Scripture, Icons, and the World We Know

I ask for grace in writing this, lest I go beyond my ability. It seems to me well worth saying as discussions of the relationship between Scripture, dogma and science have surfaced. I offer this as food for thought as well as a ground of discussion.

First, I will note an American Protestant tradition (somewhat thin these days but still present in plenty of places within our culture). What I have in mind was once known as a “Common Sense” reading of Scripture. If was built philosophically on Scottish Common Sense philosophy, which held that we knew things directly and that any person of common sense was, if without prejudice, able to come to agreement with other persons of common sense. It was popular in parts of America and at one time (19th century or so) held absolute sway at Princeton and a number of other institutions, and was associated with such names as B.B. Warfield, et al. With the gradual demise of the formal fundamentalist movement after the 1920’s, this method became more of an interesting bit of historical knowledge, though many parts of it remained within the common treatment of Scripture among conservative Protestants. Among its assumptions was the “perspecuity” of Scripture – that is – it was perfectly understandable and interpretable by a person of common sense who approached it with good will and a desire to know the truth.

Much of this philosophy and theology of Biblical interpretation were a necessary part of Protestantism. If the Scriptures did not have such a quality of “perspecuity,” then some authority would be in charge of interpretation – all of which looked like an inevitable return to “Romanism.”

For a history of Fundamentalism in America and its philosophical underpinnings as well as its various schools of Biblical interpretation, I highly recommend George Marsden’s Fundamentalism and American Culture: the Shaping of Twentieth-Century Evangelicalism, 1870-1925. Marsden currently teaches at Notre Dame, though he was at Duke at the time I studied there. His scholarship on American religion is among the finest available.

All of this is stated as a prelude to the Orthodox approach to Scripture. First, it is only fair to say that modern Orthodoxy has more than once had tremendous influence from both Protestant and Catholic scholarship, sometimes for the better, sometimes for the worse. Much twentieth-century work has been to firmly build Orthodox scholarship on the foundation of the fathers and the Tradition as received within Orthodoxy. I think the study of Scripture is one of those areas where much work remains to be done (as do many other areas). That’s to say (to my dear readers) – just because you read a book by somebody who is Orthodox and you like a lot, does not mean you are necessarily reading definitive Orthodoxy. It’s never that easy.

I will offer a quote which I have used before:

“Man,” says St. Maximus, “has the absolute need for these two things, if he wants to keep the right way to God without error: the spiritual understanding of Scripture and the spiritual contemplation of God in nature.”

The spiritual understanding of Scripture is a permanent tradition of Eastern spiritual writing. In this context, St. Maximus also has the sternest words for those who can’t go beyond the literal meaning of Scripture. Ignorance, in other words, Hades, dominates those who understand Scripture in a fleshly (literal) way:

He who doesn’t enter into the divine beauty and glory found in the letter of the Law falls under the power of the passions and becomes the slave of the world, which is subject to corruption… he has no integrity but what is subject to corruption.

The exact understanding of the words of the Spirit, however, are revealed only to those worthy of the Spirit; in other words, only those who by prolonged cultivation of the virtues have cleansed their mind of the soot of the passions receive the knowledge of things divine; it makes an impression and penetrates them at first contact. This is from Dumitru Staniloae’s Orthodox Spirituality.

A “so-called” Common-sense interpretation of Scripture, or even the “literal” reading, if you will, though sometimes correct, is in many instances not the reading of the Church or of the Fathers and simply leads us into incorrect conclusions.

I think this is particularly the case when treating the early chapters of Genesis and seeking to bring them into current scientific dialog. It is insufficient to say that the “world is now different than God created it,” thereby attempting to rescue a literal reading of Genesis. In terms of the creation of the world, St. Maximus tells us that the “Incarnation is the cause of all things.” This pretty much undermines a literal, chronological treatment of Scripture as in the common-sense tradition.

Genesis certainly tells us much about the condition of humanity – of our turning away from God – but a spiritual reading of that book is certainly required. particularly in the first few chapters, replete as they are with messianic reference, etc. To make of those chapters a “common-sense” description of the creation of the universe and the precise metaphysics of our fall from grace, is probably to miss most of what those chapters have to say to us.

The Fathers (and I think particularly of St. Maximus the Confessor here) in the East really began to tackle the questions of human sin, free will, etc., primarily as they thought about Christ and what was revealed to us in Him about the truth of being human (Jesus was not only fully God, but also fully man, and thus could alone serve as the example of what it means to be “fully human”). And this work was not done until the 5th century. Interestingly, they started there rather than from some sort of systematic theology of the early chapters of Genesis.

In modern times, Fundamentalists, working within the Common Sense tradition, saw Darwin’s work as the complete undermining of the authority of Scripture. The entire modern battle between science and the Bible has largely been a Protestant concern. The terms of that battle have been created largely on that playing field. When Orthodox step onto the field they are like David wearing Saul’s armor. Something just doesn’t fit.

We have interesting verses in Scripture regarding creation. For one, we are told by St. Paul,

For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us. For the earnest expectation of the creation eagerly waits for the revealing of the sons of God. For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of Him who subjected it in hope; because the creation itself also will be delivered from the bondage of corruption into the glorious liberty of the children of God (Romans 8:18-21).

Thus St. Paul makes it quite clear that God made the creation subject to the same futility and bondage to corruption which we know as human beings and that the creation will take part in the same redemption that is ours in Christ Jesus.

When God looks at what He made in Genesis and says, “It is good,” is the statement a comment on things as they are, as they were, or as they shall be? (or some combination thereof). We know, theologically, that nothing is “good” except God alone. How could He describe the universe as “good” except as it comes to be in the finality or completion of its creation when it is fully united with Him (Ephesians 1:10)?

