Selling Genesis

It has been somewhat forcibly brought to my attention lately that there are a number of ways of reading the early chapters of the Book of Genesis. One way is to acknowledge the presence of non-literal elements in those chapters and even to flirt with the “m-word” (i.e. “mythological”) but at the end of the exegetical day to insist upon an historical reading of it. On this reading, all of humanity came into being from two individual persons, Adam and Eve, and it was only because of their personal rebellion against God that all sentient creatures experience death. Note: we are not speaking only of the death of human beings as we now define humanity, but of all sentient creatures, including animals. That is because in the world as originally created, there was no violence or strife, and presumably the wolf dwelt with the lamb and the lion literally ate straw like the ox. (Indeed, I had one proponent of this reading inform me that this meant that lions did not become carnivorous until after the Fall. One imagines its claws were originally created simply for scratching up the furniture.) Those insisting upon an historical reading of the text are usually emphatic that they are not also insisting upon a young age for the earth, and are not necessarily opposed to what is often termed “the theory of evolution”. But any reading of the text other than an historical one is deemed unpatristic, unOrthodox, and out of court. My own approach to the early chapters of Genesis has been criticized on just these grounds (for which reason my commentary is now the harder to find).

One can, of course, sell this historical view of Genesis in the pulpit and on the blogosphere, especially if comments are not allowed. But selling it to one’s parishioners in church can present problems, precisely because in the church hall after Liturgy comments over coffee are allowed. As a pastor I am routinely asked by my parishioners (and especially the younger ones) about science, evolution, dinosaurs, Noah’s Flood, the age of those living before that Flood, and of course about Adam and Eve. If I cite the Fathers and begin sentences with the words, “All the Fathers teach” they give me a patient and respectful hearing. But they still insist upon answers to hard questions. And it becomes harder to sell Genesis after one leaves the ambo and the church hall and goes out into the street. The man in the street asks even more questions than does the man in the pew, and does not listen patiently and respectfully if you begin sentences with the words, “All the Fathers teach”. He cares nothing about the Fathers. He should, no doubt, but he doesn’t, and he still needs answers all the same. Selling Genesis on the street is hard.

The man or woman on the street takes evolution for granted, as do all real scientists. (If you doubt this, read the book The Language of God, by Francis Collins.) And after reading Genesis the man on the street will ask a number of questions. Having read the first chapter of Genesis he will ask where all that sea-water came from before the creation of the world. He will ask how come there was daylight before the sun came into being, and if we really believe that the earth had fruit trees before the sun and moon were made. If we describe the original state of the earth as one of peace and harmony devoid of strife and violence, he will ask (with Dorothy) about lions and tigers and bears, for the diet and survival of lions and tigers and bears indeed involved rather a lot of strife and violence, for nature was red in tooth and claw. That of course included the dinosaurs, who were also red in tooth and claw—and who eventually died out—before the coming of man (which, one is tempted to say, explains their absence from the Ark). This means that conflict, strife, and the death of sentient beings pre-dated the Fall of man. If we define death simply as “physical death” our man in the street will know that we are effectively undermining and denying evolution, for physical death is part of the mechanism of evolution. Acceptance of evolution involves acceptance of a harsh and bloody world before we got here.

If the man on the street keeps reading after the first few chapters, he will have more questions. It just here that the issue of a “young earth”—or at least a young mankind—cannot be avoided. If I say that at the age of 30 Rheal begot Lawrence and at the age of 28 Lawrence begot Rhiannon and at the age of 25 Rhiannon begot Theodore, then one can determine the length of time between the creation of Rheal and the creation of Theodore by simply adding up the numbers and concluding that Rheal was born 83 years before Theodore was. This is not fundamentalist theology, but simple arithmetic. It does not require exegetical acumen, but simply the ability to add. The point is that this is precisely the pattern we find present in Genesis 5. There it says that when Adam was 130 he beget Seth and that when Seth was 105 he beget Enosh and that when Enosh was 90 he begot Kenan. And so on. It is true that Hebrew genealogies often skip generations. It is also true that no such skipping of generations is possible here, because here we have not simply a list of names but each father’s age when his first child was born. That is why scholars such as Archbishop Ussher concluded that the world was created around 6000 B.C., and that even our own Byzantine calendar (used in Russia until 1700) concluded that the world was created in 5509 B.C. There is nothing for it: a literal historical reading of the early chapters in Genesis cannot avoid a recent date for the creation of mankind, if not the world.

