Creation of the World – Hugh Owen's Response

Hugh Owen again took the time to make a (from my point of view very long) reply to my response to him. I wasn't able to post it with the formatting in Blogger, and it would be too confusing to take away the formatting, so I've put it on a separate page.

Scripture and the Fathers on Creation – Hugh Owen's Response

I don't know when I will have time to respond to it, but feel free to comment here if you like.

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2 Responses to “Creation of the World – Hugh Owen's Response”

  1. thomism says:

    Assume that Hugh's reading of the Church Fathers is right. Would this make Young Earth Creationism binding on the faithful? I seem to remember that what is held by the unanimous consent of the Fathers is binding.

    As far as I can tell, given the evidence that anyone had until four hundred years ago or so, it would have been reasonable to hold that the earth was only a few thousand years old and that all species were there ab initio. God was certainly in a position to tell us how the world was made, and if you had no contrary evidence it wouldn't be unreasonable to read Genesis as newsreel footage of how things came to be. This seems like the simplest reading of the text, and there's no reason to avoid the simplest reading unless you have to.

    No one doubts that a majority of Church Fathers were young earth creationists. Why not just say "yes, they were, and it was reasonable for them to be so."

    James Chastek

  2. Joseph Bolin says:

    You may be right that till four hundreds ago it was "reasonable" it was reasonable to hold that the world was only a few thousand years old in the sense that there was some significant reason to hold it, and no compelling reasons to deny it. It would not, however, have been reasonable to hold as certain that that earth was only a few thousand years old. In any case, I agree with you, it is not a decisive issue whether, on questions of the age of the earth, the Fathers believed the earth to be in fact a few thousand years old, and that the Scripture tells the history of these thousand years. The question is whether they all hold that this is a matter of faith, definitively revealed by God. Of course if they believe that Scripture tells about the generation of the world, and they believe the world is a few thousand years old, they will interpret it accordingly. But that doesn't mean they think that interpretation is binding. St. Augustine certainly did not.

    Basically, if the Fathers all insist that a particular interpretation of scripture belongs to the content of faith, then it is binding. But the mere fact that they all materially interpret a passage of scripture in a certain manner, does not always suffice to make that interpretation binding. E.g., if all of the fathers who comment on a passage speaking about a certain animal understood a certain Greek word to refer to a particular kind of animal, this does not constitute a binding interpretation of the passage. If there is good evidence that the word was mistranslated from the Hebrew, one should follow that evidence. Similarly if all of the fathers had a certain view about the natural history of the world, and interpreted Genesis accordingly, their interpretation would not be binding. Only if they all expressed this interpretation as witnesses to sacred tradition and the content of the faith would their interpretation be binding.

    In more detail: The binding force of the scriptural interpretation of the Fathers is expressed by Trent (which had to deal with the divergent interpretations of the protestants) and Vatican I, and is repeated and clarified by Leo XIII in Providentissimus Deus.

    "It decrees, that no one, relying on his own skill, shall,–in matters of faith, and of morals pertaining to the edification of Christian doctrine, — wresting the sacred Scripture to his own senses, presume to interpret the said sacred Scripture contrary to that sense which holy mother Church,–whose it is to judge of the true sense and interpretation of the holy Scriptures,–hath held and doth hold; or even contrary to the unanimous consent of the Fathers." (Council of Trent, Fourth Session)

    "8… We renew that decree and declare its meaning to be as follows: that in matters of faith and morals, belonging as they do to the establishing of Christian doctrine, that meaning of Holy Scripture must be held to be the true one, which Holy mother Church held and holds, since it is her right to judge of the true meaning and interpretation of Holy Scripture.
    9. In consequence, it is not permissible for anyone to interpret Holy Scripture in a sense contrary to this, or indeed against the unanimous consent of the fathers." (Vatican I, On Revelation)

    "The Synod of the Vatican adopted the teaching of the Fathers, when, as it renewed the decree of Trent on the interpretation of the divine Word, it declared this to be its mind, that in matters of faith and morals, which pertain to the building up of Christian doctrine, that is to be held as the true sense of Holy Scripture which Mother Church has held and holds, whose prerogative it is to judge of the true sense and interpretation of Scripture; and, therefore, it is permitted to no one to interpret the Holy Scripture against this sense, or even against the unanimous agreement of the Fathers.

    Now, the authority of the Fathers, by whom after the apostles, the growing Church was disseminated, watered, built, protected, and nurtured, is the highest authority, as often as they all in one and the same way interpret a Biblical text, as pertaining to the doctrine of faith and morals." (Providentissimus Deus, emphasis added)

    A natural question, of course, which the Church has not defined, is just who are the Fathers whose unanimity is spoken of? Leaving that question aside, there are three conditions that need to be met in order for the teaching of the Fathers to be binding according to these decrees and statements: (1) They must be speaking on a matter of faith or morals; (2) they must interpret Scripture as expressing this teaching as a matter of faith, as witnesses of tradition rather than as private theologians (which of course many of them were); (3) there must be a moral unanimity in their interpretation (what constitutes a moral unanimity would vary from case to case: if, e.g., several are silent on a matter, but all the rest insist that a given interpretation is revealed truth, this would suffice; but if even a single major father were to soundly oppose an interpretation as heretical, that is probably enough to exclude moral unanimity).

    The most important point in the matter at hand is the second way. Pope Leo XIII repeats the need for discerning whether the interpretation the Fathers make of Scripture is actually a witness of revealed tradition:

    All the opinions which the individual Fathers or the recent interpreters have set forth in explaining it need not be maintained equally. For they, in interpreting passages where physical matters are concerned have made judgments according to the opinions of the age, and thus not always according to truth, so that they have made statements which today are not approved. Therefore, we must carefully discern what they hand down which really pertains to faith or is intimately connected with it, and what they hand down with unanimous consent. (Providentissimus Deus)

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