Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Metropolitan Hierotheos on Theology and Science

By His Eminence Metropolitan Hierotheos 
of Nafpaktos and Agiou Vlasiou

Before elaborating on the topic I would like to point out that when I use the term “theology” I mean the Orthodox patristic theology, as preserved in the Orthodox Church, not the Scholastic and Protestant theology developed in the West. In elaborating the topic, I will briefly mention some points that I consider important.


The term “metaphysics” first appeared with the publication of Aristotle’s works by Andronicus of Rhodes, in the 1st century BC. It is known that Aristotle wrote a book titled “Physike Akroasis” or “Physics” and some other works in which he deals with natural phenomena, that is the sky, birth and decay, meteorology, etc. In addition, Aristotle wrote another book titled “First Philosophy” which presents his ontology. The editor of the aforementioned books placed the book “First Philosophy” after the book “Physics”, so this was called “Metaphysics” [“After the Physics”]. Thus, metaphysics denotes the science that deals with the Supreme Being, God.

Plato’s teaching, which preceded that of Aristotle, is also included under the term metaphysics. Plato argued that God is the Supreme Being, in whom there exist the unborn ideas, and the world was created based on these ideas. Furthermore, Aristotle expounded the theory about the first unmoved mover.

Therefore, metaphysics is the science that talks about God, but connects God very closely with nature, because all existing objects are copies of unborn ideas or are moved by the Supreme Being. Scholastic theology embraced this classical metaphysics and we find it in the works of Thomas Aquinas who speaks about analogia entis. This means that there is an analogy between God and created things. By extension, it means that there is a close link between metaphysics and physics, between God and the creation. Whatever occurs in the creation is a reflection of ideas. It is very characteristic that Aristotle himself linked philosophy with science.

In studying western theology, as expressed in Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologica, we find the view that the creation of the world is a copy of divine essence through the hypostasization of the archetypes.

This link between metaphysics and physics, that is western theology and science, constructed a specific worldview and all interpretations about God, man and the world developed based on this worldview. During the Renaissance and the Enlightenment, however, when humanism developed, based on rational thought and human autonomy, the facts changed. It was impossible to accept the link between metaphysics and science, to accept that everything that exists in the world is a copy of Plato’s ideas or is moved by Aristotle’s first unmoved mover, and therefore the worldview of metaphysics collapsed.

Scientists investigating the world, both the earth and the skies, checked everything through observation and experiment. The positivism that developed went to a direction contrary to metaphysics. Through this perspective atheistic humanism argued against the God of the West. This is how atheism was created. Atheism is in fact the refutation of an imaginary God, because the God of Plato and Aristotle, and of the Scholastic theologians as well, is actually imaginary, non-existing. Hence, the declaration of the death of God refers to the God of metaphysics – classical and Christian – prevailing in the West. The Pope’s theologians wanted to protect the God described by Thomas Aquinas, and as a result they clashed with science, indeed violently, as is seen in the actions of the Holy Inquisition.


The Fathers of the Church – and I have in mind in particular St. Gregory the Theologian, St. Gregory of Nyssa and some others who dealt with these issues, as well as St. Gregory Palamas – operate not in the framework of classical and western metaphysics but in a contrary direction. In fact, Orthodox theology, as expressed by the Fathers of the Church, is anti-metaphysical. I will provide some examples to make this comprehensible.

One example has to do with analogia entis. As we said before, even western Christian metaphysics argues that there is an analogy between the world we see and the unborn world of ideas we do not see, that the entire world is a copy of God’s ideas and on this point they see harmony in creation. The Fathers of the Church, though, argue against this view and, following the theology of the Church, teach that the whole creation was created by God out of non-being and not out of unborn ideas. According to the Fathers of the Church, there is no ontological relation between the ideas of God and those of the creatures. The world came to existence out of non-existence. St. Gregory the Theologian in his theological sermons urges his listeners to “reject Plato’s ideas”.

