Creation: What the World is

(system) #1
The idea of a “tinkering God” is far removed from how God is conceived in classical Christian theology.
This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at

(Roger A. Sawtelle) #2


I certainly agree that God does not tinker, and I am glad to hear some of the classical theology behind “creation out of nothing.” For one thing it is interesting to know that as a Methodist I am an inheritor of the Anglican tradition you cite.

However there does seem something missing. For John Wesley the Anglican founder of the Methodist movement, that which was missing was the active presence of the Holy Spirit. The Father and the Son make up a duality, but we worship an active personal God Who is much involved in God’s Creation, but is not God’s Creation.

God directs God’s world, but God is not God’s world as pantheists claim. God’s management of the world is not physics, but history. God’s management is based on the meaning and purpose of the Creation and it is possible because God is Trinity and the universe is trinitarian, physical, rational, and spiritual.

Thankfully science has caught up with theology in saying that there was a Beginning, the Big Bang, and the universe was created ex nihilo. Also science has discovered that the universe is relational and has thus caught up with theology which says the God is Relational (Love.)

(Paul Julienne) #3

Thanks for the good comments and the opportunity to offer some clarification. The essay was too short to discuss the Trinity or the Holy Spirit, both of which would need to be included in any complete treatment of the relation between God and the world within Christian theology.

Creation has the gift-structure discussed precisely because God is relational, both in himself as a Trinity of Persons and externally with respect to creation which is distinct from God and thus is not a part of God. The gift structure of the world implies relationality: a giver, that which is given, and reception of the gift. The Incarnation shows us, among other things, that this gift structure is centered on God’s love for his world.

One point of the essay is that it would be a fundamental category mistake to take God to be merely another force or cause in the world, alongside those studied by science. Rather, God has his own mode of interacting with the created order, according to the relation of infinitely transcendent Creator to that which is created. Seeing the world this way enables Christians to see God as personal and active in the world through his Spirit and his Word, even as they appreciate the insights that a non-reductive version of the sciences offer through study of, for example, Big Bang cosmology, the evolutionary dynamics of creation, or the neurological structures of the human brain. The world has precisely the form that it has so that we can be the creatures we are in order to participate in its created order as given by a good giver. This is the best way to make the most sense of all that we know about the world and about ourselves.

These are themes that could be woven together in a future essay. My previous BioLogos posts on carbon in the universe, “Word” and “Fire,” offer a perspective guided by this non-reductive way of seeing.

(Roger A. Sawtelle) #4


Thank you for the clarification. It is very important, because4 it gives us a way to dialogue with materialists who are not relational. For them matter and energy cannot relate rationally because relationships are not material and form and structure are not material.

However I do have a problem when you say that God is infinitely transcendent. God is both transcendent and immanent. If God is infinitely transcendent, then God must be infinitely immanent, which does not make any sense.

The Bible teaches us that God is Trinitarian, not the God is infinite. Yes, God is uniquely God in a way that humans are not, but we are created by God in God’s own Image, Jesus Who is perfectly human is also perfectly God, and humans are created by YHWH a liitle less then Elohim (God) Ps. 8.

We are not infinitely far from God. God is closer to us than we are.

It is the Trinity that makes us like God, but also different from God, like and part of Creation, but uniquely different. That is why the Trinity is such an important aspect of our relational understanding.

(Paul Julienne) #5

The concept of “infinity” can certainly be a confusing one, and one beyond the scope of blog comments to clarify simply. You are right that “Infinity” is not a Scriptural term. It is one that shows up in places like philosophy or mathematics.

Just to offer an additional clarification on the difference between God and the world: Aquinas’ philosophical reasoning affirms that God is infinite (Summa I.7.1), in the negative sense of without limit, in contrast to the things of the created order. Catholic philosophers often invoke the principle that “between Creator and creature no similitude can be expressed without implying an even greater dissimilitude.” This relates to the kataphatic/apophatic distinction of classic patristic theology, also known as the postiive and negative ways of knowing God.

