Genesis i. 8.

June 24, 2010

And God called the firmament, Heaven; and the evening and morning were the second day.

8. “And God called the firmament, Heaven”

St. Thomas: “Whether there be one heaven only, or many: On this question there seems to be some difference between Basil and Chrysostom; but this difference is more nominal than real.  For Chrysostom calls the one heaven the whole body above land and water; for the birds, which fly in the air, are said because of this to be volucres cœli.[1] But because in this body there are many divisions, Basil posits many heavens.  Therefore in order to know the differences between the heavens, it must be considered that heaven is spoken of in three ways in Scripture.  Sometimes, it is spoken of properly and naturally.  And thus heaven is said to be a particular body on high, and luminous actually or potentially, and incorruptible by nature.  And according to this, three heavens are specified.[2] The first is completely radiant, that called the Empyrean.  The second is completely transparent, that called the aqueous or crystalline.[3] The third is partly transparent and partly radiant in act, that called the starry heaven[4], and this is divided into eight spheres, namely the sphere of the fixed stars, and the the seven spheres of the planets[5] …” (ST. Ia q. lxviii. a. iv.).

St. Ambrose: “It seems to me that the name heavens is common to several things, for Scripture bears witness to several heavens, but that the name firmament is specific.  Accordingly it is said here: And God called the firmament heaven, that it might seem to have spoken generally above [v. 1], so as to include the creation of every heavenly creature: here, however, is designated the particular solidity of this exterior firmament which is called the firmament of heaven, as we read in the prophetic hymn: Blessed art thou in the firmament of heaven[6] (Hexæmeron, II. iv. 15.).

6-8a. A commentary on the various opinions; the need for prudence and faith.

The work of the second day, the creation of the firmament and its naming as heaven, is probably the least clearly defined theologically.  Many definitions of the firmament are possible; but following St. Thomas’s teaching that Moses, in teaching the Jews, writes according to what appears to the senses, the primary meaning of the firmament should be held to be simply that which appears to the senses as the sky; cf. Catholic Encyclopedia, “Heaven”: “In the Holy Bible the term heaven denotes, in the  first place, the blue firmament, or the region of the clouds that pass along the sky.”  There is room for much speculation as to the nature of the waters above the firmament and the manner in which the firmament divides them; however, pride of place should be given to the opinion commended by both St. Augustine and St. Thomas, stating that the firmament in this sense is that area of the atmosphere in which clouds form, separating water vapor from the waters of earth.  Furthermore, as St. Thomas also pointed out, this opinion does not hinder acceptance of any of the others; for instance it leaves open the question of the sidereal and crystalline heavens, and of cosmology in general.

St. Chrysostom: “But what, finally, are we to say this firmament is?  Is it condensed water, or interfolded air, or some other substance?  Let no one of prudence assert this.  For it is necessary, with great modesty and a grateful soul, to accept those things which are said to us, and not to pass beyond our nature and examine those things that are above us: it is only necessary for us to know and hold this, that by the command of God the firmament was made, in order to separate the waters, that it might contain some beneath itself, but carry the rest high above on its back” (Homiliæ in Genesin, iv., 7.).

St. Augustine: “These conjectures of ours are made against those who do not wish to believe there are waters above the heavens … But in whatever way and whatever kind the waters be there, let us not doubt that they are there: for the authority of this passage of Scripture is greater than that of all human understanding” (De Genesi ad litteram, II. v. 9.).

b. Moral exhortation.

St. Chrysostom: “Therefore, when you look up and see the heavens’ beauty, their vastness, their usefulness: then proceed from them to the Creator, as a certain wise man said: By the greatness of the beauty, and of the creature, the creator of them may be seen, so as to be known thereby.[7] And see even from the forming of their elements how great is the power of your Lord … And if visible things alone suffice to teach us the vastness of the Creator’s power, if we come also to the invisible powers, and extend our mind to the hosts of Angels, of Archangels, Virtues on high, Thrones, Dominations, Principalities, Powers, Cherubim, Seraphim: what mind, what speech could tell of their indescribable magnificence?” (Homiliæ in Genesin, iv., 5.).


[1] lit. flyers of heaven, Ps. viii. 9., et al.

[2] i.e. the luminous, incorruptible body “heaven” is comprised of three parts, each of which can also be called a heaven.

[3] This is often identified with the waters above the firmament; cf. a. ii. ad 2: “[According to Basil] the waters that are above the heavens, are not fluid; but are hardened in a sort of icy solid around the heaven.  Whence this is also called by some the crystalline heaven.”  This heaven is presumably luminous potentially rather than actually (it emits no light of its own, but light may be transmitted through it).

[4] “Radiant in act” on account of the starlight emanating from it.  The other two ways Scripture speaks of heaven are 2) as a body participating with heaven spoken of strictly (1), as for instance the air in which the birds (volucres cœli) fly, which shares in the light of the incorruptible heavens; 3) metaphorically, as applied for instance to the Blessed Trinity or to spiritual blessings.

[5] In ascending order of height: 1) the moon, 2) Mercury, 3) Venus, 4) the sun, 5) Mars, 6) Jupiter, 7) Saturn, followed by the fixed stars (8).  All these, of course, did not actually exist until the fourth day.

[6] Dan. iii. 56.

[7] Sap. xiii. 4.

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