Until now, we've looked at Aquinas' philosophical and theological views that would have put him at odds with Darwinism. In this section, I shall examine Aquinas' views on the interpretation of Scripture. As we'll see, Aquinas' views on the Bible would have been enough to prevent him from becoming a Darwinist, even if he had had no objections to Darwinism in principle.
This section is divided into four sections:
1. Aquinas on the meaning and interpretation of Scripture
Here, I discuss what Aquinas wrote about the proper way to interpret and understand Scripture. As we shall see, Aquinas' thinking was heavily influenced by that of St. Augustine. Aquinas am historical literalist, but a fairly broad-minded one, whose interpretation of the Bible was completely orthodox, but also highly flexible.
2. Why general exegetical principles are a poor way to assess what Aquinas would have thought of Darwinism
Here, I argue that top-down attempts to deduce what Aquinas would have thought about the neo-Darwinian theory of evolution on the basis of his general exegetical principles are seriously flawed, for three reasons. First, the general exegetical principles identified by scholars in the writings of Aquinas are anything but straightforward in their application. Second, the general principles are extremely sensitive to slight changes in their wording, allowing scholars to arrive at diametrically opposite conclusions about what Aquinas would have thought about evolution. Third, the exegetical principles cited by scholars are incomplete - other principles that were also invoked by Aquinas are seldom mentioned in the scholarly literature.
3. Why Aquinas would have rejected Darwinism as incompatible with Scripture
In this section, I examine Aquinas' exegesis of particular passages in Scripture, and I identify seven convincing arguments showing that if Aquinas were alive today, he would reject Darwinism as being at odds with his whole way of thinking. I maintain that Aquinas' treatment of these concrete Scriptural passages offers a surer guide to how Aquinas interpreted the Bible than any list of general exegetical principles could possibly do.
4. What would Aquinas believe concerning questions relating to origins, if he were alive today?
In the final section, I argue that if Aquinas were alive today, he would most likely be an old-earth creationist, because he seems to have believed in the constancy of Nature. It is possible, but rather doubtful, that Aquinas would accept the scientific evidence for universal common descent; and while he would have no theological objection to an intelligently guided version of evolution that left room for God to produce new kinds of creatures by directly manipulating the genes of existing organisms, he would certainly have no truck with neo-Darwinian evolution. On Scriptural grounds alone, he would have rejected it, for reasons discussed in section 3.
However, accepting an old earth would create exegetical difficulties for Aquinas if he were alive today, because it would force him to acknowledge the vast antiquity of the human race (anywhere from 200,000 years to over two million years, depending on how one chooses to define "human"). This would conflict with his literalistic treatment of the "begats" in Scripture, for if we take the "begats" seriously, then we arrive at an age of only 6,000 years for the human race.
I shall argue that Aquinas would be able to accommodate these difficulties by interpreting the genealogy of Genesis 5 as having a double meaning, in which two sets of ten generations are telescoped into one. The first set is a very ancient one, linking ten individuals who lived two million years ago. Let's call them Adam-1 to Noah-1. The second set of individuals (let's call them Adam-2 to Noah-2) is a much more recent one, dating from around five thousand years ago. The reason why these two sets of ten individuals are linked is that the first set spiritually prefigured the second, from God's perspective. Aquinas' exegetical principles would certainly allow him to interpret Scripture in this fashion, for he taught that even according to the literal sense, a single word in Scripture could have multiple meanings (Summa Theologica I, q. 1 art. 10), if God, the Author of Scripture, intended that it should have those meanings.
This "double meaning" interpretation of Genesis 5 also has implications for the interpretation of Genesis 6-9, as it entails that there were two Noahs, and two Deluges. I propose that the Genesis flood account is actually a telescoping of two floods, separated by a vast interval of time, the first of which prefigured the second. The first flood was a local flood, occurring approximately two million years ago, which wiped out all but eight members of the human race - which was then confined to one small region of Africa - leaving only virtuous Noah-1 and his family. Aquinas' literalistic exegesis of Scripture would force him to insist that must have been a flood must have wiped out the whole human race except for eight individuals, for Scripture clearly states that this happened, as I will demonstrate below.
If the recently proposed "Noah's comet theory" turns out to be correct - for a popular summary, see the article, Did a comet cause the Great Flood? by Scott Carney, in Discover magazine, online edition, November 2007, and for a scholarly summary, see the article, The Archaeology and Anthropology of Quaternary Period Cosmic Impact (N.B. scroll down to page 46) - then the second flood could have been a cataclysmic flood, caused by a cometary impact in 2807 B.C., which led to 180-meter-high mega-tsunamis worldwide, massive flooding from storm surges and extended atmospheric rain-out, and finally, hurricane-force winds, wiping out up to 75% of the human race in one week. Noah-2 would have been one of the survivors, having being prophetically warned by God to build an Ark and stock it with sufficient livestock to provide for himself and his family after the flood. As I will show below, there is a limited but growing body of archaeological evidence to support the "Noah's comet" theory, although it remains highly controversial.