Indeed a similarity between God and humanity is expressed by the Scriptural affirmation that human beings are created in the image and likeness of God (Genesis 1:26-27). Some Scriptural passages that touch upon the great dissimilarity between God and humanity are Isaiah 55:7-8: “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,” declares the LORD. “As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts." Or as Paul says in 1 Cor. 2:9, “No eye has seen, no ear has heard, no mind has conceived what God has prepared for those who love him.”

The philosophical theology of Aquinas (and others) affirms that God is closer to us than we are to ourselves (something Augustine says also), even as God is different from us beyond measure. Closeness and difference are essential aspects to being in relation, and are necessary to our understanding of God as a Trinity of Persons, or to an understanding of the gift-structure of the God-world relation.

(sy_garte) #6


I enjoyed this essay quite a bit, although some of the theology is a bit over my head. (I’m still trying to grapple with what we heard last night). But what I wanted to say now is how much I liked your poem. I found it both moving and clarifying. It is a very rare person who can write on physics and theology as you can, and at the same time write such inspiring poetry. Thank you.

(GJDS) #7

I find much of what you say agreeable and stated with a keen precision, which I think is important when discussion creation nowadays. I would like to focus on this remark, as I feel it needs clarification:

“Job’s development through natural processes reflect God’s self-emptying love by which the things in the world are permitted the freedom and autonomy to be what they are, precisely as created things in relation to God

Freedom imo is a fascinating matter and should be discussed in great depth - but as a starter, if something is what it is, and what it meant to be, than a discussion of freedom can easily become incoherent. I can only think of one specie in nature that can be what it was meant to be, and yet may not be so, and that is humanity. Thus I would question “God’s self-emptying” since God is immeasurably so and as such discussion of emptying does not make sense. and freedom equals autonomy also seems to me to contradict that which is what it was meant to be. Perhaps you may comment.

Thanks for an interesting essay.

(Paul Julienne) #8

Thanks for the good question regarding my very brief sentence on freedom. Indeed, questions of freedom have a multi-millennium long thread of philosophical, theological, and now scientific discussion, and we can’t get into all that here.

I had in mind Phillipians 2:6-7 concerning Jesus, “who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men.” In “emptying himself,” Jesus reveals an important dimension of what the love of God is like. In regard to his human creatures, God freely self-empties to open up a space within himself to receive Job’s response given in freedom.

If the world is a work of love, with creation having a gift-structure, the world is made so the gift of love can be returned, reciprocated to the Giver. Love is something that can only be freely given and freely returned; love can not be coerced.

Consequently, the created order, precisely as a gift of love, is permitted a certain measure of “freedom” within the form granted to it so that a creature like Job, as a living being formed through natural processes ordered to the development and sustaining of life, possesses a measure of freedom in how he lives out his life. It is an aspect of God’s sovereign love for his creation, and for his creatures, that God “empties himself” in permitting Job to be who he is. This correlates with the gift-structure of creation.

I hope this gives a fruitful direction to ponder.

Finally, Sir John Polkinghorne has edited a book, “The Work of Love: Creation as Kenosis,” which presents a variety of perspectives on this topic, but not all of which I would share.

(GJDS) #9

Thanks, I now have a clear understanding of your position.

I think we need to consider two categories. (1) God so loved the world: "

John 3:16 For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life"

… this is the work of salvation and to do this Christ came as a servant to provide salvation through His death and resurrection. Paul is showing us that Christ took the form of a humble human being, and did not turn to, or count on His power as God, or the Son of God. The Gospel is clear on this - I am uncertain if this outlook seeks to discuss Christ as both divine and human, so I will not comment further.

(2) the act of creation from nothing is just that - I cannot agree with you that God empties Himself to create the universe, nor is God’s love such that the creation chooses itself in some way. Nor has God emptied Himself in creating the heaven and earth (as I stated, God is infinite and beyond infinity as well, so such terms as emptying are inappropriate).

The only choice we can find in the Bible is that given to Adam and to us to repent…

The discussion needs to go into Law and Freedom granted by God and this may need another thread…

(Roger A. Sawtelle) #10

Aquinas’ philosophical reasoning affirms that God is infinite (Summa I.7.1), in the negative sense of without limit, in contrast to the things of the created order.

