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Relationship between the theological doctrine of creation and biological theories of evolution

Author: Santiago Collado González. Deputy Director of group of research "Science, reason and faith" (CRYF) of the University of Navarra.
Published in: Temas de Actualidad Familiar. Toledo: Movimiento Familiar Cristiano; 2010, pp. 81-92.
Date of publication: 24 August 2010



Evolutionary theory

The publication of Darwin's "Origin of Species" in 1859 marked the consolidation of a vision of nature that had already been in the making for more than a century thanks to the wealth of data gathered by naturalists. The fixist conception of species was replaced in the course of the 18th and 19th centuries by another, subject transformist conception. The latter postulated that all existing species came, through various transformations, from more primitive and common ones and, therefore, had not always remained in their present forms as was thought at the time.

Darwin's novelty was the description of a mechanism that explained in a simple and plausible way how these transformations took place. What he seemed to have achieved was to account for the variety we observe in nature, as well as its increasing complexity, with the single resource of easily understood natural laws. The mechanism, based on small random variations plus the action of natural selection, was seen by some as the finding that allowed biology to be freed from the hands of theology and become a science on a par with other established sciences such as physics. Darwin's proposal seemed to offer an explanation of the Degree complexity achieved by living things without the need for finality. This formed the basis for the then most commonly employed arguments for the existence of God.

Darwin's proposal did not only concern the different animal species, but also man. Darwin proposed that man also had common ancestors with all other living beings. It was the latter that caused the most controversy. A discussion was unleashed and we have yet to see the end of it.

Initially the reaction of Christians, in general, was one of rejection. subject The causes of this rejection came from the prevailing philosophical rationality of the time and the apparent incompatibility of what the new theory proposed with what the Holy Scriptures narrate about the origin of the world, of life and, in particular, of man. Nevertheless, there were thinkers who saw no incompatibility between the new science and faith. For example, Newman mentions Darwin's hypothesis in one of his letters, saying that he found nothing contrary to religion in it.

The Darwinian mechanism went through different phases in terms of its Degree acceptance by the scientific community. Darwin himself came to consider that it was not the only mechanism that caused evolution. Throughout the 20th century, a synthesis of the Darwinian proposals with the principles of genetics discovered by Mendel, also in the second half of the 19th century, was achieved. By the middle of the 20th century, the "Synthetic Theory of Evolution", which united the contributions of Darwin and Mendel, completely dominated the academic and scientific sphere. New findings in genetics and biochemistry have reinforced the general lines of the synthetic theory, but have also opened up new questions and challenges, which, however, do not seem to threaten the substance of the current theory of evolution.

No one in science disputes what is now called the "fact" of evolution, namely that all animal species, including man, have not always existed as we observe them, but have evolved from earlier ones through evolution or transformation. Today biologists are in a position, and modern genetics is helping them to do so, to draw up a tree of life on which to place the first living beings that existed approximately three and a half billion years ago, right up to the species that exist today. The latter, logically, would be at the extreme branches of the tree. The mechanisms of evolution, the role of natural selection, or the need to fill in the synthetic theory with new elements to explain some of the current unknowns, are still being debated. But the general evolutionary picture is accepted by virtually the entire scientific community.

Evolution and Christianity

As far as the relationship of evolutionary theories to Christian faith is concerned, four basic positions have been taken by Christians:

  1. Incompatibility between revealed faith and the claims of science.

  2. Compatibility between faith and science as both belong to completely independent spheres of knowledge .

  3. The data of current science are not only not incompatible with faith, but reinforce it and offer elements for a scientific confirmation of theses proper to faith.

  4. Science and religion move in distinct and autonomous methodological spheres, but there is harmony between the two.

These positions are the consequence of the way of looking at God's relationship to the world and to man. The first position - incompatibility - depends on a literalist interpretation of the Sacred Scripture, i.e. it arises as result from considering that the Bible offers scientific data about the world and the appearance of man. This reading subject is what led many North American Protestants to fundamentalist creationism at the beginning of the 20th century and to the so-called "Scientific Creationism" from the 1970s onwards. For them, faith and the framework currently presented by science are irreconcilable. This position has also been defended from the side of science by some who, as early as the publication of the "Origin of Species", saw in its thesis an alternative to explanations based on the notion of creation. In this case, where incompatibility is defended, some deny evolution, while others deny the creative action of God, or, equivalently, God himself.

The second option, compatibility from complete independence, has also been advocated by both believers and non-believing scientists. This is, for example, the position of the famous agnostic scientist Stephen Jay Gould, known as "Non-overlapping magisteria" (NOMA). The well-known biologist Francisco Ayala also defends a similar position. Although this thesis may seem correct because he sees no incompatibility between science and religion, in reality it isolates our experience of the world, to which science today makes a decisive contribution, from our knowledge of God. This approach completely separates creation, which is confined to the realm of subjective faith, from evolution. In reality this position is equivalent to the deistic one, which puts God in the past and leaves the present in the hands of natural processes and beyond the reach of divine action. The problem is that if God is not necessary to explain the present, putting him in the past ends up being a choice based on subjective preferences or faith, but not supported by truly rational arguments.