UPDATE: The theory advanced by Dr. Bruce Masse that the Burckle crater, east of Madagascar is the result of a cometary impact in 2807 B.C. has recently been challenged by Dr. Jody Bourgeois, who argues that it is instead the result of aeolian processes. I should add that the crater has not yet been dated by geologists. Finally, Dr. Rob Sheldon has kindly pointed out that a cometary impact would have to be very precise, in order to trigger worldwide coastal flooding of the sort hypothesized by Dr. Masse. As far as I can tell, however, nothing in Aquinas' principles harmonizing faith and science commits him to the proposition that that the second flood was worldwide. It must, however, have included a boat or ark of some sort, since Christ speaks of one.
Thus in the Genesis flood story, we may have an anthropologically universal event (which wiped out all but eight members of the human race), telescoped with a much later worldwide event about 5,000 years ago (which wiped out most but not all of the human race), for literary effect. Thus we have a narrative where the whole earth is filled with violence, and God decides to send a flood to punish humanity. I should add that telescoping was a very common literary technique in the ancient world, and that it was frequently employed by historians. The Christian apologist Glenn Miller has collected an impressive list of examples in his online apologetics article, Contradictions in the Infancy Stories.
While this interpretation of Genesis sounds highly strained to modern ears, Aquinas' understanding of the different levels of meaning in Scripture, which he shared with his medieval contemporaries, would allow him to assimilate it comfortably if he were alive today.
A Bible handwritten in Latin, on display in Malmesbury Abbey, Wiltshire, England. This Bible was copied by hand in Belgium in 1407 A.D., and was used for reading aloud in a monastery.
(a) What Aquinas wrote about the meaning of Scripture
Aquinas wrote many commentaries on the books in Scripture, but he left behind no treatise on the interpretation of Scripture. In order to reconstruct Aquinas' thought, we therefore have to rely on what we can glean from various passages in his writings.
I would recommend the following online articles as helpful for readers wanting to know more about how Aquinas understood the meaning of Scripture:
St. Thomas Aquinas and Sacred Scripture by John F. Boyle, Department of Theology, University of St. Thomas, St. Paul, Minnesota.
Aquinas, the Literal Sense of Scripture and Theology by Professor Michael Barber, John Paul the Great Catholic University, San Diego, California.
Aquinas' Biblical commentaries can be found here.
Aquinas set forth his views on the meaning of Scripture in his Summa Theologica I, q. 1, art. 10. Aquinas' teachings on the meaning of Scripture may be conveniently summarized under the following eight points.
KEY POINT # 1: The author of Scripture is God.
The key point is that for St. Thomas, the author of Scripture is God. Hence, each word in Scripture means what God intends it to mean, and sometimes the same word can have multiple meanings. God's intellect is able to encompass these various meanings, because it understands everything. As St. Thomas puts it:
I answer that, The author of Holy Writ is God, in whose power it is to signify His meaning, not by words only (as man also can do), but also by things themselves... Since the literal sense is that which the author intends, and since the author of Holy Writ is God, Who by one act comprehends all things by His intellect, it is not unfitting, as Augustine says (Confess. xii), if, even according to the literal sense, one word in Holy Writ should have several senses. (Summa Theologica I, q. 1, art. 10, reply to objection 1.)
KEY POINT # 2: Words used in Scripture may have both a literal sense and a spiritual sense.
According to St. Thomas, words used in Scripture may have both a literal sense and a spiritual sense. The literal or historical sense of a word in Scripture refers to the thing it directly signifies. If this thing also signifies another thing, then that thing may be described as the spiritual sense of the word. The distinction between the literal and spiritual meanings of Scripture is a vital one, as Fr. Joseph Boyle explains in his essay, St. Thomas Aquinas and Sacred Scripture:
The spiritual sense is carefully distinguished from the literal. If the literal sense is concerned with what things the words signify, the spiritual sense is concerned with what those things, signified by the words, in turn signify.
In the words of St. Thomas:
I answer that, The author of Holy Writ is God, in whose power it is to signify His meaning, not by words only (as man also can do), but also by things themselves. So, whereas in every other science things are signified by words, this science has the property, that the things signified by the words have themselves also a signification. Therefore that first signification whereby words signify things belongs to the first sense, the historical or literal. That signification whereby things signified by words have themselves also a signification is called the spiritual sense, which is based on the literal, and presupposes it. (Summa Theologica I, q. 1, art. 10, reply to objection 1.)
KEY POINT # 3: The literal meaning of Scripture is always primary: the spiritual sense presupposes the literal and is built upon it.
That signification whereby things signified by words have themselves also a signification is called the spiritual sense, which is based on the literal, and presupposes it. (Summa Theologica I, q. 1, art. 10, reply to objection 1.)
Reply to Objection 1. The multiplicity of these senses does not produce equivocation ... because the things signified by the words can be themselves types of other things. Thus in Holy Writ no confusion results, for all the senses are founded on one - the literal - from which alone can any argument be drawn, and not from those intended in allegory, as Augustine says (Epis. 48). (Summa Theologica I, q. 1, art. 10, reply to objection 1.)
