Can an Orthodox Christian accept evolution?

Andrei Kuraev is professor and director of the Department of Theology and Apologetics at St. Tikhon Orthodox Theological Institute, and deacon at the Church of St. John the Forerunner in Moscow, Russia. In this article he responds to the recent influx of Young Earth creationist literature into Russia. As he notes in the article, this is not a topic on which the Church has ever seen a need for dogma, as there is considerable diversity among the early Fathers regarding the understanding of the six days of creation.

I’m posting his article, not because it is the One And Only True Interpretation Of The Six Days — far from it — but because it’s an example disproving popular media’s myth that biblical literalism must be opposed to science.

Related article: Augustine’s Origin of Species

by Deacon Andrei Kuraev

Protestant Creationism in Russia

Recently many books have appeared in Russia dedicated to the criticism of Darwinism. The majority of them are the work of American Protestant, creationist authors. The Orthodox, with a great joy of relief, have welcomed these books to their cathedrals and libraries since Darwinism was cultivated in the Soviet schools and institutes. Were we in a hurry to let this happen? Is it exclusively the position of the American fundamentalist Christian? Or, does it have a confessional justification which is not immediately obvious from the Orthodox point of view?

Creationist allegations are very absolute: they dispute not only the atheistic understanding of evolution but the possibility of any evolution as such. The world, before humans appeared, was six days old — not more than this. The Earth is not capable of evolutionary development, even as an answer to the call of the Creator.

This position is not new in the history of thought, including Christian. It was characteristic for pagan thought to reduce the notion of matter to the notion of non-existence. Only spirit can live and act. The world is inanimate, the world is material, the world is a shell for life and nothing else.

However, in Christian tradition the main opposition to the antique philosophy “matter/spirit”  was replaced by the dyad “Creator/creation”, which is of a different nature. In this wayboth the creative spirit and the created materiality happened to be put in the same parentheses, becoming relative. There is no foundation to deny a value (it may be less, but nevertheless a value) of the corporeal, if one accepts a value that stands behind the creative spirit, behind the human soul. A human’s or an angel’s spirit is able to tremble when it hears the voice of the Creator; why then cannot mountains tremble, too? A human spirit is capable of rejoicing when hearing the Word, then why cannot rivers, waters, and seas experience the same joy?

In pagan cosmogony chthonic matter opposes the spirit, puts out its impulse; that is why between them there cannot be any positive dialogue. However, in the Bible, in the book of Genesis there is no war between God and chaos. The world is obedient to the Creator. Waters and abysses answer with gladness to the Creator’s command. Hence, there is no necessity to transfer the pagan idea of the animosity of matter toward God to the world of Bible.

God, in the book of Genesis, calls each creature by name. By this He calls them out of the abyss of non-existence. Metropolitan Philaret expressed this idea beautifully: “The Word pronounces the existence all creatures”. Here we have a dialogue, a call, and an answer. St. Basil the Great explains, “Let the earth sprout, let her produce what she never had, let her acquire what she does not have, because God imparts the power to act.” The seeds of life are not in the earth, but “God’s word creates the essence” and He puts them in the ground; the earth only “sprouts them”. The earth cannot deliver life all by herself, but it is not right to minimize her role, saying, “The earth should grow things without the necessity of an outsider’s assistance.” The life comes from the earth, but the life-giving power of matter is a gift to her from the Creator.

Hence, on the one hand, there is nothing like an alchemiy of materialism which follows the recipe of the sorcerer from “Anthony and Cleopatra” by Shakespeare: “Take a little bit of dirt, a little bit of the Sun, and you will get an Egyptian crocodile.” In the story about the six days of creation, it is underlined that when life began to appear on the earth, there was no where to get “a little of the Sun,” as the Sun appeared only on the fourth day, but life, one cosmic day earlier).

On the other hand, when one reads the Gospel without prejudice, it is impossible to miss that it leaves a little bit of activity for the created world. There are no words like “And God created grass”, but ” the earth brought forth”. Later God does not just simply create life but commands the elements to reveal themselves: “Let the waters bring forth swarms of living creatures; Let the earth bring forth living creatures”.

The Appearance of Life in Genesis

The only creature that God does not entrust to creation by anyone else is man. Man is exclusively God’s creation. The independent activity of the earth is not unlimited: she cannot produce man. The decisive transition from an animal to the anthropomorphic creature is not taking place merely by God’s order but through his direct action: Bara. And even this will not be enough for the creation of man; after that, when God creates a bodily vessel by a special creative act which is able to be a vessel of consciousness and freedom, the second act of the biblical anthropogenic act will be needed: the act of birthing in the Spirit.

