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Abusing Theology

Published in Origins & Design 19:1

Abstract: According to Howard Van Till, the early Christian fathers Basil and Augustine taught that life appeared as a consequence of creaturely capacities which God bestowed on the world from the beginning, in contrast to special creationism, which teaches that God intervened in the creation to make living things. To reconcile Christian faith with modern science, Van Till advocates recovering “the historic creationist tradition,” which he characterizes as the “forgotten doctrine of Creation’s functional integrity” taught by Basil and Augustine. Basil, however, believed that God intervened in the creation to make living things, and was thus a special creationist. According to Augustine, God created everything simultaneously and placed causal principles into the creation which subsequently produced creatures in time. But Augustine proposed his theory of causal principles to emphasize that every species was created in the beginning by a special act of God, and he denied that creaturely capacities could produce anything new. Therefore, Van Till’s “forgotten doctrine of Creation’s functional integrity” has no basis in Basil’s theology, and its emphasis on creaturely capacities is alien to Augustine’s theology; so “the historic creationist tradition” is not what Van Till represents it to be.


Some Christians believe that the major features of living things could not have arisen through Darwinian evolution, but must have been specially created by God. Physicist Howard J. Van Till criticizes this position on the grounds that it relies on a “God-of-the-gaps” who must “act directly in the course of creation’s formative history to compensate for gaps or deficiencies in the capacities of created substances.” According to Van Till, the world is characterized instead by “functional integrity,” meaning that it “has no functional deficiencies, no gaps in its economy of the sort that would require God to act immediately.”1

Van Till maintains that his position is rooted in the theological writings of St. Basil of Caesarea and St. Augustine of Hippo. According to Van Till, these two early Christian fathers taught “that at the beginning God created, from nothing, all substances and forms, but that the forms of creatures became actualized only in the course of time. Most importantly, these creatures appeared in the course of history not as a consequence of some new, direct and ‘special’ act of God (an ‘intervention’), but as the consequence of created substances employing their God-given capacities to bring about in time what the Creator had in mind from the beginning.”2

Citing Christopher Kaiser’s Creation and the History of Science, Van Till further maintains that “by the end of the fourteenth century, the vision of God as the Creator of a world having both relative autonomy and a gapless economy — that is, a world having functional integrity — had become superseded by a vision of God as the Creator of a functionally incomplete world that required irruptive divine action to make up for deficiencies in the economy of its ordinary causal nexus.”3

According to Van Till, this gave rise to Special Creationism, which maintains that “the spectrum of life forms is characterized by ontological gaps or morphological differences too great to be bridged by ordinary creaturely processes.” But the modern scientific view is that “the formative history of life” proceeded “from molecules to mankind along a continuous pathway of natural phenomena” which was “not interrupted or blocked by physical, chemical, or biological gaps of the sort that would require occasional bridging by ‘miraculous divine interventions’ or by any other ‘special’ divine activity.” Therefore, the Special Creationists are wrong, and their “God-of-the-gaps strategy” has “created an apologetic and theological nightmare” for Christians attempting to deal with modern science.4

The solution, Van Till maintains, is to recover “the historic creationist tradition” exemplified by Basil and Augustine, with their “forgotten doctrine of Creation’s functional integrity.” Van Till argues that “historic Christian thought welcomes the concept of a Creation gifted with all of the form-producing capacities now presumed by the natural sciences,” and that the world envisioned by Basil and Augustine had “no gaps in its developmental economy that would necessitate bridging by extraordinary divine interventions of the sort most often postulated by Special Creationism.”5

As a theologian I approach Van Till’s claims with some initial skepticism, because I question the legitimacy of deriving a “historic creationist tradition” from only two writers. The doctrine of creation was of considerable interest to early Christian theologians, and many of them wrote about it. Basil’s Hexaemeron and Augustine’s Literal Meaning of Genesis were two of the most important works on the topic, but a thorough characterization of “the historic creationist tradition” would also have to take into account Irenaeus’s Against Heresies, Tertullian’s Against Hermogenes, Chrysostom’s Homily on Genesis, and Gregory of Nyssa’s On the Making of Man, among others.

