Duquesne University: Symposium on Evolution

No better witness to the triumph of Charles Darwin’s thesis in his Origin of Species could have been given than this symposium held at Duquesne University, April 4, 1959. Four devout scholars of the Church of Rome, a botanist, anthropologist, philosopher. and theologian unite in interpreting evolution in terms of a congeniality on the part of Rome. Bernard J. Boelen. Duquesne professor of philosophy, assures us in the introduction that Darwin was a warm-hearted, good, just, and lovable man, and his theory a “challenge” to the church, established as it is by Darwin “on a factual basis,” Boelen. like the others, is hostile to “the literal interpretation of the Book of Genesis in the sense of creationism.” “Life has existed on earth for more than a billion years” and man must reckon with this reality in his religious thinking (pp. 3–8).

Frederick C. Bawden, in discussing “Evolution and Viruses,” believes that evolution, “open to objective test…stands now even more firmly established” than 100 years ago (p. 11). His study of viruses, however, adds nothing to the question, since he believes viruses to be “relatively late products of evolution rather than primitive forms” (p. 15). Gottfried O. Lang, tho anthropologist, similarly adds nothing to the subject except a quick survey in which evolution is assumed, and then evidence searched and “facts” seen only in relation to an assumed theory which proves the facts and is in turn proved by them, which is circular reasoning without any toehold on reality. Lang does not even consider creation as an alternative theory. Although evolution fails to meet the test of a good theory in being able to predict, “it has been very helpful in ‘predicting backwards’” (p. 52). Thus Lang, who considers evolution as “‘fact” and any questioning of it “spurious”, is no help in understanding why the theory is valid and necessary. Similarly, Cyril Vollert, S. J., in dealing with “Evolution and the Bible,” gives us only certain revisions of biblical thought on the premise of evolution, believing “Adam is simply a hypothesis that is admissible but unverifiable” “from the scientific point of view” (p. 115). And this “scientific” point of view now governs Biblical studies in the Roman Church, so that the historicity of Genesis 1–11, “primitive literature,” is challenged, the documentary hypothesis embraced, and Scripture treated with the same radical analysis which characterizes modernism; this, moreover, is now presented in the church’s appeal to potential converts as evidence that science and Rome are not in conflict. (See the Knights of Columbus Religious Information Bureau pamphlet no. 48, God’s Story of Creation.)

It becomes apparent, from this quick survey, that neither science nor theology is the source of this acceptance of evolution. It is, clearly, philosophy. Vollert indeed heads his study with the words of Thomas Aquinas, “The ultimate end of the whole process of generation is the human soul, and to it matter tends as toward its final form” (Contra Gentes,III, c. 22).

This philosophic basis Andrew G. van Melsen expounds. Indeed, van Melsen is ready to say that macroevolution is in a sense beyond scientific proof, even if abiogenesis should occur in a laboratory. Moreover, he denies the validity of claims concerning mutation; “the thesis that macro-evolution is caused by the same factors as micro-evolution namely, random-mutation, selection, and isolation, is for the time being an extrapolation far beyond the reach of experimentally established facts” (p. 62f.). However, he accepts the validity of the geological time-tables. And evolution is for him a matter of truth whose meaning is better established philosophically than scientifically. To prove or disprove it is not the task of philosophy; it is the congeniality of evolution to the philosophy of the church which he develops.

In answer to attempts to explain the phenomena of life in terms of physics and chemistry, he points out that physics and chemistry cannot adequately explain inanimate nature. However, van Melsen is not ready to see the issue as one between mechanism and vitalism in the sense that one is truth and the other error. This assumes the “deadness” of matter on the part of vitalism and the reduction of life to something lower on the part of mechanism. Instead, “neither biological life nor intellectual life should be conceived as external additions to material being” (p. 72). Higher forms are not higher forms because something new has been added to matter: “they are higher forms because of the unfolding of something already present in matter” (p. 73 f.). Evolution is thus “based upon the nature of matter, upon its immanent properties. The course the evolution actually has taken may have been arbitrary and irregular, yet the very existence of the different forms of life shows how these forms are the natural results of the material potencies.” Man similarly is a “product of the working of these blind tendencies.” “What else should we expect” (p. 78)? Vollert gives us a touching picture of the first human pair, a girl and boy, born of “a certain anthropoid family,” gradually separating themselves fro m that strong maternal sentiment common to apes and monkeys and leaving the horde to lead a human life (p. 109). Why this first pair were not both of the same sex, or why they chose each other, we are not told. They are allowed to fade into the jungle to build their Eden!

