Orthodox Outlet for Dogmatic Enquiries Christian Dogmatics and About God

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The dogma on Creation is stated in the Symbol of Faith (Creed) from the very beginning.  The first article states: “I believe in one God, Father Almighty, Creator of Heaven and Earth, of all things visible and invisible....”   This reference to Creation is - historically – an addition to the Symbol of Faith.  The Symbol originally was a confession of faith in the three Persons  – the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.  When this reference to Creation was added, it was because a variety of views on Creation had already begun to circulate, which needed to be addressed.  This is why the Church proceeded to formulate this dogma.  It was adding something that was relative to that period of time.

In order therefore to comprehend the Symbol of Faith, we need to do two things (as we always do, during the interpretation of dogmas) :

1. Examine the significance of the dogma, for the period of time that it pertained to.

2. Examine the significance of the dogma for our time.

This is the proper, fulfilled way to interpret a dogma.

To examine the significance of the dogma at that time, we need to take into account the theories regarding Creation that were in circulation during that period, whether outside of the Church or inside it, as the Fathers took both these factors into consideration. They did not want to confine the Church to a ghetto. What were those miscellaneous ideas on Creation that were floating around, which the Fathers and the Church (by means of the Creed) had desired to clarify, and express the Christian position on the subject?

The first theory that was in broad circulation and had provoked the reaction of the Church was Gnosticism.  The Gnostics had a very specific dogma regarding Creation, and it was imperative that it be clarified, because Gnosticism had also infiltrated the Church.

Gnosticism began with the premise that this world - as we know it and experience it - is fraught with evil.  Evil has permeated this world.  This is a very pessimistic perception of the world, but it was a reflection of the pessimism that was prevalent at the time.  People would pose the question: “since the world is so evil, how can it be related to God? How can God have created it?”

Gnosticism’ reply to this question was that God did NOT create this world.  Gnosticism’s concern was to preserve God’s transcendental status; to retain the purity, the innocence of God, away from all of the evil that exists in the world.  This is how it reached the point of asserting that this world was not created by God, but that it was the creation of another being, which it called  ”Creator”, as opposed to “God” the Father.  This “Creator” is one of the inferior “aeons” –as they were called-  in the hierarchy that links the world to God, seeing that God is so transcendental and so far away from this world.   God is linked to the world, through this hierarchy of “aeons”, the last of which was the “Creator”, who had supposedly created this world.  Thus, the creator of this world was NOT God Himself, not God the Father.

Gnosticism was confronted by the Church, and especially by the leading theologian of that period, Ireneos, who maintained the exact opposite view – that God Himself had created the world, that God the Father had created the world.

With this statement, he put the world in an immediate relationship with God, because the Symbol of Faith clearly states that “I believe in one God, Father Almighty, creator of ......all things visible and invisible...” . The Father is the Creator. Not just God, but the very Father Himself.  This immediate involvement of God the Father in the creation of the world was the response given to Gnosticism.  The motives that led the Church to embrace this position of God’s immediacy are basically the following:

If the Church had conceded that God had no involvement in the creation of the world, it would firstly have placed doubt on God’s omnipotence, i.e., that God was not in a position to create the world. But it would not only have diminished His omnipotence, it would also have had repercussions on His love, because it would mean that God has no personal associations with the world.  And finally, there would be the issue of whether this world would be able to rid itself of evil, if evil was indeed ingrained in its nature.    But evil is an acquired thing, and not an element of nature.  Since the Church upheld the view that God Himself created the world, it automatically upheld the view that the world was not evil by nature.

But, with Gnosticism’s concern and agony to explain evil, as well as its attempts to not attribute evil to God, the question was raised as to how evil appeared.  The answer to this question of course was that evil originated from man’s freedom – the free will of the created, of God’s creatures.  It was because this freedom was given to them, that evil appeared.  The world therefore is not evil.  God has a personal relationship with the world, and He is powerful, He is omnipotent.  He is also Almighty, as the Symbol of Faith states; in other words, He is the One Who is “Mighty Above All Things”,  Who has domination over all things, or, according to another rendition of the (Greek) word “Pantokrator” (the Almighty), He is the One Who “Holds Everything In His Hands”. (In Greek: Panta = everything,  krator = holder)

We have a God who associates with the world; a God Who creates something ‘outside’ Himself.  But, apart from the fact that this may involve the risk of attributing evil to God (a risk that is avoided, with man’s free will), it also carries the risk that the world can be perceived as an ‘extension’ of God; in other words, the world can be regarded as something that God had inside Him, which He brought to the surface.  This was the idea that was equally in circulation with Gnosticism, within the cultural climate of that period, and the Church, when formulating the dogma on Creation, took this idea also into account, which was the opposite to Gnosticism’s theory.  Gnosticism had isolated God from the world, while the other theory had linked God to the world to such a degree, that God could not be imagined without the world.  This theory had sprung from Plato and the ideas that Plato had formed about creation, and was fully developed during the time that the Symbol of Faith appeared.  It was formulated under the influence of a major Platonist of that time, Philon the Judean.

