OF WISDOM – PART I – SECTION 3
OF SCIENCE AND THE BIBLE
I. When understood accurately,
the claims of science and the Bible are not in conflict. See Catechism
159. The notion of evolution and miracles are case studies in
their proper realms.
A. When asking whether
the theory of evolution is consistent with the Bible, and with the Catholic
faith, one must first ask what is meant when people invoke this theory.
The concept of evolution can mean at least seven different things, most
of which are consistent with the faith, but a couple of them are not.
- There is
no conflict between this view and the Bible or the faith. While
some theologians have read Genesis 1 as indicating that the earth was
created in six twenty-four hour time periods, that read has never been
considered essential to the faith. See, e.g., Summa Theologica,
Part I, question 74, articles 1-2.
- Given the clear
geological evidence, it would seem that the more figurative read on
Genesis 1 is the right one.
- The second meaning
is that life evolved from non-life by a process that can be explained
entirely in scientific terms.
a. As a matter
of philosophy and science, the point is disputed. Some people,
such as the famous English astronomer Fred Hoyle have argued that the
requirements for life are so complex that it would never have come about
by reason alone. Others argue that, given the vast amount of time
and space, this extraordinary event would likely occur by sheer chance.
it is permissible to argue that the material process of life coming
from non-life was natural and describable by science. However,
it must be insisted upon that God intended this process to occur, and
thus that it was not entirely by chance, even if scientists cannot discern
the cause (i.e. the providence of God) by experimental methods.
c. Even scientifically,
experts can describe how they think life may have developed by
a natural process, rather than a supernatural intervention. However,
given the fact that it occurred some billions of years in the past,
and is not currently observable, this claim cannot be proven.
- The third meaning
is that more complex animals evolved from less complex animals.
a. This view
is the essence of scientific Darwinism, and serves to explain certain
phenomenon, such as fossils that seem to be from animals that are between
known species, the genetic relationship between animals, and "residual
organs" that have no current function, but may have had a purpose
for another species that a current species evolved from.
are also some difficulties with this view, most especially the attempt
to explain how complex organs (e.g., an eye or a ear) evolved slowly
piece by piece, when one has to have the entire organ for any of it
c. If the
theory is simply an attempt to explain the material process through
which species of animals came about, there is no difficulty in it.
In fact, in a 1995 speech to the Pontifical Academy of Science, Pope
John Paul II called the theory "more than a hypothesis," arguing
that there is a fair amount of evidence for it.
d. Once again,
however, if the theory is used to assert that there is not purpose behind
the evolution of one species from another, that claim would contradict
the faith. It is one thing for scientists to argue that there
is no empirically testable cause for this evolution, but another for
them to argue that there is nothing but random chance behind the process
- The fourth meaning
is that, within a species, the animals tend to develop, by natural selection,
traits (e.g., colors, amount of hair, length of arms and legs) that
are helpful in its environment. Not even the most ardent of fundamentalists
seems to disagree with this notion.
- The fifth meaning
is that the human body physically evolved from other primates,
most notably apes. This view seeks to explain fossil evidence
regarding either humans that looked like apes, or apes that looked like
humans, as well as the close genetic relationship between the two species.
- Noteworthily, it
does not explain the vast differences in accomplishments between the
two species, although the addition of the notion of a human soul (see
# 6 below) could overcome this factor. In addition, because the
creation of human beings was not recorded, and presumably happened only
once, it is not subject to empirical testing, which is generally the
way in which scientists judge whether an hypothesis is worthy of belief.
Thus, as with the beginning of life itself, while scientists can describe
how human beings may have evolved from other primate, whether
they did so or not cannot be established by scientific evidence alone.
- As long as it is
limited to explaining physical descent of the human body, it poses not
particular theological problem.
- It should be noted
that Pope Pius XII said in the 1950 encyclical letter Humanae Generis
that the doctrine of original sin does imply that there is one set of
parents for the human race. To the degree that scientific evidence
says anything, it is in agreement, for genetic evidence at least indicates
that that there is one woman from whom all humans descend.
