(Genesis 1:1-25; 2:1-3)
Now let us study the Patristic model of the Six Days of Creation. We will not occupy ourselves with trying to guess "how long" these days were, although by the time we come to the end we will have a pretty good idea of how the Fathers viewed their length. Many fundamentalists think their literal interpretation of Genesis is lost if these days are not accepted as precisely twenty-four hours long; and many others who want to reconcile Genesis with the modern theory of evolution think their hopes rest upon accepting these days as millions or billions of years long so they will accord with the supposed findings of geology. I think we can safely say that both of these views miss the mark.
It is not that these days could not have been twenty-four hours long, if God so willed; one or two Fathers (St. Ephraim the Syrian, for example) even state precisely that they were twenty-four hours long. But most Fathers do not say anything at all on the subject: it was not a subject of debate in their times, and it seems not to have occurred to them to insist on projecting the time scale of our fallen world back to the stupendous and miraculous events of those Six Days.
But if we do not need to define the Six Days of Creation as twenty-four hours long, it is quite impossible for us to regard them as millions or billions of years long - that is, to force them into an evolutionary time scale. The events of the Six Days simply do not fit into the evolutionary picture at all. In Genesis the first living things are grasses and trees upon the dry land; life did not first appear in the sea, as the evolutionary theory would have it; these land plants exist for a whole day (billions of years?) before the sun was created, while in any evolutionary conception the sun precedes the earth itself. Any reasonably objective observer would have to conclude that the Six Days of Creation, if they are a true account and not a product of arbitrary fancy or speculation, simply do not fit into the evolutionary framework, and therefore there is no need to make them billions of years long. We will see below also how the description of these Days by the Holy Fathers makes this interpretation quite impossible. Evolutionary theory is obviously talking about something other than the Six Days of Creation. And in actual fact, no scientific theory can tell us about those Six Days. Science tries to explain (sometimes with more and sometimes with less success) the changes of this world, based on projections of natural processes which can be observed today. But the Six Days of Creation are not a natural process; they are what came before all the world's natural processes began to work. They are God's work; by very definition they are miraculous and do not fit into the natural laws which govern the world we see now. If we can know what happened in those Six Days at all, it is not by scientific projections or speculations, but only by God's revelation. In this respect, modern scientists are no better off than the ancient creators of cosmic speculations and myths. The writers of commentaries on Genesis emphasize this point. St. John Chrysostom writes:
What does it mean that first there is heaven, and then earth, first the roof and then the foundation? God is not subject to natural necessity; He is not subject to the laws of art. The will of God is the creator and artificer of nature and of art and of everything existing.
Speaking of the Fifth Day of Creation, the same Father says:
“oday God goes over to the waters and shows us that from them, by His word and command, there proceeded animate creatures.... What mind, tell me, can understand this miracle?
St. Basil teaches in the Hexaemeron that in the Third Day there was nÓ natural necessity for waters to flow downward; this is a law of our own world, but then there was as yet no law, until God's command came:
Someone may, perhaps, ask this: Why does the Scripture reduce to a command of the Creator that tendency to flow downward which belongs naturally to water?... If water has this tendency by nature, the command ordering the waters to be gathered together into one place would be superfluous.... To this inquiry we say this, that you recognized very well the movements of the water after the command of the Lord, both that it is unsteady and unstable and that it is borne naturally down slopes and into hollows; but how it had any power previous to that, before the motion was engendered in it from this command, you yourself neither know nor have you heard it from one who knew. Reflect that the voice of God makes nature, and the command given at that time to creation provided the future course of action for the creatures.
Undoubtedly, here is one of the chief sources of the conflict between scientific theory and religious revelation. During the Six Days nature itself was being made; our present knowledge of natural laws cannot possibly tell us how these laws themselves were made. The very subject of ultimate origins, of beginnings, of the Genesis of all things - is outside the sphere of science. When a scientist enters this realm he guesses and speculates like any ancient cosmologist; and this only distracts him from his serious work of studying the natural processes of this world - it also makes him a competitor of religious revelation, which is the only possible source of our real knowledge of the beginning of things, just as it is our only source of knowledge of the final end of all things. St. Basil writes:
We are proposing to examine the structure of the world and to contemplate the whole universe, not from the wisdom of the world, but from what God taught His servant when He spoke to him in person and without riddles.
