[The April 2003 issue of the New Oxford Review(NOR) featured an article entitled, “How Old is the Earth?” by Dr. Dermott Mullan. This was our reply.]
Are Catholic Defenders of Special Creation “Fundamentalists”?
by Hugh Owen and Robert Bennett
The purpose of this letter is to set the record straight concerning the Kolbe Center and the literal historical interpretation of Genesis 1-11 in response to Dr. Dermott Mullan’s article “How Old Is the Earth?”The Kolbe Center was founded in 2000 to provide a forum for Roman Catholic theologians, philosophers, and natural scientists who believe in special creation—the idea that God created the different kinds of living things by divine fiat less than 10,000 years ago. We also hold that the literal historical interpretation of Genesis 1-11 offers a much better explanation of the facts of Scripture, Tradition, and natural science than the non-literal, non-historical interpretation of Genesis that is now in fashion in most Catholic centers of education.
The article rightly takes a dim view of fundamentalism, defined as a literal interpretation of the Bible without regard to historical or literary context, Sacred Tradition, or the Magisterium of the Catholic Church.However, it strongly implies that anyone who believes in a literal historical interpretation of Genesis and a (relatively) young earth is ipso facto a “fundamentalist.”The argument rests upon the hermeneutic principle laid down in Providentissimus Deus that the literal and obvious sense of Scripture must be adhered to unless reason dictates or necessity requires that it be abandoned in favor of a purely figurative interpretation.From this principle, it is argued that all literal historical interpretations of Genesis are “fundamentalist” since natural science has provided “irrefutable proof” that the earth and the universe are billions of years old.
It is ironic that Providentissimus Deus should be used as the basis for criticizing Catholics who adhere to a literal historical interpretation of Genesis and six days of creation, since Leo XIII himself championed the literal historical interpretation of Genesis against those who challenged it on “scientific” grounds in his encyclical on the Sacrament of Holy Marriage, Arcanum 5: Line 4-12.Leo wrote:
Though revilers of the Christian faith refuse to acknowledge the never-interrupted doctrine of the Church on this subject, and have long striven to destroy the testimony of all nations and of all times, they have nevertheless failed not only to quench the powerful light of truth, but even to lessen it. We record what is to all known, and cannot be doubted by any, that God, on the sixth day of creation, having made man from the slime of the earth, and having breathed into his face the breath of life, gave him a companion, whom He miraculously took from the side of Adam when he was locked in sleep.
To proffer our literal interpretation as insensitive to common sense, historical context and literary genre is to grossly miscast us as one-dimensional Fundamentalists in defiance of the Church’s teaching. The Kolbe Center is nothing if not Leonine in its Biblical literalism and obedience to the Magisterium.
The article quotes Pope Pius XII’s encyclical Humani Generis, Paragraph 38, to the effect that the way in which Genesis contains history is to be determined by exegetes.However, the Pope’s words have been heavily and poorly edited, transposed and misquoted. Here is the actual passage of Humani Generis from the Vatican site:
Just as in the biological and anthropological sciences, so also in the historical sciences there are those who boldly transgress the limits and safeguards established by the Church. In a particular way must be deplored a certain too free interpretation of the historical books of the Old Testament. Those who favor this system, in order to defend their cause, wrongly refer to the Letter which was sent not long ago to the Archbishop of Paris by the Pontifical Commission on Biblical Studies. This letter, in fact, clearly points out that the first eleven chapters of Genesis, although properly speaking not conforming to the historical method used by the best Greek and Latin writers or by competent authors of our time, do nevertheless pertain to history in a true sense, which however must be further studied and determined by exegetes; the same chapters, (the Letter points out), in simple and metaphorical language adapted to the mentality of a people but little cultured, both state the principal truths which are fundamental for our salvation, and also give a popular description of the origin of the human race and the chosen people.
The words quoted in the article, “It has clearly laid down……” do not appear in Humani Generis.If intended as a paraphrase of “This letter, in fact, clearly points out…” it misleads by omitting the fact that the Pope is citing the PCBS letter, implying that these are his own words.The quotation continues as follows:
that the first eleven chapters of Genesis,[ although properly speaking not conforming to the historical method used by the best Greek and Latin writers or by competent authors of our time,]do [ nevertheless]pertain to history in [a] ^the^true sense
Why no ellipsis to indicate that the Pope’s exception clauses were omitted? Why replace the Pope’s use of the indefinite article with the definite article?The HG section continues:
However, it is not right to judge them by modern standards of historical composition…
This quotation is certainly not in Humani Generis—the words “right, standards, composition” don’t appear anywhere therein. But the phrase does appear in a fundamentalist commentary on HG by David Holloway, a contemporary English vicar.