- The sixth proposed
meaning of evolution is that human beings are nothing except evolved
apes. This view would deny that there is any unique human soul.
- For obvious reasons,
this interpretation would contradict the Biblical teaching regarding
the unique dignity given to humans, created in the image and likeness
of God. As Pope Pius XII stated in Humanae Generis, each
human soul is created directly by God. There was no evolution
of the human soul.
- Even from the standpoint
of natural reason, this view has several problems. First, it does
not account for the vast differences in accomplishments and complexity
of human and other primate life. As G.K. Chesterton pointed out,
apes do not build libraries, ask about the good, the true, the beautiful,
the holy, or where they come from. The very fact that human and
ape genetic codes are physically so similar indicates that there must
be something beyond the physical to explain what makes humans different.
Second, without a notion of the uniqueness of the human person, any
notion of natural rights or human morality disappears. As Thomas
Jefferson noted in Notes on the State of Virginia, "Can the
liberties of a nation be thought secure when we have removed their only
firm basis, a conviction in the minds fo the people that these liberties
are of the gift of God? That they are not to be violated but with
- The seventh possibly
meaning is that this entire process took place without any design whatsoever,
and that there is no one behind it.
- Once again, this
view is contrary to the Bible and to the faith. The Bible plainly
describes God as behind even the laws of nature. See, e.g, Gen.
1:1-27; Ps. 19, 29, 95; Is. 44:22; Job 9:5-10, 38:1-11, 25-30; Wis.
- The idea is that
nature may in general work in accord with the laws of science, but God
is the author of those laws and keeps them in place. In
God is the fulfillment of all things. See Acts 18:28.
- As Cardinal Dulles
wrote in an article "God and Evolution" for First Things in October,
2007, this view that the laws of science can explain everything regarding
the creation of species, including humans, among other things, ignores
two of the four classic types of causation. This view focuses
only on material causation (what something is made of) and efficient
causation (what action immediately produces the effect.) It ignores
both formal causation (what something really is and what its significance
is) and final causation (the end to which all things are directed.)
This materialist view simply assumes that there is no fundamental nature
to things and that they have no final purpose.
- Cardinal Dulles
also described three ways in which many scientists and theologians,
Catholic and otherwise, have accepted aspects of evolution, while rejecting
- First, there are
those who adhere to "theistic evolutionism," which maintains that
God set in motion at the beginning of the universe the processes that
would lead to human beings. Adherents to this view would maintain
that the process can be described entirely naturally, but was set up
with a purpose from the beginning.
- Second, there are
those who adhere more to the Intelligent Design theory. According
to this view, life may have evolved from nonlife, and species from other
species, but that a continually guiding hand was needed for the process
of bringing about life and then human life because it is so complex
that it is impossibly unlikely to have occurred by random chance.
- A third way of thought,
especially emphasized by Tilhard de Chardein, a Catholic theologian
and biologist of the middle part of the twentieth century, is that even
now, a design can be detected in all of creation, including inanimate
objects. The view is that the complexity of even maintaining the
simplest of life cannot be explained by science alone.
B. The notion of
miracles likewise does not contradict science, but rather is consistent
1. A miracle
is an exception to the usual laws of nature. The idea of miracles
implies that laws of nature exist, but that there is a legislator who
can suspend them if He wishes. They are not random occurrences,
but are specifically designed to assist us on the way to salvation.
See Summa Theologica, part I, question 105, article 7.
- To posit that miracles
cannot occur, one must likewise argue that nothing can exist outside
of the realm of science. However, as Stanley Jaki, honorary member
of the Pontifical Academy of Science argued, the very belief in free
will implies that not all things are controlled by the laws of science,
for those laws are deterministic. See Bible and Science
- A Catholic, or any
Christian may believe that certain extraordinary events recounted in
the Bible were not specifically miracles (e.g., the Great Flood, the
plagues of Egypt, the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah), but natural
phenomena that God warned good people of. However, to deny the
possibility of miracles is contrary to the Catholic faith and the plain
meaning of Scriptures. See Vatican I Council, Dogmatic Constitution
on the Catholic Faith, On Faith, canon III (1870.)
