Death and Darwin: A Patristic Approach

It’s all but impossible to overestimate the theological and philosophical importance of the Fall. Only if one affirms the reality of a Fall, after all, is one able to meaningfully distinguish between how things are and how they ought to be. For if our world is not ontologically ‘fallen’ or fractured in any serious way, one has no choice but to accept either nihilism on the one hand (there are no ‘oughts’ in reality, and all value-judgments and metaphysical claims are merely expressions of preference and power), or dualism on the other (there are two contradictory and equally legitimate ‘oughts’ in reality, either of which one may reasonably and ‘ethically’ choose to embrace).[1]Thanks largely to the ubiquitous influence of Nietzsche on postmodern thought, the nihilistic route has been the one taken by the bulk of 20th-century philosophers. As John Milbank and others have been at pains to demonstrate, it is the Nietzschean rejection of metaphysical thought that has united and drawn together postmodern thinkers as otherwise diverse as Heidegger, Deleuze, Foucault, and Derrida. And for such thinkers, as Milbank has more controversially argued, this rejection of metaphysics is itself rooted in a prejudice which underlies almost all post-Nietzschean thought: namely, that being is inherently violent.

It is certainly true, at any rate, that this prejudice gave rise to Nietzsche’s own hatred of metaphysics, which had everything to do with his conviction that “the world is the will to power — and nothing else besides!” Thus for Nietzsche, to think ‘metaphysically’ about the world is inevitably to conceal, overlook, and even despise whichever of its facets one finds inexplicable or otherwise unpleasant, while exalting and dubbing sacred whichever facets serve one’s interests. Reality is in actuality nothing but a cacophonous play of Dionysian flux and warfare, and hence the only honest, “yes-saying” way to approach it is with an almost self-deprecating intellectual to tame its hideous disorder: to refuse to distinguish good from evil, sacred from profane, pre- from postlapsarian, and so forth.

And so Nietzsche’s hatred of Christianity makes perfect sense. By asserting that our world exists in a deeply wounded and corrupted state, Christianity defiantly refuses to grant ultimate reality to sin, death, ugliness, and evil. It stubbornly insists that, despite all appearances to the contrary, the kenotic love of Christ is more fundamentally true to reality than, say, the egotism of Napoleon is; that the beauty of consummation is more fundamentally real than hideousness of rape; and so forth. But if Nietzsche is correct in deeming strife more real and original than truth, goodness, or beauty, he is certainly also correct in finding Christianity dishonest and damnable.

Which brings me back to the subject of the Fall. The Fall is the means by which Christian theology accounts for the disparity between the purported character of God and the tragic state of our world. As David Bentley Hart quite correctly notes, Christianity requires one to

see two realities at once, one world (as it were) within another: one the world as we all know it, in all its beauty and terror, grandeur and dreariness, delight and anguish; and the other the world in its first and ultimate truth, not simply ‘nature’ but ‘creation,’ an endless sea of glory, radiant with the beauty of God in every part, innocent of all violence. … Christian thought from the outset, denies that (in themselves) suffering, death, and evil have any ultimate value or spiritual meaning at all. It claims that they are cosmic contingencies, ontological shadows, intrinsically devoid of substance or purpose, however much God may – under the conditions of a fallen order – make them the occasions for accomplishing his good ends.[2]

But if reality is not fallen, there is no legitimate way for one to distinguish between the “two realities” Hart describes: the true and false, the good and evil, the original and the damaged. Were Christianity to forfeit, or even fail to properly emphasize, its claim that reality has been severely fractured in some way — not by the design of a capricious and manipulative God, but by the abuse of free human agency — it would become unable to answer Nietzsche’s objections. That is, if the current state of the world — rife as it is with death, disaster, and disorder — is in any sense the true or original or divinely intended state of the world, then Christianity is precisely what Nietzsche called it: a fiction borne of resentment, dishonesty, and cowardice.[3]

But there is an at least apparent problem here. In the wake of Darwin, it appears that the world’s strife, death, and corruption in fact have been present and endemic from the world’s beginning, entering the world prior to not only the sin but even the emergence of homo sapiens. And thus, by all appearances, Christianity’s account of an original ‘Fall’ into sin and death is essentially gibberish.

