Progressive Creation

by Fr. Michael Chaberek, OP

One thing to notice at the outset of our response is that whenever we speak about the “origin of species” in the context of evolution we do not mean the origin of biological species, varieties, races or other minor variations. We refer to the origin of entirely new forms of life such as we find at the level of taxonomical genus or family. Hence, the controversial notion of evolution that we are going to discuss is not a type of evolution that could be defined as “change over time”, but the idea that entirely new natures, new types of life can emerge by natural processes. This controversial idea may be called “biological macroevolution” (in contrast to “biological microevolution”, which does not incite any controversy among the main parties).

Virtually all responses to the creation vs. evolution debate may be classified as one of four options. The first is atheistic  evolution, which holds that species emerged spontaneously, thanks to the workings of natural biological processes such as random variation and natural selection and this happened over millions of years.

The second is theistic evolution (TE), sometimes referred to as evolutionary creation (which is not quite a correct name). According to theistic evolution, all species formed naturally, thanks to the workings of natural processes (the same as those adopted in atheistic evolution), however, the entire process was started and is continually guided and supervised by God. The participation of God in the evolutionary process is explained differently by different authors, but they seem to agree on at least two major points: 

(1) The emergence of different forms of life (different species) or even life itself did not require any special, supernatural or direct divine causation. 

(2) Since evolution is a natural process driven by laws of nature it has never ended – it continues with other natural processes along with the existence and operation of the universe. 

We see therefore that on the empirical level theistic and atheistic evolution do not differ. They both adopt the theories proposed in science to explain the origin of species, but theistic evolution adopts also some non-empirical Christian truths regarding divine causation and providence.

The third option is young earth creationism (YEC), which postulates that the universe was created within the six days of creation described in the Bible. The day is understood as a natural day i.e., a period of 12 (or 24) hours. According to YEC, species were produced directly by God, without any secondary causation. Obviously, in the YEC perspective there is no question about the historicity of Adam and Eve because all first 3 chapters (in fact, all 12 initial chapters) of Genesis are understood as actual history.

The fourth option is called progressive creation (PC). This one, like theistic evolution, adopts the scientific timeline of the universe currently estimated at 13.7 billion years. However, progressive creation rejects the ideas of universal common ancestry or natural emergence of all species by evolution and adopts special creation instead. Thus species were produced directly by God who did not use any active secondary causes. (He could have used the so-called passive secondary causes, such as dust or clay in the formation of man (Gen 2:7) and some animals (Gen 2:19)). In this, PC is congruent with YEC.

As a believer I will set aside the atheistic type of evolution which boils down to saying that something just emerged from nothing. In what follows, I will consider the remaining three options and explain why I believe that progressive creation is the way to go for believers of our times.

First, let’s consider theistic evolution. This is the most common position in contemporary Christianity, both Catholic and Protestant. Theistic evolution appears as a neat and easy way of combining science and faith, the Bible and the scientific theory. On the one hand, we have the Darwinian theory to some extent supported by the facts and overwhelmingly favored by the scientific community.

On the other, we as Christians, by large, ceased to believe in veracity of the Bible in general and the reality of the Book of Genesis in particular. Theistic evolution fits this context perfectly. However, it is not always the case that an easy and neat solution is the true one.

It seems reasonable for a theologian to take a theory proposed by science and square it with Christian belief. But here is the problem: Christian dogma cannot be modified by scientific theories. If there is a tension between a theory and a dogma, the theory must be modified not the dogma. The dogma could be reinterpreted – in the sense that a truth of faith was mistakenly understood and now thanks to science we see it better – only if the dogma was incompatible with the facts and data, not a theory. In other words, the fact that some theory is supported by the scientific community is not a sufficient reason to reinterpret the faith to make it compatible with that theory. Were the faith incompatible with the thoroughly recognized facts, this would be a problem for the faith. But this is not the case with evolution.

In evolution we have only two “hard” facts or “verifiable data”: one is the fossil record another is the evidence of what the Darwinian mechanism can really accomplish as tested in laboratories. As shocking as it may sound, in both cases the “hard facts” are more compatible with special creation than biological macroevolution. Let’s briefly explain why.

