The Intuition of Narnia

A child, in a game of hide-and-seek, enters a large wardrobe. However, the wardrobe is more than furniture – it is a doorway into another world. That entrance is the introduction of the world of Narnia.

C.S. Lewis’ children stories, beloved by one generation, are block-buster movies in today’s empire of Disney. In that wonderland of cinema, the books are overwhelmed in images of battling dwarves and unicorns. Echoes of Tolkien (and the grand cinematography of LOTR movies haunt Narnia). But Narnia is something very different from Middle Earth, though Lewis and Tolkien were extremely close friends. Unlike Middle Earth, Narnia has a direct connection with the world we inhabit. Its mythology echoes our own (necessarily, Lewis would have said). Middle Earth has echoes of our world, but it stands on it own – complete with the deep mythos of the Simarillion.

Every volume of Lewis’ Narnia has, at its heart, an allegory of the Christian life. Whether it be Creation in the Magicians Nephew or Golgotha and the Resurrection in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, every volume has something to say about the Christian life. Tolkien actually criticized Lewis for this very thing. Both were devout Christians, but Tolkien saw himself as a writer of myth, a very deep vocation that cannot be understood apart from reading a great deal about the Inklings and the work of Owen Barfield (another friend) in particular. It is an area of Tolkien neglected by all but a few (I wrote my senior thesis in seminary on Barfield).

Lewis ignored Tolkien’s critique and proceeded to do what he did best – defend and explain the gospel of Christ. Narnia is a very deep, imaginative apologetic for the gospel of Jesus Christ and nothing less. If someone is not converted to the faith by reading it, then they are certainly not made into an enemy of the gospel. If you like Narnia, then you should at least wish the gospel of Christ were true.

In The Last Battle, Professor Digory Kirke exclaims, “It’s all in Plato, all in Plato: bless me, what do they teach them at these schools!” I have seen a number of fairly silly speculations about the Professor’s meaning, though it is quite clear in the greater body of Lewis’ work – and is a key to the Narnian tales. It is the relationship between worlds – an allegory which is yet real. The stories of Narnia could have stood on their own as pure modern allegory (as stories within themselves that only bear resemblance to the gospel). However, Lewis’ genius and Christian belief, are made far more clear in the literary device of connected worlds. This world has a relationship to another world – and there are doors and windows between them.

Digory, as a young lad, visits Narnia at the time of its creation. The world’s creator, Aslan, sends Digory on a journey to find an apple. The apple was planted and grew into a magical tree, The Tree of Protection, that kept the evil Witch from attacking Narnia for some centuries.

Digory took a piece of fruit from the tree back to Earth and gave it to his ill and bedridden mother to eat, healing her of her illness. When the fruit was eaten to its core, Digory took the core and planted it in his yard. The tree grew just as well as its sister tree in Narnia, and seemed to have a link to the other tree – it sometimes moved when there was no wind…at least not in London. The tree was eventually blown down and its wood was used to build a wonderful Wardrobe. (From WikiNarnia).

As an old man, it is Professor Digory who first helps the Pevensie children in their questions regarding a magical world and their sister Lucy’s tales of a magical Wardrobe.

“You mean there really could be other worlds all over the place?” Peter asks.

The Professor responds, “But nothing is more probable! Oh! I wonder what they do teach them at these schools!”

In the same conversation the Professor uses Lewis’ classic defense of the gospel – only this time with regard to the child Lucy’s story of a magical world. Professor Digory is the voice of C.S. Lewis.

And here the intuition of Narnia connects with the experience of the Christian convert, Lewis. He was a great student of the classics and a master of the medieval period. In his early years at Oxford (during which he was an atheist), Lewis became friends with J.R.R. Tolkien, a devout Catholic, and engaged in long conversations about the Christian faith. Much of that conversation turned on the topic of myth. Lewis had a love of myth, of the ancient stories. They stirred a place within him that had an element of longing. Tolkien’s point was that all these myths – the repeated tales of the dying and rising god – were actually fulfilled in the historical reality of Christ. Lewis’ conversion to the faith was expressed precisely in terms of those myths:

“Rum thing. It all seems to have happened once.”

As Lewis himself found Christianity to be the fulfillment of humanity’s deepest, even mythic longings, so, too he offered the gospel in the same manner. His logical books, Mere Christianity, the Problem of Pain, Miracles, are all interesting reads – but it is his fiction where his voice finds its fullness. In that fiction there is always a mythic or allegorical connection between worlds. In the Perelandra Trilogy, the myth bursts onto the scene complete with science fiction and Merlin himself, in a mix of Authurian Christianity that could only be written by an Englishman. The Great Divorce takes a trip to heaven (and hell) in a book whose imagery Lewis warns his readers not to take literally – though its richness cannot help but empower the theological imagination of everyone who reads it.

