Review: Genesis, Creation and Early Man: the Orthodox Christian Vision

Donal Anthony Foley reviews, Genesis, Creation and Early Man: the Orthodox Christian Vision, By Fr Seraphim Rose, (Saint Herman of Alaska Brotherhood, P. O. Box 70, Platina, California, 96076, 2000), 709 pp. PB $24).

This big book, which looks at Genesis and the theme of creationism in the light of the teachings of those Fathers of the Church held in high regard by Orthodox Christians, has much to commend it. In particular, the first part, “An Orthodox Patristic Commentary on Genesis,” (pp. 65-280), provides an invaluable guide to what many of the great names in early Church history thought about the first book of the Bible, and the origin of mankind. It is by far the best part of this work, and could easily make a very good book in itself.

The other parts of the book deal with the philosophy of Evolution, and further patristic writings on Creation, followed by some questions and answers, along with a selection of letters by the author, and various useful appendices.

As the editor says in his preface, the value of this book lies not so much in its discussion of the scientific issues surrounding creationism, but in its presentation of the teachings of many of the Fathers of the Church on Genesis. And as Philip E. Johnson, the author of Darwin on Trial, states in his introduction, Fr Seraphim, an Orthodox priest and monk, has done a great service by clearly demonstrating that writers such as Basil or Augustine were not teaching doctrines which can be equated with an early form of evolutionary theory.

Fr Seraphim details those Fathers who wrote on Genesis, and his list includes such luminaries as St John Chrysostom, St Ephraim the Syrian, St Basil the Great, and St Gregory of Nyssa. The author clearly demonstrates that almost invariably we are, according to the Fathers, meant to understand Genesis in a literal way, rather than symbolically, although this did not mean that symbolic interpretations of some points were excluded. Similarly, he establishes that the creative acts of God during the six days of Genesis were understood by the Fathers as being sudden, if not instantaneous—thus there is no room for gradual development, or for any form of evolution in reality. In fact there are only a handful of texts in the writings of the Fathers which can possibly be interpreted in an evolutionary way, and even these are more easy to interpret in the traditional sense.

Their teachings clearly refute those theistic evolutionists who believe that God used evolution as the means by which man’s body developed to a state wherein the soul could be infused into it. Similarly, they clearly state their belief in the creation of Eve from Adam’s rib, and the temptation by the serpent, and also the fall of mankind, as real historical events.

The next section is on the “Philosophy of Evolution,” and this has some valuable points which show how evolutionary dogmas developed, particularly following the Enlightenment; it also has a critique of evolutionary theory. Unfortunately, from this point on, from a Catholic perspective, the book becomes less satisfactory, since Fr Seraphim seemed to believe that the Reformation was in some way a result of Scholasticism, or at least of the “rational” approach which it fostered, rather than it being in part, as was the case, a reaction to a degenerate late form of Scholasticism.

But regrettably, some of his criticisms of particular modern Roman Catholic writers do seem to be valid, and this includes such figures as Karl Rahner, and in particular Teilhard de Chardin, who comes in for lengthy treatment. It is quite clear that his erroneous ideas have done an enormous amount of damage to the Church, and indeed it’s fair to say that in place of God, Teilhard de Chardin virtually put “evolution.” However, Fr Seraphim errs in thinking that “Teilhardism” is representative of genuine Catholic thinking. It is true it has gained a position of great influence, but this will eventually pass.

Overall, there is a great deal of very useful information in the book, but it needs to be used with a degree of caution because of the, at times, quite strong criticisms of Catholicism it contains. There is also a lot of repetition, and it could certainly be made more concise. The first long part on the teaching of the Fathers is the most valuable, but there are many other useful sections, including an appendix of suggested readings. Used judiciously, this book will no doubt prove a great help in determining the truth about the origins of both mankind and the universe.

This review appeared in the Homiletic and Pastoral Review