Priest Christopher Knight


In the Orthodox understanding of how theological thinking should proceed, the concept of Tradition is of immense importance. In particular, the writings of the Fathers of the church are seen by Orthodox as an important foundation on which to build. It is arguable, however, that the understanding of the Fathers that is characteristic of many Orthodox Christians is rather simplistic, because it fails to recognise what Metropolitan Kallistos of Diokleia has called the need to separate “Patristic wheat … from Patristic chaff”.[1] All too often, Orthodox commentators seem to believe that some theological opinion can be validated simply by using selective quotations from individual Fathers’ works, as though those Fathers were, as individuals, infallible in their opinions.

Even when this particular problem is avoided, and it is recognized that patristic consensus on some issue needs to be demonstrated and not just assumed, Orthodox commentators still often use the Fathers’ writings in a way that is questionable. They adopt an understanding that is comparable to some older Western readings of the patristic period, such as that manifested in the content and title of a book at one time widely-read in the West, entitled Fathers and Heretics.[2] As Father Andrew Louth has observed, this kind of interpretation involves a simplistic notion of “truth” and “error” associated with a failure to analyse the arguments of the patristic period in terms of the particular situation in which those arguments were developed.[3]

This latter problem has largely been overcome in Western patristic scholarship in recent decades. In the Orthodox world, however, this process of developing a more nuanced reading of the Fathers’ writings is still incomplete. As Father John Behr has put it, we Orthodox often allow “our very familiarity with the reflections of the Fathers and the results of the dogmatic controversies and conciliar resolutions to blind us to the focal point of those reflections and debates: Jesus Christ, the crucified and risen Lord.” He notes , in particular, how we have often manifested “very little serious engagement with Scripture, or the pre-Nicene period”. Instead, he says, we have tended to start with what we think we know, looking back to the Fathers “simply to find confirmation”. This, he argues, represents an extremely faulty methodology, which carries a great risk of misconstruing what these Fathers were saying. “If the questions being debated are not understood,” he rightly observes, “it will be difficult, if not impossible, to understand the answers.”[4]

Fortunately, as the work of Louth and Behr indicates, a more nuanced reading of the patristic literature is now becoming evident in the Orthodox world. The healthy effects of this tendency on our understanding of Tradition have, moreover, been reinforced by the growth of a more nuanced understanding of the concept of Tradition itself. In this understanding, it is emphasized that fidelity to Tradition is not just a matter of repeating past formulae. As Metropolitan Kallistos of Diokleia has put it, we need to see Tradition, not as “a dead acceptance of the past but a living discovery of the Holy Spirit in the present.” Tradition, he observes, “is constantly assuming new forms, which supplement the old without superseding them.”[5] In this understanding, “loyalty to Tradition, properly understood, is not something mechanical, a passive and automatic process of transmitting the accepted wisdom of an era in the distant past. An Orthodox thinker must see Tradition from within, he must enter into its inner spirit, he must re-experience the meaning of Tradition in a manner that is exploratory, courageous, and full of imaginative creativity.”[6]

An exploratory, courageous, and imaginative approach to Tradition, fully focused on the crucified and risen Lord, is a notable characteristic of much of the work of Metropolitan Anthony of Sourozh. In what follows I want to explore the way in which this characteristic of his work may have been based, not primarily on conscious reflection on patristic methodology or on the notion of Tradition. Rather, I shall suggest that a significant factor was his early training as a medical doctor, through which he gained at least some insight into the way in which scientific language works. My argument is that the way in which he uses theological language manifests characteristics that are comparable to some of those to be found in the use of scientific language.

This thesis is not just guesswork on my part, because the way in which the scientist understands the world is explored quite explicitly in one of Metropolitan Anthony’s essays.  In this essay, he stresses that scientists develop models of reality. They acknowledge that what they say about physical reality does not necessarily correspond straightforwardly to the reality itself.  Metropolitan Anthony does not give any examples to clarify this point, but those who know anything about physics will not find it hard to come up with such examples.

