The Church Fathers on Creation
Irenaeus of Lyons saw God’s creative act as involving his two “hands” present with him in creation,” his Word (“God said”) and his Spirit (“hovering over the face of the waters”). Irenaeus also spoke of the idea of creation from nothing (in Against Heresies. 2.10.4):
To attribute the substance of created things to the power and will of Him who is God of all, is worthy both of credit and acceptance. It is also agreeable [to reason], and there may be well said regarding such a belief, that the things which are impossible with men are possible with God (Luke 18:27). While men, indeed, cannot make anything out of nothing, but only out of matter already existing, yet God is in this point pre-eminently superior to men, that He Himself called into being the substance of His creation, when previously it had no existence.
Origen, in his First Principles II.11.4, expresses a delight in the senses and a desire to know what things are and their causes that coheres with the best of the Greek philosophers:
A desire to know the truth of things has been implanted in our souls and is natural to human beings. … When our eye sees the work of a craftsman, especially if the object is well made, at once the mind burns with desire to know what sort of thing it is, how it was made and for what purpose. Even more, indeed incomparably more, does this mind burn with desire and ineffable longing to know the design of those things which we perceive to have been made by God. This desire, this love, we believe, has been implanted in us by God. For as the eye by nature seeks light and sight and our body instinctively craves food and drink, so our mind nurtures a desire, which is natural and proper, to know the truth of God and to learn the causes of things. Moreover we have not been given this desire by God in such a way that it should not or cannot be satisfied. For if the love of truth were never able to be satisfied, it would seem to have been implanted in our mind by the creator in vain.
Basil the Great gave 9 homilies on Chapter 1 of Genesis, called the Hexaemeron, after the “6 days” of creation in Genesis. Reflecting on John 1:1, “In the beginning [arché] was the Word…” Basil told his audience that arché had a deeper meaning than temporal “beginning.” It can also imply the principle or ground of all things that underlies their existence and coherence. Basil, like the other church Fathers, saw creation as good—an important theme with which to counter gnostics and later the Manichaeans, who thought this world of material things is evil. Basil says in HexaemeronI.6,
You will finally discover that the world was not conceived by chance and without reason, but for an useful end and for the great advantage of all beings, since it is really the school where reasonable souls exercise themselves, the training ground where they learn to know God; since by the sight of visible and sensible things the mind is led, as by a hand, to the contemplation of invisible things. “For,” as the Apostle says, “the invisible things of him from the creation of the world are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made.” (Rom. 1:20)
Basil’s younger brother, Gregory of Nyssa, also commented on Basil’s Hexaemeron. He saw a philosophical problem with a sequential creation in six literal days, arguing instead that God’s act of creation of things was simultaneous. Thus to Gregory, Moses’s narrative of the six days in Genesis was intended to show the interdependence of the natural order, that all things were interrelated, showing the philosophical principle by the narrative of God speaking different things into existence on successive days.
Gregory also wrote The Making of Man, on the creation and nature of the human being and the meaning of being made in the image and likeness of God, which separated human beings from the animals. He wrote it for Christians and non-Christians alike, using reason and philosophical principles to help understand what was revealed in the Scriptures. Gregory, like all Christian thinkers, knew that God was beyond the capacity of the human mind. Given that human beings are made in the image and likeness of the Creator, the human mind gives a hint of this in our incapacity to truly comprehend ourselves. “Because our mind is made in the likeness of the one who created us, it escapes our knowledge. That is why it is reasonable to think that the human mind accurately resembles God’s superior nature, portraying by its own unknowability that nature that is beyond comprehension.” (The Making of Man, V.XI.3). Gregory was also unusual for his time since he thought that human slavery was wrong, a betrayal of the nature of human freedom, and spoke against it.
In his magisterial late work, The City of God, Augustine articulated a comprehensive theological, philosophical, and political vision of all of reality, developed around the theme of the intertwined life of the two Cities, the City of Man and the City of God, the former destined for destruction, the latter on pilgrimage towards its ultimate destiny with God. In Book XII.26, he gives his philosophical understanding of creation:
… His hidden power penetrating all things by its presence, yet free from contamination, gives existence to whatever in any way exists, in so far as it exists at all. For the absence of God’s creative activity would not merely mean that a thing would be different in some particular way; it simply could not exist.
… if He were to withdraw what we may call his ‘constructive power’ from existing things, they would cease to exist, just as they did not exist before they were made. When I say ‘before,’ I mean in eternity, not in time. For the creator of time is none other than he who made the things whose change and movement is the condition of time’s course.
To Augustine nothing would exist unless God continually upheld its existence by his creative power. He also knew that creation is not a temporal act, but that time itself is a created thing. There was no time “before” creation. Time came into existence with creation. This is just how modern physics understands the “Big Bang,” an event with which time started, not an event “in time,” as if there were a “before.”
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