Firmaments, cosmic oceans and Church Fathers #1

I thought I’d about wrapped up writing on ANE “cosmology” for now, with a three part series on Wayne Horowitz’s magnum opus in the can. But I got into e-mail conversation with Eddie about a remark I’d made in reply to a BioLogos comment. The comment had suggested that accommodation of the Genesis creation story to everyday knowledge only became necessary with the insights gained through modern science. I had replied that the Church Fathers, mainly raised in a Greek Ptolemaic kind of worldview with a round earth surrounded by crystal spheres, would have maybe had to do plenty of work to harmonize that and Scripture.

My discussion with Eddie piqued my interest in investigating just how they may have done so. Would they impose their science on the text, or sacrifice it to biblical literalism? Would they follow the Septuagint translators in assuming a hard “firmament” under the influence of the Greek teaching on crystalline celestial “spheres”?

In fact I wrote a little on “patristic cosmology” back in 2014, when I found the most detailed writer on it was Basil of Caesarea. I dealt with his theological priorities there, based on an essay about him, but have returned to his actual text for a detailed look at how he deals with Genesis. I found some interesting stuff – notably that his interpretation is closer to mine than it is to the generic “ancient cosmology” supposed to have been believed not only in Old Testament times, but by New Testament writers like Paul. Naturally I’m going to plug the principal Patristic writer on the matter if he clears Paul of ignorance and supports my own case!

Basil of Caesarea in Cappadocia (329-379) was actually an older contemporary of Jerome (340-420), the latter being famous (in this matter) for having coined the Latin word “firmamentum” for raqia in his Vulgate translation of Genesis from the Hebrew. This reputation is ill-deserved though, for Jerome was under instruction to revise, rather than reframe, the Old Latin version (“Vetus Latina”), which was a translation from the Greek Septuagint and used the same word “firmamentum” to translate στερεώμα, “something fixed”. Jerome’s word-choice therefore teaches us little except his obedience.

But Basil was a Greek speaker, and habitually used the Septuagint translation which, to Gentile Christians before Jerome, was usually considered more reliable and authoritative than the Hebrew. Basil’s background was thoroughly Hellenic. From Wikipedia:

Basil received more formal education in Caesarea Mazaca in Cappadocia (modern-day Kayseri, Turkey) around 350-51. There he met Gregory of Nazianzus, who would become a lifetime friend. Together, Basil and Gregory went to Constantinople for further studies, including the lectures of Libanius [renowned pagan teacher of rhetoric and Hellenic philosophy]. The two also spent almost six years in Athens starting around 349, where they met a fellow student who would become the emperor Julian the Apostate.

It is important to note that though Basil had a “modern” Greek scientific understanding (and was unhappy with some of his predecessors’ overuse of allegory), his sermons on the creation narrative (The Hexaemeron) are expositions of the text, not harmonising apologetics. He engages with contemporary science both critically and sympathetically, but is looking to explain Scripture as God’s authoritative and truthful word, and to make it useful for the common man:

I know that many artisans, belonging to mechanical trades, are crowding around me. A day’s labour hardly suffices to maintain them; therefore I am compelled to abridge my discourse, so as not to keep them too long from their work. What shall I say to them? The time which you lend to God is not lost: he will return it to you with large interest. Whatever difficulties may trouble you the Lord will disperse them. To those who have preferred spiritual welfare, He will give health of body, keenness of mind, success in business, and unbroken prosperity. And, even if in this life our efforts should not realise our hopes, the teachings of the Holy Spirit are none the less a rich treasure for the ages to come. Deliver your heart, then, from the cares of this life and give close heed to my words. Of what avail will it be to you if you are here in the body, and your heart is anxious about your earthly treasure? (Homily III)

I like him already! In his first sermon, Basil prefers to take Gen 1.1 to describe a first, general, act of creation rather than to summarise the whole – but he acknowledges the other view as valid, and it is interesting that sound expositors were as divided on that then as modern academics are! As to the form of these primordial heavens, he says this:

Upon the essence of the heavens we are contented with what Isaiah says, for, in simple language, he gives us sufficient idea of their nature, “The heaven was made like smoke,” that is to say, He created a subtle substance, without solidity or density, from which to form the heavens. As to the form of them we also content ourselves with the language of the same prophet, when praising God “that stretches out the heavens as a curtain and spreads them out as a tent to dwell in.

No cosmic ocean or solid firmament yet in view, then, but just a kind of atmosphere – we will have to dig deeper on Day 3. Still, one may note that since Greek astronomy considered the outer heavens to be of crystalline aether, Basil appears to have in mind simply the sky.

