Bede’s Creationism

I’ll be writing about some of Bede’s science or medical observations in the future, so I thought this would be a good time to address Bede’s creationism. First of all, of course, Bede was an ardent creationist. Everyone in the 7th-8th century was a creationist, it only mattered what flavor of creationist. There is no doubt that the seven days of creation in particular are very important to Bede, perhaps even a  central metaphor for his whole theology. Almost all of his work can be tied in some way to the study of sacred time, including working the history of his own people into the flow of sacred time.

Bede’s two-volume set On the Nature of Things and On Time were primary science textbooks for a monastic education throughout the medieval period. His On Time was later superseded by his own On the Reckoning of Time. Between period  the 8th – 12th century, On the Reckoning of Time and On the Nature of Things are Bede’s two most popular works with 130 and 95.5 surviving copies respectively (Kendall & Wallace, p. 34-35). This is particularly remarkable when we keep in mind that the vast majority of Anglo-Saxon libraries were destroyed during the Danish conquest of eastern England, including the libraries of Bede’s native Northumbria.

Bede departed from his primary source, Isidore of Seville’s De Natura Rerum (On the Nature of Things) in the very first chapter. Bede begins his On the Nature of Things begins with a statement on creation that I think is worth quoting in full here.

1. The Fourfold Work of God

The divine power, which created and governs all existing things, can be understood in four different ways: first that all these things were not made but are eternal in the dispensation of the Word of God, who, as the Apostle testifies, predestined us for his kingdom before the times of the world.

Second, that the elements of the world were made all in the same time in unformed matter, when he who lives eternally created everything at once.

Third, that the same matter is formed into heavenly and an earthly creation, partly from existing causes and partly from causes not yet existing, but each things comes into existence by the distinct workings of the first six days.

Fourth, that the temporal constitution of the whole world is brought about in the natural course of things by the seeds and primordial causes of this same creation, wherein the Father and the Son work right up to the present, and God even feeds the ravens and clothes the lilies.  (Kendall and Wallis, p. 74)

The fourfold break down and the underlined text comes from Augustine of Hippo, primarily his commentary on Genesis.  Kendall and Wallis note that Bede has changed metaphors from Augustine’s use of Adam and growing things to a his own focus on time. Augustine doesn’t mention the six days of creation in the third cause.

From here Bede moves quickly into his main topics. The six days of creation are dealt with in one short summary chapter and then on to earth science and astronomy. What the earth is and its place in the universe. Its worth keeping in mind that Bede’s interests run much more closely to Isaac Newton than Charles Darwin. Taking all of Bede’s writings together he is our primary source for pestilence of all kinds and other living things in 7th-8th century Britain, but living things were not his primary interest in the natural world. I really can’t blame him much given the state of medicine and “natural history” in his age.

Calvin B Kendall and Faith Wallis, trans. notes & commentary. (2010). Bede: ‘On the Nature of Things’ and ‘On Times’. Liverpool University Press.