“Creation and Causality” – Jaroslav Pelikan’s reflections on the Christian response to Darwin’s Origin of Species

Kiran sent me this paper while I was on long service leave recently, and I have only just had the chance to have a good look at it. It is an old essay by Jaroslav Pelikan of blessed memory, published in The Journal of Religion, Vol. 40, No. 4. (Oct., 1960), pp. 246-255. It offers some good insight into the Science vs Religion debate as it relates to the question of origins.

Pelikan asks why, of all the issues to get hot under the collar about in the last 100 years (well, 150 now), Christians should have chosen evolution. He proposes some “thoughts” arising from the history of the development of Christian doctrine on the matter of Creation, noting that “there is, unfortunately, no [published] history of the Christian doctrine of creation” (surely that lack must have been rectified in the last 50 years, but never the less, Pelikan makes a good go of giving an overview in these few pages).

He points out that in the Scriptures, the verb “to create”, in both Hebrew (bara) and Greek (ktizein), are used only of God, but the only two places where the idea of “creatio ex nihilo” appears in scripture (Rom 4:7 and Heb 11:3), the verb “ktizein” is not used. Thus Augustine declares that “to make concerns what did not exist at all, but to crezte is to make something by bringing it forth from what was already existing.”

Pelikan points to the process whereby, over time, the tables were reversed so that “to create” came to mean “to bring forth from what did not exist at all”, and that the entire doctrine of “creation” as such came to refer to this. He brings forth examples, both Catholic and Protestant, which show that another word came to be used for God’s ongoing creative work, namely “providence”.

Thus, when Darwin wanders up and suggests that all God’s creation has “evolved” from “previously existing things”, Christian dogmatists saw this as an attack on the Christain doctrine of God as Creator.

That’s a potted account – read the whole article for yourself, it isn’t long.

But a couple of observations:

1) Pelikan points out that our growing scientific knowledge has not always been taken to be in conflict with our religious faith in God as Creator. He points to Psalm 139:13ff, anc comments that “the aquisition of obstetrical information does not dispel, but only deepens, the mystery of which the Psalmist is speaking”. Why then have we been unable to see the new scientific understanding of origins to be a “deepening” of the mystery already expressed in Scripture?

2) Pelikan posits a possible connection between the particularly Protestant insistence on God’s Creation as an event that happened at a distinct point in historical time (eg. in 4004 BC) with the Protestant rejection of the popular Catholic understanding of the Mass as “repeating” the sacrifice of Calvary. The Death and Resurrection of Christ happened “once and for all” and cannot be repeated, even in a sacrament. The six day creation as described in Genesis was also seen as God’s “once and for all” work, which he finished and did not continue beyond the “evening and morning” of the sixth day. By this suggestion, it is not surprising that the Protestant establishment reacted so violently to Darwin’s suggestion of an “ongoing” creation. My only thought on this is that this does not explain the fact that Catholics also had difficulty with Darwin’s theories initially (and to some extent still).

3) Personally, I see a connection here with the whole “Tom Wright and the New Perspective on Justification” thingy (yes, I know that I keep on going on about that – forgive me – I am obsessed). By pointing out that the verb “bara/ktizein” is never used in Scripture to mean “creation out of nothing”, and that Augustine actually understood the words “create” and “make” in completely opposite ways to us, shows that it is indeed possible for doctrinal tradition, both Catholic AND Protestant, to lose its Scriptural moorings. This is what N.T. Wright has claimed has happened in the debate about “Justification”. If what Pelikan suggests – that a renewed reading of the doctrine of creation in Scripture and the early Fathers could set us free from the interminable debate on creation and evolution – is right, why then might not it be possible to hope that a scripturally and patristically renewed reading of Justification can achieve the same thing?



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14 responses to ““Creation and Causality” – Jaroslav Pelikan’s reflections on the Christian response to Darwin’s Origin of Species

  1. Matthias

    Rev Dr Rowland ward of the Presbyterian church of eastern Australia in his little booklet on the Westminster Confession of Faith,makes a comment at the back that evolution should be considered as one of the possible processes that God used.

