Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Fr. John Meyendorff: Creation

Creator and Creatures

For Athanasius,2 creation is an act of the will of God, and a will is ontologically distinct from nature. By nature, the Father generates the Son — and this generation is indeed beyond time — but creation occurs through the will of God, which means that God remains absolutely free to create or not to create and transcendent to the world after creating it. The absence of a distinction between the nature of God and the will of God was common to Origen and to Arius. To establish this distinction constitutes the main argument of Athanasius.

It is totally impossible to consider the Father without the Son because "the Son is not a creature, which comes into being by an act of will; by nature, He is the proper Son of the essence [of the Father]."3 The Son therefore is God by nature while "the nature of creatures, which come into being from nothing, is fluid, impotent, mortal, and composite."4 Refuting the Arian’s idea that the Logos is created in view of the world, Athanasius affirms that "it is not He who was created for us, but we were created for Him."5 In God, the order of nature precedes the order of volitive action6 and is both superior to and independent of it. Because God is what He is, He is not determined or in any way limited in what He does, not even by His own essence and being.

Divine "nature" and created "nature" are therefore separate and totally dissimilar modes of existence. The first is totally free from the second. Yet creatures depend upon God; they exist "by His grace, His will, and His word..., so that they can even cease to exist if the Creator so wishes."7 In Athanasius, therefore, we have advanced quite far from Origen’s cosmos, which was considered a necessary expression of God’s goodness identified with divine nature itself. At this point one discovers that the notion of creation, as expressed by Athanasius, leads to a distinction in God between His transcendent essence and His properties, such as "power" or "goodness," which express His existence and action ad extra, not His essence.

The difference in nature between God and His creatures, as well as the distinction between the "natural" generation of the Son by the Father, and creation "by act of will," is emphasized by both Cyril of Alexandria8 and John of Damascus.9 The difference also represents the ontological raison d’etre of the Chalcedonian definition on the "two natures" of Christ. The two natures can be understood as being in "communion" with each other, as "hypostatically" united, but they can never be "confused" — i.e., considered as "one nature."

Athanasius’ insistence on the transitory character of creation should not mislead us. What he wants to show is a contrast between the absolute, self-sufficient nature of God and the dependence upon Him of all created nature. He certainly does not want to reduce created existence to a mere "phenomenon." God’s creative act produced a new "created" order, another "essence" distinct from His own, an "essence" worthy of God deserving of His love and concern and fundamentally "very good." God does not create, as in Origen, simply a collection of equal intellects, which find a meaning of existence only in contemplating the essence of God and which are diversified only as a consequence of their Fall. Because creation is an essence and not simply a phantom or a mirage, there is a sense in which its meaning is found in itself, for even God "loves" the world, i.e., considers it as a reality vis-a-vis Himself. Even when it is assumed by the Logos in a hypostatic union, the created nature, according to the Chalcedonian definition, "preserves its properties." The implication of this created autonomy was developed in particular by Maximus the Confessor and by the Orthodox theologians of the iconoclastic period. Let us only emphasize here that the very ideas of providence, love, and communion, which reflect the creator’s action toward the world, presuppose difference and distinction between Him and His creation.

The Divine Plan.
Creation in time — i.e., the possibility of a true beginning of created existence — presents the major cleavage between Greek thought and Biblical Revelation. But the idea of an eternal plan which God put into effect when He created the world in time is not inconsistent with the concepts found in the Jewish "wisdom" literature, even more concretely in the Johannine theology of the Logos, and responds to at least some preoccupations of Greek philosophical thought.

Throughout its history, Byzantine theology, both "Greek" and Biblical as it was, struggled with the possibility of integrating into a consistent Christian view of creation, a theory of divine "ideas" about the world. The Platonic kosmos noẽtos had to be rejected inasmuch as it represented an eternal reality outside of God, both impersonal and "substantial," which would have limited the absolute freedom of the creative act, exclude creation ex nihilo, and tend to diminish the substantial reality of visible creation by considering it only as a shadow of eternal realities. This rejection was accomplished implicitly by the condemnation of Origen in 553 and explicitly in the Synodal decisions against John Italos in 1081. Meanwhile, patristic and Byzantine thought developed in reaction to Origenism. Gregory of Nazianzus, for example, speaks of "images of the world" as thoughts of God.10 These "thoughts" do not limit the freedom of a personal God, since they remain distinct from His nature. Only when He creates in time, they become "reality."11 The thoughts are the expressions also of divine will,12 not of divine nature; they are "perfect, eternal thoughts of an eternal God."13 Since there cannot be anything created "in God," the thoughts, or ideas about the world, are uncreated expressions of divine life, which represent the unlimited potentiality of divine freedom. God creates the world not "out of them" but out of nothing. The beginning of the world is the beginning of a totally new reality put forward by the act of creation, which comes from God and conforms to His eternal plan.

