On Faith and Science

This post requires a small introduction. To our surprise, the St. Anthony’s Monastery in Arizona refused to carry our book The Heavenly Banquet: Understanding the Divine Liturgy in their bookstore, because of certain reservations. Eventually they requested another copy and returned it to us with three hand-written “post-it” notes, on which they wrote their objections to the book. Today’s post is the letter we sent back to them (2009), to which we have not received a reply.
Fr. Emmanuel Hatzidakis
Orthodox Witness
March 18, 2009
St. Cyril of Jerusalem

St. Anthony’s Monastery
Florence, Arizona

Ἤδη δὲ οὔτε ἡ γνῶσις ἄνευ πίστεως, οὔθ᾽ ἡ πίστις ἄνευ γνώσεως.
Clemens Alexandrinus (Strom. 5.1.3)

Dear Brother in Christ,

Although you chose to remain anonymous you are known to God, to Whom we pray for illumination from above and strength to do His will.

Thank you kindly for sharing your thoughts on why, in your opinion, my book does not deserve to be on the shelves of the monastery’s bookstore, because of alleged errors contained in it.

I cannot hide the pain and the sadness that I experienced, that an Orthodox monk has found errors with my book, errors serious enough not to recommend its reading by Orthodox Christians.

Truthfully, I was in a daze, having nightmares, that I was living in the Dark Ages, and I was standing before the Grand Inquisitor, pressured to recant the evils advocated in my book. Padre, per caritá! This is Orthodoxy and 21st century!

I was preparing to respond to you at length, defending the positions you criticize, when I came across an article written by Protopresbyter Dr. Georgios Metallinos, which addresses the issues raised in your notes.

I enclose it, thinking that you will accept the authority of this theologian, who certainly ranks among the top living Greek Orthodox theologians of our times. But if you take exception to his writings, I would be glad to adduce further witnesses in my defense.

Below I include your three comments, followed by comments by Fr. Metallinos’ in italics and my own comments and other quotations.

“The Orthodox Church has always held the position that Holy Scripture, written by (or through) the Holy Spirit is incapable of self-contradiction (cf. St. John Chrysostom et. al.) and of course, error free. This one statement alone, on pg. 89, is enough to cause the book’s rejection from an Orthodox point of view and understanding according to the Church Fathers.”

In your first comment you seem to object to the following paragraph in my book 2:

According to our understanding the Bible is not a scientific textbook, therefore we are not to take every geographic, historical, and scientific detail as error free, and we should not read it that way.

You seem to believe that the Holy Scripture is free from any kind of error (which I call “the erroneous principle of biblical inerrancy”), yet you do not provide your explanation of a few examples cited immediately after the above paragraph. Here they are:

The Holy Scriptures seem to follow the view that God created a stationary, flat earth, with the heaven being a dome over it, and the sun and the moon circling around it (Ps. 104); that He created the universe in six 24-hour days, some 10,000 years ago; and that He took mud to form man out of it, and woman out of his rib.

Please support the objective truthfulness of these biblical statements or assumptions, and many other similar, apparently unscientific statements, like references to, ‘the fountains of the deep and the windows of the heavens being closed” (Gen. 8:2) or the “shutting in the sea with bars and doors” (Job 38:8.10). Are we to take literally the monsters Behemoth (Job 40:15), whose “bones are tubes of bronze, and his like bars of iron” (v. 18), and Leviathan (Job 41:1, see also Ps. 104:26)? Is he real? “His sneezings flash forth light, and his eyes are like the eyelids of the dawn. Out of his mouth go flaming torches; sparks of fire leap forth. Out of his nostrils comes forth smoke, as from a boiling pot and burning rushes. His breath kindles coals, and a flame comes forth from his mouth” (Job 42:18-21)? Read carefully the Prooimiakos Psalm 104 (103 LXX) and tell me how scientific are the lines, “who hast stretched out the heavens like a tent, who hast laid the beams of thy chambers on the waters” (vv. 2b-3a) and “Thou didst set the earth on its foundations, so that it should never be shaken” (v. 5). Read also Proverbs 8:27-29 and tell me how factual are these verses: “When he established the heavens, I was there, when he drew a circle on the face of the deep, when he made firm the skies above, when he established the fountains of the deep, when he assigned to the sea its limit, so that the waters might not transgress his command.” Also Isaiah 45:12: “I made the earth, and created man upon it; it was my hands that stretched out the heavens, and I commanded all their host.”

