Evolution and Eastern Orthodoxy



The following is a review of Gayle E. Woloschak’s article, “The Compatibility of the Principles of Biological Evolution with Eastern Orthodoxy,” published in St. Vladimir’s Theological Quarterly, 55.2 (2011).

I added Gayle Woloschak’s article on evolution and Orthodoxy to my reading list for a couple of reasons. For one, it goes to my interest in the culture wars and the ideas that fund them. It also bears upon my role as a recovering-evangelical convert to the Orthodox Church and the way I evaluate the impact people like me have on Orthodoxy at large.

Woloschak’s basic argument is that denying evolution is theologically problematic for an Orthodox Christian. She seems a bit surprised that she even has to argue her own thesis because denying the insights of science is not really Orthodox. It is a recent phenomenon she attributes partly to a large influx of converts.

Charles Darwin (By J. Cameron, via Wikimedia Commons)

The fathers of the church generally refused to read Scripture in any kind of literal way. Some of them, she says, even seemed to anticipate the theory of evolution. St. Basil, for instance, does speak about the six days of creation, but he also says that creation was not completed in six days. Creation, he said, is still being created. According to the author, rejecting evolution can lead to an exploitative view of nature. Only when we realize that human beings “and every other speices share in unity as they evolved into diversity” can we arrive at “a profound ecological consciousness and a view of humans as priests of creation” (213).

The author is partly right on that point, but plenty of evolutionists have exploited nature, too. In my opinion, exploitation of nature receives greater support from the eschatology of fundamentalism (which maintains that the world and all that is in it are supposed to suck, and the more they suck, they sooner Jesus comes).

It takes Woloschak a while to get to what I think is the heart of the problem. One reason Orthodox “fundamentalists” cite for rejecting evolution is that our theological sources presume an original perfection that has been lost. Eden has fallen. But evolutionary theory sees death and violence at the very beginning of the process of creation. These two narratives are not immediately compatible.

(via Wikimedia Commons)

She attempts to overcome this problem by invoking the somewhat controversial theologian, Fr. Sergei Bulgakov, who viewed Eden not so much as a lost paradise but a memory of our future. It is that perfection to which all creation is orientated and which, until it arrives, we experience in both grief and hope.

I tend to be a fan of Bulgakov in part because he is able to think faith and science together in tension. This is not only more Christian (because in my humble opinion biblical fundamentalism of any kind can only sustain itself by a remarkable act of dishonesty with one’s own intellect). It is specifically more Orthodox. Evolution is materialistic, and so is Orthodoxy. But our “advantage” over evolution is that we are able to, in a sense, complete it by keeping its materialism in its proper place. Says Woloschak,

Our passion for the immaterial and striving for the edenic state are expressions of our spirit and essential ingredient of our being ‘made in the image and likeness of God.; That part of our being need not be explained by biological evolution, nor could it be.

13 thoughts on “Evolution and Eastern Orthodoxy”

  1. Fr. John, you terrify me.

    Your hostility to reason has been repeated on several forums. What the fathers thought about the literal character of the early chapters of Genesis is irrelevant, because no matter how responsible exegesis is, it is only knowledge of a text — one that, in this context, is written by people who have no idea the true age of the earth or the development of life or the character of the earth vis-a-vis the heavenly bodies or where disease actually comes from.

    Further, your arguments on your blog regarding inerrancy are ludicrous (we should accept inerrancy because otherwise we’ll end up affirming the rightness of homosexuality??! –I should not be surprised that you have this fear, given that you base your moral and spiritual principles irrationally in the authority of a narrow and non-necessary interpretation of an authoritative text of a particular community…how could you ever reject homosexuality on secular and rational grounds? –how can you ever speak to anyone who does not accept your irrational buy-in, which you must sell by an appeal — explicit or not — to sub-rational motives?). You pick low-hanging fruit. The text on Jesus’ cross? Really?? The Bible _is_ full of contradictions — but only a fool would say that this compromises its usefulness for what St. Paul says it is useful for: teaching, preaching, rebuking, etc.

    Why don’t we look at the verses in the latter redactional layers of Isaiah about how the Gentiles are to be brought into the covenant community (circumcision, keeping Sabbath and other festivals, rejection of polytheism, etc.) and contrast them with the verses in Tobit (these verses are not in all text types) about how all that is needed is a rejection of polytheism? St. Paul held to Tobit, and St. Peter to Isaiah, and it doesn’t look like they really agreed. Ever. St. Paul’s view prevailed, and has become canonical within the Church. The canon, however, contains a contradiction in the conceptual content of these two texts. And this doesn’t matter. We can affirm the basic content of what St. Gregory cited in your passage about the Spirit and the text without affirming that it extends to the historical meanings of the texts. The unity of the biblical text arises in the Spiritual service it can be employed for in the task of conformity to, and imaging of, the Figure of Jesus Christ. It acquires this primarily in the context of spiritual reading, not historical-critical readings. These two are not completely sundered, but they are not identical.