Why it’s here, masquerading as a direct quotation from the encyclical, is answerable only by the author and the NOR editors. Indeed, a complete rewrite of the Pope’s thoughts appears in this section, presented as if they were direct quotations. What is the point of referencing a butchered and bowdlerized version of an encyclical in support of a theological position?What can be said positively of a theological approach that quotes a comment on the Papal encyclicals as if they were the Pope’s words verbatim?It’s painful to point out such cavalier treatment of a papal encyclical in a reviewed article published by a periodical self-styled as traditional and orthodox Catholic; one would hope to focus on content and not on correcting citation errors.The question is bound to arise: Does the science research advancing old earth beliefs mirror the integrity of this theological approach?
This section isn’t anomalous, but characteristic of most of the support references. The article says that obviously, the Pope’s approach to Genesis in Humani Generis is quite different from young-earth-believers. “Obviously?” Really? In the authentic version of HG, the Pope “deplored a certain too free interpretation of the historical books of the Old Testament.”But this sentence was not cited in the article. The specific purpose of the HG:38 reference to the PCBS letter is to point this out (although this is not mentioned in the article). Even the PCBS letter, which is not part of the deposit of faith, supports the Bible as true history, subject to refinement by ongoing research (such as is now under way at the Kolbe Center).So we ask: Is reading “a day” and thinking “a day” an excessively free interpretation of Genesis?
In another citation of HG:20 below, the Magisterial revision continues with three negatives omitted from the encyclical’s text, teaching authority is changed from ‘supreme’ to ‘ordinary’, etc…. ??More text is inserted and deleted than left untouched!
[20. Nor must it be thought that w] ^W^hat is expounded in Encyclical Letters [does not] of itself demand^s^ consent, since in writing such Letters the Popes [do not] exercise the [supreme power of their Teaching Authority. For these matters are taught with the] ordinary teaching authority, of which it is true to [say] ^apply Christ’s words^: “He who heareth you, heareth me”.
20. Nor must it be thought that what is expounded in Encyclical Letters does not of itself demand consent, since in writing such Letters the Popes do not exercise the supreme power of their Teaching Authority. For these matters are taught with the ordinary teaching authority, of which it is true to say: “He who heareth you, heareth me”; and generally what is expounded and inculcated in Encyclical Letters already for other reasons appertains to Catholic doctrine.
The article declaims that Lateran IV and Vatican I don’t mention a creation date or the days until Adam’s creation. But why should the councils take action, if there was no need of a creation date for salvific definition or heretical suppression?Genesis plainly says Adam was created on the sixth day.Is it the role of councils to sanction every word of the Bible by repetition or infer what common sense can approximately compute from the succession of the patriarchs?If so, all the globe’s libraries couldn’t hold the volume of verbiage produced—just look at Canon Law!
The Pontifical Biblical Commission has already opened this issue to discussion between theologians and scientists. So, let’s continue to discuss it.
The article claims that Providentissimus Deus says certain truths about the material world can be established by scientists with “irrefutable evidence.”As we have come to expect by now, Providentissimus Deus does not use the phrase “irrefutable evidence” or either word separately. Mark this as “source unknown.”Besides the phantom quotation, it is interesting to note which words of Pope Leo XIII from Providentissimus Deus:18 were not included in the article (for good reason):
It need not be pointed out how the nature of science, just as it is so admirably adapted to show forth the glory of the Great Creator, provided it be taught as it should be, so if it be perversely imparted to the youthful intelligence, it may prove most fatal in destroying the principles of true philosophy and in the corruption of morality….
There can never, indeed, be any real discrepancy between the theologian and the physicist, as long as each confines himself within his own lines, and both are careful, as St. Augustine warns us, “not to make rash assertions, or to assert what is not known as known.”
These detestable errors, whereby they think they destroy the truth of the divine Books, are obtruded on the world as the peremptory pronouncements of a certain newly-invented “free science;” a science, however, which is so far from final that they are perpetually modifying and supplementing it.