The third option is advocated by supporters of the new movement known as "design Intelligent". For them, recent discoveries in science, in particular in biochemistry, provide empirical evidence for the existence of an intelligent design . Although they are generally silent on the nature of that intelligence, it is clear that they point, some sometimes explicitly, to that intelligence being divine. The problem with this option is not that they argue that the processes and Structures of nature refer to a creative intelligence. The danger of this position is the opposite of the previous one and consists in seeing God as categorically implicated in creation, that is to say, a God is conceived who intervenes directly in the transformations of the natural world, the same transformations that are the object of study of the sciences. There is a methodical problem here in that the activity of the Creator is not adequately distinguished from the level of action proper to created agents.

There are two fundamental problems with the positions discussed so far. The first has to do with the subject reading of the Sacred Scripture. The other has to do with the prevailing subject of rationality in the culture of the time when evolutionary theories were born. In the 18th and 19th century, the paradigm of natural science was mechanics. The success of this physics led to what could be described as mechanical philosophy also taking hold in the philosophical sphere. One of the consequences of the dominance of this subject of rationality was the discrediting and neglect of metaphysics. This lack of metaphysics led many thinkers to see in Darwinism a doctrine that, at last, would make resource God unnecessary to explain the world. In other words, creation and evolution were seen as incompatible alternatives.

In fact, in some of the great Christian thinkers of the patristic and also medieval times, we can see not only the non-existence of incompatibility between evolution and creation, but they are even considered complementary. For example, this text of St. Augustine: "The universe was created in a state not entirely complete, but it was endowed with the capacity to transform itself from subject report to a truly marvellous order of Structures and forms of life". Other fathers such as St. Athanasius, St. Basil and St. Gregory of Nyssa also speak of creation as a divine act unfolding in time. In medieval times St Bonaventure and St Thomas hold the same view.

The discussion provoked by the publication of the "Origin of Species", the root of which has already been noted, has led, in the Catholic sphere, to a return in philosophy to the basic inspirations of the Christian thinkers mentioned, in particular, to a realist metaphysics inspired by Thomism. The discussion also led the Church to establish a magisterium on the interpretation of biblical texts. It has thus been possible to develop a theology of creation in which evolutionary theories are not only not incompatible with faith but are in good harmony with it. Such a theology of creation does confront evolutionary philosophical doctrines which, on the basis of evolutionary theories, defend materialistic and atheistic principles. Therefore, the theology of creation sets limits to the philosophical consequences that can legitimately be drawn from such theories.

We will now look at the most important consequences of the theological doctrine of creation in the points highlighted above as points of conflict: in the interpretation of genesis and in the notion of creation itself.

Evolution and theological doctrine of creation

Evolution and genesis

In relation to the creation narrative contained in the first chapters of Genesis, it must be kept in mind that it must be read in the light of the whole of revelation and, ultimately, in the light of the fullness of revelation contained in the New Testament in which Jesus Christ is the core topic of interpretation of the whole Sacred Scripture.

On the other hand, the message conveyed in the Bible is primarily oriented towards man's relationship to God, and secondarily to man's relationship to the world. The biblical message, also when expressed in cosmological terms, is theological and anthropological in character. The sciences offer a different perspective: they focus on the transformations Materials that occur in the physical world. Forgetting this distinction has serious consequences because it leads to the view that science alone has the authority to tell us what the world is. This has led to the development of other areas of theology to the detriment of the theology of creation. The theology of creation is very important because from a God who has no real relationship with the world we end up with a faith that becomes mere sentimentality. It is important to find the identity between a creator God and the God of salvation. This avoids falling into a religion of superstition or fideism. That is why Christianity is considered "religio vera".

From agreement with the exegetical criteria established by the magisterium, and what has been said above, one could summarise the theological and anthropological message contained in the Yahwist and priestly narratives of Genesis in the following points:

  • Everything that exists depends on one God.

  • The created has as its origin the Logos, his Word, and not some kind of emanation ("and God said").

  • The created is distinct from God, it expresses a free project of His which unfolds in time in an orderly and gradual manner, this project participating in the divine goodness and perfection.

  • Man and woman resemble God more than any other creature and their creation is presented as a new divine act surrounded by a special solemnity and transcendence (triple barah).

  • God engages in the creation of man with an action that indicates the gift of his own spirit. Man and woman are called to a special intimacy with God, but a relationship in which the human being is free and responsible for his or her own actions.

  • Creation does not come into being in a context of struggle or conflict between opposing forces but as an act of God's creative will.

