The Centrality of God in All Things: Divine Ideas, Creation Ex Nihilo

The Centrality of God in All Things

People are meaning makers. This isn’t surprising. We are created in the image of the one who is the author of meaning and has instilled our creaturely existence with meaning. There are substantive ways we resemble our Creator, who has called us to reflect his glory by living for the flourishing of others (Gen 1:28). This vocational call has been filled with sacred significance, worth, and meaning (Gen 2:15).

Meaning and significance are found in reflecting the glory of God as we live for the flourishing of others. This is the sacred vocation of the cultural mandate. Human beings are made to reflect God’s glory, goodness, love, and character for the well-being of others. An image is to point away from itself to that which it represents. There is a difference between work done for one’s own glory and work done to serve the purposes of God and the well-being of your neighbor.

The entailment of this sacred vocation is that we are finite and spiritually dependent creatures—an image represents something else. Thus, hardwired into the very fabric of creation is the reality of the Creator-creature distinction. At the center of all things is God himself. In fact, the Apostle Paul tells us that the divine Son of God holds all things together (Col 1:17). Since this is the case, to live for and reflect God’s glory entails living with him at the center of all our pursuits and endeavors. All things depend on God, but not in some mere metaphorical way. Rather, God is actively sustaining the universe by the Word of his power (Heb 1:3).

What is meant by the centrality of God in all things is that all creaturely reality depends on God and reflects something of what he is like. This is not some thin dependency; it is a metaphysically thick story of ontological grounding and divine sustenance. God is central to all created reality in a metaphysically thick way by virtue of the doctrine of divine ideas. My proposal is that the doctrine of divine ideas provides grounds for the claim that God is central to, and ultimate for, all created reality.

Divine Ideas Motivated

The doctrine of divine ideas contends that God’s mental content forms a rational design plan for all creaturely existence.[1] Everything exists and has come into existence by God’s creative work born out of his divine ideas. All creaturely reality is ontologically grounded in the very mental content of God—nothing exists apart from his divine ideas instantiated by creation. The doctrine of divine ideas provides a deeply satisfying metaphysical story for how all created reality depends on God and reflects something of what he is like.

It is divine aseity and ultimacy that motivate the doctrine of divine ideas. In every explication of the divine nature, Christian theism insists that God is different from, and radically independent of, his creation. Creation bears an asymmetrical dependency relation on God—creatures imitate divine exemplars. There is, therefore, an ontological distinction between Creator and creature. In short, Christian theism contends that God is fundamental reality and thus must exist a se and so is not dependent on anything distinct from himself for his existence or nature.[2] On this conception, divine aseity is the commitment that God is the Creator of all things apart from himself. He is entirely self-sufficient and dependent upon nothing else.

Divine aseity is not merely a philosophical assertion or conclusion; rather, there is biblical warrant for the Christian theist to affirm aseity. The attribution of aseity is progressively revealed throughout the Scriptures, teaching that God does not need anything beyond himself and that he is, indeed, from himself (Acts 17:24–30).[3] Genesis 1–2 indicate that God existed prior to his creation. He is the great “I Am” (Exod 3:14) who was and is and will be. Finally, divine aseity is revealed through the revelation of Jesus. In John 1:1–5, the Son was with God before the beginning of all things and it was by the Son that all things were created and are held together (Col 1:15–17).[4] This brief survey displays biblical-theological warrant for divine aseity in the Scriptures. Aseity is not a mere philosophical assertion.

