The Sad Legacy of Father Jaki’s Writings on Evolution

by Hugh Owen

Starting Point:  Fr. Jaki on Genesis 1-11

For all their differences, Stanley Jaki, O.S.B., and Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, S.J., agreed on one fundamental point:  contemporary natural scientists are much more reliable than the Fathers, Doctors, Popes and Councils of the past in explaining the origins of man and the universe.  In Genesis 1 through the Ages, Fr. Jaki recognized that bringing Genesis 1 into harmony with the views of mainstream natural science required a radical departure from traditional exegesis.  Calling Genesis 1 “a marvelous story”, Fr. Jaki confessed that:

As I reviewed one after another the great commentaries on Genesis 1, I could not help feeling how close their authors were time and again to an interpretation which is strictly literal and yet at the same time puts that marvellous story at safe remove from any comparison with science, old and new.[1]

Determined to reconcile Genesis with the majority view in the natural sciences, including its acceptance of biological evolution, Fr. Jaki argued that Genesis 1 was a “post-exilic” work whose sole purpose was to show that God is the creator of all things, without conveying any information as to when or how He created the world.  Since this view contradicts the constant teaching of the Church Fathers, Doctors, Popes and Councils, it is not surprising that Fr. Jaki’s argument for his thesis breaks down quickly under scrutiny.  And since an exhaustive critique of Fr. Jaki’s exegesis of Genesis 1 is beyond the scope of this article, it will suffice to show that the two pillars of his interpretation have no foundation whatsoever.  These pillars are 1) the impossibility of light before the sun, and 2) the use of the word bara in Genesis 1.

Light before the Sun?

Like all theistic evolutionists, Fr. Jaki discounted the notion of correspondence between the “days” of Genesis and actual solar days.  As Robert Sungenis explains:

[The Theistic evolutionist argues] that there can be no day/night sequence on the so-called first day of Creation, since the sun was created afterward, on the fourth day. He will reason that, since it is obvious today that the sun is what causes the day/night sequence on earth, there could have been no day/night sequence before the sun was created, and therefore, the days of Genesis are neither literal nor chronological.

On the surface, this sounds like a cogent argument. Fr. Stanley Jaki . . . considers it his strongest argument to deny a chronological, 24-hour period, creation sequence. For him, if the sun is missing from the first day, then there can be no darkness and light, and thus the days of Genesis are symbolic of long periods of time. Either that, or the sun existed on the first day and is recapitulated on the fourth day.[2]

We will answer this objection from two perspectives, the first from science, the second from Scripture.

Scientifically speaking, any honest physicist will admit that light is an absolute enigma. My physics professor in college told me that on Monday, Wednesday and Friday he calls light a wave. On Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday he says it is made up of particles. On Sunday he gives up and takes a rest from trying to figure it out . . . [M]an’s puzzlement over the very nature of light . . . should give anyone pause in making hasty conclusions about its form and origin.  Indeed the Christian should seriously consider that, because the Bible says so, light does not necessarily need the emanating bodies of the sun or stars to exist, nor does the absence of the sun or stars mean darkness will result.

At the least, in respect of Scripture’s veracity, we should accept that the sun merely took over the duties of the light on the first day.[3] For example, being consistent with his literal hermeneutic, Thomas Aquinas postulated that the effusive light on the first day was created as the sun and stars on the fourth day,[4] perhaps similar to God fashioning man on the sixth day from the dirt He created on the first day.[5]

In reality many of the Church Fathers had anticipated Fr. Jaki’s objection to the creation of light before the sun and had answered it with profound wisdom.  For example, St. John Chrysostom held that God had created the light before the sun so that men to whom the creation account was revealed would never in future times succumb to the temptation to deify the sun.

A New Meaning for Bara: Fact or Fantasy?

