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From David Burrell CSC to Sara Grant RSCJ: The distinctive relation between creature and Creator in Christian theology

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  26 May 2021

Daniel Soars*
Eton College, Windsor, UK
*Corresponding author. Email:


I focus in this article on the work of the contemporary Thomist, David Burrell, and the ways in which he is influenced particularly by Robert Sokolowski and Kathryn Tanner in his articulation of the sui generis relation between creature and Creator. By paying close attention to Burrell's work on the metaphysics of creation I show how the notions of ‘distinction’ and ‘relation’ cannot be separated in his understanding of the world-and-God. I then examine how Thomas's own thinking through of these issues was carried out in engagement with voices from outside the Christian tradition and, finally, explore Burrell's invitation to extend the conversation beyond Abrahamic frontiers by turning to the work of a lesser-known Thomist scholar – Sara Grant.

Research Article
Copyright © The Author(s), 2021. Published by Cambridge University Press

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1 Thomas Aquinas, Summa Contra Gentiles (hereafter, SCG) 2.18.2 (Non enim est creatio mutatio, sed ipsa dependentia esse creati ad principium a quo statuitur. Et sic est de genere relationis). See also Summa Theologica (hereafter, ST) 1.45.3. ad 3.

2 David Burrell (b. 1933) is a Roman Catholic priest of the Congregation of the Holy Cross (Congregatio a Sancta Cruce) and Sara Grant (1922–2000) was a Roman Catholic sister of the Sacred Heart congregation (Religieuses du Sacré Coeur de Jésus).

3 Burrell, David, ‘The Christian Distinction Celebrated and Expanded’, in Drummond, John and Hart, James (eds), The Truthful and the Good: Essays in Honour of Robert Sokolowski (Dordrecht: Kluwer Academic Publishers, 1996), pp. 191206CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

4 Burrell is not alone in noticing that creation and redemption can often be unhelpfully opposed in Christian thought; see also, for example, Ruether, Rosemary Radford, ‘The God of Possibilities: Immanence and Transcendence Rethought’, Concilium 2000/4 (2000), pp. 4554Google Scholar.

5 Burrell, David B. and Malits, Elena, Original Peace: Restoring God's Creation (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1997), pp. 14Google Scholar. Burrell calls for a ‘Keplerian’, rather than Copernican, revolution because his point is that creation and redemption need to be twin foci of Christian theology, held in productive tension with one another.

6 Rocca, Gregory, ‘Creatio ex nihilo and the being of creatures: God's creative act and the transcendence-immanence distinction in Aquinas’, in Goris, Harm, Rikhof, Herwi and Schoot, Henk (eds), Divine Transcendence and Immanence in the Work of Thomas Aquinas, (Leuven/Walpole, MA: Peeters, 2009), p. 3Google Scholar, n.7.

7 See e.g. Burrell, ‘Analogy, Creation, and Theological Language’, Proceedings of the American Catholic Philosophical Association 74 (2000), pp. 35–52; referring to Pieper, Josef, The Silence of Saint Thomas (New York: Pantheon, 1957)Google Scholar. Similar references can be found in almost all of Burrell's work.

8 Sokolowski, Robert, The God of Faith and Reason (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1982)Google Scholar.

9 Burrell, ‘The Christian Distinction’, p. 191.

10 Burrell, Faith and Freedom: An Interfaith Perspective (Oxford: John Wiley & Sons, 2004), p. 243.

11 Cf. Burrell, Faith and Freedom, p. 237: ‘When one of those “things” is the creator of all the others … then everything else is what it is in relation to that One. (As Aquinas puts it so succinctly and subtly: creation consists in a relation of the creature to the creator – that is, the very being of the creature is to-be-related.)’ Quoting Aquinas, ST 1.45.3.

12 This is what philosophers of religion usually refer to as ‘the ontological distinction’, but which is generally referred to by Sokolowski and Burrell simply as ‘the distinction’.