    I have been in, or witnessed, many conversations with Creationists of late. What amazes me is that folks like you, who’re remarkably ignorant of the justifications for current scientific theories (and often even of _how science works_), what the character of the state of historical-critical studies are (and why it cannot be dismissed by mockery or affirmations of its “Orthodoxy”), and who clearly have no sensitivity to the tapestry of the biblical canon as a collection of literature, think you’re guarding and protecting the Church. Yes, you are converts, and you all think you add so much life to the Church. I’m a convert too. I understand. But I didn’t receive extensive training from an anti-Enlightenment Protestant Revivalist tradition, which so many converts seem to have had. The Church is not a safe bastion for this, and if you try to make it one, you will see either your children hemorrhaged from the Church for the sake of what is rational and public that you have rejected and demonized (and called “not an option for the Orthodox”) or else you will successfully turn the Church, which is supposed to be universal in the relevance of its appeal to the Form of Jesus Christ, into a sect that chants its sectarian impulses to each other in the form of truisms, while fearful, suspicious and ignorant of outsiders.

    May God grant you repentance, and a better mind.

    1. I only just ran across this pseudonymous post. First off, it is obvious that the cowardly writer didn’t bother reading the post he was responding to ( http://fatherjohn.blogspot.com/2012/01/inerrancy-of-scripture.html ) because he responds as if the point of my article was to defend a particular view of creationism, when in fact the article argues that we do not need to worry about settling the question of how Genesis 1-2 relates to the questions of science, in order to affirm the inerrancy of Scripture.

      Secondly, it seems fairly obvious that the person has only a limited understanding of historical criticism or the Biblical questions he raises. It is also not the case that I dismiss historical criticism with mere mockery. I criticize the pretensions of historical criticism, while acknowledging that some useful information can be derived from it, See: http://orthodoxinfo.com/inquirers/tca_solascriptura.aspx There are some additional criticisms in the printed booklet by Conciliar Press.

      It is actually this cowardly pseudonymous author who attempts to dismiss my arguments with mockery, rather than to actually engage them.

    2. It looks like God hasn’t granted him a better mind yet. He is implicitly still in denial about the works of the Creator, and resorting to ad hominem attacks to boot.

    3. If you mean me, it is hardly ad hominem to point out that someone else is engaging in ad hominem, and doing so behind the veil of anonymity. If someone makes a substantive argument that actually engages what I have said, I would be happy to respond to it on the substance.

  2. @john burnett, I am not sure how widespread the sentiments are, but I have seen many Orthodox writers from Russia and Greece who reject evolution… and I don’t think this is because they are all reading Fr. Seraphim Rose. I think it is at least as problematic to say that Orthodoxy requires you to believe in evolution as it is to argue that it requires you reject it entirely. If you have a proper understanding of Scripture from an Orthodox perspective, you need not lay awake at night over the matter:


  3. While I would agree with you that Orthodoxy does preclude someone from believing in some form of theistic evolution, it is certainly not the case that it precludes someone from rejecting it.

    It is also not true that “The fathers of the church generally refused to read Scripture in any kind of literal way.” The fathers often interpret the Scriptures literally. The Fathers saw multiple levels of meaning in Scripture, all of which might be valid ways of looking at a passage, depending on which passage you are talking about.

    1) The literal or historical sense of the text.

    2). The allegorical / typological meaning.

    3. The tropological or moral sense.

    4. Anagogical or mystical sense — which could also be called the eschatological sense.

    You can find a good discussion of these senses here: http://swordinfire.blogspot.com/2011/09/4-sense-of-scripture.html

    There is a medieval poem cited to help one remember these senses:

    The letter shows us what God and our fathers did;
    The allegory shows us where our faith is hid;
    The moral meaning gives us rules of daily life;
    The anagogy shows us where we end our strife.

    St. John Chrysostom, who is considered to be one of the great exegetes of the Church, tended to focus on the literal and moral sense of Scripture, though when a passage should not be taken literally, he was always quick to point that out. In the early chapters of Genesis I recall him saying something along the lines of this: there are many things in these passages that may be symbolic or may be literal, but it is not always clear which, and it is probably best not fall on one side or the other, lest we fall into error.

