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All Evolutionists are Atheists!? The Polemical Battle Underlying the Creation-Evolution Debate

It has virtually become a truism: religious practitioners believe that God created the world ex nihilo, while atheists put their money on the Big Bang – and subsequently evolution – for their own cosmogonic picture. This division, though, is no longer limited to the worlds of theology and physics alone. Today, the media, political parties, the Supreme Court and even public schools have joined the debate by also bifurcating into one of two camps: the God-fearing or the Godless. Consequently, as time passes and the propaganda multiplies, the chasm separating the two yawns farther apart making reconciliation less and less likely an option for two so myopic stances.

This insurmountable divide is all the more surprising when one notes how little the majority of both groups actually grasp of the pertinent arguments. Unfortunately, Isaac Asimov’s estimation that “[t]ens of millions of Americans, who neither know nor understand the actual arguments for – or even against – evolution, march in the army of the night with their Bibles held high,”[1] can be equally applied to hordes of evolutionists brandishing their favorite personal argument from evil. There can be no doubt that most atheists who fall before evolution’s supremacy cannot even enumerate Darwin’s most pivotal contributions to evolutionary biology or the humanities – let alone the five historical epochs the evolutionary theory rests upon. Similarly, as Asimov posits, their religious equivalents would be just as hard pressed to explicate a medieval exegete’s or a Church Father’s approach to a particular topic of the creation narrative. With few exceptions, most people simply recognize that their own position is true without troubling themselves with all the fine points or the facts of the issue.

The two sides, however, rest upon unequal grounds. Creationists – who for the most part garner their approach from the Bible – possess a plethora of available approaches in which to construe the Bible’s cosmological account when faced with practical difficulties.[2] Atheists, on the other hand, are to a great extent trapped by their own beliefs. What is the alternative to some form of evolutionism? – to believe the world is the product of a purposeful Creator – that is the exact notion they seek to exclude. By default, as the evolutionary theory is the only viable alternative to creationism and God, atheists side with the less God-infused approach.

Notwithstanding the transparent agendas present on both sides of the picket lines, we need not take for granted the necessity for such polarized factions and concise schisms. Today, we possess the proper philosophical and historiographic tools to question the necessity of the aforementioned truism. Is it truly necessary that atheists gravitate towards evolution instead of its alternative cosmological picture: creatio ex nihilo, or that creationist and evolutionist camps be consistently represented by theists and atheists respectively? Is it a historical accident that this correspondence became the case, or was there no other way for history to play itself out? While the apparent impetus that leads creationists and evolutionists to gravitate towards a respective cosmological camp is clear, the actual root of the argument lies much deeper than the issue of theism alone: many times, cosmology is just the face for much more serious concerns. Accordingly, we will scrutinize the philosophical and theo-political assumptions underlying the various methodologies employed by several religion traditions in their interpretation of the opening lines of the Genesis narrative. By doing so, a more-clear and accurate picture of the various camps’ motivations will materialize. Subsequently, we will show why evolution need not be equated with atheism.

 

I

 

Even though the Talmudic Sages may have already proffered an interpretation of a biblical verse, the medieval biblical exegetes (Rishonim) boasted a certain leeway in rendering a verse according to the p’shat (simple read) over its Talmudic treatment. This does not mean that some exegetes were not extremely reliant on the Talmud’s and Midrash’s exegesis, but, nonetheless, a Rishon could still accept, reject, or amend the Talmudic treatment of a verse to better fit with his own exegetical and philosophical underpinnings. Accordingly, along with the power to elucidate the Divine text, the traditional commentator bears the daunting task of wielding God’s stamp of truth with every penned word. Historically, this license has seen the Bible pass through the hands of Gnostics, neo-Platonists, mystics, rationalists and fundamentalists, without ever arriving at a clear consensus of who, if any, should be the true torch bearer.

With this in mind, we will analyze the staples of medieval biblical exegesis not to see what they said, but by reading between the lines, to see why they commented as they did. Generally, it is exceedingly difficult to uncover a commentator’s motives or underlying assumptions; to some, it is heresy to even intimate that the biblical exegete has any agenda. Accordingly, we will limit our examination of each exegete to his commentary on the Bible’s initial verses. By analyzing commentary on the same verses, the variance and disagreements between the exegetes itself will be telling of the specific methodology employed. And we shouldn’t let the simplicity of the King James translation induce us into thinking the first verses are noncomplex or monolithic; the array of following commentaries will make it evident that the Bible’s initial words are anything but obvious.

To start, we will first look at the most renowned of the medieval biblical commentators: R. Shlomo Yizhaqi (1040-1105). He suggests that the first two verses of the Bible are an introductory sentence for the rest of the Genesis narrative. He is forced to explain as such as the first word ‘בראשית’ – usually translated as ‘In the beginning’ – is actually a noun in the construct state. Hence, a better translation would be ‘In the beginning of.’ Because another noun does not follow ‘בראשית’ – as one would expect in the case of a noun in the construct state – R. Yizhaqi takes it for granted that the Bible has an implied word following the first word.[3] He, first and foremost, feels compelled to uphold the grammatical integrity of the verses, and thus interprets them as follows:

In the beginning of [creation], God created the Heavens and the earth when the earth was tohu and vohu and there was darkness…[4]

 

