homeEssaysAuthorCommentResources

ESSAY II: THEOLOGY OF CREATION: HISTORICAL PERSPECTIVES AND FUNDAMENTAL CONCEPTS

Robert J. Schneider

Introduction

Christian theology is the intentional, rational and creative process of reflection and articulation of beliefs about God, human beings, and the creation, based first and foremost on the interpretation of biblical revelation, but also on the theologian's understanding of the natural world and the world of humanity. This process has led to the development of a theology of creation. The earliest Christian thinkers, those whom we call the Church Fathers, laid down the basic features of this theology, and their concepts have remained central to the way Christians have understood the relationship of God to the world throughout the history of Christian thought. In this essay, we shall look at the foundations and development of creation theology through the time of the Protestant Reformation by focusing upon the ideas of four influential thinkers: the patristic theologians Irenaeus of Lyons and Augustine of Hippo, the medieval thinker Thomas Aquinas, and the reformer John Calvin. In another essay, I shall show how contemporary theologians and theologically literate scientists have found in their concepts about creation the basis for a revised theology that accounts for God's action in an evolving creation.

Cosmos as Creation: The Contributions of the early Church Fathers

Challenge and response

As pointed out in the first essay, Old Testament proclamations about God and creation sometimes display a polemical dimension: Israel's faith was shaped in the context of the challenges that the polytheistic religions of the Canaanites, Egyptians, and Babylonians posed. The prophet in Isaiah, chapters 40-55, and the writer in Genesis 1 declared that the creation is not the work of many gods but of the one and same God who saves his covenant people; that the creation itself is not divine or made up of divinities, but wholly other than divine and wholly dependent upon the one Creator for its very existence, order, structure, and creaturely capacities. While Israel and her neighbors shared the same cosmological model of the heavens--the circular earth, and the waters placed above the firmament and below the land--Israel's explanation for why this world existed and how it came into being differed radically from that of her neighbors.

As Christianity emerged within the intellectual world of the various philosophies and religious cults of the Roman Empire, those who developed its theology were faced with a similar problem. A new "standard model" of the cosmos developed by Greek philosophers offered an alternative to the older Semitic model. The Greeks depicted a cosmos consisting of a spherical earth fixed at its center and surrounded by a number of transparent spheres of planets and fixed stars, all moving in a circular motion. Gone were such features of the old cosmology as waters above the heavens and a flat, circular earth. Christian thinkers recognized the cogency of this cosmological model and over the centuries incorporated it into their world-view. However, certain philosophical assumptions linked to this world-view challenged theologians to articulate a theology of creation that provided an alternative Christian understanding of the world.

God creates out of nothing: Creatio ex nihilo

The Greeks held that the cosmos had always existed, that there has always been matter out of which the world has come into its present form. Aristotle (384-322 BC), the foremost natural philosopher of his day, had developed a philosophical argument for the eternity of the world (Physics, I, 9; On the Heavens, I, 3). Philosophers of other schools such as the Stoics and the Epicureans also agreed that the world or its underlying reality is eternal. All these thinkers were led to this conclusion because they observed that "nothing can come out of nothing," and so there always has to be a "something" that other things can come from, however one understands the processes of coming into being and passing away.

Against this notion of an eternal cosmos, the church fathers reasserted the biblical doctrine of creation, and in doing so they emphasized not only the transcendent otherness of God but also the astonishing immensity of God's power.

God did not form the world out of a pre-existent matter, but spoke into being ("Let there be!") that which literally did not exist before.

This doctrine of creation out of nothing (creatio ex nihilo) is not a teaching dependent upon particular biblical passages, though thinkers have cited 2 Maccabees 7:28 and Rom. 4:19, both of which speak of God bringing things into existence from non-existence. Yet these verses exerted less influence than the declarations of God's creative power found throughout the Bible.