13 Sokolowski, God of Faith and Reason, pp. 32–3.

14 Burrell, ‘Creation, Metaphysics, and Ethics’, Faith and Philosophy 18/2 (2001), p. 210.

15 Sokolowski, God of Faith and Reason, pp. 32–3.

16 ST 1.6.2. See also ST 1.3 on the simplicity of God, esp. art. 5. ‘Whether God is composed of genus and difference?’

17 ST 1.6.2.

18 This is one reason why Aquinas is not an ‘onto-theologian’, because there is not even a common category of ‘being’ to which both God and creatures belong. For Thomas God is Being (esse) itself (or even, as he suggests in other places, such as his commentary on the Neoplatonic Liber de Causis, ‘beyond Being’, as the Cause of Being), whereas a particular being (ens) has being (from God).

19 Burrell, ‘The Challenge to Medieval Christian Philosophy: Relating Creator to Creatures’, in John Inglis (ed.), Medieval Philosophy and the Classical Tradition in Islam, Judaism, and Christianity (Richmond: Curzon, 2002), p. 204.

20 Other than Sokolowski, Tanner is the contemporary theologian to whom Burrell adverts most frequently in his work on ‘the distinction’ (see, for example, Original Peace, p. 72). He mentions her in the majority of the books, chapters and articles I have so far discussed. The main work he has in mind is Tanner's God and Creation in Christian Theology: Tyranny or Empowerment? (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1988).

21 Tanner, God and Creation, p. 12.

22 Ibid., p. 46.

23 Ibid., p. 45.

24 Ibid., p. 47.

25 Turner, Denys, Faith, Reason and the Existence of God (Cambridge: CUP, 2004), p. 213CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

26 Ibid., p. 214.

28 The Mystical Theology 1048B; in The Pseudo-Dionysius: The Complete Works, trans. Colm Luibheid and Paul Rorem (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1987), p. 141. All references are to this edition.

29 Turner, Faith, Reason and Existence, pp. 163–4, quoting Eckhart's Commentary on Exodus 20.104, in Bernard McGinn (ed.), Meister Eckhart, Teacher and Preacher (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1986), p. 79.

30 Sokolowski, R., ‘Creation and Christian Understanding’, in Burrell, David B. and McGinn, Bernard (eds), God and Creation: An Ecumenical Symposium (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1990), p. 179Google Scholar.

31 For a recent guide to these debates, see Oakes, Edward T., A Theology of Grace in Six Controversies (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 2016)Google Scholar.

32 Tanner, God and Creation, pp. 2–3.

33 Langdon Gilkey, ‘Creation, Being, and Nonbeing’, in Burrell and McGinn, God and Creation (1990), p. 229.

34 Burrell and Malits, Original Peace, p. 74.

35 Rocca, ‘Creatio ex nihilo’, in Divine Transcendence, p. 15.

37 Sokolowski, God of Faith and Reason, p. 26. While Sokolowski tends to refer to this as the ‘Christian’ distinction, Burrell sees it as involving a fundamentally similar set of issues in each of the Abrahamic traditions.

38 Burrell, ‘Act of Creation with its Theological Consequences’, in Thomas Weinandy, Daniel Keating and John Yocum (eds), Aquinas on Doctrine: A Critical Introduction (London and New York: T&T Clark, 2004), p. 27. For the phrase ‘creational relation’, see Burrell, Freedom and Creation in Three Traditions (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1993), p. 48.

39 Sokolowski, God of Faith and Reason, p. 34.

40 Indeed, it is Burrell's close attention to the particular faith-traditions in question and their attempts to clarify founding truths of revelation which characterises his work as belonging more properly to philosophical theology than to philosophy of religion, insofar as the latter might tend to treat of ‘theism’ in the abstract and without any scriptural moorings. On this, see Burrell, David B., Knowing the Unknowable God: Ibn-Sina, Maimonides, Aquinas (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1986), p. 2Google Scholar.

41 See e.g. Thomas Aquinas, De Potentia 7.3.4.

42 E.g. 2 Maccabees 7:28: ‘So I urge you, my child, to look at the sky and the earth. Consider everything you see there, and realise that God made it all from nothing, just as he made the human race.’

