The patristic teaching on evolution.
What do the holy Fathers say about this? I have already quoted St. Ephraim the Syrian, whose whole commentary on Genesis describes how all God’s creative acts are done in an instant, even though the whole “Days” of creation last 24 hours each. Let us now see what St. Basil the Great says about God’s creative acts in the Six Days.
In speaking of the Third Day of creation, St. Basil says: “At this saying all the dense woods appeared; all the trees shot up… Likewise, all the shrubs were immediately thick with leaf and bushy; and the so-called garland plants - rose, myrtle and laurel - all came into existence in a moment of time, although they were not previously upon the earth” (Hexaemeron, V, 6).
Again, he says: “’Let the earth bring forth.’ This brief command immediately became mighty nature and an elaborate system which brought to perfection more swiftly than our thoughts the countless properties of plants” (V, 10). Again, on the Fifth Day: “The command came. Immediately rivers were productive and marshy lakes were fruitful of species proper and natural to each” (VII, 1).
Likewise, St. John Chrysostome, in his commentary on Genesis, teaches: “Today God goes over to the waters and shows us that from them, by His word and command, there proceeded animate creatures. What mind, tell me, can understand this miracle? What tongue will be able worthily to glorify the Creator? He said only: ‘Let it bring forth’ - and there appeared a great variety of flowers, grasses, and seeds, and everything occurred by His words alone; so also here He said: ‘Let the waters bring forth’ and suddenly there appeared so many kinds of creeping things, such a variety of birds, that it is impossible even to enumerate them with words” (VII, 3).
Here I reiterate: I believe that in the majority of cases modern science knows more than did the saints Basil the Great, John Chrysostome, Ephraim the Syrian and other fathers concerning the characteristics of fish and similar specific facts; no one will deny that. But who knows more of the ways in which God created: modern science, which is not even sure whether God exists and, in any case, attempts to explain everything without Him; or these divinely-inspired fathers? When you say that God does not create instantly, then I believe that you propound the teaching of contempo- rary “wisdom” and not the teaching of the holy fathers.
In a certain sense, of course, God’s creation is not instantaneous work; but even here the holy fathers are quite precise in their teaching. I have cited St. Ephraim the Syrian, who said: “It is just as intolerable to say that something was created instantaneously which, according to the Scriptures, was created in the course of six days.”
Thus St. Gregory the Theologian, asserting, just as did St. Ephraim the Syrian, that creation was not “instantaneous,” teaches: “Therefore, the days of creation are counted as something that is first, second, third and so on to the seventh day, and with these days is divided all that has been created and set in motion by indescribable laws, and not produced instantaneously by the Almighty Word, for Whom to think and to speak already means to accomplish in fact. If man, who was honored in being made by God and in His image, was the last to appear in the world, this is in no way amazing; because for him, as for a king, it was necessary to prepare a kingly abode, and only then lead into in the king accompanied by all the other creatures.”
And St. John Chrysostome teaches: “The Almighty hand of God and His boundless wisdom would not have had any difficulty in creating everything in one day. But what am I saying? Not even in one instant. But as He had created all existing things not for His own benefit, because He, being all-satisfied, has no need of anything, - but on the contrary, created everything in accordance with His goodness and love for mankind, so He creates in stages, and through the mouth of the blessed prophet (Moses) presents us with a clear exposition of creation…. Why was man created last, if he is the most perfect of all creatures? For a just reason. When a king intends to enter a city, his arm-bearers and other members of his entourage must preceed him, so that the king might enter into a prepared place; similarly God, intending to place a king and master over all earthly creatures, first prepared all the decorations, and then created the master “ (III, 3; VIII, 2).
Thus, the patristic teaching clearly tells us that God, although quite able to create everything instantly, preferred to create in stages of increasing perfection, with each stage being accomplished not in an instant, nor in the course of an indefinitely long period of time, but between these two extremes, specifically in six days.
In their commentaries on the book of Genesis, saints Ephraim the Syrian and John Chrysostome clearly look upon God’s creation as the work of six regular days, each one of which God creates “immediately” and “instantaneously.” Likewise St. Basil the Great, contrary to the widely-accepted opinion of Christian evolutionists, regards the acts of God’s creation as immediate and sudden, believing the duration of the Six Days to have been 24 hours each, for he says in regard to the First Day: “And there was the evening, and the morning. The prophet means the duration of day and night… ‘And there was the evening and the morning of one day.’ Thus is determined the measure of day and night, and is gathered into a single period of time, for 24 hours fill the duration of one day, if under day one also understands night” (Hexaemeron, II, 8).
