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Kevin Basil

On the Dogma of Creation

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This article originally appeared as a six part series. Although I’d like to claim credit for imitating the six days of creation (hexaemeron), it’s quite coincidental. Still, I’ve learned not to underestimate the unconscious ability of my mind to form symbolism and connections which I don’t see consciously until well after I feel I’m finished with a project. The original series generated quite a lot of conversation in the comments, and I point it out to you for precisely that reason. The first post, like this single article, was entitled, “On the Dogma of Creation.”

In the beginning God created heaven and earth. God saw all he had made, and indeed it was very good. Gn 1.1,31a (NJB)

The doctrine of creation and the Genesis narratives

The doctrine of creation is that God created everything, both the visible worlds and the invisible, out of nothing. Without the continuing creative activity of God at every moment, the cosmos would not be; it would be nothing. Speaking of the Logos-Word of God, holy John the Theologian writes, “Through him all things came into being, not one thing came into being except through him.” (Jn 1.3 [NJB])

Moreover, the creation is good because it is created by God, who is the author of good. He is, himself, good and goodness, light and life, and so the work of his hands is innately good for that very reason.

God creates the cosmos out of nothing, and it is very good. That is the essential dogma of creation.

How, then, do we interpret the initial chapters of Genesis, with their wonderful stories of creation and fall?

An Orthodox believer receives the meaning of Scripture from the apostolic teaching as it is passed on to us (tradition). It often happens that the fathers make mistakes of fact which do not affect their primary insights into a matter. An easy example is the common patristic belief that the world is composed of only four elements, a belief received from the Hellenic science of the day. This susceptibility to be mistaken in matters of fact does not affect the main principle that the scriptural and patristic consensus guides our faith.

Before proceeding to examine the patristic consensus on creation, though, I must digress and explain why I cannot accept any interpretation that understands Genesis’ initial chapters literally. This may appear to contravene this patristic principle, but I believe it does not. If I am wrong, then I am a sinner and I beg your prayers. If I am right, though, literal interpretations of Genesis make a mistake of fact, and we must allow the fathers to transcend these mistakes of fact and reveal their divinely inspired guidance.

Growing up, I learned to interpret Scripture quite literally. I naturally understood the creation stories to mean exactly what they seem to mean. During my undergraduate work, my courses in Old and New Testament opened my eyes to a holistic understanding of the Scriptures.

To properly understand any particular book of the Bible, we must know its genre. This basic principle of hermeneutics undergirds any healthy understanding of Scripture. A book’s genre tells us whether the book is history, fiction, fable, prophecy, allegory, apocalypse, gospel, epistle, or something else. Here, the messiness starts. Most books — even books written today, in our post-Enlightenment rationalism — do not start out with a clear label of their genre. The audience picks up on the genre through cues in the text. In our case, readers populate the audience, but listeners constitute the original audiences of Scripture. Between two and four thousand years separate us from the world in which Scripture was written.

For a recent example:

From forth the loins of these two foes
A pair of star-cross’d lovers take their life;
Whose misadventur’d piteous overthrows,
Doth with their death bury their parents’ strife.

This opening of Romeo and Juliet tells us that this work is not to be taken as literal history, even if the characters are historical. How does it do this? The versed lines, ending with a standard A B A´B´ rhyme, tell us this opening is poetry, and it sets the stage for a poetic exposition to follow. There are similar clues in the creation stories of Genesis that tell us that the author is being poetic in describing the cosmos’ birth.

In Hebrew poetry, the main device is parallelism. It takes the place of rhyme in English poetry; parallelism immediately sets apart a piece of Hebrew writing as either poetry outright, or poetic prose. Parallelism is exactly what we see in the narrative of Genesis 1.