The existence in God of eternal, uncreated "potentiality," which is not God’s essence, either the world’s nor an essence in itself, but which implies a certain contingency toward creation, presupposes an antinomical concept of God, which finds different forms of expression in Byzantine theology. To describe it, Georges Florovsky writes that "we have to distinguish as it are two modes of eternity: the essential eternity in which only the Trinity lives and the contingent eternity of the free acts of Divine grace." 14 Actually on this point, Byzantine theology reached a direct sense of the difference between the impersonal philosophical notion of God as an absolute and the Biblical understanding of a God: personal transcendent and free.

To express the relationship between creator and creatures, the great Maximus the Confessor uses the old theology of the Logos as centre and living unity of the logos of creation. The terminology already existed in Philo and Origen. But whereas for Origen, the logoi as logoi exist only in an essential unity with the one Logos, for Maximus — their real and "logical" existence is also expressed in their diversity. The great difference between Origen and Maximus is that Maximus rejects Origen’s view of visible creation as diversified only through the Fall. The "goodness" of creation, according to Maximus, resides in creation itself, and not only in its unity with divine essence. But creation cannot be truly "good" unless its differentiated logoi, which pre-existed as "thoughts" and "wills" of God, are fixed in Him and preserve communion with the one "super-essential" divine Logos.15 Creatures therefore do not exist only "as logoi" or only by the fact that God eternally "knows them;" they exist "by themselves" from the very moment when God put His foreknowledge into action. In His thought, eternally, creatures exist only potentially while their actual existence occurs in time. This temporal, actual existence of created beings is not autonomous but centred in the one Logos and in communion with Him. There is a sense, therefore, in which "the one Logos is many logoi, and the many are one;" "the One is many according to creative and unifying procession of the One into the many, but the many are One according to the providence, which leads the many to turn up toward the One as their all-powerful principle."16 Paradoxically, therefore, the creatures are one in the one Logos, who however is "super-essential" and above participation.17 "Thus, the logoi are, to Maximus, not identical either with the essence of God or with the existence of the things in the created world. In fact, an apophatic tendency is combined, in Maximus, with an anti-pantheistic tendency... This is affected, above all, thanks to the understanding of the logoi as decisions of God’s will."18

By remaining faithful to the Athanasian distinction between nature and will, Maximus succeeds in building an authentically Christian ontology of creation, which remains throughout the history of Byzantine thought, a standard and virtually unchallenged authority.19 This ontology presupposes a distinction in God between "nature" (or "essence") and "energy," a distinction, which would later be called "Palamism." It presumes a personal and dynamic understanding of God as well as a dynamic, or "energetic," conception of created nature.

The Dynamism of Creation.
For Origen, the original, intellectual creation is static. It finds its true logical existence in the contemplation of God’s essence, and its first movement is a form of rebellion against God. Change and diversity in creation are consequences of the Fall and therefore fundamentally evil. For Maximus and the entire Byzantine theological tradition, the movement (kynesis) of creatures is the necessary and natural consequence of their creation by God.20 God therefore in creating the world placed outside of Himself a system of dynamic beings, which were different from Him in that they changed and moved toward Him.21 The logos of every creature consists, therefore, in being essentially active;22 there is no "nature" without "energy" or movement.

This dynamic conception of created nature constitutes Maximus’ main argument against the "Monoenergists" of the seventh century whose Christology consideres Christ’s humanity as having lost its genuinely human "energy" or will because of its union with divinity. But for Maximus, created nature would lose its very existence if it is deprived of its proper energy, its proper purpose, and its proper dynamic identity. This proper movement of nature however can be fully itself only if it follows its proper goal (skopos), which consists in striving for God, entering into communion with Him, and thus fulfilling the logos, or divine purpose, though which and for which it is created. The true purpose of creation is, therefore, not contemplation of divine essence (which is inaccessible) but communion in divine energy, transfiguration, and transparency to divine action in the world. We shall discuss later the anthropological and Christological dimensions of this concept of creation. But it also has obvious cosmological implications.

In general, the Byzantines accepted cosmological concepts inherited from the Bible or from antiquity. So hesitant were to push scientific knowledge further that it had even been written that "the meager accomplishment of the Byzantines in the natural sciences remains one of the mysteries of the Greek Middle Ages."23 In any case, it does not seem that Byzantine theology is to blame for that failure, for theology affirmes the dynamism of nature and therefore containes the fundamental incentive for studying and eventually controlling its development.