The appearance of life by Genesis is evolution (because the earth “produced” plants and simple organisms), and at the same time it is a “leap to life”, which took place by God’s command.

The earth is called to creativity, to the independent act by God’s word, and this is an acknowledgment of the existence of the inner motive forces, which belong to the earth. Certainly, here we do not have an indication of how and what are the limits of the earth’s answer to God’s call. Only one thing is clear: different periods in the history of genesis started from God’s call for the independent activity of “the earth”. The world, which is called to motion and growth, is becoming a co-worker with God. The theme of the creature’s cooperation with God has appeared in the Bible long before one directly starts talking about man.

The fact that the earth responds to the call of the Word and as a result she produces life in six days means that she is not a lifeless mass from which the outer force shapes something by overcoming the resistance of matter. The Bible is not the Vedanta. Hence matter is not a synonym for death and non-existence.

St. Basil describes this creative response in the following way: “Imagine this: that by a soft call, this cold and barren earth, all of a sudden, is moving closer to the time of birth. And, as if there drops down from her a sad and grievous cloth, she then vests herself in a bright robe, enjoying her attire, and brings forth thousands of plants”.

The Protestant Restoration of the Pagan Notion of Matter

Why then has a part of the Protestant world restored the pagan prejudice of identification of matter and passivity and made it an essential principal of their faith?

It seems to me there are there reasons for this:

The first one is connected with the distinctive tradition of Western Christianity. A very clear biblical picture of the gradual entrance into the world of different levels of existence, in Western Europe happened to be clouded by a lame Latin translation of the Bible. In the book of Sirach it is said that “He who lives for ever is the Creator of whole universe” (Sir. 18,1).

The Greek word koine means ‘together’, ‘joined together’, but Latin word simul means ‘simultaneously’. This particular part of Vulgate causes the resistance toward evolution in the West.

That is why even Augustine was already convinced that “God created everything simultaneously”. Protestants inherited this traditional conviction of the Western theological schools, however, they forgot that this statement is based, first of all, on the peculiarities of the Latin translation of non-canonical biblical books.

In order for this statement of a non-canonical book to be accepted by Protestants (usually non-canonical books are considered to be just apocrypha), it had to be given some kind of foundation. This foundation abides in the heart of the Protestant faith: in the doctrine of being “saved only by faith”, “only by grace”.

The word “synergy,” cooperation, co-working is not accepted by Protestant-fundamentalists ( in spite of the fact that one can find it in the Bible B 1 Cor. 3, 9). A man cannot be a participant in his own salvation. This is an exceptional gift, and man is only “being notified” of this by the Sacrifice of Golgotha, i.e., that their sins have been payed off.

Even in case a person cannot be a creator, cannot cooperate with God, how can we recognize this right of the world to exist before men? Hence, the Adventists theological textbook makes a transition to the criticism of evolution in the following way: “Even the Apostle Paul could not be virtuous by his own effort. He knew the perfect ideal of God’s Law but he could not live in accordance with it”. Then they conclude that “Golgotha denies the theory of evolution decisively”. This textbook regrets that “More and more Christians accept the atheistic theory of evolution, according to which God, while creating the world, used evolutionary process”. It is very strange that Adventists call those people who accept this theory atheists.

This doctrinal motive alone was not enough for them to simply keep their anti-evolutionist convictions in the quietness of their hearts and in their seminaries that are scandalously at odds with the opinion of science and education. In spite of this they continuously propagandize their convictions.. The reason for the persistence of the fundamentalists on this matter is already for social motives.

It became only in our situation, fin du siecle, possible for them to clash with scientific opinion. At the end of our century any anti-scientific statement can be made with impunity.

Astrologers, sorcerors, occultists are not shy about expressing the wildest ideas. It seems like the average man has became tired of the seriousness of science and responsibility and hence, is ready to listen to everything from the position of “why not?”. Now instead of argumentation people come to voluntaism: “I want it to be this way! I do not care about argumentation! It seems to me it should be this way! I like it like this!”. This mass ecstasy of irrationalism makes the Protestant’s over-literal rendering a marketable merchandise.

In Orthodoxy There is No Textual or Doctrinal Foundation Against Evolution

In Orthodoxy there is no textual or doctrinal foundation tearing away evolution. There is no sense for Orthodox people to indulge in the social fashion of irrationalism; any irrationalism in the end will work for occultism and against the Church..