A second example is a continuation of the former and refers to the soul. According to classical metaphysics, as expressed by Plato, man’s soul belongs to the unborn world of ideas and after its fall it was sealed in the body which is the soul’s prison. Because the soul has a memory of the world of ideas, it wants to return to it by the rejection of the body, and the whole mysticism of the Platonic and Neo-Platonic philosophers revolves around this point. The Fathers of the Church, however, do not accept this view of the soul. They claim that the soul does not belong to the world of ideas, that it is, instead, God’ creature which came to existence out of non-being, just like the entire world. In this perspective, then, the body is not the prison of the soul, and the soul has no need to return to the world of ideas, in a mystical way, through sorcery. It is well known that Neo-Platonism is closely associated with sorcery, as we see in the life of Plotinus. Thus, Orthodox theology refutes the mysticism of Platonism and Neo-Platonism.

The third example, which follows from the previous ones, has to do with the distinction between uncreated and created beings. While metaphysics is concerned with metaphysical and natural phenomena, the Fathers of the Church refer to uncreated and created beings. This is particularly important, because, as we mentioned before, in metaphysics the natural beings are copies of the metaphysical, while for the Fathers of the Church God is uncreated and the whole of nature is created, that is, it was created by God and it is not a copy of ideas. Most importantly, there is no dialectical distinction between them, as if the metaphysical ones reside in a floor above the natural ones. Instead, God’s uncreated energy meets the created energy of the created things.

This is the reason why the Fathers of the Church did not clash with science, as happened in the West with the Holy Inquisition. They knew very well that theology talks about the uncreated God and develops the prerequisites for the sanctification of things by the uncreated Grace of God, while science deals with the exploration of created things. Therefore, from an Orthodox theology point of view, the advances of natural sciences cause no problem to us, because scientific discoveries do not undermine man’s relationship with God, since the creation is not a copy of ideas, in which case it could be said that God is insulted by each investigation. To address this issue I will refer to astronomy and modern genetics.

Ancient Greek metaphysics argued that celestial bodies are unchanging and revolve circularly without change. Aristotle in his book “Physics” claims that there is change in natural phenomena but not in celestial bodies, which he had placed in the “after the physics” (metaphysics). It is indicative that he considered celestial bodies to be animate beings, lower gods who are close to the divinity. Thus, in the universe there is the feature of no change, while modern astronomy, observing the starry skies, sees changes. Modern astronomy cannot view celestial bodies as gods, because man is able to send manned spacecrafts to these celestial bodies and has even walked on the Moon.

Furthermore, modern genetics has the means and the ability to study the sub-cellular world and explore the whole mystery in it, as well as to testify the changes occurring in the genetic matter, man’s DNA. For this reason, modern science cannot accept that it investigates all these elements as copies of a metaphysical world of ideas.

This is why we claim that Orthodox theology, which rejects metaphysics, has no essential problem with the advances of modern science, unless science goes beyond its boundaries. So, it does not attack science, when science serves man. In fact, in the modern discoveries we marvel at the wisdom of God who created the world, “How many are your works, Lord!  In wisdom you made them all; the earth is full of your creatures”. (Psalm 103 (104):24)

Of course there is a problem regarding the way scientific discoveries are used. It is possible that some of them may become a problem for man and the world, contribute to the rape of the environment and to genetic pollution and eventually harm man himself. Even in these cases, Orthodox theology only sets certain fundamental theological principles and stresses that science itself has to set bioethical rules in order not to work against mankind. We note that modern bioethics sets such rules, after the encounter of molecular biology with mechanical medicine and technology.


So far we have discussed the relation between metaphysics and science and pointed how they were linked together in the past, but in our age, especially in the last two-three centuries, they have been de-linked. However, even though science functions independently of theology, scientists can be believers and theologians, and theologians may be scientists, but each one knows his limits, his role and his mission.

Orthodox theology discusses what God is, as we can see in Orthodox dogmatics which elaborates the Church teaching on God. God is Triune, Father, Son and Spirit, uncreated, person, as revealed by Christ Himself with His incarnation, and experienced by the saints of the Church. On the other hand, science deals with creatures, investigates the essence of created things, observes the way they function, and then reaches conclusions that are recorded in order to benefit mankind.