Day What is formed
(“Let there be…”)
Day What is formed
(“Let there be…”)
1 Light 4 Lights in the vault
of the sky (Sun/Moon)
2 Vault of the sky
Waters separated
5 Flying creatures
Water creatures
3 Dry land
6 Land creatures
Seventh Day: Sabbath; completion; perfection

You can see from the above table that there is a parallelism between what is formed in the first part of the week and what is formed in the second part of the week. (Protopresbyter Thomas Hopko rightly notes, by the way, that only the initial act is properly creation — creatio ex nihilo — every other act is one of forming or fashioning or crafting a new reality from an old one.)

On day one, light is formed; on the fourth day, the sources of light — the greater light and the lesser light — are formed. On the second day, the vault or dome of the sky is created, separating the waters above the heavens from the waters below the heavens; on the fifth day, flying creatures and water creatures are created. On the third day, the waters below the vault of the sky are gathered together, so that dry land can be formed and vegetation brought forth; on the sixth day, land beasts and man are formed. In each case, there is a parallel between what comes first and what comes last.

Another way of determining the genre of a text is by comparison with other works from the era. By examining Mesopotamian creation myths such as The Epic of Gilgamesh and the Enuma Elish, we find that the narratives in Genesis owe much of their language and symbolism to the pagan myths which they aim to refute.

As evidence, note that the author of Genesis refuses to call the “lights in the vault of heaven” by names like “Sun” and “Moon.” As a child, this both fascinated and confused me. When we examine the Hebraisms involved, we find the Hebrews did not have separate words for “Sun” and “sun god,” or “Moon” and “moon god.” The odd construction is specifically designed to underscore that there are no other gods.

Note also that man is formed out of the dust of the earth, not out of the body of a deity. Tiamat does get borrowed for the Genesis creation stories, but as a generic creature — the serpent of Genesis 3 — not as a goddess. “Now, the snake was the most subtle of all the wild animals that Yahweh God had made.” (Gn 3.1 [NJB]) Although anthropomorphized, the serpent creature has no divine qualities and is clearly subject to the wrath of God as a creature.

What we find, then, is that these initial chapters of Genesis are an anti-myth in mythopoetic language. If we call them myth, it is only because they clearly label themselves so by their own internal structure and language and by their relation to other mythical literature of the time. These myths, unlike the fantasies they refute, are true on a level that transcends the meager factuality of modern discourse. Some truths can only be communicated at the mythopoetic level, because the merely factual level is unable to express the mystery.

On top of this, we must remember that both the writers and the audience of these narratives were premodern. By this we mean no disrespect, but we simply recognize that our questions of factuality and historicity are foreign to their worldview. Such scientific questions make distinctions they never made and would not understand.

This realization — that the Genesis narratives were not even intended to be taken literally — opened up the possibility that I could accept science on its own terms.

In this first section, I have presented some reasons why the creation myths in Genesis should not be understood literally. “Myth” in this context is truth which transcends factuality to include the mysterious, archetypal and poetic. Additionally, reading the text literally leads to internal contradictions between the two separate creation stories. The most obvious contradiction is that in the first story, man and woman are created together, after every other creature. In the second story, man is created first, when “there were no plants or grain growing on the earth, for the LORD God had not sent any rain. And no one was there to cultivate the soil.” (Gn 2.4b-7) The fact that some ingenious interpretations have developed to reconcile the difficulties between the two stories already indicates that the simplest, most literal reading has been abandoned.

Investigating the science

After abandoning a literal reading of the Genesis mythology, I investigated the scientific stories of our origins. This was quite new territory for me, because growing up I learned the version of science peddled by the Institute for Creation Research, Answers in Genesis, and other similar organizations. Evolution was EVIL-ution.

In my undergraduate research on the subject, I found that scientists (regardless of religious belief) nearly all accept the science of our origins, whether astronomical, geological, or biological. Even at Asbury College, a very evangelical Christian college, the science department professors accepted the scientific consensus. Well, except for the veterinarian who taught Bio 101 part-time. I guess he was the token “Scientific Creationist,” though I don’t know why you’d want one.