In this reconstruction of the opening verses, he inserts a noun into the narrative in order for the verse to read properly. Accordingly, the Bible does not inform the reader of the actual order of creation in its first two verses; they are simply prefatory to the rest of the Genesis narrative. R. Yizhaqi further buttresses his claim by pointing out that the Bible only later specifies that the Heavens were formed on the second day (so they could not have been created on the first day) and that the spirit of God seems to hover over the surface of the waters (even before they were ever officially created on the third day). R. Yizhaqi’s insistence on interpreting the Bible’s first word in line with the verse’s true grammatical structure forced him to: (1) assume the implied word ‘creation’ in the initial verse, (2) interpret the verse as an introductory sentence, and thereby keep a literal translation of the latter half of the verse (as actually referring to the Heavens and the earth) as well, (3) render the prefix vav (and) that precedes the second verse as a conjunction meaning ‘when,’ instead of its more common rendering as the connective ‘and,’ and last (4) accept the Talmud’s[5] assertion that the Heavens were constructed from fire and water. Accordingly, R. Yizhaqi is not swayed by any political or philosophical motives; what he believes to be the best read, the p’shat, is the final litmus test for him (in this case); his philosophy is formed and molded by the best read of the text.[6]

R. Abraham Ibn Ezra (1092-1167), who is renowned for his outstanding grammatical expertise, focuses instead on the diction of the verses at hand. Following suit with other Jewish neo-Platonists of his era, R. Ibn Ezra rejects the commonly accepted understanding of ‘בראשית’ as referring to creation ex nihilo for philological reasons. He cites verses 21 and 27 as defeaters for the thesis that ברא refers to creation ex nihilo, for those verses use the term ברא in a context that clearly indicates that the entity was not created ex nihilo. Bearing this in mind, R. Ibn Ezra concludes that the etymology of the first word in the Bible (ברא) refers not to ‘creating’ but to the ‘cutting’ or ‘setting boundaries’ of something that had already existed. Accordingly, he is able to justify the Neo-Platonists’ contention that an original matter existed for which God ‘cut’ or ‘set boundaries.’ Hence, the Bible itself lends support for R. Ibn Ezra’s neo-platonic understanding of the world’s beginnings.

Nachmanides (R. Moshe ben Nachman, 1194-1270) has a different agenda altogether. From the very start of his commentary on the Bible, he highlights that those who reject creatio ex nihilo reject the Torah of Moses.[7]

For there is a great need to begin the Torah with ‘In the beginning God created,’ for that is the basis of our faith, and someone who does not believe in it, but thinks that the world has existed eternally, he is a heretic in a fundamental, and has no connection to Torah at all.

 

All grammatical and lexicographical issues are secondary to the ultimate aim of the verse. To him, the opening verses can refer to nothing but creation ex nihilo. Only after this not-so-subtle proviso, he goes on to explain the opening verses of the Genesis narrative. He continues by differentiating between the verb (ברא) and two other similar meaning words: ‘formed’ (יצר) and ‘made’ (עשה). He explains that the cognate ברא exclusively indicates the creation of something from absolute nothingness (יש מעין), while the words ‘formed’ and ‘made’ are used to describe making something out of a pre-existing material – they never denote creatio ex nihilo[8] – even though, as R. Ibn Ezra observes, ברא is employed occasionally to mean ‘not creation ex nihilo.’

In line with his focus on creation ex nihilo, Nahmanides is forced to interpret the first verse in its colloquial non-literal sense ‘In the beginning,’ instead of R. Yizhaqi’s more precise translation of ‘In the beginning of.’ Owing to this understanding, Nachmanides explains the other two key terms of the verse “the Heavens and the earth” (השמים and הארץ) non-literally as well, given that the Bible proclaims the Heavens were created on the second day. Nahmanides understands that the usage of the two terms in the first verse designate the potential for all future stages of physical reality. In other words, God executed one act of creation; an infinitely small substance was first created and then it went through a kind of non-Darwinian evolution (a form of super evolution) with the hand of God directing the world’s formation and development. He explains the phrase “the Heavens and the earth” in light of his contemporary Greek knowledge. They correspond, first to the hyle matter, and subsequently, to the four primary elements. Far beyond the two explanations of the aforementioned medieval exegetes, Nahmanides is willing to completely undermine the literal sense[9] of the first verse in order to buttress his philosophical and scientific framework.

While we could end our Jewish exegetical section here, it seems only appropriate to conclude our study on the first verses of Genesis by looking towards the halakhic-philosophic giant of the medieval era: Maimonides (1138-1204). Though he never wrote a systematic commentary on the Bible, one can cull his opinion on many verses by reading his other works. He devotes much of the second book of the Guide for the Perplexed to the issue of creationism, so it would be impossible to put forth even a truncated analysis of his viewpoint. Instead, we will simply take note of the methodology he implemented when his contemporary science or Aristotelian logic contradicted the literal gist of a biblical text. In the Treatise on Resurrection,[10] published near the end of his life, he says that:

I believe every possible happening that is supported by a prophetic statement and do not strip it of its plain meaning. I fall back on interpreting a statement only when its literal sense is impossible, like the corporeality of God; the possible however remains as stated.

 

Unlike other medieval commentators, Maimonides always refrained from betting the farm on any specific interpretation. He would exclude the literal meaning of a text when it could be demonstrated logically to be false; obviously, the Divine text could not impart fallacious information. Consequently, by the story of creation, he says without hesitation:

All these assertions (about creation) are needed if the text of Scripture is taken in its external (literal) sense, even though it must not be taken as shall be explained[11] when we shall speak of it at length. You ought to memorize this notion. For it is a great wall that I have built around the Law: a wall that surrounds it warding off the stones of all those who project these missiles against it. (italics mine)[12]

 

While Nahmanides deems one heretical for rejecting the creatio ex nihilo position, Maimonides asserts that if someone could offer him a sound demonstration for the eternity of the world, he would have no problem fitting it into the words of the Bible, and would accept it without hesitation.[13] Maimonides emphatically proclaims Themistius’ rule that “That which exists does not conform to the various opinions, but rather the correct opinions conform to that which exists.”[14] In a similar vein, even R. Yehuda ha-Levi, the author of the Kuzari, who is more sympathetic to the viewpoint of Nahmanides, says:

If, after all, a believer in the Law finds himself compelled to admit an eternal matter and the existence of many worlds prior to this one, this would not impair his belief that this world was created at a certain epoch…[15]

 

Obviously, R. ha-Levi understood that a person must follow his own perception of truth. Similarly, Maimonides did not feel obliged to follow the literal sense of the Bible where it led him towards philosophically or scientifically inadmissible conclusions.