Reading subsequent chapters in Genesis does not much improve our credibility with the man in the street. Genesis 6 begins the story of the Flood, and he will ask where enough water came from to flood the entire world to a height above the mountains, and also where all that water went so quickly after it stopped raining. He will also ask if we really trace the multiplicity of the world’s languages to a miracle that took place during the building of a tower. Replying that these things must be believed and accepted historically because everyone in Christendom believed them up that way until the French Revolution will not help very much. That is because the man in the street will know that we are actually asking him to dismiss almost all scientific advance in geology, biology, and archaeology in the last two hundred years or so—that is, pretty much the entire time that science has been scientific.

But does reading and believing the Book of Genesis and accepting the Christian Faith really demand that we accept a literal and historical reading of Genesis 1-11? I suggest that it does not, and that the truth of Genesis consists not of what it says about history, but about our relationship with God. If we read it as mythological truth and not historical truth, the objections offered by the man in the street simply do not arise. (If the word “mythological” is deemed offensive, perhaps try “meta-historical” or some other invented neologism.) It is much easier to sell Genesis—and the Christian Faith—if we are allowed to read our first divinely-inspired text in the cultural context of its time. Is Genesis true? Yes, of course. But it gives us the truths we need to live, not facts of history or cosmology.   And as the days grow darker, we need those truths more than ever.



  1. Thanks for this. After reading In the Beginning, I wonder how we are to deal with people who don’t really get it. It seems like a lot of people are champing at the bit to dismiss everything in the Bible as mythology and to use that to justify, for instance, same sex marriage, abortion, etc. by saying that “I won’t tell people to live their lives to sustain a metaphor.” This is an actual quote from a priest(ess) (not Orthodox). Is it best to stay out of it or should we say something? And if so, what?

    1. One part of me wants to say that we should stay out of it: as the Lord said, “Let them alone; they are blind guides. And if a blind man leads a blind man, both will fall into a pit”. If their mind is inalterably made up, there is little we can say. But if they are open to learning, we can say that it is a matter of recognizing the various literary genres in Scripture. Genesis 1-3 is clearly mythological; 1-2 Samuel is clearly historical, as are the Gospels; and Paul’s teaching regarding homosexuality, etc., is clearly catechetical–i.e. meant to be literally applied.

  2. “My own approach to the early chapters of Genesis has been criticized on just these grounds (for which reason my commentary is now the harder to find).”

    I am so very sorry that you have encountered this. Just yesterday I finished reading your book on Genesis. I found it most helpful and not in the least threatening to the tenants of our Faith.
    Regarding the man on the street, I think what you are saying is if our defense for the creation story lines up with current scientific discoveries our ‘apology’ will have a better chance of consideration. Some people may take this as a submission to worldly knowledge and interpret your words about the man on the street as justification for a mythological account of the first 11 chapters of Genesis. I don’t see it that way. The benefit is not for the man on the street, but for us to rightly understand and interpret what the sacred text is saying. Only then, if we understand this rightly, can we confidently speak to others about creation and most importantly, tying into Christ’s Incarnation, Death, Resurrection, Ascension, and even Pentecost… the Second Adam and the proverbial eighth day.
    I thank you for your book, Father. I do not understand why your book is not offered for sale in certain places where it was sold previously. It is not like you are the first one who takes this position. I hope people buy it anyway and be allowed to make up their own mind as to it usefulness.

    1. Yes, I suggest that Genesis 1-11 should be interpreted mythologically not because the man in the street backed me into a corner and this is the only way I can respond, but because sound scholarship and a sensitivity to literary genre tells me that I am in fact reading mythology–i.e. an account of the world’s origins that has enough commonalties with the mythologies of the ANE to indicate that Genesis is literature like that.

  3. Very nicely done. I just ordered your book from Amazon. Should be here Friday! As soon as I finish a very good commentary on John, I will incorporate the Genesis book in my morning study.

    1. Thank you! Hope you like it. Good or bad, it should be a collector’s edition some day, since AF is no longer selling it!

  4. Your article made a very good case for dismissing the Bible. Also, if the fathers were all wrong on this, why should we trust them on anything else? The same can be said of Scripture; if it is demonstrably wrong on things we can verify with modern science, why should we believe it we it tells us about things we cannot see like heaven or angels. Allegorizing the Bible might make it immune from these criticism, but it also renders it unfalsifiable and thus irrelevant. Evolution is the single most cited reason I heard for abandoning the faith and it’s unfortunately not likely to change, however creative we are with Genesis.

