Why this Question Matters.
Aquinas has given us an account of the individual days of creation; all that remains for him to do in this question is to wrap up a number of issues that do not naturally fall into the account of any one particular day of creation. Here we get an account of the sufficiency of the days of creation and of the language used to describe the creation events. Also, we get a final examination of the account of St Augustine compared to what may be called the majority view of the other Fathers of the Church.
The Thread of the Argument
A1: The first article is dedicated to the question of whether seven days were sufficient for the creation of the world. In a structure unusual for the summa, a first group of objections are made for the seven days not being enough time followed by a second group of objections that suggest that seven days was far too long!
The first set of objections are all based on assertions that, frankly, God should have spent much longer on various components of creation because the time allotted to these components was unbalanced relative to the other things mentioned in the creation account. Against this position arguments are then put that some of the seven days were a bit superfluous.
In answer, Aquinas reiterates his description of the structure of the creation story. From an initial undifferentiated creation two groups of three days are identified wherein the basic structures of the world are formed and populated. Quoting Aristotle quoting the Pythagoreans, a perfect harmony is found in having a beginning, middle and end.
Augustine’s position on the creation in their causes of some elements of the world is revisited as well as his observation about the nature of the number six. (Six is a perfect number, being equal to the sum of its divisors).
A2: Aquinas has paid careful attention throughout this treatise to the differences between the interpretations of the Genesis account of creation according to St Augustine on the one hand and the majority of the Church Fathers on the other. This article is devoted specifically to a critical examination of Augustine’s position; are all the “days” referred to in the Genesis account really referring to temporal succession or are they rather a cipher for the structural organization of a world fully created in one instant?
In favour of instantaneous creation, Aquinas quotes a passage from Genesis immediately following the account of the seven days that appears to support such an interpretation: “These are the generations of the heaven and the earth, when they were created, in the day that the Lord God made the heaven and the earth: And every plant of the field before it sprung up in the earth, and every herb of the ground before it grew”. Here it appears that the preceding seven days are subsumed under “the day that the Lord God made the heaven and the earth”. Similarly, Ecclesiasticus 18:1 states that “He that lives forever, created all things together.” Another point in favour of instantaneous creation is the fact that the creation event on each “day” appears to be instantaneous: what purpose then would the rest of each day serve? There seems to be no point in God inserting any time between the creation events.
Against these objections, however, the sed contra points out that the text of Genesis appears to be very clear in establishing some sort of temporal succession in the events of creation.
Aquinas does not attempt to adjudicate between Augustine’s interpretation and that of the other Church Fathers. His intention appears to be to show that both interpretations are consistent with the literal meaning of the text; in so doing, he is content to give a brief exposition of these different approaches. According to Aquinas, Augustine interprets each of the “days” of the creation account as corresponding to some angelic knowledge. So, for example, the first “day” of creation corresponds to angelic knowledge of the (ontologically) first creation event. In this way, the seven days of creation correspond to seven “layers” of angelic knowledge about the structure of creation. The other Church Fathers, however, take the view that the Genesis account is relating a real succession in time of the events of creation.
Aquinas makes the following curious observation. He claims that when these two accounts are compared as interpretations of the text, they differ considerably from one another; but when they are interpreted according to the manner in which things were produced, there is no great difference between them. What he has in mind here appears to be that, although Augustine takes the Genesis account to be describing the structure of an instantaneous creation and the other Church Fathers take it to describe the temporal unfolding of that creation, what actually happens in the development of those things is the same. So, for Augustine, the Genesis account describes the forms of matter as a structural layer upon its unformed state and the creation of certain beings in their causes rather than actually; what will happen next (i.e. after the events related in Genesis) will be a development of this world that corresponds to the account given by the other Church Fathers.
Even with this attempt at a harmonization of the different accounts, Aquinas admits that there are differences between them that cannot be reconciled in this way. He is content to merely list those differences and to reply to the objections without prejudice to either account.
A3: The final article of this treatise is devoted to the way in which scripture expresses the work of the creation. Its structure is unusual in that it is composed of a number of objections to the language used in scripture together with their replies; there is no master’s determination of the answer. It gives the appearance of Aquinas tidying up a number of loose ends not previously dealt with. There are seven objections; most of them take the form of objections to things omitted (where is the creative Word of God so familiar from the opening of John’s Gospel, for example), or to expressions used.
The answers to these objections are mostly straightforward. We will only illustrate with the answer to the third objection: there appears to be no reason for omitting the refrain “God saw that it was good” from the work of the second day. The answer allows Aquinas to discuss the Trinitarian aspects of creation; although the Trinity is not explicitly mentioned in the Genesis account, Aquinas argues that strong hints are dropped. For example, the person of the Father is implied by God creating, the person of the Son is implied by the beginning in which He creation (remember the opening of John’s gospel); and the Holy Spirit is the spirit that moves over the face of the waters. “God saw that it was good” is omitted from the account of the second day because the work of differentiating the waters is completed on the third day; the refrain for that day should be taken as applying to the work of the second day too.
- The description of the days of creation in the Genesis account are sufficient for what the author wished to communicate and show a fitting balance and coherence.
- Six is a perfect number, being the sum of its divisors. In Aquinas’s text, an aliquot part of a number is a number that divides it leaving no remainder (i.e. an exact divisor).
- In Augustine’s account, the days of creation correspond to layers of angelic knowledge about the structure of the world.
- To a certain extent what will happen to the world after the events of the creation story (according to Augustine) will correspond to what happens during that story (according to the other Fathers of the Church).
- Although the Trinity is not explicitly mention in the creation account, its Trinitarian structure is clear.
- The second article appears to have four objections but five answers to objections. What is happening here is that Aquinas is not so much replying to objections as showing that the objections and their contraries are consistent with scripture. So the fifth reply to objections is actually a reply to the sed contra.
- It may appear surprising that Aquinas is not willing to come to a decision about whether St Augustine is correct in his interpretation of Genesis. After all, we may be used to the idea of the scholastic approach as one that grinds out correct answers. This example is a good illustration that such a view is a parody. In like manner, the magisterium of the Church has always been loath to determine a particular meaning of individual scriptural passages; such teaching has been restricted to the exclusion of incorrect interpretations in times of doctrinal crisis.
- Likewise, having set up a critical examination of St Augustine’s account, it seems that Aquinas doesn’t really go into the question to the depth it deserves. Perhaps his intention is to get his readers to read De Genesi ad litteram for themselves!
- This last question of the treatise on the hexaemeron seems a bit of an anti-climax. Instead of a culminating survey of all creation we get a loose collection of issues not dealt with in the questions about the individual days of creation.