There have, for instance, been several models of the atom over the past century or so. One of the earliest was based on a simple analogy. In this model, the atomic nucleus was seen as surrounded by orbiting electrons in much the same way as our sun is surrounded by orbiting planets. The electrons were understood, as were the planets in the solar system, as material bodies that at any particular time were precisely located in space. The main difference between the two systems was understood simply in terms of the force involved in holding the satellite bodies in their orbits:  gravitational attraction in the case of the solar system, electrostatic attraction in the case of the atomic system.

This early model did seem to explain certain aspects of what was known about atoms at the time, and its basic imagery is still used when speaking about atomic structure. However, in its original form the model soon proved inadequate. Later models gradually refined this early model, so that our present understanding, based on quantum mechanics, bears little resemblance to this early model in its mathematical description. We still sometimes talk rather loosely about electron orbits, but these are no longer seen as analogous to planetary orbits in any straightforward way.

The successive models of the atom that link the current model to the early one came about through something that Metropolitan Anthony stresses in his essay. This is that scientific progress comes about through critical evaluation of proposed or existing models. When a scientific model is first developed, he says, a good scientist’s reaction “will be to go round and round his model in all directions, examining and trying to find where the flaw is, what the problems are that are generated by the model he has built, by the theory he has proposed, by the hypothesis he has now offered for the consideration of others. “ At the root of the scientist’s activity, he goes on, “ is the certainty that what he is doubting is the model he has invented – that is, by the way he has projected his intellectual structures on the world around him and on the facts, the way in which his intelligence has grouped things.” What the scientist is absolutely certain of, Metropolitan Anthony goes on, “is that the reality that is beyond his model is in no danger if his model collapses, The reality is stable; it is there, the model is an inadequate expression of it, but the reality doesn’t alter because the model shakes.”[7]

As we shall see, Metropolitan Anthony goes on to stress that this distinction – between reality and our models of it – is important for our understanding of the way we should think about God. This was based in part on his personal experience. He had absolute certainty in the reality of the crucified and risen Lord, but not initially because of any appreciation of the theological models that the Church uses to express Christ’s significance. Rather, his initial recognition of this significance came about through direct encounter: an experience of Christ’s palpable presence.[8] The result of this encounter, reinforced by his understanding of scientific models, was that Metropolitan Anthony had a kind of instinctive awareness of both the strengths and weaknesses of the models used in theological language.

In philosophical and theological terms, we can see this awareness as part of his appreciation of what we call the apophatic attitude to religious language. Apophaticism means, for Orthodox, not only that we must be extremely cautious in applying to God attributes that we understand only in relation to their application to created things. It means also, as Vladimir Lossky has stressed, that our approach must be mystical – not in the sense of being anti-rational, but in a more complex sense. Christian dogma, he says, often appearing at first as “an unfathomable mystery”, should be approached  “in such a fashion that instead of assimilating the mystery to our mode of understanding, we should, on the contrary, look for a profound change, an inner transformation of the spirit, enabling us to experience it mystically.”[9]

As far as one can tell from his published works, Metropolitan Anthony did not have any profound knowledge of the developments that revolutionised the philosophy of science in the last few decades of the twentieth century. Those developments may, however, help us to see more clearly what it means to speak, as he did, about the distinction between reality and models of reality. In particular, the way in which philosophers continue to struggle with the insights into science provided by Karl Popper and Thomas Kuhn seem to throw important light on this topic. [10]

The first of these two philosophers to present his thinking was Popper, in a book published in German in 1934 but only widely discussed after its publication in English in 1959.[11]  In this book he challenged the notion that scientists can ever verify their theories. He did this in a way that went further than those who had already pointed out that scientific theories are always underdetermined by data – i.e. that any set of data can in principle be explained by more than one theory. He based his thinking, instead, on his observation that the search for new scientific theories usually arises from new data that do not seem to fit accepted theories, and thus, as he put it, falsifies them. While Popper shared, with those who had spoken about verification, the conviction that science is a logical activity, he in effect turned their programme on its head. He located the essential feature of scientific activity in criticism rather than justification. Falsifiability, in this view, became the touchstone for whether or not a statement could be regarded as scientific.