Nevertheless, even among the Orthodox people, voices are heard calling for the radical tearing away of any form of evolution. First of all, one has to notice that the denial of evolution among the Orthodox is something new and cannot claim to be traditional.

First, even according to the opinion of the theologians of the very conservative Russian Church abroad, The days of creation cannot be understood literally (because “for God a thousand years is as yesterday”) but rather as periods.

Second, the idea of evolution, detached from an atheistic interpretation of evolution, was addressed in a positive manner in books by Orthodox writers. For example, the professor E. M. Andreiev who rejected the idea of the descent of man from primates, nevertheless wrote: “As for the rest of creation Darwinism is not opposed to the biblical teaching about the creation of animals because evolution does not answer the question: Who created the very first animals?”

Archbishop Michael (Mudyugin), a professor at St. Petersburg Theological Academy, writes: “There are many strikingly similar categories one can find in the Bible and on the pages of any biology textbook. The process of evolution of the organic world is one of them. The biblical terminology itself is located on the same plane. There it is said “Let the earth bring forth living creatures”, “Let the earth bring forth cattle and creeping things”.

Here the verb brings forth (“produce” in Slav. Translation) points to the connection between separate phases of the formation of the living world; moreover, it points to the connection between animate and inanimate matter”.

Professor of Moscow of Religious Academy A. E. Osipov writes, “for theology it is possible to accept the hypothesis of creationism and evolution as one condition. In both cases God is the Lawmaker and Constructor of the world, Who can create everything in this world by “days” at once in a finished form or slowly during several “days,” can “bring forth” from water and earth, from simple forms to the highest forms, by the law of nature that has been made by Him”.

Professor of St. Vladimir Seminary in New York, Protopresbyter Basil Zenkovski also underlines the biblical “independent activity” of the earth: “The biblical text is clearly telling us that God commands the earth to act by itself. This creative activity of nature, according to the expression of Bergson, élan vital, — desire to live — makes the fact of evolution of life on earth indisputable”.

One of the leading authors of the magazine Journal of the Moscow Patriarchate in the 1960’s-70’s, Protopresbyter Nickolai Ivanov agreed with the idea of evolution: “The act of the creation of the world, and the formation of its forms, for God, is an expression of His might, His will. But for nature, the fulfillment of this will is an act of formation — in other words it is a single and gradual process, that occurs over time. During the process of development it is possible for the appearance of transitional forms, which sometimes serve only as a step for the appearance of higher forms that are connected to eternity”.

Professor N. N. Pheoletov, who was a member of the 1917-1918 Sobor wrote that, “the idea of evolution itself cannot be viewed by Christians as something strange or contradictory to their consciousness.”  In 1917 the Holy Martyr, Protopresbyter Michael Meltchov, while discussing the question of the relationship between Christianity and science wrote that, ” A comprehensive and spiritual explanation and understanding of parts of the Bible contribute, at large, and destroy the misunderstanding between Christianity and science. One just has to read a little deeper into the text of Genesis then it immediately it becomes clear that the Bible does not give any foundation to consider that the day of the creation is a 24-hour period. Then the wall between biblical explanation and scientific data about the indeterminately long life of the earth before the existence of man is demolished”.

Even earlier, V.S. Solovyov clearly pointed to the way of a Christian interpretation of the idea of evolution. If I had been asked to find parallels between modern science and the worldview of Moses, I would say that his vision of the origin of life is very similar to the theory of directed evolution. The philosophical foundation of this theory which in biology was developed by L. Berg and Teilhard De Chardin, is expressed clearly by V. Solovyov: “The fact that higher forms or types of existence appear after lower ones does not mean that they are the essence of their production, or creation of these lower forms. The order of reality is not the same as the order of events. The higher, more complicated and full forms and conditions of being exist (metaphysically) before the lower though they appear and reveal themselves after them. One cannot deny evolution because of this. No one can deny it! It is a fact! To insist that evolution creates the higher orders wholly from the lower, in other words from nothing, means to replace facts by logical nonsense. The evolution of the lower orders of existence cannot create the higher by its own action, instead it produces material conditions or provides with accordance an environment so that the higher orders can reveal themselves. Hence, each appearance of a new type of existence is in a sense a new creation, but such that the least of all could be marked as a creation out of nothing, because, first of all, the previous type serves as a foundation for the appearance of a new type. Secondly, even its own positive essence of a new type does not appear new from nothing, but being in existence from the beginning of time, only enters (at a certain moment in the process) into a different sphere of existence, into the world of events. The conditions appear from the natural evolution of nature; that is revealed by God”.

