The words "it pleased God...to create," in Westminster Confession of Faith 4.1, refer to divine willing, to the decree of God. Creation is due to the will of God. It is not necessary to the divine essence, however. The Triune God is God without creatures and in no absolute sense (or necessary to the divine nature as such) must make creatures. Richard Muller states that both the Lutheran and Reformed of the post-Reformation era agreed on the gratuitous nature of creation. He says:
"The Lutheran and Reformed agree in calling the entire work of creation a free act of God resting solely on the goodness of the divine will. That God created is therefore neither an absolute necessity...resting on an antecedent cause nor a necessity of nature...since God was not bound by his nature to create the world but could have existed without the creation. The Reformed add that creation is a necessity of the consequence...since the divine act of creation does result from the eternal and immutable decree of God..."1
This entails that creation is entirely gratuitous, and this fact ought to enhance our worship as we contemplate it. To be is of the essence of God, or necessary to God, but not to creatures. Creatures do not necessarily exist; their existence is contingent, or by "necessity of the consequence." God willed to create, to bring into contingent existence that which did not exist necessarily, which is everything other than God. Creation did not appear due to absolute divine necessity. In other words, there is nothing in God that makes creation absolutely necessary. Louis Berkhof's words are helpful at this juncture. He wrote:
"The only works of God that are...necessary with a necessity resulting from the very nature of God are the opera ad intra, the works of the separate persons within the Divine Being: generation, filiation, and procession. To say that creation is a necessary act of God, is also to declare that it is just as eternal as those immanent works of God. Whatever necessity may be ascribed to God's opera ad extra, is a necessity conditioned by the divine decree and the resulting constitution of things. It is necessity dependent on the sovereign will of God, and therefore no necessity in the absolute sense of the word. The Bible teaches us that God created all things, according to the counsel of His will, Eph. 1:11; Rev. 4:11; and that He is self-sufficient and is not dependent on His creatures in any way, Job 22:2,3; Acts 17:25."2
The creation is predicated upon the divine pleasure, or will, to create, as mysterious as that is to us. Though some have argued (I think rightly) that creation is fitting to the divine essence, this does not entail that creation is absolutely necessary to the divine essence. Creation, we must affirm, is utterly gratuitous and mysterious. Before considering an eloquent statement by John Webster, let us remember that theology is an intellectual act, a creaturely reflection, the goal of which is worship. We are attempting to grasp what God has revealed to us, a great privilege, and creaturely theology's goal is communion with God through our Lord Jesus Christ and all its entailments. Webster put it in the following way:
"God requires nothing other than himself. Yet his unoriginate love also originates. Why this should be so, we are incapable of telling, for, though with much consternation we can begin to grasp that it is fitting that God should so act, created intelligence remains stunned by the fact that God has indeed done so. What stuns us - what our intelligence can't get behind or reduce any further - is the outward movement of God's love, God's love under its special aspect of absolute creativity. God's creative love is not the recognition, alteration or ennoblement of an antecedent object beside itself, but the bringing of an object into being, ex nihilo generosity by which life is given. By divine love, the 'infinite distance' which 'cannot be crossed' [quoting Aquinas] - the distance between being and nothing - has been crossed. The love of God, therefore, has its term primarily in itself but secondarily in the existence of what is other than God, determined by that love for fellowship with him.
Creation is, again, not necessary for God. God's creative love is not 'a love which is needy and in want' and so 'loves in such a way that it is subjected to the things it loves'; God loves not 'out of compulsion of his needs' but 'out of the abundance of his generosity' [quoting Augustine]."3
If creation were necessary to the divine essence, it would be the divine essence, for that which is necessary to the divine essence is necessary for the divine to be.
It makes sense to us (kind of) that God created, since we know it is His will to do so, due to divine love and goodness. But the divine will is not arbitrary, as in capricious or unreasonable. It is not, as Webster says, to be thought of "as a mere spasmodic exercise of divine power..."4 Divine willing "signifies determination to act according to nature."5 God does not have to create in order to be God or in order to be enhanced by that which He created, but create He did, and when He does it reflects who He is. This should astound us and promote worship in us. Hear the words of the Psalmist:
"By the word of the LORD the heavens were made, And all the host of them by the breath of His mouth. He gathers the waters of the sea together as a heap; He lays up the deep in storehouses. Let all the earth fear the LORD; Let all the inhabitants of the world stand in awe of Him. For He spoke, and it was done; He commanded, and it stood fast" (Psalm 33:6-9).
God is happily God without creatures. Creation is an utterly gratuitous divine effect, indicating to us the "supreme generosity in accord with and on the basis of God's eternal love of himself in the processions of Son and Spirit from the Father."6 God acts for the love of God. Creation makes sense to us (kind of), but only as we contemplate the divine processions behind creation and meditate upon the divine self-sufficiency and love of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Though God is happily God without creatures, creatures exist, and they exit "out of the abundance of his generosity."
1. Richard A. Muller, Dictionary of Latin and Greek Theological Terms, Second Edition (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 1985, 2017), 83-84.
2. Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology (1939, 1941; reprint, Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1986), 130.
3. John Webster, God without Measure: Working Papers in Christian Theology, Volume I, God and the Works of God (London, Oxford, New York, New Delhi, Sydney: Bloomsbury, 2016), 1:92-93.
4. Webster, God without Measure, 1:93.
5. Webster, God without Measure, 1:93.
6. Webster, God without Measure, 1:93
Richard C. Barcellos, is pastor of Grace Reformed Baptist Church, Palmdale, CA and Associate Professor of Exegetical Theology at IRBS Theological Seminary. He is the author of Getting the Garden Right: Adam's Work and God's Rest in Light of Christ and The Covenant of Works: Its Confessional and Scriptural Basis.