It was certainly common among the Eastern fathers to see Adam and Eve as “adolescents” rather than fully completed, already having achieved perfect image and likeness. St. Irenaeus holds this teaching and it is fairly common among the Eastern fathers. They do not tend to focus on Genesis and “original sin” to the extent that became common in the West.

Why do I include icons in the title of this piece? I do so because of the marvelous theological hint given us in the Seventh Ecumenical Council: “Icons do with color what Scripture does with words.” This is a clear recognition both of how icons work, but also of how Scripture works. Icons are windows – they make it possible to see beyond them to something else. They do not necessarily (in fact rarely) depict anything in a strictly historical manner and yet what they depict is true. I see in Genesis a rich icon of the creation. Knowing how to read that icon, how to see what is shown us by God, requires far more than common sense. It requires a purer heart than I know I have – it requires a relationship with both God and with creation that I do not yet have. But I do know that it is pointing me beyond myself and further than my “common sense” would ever take me.

As for science – it has its own rules and ways of reading the universe. Sometimes science and the faith cross paths. Inasmuch as we both want to know the truth, we share a common journey. Inasmuch as science seeks to control the universe, we part ways. But the assumption that there is all one big truth to which Bible and science both belong – this is part and parcel of Scottish Common Sense Philosophy, not exactly a part of Orthodox Tradition. There is much to be discussed by Orthodox in our modern world. Some of that discussion requires a deeper appropriation of the Tradition. Some of that discussion requires that we speak about things that science is making known. But everything requires that we find the Truth at it is revealed in Christ – wherever and however that is so. Glory to God.

About Fr. Stephen Freeman

Fr. Stephen is a priest of the Orthodox Church in America, Pastor Emeritus of St. Anne Orthodox Church in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is also author of Everywhere Present and the Glory to God podcast series.



36 responses to “Scripture, Icons, and the World We Know”

  1. Graham Cochenet Avatar
    Graham Cochenet

    The problem with spiritual reading of scripture is often similar with the
    literal reading. Where is the difinitive source ? The problem of reading
    Genesis as primairly spirtiual is what do you do with the resurection.
    As Paul states if there is no historical actual resurection all spiritual applications are in vain. One question is that in Romans it states death came into the world because of sin, what do you do with this verse, does
    only have spiritual value or not ?


  2. fatherstephen Avatar

    It’s why I belong to a Tradition, which teaches us how to read. Of course somethings are quite literal (resurrection) but it does not mean that all things are to be so read. But as an Orthodox Christian, it’s possible within the Tradition to know how to read the Scriptures. Otherwise, one is impossibly on your own. It was that sort of self-sufficiency that the “Common Sense” approach sought to make possible. And there are no self-sufficient Christians. The New Testament never speaks of such a thing. There are members of the Church, His body. The Scriptures are very much the “Church’s Book” though it has a unique place. But only within the Church do we learn how to read and understand Scripture. The Fathers of the Church never imagined anything else, and noted, frequently, that it was heretics who sought to do otherwise, to their own spiritual destruction. Christ Himself clearly taught a peculiar hermeneutic (interpretation) to His disciples, which they themselves did not understand until after the resurrection. This is made quite clear in the Gospels. And so it remains. We must be taught, in the bosom of the Church, how to read the Scriptures, for as Christians, we believe that “these are they which testify of Him” (Old Testament included).

  3. Fellow Sojourner Avatar
    Fellow Sojourner

    Fr. Stephen,

    Should you feel up to it given your back problems and your Lenten schedule, I would love to have your comments on a couple of scattered thoughts I had on your post:

    1. My view of the battles between science and theology may be colored by the facts that I have been thoroughly catechized by a “common sense” protestant theology and hermeneutic, and that I am very new to Orthodoxy. However, I have looked at these battles as a power struggle that has existed for a very long time (long before Darwin and naturalistic philosophy). These battles may not have existed in the Christian East – I’m completely ignorant of this history. I’m thinking here not only of the current modern debates of different camps demonizing each other, but also of the demonization of men like Galileo by the Roman church.

    It has always seemed to me that these battles exist because those that hold the keys to the creation story hold the keys to culture. In short, it is a power struggle of the first order; a power struggle over the keys to defining, not only culture, but humanity. This led to another assumption that the philosophical naturalism that currently holds the keys is defining humanity and therefore we see the redefining of western culture.

    Do you think there is validity to these assumptions, or do they flow out of a literalist/”common sense” approach to the Genesis creation story?

    2. ( a completely different thought) Apart from the self-sufficiency that you mention in your comment to Graham, could the Scottish common sense philosophy have been influenced – even in the smallest of ways – by its cultural memory of Celtic Orthodoxy?

    I understand if you can’t devote time to commenting on these thoughts. (In fact I wonder how you write anything at all during Lent.) I also want you to know that I pray for your strength, stamina and healing.

    Fellow Sojourner

  4. ericcore Avatar

    Fr. Stephen,

    Thank you for writing this post. I found your blog at random one day (I suppose by the work of the Spirit) and subscribed instantly.

    If labels beyond simply “Christian” are necessary, I guess I would be called a “Protestant,” but I consider it highly important to talk to (and read about) Christians from all denominations, churches, and schools of thought, because I think it is important to challenge my beliefs as a way to grow. By listening to other perspectives and experiences, I learn new things about God in ways I could never learn if I were to remain locked into my small Evangelical circle. Your blog has become a new piece to my path towards better knowing and following Jesus.

