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.

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