Evolution and the Church Fathers

The confluence of Hans Boersma’s visit to UVA and Bill Nye the Science Guy’s creationist-refuting extravaganza brought me back to Robert L. Wilken’s The Spirit of Early Christian Thought and the chapter on creation — “The End Given in the Beginning.”

Noting the recent fascination with patristics that some evangelical scholars have taken, maybe it won’t be long before the views of some of the Church Fathers, particularly Basil and Gregory of Nyssa, find their way into the evangelical understanding of creation.

Basil and Augustine foreshadow one scientific theory:

Creation affects things at every later moment.  In the beginning God said, “Let the earth bring forth vegetation, plants yielding seed according to their own kind” (Gen. 1:11), and we “still see this happening at the present time,” says Basil.  As understood by the church fathers Genesis describes the coming into being of a living system that has within itself the capacity for growth and development.  God not only formed man from the dust of the earth, says Augustine, but also “provides for the ordinary development of new creatures in appropriate periods of time.”

Gregory of Nyssa then offers this analysis of the text that penetrates the above thinking:

What needs to be explained, says Gregory, is how one can make sense of a narrative of the coming into being of the natural world that is sequential.  For we know by observation and experience that all the individual parts of the world are interconnected.  Just as one cannot have life without warmth and water, and birds cannot fly without air, so there cannot be day and night without the light of the sun.  It is impossible for one part of nature to be created before the other parts.  To put it somewhat whimsically, if everything is not in place certain wild animals would go hungry while waiting for their prey to be created…

To deal with this conundrum, Gregory, like Basil, begins with the first words in Genesis.  The Greek translation used in the churches, the Septuagint, was made in the second century B.C.  In the second century A.D., however, Aquila, a convert to Judaism, had produced a more literal translation.  In his version, instead of “In the beginning God made the heavens and the earth,” the opening phrase was rendered, “God made the heavens and the earth summarily.”  Gregory takes “summarily” to mean simultaneously or at once…Gregory puts it this way: “I understand the beginning of creation to mean two things.  First that in an instant God assembled together the starting points and the causes and the qualities of all things, and second that at the first impulse of his will there was a confluence of the essence of each of the things that exist individually, heaven, ether, stars, fire, air, sea, earth, animals, plants.  Each was perceived by the divine eye, and each identified by the Word of his power, which, as Susanna says, ‘sees all things before they come into being’ ” (Daniel 13:42 Septuagint).

In one sense the Fathers provide a coherent way of making sense of the scientific theory of evolution but maintain the overarching sense of agency, indeed omniscience, that separates the scientifically literate Christian from the materialist who has no room for the agency of external actors, be that Mother Nature or God.

The Fathers’ writings of course need not end in the scientific theory of evolution, the assertion that new forms of life can appear throughout created time lines up only marginally with the theory of evolution.  Indeed, I think in the attempt to not look like rubes or (more charitably) to find common ground with a society more predisposed to physicalism than mystery, some Christians have gone too far in taking the case for evolution for granted.  One of my primary critiques of Jame Schaefer’s edifying book is that at the end of each chapter she frames the concluding question like so: “How can we make these beautiful patristic and medieval thoughts and reflections conform to our understanding of modern science?”  The question should be, “How can our understanding of modern science fit into our great tradition?”

If evolution, in some form, is a fact, then it must be viewed through the lens with which Christians view everything else: the fallenness of the world.  Taking for granted that evolution is “just God’s way of creating” has some very important implications that are dangerous to the faith.  If God creates through the violent natural process, whereby over time the fit replace the unfit in biological communities, then the mystics were wrong in their appropriation of God’s concern for all creatures. If the theory of evolution is true, the Christian God of the weak, the lowly and the marginalized has built some strange features into Creation.

But if evolution is viewed through the lens of a fallen world, the Cross becomes the pinnacle of a drama, the conquering of death that has pervaded the world since the primordial catastrophe.  If, at each turn, life struggled out of the chaos after the fall to bring about the fulfillment of God’s creation — the purpose of creation ordained from the beginning — then all of the chaos and death become God’s unwitting accomplices in His own design.

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