Creation out of nothing is central to the theology of one of the most important early Christian thinkers, Irenaeus, Bishop of Lyons (d. ca. 202). Rejecting Greek notions about the world in his treatise Against the Heresies, Irenaeus declared: "God, in the exercise of his will and pleasure, formed all things…out of what did not previously exist" (II.x.2: Irenaeus 370). The concept, adopted by other patristic theologians, perhaps finds its mature form in the writings of Augustine of Hippo (354-430), who in his Confessions declares that through his Wisdom God creates all things, not out of himself or any other thing, but literally out of nothing (XII, 7; Pine-Coffin 284).

The doctrine of creatio ex nihilo illustrates a very important feature of creation theology: it is a principle drawn from an interpretation of biblical revelation, not a conclusion drawn from scientific observation.

"Creatio ex nihilo is a principle drawn from an interpretation of biblical revelation, not a conclusion drawn from scientific observation."

It is not dependent upon any scientific model of the cosmos for its validity, and that means that it also will be consonant with any scientific model that does not insist on the world's eternity. Over the centuries, science has given us its best understanding of the way the world works and what it is like; and with each major increase in knowledge and understanding new theories and models of the world have emerged. But Christian theology has always declared that, whatever understandings and theories about the universe science may attain, the Source of everything that exists for science to study is the God who creates them. Finite existence derives solely from the will of God.

Creation is good.

In addition to the debate with Greek philosophy over the eternity of the world, mainstream Christian thought was engaged in a struggle with a powerful religious movement known as Gnosticism. Gnosticism asserted that matter and all that is made of it is essentially of inferior value, or even evil, the work of a lesser deity Christian Gnostics identified with the god of the Old Testament. We human beings, they held, are eternal souls created by the good god of the New Testament but trapped in a corrupt material world. Our way out is through a secret knowledge (Greek "gnosis") that liberates the spirit from the power of matter.

Irenaeus spoke out against the Gnostics, and extensively so, in his treatise On the Heresies. He argued that these heretics are mistaken in positing two divine principles, one inferior to the other, for the God who proclaimed salvation in Jesus Christ is the same God who created heaven and earth. Matter cannot be evil, since as Scripture has declared, God said that his creation is "good"; indeed, the whole of it is "very good."

Because God is Supreme Goodness, and his creation is the expression of his essential nature, which is Love, any product of God's creating activity must also be good.

God creates neither out of external necessity or internal compulsion, but freely out of his gracious will (II, ix-x; IV, xiv.2; Irenaeus 369-370, 478).

The Trinitarian Creator

Creation theology took a most important turn when the early Church resolved a more fundamental question within Christian thought: how are Christians to understand the very nature of God? In particular, what is the relationship of the Son of God, Jesus Christ, and of the Holy Spirit to God the Father? That the Holy Spirit was a manifestation of God's creative power and activity was attested in the Bible (cf. Ps. 104:30). The early Christian community also proclaimed its belief that Jesus the Christ was the incarnated, pre-existent, creating Word who was with the Father before the worlds began (John 17:5), the One by whom the world was spoken into being (John 1:5, echoing Gen. 1), the Wisdom of God, "the firstborn of all creation" (Col. 1:15, echoing Prov. 8:22ff). Thus, the Christ "through whom are all things" (1 Cor. 8:6) participates in creating the world as both Word and Wisdom. The New Testament teachings about Jesus recapitulate the creation themes of the Old. But just how are Christians to understand the relationship between the one declared Son of God and the Father who so declared him? In what sense is Jesus "the image of the invisible God," "the exact imprint of God's very being"? (Col. 1:15; Heb. 1:3)

Disagreements over the nature of the relationship between Christ and the Father were settled at a council of the universal Church at Nicaea in 325 AD. The Nicene Creed encapsulates the doctrine that the One God is a "tri-unity": Father, Son and Holy Spirit are in so perfect and intimate a communion within the Godhead that one can truly say, "these three are one." It simultaneously articulates the early Church's creation faith. In simple and concise theological language the Creed declares: "We believe in one God, the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth…. and in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only begotten Son of God, …of one Being with the Father, through whom all things were made…. and in the Holy Spirit, the Lord and Giver of life." The Father creates through the Son in the Spirit. Since the fourth century the Church, whatever its divisions and denominations, has maintained this common faith in a Triune Creator. As Augustine of Hippo (354-430) stated, "God the Almighty Father made and established all of creation through the only-begotten Son, that is, through the Wisdom and Power that is consubstantial and co-eternal with the Father, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, who is also consubstantial and co-eternal." (De genesi ad litteram, opus imperfectus 1,2).

