On page 20 of An Introduction to God appears this footnote:
Orthodoxy makes no definitive statement about exactly how God created the universe or in what amount of time. The important point is that He did create it ex nihilo, out of nothing.
The footnote is connected with this text: “In the beginning, God created the universe, including mankind, whom He placed at the center of the creation.”
A reader recently spotted that footnote and sent me a three-page response to it, replying that it is indeed the teaching of the Church that the earth is young and that mankind is a special creation not involving evolutionary processes. Here’s my reply:
A few things in response:
I did not actually write that footnote. It arose as a result of the editing process. I of course accepted it, so it’s still my responsibility. But it wasn’t in my original manuscripts.
That said, the point of the footnote is not to endorse evolutionary theory, but rather to explicitly reject opening up that particular can of worms. My personal opinion about how God happened to create the world is that He did it but I really don’t know how. I have seen enough evidence of various kinds that I really do not know what to think about the “how.” I do think there are more than two possible views here, though, especially since there is a lot more involved even in an old-earth creation model that has nothing to do with biological evolution. (I am thinking here of astronomical, geological, etc., issues.) And there is even the possibility for a view that says that most of biological creation evolved but that man himself was dropped into the creation without evolution. I do not know which (if any) of these views is true.
If the footnote had said “No one in Orthodoxy teaches ______,” then I would not have accepted it. I very specifically had in mind the dogmatic pronouncements of the Church. And although one of the canons of the Quinisext Council may make reference to the Byzantine/Roman imperial year, I don’t think that constitutes a dogmatic pronouncement on the age of the earth. If the Fathers of that council were intending to establish the age of the earth, then they would have said so.
All that said, I am wary of approaches to the Fathers that turn the consensus patrum into a kind of dogmatic canon. Consensus patrum is actually a Reformation idea, not an Orthodox one[*]. The Orthodox have always known where their dogma is stated, and it’s not found by comparing the Fathers and trying to figure out where they agree. No, we have councils for that. (And we’d still need some authoritative body to do the comparisons!) That doesn’t mean that the theology of the Fathers is worthless, of course, but it needs to be understood for what it is—many theological views from numerous different writers, not all of which are compatible with each other directly even while they may each be compatible with the dogmatic teaching of the Church. There has always been a distinction between dogma, doctrine and theology (something observed quite clearly by Florovsky), and while that distinction is not always sharply made, it is still there. This is what is meant by “definitive statement”—dogmatic teaching.
The Fathers that mention the age of the earth in their theological writings are not addressing the modern controversy specifically. They just assume the earth’s age, so I’m not sure one can derive from that that this is their teaching. They relied on the science of their day (including things like Aristotle’s categories, which is found in chapter III of The Fount of Knowledge by St. John of Damascus; is that an endorsement of Aristotle? I tend to think not). And like the Bible, the Fathers are not a science textbook. That means they probably get some things about it wrong.
You mention that the age of the earth was not a controversy and so it did not come up for dogmatic review. That may be true, but that doesn’t mean that dogma is all merely incidental. Even the Creed is witness to that. Most of what’s stated in it was not controversial at Nicea I and Constantinople I. Only a few clauses here and there are actually ad hoc for the controversies at hand, and its main text likely arose out of the use in baptism, not to address controversy. The Fathers of Nicea and Constantinople definitely intended to establish a normative dogmatic formulation, and most of what they put in it was not controversial. They did include something on creation, but they didn’t mention the age of the earth.
Why? One can only speculate, I suppose, but let me speculate: One can observe in the dogmatic tradition of the Church the dedication to the soteriological motive, i.e., that all is concerned with our salvation. Is the age of the earth critical to our salvation? That is, if I believe the wrong thing about it, does that jeopardize the faith of the Church and therefore my own salvation? I am not convinced that it does. And the Church—even now aware of the controversy—does not seem in any hurry to define the age of the earth. We still have councils whose decisions are binding, and they’re not ruling on this.
So I am comfortable being agnostic regarding the age of the Earth. God created everything, but I don’t think it’s that important exactly how He did it or how long it took. And it’s really important that we understand that items that are not dogmatically defined really are open for differences of opinion. Orthodoxy is big enough and old enough to handle that and always has.
All that said, I do believe Adam was a real person, but I also believe he can be read allegorically at the same time. And on that, one final word here on some of the issues you bring up in passing, e.g., when did death come into creation, etc.: You are no doubt aware that Maximos the Confessor actually says that Adam fell from grace as he came into being (I can’t recall the reference offhand, but it is in the Ambigua, I believe). Such a statement requires a rather non-literal reading of Genesis, and it also has a lot of implications for all this stuff.
