Alice C. Linsley
Is there an Eastern Orthodox interpretation of Genesis? Father Seraphim Rose (1934-1982) thought so. In his book Genesis, Creation and Early Man, this Orthodox monk who lived in the woods of California, rejected evolutionary theory and proposed that the six days of creation ended about 6,000 years ago. His view would be appreciated by Young-Earth Creationists, if they were to read his work.
extensive regional flood, during the African Humid Period (the Aqualithic/Holocene Wet Period).
Rose claimed to be setting forth Orthodoxy’s view on Genesis, but there are Orthodox Bible scholars who do not agree with his interpretations of Genesis.
In Part I if Genesis, Creation and Early Man, Fr. Rose looks at the writings of the Church Fathers to give us "an Orthodox patristic commentary on Genesis".
Part III is a letter to a Greek Orthodox medical doctor who was a theistic evolutionist. Fr. Seraphim argued that evolution is an essential piece in the developing one-world religious synthesis of the coming Antichrist. If that is true, many Evangelical, Roman Catholic, Anglican, and Orthodox Christians have embraced a dangerous dogma.
There are problems with Seraphim Rose’s approach to Genesis. We will look at some of them briefly.
1. Rose’s book on Genesis demonstrates an inconsistency in his thought. He criticizes "some Protestant fundamentalists" for taking Genesis literally, but then attempts to demonstrate that the Church Fathers also interpreted Genesis literally. How can Rose regard the literalism of American Fundamentalism as a misguided approach while regarding the literalism of the Church Fathers as exemplary?
2. Rose is incorrect in asserting that the Holy Fathers interpreted Genesis in a uniform and literal way. The homiletical concern of the early Fathers influenced how they handled the text. They largely interpreted Genesis to meet the spiritual needs of their flocks. Some interpreted the stories allegorically, others in terms of patterns and types, finding rich material in Genesis for teaching about the re-creation and the recovery of Paradise. Blessed John Chrysostom noted something in the story of Lamech that none of the other Fathers mention, namely, that God's unfathomable grace is shown to Lamech.
This is what Chrysostom said concerning Lamech, the Elder: By confessing his sins to his wives, Lamech brings to light what Cain tried to hide from God and “by comparing what he has done to the crimes committed by Cain he limited the punishment coming to Him.” (Homilies on Genesis, Vol. 74, p.39. The Catholic University Press of America, 1999.)
He also noted that Naamah, Lamech's daughter is probably the key to understanding Lamech's story. He didn't know that Naamah married her cousin, Methuselah, and named their firstborn son after her father (Gen. 5:26). However, he knew that she was important. He called her "Noeman" and said about her, "Well, now for the first time it refers to females, making mention of one by name. This was not done idly, or to no purpose; instead the blessed author has done this to draw our attention to something lying hidden." Homilies on Genesis, CUA Press, Vol. 74, p. 38)
Some early Fathers, such as St. Ephrem the Syrian, read the creation accounts as history, but were less concerned about verification of historicity than about the spiritual message. Some Fathers, such as St. Augustine, recognized that the days of creation in Genesis 1 may be taken as non-literally. Unlike Bishop Usher, they didn't attempt to discover the age of the earth by counting the generations from Adam to Jesus. They apparently recognized that the information in Genesis 4 and 5 is of a different nature than that found in Genesis 10 and 11.
To demonstrate the lack of uniformity in the patristic interpretation of Genesis, consider these differing conclusions about Lamech, the Elder (Gen. 4):
St. John Chrysostom said, "By confessing his sins to his wives, Lamech brings to light what Cain tried to hide from God and "by comparing what he has done to the crimes committed by Cain he limited the punishment coming to Him." (St. John Chrysostom’s Homilies on Genesis, Vol. 74, p.39. The Catholic University Press of America, 1999.)
St John also wrote that mention of Lamech’s daughter, Naamah, in Genesis 4 is "to call our attention to something lying hidden." Indeed, Naamah is the key to understanding the kinship pattern of Abraham’s ancestors. She married her patrilineal cousin Methuselah and named their first-born son Lamech after her father. This is the first place in the Bible where we find the cousin bride's naming prerogative. This naming practice of the cousin brides of the Horite ruler-priests makes it possible for us to trace Jesus ancestry back to Cain and Seth, whose lines intermarried.