Creation is continuous: creatio continua

Another central feature of Christian creation theology is the notion that creation is a continuous process. God's creation exists at every moment of time because it is upheld by his sustaining power, the work both of the Word and of the Holy Spirit, "the Lord and Giver of life." This doctrine lies at the heart of the covenant God established with the whole of creation in the beginning and renewed after the Flood (Gen. 9:8-17; Bouma-Prediger 99). Thus, theologians did not take the statement that "God finished his creation"(Gen. 2:3) to mean that God no longer creates. It would be more accurate to say, and the biblical tradition is explicit about this, that God is at every moment creating, for the creation would cease to exist altogether if God were to withdraw his sustaining power.

Continuous creation (creatio continua) is the ongoing activity of the initial creation out of nothing.

The two activities really cannot be separated, but they can be distinguished logically in that creatio ex nihilo highlights the divine transcendence, the "wholly otherness" of God from the creation, while creatio continua expresses the divine immanence. God's continual presence in creation, God's continual providence over creation, God's continual governance of creation--all are conveyed by the notion of creatio continua.

The relationship of these two notions about creation is developed in the writings of St. Augustine of Hippo (354-430). Augustine asserted that creation is an instantaneous act: all of its materials, processes, capacities, and pathways appear at the very instant God speaks the universe into being (in this sense of instantaneous creation one could perhaps say that God "finished" his creation). However, the creation obediently responds to the divine "Let there be…" over time.

While nature is wholly dependent upon God for its very existence, it is able to express God's gracious endowment according to the relative autonomy and functional integrity that God granted it at the instance of its appearing.

The powers and capacities built into the creation allow its various forms, which existed invisibly in the mind of God and potentially in the creation at the moment of its inception, to be actualized in material substances over the course of time. In fact, time itself is a creature, Augustine maintained; that is, time itself did not exist prior to creation (and couldn't have, for there was nothing) but was created along with matter and is coextensive with the creation. The creation unfolds, in the beginning as "causal reasons" or "seed principles," as Augustine put it, which over the course of time become the actualized creatures that populate the world in all their diversity and complexity (Van Till 31).

In his Literal Commentary on Genesis, Augustine took pains to reject a literalistic understanding of the six days of creation. These "days," he asserted, are not to be understood chronologically; rather, they represent a topically ordered set of revelations to the angels as well as an accommodation to the limited intellectual powers of those who would hear the story (De genesi ad litteram, II, 8; IV, 33, 52, cited in Van Till 30). The creation's powers to actualize are not bound by a fixed period of time; rather, they are manifestations of nature's work over the period of all time, as long as time, i.e., as long as the creation, will exist.

The creation is God's "love song."

In the writings of Irenaeus, Augustine, and their contemporaries, one finds the essential features of the historic theology of creation spelled out: The creation originates in the will of the Triune Creator, is made out of nothing, and is a continuing process, the product of the outpouring of God's goodness and love and the object of God's providential care. The creation, in obedient response to God's command, but in accordance with the autonomy and integrity of powers and processes graciously bestowed upon it, brings into existence over time the various forms and capacities displayed by the manifold creatures that populate the cosmos. To Augustine, the creation, God's love song (carmen dei), shows in its beauty and goodness traces of its Triune Creator (vestigia trinitatis): the goodness of the Holy Spirit, the wisdom of the Son, and the power of the Father.

Medieval and Reformed Thinkers

These elements of patristic creation theology are reaffirmed in the writings of medieval and sixteenth-century theologians. Two of them, St. Thomas Aquinas and John Calvin, have been most influential in shaping the theological world-views of Catholic and Protestant Christians up to the present day.

