Tuesday, October 16, 2007

An Eastern Orthodox Approach to Genesis?

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.

Fr. Rose believed in a catastrophic worldwide flood and insisted that this is the view of the Church Fathers and the teaching of the Church until modern times. His evidence for this is fairly thin. Detailed study of the Genesis flood account permits the view of an extensive regional flood, during the African Humid Period (the African Aqualithic).

In Part I of Genesis, Creation and Early Man, Fr. Rose looks at the writings of the Church Fathers to give us "an Orthodox patristic commentary" on Genesis. He claimed to be setting forth Orthodoxy’s view on Genesis, but some Orthodox Bible scholars do not agree with his interpretations.

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 FaithA 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


Alice C. Linsley said...

The Ochlophobist sums up very nicely at his blog (by the same name): "Evolutionist thought, Creationism, and ID all view a given thing and come to understand it through its supposed beginning, and/or the process through which it has become what it is. This stands in marked contrast to Orthodox cosmology, in which a thing is most fully known through its end, its telos. In the Orthodox mind, all things were created for their telos, all creation is teleologically created."

This is why we don't interpret Genesis as a book about beginnings only. It is about the end to which all things in the beginning point! Likewise, Noah, Abraham and Moses, all saviors, fail to bring universal salvation. They are types pointing to the one True Savior.

Fr. Gregory Jensen said...

Interesting post--I have only skimmed Fr Seraphim's book on Genesis, but I did wonder if it wasn't something of an over reach on his part. The odd thing about Rose's work is that, strictly speaking, there is some question as to how much of the work is his and how much of it reflects the editorial decisions of the fathers at St Herman's Monastery.

In any event, your summary of Rose's reasons for reading Genesis, together with your own comments about understanding things in terms of their teleos, are very helpful. Thank you.

In Christ,


Unknown said...

I totally disagree. What has been overlooked is the rest of Scripture and the Father's view of the days themselves. There are admittedly symbolic elements in Genesis, but why does symbolic automatically go into the category of "not literal"? Somthing can be both symbolic and an actual historical manifestation. That is what Fr. Rose says.

Furthermore, another key point of argumentation is about the days. Can you show one Father or Biblical Author who held anything like modern higher critical errors? To my knowledge, aside from St. Augustine's instantaneous creation, who holds the days were not 24 hour periods? Have you read the "Hexaemeron"?

As for modern evolution, its a complete scam that developed out of freemasonry. How many people make that connection? Yet, it's true.

Alice C. Linsley said...

I agree that something can be both symbolic and literal.

I've read Basil the Great's Hexaemeron. A wonderful work!

In fact no proto-human or "missing link" has ever been found after 85+ years of ardent searching.

My disagreement with Fr. Rose concerns the abundant physical evidence for an old earth.

bob said...

IF you've read the Seraphim Rose biographies, then you've read a good deal of myth to start with. Alas, the author didn't follow the correct path of a myth making historian; wait til all the people you talk about are dead! One view of Fr. Seraphim and Genesis is by two Orthodox scholars, Drs. Elizabeth & George Theokritoff:

She is a translator of Orthodox books, including the letters of the Athonite Elder Joseph, he an Emeritus Professor of Geology at Rutgers. Whenever I encounter a fundamentalist reading of Genesis I wonder aloud why the "scientists" never get as far as Chapter 30. There, a method of obtaining sheep with mottled color is described in detail. If some Creationist or ID geneticist can reproduce the results described, I'll instantly change my mind, but til then I figure this chapter is about Jacob, not sheep. Fr. Seraphim suffers alot from his hagiographers (like the amazing Fr. Damascene) and some from his own works, like the one on Genesis. He even disbelieves radioactive dating procedures. I guess it's well that his monks denied themselves electricity at their monastery as part of their asceticism. They didn't believe in the physics behind electric lights anyway!

FrGregACCA said...

While I am certainly not commited to a literalistic reading of Genesis, I find Jewish scientist Gerald Schroeder's take to be extremely interesting, if not absolutely persuasive.

Maxim said...

