Ancient Theologians weigh in on Genesis: Basil’s reflections on creation (part 5)


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 saw Basil defend the beginning of the universe and time. Views that were not broadly accepted until approximately 100 years ago. Prior posts further demonstrated that Basil held the widely accepted idea that the universe was comprised of 4 or 5 elements. These elements are what Basil understood as being created in the beginning.

The opening of the creation account in Genesis, as we have noted, states that the water is already found in existence at the beginning. Furthermore, the account only states that the “heavens and the earth” are created “in the beginning”. These observations caused philosophers to question whether the elements were co-existent with God.

In the beginning, he says God created. [Moses] does not say God worked, God formed, but God created. Among those who have imagined that the world co-existed with God from all eternity, many have denied that it was created by God

– Homily I

Basil, rightly, rejects the idea of the elements co-existing with God. In order to defend his view he seeks to explain why the elements that comprise the universe are not enumerated in the creation account. To understand his explanation we must set aside what we know of the universe today and form a picture of how a fourth century person would view things.

Source: wikipedia

A small geo-centric universe

Basil accepted the prevailing theory of his day that the earth was the center of, what would be to us now, a very small universe. This idea was based on the theories of Aristotle and Ptolemy and it prevailed until the 17th century when a heliocentric model replaced it.

It is not without reason or by chance that the earth occupies the center of the universe. It is its natural and necessary position. … If stones, wood, all terrestrial bodies, fall from above downwards, this must be the proper and natural place of the whole earth.

Do not then be surprised that the world never falls: it occupies the center of the universe, its natural place. By necessity it is obliged to remain in its place, unless a movement contrary to nature should displace it.

HOMILY I

At this time it was thought that objects would seek their natural state of rest. This resulted in the universe consisting of objects “sorted” according to their weight. The element earth is heavy and thus, like stones, “falls” and finds itself at the center, which could also be considered the “bottom” of the universe. The heavens consisting of lighter elements, such as air and aether, are thus found toward the top. In this way the universe was organized such that the heavens formed a dome around the earth. The size of the universe, or the extent of the dome, was roughly understood as extending to the planet Saturn. Remember that it wasn’t until 1924 when Hubble demonstrated “our Galaxy is not the Universe” that the universe was seen as bigger than the Milky Way.

Basil relies on this “scientific” theory to explain why the Genesis account did not explicitly identify all of the elements. With heaven being lighter and at the “top” and earth being heavier and thus at the “bottom, Basil understands the term “heavens and earth” in Genesis 1:1 to refer to the uppermost and lowermost objects in the universe. Thus we have creation presented in its extremes.

In the beginning God made heaven and earth. By naming the two extremes, he suggests the substance of the whole world, according to heaven the privilege of seniority, and putting earth in the second rank. 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, and you will find water, air and fire, in the earth.

… Now, as according to their nature, heaven occupies the higher and earth the lower position in space, (one sees, in fact, that all which is light ascends towards heaven, and heavy substances fall to the ground); as therefore height and depth are the points the most opposed to each other it is enough to mention the most distant parts to signify the inclusion of all which fills up intervening Space. Do not ask, then, for an enumeration of all the elements; guess, from what Holy Scripture indicates, all that is passed over in silence.

– Homily I

This explanation may amuse us, but to Basil and his audience this explanation would fit their cosmological model while also answering their critics.

Of what use then are geometry — the calculations of arithmetic — the study of solids and far-famed astronomy, this laborious vanity, if those who pursue them imagine that this visible world is co-eternal with the Creator of all things

Turtles all the way down

“But it’s turtles all the way down!

A Brief History of time – Stephen Hawking
Source: NASA.gov

Basil, after describing the “sorted” top down view of the universe, addresses questions about how the earth, then accepted as a stationary object at the center of the universe, might be supported in its place given it’s weight.

I will not expect you to try and find out the earth’s point of support. The mind would reel on beholding its reasonings losing themselves without end.

Do you suppose that a heavier body prevents the earth from falling into the abyss? Then you must consider that this support needs itself a support to prevent it from falling. Can we imagine one? Our reason again demands yet another support, and thus we shall fall into the infinite, always imagining a base for the base which we have already found. And the further we advance in this reasoning the greater force we are obliged to give to this base, so that it may be able to support all the mass weighing upon it. Put then a limit to your thought, so that your curiosity in investigating the incomprehensible may not incur the reproaches of Job and you be not asked by him, Whereupon are the foundations thereof fastened? If ever you hear in the Psalms, I bear up the pillars of it; see in these pillars the power which sustains it.

… (now let us) remain faithful to thought of true religion and recognize that all is sustained by the Creator’s power.

Basil might not be quite sure what supports the earth but seems dismissive of the idea of pillars. Perhaps Job 26:7 was in the back of his mind, describing the earth as suspended over nothing. His approach to his critics reminds me of a popular quote from A Brief History of Time by Stephen Hawking.

A well-known scientist (some say it was Bertrand Russell) once gave a public lecture on astronomy. He described how the earth orbits around the sun and how the sun, in turn, orbits around the center of a vast collection of stars called our galaxy. At the end of the lecture, a little old lady at the back of the room got up and said: “What you have told us is rubbish. The world is really a flat plate supported on the back of a giant tortoise.” The scientist gave a superior smile before replying, “What is the tortoise standing on?” “You’re very clever, young man, very clever,” said the old lady. “But it’s turtles all the way down!”

– STEPHEN HAWKING (BRIEF HISTORY OF TIME)

Grappling with the early existence of the earth in a watery depth, as we find in the creation account, would not be as big a challenge to those living in a small universe with earth at its center. The summary statement “the heavens and the earth” are more readily understood as the totality of the universe because Basil’s cosmology and the Genesis account are much closer aligned. Read the first chapter of the creation account and we find the focus is on the earth. The waters, once divided, place the earth at the center of everything that is being described. The sun, moon and stars are added later to aid the future inhabitants of the earth. The expanse seems much more like a dome surrounding the earth than the expanding vacuum of space filled with galaxies and planets. But how are we to read and understand the account with what we know about the universe today? Read as a scientific historical narrative it is hard to reconcile and may even distract us from the main point. What if the primary purpose of the account was to introduce the Creator and not the universe. To invite us to know the One who created all that is seen and unseen because He is also the One who so loved the world and its future inhabitants. Would it matter if He chose to do that using the cosmology of the original audience?

More to come


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