TOWARDS AN ORTHODOX VIEW OF CREATION AND EVOLUTION
The first eleven chapters of the first book of the Old Testament relate the pre-Abrahamic (Genesis 11, 26) history of mankind and creation. With the increase in scientific knowledge (and theory) in the nineteenth century, the Protestant world had to face ever increasing dilemmas about its understanding of these first chapters of the Book of Genesis. For example, Darwin's then new theory of evolution clashed with the literal understanding of that part of Genesis. Inevitably, a false understanding of these chapters would enter into conflict with scientific theory - all the more so if the scientific theory were also false.
The Genesis account of creation is a telescoped version of the essential events which took place before recorded human history. Since only the essential events are related (no doubt because the non-essential ones had been forgotten or confused by oral tradition), there are many gaps. For instance, Genesis mentions only two of Adam and Eve's two sons, the only ones of perhaps hundreds of their children. The question arises: Whom did they marry? The answer is clear: they married their sisters. Just because the sisters are not mentioned does not mean that they did not exist. Their names, like many other forgotten names and no doubt those of dozens of generations, are not mentioned in Genesis. (Obviously, at that time, the Fall had not yet affected human DNA in such a way that such marriages had become dangerous and naturally repugnant. The gene-pool must have been so large that the results of what we call incest, well-known today, simply did not operate then).
In their curiosity, men have often been tempted to speculate about the gaps of the telescoped history in Genesis, in ways which have not always been healthy or profitable. Having been handed down by oral tradition for millennia, the events related were only finally written down much later, as faithfully as possible, at the command of the Prophet and God-Seer Moses. Thus, there are those who claim that sections of the first Five Books of the Old Testament, the 'Pentateuch', were actually written down by St Moses himself. This may be the case. However, we shall leave such abstract arguments to scholars. This is not our concern. Our concern here is with the interpretation of the first chapters of the first Book of Moses, Genesis.
Introduction: Literal and Spiritual Interpretation
First of all, let us be clear. With the interpretation of the first chapters of the Book of Genesis, we are not talking about dogmas. If there are Christians who are happy to interpret those first chapters literally, then so be it. However, I think that they are a tiny minority among all Christians.
After all, the conflict between Darwin's theory of evolution and the literal interpretation of Genesis affected and affects above all Protestant societies, as in nineteenth century Britain or in the present-day United States. This is because Protestants lack a Patristic understanding of the Scriptures. That is, they do not understand the Scriptures spiritually, ascetically, allegorically, poetically, but only literally. We call such an understanding 'fundamentalist'. This explains why Darwin's theories have posed far fewer problems in both Roman Catholic and Orthodox societies than in Protestant societies.
Protestant culture is overwhelmingly literary and verbal, it is weak in terms of symbols and allegories, just as it is weak in its development of art, painting and music. It must be said, therefore, that many of the Protestant struggles to interpret the Scriptures are irrelevant outside Protestant societies and their cultural and mental conditioning. Just as Protestants struggle with the issue of 'women-priests', they also struggle with the issue of interpreting the Book of Genesis. Other Christians often feel totally unconcerned by either question, because they have other values. Indeed, the Protestant questions seem to us to be false problems. Below we go through a list of classic misunderstandings, which arise from a literalist understanding of the first chapters of the Book of Genesis.
A classic fundamentalist misunderstanding is that of the very first words of the Book of Genesis, 'In the beginning'. Countless interpreters have tried to count back through genealogies to come up with precise and quite dogmatic dates for Creation, usually ranging from between about 4,000 BC to 10,000 BC. They are all fairly absurd. We simply do not know when the universe was created. No saint knows. No theologian knows. No scientist knows. No-one knows. And what is the point of knowing it? It would make no difference at all. This is why we date the Christian calendar from the Birth of Christ (and even here there are mistakes).
Connected with this is the unnecessary controversy over the 'Six Days' of Creation. This is another fundamentalist misunderstanding of what is at the beginning of Genesis. Fundamentalists and creationists generally interpret the six days literally, as six twenty-four hour periods. The Church Fathers, like St Basil the Great in his second talk on the Six Days, did not. After all, if the Sun was created on the fourth 'day', the first three 'days' could not have been twenty-four hour periods Taking up the cry of the Psalmist (Ps. 89, 5), the Apostle writes (2 Peter 3, 8) that 'with God one day is as a thousand years and a thousand years as one day'. The word 'day is simply a word for an unknown period of time, unknown indeed to modern science also.