So, we have seen that the four aforementioned exegetes each present widely differing criteria (and methodologies) for interpreting the opening verses of the Genesis narrative. R. Yizhaqi focuses on the grammatical integrity of the verse, R. Ibn Ezra upon the diction, Nahmanides highlights his own philosophical and scientific underpinnings, and Maimonides accepts the literal understanding of the verse until it is contradicted by some demonstrated truth.

 

II

 

This bias in the exegetes’ interpretation of the Genesis narrative, especially prevalent in Nahmonides’ approach to the opening verses of Genesis, is equally evident in the Christian approach to creation. The Christian right of America, generally identified with the Evangelical or conservative Protestant movements, has promoted a take on creationism that is based on a hyper-literal reading of the Genesis account.[16] They have aligned themselves with the scientific creationist movement (or young-earth creationists) who believe that the world is less than 10,000 years old.

Much to the surprise of many, scientific creationists refrain from claiming that all of their insights into the creation and subsequent development of the world are explicitly stated in the Bible; rather, they piece together a cosmological picture based on the logical implications of a holistic read of the Bible, embracing modern science when it buttresses their argument. To be able to piece together such an integrated cosmological picture is obviously an exceedingly tough task, but to construct one that fits accurately with the suppositions of both archaeology and science is daunting. The much heralded former engineering professor-turned-anti-evolutionist, Henry M. Morris, has assembled such a picture, and has so effectively promoted its validity, that approximately forty percent of the American population regard Morris’ picture of creationism as correct. Of course, the fact that he has founded a journal, an institute for creation research, a college (Christian Heritage College) and has written over fifty books including his three-volume boxed set The Modern Creation Trilogy, may have helped a bit.

His basic assumption, identifiable with conservative Christians, is that the creation account in Genesis provides a:

“marvelous and accurate accounts of the actual events of the primal history of the universe,” that goes “far beyond those that science can determine,” while offering “an intellectually satisfying framework within which to interpret the facts that science can determine.”[17]

 

In other words, if one wants true scientific ratiocinations without all the fuss of the scientific method, one need look no farther than the Bible. Evolutionary theory, along with all other scientific notions that contradict the literal sense of the Bible should be disregarded, for who knows science better than God – the founder of the rules of science.

Within the ranks of scientific creationists, there are no secular thinkers or apologists for the “Word of God” in the Bible. The Bible is the most vital and central book that guides their lives and it contains nothing but truth. They are taught from the earliest days of their youth the Biblical stories and the centricity of Jesus Christ. But, one has to wonder why the Christian right has put so much effort into promoting their cosmological approach. Besides journals, a seemingly endless array of creationist books, and a college, they have even built a twenty-six million dollar Creation Museum in Petersburg, Kentucky – a 60,000 square foot museum built on five acres of flatland and designed by an ex-Universal Studios exhibit director that presents an alternative theory to that of evolution – and they plan on making several more in other American cities.

With this kind of high-tech hype, overwhelming media attention on the internet, and in the news, as well as the seemingly endless public school debates – the Scopes trial was over eighty years ago![18] – it would seem that this is the key issue that Protestants fight for in America. What Christian issue is given more prominence in the news than creationism? Ironically, as of late, the world is exposed to less “Jesus talk” and more creationism. However, we should wonder: is this issue truly the key issue between the conservatives and the rest of the world that Christians willing go into battle over – and if it is, then why? One would imagine that the notions of Jesus’ Messiahship, the notion of salvation or the Afterlife would be higher on the laundry list than promoting Old Testament creationism.

In order to understand the pivotal role that creationism must play in Christian theology, we will look towards the roots of the Protestant Reformation. Before the sixteenth century, many other groups splintered from the Church before Martin Luther (1483-1546) – an Augustinian monk and professor of theology at the University of Wittenberg – triggered the bifurcation of the Church. These revolutionary groups sought to reform the Church and its teachings, though never intended to disunite Christendom. Nonetheless, until the pope officially recognized certain splinter groups, they hung in limbo on the narrow stretch between orthodoxy and heresy.[19] Like the Waldenses of the 11th century,[20] the English cleric John Wycliffe (1328-84) and the Bohemian priest Jan Hus (1373-1415), these dissenters knew that there was something awry in the Church and its teachings, and aspired to repair it.

The hallmark of the Protestant Reformation, like the Karaites before them, was the importance placed on the primacy of Scripture – individualistic, subjective reading of the Bible, that recently has led to a hyper literalistic approach to reading the Old Testament. The root cause of Luther’s protestations was his own Church experiences in the 16th century. While the Church decided early on to reject the obligation to uphold most of the Biblical commandments and ritual cult, Luther pined over the fact that the modern incarnation of the Church simply replaced the old commandments with a litany of new commandments, sacraments and indulgences, none of which were clearly indicated in the New Testament. They rejected one set of laws, only to impose a whole other set – a set completely determined extra-biblically. Luther felt that the Catholic Church had missed the boat and was prescribing exactly that which Pauline Christianity came to wipe out.[21]

As Luther’s Protestant views came into focus, next to sola fide and sola gratia, stood sola scriptoria, the Scripture principle. With the primacy of Scripture as the fundamental principle upon which all Protestantism rests, it is clear why Christian conservatives put so much weight on the actual words of the creation narrative. In contrast to medieval Catholicism, which was content to interpret the Bible allegorically or spiritually, Luther insisted on the literal sense of Scripture. Accordingly, if the Protestant movement abstained from upholding the literal truth of any aspect of the Bible, then their whole argument against the Catholic Church would be completely undermined.[22] Hence it follows that in and of itself, the creation narrative may be relatively unimportant from a Christian perspective, for Jesus’ message would be true independent of which creation process God chose to implement. Nonetheless, the opening verses of the creation narrative must remain literally interpreted as it rides upon the coattails of other more significant Protestant theology that also must be interpreted literally.[23] For if one can challenge or undermine the Bible’s message or intent in one area, there is nothing to stop people from doing so in other areas. For once we allow even the points that are less important and non-crucial to be interpreted allegorically, symbolically, metaphorically, etc., then we open the Pandora’s Box that ends with the vindication of the Catholic Church, the sacraments, indulgences and its overwhelming authority.[24]