God (YHWH) identified Godself as “I AM WHO I AM.” Exodus 3:14. This is taken to mean that YHWH does whatever YHWH chooses to do. In that sense God is infinite, BUT God is not infinite in the usual sense, which is without boundaries. YHWH is Good. YHHW is Not evil. YHWH is truth. YHWH does not lie.

This is important because traditionally many philosophers have said that God is Absolute, which means that God is impersonal and beyond relationships. Islam says that Allah God is absolute in that He is not relational and is beyond all human metaphors. YHWH makes it clear that YHWH is relational and in that real way personal. YHWH God is Love and a relational Trinity.

It is my view that if we take YHWH, I AM, seriously, then we need to reject traditional Greek philosophy based on non-relational Being. Humans are very different from God in that we are limited, mortal being, while God is unlimited in power.

However God has created God’s own boundaries as we must create our own boundaries. We are created to tell the truth and follow God, but we do not have tell the truth and follow God. Indeed it is easier in our fallen world, at least in the short run, not to tell the truth and follow God.

Some Scriptural passages that touch upon the great dissimilarity between God and humanity are Isaiah 55:7-8: “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,” declares the LORD. “As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts."

Here YHWH is talking about the need for God’s Revelation. God’s Truth is not do different from ours that it cannot be understood, but it is not self evident that we can think it out by ourselves without help from YHWH.

The Good News of Jesus Christ is still not accepted by most people or even understood by most people as we see every day, but it is not that we can’t understand it. We just refuse to have a faith relationship with Jesus Christ.

Closeness and difference are essential aspects to being in relation, and are necessary to our understanding of God as a Trinity of Persons, or to an understanding of the gift-structure of the God-world relation.

Very true. It is true that the Creation is separate from God. Humans are separate because we are part of creation, however we are created to be in harmony with God. We are only truly separate when we rebel against God’s order of love. That separation is created by humans, not by God. God cares. That is a constant. There is no infinite separation between YHWH and humans.

(Paul Julienne) #11

I agree with you that it would not be right to say that God empties himself to create the universe. According to the classical understanding of creation ex nihilo, God creates out of freedom in sheer superabundant gratuity, and nothing is added to God that is lacking nor is anything subtracted from God that he no longer has.

Colossians 1:15-20 shows us that Christ on the cross is the same as the one through whom all things were created, described as the eternal Word or Logos in the prologue of John’s gospel. There is a unity between the Incarnation and creation; they are not separate. The Incarnate Christ reveals the logic of creation, and thus all dimensions of God’s love. His mission on the cross is not separate from his being the eternally begotten Son of the Father. This was purposed eternally, according to Ephesians 3:11.

Drawing on the tradition, von Balthasar (Theodrama 5: The Last Act, Chapter on “The World is From the Trinity”) brings in kenosis as an aspect of the eternal, relational, perichoretic dynamic of the Trinitarian life of God. For the Father to beget the Son eternally is already kenotic, for he lets the Son be such that the Son can give his own free response back to the Father. The Father’s being is not reduced in this kenotic “letting be” in begetting the Son: he receives the Son’s love in return and his own unique identity as Father. Athanasius speaks of the Father being the Father because he is the Father of the Son (Orations Against the Arians, Book 1).

I would not want to say “the creation chooses itself in some way.” Rather, while the created order first receives its being as a gift unilaterally from the creator, the gift also enables creation’s own participatory response, with the possibility of a human response to God’s love being the climax of this participation (see Romans 8, especially verses 19-21)

(GJDS) #12

We agree that God has created all things through His Word, and while the Patristic writings contain a great deal on the Creation. I will confine myself to “Athanasius on the Incarnation”, who I feel makes the distinction between the creation and that of God’s mercy to human beings:

“ ….that the Word of the Father is Himself divine, that all things that are owe their being to His will and power, and that it is through Him that the Father gives order to creation, by Him that all things are moved, and through Him that they receive their being.”

“You must understand why it is that the Word of the Father, so great and so high, has been made manifest in bodily form. He has not assumed a body as proper to His own nature, far from it, for as the Word He is without body. He has been manifested in a human body for this reason only, out of the love and goodness of His Father, for the salvation of us men.