Fr. Seraphim's point regarding literalism is that we follow the readings of the Fathers; there is no inconsistency. We read the descriptions of the actions of God recorded in the creation account "in a God-befitting manner" so that we don't end up with the anthropomorphic deity of some Protestant interpreters. St. Basil seems to interpret it fairly literally otherwise, writing against the Alexandrine symbolists, who wished to interpret the entire account as a spiritual allegory. The other thing modern interpreters often don't understand is, as Fr. Seraphim points out, that a symbolic interpretation does not necessarily negate a literal understanding of the events recorded.

It is true that there are differences in the interpretation of some of the events in Genesis among various Fathers, but what Fr. Seraphim was looking for was the overall interpretive context, which is pretty consistent. This becomes apparent when one reads Kalomiros' frantic scrabblings through the writings of the Fathers in an attempt to prove that they believed in Evolution, and contrasts them to Fr. Seraphim's reasoned dismantling of his arguments.

Fr. Gregory, I don't believe there is any reason to believe the writings in "Genesis, Creation, and Early Man" that are represented as Fr. Seraphim's are not genuine; as a work posthumously published, there was of course some editorial work which needed to be done. The lengthy prelude and epilouge by Fr. Damascene are of course his interpretations, which he believes to be consistent with Fr. Seraphim's beliefs.

I don't believe the evidence for an Old Earth is all that astounding; Stephen Jay Gould, who I believe was an expert in paleontology, even developed the theory of Punctuated Equilibrium, because the standard Darwinian reading of the fossil record was so messed up. Unfortunately, this kind of does away with the biological mechanisms which were supposed to have driven evolution in the first place. Also read what Ochlophobe has to say about Carbon Dating. Generally, what you seem mostly to have in Evolutionary theory is a bunch of scientists all absolutely convinced of the rock-solid (pun intended) evidence for evolution, each of them saying in turn "In the field in which I am expert the evidence for evolution is rather dubious, but in these other fields there is real evidence". What is lacking is for someone who has closely studied the evidence in a particular area to stand up and say "Here is the determinative evidence for Evolution". In short, it will take more than the non-scientific guesses of scientists, most of whom are atheists, to convince me to discount one word of scripture, or tie the interpretation of the Fathers to a worldview so alien.

Bob, the account of Jacob and the sheep obviously has to do with miracles, not genetics; if you don't think Fr. Seraphim believed in physics, I'm not sure how closely you could have read his biographies.

Alice C. Linsley said...

The Fathers themselves would have us investigate the Scriptures to see "if these things be true." Paul commended the noble Bereans for just such an approach.

I wish to be clear on what I believe is evident from a close reading of the Scriptures themselves. Analysis of the kinship pattern of Cain and Seth (Gen. 4 and 5) reveals that these brothers married daughters of a central African chief named Nok (Enoch). The line of descent from Cain to Lamech is not the line of descent from Adam, but from Nok. Likewise the line from Seth to Noah is the line of Nok. The Psalmist understood this and paralleled the symbolic universal father (Adam) and the tribal father (Nok) in Psalm 8:4: “What is man (Enoch) that you are mindful of him, the son of man (ben Adam) that you care for him?”

We see that the genealogical material traces descent from Nok in the naming of Cain’s and Seth’s first-born sons. They are both named after the brides’ father: Nok. (Enoch and Enosh are the linguistic equivalent of Nok). We know that Nok is the oldest site of metal working in Africa. The people of the region of Nok (on the Jos Plateau of Nigeria) created sophisticated sculptures and figurines as early as 37,000 years ago and as late as 200 years ago.

The same pattern is evident with Lamech's daugther Naamah, who married her patrilineal cousin, Methuselah, and named their first-born son, "Lamech", after her fatehr.

I believe that I am reading “descriptions of the actions of God recorded in the creation account ‘in a God-befitting manner.’” I’ve drawn all this from the Scriptures themselves, believing that Holy Scripture is the best interpreter of Scripture. I feel confident the the Holy Fathers would agree.

