On the Creation (excerpt from: On the Incarnation of the Word)

19 January 2023

Although this text was written in the 4th century, it is relevant today in that it addresses opinions which are still in vogue. Even now, for example, there are some people who believe that the universe just sort of happened somehow. Saint Athanasius points out the difference between speculation, which is the product of human ratiocination, and knowledge, which is the result of divine revelation.

There have been many different views as regards the making of the universe and the creation of all things, and people have laid down the law as they’ve seen fit. There are some who say that all things have come into being by themselves, and by chance. An example of such people are the Epicureans, who tell us in their self-contempt, that universal providence doesn’t exist, though this flies in the face of obvious fact and experience. If, as they say, everything had its beginning in and of itself and independently of any purpose, it would follow that everything came into mere being, and would therefore be all the same and not distinct. Given this unity of body, everything must be sun, or moon, or, in the case of human beings, that the whole must be hand, or eye, or foot. But as things stand, this is not the case. On the contrary, we see a distinction of sun, moon, and earth; and again, in the case of human bodies, of foot, hand, and head. This separate arrangement tells us that they haven’t come into being of themselves, but shows that a cause preceded them, from which we can deduce that God is the Maker and Coordinator of all things.

Others, including Plato, who is held in such high regard among the Greeks, argue that God made the world out of pre-existing matter which had no beginning: God couldn’t have made anything if the material hadn’t already been in existence, just as the wood must exist and be at hand for the carpenter, if he’s to work at all. But in so saying, they don’t understand that they’re attributing weakness to God because, if he himself isn’t the cause of the material, but makes things only of  something that already exists, he proves to be weak: he’s unable to produce anything he makes without the material, just as it’s doubtless a weakness of the carpenter that he’s not able to make anything required without his timber. If we take this as our position, then God wouldn’t have made anything because of the want of material. So how could he then be called Maker and Artificer, if he owes his ability to make things to some other source- that is, to the material? According to them, if that’s the case God will simply be a mechanic, and not a creator out of nothing. In other words, he works on existing material, but is not himself the cause of the material. He couldn’t then in any sense be called the Creator unless he’s the Creator of the material of which the things created have, in turn, been made. But in their deep blindness, which extends even to the words they use, these sectarians imagine a different Maker of all things, other than the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.

The Lord says to the Jews: ‘Have you not read that from the beginning he who created them made them male and female, and said, “For this cause shall a man leave his father and mother, and shall cleave to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh”?’. And then, referring to the Creator, he says: “Therefore, what God has joined together let not man put asunder”. How is it, then, that these people believe that the creation’s independent of the Father?Or, in the words of John, who says, making no exception, ‘All things were made by him, and without him nothing was made’. So how could the Maker be anyone else but the Father of Christ?

This is all vain speculation. But godly teaching and faith in Christ brands their foolish language as godlessness. Through these we know that the creation wasn’t spontaneous, because it involved forethought. Nor was it from existing matter, either, because God isn’t weak. We know that it was made out of nothing, and that, without its having any previous existence, God made the universe to exist through his word, as he says first through Moses, in Genesis: ‘In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth’. Then, in the most edifying book of the Shepherd: ‘First of all believe that God is one, and he created and framed all things, and made them to exist out of nothing’. Paul also refers to this when he says: ‘By faith we understand that the universe was formed by the Word of God, so that what is seen was not made out of what was visible’. God is good, or rather is essentially the source of goodness; and one who is good would hardly be miserly in anything. Therefore he doesn’t begrudge existence to anything and has made all things out of nothing by his own Word, Jesus Christ our Lord. Above all things on earth, he has shown particular fondness for the human race. Having perceived our inability, by virtue of the condition of our origin, to continue in stability, he gave us a further gift: he didn’t just create human beings, as he did all the irrational creatures on the earth, but made us after his own image, even giving us a portion of the power of his own Word. This was so that having, as it were, a kind of reflection of the Word, and being made rational, we might be able to abide forever in bliss, living the true life which belongs to the saints in paradise. But knowing how our will could vacillate,side, he anticipated this and made provision for the grace given to us both through a law and by the locus where he placed us. He brought us into his own garden, and gave us a law, so that, if we kept the grace and continued to be good, we might still keep the life in paradise without sorrow or pain or care, as well as having the promise of incorruption in heaven. But if we  transgressed, turned back and became evil, we might know that we were incurring that corruption in death which was ours by nature. We would no longer to live in paradise, but be cast out from that time forth, to die and to abide in death and in corruption. This is what holy Scripture also warns against, saying in the Person of God: ‘You are free to eat from any tree in the garden; but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat from it you will certainly die’.  What else could ‘ you will certainly die’ mean other than not merely dying, but also abiding forever in the corruption of death?

… The Word saw that our corruption couldn’t be undone except by death as a necessary condition, though it was impossible for him to suffer death, since he is immortal, and Son of the Father. He therefore took upon himself a body capable of death, so that by its participation in the Word who is above all, his body might be worthy to die on behalf of all of us, and might, because of the Word who had come to dwell in it, remain incorruptible After that, corruption might be held at bay from all by the grace of the Resurrection. So, by offering unto death the body he himself had taken, as an offering and sacrifice free from any stain, he immediately put away death from all of us by offering an equivalent exchange.