The Philosopher V. N. Ilyin, the Serbian theologian Protopresbyter Stephan Lyashevski, Professor Lazar Milin, outstanding Romanian Theologian priest Dimitru Staniloe, Bishop Basil (Rodzyanko) did not consider the theory of evolution as anti-biblical or atheistic.

So, a calm attitude toward evolution is the tradition of Orthodox Academic Theology, what is new about this is the acceptance of the Protestant creationists position by Orthodox preachers.

Does Death Predate Adam?

The first argument, evolution presupposes the change of generations. The change of generations presupposes death. The essence of the problem is that if there were generations of developing animal forms before the appearance and fall of man then in this case we have to say that death was in the world before the appearance of sin! We know that death is the consequence of sin, and the sin of man. Hence, there was no sin in the world, before man than theologically it is impossible to presuppose the existence of death in it.

If death was in the world before the fall of man, then the universe became corrupted, not through man. This statement is against the biblical belief. Here, we have to stop and think hard about the meanings of the words “death” and “sin”.

The word “death” is too human; the word “death” is very rich with human tragedy. Can we apply the word “death,” that is so full, up to the brim with human meaning, to a non-human world? Death for a person is a tragedy, it is something outrageously wrong. It is not by chance that in Russian Philosophy the terrifying fear of death was taken as an experiential witness of its non-human origin. Suppose that man was a legitimate outcome of natural evolution and a struggle for survival; then he would not experience disgust towards that (death) which is so “natural.”

Undoubtedly the death of man entered into this world through sin. Death is evil and it was not created by God. This is also an axiom of Biblical Theology.

Hence, it seems to me, that only one conclusion should be drawn from this: the departure of animals is not death, and it is not the same as the departure of a man. When we say “The death of Socrates” we do not have a right to apply the same word to the phrase “The death of a dog”. The death of a star is a metaphor. We can use the same metaphor to say the “death” of an atom or a chair. Animals were disappearing from existence, they were going out of the world before the time of man. This was not death. Hence, it is impossible to talk about the phenomenon of death in a theological or philosophical meaning of the word, while applying this to a non-human world. The death of a lifeless star or atom, the splitting of a living cell or bacteria, and the discontinuance of a physiological process in monkeys: this is not the same is the death of man.

Yes, death is a consequence of sin! Sin is a violation of the will of the Creator. Can we be sure that the death of animals is also a violation of the Creative will? Did God create animals for eternal life? Did he want to create them as participants in eternity? Did he intend them to partake in the Bread of Life, and Eucharist?

If not — it means those temporary limitations of animals and their accessibility to decay is not a violation of the Plan of the Creator.

It is not a sin or distortion of the creative will. If the Eucharist is the only Bread of Life, and in our Cathedrals we do not administer communion to puppies, it means that this Bread is not for them and Eternity is not for them either. The death of animals is not a violation of the Plan of God. The Bible does not promise eternal life for our world. Only the human soul is prepared for Eternity. The Savior appeals to people, not to kittens, when he says: “Come, you blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world” (Mathew 25:34). The rest will be burned up.

And if upon creation (not resurrection but exactly upon the new creation of a “new earth, and a new sky”) God will choose that they be inhabited by animals, then they will appear there. Those animals are not going to be the same animals of this earth. Everything will be new there, besides us. God did not create animals for immortality and that is why their departure from existence is not a violation of God’s Plan, and there is not sin. Saint Augustine writes directly that “animals were created by mortals”. Earlier St. Methodious Patarsky’s position was the same “what kind of producer; that is the kind of product”.

God is immortal, alive, and imperishable; man is God’s creation and that’s why the creation, man, is immortal. This is the reason why God created man by himself, but the rest of the world, like animals and plants, were created by air, earth, and water. Animals received their life by the means of air animation. Man got his soul from the eternal essence itself, because God breathes, in man’s face, the breath of life.

Since it is a fact that animals cannot receive God’s saving grace, they are not immortal. They are animated by elements from which they were produced, but elements are flaming up and fading down together with their outcomes.

The death of animals is not a violation of the will of the Creator and that is why it is not an evidence of profanation of the primordial good quality of the world. The will of God is violated only when the creature which is the image of the Creator reduces himself to the level of animals, and puts himself under the law of struggle, survival and dying — the laws that existed before the human world was made. It is exactly then that the violation of the will of God is taking place. It seems that we are already used to identifying ourselves with animals. We are used to doing this so much that non-Christians seem to identify and derive justification for their passions and lawlessness from this identification, while Christians, acquiring the gifts of the Holy Spirit, then spread them to the animal world.