There are a number of possible solutions to this problem offered (albeit indirectly) by the church fathers, who set about interpreting the Fall and assessing its consequences in various creative and often daring ways. It’s obviously beyond the scope of my knowledge and space to present their views at length, but I hope, in the remainder of this paper, to gesture toward several possible approaches to Darwinism that lie within the bounds of patristic orthodoxy. I’ll do so by briefly presenting four surprisingly relevant insights we find in the fathers regarding creation and its Fall.

First, according to many of the church’s most highly venerated fathers, the precise nature of the Fall’s occurrence is not something about which we can speak with much theological or dogmatic certainty. We know that “sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin,” but very few fathers claimed to know exactly how this occurred (Rom. 5:12). To offer just a few examples: Gregory of Nyssa explicitly prefaces some of his speculations about the Fall’s consequences with an admission that they are only “conjectures and similitudes”; and this being the case, he urges his readers to not receive his suggestions “authoritatively.”[4] Similarly, Maximus the Confessor offers “two possible explanations of how [the Fall of man into passibility] came about,”[5] leaving both contradictory explanations open to orthodox belief. Augustine, throughout his vast theological career, proposed and ‘tried out’ a number of theories regarding the Fall’s occurrence, without ever landing definitively on any one of them. And so forth. This open lack of certitude among the fathers regarding the precise ‘how’ of the Fall must be kept in mind as we think through the Fall’s relation to Darwinism and death.

Second, a number of prominent church fathers explicitly suggest that due to the Fall’s cosmic and epistemic consequences, we cannot in any adequate way know or comprehend ‘what came before’ its occurrence. As Augustine puts it, the redeemed mind “recalls its Lord” and knows that it formerly fell from grace, but “has totally forgotten” and “cannot even be reminded” of the Edenic happiness it knew before somehow falling in Adam.[6] Gregory of Nyssa heavily implies a similar disjunction between pre- and postlapsarian reality throughout books 16-18 of On the Making of Man (and throughout the rest of his writing). And Ephrem the Syrian’s theology, perhaps most clearly of all, not only involves but logically requires this sort of epistemic distance between Paradise and our world. For Ephrem, Sebastian Brock notes, “Paradise was not to be situated in time or space; rather, it belonged to a different order of reality.[7] And for this reason, in Ephrem’s words, “The tongue cannot relate the description of innermost Paradise, nor indeed does it suffice for the beauties of the outer part; for even the simple adornments by the Garden’s fence cannot be related in an adequate way.”[8] And while Ephrem grants that we can speak in figurative and analogous language of our Edenic home, he frequently points out that we can only do so because Paradise “[clothes] itself in terms that our akin to [us].”[9] Sergius Bulgakov is thus adopting one quite viable patristic (not modernist) approach when he states that

neither the past of the world when man was without sin nor the new heaven and new earth of the future age can be known from the life of the present age, for they are separated from the present age by a certain transcensus. From this point of view it becomes understandable and natural that, on our earth, no traces of Eden or of the edenic original state of man can be found. They are in fact not found in our world, although this does not mean that there were no such traces in the past or even that they do not exist even now — in the depths of the world’s being if not in its empirical reality. Adam’s fall was a catastrophe that changed the fate of the world. It was an impenetrable wall that separated his original state from his later state, so that in the later state one can no longer find traces of the original state (except in obscure anamnesis, slumbering in the human soul).[10]

And Hart echoes this same patristic sentiment: “The fall of rational creation and the subjection of the cosmos to death is something that appears to us nowhere within the unbroken time of nature or history … it belongs to another frame of time, another kind of time, one more real than the time of death.”[11] The Christian is by no means obliged to take as strong a stance here as do Hart or Bulgakov, but such stances are evidently patristic in their pedigree and available as orthodox options.

