Monday, 7 May 2012

Question 69 - The Work of the Third Day

Why this Question Matters.

“God also said: Let the waters that are under the heaven be gathered together into one place; and let the dry land appear. And it was so done. And God called the dry land, Earth; and the gathering together of the waters, he called Seas. And God saw that it was good. And he said: Let the earth bring forth the green herb, and such as may seed, and the fruit tree yielding fruit after its kind, which may have seed in itself upon the earth. And it was so done. And the earth brought forth the green herb, and such as yields seed according to its kind, and the tree that bears fruit, having seed each one according to its kind. And God saw that it was good. And the evening and the morning were the third day.”

The work of the third day sits at the boundary between the formation of the fundamental structures of the universe and the population of the universe with things. The two articles in this question address problems that might seem to arise from the text itself or from the interpretation of the text in the light of the scientific understanding of the time. However, one might better see this question as allowing Aquinas to give an extended description of the interpretation of the creation account due to St Augustine in the context of the majority interpretations of the other Church Fathers. St Augustine sees the creation account as an account of something that occurs instantaneously; the procession of events is a literary device that really refers to the internal structuring of reality. The other Church Fathers see the account as being temporal. These two interpretative threads offer different (and possibly complementary) ways of approaching the difficulties in the text.

The Thread of the Argument

A1: The work of the creation was conventionally divided into the work of diversification and the work of adornment. In the first, the universe came into being and its inchoate matter was formed into the basic parts of the world we know. In the second, the world is filled with content. The gathering of the waters described in this section of Genesis stands at the division of these two periods of creation; the question set in this article as to whether the scriptural account is a fitting description of the gathering of the waters reflects this division.

The objections to the scriptural account divide into two sorts: on the one hand there are two objections based on features of the text and on the other there are three objections based on medieval science. The first textual objection observes that up to now the work of creation has been described in terms of making whereas here we have a gathering of what has already been made. This appears to break the pattern set by the other works of diversification. Next, the earth is named as being made at the beginning of the creation account; but here we have it mentioned as resulting from the gathering of the waters.

In his answer, Aquinas distinguishes between two major exegetical approaches to the creation account. The first is the approach of St Augustine who saw the creation account of Genesis as describing an instantaneous creation of everything. In this account the succession of events described is not a temporal succession but an account of the ordering of nature from its most fundamental structures upwards. In such a hierarchical but non-temporal account, what is being described is the meaning and structure of creation. In this account the gathering of the waters is seen to refer to the distinction between the substantial forms of water and of earth in distinction to the inchoate form of matter in general that ontologically precedes these forms.

The other major approach to the Genesis account does see it as an account of the temporal succession of events. Here, matter is created in an inchoate form and exists as such for a time before it receives diversification into its particular forms. Particular pairings of words in scripture can be seen as specifying how different parts of primeval creation lacked their eventual forms: so heaven is paired with darkness; water is paired with deep; and earth is paired with invisible or void. In this approach the work of the third day is seen as an imposition of form on the inchoate earth and water, bringing them to a state where they can be distinguished.

Aquinas now turns to the objections, answering each from both the points of view of Augustine and of the other Church Fathers. That the term “gathering” is appropriately used here instead of “making” follows on the one account from the descent down the hierarchy of being from the more noble to the less and on the other account from the simple fact that the stuff involved has already been made by the third day. Likewise the double reference to the creation of the earth can be understood as referring to the creation of the inchoate earth and to its later (either in time or in meaning) specification or even as a type of equivocation.

Likewise, having put these clarifications in place, Aquinas can deal with the science based objections. For example, the fourth objection states that “gathering” involves a change of place that is natural to a substance like water; what need is there for a divine precept to get the waters to gather? Aquinas answers that it is by the divine precept that water comes to have its natural properties.

A2: Why is it that the creation of plants is allotted to the third day? After all, plants are not the only form of life and it might seem more appropriate to mention the most primitive forms first. Also one might have thought that mentioning basic structures of the earth such as stones and metals would take priority. Similarly, why mention the adornment of the earth by plants in a part of the creation account that is dedicated to diversification?

Aquinas distinguishes between two types of lack of form for the earth that are remedied on the third day of creation. The first type of lack corresponds to it being described as void or invisible and the second type corresponds to it being described as empty or shapeless. The first type of lack is remedied by the gathering of the waters that distinguishes between earth and water and the second type of lack is remedied by the creation of plants. So the account of the third day should be seen as a type of completion making up for a lack, rather than as part of the adornment of what is already complete in itself.

