An anthology that I started ten years ago is, with the help of two good friends and colleagues, finally out. It is titled The Patristic Understanding of Creation: An Anthology of Writings from the Church Fathers on Creation and Design and can be ordered here. For the table of contents, go here. This is the first book from my own imprint, Erasmus Press (www.erasmuspress.net). The plan is to publish books, journals, and curriculum materials through it — despise not the day of small beginnings! Here is the cover illustration. Further down is the preface.
This anthology might have been published in 1998. Instead, it now appears in 2008, ten years later. For many books, ten years is an eternity and spells the difference between a book that is current or passé. Fortunately, the writings of the Church Fathers are of perennial interest. Going back to Roman and Byzantine times, these writings are basic to Christian theology and have set the standard for how Christians understand creation.
The need for this anthology has persisted – and indeed grown more urgent – in the years since it was first conceived. In the summer of 1998, the journal Origins & Design published a dialogue featuring Jonathan Wells, John Mark Reynolds, and Howard Van Till (available online at www.arn.org/odesign/od191/od191.htm). Van Till, in the mid-1990s, had published a number of articles arguing for creation’s “functional integrity,” by which he meant that God, in creation, had given the world all the capacities it needs to organize and transform itself.
Van Till’s bogey, throughout these discussions, was what he called “extra-natural assembly” – that God subsequent to creation needed to intervene for nature to accomplish things that, left to herself, nature could never do. For Van Till, a world requiring extranatural assembly is unworthy of the deity. More worthy, according to him, is for God to create a world that is “fully gifted” with all the capacities it might ever need to accomplish God’s purposes. Van Till portrays a God who creates a world that, once created, requires further intervention as a miser: such a Creator ungenerously withholds from the world capacities that it might usefully have possessed to carry out its business (which Van Till calls its “formational economy”).
Functional integrity is a causal closure principle. Not only does it close off natural history to any real-time interaction with God; it also entails forms of cosmological and biological evolution that are entirely driven by natural forces. Charles Kingsley, inspired by Darwin, wrote a children’s book titled The Water Babies. There Kingsley placed in the mouth of Mother Earth, “I make things make themselves.” Van Till, following Kingsley’s example, has God endow nature with an all-encompassing capacity to make and remake itself.
The ability of the world to organize itself without ongoing creative activity from God, though hardly a new idea among theistic evolutionists, found a particularly clear articulation from Van Till and was widely influential in Christian circles in the mid-1990s. If he had left matters there, however, this anthology would never have been compiled. As it is, Van Till did not leave matters there. Instead, he used his functional integrity principle as a weapon for unseating intelligent design (thereby putting himself on the radar of one of the editors of this volume – WmAD). Furthermore, he suggested that two key Church Fathers, St. Basil the Great and St. Augustine of Hippo, tacitly supported his functional integrity principle. (See Howard Van Till, “Basil, Augustine, and the Doctrine of Creation’s Functional Integrity,” Science and Christian Belief, vol. 8, 1996.)
Origins & Design therefore commissioned Jonathan Wells and John Mark Reynolds to respond to Van Till. WmAD, as an editor of Origins & Design, followed their dialogue. Even though Wells and Reynolds did, in his view, adequately counter Van Till’s attempt to co-opt Basil and Augustine, WmAD was concerned about a wider pattern of attempts by scholars working at the intersection of science and religion to undercut the Church Fathers’ teachings on creation.
WmAD therefore contacted Stephen Meyer at Discovery Institute’s Center for Science and Culture about putting together a volume that encapsulated what the Church Fathers had to say, in their own words, on the topic of creation. Two of the editors of this volume (WmAD and JBAF) had met as students at Princeton Theological Seminary in the mid-1990s and there had read Basil, Augustine, and other Church Fathers on the topic of creation. WmAD therefore recommended that Discovery Institute provide JBAF, at the time an advanced theology student at St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary, with a grant to work on such a volume during the summer of 1998.
JBAF made tremendous progress on this project that summer, collecting an enormous number of original sources from the Church Fathers on creation. Notwithstanding, it is one thing to have all the pieces of a puzzle; it is another to put them together. After the summer of 1998, WmAD and JBAF found their time taken up with numerous other projects and commitments, and even though an anthology of Church Father writings on creation was never far from their minds, finding the energy and time to bring this project to completion continually eluded them.
Enter the third editor, WJD. In the summer of 2007, WmAD and WJD met at a Christian retreat and study center in Tehuacana, Texas: The Trinity Institute. At the time, WJD was finishing his M.Div. from Baylor University and working as the program director for this institute. With the degree from Baylor in hand by the end of that summer, his fall was largely free. Moreover, given his interests and background, he was ideally positioned to pick up the pieces of this Rip Van Winkle project.
So, ten years after its conception, The Patristic Understanding of Creation has now finally come to birth. Besides providing a representative cross-section of what the Church Fathers actually wrote and held about creation, this anthology concludes with a magisterial essay by Fr. Georges Florovsky. That essay, “Creation and Creaturehood,” situates the Church Fathers’ understanding of creation within the current theological conversation in a way that is historically accurate and theologically sound.
The controversy over how rightly to understand creation is even more intense now than it was ten years ago when this volume was conceived. Process theology and other efforts to reconceptualize creation continue to gain ground. Under assault are such key Christian doctrines as creation ex nihilo, the transcendence and immanence of God in creation, “the absolute creatureliness and non-self-sufficiency of the world” (to use a phrase of Florovsky), the goodness of creation, and the openness of the world to divine action – all of which the Church Fathers not only held but also ably defended.
The need for an anthology like this is therefore not merely academic or historical; it is practical and urgent.
William A. Dembski
Wayne J. Downs
Fr. Justin B. A. Frederick