Publications: Articles - Theology
God the Creater
God creates out of nothing
The Orthodox Christian tradition claims that God the Father is the "Creator of heaven and earth and of all things visible and invisible". Such a conviction rejects other ancient theories of creation such as Hyloism, Dualism of Pantheism which believed that the world always existed and therefore did not need any power to bring it into existence. Furthermore, such ancient cosmogonies in denying a divine origin to the world also denied the need of a sustaining power. In sharp contrast to the belief that the world was formed from pre-existent matter, the Orthodox teaching of creation asserts that it is God who called the world from non-existence into being creating it out of nothing. Even though the term "out of nothing" is a philosophical one and not found in the Scriptures as such, it nevertheless expresses appropriately what is described in the Bible. The teaching of the creation of the world "out of nothing" finds is Biblical basis in the second book of Maccabees where a mother is seen consoling her son who is about to bear martyrdom. She says:
"I beg you, my child, to look at the heaven and the earth and see everything that is in them, and recognize that God did not make them out things that existed. And in the same way the human race came into being" (2 Macc 7:28).
Furthermore the New Testament states that:
"By faith we understand that the worlds were prepared by the word of God, so that what is seen was not made out of visible things" (Heb 11:3).
Both Biblical verses essentially state that the entire universe was created out of things not seen, that is, out of things that have no existence. It is for this reason that we would state that the creation of the world out of nothing signifies that that the world did not come into being by means of pre-existent matter.
Creation and the Holy Trinity
If we read the Scriptures regarding the creation of the world by God carefully, then we notice that God creates the world out of nothing with the presence of His divine Word (Jesus Christ) and His Spirit. That is to say that the act of creation is a Trinitarian action. In other words, God the Father brings all things into existence by means of His Divine Word "for He spoke and it came to be" and by means of His divine Spirit "who swept over the face of the waters" (Gen 1:2). According to the Patristic tradition, the plural pronoun used in Genesis, "Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness" (Gen 1:26) is a clear indication of all three persons of the Trinity taking part in the act of creation. St Basil the Great summarised this wonderfully in saying that:
"we should understand in creation the original cause of the Father as a founding cause, the cause of the Son as a creative one, and the cause of the Spirit as an implementing one."
In the letter to the Corinthians St Paul writes: "yet for us there is one God, the Father, of whom are all things." (1 Cor 8:6). Regarding the role of the Son, the Gospel according to St John states quite explicitly that "all things were made through him, and without him not one thing came into being" (Jn 1:3). Lastly the Holy Spirit is the one whom God sends and the world is created: "When you send forth your spirit, they are created" (Ps 104:30). It is for this reason that the Christian tradition would claim that creation is a common act of Father, Son and Holy Spirit where the Father intends, the Son activates and the Holy Spirit perfects.
The creation of the cosmos
It is the first chapter of the book of Genesis, which gives the primary Scriptural description of creation. From the outset one has to point out that this is not to be read scientifically since the author's chief concern was a doctrinal one – that God alone is uncreated and ever existing but out of His immense love creates the world so that all could share in His beatitude. Another point worthy of mention is that God does not create the world literally in seven days as some would like to suggest. Again this is made clear in the second letter of Peter: "but do not ignore this one fact that with the Lord one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like one day" (2 Pet. 3:8). Within the six days of God's creative work (since God rests on the seventh) one can detect a general order or hierarchy from what could be called the general to the specific.
God first created the first foundations of existence (the heavens and the earth) from where over a period of time other creatures came forth. Firstly God called into being the light of the day (Gen 1:3-5); on the second day the earth's atmosphere was created (Gen 1:6-8); God then separated the waters from the dry land and planted the different vegetation of the earth (Gen 1:9-13); on the fourth day God created the sun, the moon and the stars (Gen 1:14-19); God then put forth swarms of living creatures of both the sea and air on the fifth day (Gen 1:20-23); and finally God created the land animals and humanity (Gen 1:24-30) and rested on the great Sabbath. All this description of the origins of the world wants to show simply that God is the universal Lord of all the universe who causes the cosmos to come into existence by an act of His will. Equally important, the Biblical account of creation claims that everything in creation is very good. St John Chrysostom writes that:
"The creation is beautiful and harmonious, and God has made it all just for your sake. He has made it beautiful, grand, varied and rich."
From this we can see that God is pleased with His creation and has created it for no other purpose than to participate in His own goodness, truth and beauty. This is crucially important today for those who believe that the body is bad and the aim of life is to become like the "angels". In fact the Patristic tradition is very clear in stating that human beings, because they have a body, are considered higher than the angels having greater potentialities than the angels. Besides, in Greek the word for the world (kosmos) is related with the world for beauty.
The importance of the teaching of the world out of nothing
According to Archbishop Stylianos there are four important consequences, which can be drawn from the truth, that God as Trinity creates the world out of nothing. They are as follows:
a) creation is an act of absolute freedom on God's part;
b) creation is an act of God's absolute love;
c) God, as creator is absolutely other or different from the world; and
d) creation, though fragile has the potential to become immortal by God's grace. And it is to these four truths that we now turn.
