Does it matter whether or not matter is eternal? Peter J. Leithart, who writes a regular blog on the web site of First Things, definitely thinks it does. According to Leithart , who is a Protestant theologian in the Reformed Presbyterian tradition in the United States, if matter is eternal, "creation can only be control, limitation, ordering." Then God could only be a master craftsman, working with already existing material to form the universe. If matter is eternal, "creation cannot be a gift; . . . cannot be the bestowal of existence, a grant of being." Finally, if matter is eternal, "creation cannot be a free act of love." Leithart has in mind not only historical claims for matter’s eternity, but also many contemporary scientific and philosophical theories that tell us that the universe is without a beginning and, therefore, is not created. The view that to be created necessarily means to have a beginning in time is widely shared by both those who affirm the world is created and those who deny it.
The question about the eternity of matter does indeed matter, even though whether or not matter is eternal does not matter to whether or not it is created. We need to be careful to distinguish between claims as to whether or not the universe is eternal and the further conclusion that an eternal universe cannot be a created universe.
In a culture like ours, so heavily indebted to what modern science tells us about the world, questions concerning creation and various cosmological theories (not to mention theories about human origins in evolutionary biology) are no less pressing than at any time in the past. The questions themselves concern not only what it means to be created – and hence what it means to be Creator – but also how we ought to see the relationship between reason and faith.
From the very beginnings of theological and philosophical reflection in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, scholars in all three traditions wrestled with what it means for the world to be created and what the relationship is between the world and its Creator. The intellectual milieu in which this discourse took place was pervaded by the Hellenistic assumption that the world is eternal. Despite diverse judgments about how to understand the world and its constitutive elements, from Parmenides and Heraclitus, to pre-Socratic materialists, to Plato’s distinction between a world of becoming and an eternal world of forms, to Aristotle’s notions of potentiality, actuality, and the eternity of motion in the heavens, there was a common commitment that the world is eternal. There was no absolute beginning to all that is.
The view that the eternity of the world is incompatible with the affirmation that it is created is particularly evident in the writings of the Christian Church Fathers. To be created, they thought, must mean that the universe is not eternal. The opening line of Genesis seemed clear: there is a beginning to the world; to affirm otherwise, that is to say that the universe is eternal, appeared to strike at the heart of the Christian conception of creature and Creator.
In the Middle Ages, the great Jewish theologian and philosopher, Maimonides (d. 1204), pointed out that the one common starting point for Muslims, Jews, and Christians was the recognition that the world is created, and, he thought that the world’s having a beginning was directly connected to its being created.
Debates about what science and faith tell us about creation and the eternity of the world were evident in the new universities of the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Centuries. An important impetus for these debates was the recent translation into Latin of the works of Aristotle, universally recognized by mediaeval scholars as a key authority in science and philosophy. He was considered to be, as Dante’s Virgil says in the
Divine Comedy, "the master of those who know." Rather than ignore Aristotle’s scientific claims for the eternity of the world, thinkers such as Albert the Great and Thomas Aquinas sought to examine the relationship between claims of faith and reason concerning creation and an eternal world. Thomas addresses this topic in each of the four times he discusses creation in a magisterial way, and near the end of his life he writes a small treatise, On the Eternity of the World. In this treatise, Thomas notes that there is no contradiction in something’s being created and never having a beginning of its existence. This is true, he thinks whether we consider either the action of the Creator or the creature as an effect of that action.
What seems obvious to Peter Leithart and also has seemed obvious to many others in the past (and today) is that an eternal, created universe is an oxymoron: to be created has to mean to have a beginning. It is this necessary entailment between being created and having beginning (and hence without any possibility of being eternal) that Thomas Aquinas denied.
For Thomas, when we speak of an "eternal universe" we do not mean a universe, as some might fear, that is equal to God, since we also speak of God’s being eternal. Eternity as predicated of God does not mean the same as it is predicated of the world. Only God is eternal in the sense of being beyond all temporal categories. There is no temporal succession in or for God. An eternal world, however, would mean a world of temporal succession, stretched out, as it were, for all times, and without a beginning.
To be created is to depend upon God for the very existence of the creature, in whatever way or ways the creature exists. Thomas thought that creation is a dependence in being, not necessarily a beginning of being. Whether or not the universe is eternal concerns the kind of universe God creates, not whether or not it is created. If there were eternal matter it still would be a total gift from the Creator since it depends upon God’s constant causality to exist at all. Whatever is created – with or without a beginning – is, to use Leithart’s phrase, "a free act of love."
The Creator is the complete cause of all that is and this sense of being the complete cause is captured in the expression "creation out-of-nothing." God does not change "nothing" into something; rather, were God’s not causing something to be it would not be at all. An eternal universe is still a universe created out of nothing. For Thomas, this fundamental sense of God’s creative act as the complete causing of all existing things is, at least in principle, something that can be known philosophically. It is a free act of divine love. God does not have to create; God is not somehow better off because He creates. All this remains true whether what God creates is eternal or has a temporal beginning. To be created does not necessarily mean to begin to exist; rather, it does necessarily mean to be completely dependent upon the Creator for its existence.
One error that may lead some to the conclusion that an eternal universe cannot be a created universe is to think creation is an event that occurred a finite number of years in the past. But Thomas helps us to recognize that creation refers to an on-going causal dependence. At every moment of any thing’s existence, God is creating that thing. Another error is to think that, as cause, the Creator must somehow be temporally prior to the creature, as effect. God is prior to His effects, but the priority is not a temporal one.
Thomas did believe that matter is not eternal; he accepted as a truth of faith that the Bible revealed that the universe has a beginning. Yet, he recognized that God could have created a universe that is eternal and that, accordingly, claims of an eternal universe were not incompatible with the fundamental sense of what it means to be created. He also thought, however, that any claims for an eternal universe could never be shown to be true, since this would involve a contradiction between faith and reason, a contradiction which would violate an ultimate principle that God is the author of all truth, that of faith and of reason.
It matters, however, to recognize that a proper understanding of faith and reason requires us to admit the intelligibility of matter’s being eternal and created. Knowledge of discussions in the Middle Ages about creation and the eternity of the world are not only crucial for understanding the historical development of the doctrine of creation, they continue to offer important insights about what truly matters for contemporary analyses about science, philosophy, and faith.
Dr. William E. Carroll is Research Fellow at Blackfriars, Oxford, and a member of the Faculty of Theology of the University of Oxford.