John Nerness

Creation: A Gift or Brute Fact?

John Nerness | 1 February 2021 | 12 min read

This article will be an exploration in understanding creation as a gift, and will be written from a theological position presupposing the truths of Christian theology.[1] This includes both natural and revealed theology as it is presented by figures such as Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) and more recently, Herman Bavinck (1854-1921). I will focus specifically on the interplay between the doctrines of God’s Simplicity, Trinity, and creation.[2] The most basic assumption of this article is that creation is a gift from God, and this will be briefly contrasted to understanding reality as a metaphysical brute fact. The reason for this contrast is because the most primal understanding one can have of finite reality is that it is either a gift or a brute fact. The goal here is to push the terms gift and brute fact to their metaphysical limits, and this will be done by first looking at finite existence as a gift from the Simple, Triune God and then finite existence as a mere brute fact.

Reality as Gift

When it comes to finite reality the idea of gift means that everything that exists has been created by God. Creation as a gift finitely images and participates in God’s existence, essence, and Triunity which accounts for the Creator/creature distinction and relationship. The two doctrines that ground creation are the Simplicity of God and the doctrine of the Trinity. For example, the Simplicity of God explains the existence (thatness) and essence (whatness) of creation and the Trinity accounts for the fact that creation is intelligible since it is gifted by the Father through the eternal Word of God (Logos), and in the love and bond of the Holy Spirit.[3] This is contrasted to brute fact which in its strongest metaphysical understanding means “a being whose existence is utterly unexplainable and attributable to nothing; a thing that exists neither because of itself nor because of another. There is absolutely no ontological explanation for its existence.”[4]

Simplicity and the Gift of Creation

The doctrine of Simplicity means that God is not composed of parts. Since God is not a creature He does not participate in any compositions. Moreover, there is nothing beyond God that unifies or composes Him. This means that God is not composed of existence (thatness) and essence (whatness). He exists necessarily, i.e., God must exist because His essence is His existence and His existence is His essence. Because creatures are composed their existence and essence are not one, and therefore creatures do not uphold their own existence, but exist only if God gifts them existence.[5] But for creatures this gift means a composition of existence and essence, and God composes this composition by way of giving an essence the act of existence. Because God is not composed of parts, He has the power to create and creation in turn participates in a finite manner and mode in His perfections which is the primal gift of all.[6]

So, when God creates, He grants those creatures the gift of existence and defines their existence by the gift of essence. Both existence and essence are primal creational gifts that God gives to creatures. All other gifts flow from these primal creational gifts which are both intelligible and given in love. Aquinas expressed the giftedness and profoundness of existence and essence by describing it as the most perfect gift God could give to creatures:

Existence is the most perfect of all things, for it is compared to all things as that by which they are made actual; for nothing has actuality except so far as it exists. Hence existence is that which actuates all things, even their forms. Therefore, it is not compared to other things as the receiver is to the received; but rather as the received to the receiver. When therefore I speak of the existence of man, or horse, or anything else, existence is considered a formal principle, and as something received; and not as that which exists.[7]

Here Aquinas explains that essence (potency) receives existence (act).[8] In other words, essence is given the gift of the act of existence in the act of creation. Creation is a triune act (see below) and God creates by the intelligibility of His Word in the bond and love of the Holy Spirit. Aquinas goes further to explain creaturely essence(s) as it relates to God’s essence:

Since God knows his own essence perfectly, he knows it according to every mode in which it can be known. Now it can be known not only as it is in itself, but as it can be participated in by creatures according to some degree of likeness. But every creature has its own proper species, according to which it participates in some degree in likeness to the divine essence. So far, therefore, as God knows his essence as capable of such imitations by any creature, he knows it as the particular type and idea of that creature; and in like manner as regards other creatures. So, it is clear that God understands many particular types of many things, and these are many ideas.[9]

Aquinas illustrates that to have a creaturely essence is to have an essence that images God’s divine essence on a creaturely mode of existence.[10] This is a primal gift because this gift allows creation to reflect and image God’s glory, i.e., the truth, unity, goodness, and beauty of God’s glory.

