Creation Science Information & Links!

Click for: CSSHS Archive Main Page

Creation in the History of Orthodox Theology
John Meyendorff

In the history of Christianity in the East, the doctrine of creation was formally on the agenda of theological debates on two occasions. The first was connected with the thought of Origen, who had sought a synthesis between the scriptural account of creation and the metaphysical presuppositions of Platonism. The second episode belongs to our own century: in Russia, a group of eminent religious philosophers, known as sophiologists, searched for ways of integrating Christian thought in the framework of contemporary philosophical methodology. As in the case of Origen, the doctrine of creation stood at the center of their own concerns and also at the center of the criticism to which sophiology was subjected.

Origen and Athanasius
The thought of the great Origen was dominated by one major apologetic concern: to make the biblical revelation acceptable and understandable to the Greeks. The task was essential to the progress of Christianity, but it was overwhelmingly difficult. It could not be fulfilled simply by using allegory as the exegetic method par excellence, for it implied a confrontation between fundamental and irreconcilable metaphysical principles. The biblical idea of creation was opposed to the Platonic notion of God's changelessness and to the affirmation that any true existence is eternal. Thus, Origen adopted a solution that consisted in affirming an eternal creation. God did not begin to be the Creator his goodness always needed an object, and his justice was incompatible with inequality. Thus, this object was an eternally existing world of created intellects, which were equal and identical. The existence of our own visible universe, in which beings are changing and unequal, came about as a result of the fall,' For Origen, the eternity of creation was in fact indistinguishable from the eternity of the Logos: both proceeded eternally from God. Thus, the Arian interpretation of Origenism concluded that the Logos himself was a creature. The critique of Arianism put forward by St. Athanasius rejected the metaphysical premises of Origenism, particularly on the issue of creation. For Athanasius, God created the world in time by his will, whereas the Logos is his Son by nature and beyond time, This distinction, which is Athanasius' main argument against Arius,2 affirmed, on the one hand, that "the Son is not a creature that came into being by an act of will" and that "he is the proper Son of the essence of the Father."3 On the other hand, Athanasius was proclaiming the absolute transcendence of God, as Creator, as the One Who is-not determined by anything outside of himself, not even by what he does. The Father, the Son and the Spirit are sharing in this same transcendent nature, and their mutual relationships are independent of the act of creation. Compared with the nature of God, "the nature of creatures. which came into being from nothing, is fluid, impotent, mortal and composite."~ They exist "by his grace, h~ will and his Word .50 that They can even cease to exist if the Creator so wishes."5 This contrast between the Creator and creatures made it [imperative, in the Chalcedonian definition of the hypostatic union of divinity and humanity in Christ, to maintain the distinctive existence of the two natures, each keeping its inalienable characteristics....

Russian Sophiology
In many ways, the purpose and rationale of the Russian "sophiological" trend of the late nineteenth and the early twentieth centuries was similar to that of Origenism. In both cases, a theological system was created by dedicated Christians in "dialogue" with contemporary philosophy, with the deliberate intent of bridging the gap between Christianity and the non- Christian world. The spiritual father of Russian sophiology was Vladimir Soloviev (1853-1900). Inspired by mysticism (Jacob Boehme), as well as by Spinoza, Schopenhauer and Fichte- not to speak of the notion of "integral knowledge" of the Russian Slavophiles - Soloviev interpreted The Christian doctrine of the incarnation as the fulfillment of on ontological and preexisting "becoming of the world into the Absolute." Characteristically, the object of his speculation was the "idea of God-manhood," of which the historical incarnation was a fulfillment 6. While formally admitting the biblical teaching of a transcendent Creator, Soloviev viewed God rather as the "creative source of a "unitotality," which, while presently in a state of multiplicity, finds itself in a process of reintegration with its Source. The idea of divine Wisdom, or Sophia, is used as a model for this "unitotality," which ontologically united God and creation.

Soloviev himself lived and died as a member of the Orthodox Church. However, his metaphysics of "unitotality" led him also to consider his own thought and his own ecclesial adherence as transconfessional. He dreamed of an anticipated eschatology, in which a Union of Christendom would be realized jointly by the Roman pope and the Russian tsar.

The extraordinary figure of Soloviev would probably have remained marginal in the history of Orthodox theology if it had not appeared at a particular juncture of Russian history, when leading intellectuals, disappointed with positivism, were searching for a religious worldview. Soloviev provided them-as well as a large segment of the intelligentsia-with leadership and inspiration. Two eminent disciples of Soloviev, who had committed themselves to his "religious idealism," also became leading professional theologians: Paul Florensky (1882-1943) and Sergei Bulgakov (1871-1944).

