Kolbe Report 2/24/24

Big Bang Debate Results & The Genre of Genesis

Dear Friends of the Kolbe Center,

Glory to Jesus Christ!

As many of you know, a week ago Dr. Thomas Seiler had a debate with Fr. Robert Boyd, FSSP, on the viability of Big Bang cosmology, from the perspective of theology and natural science.  You can view the debate at this link, where the moderator will also post our further responses to some of the claims that Fr. Boyd made, with an invitation, of course, for Fr. Boyd to respond in his turn.  We are very grateful to everyone who prayed for God’s blessing on the debate, and I am happy to report the following results which can be found at the link provided above:

Debate Resolution: be it resolved whether the Big Bang Theory constitutes a sound explanation for the origins of our universe in the light of Scripture, Tradition, authoritative Magisterial teaching, and current scientific research.

Affirmative: Fr. Robert Boyd, FSSP (Ph.D., Princeton)
Negative: Dr. Thomas Seiler, (Ph.D., Technical University of Munich)

Debate “Results”: (Viewers were told only to partake if they would be present for pre-debate and post-debate polling)

Pre-Debate (29 submissions)

  • Agree with Resolution: 16
  • Disagree with Resolution: 13

Post-Debate (30 submissions)

  • Agree with Resolution: 12
  • Disagree with Resolution: 18

These are truly amazing results, considering that Dr. Seiler was defending a position that has virtually no support in mainstream Catholic academia.  It is a remarkable testimony to the willingness of the debate audience to follow the evidence, without showing undue deference to appeals to human authority.  In this newsletter, I would just like to address one of the claims that Fr. Boyd made, because it tends to be a central element in Catholic arguments for theistic evolution and progressive creation.  You can find our additional responses to other points that he made at the link provided above.

The Genre of Genesis

Fr. Boyd told us in the debate that we are misunderstanding the genre of Genesis 1-3, and that it ought to be read as poetry, not as history.  The only patristic source Fr. Boyd cited for that view was St. Augustine, but, as Dr. Seiler demonstrated with his quotation from The Literal Interpretation of Genesis, St. Augustine always held that the genre of Genesis is history and that figurative interpretations of the text ought to be built upon the foundation of the literal historical truth of the narrative. Dr. Seiler could have cited many other passages from St. Augustine to demonstrate that the Doctor of Grace maintained his view that Genesis is history “from beginning to end,” right up to the end of his life.  In The City of God, for example, he repudiates the pagan intellectuals who held that the world—not just humanity—was older than six thousand years, stating:

They are deceived, too, by those highly mendacious documents which profess to give the history of many thousand years, though, reckoning by the sacred writings, we find that not 6000 years have yet passed. And, not to spend many words in exposing the baselessness of these documents, in which so many thousands of years are accounted for, nor in proving that their authorities are totally inadequate, let me cite only that letter which Alexander the Great wrote to his mother Olympias, giving her the narrative he had from an Egyptian priest…[…] And therefore the former must receive the greater credit, because it does not exceed the true account of the duration of the world as it is given by our documents, which are truly sacred (emphasis added) Augustine. The City of God, trans. by G. G. Walsh and G. Monahan, Book 12, Chapter 10(Washington, DC: Catholic University of America Press, 1952), pp.390-391

St. Augustine

St. Augustine and the Fathers could be sure of the age of the world because the genealogies in Genesis 5 and 11 allowed them to calculate from more recent times for which there were historical records of various kinds, all the way back to the creation of the world.  That is why even Origen, who, of course, was not a Church Father, but a very influential thinker in the patristic era at the most allegorical end of the exegetical spectrum, wrote that we could be sure that the universe was much less than ten thousand years old because the writings of Moses tell us so.  In another passage in The City of God, St. Augustine writes that the long ages of the Patriarchs as given by Moses in the sacred history of Genesis are to be taken in the literal and obvious sense:

