Review of Simon Oliver’s Guide for the Perplexed

The following review was published in the March 2022 print edition of the Anglican Way magazine.

Simon Oliver, the Van Mildert Professor of Divinity at Durham University, has done a great service with his recent book, “Creation: A Guide for the Perplexed.”  The book explains the classical Christian notion of Creation ex nihilo, that is, “from nothing,” especially as articulated by Thomas Aquinas. Oliver stands in a long line of Anglican voices that draw upon the tradition of “mere Christianity.” The classical conception stands in stark contrast to a panoply of confused notions from modern times regarding “creationism” that feed a widespread sense of a conflict between “science” and “religion.”  Nothing could be farther from the truth, as Oliver clearly explains in his readable and informative short book (only 158 pages + notes).  

The book draws out new treasures from old wineskins to teach us afresh how to see the world and ourselves.  From my perspective as a professional physicist, these clarifications hold up well in relation to what we actually know from the various sciences about the cosmos and our place in it.   Oliver tells us that “creation ex nihilo is about the absolute ontological priority of God” and the consequent asymmetrical relation between God and the world.  Thus, it gives us philosophical and theological understanding concerning what God and the world are, not a scientific account about how things came to be or how they operate. Creation is not only about “in the beginning,” but it is about God’s generous gift through which even now all things everywhere are participating in that gift.  It is a gift to which our natural human response is thanksgiving. 

Oliver tells us there is “no competition between contemporary cosmology and the theology and metaphysics of creation ex nihilo.”(p.58).  God is wholly “other,” utterly transcending the world of contingent created beings, which are gratuitously brought into existence from absolutely nothing as a sheer gift of God’s goodness. God is not a “thing” or a “cause-among-causes” within the created order.   Oliver explains Aquinas’s powerful (but lost) philosophical concept of participation–created entities are not a “part” of God but rather, as distinct from Him, “participate” in His free gift of created being.  It is precisely God’s radical “otherness” that permits God to be intimately present to every thing in Creation as its source, primary cause and sustainer of creaturely participation.  This same “otherness” requires that we use analogical language in talking about God, that is, language that simultaneously affirms the “is” and “is not” aspects of what is being compared.  In this way, we can, as Aquinas affirms, “name God from creatures,” that is, speak of God intelligibly from what we know about creatures, knowing that the “is not” of a comparison is as important, or more important, than the “is.”

In discussing God’s providence, we do not have to choose whether God did something or Nature did it.  Both God and Nature have causal activity, but in quite different ways.  While all things occur by virtue of God’s primary causation, created entities have their own proper mode of secondary causation by which they truly have their own God-given and God-sustained agency in things: “to act” follows upon “to be.”  This is as aspect of the gift.  All things act according to the interior principles of their nature.   Furthermore, “every agent acts for an end. The purpose of an action – its goal or end – is what makes the action intelligible.”  In exploring the “purposiveness of creation,” Oliver shows how this discarded idea is still essential and viable. 

Oliver examines the philosophical, theological, and scientific transitions that took place between the era of Aquinas and our own.   Many essential concepts were lost in these transitions.  The modern mind has a dramatically different ontology of things and of God than did the classical era: matter is now “just stuff,” moved around by immanent efficient causes (forces), and God is extrinsic to the scheme of Nature.  The world came to be seen as a “machine,” analogous to human made ones. If one is a modern Christian, one often follows the “physico-theology” of the 18th Century and looks to God as the “designer” of a machine.  Yet what if “machine metaphysics” is hopelessly inadequate?   If one is a modern atheist, there is no need for God at all, since “Nature” as a closed system of natural causes explains everything.  This thinking drives the metaphysically reductive “Immanent Frame” of modern humanity, a world devoid of transcendence that has no ultimate meaning in a universe that seems purposeless.  But to Oliver, this reduction is an ontological commitment, a philosophical position, not a scientific one, with no basis in empirical reality.  He says, “If the debate between science and the theology of creation is to make any significant progress, attending to the theological and metaphysical roots of science will be very important. … science might not be adequate to the full majesty of the subject of its study.”

To Oliver, “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 as eternally self-giving.”  Aquinas knew God’s nature by philosophy as self-subsistent Being itself and by revelation as a Trinity of Persons, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.   God and the natural order are not separated.  Creation is rooted in God’s Trinitarian nature, centered on Christ.  Creation is a gift of divine love and goodness.  Our natural place in the natural order, and our responsibility to it, is to participate in it well according to God’s good ways.  

Oliver sums it up well towards the end of the book: “To be a creature is, first and foremost, before all else, to receive being. This is a unilateral gift from God to creation. But to receive being truthfully, to be a creature, is to acknowledge the gift in thankfulness. Creation returns to God the gift of praise and thanksgiving and, in that return, receives itself most fully as created.”  To that end, we can affirm poetically with Isaiah that even the very trees of the field clap their hands.