In summary, here are some things that we can learn from the above quotes by Aquinas as it relates to creation being a gift of existence and essence:

  1. That “existence is the most perfect of all things” because it is the gift to be (the gift of all gifts), i.e., the gift to stand out over against nothingness.
  2. The essence that God gives creatures means that creatures “participates in some degree in likeness to the divine essence.” This participation means that the creature images the very glory of God.

The Trinity and the Gift of Creation

The Trinity is important for the doctrine of creation since the doctrine of creation is grounded in the relationship between the divine persons of the Trinity. The finite generation of creation is grounded in the eternal procession of the Son in the bond, gift, and love of the Holy Spirit.[11] Moreover, the doctrine of the Trinity accounts for the intelligibility found in the finite world and because human beings are in the image of God they image God as intellectual and volitional beings. Aquinas held that the Word of God proceeds by way of intelligible action and the Holy Spirit proceeds by way of volitional action. He further maintained that the procession of the Word from the Father (generation of the Son) is by way of intelligible action, i.e., analogous to a finite concept of the intellect in the likeness of an object conceived.

Aquinas remarks the following on the procession of the Word from the Father as an intelligible action:

So in this manner the procession of the Word in God is generation; for He proceeds by way of intelligible action, which is a vital operation:—from a conjoined principle (as above described):—by way of similitude, inasmuch as the concept of the intellect is a likeness of the object conceived:—and exists in the same nature, because in God the act of understanding and His existence are the same, as shown above (I:14:4). Hence the procession of the Word in God is called generation; and the Word Himself proceeding is called the Son.[12]

This eternal procession (generation) partially finds its finite image in the intelligibility of the world and the ability of the human consciousness to know the world. Part of the imago dei is that image bearers of God have an intellect and can know the world and have a will to desire the goodness found in the world. Aquinas uses the similitude of concept to reality (Word) and the will’s impulse and movement towards an object in love (Holy Spirit) as a creational basis to theologize about the doctrine of the Trinity. The reason these analogies can be used is because these analogies are grounded in the metaphysics of creation (analogia entis),[13] i.e., the knowledge of these analogies come from the order and structure of creation.

Herman Bavinck has a similar understanding of the relationships of the persons within the Trinity to that of Aquinas. Like Aquinas he grounds the act of creation in the doctrine of the Trinity:

But Scripture and therefore Christian theology knows emanation and creation, a twofold communication of God—one within and the other outside the divine being; one to the Son who was in the beginning with God and was himself God, and another to the creatures who originated in time; one from the being and another from the will of God. The former is called generation; the latter creation. By generation, from all eternity the full image of God is communicated to the Son, by creation only a weak and pale image of God is communicated to the creature. Still, the two are connected. Without generation, creation would not be possible. If in an absolute sense, God could not communicate himself to the Son, he would be even less able, in a relative sense, to communicate himself to his creatures. If he were not triune, creation would not be possible.[14]

Bavinck grounds the gift of creation in the Trinity specifically back to the relationship between the Father and the Son, referring specifically to the eternal generation of the Son. The Son is the perfect image of the Father because the Father perfectly communicates His image to the Son. Creation in some finite manner and mode images God by means of a communication that reflects the eternal and divine communication of the Father to the Son.

We see therefore that the Trinitarian act of creation is done out of the intelligibility of the Word by way of the gift and love of the Holy Spirit.

The Father utters himself and every creature by the Word which he begets, in as much as the begotten Word represents the Father and all creatures. And in the same way, he loves himself and loves all creatures by the Holy Spirit, in that the Holy Spirit proceeds as love for the original goodness, the motive for the Fathers’ loving himself an all creatures. Thus it is manifest that, as with the Word, a second aspect of Love proceeding is a reference to creatures.[15]

Aquinas as stated above uses a creaturely analogy to understand the relationship between the Father and the Son, i.e., the operation of the intellect to generate a concept which focuses on intelligibility. Aquinas uses another analogy on the relationship of the Father to the Holy Spirit (spiration) which is a procession but unlike the procession of the Son it should not be called generation but rather the operation of the will towards an object which focuses on love. “The procession of the intellect is by way of similitude, and is called generation, because every generator begets its own like; where the procession of the will is not by way of similitude, but is rather by way of impulse and movement towards the object.”[16] There is within God a procession of the Word by way of intellect and procession of the will by way of the Holy Spirit.

