The question of the eternity of the world

Paid Online Writing Jobs

Get Paid to Write at Home

Get Instant Access

Christians were confronted, just as the ancient philosophers had been, with the problem of explaining how a God of absolute goodness and simplicity could be the Creator of a universe so different from himself, so various and full of multiplicity and corruption; how a God who is eternal and unchanging can have begun at some time to do that which he had not eternally done, and bring the world into being. Christians would point to the Genesis account as a true history of the manner in which the creation took place, but it left a great many philosophical questions unanswered and is unspecific on a good deal of the theology. To take an example: Aquinas asks whether God knows the first instant in which he could have created the world. He answers that there could never have been a time when he could not do so, for his power is eternal and cannot grow or diminish. He says that our task is not, then, to try to settle the instant at which God could have created the world, but the instant at which he did it (Quodlibet V.9. q.1.a.1).1 But that leaves us with the problem that if God created a world which did not exist before he made it, he must have begun at some time to do what he had not eternally done.

If we try to avoid these difficulties we must, it seems, say that God did not create the world. Yet that introduces further problems. We must say either that it exists independently of God, which would argue against his omnipotence; or that it is a part or aspect of God, which is incompatible with his simplicity and immutability, as arguing that he created a world which is temporal and full of differences.

These are difficulties with which the philosophical tradition had grappled too, and it continued to do so. Many of the philosophers of the late antique world were themselves not wholly happy with the options available to them, and especially not with the notion that the world is eternal, if that was taken to mean that the world itself was in some way divine, or part of the divine. The fifth and sixth centuries saw considerable struggles here among Greek-speaking scholars working in the Platonist tradition. A device used by those anxious to refute the views of Aristotle and Proclus on the eternity of the world was to distinguish between a sensible world and an 'intelligible' world, a world of divine ideas which could be regarded as having been always present in the mind of God. Thus the world is eternal only in God's mind. The sensible manifestation of it is not eternal. Aeneas of Gaza, pupil of Hierocles of Alexandria, and founder of the school at Gaza, and his fellow-scholar Zacharias, for example, were among those who wrote on the creation of the world. They agree in seeing the sensible world as a mere appearance by which the eternal, intelligible world is contemplated (PG 85.969 and 1021). It is, nevertheless, in some sense a reality, for change and decay may take place in it (PG 85.961). The sensible world, with all its characteristics seemingly incompatible with the being of a Neoplatonic God, can thus be seen as not eternal, while the eternity of that which is perfect and immutable in creation is saved by regarding it as part of the 'intelligible' world. But that may be at the cost of regarding God himself as one with this 'intelligible' world.

The Christian Maximus the Confessor (c. 580-662), working within the late Platonist and Pseudo-Dionysian tradition, tried in the next generation to contend that we must regard the 'being' of God as altogether different from the 'being' of the intelligible world. If we do not, he thinks, we are in danger of confusing Creator with creature. He constructs a chain of being to make the difference clear. From the Wisdom of God, he says, come the logoi, divine powers or wills, principles of existence eternally existing in the divine Mind. They bring into being the 'intelligibles' which, once they have come into existence, cannot cease to exist. But whereas the logoi are really one, the intelligibles are many (PG 91.1329; 1081; 1085). The thrust of his argument is the reverse of that of Aeneas and Zacharias of Gaza, who wanted to use the concept of the 'intelligible world' as a means of reconciling the eternity of the world with its corruptibility on the one hand and with the Neoplatonic rules about the nature of God on the other. Maximus seeks to show that the intelligible world is definitely neither God himself nor in some way co-eternal with him as present always in his mind.

In the mediaeval period the question of the eternity of the world did not again become an urgent philosophical issue until the thirteenth century, with the rediscovery of Aristotelian natural science. Among the 'errors of the philosophers' condemned by Giles of Rome were several touching on this point. He said, for example, that Aristotle teaches that the sublunary world was being generated from eternity and will never cease (I.6). Averroes offends by reasserting with more force still all Aristotle's errors about the eternity of the world (IV). Aquinas was prepared to go so far as to say that the world is eternal as an idea in the mind of God (Quod. IV. q.1.a.1, p. 71). But he cannot accept that the world itself is eternal. On the other hand, he cannot demonstrate that it is not. He says it must remain a matter of faith (Quod. XII.q.6.a.1). The matter became a standard issue of conflict between the philosophical tradition and Christian orthodoxy in the 1260s and 1270s at Paris, and beyond.2

