Ancient Theologians weigh in on Genesis: Basil’s reflections on creation (part 2)


This post is part of a series looking at Basil’s views on the creation account in Genesis. If you have not already read it, I recommend starting with part 1.

Throughout history there have been attempts to reconcile the Genesis creation account with the theories of science and what is understood about the universe. Answers in Genesis (link) asserts that the creation account is historical and “gives us our only eyewitness testimony of the first events of the universe”. In advocating that view, they are constantly updating explanations describing how modern understandings of the universe fit with the events and entities in Genesis. However, many challenges arise when we approach the creation account as an accurate scientific description of the events that occurred “in the beginning”. Further complicating things, the interpretation of what an entity in the creation account aligns to in a modern cosmological model could mean that the original audience and people in prior ages had no ability to understand what Genesis was saying.

Consider the water vapor canopy model and the gap theory, two modern attempts to reconcile what is known about the universe with the creation account.

The Water Vapor Canopy Theory

“Sea Sawdust” in the Southwest Pacific Ocean (NASA.gov)

When the description of the expanse and the waters it separates is taken as a literal and accurate description of the universe it becomes very hard to correlate these entities to modern constructs. We have to account for three entitles: the expanse and both the waters above and below.

A largely discredited modern view known as the water vapor canopy model tackled identifying these three entities. This theory suggested that the waters above the expanse surrounded the earth’s atmosphere and provided the immense water needed for the flood. It also postulates that this canopy explains long human life spans and other pre-flood characteristics of the world.

A half-century ago, most recent creationists subscribed to the canopy model, the belief that the expanse is the earth’s atmosphere with the waters above being in a sort of canopy over the atmosphere. The canopy model hypothesized that the water canopy collapsed at the time of the flood. …While some creationists still support the canopy model, most creation scientists do not

– AiG (What were the Waters on Day 2)

Basil also understood the “waters above” to be actual water. However, this was not a water vapor canopy, but the source of all rain upon the earth.

Let these unfortunate men cease, then, from tormenting us and themselves about the impossibility of our retaining water in the higher regions. … Moses, blessing the tribe of Joseph, desires for it the fruits and the dews of heaven, of the suns of summer and the conjunctions of the moon, and blessings from the tops of the mountains and from the everlasting hills, in one word, from all which fertilizes the earth. In the curses on Israel it is said, And your heaven that is over your head shall be brass. What does this mean? It threatens him with a complete drought, with an absence of the aerial waters which cause the fruits of the earth to be brought forth and to grow.

… Since, then, Scripture says that the dew or the rain falls from heaven, we understand that it is from those waters which have been ordered to occupy the higher regions. Let us understand that by water water is meant

– BASIL (HOMILY III)

Both Basil’s view and the modern water canopy view had a major interpretative flaw. It didn’t take the Genesis account’s own description of the waters and the expanse into full account, which is now admitted.

How could atmospheric water be said to be above the place where the sun, moon, and stars are?

– AiG

Understanding the account as a scientifically accurate description of creation and equating the expanse with the “entire universe”, we are still left wondering what the waters above represent. Interestingly, AiG has offered up a theory, that oddly enough matches the constructs of ANE myths, suggesting that the universe is surrounded by a cosmic ocean.

 the waters above the expanse are beyond the realm where we find astronomical bodies. This would imply that there is a shell of water surrounding the universe. 

– AiG
Moon from Apollo 11 (NASA.gov)

The Gap Theory

The opening of the Genesis account starts with God creating the heavens and the earth. In the next passage we find the earth being formless and void. It is in total darkness and submerged in watery depths. Reading this carefully we find that the earth and the watery depth that cover it, if they describe the same entities as found in days 2-6, exist prior to the first day. This state of creation might be something we could refer to as day 0. This observation is noted by both ancient and modern commentators.

In saying “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth”, the sacred writer passed over many things in silence, [the basic 4 elements] all forming in reality the true complement of the world, were, without doubt, made at the same time as the universe. … [That is why] we are not told of the creation of water

– Basil (Homily II)

The NET Bible note for Genesis 1:2 states that “what we now know as ‘the earth’ was actually an unfilled mass covered by water and darkness”. Basil would agree with that view – the earth is invisible and in darkness because it lies covered by the waters of what might be understood as the cosmic ocean..