Kuhn’s analysis, [12] published in 1962, challenged aspects of this analysis, especially in relation to what happens when well-established scientific theory seems to be challenged by new data. He focused on those rather rare periods in the history of science in which a particular scientific problem has proved insoluble for a considerable period, so that what he called “normal science” begins to break down. These periods, he explained, may inaugurate scientific revolutions – the early twentieth century change from the classical dynamics of Isaac Newton to the relativistic dynamics of Albert Einstein being a key example.[13] What such revolutions make clear, Kuhn argues, is that scientists are not simply following a set of logical rules in their work but are in fact making theory choices in a more subtle and personal way.

In Kuhn’s analysis, reluctance to abandon what has hitherto seemed well-established theory is a proper characteristic of scientific work. This is related to the fact that the education of scientists has initiated them into what he calls a paradigm: not simply a set of formal theories, but a framework of thought and practice inculcated by standard examples of problem solutions in a field. One of his key insights here was into the way in which scientific data are not neutral but are “theory laden”. This means that proponents of competing paradigms suffer from what he calls incommensurability – an inability not only to agree on the relevance and weight to be accorded to particular data, but even to speak about that data in the same language.

Perhaps the most convincing approach that takes into account aspects of both of these contrasting understandings is that of Imre Lakatos. [14]  On the one hand, says Lakatos, scientists work with core theories, which are unlikely to be challenged unless compelling evidence for their inadequacy becomes evident. However, in relation to these core theories, there will inevitably exist what he calls auxiliary hypotheses: less well substantiated and sometimes competing theoretical frameworks, which give rise to competing research programmes. [15]

In a Western Christian context, this understanding of scientific theory has been applied to theological understanding by Nancey Murphy,[16] whose approach has aspects that seem to be applicable to the Orthodox community. For Orthodoxy, with its focus on Tradition, does clearly work with certain core theories, expressed in conciliar definitions and in the patristic consensus. It also works with auxiliary hypotheses in two senses. One is that, even at the highest level of theological scholarship, there are disagreements about the interpretation of the patristic literature, reflected in competing research programmes comparable to those described by Lakatos as characteristic of the scientific community. The other sense in which we can speak about auxiliary hypotheses in Orthodox thinking is, however, the one on which I want to focus here. It relates less to true scholarship than to popular (and sometimes high-level ecclesiastical) opinion, often clothed in quasi-scholarly garb.

Examples of this latter kind of auxiliary hypothesis can be found in the set of opinions associated with the belief that Orthodoxy and contemporary science are incompatible.  In relation to these opinions, a characteristic kind of argument often put forward is one that attempts to “prove” the opinions’ validity on the basis of selective quotations from patristic writings. These quotations – regarded by those who cite them as weighty “proof texts” – are in fact only rarely representative of the full range of the patristic literature.

A few, for example, have argued that the six days of God’s creative activity, as recounted in the first chapter of Genesis, must be understood literally. They claim that this was how the Fathers understood this passage, and they can accurately cite patristic works to show that this was indeed what some of them believed. However, they ignore the fact that this opinion does not represent any sort of consensus among the Fathers. In fact, several of them, such as St.Gregory of Nyssa, did not see the coming into being of the cosmos as involving a temporal sequence of creative acts, but as happening instantaneously.[17] St.Gregory may not have appreciated the length of the creative process as revealed to us now by the scientist, but he, and those who adopted a similar interpretation of the Genesis account, certainly did not read that account as representing literal historical truth.[18]

