A God who creates freely is full, complete, and perfect, and so is not made more by creating nor less by not creating. The world plus God is not more than God alone. God less the world is not less than God alone. However paradoxical it may appear at first sight, it follows directly from the claim that the world began and that God created it freely. How­ever harsh it may appear to say that God does not need a world, it is only because God does not need a world that we can say that the existence of the world is the result of an act of sheer generosity or grace. So it does not mean that God is not concerned about us, but quite the contrary.

A being who is complete in essence, who is inexhaustibly rich, lacking noth­ing, is beyond our comprehension. The world consists of beings which we classify according to their likenesses and differences into various kinds of beings. But God is not a being within the world. Deity is not one among other beings but the source of all other beings. Thus concepts by which we understand various kinds of things within the world do not enable us to comprehend God because God does not fall under any classifi­cation or genus within which we place the various beings of which the world consists. (pp. 10-11; emphasis mine)

The above paragraphs deserve a rereading. “The world plus God is not more than God alone. God less the world is not less than God alone”—here is the key to the logic of divine trans­cendence. In response to the analytic theologians and theistic personalists who think of divinity as existing alongside creatures (God plus a creature = two existents), Allen would suggest that they have not yet begun to think God.

(9 June 2015)

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4 Responses to Creatio ex Nihilo: The World Plus God is Not More Than God Alone

  1. Robert Fortuin says:

    This is one of those significant points of departure – either one grasps this, and it ramifications on the nature of God and creation’s relation to God, or else dismisses this as the subversion of theology by the sophistry of philosophy.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. sybrandmac says:

    Athanasius on the Incarnation:

    There is a paradox in this last statement which we must now examine. The Word was not hedged in by His body, nor did His presence in the body prevent His being present elsewhere as well. When He moved His body He did not cease also to direct the universe by His Mind and might. No. The marvellous truth is, that being the Word, so far from being Himself contained by anything, He actually contained all things Himself. In creation He is present everywhere, yet is distinct in being from it; ordering, directing, giving life to all, containing all, yet is He Himself the Uncontained, existing solely in His Father. As with the whole, so also is it with the part. Existing in a human body, to which He Himself gives life, He is still Source of life to all the universe, present in every part of it, yet outside the whole; and He is revealed both through the works of His body and through His activity in the world.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. elijahmaria says:

    As the priest sets the holy gifts on the altar after the grand entrance of the St.J Chrysostom liturgy [as well as the liturgy of St Basil] he says: “The noble Joseph when he had taken down thy most pure Body from the tree wrapped it in fine linen and anointed it with spices and placed it in a new tomb. In the tomb with the body, and in hell with the soul as God, in paradise with the thief, and on the throne with the Father and the Spirit wast thou O boundless Christ, filling all things…” No worldly philosophy in evidence here. Mere mystagogy.


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