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The Problem of Man’s Origin: Conclusions at the End of "Evolution and Theology"


Evolution and Theology

The excerpt proposed here gathers the conclusion of the essay on “Evolution and Theology” by Ernest C. Messenger. Already in 1932, the author offers a lucid and deep theological examination of the evolutionary view of life and mankind. The text makes clear how the Christian theological tradition has an array of conceptual tools to deal, ante litteram, with the evolutionary view. Reference to the “Principle of Christian Naturalism” is also interesting, especially as far as “naturalism” is usually meant as opposed to any theistic approach.

We here endeavour to sum up the results of our study of the theological aspect of the origin of living beings in general, and of man in particular.

As to the origin of living beings in general, we consider that the Scriptural statement that this was due to secondary causes, i.e. to powers implanted in inorganic matter by the Creator, and the unanimous interpretation of this Scriptural statement by Fathers and Theologians up to the thirteenth century, cannot and must not lightly be set aside. It was set aside indeed by the Aristotelian Scholastics in the thirteenth century, but for reasons based upon the scientific and physical ideas of their time. That is to say, if the decrees of the Biblical Commission had been issued in the time of St. Thomas, the Angelic Doctor would evidently have maintained that this was a case in which “reason forbids, or necessity compels” us to abandon, the literal sense. But we are now convinced that the reason which led St. Thomas to abandon in this way the long-standing tradition of the Fathers was an erroneous one. How does the matter stand to-day? Science has shown that there is absolutely no evidence that spontaneous generation takes place now. But that does not prove that it could not take place if conditions were different, or that it did not take place at the beginning—in fact, there are many scientists who think this must have happened. In any case, as the scientific conclusion is rather of a negative character—that is, it does not prove that spontaneous generation never took place—we ourselves prefer to base our belief in the spontaneous generation of life at the commencement on theological grounds, i.e. the testimony of Scripture and Tradition.

As to the evolution of species, we consider that the scientific evidence, consisting as it does of so many converging lines, is sufficient to give a fairly high degree of certitude concerning the fact of, at any rate, some evolution, though opinions must necessarily, differ as to the mode. And from the theological point of view, we consider that evolution is the only reasonable way of harmonizing our modern knowledge of the succession of geological epochs, with their flora and fauna, with the Scriptural statement that the earth produced all the present-day species.

From the scientific point of view, there is so far no conclusive evidence that man has evolved. There are certain facts that seem to point that way, but we think we may safely regard the theory itself as a working hypothesis, or, better still, as an inference. But as an inference, it is very attractive. If, as we have said, all other species arose by some sort of evolutionary process, it is but natural that we should consider it likely that man was also in some way evolved, even though there may be no convincing scientific evidence as yet that he has done so. Indeed, science may never succeed in finding any decisive evidence on the point.

From the theological point of view, we must repeat that, in our own view, scripture yields only a negative result. That is to say, Scripture neither teaches nor disproves the doctrine of the evolution of the human body. This we infer on two grounds:

(1) Scripture constantly ascribes to God the results of the activity of secondary causes; hence the absence of any mention of secondary causes does not prove that such were not present.

(2) The phrase in Genesis 2,7, “God formed the man dust from the earth” has an exact parallel in Genesis 2,19, “God formed all the animals from the earth.” But we know from Genesis ii. that the animals were all produced by the earth. Therefore we cannot prove that man was not produced by the active powers in nature.

As to tradition several Fathers of great weight and standing, including Doctors of the Church, teach that man was formed, at least in part, by the activity of secondary causes. Other Fathers, it is true, regard the formation of Adam's body as peculiarly the work of God, but their Scriptural exegesis is faulty here, and moreover their view is explicitly rejected by other Fathers of great weight, including Doctors of the Church. The only Patristic text definitely excluding the co-operation of material causes in the formation of man is a worthless Homily wrongly ascribed either to St. Basil or St. Gregory of Nyssa.

The attitude of the scholastic was at least in part a consequence of their physical and scientific theories.

Church authority has so far abstained from determining the question, which is therefore to all intents and purposes still an open one.

Many modern theologians are hostile to the theory, but their opposition would seem to be based upon a too literal interpretation of the Scripture, misunderstanding of the Patristic evidence, and an exaggerated notion of the effect of certain Roman acts, doctrinal and disciplinary.


We now come to the question of the partial co-operation of created secondary causes in the production of the human body.

This is a difficult and delicate subject, but we very tentatively make the suggestion that it could be discussed under the three heads comprising the famous Scotist argument for the Immaculate Conception —“potuit, decuit, ergo fecit.”

1. Potuit. God could have made use of secondary causes as instruments, in the formation of the human body. The abstract possibility is allowed, we think, by practically all responsible theologians, and so we need not develop this point.

2. Decuit. This may be thought to be the most debatable point of the three, but we think it is the easiest to answer, in virtue of what we have called the “Principle of Christian Naturalism.” This principle may be expressed as follows: “God makes use of secondary causes wherever possible.” This principle runs counter completely to the ideas of those theologians who argue that because God must have immediately created the human soul, He must also have formed immediately the human body. The principle is such an important one the we must develop in a little.