There are many other such examples in the Scriptures of the use of the word 'day', not meaning twenty-four hours. For instance, we have Jn. 8, 56, Romans 13, 12, 2 Cor. 6, 2. We refer to the Almighty as 'The Ancient of Days'. We have the phrase ' in those days' or 'in olden days'. None of these phrases refers to days, but rather times. If God is the Ancient of Days, then does this mean that he is scarcely out of His infancy?! Such misunderstandings were called by the outstanding Russian religious philosopher, V.N. Ilyin, 'bad literalism and bad naivete in reading and understanding the Word of God' (Ilyin, The Six Days of Creation, Paris 1991, p.161).
this subject of time, some raise issues concerning the longevity of the
first human-beings. The Scriptures state that Adam lived to the age of
930, Seth 912, Methusaleh 969, Noah 950, Shem 600, Abraham 175, Isaac
180, Jacob 147 etc. Personally, I see no difficulty here. Since Adam had
been created immortal, why should he have not lived for centuries? Surely,
it was only the longer-term effects of the Fall which shortened human
life, especially after Noah and then Moses?
Another classic misunderstanding (this time more by the modern, post-Protestant world) is that concerning what God created - 'the heaven and the earth'. Many simply assume that this means the sky (and the planets and stars that are in it) and the earth. In fact, 'heaven' means the invisible creation, that is the angelic powers, and the visible creation. Thus, the modern question: 'Are we alone in the universe?' is simply absurd, in the light of the knowledge that there exists not only the visible world, but also the invisible world. Only atheists can wonder if we are 'alone' in the universe.
God's Creation is Good
Throughout the first chapter of the Book of Genesis, God constantly refers to His Creation as 'good'. Herein lies a vital difference between Christianity and many other religions. The world that God created, both visible and invisible, was good. We are not Manicheans or Cathars, who think that all material things are bad and all 'spiritual' things are good. Matter is not bad in itself. This is in fact a pagan concept. Sadly, during the Middle Ages, this concept crept into Catholicism by the back door, beginning with clerical celibacy and so misogyny. It then took over certain misogynistic Protestant sects, known as the 'Puritans'.
In reality, there is nothing wrong with the body itself. What can be wrong is the way in which we use our bodies. There is nothing wrong with the natural world in itself, it is the way in which we use it which can be wrong. Thus, both sexual abuse, 'sexual slavery', and the misuse of natural resources, 'the rape of the planet', are the two sides of the same coin, for they both represent the misuse of the material world. The attitude which says 'rape the earth', it does not 'matter' (because it is only 'matter') is in fact heretical. Little wonder that, at the same time, cremation, the wanton destruction of human bodies through incineration by fire, also arose in a Protestant milieu, in fact in nineteenth-century Wales.
Our bodies, like the natural world around us, are only tools, controlled by our minds, wills and hearts. Corruption, or otherwise, begins there and merely ends in our bodies. This is why the pure in heart keep their bodies incorrupt, but those who corrupt their hearts corrupt their bodies also. This concept of the inherent corruption of all matter is the result of full-blown Calvinism, the doom and gloom of those who imagine that they are predestined to hellfire, for they have not been 'saved by grace'. Their god would appear not to be the Christian God at all, for 'He is good and loves mankind'. All the Christian God wants from us is that we work with Him, in 'synergy', or co-operation. Ascetically working on ourselves with His help, we can acquire His grace and be saved by His mercy. Those who deny the need for such ascetic struggle, because they imagine that they have already been 'saved', dwell in the deepest spiritual delusion.
The Creation of Man
We note that in the Book of Genesis, as in scientific evolutionary theories, Evolution proceeds from the lower to the higher, from plants to animals to men. Man is the crown of creation because he is made 'in our image, after our likeness' (Gen. 1, 26), that is man resembles God the Holy Trinity. He is different from all else because God breathes life into him, that is, He endows him with 'a living soul' (Gen. 2, 7). As regards the creation of the human body, this is made from 'the dust of the ground' (Gen. 2, 7). We now understand this to mean the various chemical elements, hydrogen, oxygen, carbon, calcium, iron, magnesium, sodium, phosphorus etc, which make up the human body's chemical composition and which are also found in the earth.
Now, there are many resemblances between the human body and the bodies of animals, especially those of the higher animals. Thus, both humans and such animals have four limbs, a head, two eyes, a nose, a mouth, ears, the same number of internal organs, a heart, a liver, two lungs and two kidneys, a stomach, a bladder, intestines, reproductive organs etc. But why ever should this mean that man is evolved from animals, as atheist evolutionists claim? All this means is that both the human body and the bodies of animals were designed by the same Maker. Surely the resemblances are rather proof of the existence of a Higher Being, Who is our Creator?