Again, thank you for writing and for your concern. I hope that this has helped somewhat.
[*] A note on this, for clarification: Orthodoxy certainly has included the idea of a “consensus” of the Fathers, e.g., in the Vincentian Canon (“what has been believed everywhere, always and by all”). What I am specifically rejecting here is the idea that all you have to do to derive Orthodox dogma is compare the Fathers against each other and see where they agree. Even if that were an Orthodox methodology, there is still the gigantic problem of determining what “agree” means and even who “the Fathers” are.
Lots more on this here from Metropolitan Hilarion Alfeyev.
“One can observe in the dogmatic tradition of the Church the dedication to the soteriological motive, i.e., that all is concerned with our salvation. Is the age of the earth critical to our salvation? That is, if I believe the wrong thing about it, does that jeopardize the faith of the Church and therefore my own salvation? I am not convinced that it does. And the Church—even now aware of the controversy—does not seem in any hurry to define the age of the earth. We still have councils whose decisions are binding, and they’re not ruling on this.”
One of the things I find both fascinating and enlightening about Orthodoxy is its focus on what is important. The secular world tends to go crazy over the minutiae of things like this because it is bound in the material and can see little or nothing of importance beyond that. So many Christians seem to think in a literal/materialist fashion as well but the Church is mainly concerned, as you say, with salvation. While the material world can play a part in that, the dating of the earth’s age is, shall we say…unimportant in the grand scheme of things.
Nice piece. Fr. John Hainsworth’s most eloquent comment on AFR on Ephesians 4:8-10 (“Jesus is not a spaceman”) is as much a commentary on Pascha (and the eternal state of things) as it is on Genesis (the former state). Properly apophatic.
I don’t know. Concerning the age of the earth, it somehow seems important to believe what is true. If we know the age of the earth (60 billion years or whatever) from scientific study then to not believe that dating seems dishonest.
Good reply Fr Andrew. I am personally not bothered by the problem of the age of the earth. The issue of the origin and prehistory of man is more problematic to me, especially as I’ve been reading some older and newer historical anthropology (Emile Durkheim and Jared Diamond) and puzzling about how the narrative in Genesis fits, broadly, with the picture built up by modern science. Like you, I believe that Adam and Eve were historical persons, and that this belief has important doctrinal implications, but it seems hard to square with scientific evidence and the theories that try to explain it.
Yet I’ve also been reading the Philocalia of Origen lately, where it is explicitly acknowledged that there are contradictions and inaccuracies in Scripture. Origen, however, says that these are placed there by the Spirit on purpose to prevent us from contenting ourselves merely with the literal (i.e. historical) reading. Given that this idea was implicitly endorsed by the compilers of the Philocalia (Ss Basil of Caesarea and Gregory of Nazianzus) and, among later Fathers, by St Maximus at least, it cannot be dismissed as mere heretical Origenism. At the same time, it shouldn’t be used as a cop-out for every historical difficulty — Christianity is a faith founded on historical events, after all.
Byron said: “One of the things I find both fascinating and enlightening about Orthodoxy is its focus on what is important. The secular world tends to go crazy over the minutiae of things like this because it is bound in the material and can see little or nothing of importance beyond that. So many Christians seem to think in a literal/materialist fashion as well but the Church is mainly concerned, as you say, with salvation. While the material world can play a part in that, the dating of the earth’s age is, shall we say…unimportant in the grand scheme of things.”
I couldn’t agree more!
I have many Protestant friends (they are friends because I was among their group such a short time ago) who are focused on eschatology. Someone asked me recently, “Are you pre-trib, mid-trib or post-trib?” To which I simply answered, “No.” He has charts and graphs and timelines galore related to his “Dispensational” viewpoint.
Eschatology (the End Times) is important. However, like Creation (the First Times), the Fathers and the Orthodox Church do not have a dogmatic statement as to how – and especially when – it all happens.
And, as an Orthodox Christian, I am (now) okay with this. The Church has focused, instead, on your own PERSONAL end times. It could be today! Do not get so focused on antichrists, millenniums and hundred-pound hailstones. Are you ready – is your heart prepared – for the judgement today?
Creation and Eschatology (the bookends of time) are both important. But, as Byron stated, we should probably seek to not get caught up in the minutia and instead focus on the God who is in control of our lives throughout all time and eternity.
