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The perils of scientific illiteracy

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Published: 2 October 2018 (GMT+10)
Casa Rosada, Wikipediapope-Franciscus
According to Pope Francis, God was limited in His act of creation.

This draws from material first published in Journal of Creation.1

When Pope Francis addressed the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, he argued that ideas like the ‘big bang’ and evolution are perfectly compatible with the Christian faith.2 Astonishingly, he declared

“When we read about Creation in Genesis, we run the risk of imagining God was a magician, with a magic wand able to do everything. But that is not so.”

That someone claiming to teach the Christian faith could have made such a statement beggars belief. Job said to God “I know that you can do all things, and that no purpose of yours can be thwarted” (Job 42:2). According to Psalm 135:6, “Whatever the LORD pleases, he does, in heaven and on earth, in the seas and all deeps”. Jesus Himself declared, “with God all things are possible” (Matthew 19:26).

Moreover, the Bible emphatically contradicts these naturalistic accounts of origins. Whereas in big bang cosmology, the stars come into being before the earth, in Genesis 1, God makes the earth before the stars. Whereas in big bang theory the earth arose from dust and gas, according to the Apostle Peter, God formed the earth from water (2 Peter 3:5). The theory of evolution maintains that people arose from ape-like creatures; but, according to Genesis, God made the first man from earth (Genesis 2:7).

Declaration of 1277

Pope Francis appears to be unaware of the history of his own denomination. In 1277, Etienne Tempier, Bishop of Paris, and Robert Kilwardby, Archbishop of Canterbury, formally condemned a list of 219 propositions as contrary to the Christian faith. These focussed particularly on the teaching of Greek philosophers, and the need to refute the idea that God was in any way limited in His absolute power to do whatever He wishes.

In the thinking of Plato, when ‘the Demiurge’ (the creator) shaped the world, he was not free to make it as he wished, but had to conform to certain rules and principles. In addition he had to use materials he had not created himself and these tended to resist his attempts to form them. Similarly, his pupil Aristotle saw the creator as having only limited power to impose his preferred order on the natural world. Galen was another influential Greek writer who rejected the Genesis account of creation because this was contrary to his understanding that the creator would be limited in his work by the nature of matter.3

Significantly, some historians of science have argued that it was the rejection of this Greek thinking, and its replacement with the Christian doctrine of God’s omnipotence, that paved the way for modern science.4,5,6,7 In biblical thinking, God would not have been constrained in His act of Creation, but would have made the universe entirely in accordance with His own will, its nature and operating principles being determined wholly by His choice. This suggested that the Greek approach to science, which had dominated among intellectuals for centuries, was wrong.

Plato sought to deduce facts about the universe based on his own reason. For example, to him planets must move in circular orbits as only this would be fitting and honourable to the gods. In contrast, Johannes Kepler discovered that planets move in elliptical orbits by making observations. Kepler justified his approach arguing that “God the Creator, since he is a mind, and does what he wants, is not prohibited … from having regard to things which are either immaterial or based on imagination.”8 Similarly, Isaac Newton, another biblical creationist, argued that “God is able … to vary the Laws of Nature and make Worlds of several sorts in several Parts of the Universe.”9 To the likes of Kepler and Newton, only by studying physical phenomena could the true nature of the universe be known—a realisation that underpins science today. It is therefore ironic that Pope Francis, when addressing a scientific symposium, should be advocating a view that held back scientific progress for many centuries.

God in nature?

Pope Francis continued,

“I only want to underline that God and Christ are walking with us and are also present in nature … God created beings and he let them develop according to the internal laws with which He endowed each one, that they might develop, and reach their fullness.”

Yet this was another error that had to be corrected before true scientific thinking could take hold.

