Christ, the Beginning of Creation – Part II

Christ, the Beginning of Creation – Part II

by Fr. Maximilian M. Dean, F.I.

[To see the full article on one page visit Appendix: Christ the Beginning]

In the beginning God created

It is not by chance that John wishes to begin his Gospel with the same words that begin all of Sacred Scriptures. As a matter of fact, “in the head of the Book” (Ps 39:8) it is written: “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth” (Gen 1:1), and so it is that the “alpha” of all of divine revelation is precisely this in the beginning. But John, being the last writer of the Bible, give the “omega” of revelation, namely, “In the beginning was the Word…” (Jn 1:1). “The Alpha and the Omega” of all of God’s revelation, then, is none other than in the beginning God created and in the beginning was the Word. While everyone immediately recognizes John’s explicit reference to Genesis, not everyone goes on to interpret in the same way the in the beginning of these two passages.

We have seen how Cyril, Augustine and Bonaventure in their commentaries on the Prologue interpreted the in the beginning of John’s Gospel as in the Father, in order to say that the Word was eternally and essentially in the Father who is the beginning par excellence. However, when we read the first line of Genesis it is evident that in the beginning cannot be referring to the Father. In fact, if we say “in the Father God created the heavens and the earth” it does not make any sense. This must also hold true for the Prologue of St. John, otherwise it would break the express and tight bond intended by the Evangelist between his Gospel and the narration of the creation of the universe.

The connection is explicit in every fashion because not only does he start with the same words, not only does he speak of “light” and “darkness,” but he even lists seven days. The first day there is the Word who becomes flesh (Jn 1:1-14) and the testimony of John the Baptist (1:6-8,15,19ff.). Then, subtly, the Evangelist says “the next day” (1:29), “the next day” (1:35), “the next day” (1:43), and then “on the third day” (2:1) in order to arrive at the seventh day with the wedding feast at Cana.

Thus we are speaking about a new creation, about water changed into wine, so to speak, where what counts is being “a new creation” (Gal 6:15) and where Jesus proclaims: “Behold, I make all things new” (Apoc 21:5). For us His coming means a “new” creation, whereas for God it is but the full realization of His original design as the Creator who willed, and still wills, that everything be summed up under the headship of Christ (cfr. Col 1:18,20). For us it is water changed into wine, while for God it is the fulfillment of His plan, already foreseen before the ages: He had always willed “the good wine,” but He had conserved it “until now.”

We need to establish, therefore, that, starting with the first line of Genesis, the biblical expression “in the beginning” refers to creation. What follows is that the expression “in the beginning was the Word” does not express the fact that the eternal Word was in the Father, but rather that the Word Incarnate was the Beginning in which all things were created.

It could not be otherwise because the word beginning, bound to the context and meaning found in Genesis – “In the beginning God created” – speaks not only of the fontal origin of being, but also of its temporal beginning. Neither the eternal Father, nor the eternal Word, nor the eternal Spirit – that is the entire eternal Godhead Three-in-One – none of Them can have a beginning, a principio, like creation does. Each Divine Person, being God, is without beginning, ‘startless’ as it were, by very definition and, as we shall see, the Church does not grow weary in professing and teaching that God, by nature – whether the Father, the Son or the Holy Spirit – is before the ages, before and outside of time – in a word, eternal. Creation, on the other hand, has a very specific beginning: “In the beginning God created.”

Let us fix our gaze for a moment upon the Church’s solemn teaching upon this point in order to better understand that in the beginning cannot be referring to the Divinity in Itself – neither the Father nor the Word in Himself. Given that before creation there was no such thing as time (the succession of moments), but only the eternal God, it is clear that He is “before every creature.”[1] As a result the Creeds, Councils and Popes of the Church, whenever they speak of God Three and One – whether of the Divine Essence or of the Three Divine Persons (and the Son in a particular way) – never speak of a beginning.[2] To the contrary, they repeat practically ad infinitum that God is without any beginning and before the ages. Here are some examples amongst many which speak specifically of the Divinity of the Son, but can be referred to the Father and the Spirit as well:

–          Pope St. Leo the Great in 449 explains that the divine nature of Christ comes “from the Father before any beginning,”[3] which means that when we speak of the Word in Himself, as God, He is not in the beginning, but before any beginning.

–          Pope Anastasius II in 497 states that the only-begotten Son, “born of the Father according to the Divinity,” is “before all time, without beginning.”[4] He is not in the beginning, therefore, but without beginning.

–          Pope Hormisdas in 521 writes: “The Son was before time.”[5] As such the Word in Himself, as God, is before time, before the beginning, before any age; while the Word made flesh is in time, in the beginning, in these days, while ever remaining the eternal God. This means that if John wished to speak of the Word in Himself in his Prologue and not the Word made flesh, he would have had to write: Before the ages, before all time was the Word. But what he actually wrote was: “In the beginning was the Word.” We will study this more in depth later.

