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Spontaneous Generation, Scriptural Inerrancy, and the Catholic Case for Theistic Evolution

Defenders of the molecules-to-man evolution hypothesis are wont to accuse defenders of the traditional Catholic doctrine of creation of incoherence because they reject the idea of spontaneous generation as un-Biblical in spite of the fact that some Church Fathers and Doctors believed in spontaneous generation.  This article will argue that the defenders of the traditional Catholic doctrine of creation are correct to consider spontaneous generation un-Biblical in spite of the fact that some Church Fathers and Doctors believed in it, and will show that their belief in spontaneous generation does not weaken the case for special creation as authentic Catholic doctrine or strengthen the case for theistic evolution as an hypothesis with a solid foundation in Catholic Tradition.

In the first place, it is important to establish the Church’s teaching on Scriptural inerrancy.  According to this teaching, the Bible is inerrant in all that it affirms in regard to history or natural science, and not just in matters of faith and morals.[1] However, the Fathers and Doctors of the Church were not immune to error in their opinions regarding natural science, and these errors, in turn, could have influenced their interpretation of certain passages in the Bible.  Thus, one must always distinguish between what the Bible actually says and how it has been interpreted, without concluding that the Bible is in error because of misinterpretation by otherwise worthy commentators.

The main passages in the Bible that have been used to accuse Scriptural authors of believing and teaching the spontaneous generation of life from non-living matter include the passages in the first chapters of Genesis that speak of plants and animals coming forth from the Earth or the water by the Word of God and the passage in Exodus that describes the contest between Moses and magicians of Pharaoh’s court, in which the magicians turn rods into snakes.  The first group of passages speak of the different kinds of plants and animals being brought into existence supernaturally by the Word of God, and not through any natural process of spontaneous generation.  These passages do not provide any basis for accusing Moses of believing in or attesting to spontaneous generation, any more than the account of the raising of Lazarus in St. John’s Gospel provides a basis for accusing St. John of believing in or attesting to spontaneous generation.  In both cases, it is the Word of God that instantaneously organizes non-living matter into the body of a living, breathing organism, not any kind of natural process of spontaneous generation.

The account of the contest between Moses and the magicians in Pharaoh’s court must be understood as a contest between a genuine prophet of the living God, Moses, and pagan magicians who relied upon demons to work their wonders.  When read in this light, the account does not lend any support to the claim that Moses himself believed or taught spontaneous generation.  The fact that Aaron was able, by the power of God, to turn what appeared to be living snakes back into lifeless rods indicates that the “miracle” of the magicians was a diabolical illusion and not a genuine miracle.  Thus, it does not provide any support for St. Augustine’s conjecture that the magicians used some kind of “rational seeds” to produce the snakes by some kind of natural process.  According to St. Augustine:

[Pharaoh’s] magicians, withstanding the servant of God, made frogs and serpents; for it was not they who created them. But, in truth, some hidden seeds of all things that are born corporeally and visibly, are concealed in the corporeal elements of this world. For those seeds that are visible now to our eyes from fruits and living things, are quite distinct from the hidden seeds of those former seeds; from which, at the bidding of the Creator, the water produced the first swimming creatures and fowl, and the earth the first buds after their kind, and the first living creatures after their kind. For neither at that time were those seeds so drawn forth into products of their several kinds, as that the power of production was exhausted in those products; but oftentimes, suitable combinations of circumstances are wanting, whereby they may be enabled to burst forth and complete their species.[2]

Here we see that St. Augustine conjectures that the magicians turned rods into serpents by making use of “hidden seeds” that were created by God in the beginning to produce after “their several kinds.” But this is something totally different from evolutionary abiogenesis whereby non-living chemicals came together to form the first living organisms!  Indeed, the passages in which St. Augustine and other Fathers and Doctors express their belief in spontaneous generation do not undermine the authority of their witness when they comment on the sacred history of Genesis.  There are two main reasons for this.

In the first place, all of the Fathers and Doctors who commented on Genesis 1-3 in relation to the creation of creatures of the land, air, and sea, unequivocally teach that these creatures were created instantly and immediately by the Word of God and not through any kind of natural process.  This is also the teaching of the Roman Catechism, the Catechism of the Council of Trent, which was the gold standard for teaching and preaching the dogmas of the Faith for 350 years—and which is still authoritative.  The only question that remains is whether the Fathers and Doctors found a basis in these passages for their belief in spontaneous generation after the period of creation was finished.

