At least some bishops explicitly allow their faithful flock to believe theistic evolution, young earth creation, or any of several other options.
This article is not meant to say you can’t be Orthodox and believe in evolution. It is, however, meant to say that you can’t be Orthodox and misrepresent Church Fathers as saying things more convenient to evolution than what they really said.
Two examples of a telling symptom: Fishy, suspicious arguments
Alexander Kalomiros is perhaps a forerunner to Orthodox finding a profound harmony between the Church Fathers and evolution. To pick one of many examples, Kalomiros’s On the Six Days of Creation cites St. Basil the Great as saying, “Therefore, if you say a day or an age, you express the same meaning” (homily 2 of St. Basil’s On the Six Days of Creation). So Dr. Kalamiros cites St. Basil as clearly saying that “day” is a term with a rather elastic meaning, implying an indefinite length.
Something really piqued my curiosity, because a young earth Creationist cited the same saint, the same book, and even the same homily as Kalamiros, but as supporting the opposite conclusion: “one day” means “one day,” period.
I honestly wondered, “Why on earth?” Why would the same text be cited as a proof-text for “days” of quite open-ended length, but also a proof text for precise twenty-four hour days? So I read the homily of St. Basil that was in question. The result?
The young earther’s claim is easier to explain: St. Basil does, in fact, quite plainly claim a young earth, and treats this belief as non-negotiable. And what Kalomiros cites? The text is talking about something else when St. Basil moves from discussing the Creation to matters of eternity and the Last Judgment. One of the names for eternity is “the eighth day,” and in explaining the timelessness of eternity, St. Basil writes, “Thus whether you call it a day, or whether you call it eternity, you express the same idea.” Which is not exactly how Kalomiros quotes him, not exactly.
Kalomiros offers a quote out of context, and translates in a subtle but misleading wording, leading the reader to believe St. Basil clarified that a “day” [of Creation] can just as well be an “age” [of time]. This is sophistry. This is disingenuous. What is more, I cannot ever remember following one of Kalomiros’s footnotes supporting evolution and find an appropriate and responsible use of the original text. When I check things out, little if any of it checks out. And that’s a concern. When someone argues like that, the reader is being treated dishonestly, and deceptive argument is rarely the herald of truth.
Let me quote another of many examples celebrating a harmony between patristic Orthodoxy and evolution, Vladimir de Beer’s Genesis, Creation and Evolution. He writes:
The account of creation in the first chapter of Genesis is known as the Hexaemeron (Greek for ‘six days’), on which a number of Greek and Latin Church fathers wrote commentaries. Some of them interpreted the six days of creation quite literally, like St Basil the Great who was much influenced by Aristotle’s natural philosophy. Yet the same Cappadocian father insisted that the scriptural account of creation is not about science, and that there is no need to discuss the essence (ousias) of creation in its scientific sense. Others followed a more allegorical approach, such as St Gregory of Nyssa who saw the Hexaemeron as a philosophy of the soul, with the perfected creature as the final goal of evolution.
It has been my experience that for a certain kind of author one of the cheapest ways to dismiss a Father is to say that they were heavily influenced by some kind of non-Orthodox philosophy. Usually they don’t even give a footnote. St. Basil the Great is a Church Father and one of the Three Heirarchs, and if you are going to downplay whether his position is one we should believe, you should be doing a lot more than due diligence than making a dismissive bare assertion that he was heavily influenced by non-Orthodox forces.
But at least de Beer is kind enough to allow St. Basil to believe in six literal days. I am rather mystified by his treatment of St. Gregory of Nyssa, whose commentary On the Six Days of Creation is here. Are we referring to the same work?
St. Gregory’s commentary is not a allegorical interpretation, such as St. Maximus the Confessor’s way of finding allegory about ascesis and ascetical struggles in the details of the Gospel. It is if anything 90% a science lesson, or an Aristotelian science lesson at any rate, and at face value St. Gregory owes much more of a debt to Aristotle than St. Basil does. (At least St. Gregory spends vastly more time talking about earth, air, fire, and water.) St. Gregory’s On the Six Days of Creation assumes and asserts that the days of Creation were, in fact, literal days. And that’s not the end. St. Gregory of Nyssa explicitly ascribes the highest authority and weight to St. Basil’s work and would almost certainly be astonished to find his work treated as a corrective to St. Basil’s problematically literal On the Six Days of Creation; St. Gregory’s attitude appears to be, “St. Basil made an excellent foundation and I want to build on it!” On all counts I can tell, St. Gregory does not provide a precedent for treating young earth creation as negotiable. De Beers may well have a friend among the Fathers, but St. Gregory is not that friend. And if this is his choice of friends, maybe he isn’t aware of many real, honest friends among the Fathers. St. Augustine may be his friend here, but if the Blessed Augustine is your only friend among the Fathers, you’re on pretty shaky ground.
