What is the source of our true knowledge of the primordial world, and how does it differ from science? How does St. Gregory the Sinaite know what happens to mature fruits in paradise, and why is natural science unable to discover it? Since you love the holy Fathers, I believe you already know the answer to this question. Nevertheless, I will set forth an answer based not on my own reasoning, but on the unarguable authority of a holy Father of supreme spiritual life, St. Isaac the Syrian, who spoke of the soul’s ascension to God on the basis of personal experience. Describing how the soul is elevated at the thought of the future age of incorruptibility, St. Isaac the Syrian writes: “And from here the mind already rises to that stage which preceded the creation of the world, when there was no existing matter, neither heaven, nor earth, nor angels, nor anything which was brought into existence, and to the stage when God, solely by His goodwill, suddenly brought everything from nothingness into existence, and every single thing appeared before Him in a state of perfection” (Homily 25).
As you can see, St. Gregory the Sinaite and the other holy Fathers of the highest spiritual life were able to comprehend the primordial world, being in a state of divine contemplation which surpasses the limits of natural knowledge. St. Gregory the Sinaite himself asserts that the “eight major subjects of contemplation” in a state of supreme prayer are as follows:
(1) God, (2) the rank and the standing of the heavenly host, (3) the composition of visible things, (4) the blueprint for the descent of the Word, (4) universal resurrection, (5) the terrible second coming of Christ, (7) eternal torment and (8) the Heavenly Realm.
Why should he include “the composition of visible things” together with other objects of divine contemplation, relating to the sphere of theological knowledge and not science? Is it not because there exists such an aspect and state of creation which is outside the sphere of natural knowledge and can be seen, as St. Isaac the Syrian himself saw God’s creation, only in contemplation and by the grace of God?
In another place St. Isaac the Syrian clearly describes the difference between natural knowledge and the faith which leads to contemplation: “Natural knowledge is the limit of nature, while faith proceeds over and above nature. Knowledge does not dare tolerate anything destructive to nature, but avoids it; by faith many entered fire, suppressed the burning power of fire, and passed through it unscathed, and walked on the crest of waves as on firm earth. And all of this is above nature, is contrary to the ways of knowledge and has shown that the latter is deficient in all its means and its laws…. There is no knowledge which is not circumscribed by paucity, no matter how much it is enriched, while the treasures of faith cannot be contained neither by earth, nor heaven” (Homily 25).
Now you understand what the stakes are in the argument between the patristic understanding of the book of Genesis and the evolutionary teaching? The latter attempts to comprehend the mysteries of God’s creation by means of natural knowledge and worldly philosophy, not even allowing that there is something in these mysteries which places them beyond the possibilities of this knowledge; while the book of Genesis is a narrative of God’s creation, seen in divine contemplation by the Prophet Moses, and what he has seen is confirmed by the personal experience of later Fathers. And although revelation is higher than natural knowledge, still we know that there cannot be any contradictions between true Revelation and true natural knowledge. There is no disagreement between the knowledge of creation contained in the book of Genesis, as it is expounded to us by the holy Fathers, and truthful knowledge of creation obtained by modern science through observation; but, of course, there is an insoluble conflict between the knowledge contained in the book of Genesis, and the empty philosophical speculations of modern scientists, who are not enlightened by faith, concerning the state of the world during the course of the Six Days of creation. Therefore, since there is a genuine conflict between the book of Genesis and comtemporary philosophy, if we wish to know the truth we must accept the teaching of the holy Fathers and reject the false opinions of scientific philosophers.
Concerning the genuine patristic vision of the primordial world, I believe that I have shown you enough of these visions, which at first glance seem amazing to the Orthodox Christian whose understanding of the book of Genesis has been obscured by modern scientific philosophy. The most amazing is probably the fact that the holy Fathers understood the text of the sacred Scripture “as written,” and they do not allow us to interpret it freely or allegorically. Many contemporary “educated” Christians are used to associating this interpretation with Protestant fundamentalism, but it is clear how much more profound is the genuine patristic interpretation in relation to that of the fundamentalists, who have never heard about divine contemplation and whose interpretation only accidentally coincides at times with the patristic one.