- In fact, as Fr.
Jaki also argues, the belief in faith makes one more able to view history
objectively, for one can consider the evidence and decide whether a
claim that a miracle has occurred is supported by the evidence, e.g.,
whether there are credible witnesses and whether a natural explanation
would fit. By contrast, an a priori rejection of the possibility
of miracles forces a person to reject this explanation even if there
is no other good one. See Bible and Science 202-203; see
also Lewis, Miracles, ch. 13, p. 160.
- Not only is the
Biblical portrayal of God not contrary to science, it gives science
its foundation and most glorious purpose.
1. The fact
that these assumptions are at the baseline of science helps explain
why science developed most in a Western world built upon the Jewish,
Christian, and Muslim faiths, all of which agreed that the universe
was created by an orderly God. The Book of Wisdom presents lady
Wisdom as the organizing principle of all creation, who teaches her
disciples about the universe. See Wis. 7:16-22.
- It will not do to
respond that we know the universe is orderly based upon our experience,
for the entire question is whether our limited experience can be extrapolated
throughout time and space. If one believes in an orderly God,
this extrapolation makes sense. But if one believes in no God
or inconstant pagan gods, there is no foundation for this belief.
- The Scriptural notion
that God is the author of the laws of nature gives a greater impetus
for scientific knowledge about the universe.
1. If, as Francis
Bacon argued, the only reason to know science is that we can use it
for discoveries that are helpful, there is no need for most people to
know much science, for they will not likely be making scientific discoveries.
In fact, if falsehood about science is useful (e.g., to keep the masses
happy), and usefulness the only reason for knowledge, such falsehood
would be good.
- By contrast, the
Biblical notion is that God is the author of the laws of science, and
thus they praise His glory. See, e.g., Ps. 19:1-2; Dan. 3:62-80.
Once one believes that, the study of science becomes the study of God's
artwork, and thus serves to praise God. Sir Isaac Newton said
that knowing the glory of God was his primary reason for studying nature.
As he put it, "This supremely exquisite structure that is visible
to us, comprising the sun, the planets, and the comet, could come into
being solely through the decision and under the dominion of an intelligent
and powerful, truly existing being. . . He steers everything, not as
a world-soul, but as the Lord of all things."
- Furthermore, this
view that all of science is the artwork, or the grammar, of God, makes
deliberate falsifications about nature the worse. A deliberate
deception regarding the laws of nature is an offense against the Artist
who directs it.
- In addition, the
faith, by insisting that humans are in the image and likeness of God,
puts a limit on scientific research, the abuse of technology, or the
reduction of people to merely objects of study, thus preventing it from
becoming over-powerful and thus ugly and tyrannical.
1. Putting ethical
limits on the means of using science is no more an offense to science
than limiting what the government can do is an offense to political
theory, or limiting what corporations can do an offense to economics.
All things must be in place, and the faith teaches what limits there
should be to scientific research.
2. As Cardinal
Dulles put it in his First Things article, "The tendency of
science, when it gains the upper hand, is to do whatever lies within
its capacity, without regard for moral constraint. As we have
experienced in recent generations, technology uncontrolled by moral
standards has visited horrors on the world."
- Furthermore, science
(broadly considered to include history, archeology, language studies,
etc.) can help greatly in the understanding of the Bible.
A. Church teachings
have repeatedly emphasized that the meanings conferred by the Biblical
writers are true and reliable, but that it sometimes takes research
to understand them. As a result, should not rely put historical
research above the Bible, but it can be made to serve the Bible.
