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Systematic Theology - Volume I
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§ 4. Objections to the Doctrine.

1. It has in all ages been urged as an objection to the doctrine of creation that it is inconsistent with an axiom, ex nihilo nihil fit. That aphorism may, however, have two meanings. It may mean that no effect can be without a cause, — that nothing can produce nothing. In that sense it expresses a self-evident truth with which the doctrine of creation is perfectly consistent. That doctrine does not suppose that the world exists without a cause, or comes from nothing. It assigns a perfectly adequate cause for its existence in the will of an Almighty intelligent Being. In the other sense of the phrase it means that a creation ex nihilo is impossible, that God cannot cause matter, or anything else, to begin to be. In this sense it is not a self-evident truth, but an arbitrary assumption, and consequently without force or authority. It is indeed inconceivable; but so also are the ordinary operations of the human will inconceivable. No man can understand how mind acts on matter. As the world actually exists, we must admit either that it began to be, or that it is eternal. But the difficulties connected with this last assumption are, as we saw when arguing for the existence of God, far greater than those which attend the admission of a creation ex nihilo. It was partly the difficulty of conceiving of the non-existing passing into existence, and partly the need for a solution of the question concerning the origin of evil, that led Plato and other Greek philosophers to adopt the theory of the eternity of matter, which they regarded as the source of evil; a theory which passed over to Philo and to the Platonizing fathers. The Scriptural theory, or rather doctrine of the origin of evil, refers it to the free agency of rational creatures, and dispenses with the preëxistence of anything independent of God.

2. A more formidable objection, at least one which has had far more power, is that the doctrine of a creation in time is inconsistent with the true idea of God. This objection is presented in two forms. First, it is said, that the doctrine of creation supposes a distinction between will and power, or efficiency and purpose in the divine mind. Scotus Erigena523523De Divisione Naturæ, i. 74. says, “Non aliud est Deo esse et facere, sed ei esse id ipsum est et facere. Coæternum igitur est Deo suum facere et coessentiale.” This was the common doctrine of the scholastic theology which defined God to be actus purus, and denied any distinction in Him between essence and attributes, power and act. If this view of the nature of God be correct, then the doctrine that supposes that God’s eternal purpose did not take effect from eternity, must be false. If God creates by thinking, He formed the world when He purposed it. Secondly, it is said that the doctrine of creation is inconsistent with the nature of God, inasmuch as it assumes a change in Him from inaction to activity. What was God doing, it is asked, from eternity before He created the world? If He is Creator and Lord, He must always have been such, and hence there must always have been a universe over which He ruled. These difficulties have led to different theories designed to avoid them. Origen, as before mentioned, taught that there has been an eternal succession of worlds. Others say that creation is eternal, although due to the will of God. He did from the beginning what the Scriptures say He did in the beginning. A foot from eternity standing in the dust, or a seal from eternity impressed upon wax, would be the cause of the impression, although, the impression would be coeternal with the foot or seal. Pantheists make the world essential to God. He exists only in the world. “Das gottgleiche All ist nicht allein das ausgesprochene Wort Gottes (natura naturata) sondern selbst das sprechende (natura naturans): nicht das erschaffene, sondern das selbst schaffende und sich selbst offenbarende auf unendliche Weise.524524Schelling, by Strauss, Dogmatik, vol. i. p. 658. That is, “The universe is not merely the outspoken word of God, but also that which speaks; not the created, but the self-creating and self-revealing in unending forms.”

Answer to the above Objections.

With regard to the objections above mentioned, it may be remarked, —

1. That they are drawn from a region which is entirely beyond our comprehension. They assume that we can understand the Almighty unto perfection and search out all his ways; whereas it is obvious that with regard to a Being who is eternal and not subject to the limitations of time, we are using words without meaning when we speak of successive duration in reference to Him. If with God there is no past or future, it is vain to ask what He was doing before creation. It was stated, when treating of the attributes of God, that there are two methods of determining our conceptions of the divine nature and operations. The one is to start with the idea of the Absolute and Infinite and make that idea the touchstone; affirming or denying what is assumed to be consistent or inconsistent therewith. Those who adopt this method, refuse to submit to the teachings of their moral nature or the revelations of the Word of God, and make Him either an absolutely unknown cause, or deny to Him all the attributes of a person. The other method is to start with the revelation which God has made of Himself in the constitution of our own nature and in his holy Word. This method leads to the conclusion that God can think and act, that in Him essence and attributes are not identical, that power and wisdom, will and working in Him, are not one and the same, and that the distinction between potentia (inherent power) and act applies to Him as well as to us. In other words, that God is infinitely more than pure activity, and consequently that it is not inconsistent with his nature that He should do at one time what He does not do at another.

2. A second remark to be made on these objections is that they prove too much. If valid against a creation in time, they are valid against all exercise of God’s power in time. Then there is no such thing as providential government, or gracious operations of the Spirit, or answering prayer. If whatever God does He does from eternity, then, so far as we are concerned, He does nothing. If we exalt the speculative ideas of the understanding above our moral and religious nature, and above the authority of the Scriptures, we give up all ground both of faith and knowledge, and have nothing before us but absolute skepticism or atheism. These objections, therefore, are simply of our own making. We form an idea of the Absolute Being out of our own heads, and then reject whatever does not agree with it. They have, consequently, no force except for the man who makes them.

3. The scholastic theologians, who themselves were in the trammels of such philosophical speculations, were accustomed to answer these cavils by counter subtleties. Even Augustine says that God did not create the world in time, because before creation time was not. “Si literæ sacræ maximeque veraces ita dicunt, in principio fecisse Deum cœlum et terram, ut nihil antea fecisse intelligatur, quia hoc potius in principio fecisse diceretur, si quid fecisset ante cœtera cuncta quæ fecit; procul dubio non est mundus factus in tempore, sed cum tempore.525525De Civitate Dei, XI. 6, edit. Benedictines, vol. vii. p. 444, c, d. This is true enough. If time be duration measured by motion or succession, it is plain that before succession there can be no time. It is hard, however, to see how this relieves the matter. The fact remains that the world is not eternal, and therefore, in our mode of conception, there were infinite ages during which the world was not. Still the difficulty is purely subjective, arising from the limitations of our nature, which forbid our comprehending God, or our understanding the relation of his activity to the effects produced in time. All we know is that God does work and act, and that the effects of his activity take place successively in time.

4. As to the objection that the doctrine of creation supposes a change in God, the theologians answer that it does not suppose any change in his will or purpose, for he purposed from eternity to create. On this point Augustine526526De Civitate Dei, XII. 17, edit. Benedictines, vol. v"ii. p. 508, b. says, “Una eademque sempiterna et immutabili voluntate res quas condidit et ut prius non essent egit, quamdiu non fuerunt, et ut posterius essent, quando esse cœperunt.” In other words, God did not purpose to create from eternity; but from eternity he had the purpose to create. As there is no change of purpose involved in creation, so there is no change from inaction to activity involved in the doctrine. God is essentially active. But it does not follow that his activity is always the same, i.e., that it must always produce the same effects. The eternal purpose takes effect just as was intended from the beginning. These objections, however, are mere cobwebs; but they are cobwebs in the eye; the eye of our feeble understanding. They are best got rid of by closing that eye, and opening what the Scriptures call “the eyes of the heart.” That is, instead of submitting ourselves to the guidance of the speculative understanding, we should consent to be led by the Spirit as He reveals the things of God in his Word, and in our own moral and religious nature.


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