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- ‘I believe in God the Father almighty, maker of heaven and earth and of all things visible and invisible.' The famous debates and controversies that mark the early history of Christian thought were largely concerned with the understanding of the person of Christ, spelt out in the much longer second clause of the creed. We are inclined by way of contrast to think of the first clause with its affirmation of God as creator as little more than a tautology. Certainly the main Christian tradition has not only maintained it without hesitation but has laid great stress on the absoluteness of the work of creation as creation ex nihilo.
- Yet the firmness of this insistence is in some respects surprising. Such an understanding of creation was certainly not seen as a straightforward or self-evident truth from the beginning. The idea is not explicitly affirmed in scripture. The question had not been formulated at that stage in a way that called for a conscious judgment one way or the other on the issue. Nor did it seem the most natural interpretation of scripture to some of the earliest Christian writers. Platonists at the time, developing the model of the craftsman from the Timaeus, saw the work of creation as giving form to the shapeless, pre-existent stuff out of which the world was made. For Justin Martyr the evidence of scripture pointed in the same direction. He quotes Gen. 1.2, ‘The earth was without form and void, and darkness was upon the face of the earth; and the spirit of God was moving upon the face of the waters', and, seeing this as a picture of the work of creation, he goes on to comment on the text in these words:
So by God's word the whole universe was made out of this substratum of which Moses speaks — and Plato and the Platonists have learned it from him.
- Like many a later theologian, he rejoices to find scripture and the wisdom of his day apparently at one. What better confirmation could he want of an understanding of creation as the giving of form to formless matter? And when a little later on Christian writers began to make explicit assertion of the idea of creation out of nothing, the lack of clear scriptural backing for that position was something of an embarrassment. Tertullian is reduced to the sophistical argument of claiming that since scripture says nothing about that from which the world is made, it must indeed have been made from nothing. And Origen, most assiduous of all searchers of scripture, is constrained to offer as his supporting scriptural evidence two texts, one from II Maccabees and one from the Shepherd of Hermas.
- More significant than the absence of any explicit affirmation of the idea in scripture is the fact that it adds gravely to the most serious challenge that the theist has to face, namely the problem of evil. For if we understand creation as the shaping of recalcitrant raw material for which God is not ultimately responsible rather than as the origination not only of form but of matter itself, then we seem to have at least the beginnings of a path away from the ascription of ultimate responsibility for that evil to God himself, which the notion of creation out of nothing appears to involve. Nor, as creation out of nothing began to take its place as an accepted part of Christian teaching, were Christians unaware of this implication of what they were affirming. Difficulty in accounting for the origin of evil in the world was an important aspect of the motivation of the Gnostics and Marcionites, over against whom Tertullian and Origen first gave the idea of creation out of nothing clear Christian formulation. And the same difficulty continues to be an important part of the motivation that has led some contemporary theologians also to challenge this traditional Christian doctrine. Process theologians may still, like Justin Martyr, appeal for support to Plato and the Old Testament, but the religious and philosophical help it appears to offer to Christian reflection on evil is a far more significant reason for their criticism of the traditional teaching. Behind their challenge lies the Whiteheadian conviction that ‘the object of authentic religious concern is characterized more decisively by goodness than by metaphysical ultimacy'. In terms of the theological method that I outlined in the previous chapter, the doctrine of creation out of nothing must indeed seem a strong candidate for radical modification.
- Nevertheless it seems to me clear that there can be no going back on that conviction for the Christian theologian. In my judgment it is both philosophically and religiously essential. Creation is creation out of nothing or it is nothing. An indispensable element in any contemporary defence of theistic belief is the sense of mystery as to how it comes about that there is anything at all. Much more than that is needed for the establishment and practice of Christian faith. But without it a reasonable faith seems to be an impossibility. If God is not the source of all existence, then he is a dispensable hypothesis within our finite world and must take his chance of survival along with the other explanatory hypotheses spawned by the fertile human mind. Religiously also the idea of God as absolute creator would appear to be necessary to that form of religious experience which finds in God its ‘final succour and absolute demand'. If it is right to see ‘finality' and ‘absoluteness' as integral to Christian experience, they too point towards a God who is absolute creator. If that doctrine cannot stand, then the case for a rational Christian theism is seriously undermined and the nature of any alternative form of Christian faith would be reduced to a pale shadow.
