- Creation and Contingency in Early Patristic Thought: The Beginning of All Things by Joseph Torchia
A sentence like "Greek philosophers held that the world existed eternally, while Jews and Christians held that God created the world out of nothing" has surely been spoken in countless undergraduate classes in philosophy or theology. Joseph Torchia, in his book on creation in early patristic thought, shows that the matter was far more complex on both the Greek and the Christian sides.
A few classic passages, cited over and over, form the basis for the discussion. On the Greek side, Plato, in the Timaeus, wrote of a Demiurge who was the "Maker and Father" of the whole, a passage that was sometimes interpreted (even by pagans) as implying a creation of sorts. In the same work, Plato wrote of the Receptacle, the "Nurse of all Becoming," which is some kind of primal stuff. These passages were discussed endlessly by later philosophers.
On the biblical side, two texts were key. The obvious one was Genesis 1:1, "In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth." The other was 2 Maccabees 7:28, words that the mother of the seven sons spoke to her last son after the other six had been killed at the order of King Antiochus for refusing to eat pork: "I beseech you, my son, to look at the heaven and the earth and see everything that is in them, and recognize that God did not make them out of things that existed"—or, in another possible translation, "God made them out of things that did not exist" (RSV). This text contains the phrase that was crucial to Christian teaching on creation, "out of what was not"—in the Greek of the Septuagint, ouk ex ontôn (later expressed as ex ouk ontôn). Torchia's book is a search for the point in the development of early Christian thought at which "creation out of nothing" was clearly and unequivocally understood and affirmed.
Few of the terms employed by ancient authors on this topic can be understood univocally. Torchia rightly supplies Greek terms freely in the course of his exposition. For example, Greek nouns of agency like poiêtês, ktistês, or dêmiourgos recur over and over. To translate these words as if their meaning were obvious begs the question. Surely, "Father" has [End Page 628] different senses in the Timaeus and in the New Testament. As Torchia shows, it is a mistake even to assume that these terms had the same clarity of meaning in pre-Nicene Christian writers—even in Origen—that they (supposedly) have in fourth-century creeds and in expositions of the creeds.
Torchia's book is clearly and carefully structured. In the first part of the book, he engages the two poles of the subsequent development: the scriptural point of departure and Plato's teaching on cosmic origins. Then, in an extended treatment, he passes through the complex and shadowy world of Middle Platonism.
The second part of Torchia's book deals with the first and early second centuries—that is, with Philo Judaeus and the Apostolic Fathers. Philo assumed the consonance of the creation narratives in Genesis with the Timaeus, an assumption that had profound consequences, positive and negative, for later Christian development.
In the third and most important part of the book, Torchia traces the evolution and elaboration of the doctrine of creation in several pre-Nicene Christian writers: the apologists Justin Martyr, Athenagoras of Athens, Tatian the Syrian, and Theophilus of Antioch, and the Alexandrian theologians Clement and Origen. Inevitably, this history is seen as the move to a predetermined goal, namely, a clear understanding and formulation of creation "out of nothing," ex nihilo or ex ouk ontôn. The path was a complex one. One sticking point was inevitably the haunting suspicion of some substrate, some preexisting chaos or primal matter that God might shape or give intelligibility to. These authors were making tentative steps toward clarifying...