Yesterday I posted an article entitled “Evolution Vs. God?” This opened up a lively discussion on the Biblical account of creation. In this article I’d like to address the question, does evolution contradict the opening chapters of Genesis? In doing so I hope to clear up some misconceptions people seem to be having regarding the position of the Catholic Church on this matter. This will be a longer post than usual so grab a beverage!
The Bible contains many different styles of writing. History, poetry, prophecy, parables, and a variety of other literary genres are found in its pages. This is not surprising since it is not so much a book as it is a library – a collection of 73 books written at different times by different people.
As such it is important that we distinguish between types of literature within the Bible and what they are trying to tell us. It would be a mistake, for example, to take a work as rich as the Bible in symbolism and literary figures as if it were always relating history in the manner that we in our culture are accustomed to.
Much less should we expect it to offer a scientific account of things. If one is hoping to find a scientific account of creation then he will not find it in these texts, for the Bible was never intended to be a scientific textbook on cosmology.
Saint Augustine put it this way: “We do not read in the Gospel that the Lord said, ‘I am sending you the Holy Spirit, that he may teach you about the course of the sun and the moon’” He wished to make people Christians not astronomers.”
The Catholic Church is open to the ideas of an old universe and that God used evolution as part of his plan. According to Catechism of the Catholic Church, “The question about the origins of the world and of man has been the object of many scientific studies which have splendidly enriched our knowledge of the age and dimensions of the cosmos, the development of life-forms and the appearance of man. These discoveries invite us to even greater admiration for the greatness of the Creator, prompting us to give him thanks for all his works and for the understanding and wisdom he gives to scholars and researchers” (CCC 283).
When it comes to relating these findings to the Bible, the Catechism explains: “God himself created the visible world in all its richness, diversity and order. Scripture presents the work of the Creator symbolically as a succession of six days of divine ‘work,’ concluded by the ‘rest’ of the seventh day” (CCC 337).
Explaining further, it says: “Among all the Scriptural texts about creation, the first three chapters of Genesis occupy a unique place. From a literary standpoint these texts may have had diverse sources. The inspired authors have placed them at the beginning of Scripture to express in their solemn language the truths of creation–its origin and its end in God, its order and goodness, the vocation of man, and finally the drama of sin and the hope of salvation. Read in the light of Christ, within the unity of Sacred Scripture and in the living Tradition of the Church, these texts remain the principal source for catechesis on the mysteries of the ‘beginning’: creation, fall, and promise of salvation”(CCC 289).
In other words, the early chapters of Genesis, “relate in simple and figurative language, adapted to the understanding of mankind at a lower stage of development, fundamental truths underlying the divine scheme of salvation.” (Pontifical Biblical Commission, January 16, 1948).
Or, as Pope John Paul II put it, “The Bible itself speaks to us of the origin of the universe and its makeup, not in order to provide us with a scientific treatise but in order to state the correct relationship of humanity with God and the universe. Sacred Scripture wishes simply to declare that the world was created by God” (Address to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, October 3, 1981).
As Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger (later Pope Benedict XVI) explained, “The story of the dust of the earth and the breath of God . . . does not in fact explain how human persons come to be but rather what they are. It explains their inmost origin and casts light on the project that they are. And, vice versa, the theory of evolution seeks to understand and describe biological developments. But in so doing it cannot explain where the ‘project’ of human persons comes from, nor their inner origin, nor their particular nature. To that extent we are faced here with two complementary–rather than mutually exclusive—realities.”
The recognition that the creation accounts must be understood with some nuance is not new, nor is it a forced retreat in the face of modern science. Various Christian writers form the early centuries of Church history, as much as 1,500 years or more before Darwin, saw the six days of creation as something other than literal, twenty-four hour periods.
For example, in the A.D. 200s, Origen of Alexandria noted that in the six days of creation day and night are made on the first day but the sun is not created until the fourth. The ancients knew as well as we do that the presence or absence of the sun is what makes it day or night, and so he took this as an indicators that the text was using a literary device and not presenting a literal chronology. He wrote:
“Now who is there, pray, possessed of understanding, that will regard the statement as appropriate, that the first day, and the second, and the third, in which also both evening and morning are mentioned, existed without sun, and moon, and stars—the first day even without a sky? . . . I do not suppose that anyone doubts that these things figuratively indicate certain mysteries, the history having taken place in appearance, and not literally” (De Principiis, 4:16).
What Origen was onto was a structure embedded in the six days of creation whereby in the first three days God prepares several regions to be populated by separating the day from the night, the sky from the sea, and finally the seas from each other so that the dry land appears. Then, on the second three days, he populates these, filling the day and night with the sun, the moon, and the stars, filling the sky and sea with birds and fish, and filling the dry land with animals and man.
The first three days are historically referred to as the days of distinction because God separates and thus distinguishes one region from another. The second three days are referred to as the days of adornment, in which God populates or adorns the regions he has distinguished.
This literary structure was obvious to people before the development of modern science, and the fact that the sun is not created until day was recognized by some as a sign that the text is presenting the work of God, as the Catechism says, “symbolically as a succession of six days of divine ‘work’” (CCC 337).
Origen was not the only one to recognize the literary nature of the six days. Similarly, St. Augustine, writing in the A.D. 400s, noted: “What kind of days these were is extremely difficult or perhaps impossible for us to conceive, and how much more to say!” (The City of God 11:6).
The ancients thus recognized, long before modern science, that the Bible did not require us to think that the world was made in six twenty-four hour days.
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