As I have already said, I do not believe this question to be of primary significance in examining the problems of evolution; nevertheless, it is an eloquent testimony to the influence of modern philosophy on Christian evolutionists, who cannot wait to re-interpret these Six Days so as not to appear foolish in the eyes of the “wise men” of this world, who have “scientifically proved” that, no matter how creation occurred, it took place throughout millions of years. Of greater importance is the fact that these Christian evolutionists have such a difficult time believing in a six-day creation, which presented no problems to the holy fathers, because the evolutionists do not understand what precisely occurred in these Six Days: they believe that lengthy natural processes of development took place, in accordance with the laws of our current decaying world; in fact, according to the holy fathers, the nature of that first-created world was totally different from ours, as I will show below.
Let us examine in greater detail another patristic commentary on the book of Genesis, belonging to St. John Chrysostome. Note that I do not cite little-known or dubious fathers, but only the very pillars of Orthodoxy, who present our Orthodox teaching with the greatest clarity and holiness. And in St. John’s writings we do not find any “allegories” either, but a very strict interpretation of the text as it has been written. Like other fathers he speaks of Adam having been created literally out of dust, and Eve literally from Adam’s rib.
He writes: “If the enemies of truth shall insist that it is impossible to produce some- thing out of nothing, then we shall ask them: was the first man created out of earth or something else? Undoubt-edly they will agree with us and will say out of earth. Then let them tell us, how could flesh be formed out of soil? Soil can only produce mud, brick, clay, tile; but how did flesh appear? How did bones, nerves, veins, fat, skin, nails, hair appear? How did so many different materials come from one essence? They will be unable to offer any reply to this” (II, 4). And again St. Chrysostome writes: “God took a single rib, it is said; but how from this single rib did He form a whole creature? Tell me, how did the taking of the rib occur? How did Adam not feel this taking?
St. John Chrysostome You can say nothing about this; this is known only by Him Who created… God did not produce a new creation, but taking from an already existing creation a certain small part, from this part he made a whole creature. What power the highest Artist God has, to produce from this small part (a rib) the composition of so many members, make so many organs of sense, and form a whole, perfect and complete being” (XV, 2-3).
If you wish, I can quote many other passages from this work, showing that St. John Chrysostome - is he not the chief Orthodox inter- preter of Sacred Scripture? - everywhere interprets the sacred text of Genesis as it is written, believing that it was nothing else than an actual serpent (through whom the devil spoke) who tempted our first parents in paradise, that God actually brought all the animals before Adam for him to name, and “the names which Adam gave them remain even until now.” (But according to evolutionary doctrine, many animals were extinct by the time of Adam - must we believe that Adam did not name “all the wild beasts” [Gen. 2:19] but only the remnant of them?}
St. John Chrysostome says, when speaking of the rivers of paradise: “Perhaps one who loves to speak from his own wisdom here also will not allow that the rivers are actually rivers, nor that the waters are precisely waters, but will instill in their listeners that they (under the names of rivers and waters) represented something else. But we shall not heed those people, but will believe the Divine Scripture, and following what is written in it, shall strive to preserve in our souls sound dogmas” (XIII, 4).
Is there need to quote more from this Divine Father? Like St. Basil and St. Ephraim he warns us: “Not to believe what is contained in the Divine Scripture, but to introduce something else from one’s own mind - this, I believe, subjects those who hazard such a thing to great danger” (XIII, 3).
Before going on I will briefly answer one objection which I have heard from those who defend evolution: they say that if one reads all the Scripture “as it is written” one will only make oneself ridiculous. They say that if we must believe that Adam was actually made from dust and Eve from Adam’s rib, then must we not believe that God has “hands,” that He “walks” in Paradise, and the like absurdities? Such an objection could not be made by anyone who has read even a single commentary of the holy Fathers on the book of Genesis. All the holy Fathers distinguish between what is said about creation, which must be taken “as it is written,” and what is said about God, which must be understood, as St. John Chrysostome says repeatedly, “in a God-befitting manner.” For example, St. Chrysostome writes: “When you hear, beloved, that ‘God planted paradise in Eden in the east,’ understand the word ‘planted’ befittingly of God: that is, that He commanded; but concerning the words that follow, believe precisely that paradise was created and in that very place where the Scripture has assigned it” (Homilies on Genesis, XIII, 3).