Florensky, born in a family indifferent to religion, first studied mathematics and then theology. Ordained a priest, he became a professor at the Moscow Theological Academy, the editor of the academy's journal, and eventually died as a martyr of the faith in a concentration camp in 1943. Sometimes considered an Orthodox Teilhard" because of his achievements as a mathematician and scientist, even after 1917, Florensky adopted the metaphysics of "unitotality" found in Soloviev. At the center of his thought we again final Wisdom-Sophia-the "ideal personality of the world," the "simply given, real unity of the world," which "is realized through an eternal act of God" (italics mine), Like Origen centuries earlier, Florensky considered any real existence to be divine and eternal-not only in its origin but in its subsistence. Thus, the significance of creation in time is greatly reduced, if not totally suppressed. According to Florensky, Wisdom-Sophia "penetrates the depths of the Trinity" and, as such, is a "fourth person," but a person that is not consubstantial to the Trinity but "admitted within divine life through divine condescension."7 This concept is somewhat parallel to the idea of "deification by grace," of "by energy," found in Greek patristics and Byzantine Palamism. But the unusual terminology, the impersonal. idealistic conceptuality and the absence of a clear affirmation of divine transcendence and creation in time associates Florensky's thought with the gnostic tradition.

Sergius Bulgakov, the other eminent disciple of Soloviev and a close friend of Florensky, was led away by them first from formal Marxism to "idealism" and later to the Orthodox priesthood. Expelled from the Soviet Union in 1922, he became the Dean of St. Sergius Theological Seminary in Paris. Like his predecessors, Bulgakov saw in "secularization "the greatest danger faced by contemporary Christianity, and viewed sophiology as the only philosophical approach able to counteract it, He did not consider the doctrine of the incarnation, as such, a sufficient Christian answer to "secularization." "Do people sufficiently realize," he asks, "that this dogma in itself is not primary, but derivative? In itself it demands the prior existence of absolutely necessary dogmatic formulations concerning a primordial God-man-hood."8 Defending himself, more explicitly than did Florensky, from introducing a "fourth hypostasis" in God, he identified Sophia with the very essence of God, but also defined a distinct "created wisdom." However, "Wisdom in creation," he writes, "is ontologically identical with its prototype: the same Wisdom, which exists in God," Between the uncreated Sophia (or essence of God) and its created counterpart, there is therefore a difference, but also an ontological continuity and even identity. In fact, Bulgakov seems to be constantly torn between his concern for Christian (and biblical) orthodoxy and his philosophical presuppositions. "As created from `nothing,' in this 'nothing' the world finds its place. God confers on a reality which originates in himself an existence distinct from his own."9 Reluctant to admit the philosophical paradox of a totally transcendent God creating at will and "from nothing," Bulgakov clings to a certain ontological continuity between the Creator and the creatures without truly resolving the problem.

It is impossible to speak of Russian religious philosophy, which was flourishing at the beginning of this century, without mentioning also the name of Nicholas A, Berdyaev (1874- 1948). Primarily a moralist and an "existentialist," Berdyaev was a brilliant critic of institutions and ideologies. Best known for his philosophy of human freedom and his actually very patristic - identification of the image of God in man with freedom, he nevertheless remained, in some of his metaphysical affirmations, a disciple not only of Boehme and of German idealism but also of Soloviev. And this explains his difficulties with the idea of creation - which were common to all the sophiologists. However, it was not in the reality of a substantial and uncreated Wisdom that he saw the origin of man, but in a Freedom, which ontologically precedes God himself. "Man," he writes, "is a child of God, and the child of freedom."10 "The element of freedom does not come from God the Father, for it is prior to being... God the Creator has absolute power over being, but not over freedom." Thus, according to Berdyaev, the roots of human personality and freedom go back to an Urgrund beyond or superior to God theory that breaks completely with biblical revelation.

The debate on the doctrine of creation, as found in Soloviev, Florensky, Bulgakov and Berdyaev, was probably the most interesting episode in the history of Orthodox theology in the twentieth century. Their most brilliant and constant critics were Georges Florovsky and, on a slightly different level, Vladimir Lossky. Florovsky gave a critique of the metaphysics of Vladimir Soloviev in his well-known book The Ways of Russian Theology (Paris 1937), but it can be said that practically the entire œuvre of Florovsky dealing with Greek patristic thought and published in the prewar period was directed against the sophiological postulates of Sergius Bulgokov, Florovsky's older colleague at the Theological Institute in Paris.12 However, the name of Bulgakov is nowhere directly mentioned in these works. Lossky, on the other hand, criticized sophiology directly, agreeing with the main positive points of FIorovsky's "neopatristic synthesis." On the idea of creation, both Florovsky and Lossky simply reaffirmed the position of St. Athanasius, discussed above, as opposed to the views of Origen.