Ultimately Fr. Jaki rested his case for jettisoning the constant teaching of the Fathers and Doctors on creation on his interpretation of the word bara in the Hebrew text of Genesis 1.  Fr. Jaki argues that:

of the forty or so cases when bara occurs in the Old Testament, it is used to denote in five cases a purely human action. . .  Of the three other cases the ones in the book of Joshua (17: 15, 18) refer in the tense Piel to the cutting down of trees . . . In Ez 23: 47 we see the prophet use bara to denote a gruesomely human action, prompted as it could be by Yahweh’s utter displeasure with idolatry . . .  [I]n all these cases the taking of bara for an exclusively divine action, let alone taking it for creation out of nothing, can only be done if one deliberately ignores those three uses of it that span more than half a millennium. . .  The verb bara means basically “to split” and “to slash” or an action which conveys that something is divided and that the action is done swiftly.[6]

As convincing as this might sound at first blush, Robert Sungenis shows that Fr. Jaki’s examples cannot bear the weight of his argument:

Jaki is suggesting that since bara means “to split”, such a process implies evolution, apparently because matter is “splitting” from matter and undergoing some kind of subsequent development, as opposed to being created whole out of nothing. Ironically, in the same vicinity Jaki recognizes that the majority opinion holds bara as meaning creation “out of nothing”, even citing P. Heinisch’s cataloguing of bara in the Qal and Nifil stems as evidence.[7] So what, then, leads Jaki to the conclusion that bara “means basically ‘to split’ and ‘to slash’” if it only occurs in three instances out of forty? A hint to Jaki’s reasoning is found in the beginning of the paragraph:

It should seem significant that both in the book of Ezechiel, certainly a post-exilic product, and in the book of Joshua, a product quite possibly some seven hundred years older, one is confronted with a very human connotation of bara. . . uses of it that span more than half a millennium.

So Jaki’s main argument, it seems, is that we should accept the meaning of bara as “to split” or “to slash” simply because three uses of the Piel stem are separated by 700 years. As an aside, we will alert the reader to our previous critique of Jaki’s dating of Ezekiel, which pointed out that Jaki’s view would make the prophecies of Ezekiel regarding the Babylonian captivity mere reminisces of the past rather than predictions of the future. This becomes a handy little polemic for Jaki, since he also claims that Genesis is a “post-exilic” writing just like Ezekiel. Thus, if someone were to counter Jaki’s thesis by claiming that the same amount, or more, years separate the use of bara in Genesis, meaning created “out of nothing”, from, say, the use of bara in Isaiah 40: 26, Jeremiah 31: 22 where it also means created “out of nothing”, we might be told that the comparison has no merit because Genesis is “post-exilic” just like Isaiah, Jeremiah. In other words, to Jaki, the meaning “created out of nothing” for bara is a late development of vocabulary in Israel, at least compared to the supposed indigenous meaning of bara as “to split” appearing during the conquest of Canaan. This is so because, to Jaki, Joshua was written long before Genesis was written. All this, of course, is at best mere speculation and at worst another indication of the overly-enthusiastic exploits of historical criticism to which Jaki and many of his colleagues have fallen victim.[8]

Fr. Jaki’s sweeping dismissal of all of the Fathers and Doctors on the strength of such poor exegesis becomes even more embarrassing when one considers that his re-interpretation of Genesis 1 in relation to bara had already been evaluated and found wanting by the great Jesuit scholar Cornelius a Lapide in the seventeenth century.  In his commentary on Genesis 1, Cornelius evaluates the very interpretation put forward by Fr. Jaki three centuries later and calls it a “fantasy”, “rejected by all of the Fathers and the Doctors”.  He writes:

Hieronymus ab Oleastro translates the Hebrew word ברא, bārā, as “He divided”, and so he renders the verse “in the beginning God divided the heaven and earth.”  In fact, he thinks that God first of all created the waters with the land, and they were very large and vast; from them He then brought forth the heavens (something this verse does not speak about, and which Scripture presupposes).  Finally, He divided them from the earth and the waters, and the event was represented solely in this verse.  But this fantasy is rejected by all the Fathers and the Doctors, who translate bārā as He created.  This is what the word properly means, for it never means He divided, as those who are competent in Hebrew know.  For in this verse Moses describes the first work and production, and, what is more, by means of the work of Genesis (that is, the birthday of the world), he initiates history.  The passages from Joshua and Ezechiel that Hieronymus ab Oleastro cites for his argument prove nothing.  For in those passages bārā does not mean to divide but to cut down and to destroy.[9] Indeed, this is one of his wrong definitions (emphasis added).[10]