 

III

 

Unlike Conservative Christians, Catholics are in no way bound to the literal reading of the Old or New Testament. To the contrary, commentators within the Catholic world have produced countless interpretations of the Genesis narrative, from significantly different vantage points, and will continue construing the text based on the archeological, scientific and philosophical findings that arise in each generation.[25] The Church has not institutionalized an official way to read the Genesis narrative, and unless the Church actually deems some way to be heretical or to be officially binding, all may carry on producing their own stances on most of the Genesis account.

Far removed from this approach has been the Church’s stance on Darwinism as reflected in the positions of the various popes since the nineteenth century. The first pope to respond to Darwin’s theory propounded in Descent of Man was Pope Pious IX. He writes that Darwinism is:

a system which is so repugnant at once to history, to the tradition of all peoples, to exact science, to observed facts, and even to Reason herself, [it] would seem to need no refutation. Did not alienation from God and the leaning toward materialism, due to depravity, eagerly seek a support in all this tissue of fables.[26]

 

More recently, the official stance of the Catholic Church on the creation-evolution debate has been propounded by Pope John Paul II.[27] He begins his article Evolution and the Living God by acknowledging that “revelation, [the Holy writings] for its part, contains teachings concerning the nature and origins of humanity,” and continues, “We know, in fact, that truth cannot contradict truth.” Accordingly, one would assume that the past pope plans on giving revelation its fair shake against the conclusions of science; but, he never does. Instead, he quotes his predecessor, Pope Pius XII’s opinion found in Encyclical Humani generic “that there was no opposition between evolution and the doctrine of faith about humanity and human vocation, on condition that one did not lose sight of several indisputable facts.”[28]  Pope John Paul II claims that:

New knowledge leads us to the realization that evolution is more than a hypothesis. It is indeed remarkable that this theory has been progressively accepted by researchers, following a series of discoveries in various fields of knowledge. The convergence, neither sought nor fabricated, of the results of work that was conducted independently is in itself a significant argument in favor of this theory.[29]

 

Besides recounting that man is created in the image and likeness of God, Pope John Paul II does not deal with any other details of the Genesis narrative in this essay. For his purposes here, they are completely worthless. The importance of the Genesis narrative lies in the details involving man’s relationship to God; the rest – the vast majority of the narrative – need not worry the theologian or the scientist.

However, Pope John Paul II insists that theistic evolution[30] is acceptable only as long as it coincides with revelation. He says that

theories of evolution which, in accordance with the philosophies inspiring them, consider the mind as emerging from the forces of living matter, or as a mere epiphenomena of this matter, are incompatible with the truth about humanity.[31]

 

Thus, Pope John Paul II accepts the conclusions of scientists, but only as long as they do not contradict “revelation.” But what does Pope John Paul II mean by “revelation?” For those of the Jewish or Islamic faiths, revelation would denote either the Divine words recorded in the Tanakh or the Qur’an respectively. So we might be suckered into thinking that the Pope means to imply the messages found in the Old or New Testament by his usage of the word “revelation;” but really this is not the case. In truth, Pope John Paul II is unconcerned with the doctrines or dogmas put forth by the Holy writings.[32] Even his treatment of the man’s image and likeness of God stands upon the interpretation put forth by the conciliar Constitution Gaudium et spes that human beings are “the only creature on earth that God has wanted for its own sake.” Definitely an interesting and promising interpretation, but by no far stretch the only possible one. But from Pope John Paul II’s perspective, that is the main drive of Genesis narrative – the centricity of mankind before the Lord.

Not by a long shot was he, or his predecessor, the first Catholics to take the Genesis account, in part or in full, non-literally. This precedent was set as early on as the Early Church Fathers. Some of them thought that the opening verses of Genesis had important information about the physical world, as well as the spiritual world, but many of them subordinated the literal meaning of the text before their own philosophical outlook. For example, one would be hard pressed to find Origen’s (185-254) Platonic ideology including an apophatic God whose external self-manifestation is first revealed in the Logos[33] within a literal reading of the Bible. Similarly, though St. Augustine’s (354-430) famously exclaims “nothing is to be accepted save on the authority of Scripture, since that authority is greater than all the powers of the human mind,” his approach to Biblical exegesis in his The Literal Interpretation of Genesis can hardly be deemed literalistic. He says:

With the Scriptures it is a matter of treating about the faith. For that reason, as I have noted repeatedly, if anyone, not understanding the mode of divine eloquence, should find something about these matters [about the physical universe] in our books, or hear of the same from those books, of such a kind that it seems to be at variance with the perceptions of his own rational faculties, let him believe that these other things are in no way necessary to the admonitions or accounts or predictions of the Scriptures. In short, it must be said that our authors knew the truth about the nature of the skies, but it was not the intention of the Spirit of God, who spoke through them, to teach men anything that would not be of use to them for their salvation.[34]

 

Also, the Church Fathers Origen, Clement of Alexandria, Justin Martyr, St. Irenaeus of Lyons and many others put forth non-literal interpretations to several verses or even the whole of the Genesis account. It is as much part of the Church’s tradition to deal with verses as it sees fit as any of its other catecheses.

