Ancient Theologians weigh in on Genesis: Basil’s reflections on creation (part 3)


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.

The Genesis account according to Basil

To explore this idea of fitting the creation account into the prevailing view of the universe a bit further we will use Basil’s Hexaemeron (The Six Days) as a case study. We introduced Basil in a prior post, but as a quick reminder he was a bishop during the late fourth century. “The Six Days” is a series of homilies written about the Genesis creation account. In the first two posts in this series we learned that Basil rejected allegorical interpretations, instead approaching the creation account as a historical narrative of the events. Through each homily he unpacks each day in the creation account and compares it to the prevailing cosmology of his day. His cosmology is of course rooted in the philosophical and scientific (or pre-scientific if you prefer) ideas that were prevalent during the fourth century. At times he will refute some of the ideas philosopher/scientists offer but throughout much of the work Basil interprets the creation account in line with those theories. Although a fourth century cosmology was much closer to what Moses and the Israelites might have understood about the universe, Basil’s ideas differ from both the ANE myths and modern scientific models.

What we will find is that Basil was generally able to take the cosmology of the fourth century and read that into the creation account. With the benefit of living more than 1600 years later and having the advantage of understanding the universe in much greater detail, especially with the advancements in science over the last 400 years, we can clearly see that some of Basil’s proposals, being rooted in a flawed cosmology, are incorrect. With his failed attempts before us it should help us reconsider how we approach the creation account today. We must ask ourselves, are we not in danger of doing the same thing? Further, if Basil could see the science of his day in the account and was clearly wrong, what makes us think we can do better? We have already seen our own modern failed attempts in the water vapor canopy and gap theories. Lest we are too critical of Basil and his interpretations, his intentions were noble as he sought to help his listeners more fully appreciate the Creator.

I want creation to penetrate you with so much admiration that everywhere, wherever you may be, the least plant may bring to you the clear remembrance of the Creator.

Basil (Homily 5)

What would a fourth century cosmology look like?

If Basil’s understanding of the universe was rooted in fourth century cosmology we would need to ask ourselves what that entails. The primary understanding of the universe during Basil’s time would have been governed by the Ptolemaic system. Built upon Aristotle and others, this system was proposed around 150 AD and benefited from being able to explain the erratic orbits of the celestial bodies around the earth. It prevailed until the late 16th and early 17th centuries when Kepler, building off Copernicus and Brahe, worked out a heliocentric model.

Some major characteristics of a fourth century cosmology includes:

Where to begin?

Pillars of Creation in the Eagle Nebula (NASA.gov)

Basil wonders aloud: “Where shall I begin my story? Shall I show forth the vanity of the Gentiles? Shall I exalt the truth of our faith?” As he works through each passage, he will often do both.

Throughout his homilies Basil will point out to his listeners that for every idea about the universe that philosophers offer there are those among them that will disagree and refute it. He even challenges them to offer a single unified view before he will entertain the idea of rebutting them. Despite this pronouncement, Basil often engages with their ideas. Basil also ignores the fact that some theological views, including those about creation, suffer from the same problem as those about the cosmos.

The philosophers of Greece have made much ado to explain nature, and not one of their systems has remained firm and unshaken, each being overturned by its successor. It is vain to refute them; they are sufficient in themselves to destroy one another. Those who were too ignorant to rise to a knowledge of a God, could not allow that an intelligent cause presided at the birth of the Universe; … Some had recourse to material principles and attributed the origin of the Universe to the elements of the world. Others imagined that atoms [form] the nature of the visible world. … Deceived by their inherent atheism it appeared to them that nothing governed or ruled the universe, and that all was given up to chance.

Homily 1

If we were to swap the term “philosophers of Greece” with physicists and reframe the debates between the elementalists and the atomists with more modern references such as loop quantum gravity and string theory, we might be tempted to conclude that we are reading something written in the 21st century instead of the opening to a 4th century homily. The cause of the universe, according to the leading philosophers and scientists in both ages, is left to chance.

