In the three previous essays I explained why I find so-called Biblical Creationism unconvincing from a biblical point of view (here and here) and why I believe there is a logic, in terms of the ways of God, to prefer evolution by natural selection over creation by fiat as the assumed method of divine activity (here). In this essay, I want to turn to a fundamentally important Orthodox theological principle that pushed me over the edge firmly into the evolutionist camp.
One of St. Gregory’s (Nazianzus) most famous aphorisms is, “That which was not assumed is not healed; but that which is united to God is saved.” It expresses the fundamental Orthodox sense of salvation. Three things need to be said about the Orthodox understanding of salvation:
- Sin is not viewed primarily as a moral problem but rather as death or disease (in the broadest sense of the word). Sin is a profound sickness caused by the draining away of life from creation. In turn, salvation is understood primarily as the gift of life or the healing of this brokenness and sickness rather than delivery from judgment.
- This problem of sin and death is universal and not only a human problem. So salvation is conceived as affecting all of creation, not just we humans.
- Salvation is accomplished through participation in God’s life given to us in Jesus Christ. And (specifically to the point of this series) this gift of divine life and healing is offered not only to humans, but to all creation.
There is a corollary to this broad understanding of salvation. While both sin and salvation are universal (that is, affecting all creation), it is humans that mediate the process. Just as through Adam sin came into the world, so through Jesus Christ life is offered to all creation. As earthly creatures given God’s breath, as humans created in the image of God, and now, as members of the Body of the life-giving Christ we are the priests who mediate this healing life to the rest of creation.
St. Gregory took these principles and expressed them with a breathtaking simplicity: that which was not assumed is not healed. He said this while he was making the case for the two natures of Christ. Christianity teaches that Jesus Christ is fully God and fully human. Before the importance of this point was fully understood and the point settled, some theologians believed that Jesus had a human body but a divine nature; in other words, that he was human on the outside but God on the inside.
St. Gregory’s insight was that, if salvation is accomplished through participation, then only a human could bring about the salvation of other humans. If Jesus wasn’t fully human, salvation would be a sham.
Of course, the church quickly realized the truth of Gregory’s insight, and the doctrine that Jesus is fully human and fully God is believed by the whole church everywhere.
But since salvation is universal, affecting all creation, this insight into the nature of Christ must be extended to all creation. Christ has two natures in his one person: a human and divine nature. That is clear enough. But something more must be said about human nature (not only Christ’s human nature, but our human nature) if salvation is going to be truly universal. Human nature must be the same stuff as the nature of all creation. There must be a continuum between humans and the rest of creation. If this continuum doesn’t exist, then Christ’s gift of divine life could not extend to all creation. Salvation would become an escape from a foreign creation rather than the renewal of all creation, of which humans are a part.
So, just as it is incorrect to think that Jesus is God on the inside and human on the outside, so it is incorrect to think that humans are created from the earth on the outside and created from the breath of God on the inside. When God breathed the gift of life into Adam, God was not creating a bifurcated creature, but rather animating an utterly creaturely being.
Early Darwin detractors raged against the implications of evolution by natural selection. We are not cousins of the monkeys, so the argument went at the Scopes trial. The implication was that we were somehow transcendent and quite distinct from the rest of creation. The danger was that with such creationist thinking, the profound connection between humans and the rest of creation would be lost and, in turn, the breadth of salvation as a universal gift (and not just something given to us special humans) would be lost.
Evolutionary theory, on the other hand adds a great deal of significance to St. Gregory’s insights. “That which was not assumed is not healed; but that which is united to God is saved.” Humanity assumed all creation because we arose out of creation. The whole creation is recapitulated in our being. So when the gift of divine life was given to the sin-sick creation in the God-man Jesus Christ, it seeped, not only through humanity, but into all creation itself, from whence humanity came.
Let me be clear. This connection between St. Gregory, Orthodox soteriology, and evolution doesn’t prove anything. It is possible to maintain this connection within a creationist framework. But the elegance of the connection was the thing that pushed me from having no strong opinion about evolution solidly into the evolutionary camp. Once the profound implications of Gregory’s insights began to sink in to my thinking process, evolution by natural selection seemed the most obvious thing while so-called “biblical creationism” smacked of the same weaknesses as the early theologies that rejected the two natures of Christ.