The Church Fathers On Creation, by David Hicks (Part 3)

Aug 9, 2012

III. Basil and the Hexaemeron 

Now let us turn to S. Basil and his Hexaemeron. 

The Hexaemeron is the title of Basil’s nine Lenten sermons on the first chapter of Genesis.  Although the evidence suggests that Basil delivered these sermons extemporaneously to working men and women, the ancients regarded this as his greatest work, and it inspired several imitations, most notably his brother Gregory’s Hexaemeron and that of S. Ambrose.  The most exaggerated praise comes from his contemporary S. Gregory of Nazianzus, who said, “Whenever I take his Hexaemeron in hand and quote its words, I am brought face to face with my Creator: I begin to understand the method of creation: I feel more awe than ever I did before, when I only looked at God’s work with my eyes.” (Orat.xliii.67)

One of the great ironies of our story is that where Basil goes wrong, so to speak, it is with his facts, which are mostly based on an Aristotelian misunderstanding of the natural world.  There is a lesson here for us.  Basil is perhaps the best educated of all the Church Fathers.  Better educated by far than the Apostles and the first generation of Christians save Paul.  Indeed, he and his sister Macrina and brother Gregory of Nyssa (three saints from one family!) ought to be the poster children for the classical Christian movement in America.  Each received a classical Christian education par excellence, being raised in a devoutly Christian home, and nurtured by a robust Christian community in Antioch during a period of acute persecution. Basil and Gregory were sent off to Athens for training in the finest schools in the classical tradition and went on to Constantinople for further study.

When reading the Hexaemeron, Basil's "scientific" observations are, if sometimes howlingly at odds with modern science, at least consistent with the opinions of his learned contemporaries who had studied and absorbed Aristotle's physics.  Others (Strabo and Ptolemaeus, for example) may have on certain points held views that would be more in line with modern science and geography, but none of those views were in any scientific sense "proven," and it is worth bearing in mind that it was the recovery of Aristotle's works in the West after the fall of Constantinople and the Muslim incursion into the Iberian peninsula that sparked what modern historians like to refer to as the Enlightenment and the birth of modern science.

But here's the interesting thing: where Basil's work now seems dated and of questionable relevance, it must have sounded to his listeners at the time both up-to-date and wonderfully factual, that is to say, “scientific.”  It seemed to explain with keen insight and startling logic the natural world in all its richness and complexity.  Just as science did a thousand years ago, a hundred years ago, and does today.  Yet how different and often contradictory all these explanations are!  Does anyone believe that this pattern will suddenly change?  Will the scientific journals of the 22nd century merely repeat and confirm the opinions being expressed in today's journals?  Or will school children a thousand years from now not find our textbook theories charming at best, and otherwise risible?  Why indeed should we put our faith in theories that will probably be outdated before we die? S. Basil puts the case very succinctly when he says, “It is vain to refute (the latest theories); they are sufficient in themselves to destroy one another.”  (The Hexaemeron, Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Vol. 8, Hendrickson Publishers, Peabody, MA, p. 53 – all subsequent quotes from S. Basil will appear from this volume, only the page number will appear in parenthesis.)

The truth is, reading Basil's Hexaemeron offers an almost perfect example of the ease with which an ancient or sacred text can be either dismissed as out-of-date and error-ridden or embraced as up-to-date and prophetic. 

On the one hand, Basil repeats many of the errors of his contemporaries, assuring his listeners (these are homilies, remember) that "the earth occupies the center of the universe" (57) and rejecting the notion that "the light of the moon is borrowed . . . from the sun." (83)  We read with amusement that eels spring spontaneously from the mud and insects from the earth -- both effects without generative or sexual causes.  And we wonder why the preacher thought it necessary and appropriate to give the Creator a pass for "having produced venomous animals, destroyers and enemies of life" by comparing them to "the schoolmaster when he disciplines the restlessness of youth by the use of the rod and whip to maintain order." (105) But on the other hand, what are we really laughing at?   Basil or the science of his day?  When we ridicule Basil for his strange and flawed opinions, we merely judge ourselves on at least two counts -- for our inability to see that our modern opinions, so shiny today, will appear equally tarnished tomorrow, as well as for our failure to observe that Basil, unlike our modern selves, goes on to dismiss these opinions as "vanities" and "foolish wisdom" when compared to "the oracles of the Holy Spirit" (102).  We are not so ready to do so today.

In Part 4: Mastery, Meaning, and Mystery

David  Hicks

David Hicks

David Hicks is the author of the book Norms and Nobility: A Treatise on Education and The Emperor's Handbook: A New Translation of The Meditations. ​He is the winner of the 2002 Paideia Prize, given by the CiRCE Institute for dedication to classical education. He and his wife live in Montana. 

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Loved this article!