It is now time to examine the evidence which proves convincingly that the Biblical years, so far from being only one-tenth as long as ours, were precisely as long as the present solar years. This is true of the years used in giving those extremely long life-spans. […] The truth is that the day was then just what it is now, a period measured by the twenty-four hours in the course of a single daytime and nighttime. So, too, a month then was what it is now, a period fixed by the waxing and waning of the moon. The year also was the same then as now, a period of twelve lunar months plus five days and a quarter required to complete the solar revolution. And it was on the twenty-seventh day of the second month of this kind of a year – which was the 600th of Noe’s life – that the flood began; and the forty days of continuous rain which the Scripture records were not ‘days’ of a little more than two hours but periods of light and darkness each lasting twenty-four hours. The conclusion is that some men of those ancient times reached an age of more than 900 years and these years were just as long as the years that made up Abraham’s age of 170, and his son Isaac’s age of 180, and then of Jacob’s age of nearly 150 and, some time later, Moses’ age of 120, and as long as the years that, in our time, make up the age of men who live to be seventy or eighty or a little more and of which last years it is said, ‘most of them are labor and vanity.’ Whatever the discrepancy in the numbers given in the Hebrew original and in our translations, it does not affect their agreement in this matter of long life-spans in the early days (emphasis added)   Augustine. The City of God, trans. by G. G. Walsh and G. Monahan, Book 15, Chapter 14 (Washington, DC: Catholic University of America Press, 1952), 347-349

The one and only point on which St. Augustine departed from the overwhelming majority of the Fathers was on the meaning of day in Genesis One.  But this was NOT because St. Augustine believed that Genesis was anything other than inerrant historical narrative. It was because in his defective Vetus Latina translation of Genesis, there appeared to be a contradiction between Genesis One and Genesis Two if one interpreted the days of Genesis One as literal 24-hour days.  Had St. Augustine been working with St. Jerome’s more accurate Vulgate translation, we can be quite sure that he would never have proposed his idea of an instantaneous creation that was revealed to the angels in segments corresponding to the six days of creation.  Moreover, even on this one point, St. Augustine moved much closer to the majority view of the Fathers towards the end of his life.  For example, in The City of God, he writes:

...[A]ccording to Scripture, the sun was made on the fourth day. Of course, there is mention in the beginning that ‘light’ was made by the Word of God, and that God separated it from darkness, calling the light day and the darkness night. But no experience of our senses can tell us just what kind of ‘light’ it was and by what kind of alternating movement it caused ‘morning’ and ‘evening.’ Not even our intellects can comprehend what is meant, yet we can have no hesitation in believing the fact (Augustine. The City of God, trans. by G. G. Walsh and G. Monahan, Book 11, Chapter 7 (Washington, DC: Catholic University of America Press, 1952), 212-213).

In regard to everything except the meaning of “day” in Genesis One, St. Augustine was very consistent in upholding the literal and obvious historical sense of everything in the Genesis narrative.  For example, in regard to the physical reality of the Tree of Life, he writes:

It is strange and hardly tolerable to observe how men want to take “Paradise” as figuratively spoken and yet do not want the physical reality to have a figurative meaning. But if in the case of narratives such as those about Hagar and Sarah and Ishmael and Isaac they admit that there is both historical fact and symbolic meaning, I fail to see why they do not grant that the tree of life both existed as a real material tree and at the same time symbolized Wisdom (emphasis added) (Augustine, The Literal Meaning of Genesis, trans. John Hammond Taylor, Vol. 2, Book 8, Chapter 5, paragraph 10-11, (New York: Newman Press, 1982) 40-41).

Would St. Augustine Have Accepted Big Bang Cosmology?

St. Augustine even warned his readers against intellectuals who would try to get them to reject the literal historical truth of Genesis in favor of astronomical speculation.  He wrote:

But more dangerous is the error of certain weak brethren who faint away when they hear these irreligious critics learnedly and eloquently discoursing on the theories of astronomy or on any of the questions relating to the elements of this universe. With a sigh, they esteem these teachers as superior to themselves, looking upon them as great men; and they return with disdain to the books which were written for the good of their souls; and, although they ought to drink from these books with relish, they can scarcely bear to take them up. Turning away in disgust from the unattractive wheat field, they long for the blossoms on the thorn (emphasis added) (Augustine, The Literal Meaning of Genesis, trans. John Hammond Taylor, Vol. 1, Book 1, Chapter 20, paragraph 40, (New York: Newman Press, 1982) 44).

