Views of the Holy Fathers and Scientific Discoveries
Adherents of a literal interpretation of every word in the Bible about the creation of the world often cite the Church’s Holy Fathers to defend their position. In doing so, they do not justify the correctness of their own views so much as they unwittingly "see the nakedness of the father" (Gen. 9:22). Indeed, although many Holy Fathers were highly educated people, neither theology nor the natural sciences of their time had yet reached full maturity. Therefore one ought not to take every thought expressed by one Holy Father or another to be the Church’s teaching — especially in questions of science, which was then at a rudimentary stage. The Church is only error-free in its catholic conscientiousness, its concillarity.
St. Barsanuphius the Great expressed the Church’s treatment of the problem of inaccurate or erroneous opinions of individual Church Fathers most clearly. In response to a monk’s question about the teachings of St. Gregory of Nyssa about the complete rehabilitation of all sinners (including demons) damned to fiery Gehhenna, St. Barsanuphius wrote:Do not think that people, even the saints, can completely comprehend all the profundities of God; for the Apostle says: ‘For we know in part, and we prophesy in part’ (1 Cor. 13:9)… Saints who have become teachers, whether by themselves or compelled by others, have been rather successful, surpassed their own teachers and, with approval from above, set forth new teaching, but at the same time maintained that which they received from their former teachers, that is, incorrect instruction. When they were subsequently successful and became spiritual teachers, they did not pray to God that He would make revelations to them concerning their first teachers: whether what they were taught was inspired by the Holy Spirit, but, considering them wise and intelligent, they did not question their words; and thus their teachers’ opinions were mixed with their own instruction, and these Saints sometimes said that which they had learned from their own teachers, and sometimes that which they had perceived with their own minds.
If you say, "Why did God in His grace not prevent them from being in error for the good of others who would later read their writings?" then you can say about any sinner, "Why didn’t God in His grace prevent him from sinning, when He knew that he would tempt many with his sins, and many would come to harm through him?" In such case all of human life would no longer be free, but subject to force. Why, are there not maxims in Scripture that are a stumbling block to those ignorant of the spiritual meaning? So, must we say, Why did God not reveal the spiritual meaning of the Scripture to everyone so that people would not come to harm, but gave the Saints, who lived in different times, the task of explaining everything necessary? That is exactly what the teachers and interpreters were ordained for, as the Apostle says (1 Cor. 12:28-30)… As the Lord showed us the path of life through the Prophets and Apostles, though every one of them spoke from himself, and God did not prophesy through any of them exclusively, but allowed what one had left out by Divine will to be said by another, thus did God do with the Saints who came after them: what some of them say unclearly is expounded by those who follow them, so that God is always glorified by His Saints.
Other Holy Fathers treat this question similarly. Venerable John Cassian the Roman, in his discussion of Blessed Augustine’s books, notes, "Even quite learned men have something that may be called into question and examined."
Holy Patriarch Photius also gives an Orthodox assessment of the erroneous opinions found among the Holy Fathers: "How often did difficult predicaments compel some Fathers to express themselves imprecisely, some to speak in adaptation to circumstances under enemy attack, and some to speak in human ignorance, to which they, too, succumbed? If some spoke imprecisely, or for reasons unknown to us even deviated from the upright path, but there was no investigation and no one called upon them to prove the truth, then we leave them among the ranks of fathers, exactly as if they had not spoken such, partly because of their life’s eminence and virtuous reputation, and partly because of the purity of their faith otherwise; but we shall not follow their words where they have sinned."
Blessed Augustine himself, in the conclusion of his book "On the Trinity," wrote, "Lord, God the Single, God the Trinity, may what I said in this book from You be received as Your own; but if I did say anything from myself, may You and Your people forgive me."
St. Mark of Ephesus wrote: "There is a big difference between what is said in the canonical writings and the traditions of the Church, and what is written by the individual teacher unofficially or even taught by him; the first, given by God, we must believe… but the second we should not believe unconditionally or accept without question. For it is possible for someone to be a teacher, but not speak completely correctly. For what need would there be for Fathers in the Ecumenical Councils if none of them were able to deviate from the truth at all? To some measure Dionysius, Bishop of Alexandria, and Gregory the Wonderworker slipped in this; though one of them bore a martyr’s crown and the other’s name itself dominates for praise."
St. Basil the Great speaks thus of Holy Martyr Dionysius of Alexandria (commemorated on Oct. 5, old calendar): "I am not delighted by all that is written by this man; and there are some things that I do not approve of in the least. For, perhaps, it was he… who first spread the seeds … of anomeic impiety. I think that the reason for this is not misdirection of the soul, but the burning desire to oppose Savelius."