Examples could easily be multiplied, but after a point it becomes somewhat tedious checking out more harmonizers’ footnotes and finding that, no indeed, they don’t check out.
Why it matters
Have you read much creation science seeking to use science to prove a young earth? The reason I’m asking is that that’s what scholars do when they use patristic resources to prove that Orthodoxy and evolution are in harmony. The kind of distortion of facts that they wouldn’t be caught dead in origins science is the kind of distortion of facts that is routine in those harmonizing Orthodoxy with evolution.
I wrote a thesis calling to task a Biblical Egalitarian treatment of the Haustafel in Ephesians, and it is part of my research and experience to believe that sophistry matters, because sophistry is how people seek to persuade when truth is against them. And when I see misrepresentation of sources, that betrays a problem.
I myself do not believe in a young earth; I am an old earth creationist and have seriously entertained returning to belief in theistic evolution. I stand pretty much as far outside the patristic consensus as Orthodox evolutionists. But I don’t distort the Fathers to
shanghai recruit them to my position.
It may well be that with knowledge that wasn’t available to St. Gregory and his fellow Fathers, the intellectual dishonesty and distortion needed to believe in a young earth may be greater than saying, “I know the Fathers’ consensus and I remain outside of it.” That’s not ideal, but it is infinitely better than distorting the Fathers’ consensus to agree with you.
It is better by far to acknowledge that you are outside the Fathers’ consensus than make them agree with you. If you are an Orthodox evolutionist, please stop
shanghaiing recruiting ancient Fathers to your camp.
A helpful analogy: What are the elements?
Some Protestants made young-earth creationism almost “the article by which the Church stands or falls,” and much of young-earth and old-earth creationism in Orthodoxy, and evolution, is shaped by that Protestant “article by which the Church stands or falls.”
Today’s young-earth creationism and theistic evolution are merely positions on a ballot in single-issue voting, and single-issue voting that was unknown to the Fathers. There are other issues.
(What other issues are there, you ask?)
Let me give my standard question in dealing with young-earth Orthodox who are being pests and perhaps insinuating that my Orthodoxy is impaired if I don’t believe their position: “Are we obligated to believe that the elements are earth, air, fire, water, and maybe aether?”
If that question seems to come from out of the blue, let me explain:
St. Basil’s On the Six Days of Creation takes a position we can relate to readily enough even if we disagree:
“And the evening and the morning were the first day.” Evening is then the boundary common to day and night; and in the same way morning constitutes the approach of night to day… Why does Scripture say “one day the first day”? Before speaking to us of the second, the third, and the fourth days, would it not have been more natural to call that one the first which began the series? If it therefore says “one day,” it is from a wish to determine the measure of day and night, and to combine the time that they contain. Now twenty-four hours fill up the space of one day-we mean of a day and of a night; and if, at the time of the solstices, they have not both an equal length, the time marked by Scripture does not the less circumscribe their duration. It is as though it said: twenty-four hours measure the space of a day, or that, in reality a day is the time that the heavens starting from one point take to return there.
That’s on our radar. What’s not on our radar is how bluntly St. Basil treats his day’s closest equivalent to modern chemistry, and please note that alchemy has nothing to do with this; he does not condemn alchemy as being occult, but chemistry as atheistic:
Others imagined that atoms, and indivisible bodies, molecules and [bonds], form, by their union, the nature of the visible world. Atoms reuniting or separating, produce births and deaths and the most durable bodies only owe their consistency to the strength of their mutual adhesion: a true spider’s web woven by these writers who give to heaven, to earth, and to sea so weak an origin and so little consistency! It is because they knew not how to say “In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.” Deceived by their inherent atheism it appeared to them that nothing governed or ruled the universe, and that was all was given up to chance.
The emphatic alternative he offers is a belief in the four or five elements, earth, air, fire, water, and possibly the aether. This is something he finds in Genesis:
“And the Spirit of God was borne upon the face of the waters.” Does this spirit mean the diffusion of air? The sacred writer wishes to enumerate to you the elements of the world, to tell you that God created the heavens, the earth, water, and air and that the last was now diffused and in motion; or rather, that which is truer and confirmed by the authority of the ancients, by the Spirit of God, he means the Holy Spirit.