For the sake of argument, however, I will grant Van Till’s assumption that the historic creationist tradition can be derived solely from Basil and Augustine. The question remains whether these two taught what Van Till claims they taught. Did they affirm a “gapless economy” of creation, a “doctrine of Creation’s functional integrity”? What follows is an examination of the writings of Basil and Augustine with this question in mind.

Basil

Basil of Caesarea delivered nine homilies on the opening chapters of Genesis sometime before his death in 379 A.D. In these homilies on the six days of creation, The Hexaemeron, Basil interprets scripture “in the light of the scientific knowledge of his age.”6

In opposition to those who believe that the world has existed forever, Basil interprets the phrase, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth,” to mean that “at the will of God the world arose in less than an instant,” and he interprets heaven and earth to include “matter in harmony with the form which He wished to give it” as well as “all intermediate beings.”7 According to Van Till, Basil is saying that in the first instant God “gave to the several created substances the harmoniously integrated powers to actualize, in time, the wonderful array of specific forms that the Creator had in mind from the outset. Both matter and the forms it was later to attain were the product of God’s primary act of creation.”8

It is clear from the context of Basil’s remarks, however, that this is not what he means. When he writes that God created form along with matter, Basil is rejecting the view that God merely introduced form into pre-existent, unformed matter; instead, God created both matter and form: “For He is not an inventor of figures, but the Creator even of the essence of beings.” And by “all intermediate beings,” Basil means the four elements. Like most of his contemporaries, Basil believes that everything consists of earth, air, fire and water, yet Genesis mentions only earth; and Basil is concerned to show that all four elements were created by God: “Thus, although there is no mention of the elements, fire, water, and air, imagine that they were all compounded together, and you will find water, air and fire, in the earth.”9

Thus Basil is claiming that God’s initial act of creation included matter, form, and the four elements; but he is not claiming that it included everything that followed. In fact, The Hexaemeron as a whole makes it abundantly clear that the first instant was followed by several more special acts of creation. When the heavens first came into being they were “imperfect,” because the sun, moon, and stars “were not yet created.” These things were created later, by direct acts of God: “In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth; afterwards He created light, then He created the firmament.” The waters were initially “scattered in many places,” and came together only after God said, “Let the waters under the heaven be gathered unto one place.” And the earth remained “unfinished” after its initial creation since it lacked the “growth of all kinds of plants” until God specifically commanded the earth to “bring forth grass” and “produce fruit.”10 There can be no doubt that, for Basil, God’s work of creation was sequential, and that God intervened repeatedly after the initial creation to add to, or refine, what He had already made. Van Till’s “gapless economy,” which requires no new, direct and special acts of God, is nowhere to be found in The Hexaemeron.

Basil adds that God “created such a quantity of water that in spite of constant diminution from the effects of fire, it could last until the time fixed for the destruction of the world”; in this way God “at the first provided for all the future needs of the world.” Basil also writes that God made it “a natural property of water to flow,” and that once He did so “this order is for the creature a direction for its future course.” Van Till interprets these passages to mean that “the Creator need make no special adjustments at some later date to compensate for inadequate provision at the beginning,” and that Basil is teaching a doctrine of creation’s functional integrity.11

Limited Functional Integrity

Yet the context of Basil’s remarks once again reveals that Van Till is reading much more into them than Basil intended. God’s provision of an adequate quantity of water and His “direction for its future course” might be considered limited cases of functional integrity, in the sense that God does not need to intervene later to add more water or direct its flow. But Basil makes it quite clear that God intervened in the creation to create water in the first place, and again to make it flow downhill. In other words, Basil does not attribute anything like functional integrity to the creation as a whole.