KEY POINT # 4: The literal meaning of Scripture is sufficient: it contains everything in Scripture that we need to believe.
Reply to Objection 1. ... Nevertheless, nothing of Holy Scripture perishes on account of this, since nothing necessary to faith is contained under the spiritual sense which is not elsewhere put forward by the Scripture in its literal sense. (Summa Theologica I, q. 1, art. 10, reply to objection 1.)
KEY POINT # 5: The spiritual sense of Scripture is threefold.
The spiritual sense of Scripture may be (1) allegorical (signifying Christ Himself in some way), (2) moral (signifying how Christians are to live), or (3) anagogical (signifying Heaven, our eternal destination, for which God created us). As Fr. Boyle explains it in his essay, St. Thomas Aquinas and Sacred Scripture:
Thomas divides the spiritual sense into three senses: allegorical, moral, and anagogical. Each is related to Christ. The allegorical sense is the signification of Christ Himself, especially in the Old Testament (such as the paschal lamb above). This does not necessarily include prophecy of Christ; such passages might well be literal significations of Christ. To be truly allegorical in the precise way in which Thomas means it here requires that the words signify some thing and that that thing in turn signifies Christ.
The second sense is the moral in which something signifies how Christians are to act. For Thomas, first and foremost it is the actions of Christ himself and then of the saints (as exemplary members of His body) that signify the actions proper to the Christian life...
Finally, in the third sense, the anagogical, what is signified is the beatific life of heaven with Christ. For example, the observance of the sabbath not only keeps the creation of the world always before one's eyes (here Thomas cites Moses Maimonides for the literal sense), but it also signifies the eternal rest that the saints enjoy in glory.
KEY POINT # 6: The literal sense of Scripture is threefold.
For St. Thomas, the literal sense is very broad. It includes: (1) any narrative of an historical event (history); (2) the explanation of why an historical event narrated in the Bible happened (etiology); and (3) an analogy drawn between two different historical events narrated in Scripture.
Reply to Objection 2. These three ó history, etiology, analogy ó are grouped under the literal sense. For it is called history, as Augustine expounds (Epis. 48), whenever anything is simply related; it is called etiology when its cause is assigned, as when Our Lord gave the reason why Moses allowed the putting away of wives ó namely, on account of the hardness of men's hearts; it is called analogy whenever the truth of one text of Scripture is shown not to contradict the truth of another. (Summa Theologica I, q. 1, art. 10, reply to objection 2.)
KEY POINT # 7: In Scripture, even metaphorical language is part of the literal sense.
Even metaphorical language is also literal, according to St. Thomas:
Reply to Objection 3. The parabolical sense is contained in the literal, for by words things are signified properly and figuratively. Nor is the figure itself, but that which is figured, the literal sense. When Scripture speaks of God's arm, the literal sense is not that God has such a member, but only what is signified by this member, namely operative power. Hence it is plain that nothing false can ever underlie the literal sense of Holy Writ. (Summa Theologica I, q. 1, art. 10, reply to objection 3.)
KEY POINT # 8: The literal meaning of a word in Scripture could be multiple.
Finally, and most importantly for the exegetical discussion in Section 4 below, the literal meaning of a word in Scripture could be multiple, according to Aquinas. This is perfectly appropriate, since the author of Scripture is God, who is perfectly capable of understanding many things at once, and hence of intending to signify a multitude of different things by one word:
Since the literal sense is that which the author intends, and since the author of Holy Writ is God, Who by one act comprehends all things by His intellect, it is not unfitting, as Augustine says (Confess. xii), if, even according to the literal sense, one word in Holy Writ should have several senses. (Summa Theologica I, q. 1, art. 10.)
(b) Key texts by St. Thomas Aquinas, on the proper interpretation of Scripture
The beginning of the Gospel of Mark. Image of page from the 7th century Book of Durrow. Trinity College, Dublin.
Although Aquinas wrote no exegetical treatises, the following passages in his writings give us some valuable clues to his thinking, regarding the proper interpretation of Scripture.
(i) Aquinas on the firmament created by God on the second day of Genesis 1
In his Summa Theologica I, q. 68, art. 1, St. Thomas addresses the question of what Scripture means when it says that God made a "firmament" on the second day. St. Thomas was well aware that philosophers had different opinions about this "firmament," and he did not wish to tie himself to any particular interpretation, as it might well turn out to be wrong. To help him resolve this difficulty, he cites two exegetical guidelines that were originally formulated by St. Augustine in his De Genesi ad litteram:
In discussing questions of this kind two rules are to observed, as Augustine teaches (Gen. ad lit. i, 18). The first is, to hold the truth of Scripture without wavering. The second is that since Holy Scripture can be explained in a multiplicity of senses, one should adhere to a particular explanation, only in such measure as to be ready to abandon it, if it be proved with certainty to be false; lest Holy Scripture be exposed to the ridicule of unbelievers, and obstacles be placed to their believing. (Italics and emphases mine - VJT.)