The fossil record reveals two basic features – species emerge as fully developed and adapted to their environments (no evolutionary ancestry, no connecting links, no trace of nature tinkering with different un-adapted forms) and species last for millions of years without change in their form beyond minor adaptations (microevolution). This phenomenon known as stasis is a universal rule governing the history of life which undermines the idea of transformation of species from one to another. There are no common ancestors in the fossils. Species do not emerge little by little, one after another, as the evolutionary theories have it. Instead they pop up out of nowhere in big explosions of life, many simultaneously. The fossil record is therefore more compatible with the classic Christian idea of special creation than with the evolutionary idea of universal common ancestry.

When it comes to the experiments devised to establish the abilities of Darwinian mechanisms to produce new genetic information, new biological systems and organs, and ultimately completely new forms of life, we also see striking limits to what this mechanism can actually accomplish. In recent years tremendous work has been done by the scientists promoting the theory of intelligent design who effectively proved the inability of the neo-Darwinian mechanism to produce anything more than small adaptations. As Michael Behe explains, these adaptations happen mostly thanks to breaking existing genes rather than producing new ones. But breaking and jettisoning of what already exists can hardly explain the appearance of it. Evolutionary theories currently circulating in science do not explain the origin of any significant biological novelties such as new functional genes, proteins or irreducibly complex organs; they postulate that these structures evolved but they do not explain how or prove that it actually happened.

Since real science, stripped from the ideological materialistic bias, is not on the side of biological macroevolution, why would any theologian tinker with theology? Why would anyone try to modify faith to make it compatible with fishy science? It is true that in modern theology the Bible is not an argument, because it lost its authoritative meaning. Any fragment can be neutralized or dismissed by the so-called “modern exegesis”. Thus, according to modern scholars one cannot make an argument from the Genesis account of creation because it does not say what is says. We are invited to ask what the “inspired author” wanted to say. But how can we know it? The only way is by reference to what he actually says, therefore I believe that he meant what he says, and I see no reason why the Bible would be written in such a way to delude anyone by saying something different from what it means. In fact, the sharp division between “words” and “meaning” introduced by modern exegesis is nothing but a tool to fashion the meaning according to the exegets’ whims regardless of the words.

“Modern exegesis” devised many techniques to dismiss the authority of the Bible. Some include reducing it to just religious poetry, a liturgical hymn, or calling it an echo of Babylonian and Eastern mythologies. Each of these reductionist interpretations may contain some truth but none of them can justify the abandonment of the literal and historical meaning of the first chapters of Genesis which was recognized by the Church since the very beginning and by the pre-Christian Jews. The literal and historical meaning is the foundational one, the one that settles the issue of origins.

The problem is that the literal historical reading of Genesis flatly contradicts the essential claims of theistic evolution: If God created plants and animals according to their kinds then they did not develop from one ancestor. If God formed man from the dust of the earth then man did not descend from ape. If God accomplished the work of creation and rested on the seventh day then new species cannot emerge anymore in an ongoing process of continual creation as theistic evolutionists believe. Theistic evolution denies at least three classic Christian beliefs:

  1. The work of formation – according to Christian theology of creation, God not only created the universe out of nothing – the moment in which time, matter and energy started to exist- but also formed it over the time which the Bible describes as the “six days”. The formation of the universe is not reducible to the ordinary workings of nature. Otherwise there would be no sense in speaking about the work of formation as a separate stage. The formation of the universe was a time when God acted supernaturally (sometimes directly, sometimes indirectly) on the natural order. Thanks to these divine operations we observe the increase of complexity and forms over time. But this stage ends with the creation of man. This is why today we do not see the same increase in complexity. Instead, we see the extinction of species. The universe is not emergent (as theistic evolutionists imagine) but entropic.
  2. The special creation of man according to his/her body and soul. All Christianity from Jesus to the 19th and mid 20th century believed that man was created directly by God both according to his body and soul. Theistic evolution acknowledges the special creation of the human soul, but not the body. This is where all problems (scientific, theological and philosophical) regarding the so-called hominization originate. But the truth about the special creation of the human body is so well-established and unanimously supported by the entire tradition that it should be considered a dogma rather than dismissed as a “mistaken biblical interpretation of the past” for allegedly scientific reasons.
  3. Creation is finished. According to Christian faith, God accomplished the work of creation and rested, which means that after man was created God does not create anything new. God maintains the universe in existence and oversees it by his ordinary and extraordinary providence. But according to TE, God never ceased to create, which means that divine works are not perfect and we do not know what Genesis means when it says that God rested. In TE there is confusion between preservation of being (conservatio in esse) and continual creation (continua creatio). According to Christian faith, God indeed never ceased to work in the sense that He preserves the universe in existence all the time, but conservation of existence is something quite different from the continual creation of new things, such as entirely new forms of life. This latter idea resembles more of Pagan mythologies with their circular concept of time where the universe exhibits a single mode of ongoing process of evolution.