Third, and somewhat more crucially, according to some patristic explanations of the Fall, God’s foreknowledge of sin allowed certain consequences of Adam’s sin to sequentially precede the sin itself. As Conor Cunningham puts it, “creation was intended to be perfect, and this eternal intention is its true nature; but God’s foreknowledge of man’s sin eschatologically ordered creation toward Christ and thus to perfection.”[12] Whether one finds this view plausible or not, it undoubtedly has at least partial provenance in the thought of the Greek fathers.

Perhaps the most profound elucidation of this view is offered by Gregory of Nyssa in books 16-18 of his On the Making of Man.[13] Having raised the question of how God, who is utterly impassible and neither male nor female, is aptly imaged by passible and gendered humans. Gregory suggests that the “creation of our [human] nature is in a sense two-fold: one made like to God, one divided according to this distinction [of sex]” (16.8). In other words, as Cunningham summarizes, “because God knew of man’s future sin, and that it would lead to death, he bestowed on man the ability to procreate, thus saving him from extinction.”[14] Gregory spells this out clearly:

perceiving beforehand by His power of foreknowledge what, in a state of independence and freedom, is the tendency of the motion of man’s will He devised for His image the distinction of male and female, which has no reference to the Divine Archetype. (16.14)

The division of humanity into sexes is thus not part of what Gregory calls God’s “first creation” (which will exist only in God’s creative intention until its eschatological actualization), but of the “second” creation (which God brought into actual existence in light of His foreknowledge of human history and sin). And Gregory goes even further: God implanted not only the division of sexes into humans in light of his foreknowledge of sin, but also the “animal and irrational mode [of procreation] by which [humans] now succeed one another” (17.4). And the various passions which incline us to sin, Gregory asserts, “issue as from a spring” from the “animal mode of generation” implanted in us from the beginning (18.1-2).[15]

To a large degree, Maximus follows Gregory in these speculations. While he is happy, like Gregory, to speak of Adam falling from a paradisal state and into corruption, he makes clear in his Ambiguum 8 that he does not understand such a fall to have necessarily happened in a literally sequential fashion. In addressing the question of how man fell into a state of passibility and corruption, he raises “two possible explanations of how this came about,” the latter of which is quite similar to that of Gregory:

One possibility is that God, at the very moment humanity fell, blended our soul together with our body on account of the transgression, and endowed it with the capacity to undergo change, just as he gave the body the capacity to suffer, undergo corruption, and be wholly dissolved. … The other possibility is that from the beginning God, in his foreknowledge, formed the soul in the aforesaid way because he foresaw the coming transgression, so that by suffering and experiencing evil on its own, the soul would come to an awareness of itself and its proper dignity, and even gladly embrace detachment with respect to the body[16]

Again, one is free to find these sorts of speculations uncompelling, but one cannot accurately call them foreign to patristic tradition.[17]  And while, admittedly, these fathers probably never extend their speculations quite far enough to accommodate today’s Darwinian data, it seems obvious that they opened the door for post-Darwinian Christians to do so responsibly. Once literalism regarding the sequence of the Fall and its consequences is identified as unnecessary, there is ample room for theology to converse with and understand itself in light of evolutionary evidence of prelapsarian death.

The fourth and final point I’d like to make is perhaps the most important of all: even if one is committed to a literally sequential Fall into sin and death, there is nevertheless still room for Darwinism in the fathers’ theology. This is because, for a sizable majority of the fathers, it was not from an actual state of immortality that Adam fell, but merely a potential one. According to such fathers, man was created “between mortality and immortality,” as the bridge between (apparently mortal) animal creation and (certainly immortal) angelic creation. This notion is traceable at least as far back as Irenaeus, who took Adam and Eve to have been created as spiritual children on their way to immortality. In ‘falling,’ Adam turned away from this upward trajectory and toward his “naturally” mortal trajectory of sin and death.[18] Or, as Athanasius puts it, “[God] gave [human beings] a law, so that if they guarded the grace and remained good, they might have the life of paradise … besides having the promise of their incorruptibility in heaven.”[19] Similarly, John of Damascus writes that God gave Adam the commandment in Eden “with the promise that should he let reason prevail, recognizing his creator and observing his Creator’s ordinance … then he would become stronger than death and would live forever.”[20] Conversely, if Adam failed to observe the commandment, “then he would be subject to death and corruption.”[21] Damascene finishes by explaining that “ it was not profitable for [man] to attain incorruptibility while yet untried and untested”[22] as did the angels (since this would result in his being forever trapped in sin after the Fall).

