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Something three great faiths agree on

12 April 2011

It sheds light on the Early Church, too, says Andrew Davison


Creation and the God of Abraham
David B Burrell, Carlo Cogliati, Janet M Soskice and William R Stoeger, editors
Cambridge University Press £55
Church Times Bookshop  £49.50

THIS is a book about the theologi­cal understanding of creation in the three Abrahamic faiths. The papers come from a conference held at Castel Gandolfo, Italy, in July 2006, sponsored by the Vatican Observa­tory. It covers history, theology, and science, often weaving these themes together.

The doctrine of creation under discussion here is not simply the question what happened at the beginning, a long time ago. More fundamentally, it concerns the relation of the creation to its creator at any and every moment. As such, it lies at the intersection of every major doctrine, just as it bears upon every significant religious practice.

This book is an example of inter-faith dialogue at its most construc­tive. The three Abrahamic faiths never have more in common than when talking about creation. In particular, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam believe in creation out of nothing. This ex nihilo is the focus of the book: the denial that God made the universe out of pre-existing matter (as we find in Plato), or that the world emanates out of God’s own substance (as in Neo-Platonism), or that God and the universe stand alongside each other as comparable beings (as, perhaps, in Aristotle).

Not every paper will command the attention of any given reader equally, and one or two are a little analytic and opaque compared with the others. The considerable major­ity of these essays, however, will captivate anyone interested in doctrine or the relation of theology and science.

After an introduction from Carlo Cogliati, Ernan McMullin and Janet Soskice lay out the shape and his­tory of the ex nihilo idea with par­ticular beauty. David Burrell explores the relation of the idea to other doctrines. Simon Oliver, William Stoeger, and Simon Con­way Morris consider the relation of creation ex nihilo to the history and concerns of science. Eugene Rogers relates scientific knowledge to theo­logical knowledge. James Pambrun and Thomas Tracy think about the relation of God’s causation to causation within the world.

Christianity takes the central place, and particularly theology of an Augustinian-Thomist flavour, but there are also essays on the significance of creation ex nihilo for Judaism and Islam (from Daniel Davies, Rahim Acar, Pirooz Fatoor­chi, and Ibrahim Kalin), and a chap­ter on the perspective of John Duns Scotus from Alexander Broadie. The historic contributions of Islamic and Jewish theologians to Christian thought on this subject are properly acknowledged.

The story told here could not be more important for evaluating the relationship between philosophy, theology, and revelation in the Early Church. A few decades ago, it be­came popular (with the advent of “doctrinal criticism”) to say that, although the Church had started with a theology based on scripture (which was therefore characteristic­ally “Hebrew”), it soon contam­inated its faith with ideas from Hellenistic philosophy, not least during the early Christological and Trinitarian debates.

This book shows that such an analysis is far off the mark. The Hebrew thought that the Early Church inherited was already Hel­len­istic (and, indeed, some Hellen­istic thought had begun looking to Hebrew sources). Moreover, in for­mulating the key doctrine of creation ex nihilo, the Church consid­ered the fundamental positions of Plato, Aristotle, and the Neo-Platonists concerning creation, and rejected them. Some philosophical terms that remained were, indeed, pressed into service (ideas of emana­tion and participation, for instance), but here theology pushed philosophy into new shapes, not vice versa.

This collection is a magnificent achievement. It left me hoping for a thoroughgoing formulation of “theo­logy and science” which started from what this book lays before us. I venture that almost all we need for the renewal of that field could be found in this exceptional volume.

The Revd Dr Andrew Davison is Tutor in Christian Doctrine at Westcott House, Cambridge, and an affiliated lecturer in the Divinity Faculty of the University of Cambridge

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