What interests us much more than resemblance is the difference between men and animals - the existence of the eternal and immortal soul among men, but not among animals. The 'breath of life' that God put into man is in fact the kiss of eternal life. Man is not destined for death, like the rest of Creation. And what is the outward sign of the existence of the soul and man's resemblance to God? It is the fact that human-beings are capable of speech, in other words, they possess to some small degree the Word of God, the sign of divine origin and divine destiny. Man is different from all else in the visible creation, the animals do not speak, except, occasionally, by imitation. This reflection of man's divine origin can even be seen in the phrase homo sapiens. Man is 'sapiens, i.e, wise, in that he reflects the Wisdom of God. Thus, in image and likeness he reflects the Word and the Wisdom of God.
Adam and Eve
Linked to the above, we cannot but help recall the passage describing the creation of woman from 'Adam's rib' (Genesis 2, 21-23). Incredible as it may seem, some fundamentalists in the nineteenth century, and perhaps more recently still, actually believed that, anatomically, women possessed an extra rib. What this passage actually means is that woman is taken from man's heart, that woman belongs to man, just as man belongs to woman. Men and women are inseparable. Wherever there is one, there is the other. We can see this on entering any Orthodox church. The attention is at once drawn to the icons of Christ and the Mother of God in front of us. Christ too is inseparable from the Mother of His human nature. The male and female principles are inherently complementary, they always go together.
Similarly, even the most monastic of male saints were all attached to the spiritual example of a woman in their lives - and vice versa. St John Chrysostom and the holy Deaconess Olympiada, Blessed Augustine and his mother St Monica and countless other male saints were all attached to mothers, sisters, daughters, let alone all those who found holiness together with, and often because of, their spouses. We cannot help feeling that one of the deficiencies of the Protestant understanding of the Christian Faith is their lack of reverence for the Mother of God, bequeathed to us by her revelation in Church Tradition. After all, the Mother of the Church is known only to those inside the Church, but not outside Her. The Protestant clericalist desire for 'women-priests' is surely related to this deficient understanding.
Moreover, as Orthodox, we would like to note the following. We have seen how in the account in the Book of Genesis there is a progression in Creation from plants to animals to human-beings. Therefore, we also note that the last in the chain of Creation is not actually man, but specifically woman. Herein there is a great mystery. Although Eve began the process of the Fall, the greatest human-being in the Kingdom of Heaven, 'more honourable than the cherubim and beyond compare more glorious than the seraphim', is not a man, but a woman. Spiritually, woman stands higher than man.
The Garden of Eden
We come now to the question of the Garden of Eden, noting that the very word 'Eden' means 'pleasantness'. First of all, according to the Book of Genesis, Eden was simply a place 'eastward' and the Garden of Eden a special place within Eden. This Garden was not the whole planet, or even the whole of Eden. It was a special place, a kind of reserve, or rather 'preserve', put aside for the human race, into which a river flowed from Eden to water it (Gen. 2, 10). Just as man had a special origin, he also had a special destiny - to be like God. He was to look after Eden, keeping it apart from the rest of the world and the natural laws of the outside world. There, plants and animals lived and died and were then reborn in a natural, God-given seasonal cycle. There, fossil records show that all kinds of animals, now extinct by the will of God, had lived, from animals that we call pterodactyls to those that we call dinosaurs. But this was not in the Garden of Eden.
Indeed, God Himself 'walked' in Eden (Genesis 3, 8), meaning that man was in free communion with his Maker there. Though there was peace in Eden, outside there were many difficulties. The 'old dragon' (the devil), 'a beast of the field', came into Eden from the outside world (Genesis 3, 1). We must remember that before Eden, there had been 'war in the heavens' and the fall of half the angels, led by Lucifer. A fall in the invisible creation had already taken place, but not the fall of man, whose destiny was still immortality. The penetration into Eden of the dragon was the penetration of passion and sin into 'paradise', a word meaning 'garden', 'park' or 'enclosure'.
We note that after the fall, the punishment of the dragon was to have his legs removed and to become a serpent (Genesis 3, 14). Until the fall, he did not slither on his belly, but had walked on legs, as a dragon. We note that the dragon creature has survived in many pagan mythologies, especially perhaps in the Chinese. Also we note that after the fall, God made 'coats of skins' for men and women (Genesis 3, 21). No doubt in cold climates, men and women actually also lived in caves. The first cavemen were then the first fallen men, not what God had intended.
Since Eden was 'in the east', actually in what is now Iraq, what then can we say of the 'humanoid' fossil skulls found by archaeologists, in Ethiopia, in Kenya, in Indonesia, or the remains of 'Cro-Magnon man', found in France? First, we should note that these fossils are precisely humanoid, i.e. we have no reason to believe that they actually belong to human-beings. They could well have belonged to types of primates, long since extinct. Indeed, there are those who believe in the continued existence of such primates, notably of the 'yeti' in the Himalayas. This may be so. But the point is that these are not human-beings. They are extinct (or not yet extinct) species of gorilla and monkey. Moreover, we should take care of the dating of such fossil finds. Dating systems are not yet accurate.