Something similar may be said for living things. According to Basil, “God did not command the earth immediately to give forth seed and fruit, but to produce germs, to grow green, and to arrive at maturity in the seed; so that this first command teaches nature what she has to do in the course of ages.” Furthermore, God’s command “gave fertility and the power to produce fruit for all ages to come,” and “it is this command which, still at this day, is imposed on the earth, and in the course of each year displays all the strength of its power to produce herbs, seeds and trees. Like tops, which after the first impulse, continue their revolutions, turning upon themselves when once fixed in their centre; thus nature, receiving the impulse of this first command, follows without interruption the course of ages, until the consummation of all things.”12

According to Van Till, Basil is teaching that living things arose “as a consequence of created substances employing their God-given capacities,” — i.e., a doctrine of creation’s functional integrity. As above, however, these passages claim only a limited functional integrity. God has endowed nature with sufficient creaturely capacities to reproduce living things after their own kind: “As a ball, which one pushes, if it meet a declivity, descends, carried by its form and the nature of the ground and does not stop until it has reached a level surface; so nature, once put in motion by the divine command, traverses creation with an equal step, through birth and death, and keeps up the succession of kinds through resemblance, to the last. Nature always makes a horse succeed to a horse, a lion to a lion, an eagle to an eagle, and preserving each animal by these uninterrupted successions she transmits it to the end of all things.” Basil makes it clear that this creaturely capacity for reproduction does not extend to making anything new: “It is the word of God which forms the nature of things created. ‘Let the earth bring forth;’ that is to say not that she may bring forth that which she has but that she may acquire that which she lacks, when God gives her the power.”13

Van Till’s “doctrine of Creation’s functional integrity” requires that “creaturely capacities” bestowed by God in the initial act of creation are “sufficiently robust so as not to require additional occasional acts of special creation in time in order to actualize the full array of physical structures and life-forms that have ever existed.”14 Clearly, the limited instances of functional integrity which we find in The Hexaemeron do not add up to anything like this, especially when we take into account Basil’s assertions that God intervened repeatedly after the initial creation to make the sun, moon, and stars, to provide sufficient water, and to create living things. If Basil has a doctrine of functional integrity, it extends only to certain regular processes which insure the stable, continued existence of things created by direct and special acts of God.

According to Van Till, a Special Creationist is someone who teaches that living things were created by a “new, direct and ‘special’ act of God” rather than “as the consequence of created substances employing their God-given capacities.”15 But even Special Creationists believe in limited functional integrity, in the sense that God does not need to intervene constantly to maintain the existence of that which He has already created. For Basil, creaturely capacities do not extend beyond preserving what God specially created, so by Van Till’s criterion Basil is a Special Creationist.

This seriously undermines Van Till’s position. To whatever extent Basil is representative of “the historic creationist tradition,” that tradition cannot be characterized as a “forgotten doctrine of Creation’s functional integrity.”

Augustine

Augustine of Hippo wrote about the opening chapters of Genesis in five separate works between approximately 388 and 420 A.D.: Two Books on Genesis against the ManichaeansOn the Literal Interpretation of Genesis: An Unfinished BookConfessionsThe City of God, and The Literal Meaning of Genesis. The last one contains his most extensive discussion of Genesis; together with some relevant supporting passages from On the Trinity, it is the source for Van Till’s interpretation of Augustine’s teachings.

For Augustine, God is utterly timeless, so He does not act sequentially, as He does for Basil; therefore, God must have created everything simultaneously, in a single instant. Augustine bases his opinion partly on his neo-Platonic philosophy of God, and partly on his reading of Ecclesiasticus 18:1 (“He created all things at the same time”) and of the second creation narrative in Genesis.16 Yet Genesis says that many creatures appeared subsequently, in time. How does Augustine resolve the apparent contradiction?

He does this with his theory of the causales rationesrationes primordiales, or rationes seminales, translated by various authors as “causal principles,” “primordial reasons,” “seminal reasons,” or “seedlike principles.” These were analogous to the seeds of a tree, in the sense that “there was invisibly present all that would develop in time into a tree. And in this same way we must picture the world, when God made all things together . . . This includes not only heaven with sun, moon, and stars . . . and earth and the deep waters . . . but it includes also the beings which water and earth produced in potency and in their causes before they came forth in the course of time.” They were also analogous to whatever guides embryonic development: “For as mothers are pregnant with young, so the world itself is pregnant with the causes of things that are born . . . in order that those things which are contained and hidden in the secret bosom of nature may break forth and be outwardly created in some way by the unfolding of the proper measures and numbers and weights which they have received in secret from Him.”17