On close examination, there does not appear to be a single passage in the Church Fathers’ writings on spontaneous generation in which they attribute the emergence of the first living things to anything other than the fiat of the Creator.  Rather, their comments on this topic always refer to the order of providence, or the natural order, which began after the work of creation was finished. For example, St. Augustine addresses this point in The Literal Meaning of Genesis:

As for the other small creatures that come forth from the bodies of animals, particularly from corpses, it is absurd to say that they were created when the animals themselves were created, except in the sense that there was present from the beginning in all living bodies a natural power, and, I might say, there were interwoven with these bodies the seminal principles of animals later to appear which would spring forth from the decomposing bodies, each according to its kind and with its special properties, by the wonderful power of the immutable Creator who moves all His creatures.[3]

Like St. Augustine, St. Thomas believed that, in the order of providence, some animals could be produced by “putrefaction” from “perfect” creatures, those generated from seed.  For example, he writes in the Summa:

It was laid down by Avicenna that animals of all kinds can be generated by various minglings of the elements, and naturally, without any kind of seed. This, however, seems repugnant to the fact that nature produces its effects by determinate means, and consequently, those things that are naturally generated from seed cannot be generated naturally in any other way. It ought, then, rather to be said that in the natural generation of all animals that are generated from seed, the active principle lies in the formative power of the seed, but that in the case of animals generated from putrefaction, the formative power of is the influence of the heavenly bodies. The material principle, however, in the generation of either kind of animals, is either some element, or something compounded of the elements. But at the first beginning of the world the active principle was the Word of God, which produced animals from material elements, either in act, as some holy writers say, or virtually, as Augustine teaches. It is not as though water or earth possess in themselves the power of producing all animals, as Avicenna held, but rather that the fact that animals can be produced from elemental matter by the power of seed or of the stars, is from the power originally given to the elements.[4]

Here again we see that even the Fathers and Doctors who believed that spontaneous generation occurred believed that God either had to supernaturally elicit a specific life-form from some non-living or living matter or that there was some kind of determined potentiality within the matter that a higher power, like the sun or the stars, could actualize through a natural process.  There are several reasons why this process does not provide any patristic precedent for the molecules-to-man evolutionary hypothesis. In the first place, in both of these scenarios, the metaphysical principles of traditional Catholic philosophy are not violated.  The effect—say, the hypothetical production of maggots in rotting meat through the influence of the sun—is not greater than the cause, the power of the sun, in this case.  This is the opposite of the case presented by the mythical molecules-to-man evolutionary scenario.  In that scenario, non-living matter comes together through unguided chemical reactions to produce a living organism—a flagrant example of the effect exceeding the cause!  The Angelic Doctor’s acceptance of the Aristotelian belief that the heavenly bodies were incorruptible led him to believe that the sun was superior in power to terrestrial plants and animals and could act as the efficient cause of some kinds of imperfect creatures.  However, it is important to take note of the fact that this belief in the incorruptibility of the heavenly bodies flies in the face of the Scriptural testimony that the heavenly bodies are changeable and not incorruptible, as when Our Lord speaks of the powers of heaven being “shaken” (Luke 21:26) or the stars “falling from heaven” (Mark 13:25).  Indeed, these passages serve as examples of how the “literal and obvious sense of Scripture” harmonizes with what natural science has discovered about the mutability of heavenly bodies.[5]

In the second place, the rationes seminales which, according to St. Augustine, were created in the beginning and placed in “certain parts of corporeal things”[6] were determined potentialities, not material components with the ability to be re-fashioned through purely material processes into ever more highly-ordered organisms.  In this connection, it is important to recognize that the obediential capacity of any kind of matter to be turned into a human body as the apogee of the material creation—which some theistic evolutionists celebrate—is a purely passive potential.   As such, it has nothing to do with any imagined molecules-to-man evolutionary process whereby molecules turn into human bodies through hundreds of millions of years of the same kinds of material processes that are going on now. Even if St. Thomas differed from St. Augustine in supposing that “rationes seminales” could be actualized by certain material conditions without any divine or other intelligent agency, this still would not provide any grounds for enlisting him on the side of molecules to man evolution—since almost of the microbe-to-man evolutionary process depends on changes occurring during sexual reproduction, which—according to Divine Revelation as interpreted by all of the Fathers and Doctors, including St. Thomas—can only take place in nature between creatures whose original parents were supernaturally created by God in the beginning of creation.

Moreover, genuine advances in scientific knowledge—made possible by the Creation-Providence framework provided by Christian revelation—show that the Fathers and Doctors in their speculations regarding spontaneous generation were not so far off the mark.  Indeed, the idea that the sun has a mysterious power to elicit maggots from mysterious created seeds contained in rotten meat is not so far from the reality that seeds—descended from the first seeds supernaturally created by God in the beginning—do require the warmth of the sun to germinate.  The misunderstanding involves locating the efficient cause of the maggot in the sun rather than in a maggot’s egg and in failing to discern that the sun provided a necessary condition—i.e. sufficient heat—for the egg to mature rather than the efficient cause of the maggot’s existence.