Unfortunately, the warning contained in this passage does not appear to have been heeded.Instead, as much mistaken confidence is placedin the ability of the natural sciences to arrive at “irrefutable” conclusions about unrepeatable events, such as creation, as isplaced in the ability of empirical science to form “irrefutable” conclusions about repeatable events.This is a serious philosophical error.
In reality, it is quite impossible for natural science to produce irrefutable proof of the nature of creation and the age of the universe, first, because, as God reminded Job, we were not there when He created the universe, second, because we cannot be at all sure that the uniformitarian principle—which states that all presently observed natural processes have always been in operation exactly as they are today—is true; and, finally, because even the so-called “laws” that govern the present day universe are subject to change in light of new evidence.For example, the article claims that “Newton’s laws are examples of irrefutable evidence.”Actually, Newton’s laws are sufficient for the study of simple “every day” systems dealing with low speeds, weak gravity and macroscopic objects.For moderate systems they are incomplete approximations and virtually worthless for extremal systems.
We read, “The universe is 10 to 20 giga years old according to General Relativity.”In reality, the universe is 10 to 20 giga years old, not according to General Relativity specifically, but according to one theoretical cosmic model – the standard Big Bang – based on General Relativity which assumes an unbounded isotropic space and abundant adjustable parameters to support the metaphysical materialism of the cosmological principle.Several simpler finite models based on General Relativity are consistent with a Biblical age and have fewer assumptions, such as those of Dr. Russell Humphreys and Dr. Robert Gentry.According to Leo XIII, as long as natural scientists with impeccable qualifications can explain the facts in front of them in harmony with the literal and obvious sense of Genesis, the burden of proof is on those who would challenge the literal interpretation.
As mentioned above, the indemonstrable uniformitarian principle underlies most if not all of the alleged “irrefutable proofs” for long ages of time since the beginning of creation.However, the article itself states that the physical processes that Adam and Eve experienced prior to the Fall were different from the physical processes that we now experience in the post Fall world.Since this is so, might not physical processes in the earth and in the stars also have varied since the beginning of creation?In his Letter to the Romans, St. Paul (another exegete with a penchant for the literal historical interpretation of Genesis) teaches that not only human beings but all creation is made subject to decay by the Original Sin and groans in expectation of the revelation of the children of God.
Although St. Paul’s words do not mean that the Second law of Thermodynamics did not come into force until after the Fall—a false view that some evolutionists like to attribute to defenders of special creation—they do indicate that God allowed decay to accelerate throughout the universe in some way as a result of the Fall.Indeed, there are many phenomena, such as polonium radiohalos, decay of the earth’s magnetic field, and helium retention in zircons from deep earth cores, that are impossible to explain within a giga year framework using the uniformitarian principle.Moreover, the experimental work of sedimentologist Guy Berthault has demonstrated that the earth’s fossil bearing rocks could have been laid down in a relatively short period of time, a mere fraction of the hundreds of millions of years generally assigned to the formation of the fossil record.His work alone would be sufficient to demolish any claims to “irrefutable proof” of an age for the earth of hundreds of millions of years.
Besides citing “irrefutable proof” in the form of widely accepted interpretations of data among physicists, it isargued that God would not have deceived mankind by creating a world with an appearance of age that it did not really possess.In this connection, there ismention that Adam and Eve would not have “aged” as we experience aging, prior to the Fall.While a true statement, this begs the question of whether Adam and Eve were created with the appearance of age.No evidence is offered that our first parents were not created fully mature and with an appearance of age that they did not actually possess. Furthermore, the argument is drawn that the irreducible complexity of living things refutes Darwinian evolution through natural selection, butwhat is not drawn is the logical conclusion that the prototypes of the various kinds of living things must have been created irreducibly complex, fully functioning, with an appearance of age that they did not actually possess.
It is a crowning irony that defenders of special creation are accused of misrepresenting God as a deceiver who gives things a false appearance of age when God Himself has told us in his own words that He created the heavens and earth and all they contain in six days.The 1994 Catechism teaches that:
The word “Decalogue” means literally “ten words.”God revealed these “ten words” to his people on the holy mountain.They were written “with the finger of God,” (Exodus 31:18) unlike the other commandments written by Moses.They are pre-eminently the words of God (emphasis added) (CCC 2056).