The creation is intelligible by way of the Father’s Word and creation is good and desirable by way of the Father’s love, i.e., the Holy Spirit. This makes creation the gift given out of love and intelligibility given by God in the most personal manner possible via the three Persons of the Holy Trinity.

To summarize the gift of creation:

  1. Creation is the perfect finite gift of existence that allows creatures to participate in this gift of God grounded in His existence.
  2. This gift of existence images the perfect nature of God by creatures reflecting his glory in the finite essence he gives the creature.
  3. The eternal processions (communication) of the Trinity is the grounds for the act of creation.
  4. The gift of creation reflects and is by means of the Father’s perfect Word (Son) and his perfect Love (Holy Spirit).

Creation as a Gift Contrasted with Brute Fact

As stated above a metaphysical brute fact is a fact that has no cause or explanation. A brute fact is a mute fact because it does not manifest any intelligibility. This means that reality is ultimately not grounded in intelligibility but rather if any “intelligibility” exists it exists only as an epiphenomenon of brute factuality and originates only in the human consciousness and the world by accident.[17] This is why if one assumes brute fact any attempt to understand ultimate reality is ultimately futile because reality is ultimately not intelligible. The intelligible impotency of brute fact is contrasted to the intelligibility of creation which is grounded in the Word of God and the doctrine of God’s Simplicity which means that creation imitates His divine essence in many diverse manifestations. As stated above the doctrine of the Trinity means that all of reality is intelligible because it is a result of and images the Word of God, and reality is desirable because it is good and given in love via the Holy Spirit. Brute fact is not intelligible nor is it desirable because one can only desire what is known and in the “nature” of the case brute fact cannot be known.

A brute fact cannot be considered a gift rather it can be seen as a cosmic scandal or a surd in which one may begrudge or despise its existence. In a world grounded in brute fact there is no bond of love that created existence but rather there is a we know not what. Why would one choose brute fact over the gift of creation? To answer that question would lead one into a conversation about the noetic effects of sin and the culpability human beings have because in some measure they know creation is a gift, i.e., at some level human beings know they do not uphold their own existence and do not define their own essence. This might also lead into a conversation about the intelligible Word taking on a human nature to be revealed in a manner befitting to our mode of understanding so we may be saved from our rejection of this gift, but that exploration will have to wait for another article.

Suggested Readings

Bavinck, Herman. Reformed Dogmatics: God and Creation. Edited by John Bolt and translated by John Vriend. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2004.

Clarke, William Clarke. The One and the Many: A Contemporary Thomistic Metaphysics. Notre Dame: University of Nortre Dame Press, 2001.

Feser, Edward. Scholastic Metaphysics: A Contemporary Introduction. Heusenstamm: Editiones Scholasticae, 2014.

Gilles, Emery. The Trinity: An Introduction to Catholic Doctrine on the Triune God. Washington: The Catholic University of America Press, 2011.

________. The Trinitarian Theology of St. Thomas Aquinas. Oxford: University of Oxford Press, 2007.

Kerr, Gavin. Aquinas and The Metaphysics of Creation. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2019.

Legge, Dominic. The Trinitarian Christology of St. Thomas Aquinas. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017.

Oliver, Simon. Creation: A Guide for the Perplexed. London : T&T Clark, 2017.

Przywara, Erich. Analogia Entis: Metaphysics Original Structrue and Universal Rhythm, translated by John R. Betz and David Bentley Hart. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2014.

The opinions and views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of the employees and members of Ratio Christi South Africa.


[1] Natural theology focuses on reason as the basis of knowing reality, while revealed theology focuses on faith as the means to know reality by accepting God’s revelation in Christ.

[2] The doctrine of Simplicity means that God is not composed of parts, e.g., body parts, matter/form, supposit/nature, esse/essentia, genus/difference, act/potency and substance/accidents. The doctrine of the Trinity states that God is absolutely one in essence and relationally or relatively three in persons (God the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit). Creation means that God gave the gift of existence out of nothing or non-being.