We must therefore examine these views on creation, and opposite them, we should examine the Christian viewpoint.  Plato had dedicated one of his works, “Timaeus”, on the matter of the creation of the world.  What seems to have caused Plato to write extensively on this subject of creation was the views that existed during that time and were being cultivated by the philosophers of that era, according to which, the world was not created by anyone.  It was a random occurrence. When we say ‘random’, we can either interpret it as ‘perchance’ – as the Epicurians perceived it, or, that the ‘laws of nature’ are identified with God.  It was impossible to speak of God, beyond anything that nature contained within itself as a logical and cohesive force.  The so-called ‘physiologists’, who commenced from Parmenides and Heracletus and all their kind, we could say were the opponents of Plato.  Plato believed that the world was created by someone whom he had likewise named “Father”.  In fact, in his work “The Republic”, he had foreseen severe penalties for atheists. So, we see here, that he had accepted that the world was created by God. This is why he was subsequently looked upon (and many Christians were indeed charmed by Plato) as antiquity’s theologian and believer.   

If one were to read “Timaeus” and his views on creation, one would notice that it was not exactly what Christians wanted to call “creation”.  Because, although Plato did claim that the world was created by God, what he actually meant was that God the Father (or the Nous, as Plato called Him) did what an artist does, or a craftsman, who takes the materials, who has ideas in his mind, who takes a piece of canvas and on it, places the object that he wants to create.  And the way that he described the creation of the world in “Timaeus”, was that he portrayed God as taking matter and ideas that pre-existed in the void that acted as a kind of canvas, and then positioned the world on it, giving it the beauty and harmony that it has.  Thus, God is presented as creating out of pre-existing elements, which explains why –according to Plato in “Timaeus”– the world that God created is the best one that we could have, but it is not the perfect world.  It could not be perfect, because –apparently– both space and matter, with the laws that they possessed, resisted the Creator’s efforts to perfect it, on the basis of the ideas.  God therefore had done whatever He could; He had given us the best that He could; this world was the best conceivable world, but it was not the ideal world, the perfect world.  The ideal world was only in the realm of ideas, which is not the one that we are looking at, but it is the absolutely perfect one.

Plato and the ancient Greeks were very fortunate to be living in this world. There was however a tendency to attribute evil to matter and the laws of matter, the laws of space, the limitations of space (which were the opponents of ideas), and this is apparently why this world is at a level below the ideal world.  The more that we descend towards matter, the more we distance ourselves from the wonderful world that God wanted to create but didn’t manage to, because of the problems that were mentioned previously.

WhenTimaeus” (which was avidly read during the time of the Fathers, especially in the first centuries) reached the hands of Philon, who wanted to compromise, to combine Plato with his Biblical faith (because he was a Jew), he realized that there were problems.  The first one that he noted was that:  the way Plato presented God, He appeared to be subjected to the necessity of matter; i.e., matter pre-exists, and God finds it, ready-made. Of course this brought on the issue of who created matter.  Plato did not regard matter as a creation of God therefore Philon took one step further and declared matter to be a creation of God.  He said that God created matter, and with this, he secured God’s ‘independence’ towards matter. But this was not the only problem with Plato, as we have noted.  There was also the problem of ideas, because for Plato, ideas were likewise pre-existent, and God found them ready-made also.  This meant that Philon had to solve yet another problem.

The solution that he gave was that ideas were the thoughts of God. They were not above God; they were within God.  You must note here, that ideas are of great importance for creation, because ideas are the fixed basis on which the world depended. Phenomena are variable. Whatever we see in this world, changes constantly.  The ancient Hellene constantly pondered; he longed to transcend the state of deterioration, and that is why he found an outlet for this, in the realm of ideas.  Ideas were definitely the truth of this world.  If a table was real and not bogus (and it was bogus, because it would eventually change and no longer be present), there must be an eternal/ ideal table. If the idea of a table doesn’t exist, then the table itself cannot be a truth/fact.  Consequently, the idea of a table was imperative. Every being had its corresponding idea, its logos (its reason for being), and these logos (reasons for being), these ideas that were the beings’ supports, were items of reassurance and security for the ancient Greeks.  These ideas of beings were –according to Plato– independent of God.  God supposedly found them ready-made, and utilized them.  There are many who identify the idea of “benevolent” and the idea of “good” (the beautiful) with God, in Plato.  But this a subject for debate by specialists.