This is what Fr. Metallinos says on the subject of understanding and using the Holy Scripture as an authority on any human endeavor (from the three quotes I underlined in the article I sent you):

[1] Thus the Holy Scripture and the works of the Holy Fathers (the scientists of the faith) may contain scientific errors, as they relate to the findings of the natural sciences which are continuously reappraised.

[2] God teaches in the Scripture the truth about Himself and not (the scientific knowledge) about creation.

[3] Thus as concerns scientific subjects there is a possibility of a change of opinion based on the new findings.

[4] The problem with religion starts from the acceptance of the sacred books (e.g. Holy Scripture or Koran) as scientific text[s].

[5] In Orthodoxy, when it is Orthodoxy, there cannot be a case of Galileo.

“The Gospels,” says St. Augustine, “do not tell us that our Lord said, ‘I will send you the Holy Ghost to teach you the course of the sun and moon;’ we should endeavor to become Christians, and not astronomers.” So it is with the Mosaic account of creation. Its purport is not to teach geology, physics, zoology, or astronomy, but to affirm in the most simple and direct manner the creative act of God and His sovereignty over all creatures. Its object is not to anticipate any of the truths of science or philosophy, but to guard the chosen people of God against the pernicious errors and idolatrous practices which were then everywhere prevalent.3

This is your second note:

The idea that “Evolution and creation… (are) one and the same (theory) described from two different perspectives” is not at all correct, from an Orthodox perspective.
Man was created by God; he did not evolve slowly over time from a previous “common ancestor.” (pg. 90)
There is no way to get around the teaching than [sic] evolution puts forth that man “evolved.”
This is fundamentally incorrect. The quote of St. [Gregory of] Nyssa does not seem to apply here as a support to the compatibility of the 2 explanations.
Simply put, the Holy Bible and the teaching of the Fathers is the truth, inspired by the Truth. Evolution was a great error written by a man.

You did not explain, Father, why the statement, “Evolution and creation are not seen by us as two opposite theories of how the world came about, but one and the same described from two different perspectives” “is not at all correct.” I provide two examples, but you did not refute them. I don’t think you can!

Apparently, you believe that evolution is a godless theory devised by atheists to tear down belief in God. It has been used that way, but it does not have to, and it does not oppose religion and enlightened understanding of the Holy Scripture. It may be a surprise to you, but as much as creation of the world by God is Orthodox, creationism (the literal interpretation of Genesis and of the Scripture in general) is unorthodox! (God does not have “two hands,” but He has a Son and a Holy Spirit.)

Fr. Metallinos provides concrete answers on the subject of evolution, quoting from St. Basil the Great (PG 29, 36B and 29, 1164) and St. Gregory the Theologian (PG 44, 72B and 44, 148C), to the effect that both accept an evolutionary course in creation.

Specifically, Fr. Metallinos states:

[6] Basil the Great does not expect [to receive] from Scripture all the answers, deeming the scientific research indispensable.

[7] Theology waits patiently the progress of science for the comprehension of its theological tenets.

[8] Theology does not oppose the scientific position, about the age of man on earth, for example.

[9] The theologians accept the freedom of scientific research…

[10] “Science offers a more certain way toward God than religion”4.

God, according to St. Augustine as well as according to St. Gregory of Nyssa, first created matter in an elementary or nebulous state. From this primordial matter—created ex nihilo [from nothing]—was evolved, by the action of physical laws imposed on it by the Creator, all the various forms of terrestrial life that subsequently appeared. In this process of evolution there was succession, but no division of time. The Almighty completed the work He had begun, not intermittently and by a series of special creations, but through the agency of secondary causes—by the operation of natural laws and forces—causales rationes [causal reasons]—of which He was the Author.5

And this is your third and final note:

Science in many instances wonderfully supports the immutable truth of the Orthodox Church and her teachings based on Holy Scripture. It is clear that the theory of Evolution is not one of these instances.

Indeed science in many instances supports the biblical witness. But the faith of the Church does not stand or fall on whether God created the world in six solar days, or on whether “the earth was established above the waters,” as the psalm says, or on any area other than that of faith and morals. In those other areas the Holy Scripture may be wrong, as the Fathers who took it to the letter may also be wrong. Even the sacred and inspired writers used whatever human knowledge was available to them. We too use whatever knowledge we have today. Our faith remains the same, resting on a Creator and Sustainer of the universe.