Thomas Aquinas

By the time the doctrine of creation was taken up by the theologians of the thirteenth century, the spherical model of the cosmos developed by Greek philosophers Aristotle and Ptolemy of Alexandria had been incorporated into Christian thought. Theologians began to reflect upon the meaning of creation in the context of this world-view. One of the most influential, St. Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274), took up the task. He wrote a brilliant systematic exposition of the Christian faith, the Summa theologiae (ST), in which he integrated Aristotelian philosophical concepts with the theological tradition shaped by St. Augustine. Yet, Thomas read Aristotle with discrimination, for he challenged and rejected the latter's arguments for the eternity of the world (see ST I 46, 1; pp. 64-89).

Thomas' fidelity to the central notions of creation theology is clear in his argument for creatio ex nihilo and against the world's eternity, even as he uses Aristotelian concepts to make his case. He distinguishes philosophically between the essence of a thing, i.e., that which makes it what it is (e.g., its "chair-ness"), and its existence or being (e.g., an actual chair). Only in God is existence and essence identical--God is pure Being, and only by God is being conferred upon everything else that exists. While the essence of something can exist in the human mind hypothetically (e.g., the ideal "easy chair"), the actual existence of such a thing depends upon its having being, which only God can bestow. Because non-being is literally no-thing, God creates all that has existence from non-existence.

Like Augustine, Aquinas argued that in the initial act of creation God conferred upon nature its own integrity, especially the ability to exercise autonomously the causal powers God has given it, even though it depends at every moment upon God for its existence (creatio continua). Following Aristotelian notions of causality, Aquinas held that nature operates according to derived or secondary powers of cause and effect. By distinguishing between primary and secondary causality, Aquinas preserves the autonomy of the created order to work according to its secondary causal principles, what we might call its natural laws, while at the same time maintaining that God providentially and intimately works in all things as the primary cause. God's providential working is another way of expressing the notion of continuous creation, which "does not take place by reason of a new action, but by means of the continuation of that action by which God confers being" (ST I, 104, 1, ad 4; cited in Hayes 49). Moreover, nature's autonomy allows for the accidental and random. "It would be contrary to the nature of providence and to the perfection of the world if nothing happened by chance," he wrote (cited in Haught 41). Randomness, then, is an essential feature of God's creation.

As God is the Primary Cause of all that is and comes to be, so also is God the Final Cause, the end toward which all of creation tends. This teleological, or goal-centered, perspective on creation Aquinas and his contemporaries shared with Church Fathers like Augustine: creation is purposeful, both as to its cause and to its end. God creates, he says, "because it is the nature of the good to communicate itself"; and the divine goodness is one with the divine love. In response, every creature tends toward, "stretches out to, its own completion, which is a resemblance of the divine fullness and excellence." This is its goal, its final purpose (Hayes 48). Like Augustine, Aquinas also saw in the creation a fundamental likeness (similitudo) to the Creator. There is in the effects we see in the creature a presence that can lead one to identify its Cause: God's "fingerprints" (to speak analogically) can be seen in the creation.

For Thomas, meditation on God's works leads us to admire and reflect upon God's wisdom, power, goodness, and beauty (McGrath 172).

John Calvin

While the leading thinkers of the sixteenth-century Protestant Reformation were preoccupied with questions of grace and salvation and the conflict with Roman Catholic theologians over the proper relations between faith and works, theology of creation was inseparably linked to the whole question of humanity before God, and so the major Reformers expounded on creation theology in their treatises and sermons. Furthermore, they lived in the same universe as Aquinas and his thirteenth-century contemporaries. Nicolas Copernicus published his revolutionary hypothesis of a sun-centered universe in 1543, but it was a while before it would emerge as a disturbing presence in late sixteenth century thought. Thus the cosmological model by which most educated men of the Renaissance and the Reformation, both Catholic and Protestant, conceptualized their world remained that of Aristotle and Ptolemy. Nevertheless, there are distinctions to be noted between the theologies of the Reformers and medieval thinkers like Aquinas. John Calvin (1509-1564), perhaps the most influential Reformer for the development of evangelical theology, returned the language of creation theology to its biblical roots, and so his writings on creation differed in expression and emphasis from Aquinas' philosophical theology. He also downplayed the role of secondary causality in natural processes and instead emphasized God's primary activity in creation.