Here again, Aquinas distinguishes between the opinion of St Augustine and the opinions of the other Church Fathers. In St Augustine’s reading of Genesis as an account of the structure of nature as instantaneously created, the creation of plants on the third day is taken as referring to the powers to bring forth vegetative life that are given to nature. These powers are examples of what St Augustine calls seminal reasons in nature and which Aquinas describes here as examples of things that are formed in their causes.  Part of the structure of nature is such that it not only exists in itself but it has powers or causal potentials to evolve new forms, especially involving forms of life.

Other writers interpret the account of the third day as referring to the actual creation of concrete individual plants within species but that such creation does not involve the coming to be of all plants species. Within the plants that are created on the third day lies the power to create not only like from like but new species.

As for the objections, Aquinas argues that plants can be seen as a primitive form of life in that they do not have locomotion or sensation. Their fixedness within the earth makes it appropriate that they are described along with the creation of the earth. Similarly, Moses does not describe everything in the creation account, favouring those things obvious to the senses; rocks and minerals deep in the earth are occult and so are not described.

Handy Concepts

  • St Augustine explains the creation account as an account of the structure of nature from the foundations upwards. The majority of other Church Fathers read it as a temporal account of the coming to be of the universe. Aquinas leaves both options open.
  • Using St Augustine’s approach to the creation account, the gathering of the waters can be seen as identifying the structure of nature that distinguishes dry land from wet water.
  • Using the other account, the gathering of the waters can be seen as the imposition of a more specifying form on inchoate matter.
  • In St Augustine’s account the third day of creation is taken as referring to the seminal reasons within nature.
  • Other Church Fathers take the third day of creation as referring to the creation of actual plants; though not the complete range of plant species, some of which remain in potentiality within those that are created.


  • In the second article Aquinas alludes to the opening verses of Genesis describing the earth as “invisible or void” and “shapeless or empty”. The “invisible” and “shapeless” appear to be textual variants known to Aquinas.

Sunday, 6 May 2012

Question 68 - The Work of the Second Day

Why this Question Matters.

“And God said: Let there be a firmament made amidst the waters, and let it divide the waters from the waters. And God made a firmament, and divided the waters that were under the firmament from those that were above the firmament. And it was so. And God called the firmament Heaven. And the evening and morning were the second day.

On the second day of creation God creates a firmament that divides the waters above from the waters below. But what is this firmament and what is the nature of the waters that it divides? Engaging with pre-Christian cosmology and patristic tradition, Aquinas sorts through various understandings of this passage, discarding some but leaving others open to consideration.

The Thread of the Argument

A1: The text of Genesis relating to the second day of creation is troubling. We are told that a firmament is created that divides the waters and that this firmament is called Heaven; but according to the opening verses of Genesis, Heaven was created before there were days at all. When was this firmament created, and what is a firmament anyway?

In preparing to answer this seeming contradiction Aquinas makes his own the two principles of Augustine on the interpretation of such questions. The first principle is that scripture is true; one cannot resolve such paradoxes simply by claiming error in the scriptural account. The second principle is that if there are a number of possible explanations for the scriptural passage, one should not maintain as definitive any that are patently falsifiable. Faith and reason are co-principles for the interpretation of obscure passages of scripture.

Having said this, Aquinas has cleared to the way for a discussion of some possible meanings for this passage. He divides the interpretations according to what they take the scientific explanation of the firmament to be. In the first case, the firmament is taken as referring to where the stars are located; in the second, to being the part of the atmosphere where clouds undergo condensation. The first set of possibilities is then further divided into interpretations that depend upon what the firmament is made of. Aquinas runs through these possibilities showing that some of them are consistent with the scriptural account whereas some are not. When he turns to the second group of interpretations, he is able to argue that these don’t suffer from the problems of the first group and that therefore they are preferable from the point of view of the harmony between faith and reason.

In answering the apparent contradiction between Heaven being created before the beginning of days and the firmament (called Heaven) on the second day, Aquinas turns to St John Chrysostom. The latter argued that opening of Genesis is a summary of what comes later; somewhat like “the builder built the house; he did this by digging the foundations and then building the walls…”

In addition to Chrysostom’s resolution of the contradiction, Aquinas recalls alternative explanations that differentiate between the Heaven of the opening verse of Genesis and that of the second day. In these explanations, Heaven is being used in an extensive sense, much as we are willing to describe the vista of the stars as “the heavens” whilst still calling the domain of the blessed “Heaven”.

