Dispatch from Notre Dame's Creation out of Nothing: Origins and Contemporary Significance Conference (part 2)

Blair Smith
This is the second (and final) part to the report. One can read the first part here ~ the editor

...The 'nothingness' that enters into human experience through acts of sin is something of which Augustine was acutely aware when he meditated upon his own life in his Confessions. John Cavadini, Professor of Theology at Notre Dame, tied the narrative of Augustine's life to his account of the seven days of creation in his paper "Where do Stories Come from? Augustine on Creatio ex nihilo". Ultimately, since it is something we have never experienced, CEN is a mystery dependent upon God's revelation. Recognizing the primacy of revelation, in the creation account itself we see in miniature a narrative of the Christian's life. At least this is how Augustine understood his own life. Take the moment right after creation (Gen 1:2): the world was "without form and void". According to Augustine, this is where sin takes us: to the brink of nothingness, to the place where we have no story or identity except that we are created beings. This formless, meaningless place - this 'neighbor of nothing' - is where the famous pear tree incident took Augustine in Book 2 of the Confessions. But where sin brings a formless chaos into our lives, God's redeeming hand shapes our lives into a story that 'ends' resting in God's eternal presence where there is no longer "evening and morning". The cosmos itself has a story God narrates in creation that ends in timeless rest on the seventh day. In telling his own 'creation story' whereby he sets up a model of Christian discipleship, Augustine teaches us that the meaning of life is learning to give thanks to God for taking us out of our disordered sin and progressively shaping our lives into something that is "very good". 

While uncontroversial, the conclusions reached in these two historical papers are important for articulating the distinct shape CEN took as it was emerging in the early Church. The 'work' CEN did within Athanasius and Augustine's writings holds promise for any coherent evangelical theology in highlighting how this doctrine supports an account of God's freedom, his goodness, and his ability to immediately meet us in his grace. It is hard to ignore the apologetical force of CEN within this historical period when many alternative accounts put 'something in the way' of the divine and creation. CEN 'cleared the air', as it were, in both clearly separating humanity from God (the 'Creator/creature distinction') while also putting human beings in a full and immediate relationship with their Creator. One gains a picture for how this happens in the life of and self-understanding of Augustine. Where the philosophical and cosmological accounts of the relationship between God and the world have shifted since the time of the early Church, certainly CEN continues to provide an arsenal of tools that enable compelling explanations for not only who God is but how he continues to act in the world. To understand our own spiritual lives as a 'mini-story' of creation where God is shaping us to spend eternity with him rightly places the Christian life within the highest register - as an act of God himself - while also tempering any measure of pride, since all we can do is give thanks for the beautiful narrative God's creates for each of his saints. 

And with that the lack of controversy ends. The last paper I will comment upon was delivered by the indefatigably brilliant David Bentley Hart. In "God, Creation, and Evil" Hart both pledged his theological troth to the universalistic legacy of Origen of Alexandria and Gregory of Nyssa and mounted a highly sophisticated screed against the God most Christians have believed in, that is, One who sends some to hell either based on predestination or free-choice. In brief, while Hart claims Scriptural warrant for his position - after all, he asks, has the church known a more careful reader of the Bible than Origen? - his argument carries an overwhelming concern for philosophical coherence. In its simplest form it is this: the good God who freely created all things will safely return all those things to Christ. Hart's overall point is that when we talk about beginnings (protology) we are, at the same time, talking about ends (eschatology)--the end matches the beginning. If at the beginning a good God creates all things then in the end, by necessity of the character of the God who created them, all things must return to him. To posit an eternal place where things remain separated from God produces, in Hart's consideration, a logical hairball that must be heaved out. CEN cannot withstand in the future a total antithesis such as an eternal place of separation from God. The existence of evil in the world, in Hart's considered opinion, is ultimately an arrangement of God's goodness the purpose of which will only be revealed at the end of all things. 

This was just the beginning of Hart's talk. He went on to thrust his sword at all comers within the non-universalist Western Church, taking on original sin, traditional evangelism, and - most vociferously - the Reformed faith. Now, let me repeat, Hart is a brilliant intellect. He's also a very entertaining rhetorician. If he's written an essay out there, I've most likely read it and thoroughly enjoyed the brandishing of his theological and philosophical sword against the untrammeled nonsense of our day. But despite his commitment to Eastern Orthodoxy, he's too good of an intellect to fall prey to the polemics he engaged in within this talk. For a brief second he commended the Reformed tradition for taking the sovereignty of God to its logical conclusions. But then he took up the mantle of the old preacher who had written in the margins of his sermon, "Weak point...Yell louder!!!". The result for Hart was thinly veiled disgust informed by a simple inaccuracy. He started by claiming that John Calvin doesn't affirm love as an attribute of God, repeating twice "I'm not making this up!" Well, actually, he was. As E. J. Hutchinson over at The Calvinist International has demonstrated, this repeated canard is indeed a Hartian fabrication, one made all the more bewildering because Hart claims to be such a close reader of original texts. Hart went on to up the ante and claim not only Calvin but the entire Reformed tradition as not holding love as an attribute of God. To be honest, such a reckless and dishonest characterization could cause one to question all his judgments. Again, I say, Hart is too good for this. If he doesn't have the patience to give Calvin, Turretin, Bavinck, the Westminster divines, or Edwards (to name a few) an honest and nuanced read, at least he could 'pass over' the Reformed and leave us in our sins instead of actively damning us to his theological inferno. In the end, during the time for feedback, Hart was firmly interrogated both for his sweeping asides that seemed to simplify the teachings of those he opposed and for how his 'brief' for universalism matches up with the words of Jesus found in Matthew 25:31-46. 

This conference was very helpful. Even Hart's misguided paper was helpful in thinking through the internal logic of universalistic claims. Its greatest benefit for me, an evangelical and Reformed Protestant, was in considering the doctrine of creation within a proper theological context. In recent decades the theological and ecclesiastical world I inhabit has been consumed with questions attending the 'how' of creation. As important as these are, just as important are the questions of how a doctrine like CEN upholds a whole web of theological affirmations and practices--from God's presence in grace to the spiritual reality of prayer. We would do well to explore more deeply CEN's connections within our theological and spiritual architecture, for the result would be a richer and more confident confession of our faith. 

Rev. D. Blair Smith is an ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church in America and a doctoral student in early christian history and theology at Durham University. He's currently a research visitor at the University of Notre Dame. Follow him on twitter @dblairsmith