Anglican Essentials: Going Deeper–Creation from Nothing

Thomas Aquinas on creation

Thomas Aquinas took the theological and philosophical threads from a millennium of teaching by the Church Fathers like Augustine and others and synthesized it into a powerful philosophical and theological vision encompassing all of reality and our place in it.  This vision is being rediscovered today across the Christian spectrum.  The understanding of Creation ex nihilo is related to Thomas’s doctrine of God.  Simon Oliver emphasizes two essential points in Thomas’s synthesis: the radical difference between God and his creation, and the philosophical concept of “participation,” the mode by which created beings relate to the Being of God in a way that is not pantheistic:

IIf there is one crucial issue that dominates the theology of creation in the ancient and medieval worlds, it is this: how do we distinguish between God and creation? This is important because, if we fail to identify with precision the absolute difference between God and creation, there is always a danger that we will conceive God as part of creation, or creation as part of God. And once God is understood as in any way like a creature we lapse into idolatry because we confuse God the creator for something created.

The difference between God and creation is not a difference in degree or even a difference in kind. It is a sheer and utterly unique difference because God exists in himself, whereas creation exists always and only by participation in God, by virtue of God’s creative gratuity.  

Creation does NOT mean that “way back then” God did an act in time that we call “creation.” Rather, Creation is a statement of the relation between God the Creator and creatures, the things created. The latter encompass space, time, and all things in the material cosmos. God is utterly transcendent and “other,” not “in” space and time but radically unlike the “creatures” or “things” in the cosmos. This is more fully explained in my essay for BioLogos, “Time and Eternity: A Christological Perspective,” which also emphasizes the necessity of using analogical language in talking about God. While Aquinas insists that we can only “name God from creatures” (i.e., from things we know in this world), it is essential in any analogy concerning God to affirm the “is not” of the analogy, that is, to affirm an “ever greater difference” of God from any created thing.

The relation we call “creation” is “going on” now, everywhere and everyplace. God is intimately present to all things, upholding and sustaining them continually in their being, characteristics, and actions. Thomas Aquinas affirms that created things have their own causal agency, their own freedom to be what they are, through the free gift of the Creator granting to them through his “primary causation” the power of “secondary causation” to bring about the kind of effects and changes in the cosmos studied by the various sciences. 

Creation is a free gift of love from a good Giver, in which we participate as the kind of creatures we find ourselves actually to be. Creation is not a mere “given,” to be taken for granted as “just there,” no further questions asked. Creation is for the sake of there being creatures like us, made in the image and likeness of God, to share in his life. That is the “why?” of Creation, why we are here.

Simon Oliver puts it this way:

… the difference between God and creation is not a random and inscrutable difference; it is a participation in, or trace of, the eternal differences and relations of the Godhead.  For Aquinas, the emanation of creation from God, which is freely willed and in no sense necessary, is an image of, or a participation in, the eternal emanation of the persons of the Trinity.  So God’s act of creation is not simply a result of the divine will, impenetrable to reason. It is an expression of the very nature of God himself  an expression of God’s eternal nature as self-donating love.The real relation of creation to God is a participation in the real relations of the persons of the Trinity.

… an intelligible account of divine providential action in creation must involve a hierarchy of differentiated causes, in which God is known as the primary cause and creatures as secondary causes;  This means that God is not a cause among causes, but is the basis of all causation in creation, because God creates and sustains every causal agent. In other words, God enables created secondary causes to be real and potent because he creates and sustains them. All other causes participate in God’s causal power. This does not mean that God’s causal power is added to our causal power to make a very big causal power.

God’s causal power is of an utterly different order. Creaturely causes are causes by analogy with God’s causal power by means of participation. God makes creatures to be causes in their own right. This means that in no sense do God’s primary causal power and creaturely causes compete with or displace each other; they are of a wholly different order. There are real and potent secondary causes in creation, but only by participation in the primary causation of God.

Thus we can never make causation an “either/or” matter, as if any action is only by “natural causes” or by a direct “act of God.” All action is “both/and,” where natural causes are given by God’s primary causation their secondary power to act as real and effective agents of change in the natural order (e.g., gravity, electromagnetic forces, etc.). Thus, there is no conflict between God and science in giving accounts of natural phenomena. Thomas Aquinas gives an instructive example (in Summa Theologica, I.101): 

… because in all things God Himself is properly the cause of universal being which is innermost in all things; it follows that in all things God works intimately. For this reason in Holy Scripture the operations of nature are attributed to God as operating in nature, according to Job 10:11: ‘Thou hast clothed me with skin and flesh: Thou hast put me together with bones and sinews.

In other words, Job is fully and properly made by the ordinary biochemical processes of the natural world. At the same time and in a radically different way, God is intimately present to and making Job through through his gift of being and through his continual sustaining of the power of natural actions. Natural biochemical causes and God’s causation in making Job are in entirely different orders of causation, and there is no conflict between God’s active primary causation and the secondary causes studied by the sciences. 

Thomas Aquinas gives us a good reason for the enormous diversity and variety of the things in the world. This applies at all scales, the very large, the very small, and for ordinary life. Thomas discusses this in I.47.1 of Summa Theologica, concerning “Whether the multitude and distinction of things come from God.” But first he mentions the pre-Socratic philosphers like Democritus, who turns out to hold a very “modern” view, the kind advocated by many “new atheists” who only see “natural causes” for everything: variety originates by “chance according to the movement of matter.

… The distinction of things has been ascribed to many causes. For some attributed the distinction to matter … Democritus, for instance, and all the ancient natural philosophers, who admitted no cause but matter, attributed it to matter alone; and in their opinion the distinction of things comes from chance according to the movement of matter 

But Thomas answers with a very beautiful ideas: variety arises for the sake of more perfect participation by creatures in the divine goodness:

… we must say that the distinction and multitude of things come from the intention of the first agent, who is God. For He brought things into being in order that His goodness might be communicated to creatures, and be represented by them; and because His goodness could not be adequately represented by one creature alone, He produced many and diverse creatures, that what was wanting to one in the representation of the divine goodness might be supplied by another. For goodness, which in God is simple and uniform, in creatures is manifold and divided and hence the whole universe together participates the divine goodness more perfectly, and represents it better than any single creature whatever.

To put it more simply in contemporary terms: the vast diversity we find within the spatial and temporal evolutionary order of our cosmos is one way in which the universe manifests divine goodness. The kind of evolutionary universe science now knows would not be a problem per se to Thomas (although a reductive “philosophy” often used by scientists would be highly criticized by him as very bad philosophy).  To Thomas, even what has the appearance of “chance” or only the movement of mere “matter” serves this larger end and allow us to make sense of it. We thus can see that “matter” and “chance” are but aspects of the form given to a good world. (This is not the place to discuss the thorny “problem of evil” that often comes up with respect to a theistic universe; there are good answers, but that is a large topic in itself).

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