Our faith cannot be challenged by science, because if any of its findings is true it will find acceptance by the Church.

The truths of faith and the truths of science belong to different categories indeed, but notwithstanding this fact they can never come into conflict. The truths of science are of the natural order, while the truths of faith belong to an order which is supernatural. Both have God for their author, and as He cannot contradict Himself, and as truth cannot be opposed to truth, so the truths of faith never can be at variance with the certain conclusions of science.6

Draw, my dear brother in Christ, your conclusions, based not on fundamentalism, dogmatism, fanaticism, and “biblicalism,” but on the truth, no matter where it comes from. The truth is never our enemy. But if it challenges our beliefs, instead of finding fault with science we should perhaps re-check the foundation of our religious beliefs and revise them!

Someone said, The purpose of the Holy Scripture and of the Church is to teach us how to go to heaven, not how the heavens go. Let’s leave that to science.

The last quote from St. Augustine reminds us of something profound that he has written, on which I very humbly invite you to prayerfully ponder upon and meditate, my dear brother in Christ:

If we come to read anything in Holy Scripture that is in keeping with the faith in which we are steeped, capable of several meanings, we must not by obstinately rushing in, so commit ourselves to any one of them that, when perhaps the truth is more thoroughly investigated, it rightly falls to the ground and we with it. 7

The following illuminating, pertinent quote comes also from the pen of the same saint:

Usually, even a non-Christian knows something about the earth, the heavens, and the other elements of this world, about the motion and orbit of the stars and even their size and relative positions, about the predictable eclipses of the sun and moon, the cycles of the years and the seasons, about the kinds of animals, shrubs, stones, and so forth, and this knowledge he holds to as being certain from reason and experience. Now, it is a disgraceful and dangerous thing for an infidel to hear a Christian, presumably giving the meaning of Holy Scripture, talking nonsense on these topics; and we should take all means to prevent such an embarrassing situation, in which people show up vast ignorance in a Christian and laugh it to scorn. The shame is not so much that an ignorant individual is derided, but that people outside the household of faith think our sacred writers held such opinions, and, to the great loss of those for whose salvation we toil, the writers of our Scripture are criticized and rejected as unlearned men. If they find a Christian mistaken in a field which they themselves know well and hear him maintaining his foolish opinions about our books, how are they going to believe those books in matters concerning the resurrection of the dead, the hope of eternal life, and the kingdom of heaven, when they think their pages are full of falsehoods and on facts which they themselves have learnt from experience and the light of reason? Reckless and incompetent expounders of Holy Scripture bring untold trouble and sorrow on their wiser brethren when they are caught in one of their mischievous false opinions and are taken to task by those who are not bound by the authority of our sacred books. For then, to defend their utterly foolish and obviously untrue statements, they will try to call upon Holy Scripture for proof and even recite from memory many passages which they think support their position, although they understand neither what they say nor the things about which they make assertions. [1 Timothy 1.7].8

My hunch is that you are a convert from a fundamentalist Protestant denomination, and your conversion is not complete, because you don’t have the Orthodox phronema, and you don’t reflect the freedom the children of God enjoy.

It takes a great man to admit his error. I do not ask for apologies: just for your order to place a much-needed book on the shelves of your monastery bookstore, with the blessings of the Very Reverend Archimandrite Elder Ephraim.

Forgive me, brother.

Emmanuel Hatzidakis,

  1. For neither is there knowledge without faith, nor faith without knowledge.
  2. Download the study “Faith and Science” from The Heavenly Banquet that is referred to here (PDF).
  3. J. A. Zahm [Roman Catholic Priest and Professor of Physics at Notre Dame University], Bible, Science, and Faith, John Murphy & Co., Baltimore 1894, pp. 33-34—the indented quotations, with page numbers refer to this book.
  4. quoting Paul Davies, professor of theoretical physics
  5. Zahm, p. 76
  6. Zahm, p. 7
  7. A.C. Crombie, The History of Science from Augustine to Galileo, Dover Publications, New York 1995
  8. De Genesi ad litteram [The Literal Meaning of Genesis], Ancient Christian Writers, Newman Press, 1982, vol. 41, pp. 42-43