In order to understand this leeway of interpretation, we must first understand the foundation of the Church itself. The Church’s catechesis summarizes the primary details of Catholic belief including orthodox trinitarian Christianity, as well as the belief that Jesus set up the Church around the twelve apostles on earth before he died. They cite the Gospel According to Matthew as the source for Jesus’s appointments of the Church; the verse states: “And I say also unto thee, That thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” While the present Pope is viewed as Peter’s (head of the Early Church) contemporaneous successor, bishops are the modern day successors to the apostles. This organization of the Church is kept from doctrinal error by the guidance of the Holy Spirit. The Sacred Magisterium infallibly teaches and interprets the truth of faith.[35] Accordingly, Catholics consider their philosophical viewpoints as produced by the Holy Spirit and the Church, for the most part, as infallible.

This fact is easy to see within the world of doctrinal beliefs, but it also holds true for Biblical exegesis. A surprising corroboration for this method of interpretation can be found very early on in the Gospel According to Matthew (subsequently referred to GAM) 2:23 which (possibly) quotes the verse from Isaiah 11:1 to prove that Jesus returned to Nazareth to fulfill the alleged prophecy from Isaiah: “He will be called a Nazorean.” First of all, this prophetic fulfillment is anything but: if the quotation’s source is Isaiah (11:1), the verse calls the Messiah a branch (נצר), while the verse from the GAM clearly is referring to the city Nazareth, which would have an altogether different Hebrew root (נזר).

Possibly, this prophetic fulfillment could be accounted for by transliterating the Hebrew letter zadi (צ) as a Greek zeta (ς).[36] Still, even in a transliterated text could account for the Matthean usage, it is hard to believe that this prophetic fulfillment would convince any of Jesus’ followers.[37] First, the city of Nazareth is not mentioned once in Tanakh, so there can be no prophetic fulfillments involving the famed city. Next, the GAM assumes that it was God who directed Joseph to Nazareth, yet this is not the case; the angel merely told Joseph to enter the land of Israel.[38] There is no evidence that Jesus’ family were directed or even intended to reach Nazareth. Last, and most importantly, no where in the prophetic writings, or any writing besides the GAM, does any one claim regarding the Messiah that “He will be called a Nazorean;” the Evangelist simply made it up. So what was the author of the GAM trying to accomplish by misrepresenting the Isaian prophecy?

This issue would present a crushing blow to the exegetical integrity of the New Testament if not for, as Goodwin[39] puts it, the “hermeneutic presupposition” (Divine Hermeneutic license) underlying New Testament exegesis.  By this, he means that the Church has the ability to construe a verse away from its original, intended or literal meaning in order to better fit with the Church’s theology or propaganda. Ellis explains:

In the use of the OT in the New, implicit Midrash appears in double entendre, in interpretive alterations of OT citations and in more elaborate forms. The first type involves a play on words. Thus Matthew 2:23 cites Jesus’ residence in Nazareth as a “fulfillment” of prophecies identifying the Messiah as Nazirite or a netzer.[40]

From this example, it is evident that already in the period of the writing of the New Testament, Evangelists assumed that they enjoyed the authority to construe the Old Testament to buttress their own theology, very much as the rabbis exploited a similar methodology through the use of Midrashic exegesis. With the exception of the early second century movement Marcionism – which rejected that the vengeful god of the Old Testament was identical with the loving god of the New Testament – the Old Testament was always a ripe source for the Evangelists to procure prophetic fulfillments, messianic ideology and pseudo-Jesus references. Just as these Old Testament construals were deemed by the Early Christian to be accurate and true in God’s eyes, analogously, the Catholic Church also feels that they may construe the Testaments however they see fit. The existence of the Church’s Divine right to authoritatively interpret the Bible might explain why it took so many centuries for the Church to encourage Bible study,[41] for the literal sense of the text does not convey Divine truth; rather, Divine truth rests solely within the authoritative interpretation of the Church. Therefore, some verses will be construed away from their obvious meaning, while others may be (seemingly) totally disregarded: accordingly, grace is not a free gift of God; it is gift to those who accept and follow the whim of the Church.

Now it is clear why the Catholic Church has accepted a version of evolution as their official cosmological picture. Above all, the Catholic Church stands for their own unflinching authority. Salvation is not attained through metaphysical speculation or individualistic spiritual development, but solely through accepting the Church’s pathway to heaven. This position parallels the stance taken by the Buddha, and since characterized by Theravada Buddhism in Southern Asia, towards metaphysical speculation. Malunkyaputta, a monk and student of the Buddha, was drawn towards abstruse cosmogonic speculation and decided to seek the truth from his master. The Buddha responded:

Well, Malunkyaputta, anyone who demands the elucidation of such futile questions which do not in any way tend to real spiritual progress and edification is like one who has been shot by an arrow and refuses to let the doctor pull it out and attend to the wound. If the weakened man were to say, “So long as I do not know who the man is who shot me… until then I will not allow the arrow to be pulled out or the wound to be attended to.” – that man, Malunkyaputta, will die without ever knowing all these details. A holy life, Malunkyaputta, does not depend on the dogma that the world is eternal or not eternal and so forth. Whether or not these things obtain, there still remain the problems of birth, old age, death, sorrow… all the grim facts of life – and for their extinction in the present life I am prescribing this Dhamma. Accordingly, bear it in mind that these questions which I have not elucidated… I have not elucidated purposely because these profit not, nor have they anything to do with the fundamentals of a holy life nor do they tend toward Supreme Wisdom, the Bliss of Nirvana.[42]

 

Just as the Buddha’s parable shows that Malunkyaputta may squander his life away by focusing on matters that do not lead one towards achieving the purpose of life or nirvana, so too, a good Catholic practitioner may miss the boat by speculating about metaphysical issues without the assistance of the Church’s authoritative positions. Really, the Church, like Buddha, places no emphasis on metaphysical notions that do not lead a person to observe the proper holy life as defined by their own respective dogmas. Whether the earth was created ex nihilo, or is eternal, or is the product of some five and a half billion years of evolution is religiously worthless; as long as one’s stance does not undermine the Church’s message and authority, any of the possibilities could be made to jive with the diction of the Bible; the Church’s Divine hermeneutic license ensures as much.