Non-scientists who do not accept the science are roughly categorizable as follows:

  1. Those who read Genesis too literally.
  2. Those who misapply or misunderstand scientific principles and theories.

In the first part of this article we examined why a literal reading is unsupported by the text, but there is also a more fundamental flaw for some who make the first mistake. Some literalists believe so firmly in the absolute factual accuracy of Scripture that they hold that it can be used as a guide for science. They generally label themselves “Creation Scientists,” or “Scientific Creationists.”

Scripture was written under divine inspiration by men (and possibly women) millenia before the advent of empirical science as we know it. It uses modes of thought which appear to us unconcerned with factuality, chronology, and many other categories of thought we take for granted. “Scientific Creationists,” however, believe that every single word of the Bible was dictated by God to its authors. This is called plenary verbal inspiration. “Scientific Creationists” naïvely understand this theory of divine inspiration to mean that the genres and contexts of the various books of Scripture are irrelevant to their meaning. This is why they mistakenly use Scripture as a starting point for their “science.” Generally, “Scientific Creationists” are neither scholars of Scripture nor scholars in their field. Often, one finds a doctor of physics working as a biologist or a doctor of mathematics working as a geologist, and this lack of training in the appropriate field never strikes them as curious.

In the second group of people, some reject “evolution” because they believe that various theories to explain evolution are philosophical or even anti-theological rather than scientific. Others mistake the methodological naturalism of the scientific method for a metaphysical naturalism.

The scientific method employs what is generally termed “methodological naturalism.” This means that non-empirical evidence and hypotheses are excluded from scientific inquiry. The scientific method makes no claim about whether non-empirical knowledge is possible or whether non-empirical reality exists. It simply excludes their study as a method for gaining a very specific kind of knowledge. Some recommend that non-empirical hypotheses be included, but this has the effect of rendering the whole method void: how does one measure the acts of God? What is the breadth of his hand? Moreover, how would one set up a test case? “If God did not exist, it would be the case that….” Science becomes absurd.

Some mistake this methodological naturalism for a metaphysical naturalism, and religious believers are not the only ones. Perhaps the most prominent purveyor of this confusion is actually an atheist: Richard Dawkins. Dawkins makes his money writing and talking about how science has disproved the existence of God. In actuality, the methodological naturalism of science makes such a proof impossible, since it excludes non-empirical realities, such as God, from its field of competence.

Another confused soul is the lawyer Philip Johnson. His writings are uniformly directed against “evolutionary naturalism.” As a metaphysical system, naturalism is rightly understood to be opposed to religious belief. Naturalism holds that only nature exists. It is generally considered to be a subset of materialism, the belief that only matter exists. However, the methodological naturalism of science does not oppose itself to religious belief. The thousands of religious scientists attest to this simple fact.

Having examined the evidence from the perspective of an ignoramus in a field in which I had no competence, the evidence was clear. Simply accept the consensus of the scientific community. The consensus, once one exludes non-scientists and pseudo-scientists, is actually quite solid. And that among believing scientists, too.

In the next part, I continue to examine the methodological naturalism of science.

The philosophy of science

Why are scientists so convinced of the truth of evolution, whether expressed in astronomy, geology, or biology? Some have accused scientists of having a secret, godless agenda of metaphysical naturalism. After all, it is argued, why else would God be excluded from their descriptions of the world?

In the previous section, I stated that science is marked by a methodological naturalism. It may be helpful to define naturalism. Naturalism is a focus on nature to the exclusion of anything extra-natural or supernatural. Metaphysical naturalism is the belief that nature is all that exists. Metaphysical naturalism is a subset of philosophical materialism, the belief that existence is solely material (that is, that everything is matter in the philosophical sense), that there are no non-material substances, such as minds, souls, spirits, angels, demons, or gods. The famous description of metaphysical naturalism is the statement of Carl Sagan, “The cosmos is all there is, was, or ever will be.”