The kinship pattern of the rulers listed in the Genesis genealogies shows two lines of descent. One is traced through the cousin/niece bride who named her first-born son after her father. Example: Naamah, Lamech the Elder's daughter,(Gen. 4) married her patrilineal cousin Methuselah (Gen. 5) and named their first-born son Lamech. This pattern, which I call the "cousin bride's naming prerogative," is found with the names Joktan, Sheba and Esau, among others.
The other line of descent is traced through the first-born son of the half-sister bride, as Sarah was to Abraham. The ruler-priest lines of the two first-born sons intermarried, thus preserving the bloodline of those to whom God made the promise that a woman of their people would bring forth the Seed who would crush the serpent's head and restore Paradise.
St. Ephrem the Syrian took a different approach to the Lamech story. He wrote that Lamech, the Elder killed Cain and Enoch so that his daughters could intermarry and be saved from the curse. (St. Ephrem’s Commentary of Genesis, Section IV, page 132. The Catholic University Press of America.)
Tertullian took yet another approach to Lamech, writing: "Finally, ‘there shall be,’ said He, ‘two in one flesh,’ not three nor four. On any other hypothesis, there would no longer be ‘one flesh,’ nor ‘two (joined) into one flesh.’… Lamech was the first who, by marrying himself to two women, caused three to be (joined) into one flesh."
Fr. Rose failed to demonstrate that there is an Orthodox interpretation of Genesis, but he did do a good job of aligning some of the Fathers’ writings with the assertions of Bible literalists. He maintains that all the peoples of Earth are descended from Adam (p. 480), that the Earth is young, and the Noah's flood was worldwide. Many in Orthodoxy do not hold these views, but all Orthodox claim the Fathers and Scripture to be authoritative.
Fr. Rose was correct is asserting that the Bible teaches a fixed order in creation. Each original kind was fixed to reproduce according to its nature and not to evolve into a different kind (pp. 123, 133–137, 386–388). Even evolutionists are beginning to recognize that this may be true, since after 85 years of frantic searching the common ancestor of apes and humans has never been found.
Further, brilliant minds such as Saul Kripe are asserting the reality of essentialism. Essentialism is the view that a specific entity (group of people, living creatures, or objects) has a set of attributes or traits all of which are essential to its identity and function and without which the entity would not exist. In his book Naming and Necessity (1980, Cambridge: Harvard University Press) Kripe maintains that entities have essential properties that can be discovered by scientific investigation and that their essences are independent of human language and culture.
The part of Rose’s book that seems to best represent Orthodoxy is where he gives three reasons to study Genesis. Here are the reasons he gives:
First, humans behave according to what they believe they are, so what a person believes about man’s origin influences his actions and attitudes. He is right! Orthodox believe that through Jesus the divine image is fully restored, and to be made in the image and likeness of God is to be like Jesus. The belief that humans are simply animals can be used to justify behaviors and actions that are cruel and barbaric.
Second, Genesis is part of Scripture and God gave us Scripture for our salvation. To that, I would add: All of the book point to the fulfillment of God's promise in Genesis 3:15 that the Woman would bring forth the Seed who crushes the serpent's head, overcome death and restores Paradise.
Third, Christianity is about eternal life. This too is true. Our life is in the One by whom all things were made. Genesis is as much about human destiny as it is about our beginnings. That is the one truly Orthodox view of Genesis that can be affirmed by all.
If it is possible to speak of "an Orthodox approach" to Genesis is is not what Fr. Rose proposed, but rather attendance to what the Fathers have observed. A reading of St. Augustine (354-430), St. John Chrysostom (344-407), Ephrem the Syrian (306-372), St. Basil the Great (329-379), Ambrose of Milan (339-397) and Tertullian (155-230) on Genesis makes it clear that there is no uniform patristic interpretation of Genesis. These is a consensus, however, that the text is divinely inspired and worthy of deep study, for therein lays wisdom. Let us attend!
Related reading: Metropolitan Nicholas of Mesogaia and Lavreotiki on Science and Faith; A Coptic Monk Reflects on Genesis; St. John Chrysostom on Lamech's Speech; St. Ephrem the Syrian on Genesis; St. Jerome on Genesis; Fr Hopko on the Image and Likeness of God; The Orthodox Study Bible; Theories of Change and Constancy; Evidence of an Old Earth, Part 1; Evidence of an Old Earth, Part 2; Support Research in Biblical Anthropology