Later on, in his Summa Theologica I, q. 68, art. 2, Aquinas confronts the thorny question of what Genesis 1 means when it narrates that God created the waters above the firmament, on the second day. In this article, Aquinas once again begins by citing the authority of St. Augustine. Aquinas' wording in the passage below demonstrates that he had the highest regard for the authority of Scripture, even when he did not fully understand it:
I answer with Augustine (Gen. ad lit. ii, 5) that, "These words of Scripture have more authority than the most exalted human intellect. Hence, whatever these waters are, and whatever their mode of existence, we cannot for a moment doubt that they are there."
The reader should note what St. Thomas is doing here. He does not allegorize the passage away, by giving it a purely spiritual interpretation; rather, he insists that it has a literal meaning, even if we haven't discerned the correct one yet.
Even while insisting that the firmament had a literal meaning, Aquinas firmly rejected any interpretation of Scripture that "can be shown to be false by solid reasons." Thus in his Summa Theologica I, q. 68, article 3, Aquinas writes:
... The text of Genesis, considered superficially, might lead to the adoption of a theory similar to that held by certain philosophers of antiquity, who taught that water was a body infinite in dimension, and the primary element of all bodies...
As, however, this theory can be shown to be false by solid reasons, it cannot be held to be the sense of Holy Scripture.
(ii) Aquinas on the meaning of the days of creation in Genesis 1
Another oft-cited passage can be found in Aquinas' Commentary on the Sentences of Peter Lombard, Book II, Distinction 12, q. 1, art. 2, where Aquinas addresses the question of whether things of all kinds were created simultaneously, distinct in their species, at the beginning of time, as St. Augustine had held, or whether they were made over a period of six 24-hour days, as the other Christian Fathers maintained:
It should be said that what pertains to faith is distinguished in two ways, for some are as such of the substance of faith, such that God is three and one, and the like, about which no one may licitly think otherwise. Hence the Apostle in Galatians 1:8, 'But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach a gospel to you other than that which we have preached to you, let him be anathema!' Other things are only incidental to faith insofar as they are treated in Scripture, which faith holds to be promulgated under the dictation of the Holy Spirit, but which can be ignored by those who are not held to know scripture, such as many of the historical works. On such matters even the saints disagree, explaining scripture in different ways. Thus with respect to the beginning of the world something pertains to the substance of faith, namely that the world began to be by creation, and all the saints agree in this.
But how and in what order this was done pertains to faith only incidentally insofar as it is treated in scripture, the truth of which the saints save in the different explanations they offer. For Augustine holds that ... [w]ith respect to the distinction of things we ought to attend to the order of nature and doctrine, not to the order of time.
As to nature, just as sound precedes song in nature, though not in time, so things which are naturally prior are mentioned first, as earth before animals, and water before fish, and so with other things. But in the order of teaching, as is evident in those teaching geometry, although the parts of the figure make up the figure without any order of time, still the geometer teaches the constitution as coming to be by the extension of line from line. And this was the example of Plato, as we are told at the beginning of On the Heavens. So too Moses, instructing an uncultivated people on the creation of the world, divides into parts what was done simultaneously.
Ambrose, however, and other saints hold the order of time is saved in the distinction of things. This is the more common opinion and superficially seems more consonant with the text, but the first is more reasonable and better protects Sacred Scripture from the derision of infidels, which Augustine teaches in his literal interpretation of Genesis is especially to be considered, and so scripture must be explained in such a way that the infidel cannot mock, and this opinion is more pleasing to me. However, the arguments sustaining both will be responded to.
The Scriptural passages above are often cited by Aquinas scholars. However, there are other passages in Aquinas' writings, which are less often cited in the scholarly literature, in which Aquinas makes clear his preference for the plain meaning of Scripture.
(iii) Aquinas on the literal existence of the Paradise (Garden of Eden) described in Genesis 2
For instance, in his Summa Theologica I, q. 102, art. 1, Aquinas discusses the question of whether Paradise was a literal place or a figurative, spiritual place, and concludes that it was both:
I answer that, As Augustine says (De Civ. Dei xiii, 21): "Nothing prevents us from holding, within proper limits, a spiritual paradise; so long as we believe in the truth of the events narrated as having there occurred." For whatever Scripture tells us about paradise is set down as a matter of history; and wherever Scripture makes use of this method, we must hold to the historical truth of the narrative as a foundation of whatever spiritual explanation we may offer.
(iv) Aquinas on the literal meaning of the "begats" in Scripture
In another passage which is rarely cited in the scholarly literature (Summa Theologica I, q. 32, art. 4), Aquinas discusses the ways in which a doctrine - even a trivial one, like the fact that Samuel was the son of Elcana - can be a matter of faith:
Anything is of faith in two ways; directly, where any truth comes to us principally as divinely taught, as the trinity and unity of God, the Incarnation of the Son, and the like; and concerning these truths a false opinion of itself involves heresy, especially if it be held obstinately. A thing is of faith, indirectly, if the denial of it involves as a consequence something against faith; as for instance if anyone said that Samuel was not the son of Elcana, for it follows that the divine Scripture would be false. Concerning such things anyone may have a false opinion without danger of heresy, before the matter has been considered or settled as involving consequences against faith, and particularly if no obstinacy be shown; whereas when it is manifest, and especially if the Church has decided that consequences follow against faith, then the error cannot be free from heresy.
