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.

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