  2. PM

    Aquinas would maintain that God as final cause can (and indeed mostly does) work through secondary causes (formal, efficent etc) without being any less present and active. God is the doing of all being, as one of Thomas’s modern expositors puts it. Seen in that light, most of the so-called opposition between science and faith turns out to be a gigantic non-problem.

    I might add in passing that this is also one of the most liberating elements of a Thomistic spirituality – we should not see God as ultimately a rival to our our own nature and capacities – though sin will often make it seem that way – but as their source and fulfilment.

  3. Tom

    PM has it on the hammer there, but funnily enough we can go back further than that. Aristotle provides an argument against pure materialistic necessity in his Physics; Socrates actually provided the rudiments of one of the first arguments for intelligent design.

    The question of evolution, and how it precisely happened is one for science; the question over whether or not this has any impact on God or his existence is one for Theology.

    Dawkins-esque clowns who demand that evolution disproves God find themselves to be radically uneducated. A principle of sufficient reason is still demanded for reality, no matter in what way we explain reality. It still needs a cause.

    PM, i’m glad there’s another Aquinas man here!

  4. Kiran

    Umm.. I would want to add 2:Maccabees 7: 28 (2:Maccabees 7 also contains the first intimation I know also of bodily resurrection).

    Yes. I see absolutely no contradiction between Thomism and evolution. On the other hand, I also think Thomist principles, and the validity of secondary causation would tend to militate against crude intelligent design, i.e. the idea that we need miracles to explain how the eye, say, is. What the fifth way, and the five ways generally, assert is rather that all causal chains have their origin in God.

    Note that St. Thomas himself believed that one couldn’t disprove the “eternity” of the world rationally. I think this is probably the aspect of St. Thomas thought that people on both sides of the evolution debate completely ignore. In particular, this is one which the people who argue against the five ways should take into account, but always fail to do so.

    PM’s point is a very good one. Indeed, it was St. Thomas and the major Christian tradition which, against certain Islamic philosophers, and against people such as William of Ockham maintained the validity of secondary causality. As far as I am aware, the Cappadocian Fathers and St. Augustine suggest that creation is “simul” instantaneous, and involves the creation of seminal reasons which develop into the world we see.

    Catholic difficulties (as well as protestant difficulties: See James Moore Post-Darwinian Controversies) with evolution have been exaggerated.

    In regard to your point 2, David, actually, initially, both Protestants and Catholics tended not to see evolution as a problem. Indeed, only four years after Origin, Newman makes the very interesting point in his Philosophical diary the following:

    “There is as much want of simplicity in the idea
    of the creation of distinct species as in that of the creation (of)
    trees in full growth (whose seed is in themselves), or of rocks with
    fossils in them. I mean that it is as strange that monkeys should be
    so like men, with no between them as that
    there should be the notion that there was no history. . . . of facts
    by which fossil bones got into rocks. . . . I will either go whole
    hog with Darwin or, dispensing with time and history altogether,
    hold, not only the theory of distinct species but that also of the
    creation of the fossil-bearing rocks.”

    Newman never did see that there was much difficulty, though he was alarmed by the increasing anti-Catholicism of the advocates of human evolution in the late 1870s (Tyndall’s British Association lecture being the best example of this). Several Catholics, including Cardinal Manning, so no major difficulty in evolution.

    What did happen happened in the 1890s, when there was a bit of an alarm in the first instance about what this meant as far as the reliability of the Scriptures (something which was brought on by the modernist movement), and on the other hand, I think, an exaggerated deference to a particular reading of St. Thomas, which meant an adherence to species stability. This led to the only major actions against proponents of evolution I know of: the actions against MD Leroy OP and against JA Zahm CSC (The latter had a couple of other things going against him such as his Americanism).