    Friday night I was at my girlfriend’s college with some of her friends, and the conversation go onto the subject of Orthodoxy. She attends a Bible College that is full of what I might call “Recovering Fundamentalists,” so I was surprised to find out that they had three students who are Greek Orthodox. One of the guys in our talk was very quick to criticize these students’ use of icons, and a few other people agreed with him, saying that icons are actually idols. While I personally am not Orthodox and do not use icons, I felt compelled to try to defend these students, objecting “They’re not idols… it’s not like they worship the icons.” But my argument was quickly refuted and I didn’t know enough about where icons come from or what Orthodox Christians really have to say about icons, so I decided to drop it. My point in telling this story is to say that your post was very insightful for me. It helped me better understand icons and the thought behind them.

    I’m at the point in my life where I’m really working out my faith and deciding what I believe about everything. I grew up in a Baptist church, but I’ve never really considered myself a Baptist, only a Christian. So now I’m searching through the Scriptures, other churches, and other Christian books to try to come to a true understanding of who God is and what He wants for my life. And I totally agree with you that this cannot be done alone. If I had not gotten connected with a great local church after coming to my own college this year (one that is supposedly Catholic, but operates in a highly secularized fashion… another opportunity for great conversations with people who have a different understanding of God), I would definitely be doing very poorly in my faith right now. Growing with other Christians is the only thing that keeps me growing at all.

    However, for when you have the time, there is one question about icons that is left unanswered for me. What is their origin? I now understand their use, but I don’t understand their Scriptural backing. Thanks again for this blog entry. I look forward to reading your answer!


  5. fatherstephen Avatar

    Fellow Sojourner,

    I think your observation is largely on target. How we tell the story of who we are is a major cultural key. I think one of the weaknesses of the fundamentalist position has been its difficulty in maintaining credibility while science marched forward. It’s story is too small, and may have done damage to the faith in this struggle by being the most visible opponent, or making other Christians afraid to join the fray lest they be labeled “fundamentalist.”

    Orthodoxy tends to join the fray on the level of man’s existence in the image of God, the only source of human dignity. And we usually begin with Christ who is fully man, the image of the invisible God, as Scripture calls Him, rather than just arguing Genesis. Besides, Christ is the interpretation of Genesis.

    I don’t think there’s any connection with Celtic Orthodoxy, because Celtic Orthodoxy was never really anything but Orthodoxy (it had a few local twists) but it was largely different from the Western mission that it encountered because it had earlier looked particularly to the desert spirituality of Egypt (strangely enough). They were far more mystical and pretty far removed from later “common sense”.

    Think of St. Patrick’s breastplate (Lorica). Deeply mystical (in the best and truest sense).

  6. fatherstephen Avatar


    Icons, pictures, existed from the very beginnings of Christianity. Examples can be found even in the Catacombs. Interestingly, excavations of synagogues, contemporary to early Christianity, show a use of images there. Thus contemporary Judaism itself was not averse to images. The later fiction that makes Judaism similar to Islam on this question is just false.

    As time went on, however, the Church became quite careful about images, since they held such importance (they teach doctrine). Thus, properly, there are canons and guides for precisely how an icon should be painted, though there are many examples of images used in some Orthodox Churches that do not conform to these canons. Properly speaking, these images are better described as “religious art” rather than icons (at least the master iconographer I’ve worked with is quite clear on this point).

  7. ericcore Avatar

    Thanks Father Stephen. That makes a lot more sense. So, if “icons” could also simply be called “religious art,” why do you think it is that most Protestants seem to think that Orthodox pray to icons?

    Sorry to pry here… again, this is certainly not a challenge of any sort. I’m just taking all the misunderstandings and bad theology of my youth and trying to reconcile them with the truth, and I definitely appreciate your help in that.


  8. Nathan Avatar

    Father Freeman,

    I love your blog. I found this last post particularly interesting…

    Do you know much about Father Seraphim Rose?

    He wrote a book called:

    Orthodoxy and Genesis: What the fathers really taught
    A review of Genesis, Creation and Early Man
    Fr Seraphim Rose
    Saint Herman of Alaska
    Brotherhood, Platina, CA, 2000

    The book has a forward by Philip Johnson, the founder of the Intelligent Design movement (and a good Presbyterian, probably a big fan of some aspects of the Scottish Common Sense fellows 🙂 )

    According to the review of this book on Answers in Genesis’ web site, ( ), Rose believed that evolutionary ideas fit in with the developing one-world synthesis of the coming Antichrist. He also believed that evolution was one of the most dangerous concepts facing the church (see p. 509-582), and “goes on to demonstrate that the ‘Holy Fathers’ [“John Chrysostom (344–407), Ephraim the Syrian (306–372), Basil the Great (329–379) and Ambrose of Milan (339–397)… he also used many other ‘Fathers’ of that and later centuries who wrote on some aspect of Genesis 1–11″] took Genesis no less literally than Protestant young-earth creationists.”

