Feast of the Nativity of the Forerunner John the Baptist and of St Elizabeth, Mother of the Forerunner
THE MAKING of the world and the creation of all things have been taken differently by many, and each has propounded as each has wished. Some say that all things have come into being spontaneously and by chance, such as the Epicureans who, according to themselves, fantasize that there is no providence over the universe, speaking in the face of the clear and apparent facts. For if all things came into being spontaneously without providence, as they claim, all things would necessarily have simply come into being and be identical and without difference. Everything would have been as a single body, sun or moon, and regarding human beings, the whole world have been a hand or eye or foot. But, now, this is not the case: we see, here, the sun, there the moon, there the earth; and again regarding human bodies, here a foot, there a hand, and there a head. Such order indicates that they did not come into being spontaneously, but shows that a cause preceded them, from which one can apprehend the God who ordered and created all things.
Others, amongst whom is Plato, that giant among the Greeks, declare that God made the universe from preexistent and uncreated matter, as God is not able to make anything unless matter preexisted, just as a carpenter must already have wood so that it may be used. They do not realize that saying such things is to impute weakness to God: for if He is not Himself the cause of matter, but simply makes things from pre-existent matter, then He is weak, not being able without matter to fashion any of the things that exist, just as the weakness of the carpenter is certainly his inability to make any required thing without wood. According to the argument, unless there were matter, God would not have made anything. How would He then still be called “Maker” and “Creator,” if He had His ability to make from something else, I mean from the matter? And if this is so, as they thus have it, according to them God is only a craftsman and not the Creator of being, if He fashions underlying matter but is not Himself the cause of matter. He would in no way be called “Creator,” if He does not create matter, from which created things come into being.
Others, again, from the heretics fabricate for themselves another creator of all things besides the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, being greatly blinded even in what they say. [. . .]
These things, then, they fantasize. But the inspired teaching and faith according to Christ casts out their vain talk as godlessness. For it knows that neither spontaneously, as it is not without providence, nor from pre-existent matter, as God is not weak, but from nothing and having absolutely no existence God brought the universe into being through the Word, which it says through Moses, “In the beginning God made heaven and earth” (Gen. 1.1) and through that most useful book of the Shepherd, “First of all believe that God is one, who created and framed all things, and made them from non-existence into being” (Mandate 1.1), as also Paul indicates when he says, “By faith we understand that the worlds were framed by the Word of God, so that what is seen was not made out of things which appear” (Heb. 11.3). For God is good, or rather the source of all goodness, and one who is good grudges nothing, so that grudging nothing its existence, He made all things through His own Word, our Lord Jesus Christ. Among these things, of all things upon earth He had mercy upon the human race, and seeing that by the principle of its own coming into being it would not be able to endure eternally, He granted them a further gift, creating human beings not simply like all the irrational animals upon the earth but making them according to His own Word (cf. Gen. 1.27), giving them a share of the power of His own Word, so that having as it were shadows of the Word and being made rational, they might be able to abide in blessedness, living the true life which is really that of the holy ones in paradise. And knowing again that free choice of human beings could turn either way, He secured beforehand, by a law and a set place, the grace given. For bringing them into His own paradise, He gave them a law, so that if they guarded the grace and remained good, they might have the life of paradise—without sorrow, pain, or care—besides having the promise of their incorruptibility in heaven; but if they were to transgress and turning away become wicked, they would know themselves enduring the corruption of death according to nature, and no longer live in paradise, but thereafter dying outside of it, would remain in death and in corruption. This also the Divine Scripture foretells, speaking in the person of God, “You may eat from all the trees in paradise; from the tree of knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat. On the day you eat of it, you shall die by death” (Gen. 2.16-18). This ‘you shall die by death,” what else might it be except not merely to die, but to remain in the corruption of death?
—St Athanasius, On the Incarnation