In these words written “with the finger of God,” God tells Moses and the Hebrews that “in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, and on the seventh day he rested.”Thus, no one can accuse God of deceiving us if the world is full of a number of things that look much older than they really are!
There are claims that Deriving the earth’s age from the patriarchal genealogies is not taught by the Magisterium.This is right, of course, but neither is it forbidden—it’s an open question, a detail related to the general open discussion now being debated by scientists and theologians with regard to the Church’s position on evolution.Moreover, by the criteria laid down by Leo XIII in Providentissimus Deus and upheld by Pope Pius XII and the Second Vatican Council, the literal and obvious sense of the genealogies as intended by their authors must be accepted unless there is irrefutable proof that they cannot possibly be true.Indeed, Pope Pius XII strongly condemned the now alarmingly-popular view that the Bible contains errors in natural science and history.In Divino Afflante Spiritu, Pius wrote:
When, subsequently, some Catholic writers, in spite of this solemn definition of Catholic doctrine, by which such divine authority is claimed for the “entire books with all their parts” as to secure freedom from any error whatsoever, ventured to restrict the truth of Sacred Scripture solely to matters of faith and morals, and to regard other matters, whether in the domain of physical science or history, as “obiter dicta” and, as they contended, in no wise connected with faith, Our Predecessor of immortal memory, Leo XIII in the encyclical letter Providentissimus Deus…justly and rightly condemned these errors and safe-guarded the studies of the divine books by most wise precepts and rules (Para 1, ).
The 1994 Catechism reminds us that the literal sense is the basis for all other interpretations of Scripture and that this sense can only be interpreted correctly if the reader is “attentive to what the human authors truly wanted to affirm” (CCC, 109).To the chagrin of critics of the literal historical interpretation of Genesis 1-11, modern scholarship has merely underscored the intentions of the author(s) of Genesis to give an historical account of the early history of the earth and of mankind.According to James Barr, Regius Professor of Hebrew at Oxford University, there is no longer any doubt among scholars that the author(s) of Genesis 1-11 intended to convey historical facts to their readers:
So far as I know, there is no professor of Hebrew or Old Testament at any world class university who does not believe that the author(s) of Genesis 1-11 intended to convey to their readers the ideas that,
Creation took place in a series of six days which were the same as the days of 24 hours we now experience.
The figures contained in the Genesis chronologies provided by simple addition a chronology from the beginning of the world up to later stages in the biblical story.
Noah’s flood was understood to be world wide and extinguish all human and animal life except for those in the Ark.
Or, to put it negatively, the apologetic arguments which suppose the “days” of creation to be long eras of time, the figures of years not to be chronological, and the flood to be a merely local Mesopotamian flood, are not taken seriously by any such professors, as far as I know.
The article reports with alarm that the first International Catholic Family Conference on Creation had a speaker promoting earth as the center of universe; but no physics experiment has ever detected whether the Earth is stationary (at the center) or in motion, without making metaphysical presumptions about the structure and dynamics of the rest of the universe.According to astronomer Sir Fred Hoyle :“We know that the difference between a heliocentric theory and a geocentric theory is one of relative motion only, and that such a difference has no physical significance.”The current relativistic view of the science majority is not heliocentricity but that there is no center because any point may be taken as central: acentricity. The sense of Revelation is that the Earth is the focus of physical creation, this sense being eloquently upheld by St. Robert Cardinal Bellarmine during the Galileo ‘affair’ and continuing within the teaching of the common Magisterium to this very day.
In regard to a presentation on evidences for a young earth and a young universe at Kolbe’s First International Catholic Conference on Creation, claims are made that it contains 15 points based on cosmic data, but that “none forces a young earth conclusion.” All of us at the Kolbe Center would agree that no creation event is provable from natural sources, but all the evidence cited in the above-mentioned talk either favors a young earth or excludes the possibility of cosmic gigayears.
In conclusion, like Dr. Mullan, the Kolbe Center would also teach children that scientists have access to truths about the world that God created. In fact, they have a unique access to natural truths by virtue of their God-given talent and profession. But that access implies a responsibility to teach innocent children (and adults) that can be abused and misused, by ignoring the primary source of truth — the precious words of Truth taught by Holy Mother Church. By blindly following the interpretation of facts offered by secular modernists, Catholic natural scientists may unwittingly advance their anti-Christian agenda.