(v) Aquinas on the literal existence of Job, as an historical individual
Finally, in the Prologue of Aquinas' Commentary on Job) Aquinas considers and rejects the view that the book of Job is intended as nothing more than a parable. The Jewish philosopher and Rabbi Moses Maimonides (1135-1204), following other Jewish sages, had asserted in his Guide for the Perplexed, Part III, chapter 22, that the book was not factual, but a work of fiction, designed to teach us about Providence. Maimonides based his denial of the historicity of Job on the total absence of biographical information in the book concerning Job's ancestry, his parents and when he lived. All we are told about Job is that "In the land of Uz there lived a man whose name was Job" (Job 1:1, New International Version). Nevertheless, St. Thomas is quite emphatic that Job is a real historical character:
But there were some who held that Job was not someone who was in the nature of things [i.e. not a real, historical person - VJT.], but that this was a parable made up to serve as a kind of theme to dispute providence, as men frequently invent cases to serve as a model for debate. Although it does not matter much for the intention of the book whether or not such is the case, still it makes a difference for the truth itself. This aforementioned opinion seems to contradict the authority of Scripture. In Ezechiel, the Lord is represented as saying, "If there were three just men in our midst, Noah, Daniel, and Job, these would free your souls by their justice." (Ez. 14:14) Clearly Noah and Daniel really were men in the nature of things and so there should be no doubt about Job who is the third man numbered with them. Also, James says, "Behold, we bless those who persevered. You have heard of the suffering of Job and you have seen the intention of the Lord." (James 5:11) Therefore one must believe that the man Job was a man in the nature of things.
These are the key texts on the interpretation of scripture which I have managed to locate in the writings of Aquinas. I shall return to these passages in Sections 2 and 3.
Philippe de Champaigne, "Saint Augustine," 1645-1650. Los Angeles County Museum of Art.
St. Augustine's views on the interpretation of Scripture had a profound influence on St. Thomas Aquinas.
Various scholars have adopted a "top-down" approach when discussing how theologians such as St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas interpreted Scripture. The aim here is to identify the general exegetical principles which they make use of in their writings, in order to deduce how they would have approached concrete scientific issues, such as the Copernican claim that the Earth goes around the sun, or Darwin's theory of evolution.
I have consciously rejected this approach, when addressing the question of whether Aquinas' reading of Scripture would have prevented him from accepting Darwin's theory of evolution. My reasons for doing this are as follows:
(i) the general exegetical principles identified by scholars in the writings of St. Augustine and other theologians are anything but straightforward in their application;
(ii) the general principles are extremely sensitive to slight changes in their wording, allowing scholars to arrive at diametrically opposite conclusions about how a theologian like Augustine or Aquinas would have addressed this or that issue; and
(iii) the exegetical principles cited by scholars are incomplete - other principles that were used by these theologians are seldom mentioned in the scholarly literature.
In recent years, the excellent work of Professor Ernan McMullin has often been cited by scholars, in particular his essay, "Galileo on Science and Scripture," in The Cambridge Companion to Galileo, ed. Peter Machamer (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1998), pp. 271-347. An incomplete online copy of his essay can be viewed here. For a succinct summary of Professor McMullin's principles, I would recommend Professor Craig Boyd's article, Using Galileo: A Developmental and Historical Approach. I would also strongly recommend the following article by Dr. Gregory Dawes, entitled, Could there be another Galileo case? Galileo, Augustine and Vatican II.
McMullin identifies five principles for interpreting Scripture in the writings of St. Augustine. I shall examine the first three together:
(a) The Priority of Prudence, the Priority of demonstration and the Priority of Scripture
1. Principle of the Priority of Prudence:
When trying to discern the meaning of a difficult Scripture passage, one should keep in mind that different interpretations of the text may be possible, and that, in consequence one should not rush into premature commitment to one of these, especially since further progress in the search for truth may later undermine this interpretation.
2. Principle of Priority of Demonstration:
When there is a conflict between a proven truth about nature and a particular reading of Scripture, an alternative reading of Scripture must be sought.
3. Principle of Priority of Scripture:
When there is an apparent conflict between a Scripture passage and an assertion about the natural world grounded on sense or reason, the literal reading of Scripture should prevail as long as the latter assertion lacks demonstration.
The key problem with these three principles is an epistemological one, which should be immediately apparent to an attentive reader: what counts as a demonstration? In other words, what criteria do we use to rule out an interpretation of Scripture as demonstrably wrong? By themselves, the principles are unable to resolve this question.