Theistic evolution encounters problems not only from the Bible and classic Christian theology but also from what is called Christian philosophy or classical metaphysics. I described these problems in my book “Aquinas and Evolution” and perhaps there will be an occasion to describe some of them in the later presentation. Here I will just make a note on why a theory acceptable to Catholics cannot contradict classical metaphysics.

Christian faith is generally speaking independent from any particular philosophy and as Pope John Paul II confirmed (in Fides et Ratio) the Church has never committed herself to any given philosophical system. One can have an integral faith without being a proponent of any particular type of philosophy. We need to notice, however, that the basic Christian dogmas have been formulated in the language of classical realistic metaphysics. All attempts to formulate them in other than classical terms failed. This obviously may be taken as an argument for the trueness of the philosophy itself, but for our argument something else is also important: If a theory of nature is incompatible with classical metaphysics, especially if it deprives its basic concepts of their realistic meaning, then the theory is problematic for the Church. It ruins the explanations of the dogmas turning faith into fideism. One can still believe it but one cannot explain it or communicate it in objective realistic language. 

Theistic evolution contradicts the basic metaphysical notions such as substance and nature. As such, in a long run, it leads to dissolution of Christianity in a mash of pantheism, deism and emanationism.

Much more should be said about the problems of theistic evolution from the Christian perspective. But the current question is about our own understanding of how God created species. In order to make my answer clearer I will now contrast it with the concept of young earth creationism.

According to YEC, the universe was created within six natural days no more than a few thousand years ago (some YEC proponents accept up to tens of thousands years). There are two basic types of YEC – one is the so-called “Biblical fundamentalism” (or Biblical creationism) another is called (not quite correctly) “scientific creationism”. The first type does not bother with the scientific evidence testifying to the long existence of the universe. It assumes that the Bible is the sole and entire source of truth therefore other sources, such as natural sciences, are irrelevant. In scientific creationism there is a great deal of effort to dismiss the scientific evidence for “deep time” (billions rather than thousands of years of natural history). Since I am not a scientist and also because YEC is a theological concept, there is no reason for me to answer to the scientific rebuttal of deep time as presented by scientific creationism. Usually these types of discussions lead to nowhere anyways. YEC requires a response on the theological level because this is the level at which its proponents formulate their arguments. They say that the Bible is the infallible word of God and since the Bible speaks about the six days they must be maintained by faith.

We agree with both of these premises. The Bible indeed is the true word of God that has to be listened to with obedience. Moreover, we agree that Genesis tells the true history, which means that it speaks about the events that actually happened in the past. However, we believe that the six days do not mean six natural days but some other periods of time.