    1. Actually I make a good case for recognizing a diversity of literary genres in the Bible. I am not “allegorizing the Bible” (for one thing, myth is not allegory), but simply recognizing when non-historical elements are present. The Fathers do not speak with a uniform voice about those texts, but also recognize a non-historical element. In the words of the excellent Fr. Stephen Freeman (if memory serves; he will forgive me if I am wrong), the Fathers were “all over the map” on this. I assume by protesting that I am rendering Scripture unfalsifiable you mean that Genesis 1-2 gives a literal account that is scientifically and historically falsifiable? If so, would you please answer the following: was there sea-water before the first day of creation? Did vegetation on earth exist before the creation of the sun and the moon? Did dinosaurs live and die before the creation of man? I am not being rhetorical, but asking for a response. Answers to these questions are unavoidable in selling/ commending the Christian Faith to those in the world.

      1. It depends on what you mean by a literal account. The inspired author goes out of his way to tell us that creation was good, and even very good. Scripture also tells us that death is the final enemy to be defeated. If you accept evolution, you are also forced to admit that millions of years of pain, suffering and disease are “very good” and that far from being the final enemy, death is the very engine of creation. If this doesn’t affect your view of God as a good God, it does for me. This is more fitting for the gnostic demiurge. Nobody got that creative with the first 11 chapters of Genesis until Lyell and Darwin and you could not find me a church father who believed that Adam and Eve weren’t actual persons. Christ and the apostle took them as real people, yet evolutionists will tell us that humanity can<t possibly come from a single pair. This is a problem that can't simply be waived away with platitudes. There a things in the Bible that obviously can't be falsified and we can't imagined what the world was like before the Fall; but if the basic truth of Genesis, as I outlined them at the beginning, are proven wrong, then Christianity will crumble as fast as if someone discovered the dead body of Our Lord. I don't want to appear condescending in my comments, but I struggled with this matter for decades and I tend to get easily irritated when people are proposing easy cop-outs for such a serious problem. Respectfully in Christ.

        1. How to combine a mythological/ scientifically-respectable view of Genesis with the NT and the Fathers I have dealt with in my book, so I am reluctant to reproduce it all here. But here I will say that this view says that creation is good, but death is not. Even now God causes all things to work together for good, even things like suffering and martyrdom which are not good in themselves, so there is nothing inherently absurd in saying that God uses the death of animals to advance His purposes. By “death” the apostles clearly meant “human death”, not simply the death of all flora and fauna. And refusing to view the text mythologically still leaves us with questions such as where did the sea-water come from before creation, did vegetation on earth exist before the creation of the sun and the moon, and did dinosaurs live and die before the coming of man? I receive lots of replies, but no one ever seems to answer those questions.

          1. As a last word I could point you to Creation Ministries International. They have a lot a Phds on staff and deal with the questions you raise (whether you find their answers satisfactory is another matter). I thanks you taking the time to answer my queries. God bless.

          2. I enjoy reading your blog Fr. Farley and this issue is fascinating to me. I wanted respectfully to throw my two cents in.

            It seems sad to me for the Church to change it’s teaching on the Creation and mankind’s origin and fall because of some difficult questions. We boldly proclaim the Virgin Birth, the Resurrection, the Threeness and Oneness of the Trinity, and countless miracles of our Lord and His Apostles and Saints. How is it that we should get stuck on the question “where did all the water come from in the first place?” Isn’t the spontaneous transformation of that water into wine just as difficult to explain scientifically?

            I surely cannot answer the questions you’ve listed, but here’s what I would offer to the proverbial man on the street.
            1. God made the seawater. The first chapter of John asserts that nothing that is was made apart from Him, and Genesis says as much. Before Genesis mentions water, it says that God created the heavens and the earth. There’s no time line given for this state of the earth either, which is why I don’t loose sleep reconciling geological estimates of the earth’s age with a literal interpretation of Genesis 1.
            2. I would say sure, the plants existed before the sun and moon, because light existed before the sun and moon. I accept that the Israelites found bread on the ground every morning in the wilderness, so it’s no stretch to imagine God sustaining plants with whatever light was like before the sun.
            3. I see no problem with dinosaurs. Maybe the “days” of Genesis are epochs and the dinosaurs died before the 6th one. Maybe dinosaurs and humans co-existed before the flood, and scientists are (*gasp*) wrong about something. Genesis clearly doesn’t give the details and if the Lord talked about dinosaurs with his disciples, they didn’t record it :-). In the end, I’ll stick with Genesis and Church Tradition rather than the teaching of modern materialistic scientists, who have ideologies guiding their conclusions as surely as anyone else. (I believe that on the basis of several good books, my favorite being Phillip Johnson’s Darwin on Trial. I do not disparage science at all, either, but believe that scientific consensus is as fallible now as it was when the sun orbited the earth.)