43 Kosman, Aryeh, The Activity of Being: An Essay on Aristotle's Ontology (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2013), pp. viiviiiCrossRefGoogle Scholar and passim, presents a convincing argument for translating energeia as ‘activity’, rather than the more common ‘act’, in order to underline the ongoing, verbal quality of ‘being’. Burrell makes a similar argument in ‘Distinguishing God from the World’, in Brian Davies (ed.) Language, Meaning and God: Essays in Honour of Herbert McCabe, O.P. (London: Geoffrey Chapman, 1987), pp. 75–91 (esp. pp. 78–9).

44 Cf. Velde, Rudi Te, Participation and Substantiality in Thomas Aquinas (Leiden: Brill, 1995), p. 91Google Scholar: ‘Creating does not simply mean the actualization of a possibility; creation denotes the origin of things according to their entire being, principium totius esse.’

45 Here we can clearly see why Burrell insists on divine simplicity as the formal feature which secures ‘the distinction’. Cf. Burrell, Knowing the Unknowable God, pp. 29–34.

46 Aquinas, ST

47 Burrell is not, of course, the first Aquinas scholar to have noticed these sorts of historical influences (Étienne Gilson was famously drawing attention to them as early as the 1930s), but a specific focus on the importance of figures like Avicenna for Aquinas is still quite rare in Thomist literature. A recent notable exception would be Fodor, Jim and Bauerschmidt, F. C. (eds), Aquinas in Dialogue: Thomas for the Twenty-First Century (Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2004)Google Scholar.

48 Burrell and Malits, Original Peace, p. 79.

49 Ibid., p. 74, and Burrell, ‘The Christian Distinction’, p. 206.

50 Grant, Sara, Towards an Alternative Theology: Confessions of a Non-Dualist Christian (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame, 2002)Google Scholar. This was originally delivered by Grant in 1989 at Cambridge as the Teape Lectures and was reprinted in 2002 with a foreword by Malkovsky.

51 Tanner, God and Creation, p. 6.

52 Burrell and Malits, Original Peace, p. 75.

53 Ganeri, Martin, ‘“Thinking the Creator and Creature Together”: How Rāmānuja's Account of Scriptural Meaning Encourages Unitive Language in Christian Discourse about God and the World’, Journal of Hindu-Christian Studies 31 (2018), article 18Google Scholar. Ganeri draws this phrase from his reading of Burrell.

54 Burrell, Original Peace, p. 72. This is a slightly unusual phrase, given that Vedāntic non-dualism is, linguistically, a ‘negative’ description of Reality (namely, that it is ‘not-two’, a-dvaita). Burrell perhaps has something like the following in mind: whereas Tanner tells us not to contrast God and world, Advaita Vedānta tell us that Reality is nondual.

55 Cf. Burrell, ‘The Christian Distinction’, p. 195; and Burrell in Weinandy, Aquinas on Doctrine, 27. For more on the issues at stake at the Council of Chalcedon, and how the metaphysical options at Chalcedon might seem to mirror those we have addressed in this article, see Daley, Brian E., ‘Unpacking the Chalcedonian Formula: From Studied Ambiguity to Saving Mystery’, The Thomist 80 (2016), pp. 165–89CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

56 Turner, Faith, Reason, and the Existence of God, p. 217.

57 I am aware that this might risk undermining the uniqueness of the incarnation by implying that the way human and divine natures are related in the person of Jesus the Christ is an instantiation of an overarching metaphysics which applies en gros to the relation between creatures and Creator. I will not address this here, other than to say that Grant (Towards an Alternative Theology, pp. 82–92) does seem to accept this unorthodox position on christology.

58 Burrell, ‘The Christian Distinction’, p. 196.

59 Even among scholars who work specifically on Hindu-Christian comparative themes, Sara Grant's work is not widely discussed. The main notable exceptions would be Bradley Malkovsky and Martin Ganeri: see e.g. Malkovsky's introduction to Grant's Towards an Alternative Theology; and Ganeri, Indian Thought and Western Theism: The Vedānta of Rāmānuja (London and New York: Routledge, 2015), esp. pp. 30–1. To the best of my knowledge, the only Christian theologian other than Burrell who does not work comparatively with Hinduism but who has explicitly recognised the significance of Grant is Martin Poulsom in The Dialectics of Creation: Creation and the Creator in Edward Schillebeeckx and David Burrell (Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2014), pp. 62–3.

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