Enter the religious, believing scientist. She recognizes that Sagan’s statement is false in the extreme. She believes in God, and she believes in knowledge about all the non-material things listed in the previous paragraph that Sagan, Dawkins, Gould and other metaphysical naturalists disbelieve. She also believes that science produces very useful information about the world, information that is true so far as it goes. But science seems to be entirely naturalistic. There is no talk of God, no examinations of the soul or the angelic host. How does the believing scientist reconcile these two apparently contradictory positions?

She recognizes that the naturalism of science is one of method. The scientific method uses empirical information to study the visible world around us. However, since it restricts its field of inquiry to empirical data, its competence is also restricted to empirical subjects. It is simply impossible for science to study things that cannot be perceived by the senses. The scientist is free to believe in the panoply of non-empirical realities like souls, angels, demons, and God himself, and science remains blissfully agnostic about them.

Thus, the information gained from science remains free of any theological statements referring to God as creator or to the purpose of a thing. It remains completely consistent with theological descriptions of the world, within limits. Obviously, if science finds that reptiles precede birds in the development of life, theology cannot then hold the opposite without also holding that somehow our senses are systematically deceived.

Scientists study empirical data, and then generalize their findings to produce a testable hypothesis. Further data then either confirms or disconfirms the hypothesis. To be more precise, further evidence either falsifies an hypothesis or it allows the hypothesis to stand. After much confirmation and peer review, where similar results strengthen the hypothesis, an hypothesis can be given the status of a theory.

A scientific theory is not mere conjecture. A theory is a model for explaining data that has not been falsified by the data and explains a wide variety of seemingly contradictory data. Theories also tend to confirm one another and lead to better theories which integrate into one new theory the earlier, separate theories.

The most famous example of this confirmatory power of diverse theories is that of Darwin’s theory of natural selection and Mendel’s theory of genetics. Though both men were ignorant of the other’s work, their theories confirmed one another. Darwin, in fact, recognized the lack of a mechanism for trait inheritance as a weakness of his hypothesis and expected that a later discovery would support his work. That support came from the genetic theory of the monk Gregor Mendel. Eventually, the two theories were brought together into a new theory, often called neo-Darwinism.

It is important to recognize two facets of the scientist’s work. First, the scientific method is thoroughly probablistic. It does not ever result in demonstrative proof, in the sense of a mathematical proof or a logically deductive argument, where the truth of the conclusion is guaranteed by the truth of the premises. A scientific theory is always more or less probable. Therefore, one will always be able to deny that one theory or another has been proven. To take two examples, some misguided believers disbelieve Copernican astronomy (that the earth revolves around the sun), others disbelieve the common ancestry of all life (evolution).

Second, many theories of science have a massive amount of evidence behind them. The common ancestry of all life (evolution) or the basic solar system (heliocentrism) are so well confirmed at this point in time as to be taken for granted. In teaching astronomy, it is common to refer to the earth revolving around the sun as a fact. It is technically a theory, but it is supported by so much evidence as to be accurately considered a fact. Even so, it is only probably true that the earth revolves around the sun. The same can be said of any scientific theory.

It must be admitted that the scientific method has its philosophical roots in the Enlightenment. This leads some Orthodox to question the foundation of science altogether. This is a fascinating question without easy answers, but it is a discussion for another time.

I believe that it is important to accept science and the knowledge it provides, while integrating it with the Orthodox faith in a coherent worldview. Presenting our children with a false bifurcation between Orthodox theology and modern science will force most of them to abandon the faith for a skeptical scientism.

In the next section, I will continue to discuss the integration of theology and science in a coherent worldview. We will examine how theology and science complement one another and how scientific knowledge sometimes forces us to reevaluate our understanding of divine revelation. Equally importantly, we will examine how and why science does not and cannot revise the revelation of God.

Do faith and reason conflict?

