Orthodox Outlet for Dogmatic Enquiries Christian Dogmatics and About God

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2. The transferal of the terms “essence”, “energy” and “person” into Theology. (The problem of freedom)

F. The Dogma on Creation


b. The correction of Platonic ideas by the Christian faith

The second historical element that the Church had reacted to, by means of the Symbol of Faith (the Creed), was the idea concerning creation; an idea that the philosophy of that era indulged in, which had its beginning in Platonism and continued through to neo-Platonism, which in turn had wrought other changes to the original Platonic theory. 

I might remind you at this point of the basic positions of Platonism, which the Church had reacted to, through the Symbol.

The pure form of Platonism appears in the work “Timaeus” by Plato. In it, God is actually referred to as “Creator” and “Father” but also as the “Nous” (=mind, intellect).  Consequently, we have there –in relation to Gnosticism – a certain kinship between Christian thought and Platonism, but not with Gnosticism.  However, there are other basic points, where Patristic thought had disagreed with Platonism, and they are the following:

First of all, it was the notion that God created the world out of pre-existing matter and pre-existing ideas. In other words, Platonism had accepted a creator-God out of necessity, because it was impossible for it to not give form to ideas that pre-existed, and to matter.  It was forced to give chaos a certain form.  It was obliged to create the world. It was a compulsory thing. This perception, which introduced the notion of necessity in creation, was replaced by the Christian perception of creation, whose position was that the world was created out of the free volition/will of God, and not out of any necessity. Furthermore, in order to confront the Platonic ideas regarding creation, the Church and Patristic theology needed to clarify the notion of the world being created from nil. In other words, it needed to stress that matter was not pre-existent; even with Plautinus later on, who presented the world as an extension, an effluence of the thoughts of the One’s Nous (mind); a Nous that diffused into many things, and that the world was created from this diffusion of God’s thoughts.  This perception of creation could not be accepted by the Church, because it again signified that the world was somehow a necessary extension of God’s existence. In other words, God somehow “extended” His very self or His thoughts to create the world, and in this way, God and the world become eternally and inseparably bound together, and the world thus somehow became eternal also, just like God.

In Origen, we note an attempt to express both of the previous concepts together, in his assertion that the world was created from nil, but, that creation itself was an eternal-perpetual act of God. In other words, he introduced the eternality of creation, by arguing that God could not be almighty unless He had objects, upon which He could impose His almightiness. Therefore, this meant that a form of creation must have existed eternally.  But this view caused problems; therefore it too had to be rejected.  So, we are left with the perception that the world was created out of absolutely nothing; that it was not pre-existent in God’s thoughts, but was the result of God’s absolute free volition, hence the expression "çí ðïôå üôå ïõê çí", (there was a time that it was not) - an expression that should be taken literally, in its absolute sense: The world did not previously exist, not even in God’s mind.

This point needs a lot of clarification, because a difficulty arises in the idea that the creation of the world through God’s Logos was a “pre-eternal volition”, intended for the salvation of the world. Does this pre-eternal will of God presuppose an eternality of the world?  Well? Does it?  Yes, or no?  This is a very complicated problem. God did not want this world to somehow appear abruptly, but He also did not resort to any pre-existing ideas when creating the world.

The first one to develop this idea of the world being created from nil was Theophilos of Antioch, who had deeply influenced Ireneos.  Ireneos had based his theology to a large extent on Theophilos of Antioch. In his “Epistle to Autolykos” 2,4, he said that God created from nil whatever He wanted and however He wanted.  The idea therefore of God’s volition, of God’s freedom, was linked to the notion of creation from nil.  Ireneos developed this idea more extensively, and eventually, it became a part of Patristic theology; it was also developed by Tertullian, Athanasius, e.a., thus consolidating the concept that the world was created from nil. We shall see, when interpreting the dogma on creation, what this means.  Now that we are examining it historically, we need to point out that this idea of “from nil” must be taken in an absolute, literal context.  Because, historically speaking once again, during the time that the Symbol of Faith was being formulated, Platonism had undergone several changes, which at first glance gave the impression that God did not create the world out of pre-existing matter and pre-existing ideas. But this did not automatically denote that He created out of nothing.  Out of nothing, that is, in the absolute sense.

Specifically, middle Platonism with Albinus and Philon had rejected the concept that we encountered in Plato’s “Timaeus”, where God created out of pre-existing matter and pre-existing ideas.  They realized that this concept could not be reconciled with the Bible, so they entertained the idea that matter was created by God (which Christians agreed with), but there still remained a problem with the ideas, since they continued to be Platonists and could not admit that the ideas were also created by God.  They found an outlet for this, by asserting that ideas were thoughts that resided in the Nous (mind/intellect) of God.  Eternal thoughts. It was from these ‘eternal thoughts’ inside the mind of God, as expounded by Albinus and moreso by Philon, that Neo-Platonism originated. Thus, we can now also say that the world always existed, as an eternal thought in the mind of God.

To this, only Saint Maximus gave a comprehensive reply, by stressing that God (to Whom the notions of ‘before’ and ‘after’ do not have any relevance, within His eternal status) had eternally willed the existence of the world. But, to have willed it eternally does not mean that He instantly brought it into existence. In other words, Maximus provides us with this distinction between ‘volition’ and ‘existence’.  God may have willed the existence of the world pre-eternally, but when the world was eventually created, it was created without this act (of creation) constituting a necessary extension of God’s pre-eternal volition; furthermore, the Logos –through Whom and in Whom God created the world– is that same Logos with Whom God has an eternal loving relationship of Father and Son, and the existence of the world did not constitute a necessary consequence of this loving, Father-Son relationship, even if the will to create the world was pre-eternal.   What is important in Saint Maximus, is the distinction between God’s will and the realization of God’s will.  If we do not discern between these two things, then we are obliged to say that the world is eternal, because God’s will was pre-eternal. (see “To Thalassios, 60, Apora).