St. John of Damascus explicitly describes the allegorical interpretation of paradise to be part of a heresy, that of the Origenians. But what, then, are we to understand of those holy Father of profound spiritual life who interpret the book of Genesis and other Holy Scriptures in a spiritual or mystical sense? If we ourselves had not gone so far away from the patristic understanding of Scripture, this would present no problem whatever to us. The same text of Holy Scripture is true “as it is written” and also has a spiritual interpretation. Behold what the great Father of the desert, St. Macarius the Great, says: “That paradise was closed and that a cherubim was commanded to prevent man from entering it by a flaming sword: of this we believe that in visible fashion it was indeed just as it is written, and at the same time we find that this occurs mystically in every soul” (Seven Homilies, IV, 5).
And here is another example of the same. The divine Gregory the Theologian, in his Homily on the Theophany, writes concerning the tree of knowledge: “The tree was, according to my view, contemplation, upon which it is only safe for those who have reached maturity of habit to enter.” This is a profound spiritual interpretation, of which our academic scholars might say that St. Gregory completely “allegorizes” the story of Adam and paradise. But now I am going to present an interpretation of the words of St. Gregory the Theologian by a great holy Father who lived a thousand years after him: St. Gregory Palamas, archbishop of Thessalonika. Against St. Gregory Palamas and the other hesychast Fathers who taught the true Orthodox doctrine of the “uncreated light of Mt. Tabor,” there rose up the Western rationalist Barlaam. Taking advantage of the fact that St. Maximus the Confessor in one passage had called this light of the Transfiguration a “symbol of theology,” Barlaam taught that this light was not a manifestation of the Divinity, not “literally” a divine light, but only a “symbol” of it. This led St. Gregory Palamas to make a reply which illuminates for us the relation between the “symbolical” and “literal” interpretation of Holy Scripture, particularly with regard to the passage from St. Gregory the Theologian which I have quoted above. He writes that Barlaam and others “do not see that Maximus, wise in divine matters, has called the light of the Lord’s Transfiguration ‘a symbol of theology’ only by analogy. In theology, which uses analogies and intends to elevate us, objects which have an existence of their own become also spiritual symbols; it is in this sense that Maximus calls this light a “symbol”…. Similarly, Gregory the Theologian has called the tree of knowledge of good and evil ‘contemplation,’ having in his contemplation considered it as a symbol of this contemplation which is intended to elevate us; but it does not follow that what is involved is an illusion without existence of its own. For the divine Maximus also makes Moses the symbol of judgment, and Elijah the symbol of foresight! Are they too then supposed not to have really existed, but to have been invented ‘symbolically’?” (Triad II, 3:21-23).
Thus the patristic interpretation of the book of Genesis makes it quite impossible to harmonize the account of Genesis with the theory of evolution, which requires an entirely “allegorical” interpretation of the text in many places where the patristic interpretation will not allow this. The doctrine that Adam was created, not from dust, but by development from some other creature, is a novel teaching which is entirely foreign to Orthodox Christianity.
At this point the “Orthodox evolutionist” might try to salvage his position by trying to say that we now know more than the holy Fathers about nature and therefore we really can interpret the book of Genesis better than they. But even the “Orthodox evolutionist” knows that the book of Genesis is not a scientific treatise, but a divinely-inspired work of cosmogony and theology. The interpretation of the divinely-inspired Scripture is clearly the work of God-bearing theologians, not of natural scientists. It is true that in the book of Genesis many “facts” of nature are presented. But it must be carefully noted that these facts are not facts such as we can observe now, but an entirely special kind of facts: the creation of the heaven and the earth, of all animals and plants, of the first man. I have already pointed out that the holy Fathers teach quite clearly that the creation of the first man Adam, for example, is quite different from the generation of men today; it is only the latter that science can observe, and about the creation of Adam it offers only philosophical speculations, not scientific knowledge.
According to the holy Fathers, it is possible for us to know something of this first-created world, but this knowledge is not accessible to natural science. I will discuss this question further below..