[3] The term essence (essentia) refers to what something is, while the term existence refers to that something is (esse). Moreover, it should be noted that the doctrine of the Trinity presupposes the doctrine of Simplicity, i.e., this one God in three persons is not composed of parts.

[4] Scott M. Sullivan, 2015. Saint Thomas Aquinas and the Principle of Sufficient Reason. (Houston: Classic Thiest Press), 96. For a helpful coverstation on brute fact see: Edward Feser, “Can you explain something by appealing to a ‘brute fact’”?, available at edwardfeser.blogspot.com/2014/03/can-you-explain-something-by-appealing.html. accessed July 15, 2020. The non-believer, when it comes to primal metaphysical presuppositions, often makes the brute fact of the gaps appeal, i.e., ultimate reality is metaphysically inexplicable.

[5] See Ac. 17:28; Col. 1:17; Heb 1:3 & Rev 4:11

[6] For arguments that attempt to show existence and essence are really distinct (not just conceptually distinct) see: Edward Feser, Five Proofs of the Existence of God (San Francisco : Ignatius Press) 117-146 & Gavin Kerr, Aquinas’s Way to God: The Proof in De Ente et Essentia (Oxford: Oxford University Press).

[7] Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae I, Q. 4, A. 1 Co.3. St. Thomas Aquinas Summa Theologica: Complete English Edition in Five Volumes, trans. the Fathers of the English Dominican Province (Westminster, MD: Christian Classics, 1981).

[8] In a definitional way act is to be real or actual, while potency is the power or capacity to be real or actual.

[9] Aquinas, ST I. Q 15. A2.

[10] The Fourth Lateran Council of 1215, stated: “Between Creator and creature there can be remarked no similarity so great that a greater dissimilarity between them cannot be seen.”

[11] Finite generation includes external cause and effect based on an act and potency composition and this is not applicable to the eternal generation of the Son. “Materially, procession means motion is repugnant to the divine nature. Only immanent processions are attributed to God, i.e., the mere origin of one term from another. There are, in fact, in God two immanent operations proper to spirit: intellection and volition. Although these operations are identified with the divine nature, by analogy with what happens in us we are not able to conceive them except as relations between two terms (operatin—operated). But reason would never have succeeded in forming any idea of the divine processions, unless revelation had explicitly manifested them: “For from God I proceeded , . . The Spirit… who proceedeth from the Father” (John 8:42; 15:26). . . The eternal generation of the Son from the Father, Holy Scripture calls the term which proceeds Son, Only-Begotten, First-born; but calls Him also Word. From this we conclude that the Son proceeds by way of intellection and, therefore, of spiritual generation. In fact, our intellection consists in conceiving and, as it were, generating an idea, which is the spiritual reproduction of the thing known.” The procession of the Holy Spirit is actuated “by way of volition and, therefore, of love. God, knowing Himself in the Word, contemplates and loves Himself by an adhesion of Self to Self. The doctrine of faith teaches that only the first procession is generation which gives origin to but one Son (Only-Begotton). The Holy Spirit is not a Son, but simply the term of love-procession, and He proceeds from the Father and the Son as from the Father and the Son as from one, sole principle.” (Emmanuel Doronzo, 1952, Dictionary of Dogmatic Theology, [Milwaukee, The Bruce Publishing Company], 230-231).

[12] Aquinas, ST I. Q27. A2, Co.

[13] The term analogia entis means analogy of being. The term metaphysics of creation or creational metaphysics is taken from Erich Przywara; see Erich Przywara, Analogia Entis: Metaphysics Original Structrue and Universal Rhythm, translated by John R. Betz and David Bentley Hart, (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company).

[14] Herman Bavinck, 2004. Reformed Dogmatics: God and Creation. Edited by John Bolt and translated by John Vriend (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic), 420.

[15] Aquinas, ST I. Q 37. A2, Ad3

[16] Aquinas, ST I. Q 27. A4, Co.

[17] This is being very generous to the position that brute fact is primal; it seems one can argue that if brute fact is primal then anything else that is “explained” by brute fact is reducible to unintelligibility as well. However, to explore this topic is beyond the scope of this article.

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