Thursday, January 27, 2011

Genesis as a Verbal Icon, Part I: Icon of the Creation of the World

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.

God looked at all He had made, and behold, it was very good. (Genesis 1:31)

Fr. John Romanides writes,

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)
It means material things are not evil; this world did not come into being by some sort of contamination by materiality.

Had the world been good, it would mean that God were not good. If God had caused evil, God would be evil.

In that case, Christ’s counsel would be meaningless: “Be perfect, just as your Father in Heaven is perfect. (Matthew 5:48)

But God is absolutely Good; in fact, He is Goodness Itself and the very definition of Goodness. St. John says, “God is light, and in Him is no darkness at all.” (I John 1:5)

God creates the world as an act of His completely free will.

God decides what He is going to create, and when, as when God decided, “…Let us make man in our image, after our likeness…” (Genesis 1:26a) Nothing compels God to create, no external or internal necessity. He does not do it for His own glory, but for love, that we may share the living of His eternal Life. Nor did He need to create in order to love, for being God in Trinity, He already is the plenitude of Love. God created us because He wanted to, period.

Another way of saying the same thing is that it is not by His Essence that God creates. It would not be in any case, since an essence does nothing whatsoever but sit there being whatever it is.  Whoever has the essence works, or rather whoever is the essence does. Father, Son, and Holy Spirit work.

God’s Essence (anything God so to speak can’t be God without) is unchanging. if we say God makes any new work which He had not made before - such as creating a universe -  and that His Essence does this, we introduce temporality and mutability into our concept of the Divine Essence.  Thus, even if the Essence did anything at all besides constituting God’s Being (as it were), It would have to have been doing or thinking or saying the same thing(s) from all eternity. God must have been creating the world from all eternity. Then this world would be co-beginningless and co-eternal with God. In short, this world would be divine. But Christian teaching, based upon revelation in history, is that the world both had a beginning and shall have an end. Therefore it is not divine; it was neither created out of the Divine Essence nor by the Divine Essence.

“These are the generations of the heavens and the earth when they were created. In the day that the LORD God made the earth and the heavens, “ (Genesis 2:4)

“And I saw a new heaven and a new earth: for the first heaven and the first earth were passed away…” (Revelation 21:1)

If it belonged to the Divine Essence to create, then creation would be a necessity. God would have to create. His very Being would be dependent upon His own creatures!  But this would be outrageous.

For His dominion is an everlasting dominion,
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?"
(Daniel 4:34-35)

St. Justin Martyr (d. 165) says,

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)
In summary, the world is created by God and by Him alone, with no help, and by Him directly, by His fiat, not by some emanation from Himself .  The world was not created using anything pre-existing, whether material or immaterial (Divine Ideas).  It was made by God's own free will, and not by any necessity, external to God or within Him (such as a drive to enhance His glory).  Neither did His own nature (Essence) require Him to create.  God's creation is real, not some shadow of reality.  And God's creation is very good.  These are some of the major features of the verbal icon in the opening chapters of Genesis.

In Part II, I hope to talk some about the icons of Man and of sin, featuring Adam and Eve and what happened in Eden. Then, in a projected two further posts, we'll look at the icon of the consequences.

P.S.)  I've had the most awful time getting this post up.  Its format keeps changing, and even the order of the paragraphs.  I do hope it now makes sense!  And my apologies if you tried reading it before I managed to correct most things in it.  I'm not going to try more minor corrections, because that seems to mess everything up all over again!


Fr Dn Charles Joiner said...

Well said. Thanks

Anastasia Theodoridis said...

I'm so glad you wrote, Fr. Charles, among other things ecause now I've discovered your blog - what a treasure!