If we can humble ourselves enough to know that we can actually know rather little about the details of the Creation of the Six Days, we will have a better chance of understanding what we can about Genesis. The Holy Fathers, and not scientific or cosmological speculations, are our key to understanding the text.
2. General Remarks about the Six Days
What, then, can we say of these Six Days?
First: One Orthodox person reflecting on the Six Days very nicely expressed our aim in studying them: we should measure them, not quantitatively, but theologically. The important thing about them is not how long they were, but what happened in them. They are the statement of six immense creative acts of God which produced the universe as we know it. In a moment we will look at these six acts in detail.
Second: As we have seen, by their very nature the events of these days are miraculous, are not subject to the laws of nature that now govern the world, and we cannot understand them by projections from our present experience.
Third: a point very much emphasized by the Holy Fathers who have written on Genesis: The creative acts of God in the Six Days are sudden, instantaneous.
St. Ephraim the Syrian, who understands the days of Creation to be twenty-four hours long, emphasizes that the creative acts of God in these days do not require twenty-four hours, but only an instant. Thus, concerning the First Day he writes:
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 twelve hours each.
St. Basil the Great likewise emphasizes at various points of his commentary on the Six Days the instantaneous nature of God's creation. On the Third Day of Creation, he writes, At this saying all the dense woods appeared; all the trees shot up.... Likewise, all the shrubs were immediately thick with leaf and bushy; and the so-called garland plants ... all came into existence in a moment of time, although they were not previously upon the earth. "Let the earth bring forth." This brief command was immediately a mighty nature and an elaborate system which brought to perfection more swiftly than our thought the countless properties of plants.
St. Ambrose writes that when Moses says so abruptly "In the beginning God created," he intends to "express the incomprehensible speed of the work." And, having the cosmological speculations of the Greeks in mind, he writes words that apply equally well to the speculations of our own times:
He (Moses) did not look forward to a late and leisurely creation of the world out of a concourse of atoms.
St. Ambrose says further:
And fittingly (Moses) added: "He created," lest it be thought there was a delay in creation. Furthermore, men would see also how incomparable the Creator was Who completed such a great work in me briefest moment of His creative act, so much so that the effect of His will anticipated the perception of time.
St. Athanasius the Great - in arguing against the Arian teaching that Christ is the "beginning" of all things and thus like the creation - sets forth as his understanding of the Six Days of Creation that all things in each of these days were created simultaneously:
As to the separate stars or the great lights, not this appeared first, and that second, but in one day and by the same command, they were all called into being. And such was the original formation of the quadrupeds, and of birds, and fishes, and cattle, and plants.... No one creature was made before another, but all things originate subsisted at once together upon one and the same command.
3. Why Six Days?
We have already quoted St. Ephraim the Syrian, who states that "it is likewise impermissible to say that what seems, according to the account (of Genesis), to have been created in the course of six days, was created in a single instant." The Holy Fathers are quite insistent in their faithfulness to the text of Genesis: when the text says "day," they find it impermissible to understand some indefinitely long epoch, since God's creative acts are instantaneous; but they also find it impermissible to interpret these Six Days as merely some literary device to express a totally instantaneous creation. Although each creative act is instantaneous, the whole creation consists of an orderly sequence of these creative acts.
St. Gregory the Theologian writes:
To the days (of creation) is added a certain firstness, secondness, thirdness, and so on to the seventh day of rest from works, and by these days is divided all that is created, being brought into order by unutterable laws, but not produced in an instant, by the Almighty Word, for Whom to think or to speak means already to perform the deed. If man appeared in the world last, honored by the handiwork and image of God, this is not in the least surprising; since for him, as for a king, the royal dwelling had to be prepared and only then was the king to be led in, accompanied by all creatures.