Lewis is a Christian for whom Christianity has not lost its mythic power. The weakness of literalism is its acute limitation to itself. Lewis would be the first to say, “Yes. Christ’s death and resurrection are historical events.” But he would have hurried to add that their historical character does not rob them of their mythic character – indeed the very fact that they are real inherently means that they are mythic – for the true character of reality lies in its mythic power.

Lewis and Tolkien agreed that God is the great maker of myths. God tells the story of the world and the story is the world itself. We are created with an ear for story and we long to hear it. Tolkien once said, “If God is mythopoetic, then we must become mythopathic.” If God is a teller of stories, then we must become able to hear those stories. Both Tolkien and Lewis, specifically as Christians, become the greatest story-tellers of the 20th century.

And this brings me back to the heart of my own thoughts. The mythic character of reality is another way to speak of a one-storey universe. In Fr. Alexander Schmemann’s terms, the world is sacrament – pointing to and participating in something beyond itself. It is possible to simply speak on the most literal level – to speak of events (such as Christ’s crucifixion) – and relate them to ideas (such as atonement) which inhabit the world of the mind. But such literalism renders the greatest event in the universe into the merest incident of which our later doctrine is the greater reality. The intuition of Lewis is the same as the intuition and teaching of the fathers. The Cross is both event in history and also the truest event of the Great Myth. Its power is such that it draws other things to itself. It is the Tree of Life in the Garden of Eden, Isaac on Mt. Moriah, the staff of Moses with the snake, the outstretched arms of Moses at the battle with the Amalekites, the Tree that Moses cast into the bitter water, the Footstool of God. At the Feast of the Holy Cross the Church declares: “Let all the trees of the wood, planted from the beginning of time, rejoice; for their nature hath been sanctified by the stretching of Christ on the Tree” (Magnification of the Feast).

The intuition of Narnia (it’s all there in Plato) is that the world is sacrament and icon, doorway and ladder. The angels of God are constantly ascending and descending. The saints surround us as a great cloud of witnesses. Heaven and earth are full of the glory of God and secular materialism is a bankrupt, empty philosophy that robs the world of wonder. Enter the Church and the icons are windows to heaven – not “like” windows to heaven – just windows to heaven. The Baptismal font flows with the streams of the Jordan and the dragons who lurk there are crushed. Christ is in our midst and offers His true body and blood, “In the fear of God, with faith and love draw near!”

About Fr. Stephen Freeman

Fr. Stephen is a retired Archpriest of the Orthodox Church in America, Pastor Emeritus of St. Anne Orthodox Church in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is also author of Everywhere Present: Christianity in a One-Storey Universe, and Face to Face: Knowing God Beyond Our Shame, as well as the Glory to God podcast series on Ancient Faith Radio.





49 responses to “The Intuition of Narnia”

  1. Karen Avatar


    I have commented before that C.S. Lewis’ Narnia series, which I received for Christmas when I was eight years old and read multiple times over the subsequent years during my youth (and as an adult), set me up to become an Orthodox Christian. Nothing less would satisfy the hunger created through Narnia’s exposition of the gospel! (My family lived as expatriates in N. Ireland at the time, too, C.S. Lewis’ birthplace.)

    Love this piece! Thank you.

  2. Christina Douglas Avatar

    “Enter the Church and the icons are windows to heaven – not “like” windows to heaven – just windows to heaven.”
    …much like the seascape in Eustace’s room was a window (rather literally) to Narnia.

    You have absolutely nailed why I love Tolkien and Lewis (at least his fiction, and don’t forget Till We Have Faces!) as much as I do. Thank you!

  3. Anglican Peggy Avatar
    Anglican Peggy

    There is nothing like the intersection of Narnia with the Gospel to get me tearing up. I think it gets me so deep partly because Narnia was such a part of my childhood and yet so much a part of my future at that time although I hardly knew it. As an adult, I know now that the stream of which Narnia is a part stretches back through countless generations to the beginning of time and flows from the heart of God.

    Although I hardly expect it to get much respect around here, Narnia led me to the Anglican church where my heart is at peace even for all of its flaws and weaknesses. There are so many who have been led to Christ by these books, I am of the mind that if one loves one’s children, then you will make sure that you put them in their hands as early as possible. I would make them mandatory childhood reading if I could.

  4. fatherstephen Avatar

    Anglican Peggy,
    I would make them adult reading as well, particularly the occasional editorial remarks made by the author. There is so much of Lewis in so few words.

  5. Anglican Peggy Avatar
    Anglican Peggy

    PS. The phrase “Aslan is not a tame lion” has always seemed profound to me even though I can’t quite explain why:-) There are just times in our life in and of the Spirit when no other words will do.

  6. benmarston Avatar

    my son has an icon, partially finished, that I was carving, that is putting out a strong aroma of myrrh. all that is not sin is icon!

