The Rest of God

Genesis 2:2 “And on the seventh day God finished his work which he had done, and he rested on the seventh day from all his work which he had done.”

Usually Christians often think of passages like the one above as an anthropomorphic expression. God doesn’t really rest but this is God accomodating himself to human forms of thinking and speaking. Many places in Scripture this is quite true and applicable, but I am not convinced that it is necessary to take this passage in that way.

The motivation for thinking that this expression of “rest” is a merely human form of speech is a worry taken over from Plato, Aristotle and Plotinus. If the highest reality is going to be the source of everything else, then it cannot ever be passive. Passivity signals a lack or privation and God being the Good doesn’t lack anything. Therefore, God is fully active or actus purus. This is in part why for Catholic and Protestant theology alike, every thing is really (dependently) related to God but God is not really related to any creature. God is not passive but active.

It is not that I don’t think we can’t learn plenty from these philosophers about religious language but here such an approach doesn’t seem necessary here. Given the three place metaphysics of the Cappadocians, Maximus the Confessor and Gregory Palamas, I see no reason why we can’t take this passage in a straightforward way. Let me explain.

The three place metaphysic is that of essence, power and activity/energy. Sometimes energy/activity does double duty meaning power, but it is better to follow later usage and restrict it to activity for the sake of clarity. So, the idea is every object has an essence (ousia) which has instrinsic or first order powers. These powers are inseprable from the essence of the object. So the power of fire is heat. It is not possible for fire to be fire and not have the power of heat.

But the power or dunameis of fire isn’t always manifested or instantiated. When it is, the power of fire is active, it is energetic. Fire also has secondary powers such as producing the dry. But other objects can also produce the dry and so the dry is something of a contingent production of the essence and power of fire. Consequently, many of the Trinitarian debates of the fourth century are a debate about whether the Son and the Spirit are primary or secondary powers of God the Father. If primary powers, then the Son and the Spirit are eternal along with the Father even though they are uniquely and eternally caused. If secondary powers, Arianism is the logical outcome and they are creations of the Father.

The distinction between essence and energies, or rather the three place distinction between essence (ousia), power (dunameis) and energy (energia) permits us to take Genesis 2:2 in a straightforward way. While the power to create is always retained by God, it is not the case that it is always active. God can and does genuinely rest.

This schema opens up new possibilities unconsidered by Christians in the west. If God’s creative power isn’t always active, this implies a very robust view of secondary causes. The implication has consequences for the sciences as secondary causes are necessary to successfully carry out the scientific enterprise. Natural objects have an intrinsic power and integiry somewhat distanced from the direct activity of God, thereby staving off both theological as well as naturalistic determinism without implying a total autonomy of creation. It also aids in staving off the worry of Occasionalism, the belief that there are no secondary causes and God directly brings about every effect. So on the occasion of my thinking about raising my arm, my arm is raised, but my thinking it didn’t raise it, God did. Such is the view of Berkeley and the Muslims.

8 Responses to The Rest of God

  1. Ole Rocker says:

    like eating on the Sabbath (sustaining) and yet resting (not working or recreating).

    Thanx, S.

  2. Perry Robinson says:

    Ole Rocker,

    I think that there are some activities which are eternal and constant in act. Some are not. Some are cnostant in act while not being eternal. God’s concurrent preservation of the world would fall under the last of these.

    So God can rest from the initial act while performing another activity of sustaining the world. Sustaining then isn’t the same as creating an Occasionalism is thereby precluded.

  3. Ole Rocker says:

    Good post. Thanks.

    Questions: Perhaps the “full activity” of God includes sustaining the creation while yet “resting” from creating? Possibly this then is the example of the commandment to rest on the Sabbath meaning, sustaining our lives on that day is not only necesssary but true imitation of Him though “creativity” should take a rest? If this may be the case, what would be considered “creativity” on our part?

  4. David Richards says:

    It may be that I am just becoming so familiar with the language (having read you and Daniel here and on Pontifications, and also through my own personal study), that I assumed I had seen this before.

  5. Dave,

    Nope, I haven’t applied this stuff explicitly to Genesis 2 in the past. And I haven’t posted this before. Much of it though is taken from my reading, namely Michel Barnes, Dunamis: Power in Gregory Nyssa’s Trinitarian Theology, CUP. I highly recommend the book.

  6. David Richards says:

    What seems strange to me: The fact that I could have sworn I saw this exact same post either on this blog or elsewhere some time ago. Did you post this, take it down, then put it back up?

  7. Perry Robinson says:


    Elements of it have been discussed here before, but not specifically applied to Genesis 2. What specifically seems strange to you?

  8. David Richards says:

    It seems like I have read this elsewhere, or that you’ve posted this before… it’s very strange for me.

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