- But the difficulties to which the doctrine has given rise have been real enough, and bold language of the kind that I have been using will not make them go away. I have already referred to process theology as giving contemporary expression to a reasoned criticism of the doctrine. The objections it puts forward need to be taken seriously. The heart of those objections is summed up in the complaint that the ‘doctrine (of creation ex nihilo) is part and parcel of the doctrine of God as absolute controller'. In the view of its critics, the traditional understanding of the absolute sovereignty of God as creator does not leave room for genuine contingency or genuine independence on the part of created reality. If that is in fact the case, it was, as I suggested in the last chapter, certainly not the intention of the leading exponents of that earlier Christian tradition. But there is much in that tradition to lend credence to the process theologian's complaint.
- Let me begin by taking the most notable (one is tempted to say the most notorious) example of a distinguished theologian whose work gives rise to such objections. John Calvin begins his discussion of creation by insisting that ‘it were cold and lifeless to represent God as a momentary creator who completed his work once for all, and then left it'. The doctrine is just as much concerned with God's continued governance of heaven and earth by a providence which ‘so overrules all things that nothing happens without his counsel'. This overruling control of God is universal in its scope. ‘By his providence, not heaven and earth and inanimate creatures only, but also the counsels and wills of men are so governed as to move exactly in the course which he has destined'. It is not enough to speak only of a general or universal providence, for that would not ‘prevent man from turning himself in this direction or in that, according to the mere freedom of his own will'. Nor, even in the case of evil actions, is it sufficient to speak of God's permissive will. Even in those cases God is agent, not simply in terms of a universal agency of God which, as it sustains all creatures, also gives them all their power of acting', but in terms also of ‘that special agency which is apparent in every act'.
- In taking Calvin as my first example of Christian teaching, I have of course chosen an extreme example of insistence on God's predestinating control of both human history and the human heart. But as we shall see clearly enough when we come to look more fully later on at the general character of Christian teaching about divine providence, many a Christian teacher (who would strongly repudiate Calvin's full-blooded predestinarian views) has found himself having to work in practice with a somewhat similar picture of God's control of the world of nature and of men and women. Furthermore, the basic framework of Calvin's thought in terms of the coincidence of divine and human agency within what we experience as a single action finds classic expression in the earlier teaching of Aquinas. And even that more moderate and representative form of Christian teaching is not free of the difficulties which process theology levels against the main Christian tradition.
- For Aquinas also the essential meaning of creation concerned not the origin of the world but its continuing dependence on God. He did in fact believe on the basis of revelation that the world was not eternal but had a beginning in time, but that was a contingent fact. It could have been eternal without altering in any way the absoluteness of the ontological dependence of creature on creator, which is what creation is. God as creator is the primary cause of our existence and we are dependent on him for the power of being. But the world is not a world only of existents; it is a world of agents. God is therefore to be seen also as the primary cause of all action. As we are dependent on him for the power of being, so are we also for the power of acting. Secondary causes, both inanimate and human, have a real but only relative independence. God is always present as the primary cause enabling them to act. Aquinas' main emphasis is on the reality rather than on the subordinate status of the secondary cause. He argues vigorously against those who would deny reality to finite causes. Nevertheless the overall control or governance of divine causation1 is never in question. ‘Everything God wills comes about.’ Admittedly it does not all come about in precisely the same way. ‘What the plan of divine providence has arranged to result necessarily and without fail will come about necessarily and without fail; what too it has arranged to result contingently will come about contingently.' Secondary causes have their own reality, therefore, and human causes their freedom. But if that affirmation is to be taken seriously, as it must, it is difficult to know what sense to give to the concept of an arranged contingency. Certainly it is a closely confined degree of freedom that is being asserted. When Aquinas declares that ‘although one whom God reprobates cannot gain grace, nevertheless the fact that he flounders in this or that sin happens of his own free will’, how much consolation is contained in the qualifying clause? Some modification of the language or of the conceptualisation that has led Christians to speak in such terms does seem to be called for.
- In its attempt to provide an alternative conceptuality, which will avoid all such unwelcome implications of God's sovereignty, how far has process theology felt the need to modify the doctrine of creation out of nothing? In the thought of Whitehead, which is the primary inspiration of the process school, what is most ultimate is creativity, and God can be described as its ‘accident' or ‘outcome' or ‘creature'. What the precise relation between the two was for Whitehead has been the subject of intense debate; but that need not concern us here. For later process theologians, like John Cobb, have been concerned not simply to reproduce Whitehead's ideas but rather to make use of his fundamental insights in order to develop their own more explicitly Christian account of God as creator. For John Cobb creativity does exist independently of God, yet it is more an abstraction or a principle than some entity standing over against God. It may be envisaged as a kind of chaos or random flux, but it has neither the permanence nor the directionality that would enable us to speak of it as an entity or thing of any kind — until the formative influence of God upon it has given it such permanence and directionality. Thus John Cobb can still assert that God is ‘the reason that entities occur at all.' If we stress the final word sufficiently, we can even say that for him creation is out of no thing. For John Cobb, then, there is a departure from the full traditional doctrine of creation ex nihilo, but the modification is less drastic than might have been expected. And David Pailin, the foremost British exponent of process thought, goes a stage further in the same direction. He argues that even Whitehead's remarks about God as the ‘creature' or ‘accident' of creativity ‘need not be developed so as to deny the ultimacy of God'.
