This post is not about presenting a particular view or solution to the issues of the age of the world, evidence of evolution and the timescale recorded in the Scriptures. Rather it is intended to help a discussion on the matter by suggesting various issues that need addressing in attempting to harmonise the physical evidence that we see with the biblical evidence in terms of theological principles. Comments are welcome if they do not accuse others of ignorance, naivety nor betraying the Faith.
Since this is about an Orthodox understanding there are some basic truths that one must hold and that are not open to much debate. The first is that God is the creator of heaven and earth and of all things visible and invisible. That is the universe cannot be considered to have come into being of its own accord nor by some determination or principle apart from God. Even all the laws of physics and randomness must come from God, so apart from God we cannot explain the existence of the universe. Also, we must be careful not to think of there existing a void or even nothing as a default understanding of existence; one would need to prove that the existence of non-existence can be a legitimate default position. I tend to find that the idea that non-existence exists contradictory. Rather I would argue, particularly as Orthodox Christians, that we start with the default of eternal omnipresent existing existence, that is “I am”, and move from there.
Also, we also believe that God sustains the universe and existence. Thus, God is not merely the uncaused cause in the chain of cause and effects. We accept that the universe is created other than God, that is of another essence, and that it is not an emanation of God in a Platonic or pantheistic manner. Yet, also the universe is not able to exist apart from God; it cannot exist in its own right over and against God rather apart from God it spirals back to non-existence. This implies among other things that there is no absolute randomness apart from God’s will.
Since creation is created with time and space because it must have a beginning not being eternal of its own right, it is subject to change. We expect to see evidence of a beginning. We also expect to see change and movement in creation rather than absolute fixed forms of existence. We can expect some form of change in living things that could equate to evolution. We also expect some form of growth from lesser to more perfect with God’s sustaining power but from greater to lesser apart from God, that is decay and corruption. We expect to see a similar mix of order and disorder.
Because God is infinite and unfathomable then we should expect creation that in many ways reflects who God is in created form, that is somewhat infinite in extent, yet not quite, and mysterious in its ways. The universe should be not be empty but yet in discreet units since it is not absolutely infinite nor fills all things. We should also expect to see some reason in the universe as reflecting the Logos. The universe should be predictable yet not quite allowing some freedom of God in its operation; this can lead to a certain chaos from our perspective but not that of God.
Because God is one, we should expect to see an inner unity to the universe that it can be reduced to one united point. We would also expect to see that humanity is united with all the other animals and forms of live and even inanimate objects. Thus, it should appear that we come from a singular source, that all animal life can be linked in trees of similar features.
In terms of timescale, the primary focus of biblical revelation is man with whom God unites to the created universe. Thus, the timescale of the universe pre-man is rather irrelevant to us. God is capable of creating the universe in an instant and also He could develop it over billions of years. God may wish to have the universe form according to the principles that He has given for its existence and operation or He may wish to express His freedom. I think that it is most likely that the universe is created and sustained according to its principles with a history that is consistent with these, yet with the possibility that some change in these may have occurred. However, whether God creates the universe with its history for its consistency from the point it is useful for the existence of man or whether He allows it to develop from scratch according to these principles is another matter and I think difficult to prove. It would seem to me that the world must have had some age to it, consistent to its own principles, before man could live on it whether God created it this way in an instant or developed it this way over billions of years.
Because of the freedom of God, it is difficult to apply the predictability of the universe with absolute certainty. Thus, there is the possibility that in the past God acted on the universe in such a way that could not be predicted and also prevents tracing a cause and effect history with absolute certainty. Thus, we find in the days of Peleg that the earth was divided. Perhaps this could be a reformation of the continents by God done over a short time in human history but leaving a geological history consistent with the normal laws that at normal pace would take place over millions of years. I don’t think that we could tell other than having a history of humanity with a different timescale than that evident in the geological record.
One pressing theological issue regarding man, is death. In the biblical story this is introduced after the Fall of man. In an evolutionary model death is required throughout the process. We also have the theological principle that the universe was also affected by the Fall. Perhaps the curse of death was only applicable to Adam and Eve not the rest of creation, which was already under some cycle of life and death, yet such death is permitted because it may not have the eternal implications for creatures other than man. The Fall may still effect the rest of creation but not necessarily in terms of the cycle of death and life, which may be neutral in itself. Although, what other meaningful effect could there be? A spiral to non-existence rather than a stable cycle?
That all mankind comes from one father, Adam, is something that is important in the writings of St Paul and other Fathers so that all men are together under the Fall and death and all together are saved by one man, Christ. This seems consistent with biological evidence. The primary difference is the time scale which appears to be out by some distance. Do you try to try to read biblical evidence in terms of physical evidence or physical evidence in terms of biblical evidence or perhaps there is a way that maintains the integrity of both without inconsistency? Also, we must take into account the longer life spans recorded in the Scriptures and the deliberate choice that God had in restricting the length of our lives to 120 years, yet still enabling exceptions to this rule. How this may have affected us genetically could be interesting and how this may skew evidence, if at all, is something that may need to be debated.
We read that Adam was created from the dust of the earth. Does this mean that he was independently formed by God from the earth or that God evolved humanoids from dust until a suitable physical state was reached and then one such adult male was taken apart and designated man and spiritually completed to be truly the image of God and made distinct from his humanoid brothers in this spiritual way and even, perhaps, physical way. At this point Adam was perhaps removed from the cycle of life and death in the “garden of Eden” until he sinned. This is just speculation. The important thing is the mankind is united to the rest of creation yet unique in a special way that is to do with man’s relation to God and governance of creation and initially this man is not bound to death. From this first unique man then comes the rest of modern humanity. Other humanoids such as Neanderthals may well been another type of humans but not been humans in the special way that Adam was in the image of God. Perhaps, though, they are a variety of Adam’s descendants?
Also, Christianity is a faith that is grounded in history. The stories of the Old Testament are also grounded in history, while yet containing levels of typology and spiritual meaning. Thus while it is tempting to just read the Genesis stories as metaphor we must be careful not to lose the grounding in history of the Old Testament. Can we arbitrarily determine when legend turns into history? How do we determine this objectively? I raise this issue so that there is a need to somehow reconcile the biblical testimony with the physical evidence. If God truly inspired the Old Testament and spoke to Moses revealing the Law, including Genesis, and God is all knowing and the Creator, then we should we not believe that the stories are true at more than the level of a parable/metaphor. Also, not only with the Scriptures as Orthodox we need to be faithful to the interpretations of the Fathers such as St Basil the Great and St John Chrysostom, who both spoke on these matters. Can we be truly Orthodox if we approach the Scriptures in a different manner than the Fathers? Yet with advances in scientific knowledge, there are things which we know now that do not easily, if at all, permit a traditional interpretation.
Well, these are some ideas to start the ball rolling. It is not merely a matter of Creationism vs Evolutionism. We are created, yes, created things change and develop, with God’s help. Can be reconcile biblical and physical evidence without denying either. I am sure that there are many better developed thoughts our there. Thoughts?