  5. Father,

    Part of me always hesitates to wade into this because, quite frankly, there are too many things we neither know nor can know. We cannot go back in time and watch it happen, nor – in my opinion – would we likely be able to process or explain what we saw even if we could.
    We are given a story. It is a story that seems to make no scientific sense to us, but a story that is somehow true nevertheless. I suspect there is no way we could even begin to understand it other than by the story we have been given.

    There is something about the beginning described for us in Holy Scripture that is just as mysterious and unscientific to us as the “end” (“Eye has not seen, ear has not heard, nor has it entered the heart of man…”). What does creation look like when it is fully united to God and filled with His life-giving energies – when its ‘principal’ of life is union in the eternal God, when it exists as created nature while not being subject to the limits of created nature. In what categories that we know by our experience could we possibly describe it? What scientific explanation could possibly be offered? Like the Apostles who saw the end (streets of gold clear as crystal… the city has no need of the sun, for the Lord Himself is the light thereof, etc.), Moses, it seems, was also forced to resort to images The images presented to us by Moses and John may not be “real” in the sense of what we would normally think of as “literal,” but they are, I suspect, a means (perhaps the only means) of communicating a far greater reality than we could ever possibly imagine.

    It seems to me that much of our hesitance to believe what we read in the story given to us (as well as some of the absurdities that come of attempting to show how it could be ‘literally’ true from a scientific point of view) are almost always the result of reading the text from the perspective of the world as we now know it – a world subject to BIO-logical principals, a world that is subjected to created nature rather than a creation whose ‘principal’ of life or mode of existence in the beginning apparently was, and in the end will again be, THEO-logical.

    “In the beginning” God created all things good. The Scriptures, the Fathers, and indeed the whole of the Orthodox Christian Tradition insist on the essential goodness of all creation regardless of how one reads the creation story. Yet when our Lord was called “Good teacher” by an inquirer He replied, “Why do you call me good? There is none good but God.” Thus, when creation is said to be good it seems apparent that this goodness is grounded in the fact that it was created in and for union with God who freely gives His life to all things in accordance with the capacity of each creature to receive it. The inherent goodness of creation is its capacity to be interpenetrated by God’s own life-giving energies, a capacity demonstrated in concrete fashion by the Incarnation and Resurrection of Christ. This capacity is also reflected in our blessing of the waters at Theophany and Baptism, holy oil, the bread and wine in the Eucharist, etc.

    Saint Maximos wrote, “Grace irradiates nature with a supra-natural light, and by the transcendence of its glory raises nature above its natural limits.”

    Created nature in union with its Creator (that is, a creation full of grace) is what St. Maximos clearly had in mind when he wrote this. This description is not a denial of nature (and thus not a denial of science). It is a description of nature that is in union with the eternal life of its Creator, not subject to natural limits, and thus not a subject of scientific inquiry by means of the tools of the natural sciences.

    Nature (be it human, animal, botanical…) when subjected to itself is subject to decay, corruption, or whatever similar word we might use to describe death. This is the nature that is the subject of natural scientific inquiry. It has its own laws that apply in their own way to the world as we know it now, the world governed by “the law of sin and death,” to use the words of the Apostle.

    But the story we are given seems to indicate that “at the beginning” it was not so. Nor, we are assured, will it be so at the end when God is again “all in all.” And while it is not necessary to understand the Genesis narrative of the beginning or the visions of the end in a ‘literal’ sense, they are, I believe, nevertheless very real spiritual/physical descriptions – glimpses, so to speak – of a past and a future that are the only way our natural minds can even begin to grasp the glory of union with the Blessed Trinity, a union prior to the corruption of death that came through sin and also a union wherein death is abolished and life reigns – not only among men, but also in the entire creation that “was subjected to vanity, not of its own will, but by reason of Him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself also shall be delivered from the bondage of corruption into the liberty of the glory of the children of God.”

    The critical question, therefore, is the question of the origin of death. The Genesis account agrees with the Apostle (“Therefore, as through one man sin entered into the world, and death through sin; and so death passed unto all men…”). It agrees with the Fathers. It agrees with the Liturgy of St. Basil and the whole liturgical tradition. Indeed, it agrees with the entirety of the Tradition. It even agrees with our own experience (which is to say that we know experientially that were born into the corruption of death, a corruption we did not choose and one in which even innocent infants die). Moreover, it is a condition that is so repugnant to our good God that He Himself came in the flesh to abolish it for us and for all the creation He loves.