The significance of this commonplace patristic teaching — that “[God] did not make [man] mortal, nor did He fashion him as immortal”[23] — lies in the fact that it leaves wide open the possibility, or even probability, that the animal creation below humanity was not graced with immortality at the world’s creation. After all, for most of the Greek fathers, animalistic passions were inextricably tied to mortality and sexual procreation. If animals procreated sexually prior to Adam’s fall, there is every logical reason to think that they died or were mortal before it as well (though Augustine’s speculation that prelapsarian animals died in a more peaceful and less predatory way than they now do seems plausible). And if animals were mortal before the Fall, there is no problem with the suggestion that homo sapiens arrived at the end of a naturally mortal hominid chain with the potential for immortality — a potential that homo sapiens lost when it tended toward matter rather than God.[24]

The foregoing ought to make clear that Darwinism poses no threat to patristic theology, even if one requires a sequential relationship between the Fall and its consequences. The fathers’ thought is more than spacious enough to accommodate whatever biology, geology, and prehistory tell us about our lineage. As I mentioned above, this paper has nowhere near exhaustively presented the thought of the fathers on the Fall. What I hope it has done, however, is (1) demonstrated the crucial theological and philosophical importance of the Fall, and (2) opened up vistas for meaningful conversation between contemporary Darwinism and the theology of the fathers. Such conversation serves not only to help us better understand the natural world we inhabit, but also the theological vision bequeathed to us by the fathers, which we are called to both preserve and keep alive from age to age.

Notes and References
[1] And really, even this form of dualism turns out to be merely a sheltered and subtle form of nihilism. To postulate, as the Manicheans did, that two coeternal, coexistent, equally ‘real’ forces exist alongside one another — one ‘good,’ the other ‘evil’ — is really just to deny that either force truly transcends the immanent fold of being. These warring forces may function as two big, powerful beings among littler and less powerful beings, but neither is ‘real’ in a self-subsistent way. These forces can conceivably exist only within an ontological frame larger and more real than themselves, a frame which exists beyond and hence transcends them both. And this commits dualism to belief in a nihilistic, fundamental plane of reality beyond both good and evil.
[2] David Bentley Hart, The Doors of the Sea: Where Was God in the Tsunami? (Grand Rapids: W.B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2005), 60-61.
[3] I happily acknowledge that this claim (if correct) rules out the possibility of probably any form of Calvinism being true. I’m of the firm opinion that Calvinism, like materialism, would be false if it were somehow true. For if, as Calvin claimed, God coercively ordained the Fall for his own “pleasure” and eventual glory, then the saga of creation, fall, and redemption is really just one, hideously enormous fiction (or, if one prefers, fantasy), and the divine and human actions which occur within it are really just instances of one, hideously enormous act of divine self-gratification.
[4] Gregory, On the Making of Man, 16.15.
[5] Maximus, Ambiguum 8. This short work can be found in its entirety on pgs. 75-78 of On the Cosmic Mystery of Jesus Christ: Selected Writings of St. Maximus the Confessor, trans. Paul M. Blowers and Robert Louis Wilken (Crestwood, N.Y.: St. Vladmir’s Seminary Press, 2003).
[6] Augustine, On the Trinity, XIV, 21, trans. Edmund Hill.
[7] St. Ephrem the Syrian: Hymns on Paradise, trans. Sebastian Brock (Crestwood, N.Y.: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1997), 51. Emphasis added.
[8] Ibid., 99-100. Emphases added.
[9] Ibid., 156.
[10] Sergius Bulgakov, The Bride of the Lamb, trans. Boris Jakim (Grand Rapids: W.B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2002), 171-172.
[11] Hart, The Doors of the Sea, 102.
[12] Conor Cunningham, Darwin’s Pious Idea: Why the Ultra-Darwinists and the Creationists Both Get It Wrong (Grand Rapids: W.B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2010), 399.
[13] Unless otherwise noted, parenthetical citations below are to this text.
[14] Cunningham, Darwin’s Pious Idea, 391.
[15] The perplexing question this raises, obviously, is whether Gregory’s (openly conjectural) view does not implicate God in the Fall of Eve and Adam. Gregory and Maximus both wrestled indefinitely with this question, but, as far as I’m aware, came to no final answer. See On the Cosmic Mystery of Jesus Christ, 75n.
[16] Maximus, On the Cosmic Mystery of Jesus Christ, 76.
[17] Space didn’t allow for another example in the paper, but John of Damascus speculates further along these lines in On the Orthodox Faith II, 30. Troublingly, but importantly for the purposes of this paper, he suggests that not only genitalia but also Eve was created in light of God’s foreknowledge of the Fall.
[18] See Cunningham, Darwin’s Pious Idea, 379-380, as well as M.C. Steenberg, Irenaeus on Creation: The Cosmic Christ and the Saga of Redemption (Leiden: Brill Academic, 2008), 121-123, 126.
[19] Athanasius, On the Incarnation: Saint Athanasius, trans. John Behr (Crestwood, N.Y.: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2011), 52. Emphasis added.
[20] John of Damascus, On the Orthodox Faith, II, 30. Emphases added.
[21] Ibid.
[22] Ibid. Emphasis added.
[23] Ephrem the Syrian, Commentary on Genesis, II, 17. Quoted on pg. 59 of Hymns on Paradise.
[24] Again, see John of Damascus, On the Orthodox Faith, II, 30. There is also every reason to think, in light of both Romans 8:19-22 and the cosmically-geared theology of Maximus, that humans had the potential (and now, in Christ, again have the potential) to lead not only themselves but ultimately all creation into deification and immortality. Their fall resulted in a gradual corruption of both their own race and the cosmos (cf. Gen. 3-11), but the second Adam has come and re-opened the door that the first Adam failed to enter.