Orthodox theology argues that God is the creator of the world. He brought it to existence out of non-existence, He gives life to it, and therefore, through the creation one may glorify God. On the other hand, science inquires about the way God made the world or at least the way created things operate.

Orthodox theology defines the “reasons for the existence of beings”, that is, discusses the uncreated energy of God which is inside all creatures, even the smallest ones, such as small grass. There is the substance-giving, the life-giving energy of God to all nature, as well as the wisdom-giving energy in man, manifested in the way he uses his intelligence. On the other hand, science deals with the material substance of things, observes their compositions, their changes and the benefit they might bring to mankind. Out of research in the natural world we discover the composition of things and are able to cure certain diseases. This is achieved in medical laboratories.

Orthodox theology refers to the transformation of the world, to how the world is sanctified and man is redeemed. Bread and wine are transformed into the Body and Blood of Christ without undergoing an alteration of their substance, oil becomes the Holy Unction, etc. Furthermore, the entire man is sanctified in body and soul and may unite with God. This is the task of Orthodox theology. By contrast, science deals with the way to improve material things, in order to solve ecological problems, while medical science tries to cure the corruptible, mortal body so that man’s life maintains a degree of quality.

All these show that the task of Orthodox theology is different from the task of science. Obviously, then, the task of the Orthodox theologian differs from the task of the scientist. The two cannot be confused. An Orthodox theologian may be involved with science only when he is a scientist. A scientist may be involved with God only when he follows the perspective of theology. It is unacceptable for a theologian who has only theological knowledge to express scientific views, if he is not a scientist. It is unacceptable for a scientist to express theological views, if he is not a theologian. In both case there are boundaries between theology and science.

In any case, Holy Scripture is not a scientific book, it is a theological book which aims not at producing science but at helping man to know God and unite with Him. This means that the authors of Holy Scripture, the Prophets and the Apostles, employed the scientific knowledge of their own times. So, one cannot use Scriptural examples against science, nor can scientific discoveries be viewed as undermining Holy Scripture. For example, the authors of Holy Scripture use the knowledge of their times about the sun’s movement around the earth, and thus write about the sunrise and sunset. The discovery that the earth revolves around the sun does not undermine faith in Holy Scripture, because the latter’s purpose is theological, not scientific.

After these brief thoughts, I will remind you that Nietzsche, the philosopher, referred to the death of God. His phrase is well known: “don’t we hear yet the noise of the grave diggers burying God? Don’t we smell yet anything of the divine decomposition? – even gods decompose! God is dead! God remains dead! And it is we who killed him!”

The question is: which God is dead? From what we have said so far, it seems that the dead God is the God of western metaphysics who is based on philosophy and contemplation, not the God of the Orthodox Church, who is empirical, meaning that a person living within the Church is able to reach the experience of God.

There is also the additional question of who killed God. From what has been said before, the conclusion is that the metaphysical God of the West was killed by people who could not feel close to him, because he was inaccessible in heaven and they viewed him as a sadistic father. He was also dethroned by science, which could not accept him, or rather could not accept the link between metaphysics and physics. This, however, is not what happened with the Fathers of the Church who experienced God as a personal Being who loves and cares for man.

And a further question is: who smells the corpse of God? From the above it seems that it is the humanists that smell it, especially the atheistic humanists, who rejected the metaphysical God with the slogan “back to nature”, not the Orthodox ones who smell the energy of God and enter into communion with Him through the neptic hesychastic tradition.

Science can be beneficial or catastrophic for man and it will certainly disappear when this world ends its existence. Theology deals with the sanctification of the world and man’s transformation, and it will lead man to communion with God, after the destruction of the universe.

Consequently, there is no field for a clash between theology and science, only the possibility of a clash between theologians and scientists, when they get out of their boundaries. Theologians try to get to know God and guide people to Him, and scientists try to study nature.

In our times, when people search for the meaning of life, Orthodox theology can help them without entering into rivalries with science or possibly with atheists. As clergy and theologians we have a substantial scope for action in the spiritual, existential, and social field to help contemporary suffering people. 

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