    In stark contrast to the Tradition, however, the foundational premise of even ‘Christianized’ scientific theories is the assumption that God created death and that death was active in the world prior to the sin of man. Building upon this premise, these theories posit a necessity for the development of biological mechanisms for survival within a hostile environment where the corruption of death is assumed. But Holy Scripture and our God-bearing Fathers testify that apart from the sin of man which brought about his own death and the corruption of all the creation subjected to his dominion, the very concepts of necessity and survival are unnatural to creation, being the result is sin.

    Christians need neither question nor debate whether evolution (defined as simple epigentic adaptation – and not more complex and new species ‘evolving’ from less complex organisms) has occurred since the fall of man. There is evidence that it has – at least in terms of the adaptation of species to their environment. This adaptation can be described as a ‘natural’ process, but only in the sense that it occurs in nature and allows for the survival of species. We, I believe, would affirm that whatever ability creatures possess to adapt to life in a corrupted creation is a provision that was given by God in the beginning. We see a glimpse of this provision of God for His creation in the “garments of skin” (Genesis 3:21) given to Adam and his wife after their fall from grace, ‘garments’ that the Fathers of the Church understood as a previously unnecessary provision for their temporal existence in a world corrupted by death.

    There is another important aspect of truth/reality that relates directly to the Apostle’s words, “as through one man sin entered into the world and death through sin.” This aspect is the Orthodox Christian concept of sin. While sin is never private or ‘individual’ (in the sense that it affects only the sinner), it is always personal (in the sense that it is the choice of a human person). Without ever separating the two, Orthodoxy insists on the priority of person over nature because human nature has no existence apart from specific human persons. ‘Humanity’ only exists in human persons (Greg, Brian, Sally). Thus, human nature merely participates in the sin of the person to whom it belongs. Only persons can sin. Only persons can love God or refuse to love. How, then, is it possible for a non-specific, impersonal, generalized ‘humanity’ to fall away from loving God and bring about the fall of all mankind? Only a person can refuse to love the Persons of God. Only a person whose human nature once freely shared the eternal life of God by his communion in the divine Persons can bring about the subjection of his nature to the corruption of death by freely choosing (albeit in the ignorance of immaturity) to sever himself from that communion, thereby sinning against the One who is his life. And only a person in a position to father the entire race of man “in his own [corrupted] likeness, after his [corrupted] image” (Genesis 5:3) can be the cause of death and sin being transmitted to all human nature.

    It is for these and many other related reasons that I have a great deal of difficulty accepting any version – even modified ‘Christian’ versions – of theories of origin that seek to reconcile scientific evidence with the Christian dogma of creation ex nihilo or the creation story. None of these reasons have anything to do with a disregard for – or disrespect of – science. We need not be ashamed of our faith in the face of ‘scientific evidence.’ Our faith is wholly above the limited realm of scientific inquiry, for it is in Him “who is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of every creature: for by Him were all things created, that are in heaven, and that are in earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones, or dominions, or principalities, or powers: all things were created by Him, and for Him: and He is before all things, and by Him all things consist. And He is the head of the body, the Church: who is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead; that in all He might have the preeminence. For it pleased the Father that in Him should all fullness dwell; and, having made peace through the blood of His cross, by Him to reconcile all things unto Himself; by Him, I say, whether things in earth, or things in heaven.”

    Your questions, Father, deserve answers.

    “By ‘death’ the apostles clearly meant ‘human death’, not simply the death of all flora and fauna.”

    But is there not a cosmic dimension to His reconciling “all things” to Himself? Does the Apostle not speak of the entire creation groaning, eagerly awaiting the glorious liberty of the children of God who are the ones through whom creation, having been subjected to man’s dominion, both groan through his sin and await reunion with God through them? There are innumerable passages of Scripture that speak of God’s love and concern for (and even Covenant with) ALL His creation, as well as how man’s sin affects it. For the sake of brevity, I will not quote them here, but I would be happy to post them, if requested, in a follow-up.

    “where did the sea-water come from before creation[?]”

    Is sea water not itself an integral part of the creation “out of nothing”? There is no specific mention of its creation, but neither is there any specific mention of the creation of the soil. We are only told very simply of the “heavens” and the “earth.”

    “did vegetation on earth exist before the creation of the sun and the moon[?]”

    I see no reason why it couldn’t – if, as it will again be in the end, “the Lord God Himself is [was] the light thereof,” and its ‘principal’ of life in the beginning was THEO-logical rather than BIO-logical?

    “did dinosaurs live and die before the coming of man?”

    We simply do not know. As Moses told the people of Israel, “The secret things belong unto the Lord our God: but those things which are revealed belong unto us and to our children for ever, that we may do all the words of this law.”