In the end, Pope John Paul II, as well as his predecessor, both accepted evolution simply because the science of the day supported it; the Bible does not really have any say in the debate. The Bible’s literal stance is no longer a viable option for interpreting the universe’s beginnings. Ernst Mayr explains that creationists believe that:

Everything in the world today is still as it was created. This was an entirely logical conclusion based on the known facts at the time the Bible was written. Some theologians, on the basis of the biblical genealogy, calculated that the world was quite recent, having been created in 4004 B.C., that is, about 6,000 years ago.[43]

 

But today, when creationism is not the logical choice, the Catholic Church feels no obligation to fall before the literal sense of the Bible. Evolution is accepted, not because it is the best read, but because Catholics are not truly interested in the best read. Indeed, there is no intended interpretation that we should discern on our own; there is only the canonical interpretation which the Church alone may define. Today, science is as accurate, if not a better source of the natural sciences as the Bible. In Catholicism, what matters is the hierarchal structure; knowledge of how the Bible said that God created the world is insignificant apart from the Church’s interpretation.

 

IV

 

Before evolution was associated with atheistic schools of thought, Jewish commentators and world leaders had no fear or problems with the idea that the world is much older than six thousand years; to the contrary, many kabbalists and then contemporaneous rabbis thought the scientific findings of evolutionists supported the literal understanding of countless Midrashim and Aggadot. R. Israel Lipschutz of Danzig (1782-1860), who wrote one of the standard commentaries on the Mishnah entitled Tiferet Yisrael, says in a sermon he delivered in the spring of 1842:

And now my beloved brothers, see on what a sound basis our Torah stands. For this secret [of the world’s destruction and recreation] handed to us from our ancestors, revealed to us hundreds of years ago, can be found in nature in our own time in the clearest manner. The restless spirit of man, the desire to discover all mysteries, has [brought him to] dig and search the belly of the earth like a mole, as well as the highest of mountains, the Pyrenees  and Carpathian, and in the Cordilla mountains in [South] America, as well as the Himalayas, digging and searching until they found an awesome order of fossils, one on top of another at a hair’s distance, where one can assume that a word of catastrophe was caused through the His Divine hand, which sends fury through the land and causes it to tremble…They found in 1807 of their calendar, in Siberia, in the north of the earth under the permanent layer of ice, a mammoth elephant… Also the remains of fossilized sea creatures have been found within the highest mountains. From all this, we can see that all the Kabbalists have told us for so many years about the repeated destruction and renewal of the earth has found clear confirmation in our time.[44]

 

In a similar vein, R. Elijah Benamozegh (1822-1900) – who was a traditional Rabbi, philosopher and exegete of Italy – also makes use of evolution, but in a most surprising way. He asserts in Il Mio Credo (1877) that:

I believe, as science teaches, that animal forms appeared on the earth and evolved into more perfect beings… More and more perfect species have developed, one after the other, over the course of millions of years on the face of the earth. The most perfect form is Man. But will nature stop here? This would indeed be strange. Present humankind, as Renan says, will evolve into another, more prefect human being… All this is stated by Judaism, and is called the Resurrection.[45]

 

One can only speculate about how R. Lipschutz and R. Benamozegh would further integrate today’s evolutionary theories and concepts into their own Kabbalistic and philosophical outlooks. Nonetheless, we can see that, at least initially, the evolutionary theory was not looked on as a frightening idea sure to shake the core of Jewish beliefs.

However, one could make the case that this acceptance of modern science was only welcomed because it did not uproot any of their fundamentals of faith; had the scientists proffered conclusive evidence that for the validity of polytheism or that Zeus truly created the world, we could be sure that R. Lipschutz, R. Benamozegh and other Jewish theologians would surely censure such evidence and question the validity of the scientists’ findings. This is exactly how the late Lubavitcher scion, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson (1903-1994) acted,[46] along with most ultra-orthodox rabbis of the last fifty years in the face of evidence that the world is more than six thousand years old.

So, we must conclude, theologians are stuck upholding their tradition sometimes even against the pangs of science, but are atheists stuck upholding the evolutionary theory? We will observe that atheists are not actually stuck in the same corner as the theologian. Really, the evolutionist’s corner was self-made, and that corner, actually, is just an accident of history. To illustrate this point, we will turn to the infamous Dan Brown and his other novel, Angels and Demons.

The book’s beginning chapters describe how the Catholic priest physicist, Leonardo Vetra used the world’s largest particle accelerator to create anti-matter; in other words, he was able to simulate the Big Bang. He reasoned that his machine would render viable proof to the fact that God exists in that his machine works in the same way in which God originally acted in creating the universe. While the premise of this argument might seem tenuous at best, really, it is not one to be scoffed at. The medieval exegete-philosopher Gersonides (1288-1344) accepts a Platonic account of the universe’s origins based solely on the fact that it is a logical contradiction for new matter to be created. Hence, for him, not even God could create ex nihilo.

Let us take Brown’s fiction into the realm of reality. Let us imagine that scientists were able to create such a machine: so, within the normal rules of the physical world, it is the case that sometimes things are created ex nihilo as Vetra’s machine could. Because this machine works without the direct assistance of a deity, the scientific world would have produced an alternative to the first step of the evolutionary theory, i.e. the Big Bang; as of today, there is no alternative cosmological picture for atheists.[47] This being the case, Vetra’s machine would offer the atheistic community the alternative to evolution that they never had.