There is one final misunderstanding that needs to be cleared up.  It could be argued that since some Church Fathers held that God intervened in the order of providence to create from different kinds of matter more of the different kinds of imperfect creatures that He had created in the beginning, this provides a patristic warrant for progressive creation—the idea that God spread out the creation of all things over millions or billions of years.  According to this “progressive creationist” view held, for example, by Fr. Paul Robinson, FSSPX, the different kinds of creatures were created over hundreds of millions of years, as reflected in the conventional interpretation of the fossil record.

However, this view contradicts the unanimous teaching of the Fathers concerning what St. Thomas calls “the first perfection of the universe,” which entails that God created all of the different kinds of creatures at the beginning of time, for man, each one perfect according to its nature.  On the other hand, the standard geochronology embraced by the progressive creationists holds that the hundreds of millions of years of Earth’s history witnessed innumerable extinctions of various kinds of life-forms, in a world that was filled with death, deformity and disease during the long ages that elapsed prior to the creation of man and the Original Sin.  In short, progressive creationists deny what St. Thomas defines as “the completeness of the universe at its first founding.”[7]

Some progressive creationists try to invoke St. Augustine in support of their hypothesis, in view of St. Augustine’s belief in spontaneous generation and his belief in rationes seminales, seminal reasons, or determined potentialities, which God by His divine power brought into actual existence after the creation of all things at the beginning of time.  However, a careful examination of St. Augustine’s readings does not support their opinion.  In St. Augustine’s commentary on the creation of Eve from Adam’s side in the City of God, he still classifies the actualization of these “rational seeds” as a work that only God can do and one that takes place at the beginning of creation, since he calls the creation of Eve from Adam’s side one of the “first works” of creation and places it, according to the Biblical chronology, at a point in time less than six thousand years before his own lifetime, or about 5,500 years before the Birth of Christ.

Moreover, with the rest of the Fathers and Doctors, St. Augustine taught that “In this creation, had no one sinned, the world would have been filled and beautified with natures good without exception.”[8] Whereas all theistic evolutionists and progressive creationists appeal to the so-called geologic column as proof that the Earth is hundreds of millions of years old, for St. Augustine, the fact the fossils all over the Earth and at every level of the geologic column exhibit signs of death, deformity and disease, would suffice to prove that they must have been produced after the Fall, and not during the period of time leading up to the creation of Adam and Eve.

In conclusion, the belief of many Church Fathers in spontaneous generation in no way calls into question the truth of their unanimous interpretation of Genesis as teaching the special creation by God of all of the different kinds of creatures, for man, at the beginning of time.

Hugh Owen
Feast of the Holy Name of Mary
September 12, 2020

References

[1] Cf. Vatican I, Session III, Chapter 2, on Revelation and Vatican II, Dei Verbum, Chapter III, On Sacred Scripture , Its Inspiration and Divine Interpretation.

[2] ST. AUGUSTINE, ON THE TRINITY, BOOK IIII, CHAPTER VIII

[3] SAINT AUGUSTINE, The Literal Meaning of Genesis, Vol. 1., Book 3, Section 23.

[4] SAINT THOMAS AQUINAS, ST, I, Q. 71, Reply to Obj. 1.

[5] These examples highlight the fact that “the literal and obvious” sense of historical books of the Bible, like Genesis, has repeatedly been confirmed by empirical science, in regard to many matters, while extra-Biblical philosophical assumptions and speculations have led even Fathers and Doctors of the Church to err by giving more weight to extra-Biblical views than to the literal and obvious sense of Scripture and the liturgical tradition of the Church.  Perhaps the most flagrant example of this concerns the time of ensoulment.  The Fathers and Doctors, like St. Maximus the Confessor, who addressed this topic through the lens of the literal and obvious sense of Scripture and the Church’s liturgical tradition, held that human life began at conception, just as the beginning of the human life of the Blessed Virgin Mary has always been liturgically commemorated as the “conception of St. Ann,” nine months before the liturgical celebration of her Nativity.  St. Thomas Aquinas, on the other hand, followed Aristotle in holding to “delayed ensoulment,” a view that has little if any basis in Scripture or the liturgical tradition of the Church, and one that has been falsified by modern biology’s understanding of the fertilized human egg as “the most specialized cell in the world” (Dr. Jerome Lejeune), containing within itself all of the genetic information for the complete development of a human body (cf. JOHN R. LING, When Does Human Life Begin? (Newcastle-upon-Tyne: The Christian Institute)

[6] SAINT THOMAS AQUINAS, ST, I, Q. 115, Art. 2, Reply to Obj. 2.

[7] “[T]he final perfection, which is the end of the whole universe, is the perfect beatitude of the saints at the consummation of the world; and the first perfection is the completeness of the universe at its first founding, and this is what is ascribed to the seventh day” ST. THOMAS AQUINAS, ST, I, q. 73, a. 1.

[8] SAINT AUGUSTINE, City of God, Book XI, Chapter 23.

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