Aquinas didn’t need modern science to defend Genesis
Often, skeptical objections to the Bible break down to “ancient people were stupid.” They supposedly didn’t know that virgins don’t give birth, and they allegedly thought the earth was flat and on pillars.1
They didn’t have microscopes and telescopes, therefore, they were unable to give any observations of the earth worth considering today.
Such notions only seem persuasive because most of us have been educated in a secular—that is, atheistic—environment where it is implied that progress is overthrowing the backward religious thinking of the past with scientific truth. Yet when we actually read ancient and medieval writings, we find that they most often engage in sophisticated reasoning based on astute observations of the world around them.
Ancient people knew skeptical objections and had biblical answers
One remarkable instance of medieval knowledge of the natural world is contained in Thomas Aquinas’s Summa Theologica, written in the 13th century. In Question 70,2 he lays out several objections to the sun, moon, and stars being created on Day 4. A few of them are related to Aristotelian philosophy and do not apply today, but a handful are still raised today:
- How could light be created on Day 1, but the sun, moon, and stars on Day 4?
- How could plants be created before the sun?
- Why are the sun and moon called ‘the two great lights’, when there are stars which are greater?
While there are parts of Aquinas’s answers that we would not agree with (for instance, where he deviates into Aristotelian philosophy), there is much in Aquinas’s answers that reveals a type of critical thinking about reality and biblical truth that we can embrace and emulate. He says, “On the contrary, suffices the authority of Scripture”.3 Then he explains further:
- God created light on the first day, but the forms of the sun and moon were created on Day 4.
- There is a polemic against sun worship in the passage; the luminaries are clearly stated to be creations of God that were not ‘from the beginning’.
- The sun and moon are ‘great lights’ according to their visibility from earth, not by comparison with other stars.
Learning from the past
Aquinas was one of the greatest thinkers of his day, and he stood on the shoulders of other great thinkers—in this short section one can see the influence of Aristotle and Augustine. Yet his apologetic is weakest when he allows extrabiblical ideas from these men to influence his reading of Scripture. Conversely, where his reasoning is based on the Bible, his writing is as relevant and powerful today as when he first wrote.
What can we learn from Aquinas and others? First, ancient people could observe the earth, and they could see ways that what they saw in the world around them might contradict the teaching of Scripture. However, even then, they were able to formulate answers that preserved the authority of Scripture. For instance, Aquinas and others in his day knew that the stars were very far away from earth, and some were larger than the sun. And as we saw, he used reasonable principles of interpretation to explain how this did not contradict Scripture when it calls the sun the ‘great light’.
Reading the great works of the past protects us from the sort of ‘chronological snobbery’ (as C.S. Lewis called it) that is so prevalent today. When we appreciate the long history of thinking about Scripture and how it relates to what we observe around us, we will be better equipped to take our place in the line of people who took seriously the command to “contend for the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 3).