The Creation-Providence Distinction

Forgotten Fundamental Doctrine of the Faith

The Catholic doctrine of creation set forth by all of the Fathers and Doctors of the Church clearly distinguishes between the period of creation when God created, formed, and furnished the universe and established the framework of natural laws, and the period of providence, in which we live, and in which creatures interact according to their God-given natures within the framework of natural law.  Thus, traditional Catholic theology respects the integrity of the natural world, provides a proper framework for the development of the natural sciences, and welcomes the discoveries of natural scientists, confident that these discoveries will never contradict but will rather confirm the truth of Divine Revelation.

The traditional Catholic doctrine of creation differs drastically from theistic evolutionism, a system of thought that seeks to reconcile Catholic doctrine with evolution.  Theistic evolutionists believe that God created matter and energy but used material processes over long periods of time to produce all of the different kinds of living and nonliving things in the universe.  Thus, theistic evolutionism makes no distinction between God’s activity during the creation period and God’s activity in the present order of things—except to acknowledge an ex nihilo creation of matter at the time of the alleged Big Bang.  According to this view, natural scientists can extrapolate from natural processes operating in the present all the way back to the beginning of creation and can explain the origin of the different kinds of living things, including the first human body, solely in terms of the material processes operating in the world today.

St. Thomas Aquinas

“Human Nature Cannot Comprehend the Creation of God”

In sharp contrast to this view, the Church Fathers and Doctors, including St. Thomas, held that natural science cannot investigate the origin of the different kinds of creatures—not only because this took place in the past, but also because the order of nature that humans experience through their senses differs radically from the order of creation in which God supernaturally created all things in the beginning. On this point St. John Chrysostom writes:

With great gratitude let us accept what is related (by Moses), not stepping out of our own limitations, and not testing what is above us as the enemies of the truth did when, wishing to comprehend everything with their minds, they did not realize that human nature cannot comprehend the creation of God (emphasis added).

Commenting on Jesus’ words in John’s Gospel, “My Father worketh hitherto and I work,” St. John Chrysostom summed up the consensus of the Fathers on the distinction between the order of creation and the order of providence:

The Divine Scripture indicates here that God rested from His works; but in the Gospel Christ says: “My Father worketh hitherto, and I work” (John 5:17).  In comparing these utterances, is there not a contradiction to be found in them?  May it not be so; in the words of Divine Scripture there is no contradiction whatsoever.  When the Scripture here says: “God rested from all his works,” it thereby instructs us that on the Seventh Day He ceased to create and to bring out of nonexistence into existence; but when Christ says: “My Father worketh hitherto, and I work,” it thereby indicates to us His uninterrupted Providence, and it calls “work” the preservation of what exists, the giving to it of continuance (of existence) and the governance of it at all times.

St. John Chrysostom

All of the Fathers held that the period of creation was completed with the creation of the first human beings on the sixth day and that the period of Providence began on the Seventh day.  They based their teaching on Genesis 2:3: “The seventh day was called the Sabbath, because God, having finished the creation of the world, rested” and on Hebrews 4:3: “God’s works from the foundation of the world were finished.” Summarizing the patristic teaching on these two points, St. Thomas Aquinas wrote:

…the completion of the universe as to the completeness of its parts belongs to the Sixth day, but its completion as regards their operation, to the Seventh (ST.1. Q.73  r. 3)  . . .Nothing new was afterwards made by God, but all things subsequently made had in a sense been made before, in the work of the Six  Days ...those individual creatures that are now generated existed in the first of their kind (ST.1 Q.73 r.3)

According to St. Thomas, the perfection of the original creation did not preclude a development of that creation to a final end.  But this was not an evolutionary development, because he insists that “all the parts” of the first creation were complete in the beginning:

The perfection of a thing is twofold, the first perfection and the second perfection.  The first perfection is that according to which a thing is substantially perfect, and this perfection is the form of the whole; which form results from the whole having its parts complete . . . Now the 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.[1]

St. Augustine of Hippo

St. Augustine is often touted as a proto-“theistic evolutionist,” but he always distinguishes between the finished work of creation and the natural order of providence.  In the The Literal Interpretation of Genesis, for example, he explains God’s “rest” as His cessation from creating new kinds of creatures:

It could also be said that God rested from creating because He did not create henceforward any new kinds of creatures, and that even until now and beyond He works by governing the kinds that He then made. None the less, even on the seventh day His power ceased not from ruling heaven and earth and all that He had made, for otherwise they would have perished immediately.