According to the Greek philosophers, the laws which cause objects and living things to behave as they do arise from god-like powers within themselves. Planets follow orbital paths because their very nature gives them a tendency to do so; stones fall to the ground because this is their natural inclination. During the medieval period this kind of thinking was adopted by some Catholic theologians. Objects, they believed, had soul-like characteristics, which they sometimes referred to as ‘occult qualities’. These supposedly produced effects by ‘sympathy’ and ‘antipathy’.10 Sympathy, for example, was thought to explain the attraction of iron to a magnet. The doctrine of horror vacui (horror of a vacuum) was thought to explain why water rose in ‘suction’ or ‘vacuum’ pump barrels. Supposedly, this was because nature had an antipathy to empty space.11,12

The ideas of ‘God in nature’ and ‘internal laws’ were emphatically denied by the founders of modern science who argued from the Bible that natural laws act externally to objects, being imposed by God who is wholly separate from His creation. God is the one who gathered the waters together (Genesis 1:9) and “assigned to the sea its limit, so that the waters might not transgress his command” (Proverbs 8:29). He “made a decree for the rain and a way for the lightning of the thunder” (Job 28:26). He created the sun to govern the day and night (Genesis 1:16), “commanded the morning … and caused the dawn to know its place” (Job 38:12). He created the stars to mark the seasons (Genesis 1:14), knows “the ordinances of the heavens” and established “their rule on the earth” (Job 38:33). He continually “upholds the universe by the word of his power” (Hebrews 1:3).

Natural laws imposed by God

In the Old Testament, God’s commands to nature are often expressed in legal language. For example, the Hebrew word huq is used in both Proverbs 8:29 and Job 28:26. It’s verbal form means to ‘engrave’ or ‘legislate’ and is often used in the context of God giving moral and ritual laws. In both these verses, the fourth century Vulgate translation uses the Latin word lex, meaning ‘law’. According to philosopher of science Edgar Zilsel, verses such as these “were quoted through the centuries again and again, and have decidedly contributed to the formation of concepts in rising natural science.”13 Galileo Galilei, for example, wrote that nature “never transgresses the bounds of the laws imposed to it”, being a “most careful executor of the orders of God” and argued for nature’s strict observance of God’s commands citing, among others, Job 28:26, Job 38:8–11 and Psalm 104:9.14

Drawing from the Bible, Newton wrote,

“This most beautiful system of the sun, planets, and comets, could only proceed from the counsel and dominion of an intelligent and powerful Being. … This Being governs all things, not as the soul of the world, but as Lord over all; and on account of his dominion he is wont to be called Lord God or Universal Ruler”.15

In the preface to his greatest work, the Principia, he wrote of how modern thinkers, having discarded “occult qualities have endeavoured to subject the phenomena of nature to the laws of mathematics”. To him, the oceans were not drawn towards the moon because of a soul-like ‘sympathy’, but because of the impersonal law of gravity imposed on the natural world by God.

Again, it seems ironic that Pope Francis should be preaching to scientists the very doctrines of ‘God in nature’ and ‘internal laws’ that had to be rejected before true science could flourish.

Ignorance is unnecessary

My experience of many church leaders is that they are afraid of science and this partly explains why, like Pope Francis, they so easily capitulate to ‘experts’ who assure them that ideas like the big bang and evolution are true. They then perform theological summersaults in their attempts to incorporate these ‘scientific’ accounts of origins into the Bible—despite, in some cases, simultaneously admitting that they seem to be in conflict. There is, however, no need for this. Most educated people are well able to grasp the basic principles which would enable them to see through the pseudoscience and flawed theology being presented. With your prayers and support, we can continue to play our part in helping people to do this.