So, we have now discerned between a) the thoughts of God, b) His will and c) the realization of God’s will.  The Neo-Platonics regarded the thoughts of God as something eternal, thus, by linking the world with God’s thoughts, they inevitably made the world eternal.  Maximus’ contribution was that he introduced the will of God. The will to create the world is eternal. But he discerned between the will and the realization of that will, thus denying the eternality of the world.

God has His thoughts, and the world has all the various beings, all of which have a logos (reason) for being. The logos (reason) for the existence of beings is linked to the sum of God’s thoughts (which is the single Logos of God). But He has these logos (reasons) for the existence of beings inside Him, in the form of His thoughts. These are basically uncreated logos (reasons). This of course is an anachronism, to say that the logos are uncreated, (in the eras of Arianism and the Cappadocians), as these matters were cleared up after the 2nd Ecumenical Synod. According to Arius, the Logos was situated at the lowest level, because it belonged to the world. For the years leading up to Arius, the Logos was placed between God and the world, depending on how each case perceived matters. Anyway, somewhere between God and the world.  It was the Council (Synod) of Nicaea that irrevocably transferred the Logos into the realm of the Uncreated.  What remains now, is to see how the logos (reason) for the existence of beings is linked to God. This is why we do not encounter the meaning of “Logos” until the time of Maximus. The Fathers avoided it, because it was a dangerous area.

Maximus dared to make this bold theological move of utilizing the meaning of the term “Logos”. But for now, he just makes this distinction. God has His Logos; there is a loving relationship between the Father and the Logos, between God and the Logos.  The world is created, in the Logos, through the Logos.

But, now that he is utilizing the notion of God’s will for the existence of the world and not any direct, gnostic extension of God’s thoughts into the world, he refrains from stating that this connection is a compulsory connection; it has become a willed connection, in other words it is a freely decided connection.  There does exist a pre-eternal will of God, but, this pre-eternal will of God is realized, in the Logos, through the Logos.  In other words, it is a volition, it is a will, and not a compulsory extension of God’s thoughts.  God wills to create the world at a given time. This eternal will of His does not mean that His thought is instantly extended.  The world is no longer regarded as a thought inside God’s Nous (mind). Thoughts are perceived as the logos (reasons) for the existence of beings; he now associates the logos of beings to the wills of God, and not the thoughts of God.  Wills, logos and predestinations now relate to each other.

Obviously, this is a revolution (when compared to what was said earlier), which facilitates us in eliminating that “extension of God’s thoughts into the world”.  Because wills presuppose the freedom to be realized or not be realized (and this is precisely where the distinction lies, in the realization and the non-realization of wills).  This is the basic difference between a thought (which, one way or another, is realized, must be realized, in order to be fulfilled) and on the other hand, a will (which, precisely because it is a will, does not mean it is a necessary consequence of a thought). Therefore a will, even if realized, does not connect or relate its realization with foresight/providence, in the sense of a thought. To think of something and to realize something, are not two, related things, precisely because they are wills.

By relating wills with the logos (reasons), Maximus managed to avoid the ‘necessity of creation’. In other words, he avoided associating the logos (reasons) for the existence of beings to the thoughts in the Nous of God.  After this, we veer away from Platonism, away from Philon and Neo-Platonism (where the logos of beings are associated with the thoughts of God). This is where the basic difference is, where the crucial point is:  when associating the logos of beings with the wills of God and not the thoughts of God, they make the world the result of God’s will and not God’s thought. And because it is a result of will and not of thought, it is a result of free decision and not a necessity.

In recapitulating the basic points, we need to mention that the concept of creation began as a reaction to Gnosticism and Platonism.  In Gnosticism, the Church reacted by stressing the coincidence of the terms “Creator” and “Father” as well as the direct involvement of God in Creation. As for Platonism, the Church reacted on one hand to the pure Platonism of Plato, by stressing that the expression “creation from nil” means: “creation, from no pre-existing material, and no pre-existing ideas”; on the other hand, the Church reacted to middle Platonism and neo-Platonism, by responding that the world did not eternally exist in the Nous of God, not even as a thought, but -as now clarified through Maximus- as wills of God.  And because these wills were linked to the Logos of God, the Son of God, it was through their loving relationship that they acquired an ontological basis, and the world became a real entity, without ever constituting a necessity for God.

In other words, what Maximus did was to philosophically evolve the views of Saint Athanasius, i.e., that the Son exists due to the essence of the Father, while the world exists due to the will/volition of the Father.  To that which was a mere design up until that time, Maximus strove to give a philosophical explanation, and in any case, the result of that effort was to demonstrate that the logos (reasons) for the existence of beings are the wills of God (and therefore freely decided by Him), and not the thoughts of God (with a compulsory nature). [*].


* OODE observation: How could one dare to attribute thoughtsto an Omniscient and timeless God?  Thoughts are the time-governed processes of a NON omniscient brain!  A thinker is one who does not know. If he did know, he would not think, he would simply will.


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Transcript by N. M.

Translation by A. N.

Article published in English on: 24-8-2006.

Last update: 25-8-2006.