As to what lies beneath the earth, Basil denies that Scripture provides an opinion, and insists that God’s power is its sole emphasis. He rejects in turn various popular ideas, including (in effect) “turtles all the way down” as an infinite regress:

Do you say that the earth reposes on a bed of air? How, then, can this soft substance, without consistency, resist the enormous weight which presses upon it? How is it that it does not slip away in all directions, to avoid the sinking weight, and to spread itself over the mass which overwhelms it? Do you suppose that water is the foundation of the earth? You will then always have to ask yourself how it is that so heavy and opaque a body does not pass through the water; how a mass of such a weight is held up by a nature weaker than itself. Then you must seek a base for the waters, and you will be in much difficulty to say upon what the water itself rests.

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?” Job 38:6.

Basil also has a word for those modern scientistic literalists with their diagrams of the raqia held up by mountains or the world floating on a subterranean ocean, which they glean from isolated texts:

If ever you hear in the Psalms, “I bear up the pillars of it;” see in these pillars the power which sustains it. Because what means this other passage, “He has founded it upon the sea,” if not that the water is spread all around the earth? … But let us admit that the earth rests upon itself, or let us say that it rides the waters, we must still remain faithful to thought of true religion and recognise that all is sustained by the Creator’s power. Let us then reply to ourselves, and let us reply to those who ask us upon what support this enormous mass rests, “In His hands are the ends of the earth.” It is a doctrine as infallible for our own information as profitable for our hearers.

To the author of Genesis, the logical force of such reasoning would have been equally apparent: without a concept like gravity, the idea of an infinite abyssal sea is irrational, because the earth would sink infinitely. And a limited ocean arched over a solid vault would simply slide off.

But the sophisticated Greeks did have a concept somewhat like gravity, and Basil explores it next. See how he deals with the “intellectual” explanation based on Aristotelian science: he respects it, but doesn’t allow it to dictate the meaning of the Scripture:

There are inquirers into nature who with a great display of words give reasons for the immobility of the earth. Placed, they say, in the middle of the universe and not being able to incline more to one side than the other because its centre is everywhere the same distance from the surface, it necessarily rests upon itself; since a weight which is everywhere equal cannot lean to either side… Thus heavy bodies move from the top to the bottom, and following this reasoning, the bottom is none other than the centre of the world. Do not then be surprised that the world never falls: it occupies the centre 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. If there is anything in this system which might appear probable to you, keep your admiration for the source of such perfect order, for the wisdom of God. Grand phenomena do not strike us the less when we have discovered something of their wonderful mechanism. Is it otherwise here? At all events let us prefer the simplicity of faith to the demonstrations of reason.

We can summarise what he takes from the Scripture on the physical form of “heaven and earth” (as opposed to its main lesson of a theology of God’s power and providence) as “phenomenological”. The heavens are, essentially, what we perceive them to be in everyday life, and so he interprets the passages he takes from Isaiah or the Psalms or Job as everyday metaphors – smoke, or a spread out tent, or pillars and so on. He wastes no time in either insisting on them as literal, nor rejecting them as erroneous and unscientific. Instead he uses them as instructive pictures, unlike today’s literally-minded critical scholars.

Likewise he makes clear that the speculations his hearers might have about what the earth rests on have no counterpart in the Bible, which simply describes the earth we see, and even in Job describes its foundations as unknown. Accordingly, he finds no contradiction at all with the science of his day, which he invites his hearers to ponder with wonder, whilst clearly recognising the epistemological limitations of science.

With this introduction in place, the way Basil deals with light, astronomical light sources, firmaments and waters above them turns out to be quite intriguing. But because of space, I think I’ll deal with these second to fourth Days of Creation (and their corresponding second to fourth homilies) in a second post.

Jon Garvey

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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4 Responses to Firmaments, cosmic oceans and Church Fathers #1

  1. GD GD says:

    Good approach Jon.

    • Jon Garvey Jon Garvey says:

      I thought it interesting, George – but if St Basil had had Paul Seely, Peter Enns and the experts on the BioLogos forun to read, he’d have sung a different tune no doubt!

      • GD GD says:

        I think not (I guess I will be regarded as a ‘radical’ by the other site).

        • Jon Garvey Jon Garvey says:

          No – I’m inclined to agree. But that may be (according to one of the BL posters) that all three of us (you, me and Basil) are Calvinists who haven’t published peer-reviewed articles on the subject…

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