Finally, we should also note that DNA tests have now established that, for example, all Europeans are descended from six related females, indeed that the whole world population does have a common ancestor. Despite skin colour and other minor differences, there is only one sort of human-being, with one common ancestor. We are all related; humanity is indeed a family. This confirms the story of Babel and the confusion of tongues in Genesis Chapter 11. Humanity is one. From Babel, man went west into the Middle East, Africa and Europe. From Babel, man went east into Asia, crossing from there into Australasia and the Americas. Babylon (Babel) was the centre of the world. Human unity can only be restored through Pentecost, spiritually uniting what before was divided. The Biblical account of Creation is deeply unracist.
We come now to the question of the Flood, as related in Genesis 6-8. We understand the Flood to have been the flooding of the whole known world, in other words, to have taken place over perhaps all of Iraq and well beyond, but not of the whole planet. Others may disagree with us. Perhaps they are right. However, the reading of the Scriptures supports our concept. The world, 'oecumene', is often used to refer to the 'known world' or 'inhabited world (which is what the word really means).
There are many examples of such usage in the Scriptures, for instance, in Genesis 11, 54-57, Matthew 12, 42 or Acts 2, 5. The fact that the 'flood myth' (the term used by condescending pseudo-scholars) exists in some 150 different human mythological systems should not surprise us, for the present human race is all descended from Noah and his wife and their children and all this happened before the scattering of people after the fall of the Tower of Babel (Genesis 11). The fact that some peoples wrote down their confused memories of the flood, for example the Gilgamesh account, is perfectly normal. However, we prefer the account found in the Old Testament as being the most accurate, the least 'mythological'.
Atheists object to the Flood story, saying that Noah could not have got all the species of animal and, presumably, plant life onto the Ark. However, if the Flood were only local and he took only species of local animals onto the Ark, where is the problem? Fundamentalists object that the Flood must have been universal, because the Ark landed 'high up on Mt Ararat'. However, this is not what the Bible says. It says that the Ark ended up 'upon the mountains of Ararat' (Genesis 8,4). In other words, it ended up somewhere among the vast spread of the foothills of Mt Ararat.
Conclusion: Creation and Evolution
For most Orthodox, the only problem with the word 'Evolution', as applied to Creation, is the use of the word in a context which denies the Creator. If Evolution were without God, i.e, man were descended from monkeys, that is an implicit denial of God, atheism. Similarly, the theory of natural selection (i.e. the absence of God from life) is another dangerous aspect of Darwinism. Indeed, it led to Fascist eugenics and was used to justify the genocide of the Hitlerites. Here, of course, we should defend Darwin to some extent, for that was not his intention. In other words, it is also necessary to distinguish between Darwin and Darwinism. They are not necessarily the same thing.
Moreover, many Orthodox would therefore say that although Evolution is quite possible with God, it is quite impossible without God. After all, our understanding of God is that 'He is good and loves mankind'. If this is so, then He cannot stand back from His Creation, but inevitably intervenes in order to guide it. Evolution is but the guiding, directing and loving Hand of God in His Creation. How does He intervene? Simply, through the laws that He implanted in His Creation. Modern science is only just beginning to understand the first elements of those laws. They are called by such names as: The Laws of Thermodynamics; The Theory of Relativity; Quantum Mechanics; Molecular Physics; DNA etc. In other words, we believe that the world evolves because of the Creator's impulses sown in it.
Thus, we can say that both 'Evolutionism' (belief in some God-less theory of evolution by random chance) and 'Creationism' (literal belief in the Six Days of Creation etc) are false. Contradictions can only come about when either there is a false understanding of Creation or a false understanding of Evolution - or both. Both these 'isms', like all other 'isms', limit God. Evolutionism pushes Him aside into some distant and unknowable 'Heaven', from where He cannot 'hinder' human freedom. But Creationism also limits Him, preventing Him from expressing His All-Powerful Will and intervening for human good in His Creation.
Indeed, it can be said that Evolution proves the Truth of the Scriptures. The Scriptures relate 'Who', whereas Science relates 'How'. Thus, Evolution proves the existence of God's presence and plan in His Creation, for Nature itself is a Revelation of God, it is the 'living Scriptures'. Indeed, it is often only when we know how to 'read' Nature that we can begin to understand the Scriptures. Therefore, it can be said that true scientists are theologians of Nature, just as true theologians are scientists of the Scriptures.