Tuesday, September 17, 2019

The Purpose of the Creation Account in Genesis According to Cyril of Alexandria

By St. Cyril of Alexandria

The divine Moses does not appear before our eyes as one who composed doubtful stories, nor one who launched himself out on this road from simple ambition. He had in mind primarily to contribute to making lives led better. And in fact he did not attempt to discourse subtly on the nature of the things, by speaking about what the first principles are named, or about the elements which proceed from it; these things are, in my opinion, too obscure, and inaccessible to some minds. His goal was to form the spirits of his contemporaries with the doctrines of the truth: because they were being misled and had taken to worshiping each according to his imagination. Their extreme ignorance made them ignore the one God, God by nature, and to worship his creations. Some thought that the sky was god, others the disc of the sun; there were even some wretched enough to allot the glory of the supreme nature to the moon, the stars, the earth, to plants, to the watery element, birds, or to brute animals! They had come to this, and such a terrible sickness had affected all the inhabitants of the earth, when Moses came to their help and revealed himself as the initiator into knowledge of great value for all. He proclaimed clearly that there exists by nature only one Creator of the universe, and radically distinguished Him from all other realities which He had merely brought into being and existence. Considering what was useful, and as clearly as possible, neglecting every excessively subtle point, he restricted himself to deal only with that which was strictly essential.

How was it useful to him to say what is the nature of the waters, and how they were present at the beginning, or to probe the deeps and the nature of the heavens, to detour into the mode of existence of the angels? It would be difficult for anyone to cover such subjects, which I think that no one understands anyway! Would anyone even be able to do it (thanks to a knowledge lent by God, who had been there tell him), or been able to understand a so subtle speech - or rather one so inaccessible to the spirit? In fact, we find among men, at the time when the book of the very wise Moses was written, an ignorance which exceeds even that of the Greeks. That which should have made possible for those people to understand fully the glory of God was lost, it is obvious from the account, in the pit of the deepest stupidity. As the Scripture inspired by God says, the men of that time should have had some idea of the Creator and maker of the universe from the beauty of things created. But they reached such a degree of wrong thinking that the things that should have led them to the knowledge of the truth shows that they were disposed instead to follow a lie. The very wise Paul bears a witness worthy of trust to this idea by writing, "Ever since the creation of the world, his invisible nature, namely his eternal power and deity, has been clearly perceived in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse; for although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their linking and their senseless minds were darkened."


How can we not admire the wisdom of Moses? He concealed from the men of that time everything that was complicated, deep, difficult to assimilate, in order to reveal to them instead what would enable them to recover sane ideas, and something which had the virtue to put them on the right road to an irreproachable teaching -- I mean a teaching of an all-powerful God. In the same way we would congratulate for very good reasons the schoolmaster who puts himself at the intellectual level of his pupils, in order to lead them by the hand, step by step, towards discovering sacred truths, without putting to them, at the very beginning, any too elaborate ideas, or any very hard to grasp. At the same time we would refuse to recognize Moses as worthy of praise, who acted in the same way?


See how the text of Moses very wisely cuts short the error which the ancients fell into: don't they name the heavens Zeus, the earth Demeter, the sun Apollo, and the moon 'the noisy goddess with the rod of gold', i.e. Artemis? In a word, allotting according to their imagination a share of glory to each creature of God, they adored these creatures as divinities.

However the description made by Moses of the creation of the world was clear, easily comprehensible, without anything lacking in its great exactitude. And that's what we're going to have to show. "In the beginning," he writes, "God created the heavens and the earth." So he denies that matter shared with God the time before the beginning, eternity; or that it was uncreated, as some say. He doesn't present something that didn't exist at one time as coinciding with and coexistant with the eternal; he doesn't confuse the temporary, something which was brought into existence with difficulty, with that which is from time immemorial; something that changes to something which is always itself; nor something which is corruptible with that which is incorruptible! On the contrary, he makes creation happen in a moment, the principle that refers to things brought into existence, because starting from nothing it was brought to be what it is according to the divine will. What he certainly does not say, is that matter existed already, had already been invented, and that God limited himself to being its director and workman, giving form to what was amorphous, and only imposing on matter different qualities, dimensions and volumes. On the contrary he says that, thanks to a secret and unutterable power, in the beginning God brought into being what was not and did not exist in any way whatever!