–          The Council of Constantinople in 553 declares in Canon 2: “If anyone does not confess that God the Word has two births, one that is incorporal, outside of time, before the ages from the Father, the other [is the birth] of Him truly in the last days who descended from Heaven and was incarnate of the holy, glorious and always Virgin Mary, Mother of God, and born of her, let him be anathema.”[6] The Church never speaks of the Divinity of Christ in terms of time, while His Sacred Humanity is always described in time.

–          The Council of Toledo VI in 638 explains that the Son comes from the Father “outside of time, before any creature, without beginning, born [generated] and not created.”[7] It is absolutely clear, therefore, that in speaking of the Divinity and the Divine Persons the Church never speaks of time or of a beginning because God is eternal.

St. Cyril explicitly states: “Besides, in speaking of the Only-Begotten it is not possible to think of a beginning in time since He is before all time and exists before the ages… But since the Son is more ancient than the ages, He could not have been generated in time, but He was always in the Father as from a spring…”[8] The fact is that in Genesis, as is also true of John’s Gospel, in the beginning indicates the start of time, the beginning of creation, and God – Father, Son and Holy Spirit – is completely outside of time, uncreated, without beginning or end, eternal.

In the beginning, therefore, cannot be applied to the Son in Himself as God, let alone the Father or the Holy Spirit, except by way of an accommodation, that is by using the term beginning as a manner of speaking (i.e. the Father is the “beginning” of the Trinity, that is to say the eternal fountain from which the Son eternally proceeds, but to speak in this way one always has to add that the Father is the ‘beginning’ without a beginning[9] and in the end the accommodation is very limited and does not synchronize, as we shall see, with the rest of Sacred Scripture).

However, in Christ, the Word made flesh, there is a created nature united to the divine nature in the Person of the Word and Christ has His beginning in the “fullness of time” (Gal 4:4). Behold the key to understanding what is meant by “in the beginning God created” and “in the beginning was the Word.” In both of these passages, as we will see with great clarity, we are speaking of the Word Incarnate, the beginning of creation.[10]

Indeed the expression in the beginning can only be applied to God without accommodation in so far as He is incarnate and becomes the “Son of man,” and this is valid only for Christ because neither the Father nor the Spirit assumed flesh of the Virgin, but only the Son. Hence, when the Evangelist days: “In the beginning was the Word,” it must be understood that he is speaking of the Word become man: Christ was the Beginning.

Moreover, the expression in the beginning cannot be applied to the eternal Word in Himself,  without reference to the Incarnation, because, as St. Cyril says of the eternal Word: “The Son, as a matter of fact, is before the ages, and He Himself is the Creator of the ages; nor can He who has a generation [birth] more ancient than time itself be in any way whatsoever limited by time”.[11]

It is necessary to examine the function of the verb to be in the phrase “in the beginning was the Word.” Its function could be understood in two ways:

First, as a predicate adjective where in the beginning is applied to the Word in the sense of the beginning of creation. In other words, when God created the universe He had the decree of the Incarnation before Him, He beheld Jesus, and as such the beginning of creation and of time itself was the Word Incarnate: nothing was created without Him and without Him there is no temporal beginning.

Second, as a predicate nominative where to be means to be equal to. In this case the Incarnate Word was the “principio,” viz. the creative principle/beginning in which everything was made – not just in the temporal sense, but as the fontal origin, the cause of all things. In a word, following the lead of both of these senses it can safely be said that Christ was both the temporal beginning and the fontal origin of creation: “the beginning of the creation of God” (Apoc 3:14).

Besides, with this interpretation the Prologue becomes more consistent: God always refers to the Divinity (and not sometimes to the Divinity and sometimes to the Father); the Word always refers to Jesus Christ as the Son of God and the Son of Mary (and not sometimes the uncreated Word in the Father – without reference to the Incarnation – and other times to the Word made flesh – i.e. John the Baptist is giving witness to the Word Incarnate in v.6ff.).

to be continued…

[1] The Son, with the Father and the Spirit, is ante omnem creaturam (cfr. Denz. 490, ecc.).

[2] Ante saecula, ante omnia saecula (cfr. Denz. 76, 301, 357, 617, ecc.), ante tempora (Denz. 368), sine tempore (Denz. 422), intemporaliter (cfr. Denz. 490, 617, ecc.).

[3] Ex Patre ante omne principium (Denz. 297).

[4]Ante omnia quidem saecula sine principio (Denz. 357; cfr. 76, ecc.).

[5] Qui ante tempora erat Filius (Denz. 368).

[6] Ante saecula, sine tempore (Denz. 422). It is sufficient to look at the Councils of Chalcedon and Costantinople I to understand that the teaching of the Word in Himself as ante saecula is a solemnly proclaimed dogma (Denz. 150 e 503-504).

[7] Intemporaliter ante omnem creaturam sine initio (Denz. 490; cfr. 617).

[8] Cyril, op. cit. I, I (p.38).

[9] Cfr. ibid. I, 1 (p.40) and Augustine, Contra Maximin., II, c.17, n.4; PL 42, 784.

[10] Cfr. P. Ruggero Rosini, Il Cristo nella Bibbia, nei Santi Padri, nel Vaticano II, pp. 109-119, where Christ is shown to be the Beginning.

[11] Ibid. I, III (p.58).