Creation: choosing the possible, or choosing from the possible?

David Burrell compares two different ways in which the doctrine of God’s free creation has historically been articulated in its response to the Neoplatonic doctrine of the world’s necessary emanation from “the One.” The first position is the more familiar, but also, to Burrell’s reckoning, the less adequate and more problematic of the two:

It is commonly presumed that the alternative to a necessary emanation of the universe from its source is a picture of the creator selecting which universe to create. This picture coheres with our commonly held presumption that choosing is the paradigm for the exercise of freedom…. [M]any who so construe creation do not think of the presence of such “worlds” as a prior constraint on God, since the worlds are rather conceived as products ofthe divine mind, one of which the divine will ‘actualizes.’ Indeed, nothing would seem to enhance the scope of the divine intellect so much as to think of God knowing in detail all possible configurations of all possible states of affairs, necessary and contingent, and selecting this one! (27-8)

In sum, God’s freedom in creation consists in his prerogative and capacity to choose from an infinitude of equally available “possible” worlds contained in the divine mind. Burrell doesn’t directly identify any representatives of this position by name, but his later remarks about the Muslim philosopher Avicenna indicate that Burrell might see him as a candidate. St. Augustine would be another.

The second, alternative viewpoint, and the one preferred and defended by Burrell and which he vaguely ties to Aquinas, holds over against the first view that

[t]here is no possibility preceeding God’s free origination, except by reference to the power of God. So there are no ‘possible worlds’ from which the creator selects this one, as though God’s action in creating were primarily a matter of will and indeed of choice… One may indeed speak about how things might have been, but as possibilities. They remain relative to the power of God to create them, and so say little more than that things could have been otherwise than the way in which they are. (28-9)

Unfortunately, Burrell has less to say about what model or paradigm of divine freedom seems to be operative in this second account of God’s freedom in creation. One way of expressing the difference might be to say that, instead of God choosing from an already divinely conceived and posited notion of possibility–a determinate albeit infinite array of possible worlds–as per the first view, this second view of divine freedom has God freely and inventively determining what creation’s possibility is in the first place. My hope in future work on this subject is to try to develop a more robust, Trinitarian, and even “sub-creative” articulation of what this free process seems to be like.

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