“We will begin, then, with the creation of the world and with God its Maker, for the first fact that you must grasp is this: the renewal of creation has been wrought by the Self-same Word Who made it in the beginning. There is thus no inconsistency between creation and salvation for the One Father has employed the same Agent for both works, effecting the salvation of the world through the same Word Who made it in the beginning.”

“He made all things out of nothing through His own Word, our Lord Jesus Christ and of all these His earthly creatures He reserved especial mercy for the race of men. Upon them, therefore, upon men who, as animals, were essentially impermanent, He bestowed a grace which other creatures lacked—namely the impress of His own Image, a share in the reasonable being of the very Word Himself,….”

He also comments on pagan views:

“…. the making of the universe and the creation of all things there have been various opinions, and each person has propounded the theory that suited his own taste. For instance, some say that all things are self-originated and, so to speak, haphazard. The Epicureans are among these; they deny that there is any Mind behind the universe at all.

…. the view expressed by Plato, that giant among the Greeks. He said that God had made all things out of pre-existent and uncreated matter, just as the carpenter makes things only out of wood that already exists. But those who hold this view do not realize that to deny that God is Himself the Cause of matter is to impute limitation to Him, just as it is undoubtedly a limitation on……”

These few quotes show that God created through His Word, and the creation is just that. If we need to elaborate, I would suggest that a Temple setting would be appropriate (as Isaiah says, Heaven is God’s throne and earth His footstool).

A glance at the Oxford Dictionary shows us the term “relationship” cannot apply to the creation. If the creation can speak, it would verbally praise God for the glorious universe, but that is about that.

In trying to make salvation and the creation part of the same thing, I think we can view the Universe as a setting for Salvation in Christ, and at that day, all will be restored to the state God intends.

Thus I cannot agree with you that “kenosis as an aspect of the eternal relational…” The trinity does not permit such a distinction - the Son as the only begotten, and through whom all are created - this does not speak of emptying or any such thing. The inability to distinguish the Godhead as anything but One settles the matter. Christ as the Son of Man shows us how we should respond to God, and as Paul states, the Holy Spirit enables us in this matter.

(Paul Julienne) #13

Although a family medical emergency has prevented me from replying in the last few weeks, I will get back to it now that things are getting closer to normal.

Thank so much to GJDS for the extended quotes from Athanasius. It would be really wonderful if young people interested in the science-faith interface could become familiar with such figures from the Great Tradition of two millennia of Christian thought. Such seminal theologians gave us a deep rationality for thinking about God and the world in the light of Christ.

As is clear from the above quote, such thought was capable of seeing the parts together as they are related to the whole, for the sake of which the parts are what they are: creation and salvation are the work of the same Agent, as Athanasius put it, and thus are bound to one another as aspects of a larger whole.

Perhaps one of the most problematic aspect of “modern” thought of at least the last 500 years, with roots going back perhaps 700, is what I like to call “The Great Divorce,” that is, the atomization of the world into separate compartments that are independent, that are analyzed independently, and have nothing intrinsically to do with each other: abstract “science” and ordinary “experience,” faith and reason, body and soul, mind and spirit, fact and value, subject and object, and so on. The Great Tradition of “mere Christianity,” as C. S. Lewis called it, saw the world as a more integrated whole than that, allowing a “both-and” rather than “either-or” logic. The logic of the Chalcedonian Formula regarding Christ is “both-and,” not “either-or:”

I would say that it is the findings of the contemporary sciences that can help us see the problem of the “divorce” within modern thought and its attendant dualisms. A reductive “atomized” reading of the cosmos–the implicit metaphysics, more properly “faith,” of many today–misses something essential. The world is more of a coherent whole than materialist reduction is capable of seeing. There are deep and powerful resources within the Great Tradition of Trinitarian theology centered on Christ that can help us overcome modern dualisms and put faith and reason, faith and “science,” back together again as related aspects of a whole. That is the direction towards which I am trying to point regarding the interface of Christian theology and the world of the sciences.