In any case, can we describe the behavior of animals in categories of sin and virtue? If the word “sin” cannot be applied to the description of animals, then the relative word “death” cannot be applied to animals in a strict human-existential meaning.

The holy fathers tell us directly that sin came to the world through man and only man can sin in this world (we do not touch any of the events in the area of angels). “What is another evil act, besides the events happening between people you can point at?” St. Methodious rhetorically asked; “All the rest of the creatures are obedient to God by necessity, and none of them can do anything except what it was created for.” So there is no evil among animals, and the death of animals is not evil if it is not caused by a human. Killing among animals is not evil because they do not have moral freedom.

The “struggle for survival” in God’s plan makes good pedagogical sense, St. Augustine supposes that the fight between animals is edifying for man so by seeing how animals fight for their bodily life he could understand how tensely and passionately he has to fight for his spiritual salvation.

Does the Edenic Existence Apply to Animals?

The second argument of Orthodox anti-evolutionists is built on those writings by the holy fathers who deny the existence of suffering in the Garden of Eden. According to the Holy Father’s intuition not only man, but animals were in a blessed condition. That is why any suffering and death that is connected to evolution cannot be even imagined from the theological viewpoint.

I don’t think that even this argument is unquestionable.

First of all, those who championthis argument lose from their sight the fact that Eden is not the whole world. Paradise is not a synonym for the cosmos before the fall. Eden does not include the whole world. Those rivers are flowing from it, which are washing the garden where man is placed.

Russian word rai is a Jewish word which means “garden,” and “paradise” is of Greek origin (which is, in its turn, a Hellinized Persian word pardes meaning “park”) Eden means “a world of joy”. The word Eden comes from Akkadian ediny and means “step”. This primary pronunciation was already forgotten and for the Jewish ear this word “Eden” happened to be connected with the words pleasure or sweetness. So, when Sarah heard a promise about the birth of her son, she “laughed to herself saying, : after I have grown old, and my husband is old shall I have pleasure? (Gen. 18:12) Here pleasure is edena.

But in Jewish text the word “garden” has not only joyful associations. The Russian word “garden” does not contain the meaning of Hebrew gun, which came from the verb gunnon to defend. In other languages the connection between garden and fence or defense are also present: French jardin has a connection with the verb garder (to guard), English garden as well as German garten also goes back to the same roman root. The translation of the Hebrew word gun is better translated as “fenced and protected place”.

This place is not just protected by itself, but a commandment was given to man “to keep it” (Gen. 2:15) in this sense, the Garden of Eden was a fenced and protected place. Hence, there was something that the garden had to be protected against. Either the world should be protected from man, or man should be protected from the world. Man had to protect the garden, or the garden was providing protection for man. In any case Eden — joy and garden — the fortress where the man was settled, is not one and the same place ( because “a river flowed out of Eden to water the garden” Gene 2:10). Paradise was planted during the existence of Eden (paradeson en Eden — “paradise in Eden”), in this case, paradise in the sense of joy is Eden, but is not the garden.

The garden was given to the man so that it would become a subject for protection and it would also protect man; and Eden, so as to give joy to man. The man had not approached Eden, rather he was in the “Garden” part of Eden.

Hence, the Scripture does not say that the whole world lived according to the law of the Garden of Eden. Rather it was vice versa. The Bible does not describe directly the world outside of Eden, but it is quite clear that the protected zone was put in opposition to the wild uncultivated nature. This opposition was very cruel; this was the reason for having guards “to keep it”.

The fact that the created man was put into the protected place meant that he had to be protected from somebody or something. Now we already know that the fence of the Garden could not protect from Satan. Then there was something else, not spiritual but other that was a threat for the human novice on the planet Earth. In order to protect man from those threats, he was taken out of the Universal context and put into some kind of “play-pen” that had clear borders (four rivers).

It is quite possible that outside of the Garden of Eden all laws for survival already existed, whenGod warned man, “Do not eat… or you shall die” (Gen. 2, 17).

So, if God said this to them, then it means that people were familiar with the experience of death earlier (better to say they had already seen some kind of death). This tells us that death existed in non-human world, in the world of animals.

The man was protected up to a certain period of time. Once man had broken the fence of the Garden of Eden by his sin and the laws of the outer world, the laws of Darwin’s biology poured into the world of humans.