As for the way in which he made creation happen, we do not have the means to say. I affirm that it is beyond any way of expression known to us: how indeed could what exceeds understanding be explained? In my opinion, the approach imagined by the supreme Being and the way that leads to an understanding of his enterprise will be always as inaccessible to our human condition as we are by nature lower than this Being himself. When Moses said, "In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth", understand that he condenses and summarizes in some way all the details in a single word, when he describes the genesis of all creation. Then, he attempts to say somehow how this creation was put in order and how all the things created were assigned the role in life which they have.

Moses also states that that God created through the all-powerful Word: in fact his creator-Word of the universe is God himself and proceeds from God by nature. "God said," Moses continues, "Let there be a firmament!" and this firmament instantaneously becomes real by the operation of the Word, and God gives it the name of 'heaven'. "God said: Let the dry land appear!" and the waters gather in a single body. God said moreover: 'Let the sun be!' and it was; and so for the moon, the stars, the day, the terrestrial and aquatic animals, and the birds. But by nature the elements themselves cannot draw from their own resources the possibility of escaping corruption, on the contrary, they need the hand of He that maintains them in good condition: this is the sense of the words of Moses: "the breath of God was moving over the waters." Indeed the breath of God vivifies anything, because He is life also by nature, as He proceeds from the life of the Father; everything needs Him, and there is no other means for anything to obtain existence in order to be what it is.

So contemplate, as I have just said, the firmament firmly established by the Word and the firm ground emerging after the gathering of the waters in a single body; contemplate the green earth full of grass and trees, and the vital forces included in them which makes possible for them to conceal their transitory nature with the virtue of eternity, to last and remain; see the luminaries of the firmament, created by God only for the purpose of lighting what is on earth, to mark the moments of time, the days, the years! Moses adds that the earth accepted the order to give rise to the brute animals, the Creator on his side distributing to each its form, size and conditions of existence.

And when everything in the world had finally been created, when nothing for lacking to supply the needs of man, then, and only then, did the Creator begin to think of the way in which He was going to realize man himself. Because the creation of man, unlike the other creative acts, could not be improvised. The supreme being, in the conception of some and actually, is just grandeur and perfection -- some even say that it is the loss of any spirit, any language, any admiration: however He decided to form the animal in His own image, as much as could be made. Also, having every reason to ensure that this, which must be in His image and resemblance, namely man, did not appear weak, contemptible or different enough from the other animals, He chose to create him only after serious reflection.

However, it will be said without inaccuracy, that nothing could escape the divine spirit, since He knows everything indeed before it is born; why then did God reflect, even though He knew in advance the nature of man? The incomparable Moses, as I said, affirms that it was in conformity with the divine economy that man was to some extent honoured by the deliberation of the Creator; he shows that his creation was not done quite simply, might one say, not just like any other: everything happens as if God had taken a particular care of this action. The expression is undoubtedly forced --- but I grant that it appears quite sensible; we affirm that the man is most important of the animals, and was made to resemble He that created him.


Everything was created on the orders of God and by the operation of the creative Word: that, man must think, and it is in conformity with the truth to say it. But how, and by what means it was so, God alone knows!

God distributes to each thing created this or that type of being according to His good pleasure. He determines the mode of existence of each. To be convinced of this, it is only necessary to listen to Moses: "Let there be a firmament! and it was so", and again: "Let the waters gather in one place and let the dry ground appear!" Such formulas determine the exact nature of each thing which is brought into being.

From Against Julian, Bk. 2.