As I write this article, I am sitting on my deck with my two Collies, Tiriel and Fëanor. They are keeping vigilant watch. The clouds are gathering. The thunder is getting closer. With each peal they scramble around the deck, barking vigorously. I try to explain that it’s only thunder, a natural phenomenon that occurs when specific meteorological conditions obtain. They are not impressed. “No,” they reply, “a god is coming.”
At the moment the Church stepped out of her Jewish cocoon and began preaching the gospel to Gentiles, she took up the task of carefully distinguishing her God from both the many gods of paganism and the monistic divinity of the Hellenistic philosophers. She knew that the one God of Sinai, whom she confessed to be the Father of Jesus Christ, was very different from the deities of the Gentiles; yet how to state that difference?
- How to explain that the Maker of heaven and earth is not a Platonic demiurge?
- How to explain that the Nazarene is not a demigod?
By the conclusion of the second century, Christian bishops and apologists had come to realize that an answer to the second required and presupposed an answer to the first. And this first answer was revolutionary: the world need not be. It doesn’t sound revolutionary today, but only because the Church has so long taught us that God’s creation of the cosmos is a gratuitous and free act—creatio ex nihilo. God was not compelled by any force exterior or interior to himself to speak the world into being. He freely chose to do so. We need not, however, imagine this divine choosing anthropomorphically, as if the transcendent Trinity sits around contemplating the multitude of possibilities and alternatives its unique existence poses.
“Why should I create anything since I am perfectly content—indeed deliriously happy—in my eternal Trinitarian communion?”
“Why should I create this world instead of another? So many choices! How’s a God to choose?”
Nor should we think that the transcendent Divinity is trapped in the freedom–necessity dilemma that contemporary analytic philosophers like to advance against the orthodox doctrine of creation (the modal collapse objection). As David Bentley Hart writes:
God is not a finite being in whom the distinction of freedom from necessity has any meaning. Perfect freedom is the unhindered realization of a nature in its proper end; and God’s infinite freedom is the eternal fulfillment of the divine nature in the divine life. Needless to say, for any finite rational being, since its essence is not identical with its existence, any movement toward the realization of its nature is attended by the shadows of unrealized possibilities, and entails deliberative liberty with regard to proximate ends. This, though, is a condition not of freedom as such, but only of finitude. Every decision of the finite will is a collapse of indeterminate potentiality into determinate actuality, and therefore the reduction of limitless possibilities to the bare singularity of one reality. Yet that prior realm of possibility exists only because there is an inexhaustible wellspring of more original and transcendent actuality sustaining it. God, by contrast, simply is that actuality, in all its supereminent fullness: infinite Being, the source of every act of being. As such, he is infinitely free precisely because nothing can inhibit or limit the perfect realization of his nature, and thus, as Maximus says, he possesses no gnomic will; for God, deliberative liberty—any “could have been otherwise,” any arbitrary decision among opposed possibilities—would be an impossible defect of his freedom. God does not require the indeterminacy of the possible in order to be free because he is not some particular determination of Being, some finite reduction of potency to act; he is instead that infinite actuality upon which all ontic possibility depends. And in the calculus of the infinite, any tension between freedom and necessity simply disappears; there is no problem to be resolved because, in regard to the transcendent and infinite fullness of all Being, the distinction is meaningless. God is not a being choosing his nature from among a range of options; he simply is reality as such. And it is only insofar as God is not a being defined by possibility, and is hence infinitely free, that creation inevitably follows from who he is. This in no way alters the truth that creation, in itself, “might not have been,” so long as this claim is understood as a modal definition, a statement of ontological contingency, a recognition that creation receives its being from beyond itself and so has no necessity intrinsic to itself.1
Or as I suggested a few years ago, the positing of the freedom–necessity dilemma represents a category mistake.2
Even so, the Church Fathers found it necessary to assert the gratuity of divine creation over against Hellenistic construals of the ontological inseparability of world and deity.3 With the preaching of the gospel, in other words, human beings became free to think transcendent Creator without the world—God by himself, alone in the infinite plenitude of his divine being. Robert Sokolowski explains the extraordinariness of this moment:
