The Greek Tradition

Early Christian theology was dominated by the interaction of concepts from the Hebrew tradition and from a basically Platonic tradition, which was found very suitable to the development of a doctrine of Incarnation. In particular, the idea of the utter mystery, or ineffability, of God, played a major role. Jewish tradition had always stressed that no images could be made of God; that 'no man could see God and live'. With the development of the idea of God as Trinity, as three-in-one, it became even more evident that God could simply not be pictured or conceived by ordinary uses of human concepts. In Plato's Republic, this sensory world is seen as a realm of half-reality and opinion. It participates in an intelligible realm, the world of Forms or Essential Natures, which has true, unchanging reality. At the apex of the world of Forms is the supreme Form of the Good, from which all other Forms flow. It is so remote from ordinary human perception, however, that it is said to be even 'beyond Being itself (6. 503-7. 521; Plato 1955:300-25). In the Timaeus, a Demiurge, or world-shaper, is introduced, who uses the Forms as a pattern to shape a world of independent matter as well as he can. Plato's view swings between regarding the ultimate principle of being as an impersonal and wholly transcendent Form of the Good and an uneasy triad of Designer, Forms and matter. It also swings between regarding the material world as merely half-real, to be transcended by the enlightened soul, and as being a positive living and dynamic image of the eternal world, 'the moving image of Eternity' (37; Plato 1965:50).

Plato's philosophy was developed more systematically in a number of ways by pagan philosophers, especially by Plotinus (210-70 CE). He saw the ultimate principle of Being as a Triad, consisting of 'the One', beyond all comprehension; the Mind or Nous, which emanates from it, and contains all intelligible Forms; and the World-Soul, a further emanation which shapes the material world. From this Triad the whole universe necessarily emanates, radiating outwards in descending degrees of reality, so that evil is caused by the lack of being at the periphery of the cosmos. The process of emanation is inevitable, and the religious quest is to return from plurality and evil to the One Source, in a 'liberation from the alien that besets us here, a life taking no pleasure in the things of earth, the passing of solitary to solitary' (6, 9; Plotinus 1991:549).

Christian theologians, especially in Alexandria and in Cappadocia (in modern Turkey), also used Plato's thought to develop a more systematic doctrine of God. Believing in Incarnation, they could not say that the material world is illusory, or only half-real. Believing in resurrection, they could not see the ultimate destiny of the soul as escape from matter. Believing in Divine freedom, they could not see the world as a necessary emanation from God. They could, however, see God as supreme Goodness, beyond all human description. They identified the Forms with the Logos, the Eternal Word or Son of God. They saw Jesus as the eikon, the image, of the invisible God. The whole material universe was seen as a sacrament, or temporal expression, of Eternity, and thus given a much more positive role than in Plato himself. The key move made by Christian theologians was to place the Forms in the mind of God, the supreme One, and to see the material world as a free and purposive creation out of nothing (i.e. not out of independently existing stuff) to be a temporal image of the eternal Forms. This unified Platonism in a coherent way and created an attractive framework for the doctrine of Incarnation, seen as the manifestation of the Eternal (the Logos) in the world of time (in Jesus).

Augustine (354-430 CE) is the best-known theologian of the Western tradition whose doctrine of God was basically Platonist. In The City of God, he stated in a classical form what was to become the standard doctrine of creation (Book 11; Augustine 1945:314-17). He assumes, with the Platonic tradition, that no changing being can be perfect. Since time is the measure of change, a perfect immutable reality will be eternal, in the sense of timeless. How can a timeless reality, God, freely create a temporal, changing world? It obviously cannot first of all wonder whether to create a world, then wonder which world to create, then decide to create it. All these processes assume that time exists, that God is in time. If God is not in time, he cannot go through such processes; God cannot do one thing after another; God cannot even be in different states. Thus whatever God does is done timelessly. Creation is therefore not bringing the universe into existence at a point in time. It must be: bringing the whole of time, from beginning to end, into existence—in a timeless sense.

This is Augustine's doctrine of creation. Every moment of space-time has the same essential relation to God, a relation of depending wholly for its existence upon a timeless reality. It is important to see that God is not in time. For Augustine, it is silly to say that God started the universe at the beginning, and then let it proceed on its own. For creation is the relation of space-time as a whole to God. According to such a view, there is no problem with omnipotence and omniscience. In one timeless act, God by sheer willing brings about everything that ever exists. God does not have to peer into some unknown future, for God creates what is future to us in the very same act as that by which he creates our past and present. God immediately knows every time, past, present and future, and God causes every time to be just what it is.

The main problems of Augustine's view relate to Divine and human freedom. If God creates every human act, including those that are future to us, in one Divine act, how can humans have any real freedom? The future already exists, as far as God is concerned; God has already decided it, without any reference to what creatures decide (since God did not wait to see what they would decide before creating the next part of the future). How can our choices be free, if they have been already decided by God? Augustine does believe in human freedom; but he has to interpret it as action not determined by any past temporal state. It will, however, be determined by Divine decree, and one might wonder whether this really allows for full human responsibility.

There is a related problem with Divine freedom. God is supposed to be free to create any universe, or none. Normally, if P is free to do A or B, one envisages a time when a decision has not yet been made, followed by a time when it has. If there was no time when the issue was not decided, it is hard to see how one can speak of a 'decision' at all. Yet God, being timeless, can never have been in a state when it was not already decided to create world A

(this world). How does such a 'decision' differ from something that necessarily follows from God's changeless nature? Of course, God can be free in that God is not compelled by any other power to do what God does, that God always acts in accordance with Divine desires. Such a sense of freedom, however, is clearly compatible with the ascription of absolute necessity to God; and that seems to be the consequence of Augustine's view. It is perhaps partly for this reason that the problem of evil is not seen as being too serious by Augustine. If God necessarily (and freely) creates this universe, God has no alternative, and cannot be blamed for what exists in it. If one sees that God's own being is supremely perfect, and that this world is inevitable in every detail, there is no contradiction between Divine goodness and the existence of evil. It is possible to obtain a coherent Augustinian view; but for some it will leave a feeling of uneasiness or outrage to think that the damnation of many human souls is freely willed by a perfect God.

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