The connection between sin and death dogmatically is established by the words of the apostle Paul: “Therefore as sin came into the world through a man and death through sin, and so death spread to all mankind because all men sinned”. (Rom. 5:12)

Sin came through man. Though humankind, sin spread death to all people. Judging by these words of the apostle Paul, one cannot conclude that animals were immortal before the sin of Adam. Better to conclude that death existed already in the world, but through human sin it came upon us.

One thing that cannot be argued in the biblical narration: the cosmos is in need of protection from the very beginning. Either Eden has to be protected from man (the “garden”, “paradise” is fortification by which God has protected Eden from man) or it is necessary to protect man from the outer world. In the last instance we have to admit that outer world contains something dangerous for man.

Eden is Limited in Space and Time

The second point which Orthodox anti-evolutionists do not take into consideration: Eden is not only limited in space but also in time.

The Garden of Eden is not the whole world, rather it appears after the creation of man. The history of the world does not start from Eden. Instead, it is brought forth after six days by a distinctive act of creation: “The Lord God planted garden in Eden in the East and there He put the man whom he had formed” (Gen. 2, 8).

Therefore, man was created before Eden and Eden was planted after the creation of the world. It was a created man who was put in a garden planted for him.

“The Lord God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden” (Gen. 2:15). From where did God take man? (“Take” means select, the way Levites were selected from other tribes). Eden is not the place that we came from: this is the place of our destination.

Man was created outside of paradise. But where is this place: higher or lower in relation to paradise? Was man created in a higher order of being and then moved down? Or maybe he was created in a lower place and than raised up to the level of Eden? Where did man appear: in the world of the jungle, in the world where there was no reign of God’s love and then from there, from the world of anthropoids he was put into Eden?

The Biblical text inclines to the second explanation. The Biblical narration accentuates that the world from which man came cannot be the same as the world where man had to live and grow. Let us emphasize that in order to appear in Eden, man had to relocate himself: cross over the line between the wild nature and the Garden. This is not just a change of location but a change of an environment.

Man has to be protected from the world of his anthropogeny. Hence, the world where man is from (by its bodily geography) contains something destructive in itself. This is not moral evil, this is not sin (because sin did not exist before man). There is something in the law of nature, in its cycles, that is good for the cosmos and dangerous for man. There is something without which the development of the world “from the original dust of cosmos” to the world before man would have been impossible but now when the growth has reached its limit, the laws of evolution have to retreat.

The world cannot go to something without a decay of the old. Life cannot grow without constant renewal and without exceeding its limits, i.e. out of limits of life. There is no creation without destruction in the cosmos, but in the world of man. This polarity of creation and destruction, this harmony of cosmic creative-destructive cycles can be moderated, stopped and demolished at least there where man appears. He is above the cosmos and lives in the cosmos. Hence, the harmony of cosmic contradictions must not function in him. Man has to be protected from the dominant influence of cosmic laws. This protection can only come from a cosmic being from above who is the Creator of Cosmos.

Man, by denying His protection, made himself a part of this cosmos in which all pagan philosophical systems saw the inevitable unity between good and evil, birth and death. Yes, the world of man has been radically changed as a result of sin. Can we consider the world before man and without man being something different. Maybe man, by his act, simply obliterates the edge by which he was abundantly and supernaturally separated from the rest of the world?

Yes, in that world that Adam was introduced to, i.e. in the world before Eden, even the death of animals did not exist. Was it like this in the world from which Adam was “taken out”? Can we relate the starting point and the assigned point of the first Exodus? The Serbian theologian Stephan Lyashevsky supposes that there was no death only in Eden. During the time of creation of man “In Paradise a new world has been installed where blood already was not shed in the face of immortal Adam, violent death had disappeared among animals, ‘because God gave to all as food different plants and fruit in Paradise’ and all the animals were obedient to man.”

The atmosphere of heavenly abundance into which Adam was introduced, embraced Eden. What kind of world was outside of Eden that lies between the rivers, we do not know. The Bible does not say anything about the world outside or before Eden. In any case, it is incorrect to draw a conclusion about that world by what we suppose was in the Garden of Eden.

Were Animals Predatory Before the Fall?

The third argument of the anti-evolutionists is based on Gen. 2:30 “and to every beast of the earth and to every bird of the air and to everything that creeps on the earth, everything that has the breath of life, I have given every green plant for food. And it was so”. In the eyes of the anti-evolutionists it means that before the fall of man there were no predators and there could not be. Hence, all scientific evolutionist theories are in direct contradiction with the Bible.