I think chapter 28 of the Book of Job pretty well sums this up for us. Were we there when God created? Nope. Does the flow of time even make any real sense if there are no intelligent creatures to participate in it? Creation is a mystery.
I meant chapter 38
I take this little pill once per day, a fantastic medicine, called Low Dose Naltrexone or LDN. LDN has been a bit of a miracle for thousands of people with various auto-immune disorders. LDN is huge in the Multiple Sclerosis community as people in wheelchairs have been able to once again get up and walk.
How does LDN work? Well, my doctor, who is also a biochemist, told me that LDN causes the body to dramatically increase the production of certain endorphins which then help to modulate the immune system.
While, I don’t really know what that means, I believe him. For me to remain agnostic concerning the way in which LDN works makes no sense and just seems silly.
Likewise to remain agnostic concerning the age of the earth, when scientists have determined its age, makes no sense to me.
Are we anti-science? Are we not allowed to believe our eyes even if what we see is true?
Sure, knowing the age of the earth might not be eternally important, like knowing how LDN works isn’t all that important to those who benefit from it, but to doubt the word of a doctor and biochemist concerning the actions of LDN…well the moon landing was faked you know.
Are you saying that you are agnostic on the age of the earth because from your personal research there seems to be conflicting scientific data or opinion, or are you agnostic because of something that might be written in the Holy Scriptures?
Neither. I am agnostic about it because it is not part of the dogmatic deposit of faith, the revelation of God to man. I therefore do not need to have an opinion about it.
Your analogy is interesting, but I don’t think it’s apt here. What might be potentially analogous to your LDN would be something like the anathemas against monothelitism. The Christian doesn’t need to understand all the ins and outs of the rejection of that heresy in order to be living the Christian life properly, but it’s still an important statement from the Fathers, and it has a direct bearing on salvation. And if one is going to tinker with it, one had better get it right.
But I do not believe that the age of the earth has a direct bearing on salvation. If it did, it would be part of the dogma of the Church. But it’s not.
(Let me stress, by the way, that this does not mean I am endorsing the evolutionary theory of biology, the Big Bang theory of cosmogeny, or any other scientific theory.)
I’m not anti-science. (“Agnostic” does not mean “I don’t believe it,” by the way.) But I also don’t have to have an opinion about every scientific thing. My brain can only hold so much. And I also have observed that science has its own dogmas and its own heretics, and sometimes it is hard to tell who is the heretic and who is not. And even if one goes through what is necessary to discern the heretics, that is no guarantee that one is not actually a heretic oneself.
And science itself has limits, even within purely scientific parameters — you can say that scientists have determined the age of the earth, but even setting aside the question of why not all scientists agree (and whether a majority is what is necessary to determine the truth of the matter), there is also the problem that it is still just a big guess that happens to fit whatever evidence is actually visible. I also know enough about science to know that most of the evidence for big things like that is actually not visible. Physicists say as much, too. It’s hard to make big sweeping statements about the universe when you can only see a tiny portion of it.
So, just because some scientific idea is not pertinent to salvation does not mean that I am against it. It just means that I don’t consider it of eternal significance. Not everything has to be, thank God!
Are there not two distinct but not necessarily connected topics being considered, both in the post and in the comments:
2- The age of the earth
I find the response confusing. By what standard do you discern the doctrine of the Church if not the Fathers? It seems you may say the ecumenical councils – but then how did the Church discern doctrine before the Council of Nicea? I can’t see early Christians telling each other none of their belief was certain until a council would discuss it. Maybe I am misunderstanding?
There isn’t a very large ante-Nicene patristic corpus, either. But there were councils prior to 325, of course.
In any event, it was generally referred to as the “rule of faith.” Most Christians then and even after Nicea didn’t have access to the Fathers.
Father, thank you for writing this post. It is especially important at a time when more American Orthodox Christians not only accept a young-earth position, but insist it is the only position an Orthodox Christian can affirm.
What is the only reason that someone might believe in a young earth? I might propose that the only reason someone would hold such a belief is because they suspect that this is what the Holy Scriptures teach.
Since we know that the Church says nothing at all concerning the age of the earth ( via the Holy Scriptures nor via any Council) , and furthermore since the Fathers were willing to accept the science of their day, I see no reason not to accept the science of our day on the matter. Billions of years it is.
Could you say more about St Maximos’ statement?
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