The modern Orthodox Christian can understand how the incorruptibi- lity of the primordial world remains beyond the scope of scientific research if he examines the fact of incorruptibility as it is represented through God’s action even in our present corrupt world. We cannot find a more supreme manifestation of this incorruptibility than in the Most Holy Theotokos, of Whom we sing: “Who without corruption bore God the Word….” St . John Damascene points out that this incorruptibility is beyond the laws of nature in two ways: “…for without a father, that is above the natural laws of birth… and painlessly - that is above the law of birth.” What should an Orthodox Christian say when a modern unbeliever, under the influence of modern philosophy, insists that such incorruptibility is impossible and demands that Christians believe only that which can be proved or observed scientifically? Should he not keep to his faith, which is knowledge through revelation, and tell the pseudo-scientist that it is impossible to know or understand this act of incorruptibility other than as a supernatural action of God?
There is another question relating to the state of the primordial world which may arise in your mind: and what about those “millions of years” of the existence of the world which science “knows as a fact”? My letter is already too long and I cannot discuss this question here, but in another letter I could examine this question too, including the shortcomings of the radio carbon method and other “absolute” systems of dating, and show that these “millions of years” are also not a fact but again a matter of philosophy. This idea itself did not arise until, under the influence of naturalistic philosophy, people began to believe in evolution, and if evolution is true - then the world must be millions of years old (since evolution has never been observed, it is imagined only within the supposition that countless millions of years could produce processes which are too “slow” for modern scientists to be able to observe them). If you examine this question objectively and impassionately, separating genuine proofs from suppositions and philosophy, you will see that there is no factual data which could make us believe that the earth is more than 7,500 years old.
In summing up the patristic teaching on the primordial world, I can find nothing better than to quote the divine words of a holy Father who so excelled in prayer that the entire Orthodox Church calls him a “Theologian.” And that is St. Simeon the New Theologian. In his 45th Homily he says the following based on patristic tradition: “In the beginning God, before planting Eden and giving it over to the first-created, in the course of five days created the earth and all that is on it, and the heavens and all that is in them, and on the sixth day He created Adam and placed him as master and king over all visible creation. Paradise did not yet exist at that time. But this world of God was like a paradise, though material and physical. And God gave it into the hands of Adam and all his descendants…. “And the Lord God planted a garden eastward in Eden… And out of the ground made the Lord God to grow every tree that is pleasant to the sight, and good for food” (Gen. 2:8-9), with different fruits which never spoiled and never ceased to be produced, but were always fresh and sweet and gave great pleasure to the first-created. For it was necessary to bring incorruptible delight to those bodies of the first-created which were incorruptible… Adam was created with an incorruptible body, though material and not yet spiritual, and was placed by God the Creator as an immortal king over the incorruptible world, not only over Eden but also over all creation under the heavens…
After Adam’s transgression God did not condemn Eden… but He condemned the rest of the earth which was also incorruptible and produced everything by itself… The one who had become corrupt and mortal through transgression of the commandment, in all justice should live on a corrupt earth and eat corrupt food… Afterwards all the creatures too, when they saw that Adam had been expelled from Eden, no longer wished to obey him, a criminal… But God restrained all these creatures with His power, and by His mercy and goodness did not allow them to rush at man, but commanded all creation to remain in servitude to him and, having become corrupt, to serve corrupt man for whom it had been created, so that when man would be renewed and would become spiritual, incorruptible and immortal, then all creation, placed by God in servitude to man, would become free from this servitude, would be renewed together with him and would become incorruptible and spiritual in a way…
The bodies of men should not be the first to be clothed in the glory of resurrection and become incorruptible; all creation was first made incorruptible, and afterwards man was taken and created from it, thus once again all creation should be the first to become incorruptible, and only then should the bodies of men be renewed and become incorruptible, so that the whole man would once again be incorruptible and spiritual, and would dwell in an incorruptible, eternal and spiritual abode… Do you see that all creation was at first incorruptible and created by God to dwell in paradise? But afterwards it became corrupt and was placed by God in servitude to mankind.
You should also know how all creation will be glorified and brightly shining in the next age. For when it is renewed, it will not be the same as it had been created in the beginning. But it will be, according to the divine Paul, just like our bodies… By God’s command all creation, at the time of universal resurrection, will not be as it had been created - material and physical, but shall be re-created and made into a great immaterial and spiritual dwelling, surpassing all sensual perception.”
Can there be a clearer teaching concerning the state of the primordial world before Adam’s transgression?