A perusal of his magisterial systematic theology, the Institutes of the Christian Religion, will show that Calvin stood very much in the mainstream of creation theology. From the patristic writers Basil of Caesarea and Ambrose of Milan, Calvin writes:

We learn that God by the power of his Word and Spirit created heaven and earth out of nothing. We shall likewise learn that he nourishes some in secret ways, and, as it were, from time to time instills new vigor into them; on others he has conferred the power of propagating, lest by their death the entire species perish; that he has so wonderfully adorned heaven and earth with an unlimited abundance, variety, and beauty of all things as could possibly be" (Institutes I.xiv.20; Battles 179-180).

In these words Calvin affirmed the doctrines of trinitarian creation, creation out of nothing, and continuous creation. He anchored the concept of continuous creation in his doctrine of Providence: "Herein lies the unfathomable greatness of God: not only did He once create heaven and earth but He also guides the whole process according to his will" (CR 32, 359, cited in Niesel 70; cf. Inst. I xvi.1, Battles, 197-198). This providential creative activity is threefold: in sustaining the creation in being, in disposing upon all things their effective reality, and in guiding all things to their ends (Niesel 70). Calvin emphasized the preeminent role of the Word of God in creation: the Logos, who is also the Wisdom of God, is the instrument of the creative process (Inst. I, xiv, 2, Battles 160).

Calvin also agreed with his predecessors Augustine and Aquinas that the creation reveals the knowledge, wisdom and creative artistry of God.

The divine Artificer "discloses himself in the whole workmanship of the universe";

"innumerable evidences both in heaven and on earth…declare his wonderful wisdom" (Inst. I, v, 1, 2; Battles 51-53). Nevertheless the creation also shows the marks of its corruption as a result of Adam's sin. In this respect Calvin departed from the view of Aquinas and the Catholic tradition generally, which understands nature as showing the signs of imperfection that need to be brought to perfection by grace. Calvin went much further: creation has been corrupted by sin, suffers along with humankind disorder and death, and awaits its final restoration by the redemptive activity of Christ, the savior as well as the creator (McGrath 174-175).

Concluding Comments

The historic Christian theology of creation was developed within the paradigm of a stable universe: growth and development are included in the concept of continuous creation, but the notion of an evolving universe had not yet emerged in either science or theology. Yet, its essential features--creation by the Triune God out of nothing, continuous and providential creation, the goodness and purposefulness of creation, and creation's functional integrity--have found a comfortable place in the newer theologies of creation that Christian thinkers, both evangelical and non-evangelical, are developing in response to the evolutionary paradigm that constitutes the modern scientific world view. In a later essay, I shall introduce some contemporary theological models of an evolving creation.

Further Reading:

Aquinas, Thomas, Summa theologiae. Vol. 8: Creation, Variety and Evil, trans. by Thomas Gilby, OP. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1967.

Augustine, Confessions, trans. by R. S. Pine-Coffin. New York: Penguin, 1961.

________, The Literal Meaning of Genesis, trans. by J. H. Taylor, SJ. Ancient Christian Writers, vols. 41-42. New York: Paulist Press, 1982.

Calvin, John, Institutes of the Christian Religion, trans. by Ford Lewis Battles. Library of Christian Classics, Vol. XX-XXI. Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1960.

Haught, John F., God After Darwin: A Theology of Evolution. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 2000.

Hayes, Zachary OFM, The Gift of Being. A Theology of Creation. Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 2001.

Irenaeus of Lyons, Against the Heresies, trans. A. Roberts and J. Donaldson, ed., The Ante-Nicene Fathers, vol. I. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1967.

McGrath, Alister E., A Scientific Theology. Vol. 1: Nature. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2001.

Niesel, Wilhelm, The Theology of Calvin. Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1956.

Van Till, Howard J., "Basil, Augustine, and the Doctrine of Creation's Functional Integrity," Science and Christian Belief 8 (1996), 23-38.