The main question then, is this: When exactly and where, were these words of God said? The thing is that Genesis narrates twice about the creation of man, in the first and second chapters. One of the traditionally most difficult tasks of Biblical exegesis consisted in finding an agreement between these two stories. So, did God have any relationship with man before the creation of the Garden of Eden and out of it? Did the creator pronounce those words in the Garden of Eden or out of it, before its creation? Could they be the part of His speech already in Eden, where He commanded to eat fruit from each tree and forbade eating fruit from the tree of knowledge? If God’s ascertainment related to the world around Eden, then it was not in contradiction with the opinion of science. Science cannot explore the experience of Eden. Science studies Eden’s outer world and in this it does not enter in contradiction with Biblical and the holy fathers’ witnesses about the order of co-habitation of man and animals, which was established for the Garden of Paradise.

So, the supposition of evolution and the connected disappearance of animals do not contradict neither the meaning nor the letter of Revelation. Scripture does not describe the technology of the birth of life and of its development and that is why there is no reason to enter into conflict with Science.

We can say the same about our Church Tradition. There are a number of ancient and medieval, natural and philosophical positions which can be found in Middle Age commentaries about the six days of creation that do not have faith teaching importance. St. Basil the Great used the encyclopedic knowledge of his time. For us it means, not that natural philosophy of the fourth century was enlightened by the name of the great saint forever and through this had to become a part of theology, but it means that such a daring attempt of the Church to have a dialogue with the world of secular thought and knowledge is blessed by the authority of the great Cappadocian. St. John of Damascus in his “Precise Description of the Orthodox Faith” includes a description of scientific doctrine of his time, it only means that the interest in cognition of the God created world was not foreign to Orthodox thought. Given the reality that the Fathers included in their text, facts from their contemporary science, does not mean that we have to become enemies of our contemporary science.

There are only three characteristics that could not be thought to be out of the Biblical context; life (the same way as the whole world) appears gradually; that the world is capable of answering creatively to God’s call; the evolution of the creation of the world would not have brought any results without a directive Intellect.

Matter is not immortal. It was created, and that is why it received an incentive from the outside. Only because it was created by this incentive does it preserve its creative impulse. That is why the world is capable of movement and development. Another balanced opinion is also true: though the world is able to develop itself, it gets its creative impulses from the outside.

The change from one kingdom to another in the Bible is described as unexplainable only from the inner evolution of the world: this is a breakthrough that took place by the will of the Creator. Exactly in this situation one can use the word bara: the appearance of matter from nonexistence; then the appearance of the first life — fish and at last man. However, the lack of the word bara during the step from the non-organic world to the plant world can mean that this border can be over come by nature itself.

God does not create the world the way a sculptor makes a sculpture. In the last case the material is absolutely passive and is changed only by the direct coercion of a cutter, under the direct coercion of the artist. Whereas, the earth, primitive matter and water took very active participation in its design during the creation of the world. They fulfilled the commands of the Creator and not the commands fulfilled themselves in them.

Hence, the matter is active and there is no aggression against God in its activity, the scripture does not describe how exactly the earth answered the creators call. But it is very clear that the earth responded readily without opposition.

In this way, Orthodoxy — unlike paganism that demonizes matter, or Protestantism that deprives the created world its right to participate in creation — has no foundation to reject the thesis that the Creator created matter capable of good development.

The essence of the unrolling process of the word does not depend on its speed. Those people are naïve for whom it vaguely seems that God would not have been necessary if we stretch the process of creation. Equally naïve are those people, who suppose that the creation of the world over more than six days reduces the greatness of the Creator. We have to remember that nothing withstood or limited the creative action. Everything (before the appearance of sin) was happening by the will of the Creator. Did this will involve creating the world instantly or in six days, or in six thousand years, or in myriad of centuries? We don’t know, because “who can count the days of eternity?” As far as the [“Young Earth” creationist] position of Father Seraphim Rose is concerned, I cannot say that his position was mistaken. Simply, this is not the only position which an Orthodox person can adhere to.

Orthodox Theology and Differences of Opinion

In Orthodox theology it is acceptable to have questions on which there cannot be differences in opinion, to approach it from a different angle: What does it mean “for us people and for our salvation”? In such a case, if a certain thesis does not have a soterological use, and at the same time it: a) is not condemned by the mind of the Church in Council; b) does not lead through its logical revealing to opposition with the clearly stated dogmas of Church teaching; c) differs from the opinions of some of the Fathers; d) has at least some support of some witnesses of the Church tradition; then, one can keep this opinion — with one condition” that it will not be presented as a “Church-must” dogmatic statement.