Several centuries ago, the Ptolemaic solar system dominated astronomy. Ptolemy’s system placed the earth at the center of the cosmos, with the heavenly bodies orbiting the earth in concentric circles. Two men became convinced that Ptolemy’s ancient model was false; the first was Copernicus, the second, Galileo. In the case of Galileo, the Roman Catholic Church ordered him to recant or face excommunication, because heliocentrism made it impossible to believe that the sun literally stopped in its course through the sky as described in the Bible. Galileo did in fact recant and remained in silent communion with his church; his sacrifice, made to remain in communion with his church, remains one of the most tragically beautiful displays of humility the world has ever known. Galileo and science, however, won. The Copernican solar system continues to rule the day in astronomy, and the Roman Catholic Church in 1992 apologized for its haste in condemning Galileo for teaching what has turned out to be true.

A similar battle is being fought now over evolution. Though evolution was proposed long before Darwin as a method of explaining certain features of the fossil record, Darwin’s hypothesis provided a model of evolution that has withstood many valiant attempts to falsify it. Evolution now has as much support as any scientific theory or historical event. Yet, some view evolution as a threat to religious belief since it renders impossible literal belief in the creation stories of Genesis.

Is science incompatible with religious belief? In previous articles, I explored science as thoroughly empirical and naturalistic in its methodology. Science can only analyze what is apparent to our senses. Conversely, its competence is limited to the world perceived by our senses. Science can say nothing whatsoever about God, angels, spirits, and all the super-sensible objects of religious belief.

Theology takes these objects as its primary subject. If theology concerned itself only with objects unavailable to scientific study, there would be no conflict whatsoever. Our problem arises because theology is — or, more precisely, the sources of theology are — always making very concrete statements about this world we see, hear, touch, smell and taste.

These statements, when reformulated so as to be falsifiable, give science and theology an area in which their competencies could overlap. Was there ever an historical Adam and Eve? Was there ever a fishing trade on the Sea of Galilee? Was there ever an Imperial Roman census conducted when Cyrenius was governor of Syria? Was there ever a massacre of every child under three in Bethlehem? Was there ever a man conceived without human seed by a virgin mother? Was there ever a man resurrected after three days in the grave?

It is precisely in the acts of God in human history that science and faith can appear to conflict. Abstract theology is often completely inaccessible to science, as we have seen. Yet, some of the most important tenets of faith, especially Christian faith, turn on being grounded in an historical reality.

It would be extremely difficult to show, by a scientific examination, that the Jesus described in the canonical gospels never existed. Conversely, it would be just as difficult to show scientifically that he did exist. The same could be said of the various miracles associated with his life and ministry. The scientifically viable evidence is simply very slim for an unbiased scientific examination. We are left with a response based either on faith in the truth revealed in his person or on a lack thereof. This state of affairs is perhaps as it should be. Faith is most clearly revealed to be necessary when doubt is most possible.

In any case, a scientific examination would show only what could be perceived by the senses: This man lived, and he was associated with some rather extraordinary events. The faith factor still would be required to believe that his association with these miracles is one of causality and that the subject of the inquiry is both the man who can be subject to scientific inquiry and the God who cannot.

What most interests us in this discussion are the ways in which scientific descriptions of past events conflict with received religious accounts, as in the case of evolution or heliocentrism.

The first and most essential step is to recognize that faith and reason do not conflict. They are complementary ways of coming to know the truth of God’s creation. God reveals himself both in the world perceived by our senses and in the faith of the prophets and apostles, passed down to us through Scripture and tradition.

To rephrase this point: What is true cannot conflict with what is true. Sometimes new facts force us to reevaluate our human understanding of God’s revelation. This is to be expected. While God’s self-revelation is absolutely trustworthy, our fallible, human understanding is sometimes limited by many factors. Often, we realize the fundamental truth of an account remains essentially unchanged when new facts are learned.

In the case of Galileo, it was eventually seen that no fundamental dogma of the Christian faith was altered by learning that the earth revolved around the sun rather than the other way round. In the case of evolution, the misapprehension that a fundamental dogma is at stake threatens our comfort just as it did in Galileo’s day. Yet, is a fundamental dogma truly at stake?