    Rose says that we must humbly respect the text of Scripture and the Patristic opinions. Here is some additional information about the book, quoted from the AIG article:

    “…Rose helpfully explains and documents that the ‘Holy Fathers’ interpreted Genesis (and other Scriptures) both literally and symbolically. That is, they believed the text was literal history, but that it also had a mystical meaning related to the spiritual life of the individual believer or the whole church. It is for this reason that superficial readers of these ancient writings can find passages, which appear to support their non-literal, old-earth views. Among the details of Genesis 1–11 that the ‘Holy Fathers’ (even the most mystical ones) clearly took literally are these: length of days (24-hours), order of Creation events (e. g. earth and plants before the Sun), instantaneous creation of living things with maturity (e. g. Adam being created as an adult not an infant, plants with fruit on the branches, etc.),5 Adam created from the dust and Eve from Adam’s rib, Adam’s naming of the animals, a literal talking serpent in the literal Garden of Eden, a global Flood, the 900-year life-spans of the pre-Flood patriarchs, and the genealogies in Genesis 5 and 11 (no gaps, strictly chronological). They were not dogmatic about the precise age of the earth since the Greek text of the OT (Septuagint (LXX)—preferred by Orthodox theologians) and Hebrew (Masoretic) text disagreed (which didn‘t bother the ‘Fathers’),6 but they placed it approximately at 5500 BC . However, it is important to note, the ‘Holy Fathers’ were equally explicit that in the literal history of Genesis (as elsewhere in the Bible) the anthropomorphic language describing God was not literal (pp. 87, 198, 247, 277, 404).

    It was interesting to see that the ‘Holy Fathers’ expounded many other important points in the modern young-earth creationist position. For example, they understood that Cain married one of his close relatives (p. 232), that all people groups are descended from one man (p. 480), and that each original ‘kind’ was fixed to reproduce according to its distinct nature and not to change into a different kind (pp. 123, 133–137, 386–388).

    But one of the most important points repeatedly made by the ‘Fathers’ and by Rose was that the pre-Fall world was categorically different from the world that we live in now. The Fall and Curse had a profound effect on the whole Creation (pp. 202, 206–207, 328, 409, 413, 445, 585, 607). Neither animals nor man were carnivores before the Fall, but probably only became so after the Flood (pp. 155, 411–412). Adam’s mind was far superior to any man’s since (pp. 177, 483). The laws of nature, even the nature of matter itself, changed drastically at the Fall (pp. 328, 415). Man’s significant physical change was seen not only in his becoming mortal, but also even in the ‘voiding of fecal matter’ which Rose claims did not happen pre-Fall (pp. 448–449).7 Only in the new heavens and new earth (which will be like the pre-Fall Creation), argued these ancient writers, will the curse on all of Creation be removed (p. 431).” (end quote)

    The author of this review, AIG staff person Terry Mortenson, also says: “Johnson is right in saying (pp. 50–51) that ‘Fr Seraphim has thoroughly demolished one of the favorite canards of accommodationists [with evolution] not only in Orthodoxy, but also in Roman Catholic and Protestant circles’, where we encounter ‘such perverse misinterpretations’ of pre-nineteenth century church leaders. With many statements throughout the book, Rose gives us a clear picture of the extent to which 20th century EO believers have compromised with evolution”.

  9. Bonnie Avatar

    I would question whether there has in fact been a “battle between science and the Bible” — between (some) scientists and (some) Christians, perhaps, but not between science as a way of “reading the universe” and the Bible as the Word of God (which is much too important to be taken literally, as I believe Madeleine L’Engle once said). As you note, science and the faith sometimes cross paths — but again, I have difficulty with the idea that “science seeks to control the universe.” To quote the eminent physicist Eugene Wigner: “The laws of nature are all conditional statements and they relate only to a very small part of our knowledge of the world.” Of course Wigner was famous for his humility, but I think most really good scientists are aware that at some level, the more we understand, the more we realize how much we don’t understand. (And not to nitpick, but I think the word you’re after is “perspicuity.” I am on much firmer ground with spelling than with philosophy of science!)

    Thank you for your enlightening posts. You are in my prayers always, but with special intention for your back.

  10. Nathan Avatar

    Re: this comment from my post above:

    “But one of the most important points repeatedly made by the ‘Fathers’ and by Rose was that the pre-Fall world was categorically different from the world that we live in now. The Fall and Curse had a profound effect on the whole Creation”

    I note the following:

    According to John Meyendorff, “the majority of Eastern Fathers… interpret Romans 5:12 in close connection with I Corinthians 15:22”, namely “as sin came into the world through one man and death through sin, so death spread to all men; and because of death, all men have sinned.” They therefore interpret death as a “cosmic disease, which holds humanity under its sway, both spiritually and physically…it is this death, which makes sin inevitable and in this sense ‘corrupts’ nature. (Byzantine Theology, 1974, p. 143-145) I see three major difficulties with this. First, if death is a cosmic *disease* that all of human nature has, this already presumes some kind of corruption of nature. Second, this does not do justice to the concept of “spiritual death”. God said that “on the day that you eat of it, you will surely die”, and yet Adam and Eve did not physically die that day. Thirdly, Genesis 3:22 is quite explicit that man was deprived of the tree of life specifically because he had become like God, knowing good and evil, and therefore could not eat from the tree, that he might live forever. Again, this shows a level of corruption by their sin before God punishes them with physical death by depriving them of the tree of life. Saint Maximus the Confessor states that “Death is principally the separation from God, from which followed necessarily the death of the body. Life is principally He who said, ‘I am the Life’” (Philokalia, vol. 2, p 27 (Greek edition). The word “principally” seems to me a key here. Further however, regarding the death of the body necessarily following, it again seems clear that in some sense it was also because Adam and Eve were deprived of the tree of life by God that they died. In sum, it seems clear from the Scripture that death made its entrance into human history on the day that Adam and Eve sinned against God.