The Orthodox Church teaches completely unambiguously that when the Holy Fathers have discordant opinions, we must check our views with those of not just one or several respected Fathers, but with the council teaching of the Church. If we ought not to blindly accept all the opinions of the Holy Fathers individually concerning dogmatic questions -- that is, questions unconditionally important for our salvation -- then we certainly do not have the right to raise to the rank of truth information now outdated but widely accepted in ancient times about geography, medicine and the natural sciences, only on the basis that it was stated by a Holy Father. For the Holy Fathers used the scientific data of their time not for the sake of confirming or rejecting them, but to lead people with their help to contemplate God, His qualities and His deeds in the world, to thereby to edify the people. "I have one goal — to convert everything to the edification of the Church,"
wrote St. Basil the Great (Discourse on the Six Days, tome 1, p. 132). "Investigation of the essence of every being, whether falling under our speculation or subject to our feelings… [will serve the edification of the Church not a little"]
It is completely natural that the Holy Fathers might have made mistakes when using the natural science of their time. For example, the same St. Basil the Great says in his Discourse on the Six Days: "Some have even noted that felled and burnt pines have turned into oaks"
(p. 88); "Who can doubt that the air is not fiery, and not incandescent?"
(p. 53); "What would prevent the Red Sea from flooding all of Egypt, which is a dent in comparison?… Egypt is lower than the Black Sea…"
(pp. 65-66); "Fire… jointly occupied all of the overhead space"
(pp. 67-68); "Every element, as a result of general quality, unites with the element adjacent to it, and as a result of contact, unites with the opposite element, too. For example, the earth, being dry and cold, unites with water by relationship of their coldness, and through water joins with air, because water, posed in the middle between the earth and air… touches… with coldness to the earth, and with humidity to the air"
(71). St. John of Damascus, describing scientific data in his Exact Exposition of Orthodox Faith, usually anticipates them with the words, "they say that …"
However, he also asserts that "the comets are a sign announcing the death of the king"
(p. 62 ); "there are twelve winds"
(p. 66 ). He also accepts Aristotle’s teachings about the four elements. Naturally, no one these days shares these views.
St. Gregory of Nyssa’s explanation of the physiology of the dream is also erroneous. No one now would say seriously that "when food boils on the inside from natural heat, vapors… gather in volumes of the head like smoke seeping through cracks of a wall. That is why, evaporating from there through the channels of the senses, they spread through the body, while unavoidably the sense stops, pressed back by the passage of these vapors"
(St. Gregory of Nyssa, On the Making of Man, St. Petersburg, 1995, p. 40).
And, certainly, one must not demand that a Christian reading the Holy Fathers declare the Phoenix real, about which the prominent Church Father of the I-II centuries, Holy Martyr Clement of Rome, says: "Near Arabia there is a bird called the Phoenix. It is born alone only and lives for 500 years. As it approaches its death, it… makes itself a nest into which, when its time comes, it enters and dies. From the decaying body a worm is born that, feeding on the moisture of the dead animal, becomes fledged"
(1st Epistle to the Corinthians, chapter XXV. Works of the Apostolic Fathers, Riga, 1994, p. 128). Tertullian speaks of the same bird.
One could cite other erroneous views that have sometimes been held by the Holy Fathers. But what has been mentioned here will suffice, because our objective is not to undermine their authority, but merely to establish the necessity of taking a sensible approach when citing their private opinions. Taking this into account, for the sake of fairness it must be said that sometimes one Church Father or another was ahead of the scientific knowledge of his time by many centuries in his views. In this respect Bishop Nathaniel’s (L’vov) article about St. Basil the Great, in which he compiles many striking thoughts about the great saint, is very valuable. See Bishop Nathanail’s "Discussions of Faith" at the address: http://www.fatheralexander.org/booklets/russian/
Of great significance in the Holy Fathers’ experience is that they never opposed contemporary scientific data with their views. And here they left us a valuable lesson: it is reasonable to use the revelations of science — insofar as they may help us to gain a deeper understand of some facets of the universe. But one should do so with caution, taking into account the limits of the human intellect and the instability of scientific theories.
The idea of nature’s participation in the steps of creation is justifiably inadmissible to Orthodox thought only if the hypothesis of an evolutionary development of living things, from the simple to the more sophisticated, detracts from the Creator. The unsubstantiated statement that "the Bible teaches — but you say…" holds no weight. Orthodox tradition in particular knows how complex, unobvious and different can be interpretations of some parts of the Holy Scripture.http://www.fatheralexander.org/booklets/english/creation_man_a_mileant_e.htm#_Toc67449471