Ancient Theologians weigh in on Genesis: Basil’s reflections on creation (part 4)


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.

In the last post we looked at Basil’s homilies as they related to the makeup of the universe. Basil accepted the idea that the cosmos was made up of 5 elements and correlated the heavens, earth and water in the first few verses of the account to them. In this post we will continue to explore how Basil explained the creation account in Genesis with the “science” of his day.

Is the Universe eternal?

One characteristic of the universe that was commonly held during the fourth century was that the universe has always existed and always will exist. Basil describes some philosophers as those “who have imagined that the world co-existed with God from all eternity”. Others he describes as atheists that see the universe as “conceived by chance and without reason”.

Basil rejected any view of the universe that suggested it was eternal or created by chance. He strongly argued that the universe was created by God and thus had a beginning as well as a purpose.

He first establishes a beginning, so that it might not be supposed that the world never had a beginning. … [The Creator] needed only the impulse of His will to bring the immensities of the visible world into being. …

Do not then imagine, O man! That the visible world is without a beginning … do not vainly imagine to yourselves that the world has neither beginning nor end. … In the beginning God made. That which was begun in time is condemned to come to an end in time. If there has been a beginning do not doubt of the end.

Homily I

Basil is careful to elaborate on “the beginning” as referring only to the “visible world” and not the “invisible world”. The former would be the universe in which we dwell and the latter is the abode of angels which is “outstripping the limits of time” and existed before the “beginning”.

The purpose of the visible world was a place to train the souls of men who were mortal.

To this world (referring to the abode of angels) at last it was necessary to add a new world, both a school and training place where the souls of men should be taught and a home for beings destined to be born and to die.

Basil astutely notes that time, itself, was among the things created “in the beginning”.

In the beginning God created; that is to say, in the beginning of time. 

Thus was created … the succession of time, for ever pressing on and passing away and never stopping in its course. Is not this the nature of time, where the past is no more, the future does not exist, and the present escapes before being recognized?

As we shall see, the concept of time has no meaning before the beginning of the universe. This was first pointed out by St. Augustine. When asked: “What did God do before he created the universe?” Augustine didn’t reply: “He was preparing Hell for people who asked such questions. Instead, he said that time was a property of the universe that God created, and that time did not exist before the beginning of the universe.

– Stephen Hawking (Brief history of time)

The notion that the universe had a beginning is one of the core theological principles in the Genesis account. It is much more recently an idea that is accepted by most physicists. Prior to the 20th century the universe was widely believed to be in an eternal, static state.

As I type this, the prevailing view about the origins of the universe is the Big Bang theory. This theory states that the universe had a beginning, starting from a small point from which it is continually expanding. Before Hubble demonstrated that the universe was expanding in 1929, physicists largely accepted the universe as an eternal and static entity. When Einstein published the theory of general relativity in 1915 the field equations described a universe that could collapse or expand. In 1917 Einstein proposed the cosmological constant. This value was added to the calculations in order to preserve the theory of a static universe in which there was no beginning or end.

Even after Hubble demonstrated that the universe was expanding many physicists rejected the Big Bang. Hoyle and others proposed the Steady-State theory in 1948.

the Universe is infinite in extent, infinitely old and, taken as a whole, it is the same in all directions and at all times in the past and at all times in the future.  In other words, the Universe doesn’t evolve or change over time.

The Steady State Theory

This theory, similar to the cosmological constant, was also an attempt to maintain an eternal and static universe. Specifically it sought to describe an eternal universe that was expanding. The theory was eventually abandoned in the 60s and 70s as evidence accumulated demonstrating that it was untenable.

After Hubble’s demonstration of an expanding universe, the cosmological constant was dropped. Interestingly enough, it has since been reintroduced to explain why the universe is expanding at an accelerating rate rather than slowing down. The return of the constant and the resulting equations are commonly referred to as dark energy today.

Source: NASA.gov

In an instant

Basil described the first moment of creation as being imperceptible and instantaneous.

… these words “in the beginning God created” signify the rapid and imperceptible moment of creation. The beginning, in effect, is indivisible and instantaneous. … Thus then, if it is said, “in the beginning God created”, it is to teach us that at the will of God the world arose in less than an instant, and it is to convey this meaning more clearly that other interpreters have said: God made summarily that is to say all at once and in a moment.

– Homily I

For Basil an instantaneous creation did not mean that everything was created in its final state. He notes that “the creation of the heavens and of the earth were like the foundation and the groundwork” upon which the Creator continued his work over the subsequent 6 days.

Heaven and earth were the first; after them was created light; the day had been distinguished from the night, then had appeared the firmament and the dry element. … However, the sun and the moon did not yet exist … That is why there was a fourth day, and then God said: Let there be lights in the firmament of the heaven.

– Homily VI

What happened at the start of the Big Bang is widely speculated. The initial instant of time from “the bang” until 10-43 seconds is called the Plank Epoch. That was the instant nothing became something. In modern physics “nothing”, or what was before the Big Bang, is a concept that is under heavy debate. The “something” that resulted is thought to have been smaller than an atom. During that incredibly small period of time the fundamental forces of nature are thought to exist as one force, as they had not split into electromagnetism, the strong nuclear force, the weak nuclear force and gravity. This is the “foundation and the groundwork” for the universe we now see and study.

Illustration of the Timeline of the Universe. Credit: WMAP

Early in the formation of the universe a “dense seas of electrons, clogg[ed] up the cosmos by constantly absorbing and re-emitting light in random directions, keeping the cosmos in the dark” (link). It wasn’t until the Recombination Epoch, when neutral atoms formed, that light was able to travel and become visible and made the universe transparent (link). This light is now referred to as the cosmic microwave background. This light appeared long before the formation of stars. Interestingly that means the idea of light before the stars isn’t the problem some suggest. Of course, having an earth with plants without a sun would still be a challenge.

Observations about the Big Bang aside, it seems that Basil and modern physicists would agree that the universe had a beginning and has been changing ever since its birth. At that moment time also came into existence (now understood as space-time). Dig any deeper into the details and we will continue to find challenges when reading the creation account as a historical scientific narrative.

More to come

3 thoughts on “Ancient Theologians weigh in on Genesis: Basil’s reflections on creation (part 4)

  1. I’m loving all this. I’m scared to share it anymore because I don’t want you besieged by the fanatics who besiege my more confrontative posts against Genesis 1-3 as science or history. You’re so diplomatic and gentle in this, I would never want to disturb it.

    • Thanks Paul. Appreciate the encouragement.
      I’ve been trying to see creation account from the eyes of different ancient theologians not just to see how they interpreted it but also to see how they did so in terms of the cosmology of their day too. Basil’s homilies have been really helpful in that regards. I hope to tackle Augustine next.

      You still over at ancient-faith.com? I will have to check out some of your posts on this topic.

What do you think?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s