Creation ex nihilo
The classical doctrine of creation ex nihilo is very different in major respects from modern notions of creation or “creationism.” It is grounded in philosophically robust concepts and theology from the Christian tradition that predate the modern era and provide sound principles for understanding the God-world relation in our scientific age. These principles provide a basis for the kind of “thick” engagement between theology and science advocated by Sir John Polkinghorne. A sound understanding of the relation between God and the world allows science to be science and theology to be theology wherein each can have constructive yet critical mutual interaction with the other. Theology can then take advantage of insights offered by a developmental (or evolutionary) scientific account of the cosmos, and science can have an appreciation of insights that come from the theological side regarding the meaning of things that elude science.
Much of the material covered in the slides for this presentation is in my essay, “Creation: What the World Is” for BioLogos and my article, “Beyond Imagination: The True Meaning of Creation,” from the printed version of Fall, 2018, Anglican Way magazine. I draw upon the work of Thomas Aquinas quite heavily, since he summarizes a long tradition of classical philosophical thought in a beautiful synthesis that is still relevant (and needed) today.
The presentation refers to two books in particular. One is “In the Beginning: a Catholic Understanding of the Story of Creation and the Fall,” by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (later to become Pope Benedict XVI). This book is an English translation of 4 sermons originally given in German in 1986. The other book is “Creation: A Guide for the Perplexed,” by Simon Oliver, a Canon of Durham Cathedral (Anglican) and the Van Mildert Professor of Divinity, Department of Theology and Religion, Durham University, UK. A draft review of Prof. Oliver’s book that I have written is available at this link. Prof. Oliver says:
If 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.
Before thinking about creation, it it worth keeping in mind the long tradition of “Church Fathers” who knew that a literal reading of the Book of Genesis was inadequate. Augustine of Hippo (354-430) puts it as follows in his book, On the Literal Meaning of Genesis (from I.1 and I.37).
In all the sacred books, we should consider the eternal truths that are taught, the facts that are narrated, the future events that are predicted, and the precepts or counsels that are given. In the case of a narrative of events, the question arises as to whether everything must be taken according to the figurative sense only, or whether it must be expounded and defended also as a faithful record of what happened. No Christian will dare say that the narrative must not be taken in a figurative sense.
In matters that are obscure and far beyond our vision, even in such as we may find treated in Holy Scripture, different interpretations are sometimes possible without prejudice to the faith we have received. In such a case, we should not rush in headlong and so firmly take our stand on one side that, if further progress in the search of truth justly undermines this position, we too fall with it. That would be to battle not for the teaching of Holy Scripture but for our own, wishing its teaching to conform to ours, whereas we ought to wishours to conform to that of Sacred Scripture.
Note that Agustine assumes that a figurative reading of Genesis would be normal. Furthermore no position in interpreting Scripture should be held so tightly that “progress in the search of truth justly undermines this position.” One who insists on reading Genesis in a literal manner only is following a modern development, contrary to a long tradition of Christian understanding. Perhaps one could say that to figures like Augustine the Biblical narratives are “truer than literal,” where their deeper sense is to be found in their poetic narrative richness, understood within the Christian community through the guidance of the Holy Spirit.
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: 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. 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 “matter” and “chance” as but aspects of the form given to a good world. (Please note: this is not the place to discuss the thorny “problem of evil” that often comes up with respect to a theistic universe; but see below).
According to Aquinas, following Aristotle, all concrete beings in the world are “hylomorphic” (from the Greek for matter, hylé, and form, morphé), that is, comprised of a union of form and matter (however, both of these terms mean something different to Aquinas than their modern conceptions). “Form” is not easy to explain to the modern mind and is not a “thing,” but rather a principle that expresses the essence or “whatness” of a thing.
The ideas of “form” and “formal cause” actually makes much sense in contemporary physics. The equations of natural laws (known by science and expressed through “formal” mathematics) represent the form given to matter, which in turn conforms to the equations. No “matter” exists in modern physics that is not already so “informed.” It would not seem odd to a modern physicist to think of all matter as being “dressed by form.” Quantum fields are manifestations of form. Form inheres in all things. The “form” provides the “formal cause” of a thing. Illustrations of form discussed in the class included the hydrogen atom (the simplest atom) and the DNA molecule, both of which exhibit enmattered form.