The fundamental truth of creation is certainly not at stake. Science, as I have already indicated, is entirely incapable of making any statement about God’s activity in creation. It can only give us a clearer picture of what is perceptible by our senses; science is entirely empirical, in other words. The fundamental dogma — that all existence is created by God out of nothing and that it is wholly good — cannot be falsified by scientific study.

What is at stake then, for most people, is the veracity of Scripture and man’s place in creation. The beginning of this series has already addressed the issue of the veracity of Scripture: The literal interpretation is not an accurate one. These initial chapters of Genesis were never intended to be literally interpreted, as modern man understands literality. However, a deeper problem exists for many Christians. According to the traditional Judeo-Christian interpretation of the Genesis mythology, man is the source of corruption and death in the cosmos.

According to this view, God created the cosmos without death or corruption. Man was created immortal. It was the sin of man that introduced mortality and corruption into the cosmos. We are now ruled by sin and death. To put the Eastern Christian spin on this (because it is absolutely essential to my own struggle with this question): Adam’s sin made the entire race subject to death, and this subjection leads, through the fear of death, to the complex web of sin in our personal and social existence, a web from which we cannot extricate ourselves. The Incarnation overcomes this subjection by uniting our nature to life himself; by voluntarily subjecting himself to death, he conquers it forever. By rising on the third day, he gives us the guarantee that we are free from the grip of death and so free from the grip of sin.

This gets messy if the first Adam is not, in some sense, responsible for the reign of death and corruption. According to a biological view, they predate man. Death and corruption are a fundamental part of the cycle of life, and they have been so from the beginning.

Now we have a real conflict. Or do we?

An assist from Saint Maximus

In the last article, I set up what seems to me to be the most problematic of the apparent conflicts between the biological account of our origins and the theological account. According to Christian faith, particularly in the Christian East, our first parents are responsible for the human race being subject to death and corruption, which leads inevitably to sin through the fear of death. According to biology, however, death and corruption are normal, natural elements in the cycle of life.

In this article I hope to reconcile these two complementary accounts and show that they really do not conflict at all. In doing so, I wish not to invent a new doctrine nor revise the unchanging revelation of God; rather, I hope to show that one quite Orthodox description of creation, recognized by at least one of the fathers, is quite compatible with modern science. I hope, indeed, to show that it is not necessary to be novel in order to be modern. I intend to show that modern man can be traditional and Orthodox without discarding modern science.

Humanity is unique in creation. Man is created in the image of God and called to attain his likeness. We are called to be priests, prophets and kings over creation, manifesting the goodness, mercy, and sovereignty of God, whose image we share.

Man, however, has failed in his vocation. St. Maximus the Confessor (d. 662) holds that man sinned “at the instant he was created.” (Ad Thassalium 261) St. Maximus is responding to the followers of Origen, whose innovations were condemned at the Council of Constantinople (553). The Origenists held that human souls originally pre-existed bodily existence and dwelt in perfect union with God. These souls, they held, became dissatisfied with God and fell into bodily existence.

This opinion is more complex than a simple dualism between material and spiritual existence. In Greek philosophical thought, material existence is marked by motion and change, while spiritual existence was marked by stability. This is most clearly seen in the philosophies of Plato and Plotinus.

The recognition that bodily existence is marked by movement and change is essentially a commonsense realization, and one which the fathers all apparently take for granted. It also an essential element in modern science. For example, examine the cup of tea I enjoy as I write this. Water molecules, whose heat is a fast, excited motion, move in and out through the permeable membrane of the paper, forming weak bonds with the chemicals in the tea leaves. Along with weak bonds formed with the sugar in the bottom of the cup, the result is a most enjoyable drink. The essential ingredient in material creation is movement; a theoretical lack of all movement, though never actually observed, is 0° Kelvin. According to the hypotheses of some quantum physicists, this lack of all movement, 0° K, could even be non-existence itself.