More common than challenging the scientific assessment of how the whole cosmos developed is challenging the validity of evolutionary theory in the biological sphere. Those in the Orthodox world who mount this challenge sometimes rightly observe that none of the Fathers envisaged the kind of evolutionary scenario that the scientist sets before us today. This is, of course, true, but it is hardly surprising, since an evolutionary scenario was unavailable to the Fathers on scientific grounds.[19] However, we should not forget that some of the Fathers did hint at the possibility of a gradual unfolding of the potential of what God had created “in the beginning”. St. Augustine of Hippo, in particular, quite explicitly suggested a scenario that is distinctly reminiscent of evolutionary theory. God, he said, may have created potentialities in the creation which – like dormant “seeds” – only gradually came to fruition. [20]

The result of such observations of the patristic literature has been a trend towards acceptance of evolutionary theory in the Orthodox world, and this trend has been encouraged by the observations of several Orthodox commentators on other aspects of patristic thinking. Father Andrew Louth, for example, has commented that although St.Maximos the Confessor assumed, with all his seventh-century contemporaries, that natures are fixed, we should not take this assumption to be an integral part of the Orthodox Tradition. Maximos’s thought, he judges, is dynamic enough to be implicitly open “to the idea of evolution … as a way of expressing God’s providence”, so that the cosmic vision that he articulated can “be re-thought in terms of modern science”.[21] In a similarly helpful way, Panayiotis Nellas has commented that the notion of the incarnate Logos as archetype is central to the patristic understanding of humanity and of the cosmos. For the Fathers, he says, “the essence of man is not found in the matter from which he was created but in the archetype on the basis of which he was formed and towards which he tends”. It is precisely for this reason, he goes on, that for the Orthodox understanding of creation, “the theory of evolution does not create a problem … because the archetype is that which organizes, seals and gives shape to matter, and which simultaneously attracts it towards itself.”[22]

Over and above considerations of this kind, we should note that it is not only an inadequate reading of the Fathers that has led some to propose auxiliary hypotheses associated with the view that Orthodoxy is incompatible with certain scientific insights. As Efthymios Nicolaides has shown from a historical perspective, this opinion – at least in the Hellenic world – is often associated with a reactionary social agenda, and is not a purely theological opinion at all. Even before evolutionary theory arose, he notes, the effects of the French revolution led to an increasingly reactionary stance among influential churchpeople, not only in relation to political and social ideas associated with the Enlightenment, but also to what was seen as the scientific underpinning of those ideas.[23] This led to a situation that still exists to some extent today, with philosophical and theological issues being associated with – and at least partially obscured by – political and social ones.[24]

This historical insight about the recent intertwining of theological, social and political issues in the responses of some Orthodox believers to science[25] is important for us. It underlines the fact that at least some of the criticism of scientific understanding that exists today among Orthodox Christians is based less on careful theological analysis of the issues than on an essentially reactionary agenda. However, side by side with this reactionary agenda there has emerged a rather different agenda, influenced by respected theologians such as Father Dumitru Staniloae. In this agenda, there is strong encouragement to express the rich Orthodox understanding of the relationship between the cosmos and its Creator in terms of the insights of modern science. [26]

We may seem to have wandered a long way from the thinking of Metropolitan Anthony, but in fact this digression has not been without a purpose. For one of the problems of the modern Orthodox community is that a peripheral issue can sometimes have a profound and damaging effect on individual believers. The issue that affects them may not relate to evolution itself – though this is a commonly encountered problem – but it may relate to some other scientific or historical issue. Whatever its origin may be, however, it tends either to evoke an essentially shallow kind of conservatism that stifles spiritual progress, or else to provoke a personal crisis in which faith may be abandoned.

