The Pope on evolution
Published: 1 November 2014 (GMT+10)
Roman Catholics consider Pope Francis (Jorge Mario Bergoglio, b. 1936) to be the successor to the Apostle Peter, and therefore having authority over Christians worldwide. Protestant creationists today have another reason to be glad that we reject this error.
The Vatican quotes1 Pope Francis:
When we read in Genesis the account of Creation, we risk imagining God as a magus, with a magic wand able to make everything. But that is not so. He created beings and allowed them to develop according to the internal laws that He gave to each one, so that they were able to develop and arrive at their fullness of being. … And so creation continued for centuries and centuries, millennia and millennia, until it became which we know today, precisely because God is not a demiurge or conjurer, but the Creator who gives being to all things. The beginning of the world is not the work of chaos that owes its origin to another, but derives directly from a supreme Origin that creates out of love. The Big Bang, which nowadays is posited as the origin of the world, does not contradict the divine act of creating, but rather requires it. The evolution of nature does not contrast with the notion of Creation, as evolution presupposes the creation of beings that evolve.2
While his comments were certainly more moderate than other translations of his statement in the press, he clearly accepts evolution and the billions-of-years timescale. This should not be surprising, since the Catholic church has accepted evolution for about 50 years now.
We have noted the theological problems of theistic evolution, or even allowing a billions-of-years timescale. Anyone who reads Scripture seriously can see that the Bible clearly teaches that God created over a period of six normal-length days around 6,000 years ago. Unfortunately for Catholics, their sole authority isn’t Scripture, but the Church, which is the only ‘infallible interpreter’ of Scripture according to their theology.
Peter vs his ‘successor’
When we look to Peter, the ‘first pope’, we see that his attitude toward the biblical account of origins is quite different:
“ … scoffers will come in the last days with scoffing, following their own sinful desires. They will say, ‘Where is the promise of his coming? For ever since the fathers fell asleep, all things are continuing as they were from the beginning of creation.’ For they deliberately overlook this fact, that the heavens existed long ago, and that the earth was formed out of water and through water by the word of God, and that by means of these the world that then existed was deluged with water and then perished. But by the same word the heavens and earth that now exist are stored up for fire, being kept until the day of judgment and the destruction of the ungodly”
(2 Peter 3:3–7).
In Peter’s proclamation we see first of all a complete acceptance of the biblical history of the world. And Scripture is his starting point, not other ideas in the culture. Peter is countering what may be called a sort of ‘uniformitarian’ argument: we see things proceeding in the same way that it has for as long as anyone can remember. But Peter points us to Genesis to remind us that things haven’t always been like this, in fact, there are three great discontinuities in history:
- Creation of the world from water by the Word of God. The world has not always existed, contrary to the popular philosophy of Peter’s day. Up until the 20th century, an eternally-existing world has been a theory that some scientists have tried to defend. Now they are forced to admit that the universe had a beginning, but the big bang has several important differences from the biblical account which means that it could not have been the way that God created.
- Destruction of the world with water by the decree of God. Peter accepted that there was a global Flood that killed everyone except the eight people on board the Ark (1 Peter 3:20). We know from creation geology models that a catastrophe of this scale would account for the geological layers containing all sorts of fossils (which is why it’s not surprising to us that it has evidence of carnivory, cancer, and thorns—because it’s a record of the post-Fall world). And if a year-long global catastrophe explains the majority of the fossil record, there is no room for millions of years of earth history.
- The future destruction of the world with fire by the decree of God. The next great discontinuity in earth history will be the end of the present world. Extrapolating today’s processes, it is clear that the universe is headed towards ‘heat death’ several billion years in the future when the universe is in the state of maximum entropy. But Scripture points to a much sooner demise of the universe, not by natural processes, but with fervent heat which will melt the elements. This will pave the way for the New Heavens and Earth and the resurrection of the dead.
In contrast to Francis, Peter stands on the firm foundation of Scripture and is unafraid to flatly contradict the uniformitarians of his own day.