Among modern Orthodox theologians the sophiologicol trend finds practically no followers, while "neopatristic" thought, symbolized by Florovsky and Lossky. clearly predominates. This does not mean, however, that contemporary Orthodox theology is limited to historical, patristic studies. The thought of the Romanian theologian Dumitru Staniloae, which has recently become better known and quite influential, finds itself in constant dialogue with contemporary and, particularly, existential philosophy. Staniloae is particularly insistent on a personalistic approach to God-if creation is the result of divine "goodness," it can only result from The interpersonal love of the three persons of the Trinity, which manifests itself ad extra in creative energy. Indeed, "goodness" can be identified neither with divine essence, which is totally transcendent, nor with a substantial and static reality, which would limit divine being. Divine omnipotence can only result from the total freedom of a personal God.13 The same personalistic understanding of the creative act is found in the writings of the Greek theologian Christos Yonnaras.14 These modern positions are clearly inseparable from the theology of Gregory Palamas and his distinction between the unknowable and transcendent divine essence, on the one hand, and the "uncreated energies" of a tri-personal God on the other. It is because the divine persons- or hypostases-are conceived not simply as expressions of the divine essence (or "internal relations" within God) that it is possible to say that divine acts are voluntary acts, and that, therefore, the act of creation is not a "necessary" effulgence of divine essence but a result of the omnipotent divine will.

1 See Origen's On First Principles. 2:10. 29: 6.3:5:3. ed. P. Koetschau (Berlin 1913) 41-2. 169-7O, 272-3
2 See Georges Florovsky, "The Concept of Creation in St. Athanasius," Studia Patristica 6, pan 4. TU 8 (Berlin (962) 36-37.
3 Against the Arians 3:90. PG 26:448-9.
4 Against the Heathen 41. PG 25:81 Cd.
5 Against the Arians 1:20. PG 26 55a.
6 See P. P. Zojbov, Soloviev on Godmanhood (Poughkeepsie, NY 1944). Cf the general introductions to Soloviev's ideas in N. O. Lossky. History at Russian Philosophy (New York 1951) and V. V. Zenkovsky. A History of Russian Philosophy, Vol.2 (New York 1953).
7 Florensky's main theological dissertation, entitled The Pillar and Foundation of Truth (Stolp i ufverzhdenie istiny) was published in Moscow in 1914. Our quotations refer to the recent French translation by Constantin Andranikov, La collonne et le fondement de la verité (Lausanne 1975.227.
8 A Bulgokov Anthology. eds. James Pain and Nicolas Zernov (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1976)152, Italics mine Bulgakov is the author of more than twenty-five books and innumerable articles
9 lbid.,155.
10 The Destiny of Man (New York 1937)25
11 Ibid., 29. On Berdyaev, see the recent work by T Kiepinihe. Bibliographie des oeuvres de N/co/as Berdiaev (Pars 1978).
12 These works include, in particular, Vostochnye otsy (Vga veka (The Eastern Fathers of the Fourth Century, Paris 1931), Vizanhiskie ofsy V-V//I vekov (The Byzantine fathers of the fifth through eighth centuries, Paris 1933): "Ivar' I tyarnost"' (Creation and Creaturehood), Pravos/avnoya mysl' 1, (1928)176- 212: and "0 smerti krestnoi" (Death on the Cross), Pravoslavnaya mysl' 2 (1930) 148-187 The latter two works appeared in a shortened version in Creation and Redemption. the Collected Works of Georges Florovsky, 3 (Belmont, MA Nordland, 1976). Florovsky also took pains to show that neither the biblical idea of Wisdom nor the jse of the concept of Sophia in patristic and liturgical sojrces has much to do with the "sophiologica theories ("0 pochiranli Sofil," Trudy pervogo s ezda russkikh akademicheskikh organ iz'atsy 70 granifso 2 (Sofia 1938) 488ff). His views are confirmea by contemporary research. See my art/ce "L'iconographie de la Sagesse Divine dans la tradition byzantine," Cahiers archéologiques 10 (Paris 1959)259-77, reprinted in Byzantine Hesychasm (London: Variorum, 1974).
13 D. Stanilaae, Dieu est amour (Paris 1980) 80ff: also Theology and the Church (Crestwood, NY: SVS Press, 1982)1 12ff.
14 See, for example, Yannaras' De (`Absence et de l`inconnaissance de Dieu. (Paris 1971)103-13.

Go to
Go to CSSHS Archives - Main Page