The boundary between Creator and creation

The sixth-century Christian and philosophical reaction against Proclus in the Greek-speaking world included John Philoponus (c. 475-565). This philosopher who became a Christian approached the problem in a rather different way. He sought to determine exactly where the 'boundary' was to be drawn between the stuff which may be deemed divine and eternal, and the stuff we call matter. An indispensable preliminary here is to agree on which side of the line the stars, sun and moon fall. Philoponus' approach was to prove helpful to the Christian scholars of the West (for whom Aristotle was to be a more direct influence than Proclus, the questions of natural science increasingly urgent, and the Pseudo-Dionysian tradition always an awkward bedfellow). Philoponus drew his boundary of demarcation in such a way that the stars and planets are included with everything on earth in the category of mutable matter; he did so with a convincingness which was to provide a secure basis for Christian doctrine on this point thereafter.3 If we think in this way of an eternal God, and a world made of matter which is not eternal, we have a position incompatible with either Aristotle or Proclus.

But it did not immediately resolve the problem (which arises partly out of a failure to distinguish physics from metaphysics) of the

PHILOSOPHY AND THEOLOGY IN THE MIDDLE AGES incommensurability between an eternal, changeless, omnipotent and perfectly good God and a world which is none of these things, although he is its Creator. The problem is put in simple terms by Alcuin (c. 735-804) in the Carolingian West. He cites the fourth-century Marius Victorinus (who became a Christian in old age) on the paradox that God is one and alone, even though he wanted there to be many things. Alcuin explores the implications of saying that God makes his creatures without lending them part of his own substance. (For he did not want them to be as he was, Alcuin says: 'illud esse . . . quod ille ipse est'.)4

By the end of the Middle Ages the problem of incommensurability looked much more complicated. In the De Docta Ignorantia Nicholas of Cusa tried to explain the paradox by saying that there can be no proportionality between the finite and the infinite. Always lurking temptingly in the background was the hypothesis that God effects a 'join' between himself and the world by entering it as its soul. There was a very considerable body of philosophical literature available to the Latin West, in addition to Plato's Timaeus, which postulated a world-soul (and Calcidius' commentary on the point). Virgil speaks of it in the sixth book of the Aeneid (VI.726-7) as diffused throughout the world's 'body', a 'mind' which moves inert matter. Cicero, in The Dream of Scipio, and Macrobius in his commentary on the Dream were important too. Macrobius describes the anima mundi as imparting perpetual motion to the body of the heavens which it has created (In Somn. Scip. I.17, pp. 541-2).

There was Christian warrant for the idea in Genesis and in Acts (17.25ff.). But Augustine was aware that a major question arises here about the difference between a ubiquitous Holy Spirit, who is present in the world but is God, not creature, and who is not himself the world; and the notion of the pagan philosophers that the world-soul is a supernatural power inherent in the phenomenal world and sustaining it as its life.

The fine but crucial difference was puzzled over by the mediaeval generations. In his twelfth-century Philosophia, William of Conches explores the possibility that the world-soul is indeed the Holy Spirit, for it is by the Holy Spirit that all things live. Or it may be a 'natural vigour' which God puts into things. Or it may be an incorporeal substance which is wholly present in each individual body (PL 172.46). Thierry of Chartres touches on the problem (TC, p. 273). Arnald of Bonneval tries to define the world-soul in a way which makes it the overflowing abundance of the Holy Spirit who gives all things, rational and irrational, what they need for their being

(PL 189.1673). Bernardus Silvestris tries a poetical solution. He writes of the marriage of the soul of the world and the world, which results in the organisation of the four elements in an orderly way and the resolution of chaos into harmony. This is betokened by the descent of the world-soul (endelichia) from the heavens in a chorus of mathematical and musical harmonies. But Bernardus Silvestris is deliberately vague about the exact origin and identity of the world-soul and its relation to Nous. Nous serves merely as the priest who performs the ceremony.5

The problem was still in play after the arrival of Aristotle's Libri naturales. David of Dinant, one of the first to read the Physics, Metaphysics and De Anima, drew from his proof that God is the material cause of all things (principium materiale omnium) the conclusion that God himself is 'the one sole substance, not only of all bodies but also of all souls . . . and Plato and Xenophon the philosophers agree; they say the world is nothing but God perceptible to us'.6 David of Dinant's views were condemned, but it is instructive that the impact of the new Aristotle should so quickly have been to throw orthodoxy a little off course in the mind of at least one Christian scholar.

It cannot be said that Western philosophy or theology arrived at a wholly satisfactory solution of all these problems. God was understood to be separate from and other than the world. The world was agreed not to be eternal. But deep questions remain.