It seems to be obvious that men should observe the contingency of the world and ask themselves why there is something rather than nothing. But such issues do not arise automatically wherever there are men, even if the men are thoughtful. If we examine pagan thinking about the divine, we do not find the issue of creation raised in the way it is raised in Christianity, nor do we find the understanding of God that is maintained by Christians. In Greek and Roman religions, and in Greek and Roman philosophies, god or the gods are appreciated as the most powerful, most independent and self-sufficient, most unchanging beings in the world, but they are accepted within the context of being. Although god or the gods are conceived as the steadiest and most complete beings, the possibility that they could be even though everything that is not divine were not, is not a possibility that occurs to anyone. The being of pagan gods is to be a part, though the most important part, of what is; no matter how independent they are, the pagan gods must be with things that are not divine.4
In pagan religion and philosophy, the world exists necessarily, as does the divine. Neither can be thought apart from the other. Divinity is comprehended within the matrix of being, alongside all other beings. But with the gospel came a revolutionary interpretation of divine creation—the world might not have been.That which had been inconceivable becomes meaningful, thinkable, imaginable, ponderable. Whereas Plato and Aristotle thought of individual beings as existing or not existing within the continuum of existence, Pascha introduced the possibility of thinking of beings as a whole over against their sheer nonexistence. Why something rather than nothing? Sokolowski calls this the Christian distinction:
In Christian belief we understand the world as that which might not have been, and correlatively we understand God as capable of existing, in undiminished goodness and greatness, even if the world had not been. We know there is a world, so we appreciate the world as in fact created, but we acknowledge that it is meaningful to say that God could have been all that there is. Such a “solitary” existence of God is counterfactual, but it is meaningful, whereas it would not be meaningful for the pagan sense of the divine. To use terms similar to those of Anselm, such an idea of God can exist in our minds; we can understand God in this way. Our understanding of God is that he would be “the same” in greatness and goodness whether he creates or does not create, and whether he creates or does not create depends only on his freedom. When God does create, there may be “more” but there is no “greater” or “better.” And the world must be understood appropriately, as that which might not have been. The world and everything in it is appreciated as a gift brought about by a generosity that has no parallel in what we experience in the world. The existence of the world now prompts our gratitude, whereas the being of the world prompts our wonder.5
If not an ordinary movement of human reason, may we not then speak of revelation?
In the world things are identified by their otherness and difference, by not being that from which they are distinguished and to which they are related. We speak of natures and types, of genus and species. We specify the properties of an entity and compare them to the properties of other entities. A rock is not a table is not a hippopotamus is not a god. Within the horizon of being such distinctions are fundamental. “But in the Christian distinction,” Sokolowski notes, “God is understood as ‘being’ God entirely apart from any relation of otherness to the world or to the whole. God could and would be God even if there were no world. Thus the Christian distinction is appreciated as a distinction that did not have to be, even though it in fact is. . . . God is more fundamental than the distinction itself.”6 In creating the world, God permits the distinction to arise, but he is not constituted by it. To be who and what he is, the Creator does not need to be distinguished from the world. God is God, existing beyond contrast with all he has made. Hence the Christian distinction is “capable of being obliterated, because one of the terms of the distinction, the world, does not have to be.”7 The Church now speaks of divine aseity and creaturely contingency. She speaks of a world freely created from out of nothing. She speaks of the one God who is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
 David Bentley Hart, You Are Gods (2022), pp. 115-116.
 See Georges Florovsky, “St. Athanasius’ Concept of Creation.”
 Robert Sokolowski, The God of Faith and Reason (1995), p. 12.
 Ibid., p. 19.
 Ibid., pp. 32-33.
 Ibid., p. 33.
(6 June 2016; rev.)