As St. Thomas points out in his masterly treatment in Contra Gentes, Book III, c. 69, if God has given being to created things, He must also endowed them with activities, and further, if He did not makes use of these activities so far as possible, He would be acting against His own Divine Wisdom. Here are two passages from the Angelic Doctor:

“He who gives to a thing some principal characteristic, also give to it all those things which follow upon this. Thus the cause which gives to an elementary body heaviness also give it a downward motion. But to make something to be in act follows upon being act, as is evident in God, for He is pure act, and is the first cause of being in all things, as said above. If then He has communicated to other things, His own similitude as to being, inasmuch as He has produced things in being, it follows that He also communicated to them Him similitude as to acting, so that created things may also have their proper actions.”

“It is against the nature of wisdom that there should be anything in vain the works of a wise person. But if created things in no way operates in producing effects, but God alone did all things immediately, then it would be to no purpose that He had made other things capable of producing effects.”

This theory of God’s use of secondary causes becomes all the more luminous when we remember that all secondary causes must be regarded ultimately as His instruments. He is the great First Cause, and from Him comes all that has being. Created things would not exist if He did not give them being; they could not produce any effect if He did not concur with their activities and powers. Created agents, then, are instruments in the hands of the Deity.

But it is also true that there are grades in this instrumental causality. Thus, there are some created agents which themselves make use of others, and moreover, the effects they produce by means of these instruments are proportioned to their own natural powers as created causes. On these grounds they may truly be said to be, in the created order, the principal causes of the effects produced. Thus a sculptor is the principal cause of the statue he carves with a chisel, and again, human parents are the principal causes of their children. These effects cannot strictly be attributed to the instrumental causes employed, though these are active throughout, for the effects are not proportioned to the proper activity of these instruments. Thus we cannot say strictly that a chisel has produced a statue, or that the embryonic forms have generated the human child.

There are other cases in which created agents do indeed make use of others, yet the effects are out of proportion even to the activity of the created “principal” causes. In such cases the effects cannot strictly be attributed to the created “principal” causes, but only to the true principal cause, which may have to be sought outside the created order, in God Himself. This would be the case in the hypothesis of spontaneous generation, as also in that of the evolution of species in general, and of man's body in particular. The production of the first human body was an effect out of proportion to any organic cause then existing on the earth, for the human body is specifically different from, and superior to, any other body, as we remarked on p. 86. Hence its production, though brought about through the instrumentality of created organic causes, could not strictly be attributed to those causes, but (inasmuch as we have good reasons for excluding angelic agency) only to God Himself. Thus the production of the first human body could properly be said to be due to a “special” display of Divine activity, or a "special Divine intervention" if that phrase is preferred, and yet it would remain true that secondary organic causes co-operated in its production. And inasmuch as the whole creation was meant to lead up to man, we think it in every way fitting that God should thus have made use of secondary causes in the formation of Adam’s body.

Lastly, if anyone should think that the suggestion that God acts through secondary causes wherever and whenever possible is not consonant with the Divine dignity, we suggest that he should read and reflect on the wonderful chapter of St. Thomas in the Contra Gentiles, III, c. 77, “Quod executio divinae providentiae fit mediantibus causis secundis.” Space will not allow us to transcribe it here. Or again he might reflect upon the profound philosophy contained in the remark of Mother Carey in Kingsley’s Water Babies: “I am not going to trouble myself to make things ... I sit here and make things make themselves” (p. 228).

3. Fecit? We put a mark of interrogation here deliberately. We ourselves are inclined to conclude, on the theological grounds just outlined, that nature did co-operate in the formation of Adam's body. There are two reasons, however, which counsel prudence in this matter.

The first is the attitude of Ecclesiastical Authority. After all, a Catholic does not assent to a doctrine simply because he thinks it is explicitly taught in Scripture or Tradition, but because it comes to him on the authority of the Church, the Divine Teacher sent by God to man. The Church guarantees that the doctrine in question is really contained in Scripture or Tradition. After all, it belongs to the Church alone to interpret both Scripture and Tradition. A private interpretation of the Scriptures may easily be erroneous, and as to the Fathers, some of these held opinions which were not approved subsequently by the Church. St. Augustine leaned towards Traducianism, St. Gregory of Nyssa toward Restitutionism, and so on. Should the Church decide that Adam's body was formed immediately and exclusively by God from inanimate matter, a Catholic author, who had hitherto held the contrary would at once wholeheartedly admit that his own interpretation of Scripture had been incorrect, and that those Fathers whose ideas he adopted and developed were not safe guides in the matter. The Church has, it is true, not yet decided the question, but it is always possible that she might see fit in her wisdom to do so some day, and hence the need for caution in the matter.

Secondly, we have the hostile attitude adopted by so many modern theologians. We ourselves think that this attitude is a mistaken one, and cherish the hope that a reconsideration of the matter may lead them to take a wider view, as has happened in the case of the evolution of species in general. But so long as theological opinion remains what it is, a Catholic would do well to hesitate before adopting definitely a view to which so many authors are opposed.

Accordingly we think it on the whole preferable for a Catholic to suspend his judgment on the matter at the present moment, or at least not to give any unqualified assent to the evolutionary hypothesis. And so we end on a note of interrogation: “Fecit”?

E.C. Messenger, Evolution and Theology. The Problem of Man’s Origin (New York: The Macmillan Co.,  1932), pp. 274-280.