Obviously, in van Melsen’s picture there is no place for a fall—only for steady upward movement. Nor is there a concept of sin. Vollert is troubled about this, but is sure that somehow the church will have an answer. Truth and error will apparently lie down together. In van Melsen’s scheme, all men are potentially naturally good because of what is inherent in matter, because of their natural potentiality. Sin is underdeveloped structure preventing freedom in goodness. Science must “examine what material structures condition the spiritual life.” Indeed, “sometimes bodily structures prevent man from being himself. Perhaps in the long run science will succeed in improving these structures and so open up new possibilities of spiritual life for many people who now partly or wholly are deprived from it.” Christ is nowhere to be seen in this picture. After all, what need is there of a Savior to bring redemption to man, or what need of his Second Coming? “Finality, on the human level, therefore, can be considered as the fulfillment of the inherent tendencies of matter, the unfolding of what they are meant to be.” The ultimate meaning of matter is found in man, and the importance of evolution is that it “shows the meaning of its (matter’s) potencies and tendencies” (p. 79 f.).

How is it possible for a church which claims to be Christian to welcome such a philosophy, give it an imprimatur, and allow it rapidly to take command of its thinking? Although Rome has protected itself here as elsewhere by stating that no ex cathedra or infallible pronouncement has been made, the permission given to evolutionary thinking and the contempt heaped on “fundamentalist” and creationist thinking is more than sufficient indication that a stand has been made.

Behind this stand is the incubus of Greek philosophy, now rapidly taking over every aspect of Roman thought. In van Melsen it is clear-cut. The evolutionary picture fits in beautifully with the concept of the great chain of being, far more congenially, indeed, than the hostile and alien biblical doctrine of creation by a sovereign and all-sufficient God. “Matter, as such, is a reduced mode of being because it is devoid of intellectual knowledge and of organic life. There is, so to speak, a proportion between the degree of knowledge a being possesses and its degree of being” (p. 72). All the dangers Cornelius Van Til has pointed out as inherent in Greek thinking, wherever it appears, whether in Roman, Arminian, or supposedly Reformed form, are here spelled out in unmistakable clarity. According to van Melsen. “We are, therefore, entitled to the conclusion that there is a proportion between the degree of knowledge a being possesses and its degree of being” (p. 73). Thus, salvation becomes essentially a greater participation in being, and evolution is a salvation-process whereby the whole material creation grows upward in its possession of or participation in being. There is here no doctrine of creation, fall or redemption in any inherent or true sensei they must be superimposed and reinterpreted to have meaning. Vollert is aware of the contradiction:

The idea of a Fall from a level of perfection possessed from the outset yields to the idea of a level toward which to struggle in the future. Perfection is to be found, not at the beginning of the road, but at the end. These two points of view on human origins are hard to harmonize, and the more the scientific description of early man gains in clarity, the more the picture painted by revelation tends to vanish toward folklore.

To tell the truth, the man exhibited by the author of Genesis is not the primitive man of Java or Peking, but a man of his own time and nation transported to an idealized version of a garden bearing topographical features of an oasis in his own country. Contemporary theology is well aware of this situation, and is eager to trace out a solution (p. 111).

The Knights of Columbus pamphlet, God’s Story of Creation, does give us a “solution” to this:

What the author (of the Flood account) is doing by means of this story, consequently, is to enunciate some rather profound religious truths, which are transcendent of the time, the place, and the extent of the Flood which the story tells about. They would be equally true even if there were no historical basis to the Flood at aU, though we have good reason to believe in it, quite apart from the Biblical story (p. 40).

It is clear from this that not history but “ideas,” are the basic reality. (We are here in the same realm of ideas as neo-orthodoxy exemplifies.) This is no new philosophy in Rome. Hear Father Richard W. Grace speak of the sacrifice of Christ in terms of the agony in the Garden of Gethsemane:

That Divine High-Priest, who is Truth itself and a priest according to the order of Melchisedech, and who had really victimized Himself under the appearance of bread and wine, thereby unfitted His Body to hold His Blood and unfitted His Blood to abide in His Body; and, in consequence, unfitted both Body and Blood to continue in union with His human soul. (R. W. Grace: The Sacrifice of Christ, J. F. Wagner, 1937, p. 75, cited in J. C. Macaulay, The Bible and the Roman Church, p. 27 f., Chicago, Moody Press, 1946.)

The real sacrifice was not on the Cross, but in the Upper Room, not so much in the history as in the idea. The Cross made the sacrifice in the Upper Room a public act, and fixed Christ’s status as a sacrificial victim. The words, “it is finished” are thus interpreted: “These words do not declare that His sacrifice was finished, but that He had finished His former, normal, earthly life and was now fixed in the state of a victim” (p. lOS of Grace, cited on p. 28 f. of Macaulay). Again, and more plainly,

It was not on the cross that Christ was made a victim. No, it was there that He completed His sacrifice both by its public manifestation and by finishing His passage from His former, normal, earthly life into the permanent state of a victim (Grace, p. 175 in Macaulay, p. 32 f.).