1. In part II(D)
of Provindentissimus Deus (1893), Pope Leo XIII criticized the
misuse of language studies, scientific claims or historical beliefs
to disparage Scripture or write out all that seems unscientific.
However, he endorsed the use of language studies, science and history
to defend the Bible and to assist us in understanding passages that
- In Divino Afflante
Spiritu, and especially section 24, Pope Pius XII promoted the study
of sciences, language, history and the like, for the sake of understanding
the Bible better, while also warning that such studies should not become
a mere academic exercise, but rather really assist people in understanding
the sacred writings. In sections 35-37, he stated that the mode
of writing in the ancient Near East was often very different from our
own. As a result, a greater understanding of that culture is of
- After affirming
once again the inspiration of Sacred Scripture in section 11 of Dei
Verbum (1965), the Vatican II Council said in section 12 that, in
order to understand the meaning of Sacred Scriptures one must understand
the literary forms that that the authors used.
- All of these documents
also affirmed the importance of making sure that any interpretation
of Scriptures is in accordance with the teachings of the Church and
of the centrality of interpretations by the Church Fathers, that is,
the eminent theologians of the first few centuries of the Church.
- In 1993, the Pontifical
Biblical Institute published a document entitled The Interpretation
of the Bible in the Church, which described among other things the
use of many fields of knowledge in understanding the Bible. Although
it is not a magisterial text, for the Institute cannot define doctrine,
this document helps summarize the Church's approach to Scripture.
1. It began by
considering in general the historical-critical approach to the
Bible. This method tries to understand the Bible in light of our
knowledge of ancient languages and history. (Criticism does not
mean a negative evaluation, but rather a rigorously scientific one.)
This method involves: (1) textual criticism, which is simply an attempt
to get at the original text and its right translation as accurately
as possible; (2) literary criticism, which attempts to identify the
style of writing that the author used; and (3) source and redaction
criticism, which attempt to identify the original source of the text
and its gradual revision to become the current version.
- In its evaluation
of this method, the Commission said that, despite some early conflicts
between early advocates of this method, who tended to be skeptics or
liberal Protestants, and the Church, this method has become very helpful
in understanding the original setting and meaning of the authors.
In particular, the document cited the more recent understanding of the
idea of covenant in the Old Testament, and the ways in which the moral
and holiness codes of the ancient Jews were the same and different from
- The Commission also
said, however, that this method has its limits, for if used alone, it
can lead people to treat the Bible as merely another historical text.
Furthermore, this method cannot in itself deal with the fuller meanings
that a Biblical text can have in light of subsequent events and teachings.
C. In addition to
the classic historical-critical method, scientific and archeological
discoveries have assisted in the understanding of Biblical events.
1. Thus, for
example, the creation accounts do seem to be metaphorical. However,
the Flood accounts probably recount a real historical event, namely
massive flooding in the southern Mesopotamian region around 2800 B.C.
and 4000 B.C., as well as evidence of a very rapid rise in the levels
of the Black Sea around 12,000 B.C. Other discoveries have been
able to discern what events such as the crucifixion were like.
See, e.g., Pierre Barbet, A Doctor at Calvary (1950).
3. As Pope Pius
XII pointed out in section 35 of Humanae Generis, however, one
must not elevate uncertain conclusions about archeology or geography
(e.g., regarding what events seem likely to historians) over the Bible.
An event seems unlikely or even impossible by nature or history
alone can easily happen with God's help. One must ask instead
whether the sacred writer intended such a claim.
C. Chapter 69 of
the New Jerome Biblical Commentary discusses the history of historical
critical and similar research on the Bible, Catholic, Protestant, and
secular. Its description is helpful, although the conclusion,
with its view that the previous conflicts with the faith are basically
over, is a bit overly optimistic.
D. While the Bible
is not only literature, it is literature and thus is an engagement with
real people who lived at a particular time and place. Understanding
them better makes this engagement all the richer. See Fr. Lawrence
Boadt, Reading the Old Testament 29.