    Nevertheless, within the following two decades, this had entirely changed, so that Pius XII explicitly says that it is allowable to investigate the question of the origins of the human body. I think the two major problems that worried Pius XII were the tendency to leave no room for religion, e.g. by postulating a scientific theory of the soul or religion itself, and on the other hand, Tielhardianism, seeing evolution as some kind of cosmic spiritual process. I think both of these are still dangers: the danger of leaving no room for God, and the danger of turning Catholic theology into a Tielhardian fairy tale. But evolution in its strictly scientific sense is not an issue.

    I also see Tom Wright and Pelikan as associated, but I think more directly in that, creation and covenant are intimately and inseparably connected for both.

    • Tom

      clarification, because this gets mixed up alot and people use this to attack Aquinas. His five ways arguments are not arguments in a purely deductive sense. His argument is based on the analogy of being, and that God is the principle where-by (motion/causality/etc. etc.) can occur, and indeed are intelligible. He does not argue that if you were to follow the chain of causality all the way to the beginning you’d find God flicking the first domino, so to speak. Rather God is the principle where-by causality/motion etc. are intelligible and make sense in reality.

      This argument often gets summed up in this way, and it is important to draw the distinction, because the analogy of being is a much stronger argument that God simply being the ‘first one to move/cause etc.’ This is what Aquinas means by ‘unmoved mover’ or ‘uncaused cause’, God is what makes movement and causation intelligible. He is that principle that we grasp when we grasp causation/motion.

      • Tom, thank you for that clarification. I agree.

        I also tend to think that part of the problem here is that Thomas is read without relation to Augustine. The five ways are essentially restatements of Augustine’s “All things cry out “God made me.”” In that sense, what St. Thomas is trying to do, also, is to respond to Manicheanism which denies the goodness of the material world, and hence that God made them. Thomas’ is a metaphysic of being. As Gilson argues, all the five ways are ways of asserting that all being is derived from God.

        I think the other problem is with turning Aquinas into someone who offers “proofs” for the existence of God in the modern apologetic sense of something like a knockdown argument, as if faith wasn’t a gift, or that there was a relationship of simple identity between the God of the Philosophers and the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, thus ignoring the force of (or misinterpreting) “et hoc omnes intelligunt Deum,” (and this all understand to be God) “quam omnes Deum nominant”, (whom all name God) “quod omnes dicunt Deum”, (that which all call God) and “et hoc dicimus Deum” (and this we call God) in all of the five ways. Rather, Aquinas’ major actual adversaries are Manicheans. The Summa is a preachers’ manual. So, whatever the force of Aquinas’ actually considering the possibility of denying the existence of God, the practical aim comes first.

        And beyond that, his purpose is spiritual, to seek the Being Whom he loves, and Who loves him. But here there is the fact of waiting upon God’s revelation. What reason can do is to know what He is, but only what He is not. “Noli Me Tangere” is the impression one gets. And we do St. Thomas a disservice if we do not read his as a metaphysic of love.

        • A caveat: God does act in the world, both naturally and miraculously, and God did create the world. The question is whether the creation of the world is miraculous. I think, with Thomas writing on the eternity of the world, that this question is one of faith, not of reason.

    • PM

      Just a quick PS to agree re intelligent design – it is bad theology as much as bad science.

      I might also add that the charge that Thomas is ‘unscriptural’ is another furphy. His three-step approach to language about God – affirmation, negation, eminence – has roots in Scripture; ‘how rich are the depths of God…’, as Paul wrote to the Romans.

      • Tom

        You dislike intelligent design? Honestly, I think it makes a lot of sense, especially given a hylomorphic basis for Aquinas’ metaphysics. The problem as I see it is that people think intelligent design and evolution are contradictory. It seems rather that they sit very well together.

        Evolutionary Biologists argue constantly that evolution just happens through ‘natural selection by survival’. Alright, fair enough; but there’s a metaphysical premise in there that needs an explanation: Why is survival a good thing? Why is survival the one thing that ALL living things tend towards?