In short, Fr. Jaki’s rejection of almost two thousand years of exegesis of the Fathers and Doctors of the Church turns out to be based on flights of exegetical fancy without any solid foundation.  Yet his dismissal of the traditional exegesis of Genesis continues to contribute greatly to the erosion of faith in the reliability of Scripture as understood by the Fathers, Doctors, Popes and Councils from the foundation of the Church.

Fr. Jaki and Evolution

Fr. Jaki’s rash and unwarranted dismissal of the constant teaching of the Fathers and Doctors on Genesis 1 was compounded by his public endorsements of the evolutionary hypothesis right up to the time of his death.  In a talk entitled “Evolution as Science and Ideology” he argued that

Darwin’s theory is the only scientific approach to the vast sequence of living beings because its two pillars, the difference between parents and offspring, can be measured as well as the impact of the environment on that difference.[11]

In a recent article in the Social Justice Review,[12] Mr. Mark Cole argued that Fr. Jaki is a theologian in the Thomistic tradition, whose great strength lay in the knowledge of metaphysics that he brought to bear on his reflections on creation and evolution.  But the statement cited above lays bare the fact that Fr. Jaki’s approach to origins differed drastically from that of St. Thomas and the Church Fathers.  It was St. Thomas who summed up the patristic teaching on the distinction between creation and providence by arguing that natural processes and operations are not themselves instances of God’s creative activity; rather, they show his Providence at work in maintaining his prior work of creation, which is presupposed by the way these processes and operations now take place.[13]

Like all of the Fathers and Doctors who wrote on this question, St. Thomas recognized that the creation of the different kinds of creatures in the beginning could not be explained by the “works of nature” that we observe in the present order of providence.  Like them, St. Thomas taught that

the corporeal forms that bodies had when first produced came immediately from God, whose bidding alone matter obeys, as its own proper cause.  To signify this, Moses prefaces each work with the words, “God said, ‘Let this thing be’, or ‘that’, to denote the formation of all things by the Word of God.[14]

Like them, St. Thomas taught that only “divine power, being infinite, can produce things of the same species out of any matter, such as a man from the slime of the earth, and a woman from out of man.”[15] But Fr. Jaki, like Teilhard, denied all of this.

Ironically, Fr. Jaki wrote extensively about the importance of the Catholic dogma of creation ex nihilo and about the distinction between the initial work of creation and the subsequent autonomous operation of nature in the order of providence.  He even pointed out that this distinction made possible the development of the natural sciences within Christian civilization.  But Fr. Jaki divided the work of creation “in the beginning” from the order of providence, not according to the data given by God in Divine Revelation, but according to the speculations of Lyell, Darwin and their disciples.  Rather than accept what all of the Fathers and Doctors had accepted unquestioningly on God’s say-so—that He had brought all of the different kinds of creatures into existence by His Word for man—Fr. Jaki relegated the creative action of God to the remote beginning of time and accepted evolutionary theory’s unproved premise that material processes could explain the origins of all of the different kinds of living things over long ages without the direct creative action of God.

Fr. Jaki claimed to find support for this aberrant view in the psalm which speaks of God passing through the waters and no one finding his footprints—as if the slow and gradual production of the variety of living things through material processes somehow redounded more to the glory of God than direct creation.  But here again Fr. Jaki joined Teilhard in renouncing the constant teaching of all of the Fathers and Doctors of the Church who held that all of the different kinds of creatures were the product of a divine creative action, and that, as such, they evidenced divine design and reflected some aspect of the divine nature.  One can see how far the view of Fr. Jaki and of Teilhard deviated from that of the Fathers by reflecting on the words of St. Basil the Great, a man quite familiar with evolutionary thought, and effective in its refutation.

