He’s read just one verse and St. Basil of Caesarea is already overwhelmed.
“I stop struck with admiration at this thought,” the Cappadocian Church Father tells his congregation after reading Genesis 1:1. In the beginning, God created the heaven and the earth.
Church Fathers like St. Basil of Caesarea did not simply read the Scriptures. For them, the encounter with the Word of God was a profoundly moving experience that required not just intellectual discipline but moral preparation. Scripture was steeped in many layers of meaning, through which the discerning soul passed through on the way of ascent to God, drawn by the light of faith.
This way of reading Scripture is exemplified by Basil’s series of homilies on the six days of creation, the Hexaemeron. The beginning of Genesis is especially fertile ground because its theological riches are so often neglected in favor of readings that are either hyper-literal or hubristically liberal. The former takes it only as science. The latter tosses it aside as anti-scientific myth. Basil shows us the narrow path to the truth.
But before we can even get to how to read and interpret the text, a certain preparation of mind and soul is necessary.
How to approach Scripture
Moral disposition. “How earnestly the soul should prepare itself to receive such high lessons! How pure it should be from carnal affections, how unclouded by worldly disquietudes, how active and ardent in its researches, how eager to find in its surroundings an idea of God which may be worthy of Him,” Basil exclaims. Any effort to encounter God must be preceded by moral purgation and reading Scripture is no exception.
Humility is essential. Basil is constantly mindful of his unworthiness to uncover its treasures. “In the few words which have occupied us this morning we have found such a depth of thought that we despair of penetrating further. If such is the fore court of the sanctuary, if the portico of the temple is so grand and magnificent, if the splendor of its beauty thus dazzles the eyes of the soul, what will be the holy of holies? Who will dare to try to gain access to the innermost shrine? Who will look into its secrets?” he says after his homily on the first verse.
How to read Scripture
Faith and morals above all. For Basil, we’ve missed the point if we read Genesis 1 as science alone. “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. Grand phenomena do not strike us the less when we have discovered something of their wonderful mechanism. Is it otherwise here? At all events let us prefer the simplicity of faith to the demonstrations of reason,” he declares. Of course, this is not to discount the scientific truth of the account. But the scientific truth is ultimately a theological one: there was a Creator, who ordered the world, which remains under His providential care.
Begin but don’t end with the literal. For Basil, we must be rooted in the literal meaning. “For me grass is grass; plant, fish, wild beast, domestic animal, I take all in the literal sense,” he says, in a direct swipe at allegorical interpreters who seemingly saw symbols everywhere and in everything.
But this does not mean we are restricted to the literal meaning. For example, in discussing the animals, Basil notes the difference between their posture and ours, taking the opportunity to make a point about humanity’s ultimate destiny. “Man, a celestial growth, rises superior to them as much by the mold of his bodily conformation as by the dignity of his soul,” he says.
Intriguingly, Basil seems almost agnostic on the question of whether the days of creation are literal 24-hour days or not. Ironically, this is a product of a very close reading of the literal meaning. He notes that the first day in the account is actually described not as the ‘first day’ but ‘one day’ (see Genesis 1:5). For him this special day was a type of eternity, meant to delineate the beginning of time, rather than demarcate a 24-hour period in an ordinary week. Otherwise, he never seems to directly address the issue of the sense in which we should take day—which is not to say that the question is unimportant, just that there are more important ones for Basil.
Nothing superfluous. Basil was convinced that there was nothing superfluous in creation. He had the same attitude towards Scripture itself: “Every deed and every word of our Savior Jesus Christ is a canon of piety and virtue. When thou hearest word or deed of His, do not hear it as by the way, or after a simple and carnal manner, but enter into the depths of His contemplation, become a communicant in truths mystically delivered to thee,” (cited by John Henry Newman). He apparently had the same approach to the Old Testament, as indicated in his above interpretation of the difference between one and first.
Awe and wonder. Scripture should fill us with awe and wonder. “The high tops of the mountains which, near to the clouds and continually beaten by the winds, keep up a perpetual winter, do not arouse more admiration in me than the hollow valleys, which escape the storms of lofty peaks and preserve a constant mild temperature,” Basil says. This leads to praise of God. “Keep your admiration for the source of such perfect order, for the wisdom of God,” Basil says.
How to interpret Scripture
Like many other Fathers, Basil understands that there are multiple senses to Scripture. The below breakdown somewhat resembles the traditional scheme of four senses: the literal sense, discussed above, and the spiritual sense, further subdivided into the allegorical, moral, and anagogical senses (described in the catechism here). These could be put as questions:
How does this edify my soul? All creation, Basil says, is “a school and training place” for souls. “You will finally discover that the world was not conceived by chance and without reason, but for an 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,” Basil says.
Where is Christ? The Church Fathers saw Christ seemingly everywhere in the Old Testament and the six days of creation is no exception. Of course, this is a claim made in the Prologue of the Gospel of John itself. But where in the Genesis account is Christ? The mere fact that Christ is speaking, Basil says, hints that Christ, the Word of God, is present at creation. This is further confirmed by Genesis 1:26 where God says “Let us make man.” “Does not the light of theology shine, in these words, as through windows; and does not the second Person show Himself in a mystical way, without yet manifesting Himself until the great day?” Basil says.
How does this point to our final destiny? In other words, how are the end times, the consummation of all things, envisioned here? For Basil it’s so obvious it’s been staring at us the whole time, in the very first verse: “The dogmas of the end, and of the renewing of the world, are announced beforehand in these short words put at the head of the inspired history. In the beginning God made. That which was begun in time is condemned to come to an end in time. If there has been a beginning do not doubt of the end.”