Professor McMullin has devoted considerable thought to this matter. His response as follows:
I am using the term "demonstration" here in the broad sense to mean any form of convincing proof and not just deductive proof from principles grasped as true in their own right (the technical Aristotelian sense of the term, to which Augustine does not confine himself). Augustine's emphasis is on the certainty that is needed for the claim to natural knowledge to count as a challenge to a Scripture reading. He uses phrases in this context like "the facts of experience," "knowledge acquired by unassailable arguments or proved by the evidence of experience," and "proofs that cannot be denied" (above). (Op. cit., p. 294.)
The problem with this view for evolutionists is that the case for the neo-Darwinian theory of evolution is not demonstrative in the sense intended by St. Augustine. It does not rest on "proofs that cannot be denied," "unassailable arguments" or "the facts of experience." Experience tells us only that species can evolve. But there is no direct evidence from scientific observations that microbe-to-man evolution is possible, as a result of purely natural processes.
"Portrait of Francis Bacon, Viscount St Alban," by John Vanderbank, 1731(?), after a portrait by an unknown artist (circa 1618). National Portrait Gallery, London.
Francis Bacon, father of the modern scientific method, employed an inductive notion of demonstration. That of Aristotle, Augustine, Aquinas and Galileo was deductive, however.
An additional problem, highlighted by Professor Boyd, is that the modern scientific method employs a notion of demonstration that is strikingly different from that of Galileo (and before him, St. Augustine). So far we have examined two contrasting notions of a demonstration:
(i) a "pure" mathematical notion, based on self-evident principles (i.e. Aristotle's narrow notion of a demonstration);
(ii) an empirical notion, based on "the facts of experience" (a notion which was also appealed to by Augustine).
Combining these two, we may add a third notion:
(iii) a deductive demonstration which employs reasoning, based on certain facts which are confirmed by experience - in other words, the kind of demonstration that Sherlock Holmes might use when solving a murder case. The phrase, "knowledge acquired by unassailable arguments or proved by the evidence of experience," cited by McMullin, could include this third type of demonstration as well.
What all these notions have in common, however, is that they are either immediately evident or deductions from what is immediately evident. Writing in the early seventeenth century, Galileo likewise envisaged demonstration as proceeding deductively. In this respect, he did not depart from Aristotle's thinking. Galileo's major modification of the Aristotelian idea of a demonstration was that it should proceed on the basis of sensory observation, instead of Aristotle's fixed essences. However, modern science proceeds inductively, as Professor Craig Boyd points out in the article I cited above:
The assumption Galileo makes here is that demonstration itself can "prove" the truth of his own perspective along the lines of a modified Aristotelian notion of demonstration wherein a major premise followed by a minor premise produced a conclusion, in a deductive manner. For Galileo "demonstration" included this idea but instead of appealing to Aristotelian essences in the reasoning process, he employed mathematics and sensory observation. Today we no longer accept this view of demonstration and therefore Galileo's commitment to this method would ultimately undermine his own arguments since on this view neither truth nor "demonstration" are possible since "scientific method" proceeds inductively. (Op. cit., p. 285.)
If Galileo couldn't even prove his own theory in a purely deductive manner, on the basis of sensory observations, how much less would a neo-Darwinian evolutionist be able to prove the theory of evolution in such a fashion, since the theory is forced to posit unobservable and non-replicable events, such as the origin of life and the diversification of the various phyla of animals (the "Cambrian explosion")?
How Aquinas have regarded the epistemic status of the neo-Darwinian theory of evolution? Would he regarded the modern scientific case for evolution as a demonstration? As we saw from "Smoking Gun" number 7, Corollary 2 (in Part One of my reply to Professor Tkacz), Aquinas would have answered this question firmly in the negative. The key events that are alleged to have occurred cannot be replicated, and they do not take place in a regular, repeatable fashion. There is no proof that microbe-to-man evolution could possibly work. The existence of a few fossils linking fish to amphibia, or reptiles to mammals, might suggest common ancestry, but they fail to establish a naturalistic mechanism. That is the key issue here: the proposition that the origin and diversity of life can be accounted for in purely naturalistic terms.
Let us now examine Professor McMullin's remaining two exegetical principles, which he claims to have identified in the writings of St. Augustine.
(b) The Principle of Accommodation
Professor McMullin's fourth exegetical principle is a very common-sensical one.
4. Principle of Accommodation:
The choice of language in the Scripture is accommodated to the capacities of the intended audience.
This exegetical principle of Augustine's is a non-controversial one, and it was also invoked by St. Thomas Aquinas. When citing St. John Chrysostom's explanation of why the creation of the angels is not mentioned in the book of Genesis, Aquinas writes:
Moses was addressing an ignorant people, to whom material things alone appealed, and whom he was endeavoring to withdraw from the service of idols" (Summa Theologica, Vol. I, q. 67, article 4).
St. Thomas makes use of the same principle when explaining why the Creation account in Genesis 1 makes mention of God creating the land and sea, but not the atmosphere:
It should rather be considered that Moses was speaking to ignorant people, and that out of condescension to their weakness he put before them only such things as are apparent to sense. Now even the most uneducated can perceive by their senses that earth and water are corporeal, whereas it is not evident to all that air also is corporeal, for there have even been philosophers who said that air is nothing, and called a space filled with air a vacuum.