The Creator God in the text of “Timaeus” clearly isn’t found above these ideas, but under them; He is subjected to these ideas of things; He does whatever those ideas direct Him to do.  For example, God gave the world a spherical shape, (apparently) because He couldn’t NOT make it spherical, as the spherical shape -for Plato- was the ideal shape.  God could have given it a triangular or quadrangular form, but those corners would have created problems in regard to the (idea of the) perfect form.  A sphere was the ideal shape, therefore God couldn’t do otherwise, except utilize that perfect shape, because He was creating an ideal world.   Ideas, therefore, had forced God to act in a specific way during creation, just as matter on the other hand had hindered Him from being able to ‘finalize’ the creation of that ideal world.

Philon realized that somehow, these theories were not suited to the freedom of God, so he modified Platonism by essentially transferring these ideas into the mind of God and saying that the entire world – with all of its ideas, with all the logos (reasons for existence) of beings – has its being, its security, inside the Nous (mind) of God.  In this way, Philon believed that he had solved the problem of God’s freedom in regard to ideas, but the fact is, that he had created another problem.  Before going on to the problem that he created, we need to say that Philon’s ideas had influenced the entire philosophy of that era, and had led it towards Neo-Platonism, which upheld that the world was like an effluence from the One God; in other words, like an extension of God’s thoughts, the thoughts of the One in the multiplicity of the world.  But the problems that this theory raised also had an effect on Christianity, mainly in the person of Origen.  These problems can be seen, especially if we examine Origen carefully, because there is that close link between the logos (reasons for the existence) of beings and the world of beings that are within God, and the world of beings that were created. There is that close link.  The ancient Greeks always believed that the world was eternal and that the logos (reasons for existence) of beings, the ideas on which the world depended, were likewise eternal.  Thus, in its ideal form, the world was believed as being eternal.

Having espoused Philon’s view, Origen spoke of two forms of creation.  One form was eternal creation, where God eternally thought of this world, along with the logos of those beings, which logos come together in the one Logos – the Son-Logos.  Thus, by having within that One Logos the logos of all the beings, God created this world, and this world was in an eternal, linear present.  Over time, this world – as we see it today in its material form basically– took on a hypostasis and came into existence, but that was a secondary stage.  It was a stage that was most probably a falling away from the first.  Within this eternal creation, Origen had also envisaged the creation of souls. In a certain Platonic way, souls were eternal and the noblest and most significant things in creation.  For Origen also, souls were eternal; within this eternal creation, they were linked to the world of ideas, along with the incorporeal spirits – the angels.  But when this incorporeal, ideal creation (Origen’s world of souls) acquired flesh, when it took on a material form –the one we have today– that was when the world fell into decline.  The Fall is almost interwoven with the creation of this world, this material world.  This material world was supposedly a stage of creation, and inferior to the spiritual world.  The spiritual world of angels and souls is eternal, whereas the material world is perishable.  Thus, when speaking of creation according to Origen, we appear to be developing an entire area of spirituality, as we are now referring to this special creation as something that needed to be purged of its material side. The (material) body is referred to as the ‘prison of the soul’.  Therefore, the release, the salvation of mankind meant that he must be rid of the material element, the body.  It meant a regaining of the initial state, where souls and spirits were devoid of corruption and of matter.  This also entailed the belief that the incorporeal world (the angels) are superior to the corporeal beings, consequently, it is only when man manages to resemble the angels that he can approach God.  For man to resemble the angels, he must rid himself of everything material.  The more he rids himself of material things, the closer he will move towards God, and the less he will be shackled by material things.  In this way, Origen took one step further away from Plato towards Christianity, but essentially he remained bound to his Platonic theories.

Why does he cause problems?  The main problem that this theory caused had its roots in Philon; it was that despite appearing to have “freed” God, he had essentially confined Him!  This is because Philon made the world compulsorily ever-present in God’s thoughts.  The notion that the world is ever-present inside God’s thoughts in the form of those logos, and the notion that God creates eternally, imply that next to God, inside God, there is something else – another self of God, the ‘not Myself’ –  which is a determining factor in God’s existence.  In other words, God cannot be imagined without the world!  This way, we end up saying that it is impossible to speak of God without speaking of the world at the same time; that it is impossible for God to exist, without the world existing along with Him, in a form like the one of the ideal world of the “eternal creation” theory!

That is what confined God’s freedom.  It confined it ontologically. And that was the serious problem that Philon and Origen had caused.  It was imperative to find a way of presenting the ties between God and the world as positives ones (as we noted in Ireneos) and not present them like a compulsory relationship for God.  In other words, the existence of the world should not be a product of compulsory factors (because God had them eternally inside Him), but a freely willed decision to create it.

This was what the Fathers expressed in their opposition to these Platonic ideas, when dealing with the term “creation from nil”.  It is not enough, to only state that the world is “a creation of God” for opposing Gnostics; it is imperative that we also state that the world is “a creation from nil”, for opposing Platonics and Neo-Platonics.


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Transcript by N. M.

Translation by A. N.

Article published in English on: 25-8-2006.

Last update: 18-9-2006.