    (Incidentally, this view of corruption meshes with what I have been reading in Cyril of Alexandria [Luke commentary]. Things like: “For the whole nature of man became guilty in the person of him who was first formed; but now it is wholly justified again in Christ.” (Homily 42) and “We then say, that in many things we all of us offend, and that no man is pure from uncleanness, even though his life upon earth be but one day. Let us ask then of God mercy; which if we do, Christ will justify us; by Whom and with Whom, to God the Father, be praise and dominion, with the Holy Spirit, unto ages of ages. Amen.” (Homily 120))

  11. William Avatar

    Some of the fathers leave you with the impression that there was no such thing as a “pre-fall” world to speak of. Sts Irenaeus and Maximus the Confessor are particularly interesting here. For Irenaeus, man was created in order to be saved. For Maximus, as has been referenced already, Christ’s incarnation is the cause of all things and man was brought into the world in order to be united to God (which is salvation).

    Irenaeus doesn’t speak of a “fall” per se, with a pre-fall world and a post-fall world, but of Adam’s “apostasy,” which he describes as occurring quickly and basically inevitably after creation. Maximus refers to man turning from God to sensible things at the “instant he was created,” and he takes pains to emphasize a “participation in a goodness that is yet to come not one that existed once and was corrupted.” The implication is that, despite descriptions of Adam’s life in Paradise found in both of these fathers, those descriptions might not be meant in true temporality. They seem to be saying that there never was a period of time when man was not separated from God and in need of Christ’s salvation.

    Still it is made clear that sin is man’s own responsibility. Maximus locates it in the “difference of gnomic wills that introduced into our lives sin and our separation from God. For evil consists in nothing else than this difference in our gnomic will from the divine will.” Irenaeus doesn’t use the terminology of gnomic wills, but devotes many a passage to explaining that man’s will is free and has chosen its own apostasy.

    It is for the very purpose of salvation man exists, and Irenaeus describes salvation in terms of the completion of our creation. Thus, when God creates and declares his creation to be good, it might be best to understand that he is describing things from the perspective of the end, when all things are gathered up in Christ and one with him. Maximus declares the end of the virtuous man (the one who “participates in God, the substance of the virtues”) is the same as the beginning and the beginning the same as the end. Maximus describes man as progressing toward his own beginning. The man who participates in God “is in genuine harmony with God, since the goal of everything is given in its beginning and the end of everything is given in its ultimate goal. As to the beginning, in addition to receiving being itself, one receives the natural good by participation: as to the end, one zealously traverses one’s course toward the beginning and source without deviation by means of one’s good will and choice.”

    I think Carl, with his comment in the last post, hit on what we must remember. He said, “causality does not always work from earlier event to later event. As in the case of the Cross, the later event can cause earlier ones.” When this is kept in mind, one can see the effects of the fall in a different way.

    The common temptation is to read Genesis as the story of what happened a long time ago, when it is truly the story of what is happening right now.

    Also, in reference to God depriving man of the tree of life as being a punishment of God for corruption, Irenaeus states that God “drove (Adam) out of Paradise, and removed him far from the tree of life, not because He envied him the tree of life, as some venture to assert, but because He pitied him, and did not desire that he should continue a sinner forever, nor that the sin which surrounded him should be immortal, and evil interminable and irremediable. But He set a bound to his state of sin, by interposing death and thus causing sin to cease, so that man, ceasing at length to live to sin, and dying to it, might begin to live to God.”

    Irenaeus also writes about God making man mortal to teach man the value of life. Maximus writes similarly, saying “Our forefather Adam, however, used his freedom to turn toward what was worse and to direct his desire away from what had been permitted to what was forbidden. It was in his power to be united to the Lord and become one spirit with God or to join himself to a prostitute and become one body with her. But Adam was deceived and chose to cut himself off voluntarily from God’s happy end for him, preferring by his own free choice to be drawn down to the earth than to become God by grace. Out of wisdom and love for mankind, as befits his goodness, God who works out our salvation, fixed a punishment that is suitable to the irrational movement of our intellectual faculty. The punishment was death, which means that the capacity to render to God what is due God alone, to love him with all our mind, was destroyed. As a result, it is only when we have been taught by suffering that we who love non-being can regain the capacity to love what is.”

  12. fatherstephen Avatar

    I am thoroughly familiar with Seraphim Rose. I find St. Maximus of more interest. Also some of the writings of Kalomiros in which he and Rose specifically debated certain points are worth reading. Kalomiros is worth a read as well. Seraphim Rose, despite citations of the Fathers, has not produced the definitive Orthodox book on the subject. There is much more to be said and discussed. 19th century Protestant issues are not necessarily Orthodox issues nor should they be read back into the writings of the Fathers. Context is important. Salvation in Christ, not the correctness of scientific theories, was the context in which they wrote. We do well to read them for it.

    If you want to know what Cyril, et. al thought, it is better to read them themselves, or read a variety of Orthodox writings on them and be cautious about individuals whose take on Orthodoxy was largely polemical.

    It is also true that many of the early Fathers were heavily influenced by Origen, correcting him enough to be acceptable. But Origen believed we actually fell into materiality which, of course, is heretical. But his influence remained for some centuries. St. Basil speaks of us “falling out of paradise and into this world,” in his anaphora, though it is not explained.

    There’s a lot more stuff to read other than Rose and much discussion to be had. The polemics and attacks on other Orthodox cloud the discussion and create tensions that need not exist. We do not need to follow Protestantism down a road of obscurity.

  13. fatherstephen Avatar


    Very good observations. Indeed, tradition only holds that Adam and Eve were in the garden 40 days. They are expelled from Paradise and come into the world where things don’t seem to be quite so good. But it is a chapter to be read primarily regarding Christ, not primarily for a diagnosis of what happened in the fall. To read it as pure history is, I think, a mistake and not necessarily patristic (Irenaeus and Maximus being good examples). The fact that other fathers might have read it differently is not significant, necessarily. There is no Conciliar teaching on the matter, but a variety of treatments by the Fathers.

  14. Nathan Avatar

    Father Freeman,

    Thank you for your response to my post. I hope that someone will indeed take up the mantle to try to produce a definitive book on the topic. If I understand Rose correctly he seems to be saying that the Fathers touched on these issues in their writing, and I for one, find it significant that whatever context they were writing in or whatever topics they were discussing, they evidently did not take Genesis as poetry (although perhaps the “definitive book” will show otherwise), but history (also, I understand your concern for unnecessary polemics, but I am sure you would say that the history of the Church shows that things have, at times, needed to get polemical).

    By the way, I have been reading Cyril straight (though not “pure” as we all have our presuppositions, you know!) J – his commentary on Luke, as I mentioned.


    Wow, thank you for taking my analysis so seriously. What great information you have provided! I greatly appreciate it.


    “For Maximus, as has been referenced already, Christ’s incarnation is the cause of all things and man was brought into the world in order to be united to God (which is salvation)”


    “causality does not always work from earlier event to later event. As in the case of the Cross, the later event can cause earlier ones.”

    Carl and William, I do not see why taking this view would necessarily preclude a “pre-fall” world/cosmos in space, chronologically speaking (not logically), even if the goodness that is yet to come is not identical to the one that existed once and was corrupted (I, a Lutheran, certainly believed that Adam was created in a “very good infant, immature state” (as I believe, most thoughtful Lutherans at least, would agree). Again, I don’t see why temporality needs to be eliminated from the equation.

    You said:

    “They seem to be saying that there never was a period of time when man was not separated from God and in need of Christ’s salvation.”

    I also do not think that there was ever a time when man was in need of God’s constant love, nurture, and upholding. I believe we were made to exist with Him in trust and love, and our final salvation will be the completion of creation.

    Re: your summary of Maximus’ and Ireenaeus’ view of the will and freedom, I like their way of speaking, but do not think that this must necessarily rule out a deep corruption not only of the body but of the soul, as I believe Cyril of Alexandria, for example, teaches. My understanding is that through the Word God freely gives faith (and infants actually believe, modeling for us the faith of a child), and then, once made a new creation, we are free to reject what has been given as gift.


    “Thus, when God creates and declares his creation to be good, it might be best to understand that he is describing things from the perspective of the end, when all things are gathered up in Christ and one with him.”

    I do not think this needs to be either-or though, does it? Would this not especially be the case if “the end of the virtuous man… is the same as the beginning and the beginning the same as the end”? I also agree that the goal of everything (genuine harmony with God) is given it its beginning (we have all things in Christ in embryonic form so to speak) since the end of everything is given in its ultimate goal (where all things in Christ become ours in mature form, something that does not preclude our participation with Him in time and physical space).


    “The common temptation is to read Genesis as the story of what happened a long time ago, when it is truly the story of what is happening right now.”

    Again, why either/or? For the Church Fathers John Chrysostom, Ephraim the Syrian, Basil the Great, Ambrose of Milan and others it seems to have been both/and.

    I share Irenaeus’ and Maximus’ view regarding God’s making man mortal post-fall/Eden (“post”: again note the chronological, temporal aspect), I think (also note that Irenaeus talks about a “state of sin” [corruption]). Regarding God depriving man of the tree of life as being a punishment for corruption, I am using punishment in a wide, not narrow sense, the narrow sense being final punishment, where there is no longer an opportunity for repentance and faith to take root. In this wide sense, I think it is responsible to speak of punishment being more or less synonymous with discipline (as Maximus seems to use it).

    The only thing I am not sure about is the quote from Maximus: “The punishment was death, which means that the capacity to render to God what is due God alone, to love him with all our mind, was destroyed…”

    I think that folks like Cyril of Alexandria speak in a similar fashion, but also speak of “corruption” making it impossible to love God the way we ought. In that case, if Maximus means “spiritual death” (corruption) I would agree, but if not, I would like to see him and Cyril have it out.

  15. fatherstephen Avatar


    The choice would not be between literal history and poetry, but a typological reading or, as I like to say, an iconic reading. Very different things from liberalism.

  16. tyrporter Avatar

    Father bless,

    Are spiritual death and physical death just two sides of the same coin? I guess what I’m asking is if I am understanding St. Dionysius right in that it seems he is saying (I read the “collected works” from Classics of Western Spirituality so long ago I no longer remember which work I am referencing here, but Nathan’s posts reminded me of the book) that God, being Being itself, is the literal source of all continued existence, and that therefore not participating in God spiritually of necessity leads to non-being (physical death). This neoplatonic argument becomes Christianized by Dionysius then going on to say that God, in His love, redeems all of creation in Christ and allows through the General Resurrection and the Restoration of the world even those who reject Him to have existence, even if it is not a state of blessedness (a fuller participation in God’s Being). If I am understanding this correctly, it seems to be a fusion of our normal dichotomy between soul and matter. Dying “spiritually” is not separate from dying physically.

  17. Ruth Avatar

    Fr. Stephen,

    Have you read this article by Dn. Kuraev? What do you think of it?

  18. William Avatar

    Nathan, I can’t give you a complete response right now, but I don’t think the comments or quotes I offered were really definitive answers to an “either/or” or “both/and” question of a pre-fall cosmos. It’s a question I can’t answer and the fathers treat it variously (although I would venture to guess that many of the fathers who came after St Irenaeus were familiar with what he wrote and that his thought might be helpful in revealing some basic assumptions shared by later fathers).

    For Sts Maximus and Gregory of Nyssa, even “pre-fall” aspects of creation, such as the division of man into two sexes, were provisions for the “post-fall” reality. The idea, which is very clear in Irenaeus and others, is that God created man knowing exactly what man would do with his freedom, and that this itself figures into God’s plan for the salvation of the world. This would suggest that regardless of the amount of time that might have existed before the fall, it is the “post-fall” reality that conditioned whatever “pre-fall” reality existed.

  19. Andrew Avatar

    There is one issue I’d like to raise. While Orthodox theology rejected the view that we fell from perfection, and preferred the view that we were created immature with the potential of theosis, it was still impossible for Orthodox theology to accept this world that we experience as God’s authentic creation.

    And while I agree with the take father Stephen has on things, the issue of evil still remains. Either we live in the creation God intended us to live in originally, with the potential of getting transformed, yes, but with death and pain as part of this authentic creation, or natural evil distorted God’s original creation.

    No matter how we read Genesis, or Paul for that matter, the question of natural suffering remains. I don’t see how the iconic reading solves the problem. Sorry!

  20. William Avatar

    “It was still impossible for Orthodox theology to accept this world that we experience as God’s authentic creation.”

    That’s very much the opposite of what I have gathered from Orthodox theology. Perhaps I misunderstand your meaning?

  21. tyrporter Avatar

    I had always thought that Orthodoxy, while rejecting the idea that we fell from perfection, upheld that we fell from that which God intended for us and that in His foreknowledge He already planned for us turning away from His original intention. We fell from our “natural” state, which is one in which we have the potential to become perfect, into a state of corruption. This corruption we fell into results in “natural suffering.”

  22. fatherstephen Avatar

    I have not read the piece by Dn Kuraev. Interestingly there are revolutionary new understandings going on about DNA in which change is apparently less a matter of mutation and more the turning on and off of genes, which is not yet clearly understood. It is very premature for science to say to much and very premature for theology to comment on science’s findings. Things are changing very fast.

  23. Carl Avatar

    I think the fact that the Fathers of the Church have different takes on Genesis should tell us that a) belief in a literal 7 day creation is optional for Orthodox Christians and b) belief that the account in Genesis is (also) a metaphor for Christ and also a metaphor for what happens in our lives is non-optional. Since belief in creationism is optional, I think this signifies that there’s not much of spiritual use riding on the matter. What’s important for our growth in Christ is what the Creed says, “Creator of all things visible and invisible.” Less important is how the creation actually took place.

    Creationism is fine as a theologumena, but from my own experiences, I think that insisting on it too strongly can weaken the faith of those who have to go to biology classes, etc. where they are told that their beliefs have been “disproved” by science. In point of fact, however, there is very little that science can say about the Faith. Short of the invention of time machines which reveal a non-empty tomb, I’m not really sure how science could bring a serious challenge to the faith.

  24. neochalcedonian Avatar

    A Perspective For Discussion:

    The radicalism of natural selection lies in its power to dethrone some of the deepest and most traditional comforts of Western thought, particularly the notion that nature’s benevolence, order, and good design, with humans at a sensible summit of power and excellence, proves the existence of an omnipotent and benevolent creator who loves us most of all (the old-style theological version), or at least that nature has meaningful directions, and that humans fit into a sensible and predictable pattern regulating the totality (the modern and more secular version).

    To these beliefs Darwinian natural selection presents the most contrary position imaginable. Only one causal force produces evolutionary change in Darwin’s world: the unconscious struggle among individual organisms to promote their own personal reproductive success—nothing else, and nothing higher (no force, for example, works explicitly for the good of species or the harmony of ecosystems). Richard Dawkins would narrow the focus of explanation even one step further—to genes struggling for reproductive success within passive bodies (organisms) under the control of genes—a hyper-Darwinian idea that I regard as a logically flawed and basically foolish caricature of Darwin’s genuinely radical intent.

    The very phenomena that traditional views cite as proof of benevolence and intentional order—the good design of organisms and the harmony of ecosystems—arise by Darwin’s process of natural selection only as side consequences of a singular causal principle of apparently opposite meaning: organisms struggling for themselves alone. (Good design becomes one pathway to reproductive success, while the harmony of ecosystems records a competitive balance among victors.) Darwin’s system should be viewed as morally liberating, not cosmically depressing. The answers to moral questions cannot be found in nature’s factuality in any case, so why not take the “cold bath” of recognizing nature as nonmoral, and not constructed to match our hopes? After all, life existed on earth for 3.5 billion years before we arrived; why should life’s causal ways match our prescriptions for human meaning or decency? (Stephen Jay Gould, “Darwinian Fundamentalism”)

  25. Nathan Avatar

    Father Stephen,

    Re: “typological reading” or “iconic reading”, I think I understand the importance here, but how does “history” (perhaps not “literal history”) come into play with these readings?

    For everyone’s consideration, questions I was personally confronted with 10 years ago, and that I just emailed to a good friend (in slightly different form):


    Assuming one believes in a literal Adam and Eve, who are not poetry or metaphor, why should we even consider the setting in which they are presented be so? (there are some sincere Christians who don’t believe in a literal Adam and Eve too, I think, but then the question becomes, in regards to the genealogies, “when does metaphor become history”?). Crucial stuff of course since Christ is the “Last Adam”. Also, do we believe that there was suffering, thorns, thistles, disease, bloodshead, and death before Adam and Eve sinned? If not, how do we interpret the fossil record, for example, which is full of these things? (99.9 percent extinction rate…) These questions seem to deal with the Gospel itself, i.e., they have “incarnational” import, since we consider that Christ came to rescue us from these things we brought upon ourselves (or is this a part of the “very good” creation God made?) and to *restore* all things. What is the “history of death” that the evolutionary view ends up proclaimsing? Finally, how do we handle the question of a person who is trying to reconcile the violence, pain, suffering, and death we see in the world with a loving God? Is death a “natural part” of life, or not?