Moses, then, while he expressly mentions water and earth, makes no express mention of air by name, to avoid setting before ignorant persons something beyond their knowledge" (Summa Theologica I, q. 68, article 3).
The reader should note, however, that St. Thomas was careful not to attribute any erroneous beliefs to the human author of Genesis, whom he believed to have been Moses. It was Moses' audience who were ignorant, and not Moses himself.
(c) The Principle of Limitation
It now remains to discuss Professor McMullin's fifth and final and most controversial exegetical principle:
5. Principle of Limitation:
Since the primary concern of Scripture is with human salvation, texts of Scripture should not be taken to have a bearing on technical issues of natural science.
The key problem with this principle is that it is highly doubtful that St. Augustine himself ever advocated it, and there is no evidence that Aquinas did.
Why Galileo ascribed the Principle of Limitation to St. Augustine, and how Galileo went beyond it
Galileo Galilei. Portrait by Leoni.
Professor Ernan McMullin has claimed that St. Augustine endorsed the Principle of Limitation in his writings, citing a passage in chapter nine of book two of Augustine's De Genesi ad Litteram (On the Literal Meaning of Genesis), where he addresses the question of "the form and shape of heaven according to Sacred Scripture." In this passage, Augustine states that while "in the matter of the shape of heaven the sacred writers knew the truth, . . . the Spirit of God, who spoke through them, did not wish to teach men these facts that would be of no avail for their salvation" (1982: 2.9.20).
The astronomer Galileo certainly believed that St. Augustine was advocating the Principle of Limitation in his De Genesi ad Litteram, and he cited the same passage from St. Augustine in support of his own position, that the Bible is meant to tell us how to go to Heaven, and not how the heavens go. Of course, Galileo had a strong theological motive for doing so, as various passage in Scripture seemed to contradict his assertion that the Earth went round the Sun - for instance, Joshua 10:12-13, in which the sun is said to cease its movement in response to Joshua's prayers.
However, Galileo himself advocated a position that went beyond the Principle of Limitation, as Dr. Gregory Dawes has pointed out in an article entitled Could there be another Galileo case? Galileo, Augustine and Vatican II. Galileo's own position, which he articulated in a letter to the Grand Duchess Christina of Lorraine, was very similar to the "non-overlapping magisteria" principle (NOMA) espoused by the late Stephen Jay Gould. As Dr. Dawes puts it:
He not only argues that the purpose of Scripture is different from that of the natural sciences; he draws the conclusion that the authority of the Bible is effectively limited to matters with which the natural sciences cannot deal.
In other words, Galileo seems to have espoused a principle which another commentator, Marcello Pera, has referred to as a "principle of independence," which states that "science and religion belong to, and are competent on, two distinct and different domains."
The Principle of Limitation: what St. Augustine really thought
However, Dr. Dawes contends that Professor McMullin's (and Galileo's) attribution of the Principle of Limitation to St. Augustine is highly questionable, and cites as evidence St. Augustine's remarks (De Genesi ad litteram 2.16.33-34) on the question of whether the sun, the moon and the stars are actually of equal brightness. Even in St. Augustine's day, long before the invention of the telescope, there were some people who were suggesting that the stars were actually just as bright as the sun, and that they appeared fainter only because of their greater distance from the earth. In his initial response, St. Augustine tells his readers that believers should avoid "subtle enquiries" (subtilius aliquid quaerere), adding that "for us it would seem sufficient to recognize that, whatever may be the true account of all this, God is the Creator of the heavenly bodies." But then he immediately adds: "And yet we must hold to the pronouncement of St. Paul, There is one glory of the sun, and another glory of the moon, and another of the stars; for star differs from star in glory [1 Cor 15:41]." Dr. Dawes comments:
In other words, whatever position one accepts, Augustine insists it must be compatible with 1 Corinthians. If he truly held to a principle of limitation, he would not have regarded 1 Corinthians 15:41 as having a bearing on this matter at all.
The intrinsic brightness of the stars is a technical scientific matter, and yet St. Augustine clearly believed that a passage in Scripture could have a bearing on the issue. It would seem, then that Professor Ernan McMullin's interpretation of St. Augustine is mistaken. Dr. Dawes contends that Augustine actually endorsed a different principle, which he calls the "Principle of Differing Purpose":
What I want to argue is that neither position - neither a principle of limitation nor a principle of independence - can plausibly be attributed to Augustine. It is worth noting that McMullin himself seems uneasy with doing so. He does so only with the concession that Galileo holds to a much broader form of that principle than Augustine would have accepted. Augustine holds only that Biblical authority should not be invoked when it comes to "technical issues of natural science" (emphasis mine), while Galileo suggests it should not be invoked with regard to any kind of natural knowledge (1998: 306). But this is a slippery distinction. At what point, for instance, does a knowledge of nature in general, where Augustine does invoke the authority of Scripture, fade over into "technical issues of natural science," where apparently he would not? In any case, a close examination of De Genesi ad litteram suggests that Augustine's position is not accurately described as a "principle of limitation," in any sense of those words. Unlike Galileo, Augustine is not interested in limiting the authority of the biblical writings. He therefore holds to an entirely different principle, with a rather different set of implications. Augustine's hermeneutical principle in the matter of what we would call science and religion is better described as a "principle of differing purpose."
