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?

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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.

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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 (

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.

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