Some accuse creationists of taking an excessively literal view of Scripture, particularly Genesis, and that this view is something of recent origin, that Christians in the early Church took a more allegorical view of things. The writings of Basil show this not to be true.1
Basil was bishop of Caesarea Mazaca, Cappadocia, from AD 370–379. He argued strongly against various heresies of that day. In particular, he defended the vital biblical doctrine of the Trinity against the Arian Heresy which denied the deity of Christ, and later against the Sabellian (modalist) Heresy which denied the distinctness of the three Persons. Basil’s classic Trinitarian formula, that God is three Persons (hypostases) in one substance (ousia), is still one of the best summaries of the Biblical doctrine, and is accepted by all branches of orthodox Christianity. [See also the Q&A: God and Q&A: Jesus Christ for biblical defences of the Trinity and deity of Christ.]
Basil was also a monk, pastor, and church leader. He established charitable institutions, hospitals and schools, and organised famine relief in 368. He greatly improved the lot of lepers in Cappadocia. Basil was greatly admired and respected, and was called ‘Basil the Great’. Soon after his death he was declared a Saint by the Eastern Orthodox Church.
Some of his sermon collections have been preserved, including the Hexaëmeron (= ‘Six Days’), nine Lenten sermons on the days of creation in Genesis 1. Some quotations from this show that Basil believed:
‘Thus then, if it is said, “In the beginning God created”, it is to teach us that at the will of God the world arose in less than an instant, and it is to convey this meaning more clearly that other interpreters have said: “God made summarily” that is to say all at once and in a moment.’ (Homily I:6)
Speaking of Day 3: ‘“Let the earth”, the Creator adds, “bring forth the fruit tree yielding fruit after his kind, whose seed is in itself.” At this command every copse was thickly planted; all the trees, fir, cedar, cypress, pine, rose to their greatest height, the shrubs were straightway clothed with thick foliage.’ (Homily V:6)
‘“Let the earth bring forth.” This short command was in a moment a vast nature, an elaborate system. Swifter than thought it produced the countless qualities of plants.’ (Homily V:10)
Speaking of Day 5: ‘“And God said, Let the waters bring forth abundantly the moving creature that hath life” after their kind, “and fowl that may fly above the earth” after their kind. The command was given, and immediately the rivers and lakes becoming fruitful brought forth their natural broods; the sea travailed with all kinds of swimming creatures; not even in mud and marshes did the water remain idle; it took its part in creation. Everywhere from its ebullition frogs, gnats and flies came forth. For that which we see to-day is the sign of the past. Thus everywhere the water hastened to obey the Creator’s command.’ (Homily VII:1)
‘Avoid the nonsense of those arrogant philosophers who do not blush to liken their soul to that of a dog; who say that they have been formerly themselves women, shrubs, fish. Have they ever been fish? I do not know; but I do not fear to affirm that in their writings they show less sense than fish.’ (Homily VIII:2)
‘“And God saw that it was good.” God does not judge of the beauty of His work by the charm of the eyes, and He does not form the same idea of beauty that we do. What He esteems beautiful is that which presents in its perfection all the fitness of art, and that which tends to the usefulness of its end. He, then, who proposed to Himself a manifest design in His works, approved each one of them, as fulfilling its end in accordance with His creative purpose.’ (Homily III:10)
‘“In the beginning God created”. He did not make the thing itself the cause of its existence. Being good, He made it an useful work. Being wise, He made it everything that was most beautiful. Being powerful He made it very great. Moses almost shows us the finger of the supreme artisan taking possession of the substance of the universe, forming the different parts in one perfect accord, and making a harmonious symphony result from the whole.’ (Homily I:7)
Speaking of Day 3: ‘But then the rose was without thorns; since then the thorn has been added to its beauty, to make us feel that sorrow is very near to pleasure, and to remind us of our sin, which condemned the earth to produce thorns and caltrops.’ (Homily III:6)
In another work,2 Basil affirmed that animals were not eaten in the original creation:
‘Let the Church neglect nothing; everything is a law. God did not say: “I have given you the fishes for food, I have given you the cattle, the reptiles, the quadrupeds.” It is not for this that He created, says the Scripture. In fact, the first legislation allowed the use of fruits, for we were still judged worthy of Paradise.
‘What is the mystery which is concealed for you under this?
‘To you, to the wild animals and the birds, says the Scripture, fruits, vegetation and herbs (are given) … We see, however, many wild animals which do not eat fruits. what fruit does the panther accept to nourish itself? What fruit can the lion satisfy himself with?
‘Nevertheless, these beings, submitting to the law of natures, were nourished by fruits. But when man changed his way of life and departed from the limit which had been assigned him, the Lord, after the Flood, knowing that men were wasteful, allowed them the use of all foods; “eat all that in the same was as edible plants” (Gen. 9:3). By this allowance, the other animals also received the liberty to eat them [CMI would say the animals began to eat meat after the Fall, which is the big discontinuity, as Basil himself says].
‘Since then the lion is a carnivore, since then also vultures watch for carrion. For the vultures were not yet looking over the earth at the very moment when the animals were born; in fact, nothing of what had received designation or existence had yet died so that the vultures might eat them. Nature had not yet divided, for it was all in its freshness: hunters did not capture, for such was not yet the practice of men; the beasts, for their part, did not yet tear their prey, for they were not carnivores … But all followed the way of the swans, and all grazed on the grass of the meadow …
‘Such was the first creation, and such will be the restoration after this. Man will return to his ancient constitution in rejecting malice, a life weighed down with cares, the slavery of the soul with regard to daily worries. When he has renounced all this, he will return to that paradisal life which was not enslaved to the passions of the flesh, which is free, the life of closeness to God, a partaker of the life of the angels.’ (On the origin of Man 2:6–7)
Basil countered various heresies in his writings and it is clear that, as today, there was a strong link between allegorizing Genesis and all manner of strange interpretations of the rest of Scripture.