It is not that God is subject to creativity as if creativity existed prior to God and ‘produced' God. Rather, the situation is that to be God is necessarily to be creative.
- On that understanding conflict with the main thrust of the traditional doctrine, as opposed to ways in which it has at times been understood or to corollaries that have been thought to follow from it, seems to have reached vanishing point.
- In the light of these reflections the question that I want to raise is whether any modification of the doctrine of creation out of nothing is in fact needed to order to achieve the laudable religious objectives which the process theologian is concerned to establish. Is it the only way to avoid an unacceptable doctrine of God the absolute controller? But I do not intend to develop my own proposal in direct dialogue with process thought. I have discussed process theology's objection to creation ex nihilo, because it represents the most serious and sustained contemporary challenge to that doctrine. But my positive proposal, while seeking to be sensitive to those objections, does not need to be expressed in Whiteheadian or process terms. It can equally well be put in the more traditional categories of the Thomistic scheme. Must the God who is the power of all being also be the power of all acting? The tradition has insisted that God gives to created realities their natural capacities for action but that they can only operate those capacities as they are moved by God. Why should it not be the case that God has bestowed on created realities not only their natural capacities for action but also the power to move themselves to action independently of specific divine agency in each case? Or, to put the point more generally still, is the idea of God's absolute creation out of nothing compatible with the assertion that God may have conferred on parts at least of his creation a genuine independence of agency in relation to himself?
- In approaching that question, I want to begin by recalling another feature of the initial formation of the doctrine, to which I have not yet explicitly referred. I spoke earlier of the doctrine of creation out of nothing as established over against the alternative of a metaphysical dualism, which had its roots in one aspect of Plato's thought and which found expression at the time in some forms of Gnosticism and later on in Manichaean teaching. But that was not the only alternative to a doctrine of creation out of nothing. There was another way of depicting the world as causally dependent upon God, which pictured the world as an emanation from the One or from God, like light coming out from the sun or water from the fountain. This was the approach developed by Plotinus and the Neo-platonists. But the church had no hesitation in deciding against such a picture and opting for the idea of creation, understood as an act of divine will. Two main arguments were adduced in support of that preference. In the first place the lack of conscious purpose implicit in the model of emanation suggested the idea of some external necessity imposed upon God. God, according to that model, does not choose to create a world; creation is something that apparently happens to God willy-nilly. It was felt, therefore, to do less justice than the other account to the concept of God's transcendence. And secondly, the model did not depict the world as sufficiently distinct from God. There is a sense in which the light is a part of the sun, the water simply an extension of the fountain. The world envisaged in that way might still be dependent on God, but it appeared to be too nearly a part of him for a religious consciousness rooted in the Christian scriptures.
- If then we conceive of creation in terms of an act of divine will rather than of an emanation from God, there does not seem to be any fundamental conceptual difficulty in affirming that God could have created a world with the kind of independence of himself which I have postulated. For if creation is both absolute and a matter of will, then the form that it takes is restricted only by the law of non-contradiction. And that of course is no restriction at all, since what contradicts the law of non-contradiction is no alternative possibility but merely a form of words without sense or meaning. We may have no experience of creating something which has complete freedom of action in relation to us its creator; but there is nothing self-contradictory in the notion. If that argument is valid, then it is not the affirmation of such a divine self-limitation in the act of creation but the denial of its possibility that would represent a qualification of the absoluteness of God's creative work. In a memorable phrase of Karl Barth, it would be to make God ‘the prisoner of his own power'.
- The proposal that I am making involves, therefore, no denial of God's omnipotence, no reduction in the affirmation of divine power. What it does involve is a modification of the way in which the concept of that power is understood. That point has been well put in a recent book by Thomas Tracy. ‘God,' he writes,
creates a field of other agents whose integrity he respects and so whose independent actions condition his choices. This amounts to a purposeful limitation of the scope of his own activity, but it does not nullify his omnipotence ... Intentional self-restraint does not represent a renunciation of omnipotence, but rather a renunciation of certain uses of power.