Christopher Iacovetti is an undergraduate at Wheaton College, where he studies philosophy, art history, and theology. He blogs at heavy metal vomit party! 


4 thoughts on “Death and Darwin: A Patristic Approach

  1. Curious:

    Do you propose that Adam and Eve were literal historical people? And in fact, the first two human beings on the planet? Or do you view them more metaphorically as being representative of early mankind in general?

    If you are to believe that Adam and Eve were historical people and the first two humans in existence, while simultaneously believing in the reality of evolution, then how does one reconcile the facts known about early hominids with the belief that Adam & Eve were homo sapiens such as we are today? What I’m trying to say is, if Adam & Eve are believed to literally be the first people created, wouldn’t it stand to reason they would have been ape-like in appearance? Am I asking that clearly enough? I’m genuinely curious.



    1. attilathehoney8,

      I appreciate the questions. Yes, I do believe in a historical Adam and a historical Eve — though I certainly wouldn’t say Christianity falls apart without them. I certainly would want to also stress, however, that the Adam of Genesis 3 and Romans 5 is representative of all humanity in a real and not merely ‘symbolic’ way.. though I can’t say that I understand very well how this representative role works.

      It’s tough to imagine what Adam and Eve might have looked like because, as far as I understand things, we don’t know when real “humans” (as opposed to what we’d now call homo sapiens) entered the historical scene. What sets Adam apart from his various sub-human ancestors isn’t his physical appearance: it’s the unique way God breathes anthropic and spiritual life into him. So I guess, for that reason, I wouldn’t attach tremendous importance to the physical appearance of Adam and Eve. It’s wholly possible, in my mind, either (1) that other sub-human hominids which we would classify as homo sapiens existed prior to Adam and Eve, or (2) that we would classify Adam and Eve as sub-human hominids were we to run into them on the street. I see both possibilities as legitimate because I don’t take the gap between Adam and his ‘parents’ to be an empirically or physically observable one.

      Is that helpful at all?

      Liked by 1 person

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