Let us, therefore, believe and, if possible, also understand that God is working even now, so that if His action should be withdrawn from His creatures, they would perish. But if we should suppose that God now makes a creature without having implanted its kind (genus) in His original creation, we should flatly contradict Sacred Scripture, which says that on the sixth day God finished all His works.

He also wrote:

…we understand that God rested from all the works that He made in the sense that from then on He did not produce any other new nature, not that He ceased to hold and govern what He had made. Hence it is true that God rested on the seventh day, and it is also true that He works even until now.

Icon of the Seventh Day of Creation

In another passage, St. Augustine explicitly reproaches those who, like most, but not all, Catholic theologians today, conflate the order of providence in which we live with the order of creation in the beginning.  He writes:

The creation of natures here [in Genesis] is something unfamiliar, because it is the creation of things for the first time.  For what is so unique and unparalleled in the constitution of the things of the world as the world itself?  Surely we are not to believe that God did not make the world because He does not make worlds today, or that He did not make the sun because He does not make suns today.

St. John Chrysostom sums up the patristic view of the creation/providence distinction in a similar way when he asks:

What does it mean that first there is heaven, and then earth, first the roof and then the foundation?  God is not subject to natural necessity; He is not subject to the laws of art.  The will of God is the creator and artificer of nature and of art and of everything existing (Eight Homilies on Genesis 1:3).

In contrast to evolutionary models which hold that new kinds of organisms came into existence and others became extinct long before the appearance of the first human beings, St. Augustine, St. John Chrysostom and St. Thomas, with all of the Fathers and Doctors, held that the first created world was perfect because:

  1. God brought all of the different kinds of creatures into existence together with Adam and Eve in perfect harmony;
  2. the creation of new kinds of creatures ceased after the creation of Adam and Eve, so that—as St Thomas says in the Summa—“In the works nature creation does not enter, but is presupposed to the works of nature”; and
  3. because each kind of creature was perfectly designed for its place in the universe.

In the words of St. Augustine, in the City of God,:

In this creation, had no one sinned, the world would have been filled and beautified with natures good without exception. (City of God, Book XI, Chapter 23).

The Whole Creation Groans

All of the Fathers and Doctors also testified to the reality of Original Sin, which made the whole creation subject to decay and deformity.  In the words of St. Paul in his letter to the Romans:

We know that the whole creation has been groaning in travail together until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies (Romans 8:21-23).

St. Paul the Apostle

Thus, the traditional Catholic doctrine of creation provided a unique framework for scientific research—one that recognized the existence of A lawful universe of well-designed creatures—marred (not ruined) by the effects of Original Sin—whose function (but not their origins) can be discovered through rational investigation.  This proved to be an extremely fruitful framework for natural scientists and medical researchers for most of the past two millennia.  For example, when Sir William Harvey was asked how he discovered the circulation of the blood, he replied that:

He was invited to imagine, that so Provident a Cause as Nature had not so Plac’d so many Valves without design; and no Design seem’d more probable than that, since the Blood could not well, because of the interposing Valves, be sent by the Veins to the Limbs; it should be sent through the Arteries, and Return through the Veins,, whose Valves did not oppose its course that way (emphasis added in all quotes).