    As for Fr. Sergius Bulgakov, there is not much of a basis to cite him as an authority on the teachings of the Orthodox Church: http://orthodoxwiki.org/Sergius_Bulgakov#Controversy

  4. Here’s a Hudibrastic verse on woo,
    for superstitious folk like you.

    The Christian’s Jehovah, an Almighty God,
    is a capricious and cantankerous clod;
    and, so far as I can tell,
    the Christian often is as well.
    Confused by dogma, the god-fearin’ fogey
    can’t fathom the nature of that Bible Bogey.

    Is it a father, his son, and an apotropaic ghost too?
    Well, it should be obvious that’s ridiculous woo.
    And Christians claim this god, in its Empyrean lair,
    is omniscient, omnipotent, benevolent and fair,
    but, with the unresolved problem of theodicy,
    their dogma is eristic, Christian idiocy.

    The Jew’s Yahweh, that meshuggeneh, the jerk,
    set Jews strict rules on when to work,
    how to dress, and what to sup or sip,
    and giving baby boys the snip.
    The myths of Bronze Age, goat-herding nomads,
    have them, metaphorically, by the gonads.

    The Moslem’s Allah, a fierce desert djinn,
    demands under ‘Islam’, literally, ‘Submission’.
    Apostasy is treated just like a crime;
    they’ll threaten to kill you, to keep you in line,
    and if you dare draw Mohammad in a comic cartoon,
    there’ll be riots and killings from here to Khartoum.

    Hindu, Sikh, Jain, and Buddhist,
    Zoroastrian, Baha’i, Mormon, and Scientologist,
    Confucianist, Shintoist, and Taoist too,
    Spiritualist, Wiccan, and the New Ager into woo.
    Yea, verily, those of each and every religion,
    are mired in the miasma of superstition.

    The gods from the Bronze Age up to modern times,
    and from the Arctic down to tropical climes,
    have inspired theology that’s unsubstantiated twaddle,
    on what an invisible and silent god’ll
    devise as its inscrutable, eschatological plan,
    but all the gods were made in the image of man.

    So, why should yours be the one true faith,
    in a magic, phantasmagorical wraith?
    Belief, without evidence, is just plain crazy,
    ignorant, stupid, or thoughtlessly lazy.
    When evolution happens, it’s due to Natural Selection,
    so life derives no purpose, at a theistic god’s direction.

    The evidence is we have just this one life,
    with all its pleasures, challenges, toil, and strife.
    As social beings we evolved our moral sensibility
    to combat selfishness, lust, and venality.
    Religion misunderstands, and so invokes the supernatural,
    while Humanism strives to promote the good and rational.

    1. Only two kinds of people have ever tried to convert me: Christian fundamentalists and new atheists. Aside from being formally comparable, both share an astounding philosophical naïveté and a refusal to take seriously their conversation partners. On the blogosphere, this usually means trolling the Internet and doing a cut-and-paste on blog comments without ever really reading the posts. I suggest a hobby, a girlfriend/boyfriend, and a fine book and brandy as remedies to these irksome habits.

    2. I’d agree, fundamentalism and creationism aren’t really compatible with Orthodoxy, and in fact the ‘Bible-believing Christians’ of the Campus Crusade— uh, sorry, of the Evangelical Orthodox Church— plus Damascene Christensen’s nonsensical book, mostly drawn from fundie crackpot Philip Johnson under the aegis of S. Rose, are the main culprits for the present seeming cultural hegemony of this silliness among us. These men do not represent the tradition, and in fact for the most part they don’t even take their origin from the church, didn’t get their ideas from it, and in some cases aren’t even members of it.

      It’s also a good point that ‘The fathers of the church generally refused to read Scripture in any kind of literal way.’ For example, they will tend to tell us that Eve was the ‘sensory, passive aspect of the mind’, and so forth— turning the whole story of Adam’s Fall into an allegory of the process of temptation and sin; or similar approaches. And in both Greek and Hebrew it’s pretty obvious that the story of ‘adam’ and ‘eve’ is a story about, literally, ‘Man’ and ‘Woman’. That is hardly the stuff of history, on the face of it.

      As to the so-called ‘Garden of Eden’, careful study of the text actually rewards with the insight that the whole story is a metaphor for the Temple, with Adam/Man as the high priest. So the vocation of Adam/Man is to be the mediator, the one who brings the world to God, and the blessing of God into the world. And just as the climax of the OT story as a whole is the casting of Israel out of the Land of Promise and its Exile in Babylon (with promise of Restoration), so also, in the preface of that story, Adam/Man is cast out of the ‘garden of bliss’ (gan `eden; paradeisos tês tryphês, Gn 3.23) and given a promise of Restoration.

