How FATHERS approached Science? by Fr. Gabriel Wissa

February 17, 2021

In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit; One God, Amen.  


Today, we continue our exploration on the topic of Christianity and science. We have tackled so far in this series how a Christian should approach science. We have also discussed the Big Bang theory and how to approach the first chapter of Genesis. In the last two videos on Genesis 1, we have explored a recent Ancient Near Eastern approach to the text. Therefore, some have wondered how this interpretation fits with the Church Fathers’ understanding of Genesis 1. Are these 2 approaches compatible or not? To answer this, we have to do more than proof-texting the fathers. We truly must understand the background and the mind of the fathers. We have to comprehend their methodology and imitate it. And at all costs, we must avoid randomly quoting them. Since this is an extension of our discussion on Genesis 1, we will naturally use St. Basil’s Hexameron—a magnificent work on the first 6 days of creation.  


This video will attempt to describe St. Basil’s overall approach as simply as possible. We will first see what he identified as the purpose of Genesis chapter 1. In the Hexameron’s first homily, he says: You will finally discover that the world was not conceived by chance and without reason, but for a useful end and for the great advantage of all beings, since it is really the school where reasonable souls exercise themselves, the training ground where they learn to know God; since by the sight of visible and sensible things the mind is led, as by a hand, to the contemplation of invisible things. Here, like in other examples of his work, St. Basil clearly states that the world was created by God. It was not conceived by chance but for a purpose and, through it, humans are led to the knowledge and contemplation of God. Also, in the first paragraph of homily 1, St. Basil says that the purpose of Genesis 1 is the salvation of those who are instructed by those words. He says also in his first homily: “let us say with Moses ‘God created the heavens and the earth.’ Let us glorify the supreme Artificer for all that was wisely and skillfully made; by the beauty of visible things let us raise ourselves to Him who is above all beautylet us conceive of the infinite Being whose immensity and omnipotence surpass all the efforts of the imagination.” We can comfortably conclude that, according to St. Basil, the purpose of the first chapter of Genesis is the glory of God through His creation. Through the creation, humanity ought to recognize and glorify God’s magnificence and grandeur 


The second point to St. Basil’s overall approach is his wisdom on when and how to use science. This point covers 3 subpoints: which type of science St. Basil used; how much weight he gave to science; and for what purpose he used it. We will find that he uses and describes the science of his time, albeit sometimes reluctantly, and concludes by giving glory to the Creator of Science. Let us investigate a few examples. The following is taken from his first homily: 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 … they go on, without reason or by chance that the earth occupies the center of the universe. It is its natural and necessary position… 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.” Here, the earth occupying the center of the universe is a reference to the Aristotelian science, and the like. In this quote, he also claims that philosophers assumed the earth to be static. His conclusion, however, is regardless if his hearers believed that specific science to be accurate or not, they ought to look beyond the creation, and its details, and admire God the Creator. Here’s another example from homily 9: “Those who have written about the nature of the universe have discussed at length the shape of the earth. If it be spherical or cylindrical, if it resembles a disc and is equally rounded in all parts, or if it has the forth of a winnowing basket and is hollow in the middle; all these conjectures have been suggested by cosmographers, each one upsetting that of his predecessor. It will not lead me to give less importance to the creation of the universe, that the servant of God, Moses, is silent as to shapes; he has not said that the earth is a hundred and eighty thousand furlongs in circumference; he has not measured into what extent of air its shadow projects itself whilst the sun revolves around it, nor stated how this shadow, casting itself upon the moon, produces eclipses. He has passed over in silence, as useless, all that is unimportant for us. Shall I then prefer foolish wisdom to the oracles of the Holy Spirit? Shall I not rather exalt Him who, not wishing to fill our minds with these vanities, has regulated all the economy of Scripture in view of the edification and the making perfect of our souls?In this quotation, he mentions the different scientific theories regarding the shape of the earth available at his time. It is also apparent that, at their time, they believed that the sun revolved around the earth. However, his main point was to emphasize that Moses passed over these details in silence since they are not edifying for our souls and that edifying is the objective of Scripture. 


Now, in discussing the firmament in Day 2 of the creation, St. Basil says the following: “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? 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 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 regionsNow we must say something about the nature of the firmament, and why it received the order to hold the middle place between the watersaccording to me, is a firm substance, capable of retaining the fluid and unstable element water for I am taught by Scripture not to allow my imagination to wander too far afieldLet there be a firmament. It is the voice of the primary and principal Cause. In this quotation, he wants to answer how can the firmament both be spherical in shape and to still retain the water that was above it. During St. Basil’s time, similarly to the time of the Ancient Near Easterners, they thought that there was liquid water above the firmament. Therefore, it was also common in the early centuries to believe the sky to be solid for various reasons including to retain the water above it. St. Basil attempts to explain this by saying that although this firmament is convex, it potentially had a higher section that was solid and flat and therefore was capable of retaining the water. However, again, his ultimate focus is the One Trinitarian God who is the Cause of creation.  


In summary, we learn from St. Basil to read Scripture for our spiritual edification. That is precisely its role. We also learn from him not to shy away from science when needed. Therefore, when appropriate, we should imitate him by using our modern-day contemporary science. Unfortunately, sometimes, science is used for evil—not good—so we must be cautious. Then again, he clearly reminds us that although science has its importance, at the end, its function is only to discover how God created. Science has no authority on the question of Who created. Understanding how the cosmos operates has no authority on the question of whether God exists or not. Science merely tries to stipulate how the creation came to be and that is secondary to Who is the Creator. Therefore, God Himself is our ultimate objective and He needs to be the center of our reading of Scripture. Now, if we compare the content of this video to the Ancient Near Eastern interpretation discussed in the previous 2 videos on how to read Genesis 1, we will find that the overall objectives are the same: focusing on God as Creator and on the spiritual edification of humanity who are created in God’s image. However, the details of the Ancient Near Eastern interpretation are quite different. This is due to its late discovery. Serious archeological work in that area of the world started only in the 19th century AD and has brought to light much information that had remained buried for centuries. This new-found knowledge is vital to the exegesis of Genesis 1. But again, in both approaches to the text, we discover that science is not the objective. God is. 








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