It is important to note that there is no contradiction between this passage and that other passage from St. Augustine so often quoted against us where he cautions Christians against attempting to support their poorly-founded opinions about the natural world from Scripture, thus bringing disgrace upon the Word of God and the Catholic Faith when men learned in the natural sciences expose their errors.  In the passage quoted above St. Augustine is talking about the Mosaic account of the SUPERNATURAL creation of all things at the beginning of time.  In the other passage, he is talking about the NATURAL order of things.  Thus, there is no doubt whatsoever that St. Augustine would have rejected Monsignor Lemaitre’s claim to be able to extrapolate from observations in the present order of things all the way back to the beginning of the universe to explain how everything came to be, since St. Augustine taught, together with all the Fathers and Doctors, that the entire work of creation was SUPERNATURAL and that the natural order that we are living in only began when the entire work of creation was finished.  Moreover, Genesis is no less historical when it relates supernatural events, like the fiats of creation, than when it relates natural events, like the birth of Cain and Abel.  In both cases, the narrative is, in St. Augustine’s words, from beginning to end in the genre of history.

The only authoritative source that Fr. Boyd cited in support of his view that Genesis is poetry and not historical narrative, as St. Augustine and all the Fathers and Doctors believed and taught, is the Catechism of the Catholic Church.  However, as Fr. Boyd certainly knows better than we do, a Catechism is supposed to be a summary of defined doctrine.  It is not a proper vehicle for introducing novel teachings.  That is why outstanding theologians, like Fr. Brian Harrison, objected to Pope Francis’ introduction of his novel teaching on the intrinsic evil of capital punishment into the CCC, since that teaching has no basis in Scripture, Tradition, or the prior authoritative Magisterial teaching, and actually contradicts the authoritative teaching of Pope Innocent III in the profession of faith that he required the Waldensian heretics to make before they could be received into the Church.  Yet none of the quotations that Fr. Boyd cited from the CCC on the genre of Genesis as poetry derive from any authoritative prior Magisterial teaching.  The CCC is certainly authoritative when it summarizes the doctrines of the Faith as previously defined but not when it introduces novelties, like the claim, in contradiction to the entire Tradition of the Church, that Genesis is “poetry” rather than “history.”

Is the Kolbe Center Being Disobedient to the PBC Decrees of 1909?

Fr. Boyd implied that the leaders of the Kolbe Center are being disobedient to the authoritative 1909 decrees of the Pontifical Biblical Commission by holding that Catholics are bound to interpret “day” in Genesis One as a 24-hour day.  But that is not true.  We are adhering faithfully to those decrees, which place the burden of proof on those who challenge the literal and obvious sense of Genesis 1-3, NOT on those of us who defend the literal and obvious sense of the text, as did all of the Fathers and Doctors of the Church.  The PBC’s reply to Question I in regard to the first three chapters of Genesis establishes that the literal historical sense of those chapters cannot be called into question.  This contradicts Fr. Boyd’s claim that Genesis is poetry.  The PBC’s reply to Question II establishes that Genesis contains “stories of events which really happened, which correspond with historical reality and objective truth,” not “legends, historical in part and fictitious in part.”  In short, the PBC definitively excludes the possibility that even a part of the Genesis narrative could be fictitious and non-historical.  This also contradicts Fr. Boyd’s claim that Genesis is poetry.

We hope and pray that Fr. Boyd will reconsider his view of the genre of Genesis in light of the evidence we have presented here and in the longer response that we have asked the debate moderator to post on the internet.  We are grateful for his willingness to engage with us, and we hope that we will be able to collaborate with him in defending the true sense of Genesis 1-3 in the future.

Yours in Christ through the Immaculata in union with St. Joseph,

Hugh Owen

P.S.  I will be on a Kolbe seminar tour from March 1-March 10.  The events that have flyers associated with them can be found on the Kolbe Events page. The schedule is as follows:

Friday, March 1 and Saturday, March 2, Dr. Kevin Mark and Hugh Owen, Mater Dei Parish, Irving, Texas

Sunday, March 3, Hugh Owen, Tyler, Texas

Monday, March 4, Hugh Owen, Our Lady of Prompt Succor, Sulphur, LA

Tuesday, March 5, Hugh Owen, Houston, TX, TBA

Wednesday, March 6, Hugh Owen, Houston, TX, TBA

Thursday, March 7, Hugh Owen, Annunciation Parish, Houston, TX,

Saturday, March 9. Savannah, TN, 10 a.m. - noon

Sunday, March 10, Wildwood, MO

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