Cosmology through the ages #2 – Patristic

The three Patristic writers most associated with cosmological considerations are Dionysius, Bishop of Alexandria (c200-264), Basil of Caesarea, one of the Cappadocian Fathers (c329-379) and Maximus of Constantinople (c580-662). I shall concentrate most on Basil for my purposes here.

From early times, Christianity was attacked by various exponents of pagan philosophy, and so a serious engagement with the intellectual ideas of the time was pretty mandatory for educated Christian writers. Indeed a number of them were converted as philosophers.

We can take Dionysius as an example of this. Though his work exists mainly as citations in others’ works, we have extracts from books on nature written against Epicurus and Democritus, and their atomist theories. He employs a classic set of design arguments (don’t let anybody fool you that such arguments are recent or that they lack intellectual or theological pedigree!).

He argues against the plausibility of the Cosmos arising from the chance collisions of particles on several grounds, including the non-homogeneity of matter, function (both of individual things and the Cosmos), wisdom, beauty and, interestingly, what we might call the reversal of entropy, on the analogy of human artifacts soon falling into disrepair when no longer consciously required. If indeed these elementary particles have no intelligent governor:

…then truly we here a most marvellous democracy of atoms, wherein friends welcome and embrace friends, and all are eager to sojourn in one domicile…

…managing by this arrangement to allocate the various ordered arrangements of the universe between them, including of course the various parts of man, such as his reason.

For this theogony, constructed of atoms by Epicurus, is indeed something extraneous to the infinite worlds of order (kosmos), and finds its refuge in infinite disorder (akosmia).

But because their priorities were theological, the Patristic writers were less concerned with cosmography – the physical shape of the universe – and like the biblical writers, more with its relationships. Usually they consciously left the material questions to the natural philosophers.

Basil exemplifies this, and is particularly interesting for this series because his thoughts were based on close study of the Genesis creation account. As far as I know he did not recognise the temple imagery to which I drew attention last time, but his conclusions accord with it well. I’m basing my discussion on an essay by Revd. Doru Cistache of St. Andrew’s Greek Orthodox Theological College, Sydney College of Divinity, Australia. Cistarche’s assessement agrees with my own appraisal of Genesis when he writes:

For St.Basil, the scriptural narrative in Genesis 1 is not concerned with chronology, the dimensions, or the structure of creation, being rather interested in highlighting God’s work as active and efficient throughout the history of the universe. Within the hermeneutical framework represented by the ecclesial tradition, this understanding is consistent with the message conveyed by John 1.1-3 and the first article of the Nicene Creed, both texts emphasizing God as creator whilst manifesting no explicit interest in the architecture of the cosmos. I will soon return to this topic, pointing out how the Cappadocian’s employment of the principle of synergy nuances and substantiates this understanding of the biblical narrative.

Just as I concluded in the previous post that everything in God’s creation (or cosmic temple) was made to relate to, and so point to God by its beauty and function, Basil writes:

Let us glorify the Master Craftsman for all that wisely and artistically has been accomplished. From the beauty of the visible things let us form an idea of the one that is supremely beautiful and from the majesty of these limited bodies that are accessible through senses let us make an analogy for him who is infinite, supremely great,and who surpasses all understanding by the fullness of his power.

This ongoing, as well as ontological relationship of all things to God is one of dependency:

Ontologically inconsistent and thus naturally mortal, the universe cannot survive and evolve of itself,without the vivifying waves and support of the divine energy, “the Creator’s power”. Again, the Cappadocian seems to refer to St.Athanasius’ ruminations concerning the universe’s dependence on the continuous and immanent activity of God. In the terms of the Alexandrian, given that it is “unstable, weak and mortal”, in order to maintain its existence, creation necessarily relies upon the “lordship, providence and organizing work of the Logos”.

I wrote of Athanasius (c296-373) and his profoundly christological view of creation, and especially regarding the image of God in mankind, here. Basil builds on this, in the light of John 1, to give a trinitarian character to the creation imagery of Genesis 1. Not only in the creation of the cosmic temple, but as I concluded before, in its ongoing role as the dwelling of God in his world, God remains actively engaged with his whole creation, and to Basil this is through both the sustaining of Christ the Logos through the Holy Spirit and his “lordship, providence and organizing work.”

And so when we add Basil’s christological insights to the temple imagery, we see a cosmology in which God is as dynamically immanent as the Hebrew conception, but in which Christ as Logos is seen to be the active medium of God’s ongoing governance of everything in creation.