Creation from nothing

Plato says in the Timaeus that God worked with pre-existing matter and form to create the world. This was a view unacceptable to Augustine, who had dealt firmly with the question, and insisted that God had made the world from nothing. That became the standard Christian position for Western scholars.

For Thierry of Chartres, it is necessary only to insist that God needed nothing when he created the world; his supreme goodness and absolute sufficiency were enough. He made the world out of kindness and love, and for no other reason, so that there might be beings to share his happiness (TC, pp. 555-6). There is no difficulty in Thierry's mind about the status of the stuff of which the world was made. God created it at the first instant (p. 557). Thierry does not find it necessary to seek to explain how the eternal and immutable God could have brought into being a world so

PHILOSOPHY AND THEOLOGY IN THE MIDDLE AGES evidently his inferior. Hugh of Amiens, Thierry's contemporary, similarly unworried by the central concern of Neoplatonism, puts the matter straightforwardly. 'If perhaps you were to look for something before the creation of things, you would not be able to find anything at all. Only eternity was there before all things, only God . . . The changeableness of the creature proves that it had a beginning.' Those men of old who trusted to the proofs of their own senses and said that God, matter and form were co-eternal and God no more than a craftsman were judging by human standards (tamquam dese). They thought God could do no more than they themselves could do. Like Thierry, he explains that God did not create the world in any need of his own, or out of any need of his own, but 'through towering charity' (per caritatem supereminentem)

The mode of creation

In Genesis creation takes place as God speaks. That was not wholly impossible to reconcile with Platonic and Neoplatonic theories about the work of the Logos, although it presented early Christian thinkers with a number of difficulties. But more important for the Middle Ages was a model, or group of models, of creation which have in common some notion of divine overflowing, propagation or multiplication. The idea of an emanation in which God pours himself out upon creation, himself undiminished by his giving, but bringing the created world into being as he does so is clearly present in Augustine: 'cum effunderis super nos, non tu dissiparis, sed colligis nos' (Conf. I.3). In this spatial world, God is wholly everywhere and yet he is in no place (Augustine, Conf. VI.3). This is an image which Alan of Lille makes use of in a form attractive to other mediaeval writers. God is a sphere, he says, whose centre is everywhere and whose circumference is nowhere (Regulae Theologiae, VII). A sphere has no beginning or end; God is a sphere, not to the bodily eye, but to the eye of the understanding; but he is a sphere unlike any other, for in a bodily sphere the centre is a point which has no dimension, and therefore no place, and the circumference is in a multitude of places. In the divine sphere of creation, the centre is the creature, a tiny point in comparison with the immensity of God, and having a fixed place; the immensity of God is the circumference, and in him there is no locus.1

Cognate with this picture of the paradox of an emanation which brings into being something other than God, and which does not take from God in doing so anything of what he is (although it takes its being and nature wholly from him), is the image of creation as an act of divine illumination.8 This, too, is a strong Augustinian theme, although Augustine is especially interested in the notion of that part of the creative act which is an illumination of the understanding.9 Divine illumination as creative act is an important theme in Robert Grosseteste, who also links it closely with the doctrine that the mind needs spiritual illumination in order to comprehend God and the universe he has made.10

Arabic philosophers took up the theme of emanation from the Greeks, and their influence was significant in bringing Latin scholars (from the twelfth century) to make use of it too.11

In Nicholas of Cusa's hands the paradoxes multiply. He sees the universe as unfolded from God, and yet as in some sense a 'restricted' or 'contracted' 'maximum'. God is the absolute 'whatness' (quidditas) of the created world, but the created world is a 'contracted quiddity' (quidditas contracta) because it is finite, and every created thing is itself a contradiction even of that, just as every species is a contraction of a genus. So the overflowing of divine abundance in the generosity of creation results in a series of ever tighter contractions.12 Here, too, it is possible to see a connection with familiar ideas of the Platonic tradition. Augustine points out that as created things are further from God in the stream of outpouring, so they become less and less like him (De Civ. Dei IX.17).13