St. Basil takes the text to mean more than just that water exists; he takes it to mean that water is an element. Nor is St. Basil the only one to make such claims; as mentioned earlier, St. Gregory’s On the Six Days of Creation is not in the business of condemning opposing views, but it not only assumes literal days for Creation, but the “science” of earth, air, fire, and water is writ large, and someone wishing to understand how ancients could see science and cosmology on those terms has an invaluable resource in St. Basil’s On the Six Days of Creation. Furthermore, the view of the four elements is ensconced in Orthodox liturgy: the Vespers for Theophany, which is arguably the central text for Orthodox understanding of Creation, enumerates earth, air, fire, and water as the four elements. To my knowledge, no Orthodox liturgy ensconces the implicit atheism of modern chemistry.
What are we to make of this? Does this mean that modern chemistry is off-limits to Orthodox, and that Orthodox doctors should only prescribe such drugs as the ancient theory would justify? God forbid! I bring this point up to say that the obvious answer is, “Ok, there is a patristic consensus and I stand outside of it,” and that this answer can be given without
shanghaiing recruiting the Fathers to endorse modern chemistry. When science and astronomy were formed, someone was reported to say, “The Bible is a book about how to go to Heaven, not a book about how the Heavens go,” and while it may be appropriate to say “On pain of worse intellectual dishonesty, I must accept an old earth and chemistry as worth my provisional assent,” it is not appropriate to distort the Church Fathers into giving a rubber stamp to beliefs they would reject.
Drawing a line in the sand at a young earth is a Protestant invention that has nothing to do with Orthodoxy, but casting the opposite vote of theistic evolution in a single-issue vote is also short of the Orthodox tradition. In reading the Fathers, one encounters claims of a young earth. However, often (if not always) the claim is one among many disputes with Greek philosophers or what have you. To my knowledge there is no patristic text in which a young earth is the central claim, let alone even approach being “the article by which the Church stands or falls.” Single-issue voting here, even for evolution, is not an Orthodox phenomenon except as it has washed in from Protestant battle lines. If an Orthodox who questions the Orthodoxy of old-earthers is being (crypto-)Protestant, the Orthodox who cites the Fathers in favor of evolution is only slightly less so—and both distort the truth.
The young-earth Creation Science makes scientific evidence bow before its will. The Orthodox evolutionist makes the Church Fathers bow before his will. Which is the more serious offense? “Religion and Science” Is Not Just Intelligent Design vs. Evolution.
“When I became a man, I put childish ways behind me.”
One Protestant friend said that I had a real knack for insulting analogies. The comment came after I said of mainstream Evangelical “Christian art” that it worked on the same communication principle as hard porn: “Make every point with a sledgehammer and leave nothing to the imagination but the plot.” And I have used that ability here: I have said that Orthodox evolutionists writing of harmony between evolution and the Church Fathers are treating patristic texts the same way creation scientists treat scientific evidence. Ouch.The Orthodox-evolutionary harmonizers are playing the same single-issue politics game as their young-earth counterparts, and are only different by casting the opposite vote. Ouch.
Is there a method to this madness?
I cannot forbid origins questions altogether, for reasons not least of which I am not tonsured even as a reader, let alone being your heirarch or priest. At least some heirarchs have refused to decide for their flock what they may believe: perhaps people are expected to find God’s hand at work in creation, but the exact mechanism of involvement, and time frame, are not decided. But I could wish something like the theology surrounding the holy mysteries, where in contrast to the detailed, point by point Roman account, the Orthodox Church simply says that at one point in the Divine Liturgy the gifts are only (blessed) bread and wine, and at a certain later point they have become the body and blood of Christ, and beyond that point speculation is not allowed.
There are some questions where having the right answer is less valuable than not asking the question at all. Origins questions in the scientific sense do not loom large in the Fathers, and what little there is appears not to match scientific data. But this is not a defect in the Fathers. It is, if anything, a cue that our society’s preoccupation with science is not particularly Orthodox in spirit, and perhaps something that doesn’t belong in Orthodoxy. Again, Religion and Science Is Not Just Intelligent Design vs. Evolution.
But for the interim, for people who need an answer and are good enough scientists to see through Creation Science, please do not
shanghai recruit the Church Fathers to rubber stamp the present state of scientific speculation. For starters, science is less important than you may think. But that’s just for starters.