    Not included in your questions to the previous poster is the whole young vs. old earth question. Does science provide the answers? Not in a way that contradicts the creation story. But neither do the Scriptures provide answers in the manner we might like them to. Any understanding of time that we could possibly comprehend requires matter and space and the relative movements of objects in space. A day for us is one rotation of the earth (and yet the Scriptures speak of “evening and morning” before the sun is said to exist). What then is meant by these “days?” We simply do not know, nor perhaps can we know. Likewise, a year for us is one orbit of the earth around the sun. How old, then, is the earth? We simply do not know, for how can “years” be measured (be it in the thousands or billions) when the objects in space (and probably space itself) are in the process of being created? How could we possibly grasp it? How can science (be it secular or “creation-scientists”) speak credibly of the age of the earth when there is no possible category in which such an “age” can be understood by us? And more importantly how, if considered in this way – the way it is revealed to us in Holy Scripture rather than the way most people usually think of it – would our perception of the age of the earth matter in the least to the truth of the revealed account?

    I’m not dogmatic about this, and I am always open to a broadening of my understanding. But I never hear this topic discussed or framed in these terms. Almost every discussion revolves around scientific evidence, even when it is well-meaning (but misguided) interpretations of how the story could ‘literally’ be true from a scientific perspective. No one ever seems to consider that the story might be true because maybe – just maybe – it describes a world about which science can tell us almost nothing. As the Liturgy of Saint Basil reads, “But when he disobeyed You, the true God who had created him, and was led astray by the deception of the serpent becoming subject to death through his own transgressions, You, O God, in Your righteous judgment, expelled him from paradise INTO THIS PRESENT WORLD…”

    It is also worthy of consideration that one can easily have similar reservations about any instance where Scripture testifies that “Grace irradiates nature” and nature is raised above its natural limits. Today’s science could have explained why the lame of Christ’s day were lame. An X-ray or an MRI would have revealed the cause. Likewise, the same science could have verified that a person was healed. But it would be at a complete loss to explain how the healing occurred because science has no categories for grace. Grace operates completely outside the realm of science because it/He is a conquering of death and a healer of all corruption, whereas science, while to be fully respected within its own realm, can only know a creation that is subject to death and corruption, fearfully and wonderfully made though remains even now.

    I think we need to be very cautious about saying that certain things we read in the Scriptures are implausible merely because they fall outside our present-day common experience or scientific understanding. We read, for example, of the ages of our early ancestors and immediately conclude that it is mythological and impossible. After all, “Human beings don’t live that long.” And yet, the story we are given is consistent with itself, for shortly before the story of the flood we read, “And the LORD said, My spirit shall not always strive with man, for that he also is flesh: yet his days shall be an hundred and twenty years.” After that, no one is said to have lived hundreds of years. Given only the framework of our own present-day experience, we can just as easily conclude that men cannot walk on water, the dead cannot be raised, etc. There is, after all, nothing that is outside our own experience revealed in Holy Scripture that doesn’t require faith for us to accept it as true.

    I don’t mean any of this as criticism or (as far as I know) even as disagreement. In terms of literary genre, properly understood, it is correct to view the creation narrative as “myth.” The problem in my mind is that when an average person hears the word “myth” it is understood as something may be an interesting story, but one that is inconsequential, irrelevant, and essentially unreal. And this can make it highly problematic to teach the import of the creation story as referenced by Christ, the Apostles, the Fathers, and the Liturgical tradition – not to mention our own use of the story to speak of very real and consequential anthropological matters.

    There is obviously something about the story we are given that is very real, true, and certainly consequential even though it is told to us in simple language and in a manner that is concerned with our salvation rather the impartation of mere ‘facts’ (which the story itself seems to indicate we could not comprehend even if they were told us). In the end, when we all have eyes to see, I suspect we will find that the visions of the beginning – much like the visions of the end – are altogether true, albeit in a way we could never have fully imagined.

    Again, I am not dogmatic about this. I only know that the perspective I have described liberates us from subjecting ourselves (or our Faith) to the limitations inherent in any scientific attempt to ‘explain’ what the Scriptures seem to indicate is unexplainable by the disciplines of science or indeed by any human reasoning. Does it answer every question? No. But it does seem to bypass a great deal of needless and unprofitable debate that has little or nothing to do with the reason the story was given to us – our salvation.

    I’d be curious to hear your thoughts.