All actual entities in the cosmos are a combination of form and matter combined with existence, the act of being, for the sake of things acting and relating to other things, each according to what it is. In creation, God gives form, matter and existence to all real things and sustains them that they may be what they are and participate as they are in the actual world according to the ways it actually becomes intelligible to us. Every hydrogen atom (or other elementary entity) has precisely the form it has so that it can relate to other atoms (or entities) precisely as they are so as to build up together the larger scale things in the world, including us, with which we are familiar and are capable of knowing. To the classical Tradition, this is an aspect of the goodness of the created order, manifested, as science now tells us, over the long evolutionary time scales of the universe.
Knowing what Aquinas means by “form” helps to make sense of what he says regarding secondary causes and “information” (in his On the Power of God, 3.1)
He can make a thing from nothing, and this action of his is called creation. … being is by creation, whereas life and the like are by information: …the causation of all that is in addition to being, or specific of being, belongs to second causes which act by information, on the presupposition as it were of the effect of the first cause.
Thomas means something different from the modern notion of “information” here. To Aquinas, life and other actions in the world proceed according to the form of things (their natures) and by the transformation of such “form” by the ways things act on one another: things “inform” other things through their active relations. For as Thomas knew, “to act” follows upon “to be” (On the Power of God, 2.1): to be in relation is foundational to existence. To put it another way, if a thing did not act in some way on other things, it would be completely invisible, unknowable. It would be quite interesting to restate this deep principle in terms of the modern concept of information, but that would be far beyond the scope of this class.
Our Introductory class mentioned Aristotle’s opening sentence to his Metaphysics: “All human beings by nature desire to know.” Part of that inborn desire is to know the causes of things. To Thomas Aquinas, the world is teleological: all things have an end or purpose, a “final cause,” which is closely related to the “formal cause” (to put it another way, “what a thing is”–its form– is connected with “what it is for”–its finality). The world is what it is so that we may be here to participate in its being, to know and love God and neighbor, and to worship the Creator in thanksgiving. To Aquinas, as we see above, ever-deeper participation in God’s goodness and love is the final goal or purpose of his creation. This is perhaps the deepest answer we can give to our natural human desire to ask “why?”
Finally I wish to highlight something that my teacher at the John Paul II Institute in Washington, Prof. David C. Schindler, wrote in an essay in 1995, entitled “Truth and the Christian Imagination,” concerning the meaning of “form,” which the human mind (intellect, nous) apprehends as intelligible when we take in sense experience from the world:
… sense experience is the expression of a meaning, … it has intelligible content, which, as intelligible, cannot simply be identified with the particularity of its manifestation. … there is nothing in what we would call the “physical” world that is not derived from form except its not being itself form, and this is simply a way of saying that the physical world is nothing but meaning made tangible.
“Meaning made tangible”: meaning is present in everything that we experience, if we only have the eyes to see. In the Christian tradition, the created order is good, and to be an embodied human being is good, an aspect of God’s good intention for his created order. The Tradition teaches us to see that the world is a gift, a donum, to be gratefully received with thanksgiving, and is not just a given, a datum, a brute fact without intelligible explanation.
In this class we do not treat the notion of evil, moral or natural, but it is evident to anyone that the world and things in it often seem not to be “good,” but just the opposite. How is the goodness of God compatible with the appearance of evil?. It is important to note that this is a separate topic in its own right that the Tradition does not leave out and for which it has both philosophical and existential responses. Some people find these responses satisfying and some do not, but ultimately one can not remove all mystery. The question and answer part of the class discussed the mystery of good and evil (yes–if there is a “mystery of evil” for the theist, there is also a “mystery of good” for the atheist!), but this is beyond the scope of this class material (my intention is to link additional material later).
The slides used in the class are below.