On first reading, this sounds as though it might be consistent with Van Till’s notion of functional integrity. Unlike Basil, who believes that God intervened repeatedly after the initial creation to make the firmament, the waters, and living things, Augustine maintains that these were all created in the first instant. And unlike Basil’s view that creaturely capacities are limited continuing things which God specially created, Augustine’s notion of the temporal unfolding of causal principles sounds as though it might be compatible with modern evolutionary theory. This interpretation of Augustine is not new: in 1926, Catholic philosopher Michael McKeough wrote that Augustine’s notion of “the gradual appearance of living things upon the earth through the operation of natural laws and secondary causes constitutes a satisfactory philosophical basis for evolution, and merits for him the title of Father of Evolution.”18

But the majority of Augustine scholars reject this interpretation, for two reasons. First, Augustine maintains that the transformation of one species into another is impossible. According to Augustine, “if we should suppose that God now makes a creature without having implanted its kind in His original creation, we should flatly contradict Sacred Scripture” so “we cannot believe that He establishes a new kind, since He finished all His works” in the beginning, and thereafter “creates no new creatures.” Thus “a bean does not grow from a grain of wheat, nor wheat from a bean. A beast does not give birth to a man, or a man to a beast.” In the words of Catholic scholar Etienne Gilson, “far from being called upon to explain the appearance of something new, as would be the case with creative evolution,” Augustine’s causal principles “serve to prove that whatever appears to be new is not really so”; thus they “are principles of stability rather than change.” Although Van Till acknowledges that Augustine “does not in fact suggest any historical modification of the created ‘kinds,’” he attributes this to Augustine’s being under the influence of “the world-picture of his day.” This conjecture is unwarranted, however, since Augustine consistently bases his rejection of transformism on theological considerations rather than the opinions of fourth-century scientists. According to Eugene TeSelle’s Augustine the Theologian, “though Augustine’s scenario of the creation has certain external similarities with the evolutionary theory … it is not evolutionist,” since Augustine insists on “the finishing of the whole work of creation at the first instant.”19

Second, Augustine explicitly rejects the idea “that only the world was made by God and that everything else is made by the world according to His ordination and command.” Augustine did not deny the reality of secondary causes, but he denied that they could lead to anything new. According to Christopher O’Toole’s The Philosophy of Creation in the Writings of St. Augustine, “to admit that a second cause could produce a new effect would be equivalent to elevating it to the status of a creative cause,” but “secondary causes for Augustine … simply bring to light effects already implied from the first moment of creation.” Albert Mitterer, in what is widely regarded as the most thorough study of Augustine’s theory of causal principles, observes that “Augustine did not even acknowledge the origin of new forms within species as a consequence of natural law.” Eugène Portalié’s Guide to the Thought of Saint Augustine explains that “God certainly creates no longer, but His direct action is sometimes necessary to make up for the powerless of cosmic energies and to bring about the full development of such and such a seed at the desired moment,” and this “is always a deficiency in natural law and recourse to a miracle.” And to quote Etienne Gilson again, Augustine invokes causal principles because “every other conception of causality is felt to be a kind of creative ability bestowed upon creatures.” Summing up the spirit of Augustine’s theology, Gilson concludes that “when there are two equally possible solutions to one and the same problem, an Augustinian doctrine will incline spontaneously towards that which concedes less to nature and more to God.”20

So Augustine rejects transformism, as well as the idea that something new can result from the operation of secondary causes. Yet Van Till claims that one of Augustine’s “fundamental conclusions regarding the character of the created world” is that the universe was “gifted with the capacities to transform itself.” According to Van Till, Augustine’s “doctrine of Creation’s functional integrity” provides “the theological context and basis for one of the fundamental assumptions employed in all scientific reconstructions of formative histories,” — i.e., that living things are “the outcome of a continuous succession of form-producing processes and events — all such dynamic physical processes and events being manifestations of the capacities for action and interaction that are an integral part of the very being of matter and material systems.”21 This emphasis on creaturely capacities is totally alien to Augustine’s theology. A modern scientist who seeks causes for the origin of living things in “a continuous succession of form-producing processes” has little in common with Augustine, who attributes that origin to a direct act of God at the beginning of time.