I am interested in exploring whether the thought of Thomas Aquinas can be re-appropriated in a meaningful way to the scientific world of the 21st century. Let me offer a couple resources that, to my mind, point in a promising direction. One is Kenneth L. Schmitz’s little book of his 1982 Aquinas Lectures at Marquette University: “Creation: the Gift.” This will amplify some of the thoughts expressed in my post on creation as a gift, a donum. The other is short book summarizing the thought of W. Norris Clarke, “Explorations in Metaphysics: Being-God-Person.” The latter seeks to put key aspects of Thomas’ thinking into language and concepts that are accessible to contemporary use.

I find Thomas’ thought to be congenial to the kind of scientific rationality advocated by scientist and philosopher Michael Polanyi, who perhaps as much as or more than any other 20th century thinker showed us what scientific knowledge is and should be. I first encountered both Thomas and Polanyi quite early in my scientific career in the 1960s, when the latter was still alive and writing in the scientific literature. Thinking outside the reductive modern box, as Polanyi did, is essential to shed light in two key areas: the intelligibility of the world to the mind of the scientist (and, for that matter, to any of us) and our ability to participate in the order of the world as the kind of beings we actually are, open to both its immanent and transcendent aspects. To my mind, these aspects are revealed most completely in Jesus Christ, the Word-made-flesh, embodying the fundamental Logos, or “logic,” of reality. This Logos not only gives coherence to the world as discovered by the sciences, but also lets us make sense of our human desire for goodness, beauty, and truth.

As to whether “kenosis” may or may not apply within this logic, I can only offer the thoughts of theologians of the stature of Hans Urs von Balthasar and John Polkinghorne as providing quite distinct and different ways in which this intriguing, Scripture-inspired concept is being explored in a relatively contemporary setting. These are open matters suitable for discussion and development, especially if there is merit in seeing creation as having a gift-structure centered on Christ as showing us who God is and what it means to be fully human.

(GJDS) #14

Thank you for your detailed response; I agree with a great deal of what you say.

I hope you are all in good health and you have overcome your difficulty.

My background is science, so in matters theological I consider myself a struggling amateur. My reading list and related commitments demands a great deal of time and energy (which always seem to be in short supply) and thus I may look at your suggested reading list some time in the future

Currently I am looking (as time permits) at material on “The Theology of the Divine Essence and Energies in George-Gennadios Scholarios” and related discussions. I am drawn to this doctrine as the basis for the intelligibility of Nature to human intellect and reason. This approach, I feel, may enable me to see a theological basis for the view of objects and forces discussed by theoretical physics and maths. I emphasise the necessary speculations in science, and the obvious generalities when we discuss theology. These quotes are from my material:

A scientific law is an articulation, or combination, of words and symbols, to provide meaning of the world of objects to human beings. It is unnecessary to argue that a law is present (or it has been added by the human being to the universe) to ensure the universe is what it is. We may reason that the universe is ‘lawful’ because it continues to be what it is, and also we may conclude that there is a finality, or that we may ‘finally’ or ‘completely’ understand it; we may also seek comfort from an ideal, suggesting that the universe and our understanding of it may become one and the same, or everything will finally be totally reasonable. The essential question in natural studies is therefore the intelligibility of nature – how is it that human reason and intellect can access natural phenomena and natures ultimate realities? One response to this question is the attribute often termed ‘image of God’ to humanity.

_. The scientific method requires theory to be tested – in this case, tests are performed using particle accelerators to obtain data on the particles that constitute the Universe. These tests rest on theory devised by theoretical physicists and are, generally speaking, mathematical expressions that encapsulate the thinking of the theoretical physicists and leading mathematicians. It appears appropriate, to my way of thinking, to consider the language of mathematics when examining these activities. We have examined the limitations of language when considering the meaning ‘God’ and concluded that all godly attributes were singular and human language was insufficient to give full meaning to these. The Universe, however, is accessible to human sense, and it appears reasonable to assume that a language such as mathematics would be sufficient when examining the Universe. Difficulties however, stem from human assumptions

_Quantum physics generally commence with an equation that describes the energy of a system as a wave. Once again, we commence with a system – not a beginning. However, these comments point to difficulties that human being must of necessity experience when considering such questions, because we are ‘in the world’, and in this case, we cannot be ‘above the world’ and position ourselves in a privileged position (transcend the Universe) to analyse beginnings and ends of the totality of all that can be know.