  • The creation of man and woman in the image and likeness of God belongs to the original truth. Man does not proceed entirely from any of the previously created realities, he is not the fruit of a necessary process, but God acts in a direct way but by making use of the pre-existing subject .

  • Existence of an original test . Moral fall with consequences for the whole human race: in the relationship with oneself, between man and woman and between man and God. There is a kind of wound of origin.

  • In relation to the human being, the special dependence of the human being on God is emphasised. This relationship is interpreted as a direct creation of the soul.

There is nothing in these points that opposes or contradicts what science says about evolution. Even taking into account the literary genres, one is invited to think of an "evolutionary creation" and rejects a "creative evolution" as advocated by doctrines of a materialistic character.

Notion of creation

The revealed fact that the world was created "ex nihilo" has prompted the development of an authentic philosophy of creation, i.e. a speech based on exclusively rational principles. It is a matter of faith that the contemplation of the natural world constitutes a way to trace back rationally to its Creator. The philosophical and theological doctrine of creation shows where the points of friction that have arisen and still arise in reconciling creation with evolution lie, and highlights the coherence, and even the desirability, of the existence of evolution in nature.

The notion of creation, in the metaphysical and theological realm, expresses nothing other than the peculiar relationship of God to the physical world, and of God to man. It is difficult to understand because we tend to think of physical reality in productive terms, and creation is a relationship that escapes the ordinary categories of our thinking. This difficulty is present in all the current debates about the relationship between science and faith. The usual language, the very word "relationship", can mislead and make it difficult to understand the peculiarity of the creative act.

Creation is not production, it is not generation, but a more radical act that affects the "totality" of being (totality understood here in an intensive rather than an extensive sense).

Some properties that derive from this peculiar act are:

a) The Creator does not undergo any change or modification by having created, is not made more perfect or completed in any way. The divine being is not affected by creation. God is not understood in dependence on or with respect to his creature, i.e. the creature does not modify God's being at all.

b) The creature depends on the creator and not in any way, but in a radical way, it depends on God in its very being, as the principle of its existence. It is not a question of dependence in terms of being this or that in the predicative sense, but of dependence in being in the most radical sense: "act of being". Creating does not imply movement, but donation of being. In creating there is a radical newness. But this novelty is not with respect to God but with respect to nothingness, because God is not modified in creating. The creature's dependence on the creator is therefore real in the most radical sense of the word. The creator, on the other hand, does not depend on the creature, which is why it is sometimes said that his relationship with respect to the creature is not real but of reason: this must be understood in this sense.

The distinction between the being of God and the creature lies in the original identity of the one and the inidentity or metaphysical composition of the other. In Thomistic terms it is the distinctio realis in creatures. It is the creature's dependence on its creator that corresponds to its inidentity. In neo-Thomistic terms this is called being by essence or being by participation.

It is more proper to say that the creature is distinguished from nothingness than to say that it is distinguished from God. The latter seems to establish a relation of the creature to God among equals, a relation which would not be as radical as that of the created being. This does not mean that God is confused with his creature. Precisely the opposite is true because God does not depend in any sense on his creature and the creature depends on God in the most radical sense. It is this radicality that carries with it transcendence. God creates without movement and is therefore transcendent to the unworldly. Movement is proper to the created by virtue of its original inidentity, or its limitation. The creature's dependence on the creator transcends the movement proper to the unworldly.

This rejects both pantheism, in which God, world and man are confused, and panentheism, in which the world is like an emanation of God: God is more than the world, but the world is part of God. This understanding of creation establishes a double level of activity which must be placed on radically different planes, but in which one, the creative action, is the foundation of the other, the action of creatures, which is partially described by laws. The philosophy of the Thomistic tradition speaks of first and second causality. The methodical spheres in which the philosophical and theological doctrine of creation (metaphysical) and evolutionary theories (scientific) move make it impossible to demonstrate one directly from the other. The relationship between the two is not immediate as some of the positions described above claim. But their compatibility and even their coherence and complementarity are evident. Referring to the physical realm, God is the foundation of a world in which the causes of its transformations and evolution can be studied with the scientific method, and consequently in a partial way. The following text of St. Thomas is very significant:

"Nature is precisely the plan of a certain art (namely, the divine art), impressed on things, by which things themselves move towards a certain end: as if the craftsman who makes a ship could give the logs to move by themselves to form the structure of the ship".

It is clear that a God who creates a world capable of bringing about by Himself the richness and variety of natural beings, and the rationality by which they are governed, is far more powerful than a God who would have to intervene continually to achieve the same effects. This does not mean that God creates and abandons the world to the rule of the laws which He Himself has established, but that He constitutes the foundation of the world and of the laws by which it is governed. This foundation transcends time and therefore cannot properly be understood in scientific terms. But the sciences constitute a great financial aid to develop a philosophy that delves deeper and better into the knowledge of God.


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