Let us glorify the Master Craftsman for all that has been done wisely and skilfully; and from the beauty of the visible things let us form an idea of Him who is more than beautiful; and from the greatness of these perceptible and circumscribed bodies let us conceive of Him who is infinite and immense and who surpasses all understanding in the plenitude of His power.[16]

Contrary to Fr. Jaki’s opinion, the presumption of function and design in nature on the part of Christian natural scientists like Leonardo de Vinci and William Harvey led them to discover and describe the workings of the human body as no one in recorded history had done before them.  When asked how he had discovered the working of the circulatory system, for example, Harvey explained that he had studied the system of veins and arteries in the confidence that it had been intelligently designed—and so made the discovery! 

Impugning the Goodness of God  

By embracing Darwinian evolution as the “only scientific” explanation for the origin of the different kinds of living things, Fr. Jaki not only jettisoned the constant teaching of the Fathers, Doctors, Popes and Councils; he also unintentionally impugned the goodness and wisdom of God.  This is because, unlike St. Thomas and the Fathers and Doctors who taught that God created all of the different kinds of creatures, perfect according to their natures, for man, in a perfectly harmonious cosmos, Fr. Jaki joined Teilhard in teaching that God deliberately produced—through evolutionary processes—many different kinds of creatures only to destroy them so that something more highly evolved could take their place.  Moreover, this evolutionary god used a process of mutation and natural selection that littered the earth with diseased and deformed creatures in the process of producing the alleged “beneficial mutations” that transformed reptiles into birds and chimpanzees into men.  Whatever one wants to call this evolutionary god, it is not the God of the Bible, of the Fathers, and of the Doctors of the Church, of whom St. Thomas says again and again that “all his works are perfect”.[17]  Rather, Fr. Jaki agrees with Teilhard that the “only scientific” explanation for the origin of species requires that God be made responsible for filling the earth with genetic mutations, disease, and deformity, rather than holding with St. Augustine that in the original creation, had no one sinned, the world would have been filled and beautified with natures good without exception.[18]

Had this misguided Darwinian faith in biological evolution contributed anything to scientific progress, there might be something to weigh in the scales with its affront to the goodness and wisdom of God.  But, far from contributing anything to scientific progress, Darwinian evolution has retarded and often crippled the advancement of natural science, channeling enormous human and material resources into blind alleys, all in deference to Darwinian dogma.  How many millions of dollars and lifetimes of scientific research have been wasted trying to produce beneficial mutations in the laboratory through mutagenesis, all because Darwinian dogma anathematizes the very thought that the genetic information that specifies the development of specific organisms can only have been created by the Divine Programmer, God, and cannot have arisen through the neo-Darwinian process of genetic mutation?  How many decades of fruitful research have been delayed because of the Darwinian adherence to now-totally discredited articles of faith such as embryonic recapitulation, vestigial organs, and “junk DNA”? [19]  Sadly, Fr. Jaki’s (and Teilhard’s) “only scientific” account of the origin of species has turned out to be a complete chimaera, casting God in the rôle of a blundering monster while crippling the progress of the natural sciences.

This article was originally published in the Social Justice Review. 


[1]  Stanley Jaki, O.S.B.:  Genesis 1 Through the Ages (London:  Thomas More Press, 1992), p. xii.

[2]  S. Jaki, op. cit., p. 144.  Fr. Jaki claims that by 1520 “. . .it was no longer possible not to take the sun for the source of light in Gen.1: 3”.  He writes:  “Where is the biblical suggestion that light crystallizes into sparkling celestial bodies” (p. 62).  He lays the blame on the “concordist exegesis of many of the Church Fathers” (p. 169), seemingly unfazed at his dismissal of this Tradition, at the same time that he dismisses those Protestants who,  “waving their Bibles” (p. 168), hold similar views.  Earlier views like Jaki’s occur in such exegetes as Eustathius, who objects to Basil’s idea of “light and heat coming on the fourth day” with the words “How can this be if there is no evidence for such a distinction, since we neither see light distinct from fire, nor fire distinct from light” (PG 18, 718); yet quite a few agree with Basil that the light of the first day condensed into the heavenly bodies on the fourth day.