From Pythagorean mathematics came yet another variant of the idea of creation by emanation. Nicomachus of Gerasa wrote an Arithmetica in the Pythagorean tradition upon which Boethius' Arithmetica is heavily dependent. The underlying theory of numbers is that all proceeds from one. One is itself not a number but the source of numbers, which it produces by means of plurality. Plurality is dependent upon the presence of some 'otherness'. The idea was familiar to Anselm, as we have seen in his treatment of the Trinity (see p. 60ff.). Alan of Lille develops it in discussing both Trinity and creation. He begins his sequence of Regulae from the principle that God is not only One, but that unity from which all plurality, all diversity proceeds. Unity itself is without resource, and it is itself the source of all plurality without itself becoming plural. Moreover, when one is multiplied by one, no plurality is generated; so it is that the Father begets the Son and the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father while God remains one (pp. 124-5). The concepts here are those of Pythagorean mathematics, again mediated through Boethius, especially in his De Arithmetica, with an

PHILOSOPHY AND THEOLOGY IN THE MIDDLE AGES admixture of elements Alan is likely to have taken from the work of his own contemporaries.14

He follows the same line of thought in Regula II in saying that God is unity above the heavens; the angelic creation that alteritas or 'secondness' which is not truly plural but is the first departure from unity; beneath the heavens lies all plurality, in those bodily things whose multiplicity and variety are obnoxia. Here a further notion is crucial: that variety and difference, which do not resemble God, are necessarily evil. Again it is an idea with a long post-Platonic history.

Roger Bacon tried to apply the mathematical idea of multiplication and the principles of the behaviour of light to the question of the multiplication of species. He envisaged a power specific to each kind of being propagated from its ultimate divine source in all directions, like rays of light, through material suitable for forming the appropriate species. Because all materials or media must offer some resistance to the passage of the rays of 'species', there will inevitably be some weakening of the ray as species multiply. Eventually the multiplication will come to an end.

Alongside the development of these essentially Platonic principles ran theories of causation, which had vigorous Aristotelian roots although they are also to be found in the Neoplatonic writers. (Proclus, for example, argues that all producing causes produce secondary existences because they have a superfluity of power, while not themselves being changed or diminished; and that the effect will resemble the cause).15 Aristotle himself argues in the Metaphysics (994a) against the possibility that there can be an infinite chain of causes. Certain principles passed into Western thinking much in the form in which they are set out by Proclus in his Elements of Theology. It is taken as axiomatic that the cause is superior to the effect in the hierarchy of being. The final cause is God himself. This final cause is identical with the Good, and it is One. It is, however, also identical with the efficient cause which actually brings created things into being. Both the final and the efficient causes are transcendent, and yet paradoxically able to act upon a world which is other than they (Propositions 7-13).

The notion of the four causes (final, efficient, formal and material), was familiar in the West before the introduction of the full Aristotelian corpus. It is described, for example, by Seneca (Epistulae Morales LXV). Thierry of Chartres identifies the efficient cause with God, the formal cause with the Wisdom of God, the final cause with his Kindness (benignitas), and the material with the four elements, which are themselves God's creation (TC, p. 555).16 We also find in Thierry a distinction between first and secondary causes. God is the first cause and first principle of all things (TC, p. 174.83), but there is a series of causes in an orderly conexio (sic) in the creation of the world (TC, p. 273.28-32).

Aquinas tackles awkward questions about causation in the Summa Theologiae. It is argued that God cannot himself be the exemplary cause of all things because the effect must resemble the cause, and creatures do not resemble God (ST I.q.45.a.3, Obj. 1). They do, however, resemble the ideas in the mind of God on which they are formed, replies Aquinas. If it is suggested that God cannot be the final cause of all things because that would seem to imply that he has need of a purpose (ST I.q.45.a.4, Obj. 1), or because that would make him both efficient and final cause, both before and after, which is impossible (ibid., Obj. 4), Aquinas has answers. God is unique among agents in that he acts from no need of his own. He is not only the final and efficient but also the exemplary or formal cause of all things; all that means is that the first principle of all things is ultimately one. There is no dispute over the usefulness or the validity of the adoption of Aristotelian thinking about causation in the context of a Christian doctrine of creation. The debate is solely about the precise manner in which it may be made to fit.

Like Thierry, Aquinas speaks of primary and secondary causes. For example, in discussing the way in which human free will acts in accordance with predestination, he argues that there is no distinction between the two. Divine providence produces effects as first cause through the operation of secondary causes. So we may say that what is done by choice (secondary cause) is also predestined (ST I.q.23.a.5).

Thomas Bradwardine was the author of a 'victory sermon', preached after the battle won at Crecy on 26 August 1346. In it he explores theories of causation erroneously held by astrologers, those who believe in fortune; those who believe in the fates; those who trust to human prowess or the wisdom of human advice, or even to virility or sexual prowess. Only God is the author of victory, he says, as he is the cause of all things.17

Was this article helpful?

0 0

Post a comment