Yet I do not understand. Given these less familiar lessons from Basil, and the more familiar lessons from Aquinas’s union with Aristotle and its blessing by the Church that birthed Gallelio’s inquisition, why do creationists continue this pattern, using the scientific methods of today to lend authority to their interpretation of the first text? I don’t care if we’re talking young earth, old earth or all the other Christian labels out there using scientific methods to validate God's method of creation. Why must we make Genesis 1 science? And why must science corroborate Genesis 1 for it to be credible in the eyes of our children? It seems to me science has set itself up as a false god to which Christians have bowed down.

What if Genesis 1 is story? What if story is more powerful than science to reveal the glory of God and capture the hearts and minds of children and of men? What if we can't hear the story because we've turned theology into a science too?

Marcia,

Can you help me understand the historical issues you're referring to a little better (Basil, Aquinas, Aristotle, Gallelio etc.)?
Also, can you elaborate on what you mean by story (as opposed to science)? Does it have to be one or the other?

Great questions, but I fear my answers will be too long:
In terms of the historical issue, as Hick’s noted, Basil’s Hexaemeron mistakes are attributable to scientific expertise of his day when Aristotle was king. Nine hundred years later, Aristotle was frequently viewed with suspicion by the church, then along came Thomas. Some of Aquinas’ best known work today, his logical arguments for the existence of God start with an “unmoved mover” from Aristotle’s Physics, which made the earth the center of a perfect universe.
Thomas’s brilliance and the seeming consistency of Aristotle’s view of an ordered universe and the Bible eventually convinced the Catholic Church to adopt Aquinas’s teaching as official church doctrine, which included a geocentric universe. They did so in the mid 1500s. Less than fifty years later Galileo turned his telescope to the sky. Following Copernicus lead, he provided both mathematical and observation evidence that the Aristotelian/Ptolemaic view of the world just ain’t so. But having adopted Thomas’s works which imported Aristotelian cosmology, to challenge Aristotle was to attack the church. The rest is history.
So when the Bible says the sun rises and sets, is this poetry or science? If you take your science from Aristotle it’s a scientific statement. And if science proves its previous theory false so is the aligning biblical statement. Hitching the wagon of biblical interpretation to the horse of science has taken the church to some embarrassing places. Hick’s so clearly emphasized, science at its very core is revisional, while we believe the Word of God lasts forever.
It is not my intention to denigrate the work of or the study of science in any way. But whenever we use it to explain what the Bible is saying, “User beware.”
In terms of my meaning relative to story: The first text is not science, its poetry and narrative. To treat it as such is to risk making scientific statement about the rising and setting sun. Genesis 1-3 is literature of the highest order. In Lewis’ words, it’s true myth. The purpose of mythic literature always transcends science. Its purpose shapes culture. It tells men about their God/gods, the nature of their world and their place within it. Man’s source of ultimate meaning is sourced to this text.
The average Christian 5th grader can give you plenty of scientific facts about the age of the earth or when dinosaurs lived. How many of them understand what it means to made in the image of God?

Great questions, but I fear my answers will be too long:
In terms of the historical issue, as Hick’s noted, Basil’s Hexaemeron mistakes are attributable to scientific expertise of his day when Aristotle was king. Nine hundred years later, Aristotle was frequently viewed with suspicion by the church, then along came Thomas. Aquinas’ best known work today, his logical arguments for the existence of God start with an “unmoved mover” from Aristotle’s Physics, which also made the earth the center of a perfect universe.
Thomas’s brilliance and the seeming consistency of Aristotle’s view of an ordered universe and the Bible eventually convinced the Catholic Church to adopt Aquinas’s teaching as official church doctrine, which included a geocentric universe. They did so in the mid 1500s. Less than fifty years later Galileo turned his telescope to the sky. Following Copernicus lead, he provided both mathematical and observation evidence that the Aristotelian/Ptolemaic view of the world just ain’t so. But having adopted Thomas’s works which imported Aristotelian cosmology, to challenge Aristotle was to attack the church. The rest is history.
So when the Bible says the sun rises and sets, is this poetry or science? If you take your science from Aristotle it’s a scientific statement. And if science proves its previous theory false so is the aligning biblical statement. Hitching the wagon of biblical interpretation to the horse of science has taken the church to some embarrassing places. Hick’s so clearly emphasized, science at its very core is revisional, while we believe the Word of God lasts forever.
It is not my intention to denigrate the work of or the study of science in any way. But whenever we use it to explain what the Bible is saying, “User beware.”
In terms of my meaning relative to story: The first text is not science, its poetry and narrative. To treat it as such is to risk making scientific statement about the rising and setting sun. Genesis 1-3 is literature of the highest order. In Lewis’ words, it’s true myth. The purpose of mythic literature always transcends science. Its purpose shapes culture. It tells men about their God/gods, the nature of their world and their place within it. Man’s source of ultimate meaning is found in this text.
The average Christian 5th grader can give you plenty of scientific facts about the age of the earth or when dinosaurs lived. How many of them understand what it means to made in the image of God?