Basil’s reference to atoms presumably refers to Democritus’ view on the universe, which was largely ignored in favor of Aristotle’s view. Aristotle proposed the idea that the universe was comprised of four or five elements. Basil, like most of his contemporaries, seems to favor a universe made up of elements. In his defense against those that argue that the elements were co-eternal with God, because they are not mentioned in the creation account, he suggests this solution:

In the beginning God made heaven and earth. By naming the two extremes, he suggests the substance of the whole [universe]. … All intermediate beings were created at the same time as the extremities. Thus, although there is no mention of the elements, fire, water and air, imagine that they were all compounded together …

– Homily I

Notice that Basil is arguing for a universe that is made up of the four elements that were created “in the beginning”. His argument is dependent on the idea that the earth is the center of the universe and that objects naturally orient themselves in a top-down manner. Moses listed the highest and lowest points of the universe and implicitly included everything in between (more on this in a future post).

Although Basil omits æther from the list of elements that were created without mention, he will later suggest that it is the medium through which light travels.

And God said, Let there be light. … The heavens, until then enveloped in darkness, appeared with that beauty which they still present to our eyes. The air was lighted up, or rather made the light circulate mixed with its substance, and, distributing its splendor rapidly in every direction, so dispersed itself to its extreme limits. Up it sprang to the very æther and heaven. In an instant it lighted up the whole extent of the world … For the æther also is such a subtle substance and so transparent that it needs not the space of a moment for light to pass through it.

– Homily II

Today we reject the idea that the universe is made up of 4 or 5 elements. Science has shown that Democritus was on the right track when suggesting that matter is comprised of smaller building blocks called atoms. Modern physics has also discovered that atoms are not the smallest building blocks as they, themselves, are made up of the smaller particles: protons, neutrons and electrons. Even these particles are made up of smaller particles such as quarks, muons and neutrinos.

Of course we can’t be too hard on Basil for describing the universe in terms of elements instead of atoms. The idea for atoms may reach back to the fifth century BC but there existence was still hotly debated until the late 19th century. However, he should be commended for recognizing a challenge that the creation account presents when taken as a scientifically accurate historical narrative .

In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. Now the earth was without shape and empty, and darkness was over the surface of the watery deep, but the Spirit of God was moving over the surface of the water. 

Genesis 1:1-2

Prior to day one the account states that the “heavens and earth” were created and that the earth exists in a watery darkness. Basil has no problem with a formless earth being created instantly as a starting point. This was an elementary element. His main challenge was to describe why the other three fundamental building blocks of the universe were not enumerated in the opening phrase. The mention of water, another elementary element, in the next passage that is covering the earth would not have been a difficulty for Basil either. He is arguing that all of the elements were created in the opening verse of Genesis.

Modern interpreters would have a more challenging time working out a solution for the problem then Basil did. What are we to assume is wrapped up in the term “heavens and earth”. We may presume, as he did, that the creation account implicitly includes numerous entities not listed in the phrase “heavens and the earth”, but we would certainly reject the details behind his solution.

Consider the creation account timeline as follows:

  • The watery depth is created (though not stated)
  • The earth is created under the watery depth
  • Light is created without stars on day one
  • Outer space (ie the expanse) is created on day two

Using similar arguments to Basil, one could argue that the “heavens and earth” are inclusive of all of the elementary particles since they are made up of atoms. But what are we to make of the existence of the earth prior to the creation of outer space? Even if we assume that Genesis 1:1 is an opening summary statement, we find that in 1:2 the formless earth exists in darkness beneath a watery depth. How should we understand the water that covers the earth? If the expanse is “outer space” this water must refer to something else.

Forget about any debate about the time intervals for the subsequent 6 days, the Big Bang suggests a timeline for the universe that required hundreds of thousands of years before the first atoms, mostly hydrogen and helium, could form. Further, ignore any timeline challenges with the formation of stars and light, we are confronted with the difficulty of explaining the intervening window of time that exists between “in the beginning” which would presumably include the creation of various particles that would become atoms and the appearance of a formless earth that is made up of those atoms.

More to come

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