In vain would Our Divine Lord have come down to save us, have been made man in the stable of Bethlehem, have died for us on the Cross, if He had not left us this Blessed Memorial of His Passion (Grace, p. 175, in Macaulay, p. 33).

The efficacy of the Cross is thus made to depend on the Supper, of which the mass is the perpetuation. As Macaulay points out, the two great prerogatives of the priesthood, as stated by Cardinal Manning, are “jurisdiction over the natural and over the mystical Body of Christ” (from H. E. Manning, Eternal Priesthood, Bums, 1883, p. 12, cited in Macaulay, p. 57). The Cure de ‘Ars, J. B. M. Vianney could say to pilgrims, “See the power of the priest! By one word from his lips, he changes a piece of bread into a God! A greater feat than the creation of a world” (Macaulay, p. 57). History is subordinated to and separated to a degree fro m the idea or form, and that idea is incarnated in an institution, the Church of Rome. Thus, tho concept of evolution, with its essentially Greek background, is congenial to Rome and thoroughly usable in terms of its basic philosophy. Evil is essentially negation or thinness of being, whereas the good is greater participation in being and a rise in the scale of being. As Van Til has pointed out repeatedly, the compromise of Thomas Aquinas with Greek thought shifted the problem of salvation from ethics to metaphysics.

Man but stultifies himself if he tries to become eternal. Religious activity as well as ethical activity is always temporal activity. Romanism virtually denies this and evangelicalism all too constantly forgets it (C. Van Til: Christian Theistic Ethics, p. 39).

It is not surprising, in view of these developments, that the doctrine of papal infallibility has been formulated, the concept of tradition developed (so important in terms of the whole developmental and evolutionary idea), and a new doctrine of inspiration set forth. For, in accepting the conclusions of radical higher criticism, Rome has not dropped the concept of Scripture’s inspiration and infallibility, reserved now for the idea of Scripture, not its human aspects and accidents. Although “the authors” of the “two accounts” of creation in Genesis were “evidently thinking only in terms of direct creation by God,” we must conclude that “between the teaching of the Bible on man and the findings of science, there is no contradiction whatever.” The idea in both stories, briefly, is that “man is different.” “Genesis neither proves nor disproves the theory of evolution. It simply does not consider it at all. Neither does science prove or disprove the religious doctrines taught by Genesis. These do not pertain to the scope of positive science” (God’s Story of Creation, pp. 20–23. See also Knights of Columbus, The Infallible Church, Truth or Trickery? pamphlet no. 56). On the one hand, a radical unity of all being is asserted in the chain of being concept; on the other hand, to prevent the destruction of all values by the total relativity the oneness of being posits, history and idea are separated. The historicity of the idea becomes irrelevant. The question again resolves itself into philosophy.

How can this doctrine of biblical inspiration and infallibility be best described? The Vatican Council thus defined papal infallibility:

When he (the Pope) speaks ex cathedra, that is, when, in fulfilling his office as supreme shepherd and teacher of all Christians, by virtue of his supreme Apostolic authority, he defines a doctrine concerning faith or morals to be held by the whole Church, he enjoys that same infallibility with which our Divine Redeemer willed His Church to be endowed in defining doctrine pertaining to faith and morals.

This same doctrine of infallibility is in essence now read back into Scriptures: it is the essence, the idea, that is protected from error. Even as the pope cannot speak infallibly on matters of history or science and is not preserved from personal sin, but is made infallible in his teaching power in doctrines pertaining to faith and morals, so the inspiration and infallibility of the biblical writers is similarly viewed. This is in essence not too different from the recent statement of an ostensibly Reformed leader: “I recognize and admit no errors, inaccuracies, contradictions, or other inadequacies of any sort in Scripture which affect its authority on this, its message.” Here is a radical separation of the realm of nature (history) and the realm of ethics and religion (idea), the one being open to scientific inquiry and subject to error and change, the other being beyond inquiry and eternal and free. This is increasingly the approach, since Kant, of vast segments of Protestantism as well as of Rome. Although the two worlds are linked in various artificial ways, and the world of ideas given a hierarchical priority, the division between the two grows steadily in modern religious thought. And with it, the irrelevance of such religion to the world of history grows more conspicuous. The tendency of all such thinking is the same—the apotheosis of man, And our judgment of all such must be God’s judgment, as expressed by Paul, in speaking of men “who changed the truth of God into a lie and worshipped and served the creature more than the Creator, who is blessed for ever. Amen” (Romans 1:25).