The problem comes when one recognizes the chaos currently attendant upon fleshly existence. How does one reconcile the passions of our bodily life with our original beatitude? St. Maximus’ answer is an insight of inspired genius: Our passibility is the very possibility of our salvation. Our passions can be redeemed by reorienting them away from the essentially temporary pleasures of this life and toward God. Thus, eros is transfigured into desire for God; wrath is transformed into a weapon against sin and the evil one. It is this very passibility and possibility for movement and change that separates us from the angels, whose fall is often held to be permanent because of the impassibility of spiritual existence. This capacity for movement and change makes possible our salvation.

In St. Maximus’ view, our natural passibility was given so that we could grow in a movement toward God. Our passibility is also providential, created in foreknowledge of our fall into sin. This passibility, the liability to passion which is a direct result of the constant movement and change of the material world, is both our ability to fall away from God, our ability as embodied spirits to move toward God, and our ability to return to God through repentance once we have become subject to the essential irrationality of passion. Our fleshly, bodily existence is God’s gift to us, bringing us back into his bosom. Our vocation from the beginning has been to subject the passions to the end for which they are created, union with God.

Mortality, then, results from our ancestors’ failure to subject the passions to the spirit as they were created to do. Having once become subject to the passions of this world, they became powerless to avoid the eventual death of their fleshly existence.

Adam and Eve are not created in an abstract image of God, an image somehow reducible to some faculty or another which separates us from the animals, whether a rational or a moral or a spiritual faculty. Adam and Eve are specifically created in the image of the Incarnate God, Jesus Christ. Thus, creation anticipates by a sort of grand, cosmic foreshadowing the advent of the Incarnate God.

In a similar manner, all of creation anticipates the coming of humanity by a similar foreshadowing. The essential passibility of all creation, its motion, its integration of death and corruption as essential to the cycle of life, already foreshadow the coming of man. Motion, passion, death and corruption become the material by which God effects our salvation in the Incarnate Logos, who is already the Principle of God’s ongoing creative activity in the world.

Our first parents, therefore, can still be said to be responsible for the subjection of the human race to the passions, to death and corruption, because they abdicated their vocation to bring our fleshly existence under the subjection of God. Their failure to fulfill their vocation may also explain the subjection of the whole creation to death and corruption, by way of foreshadowing and God’s foreknowing providence. Their failure has a ripple effect on the fabric of existence, in just the same way that the Incarnate God, in whose image they were created, himself creates a tsunami reaching back to the beginning of time and stretching forward to its end.

One further note on the scientific account of our origins. A reasonable examination of nature will find traces of the signature of its divine author, if it is true in any sense. What could be more pervasive a signature in creation than development? The fathers are fond of using the example of a seed or of a child who grows into an adult. Embryology points out that a human embryo passes from a single-celled organism through a recapitulation of our animal ancestry. What we see in current science simply shows us that this divine signature runs throughout the entire cosmos. Another signature is the interrelation of all things. No one creature can claim any kind of autonomy. Every creature is dependent upon other creatures and in the final equation upon its creator for its existence.

In other words, creation is dynamic, not static. It has been designed with our salvation in mind. Our dynamic, material existence as flesh and spirit is God’s gift to us, giving us the potential to either damn ourselves or grow in communion with him, with each other and with all of creation.


Many students, raised in Orthodox Christian homes, attend universities and colleges that are outright hostile to their faith. They are told, on one side, that all they have been taught is irrelevant and outmoded. On the other, they are told that everything they are learning in the university is lies and treachery, completely antithetical to the Orthodox faith. Faced with this dilemma, many choose to reject their faith, or at least compartmentalize it.

Throughout this article, I have shown that science and Christian faith are complementary modes of looking at the created order. Though they appear sometimes to conflict, the conflict is only apparent. I have demonstrated that the scriptural creation stories were never intended to be interpreted literally. Their genre is that of myth — premodern stories that express deep, mysterious truths in a way that transcends the modern preoccupation with factuality and historicity.