Private theological opinions can contradict each other. Besides the well-known words of the Apostle Paul about this (“for there must be factions among you in order that those who are genuine among you may be recognized” (1Cor. 11,19) one can bring the words of the Church historian V.V. Bolotov: “Nobody has the power to forbid to keep theologumen as my private theological opinion, that has been expressed at least by one of the Fathers of the Church, if it has not been proven that a competent Church council has already declared that the view as a mistaken one. On the other hand, nobody has the power to demand from me that I accept, as my theological opinion, a theologumen that has been uttered by several Church Fathers, because this theologumen does not fascinate me by its sublime theological beauty, does not win my heart by understanding, or even appeal to my mind, by its majestic power of argumentation”.

Hence, the idea of evolution could be proved unacceptable for Orthodox theological thinking if one can explain in what way allowing the change of the animal generations in and before the human world, in or out of the world of Eden can damage the conscious participation of a Christian in the Church sacraments. Direct referrals that “Bible teaches but you are saying” cannot be accepted for examination (“Proof-texting”). Orthodox Tradition knows how complicated and different the interpretation of Scripture can be. (especially the Old Testament). That is why, before one can accept this or that interpretation, he should first ask a question: “For what reason am I inclined to accept this interpretation?”  When one rejects it, again, try to find a motivation: What is it exactly that could not be accepted? When one condemns something, a question should be asked: What is so damaging for the salvation of people in this opinion?

I cannot accept the opinions and methods of argumentation of the radical creationists because they are trying to use their own scientific material and they do it very unprofessionally causing well deserved censure from the people who are professional scientists. Here there is a great danger that a biologist after reading a book could say that this is “pot-boiler” and transfer this opinion to the whole Christian world.

Once I was invited to read a lecture for the students of biological faculty of the Moscow State University. Usually I have good relationship with the students of MSU. This time I was shocked by the coldness of these students. After the first lecture I asked my colleagues who invited me: “Did I behave in a wrong way? Why is their attitude was so strange?” The answer was: “Oh, excuse us, Fr. Andrew, but the week before your lecture there were Baptists from America here. They were trying to prove to the students that there was no evolution and the world was created in six days. One student (not to even mention our professors) caught them in a manipulation of the scientific facts, in a very biased selection of one group of facts and ignoring hushing-up others. So, our students have decided that it is considered acceptable for all Christians to manipulate the facts of science. They assume that you are a person who holds the same view. This is the reason for their attitude towards you.” Only after the second lecture, when I explained to them that in Orthodoxy there is a possibility for a different interpretation of the first chapter of Genesis, after that the relationship with the students was improved and the conversation about the Scripture and Orthodoxy went on with great attention and understanding.

So I have a missionary interest not to accept controversial judgments of creationists, and I try to find an evolutionist reading of the six days of creation. I do not have a personal problem believing that either God created the world in six days or instantly. There is no problem for me in expressing my opinion that is wittingly unacceptable in this particular auditory (I have to do this very often). I simply think that it is not good for a priest to burden people with something that is too heavy for them. Yes, in Christianity there are moments when one has to practice [bring] a “sacrifice of the intellect”. Nevertheless it seems to me that this sacrifice has to be brought to the dogma about the Trinitarian Unity of God, and not to “dogma” about the precise number of hours of the creation of the world.

Finally, it is useful to look closely to your own inner motives which urge you to accept this or that opinion. It is a favorite hobby for a lot of people now in our parishes, monasteries, and even seminaries to prove to each other their arch-orthodoxy. It is a very suitable reason for them to expose and condemn those “heretic-evolutionists” for these purposes. However, if a person is not preoccupied with getting a reputation for arch-orthodoxy in the circle of his witty like-minded acquaintances, but rather how to bring to the Church door those people who are still far away from it, then it is better to sacrifice the joy of the sense of your own strong objection and also the joy from the exposing and condemning the next “heretic.” After all: theology exists in order to present Christ to people and not to make stronger the authority of theologians. That is why in my opinion the question about, Do we except evolutionary interpretation of the first Old Testament pages, or Do we interpret them in the framework of strict creationism, is not a question. How do we understand the ancient pages of history? This is a question about our future. Do we want to see our Church missionary work active and open? Or, the whole life of the Church and thought narrowed down to the repetition of citations from the past centuries?

Author: Father Silouan Thompson

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