Given the possibility of a scientific alternative to theistic creationism before the theory of evolution was ever hypothesized, the world’s atheists would have happily joined the “creatio ex nihilo machine” bandwagon. That machine would offer the atheists an alternative approach – a scientific approach – to explain the world’s beginnings.[48] Therefore, creation ex nihilo would be an equally viable option for the atheistic scientific world (even though evolution would still be an option). Really, it is an historical accident that the evolutionary theory became the foundation of the atheist movement. The atheists’ stance is not a case of fact (evolution) flowing from the theology, but theology following fact. There is nothing whatsoever within atheistic dogma that forces one to side with evolution. Really, had the world played out differently, creation ex nihilo could have been associated with the God deniers, while evolution would be, at best, a competing theory.

 

V

 

As we have seen, the primary driving force behind Genesis exegesis, and possibly sectarian biblical commentaries in whole, is not so much what the verse says, as what the commentator thinks before ever penning a word. This point is highlighted by Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik (1903-1991) in The Emergence of Ethical Man. He says:

I have always felt that due to some erroneous conception, we have actually misunderstood the Judaic anthropology and read into the Biblical text ideas which stem from alien sources. This feeling becomes more pronounced when we try to read the Bible not as an isolated literary text but as a manifestation of a grand tradition rooted in the very essence of our God-consciousness that transcends the bounds of the standardized and fixed text and fans out into every aspect of our existential experience.[49]

 

Nonetheless, R. Soloveitchik’s assertion should not be surprising, nor alarming. Most of the scholars who take the time to put forth integrated, well-thought out commentaries on the Bible, are those who are invested in its message and live according to its guidelines, as they interpret them. Therefore, of course they will interpret the Biblical narrative in line with the mores and values of their society. No matter what one’s religious orientation, and regardless of one’s acceptance of theism, we have seen that people will do what it takes to ensure that their own beliefs are manifest, not only in the physical world, but also in the Divinely inspired texts.

 

[1] Isaac Asimov from Science on Trial by Douglas Futuyama (New York: Pantheon Books, 1982), p. 175.

[2] For example, creatio ex nihilo, neo-Platonism, and allegorical positions (including apologist, accommodationalist, and scientific) are some of the valid approaches available to biblical exegetes.

[3] It is not uncommon for R. Yizhaqi to allow for implied words in the Bible. He proffers four other examples: Job 3:10; Isaiah 8:4, 46:10 and Amos 10:12.

[4] Rashi’s commentary on Genesis 1:1.

[5] BT Hagigah 12a.

[6] And, based on the grammatical nuances of the verse, he will accept the Midrash that best fits the exegetical issue he is addressing.

[7] Nachmonides commentary on Genesis 1:1; see also his commentary on Exodus 13:16 (D”H Ve’Atah Omer) and Leviticus 25:2 (D”H VeHene Ha-Yamim).

[8] He apologetically explains Ibn Ezra’s issue by claiming that the cognate (ברא) is employed by sea monsters to illustrate their immense size, not that they were actually created ex nihilo. He does not even try to explain the usage by mankind (probably because the intrinsic difference between man and the rest of creation is self evident.)

[9] According to Nachmanides, the whole verse is lav davqa – each word is not to be taken in its precise meaning.

[10] Treatise on Resurrection, from Crisis and Leadership: Epistles of Maimonides, trans. Abraham S. Halkin. and D. Hartman (Philadelphia, 1985), p. 228.

[11] See Maimonides, Guide for the Perplexed, (trans. Shlomo Pines, Uni. of Chicago Press, 1963), II, 30.

[12] Ibid., II, 17, p. 298

[13] See Ibid., I, 71, p. 179

[14] Ibid., I, 71, p.179

[15] Cuzari I 67

[16]  Some Evangelical Protestants take the “catastrophic approach” to creation. This approach (which parallels the modern Ultra-Orthodox understanding of creation first proposed by Kabbalists who interpolate the literal sense of the creation account with several Midrashim and Aggadot) hypothesizes that several worlds were created and destroyed on earth before the present epoch came into being. This approach, though, is exceedingly less common than the simple literal read of the Genesis account among Evangelicals. Furthermore, Protestants submit other approaches to creationism including the “gap theory” adopted rather early by Cyrus Ingerson Scofield (1843-1921) and the “day-age” theory, still agued today by Hugh Ross in his Fingerprint of God: Recent Scientific Discoveries Reveal the Unmistakable Identity of the Creator, 2nd ed. (Orange, California: Promise Publishing, 1991), and several other concordist approaches.

[17] Morris and Morris, Modern Creation Trilogy, 1:13/14.

[18] In 1925, the Tennessean high school teacher John Scopes was found guilty of violating the law against teaching evolution in the class room.

[19] This was the case regarding the Franciscan Order in 1210 and the Dominican Order in 1216.

[20] They were started by the European layman preacher Peter Waldo (d.1218) petitioning for a more literal reading of the New Testament

[21] Luther relied on the teachings of Paul that grace is a free gift of God and that faith alone justified a sinner to effectively call into question the Church’s whole ritualization of Jesus’ message. We do not intend to enter the debate whether Luther is begging the question by basing his interpretation of Christianity and critique of Roman Catholicism almost exclusively on Paul’s interpretation of Christianity.

[22] According to Luther, the super-structure of the medieval Catholic Church arose by departing from the literal sense of Scripture. He understood that the Bible itself is to provide the checks and balances; in fact, Luther and Calvin insisted on Scripture providing the foundations of a prophetic critique paralleling the prophetic rejection of the super-structure of pre-exilic Israel.

[23] For example, with no literal Fall or transmission of Adam’s curse to the rest of humankind, there is no necessity for Jesus’ death.

[24] Ironically, the hallmark of the Protestant movement, as well as the reason that there are more than ten thousand branches of Protestantism in America alone, is the freedom to interpret the Old and New Testament as one sees fit. Yet, when it comes to creationism, even though grammatically, philologically, and exegetically, there are other, of not better ways to read the text, many Protestants hold fast in their alleged literal reading of the text.

