Ancient Theologians weigh in on Genesis: Basil’s reflections on creation (part 1)


Anyone that has read through the first few chapters of Genesis and reflects on them will at some point struggle with how to interpret and handle the account of creation with what they know of the universe. These difficulties are not limited to readers living in the modern age of science, but have puzzled people throughout every age.

The opening statement of Genesis is very clear. God is the Creator. The Apostle’s Creed and the Nicaean Creed both affirm that basic tenet of theology. However, almost every other aspect of the creation account has been met with numerous approaches and ideas about what the original authors, redactors and God, Himself, meant. Various proposals have been explored and debated as long as the account has existed. These discussions reveal fundamentally different ideas about what the relationship between theology and science should be as well as what hermeneutical method should be used to determine the meaning of a passage.

Even if one sought to understand the account as the original readers might the question remains: is the account an allegory or a historical narrative? Was the author’s goal to provide a scientifically accurate description of the material origin of the universe or was the intent to describe what the function the objects in creation serve? Is it possible the account used the cosmology of the original audience as a framework to present theological truths?

Excerpts from two early Christian theologians highlight the different approaches to the Genesis creation account.

One of the earliest extant commentaries dedicated to Genesis was written by Origen, an influential third century theologian and philosopher. Both during his lifetime and through the succeeding millennia his views have often been championed and challenged. In the late fourth century the Origenist crisis raged with varying debates about Origen and his views. Jerome, coming out against Origen, and Rufinus, rallying to defend him, were heavily involved. Our intent here is not to assess Origen nor his various view points, but to understand how Genesis was interpreted. For Origen it was an allegory.

Origen

For who that has understanding will suppose that the first, and second, and third day, and the evening and the morning, existed without a sun, and moon, and stars? and that the first day was, as it were, also without a sky? And who is so foolish as to suppose that God, after the manner of a husbandman, planted a paradise in Eden, towards the east, and placed in it a tree of life, visible and palpable, so that one tasting of the fruit by the bodily teeth obtained life? and again, that one was a partaker of good and evil by masticating what was taken from the tree? And if God is said to walk in the paradise in the evening, and Adam to hide himself under a tree, I do not suppose that any one doubts that these things figuratively indicate certain mysteries, the history having taken place in appearance, and not literally.

– Origen (First principles book 4 circa 220-230 AD)

Basil was a bishop in Caesarea in the late fourth century who strongly supported the canons of the Nicaean council. He is considered one of the Three Cappadocians, along with his contemporaries Gregory of Nyssa and Gregory of Nazianzus. The Hexaemeron, which translates to “The Six Days”, is a series of homilies written about the Genesis creation account. As Basil unpacks his understanding of Genesis it is clear he interpreted the passages as a historical account of creation, in which God first created basic materials that would be built out over 6 days.

I know the laws of allegory, though less by myself than from the works of others. There are those truly, who do not admit the common sense of the Scriptures, for whom water is not water, but some other nature, who see in a plant, in a fish, what their fancy wishes, who change the nature of reptiles and of wild beasts to suit their allegories, like the interpreters of dreams who explain visions in sleep to make them serve their own ends. For me grass is grass; plant, fish, wild beast, domestic animal, I take all in the literal sense.

… [Those], who, giving themselves up to the distorted meaning of allegory, have undertaken to give a majesty of their own invention to Scripture. It is to believe themselves wiser than the Holy Spirit, and to bring forth their own ideas under a pretext of exegesis. Let us hear Scripture as it has been written.

– Basil (Hexameron Homily IX circa 370 AD)

In this series of blog posts we will examine Basil’s approach to understanding the creation account as he attempts to reconcile the Genesis account with what he understood about the universe.

More to come

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