But as Cistache goes on, Basil goes beyond Athanasius in developing a theology of genuine secondary causes, which was in any case inherent in the Genesis account – the cosmic temple is made by God and indwelt by him, but it is also separate from him in its own creatureliness:

His agreement with the great Alexandrian notwithstanding, St.Basil goes beyond the idea of a divine power that is unilaterally exerted upon, and within, the universe. For him, indeed, the ontological limitations of the cosmos become obvious on the level of the generative capacities that are latent within matter and cannot be activated other than by the divine will and power. Nevertheless, even though still struggling with the ancient concept of inert matter, he was likewise convinced that the natural or cosmic energies have a definite role to play within the history of the universe.

In later classical philosophical terms, then, Basil finds in Scripture not an occasionalist view, and certainly not a role for God only as a distant sustainer, but he is a concurrentist. The entities in nature have their own proper powers – making them (in a later period of history) amenable to scientific study. But they are never in the least independent of God, who governs the direction they take by the Holy Spirit. In this view, as Cistache concludes,

[t]he organization of the universe, of our earth and the life on it, is made possible only in the active presence of the Logos and the Holy Spirit. Beyond all unilateral approach, i.e. beyond the famous oppositions between spiritual and material or supernatural and natural, the interactive or synergetic principle remains fundamental to the ecclesial worldview. A generation after the Cappadocian, St.John Chrysostom displayed a similar understanding of Genesis 1.2, yet with reference to the metaphor of the Spirit hovering over the waters. For him, the “moving” primordial water, vibrating and full of a “living power of some sort”, could not have begotten life of itself, being in need of the “vivifying energy” of the Spirit. On a very similar note, when interpreting the same metaphor in Genesis 1.2, St.Basil preferred a Syriac version presenting the Spirit as an ecosystemic agent who “thoroughly warmed up and vivified the nature of the waters” like in the image of a bird hatching the eggs, endowing them with some sort of living power.

To Basil and Chrysostom, the Genesis picture of God actively ruling his creation in every aspect, such as I have illustrated in terms of its temple imagery, whilst it has its own genuine powers, is crucial to a Christian understanding. And it’s quite consistent with Dionysius’s older arguments for design and against the contingency of atomism. Their God is “mightily hands on” (!)  in a sense that is in no sense equivocal. Let’s leave the final word on this to Basil:

Think of the word of God running through creation , still active now as it has been from the beginning, and efficient until the end, in order to bring the world to fulfilment. [All things are] watered by his breath and helped on to reach their proper and natural purpose . Perfecting all other things he is the giver of life and omnipresent. By nature unapproachable, he is apprehended through his goodness, filling all things with his power […] in essence simple, in powers various, wholly present in each and wholly everywhere.

I will add one theme from Maximus. His christological emphasis was on the culmination of all things in Christ. The cosmic temple was, it would seem, the sacred space in which it was first intended that man should learn communion with God (cf the story of Genesis 2, also set in a temple environment).

Through that, it would seem, divinely-imaged man (as Athanasius had taught, having the very life of Christ) would bring about the union of all things with God imperishably. Because of the fall, that did not happen (cf Rom 8.18). The Mosaic tabernacle was a step on the salvation road to the same end (“They will be my people, and I will be their God”). Maximus takes that ultimate purpose back into the person of Christ as Creator: eschatological transformation of the whole cosmos to divine imperishability is therefore the final purpose of Patristic biblical cosmology.

Next time – how the great chain of being changed everything.


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About Jon Garvey

Training in medicine (which was my career), social psychology and theology. Interests in most things, but especially the science-faith interface. The rest of my time, though, is spent writing, playing and recording music.
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3 Responses to Cosmology through the ages #2 – Patristic

  1. Cal says:

    So much warmth and love emanate from these accounts! If the Fatherhood of God is forgotten or rejected, well, we end up with a cold engineer, one who is a terror to contemplate as actively governing. I understand the TE approach, but it’s because they don’t understand the God of the Bible.

    Looking forward to the next installment!


  2. Jon

    I don’t see anything in what you’ve written that is inconsistent with TE . . . unless all kinds of philosophical presumptions are added.

    • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:


      That’s good, because the piece doesn’t have evolution in mind at all – just creation. As we get closer to the present, some aspects of the relationship between our theology and our science may appear.

      One reason for that is that all kinds of philosophical presumptions necessarily underlie science. It’s not always easy from within a society to notice them.

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