I described my own journey away from fundamentalism in the matter of science and faith. I found that scientists are quite uniform in accepting the scientific account of our origins, even when they believe that God created all things and created man in his image. I found that the scientific account of our origins derives not from a metaphysical atheism but from a methodological naturalism, as does all science. It is all of a piece; the method of science, when applied consistently, leads directly to the findings of gradualism and interrelation. When applied inconsistently, the entire system becomes incoherent.

I found that objectors either fundamentally misunderstand science as a field of inquiry, or they base their critique on an overly literal interpretation of scripture. In fact, there are a few objections that seem to fall between the two; further inspection usually finds that their fundamental mistakes can be reduced to one or the other.

Finally, I examined the views of one Church father, St. Maximus, whose understanding of creation was decidedly non-literal, and I showed how his understanding of passibility helped us to understand how death and corruption could predate man chronologically, yet be the result of our sin.

All I have attempted to do here is show that it is possible to be modern, reasonable people and still be traditional, Orthodox Christians. The dilemma between being Orthodox and being educated, reasonable people is false.

You don’t have to agree with science, but it is not a buffet where the layman can take what he wants and leave the rest. Moreover, I would certainly never propose that the science of any generation is necessary to their salvation — whether it be the first century, the fourth, the sixteenth, the nineteenth or the twentieth. You may choose to reject modern science and believe instead in the four elements — earth, wind, fire, and water. (Personally, I think you would be silly to do that, but you are free to do so without fearing for your salvation.)

It is when you dogmatically proclaim your disapproval to be determinative and binding for all Orthodox Christians that you and I will come to rhetorical blows. Your false dichotomy, believed by too many of the loudest voices in the Church, is costing children their souls.

I won’t have it.

Selected bibliography

Some texts I read as I was struggling with this issue in college:

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4 Responses to “On the Dogma of Creation”

  1. Strawman Says:

    I read this and enjoyed it very much. It provoked me to further rumination.

  2. RZ Says:

    You are so correct – coming from an Armenian Orthodox tradition, unless our Orthodox churches do not do a better job of addressing science instead of holding fast to literal interpretations, many young people now and later will lost interest in Church. Even though Genesis can be an allegory, they will see that all of the Bible is a myth, which is tragic.

  3. anselm13 Says:

    Thank you for dealing with this seeming conundrum: “According to Christian faith, particularly in the Christian East, our first parents are responsible for the human race being subject to death and corruption, which leads inevitably to sin through the fear of death. According to biology, however, death and corruption are normal, natural elements in the cycle of life.” I appreciate that you’ve continued to make this available online.

    This has been an ongoing nagging problem for me in appreciating the creation narrative theologically (and in my journey to Orthodoxy from secular atheism) and assuming evolution to be true. In the back of my mind I would think: Death cannot be the result of human sin, or there would be no humans to sin.

    It would seem this also essentially opens the possibility for a literal reading of creation days. “Their failure has a ripple effect on the fabric of existence” means it could alter the space-time continuum consonant with Big Bang cosmology. Poof, we go from six literal days to billions of years in the creation of the cosmos and humans (even perhaps or inescapably the manner/way of human/cosmic creation by God after Adam and Eve). I think this theological insight that simply harmonizes an entirely mythic and non-literal reading, and the riches to be derived from that, with evolutionary theory is entirely helpful and sufficient alone. But it just seems this offers even more. Maybe you were making that exact case and it took me a bit of pondering to get it! Entirely possible.

    Is there a particular work that might delve into St Maximus’s theology that you cited (whether written about Maximus or by him)?

  4. Petros Says:

    Loved it, I’ve been going through this debate internally and externally on forums lately, and it has been challenging. “Their failure has a ripple effect on the fabric of existence, in just the same way that the Incarnate God, in whose image they were created, himself creates a tsunami reaching back to the beginning of time and stretching forward to its end.” was something that I likewise have proposed and considered. Thank you for writing this.

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