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How Does God Order Creation?

 By Duncan Roper


No doubt many have heard of Albert Einstein’s famous phrase ‘God does not play dice.’  On many occasions Einstein engaged in a kind of God-talk that needs to be carefully understood. In this particular case, the remarks were made as a criticism of what has since become known as the Copenhagen Interpretation of Quantum Theory, due mainly to the Danish Physicist Niels Bohr. What Einstein meant by it was that Nature, in its fundamentals, was not to be considered a game of chance. Its comings and goings were the result of a set laws that, remarkably, were open to the scrutiny and analysis of human beings.


In this God-talk Einstein was almost certainly speaking a similar language to that of the seventeenth century philosopher Benedict Spinoza, as it was a major feature of his philosophical theory that God and Nature were one and the same.  

The seventeenth century innovator of this kind of religious/philosophical position was also Jewish.  His name is Benedict Spinoza, and one of his claims to fame is his expulsion from the community of his Jewish synagogue for writing the book that was, at the time, given the name a book forged in hell that has been described as the beginning the radical face of the Eighteenth century Enlighten-ment heralding the birth of the secular age. 


In very brief terms, we may describe three dominant religious/philosophic positions concerning the relationship of God to the cosmos during the seven- teenth century – the transition period concerning the radical shift from the Mediaeval world to the modern, secular world.  


We might describe the first of these as a theism that minimally implied that we humans, together with the rest of the cosmos in which we find ourselves, is the result of a creation by God ‘in the beginning’.  This creation was also subject to the genesis of unfolding, in created time, through the subsequent activity of a genesis shaping by God during ‘the seven days.’  Most importantly to this kind of view perhaps, is the idea that the lawfulness by which God governs the cosmos and everything in it, is that its overall order arises not from any a-priori Platonic insight into the essence of God’s nature, but form the declared will of God.  This voluntarism had at least two forms of interpretation.  One came dangerously close to saying simply that everything that happened in the cosmos was the immediate result of the will of God –a doctrine sometimes referred to as ‘occasionalism.’  The other – illustrated by John Calvin – entailed the idea that the lawfulness of everything that happened in the cosmos was not the result of an arbitrary will of God.  Rather, its regularity was the result of God’s faithfulness to his over-riding Word and his various covenants with his creatures – including humankind as its vice-regent or temporal ruler pictured in Psalm 8.  Its overall view of the lawfulness of the cosmos – in both its ‘natural’ and ‘human’ realms – was one in which law, at least in the first instance, was not a property of creation itself.  In this sense, it would not be proper to speak of ‘the laws of nature’ or ‘natural law.’  However, to discover the contents of God’s lawful ordering of creation it was necessary to examine the way in which creation actually functioned empirically under the lawfulness of God, not by means of the soul’s knowledge of the mind of God though the a-priori knowledge of the mind of God construed in the terms of the Platonic forms. 


Ontologically, therefore, this kind of theistic stance with regard to the regularity, order and lawfulness of creation – whether of the ‘natural’ or ‘human’ worlds resulted from God’s ongoing faithful upholding of the full scope of God’s creation.  The fuller detail of this kind of stance may be found for example, in Susan Schreiner’s book The Theater of His Glory.


The second of these stances concerning the relationship between God and his creation may be described as the Deistic view of Descartes.  Now, Descartes did not describe himself as a deist.  However, the definition of deism may be stated as the view that the Creator God brought all things into existence – including their laws – in the beginning, and allowed them to continue in accordance with these ‘laws of nature’.  In the wake of this idea, therefore nature and humans may have had a beginning at the time at which the Creator brought all things into being.  Thereafter, however, creation unfolded in accordance with something akin to a Stoic providence that disclosed its purposes in the course of the events of history as experienced by humankind in the here and now.


The third such overall stance was that of Spinoza.  He used the word ‘God’ virtually as a synonym for ‘Nature.’  As such this god was neither the covenant God of Israel; nor was it a manifestation of the nature gods of the Greeks and Romans.  For them, their panoply of gods arose from nature, but were not equated with it.  Rather Spinoza’s god was simply the whole cosmos, including humans, looked upon as the ultimate source of all order and meaning.  In this way, Spinoza provided many of the more intellectual classes of the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries with their sources for radical religious and political views that later had a major influence upon the Enlightenment of the Eighteenth century.


We can see these various influences as they impinge people like Voltaire and Diderot in the eighteenth century.  Voltaire described himself as a Deist, a follower of the Newton system of mechanics and, following Spinoza, someone who looked upon the Bible as a thoroughly human and fallible book, to be replaced by modern and enlightened views.  Diderot, the author of the Encyclopedia that had no place for an entry under the name Jesus, described himself as an atheist and a naturalist.  As such his naturalism fell in line well with the ideas of Spinoza – whether or not one used the word ‘god’ to describe it.


The overall generalized idea of an ‘evolutionary nature’ developed in the nineteenth century – with its antecedents in the idealistic thought of Hegel, the positivism of Comte and much else besides.  It flourished in the latter half of the nineteenth century with the addition of ‘the dynamite’ of Darwin’s theory of natural selection.  This was taken up in the anti-religious and pro-scientific ideology exemplified in such historical writings as A. D. White’s A History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom, Volumes I and II, 1896; J.W. Draper, History of the Conflict between Religion and Science, 1874; and W.E.H. Lecky, A History of the Rise and Influence of the Spirit of Rationalism in Europe, 1897. 


Suffice it to say that the present short article is meant as an Introduction to the significance of the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Century Enlightenment for understanding the ‘religious’ character of secular age in which we live.  In this respect, at some point we plan to include a review of the thorough-going historical study of the Enlightenment by the Jewish scholar, Jonathan Israel, who, in his three big volumes –The Radical Enlightenment (featuring the significance of the thought of Spinoza); The Democratic Enlightenment (relevant especially to the emergence of the USA) and The Enlightenment Contested (relevant to ‘conservatives’ generally) in the collection of articles to feature on this Website.  Another book that we will seek to feature in this section before too long, is Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age


Furthermore, one of the most important ways of characterising what has come to be called the Reformational philosophy developed during the course of the twentieth century, is the nature of lawfulness as the ongoing boundary between Creator and creation discussed as the first of the three options considered in this short article. 


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