During the entire Byzantine Middle Ages, Basil’s homilies On the Hexaemeron were the standard and most authoritative text on the origin, structure, and development of the world. Supporting Athanasius’ opposition to the Hellenic and Origenistic concept of creation as an eternal cyclical repetition of worlds and affirming creation in time, Basil maintains the reality of a created movement and dynamism in creatures. The creatures do not simply receive their form and diversity from God; they possess energy, certainly also God-given, but authentically their own. "Let the earth bring forth" (Gn 1:24): "this short commandment," says Basil, "immediately became a great reality and a creative logos, putting forth, in a way, which transcended our understanding, the innumerable varieties of plants... Thus, the order of nature, having received its beginning from the first commandment, enters the period of following time until it achieves the overall formation of the universe."24 Using scientific knowledge as it existed in his time as well as the Stoic terminology of the "seminal reasons," Basil remains theologically independent from his non-Biblical sources. For example, he rejects the Stoic idea that the logoi of creatures are the true eternal essences of beings, a concept which could lead to the eternal return "of worlds after their destruction."25 Like Athanasius and Maximus, Basil remains faithful to the Biblical concept of absolute divine transcendence and freedom in the act of creation; divine providence, which gives being to the world through the logoi, also maintains it in existence but not at the expense of the world’s own created dynamism, which is part of the creative plan itself.

The existence of the world as dynamic "nature" (i.e., as a reality "outside of" God — for whom it is an object of love and providence), following its own order of evolutive growth and development, implies the possibility of purely objective scientific investigation of creatures by the human mind. This does not mean however that created nature is ontologically "autonomous." It has been created in order to "participate" in God, who is not only the prime mover and the goal of creation but also the ultimate meaning (logos) of its permanence. "God is the principle, the centre and the end," writes Maximus, "insofar as He acts without being passive... He is the principle as creator, He is the centre as providence, and He is the end as conclusion, for all things come from him, by him, and toward him [Rm ll:36]."26 A scientific knowledge, which would ignore this ultimate meaning of creation, would therefore be dangerously one-sided.

Sanctification of Nature.
In its present, defective state, created nature fulfils its destiny quite inadequately. The Biblical, anthropocentric concept of the world is preserved in Greek patristic literature: nature suffers from the Fall of man, the "microcosm," to whom God has granted the control of nature and who, instead, prefers to be controlled by it. As a result instead of revealing through its internal meaning (logos) and purpose (skopos), the divine plan for creation and through this — God Himself, nature became the domain and instrument of Satan: throughout creation, the "natural energy," which conforms to the original divine plan, is in struggle with the destructive forces of death. The dramatic character of the present existence of creation is generally taken for granted by Byzantine theologians, but it is most explicitly formulated in liturgy and spirituality.

The Byzantine rite of Baptism has inherited from Christian antiquity the strong initial emphasis on exorcism. The deliberate renunciation of Satan, the sacramental expulsion of the forces of evil from the soul of the candidate for baptism, implies a passage from slavery under the "prince of this world" to freedom in Christ. Liturgical exorcisms however are concerned not only with the demonic forces controlling the human soul. The "Great Blessing of Water" on the Feast of the Epiphany exorcises the cosmos whose basic element, water, is seen as a refuge of "nestling dragons." The frequent mention of the demonic forces of the universe in liturgical and patristic texts should be understood in a theological context, for they cannot be reduced to Biblical or Medieval mythologies alone even if they often reflect mythological beliefs. The "demonic" in nature comes from the fact that creation has fallen out of its original meaning and direction. God had entrusted control over the world to man — His own "image and likeness." But man chose to be controlled by the world and thereby lost his freedom. He then became subject to cosmic determinism to which his "passions" attach him and in which ultimate power belongs to death. This is the interpretation which Gregory of Nyssa and Maximus apply to the passage of Genesis 3:21 about the "garments of skin" given to Adam and Eve after the Fall. Rejecting Origen’s identification of the "garments" with material bodies — an interpretation based upon the Origenistic idea on the pre-existence of souls, Maximus describes the change in man’s situation only in terms of a new dependence upon the animal side of the world’s existence. Instead of using the potentialities of his nature to raise himself and the whole of creation to God, man submitted himself to the desires of his material senses.27 As a result, the world which was originally created by God, as "very good" became for man a prison and a constant temptation, through which the "prince of this world" establishes his reign of death.

By sanctifying water, food, and plants as well as the results of man’s own creativity such as works of art or technology (the Byzantine liturgy is very rich in sacramental actions of sanctification, or blessing), the Church replaces them all in their original and true relation, not only to God but also to man, who is God’s "image," to proclaim God’s control over the universe as the Blessing of Epiphany does, and amounts, in fact, to affirming that man is no longer a slave to cosmic forces:

The immaterial powers tremble before Thee; the sun praises Thee; and the moon worships Thee; the stars are Thy servants; and light bows to Thy will; the tempests tremble and the springs adore Thee. Thou didst spread out the heavens like a tent; Thou didst set the land upon the waters... [Therefore,] heeding the depth of Thy compassion, Ο Master, Thou couldst not bear to see humanity defeated by the devil, and so Thou didst come and didst save us. ... Thou didst free the children of our nature...