Catholic proponents of YEC very often refer to the testimony of the holy Tradition in maintaining that the six days are natural days. But we know that there are actually two different traditions of interpreting Genesis long recognized by Christianity. One of them dates back to St. Ambrose. This is the one that maintains that creation happened over the six natural days. Another one dates back to St. Augustine, who believed that creation happened in one moment and the division into six days is literal but not historical, i.e., these are like six visions that the angels received from God when learning about creation. Augustine’s interpretation is more complex than this but I will skip the details. For our purpose it is important to notice that there was at least one holy author of the greatest stature who did not understand the day of creation as a natural day. Following the holy tradition the Church (and the Church is the proper authority competent to judge what belongs to tradition) established in 1909 that the word “yom” (the Hebrew word for “day” in Genesis) can be understood either as a natural day or any other period of time. This ecclesiastical resolution is very important because it undermines the foundational claim of Catholic YEC that the “entire tradition supports YEC”. Not quite correct. Indeed, the majority of the Fathers believed so, but why would they believe otherwise if they did not have any reason to believe in billions of years of natural history? The Church Fathers along with their contemporaries believed in many other things that were taught by the science of their time such as spontaneous generation, geocentrism, celestial spheres, etc. But new discoveries modify our worldview. This is what happened with the discovery of the great age of the universe. It does not modify any of the truths of faith, it just helps us better understand the Genesis account of creation. The question: “How old is the universe?” is a scientific one, therefore it should be answered by science, not the Bible.

Another theological reason for why “yom” is not a natural day stems from the fact that it would be hard to squeeze all of the events of the sixth day into 12 (or 24) hours. On the sixth day God created the animals. Creation of the animals in the Biblical narrative does not seem to be reducible to a single act but rather is a progressive event in which new creatures appear in waves one after another. On the same day God created Adam, dwelled in the garden with him, presented all of the animals to him, Adam did not find an adequate help, Adam was put to sleep by God and finally Eve was created from his side. It is not impossible for God to make all of this in one natural day, however, such interpretation is not in keeping with the natural reading of the text to which “young earthers” are committed. Thus by their very method of reading Genesis as a historical account one should rather assume that the day is longer than a natural day.

Surely, there are many other theological reasons to interpret the day of creation as a period of longer time. For example, Augustine has already noticed that the sun was created only on the fourth day which means that until the fourth day the idea of the solar day makes little sense. There was no sun to measure the natural day. Also the seventh day is longer than a natural day because it is the time when God rested which happened after the creation of man and lasts until now (and will last until the end of this universe). Thus we know for sure that the seventh day is not a natural day. Moreover the Bible very often refers to a day as to a moment (as in the expression “on the day of the Lord”) or a period of time. It also presents the length of time as relative from God’s perspective (2 P 3:8). Thus there are many reasons stemming from the Bible itself to not adopt the idea of YEC.

Here we come to the answer to the question of how God created all the kinds of animals. Since we believe that Genesis is literally and historically true, and we do not have any plausible theory of the origin of species in science, we need to say that they were created separately as distinct natures directly by God. The divine creative activity extended over millions and billions of years because this is what the evidence from natural history tells us. The firs living beings (prokaryotic cells) date back as far as 4 bln years. Then there is little progress in life forms (except for the mysterious episode of the Ediacaran biota) until the great Cambrian explosion when most of the body plans appear all of the sudden fully formed. This pattern of sudden appearance of major groups of life forms is repeated throughout natural history until the most recent time. Finally, a few million years ago humans are created. They begin with one pair, Adam and Eve, who originally are placed by God in the specially prepared area called the Garden of Eden. In the concept of progressive creation (as in YEC) the historicity of Adam and Eve is taken for granted, therefore there is no sense of challenging the Catholic concept of original sin as it happens in theistic evolution. Also, in PC and YEC there is no question of hominization of an animal, because man does not share common ancestry with any other living being. It is a special and separate work of divine power designed from scratch in its bodily form to receive the rational soul.

We can imagine divine creative activity as painting an image or making a wedding cake. God adds layer after layer of creation. He does not diminish or ruin the previous parts by adding the new ones. In fact each additional layer adds to the beauty and taste of the whole. At the end God creates man which is like the proverbial cherry on top of the cake which makes it perfect and beautiful. At each stage creation is good, that is, complete, operational and coherent. If God did not create the following layers one would not notice any want in creation. Only because we have the experience of the total creation we would complain seeing the universe let’s say deprived of plants or animals. Each additional being was added by God not out of some necessity but to make the creation more perfect, beautiful and reflective of divine grandeur.