  26. fatherstephen Avatar

    I think what is at stake, is learning to read the Scripture in something other than a “common sense” chronological manner. The reintroduction of typology and a true Christocentric reading (which includes seeing many things in an eschatological manner rather than purely historic) are key. There is plenty of history in Scripture, but even in many of those cases, the point is that history points beyond itself to something more. All of this is frequently anticipated in many patristic exegeses of Scripture and is a gold mine for the Church. It is not a capitulation to the Darwinists (I don’t think he correctly described the mechanisms of creation). As noted in an earlier comment, DNA, apparently changes less by mutation and more by the turning off and on of genes already present in a manner that thus far remains unkown. Science is not ready for a debate with the fullness of Christian tradition, and doesn’t need to enter into such a debate. That Tradition (unlike Rome) has not been at war with science. But Science has too many unanswered large questions to do anything more than keep asking its questions. Christians would do well to keep asking questions, such as, “What does the fullness of Christian Tradition actually teach?” Certainly this is to be preferred to using truncated arguments of nineteenth century protestantism.

  27. Wonders for Oyarsa Avatar

    Father Stephen,

    Are you at all familiar with Mike Gene’s book The Design Matrix? It’s a fascinating look at how Darwinian evolution may actually be the unpacking of a design. I’ve read a lot on the topic of origins, and his take makes far more sense to me than either the creationist or dogmatic Darwinist models, and he comes at it with a very humble approach.

  28. fatherstephen Avatar

    I have not read it – but as I’ve said – I think it very premature for Christians or Scientists to be engaging in debate. The Scientists are still babes in their field, and half the Christians or more, are working with a damaged hermeneutic.

  29. fatherstephen Avatar

    I do not know a quick reference to Kalomiros’ works on the Six Days of Creation, I have a photocopy in my office. But it is excellent and full of insight. He was the author of the River of Fire.

  30. Wonders for Oyarsa Avatar

    Father Stephen,

    On hermeneutic, I wonder if I might ask another question. For the past two years I’ve been blogging through the Bible – trying to take a big-picture and christological approach. So what you say about typology very much appeals to me. Indeed, there are some passages (like the brutal slaughter of Ai and the condemnation of Achan) where I would meet utter despair if I could not look upon Christ and see him in the text.

    So in my heart, I agree with you, and am grateful. But I do wonder – is there a place for the historian here in the Orthodox community? Is there value in temporarily pretending we don’t know how the story ends? Is there value in slogging through the limited context of the ancient Israelites, and trying to look through their eyes? Is there room to pursue the original intent of the author, even though we know that the Divine hand ultimately intends to point us to Christ? Could not a typological reading also mean that we go through the “cross” of the ancient and terrible sight of God in all his fury and brutality, so that we can all the more shout for joy at the glory of his goodness in Christ? Or is this intrinsically bound to Western historical-criticism and hopelessly flawed?

  31. fatherstephen Avatar

    There is fruit to be gained there, but not to overlook the typological or Christological interpretation.

  32. Jason Avatar

    Fr. Freeman,

    I found a work titled “The Six Dawns” by Kalomiros. Is this the same work you reference? If so, it can be found on the web at:

    As always, thanks for your thoughtful blog!


  33. fatherstephen Avatar

    This is indeed the same work.

  34. Nathan Avatar

    Father Stephen,

    You said:

    “What does the fullness of Christian Tradition actually teach?” Certainly this is to be preferred to using truncated arguments of nineteenth century protestantism.”

    “and half the Christians or more, are working with a damaged hermeneutic.”

    I am eager to read the “The Six Dawns” by Kalomiros. Nevertheless, the assertive tone of your comments above discourage me. I speak as a Christian who is very, very concerned to recognize the typological readings of Scripture and to learn more about the iconic reading you speak of. And yet – I simply do not see how this would negate reading Genesis as simple matter of fact history – as an account of how things actually were (as even liberal Bible scholars – who have no dog left in the fight as they don’t believe any of the Bible is true anyway other than perhaps its Jungian-type mythological import – have acknowledged that it is written as simple history) Really, is there not an inconsistency here when we are so “literalistic” about Jesus and His life in history? What do we do about the fact that most every ancient civilization in the world has world history as being no older than 10,000 years (in their historical records)? What do we do about Josephus and other early Jewish scholars who believed the earth was young? That the Fathers Rose cites eveidently said the same? Yes, it is true that they did not see the “age of the earth” per se as central to the faith, but nevertheless, can we at least admit that they understood this in a very simple, childlike, literal way? Can we not admit that basically *every Christian until the 19th century* believed this? Is this not at least worthy of some uncomfortable reflection?

    Again, I look forward to reading Kalomiros.

  35. Nathan Avatar

    William and Father Stephen,

    Before I launched into my last post, I neglected to say “thank you” for your answers to some of my previous points and inquiries. William, your responses have been particularly helpful. Thank you.


  36. fatherstephen Avatar

    Nathan, Anything can be considered. However it is true that many of the fathers read the Genesis chapters Christologically rather than historically, though they would not have discounted it historically, or had any reason to do so. But if reading it in such a way creates insurmountable issues at present, there are other valid ways of reading (Christological) that should not make a Christian despair or distrust the Scriptures. It seems to me that sometimes we are given too few choices in such matters and the faith made to stand on something less than the crucified and risen Christ, for whom, by whom and through whom are all things.

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