It being the case that Cain and Seth pertain to the Region of Nok, we are able to make sense of the rest of Genesis. The accounts of Genesis 1-3 are metaphysical snapshots of reality, but the first historical persons we meet are Cain and Seth (probably Abel), their wives and their father-in-law, Nok.

This being the case, we are not compelled to pit archeological evidence of human industry as early as 85,000 to 100,000 years ago (See "Mining Blood?" below)against the Scriptures.

TLF+ said...

Hebrew yom is used also like Greek kairos : time defined by content or meaning rather than any specific duration.

Malachi 4:1 (3:19) speaks of "the coming day" of the LORD. It is defined by the burning away of the wicked and the rising of "the Sun of Righteousness with healing in his wings."

Likewise other prophetic references to "the day of the LORD" - Amos 5:18-20, for example.

For the Jewish people, these were envisioned as times that God would intervene in earthly affairs, to rescue or even to correct the chosen people. Christians read these verses with an eschatological point of view.

Alice C. Linsley said...

Acts 17:26: “And He has made from one blood every nation of men to dwell on all the face of the earth....”

All humans have life because of the blood of Jesus. This is the great “mystery” that Paul discovered that changed his thinking and caused him to write, “God appointed Him as a sacrifice for reconciliation, through faith, by the shedding of His blood, and so showed his justness; first for the past, when sins went unpunished because He held his hand; and now again for the present age…” (Romans 3:25) Paul also speaks of all things being created through Jesus Christ whose blood benefits people of faith “from before the foundation of the world.” (Ephesians 1:3) Luke traveled with Paul and would have been familiar with some of Paul’s thinking, but remember that Paul’s thought developed. He gained a deeper understanding by continuing to contemplate the Scriptures.

We humans understand so little really! We think that we are so smart, but whatever we know and whatever we have accomplished has been according to what God has revealed.

Paul wrote two-thirds of the New Testament because many average people didn’t understand the Tradition that was transmitted from old by the prophets of Israel. Paul was astonished to find himself called to preach the great mystery that God had uniquely prepared him to understand. When we read Genesis with Paul’s insights we discover that we too can understand more of the depth and width of the “wisdom of God.”

Jake said...

“My disagreement with Fr. Rose concerns the abundant physical evidence for an old earth.”

Just discovered this interesting blog today. It’s been a while since I read this book, but did not a part of Fr. Rose’ argument center around the fact of the fall, and the (for lack of a better term) metaphysical implications. In other words, the fall had “physical” as well as “moral/spiritual” consequences, and thus time (a creature remember) as also part of the fall. I remember him pointing out how Aquinas tries to square certain bodily functions by simply extending time back into “pre-fall”. Sounds like you are doing that here with “abundant physical evidence for an old earth”….

Alice C. Linsley said...

Christopher, Welcome to Just Genesis. I'm gratified that you find the entries here interesting.

There can be no doubt that sin has physical effects. Psychosomatic disease and illness is evident all around us as contemporary humanity fails to overcome guilt by various modern methods, rather than through the Church's sacraments.

Genesis 3 states that the Fall had several immediate effects: fear of God, pain in childbirth, and perhaps the serpent's anatomical change. Was the serpent once a legged creature? I'll explore that next in an essay on serpent symbolism. That will appear in the next few days, so please check back!

Fr. Rose's young earth scheme isn't necessary to square physical evidence of an old earth with Genesis when we understand that there is a gap of time between the first parents whose mythological names are Adam and Eve and their historical "sons" Cain and Seth. Cain and Seth married daughters of a Nokite (central African) chief who lived between 10,000 and 6,000 years ago. We actually have a good deal of information about them and about their Afro-Asiatic culture.

The physical evidence for an old earth is found conclusively in Africa and not in the geological record (which is where most Creationists look). The compelling evidence is found in anthropology, which has identified sophisticated human industry between 80,000 and 100,000 years ago. Read about the Lebombo Bone and the mining of red ocher in the Lebombo Mountains of southern Africa here:
and here:

Jake said...

Thanks Alice for your reply. I will have to spend some time with Fr. Seraphim's book this weekend. I recall a more subtle position on his part than what I think of as "young earth vs. old earth" but my memory has failed before :)