Marsha, in response to my post about the Garden of Eden story being a verbal icon, asked whether I might expand on that idea. So I think I shall. First, though, I'd like to say a few things about the creation stories that precede the Adam and Eve narratives. This subject, of course, could fill libraries, and does, but here are just a few reflections on the spiritual meaning of the creation stories. Because spiritual meaning, after all, is what any icon, painted or written, is intended to convey. So here are a few of the big lessons we need to take to heart from the opening chapters of Genesis. (Each point here combats some specific heresy, by the way.)
God creates the world.
The details related in Genesis are like the details of a painted icon, like the wings of St. John the Baptist, or the three stars depicted on the vestments of the Mother of God to show it's she. We are not obliged to take every detail literally, as the spiritual point of those details is, this universe did not just happen. It was deliberately created.
God creates the world alone and directly.
God creates the world without any help or any intermediaries. There are no demigods, angels, tools, eternal ideas, or emanations involved in the creation of the world. God creates it all directly, by His Word alone, not by any created means. This means his dealings with us are direct – in contrast to Thomistic scholasticism, for example. Thomas Aquinas, lacking the distinction between God’s Essence and His Divine, Uncreated Energies, held that God was His Essence, and since God’s Essence is unchanging, He could have no direct dealings with a changing world. But unless we have direct dealings with God, and He with us, there is no salvation as the Orthodox understand salvation.
“I am the Lord who performs all things. I alone stretched forth the heavens and established the earth.” (Isaiah 44:24)
God creates the world ex nihilo, from nothing.
By faith we understand that the worlds have been framed by the Word of God, so that what is seen has not been made out of things which do appear. (Hebrews 11:3)Creation from nothing is not just mysterious; it is unimaginable. Nothing exists outside of God. In fact, no “outside God” exists, for God is everywhere present, filling all things. In other words, there is no "nothing" from which to create things.
Yet creation ex nihilo does mean just such an act producing some¬thing which is ‘outside of God’ – the production of an entirely new subject, with no origin of any kind either in the divine nature or in any matter or potentiality of being external to God. We might say that by creation ex nihilo God ‘makes room’ for something which is wholly outside of Himself; that, indeed, He sets up the ‘outside’ or nothingness alongside of His plenitude. (I have forgotten where I originally found this quote, but I think it is from Vladimir Lossky.)
“Nihil,” means here simply that “before” creation nothing existed “outside” of God. Or rather that this “outside” and this “before” are absurd, since it is precisely the creation that posits them. (Lossky, Vladimir, Orthodox Theology: an Introduction, p. 54.)
Creation from nothing also means God does not make the world out of His own Substance, thereby bestowing the Divine Essence upon created being. To suppose He did would be to suppose every created thing divine. That is pantheism instead of monothe¬ism. God did not create the world out of anything at all, whether material or immaterial; rather, He called the world “from non-being into being” by His simple, all-powerful, “Let there be.”
This Created Order is Real.
An important implication of the creation from nothing is that this world is the real world. Reality is not Eternal Ideas or Emanations from the Divine Essence, of which the world is merely an imperfect copy or an unreal reflection. Neither is the world a veil of unreality concealing reality within it, nor is reality opposed to materiality or change. Instead, this world, both material and immaterial, with all its changes and cycles, is the world God created and it is real. In Orthodoxy, that means this world is the setting in which we find salvation, not in some dream world, not in some realm of thought.
God’s creation is good.
It follows from the dogma of creation ex nihilo by the will and energy of God that the visible and invisible world was created in an altogether positive manner…it is neither an imperfect copy of another supposedly real world nor the result of contact with matter through some kind of fall, nor an estrangement from reality, nor some emanation of ideas from the divine essence. (Romanides, ibid., p. 59)
“And I saw a new heaven and a new earth: for the first heaven and the first earth were passed away…” (Revelation 21:1)
And His kingdom is from generation to generation.
All the inhabitants of the earth are reputed as nothing;
He does according to His will in the army of heaven
And among the inhabitants of the earth.
No one can restrain His hand
Or say to Him, "What have You done?"
Though God is able to do all that He wills to do, He does not will to do all that he is able to do. To be is not the same as to will…if God creates in His being, it is by necessity that He creates whatever He creates. But if it is by will that He creates, he creates out of sovereignty. Creating out of sovereignty, then, He creates as much as He wills and whatever He wills and whenever He wills. If God creates in His being, His will serves no purpose and is altogether useless. (St. Justin Martyr, Christian Inquiries, III, 2, quoted in Romanides, Ancestral Sin)