References and notes

  1. Statham, D.R., Christian theology and the rise of Newtonian science: imposed law and the divine will, J. Creation 32(2):103–109, 2018. Return to text.
  2. Address of his holiness Pope Francis on the occasion of the inauguration of the bust in honour of Pope Benedict XV1, Plenary session of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, 27 October 2014. Return to text.
  3. Hooykass, R., Religion and the Rise of Modern Science, Scottish Academic Press, Edinburgh, 1977. First printed 1972. Return to text.
  4. Stark, R., For the Glory of God: How monotheism led to reformations, science, witch-hunts and the end of slavery, Princeton University Press, USA, ch. 2, 2003. Return to text.
  5. Ref. 3, ch. 1. Return to text.
  6. Jaki, S.L., Science and Creation, Scottish Academic Press, Edinburgh, 1986. Return to text.
  7. Foster, M.B., The Christian doctrine of creation and the rise of modern natural science, Mind 43(172):446–468, October 1934. Return to text.
  8. Harrison, P., The development of the concept of laws of nature; in Watts, F., ed., Creation: Law and probability, Ashgate, UK, 2008. Return to text.
  9. Newton, I., Opticks: A treatise on the reflections, refractions inflections and colours of light, Dover Publications, New York, pp. 403–404, 1952. Return to text.
  10. Zilsel, E., The Social Origins of Modern Science, Springer Science, p. 176, 2003; first published c. 1940. Return to text.
  11. Zilsel, ref. 10, p. 177. Return to text.
  12. Simonyi, K., A Cultural History of Physics, CRC Press, USA, pp. 233–234, English Translation 2012. Return to text.
  13. Zilsel, E., The Genesis of the concept of physical law, Philosophical Review 51(3):245–279, 1942. Return to text.
  14. Steinle, F., The amalgamation of a concept—laws of nature in the new sciences, in Weinert, F., ed., Laws of Nature: Essays on the philosophical, scientific and historical dimensions, Walter de Greyter, New York, pp. 316–368, 1995. Return to text.
  15. Newton, I., The Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy, Book III, 1687; translated by Motte, A., Daniel Adee, New York, p. 504, 1846; archive.org. Return to text.

Helpful Resources

15 Reasons to Take Genesis as History
by Dr Don Batten, Dr Jonathan D Sarfati
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by Jonathan Sarfati
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Readers’ comments

John P.
It would seem Pope Francis has not truly studied Genesis and is not only scientifically illiterate but ignorant of the history of his predecessors, for example Pope Urban of the 19th century who was a biblical creationist. Popes are like the rest of us fallible human beings in need of the Lord's forgiveness, only Jesus is sinless. This sort of thing is the primary reason why so many people leave churches never to be seen again. Thank God for CMI and other likeminded organisations
Gina T.
It would do the pope well to have a faith-based read of his Bible rather than speculate, as he appears to, on the unknown.
'Just as you cannot understand the path of the wind or the mystery of a tiny baby growing in its mother's womb, so you cannot understand the activity of God who does all things." Ecclesiastes 11:5 NLT
MICHAEL R.
Thank you for your article Dominic. As a Catholic myself I am very disappointed at some of the things Pope Francis has said. Unfortunately, he often seems to be of one mind with the many liberal theologians who have arisen within the Catholic Church over the past 60 years, and have done a great deal of damage. He certainly should not be saying the sort of things that you have quoted. In my opinion such things only go to further erode the faith of Catholics, many of whom in the western world have just "given up" on their faith in the past few decades. Those of us who are Creationists within the Catholic Church face an uphill battle to try to get our fellow Catholics to read and appreciate the Bible, and to even consider the possibility that evolution is one huge lie.
Bill P.
I am not surprised. I'm a former Catholic, born and raised, and even educated in that system for almost 12 yrs. I've never forgot what a teacher (priest) said to the class I attended the very first day of Theology class. "Those stories in The Bible about creation, Adam & Eve, and Noah's Flood, don't believe them they are not true". This was in 1970 and in those days you did not question what you were taught because you risked a severe punishment.

At that time I was not a believer, (that happened 11 yrs. later, Thank God) but I remember thinking what the teacher of that class said was very strange. Now 47 yrs. later I understand. "In The Last days many will appear to be godly on the outside yet they will deny The Living God".