[3]  In other words, on the fourth day the sun merely took over the duties that the “light” had discharged since the first day.

[4]  Summa Theologica I, q. 67, a. 4, re. 2.  Agreeing with St. Thomas here are:  Gregory of Nyssa (Hexameron, PG 44, 66-118); Ephraim the Syrian (Genesim et in Exodum commentarii, in CSCO, v. 152, p. 9; John Chrysostom (Homilies on Genesis (PG 53, 57-8); Honorius of Autun (Hexameron, PL 172, 257); Peter Lombard (Lombardi opera omnia, PL 192, 651); Egidio Colonna (Ægidius Romanus) (Opus Hexaemeron); Nicholas of Lyra (Postillae perpetuae); Thomas Cajetan (Commentarii de Genesis 1); as well as Moses Mendelssohn (Commentary on Genesis); Zwingli (Werke); Luther (Commentary on Genesis); Calvin (Commentary on Genesis); Petavius (Dogmata Theologica) et al.

[5]  Robert Sungenis, “The Fathers of the Church on Genesis 1-11”, First International Catholic Symposium on Creation, Rome, Italy (Kolbe Centre, 2002), pp. 253-5.

[6]  Jaki, op. cit., pp. 4-5.  The passage in Joshua says: “Go up to the forest and cut down; that in Ezechiel “And the company will stone them . . . and cut them down”.

[7]  Jaki, op. cit., p. 3.

[8]  The Hebrew perfect tense, in this “Qal” form (used 38 times in the OT:  Dt 32: 4; Ps 51: 10; Is 40: 26, 65: 18; Jer 31: 22), always refers to God’s creative acts, and not to matter evolving by divine force.

[9]  The editors of Cornelius’s Latin text append a lengthy footnote on the meaning of bara in Hebrew.  Suffice it to say that modern scholarship confirms the view of Cornelius.  Brown, Driver and Briggs’s Hebrew and English Lexicon of the Old Testament gives the basic meanings as “shape, create, form, fashion by cutting, shape out, etc.”  The meanings “shape, fashion, create” are “always of divine activity”, and the signification applies to Gen 1: 1.  In Js 17: 15, 18 and Ez 23: 47 it means “to cut down” (viz. a forest and “the sisters Oholah [Samaria] and Oholibah [Jerusalem]).

[10]  Cornelius a Lapide (trans. Craig Toth), Commentary on Genesis:  Genesis 1: 1.

[11]  Fr. Stanley Jaki, “Three More Years”.

[12]  Cf. Mark Cole, “The Purpose of Species:  The Evolutionary Thought of Fr. Jaki”,  Social Justice Review, Vol. 101, No. 7-8 (Jul.-Aug. 2010), pp. 108-10.

[13]  “In the works of nature, creation does not enter, but is presupposed to the work of nature.” (ST, I q. 45, a. 8.)

[14]  ST, I q. 65, a. 4.

[15]  ST, I q. 92, a. 2 ad 2.

[16]  Quoted in Fr. Seraphim Rose, Genesis, Creation and Early Man (Platina, Calif.:  St. Herman Brotherhood, 2000), p. 140.

[17]  St. Thomas cites this verse (Dt 32: 4) fifteen times in the Summa Theologica.  In ST, I q. 91, a. 3, he explains what he means by “perfect”:  “God gave to each natural being the best disposition; not absolutely so, but in the view of its proper end.”

[18]  St. Augustine of Hippo, The City of God, Bk XI, Ch. 23.

[19]  Cf. Hugh Owen, “The Negative Impact of the Evolutionary Hypothesis on Scientific Progress:  A Retrospective Assessment”,