This post is part of the much larger Reader’s Guide to Kathryn Tanner. In this post, I take up a journal article on the concept of ex nihilo as a linguistic element of theology.
The overall point in her article is to show the development of ex nihilo language in tandem with strong claims about God’s transcendence as Christian theology went along, and to show that explaining ex nihilo often involves the use of “mixed metaphors.” This task is taken up as a counter-measure to modern tendencies to create a dilemma between panentheisim or deism, that is, God is either absent from the world or part of the world; theologians that think this way merely show their misuse of the theological concepts of ex nihilo and transcendence. This article primarily concerns proper ways of speaking about God, and it has to do with method and language primarily rather than any specific doctrines or constructive theologies.
To begin, Tanner frames divine transcendence away from a doctrinal category, per se, and more toward an understanding that it is a linguistic strategy of Christian theologians. It signals the failure of all predications of the divine. God, in other words, is not a thing besides other things. God, using this linguistic category, does not follow the normal affirmative-and-opposite correlation of everyday speech (e.g. I am Vincent, so therefore not Tom.). God doesn’t “work” that way. Tanner uses the example of a somewhat common claim that because God is not a body, then God must be the opposite of body, spirit. Instead, transcendence implies that God is neither body nor spirit and cannot be put into these sort of contrastive categories like things of the world can be. God transcends contrastive terminology (For more on this, see her God and Creation in Christian Theology). If all of this is how transcendence ought to function linguistically, then it follows that Christian theology does not have a specific image or metaphor that is “right,” but that it can “mix” whatever is around to use from everyday speech or philosophical language. While theological language may borrow from normal ways of speaking, it also, in employing language about God, doesn’t abide by the normal limitations that specific terms might have in other contexts. Theology often crosses these sorts of linguistic boundaries by the necessity of its subject matter.
In explaining the historical dilemma between transcendence and immanence, Tanner goes back to the origins of Christianity and what was the case in the contemporary Greco-Roman way of thinking about the divine. The idea was the God must be like the world in order to work inside of it or, it would follow that God would not be able to interact with things of the world if God was not like those things. Christians, Tanner says, ought to reject this dilemma and the principle behind it, the principle being, that only like interacts with like. She considers how this dilemma played out in the classic pantheon of gods who were very much like humans, and therefore very active in human affairs! In contrast, there were some strands of philosophical thinking about the divine that created more of a distance between God and creation, like Aristotle’s unmoved mover. Or, more complex, thinkers who posited some sort of “buffer zone” of emanations between God and the world so as to create the necessary “distance” for God to act in the world through a multiplicity of intermediaries. Here, transcendence often equals spatial distance, at least conceptually.
However, even this idea of the various emanations of God suggests that all is ultimately traceable back to God even if through a series of steps. Plotinus, the neo-platonist began to take this route when talking about God as neither a this nor a that, saying God is beyond finite being. Because he thought this to be true, God could be responsible for more than just what was “like.” Tanner writes concerning this development, “Because God is not any particular kind of thing, God is able to produce any sort of thing and therefore all of them.” In this model, in contrast to the usual dilemma, transcendence and involvement go hand in hand in stead of occupying an inverse relationship.
As far as early Christian theology goes, Irenaeus was one of the first to posit this type of radical transcendence by re-working many of the gnostic concepts of God. He claimed that God is not limited by what is not God and that the difference between God and the world is not the same sort of differentiation that exists between things of this world (hence, God does not fall into the same sort of contrastive categories as other existing things). For Tanner, the meaning of creation ex nihilo is that God works directly, not through an intermediary or by working upon anything else (this also has implications for denying a form of coercive domination between God and creation, or models of human hierarchy based upon this – themes Tanner takes up in her first two books more explicitly). Nothing, therefore is outside of God’s reach.
Moving more concretely toward her discussion of metaphors, Tanner uses many historical examples of Christian talk about God to make her point, citing Aquinas, Bonaventure, Barth, and Schleiermacher among others (I won’t repeat their positions here). This more developed form of transcendence has often been explained by leaning either toward naturalistic images of God (or creation out of God) or personalistic images of God. Theologians, in fact, often mix these metaphors in various ways in attempt to maintain a theological balance. Each type of language is not bound in definite ways that limit God in unnecessary ways. Some may claim there is no such thing as a logical necessity in God forcing God to create, but others may think that necessity, at least when speaking about God, does not deny freedom. In fact, Schleiermacher says this exact thing: “We must… think of nothing in God as necessary without at the same time positing it as free, nor as free unless at the same time necessary.”Other theologians, perhaps, think of this necessity in terms akin to generosity such that creation is the overflowing of divine superabundant goodness. These examples, more of which are used than restated here, all demonstrate the divergent ways theologians have explained the metaphor of transcendence and ex nihilo, often “mixing” various images with others so as to approximate more what is the case when we speak about God.
In conclusion, Tanner thinks it is especially necessary for theologians to realize that it has historically been the case that Christians use mixed metaphors when explaining God and creation and that our borrowed concepts (from the world or philosophy, etc.) must be twisted and re-shaped before they can be employed of God properly. We cannot resort to ways of speaking about God that conform to this ancient dilemma of transcendence vs. immanence because God-talk should not conform to the normal ways of sense-making in everyday life. It is correct to use these types of mixed images for God because they allow us to get at what is meant by transcendence and ex nihilo.
Full article citation: Kathryn Tanner, “Creation ex nihilo as Mixed Metaphor,” in Modern Theology 29, no. 2 (2013): 138-155.