I am in AWE of The True and Living God. Some one with The Power and Glory to create the heavens and the earth and all in it, YET for a time HE took on the form of human flesh (willingly) making Himself a servant to All mankind. The Truth and Knowledge of what The Lord did (willingly) to redeem me to The Father in heaven still blows me away. Who else but Him could have done such a thing. I owe Him everything, yet everything belongs to Him already and now He has my heart.

I would say to anyone looking for The Truth of what life is all about. Set your heart on The True and Living God, The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob and He will reveal Himself to you. Read The Word of God for yourself with a heart after God and His Holy Spirit will guide you in ALL Truth. He did it for me, saving my life in the process.

I like the work you guys do. We need to hear the truth in these last days. Thank You.
Chris S.
It's the evolutionists who are waving a magic wand. I've just read this in the health pages in today's Daily Mail. The title is, Blame the Cavemen: "As our ancestors began to walk upright around three million years ago, our hips also narrowed to make the movement more efficient.....Over the same period, our brains became bigger. This has led to babies whose heads are too big to fit through the birth canal...".

So evolution waves it's magic wand, says abracadabra, and all the unique un-apelike features of the human brain just appear as it 'becomes bigger'!
Robert S.
Great article lifting up the God of heaven!
Thomas M.
As Catholics who follow news of the Pope know, he is somewhat illiterate also when it comes to Catholic faith, morals and doctrine. He is simply the product of his Jesuit formation ... and the belief in evolution on the part of the Pope is a "Jesuit dogma." Informed Catholics understand that any Pope is capable of giving his opinion about anything but unless he is in accordance with the 2000-year teaching based on scripture and the tradition of the Fathers and then expresses it formally in a manner in which it is understood to be a belief to be held by the universal church, it is nothing more than his opinion. Catholic theistic evolutionists grab on to the loose canon statements of Francis either because they are disingenuous or ignorant of the conditions dogmatically defined for when we are obliged to give the assent of our will (even if not convinced.)
Chuck R.
Interesting to see that we are returning to the thinking of the ‘old philosophers’ (Plato & company) with their belief that the material world has its own inclination, its own ability to shape itself, just as Darwin does with his invoking Natural Selection to explain how life spontaneously evolves to higher and higher life forms.
There really is “nothing new under the sun.” Ecclesiastes 1:9
Alexander L.
... Godless scientist simply put up with the pope because he strengthens their case for evolution, but no doubt in secret they revile him. But no Christian worth his salt is affect by any thing that he or pseudo science has to say.
W. Wade S.
“There are no ‘Laws of Nature’. There are God’s Laws. Nature obeys them.”

I know of no more concise summation that serves to differentiate between the secular and the Christian attitudes towards nature and science. The secularist mindset gives primacy to “Nature”, in which God either does not exist or is irrelevant. CMI’s great, and blessed, contribution to God’s Kingdom is the refutation of compromise with secularism in the area of science (e.g., Dr. Sarfati’s seminal “Refuting Compromise”). The importance of this contribution cannot be overstated. I was once a secularist, imbued with standard-issue materialist presuppositions that are the atmosphere we breath in modern/post-modern life. And even after coming to a saving faith, for a long time I held compromising views not unlike those expressed by Pope Francis. However, I now see how those views are subversive to every item in our “Armor of God” (Ephesians 6:10-20). They are at odds with the “belt” of truth; call into question not only the source of “righteousness” and the “gospel of peace”, but also our “helmet of salvation” and the “sword of the spirit… the word of God.” All of which undermines and subverts our “shield of faith”. I urge everyone to continue in “prayer and supplication in the Spirit” for the excellent work of this worthy ministry.
Patrick P.
A variation on Joshua 24:15:
And if it seems evil to you to serve the Lord, choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve, whether the gods of evolution which were served before modern science, or the God Who created the Heavens and the Earth. But as for me and my house, we will serve the Creator Lord. (They are not the same god /God and only One can save!)
Gina V.
I printed out this article, plus "The Pope on Evolution", and sent it in the mail to the Vatican today! You never know, maybe the Pope will actually consider the words written in them. Well, doesn't hurt to try.

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