Ancient Theologians weigh in on Genesis: Basil’s reflections on creation (part 6)

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 prior posts we have seen how Basil understood the waters of creation. In this concluding post we will once more touch on these concepts as we look at how Basil understood the firmament itself.

The earth was created underwater


During his homily Basil explores why the earth was “invisible and without form”. The use of the term “invisible” instead of “empty” may indicate that Basil is using the LXX (ἀόρατος καὶ ἀκατασκεύαστος) instead of the Hebrew text. While it could be debated whether the Hebrew term encompasses the idea of being invisible or just that the earth was barren prior to the rest of creation, Basil is working off of that text and translation.

As nothing of all this [growth of all kinds of plants] yet existed, Scripture is right in calling the earth without form.

The formless earth was also invisible because it was submerged under a large body of water.

The earth was invisible … because being submerged under the waters which over-flowed the surface, it could not be seen, since the waters had not yet been gathered together into their own places, where God afterwards collected them, and gave them the name of seas.

… The earth was invisible. Why? Because the deep was spread over its surface. What is the deep? A mass of water of extreme depth. But we know that we can see many bodies through clear and transparent water. How then was it that no part of the earth appeared through the water? Because the air which surrounded it was still without light and in darkness. The rays of the sun, penetrating the water, often allow us to see the pebbles which form the bed of the river, but in a dark night it is impossible for our glance to penetrate under the water. Thus, these words the earth was invisible are explained by those that follow; the deep covered it and itself was in darkness.


 Let us understand that by water water is meant;

Basil (Homily III)

What is the firmament?

As Basil tackles the creation of the firmament (or expanse) which separates the waters, he notes that this entity is also called “heaven”. He reflects on the opening passage where it states that God created “the heavens and the earth” and asks “does the firmament that is called heaven differ from that [which] God made in the beginning?”

Basil acknowledges that within the church there are differing opinions.

If we believe some of those who have preceded us, we have not here the creation of a new heaven, but a new account of the first. The reason they give is, that the earlier narrative briefly described the creation of heaven and earth; while here scripture relates in greater detail the manner in which each was created. I, however, since Scripture gives to this second heaven another name and its own function, maintain that it is different from the heaven which was made at the beginning; that it is of a stronger nature and of a special use to the universe.

– Homily III

Basil interprets the creation account as describing two heavens in the visible and physical universe. In part 2 we saw that Aquinas quoted Chrysostom, a contemporary of Basil, as holding a view different from Basil. Perhaps that is who he has in mind.

In Basil’s view; God created the heaven and the earth and then “afterwards He created light, then He created the firmament.” The firmament is responsible for dividing the waters.

Next Basil acknowledges an interesting problem. How do the waters above the firmament remain contained?

We are asked how, if the firmament is a spherical body, as it appears to the eye, its convex circumference can contain the water which flows and circulates in higher regions? What shall we answer?

His answer. The top of the firmament is not round as it appears to be.

One thing only: because the interior of a body presents a perfect concavity it does not necessarily follow that its exterior surface is spherical and smoothly rounded. Look at the stone vaults of baths, and the structure of buildings of cave form; the dome, which forms the interior, does not prevent the roof from having ordinarily a flat surface. Let these unfortunate men cease, then, from tormenting us and themselves about the impossibility of our retaining water in the higher regions.

Lastly, he wonders what the firmament might be made of, however only offering that it owes its origin to water.

Here then, according to me, is a firm substance, capable of retaining the fluid and unstable element water; and as, according to the common acceptation, it appears that the firmament owes its origin to water, we must not believe that it resembles frozen water or any other matter produced by the filtration of water; … To hold such an opinion about celestial bodies would be childish and foolish 

When compared with some other comments regarding the light traveling through the aether and air of heavens, it appears that Basil saw the lighter “heavens” of Genesis 1:1 as being overlaid on top of the firmament which was also called the “heavens”. In comparison to these lighter elements the firmament is heavier and thus received a name indicating it was solid.

[The firmament] is not in reality a firm and solid substance which has weight and resistance; this name would otherwise have better suited the earth. But, as the substance of superincumbent bodies is light, without consistency, and cannot be grasped by any one of our senses, it is in comparison with these pure and imperceptible substances that the firmament has received its name.

Once the waters were divided by the firmament, the gathering of the lower waters on the next day allow the invisible earth to become visible.

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.

– Homily IV

Basil’s views of the space-time fabric that must be flat or concave at the top to hold the waters above while inside it supports the sun, moon and stars may be humorous in light of modern cosmology. But even modern views of the cosmos note that describing what space is made of can be very complicated. It is largely considered a vacuum, that is nearly empty.

Concluding thoughts

Basil was able to take the cosmology of the fourth century and read that into the creation account. With advancements in science the last 400 years we can clearly see that Basil’s interpretations are flawed. Although the cosmology of the fourth century was much closer to an ANE cosmology it is hard to imagine even a Late Bronze Age Israelite having the same explanations as Basil when they read the Genesis account. Moses and Basil may have agreed that the heavens formed a dome like universe with earth at its center but may have debated other aspects of the cosmos like whether there are two heavens. Neither would have seen the universe as immensely large with neither the earth, the sun, nor the Milky Way, at its center.

With stunning photographs coming back from telescopes and space probes it is even harder for Basil’s interpretations to hold up when read and studied by a modern reader. The more we try to fit the creation account into modern cosmology, the more likely we are to create a set of interpretations that would have no relation to how the passage would have been understood by the original readers. These attempts would be explanations that readers for the majority of mankind’s existence would not have ever contemplated or held. Lastly, as we find Basil’s interpretations flawed we must remember that future readers, especially as new discoveries are made, may smile in amusement as they disregard our attempts to align the creation account to how we understood the cosmos in “our day”. We have already seen how that has occurred with theories like the gap theory or the water vapor canopy.

We must resign ourselves to accept that in every age attempts to reconcile the creation account to modern cosmology will only lead us further and further from any view that the original audience would hold. Because our understanding of the cosmos is continually changing, did God really intend for us to keep changing how we understand and interpret the creation account? Or did he use the cosmological model that the original readers had to explain creation and timeless theological truths

Regardless of the time period or however our understanding of the cosmos changes, I think we can all accept the major truths that the Genesis account and the rest of Scripture affirm?

  • How ever long it took to create the universe and how ever long ago that occurred, God created the universe (all that is seen and unseen) from nothing.
  • The universe has a beginning that almost certainly includes the beginning of time at least as we know and experience it.
  • The expanse is a term used to describe “space” in broad general terms.
  • The Genesis creation account is focused on God’s creative work on earth not the universe.
  • God was intimately involved with creating humankind in His image.
  • Humankind rebelled against their Creator resulting in judgments that have impacted creation as well as the relationships between Creator and humankind and humankind and the earth.
  • Throughout history there have been different understandings of the creation account often shaped by the prevailing understanding of the universe at points in time.

I will conclude the series of posts with one more excerpt from Basil, who understood most of all that creation should help us appreciate our Creator.

If sometimes, on a bright night, while gazing with watchful eyes on the inexpressible beauty of the stars, you have thought of the Creator of all things; if you have asked yourself who it is that has dotted heaven with such flowers, and why visible things are even more useful than beautiful; if sometimes, in the day, you have studied the marvels of light, if you have raised yourself by visible things to the invisible Being, then you are a well prepared auditor, and you can take your place in this august and blessed amphitheater.

– Homily VI


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