There is a very common mistake in understanding divine work of creation as a type of intervention. Theistic evolutionists believe that God “does not intervene” in the created order, therefore they reject the idea of special creation. But creation is not an intervention. In theistic evolution the universe is considered an essentially independent being and thus any supernatural work of God in the universe is seen by them as God’s intervention, disruption and some kind of rapture performed by the divinity on the closed system of the universe. This is quite a distorted picture of divine formation of the universe over the millennia. Creation is not an intervention, because the universe is not a closed system. It’s not a music box, not even a barrel organ. It is an instrument that makes music only when a player touches it appropriately. God is the master of this instrument. He never sets it aside, He does not make breaks, forgets about it. He constantly plays, although the modes of how He does it change like they change during an orchestra concert. An act of creating a new species does not disrupt any cause-effect chains already existing in the universe. Surely, a newly created species would enter some of these chains, sometimes disrupting them effectively (as it happens, for example, with the creation of a predator that would modify some food chains). But this is not the creation itself that causes the disruption but rather the operation of the already created being.

Theistic evolutionists also think that progressive creation (or any form of special creation) diminishes the importance of natural secondary causes in the works of nature. They believe that by the acts of creation the universe would be somehow deprived of its autonomy. This is another false imagery stemming from the misunderstanding of the act of creation itself. As Thomas Aquinas puts it “in the works of nature creation does not enter, but is presupposed to the work of nature” (S.Th. I,45,8, co). This means that whatever can be accomplished by nature itself (as established and formed by God) will not be produced supernaturally by God. The reason is that both orders – the natural and the supernatural – originate in one God. Therefore, since nature can move planets on their orbits thanks to the law of gravity God would not do this supernaturally. If a seed thrown to the ground can spring and turn into a tree then God does not need to create a fully grown tree. Since the combination of different geological factors can produce mountains God does not make them by supernaturally pulling them out from the crust. But nature has no power to produce the seed by itself, therefore God had to create the first seeds of different plant families in the ground. By the same token, since the so-called higher animals are viviparous they have to begin with an active principle which is an adult pair able to mate. This is most clearly seen in the case of the first humans who must have started with a pair of adults to make the propagation of the species possible. Similarly, the first horse or cat or mouse must have been produced as at least one pair of adults. We also see that new varieties, variants, races and even biological species emerge constantly thanks to the operations of nature. Therefore there was no need for God to create all of them directly. Rather, life started with the creation of one original type in each family or genus. For example, God did not create domestic dogs and wolves (and probably some others such as foxes, jackals, hyenas) separately since they have one common canine nature that differs among them only accidentally. How much nature can accomplish on its own is to be established by biology. Unfortunately, contemporary science driven by the Darwinian bias postulates that nature can accomplish everything and anything by itself. In fact, however, anywhere we look in nature we see insurmountable limits of biological change that can be produced by natural causes. We see therefore that the belief in the separate creation of species does not diminish the secondary causation in the universe. Rather it restores the proper place of the direct divine causation.

It is clear from what I have said that progressive creation is the solution that best meets the requirements of both modern science (or rather modern scientific facts and data) and classic theology. Theistic evolution allegedly follows modern science though in fact it follows just Darwinian theory not the scientific facts. Theistic evolution rejects the classic Christian concept of creation and the traditional Biblical interpretation. As such it is a form of modern materialistic reductionism. On the other hand young earth creationism is at odds with the overwhelming scientific evidence for the “deep time” stretching billions rather than thousands of years back. As we have shown, YEC is also not quite compatible with Catholic tradition and a thorough reading of the Bible. Still, it is a doctrinally accepted position, as is clear from the 1909 response of the Pontifical Biblical Commission. As such it should be considered a form of modern fideism which denies science for the sake of one particular Biblical interpretation.

I doubt that there is an easy solution to creation vs. evolution debate. Progressive creation is not an easy solution. But PC is the solution that creates the least amount of difficulties on the theological, philosophical and scientific levels. PC is a form of a synthesis between science and faith. Just like any synthesis it stands on the top between two hollows – theistic evolution which is a form of materialism and YEC which is a form of fideism. To keep the balance is most difficult. Perhaps this is the reason why PC has relatively few proponents. But if we look at the issue from a more general perspective PC seems the most obvious solution that accounts for the traditional faith and the best of modern science.