Thus, sanctification of nature implies its demystification. For a Christian, the forces of nature cannot be divine; neither can they be subject to any form of natural determinism: the resurrection of Christ by breaking the laws of nature has liberated man from slavery to nature, and he is called to realize his destiny as lord of nature in God’s name.

Byzantine liturgy, when it proclaims the sanctification of the cosmos, frequently mentions, not only the demonic powers, which have usurped authority over the world but also the "bodiless powers of heaven," cooperates with God and man in the restoration of the original and "natural" order in the world. Yet Byzantium has never had a universally accepted system or description of the angelic world with the exception of the Celestial Hierarchy of pseudo-Dionysius in which each of the nine orders of angels is considered as an intermediary between the highest power above it and the form of existence below. The goal of Dionysius is to preserve inside an outwardly Christian system of thought a hierarchical concept of the universe adopted from Neo-Platonism.

In spite of its very widespread but rather peripheral influence, the Dionysian concept of the angelic world never succeeded in eliminating the more ancient and more Biblical ideas about the angels. Particularly, striking is the opposition between the very minor role ascribed by Dionysius to the "archangels" (second rank from the bottom of the angelic hierarchy) and the concept found in Jewish apocalyptic writings including Daniel, Jude, and Revelation where the archangels Michael and Gabriel rank is the "chief captains" of God’s celestial armies. This idea has been preserved in the liturgy, which should be considered as the main and most reliable source of Byzantine "angelology."

Involved in the struggle against the demonic powers of the cosmos, the angels represent, in a way, the ideal side of creation. According to Byzantine theologians, they were created before the visible world,28 and their essential function is to serve God and His image, man. The scriptural idea that the angels perpetually praise God (Is 6:3; Lk 2:13) is a frequent theme of the Byzantine liturgy, especially of the Eucharistic canons, which call the faithful to join the choir of angels — i.e., to recover their original fellowship with God. This reunion of heaven and earth, anticipated in the Eucharist, is the eschatological goal of the whole of creation. The angels contribute to its preparation by participating invisibly in the life of the cosmos.

(Fr. John Meyendorff: Byzantine Theology-Historical Trends and Doctrinal Themes, "Creation")


1. Origen, De principiis, I, 2, 10; cd. Koctschau, pp. 41-42; trans. Butterworth, p. 23.

2. Sec G. Florovsky, "The Concept of Creation in Saint Athanasius," Studia Patrisiica VI, part IV, TU 81 (Berlin: Akademie Verlag, 1962), 36-37.

3. Athanasius, Contra Arianos, III, 60; PG 26:448-449.

4. Contra Gentes, 41; PG 25:81CD.

5. Contra Arianos. II, 31; PG 26:212B.

6. Ibid., II, 2; PG26:149c.

7. Ibid., I, 20; PG 26:55A.

8. See, for example, Thesaurus, 15; PG 75:276B; ibid., 18; PG 75:313C.

9. De fide orth., I, 8; PG 94:812-813.

10. See especially Gregory of Nazianzus, Cartn. theol IV de mundo, V, 67-68; PG 37:421.

11. John of Damascus, De fide orth., II, 2; PG 94:865.

12. Ibid., I, 9; PG 94:837.

13. Maximus the Confessor, Schol.; PG 4:317.

14. Georges Florovsky, "The Idea of Creation in Christian Philosophy," EChurchQ 8 (1949), 67.

15. See Lars Thunberg, Microcosm and Mediator, pp. 76-84.

16. Maximus the Confessor, Amb. 7; PG 91:1081c.

17. lbid.; PG 91:1081B.

18. Thunberg, Microcosm and Mediator, p. 81.

19. See S. L. Epifanovich, Prepodobnyi Matksim lspovednik i Vizantiiskoe bogoslovie (Kiev, 1915), pp. 136-137.

20. See J. Meyendorfr, Christ in Eastern Christian Thought (Washington: Corpus, 1969), pp. 100-102.

21. See Maximus the Confessor, Ad Thai., 60; PG 90:621A.

22. Maximus the Confessor, Amb.; PG 91:1057B.

23. Milton V. Anastos, "The History of Byzantine Science: Report on the Dumbarton Oaks Symposium of 1961," Dumbarton Oakjs Papers 16 (1962), 411.

24. Basil of Caesarea, In Hex., horn. 5; PG 29:1160D.

25. Ibid., 3; PG 29:73C.

26. Maximus the Confessor, Cap. gnostica, I, 10; PG 91:1085D-1088A.

27. See, in particular, Maximus the Confessor, Ad Thai. 61; PG 90:628AB.

28. Gregory Nazianzus, Or. 38, 9; PG 36:320C; John of Damascus, De fide orth.; II, 3; PG 94:873.

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