Modes of divine action – creatio continua

At the end of this section of the series on the theology of nature, a section in which I have looked at modes of divine action, I want to say a word about an alternative concept called “continuous creation”, usually put in Latin as creatio continua.

First, some Wikipedia-style disambiguation. I’m not here talking about the cosmological theory of Fred Hoyle, in which he envisaged that new matter was continually being created ex nihilo, as an alternative to the big bang theory that finally prevailed. Nor am I talking about the possibility I voiced in my post on “creation,” that God may have continued to perform truly new creative acts through the universe’s long history.

This post is instead about the notion, historically held particularly by Eastern Theologians, that God’s ongoing sustaining of the world (Acts 17: 28; Col. 1:17; Heb 1:3) effectively constitutes its re-creation by him, in its entirety, at each moment in time.

To justify this briefly and inadequately, one consideration is that, since God’s being, and hence his creation of all things, lies outside time, it is naïve to privilege some initial event like the big bang as the sole locus of creation. What God creates is the entire history of the earth, in accordance with titles he is given such as “Alpha and Omega” or “Beginning and End”.

This jars against ideas that have become prevalent in Western Christianity, which has often, since the Renaissance made man the measure of all things, and so wished to make the future open to free-will. Thus in Arminianism, at least after Arminius himself, God foresees but does not govern human choices. In the extreme case of Open Theism God himself is conditioned by history, rather than creating it.

The legacy of Deism also haunts even more orthodox thinking, in that God’s determination of the future (whether including human free-will or not) is seen as setting up cause and effect chains that are inviolable, by laws of nature or just by divine decree. Thus in this view God foresees the future just as we, or Laplace’s Demon, might – by fully knowing the causes currently operating.

Creatio continua gives a fresh perspective by taking seriously God’s eternal nature, and subordinating created nature to it, rather than subjecting God’s being to the world’s mutability. Perhaps one might say that, rather than creating space and time in the abstract, so that initial conditions evolve in time, God creates all the particulars in space and time.

A second consideration is that creatio continua lays stress on something that is also inherent in historical Western ideas of God’s conservation of the universe. As I pointed out in the post on special providence (which is probably the closest equivalent to creatio continua) the modern idea of “bare conservationism”, that God keeps the creation in existence as if he were merely the power supply to an otherwise autonomous machine, is inherited from Deism, not Christianity.

This is because the “being” which God sustains involves not only entities, but their acts and relations. He does not simply keep the lion from annihilation – he keeps [the lion’s hunting of the zebra] in being. Less intuitively, he does not only maintain the existence of molecules, but he maintains them in their chemical reactions, and he maintains a particular mass in its conversion to energy, and so on.

That’s why, both in the dominant western view of special providence as “concurrence”, and the minority position of “occasionalism,” God is held to be the first cause even of sinful human acts, whilst being carefully separated from their sinful character. Unless God maintains all these acts in being, all sides have agreed, they cannot exist. This, incidentally, is true even within the Jesuit attempt to reconcile radical free with divine conservation, Molinism.

Describing these matters in terms of creatio continua gives the issues a particular clarity: if creation, in all its complexities, only exists moment by moment by God’s sustaining power, to the extent that it may be said that God is recreating it moment by moment, then clearly he must be intimately involved in every last aspect of creation. There is no sense, in creatio continua, in which any aspect of creation can be left alone to maintain itself.

This is a totally different situation to all human activity, in which simply because God is sustaining the world in being, we can leave machines to operate unattended, leave materials in store and expect them to be available when needed, or be indifferent to our ignorance of many causes in nature, because God is not.

But although creatio continua brings this into stark relief, it is actually inherent in the whole western theological tradition of providence, both special and general, if residual traces of Deism are swept away, and if Open Theism is rejected. The original, Baconian, concept of laws of nature, for example, was not simply that God creates laws which thenceforth are written (in stone?) and impose obedience on matter, but that God is both the giver and enforcer of laws. Matter obeys regular constraints that God is actively imposing on it – and indeed on every last element of it.

Creatio continua, then, is not in conflict with other orthodox views of providence – it simply expresses them in a different way that tends to emphasize aspects that are more implicit in those views. I suggest it is therefore helpful in presenting us with the questions our own theological “systems” need to answer.

Like all deep theological ideas, creatio continua has its own potential drawbacks. In particular, the idea that creation is somehow completely renewed at each moment seems to make the continued reality of all entities – including ourselves – problematic. Like a cartoon film in which each each frame is individually painted and then photographed, the existence of the characters, or even the landscapes, appears to be illusory, except in the mind of the cartoonist and the perception of the viewer.

This is a genuine problem, but I wonder if it may be exaggerated in our estimation by our particular “instinctive” view of the world. More knowledge gives us a less simple picture of our reality. After all, from a molecular point of view, we now know that we consist of only 2% of the atoms we had this time last year, and we know that all our cells are replaced every 7-10 years. So what makes us “real” or “persisting” individuals in a physical sense? And from the quantum point of view, our whole macro-reality is more an interpretation than a fact, as Arthur Eddington’s description of his desk classically showed:

When it comes down to it, what is creation beyond an idea in the mind of God that, in some way we have no way of comprehending, also becomes an idea in our minds? In the case of the cartoon, Walt Disney thinks of the adventures that his character Mickey will have, and we viewers share that vision when we watch the film. All the technicalities and “illusions” in between are, from one point of view, irrelevant to that meeting of minds. The shared perception, not the process, is the final reality.

Obviously, in our created world, there is a higher “level of reality” than a cartoon film. But what that actually means, other than that “stuff matters”, it’s hard to say. We are Mickey Mouse and not cinema-goers, but then God is not Walt Disney either.

But he is, in his Son, the one who “upholds everything by the word of his power” – which is the very same word that, according to Genesis 1, brought it into being to begin with. To keep plates spinning on a stick takes exactly the same abilities as getting them up there in the first place.

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About Jon Garvey

Training in medicine (which was my career), social psychology and theology. Interests in most things, but especially the science-faith interface. The rest of my time, though, is spent writing, playing and recording music.
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