- Tracy is surely right to emphasize the polyvalence of the concept of power in the context of personal relations. A powerful monarch may wield power over his kingdom by the strength of his army and the rigour of his laws. A powerful business magnate may exercise his power by skilful manipulation or outmanoeuvring of subordinates and rivals alike. But the powerful advocate of a cause may achieve his goals by winning the hearts and minds of so many people that they freely combine to work for the desired end. The last of those three may seem furthest away from the operation of power at the purely physical level, which we are inclined to regard as the basic and truest meaning of the word ‘power'. But it is also the most morally praiseworthy and the most difficult to achieve. If the picture of creation which we are led to develop involves that conception of God's power in relation to human action, that fact should be seen not as a weakness but as an argument in its favour.
- The same fundamental point may be made in a slightly different way. I have been speaking so far in terms of a modification of the understanding of God's power. One could speak instead of a qualification of the concept of power by that of love. It is in this form that the point is made by another recent writer, Grace Jantzen. She writes:
The proper order of priority in understanding the attributes of god must be to take his love as central, and modify our ideas of omnipotence ... in terms of it ... Creative love is love which gives autonomy to that which it creates; and although omnipotence can be limited by nothing else, it is limited by love ... If God's power is understood as the expression of his love, then God's power is his power to give independence, autonomy, even to creatures over whom, strictly speaking, he is sovereign.
- Conceptually there may be disadvantages in speaking of one attribute of God having priority over another. It runs the risk of suggesting some kind of tension within the being of God. Nevertheless religiously there are compensating gains in the vividness with which the main point can be conveyed. This is powerfully expressed in some words of Soren Kierkegaard:
O wonderful omnipotence and love! A man cannot bear that his 'creations' should be something directly over against him; they should be nothing and therefore he calls them creations with contempt. But God, who creates out of nothing, who almightily takes from nothing and says ‘Be!' lovingly adds ‘Be something even over against me'. Wonderful love, even his omnipotence is under the power of love. Hence the reciprocal relationship. If God were only the almighty, there would be no reciprocal relation; for the creation is nothing for the Almighty. But it is something for love.
- What that quotation from Kierkegaard helps to make clear is that the account of creation that I am proposing is not one called for by human pride, determined to defend at all costs its own autonomy; it is one called for by religious faith, concerned to establish the reality of what Kierkegaard calls our ‘reciprocal relation' with God. That same motivation has played an important role also in process theology's critique of traditional views. Charles Hartshorne, indeed, after Whitehead the founder figure of process thought, uses the same language of reciprocity. He writes:
Religion is concerned with interaction between creator and creatures, not with mere action by the one upon the others. Examine any basic aspect of religious practice. It will exhibit divine-human reciprocity as essential.
- And that is something which in his view traditional theology, as embodied in Thomistic thought, is unable to provide. Aquinas' concern to safeguard the self-sufficiency of God leads him to give careful qualification to the idea of divine-human reciprocity. God's self-giving cannot involve his essential nature. In the technical language of Aquinas' theological scheme, God's relation to us is conceptual not real.
- The concerns that give rise to the linguistic caution that Aquinas displays in this regard cannot be lightly brushed aside. Christians are right to want to speak of a reciprocal relation, and of a God who feels our sorrows, is grieved by our sins and responds to our prayers and our love. But we cannot responsibly do so, as some contemporary theologians appear to do, by simply affirming the passibility of God, as if the ancient insistence of God's unchangingness and impassibility were just a foolish mistake to be denied outright. There is an important truth implicit in that old conviction. It is the truth that God is never, as we are, affected by forces or events which come entirely from outside the sphere of his own influence. The Proposal that I am making takes note of that ancient and proper insistence. If God is affected by us or ‘suffers' because of what we do, that is not the result of something that has happened wholly apart from God. As creator he has chosen to create a world of free beings with that measure of independent power over against himself.
- That is the understanding of God as creator which I wish to propose. In subsequent chapters I shall try to see what difference it makes to related areas of Christian reflection. What alleviation, if any, does it offer to the Christian's attempt to come to terms with the problem of evil? What modification does it call for in the understanding of providence? But before we embark on such questions, a further clarification is called for in the basic understanding of creation here proposed. I began by giving voice to a general disquiet about the idea of divine agency, about how and where God acts in the world. So I propose next to consider more precisely how the idea of creation I have outlined is itself best understood and spoken of in terms of God's action.
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