      The rest of the Story is about the Promise, which begins to unfold with Abraham. Again a careful reading of God’s various sayings to him makes it clear that what is really being promised is a full Restoration of what Man— the high priest, Adam, Israel, humankind— has lost: ‘I will multiply you and make you a blessing for all the nations’.

      By the time of Jesus, the Jews are more than ready to receive that blessing— or at least, they’ve had *enough* of suffering! And Jesus comes specifically to bring the Promise of God— and in the Bible, that means above all else, the Promise of Restoration from Exile, and ultimately the full promise to Abraham, to fulfillment.

      Not really inhabiting the thought-world of the Scriptures, we tend to miss all this, though, and to read Jesus’ statment to the wise ‘gangster’ on the cross— ‘Today you will be with me in paradise’— as a statement about some intermediate realm between death and the general resurrection. And starting from that mis-presupposition, we ask all kinds of irrelevant questions like, Is Paradise the same as Heaven, or different?; and, Where is it located?, and so forth.

      Actually when Jesus says, ‘You will be with me in paradise’, he’s not talking about anything like an ‘after-death state’ at all! He’s saying, ‘The Exile is over, and it’s over today, starting from here, on this cross.’ In Hebrew thought, nothing could be more explosive— or unexpected. Not just Israel’s Exile in Babylon, which was never really resolved, even though the people did formally return to their land— but Man’s long exile from the true Temple and Delight and vocation for which he had been created.

      If we could just stop trying to get the Bible to give us answers to questions it doesn’t ask (What happens after death? Did the world evolve, or was it created? etc etc etc)— and just stay inside the story, as we do with any other piece of literature, we would find that the Bible is an astonishingly rich and meaningful tale.

      For what man or woman is not familiar with the experience of Exile? And who does not long in his or her heart of hearts to unite again this world with its Creator, so that the Creator’s blessings of life and fruitfulness may flow generously into it anew— which is the priesthood for which we were created, and (we are told) destined?

      We do ourselves such murderous disservice by pursuing our rationalizing fundamentalisms. We would never treat any other literature this way. Why do we try to force the Bible to be a Code of Criminal Law, an astrophysics textbook, and a biology manual all at once? Would we ever think of Dostoevsky that way? Is Melville any less ‘true’, even if, after reviewing all the evidence, he decides a whale is a ‘fish’?

      @Richard Harris, that’s a clever poem, but I’m afraid it, too, must be classed under the same category mistake as fundamentalism. You simply fail to read the Story as it’s meant to be read; all you say is that you don’t like it, but you accept the same reading. Well, of course you’re responding to the way Christians often read it, and you haven’t been exposed to anything else, so you can’t be blamed. Christians are the most ignorant about their book! But— though this may be shocking news to you— it was never about ‘dogma’ or ‘strict rules on when to work, how to dress, and what to sup or sip’. And it is far more subtle, and challenging, than a casual reading-over (or hearsay) can ever convey. We have to ask not just, What are the rules?, but, What are the rules about?

      I would like to challenge everyone to step away from all these silly pseudo-battles over creation”ism” and evolution, and start learning what the Text is actually saying, in itself. Of course, for that, at a distance of 2 to 3 thousand years, you will need guides— you cannot just pick up ‘God’s holy word the Bible’, and understand it! You cannot! —But I can, and do recommend, as a great place to start, NT Wright, How God Became King, John H Sailhamer, The Pentateuch as Literature, Mary Douglas, Leviticus as Literature— those are just the faves that come to mind at the moment. There’s been an enormous amount of really great study published in the past 40 years in particular, which completely breaks out, leaves behind, and doesn’t even look in the general direction of all of the nonsense touted by S. Rose and his student Fr Christensen (who really knows better; what is he even doing??), Faux News, and the Baptist Churches of Oklahoma. Unfortunately, you’d never hear of it in the Orthodox Church— but seriously, it would give us a way to start making sense again.

      I think i’m going to post this on facebook too.

    3. David, in spite of myself, I laughed at the poem cut and pasted by your formidable opponent there (who doesn’t enjoy a little blasphemous verse every now and then?) but I laughed harder at your snarky reply. The internet would be a more pleasant place if more new atheists had girlfriends.

    4. Also, Richard Harris– you broke rhyme and meter with the line “When evolution happens, it’s due to Natural Selection,”… You should read some more of the world’s greatest poets (the majority of them Christian) to learn how to use words beautifully.


This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.