  7. sergieyes Avatar

    Barfield was a member of the Anthroposophical Society, a sect of Theosophy. The Anthroposophists were headed by Rudolph Steiner. Soloviev nails Steiner with 2 Timothy 3:7:King James Version:Ever learning , and never able to come to the knowledge of the truth (aletheia). Saint Seraphim Rose calls this attitude Nihilism. My question is,Father: did you see evidence of Nihilism in Barfield. Please say a word. .

  8. asinusspinasmasticans Avatar

    I too have questions about Barfield and his relationship with Steiner. I am not as closed against Anthroposophy as I should be, seeing as what attracted me to Orthodoxy was the strong sense of the immanence of God opposed to the awful transcendent willful god of Calvinism.

    EpistemoIogically, think Barfield points the way forward, but I don’t know how to handle all the wierdnesses like Ahriman/Lucifer and the Two Christ-children which Barfield assumed from Steiner.

    I think Pantheism (Everythingism) is a greater danger in dealing with Barfield than Nihilism. Nihilism springs logically from positivism/empiricism.

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  10. Drewster2000 Avatar

    I think God uses myth, stories and parables to separate the sheep from the goats, so to speak. If you only believe in what you can touch, feel and understand – and are unwilling to take the leap of faith even so much as to enter into a story that might be magical or not literally true – then you have no place in the kingdom of God.

  11. fatherstephen Avatar

    Indeed Barfield was an Anthroposophist, prior to becoming a Christian. He was certainly not a Nihilist – Theosophists and Anthroposophists are certainly full of confusion – but I do not see how they would be categorized as Nihilists. BTW, Fr. Seraphim Rose has not been canonized as saint by any Orthodox Church.
    Barfield was a brilliant thinker – to a degree you would have to say he was a “seeker.” There were not a lot of options in the West at that time for someone who had an intuition of the nature of truth as more “mystical” than “rational.” So I would judge him rather lightly. He found his way to much more firm ground later in his life – I think Lewis and Tolkien certainly had influence in that way.

  12. fatherstephen Avatar

    Good observation. “Concepts create idols; only wonder grasps anything.” St. Gregory of Nyssa

  13. David Dickens Avatar

    I’ve always pictured Barfield as a way out in the same way I picture Kierkegaard. It is not that I agree with them on their conclusions, but if you are suffering from the modern disease (particularly if you are utterly fixated on it) they, with a few select others, can give you a path to start walking.

    It is true that this path can lead to many horrible places. There is nothing more dangerous in a man than an existential crisis. But there are times when no other path is available. As they say, Alcoholics must hit rock bottom, so modernity must exhaust itself and chance staring into the eyes of the beast.

    It is a most delicate matter to disbelieve in your idea of God in order to know God.

  14. Michael Patrick Avatar
    Michael Patrick

    Lewis and Barfield were very comfortable with imagination and drank deeply from traditional mythical literature. Lewis’ heart ached at the rise of the modern view of cosmos-as-machine and the concurrent loss of medieval cosmologies that had at least allowed men to live in a sacral world, however deficient the models. (“De Descriptione Temporum”, 1954) (“The Discarded Image” 1964)

    Michael Ward’s book on Lewis’ worldview, “Planet Narnia” (2008), and Barfield’s “Saving the Images” (1957) reveal that they shared a high regard for sacral and even pagan cosmologies. By comparison, secularism’s world of material machines was an unreal, dehumanizing and flat-out unacceptable alternative.

  15. fatherstephen Avatar

    Well said. “It is a most delicate matter to disbelieve in your idea of God in order to know God.”

  16. simmmo Avatar

    I haven’t read the entire Lewis corpus, but, like many Christians, have benefitted enormously from him. Particularly the depiction of Calvary in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. Very consistent with the ransom and victory themes we find in the Fathers. (btw I’d be interested to see what people think the “Deep Magic” is all about in this and how this relates to Aslan’s death. And whether there is any hint of penal substitution in Lewis’ depiction of the atonement in Narnia – e.g. this “You know that every traitor belongs to me as my lawful prey and that for every treachery I have a right to kill….” But penal substitution has God doing the killing not the devil – i.e. we are saved from God not the devil. So I suppose there isn’t anyway we can say that Lewis has anything like penal sub in mind here)

    Also interesting points about mythology Father. I think when many people in modern culture hear the word “myth” they immediately think it means an untrue story. This is not necessarily so. Rather they are stories which are full of meaning for the way people define themselves. This has implications for how we interpret scripture – e.g. one of the pressing questions in evangelical subculture: Is Genesis 1 history or “myth”? If I am hearing you correctly, this is precisely the wrong way to frame that question and it seems Lewis would have thought so too.

  17. simmmo Avatar

    btw over at Clarion Journal, Ron Dart has an interesting four part conversation on C.S. Lewis and Orthodoxy.

  18. fatherstephen Avatar

    In evangelical conversation viz. myth, they are a century or so behind the conversation. It has long been a commonplace to use “myth” in a technical sense, not as “untrue,” but in the manner in which a story works. There is the “history” of a nation, and there is the national myth. There is often a lot of history in such a myth, but the myth also has a power that mere history does not carry.

