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The Orthodox View of Evolution
Development, not evolution
“Orthodox evolutionism” and the patristic teaching
The patristic teaching on evolution
The state of nature before and after the fall
Science and Divine Revelation
The Nature of Man

“Orthodox evolutionism” and the patristic teaching.

In what I have written about Adam and Eve, you will note that I quoted holy Fathers who interpret the text of Genesis in a way that might be called rather “literal.” Am I correct in supposing that you would like to interpret the text more “allegorically” when you say that to believe in the immediate creation of Adam by God is “a very narrow conception of the Sacred Scriptures”? This is an extremely important point, and I am truly astonished to find that “Orthodox evolutionists” do not at all know how the holy Fathers interpret the book of Genesis. I am sure that you will agree with me that we are not free to interpret the Holy Scriptures as we please, but we must interpret them as the holy Fathers teach us. I am afraid that not all who speak about Genesis and evolution pay attention to this principle. I firmly believe that the whole world outlook and philosophy of life for an Orthodox Christian may be found in the holy Fathers; if we will listen to their teaching, we will not go astray.

And now I ask you to examine with me the very important and fundamental question: how do the holy Fathers teach us to interpret the book of Genesis? We cannot do better than to begin with St. Basil the Great, who has written so inspiringly of the Six Days of Creation. In the Hexaemeron he writes:

“Those who do not admit the common meaning of the Scriptures say that water is not water, but some other nature, and they explain a plant and a fish according to their opinion. They describe also the production of reptiles and wild animals, changing it according to their own notion. When I hear ‘grass,’ I think of grass, and in the same manner I understand every- thing as it is said, a plant, a fish, a wild animal, and an ox.. And since those who wrote about the nature of the earth, each contradicted the other, I shall not agree to accept our view of the creation of the earth as being due any less respect only because the servant of God Moses did not speak of shapes, did not say that the circumference of the earth is approximately 180,000, did not measure the distance of the earth’s shadow and how this shadow, falling upon the moon, produces eclipses. Since Moses left unsaid, as useless for us, things in no way pertaining to us, shall we for this reason believe that the words of the Spirit are of less value than the foolish wisdom of those who have written about the world? Or shall I rather give glory to Him Who has not kept our mind occupied with vanities but has ordained that all things be written for the edification and guidance of our souls? This is a thing of which they seem to me to have been unaware, who have attempted by false arguments and allegorical interpretations to bestow on the Scripture a dignity of their own imagining. But theirs is the attitude of one who considers himself wiser than the revelations of the Spirit and introduces his own ideas in pretense of an explanation. Therefore, let it be understood as it has been written” (Hexaemeron, IX, 1).

Clearly, St. Basil is warning us to beware of explaining away things in Genesis which are difficult for our common sense to understand; it is very easy for the “enlightened” modern man to do this, even if he is an Orthodox Christian. Let us therefore try all the harder to understand the sacred Scriptures as the Fathers understood them, and not according to our modern “wisdom.” And let us not be satisfied with the views of one holy Father; let us examine the views of other holy Fathers as well.

One of the standard patristic commentaries on the book of the Genesis is that of St. Ephraim the Syrian. His views are all the more important for us in that he was an “Easterner” and knew the Hebrew language well. Modern scholars tell us that “Easterners” are given to allegorical interpretations, and that the book of Genesis likewise must be understood in this way. But let us see what St. Ephraim says in his commentary on Genesis:

“No one should think that the Creation of Six Days is an allegory; it is likewise impermissible to say that what seems, according to the account, to have been created in the course of six days, was created in a single instant, and likewise that certain names presented in this account either signify nothing, or signify something else. On the contrary, one must know that just as the heaven and the earth which were created in the beginning are actually the heaven and the earth and not something else understood under the names of heaven and earth, so also everything else that is spoken of as being created and brought into order after the creation of heaven and earth is not empty names, but the very essence of the created natures corresponds to the force of these names.” (Commentary on Genesis, chap. 1).

These are still, of course, general principles; let us look now at several specific applications by St. Ephraim of these principles.

“Although both the light and the clouds were created in the twinkling of an eye, still both the day and the night of the first day continued for 12 hours each.” (Ibid.)

Again: “When in the twinkling of an eye (Adam’s) rib was taken out and likewise in an instant the flesh took its place, and the bare rib took on the complete form and all the beauty of a woman, then God led her and presented her to Adam.” (Ibid.)

It is quite clear that St. Ephraim reads the book of Genesis “as it is written”; when he hears “the rib of Adam” he understands “the rib of Adam,” and does not understand this as an allegorical way of saying some- thing else altogether. Likewise he quite explicitly understands the Six Days of Creation to be just six days, each with 24 hours, which he divides into an “evening” and “morning” of 12 hours each.

I have deliberately taken St. Ephraim’s simple commentary on the book of Genesis before citing other, more “mystical” commentaries, because such a simple understanding of the book of Genesis above all offends the modern “enlightened” mind. I suspect that most Orthodox people, not too well-versed in the holy Fathers, will immediately say: “This is too simple! We know much better now. Give us holy Fathers that are more profound.” Alas, there are no Fathers “more profound” for our modern wisdom, because even the most mystical Fathers understand the text of the book of Genesis just as simply as St. Ephraim the Syrian! Those who wish to find greater complexity in the writings of the holy Fathers are influenced by modern Western ideas, which are totally alien to the holy Fathers of the Orthodox Church.

Now let us look concretely at the question of the “duration” of the Six Days of Creation. I believe that this question is secondary to those that are raised by the theory of evolution, but it would be well for us to learn what the holy Fathers think of it, particularly since here we begin to realize what a great difference exists between the patristic and the modern Western theory of creation. Irrespective of how we regard them, these “Days” are entirely beyond our comprehension, since we only know the mortal “days” of our fallen world; how can we even imagine those “Days” in which the creative power of God acted so mightily! Saint Augustine says it very well: “It is very difficult, even impossible for us to imagine what those days were like.”

The holy Fathers themselves did not say too much concerning this matter, because, undoubtedly, it was not a problem for them. It is basically a problem for modern man, who attempts to understand God’s creation by means of the laws of nature of our fallen world. The holy Fathers apparently accepted the fact that the duration of those Days did not differ from our own familiar days, while some of them even indicate that their duration was 24 hours, as mentioned by St. Ephraim the Syrian. But there is something in those Days which is extremely important for us to understand, and which relates to what you have written concerning the “instantaneousness” of God’s creation.

You write: “Since God created time, to create something “instantly” would be an act contrary to His own decision and will…. When we speak about the creation of stars, plants, animals and man we do not speak about miracles - we do not speak about the extraordinary interventions of God in creation but about the ‘natural’ course of creation.” I wonder if you are not substituting here some “modern wisdom” for the teaching of the holy Fathers? What is the beginning of all things but a miracle? I have already showed you that St. Gregory of Nyssa, St. Cyril of Jerusalem, St. Gregory the Theologian, and St. John Damascene (and indeed all the Fathers) teach that the first man Adam appeared in a way different from the natural generation of all other men; likewise the first creatures, according to the sacred text of the Genesis, appeared in a way different from all their descendants: they appeared not by natural generation but by the word of God. The modern theory of evolution denies this, because the theory of evolution was invented by unbelievers who wished to deny God’s action in creation and explain the creation by “natural” means alone. Do you not see what philosophy is behind the theory of evolution?

continuation »

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