In Harvey’s Christian, pre-Darwinian world, biology operated on a presumption of design and function.  If a biologist encountered an organ or bodily system in an organism whose function he could not identify, he presumed that it had a function and he sought to discover it.  Darwinian evolutionary biology replaced this presumption of function with a presumption of dysfunction.  Confronted with organs of unknown function, like the appendix or tonsils, evolutionary biologists did not presume that God had designed the human body purposefully with all of its parts and seek, like Harvey, to discover their function.  Rather, they labeled them “vestigial organs”—holdovers from an earlier stage of evolution—and made no effort to discover their function.  A deposition from Professor Horatio Hackett, Ph.D., from the University of Chicago, submitted in support of the defendant in the famous Scopes Trial in 1925, asserted that there were over 180 vestigial structures in the human body, including the appendix and the tonsils.  Today, almost every one of those structures is known to have an important function in the human body—knowledge obtained in spite of the widespread acceptance of the evolutionary hypothesis, not because of it.

Nature Cannot Create Any New Kind of Creature

Indeed, the traditional Catholic distinction between the order of creation in the past and the present order of providence perfectly harmonizes with the findings of cutting-edge biology, which increasingly recognizes that the process of mutation and natural selection observed in the present cannot account for the origin of new organs and biological systems in the past. Indeed, more and more scientists are recognizing that material processes do not produce new functional genetic information and cannot account for the existence of the millions of highly organized genomes of plants and animals.  Dr. Dean Kenyon (Ph.D., biophysics) was one of the leading evolutionary experts on the naturalistic origin of life when one of his graduate students helped him to face evolution’s failure to explain the origin of genetic information through mutation and natural selection.  According to Dr. Kenyon:

The evolutionary formation of new genera and higher taxa would have required the naturalistic addition of substantial amounts of just the right kind of new genetic information to the genomes of the evolving organisms in order for new structural features and physiological mechanisms to develop.  Such an evolutionary process would have entailed the accumulation of perhaps hundreds of favorable and coordinated mutations in the same lineage.  But the overwhelming majority of documented mutations are either deleterious to the organisms in which they occur, or at best they are selectively neutral.  I gradually became convinced that no naturalistic process of information increase would be found.

Evaluating the state of the natural sciences in the twenty-first century, Dr. Kenyon concludes:

It is my own strong conviction that we now have enough empirical evidence and sound scientific argument to support a vigorous reassertion of the Catholic Doctrine of Creation as understood by the Fathers and Doctors of the Church.  The many scientific problems of Darwinism should be widely debated, both inside and beyond academia.  Such discussions within academic science and in national cultures generally should be broadly encouraged.  If offered encouragement from the Holy See, many academics would join the discussion who have heretofore been hesitant.  A large, world-wide change in the intellectual climate could follow quickly upon such a gracious and magnanimous show of support from the Vatican.

St. Peter the Apostle

So fundamental to the Faith is the distinction between creation and providence that the Holy Ghost inspired St. Peter to warn the faithful of a future crisis in the “last days,” when scoffers would arise in the Church and deny the creation-providence distinction, saying “things have always been the same from the beginning of the universe”—in other words, that the same material processes that are going on now have been operating in the same way since the beginning of the world. As documented in the DVD series “Foundations Restored” and in many of the Kolbe Center’s publications, that terrible prediction began to be fulfilled with the rise of the Enlightenment philosophers, like Rene’ Descartes, whose naturalistic uniformitarian approach to the study of nature gradually replaced the traditional creation-providence framework as the all-but-universal framework for the study of the natural world.

St. Thomas, following Aristotle, taught that a small error in the beginning becomes a great error later on.  But in this case, a large error in the beginning becomes a monstrous error, as the denial of the creation-providence distinction and the “first perfection of the universe” deceives even brilliant and well-intentioned Catholic intellectuals into thinking that they must reconcile the false molecules-to-man evolutionary hypothesis with the Catholic Faith and that it is a noble enterprise to attempt such a reconciliation, when the truly noble response is to hold fast to the creation-providence distinction as it was revealed by God and understood in God’s Church from the beginning.


[1] ST, I, q. 73, a. 1.

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