The earth was invisible. Why? Because the deep was spread over its surface. What is the deep? A mass of water of extreme depth

– Basil (Homily II)

and later…

Hear then how Scripture explains itself. Let the waters be gathered together, and let the dry land appear. The veil is lifted and allows the earth, hitherto invisible, to be seen.

– Basil (Homily IV)

In contrast, Aquinas offers another possibility for understanding the opening passages of Genesis, suggesting it be taken as a summary statement that is elaborated upon as the account unfolds:

According to Chrysostom, Moses prefaces his record by speaking of the works of God collectively, in the words, “In the beginning God created heaven and earth,” and then proceeds to explain them part by part; in somewhat the same way as one might say: “This house was constructed by that builder,” and then add: “First, he laid the foundations, then built the walls, and thirdly, put on the roof.” In accepting this explanation we are, therefore, not bound to hold that a different heaven is spoken of in the words: “In the beginning God created heaven and earth,” and when we read that the firmament was made on the second day.

Summa THEOLOGICA

In more recent times it has been suggested that there is a gap in time between Genesis 1:1 and 1:2. The theory suggests that in the intervening time, unmentioned in the account, the earth was created fully formed and inhabited and then later destroyed in a cataclysmic event that left it formless and void. The six days of the Genesis account then describe God restoring the heavens and earth that were created prior to the statement “in the beginning”. The gap theory is a largely discredited interpretation that attempted to align the idea of an older universe with what Genesis is teaching. Not all versions of this theory explain what the water that covers the earth might be.

Understanding the account as a scientifically accurate description of creation we are left to wonder what are the “waters” from which the earth was revealed and when were both of these entities created. We might also wonder when the other planets, and galaxies for that matter, were created.

How should we understand the creation account?

Mankind has understood the cosmos in different ways over time. We should expect our understanding of the universe to change as mankind learns more about astronomy, physics and mathematics and builds new tools to better study it. Because our understanding of the cosmos is continually changing, we have to wonder what cosmological model would God use to explain creation? Specifically, how should God explain creation to people living in the Late Bronze Age and how should subsequent readers seek to understand it.

We should not expect that ancient descriptions of the universe should easily fit into our current cosmology anymore than a 21st century description would have fit into the mindset of a Late Bronze Age reader.

In a prior post we explored what the expanse might be that was created on day 2 of the Genesis account. After a survey of the Genesis account and some other passages the following conclusion was offered:

The expanse (or firmament) is a construct within ANE cosmology that represents the region in the cosmic ocean where the earth and the celestial bodies would exist.

It was argued that this telling of the creation account was necessary in order to be intelligible to the original audience and their understanding of the cosmos who would have had no concept of the universe we know today. When compared to ANE cosmology it seems reasonable to conclude that the description in Genesis fit the cosmology of the time in which it was written to communicate important truths about the Creator and the creation. This view does not diminish the theological truths in the account while freeing us from trying to fit the waters of a cosmic ocean, the submerged earth and the expanse into what we now know about the universe.

In this next set of posts we will explore how the fourth century theologian Basil also reconciled the creation account with the scientific understanding of the universe in his day. As a modern reader we will likely find both his approaches and the philosophical/scientific views of the workings of the universe woefully inaccurate compared to what we know today.

More to come


References (used for posts in this series):

1 thought on “Ancient Theologians weigh in on Genesis: Basil’s reflections on creation (part 2)

  1. I admire your dispassionate approach to this subject. It is much needed. I am more of a crusader who believes that the church is already getting egg on its face and will have to concede that Genesis 1 is not science just as it had to concede that Copernicus’ heliocentric theory was right, and the biblical understanding, that the sun goes around the earth, is just wrong, an ancient fallacy. Of course, I infuriate people, so I thank you for addressing this subject so tactfully. I am hoping you will provide some insight that will help prevent evangelicals from looking close-minded and woefully ignorant.

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