    I’m sure Lewis would have thought the current conversation on Genesis 1 to be wrongly framed. I would go so far as to say that if it is “history” in the manner many use the word, then the chapter is without meaning or consequence – much like listening to a physicist explaining what happened in the first nano-second of the big bang.

  19. sergieyes Avatar

    “Theosophists and Anthroposophists are certainly full of confusion – but I do not see how they would be categorized as Nihilists.”
    Yet Soloviev believed they were. Romans 15:12 “Therefore, just as sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin.”
    Nihilists indicates in the context of Fr. Seraphim Rose, those caught in the world system which is Death, or void of Orthodoxy.
    Lewis explains the system begins in earnest with the Enlightenment, which evaluates all men according to their productivity,not according to the fact that they are “Sons of Adam and daughters of Eve. ” We are not sanctioned as part of Christendom. In that production and expediency obsessed world, men are soon exhausted. Nor do they find a personal dynamis which is the deposit of faith given them upon Baptism. They are not renewed by the Holy Spirit. So they,in so far as they are not baptized into Christ,in so far as they are not putting on Christ’s Death, spiritually die. Yet they may remain some time materially and physically alive.
    That state,being alive materially, and knowing there is no spirit,
    is Nihilism as Fr.Rose sees it.

  20. simmmo Avatar

    Yes, I think anthropologists have defined “myth” in the manner you describe for a long while. But in popular culture and, it seems, in evangelical subculture (particularly at the conservative end), “myth” basically means untrue story and, for many, has pagan connotations. So as soon as you associate the word “myth” with Biblical stories, they are immediately resistant. And so they flatten out a text like Genesis 1 and all theological meaning gets lost – I completely agree with you. The current “history vs myth” debate has only heightened the flattening out of this text, as if Moses was like a dispassionate journalist only describing concrete events. I would add that this does not represent a “high view of scripture”. Rather it is a way of being unfaithful to the text. An Oxford theology professor once remarked “when the prophet Isaiah says ‘the sun will be darkened, the moon will turn to blood and the stars will fall from the sky’ we should know, as a matter of literary genre, that the next line is not going to be ‘and the rest of the country will have scattered showers and sunny intervals’. This is not a primitive weather forecast.” This is simply the way people talk about concrete events, but injecting these events with their full theological meaning.

  21. fatherstephen Avatar

    Yes, indeed. Soloviev is engaged in argument, rather than being precise in his description. By the notion of the world system as death, everything other than the true faith is Nihilism. I understand the point, but it’s so broad as to be unhelpful. Strictly speaking, a nihilist believes that there is no transcendent meaning or purpose – just material. The Anthroposophists and Theosophists believed in spirit, but they were confused about the truth of that. But they were not materialists. It doesn’t matter particularly. Fr. Seraphim sometimes paints with “too broad a brush” and could be more precise (it is helpful to use words and categories with care). He also tends to be very “apocalyptic” which seems somewhat American and Protestant to me, though I recognize his holiness. He wrote and published many books, though his books were self-published and not subjected to careful review in the larger Church. They are very popular and are given more weight than is perhaps warranted.

  22. fatherstephen Avatar

    Great quote from the prof!

  23. sergieyes Avatar

    I will offer great reverences to your feet, being a layman, and you are clergy, and I will not persistently ride upon a hobbyhorse of heresy. I apologize for my errors.
    I believe,however,that there are many rivers in the Ocean of Orthodoxy, as there is a vast river of Mississippi and Amazon in the ocean of Atlantic.
    Here is a river of St.Ignatius of Antioch as presented by “THE ECCLESIOLOGY OF ST. IGNATIUS OF ANTIOCH…rom.11.en.the_ecclesiology_of_st._ignatius_of..””For Ignatius death and corruption is an abnormal condition which God came to destroy by the incarnation of His Son. The cosmology of St. Ignatius is neither monophysite or monothelite. Besides the will of God and the good, there exist now the temporary kingdom of Satan, who rules by death and corruption, and man oppressed by the devil but at the same time supported by God and free, at least according to will, to follow the one or the other. The world and God has each his own character – the world death,and God life. (Ign. Mag. 5.).” I follow the Antiochian Archdiocese and really love St.Ignatius’ rigor.
    You seem to have a very philanthropic (“For You are a God that loveth mankind, to the Father, to the Son, to the Holy Spirit,amen–Divine Liturgy) river , and you seem to move towards the proposition, “we know what is the Orthodox Church but we cannot know what is NOT the Orthodox Church.”,
    I hope this is not dangerous generalization. I am impressed by your kind posts, and I send them on to my niece,so you reach many persons with your goodness.

  24. fatherstephen Avatar

    I see no heresy in your thoughts – and I assure you I’m not worthy for any to make reverence at my feet (despite being a priest). I ask your forgiveness if my response seemed harsh in any way. I did not mean for it to be taken that way.