Minimally, aseity entails that God is absolutely independent and exists in virtue of nothing outside himself. At the very least this means that God is dependent upon nothing for his existence and so everything that is not God exists in an asymmetrical dependence relation to God.[5] Implicit to divine aseity is a concern for divine ultimacy—God is the explanatory center for all created things. Divine aseity demonstrates the vast ontological gap that exists between God and creatures—aseity leads to divine ultimacy, God is the ultimate explanation for all reality.[6]

Divine Ideas Defended

The doctrine of divine ideas is not only motivated by aseity and ultimacy but provides a beautiful analysis of them as well. On this construal, God is the center of all things, and nothing exists independently of God himself. In order to discover this conclusion our argument needs to proceed in two stages. First, I will examine the content of God’s thoughts—what God thinking about prior to his creative activity. Second, I will contend that divine ideas can account for all creaturely reality, even what some consider “secular truths,” those deemed unrelated to God’s own essence.[7] If this holds, then the doctrine of divine ideas demonstrates a metaphysically rich way of conceiving of God as central and ultimate for all creaturely reality.

The Content of Divine Ideas

Divine ideas comprise God’s mental content. On traditional accounts, divine ideas are about something—namely, God himself. God perfectly knows himself and by way of knowing himself he has ideas of his creatures. Thus, divine ideas, classically motivated, provide an account for creation ex nihilo. This is the case for Augustine’s suggestive explication of divine ideas. His account is motivated by the doctrine of creation.[8] These ideas are the “original and principal forms of things, i.e., reasons fixed and unchangeable, which are themselves formed and, being thus eternal and existing always in the same state, are contained in the Divine Intelligence.”[9] For Augustine, then, divine ideas are a means to conceptualize God creating along a rational design plan: “individual things are created in accord with reasons unique to them.”[10] On this arrangement, one sees divine ideas as exemplar “blueprints” for creaturely reality with God himself the ultimate exemplar of his creatures. Thus, creaturely reality is ontologically grounded by these divine exemplars for their own existence and nature.

Divine Ideas and Rational Imagination

Logically prior to God’s act of creation, before creatures are on the scene, God’s ideas of creatures arise from the conjunction of his perfect knowledge of his essence and the exhaustive knowledge of the range of his powers.[11] From this intersection, God knows what possibilities he can conceivably bring about. By considering his own essence in conjunction with the range of his powers he can know everything conceivable for him to create. It is upon this conjunction, then, that God’s rational design plan for his creatures is brought about.[12] For God to have thoughts about his creatures prior to creating he need only think on his own essence and have direct awareness of the full range of his powers. In virtue of this one sees the way in which God is central and ultimate to all reality—creation arises from God’s creative activity which grows out of his divine ideas which are rooted in his reflection on his own essence. God is at the very center of all things. How might this line of argument progress?

When God thinks on his own essence, he has all the content he needs for rationally creating. Let us consider the creaturely reality of “redness,” how does this color property come to exist? While redness may not be necessitated by God’s nature—surely nothing in God’s nature requires color properties; yet it can be said to emerge in God’s mental content as he understands himself and the range of his power. When God thinks about his own nature, he has a thought about his own plenitudinous splendor. Upon this knowledge, in light of the range of his powers, he is able to develop the idea of color properties in all their vast varieties and magnificence, including redness—which approximates his own plenitudinous splendor. This is an example of God imaginatively creating things in a rational way—it comes from his ideas of himself. In knowing himself and the range of his powers he is able to imaginatively conceive of the property redness.

What about something like H2O which seems to have no connection to God’s essence?[13] Is it possible to conceive of a way in which God has knowledge of H2O in light of his understanding of himself and the range of his power? Thomas Ward suggests, as God considers what he is like—the one with life in himself and so forth—he is able to rationally imagine a creaturely reality like water, which is, as Ward states, “expressive of what God is.”[14] Throughout the Scriptures water is expressed as lifegiving because it is a creaturely reality reflecting the very lifegiving nature of God himself. What account might be given for this view of creation from God’s divine ideas? How might the creative process occur?