Van Till’s claim that Augustine taught a “doctrine of Creation’s functional integrity” relies on a superficial similarity between Augustine’s notion of the temporal unfolding of causal principles and modern evolutionary theory. That similarity has prompted a small minority of Augustine interpreters to see him as a forerunner of evolution, but the majority of scholars reject this view. Since Augustine believes that creaturely capacities are incapable of producing anything new, and that all things were directly created by God, he is as much a Special Creationist as Basil.

Conclusion

If Basil and Augustine had taught what Howard Van Till calls “the forgotten doctrine of Creation’s functional integrity,” his claim to be recovering “the historic creationist tradition” would have some plausibility. Of course, it might be only one of several creationist traditions, since other early theologians wrote on the topic as well; but it would certainly be an important claim. Basil, however, clearly teaches that God intervened in the creation to make living things, and that creaturely capacities are sufficient only to insure their continuance. And despite a superficial similarity between Augustine’s theory of causal principles and evolutionary theory, Augustine (like Basil) teaches that God created every species directly, and that natural processes are incapable of producing anything new.

In Van Till’s words, a special creationist is someone who believes that “the spectrum of life forms is characterized by ontological gaps or morphological differences too great to be bridged by ordinary creaturely processes,” requiring God to “act directly in the course of creation’s formative history to compensate for gaps or deficiencies in the capacities of created substances.”22 According to this criterion, both Basil and Augustine were special creationists.

So the Christian theological tradition is not what Van Till represents it to be. Whatever may be the source of Van Till’s “doctrine of Creation’s functional integrity,” it is not the writings of Basil and Augustine. Indeed, it would seem that if anyone is recovering “the historic creationist tradition,” it is special creationists.

Van Till describes his appeal to Basil and Augustine as an exercise in apologetic theology, and he hopes to awaken Christians from the apologetic “nightmare” caused by special creationism. The true goal of apologetic theology, however, is to persuade non-believers of the reasonableness of one’s faith. Apologetic theology often involves translating one’s beliefs to make them more intelligible to one’s audience, but it never justifies distorting one’s tradition to accommodate it to popular ideas. Reading the early Christian fathers with the spectacles of modern evolutionary theory, and taking their ideas out of context in order to defend a modern “doctrine of Creation’s functional integrity,” is an abuse of theology. If Van Till’s goal is to improve Christian apologetics, he should begin by recovering the true historic creationist tradition.