In the same vein St. John Chrysostom writes:
The Almighty right hand of God and His limitless wisdom would have had no difficulty in creating everything in a single day. And what do I say, in a single day? - in an instant. But since He created everything that exists not for His own benefit, because He needs nothing, being All-sufficient unto Himself, on the contrary He created everything in His love of mankind and goodness, and so He creates in parts and offers us by the mouth of the blessed Prophet a clear teaching of what is created so that we, having found out about this in detail, would not fall under the influence of those who are drawn away by human reasonings... And why, you will say, was man created afterwards, if he surpassed all these creatures? For a good reason. When a king intends to enter a city, his armsbearers and others must go ahead, so that the king might enter chambers already prepared for him. Precisely thus did God now, intending to place as it were a king and master over everything earthly, at first arrange all this adornment, and only then did He create the master (man).
St. Gregory of Nyssa repeats this same teaching that man, as king, appeared only after his dominion had been prepared for him; but he also has another, more mystical interpretation of the sequence of the Six Days which some have tried to interpret as an expression of the theory of evolution. Let us therefore look closely at this teaching. He writes:
Scripture informs us that the Deity proceeded by a sort of graduated and ordered advance to the creation of man. After the foundations of the universe were laid, as the history records, man did not appear on the earth at once; but the creation of the brutes preceded him, and the plants preceded them. Thereby Scripture shows that the vital forces blended with the world of matter according to a gradation; first, it infused itself into insensate nature; and in continuation of this advanced into the sentient world; and then ascended to intelligent and rational beings.... The creation of man is related as coming last, as of one who took up into himself every single form of life, both that of plants and that which is seen in brutes. His nourishment and growth he derives from vegetable life; for even in vegetables such processes are to be seen when aliment is being drawn in by their roots and given off in fruit and leaves. His sentient organization he derives from the brute creation. But his faculty of thought and reason is incommunicable, and is a peculiar gift in our nature.... It is not possible for this reasoning faculty to exist in the life of the body without existing by means of sensations, and since sensation is already found subsisting in the brute creation, necessarily, as it were, by reason of this one condition, our soul has touch with the other things which are knit up with it; and these are all those phenomena within us that we call "passions."
At the end of another description in a different book, St. Gregory concludes:
If, therefore, Scripture tells us that man was made last, after every animate thing, the lawgiver (Moses) is doing nothing else than declaring to us the doctrine of the soul, considering that what is perfect comes last, according to a certain necessary sequence in the order of things.... Thus we may suppose that nature makes an ascent as it were by steps - I mean the various properties of life - from the lower to the perfect form.
This is one of the very few passages in the writings of the Holy Fathers which believers in the evolutionary cosmogony find sympathetic to their views. It speaks of an "ascent by steps ... from the lower to the perfect form," and states that man somehow "partakes" in the life or the lower creation. But the evolutionary theory of origins requires much more than these general views, which no one will dispute. The theory of evolution requires that man be shown to be a descendant or the lower creation, to have "evolved" out of it. In a later lecture we will look losely at what the Fathers say of man's origin. Here we will only say that St. Gregory not only says nothing whatever that indicates he believed such a view, but other of his own views contradict it. Thus, he agrees with the rest of the Fathers who have written on Genesis that God's creation is instantaneous; in this same treatise he says that "every hillside and slope and hollow were crowned with young grass, and with the varied produce of the trees, just risen from the ground, yet shot up at once into their perfect beauty," and that "the creation is, so to say, made offhand by the Divine power, existing at once on His command."
Further, St. Gregory states specifically that the one reason human nature has contact with the lower creation is because it shares the same sentient nature; it comes, indeed, from the same earth the lower creatures also sprang from. It is a totally arbitrary addition to the Saint's meaning to insist that this means man "descended" from the brute creation; in this case, indeed, it would be required also that he (and the brutes) descended from the vegetable creation, since he has something of their nature also within himself. But evolutionary theory teaches, not that animals "evolved" from plants, but that the two kingdoms are separate and parallel branches from a common primitive ancestor.
St. Gregory's "ascent by steps," therefore, does not at all show the chronological descent of man from plants and animals, but only shows his kinship with the lower creation through sharing the nutritive and sentient nature which all earthborn creatures have, to the degree God has given it to them. He is describing, not the history of man, but his nature.
We will see more specifically below what St. Gregory actually thought about the "mixing of natures" which is implied in the evolutionary theory.