[25] In this way, the Catholic Church’s approach to exegesis closely parallels the method employed by the Jewish medieval exegetes, while the modern Protestant approach to exegesis exactly corresponds to contemporary right-wing Jewish commentaries in their censorship of non-literalism.

[26] Science on Trial by Douglas Futuyama (New York: Pantheon Books, 1982), p. 24, from Andrew Dickson White, A History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom, Vol. 1 (London: Macmillan, 1896; reprint ed., New York: Dover 1960).

[27] Evolution and the Living God, Pope John Paul II chapter 9, Peter’s Science and theology, pp. 149-152.

[28] Cf. Acta Apostolicae Sedis 42 (1950), pp. 575-6.

[29] The present pope, Pope Benedict XVI endorsed a similar statement when, in his pre-pope days as president of the Commission and head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in July 2004, said: “it is virtually certain that all living organisms have descended from this first organism.”

[30] The Church believes in some form of theistic teleological evolution.

[31] Pope John Paul II also wrote to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences on the subject of cosmology and how to interpret Genesis:

Cosmogony and cosmology have always aroused great interest among peoples and religions. The Bible itself speaks to us of the origin of the universe and its make-up, not in order to provide us with a scientific treatise, but in order to state the correct relationships of man with God and with the universe. Sacred Scripture wishes simply to declare that the world was created by God, and in order to teach this truth it expresses itself in the terms of the cosmology in use at the time of the writer. The Sacred Book likewise wishes to tell men that the world was not created as the seat of the gods, as was taught by other cosmogonies and cosmologies, but was rather created for the service of man and the glory of God. Any other teaching about the origin and make-up of the universe is alien to the intentions of the Bible, which does not wish to teach how heaven was made but how one goes to heaven (Pope John Paul II, October 3, 1981 to the Pontifical Academy of Science, “Cosmology and Fundamental Physics”).

[32] Obviously this is a statement that Paul would deny; nevertheless, in practive, what drives the Church is not the literal sense of the text. The Church always finds a way to interpret the Bible consistent with their beliefs.

[33] Origen says that “we have treated to the best of our ability in our notes upon Genesis, as well as in the foregoing pages, when we found fault with those who, taking the words in their apparent signification, said that the time of six days was occupied in the creation of the world” (Against Celus 6:60).

[34] See St. Augustine 2:9; also see 1:19–20, Chap. 19.

[35] The Magisterium is headed by the Pope who serves as the primus inter pares (first among equals) over the rest of the bishops.

[36] Similarly, when a ‘צ’ is transliterated into English, many times, an author will simply write a ‘Z’ with a dot under it. See BT Shabbat 117a where the word ‘בי נצרפי’ appears referring to the annex of a church.

[37] Charlesworth (Charlesworth, James H., & Weaver, Walter P. The Old and New Testaments. Valley Forge, PA: Trinity Press International, 1993) says “to many Christian readers, to say nothing of the Jewish reader, the NT’s interpretation of the Old appears to be exceedingly arbitrary,” (p. 209), and that’s putting it lightly.

[38] See GAM 2:20

[39] Goodwin, Mark J. (April 2005). Hosea and the “Son of the Living God” in Matthew 16:16.  Catholic Biblical Quarterly, 67 No. 2, pp. 265-283.

[40] p. 202, E. Earle Ellis in “How the New Testament Uses the Old” in New Testament Interpretation. Edited by I. H. Marshall. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1978.

[41] At Vatican II, the council concluded that both clergy and laity were to continue making Bible study a central part of their lives. This only reinforced Pope Pius XII’s encouragement of scholars to study the Ancient Biblical languages for a better grasp of the original meaning of the text, in his 1943 encyclical letter Divino Afflante Spiritu.

[42] Majjhima Nikaya, I, 1966. Cited in Kenneth Morgan, ed., The Path of the Budda (New York, 1956), p. 18.

[43] Ernst Mayr, What Evolution Is, 2001, Basic Books, p. 4.

[44] Lipschutz, Rabbi Yisrael. Derush Ohr ha-Hayim in Teferet Yisrael, Danzig (1845) quoted from Raphael Shuchat’s article “Attitudes Towards Cosmogony and Evolution Among Rabbinic Thinkers in the Nineteenth and Early Twentieth Centuries: The Resurgence of the Doctrine of the Sabbatical Year” (pp. 15-48), from The Torah U-Madda Journal (2005). In many ways, the renowned R. Abraham Isaac Kook (1865-1935) put forth a similar approach to that of R. Lipschutz in regards to evolution.

[45] Benamozegh, R. Elijah. “Il Mio Credo” found in Teologia-Dogmatica E Apologetica, Liverno (1877) Vol. 1, pp. 276-77 quoted from Raphael Shuchat’s article “Attitudes Towards Cosmogony and Evolution Among Rabbinic Thinkers in the Nineteenth and Early Twentieth Centuries: The Resurgence of the Doctrine of the Sabbatical Year” (p. 29), from The Torah U-Madda Journal (2005).

[46] Rabbi Menachem Schneerson, Mind Over Matter, pp. 32-3, Jerusalem: Shamir, 2003, from R. Natan Slifkin’s The Science of Torah.

[47] Though, Bertrand Russell pointed out that, philosophically speaking, it is possible that the world was created but a moment ago, and hence there was no real historical beginning to the universe; nonetheless, atheists, for obvious reasons, would not quickly consent to that alternative.

[48] One might wonder how it is that that machine was able to work given that there was no physical existence, but this technical question would not faze the atheist. Just as s/he does not ask who initiated the Big Bang, so too, s/he would not be interested in who turned on the creation machine; the atheists could argue that sometimes stuff like that just happens, and if it did not, we would not be here to question it.

[49] Soloveitchik, Joseph B. The Emergence of Ethical Man (New York: Toras HaRav/Ktav 2005), p. 6, quoted from R. Natan Slifkin’s The Science of Creation.

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