    1. Thank you for your thoughtful, respectful, and very long comment. It cannot be answered here fully due to its length, and I am tempted to just recommend buying and reading my book by way of reply. But just a brief response or two can be offered. For me the crux of interpretation has less to do with science than with the recognition of literary genre. You are quite right that many people misunderstand the meaning of the word “myth” and equate it with something unworthy or false. But placing Genesis in its original cultural context requires the recognition that these chapters are indeed part of a mythological genre. The bit about sea-water is instructive here: the pagan mythologies of the day all said that before the creation of the world everything was sea–i.e. that the sea-water did not form part of God’s creation, but preceded it as the chaos out of which He formed the world. This alone reveals that we are reading mythology. I am at a loss to know how to respond to your openness to the idea that vegetation existed on earth before the creation of the sun and the moon. But I will say that if this idea is offered to the man on the street as part of the Christian package, he will simply reject it and us as being crazy, as he will if we say that perhaps dinosaurs did not die out before man was created. Science is quite clear about this, and rejecting this conclusion is not simply a rejection of one interpretation of Genesis but of modernity itself. Anyway, thank you again for your comments.

  6. Thank you for your work here, Father.

    I’m neither qualified as a trained biologist or cosmologist nor as a trained Orthodox exegete or patristics scholar, but I comment merely out of my experience as a (now Orthodox) Christian. Christ drew me as a child to Him as a result of the Gospel stories read to me in Sunday school. Having been taught science in my public school, I took Evolution for granted as a description of how all the aspects of our material universe/world developed over time, having all been created by God (as I was taught at church). I didn’t see any contradiction. Later, in an Evangelical Protestant context, I was influenced to tentatively embrace YEC, but I was quickly alerted to the many questions raised by each side vs. the other’s claims, and became a creationist who was agnostic about a proper interpretation of Genesis, except I was pretty sure YE was not it! I saw reasonable objections from thoughtful Christians who understood the science to both aspects of Darwinism vs. the actual empirical evidence and fossil record and also to YEC claims. I came to see YEC as a totally misinformed and unnecessary obstacle to faith for scientifically literate people. I don’t have much in the way of formal training about literary genres, yet it has always been clear to me Genesis 1-3 is a different literary genre than historical parts of the OT or NT. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to recognize none of the books of the Bible were written to explain things from a scientific perspective, nor as the kind of strictly “objective” factual accounts/descriptions we expect from a science periodical or even a newspaper.

    For those who want to read a “Young Earth Creationism” into the Genesis accounts and regard its subversion as a threat to the whole teaching of the Scripture, I suggest these are looking at Scripture and the basis of their Christian tradition and how these are to be understood/interpreted through a modern lens (product of the Enlightenment) completely foreign to our forefathers in the faith–whether OT prophets, Apostles, or Church Fathers. Our faith, as the NT is clear, stands or falls on the reliability of the Apostolic witness to, and reality of the Resurrection, not on being able to defend a literalistic interpretation of every aspect of the Genesis creation narratives! Our Creed, the inheritance of the Fathers who preserved, recognized and bequeathed to us as “Holy Spirit inspired” the Apostolic witness in the Scriptures, requires us to believe that God “created the heavens and the earth, all things visible and invisible.” It does not require us to subscribe to a particular interpretation of exactly how He did this. It’s interesting to me that an avowed Creationist, scientist, astrophysicist and Christian apologist, Hugh Ross, came to Christ as a very young man from an unchurched background on account of the correspondence of the Christian Creation account with what he was learning from the most recent discoveries in physical science about cosmology. Needless to say, he is *not* a Creationist of the “young earth” variety! Neither does he subscribe to Darwinian Evolutionary Theory. I suppose he would be most aligned with proponents of Intelligent Design. I would love to see a debate between him and Frances Collins. From what I have read, I respect them both. I will also be interested now to read a copy of your commentary as well, Father.

  7. The question I have is this: Why are you discussing Genesis with the man in the street anyway? Surely that cannot be the stumbling block to his faith, is it? Surely you aren’t suggesting that if only we could reconcile Genesis and evolution then the incarnation and resurrection are no-brainers?

    I grew up in a home where the literal creation story was a Big Deal. I finally just stopped discussing it in college because it was taking the place of more important discussions (which dealt with predestination, so admittedly still distracting from what I should have been focused on). In one way it was my first steps towards orthodoxy and the shedding of my Evangelical baggage.

    Forgive me, I don’t mean to demean your work. I probably agree with what you say in your book (the creation story is a poem, for crying out loud). I just think that as a form of evangelism it’s a dead end road for most people.

    1. I am discussing these things with the man in the street because this is the man I am trying to convert. The Gospel I share with him is not the story of Genesis and creation, but of Christ and His Cross and Resurrection. Nonetheless at some point in the long discussion he will ask about whether or not our Faith is compatible with what he knows of science and if I suggest that faith in Christ necessarily also involves the rejection of evolution this will be a stumbling block for him. A certain view of the creation stories does not (or should not) have the same “shibboleth” value in Orthodoxy that it has for Evangelical Protestantism. But our prospective convert will ask about it at some point and we must be prepared with a sensible answer.

