Moses as Protagonist in the Dramatic Shift from Ancient to Medieval Philosophy

In leading students into the vortex of the debate which the Hebrew scriptures were to engender in philosophical circles, it has proven beneficial to pursue closely Aristotle's inquiry in the Metaphysics, showing how his attempt to respond to a legacy of questions, notably from Plato, virtually set the agenda for subsequent philosophical reflection on these comprehensive issues. Yet the encounter with Moses (as the putative author of Genesis) displays a lacuna which earnest students of Aristotle might well miss: how effectively he steers clear of the issue of the origin of the universe. Edward Booth (1985) has traced the effects of this lacuna through the subsequent commentaries, notably as it was displayed in a lingering aporia which bedeviled that tradition: does Aristotle give primacy to the individual existing thing, as his critique of Plato leads us to believe he will, or rather to essence as its intelligible component. It remains a nice question whether the inner dynamic of the inquiry called "metaphysics" would have insisted on addressing the issue of origins without encountering Genesis. Plotinus makes one believe that it would, yet might his resolute orientation to the One not be an assertive answer to the advent of revelation? However we may assess that, it is clear that Moses' joining the conversation puts the issue of origins firmly on the table. Yet once there, the issue is joined in the precise manner in which Plotinus poses it: must the origin of the universe be construed as a necessary consequence of the One in its inner fecundity, or does the universe come forth freely from that One (Gerson 1994)? What is at stake, as we shall see, is at once the conception we might be able to have of the One, as well as of the universe itself.

When I began tracing the interaction among the Abrahamic traditions regarding this question, I allowed the classical problematic of necessary vs. free to set the agenda for exposition and for inquiry. In retrospect, however, I now see that each of these terms functions ambiguously in these reaches, so the issue cannot simply be one of stark opposition.1 For the necessity operative in the prevailing necessary emanation scheme was that of logical deduction, on which the scheme was modeled. That sort of necessity is perforce impersonal, of course, so hardly befits a free creator. Yet the One who creates without any presuppositions whatsoever (i.e., ex nihilo) cannot be said coherently to choose among alternatives, for such a One is quite literally faced with nothing at all from which to choose. So the freedom associated with creating will have to be a freedom closer to accepting the determinations of divine wisdom than choosing among alternatives. The radical alternative not to create anything at all would always remain, of course, yet that freedom is better described as consenting to the inherent tendency of good to overflow and diffuse itself than it is a "free choice." In Plotinus' scheme, of course, refusing that consent would be impossible to "the One" (in the measure that this One is also "the Good"), so even that radical freedom would be counter-factual, in the sense of running counter to the very nature of the One as the Good.

So the precise sense in which the one God is free to create must indeed escape us, as Aquinas implicitly affirms in insisting—employing another sense of 'necessary'—that knowledge of divine triunity is "'necessary' for us to have the right idea of creation, to wit, that God did not produce things of necessity, [for] when we say that in God there is a procession of love, we show that God produced creatures not out of need, nor for any other extrinsic reason, but on account of the love of God's own goodness" (ST 1.32.1.3). Not even for the intrinsic reason of "God's own goodness," but out of God's love for that very goodness, where the reduplication gestures at an "interpersonal" life within the One which philosophy could never have conceived. So "the right idea of creation" will elude reason operating unilluminated by revelation—indeed, by the Christian revelation—since reason itself could never conclude to the divine triunity which we need to direct our thinking about intentional origination. And by a similar reasoning, the precise sense in which God's creating can be said to be free will escape us as well. For if we would be unable confidently to affirm it without having been informed of the divine triunity, which itself escapes our comprehension, then so will the freedom which that triunity announces and protects.2 We have, of course, moved well beyond logical necessity here, yet the generation of the Son (Word) and the procession of the Holy Spirit (Love) in God, which in Aquinas' thought alone secures the freedom of creation, cannot itself be a free act of God, but is presented as God's own revelation displaying for creatures the inner life (or complete "nature") of the creator.3 Once that life is revealed, then, it will be necessary that such a One act freely, out of love, yet the manner whereby that loving free consent to the divine goodness allows it to overflow into creation will utterly escape us. So just how God is free in creating is not for us to know.

Once we are invited by a revelatory tradition, however, to assert that the universe is freely created, we will be constrained to find a metaphysical way of expressing this relation of the universe to its source. If the model of logical deduction failed to distinguish the One adequately from the universe by having all-that-is emanate from the One as premises from a single axiom, what possible connection can there be to this One who now freely speaks it? For free origination does not answer to any explanatory mode, yet whatever exists does exist by being freely spoken.4 So we are pressed to ask: what is it that God speaks? What is the proper effect of creation in the universe? The response natural to those traditions which insist on God's creating by speaking would be the one found in the wisdom literature of the Hebrew scriptures and elaborated by Philo: the trace of the creator in creation is God's ordering wisdom. Continuing his insistence on the appositeness of the Christian revelation of God's triunity, Aquinas will identify that wisdom with the Word "through whom the universe is made," yet locate its operation in the act of bestowing things' very existence: "the proper effect of the first and most universal cause, which is God, is existing itself [ipsum esse]" (ST 1.45.5). Beholden to Avicenna's celebrated distinction of essence from existing Aquinas will nonetheless transform it by rendering esse as an act rather than an accident, thereby removing any suspicion that there might already be "things" which then receive their existence, as well as any hint of the creator being essentially related to the universe. Indeed, the role which esse plays will allow the creator to constitute the universe yet more intimately. It is that drama which we need now to allow to unfold.

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