Was Peter a pope?
Catholics believe that Jesus made Peter the first pope when He said, “You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church” (Matthew 16:18). The interpretation of this verse is actually important for Catholic theology.
He says, “You are Peter (Πέτρος, Petros), and on this rock (ταύτῃ τῇ πέτρᾳ, tautē tē petra) I will build my church.” ταύτῃ τῇ πέτρᾳ cannot refer to Simon Peter since it’s in the feminine gender; if it was referring to Peter, it would be in the masculine. Also, petros would have referred to a small rock, while petra would have referred to a huge immoveable rock—one suitable for a foundation stone. So Jesus is saying, “You are a small pebble, Simon, but on this boulder I am going to build my church!” So Peter is not the rock—his confession is, according to many Church Fathers—about half of whom spoke Greek as their native language. Many other Church Fathers thought that the rock was Jesus, and even those who thought that the Rock was Peter believed that it was a personal promise to him alone, not to any successors based in Rome.3
We also see that Peter was not treated with unusual deference by the apostles and early church. In Acts 11, the Jerusalem Church makes Peter defend his actions regarding fellowship with Gentiles. This was as it should be, since the apostles had previously sent Peter from Jerusalem (Acts 8:14). And when Peter justifies himself, he does not do so with an ex cathedra statement about the new inclusion of Gentiles, but by recounting Jesus’ instruction through the vision and the Holy Spirit falling on the Gentile converts, signaling divine approval. Then in another debate about what requirements should be placed on gentile Christians in Acts 15, the final decision is made by James, the leader of the Jerusalem church. Later, both Peter and James, as well as John, “seemed to be pillars” of the early Church (Galatians 2:9).
And in Galatians 2, Paul recounts a time when he opposed Peter because he was acting inconsistently with regard to fellowship with Gentiles. Surely if Peter were some sort of divinely ordained leader, an infallible intermediary, Paul would not have been able to do this! Also, Paul wrote an epistle to the Church of Rome, expecting this church to submit to his letter as Scripture, which contradicts the Catholic teaching that the Church is above the Bible.
Scripture itself teaches that Peter was an apostle, hand-picked by Jesus. But outside of his inspired letters, even Peter could err, and there is no hint of the idea that there were successors to Peter’s office (in fact, for a couple of decades, that would result in popes 2–4 having authority over the apostle John, who lived well into the ‘papacy’ of Clement!).
An unnecessary compromise
Perhaps the Pope wanted to gain some intellectual respectability with his pronouncements, but secularists have long noted that not only is evolution by definition a godless process, but a god who would use evolution is certainly not the God of Christianity. No secularist will be particularly impressed that Francis would acknowledge evolution; rather, they would wonder why Francis would cling to a belief in God in light of the ‘fact’ of evolution.
In fact, Francis might have done more harm than good, because those who (wrongly) look to him as a spiritual authority might be discouraged by his compromise and lose trust in the Bible.
We would direct Francis to the example of Peter, and past leaders of the Church who strongly affirmed creation, even against competing origin theories. In fact, this includes people that the Catholic Church regards as ‘saints’ and even ‘doctors of the church’, a small prestigious subset of ‘saints’. If we trust Scripture’s accuracy and sufficiency, we will not be blown off course by every cultural and scientific fad. But most of all, we would point the Pope to Christ, the true vicar, and the true Head of the Church, who clearly believed in a literal Adam and Eve, and a recent creation.
References and notes
- Francis’ remarks were originally in Italian; what follows is the translation provided by the Vatican. Return to text.
- Francis in the Pontifical Academy of Sciences emphasises the responsibility of humanity in creation, 27 October 2014, news.va. Return to text.
- Salmon, G., Infallibility of the Church, Ch. 18, ‘The prerogatives of Peter’, 1888. George Salmon (1819–1904) was Regius Professor of Divinity at Trinity College, Dublin. Return to text.