Here, as I indicated in my book, The God of Nature,[27] I believe that Metropolitan Anthony’s perspectives on reality can be of immense benefit to all of us who face this kind of problem. One of the chapters of that book was, in fact, based on my observation that small children often have an understanding – based on pictures they may have seen – in which God is imagined as a kind of elderly, long-bearded figure, who sits on a cloud and is dressed in what seems to be a long, white nightshirt. “Most of us” I wrote with this in mind, “can think of conceptions of God that were appropriate to a particular stage of our childhood development but that we have now outgrown. In this sense, we can see that we would be indulging in a kind of mental idolatry if we still clung to them.” However, I went on, ”we also need to recognize that not all inappropriate conceptions are as easy to discard as the more obviously childish ones are. In practice, there are often other, rather more subtle conceptions that we need to outgrow but that still have their effect on us because of our spiritual immaturity. This may particularly be the case when the effects of that immaturity are exacerbated by the corporate immaturity of our own part of the Christian community.”[28]

“At one or more stages of our spiritual development” I went on, “we are likely to find ourselves uncomfortable because we have come to suspect the validity of some way of thinking that is widely accepted in our own part of the wider Christian community. When we reach one of these stages, we are likely to find ourselves at an impasse unless we remember that faith is not belief in some set of propositions, but is … a trust in God that casts out fear.” Here, I went on to say, some comments by Metropolitan Anthony are of great significance, because he addresses directly the question of “how we should respond to the kind of doubt that comes to us because a cherished picture of God has been challenged. We should, he suggests, see this doubt as playing a creative role in our spiritual life.”[29]

I then went on to quote Metropolitan Anthony’s account, which I have already cited, of the distinction between the reality that scientists study and the models of that reality that they construct.  After this I quoted him further, and it is with this further quotation that I should like to end.

“The scientist’s doubt” says Metropolitan Anthony, “is hopeful, it is joyful, it is destructive of what he has done himself because he believes in the reality that is beyond and not in the model he has constructed.” This, he goes on, is something “we must learn as believers for our spiritual life both in the highest forms of theology and in the small simple concrete experiences of being a Christian.” And it is in this context that he goes on to say something that I believe is of vital importance to us all. “Whenever we are confronted with a crossroads” he says, “whenever we are in doubt, whenever our mind sees two alternatives, instead of saying ‘Oh God make me blind, Oh God help me not to see, Oh God give me loyalty to what I now know to be untrue,’ we should say ‘God is casting a ray of light on something I have outgrown – the smallness of my original vision. I have come to the point where I can see more and deeper, thanks be to God.”[30].

Priest Christopher Knight

 Institute for Orthodox Christian Studies, Cambridge, U.K.

[1] Timothy Ware, The Orthodox Church (Harmonswoth, Penguin, 1963) 212

[2] G.L.Prestige, Fathers and Heretics (London. SPCK. 1940)

[3] Andrew Louth “Twent-Five Years of Pattristic Study”, Sourozh: A Journal of Orthodox Life and Thought 100 (2005) pp.22-34

[4] John Behr, “Faithfulness and Creativity” in Abba: The Tradition of Orthodoxy in the West – Festschrift for Bishop Kallistos (Ware) of Diokleia, ed.John Behr, Anfrew Louth and  Dimitri Conomos (Crestwood N.Y., St.Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2003), p. 174

[5] Timothy Ware, The Orthodox Church (rev.ed,) (Harmondsworth, Penguin, 1993) 198

[6] Ware, The Orthodox Church (rev ed).198

[7] Metropolitan Anthony of Sourozh, God and Man, (new ed., 1993) 51-2

[8]  Metropolitan Anthony gave several acounts of this encounter. See e.g. Metyropolitan Anthony of Sourozh, Encounter (London, Darton, Longman and Toodd,  1999) 197-8

[9] Vladimir Lossky, The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church (Cambridge, James Clarke, 1957).8

[10] An important aspect of this light is in relation to the notion of realism in scientific and theological language usage, but there is no space here to explore this. For my own views on this topic, see Christopher C.Knight, Wrestling With the Divine: Religion, Science, and Revelation (Minneapolis, Fortress, 2001) 91-106

[11] Karl Popper, The Logic of Scientific Discovery (London, Hutchison, 1959).