From the teaching that the Trinitarian God created the world out of nothing, we are led to four other implications. A doctrinal article which results from the creation ‘out of nothing in theology is that God creates in absolute and perfect freedom. Creation is therefore a free act, a gratuitous act of God. If the world was created out of pre - existing matter then this would imply that God was forced to create out of an internal or external necessity and compulsion which is entirely incompatible with the absolute freedom of His will. Duns Scotus from the Western middle ages summarises remarkably that,
“The creation of the world is accomplished by God not out of any necessity, whether of essence or of knowledge or of will, but out of a sheer freedom which is not moved by anything external that it should not have to be a cause.”
Therefore Christian doctrine opposes every cosmological and philosophical speculation about the origin of the world - such as Hylozoism of the ancients or Pantheism - which regards that all things came into being from pre - existent chaotic matter or as a natural emanation of the Divine Essence.
Since the world was created out of nothing, the Orthodox Christian tradition would claim that it was created out of God's absolute love. God's motive in creation was to share His love - it is this love that causes God to go outside of Himself and to create things other than Himself. The principle of love is very important since it implies that the starting point of existence was not one of impersonal logical necessity; the source is not the blind urge of an impersonal, absolute Nature. Rather it is the love of a personal God who actualises existence, since He loves. In the Bible we read that "God is love" (1 John 4.16). It does not tell us that God has love - that love is an attribute. The Bible assures us that what God is is love - that the mode by which God is is love. Since, God is the true Existence and life, the principle and source of being, then in all cases being, existence and life are inseparable from the dynamic of love. Since, the mode by which God exists is love, and from this mode springs every possibility and expression of life, therefore life must function as love in order to be actualised.
Since the world has been created out of nothing this implies that there exists an ontological gap between the Creator and the created. According to a successful formalation of Karl Barth, when comparing God to the created world, he said that God is the wholly other. St Cyril of Alexandria puts this very clearly when he writes that the fathers "affirm that all things, both in heaven and on earth have been constructed by Him so that thereby He should be recognised as having no natural affinity at all with creation; for the difference between creator and created is incomparable, between a nature uncreated, unadorned with the distinction of empire, possessed of divine and supramundane glory, and a nature under the yoke of Bondage."
God, therefore, by nature is the absolute other when compared to all the creatures. God is He who "saw all things before they were, holding them timelessly in His thoughts and each one conforming to His voluntary and timeless thought." The doctrine of the creation of the world out of nothing safeguards the distinction, or what could be called the ontological gap between the Creator and creation who, though distinct from the world never ceases to care and provide for the world.
The last important truth which can be drawn from the reality that the world was created out of nothing is that God by His love for the whole world elevated the world from ontological mortality to charismatic immortality. The acceptance of the absolute created nature and non - self sufficiency of creation leads humanity to desire God, to be loved by God and to ultimately become god by grace. There is always to be a dependence of the whole created order upon God - the world is never to be considered as self - sufficient. God creates the world and continues to cares for it, and to sustain it by His Providence, otherwise the world would lapse into non - being. Metropolitan Philaret of Moscow writes that "all creatures are balanced upon the creative word of God, as if upon a bridge of diamond; above them is the abyss of divine infinitude and below them that of their own nothingness." Therefore the gap between Creator and created can be reconciled.
The creation of humanity in the image and likeness of God
The creation of the world out of nothing is an economic manifestation of God as Trinity through which the world is freely brought into existence as a result of His ecstatic love. After having created the spiritual and material worlds, God last of all created humanity from non - being into being. From the written revelation of God, the Bible affirms that humanity has been created in the image and likeness of God. St Gregory the Theologian writes, concerning humanity:
"What is humanity that You are mindful of him? What is this new mystery which concerns man? I am small and great, lowly and exalted, mortal and immortal, earthly and heavenly. I share one condition with the lower world, the other with God."
The fact that Adam and Eve were created by God last of all the other beings and in a different way - not just by the utterance of a divine word but by direct involvement and action of God - indicates not only humankind's special relationship to God but the excellence and special position within the whole of creation. The image denotes the human person's potentiality for life in God and likeness his/her destiny and realisation of that potentiality.
In the created world only a human being combines material and spiritual elements. Concerning humanity, it is not just one more of the creatures of the world but a creature who by the will of God is to be distinguished from all the others, in order to be an image of God within the world. Humanity is to be an immediate revelation, appearance and representation of God. Humanity is a microcosm, according to St Maximus the Confessor in that he sums up the elements of the whole world. Therefore humanity is given responsibility to be God's representative - humanity is called to cooperate with God in being His steward and even ruler over creation. Human persons are called to care for the land, for animals and even for wild life - to have an immensely deeper than a mere, conventional and utilitarian relationship with the world. This is exemplified by the fact that Adam is called to name the animals. Adam and by extension all of humankind is called into a creative act in order to discover every creature in its particularity and uniqueness. Indeed the creation of the world out of nothing betrays God's fingerprints everywhere and is therefore sacred and of invaluable value. This is exemplified in a simple poem with which we end:
The earth is crammed with heaven
And every common bust afire with God
But only that person who sees, takes off his shoes
The rest sit around it and pluck blueberries.
Since creation is itself alive with the dynamic power of God working in it, to delight in creation and to join in its praise of God, is not merely legitimate but also right. God's creative act betrays such love that the entire world can live in hope that the destiny of creation will remain in God's hands forever and for this reason all can give honour, praise and glory to God the Father of all good things, and to His Son, Jesus Christ through whom the world was created, and to the Holy Spirit who continues to give new life to the world until it final and ultimate fulfilment.
Academic Secretary and Associate Lecturer,
St Andrews Greek Orthodox Theological College