      1. Valid. Especially about it being a “shibboleth” issue. . I still think though that if his faith in God comes down to this issue, there’s something deeper going on. I mean, the incarnation and resurrection! It’s like watching The Avengers and complaining that the bad guys can’t seem to shoot straight. That’s where you draw the believability line?

        But I will defer to you. I’m 100% certain you’ve talked to more men in the street than I have. I have too many strong opinions for that to go well, unfortunately. I probably shouldn’t even be talking here!

        Lord have mercy.

  8. Read “Genesis, Creation, and Early Man” by Fr Seraphim Rose, and skip Fr. Lawrence’s book. Fr. Lawrence says here that evolution is accepted by all “real scientists.” This is not true.

    “A presentation of the traditional, Patristic understanding of Genesis, which at the same time bravely exposes the lie of the modern philosophy of evolution. This is a vital, pathfinding work, which can serve as a true foundation for all sides in future discussions.” – His Eminence Metropolitan JOSEPH, Bulgarian Eastern Orthodox Diocese of the USA, Canada, and Australia, quoted on the back cover of “Genesis, Creation, and Early Man.”

    Evolution is a false philosophy – not science. Yes, Fr. Lawrence, faith in Christ necessarily also involves the rejection of evolution. Christ is Truth – “evolution” is a lie. This is important. The man in the street needs to hear the Truth.

    Fr. Lawrence – do you believe in the theory of evolution?

    1. Yes, I do accept that evolution is how God created mankind. And I suggest that interested readers should read both Fr. Rose’s book and my own and make up their own minds. My book is not simply an apologia for evolution, though it assumes its facticity. Even if evolution did not occur it still remains true the early chapters of Genesis do not constitute a scientific account of the creation of the world.

      1. But how can this be? How can you accept the false theory of evolution? If you have read the Fr. Seraphim volume, you know that “evolution” was not even discovered by Darwin, but invented by his grandfather and his Freemason buddies. Grandson Charles was simply tasked with giving this anti-Christian philosophy a scientific aura of credibility – which real scientists have now thoroughly debunked. The Patristic witness compiled in that book is overwhelmingly in favor of Creation, and NOT the evolution of species. It is clear as a bell.

        Have you taken the time to read the groundbreaking books exposing the false theory of evolution, such as “Darwin’s Black Box” by Michael Behe, and “Darwin on Trial” by Philip E. Johnson? Do you reject the scientific findings of Michael Behe? What about “Not By Chance! Shattering the Modern Theory of Evolution” by Lee Spetner, or “Genetic Entropy and the Mystery of the Genome” by J.C. Sanford? There’s a short volume that I would recommend, “Refuting Evolution” by Jonathan Sarfati, Ph.D. that demonstrates clearly the impossibility of evolution – and its anti-scientific presuppositions.

        The theory of evolution is not only anti-scientific, but it is also anti-Christian. Small wonder that the liberal Western establishment is so bent on propagating this lie in our school systems. Evolution is the basis for the eugenics program (the self-direction of evolution that Darwin wrote about in “The Descent of Man”, giving a jusitification for British colonialism and elimination of unwanted races) carried out so effectively in our modern times, giving a “scientific” cover to the population control agenda, most horribly manifested in the practice of abortion.

        I don’t mean any offense to you, Father, but with all due respect I am truly baffled that an Orthodox priest could actually accept the theory of evolution – with so much Biblical and Patristic witness and scientific evidence to the contrary. I urge you to reconsider your acceptance of this false philosophy. Thank you for your time.

          1. Virtually all of the clergy on the “compatibilist” list are noted for their modernism, ecumenism, lack of respect for the writings of the Church Fathers, eager promotion of censorship of the Divine services of Holy Week to avoid “offending the Jews”, and general deviation from the Orthodox Faith. Which seems to be a hallmark of clergy espousing the “evolution” line.

            Francis Collins doesn’t do theology OR science much of a service in his rather unserious book (which contains some rather glaring omissions) that you have recommended here. Here’s a reasonable but critical review of the deficiencies of this work –

          2. Your suggestion that such clergy as Hopko, Freeman, Breck, and Hallam, and such laymen as Kalomiros are “noted for their modernism, ecumenism and lack of respect for the writing of the Church Fathers” is bizarre. Given that I have nothing further to say in reply. I consider myself blessed to count myself in the number of such men, especially Fr. Hopko, of blessed memory.

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