An Eternal Creation?

Is it possible to suggest that the created order could have been eternal, while still maintaining the creator-creature distinction? Can divi...

Is it possible to suggest that the created order could have been eternal, while still maintaining the creator-creature distinction? Can divine freedom and creaturely contingency still be preserved in theology? Aquinas thinks so. However, he grounds these concepts not on a supposed "newness" of creation for God, nor upon a sequence of before-and-after, but simply on the priority of the divine will itself.
Thomas Aquinas, in his work De Aeternitate Mundi Contra Murmurantes, acknowledges that according to "the catholic faith . . . the world had a beginning in time." However, he also argues that the world could have been eternal, concluding that "there is no contradiction in saying that something made by God has always existed." Such an argument will no doubt strike many modern readers as strange, or at least inconsequential. Why entertain such a hypothetical?

The answer is not that Aquinas is somehow struggling to reconcile Aristotelian influences on his thought with the Christian doctrine of creation. Rather, Aquinas discusses this hypothetical in order to more precisely define creatio ex nihilo. His position is something like this: “the primary subject matter of theological treatment of creation out of nothing is God himself; it inquires first, not into the world’s beginning but into ‘who gave it this beginning, and who was the creator’.” In other words, creatio ex nihilo secures the logical priority, not the temporal priority, of divine creative action. It is first and foremost about cosmology, not cosmogony; about the relation of the created order to God, not the inchoation of its history.

Is it possible to suggest that the created order could have been eternal, while still maintaining the creator-creature distinction? Can divine freedom and creaturely contingency still be preserved in theology? Aquinas thinks so. However, he grounds these concepts not on a supposed "newness" of creation for God, nor upon a sequence of before-and-after, but simply on the priority of the divine will itself. God's active freedom is the principle (not the conclusion) of this argument.

In other words, Aquinas argues that God could have created an eternal universe ex nihilo, because ex nihilo does not mean “from nothing” or “after nothing,” but rather it means that creation, far from being derived from some pre-existing material or a reality co-existent with God, is brought into being by sheer divine fiat. In defining creatio ex nihilo in this way Aquinas actually assaults the deism of Greek philosophy, for he argues that the doctrine of creation describes God’s ongoing, omni-causal activity, rather than merely providing an account of a beginning in which the universe was set into motion and left to its own ends.
“Thomas, who follows the Bible, sees in [creation] an act of wisdom and of free will, stemming from a gratuitous love that desires only to share its own good. . . . Thomas takes pains to disassociate the very idea of creation from that of the beginning of the world in time. . . . One should not imagine creation as an isolated act that occurred in a distant past; rather, it is a present reality.”
Since creatio ex nihilo is not primarily a matter of temporal sequence but of ineffable divine causality, it is not a change or conversion, e.g. from non-being to being. Nor is creation the bringing into being of that which was once becoming, for that would imply that something analogous to creaturely motion takes place in God. Creation is instantaneous, not a motional or temporal act, and thus the created order is both “being” and “becoming” simultaneously - that is, being sustained and directed to its telos by the omni-causal governance of God’s loving power.

These ideas do not threaten the newness or dynamism of creation as a divine act. Rather, they define that newness in relation to God. Thus, as Peter Lombard argues, when God creates the universe, it is “not that something new is happening in him, but that something new is made as it had been in his eternal will, without any motion or change on his part.”

Does this mean that God is eternally the Creator, and that creation is thus a necessary act? No. Nor does God become the Creator, for he is not constituted or defined by his relationship to creation. “Aquinas thinks that God is not essentially the Creator of things.” Creating the universe brings about no change in God’s essence, in his identity. This does not mean the act of creating is somehow arbitrary or detached from God. Though it does not define or redefine his being, the act of creation is in accord with and coherent to the nature of his being. To say that God is not constituted by his relation to creatures is to affirm that this relation purely reposes on his free and loving will. God is not essentially Creator, but he is essentially loving.

In short, “Thomas’ God has nothing in common with the impersonal principle of deism, which is unconcerned with the world. The Trinitarian God of the Bible is actively involved in his creation. Not only is he its absolute origin and constant support, but he loves it with the same love that he loves himself.”

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2 comments

  1. If 'the doctrine of creation describes God’s ongoing, omni-causal activity,' then what is the distinction between creating and sustaining the universe?

    Secondly, this description of creation reminds me of eternally-begotten-ness of the Son, who is not a creation. Can you explain the difference in their 'casaulity' (if that term is appropriate for the Son), since the Father, as the fountainhead of the Trinity and author of creation, gives being to both of them?

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    1. Phillip, thanks for commenting.

      Here the "doctrine of creation" includes more than merely the act of creation under its heading. That's one of the things Aquinas is on about. If the doctrine of creation is not merely about how the universe began, but more so about its relation to its creator, then the doctrine has ramifications not only for creation (as an act) but also for providence.

      As for the comparison to the Son, there's a number of ways you could go about answering this. I'll briefly suggest two - First, Aquinas doesn't really believe the universe is eternal, he's just asserting hypothetically that it could have been. Second, the relation of the Son to the Godhead is a real relation, but God is not constituted by his relation to creatures. Generation and creation remain vastly different relations, not merely because of a question of origin, but because of the creator-creature distinction.

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