[12] Thomas S.Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1962)

[13] Physicists nowadays are taught correctly what theoretical speculations led to the theory being proposed, but are often taught incorrectly that certain key experiments were decisive in the immediate acceptance of relativistic theory. In practice, some leading physicists resisted the change for some years after these key experiments, and the process of general acceptance was far more complex.

[14] See e.g. Imre Lakatos, “Falsification and the Methodology of Scientific Research Programmes”, in I.Lakatos and A.Musgrave, eds., Criticism and the Growth of Knowledge (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1970) .91 ff.

[15] This approach may not be without philosophical difficulties of its own. See e.g. the comments in Ian Hacking, Representing and Intervening (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1983) 112ff.

[16] Nancey Murphy, Theology in an Age of Scientific Reasoning (Ithica,  Cornell University Press, 1990)

[17] St.Gregory of Nyssa, On The Making of Man VIII.5

[18] St. Gregory of Nyssa is in fact particularly interesting in that he saw the Genesis text as delineating a philosophical truth that is now reinforced for us by the sciences of our own time: that human life is rooted in animal life and animal life in inorganic life. This kind of interpretation is based on the general patristic acknowledgment – particularly characteristic of the Alexandrian tradition – that some biblical passages are not to be read as providing literal, historical truth, bu insteadt as providing moral or mystical insights.

[19]  If evolutionary theory had been available, it is arguable that the Fathers would have taken it seriously, since they certainly took seriously the science of their own time. See e,g. D.S.wallace-Hadrill, The Greek Patristic View of Nature (Manchester, Manchester University Press, 1968);Efthymios Nicolaidis, Science and Eastern Orthodoxy: From the Greek Fathers to the Age of Globalization (Baltimore, John Hopkins University Press) 2011.

[20] Augustine, The Literal Interpretation of Genesis.

[21] Andrew Louth “The Cosmic Vision of Saint Maximos the Confessor”, in Philip Clayton and Arthur Peacocke, eds. In Whom We Live and Move and Have Our Being: Panentheistic Relections on God’s Presence in a Scientific World (Grand Rapids, Eerdmans, 2004) 189

[22] Panayiotis Nellas, Deification in Christ: Orthodox Perspectives on the Nature of the Human Peson (Crestwood, St.Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1997) 33

[23] Efthymios Nicolaidis, Science and Eastern Orthodoxy: From the Greek Fathers to the Age of Globalization (Baltimore, John Hopkins University Press, 2011).151-168

[24] Nicolaidis, Science and Eastern Orthodoxy, 169-192

[25]  As Nicolaidis recounts in Science and Eastern Orthodoxy,( p.191), well within living memory  “Kallinikos Karoussos (born Konstsntinos, 1926-2008), later elected metropolitan of Piraueus, had collaborated with Christos Paraskevaidis (1939-2008), the future archbishop of Greece known as Christodoulos, in founding the Christian fraternity Chrysopigi. This aggressively fundamentalist fraternity fought against the teaching of evolution, while confusing evolution with Marxism … Kallinikos went on to found the Piraeus association of scientists in1993, dedicated to fostering nationalist and anti-evolutionary ideas.”

[26] A useful survey of Staniloae’s attitude is given in Doru Costache,  “At the Crossroads of Contemporary Cosmology and the Patristic Worldview: Movement, Rationality and Purpose in Father Dumitru Staniloae”,  Studdi Theologice 2 (2013) 141-64

[27] Christopher C.Knight, The God of Nature: Incarnation and Contemporary Science (Minneapolis, Fortress Press, 2007)

[28] Knight, The God of Nature, 16

[29] Knight, The God of Nature, 19

[30] Metropolitan Anthony of Sourozh, God and Man, new ed, (1993) 51-2