    I share your devotion to St. Ignatius. May God preserve us all from death and corruption and translate us into the Kingdom of His beloved Son.

    I have a son-in-law who is a priest in the Antiochian Archdiocese. It is very close to my heart as well.

  25. OCAPriest Avatar

    Fr. Stephen, Simmmo,

    It’s not just evangelicals, but really any and all conservative Protestants influenced by them. Many Lutherans up here share some of the same fundamentalist tendencies. Creationism vs. Evolution still gains a lot of traction around here. In many places, you’d think the Scopes trial was still raging.

    Also, for those interested in “myth” and Biblical interpretation, I’d suggest Fr. John Behr’s The Way to Nicea.

  26. Philip Jude Avatar
    Philip Jude

    Fr. Seraphim Rose took the Genesis creation account rather literally, didn’t he? Or, should I say, “historically”?

  27. Michael Patrick Avatar
    Michael Patrick

    I read Fr. Rose’s book on Genesis but don’t have an opinion worth sharing. However, a friend once recommended “How to Read the Bible” by James L. Kugel. Kugel covers every major OT event and figure and all along the way he clearly compares interpretations from modern scholarship and ancient interpreters. It’s a great book!

    Back to the point: The Orthodox approach is more like Kugel’s ancient interpreters.

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  29. sergieyes Avatar

    Our reader Mr. Philip Jude requests: “Fr. Seraphim Rose took the Genesis creation account rather literally, didn’t he? Or, should I say, “historically”?
    Here is a respectful suggestion about that:
    I respectfully direct our honorable Priest Fr. Stephen and his readers to this site:
    Fr.Seraphim Rose. Genesis, Creation and Early Man
    She says: “The biblical story of creation has a religious purpose. … According to this view, Genesis belongs in one category, and scientific truth or reality in ….. obvious metaphors which no one in his right mind would think of taking “literally.
    I respectfully direct your glances towards the extreme bottom left corner. The resources here are rather rich.

  30. Philip Jude Avatar
    Philip Jude

    An article entitled The Eternal Will was printed in The Christian Activist Volume 11, Fall/Winter 1997. It was a lecture given by Dr. Alexander Kalomiros on evolution vs. creationism and his interpretation of the traditional teachings by the Fathers of the Orthodox Church about Genesis. This is a response to Dr. Kalomiros by Fr. Seraphim Rose.

    “In what I have written about Adam and Eve, you will note that I quoted holy Fathers who interpret the text of Genesis in a way that might be called rather “literal.” Am I correct in supposing that you would like to interpret the text more “allegorically” when you say that to believe in the immediate creation of Adam by God is “a very narrow conception of the Sacred Scriptures”? This is an extremely important point, and I am truly astonished to find that “Orthodox evolutionists” do not at all know how the holy Fathers interpret the book of Genesis. I am sure you will agree with me that we are not free to interpret the Holy Scriptures as we please, but we must interpret them as the holy Fathers teach us. I am afraid that not all who speak about Genesis and evolution pay attention to this principle. Some people are so concerned to combat Protestant Fundamentalism that they go to extreme lengths to refute anyone who wishes to interpret the sacred text of Genesis “literally”; but in so doing they never refer to St. Basil or other commentators on the book of Genesis, who state quite clearly the principles we are to follow in interpreting the sacred text. I am afraid that many of us who profess to follow the patristic tradition are sometimes careless, and easily fall into accepting our own “wisdom” in place of the teaching of the holy Fathers. I firmly believe that the whole world outlook and philosophy of life for an Orthodox Christian may be found in the holy Fathers; if we will listen to their teaching instead of thinking we are wise enough to teach others from our own “wisdom,” we will not go astray.

    And now I ask you to examine with me the very important and fundamental question: how do the holy Fathers teach us to interpret the book of Genesis? Let us put away our preconceptions about “literal” or “allegorical” interpretations, and let us see what the holy Fathers teach us about reading the text of Genesis.

    We cannot do better than to begin with St. Basil himself, who has written so inspiringly of the Six Days of Creation. In the Hexaemeron he writes:

    Those who do not admit the common meaning of the Scriptures say that water is not water, but some other nature, and they explain a plant and a fish according to their opinion. They describe also the production of reptiles and wild animals, changing it according to their own notions, just like the dream interpreters, who interpret for their own ends the appearances seen in their dreams. When I hear grass, I think of grass, and in the same manner I understand everything as it is said, a plant, a fish, a wild animal, and an ox. Indeed, I am not ashamed of the Gospel…. Since Moses left unsaid, as useless for us, things in no way pertaining to us, shall we for this reason believe that the words of the Spirit are of less value than the foolish wisdom (of those who have written about the world)? Or shall I rather give glory to Him Who has not kept our mind occupied with vanities but has ordained that all things be written for the edification and guidance of our souls? This is a thing of which they seem to me to have been unaware, who have attempted by false arguments and allegorical interpretations to bestow on the Scripture a dignity of their own imagining. But theirs is the attitude of one who considers himself wiser than the revelations of the Spirit and introduces his own ideas in pretense of an explanation. Therefore, let It be understood as it has been written. (Hexaemeron, IX, 1)

    Clearly, St. Basil is warning us to beware of “explaining away” things in Genesis which are difficult for our common sense to understand; it is very easy for the “enlightened” modern man to do this, even if he is an Orthodox Christian. Let us therefore try all the harder to understand the sacred Scripture as the Fathers understand it, and not according to our modern “wisdom.” And let us not be satisfied with the views of one holy Father; let us examine the views of other holy Fathers as well.