        It would change the first principle of practical reason from ‘to do and seek good and avoid evil’ to ‘seek to survive, avoid dying’. Which isn’t by itself a bad premise, but it still can’t be a first principle because one has to ask the question, why survive? Answer: Survival is Good; okay, well if Good has the nature of an end (ST I-II Q94, A2) we still require an explanation of ends, which requires an explanation of natures.

        Bam, we’ve arrived back at the necessary being by which all other beings are intelligible. Behind evolution, as behind all science MUST sit God. A principle of intelligibility is vital for us to be able to make sense of the world, otherwise it all truly is ‘furphy’.

        Science is not a metaphysical occupation; as such it requires metaphysical principles to explain it. This is what really irritates me with people like Dawkins – they think that science can not only explain reality, but also make sense of it.

        Science explains the how, never the why. It never sought, nor does it have the tools capable of explaining the why, otherwise it would have to give an account of first principles. And i read the God Delusion. Dawkins couldn’t give an account of FP’s if his life depended on it.

        • Actually, PM (at the risk of speaking for the both of you) I don’t think there is a disagreement between you, Tom, and myself on this matter. Crude ID is bad theology, and bad metaphysics, as well as bad science. But what you mean by ID is not that.

          I am reminded of attending Cardinal Schonborn’s talk at WYD with a lot of Dominicans. He focussed on attacking ID, but then a few of the (extremely learned) Dominicans were saying that what he was attacking was a caricature of ID, not Intelligent design properly understood, and made something like your argument. This is not ID in the bad sense of the word. What that says is that certain things in the constitution of animals cannot be explained naturally, not in the why, but in the “how” level. This is why ID gets a lot of people hot under the collar.

          I think your point, which I agree with, is that, all said, there is still the question, for instance, of why we are drawn to symmetry, or why we do good, which cannot be answered naturally. I think this is at least part of what is meant by Newman speaking of conscience as the “aboriginal vicar of Christ.”

          On the other hand, where the Moral Darwinists get it wrong is that “seek to survive, avoid dying” cannot be the basis of an ethics, precisely because such an ethics would be based on committing the naturalistic fallacy of deriving an ought from an is.

  5. Matthias

    It is interesting that many Evangelicals see that if one accepts evolution then they cast doubts upon a person’s belief in the Incarnation and Atonement,thus they see Thomism as being evidence of the Catholic Church’s complicity in watering down the Gospel (only in their worldview).

  6. The thing I haven’t worked out is why denying God the power to create a certain type of universe makes him more powerful…

  7. An Liaig

    There is alos a broader issue here. Both Dawkins et al. and the evangelicals agree on the interpretation and purpose of Genesis. Both agree that it is an attempt at a scientific account of the formation of the world. That it was recognised in the Church as early as Augustine that this could not be so is ignored by both parties. This allows Dawkins’ radical reductionists to proclain that Scripture should be rejected because it is bad science and this fits nicely into their argument that religion arose as an attempt to explain the operation of the natural world: that religion began as a kind of pseudoscience. Their argument falls apart if religion is (and always was) about man’s relationship to God and the references to the physical world are used to explain and illustrate this. This is not just a Christian problem. The Australian Aboriginals find their dreamtime stories relagated to the category of quaint creation myth instead of being seen as a living testament of their relationship with the land. The reductionists know that if any religion can be cast a simply bad science then it can be discarded.

  8. …“there is, unfortunately, no [published] history of the Christian doctrine of creation” (surely that lack must have been rectified in the last 50 years…

    You may want to consider Peter Bouteneff’s Beginnings: Ancient Christian Readings of the Biblical Creation Narratives (Crestwood, NY: SVS Press, 2008).


    An interesting companion would be the Hexaemeron by St Anastasius of Sinai, ed. and trans. Clement A. Kuehn and John D. Baggarly, SJ, Orientalia Christiana Analecta 278 (Rome: Pontifical Oriental Institute, 2007), which is discussed here: