Belgrade, November 12, 2019
At the beginning of July, the Holy Synod of the Serbian Orthodox Church decided to remove Bishop Maxim (Vasiljevic) of Western America and Associate Professor Mark Vilotic, the secretary of Bishop Gregory of Dusseldorf, from the Faculty of Orthodox Theology of the University of Belgrade.
There were a number of speculations about why this decision was made, though Bishop Irinej of Bačka, the head of the Synodal Information and Publishing Department, commented that the Synod’s decision is not connected with anything that happened at the Council of Bishops in May (where Bp. Maxim and Bp. Gregory of Dusseldorf reportedly publicly criticized President Aleksandr Vucic’s policies in Kosovo and Metohija in his presence), or with Bp. Maxim’s previously stated position that the way in which the great St. Sava obtained autocephaly for the Serbian Church is analogous to what happened with the schismatic “Orthodox Church in Ukraine.”
However, in its decision, the Synod also referred to the school’s statutes that stipulate the need to teach in the spirit of fidelity to Holy Scripture and Holy Tradition, and thus many believe that Bp. Maxim and Vilotic’s removal had to do with their support of the theory of evolution, which is specifically mentioned in the appeal in support of the two that was published by Orthodox World.
The appeal is signed by “international Orthodox theologians, 90 scholars from 43 academic institutions and 13 countries.” The signatories include a number of people who are generally well-respected in the Orthodox world, including Chrestos Yannaras and Fr. Andrew Louth, and a number who are themselves controversial, including Peter Bouteneff of St. Vladimir’s Seminary, Dcn. John Chryssavgis, George Demacopoulos and Aristotle Papanikolaou of Fordham University, Fr. Cyril Hovorun, Paul Meyendorff, Gayle Woloschak of Northwestern University, and others.
The appeal notes that there were legal issues involved surrounding Vilotic’s sabbatical and leave of absence over the past three years, and continues: “The two professors were also signatories of the Statement (2017) in which they stated that the theory of evolution is accepted by the scientific community of biologists and that, as theologians, we respect that fact.”
“The Statement did not claim that the theory of evolution is true, flawless, or irreplaceable,” the appeal continues. “They simply argued that the theory of evolution does not necessarily contradict Christian faith and that therefore as theologians we should not give support to pseudo-scientific theories. However, the synodal decision uses this as a device against them, establishing a dangerous precedent in the history of the Orthodox Church by proclaiming a particular scientific theory to be contrary to the Christian belief.”
The mentioned 2017 statement came after a “group of interested citizens,” including more than 150 academicians and holders of postgraduate degrees, sent a petition to various universities and government agencies calling for evolution to be taught as an hypothesis rather than a fact.
In response, a group of 11 faculty members from the Faculty of Orthodox Theology at the University of Belgrade, including both Bp. Maxim and Associate Professor Vilotic, issued their statement calling the petition inappropriate and un-Orthodox and emphasizing that there is currently no scientific theory that can replace the theory of evolution.
The statement became a source of scandal within the Church, and Bp. Maxim backed down from it at a session of the Serbian Council of Bishops. Nevertheless, a recent petition that circulated amongst Serbian clergy in America listed his belief in evolution among its grievances.
While the appeal states that “They simply argued that the theory of evolution does not necessarily contradict Christian faith,” it is significant that the saints and holy elders of the 19th-21st centuries who have been acquainted with the theory of evolution have universally rejected it as incompatible with the Patristic teaching of the Orthodox Church on Genesis.
In particular, the great 20th-century Serbian saints Nikolai Velimirovic and Justin Popovic were strongly against the theory of evolution.
St. Nikolai writes in his Homilies Vol. 2 (p. 280) that evolutionists speak “not knowing the power and the might of the living God,” and that they are given over to “shameful pleasures,” “find[ing] pleasure only in things of the earth and not in heaven, and only in what provokes laughter from the demons and tears from Christ’s angels” (Through the Prison Window pp. 39-40). St. Nikolai also writes Europe has chosen evolution over theosis, and that, despite the teaching of evolution, all death is unnatural.
For his part, St. Justin quotes St. Nikolai in identifying evolution with secular humanism (Orthodox Faith and Life in Christ, pp. 192-193), and also argues that evolution is a denial of theosis, and that if it is true, then Christ and the Church are unnecessary (On the Divine-Human Path, pp. 215-216). In his Commentary on 1 John, he writes that evolutionists live in darkness and ignorance of man.
The new appeal goes on to speak of Bp. Maxim’s personal and academic qualifications, who the signatories believe is “considered to be among the most prominent Orthodox theologians of our times” according to “worldwide ecclesiastical consensus.”
The appeal also laments that the Synod later attempted to remove Bishop Ignatie (Midic) from his position as Dean of the School of Theology for not removing Bp. Maxim and Vilotic. The request for termination was discarded, and the appeal states the Synod does not understand the legal issues involved though it refuses to acknowledge this fact.
“A removal of academics who have not been negligent in performing their duties, as well as attributing to them false suspicions which undermine the freedom of speech and academic thought, is a denial of the truth of the Church and an undoing of our hopes, to say the least,” the appeal concludes.
Following the publication of the appeal in support of Bp. Maxim, a petition appeared on change.org, entitled, “Support For the Holy Synod of Serbia's Decision AGAINST Bishop Maxim (Vasiljevic).”
The petition lists a number of grievances voiced by Bishop David of Krusevac against Bp. Maxim, including his support for the theory of evolution, his insulting statements about St. Sava, and his support for Constantinople’s actions in Ukraine.
Noting the academics, appeal, the petition states: “This petition is a form of public support for the bold action of the Serbian Patriarchate in a time when most local Orthodox Churches contently permit subversive Trojan horses into their seminaries leading to a further secularizing of the priesthood and episcopacy.”
The petition then suggests a number of Patristic works for people to get acquainted with the Orthodox teaching on the creation of the world and of man, and the Fall: The Literal Meaning of Genesis by St. Augustine, Hexaemeron by St. Basil the Great, Homilies on Genesis by St. John Chrysostom, Hexaemeron by St. Anastasius of Sinai, The First-Created Man: Seven Homilies by St. Symeon the New Theologian, as well as Genesis, Creation, and Early Man by Fr. Seraphim Rose.
The appeal in support of Bp. Maxim has already been sent, but the petition in favor of the Serbian Synod’s decision can still be signed here.