    One of the standard patristic commentaries on the book of Genesis is that of St. Ephraim the Syrian. His views are all the more important for us in that he was an “Easterner” and knew the Hebrew language well. Modern scholars tell us that “Easterners” are given to “allegorical” interpretations, and that the book of Genesis likewise must be understood in this way. But let us see what St. Ephraim says in his commentary on Genesis:

    No one should think that the Creation of Six Days is an allegory; it is likewise impermissible to say that what seems, according to the account, to have been created in the course of six days, was created in a single instant, and likewise that certain names presented in this account either signify nothing, or signify something else. On the contrary, one must know that just as the heaven and the earth which were created in the beginning are actually the heaven and the earth and not something else understood under the names of heaven and earth, so also everything else that is spoken of as being created and brought into order after the creation of heaven and earth is not empty names, but the very essence of the created natures corresponds to the force of these names. (Commentary on Genesis, ch. I)

    These are still, of course, general principles; let us look now at several specific applications by St. Ephraim of these principles.

    Although both the light and the clouds were created in the twinkling of an eye, still both the day and the night of the first day continued for 12 hours each. (Ibid.)


    When in the twinkling of an eye (Adam’s) rib was taken out and likewise in an instant the flesh took its place, and the bare rib took on the complete form and all the beauty of a woman, then God led her and presented her to Adam. (Ibid.)

    It is quite clear that St. Ephraim reads the book of Genesis “as it is written”; when he hears “the rib of Adam” he understands “the rib of Adam,” and does not understand this as an allegorical way of saying something else altogether. Likewise he quite explicitly understands the Six Days of Creation to be just six days, each with 24 hours, which he divides into an “evening and “morning” of 12 hours each.”

  31. fatherstephen Avatar

    Thanks for the help on this. It’s very useful to me.

  32. Philip Jude Avatar
    Philip Jude

    Sorry, I meant to include the link:

    Fr. Rose certainly appears opposed to efforts to synthesize evolution and Christianity. Witness:

    “I should tell you that I do not regard this question as being of particular importance in itself; I shall discuss below other much more important questions. If it were really a scientific fact that one kind of creature can be transformed into another kind, I would have no difficulty believing it, since God can do anything, and the transformations and developments we can see now in nature (an embryo becoming man, an acorn becoming an oak tree, a caterpillar becoming a butterfly) are so astonishing that one could easily believe that one species could “evolve” into another. But there is no conclusive scientific proof that such a thing has ever happened, much less that this is the law of the universe, and everything now living derives ultimately from some primitive organism. The holy Fathers quite clearly did not believe in any such theory-because the theory of evolution was not invented until modern times. It is a product of the modern Western mentality, and if you wish I can show you later how this theory developed together with the course of modern philosophy from Descartes onward, long before there was any scientific proof for it. The idea of evolution is entirely absent from the text of Genesis, according to which each creature is generated “according to its kind,” not “one changing into another.” And the holy Fathers, as I will show below in detail, accepted the text of Genesis quite simply, without reading into it any “scientific theories” or allegories.

    Now you will understand why I do not accept your quotations from St. Gregory of Nyssa about the “ascent of nature from the least to the perfect” as a proof of evolution. I believe, as the sacred Scripture of Genesis relates, that there was indeed an orderly creation in steps but nowhere in Genesis or in the writings of St. Gregory of Nyssa is it stated that one kind of creature was transformed into another kind, and that all creatures came to be in this manner! I quite disagree with you when you say: “Creation is described in the first chapter of Genesis exactly as modern science describes it. If by “modern science” you mean evolutionary science, then I believe you are mistaken, as I have indicated. You have made a mistake by assuming that the kind of development described in Genesis, in St. Gregory of Nyssa and in other Fathers, is the same as that described by the doctrine of evolution; but such a thing cannot be assumed or taken for granted-you must prove it, and I will gladly discuss with you later the “scientific proof for and against evolution, if you wish. The development of creation according to God’s plan is one thing; the modern scientific (but actually philosophical) theory which explains that development by the transformation of one kind of creature into another, starting from one or a few primitive organisms, is quite a different thing. The holy Fathers did not hold this modern theory; if you can show me that they did hold such a theory, I will be glad to listen to you.”

    Sorry to post such lengthy excerpts, but these are the words of a holy man, and they deserve to be taken seriously and read in their immediate context, not couched in secondary sources.