A2: The waters appear to be divided into those below and those above the firmament. But how can there be waters above the firmament? Water is a liquid that has weight and would therefore tend to fall downwards; similarly as a liquid it would not be stable on the sphere of the firmament posited by medieval cosmology. What would the purpose of water be above the firmament? It would seem that water’s natural purpose is fulfilled here on Earth, below the firmament.

Aquinas reiterates Augustine: the placing of waters above the firmament may sound odd, but scripture has greater weight than human opinion. We cannot doubt that they are there; what we can inquire into is what they are.

Aquinas immediately rejects Origen’s opinion that the waters referred to here are purely spiritual substances; these waters are material. Exactly what material form they take can be the object of speculation that will depend upon the prior explanation of what the firmament is taken to be. Although Aquinas favours the opinion that the firmament is the place of the clouds over the opinion that it is the place of the stars, he still leaves those parts of that explanation consistent with the scriptural text open here. He offers various explanations of what the waters above the firmament are based on these accounts of the firmament. Turning to the idea that the firmament is the place of the clouds, he claims that the waters above the firmament are those that are evaporated from the Earth and taken up to be the source of rain.

The objections are met by a number of arguments relating to the different explanations of the nature of the waters above the firmament. Aquinas follows Augustine in rejecting miraculous explanations that would answer these objections. God has created Heaven and Earth such that their regular functioning flows from their natures; it is into these that we should inquire. Whatever the waters above the firmament are, we must admit the possibility that they exist in a form different from the waters below the firmament even if they are essentially the same sort of stuff. For example, the waters above the firmament may exist as vapour (and thus would not fall to Earth) or as ice (and thus could be crystalized around the sphere of the heavens). As for the purpose of the waters above the firmament, in the favoured view of the firmament they are there to provide rain; but there are corresponding explanations for the other views of the firmament too.

A3: Continuing the enquiry into what the firmament is and what it does, Aquinas asks about how the firmament can be said to separate the waters above and below. If we look at things from our point of view, it seems patently obvious that the waters do not stretch up to the firmament, whichever of the views one takes on the nature of the firmament. How then can we say that it is actually the firmament that divides?

The main concern in this article appears to be to banish certain ancient theories about what the waters are. Aquinas argues that the scriptural text has to be interpreted in the light of the ignorance of Moses’ original readers: Moses writes in terms of things directly perceptible to the senses, so that those readers could understand what was written (to a limited extent). Many false explanations of scripture have resulted from failing to take into account this principle. Whether we take the firmament to refer to the place of the stars or to the place of the clouds, and if we understand the term “water” to have some latitude (i.e. referring to unformed matter or any transparent body), then the scriptural text raises no problems and the objections melt away.

A4: In Ia.q66.a3 we have already seen that the word “heaven” is rather overloaded with different meanings. If we further consider the fact that the Latin word that Aquinas is using is “caelum” and the ambiguity of the words used in various languages to talk about the sky or the heavens, one soon sees there is ample scope for confusion. Asking whether there is only one heaven allows Aquinas to put some order into this chaos.

Aquinas identifies three different fundamental uses of the word “heaven” in scripture. The first usage corresponds to that already referred to in Ia.q66.a3: the heavens as understood through scientific cosmology. In this understanding the heavens are divided into the empyrean heaven, the aqueous (or crystalline) heaven and the sidereal heaven; we recall that some authors identify the empyrean heaven as the place of the blessed. The second usage associates heaven with some property of the heavenly bodies (something we still do when we use the word “heavenly”). The third usage is a metaphorical one where spiritual goods or even God Himself is referred to as heaven.

The answer to the question as to whether there is only one heaven then depends upon which of these uses is in view. Differentiating between different facets of heavenly creation leads to a multiplicity, but considering the created universe in its unity (as heaven and earth) leads to singularity.

Handy Concepts

  • Scripture must always be taken as true. However, interpretations of scripture that are patently falsifiable by means of reason should be rejected.
  • Aquinas identifies two main lines of interpretation for what the firmament is: on the one hand we have the firmament as the place of the stars, on the other the firmament as the place of the clouds. Aquinas favours the second without ruling out the possibility of the first.
  • In the same way that we might be flexible in our understanding of the firmament, we might also be flexible in understanding what the waters referred to by scripture might be.
  • In the answer of the second article Aquinas identifies the fundamental physical principle that “a natural body cannot be divided or rarefied without limit, but only up to a point”.
  • The author of scripture was writing for the unlearned and condescended to his audience by restricting his descriptions in the creation account to those things directly perceptible to the senses.
  • The word “heaven” has many meanings in scripture; care is needed to understand which is being used where.