On the portrait of divine aseity and ultimacy above, God’s creative activity occurs at the intersection of his perfect knowledge of his essence and the exhaustive knowledge of the range of his powers. It is at this intersection God conceives of that which he will create. This is a rationally imaginative process in the divine mind which produces the blueprints for creation precisely because it arises upon his reflection of himself. Jonathan Ichikawa and Benjamin Jarvis contend that imagination plays an important role in our modal reasoning. As they state, “When we discover what is possible or impossible or conceivable, we generally exploit important connections between what is possible and what we can coherently imagine.”[15] They argue that imaginative capacities motivate modal theorizing. These imaginative capacities are built out of previous knowledge and allow the thinker to consider various modal possibilities.[16] Something akin to this can be said of God’s ideas of creatures logically prior to creation. On this view, God is not imaginatively inventing things de novo. Rather, all creaturely reality is built out of God’s, logically prior, knowledge of himself. Upon knowing himself, which entails knowing the range of his powers, God is able to rationally conceive of all creaturely reality by way of rational imagination. Knowing himself and the range of his power, God can rationally imagine all that he can create in any possible world. There is no creaturely reality that arises unconnected from God, himself. God is central and ultimate to all creaturely reality, in every way imaginable.

Conclusion

The doctrine of divine ideas provides a suggestive account of creation ex nihilo which rests on divine aseity and demonstrates divine ultimacy. All of creaturely reality imitates, and thus reflects, the very essence of what God is like. All creaturely reality rightly points away from itself to God himself. Thus, God is central and ultimate in every way imaginable. Let us worship the one in whom we live, and move, and have our being (Acts 17:28).


 


[1] Augustine, Eighty-Three Different Questions, v. 70 (Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 2002), 79–81.

[2] See for example, chapter fourteen, Anselm, Monologion and Proslogion: With the Replies of Gaunilo and Anselm, trans. Thomas Williams (Indianapolis, IN: Hackett, 1996), 26–27, “It follows that where he does not exist, nothing exists …. It is therefore clear that he undergirds and transcends, that he encompasses and penetrates all other things …. it is he who exists in all things and through all things, and from whom and through whom and in whom all things exist.”

[3] This sketch is merely suggestive of the Scripture’s teaching on divine aseity and is not intended to present an exhaustive biblical-theological conceptualization of divine aseity.

[4] God is both prior to his creation and thus not dependent upon it—the dependence relation is asymmetrical.

[5] For a formal explication of divine aseity, consider W. Matthews Grant, “Aseity,” in Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 1st ed. (London: Routledge, 2016), https://www.rep.routledge.com/articles/thematic/aseity/v-1.

[6] See Lindsay K. Cleveland, “Groundwork for a Thomistic Account of Contemporary Property Roles” (Ph.D., Baylor University, 2018), 28.

[7] The notion of “secular truths” unrelated to the divine essence is found Brian Leftow, God and Necessity (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015), 249.

[8] While Augustine is not the only one in the tradition to contemplate the role of divine ideas, his account is sparse enough and suggestive enough to provide appropriate flexibility for the modern theorizing. While the classical motivation was accounting for the doctrine of creation, in contemporary philosophical theology many other conceptual difficulties have arisen that one’s view of divine ideas might help address (e.g., the problem of God and abstracta).

[9] Augustine, Eighty-Three Different Questions, 80.

[10] Augustine, Eighty-Three Different Questions, 81.

[11] This account is a response to worries raised by Thomas Ward. Ward has varied concerns about this imitative theory of divine ideas. While there is much to commend in Ward’s account, I propose this alternate imitative view of divine ideas. To see the arguments against the imitative theory of divine ideas see his work,  Thomas M Ward, Divine Ideas (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2020).

[12] This view picks up along lines articulated by Brian Leftow’s “ideal Big Bang.” Leftow, God and Necessity, 272–98.

[13] This is a paradigm example of putative “secular truths.” Can the doctrine of divine ideas account for such truths? I think they can.

[14] Ward, Divine Ideas, 62.

[15] Jonathan Ichikawa and Benjamin Jarvis, “Rational Imagination and Modal Knowledge,” Noûs 46.1 (2012): 127.

[16] Ichikawa and Jarvis, “Rational Imagination and Modal Knowledge,” 129.

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