  33. fatherstephen Avatar

    This is a very large topic – with far to much to be debated here. Kalomiros’ Six Days of Creation are on my Pages list on the blog for anyone who would like to read them.

    I do not think anyone has done a better job of addressing the fathers and the reading of Scripture than Fr. John Behr at St. Vlad’s. His book The Way to Nicaea and his volume The Mystery of Christ are particularly helpful. My own thoughts on allegory and “literal” are fairly well known. Literalism today, particularly in the hands of Protestants who have no regard for Tradition, is a very different thing than the literal handling of a text by one of the fathers and really have no comparison. They occur in radically different contexts. Those who read the fathers, must do so very widely, and more than a few isolated quotes. They should read them with a good awareness of the particular context in which that father writes. That said, there are very few who have the requisite skills to read the fathers and comment on them. For example, St. Ephraim is refuting not Church interpreters who read Genesis in an allegorical manner, but heretical interpreters who use the text in a radically non-Christian manner. The use of Adam as a type of Christ, with the Church birthed from His side as he slept (in death on the Cross) is enshrined in the liturgical texts of the Church and is thus an allegory with the full authority of the Church, something St. Ephraim would have known and accepted.

    The use of these texts in the argument between Kalomiros and Fr. Seraphim is a bit of a problem. I think their argument was unfortunate and less than helpful. I would prefer not to reduplicate here on the blog.

  34. Philip Jude Avatar
    Philip Jude

    I loved The Way to Nicaea, but I was disturbed by certain comments in The Mystery of Christ. I recall, for instance, that he suggested that a certain Psalm was written before Genesis. We are to throw to the wind then the ancient teaching of Mosaic authorship, simply because academia sneers at such a traditional conviction? I thought his discussion of the Garden and the Fall did not take seriously enough the fathers’ staunch belief in the reality of both. I was really very disappointed by that book, at least the first section.

  35. simmmo Avatar

    Yes I’ve noticed that with the increased interest in the Patristic material by Evangelical Christians there has been a tendency to sort of proof text from the Fathers.

    The Reformed/Calvinist camp are particularly guilty of this. They try to take the universality of the Church seriously, but the trouble is that there is no Patristic evidence, much less concensus, for Calvinist theology. I’m no Patristics scholar, but their treatment of the Fathers seems rather superficial. Over at the “Gospel Coalition” website there is a series of audio on Church history taught by Calvinists. Plenty of howlers can be found there. Like trying to equate the Antioch/Alexandrian schools of thought to the conservative/liberal theological differences. “I’m with the Antiochian school” said one of the presenters. Another time Spurgeon was quoted as telling us to be wary of St John Chrysostom because you couldn’t find the “Doctrines of grace” in his teachings. The “doctrines of grace” are a euphemism for the Calvinist doctrine of “irresistible grace” – cognate with “double predestination”. I’d want to say to them, “well yes, you won’t find Calvinist theology in St John or anywhere else in the Apostolic or Patristic material!!” Then they have to simply ignore or explain away all that theosis stuff in St Athanasius. I’m just simply left with the feeling that these guys are not doing justice to the Patristics, but rather twisting them and truncating them. Much in the same way as they truncate scripture.

    I think part of the problem is that in the modern academy, particularly in the fields of humanities and social sciences (from which much Protestant theology derives its methodology), there is a tendency to look at the surface and infer the depth from the surface. You already have a “system” in mind. So you are simply looking for parameters that fit into your system. You never think to look any deeper than the surface. Your “system” fools you into thinking that you what you and doing is careful study or enhancing “truth”. As an economist I’m very familiar with this technique. For over 30 years our profession has been enamoured with “Price theory” which purports that prices are the only source economic actors need for information. The recent recession has shown us that simply looking at prices and inferring the state of the whole economy (indeed the state of society at large) from this can be massively misleading and downright destructive. This plays out in Protestant Patristic studies in that there are code words that have completely different meanings to Protestants than they did for the Fathers. So they take this passage or that passage from the Fathers and fit them smugly within their theology system. The Early Church Fathers are looked at as another source to mine, just like how economic historians selectively choose data so as to fit them into a theory they subscribe to. And the data that disagrees with their theories are simply ignored or explained away. You can line up all Protestant Patristic scholars. They all must ignore some of the data from the early church. Worse still, they have no inclination for acquiring the mind of the Church – just look at the surface, the depth (i.e. the mind of the Church) doesn’t even come into their calculations.

  36. Michael Patrick Avatar
    Michael Patrick


    I see Behr’s suggestion that language in Psalm 18 “…possibly derives from older Ugaritic mythologies describing battle between God and ‘death’” (Mystery p.83). Is that what you mean when you say “he suggested that a certain Psalm was written before Genesis”?

    For my sake, do you mind also referencing his discussion of the “Garden and the Fall”?