Notes

  1. Van Till, “When Faith and Reason Cooperate,” p. 42; Van Till, “Can The Creationist Tradition Be Recovered?” p. 180.
  2. Van Till, “Can The Creationist Tradition Be Recovered?” p. 180.
  3. Ibid, p. 182.
  4. Ibid, pp. 180, 182; Van Till, “Basil, Augustine, and the Doctrine of Creation’s Functional Integrity,” p. 21-24.
  5. Van Till, “Basil, Augustine, and the Doctrine of Creation’s Functional Integrity,” p. 23.
  6. “Introduction to The Hexaemeron,” pp. 51-52.
  7. Basil, The Hexaemeron, I:6; I:7; II:2.
  8. Van Till, “Basil, Augustine, and the Doctrine of Creation’s Functional Integrity,” p. 27.
  9. Basil, The Hexaemeron, I:7; II:2,3.
  10. Basil, The Hexaemeron, II:1; III:2; IV:4; VI:2.
  11. Van Till, “Basil, Augustine, and the Doctrine of Creation’s Functional Integrity,” p. 27; Basil, The Hexaemeron, III:5; IV:2,3
  12. Basil, The Hexaemeron, V:1,5,10.
  13. Van Till, “Can The Creationist Tradition Be Recovered?” p. 180; Basil, The Hexaemeron, VIII:1; IX:2.
  14. Van Till, “Basil, Augustine, and the Doctrine of Creation’s Functional Integrity,” p. 29.
  15. Van Till, “Can The Creationist Tradition Be Recovered?” p. 180.
  16. Augustine, The Literal Interpretation of Genesis, IV:33.51-52; Gilson, The Christian Philosophy of Saint Augustine, pp. 197-203; Portalie, A Guide to the Thought of Saint Augustine, pp. 137-138; TeSelle, Augustine the Theologian, p. 217-218.
  17. Augustine, The Literal Interpretation of Genesis, V:4.9-11; V:23.45; VI:11.19; VI:14.24; X:20.35; Augustine, On the Trinity, III:9.16.
  18. McKeough, The Meaning of the Rationes Seminales in St. Augustine, pp. 109-110.
  19. Augustine, The Literal Interpretation of Genesis, V:20.41; V:23.46; VI:6.10; Van Till, “Basil, Augustine, and the Doctrine of Creation’s Functional Integrity,” 31-32; Gilson, The Christian Philosophy of Saint Augustine, p. 207; TeSelle, Augustine the Theologian, p. 218.
  20. Augustine, The Literal Interpretation of Genesis, V:20.40-41; O’Toole, The Philosophy of Creation in the Writings of St. Augustine, p. 81; Mitterer, Die Entwicklungslehre Augustins, p. 184 [“Augustin schon keine Entstehung neuer Formen innerhalb der Art als naturgesetzlichen Vorgang anerkannte” – my translation]; Gilson, The Christian Philosophy of Saint Augustine, pp. 240, 365.
  21. Van Till, “Basil, Augustine, and the Doctrine of Creation’s Functional Integrity,” pp. 32, 36.
  22. Van Till, “Can The Creationist Tradition Be Recovered?” p. 180; Van Till, “Basil, Augustine, and the Doctrine of Creation’s Functional Integrity,” p. 24.

References

  • Augustine. On the Trinity, translated by Arthur West Haddan, revised by William G.T. Shedd. In A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, First Series, Volume III, edited by Philip Schaff. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1956.
  • Augustine. The Literal Meaning of Genesis, translated by John Hammond Taylor. In Ancient Christian Writers, edited by Johannes Quasten, Walter Burghardt, and Thomas Lawler, nos. 41-42. New York: Newman Press, 1982.
  • Basil. The Hexaemeron, translated by Blomfield Jackson (1894). In A Select Library of Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, Second Series, Volume VIII, edited by Philip Schaff and Henry Wace. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1975.
  • Gilson, Etienne. The Christian Philosophy of Saint Augustine, translated by L.E.M. Lynch. New York: Vintage Books, 1967.
  • Kaiser, Christopher. Creation and the History of Science. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1991.
  • McKeough, Michael J. The Meaning of the Rationes Seminales in St. Augustine. Ph.D. Dissertation, Catholic University of America, Washington, D.C., 1926.
  • Mitterer, Albert. Die Entwicklungslehre Augustins. Vienna: Herder, 1956.
  • O’Toole, Christopher J. The Philosophy of Creation in the Writings of St. Augustine. Ph.D. Dissertation, Catholic University of America, Washington, D.C., 1944.
  • Portalié, Eugène. A Guide to the Thought of Saint Augustine. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1975.
  • TeSelle, Eugene. Augustine the Theologian. New York: Herder and Herder, 1970.
  • Van Till, Howard J. “When Faith and Reason Cooperate,” in Christian Scholar’s Review 21 (1991): 33-45.
  • Van Till, Howard J. “Can The Creationist Tradition Be Recovered? Reflections on Creation and the History of Science,” Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith 44 (1992): 178-185.
  • Van Till, Howard J. “Basil, Augustine, and the Doctrine of Creation’s Functional Integrity,” Science and Christian Belief 8 (1996): 21-38.

Jonathan Wells

Senior Fellow, Center for Science and Culture
Jonathan Wells has received two Ph.D.s, one in Molecular and Cell Biology from the University of California at Berkeley, and one in Religious Studies from Yale University. A Senior Fellow at Discovery Institute's Center for Science and Culture, he has previously worked as a postdoctoral research biologist at the University of California at Berkeley and the supervisor of a medical laboratory in Fairfield, California. He also taught biology at California State University in Hayward and continues to lecture on the subject.