  37. simmmo Avatar

    Forgive me, I get quite cross with some Protestant misuses of the Patristic material – especially from the Calvinists.

  38. fatherstephen Avatar

    The fathers understanding of the authorship of Genesis does not include a necessarily from Ge. 1:1 to the end, jot and tittle. There is a recognition of editing. There is even a complaint within the first 2 centuries of tampering with the text (what we would now think of as the Masoretic text) by Jewish scholars. And, indeed, the apparent text behind the LXX is in greater agreement with the Dead Sea Scrolls than the Masoretic text. It’s an interesting line of recent scholarship, that lends more credence to a 2nd century criticism than had long been thought to be the case. There is a book by Peter Bouteneff (St. Vladimir’s Press) called Beginnings: Ancient Christian Readings of the Creation Narratives that looks at the treatment of the early chapters of Genesis by the fathers of the first 4 centuries. It’s much more informative than just reading somebody’s collection of quotes on the topic. If it’s a topic of interest, I’d recommend Bouteneff’s book. The treatment of Genesis runs a fairly wide gamut.

  39. fatherstephen Avatar

    Wow. Well said. But comparing Calvinists to practitioners of the “dismal science” (economics) – that’s the harshest thing that’s been said around here in a long time. 🙂

  40. Philip Jude Avatar
    Philip Jude


    No, it went far beyond that. I don’t have the copy on me right now, so I can’t make exact citations, and my memory is a bit fuzzy. I just remember being troubled and even taken aback by some of his suggestions. When I return home tonight I will point to chapter and verse.

  41. markbasil Avatar

    Christ is risen!

    Happy Easter Philip Jude.
    I’ve been patiently awaiting your citations, as I very much appreciate Fr John’s little book- particularly appreciating his Orthodox articulation of ancestral sin, and its theological and anthropological implications.
    Fr John may recognize that the creation narratives (importantly there are two!) are much more than mere ‘history’, but this in no way means that he doubts the reality of the garden and the ‘fall’ (though this is understood differently from an ancient, Orthodox Christian perspective as Fr John draws out using St Irenaeus).
    I may be mis-intuiting your critique. I will await your citations before further comment.

    Love in Christ;
    -Mark Basil

  42. Steve Avatar

    Very good post, but I do see a problem with describing the Narnia stories as “allegory” — I just don’t see it myself, and I wonder what Lewis himself would have thought of it. He was, after all, a professor of English literature and even wrote books about allegory.

  43. fatherstephen Avatar

    In the sense that “one thing stands for another”, Lewis’ Narnia stories are certainly allegorical, and he would not have argued that point (he certainly didn’t not argue with Tolkien’s description of them as such). In the greater sense of allegorical (as a term which is generic for things which somehow refer to something beyond themselves), that is also obviously true. It’s the very reality of “allegory” in that larger sense, that professor Digory exclaims about (“it’s all there in Plato”).

    On the larger sense of allegory, I would highly recommend Louth’s Discerning the Mystery (I recommend anything he’s written).

    Lewis cited Tolkien’s essay on children and fairy tales (in a volume written in honor of Charles Williams) as best describing his own understanding. Tolkien says:

    It is not difficult to imagine the peculiar excitement and joy that one would feel, if any specially beautiful fairy-story were found to be “primarily” true, its narrative to be history without thereby necessarily losing the mythical or allegorical significance that it had possessed….”

    Lewis and Tolkien were indeed scholars of allegory and myth, and wrote on the topic more than once. They are writings with which I’m well familiar. There’s a nice paperback with some essays on the subject, Myth, Allegory and Gospel: An Interpretation of JRR Tolkien/C.S. Lewis/G.K. Chesterton/Charles Williams.

  44. tioedong (@tioedong) Avatar

    linked. Much of this is above my head, but I hope my readers come over and read it

  45. Sean Avatar

    Reblogged this on The Image of the King and commented:
    This is a fantastic post. There’s not really anything worthwhile I can add, so here it is…

  46. markbasil Avatar


    Hello Fr Stephen- some weeks ago I was unable to post a comment with my ‘blogger’ account. In an odd way that led to the reactivation of an old wordpress blog, however now I’ve thought of a use for that blog and will make it private…
    consequently I want to try to post using my blogger id again!

    So, here I am, testing… 🙂


    UPDATE- okay I’ve tested it and it does not work. I cannot post a comment using my ‘gmail’ address and my password- the address and password associated with my “blogger” account.
    (my gmail-associated weblog is: )

    Any suggestions?

    (PS PJ if you read this, honestly, it is odd that you’ve not ever returned to your promise made in your last comment here)

  47. dinoship Avatar

    Indeed, I am also curious about this citation that troubled you PJ, are you entirely sure it was in that particular book and not somewhere else maybe?

  48. Graham J. Darling Avatar

    I think by “Perelandra Trilogy”, you mean the “Ransom” or “Space Trilogy”, that includes the novel “Perelandra” or “Voyage to Venus”.

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