Dr. Dawes continues:
The purpose of 1 Corinthians 15 is not to teach the physical details of the universe, but to speak about human bodies at the resurrection of the dead, a fact which Augustine recognizes in the same passage ("Paul speaks thus because of the likeness of the stars to risen bodies of men"). Compared to the doctrine of the resurrection, such subtle speculations about the structure of the universe are rather a waste of valuable time (cf. 1982: 2.16.34). Yet - and this is the key point - when, in fulfilling this more serious purpose, the Scriptures make reference to aspects of the physical world, what they say must be taken with the utmost seriousness.<9> Pace McMullin, such biblical texts do "have a bearing on technical issues of natural science," even if they were not written for that purpose. As it turns out, Augustine suggests that 1 Corinthians 15:41 could be interpreted in such a way that it does not preclude the scientific opinion he is discussing. One could, for instance, argue that, while the heavenly bodies are all of the same brightness in themselves, St. Paul's remark refers to their differing degrees of brightness when seen by us. But at the end of the day, Augustine suggests that believers should accept the plain meaning of Genesis 1:16, even in this rather technical matter. As he writes, "we do better when we believe that those two luminaries [the sun and the moon] are greater than the others, since Holy Scripture says of them, And God made the two great lights" (1982: 2.16.34).
Obviously, St. Augustine was wrong in his astronomy. However, his reasoning concerning the Scriptural passages cited above certainly indicates that he did not hold to the Principle of Limitation which Professor McMullin ascribes to him.
Did Aquinas endorse the Principle of Limitation?
What about St. Thomas Aquinas? Did he endorse Professor McMullin's Principle of Limitation? Various authors have claimed to identify the Principle of Limitation in his writings, and the following passage in Aquinas' Commentary on the Sentences of Peter Lombard, Book II, Distinction 12, question 1, article 2 is often cited in this regard. Here, St. Thomas is addressing the question: "Are All Things Created Simultaneously, Distinct In Their Species?"
It should be said that what pertains to faith is distinguished in two ways, for some are as such of the substance of faith, such that God is three and one, and the like, about which no one may licitly think otherwise. Hence the Apostle in Galatians 1:8, "But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach a gospel to you other than that which we have preached to you, let him be anathema!" Other things are only incidental to faith insofar as they are treated in Scripture, which faith holds to be promulgated under the dictation of the Holy Spirit, but which can be ignored by those who are not held to know scripture, such as many of the historical works. On such matters even the saints disagree, explaining scripture in different ways. Thus with respect to the beginning of the world something pertains to the substance of faith, namely that the world began to be by creation, and all the saints agree in this.
But how and in what order this was done pertains to faith only incidentally insofar as it is treated in scripture, the truth of which the saints save in the different explanations they offer.
A superficial reading of this passage might lead one to think that for Aquinas, the mere fact that the world came into existence by creation was the only point in the account of Genesis 1 that was set in stone, while everything else in the account remained open to differing interpretations. Indeed, this is precisely the interpretation placed on this passage by Professor William E. Carroll, Thomas Aquinas Fellow in Science and Religion at Blackfriars Hall and a member of the Faculty of Theology at the University of Oxford. Professor Carroll has written an article entitled Creation, Evolution and Thomas Aquinas, in which he argues that Aquinas would have had no problems with neo-Darwinian evolution, as a scientific theory:
Some defenders as well as critics of evolution, as we shall see later, think that belief in the Genesis account of creation is incompatible with evolutionary biology. Aquinas, however, did not think that the Book of Genesis presented any difficulties for the natural sciences, for the Bible is not a textbook in the sciences. What is essential to Christian faith, according to Aquinas is the "fact of creation," not the manner or mode of the formation of the world...
Nevertheless, a word of caution is in order here. Let us begin with the question addressed by Aquinas: "Are All Things Created Simultaneously, Distinct In Their Species?" The very wording of the question makes it clear that St. Augustine's theory of simultaneous creation (which is being considered here) is not an evolutionary one. There were two schools of thought on this question: most of the Christian Fathers were of the view that creatures were made over a period of six days, while St. Augustine of Hippo believed that they were created simultaneously. (Aquinas was inclined to favor the Augustinian view.) What both schools took for granted, however, was that each and every kind (or species) of creature was made separately by God. Aquinas taught this too, as we saw in "Smoking Gun" number 8, section (e), in Part One of my reply to Professor Tkacz. In fact, no Christian theologian questioned the view that each and every kind of creature was made separately by God, until the 19th century.
While Aquinas insists on the fact of creation as being something essential to faith, he also writes that "how and in what order this was done pertains to faith only incidentally." It would be fair to conclude from this that the sequence and mode of God's creative acts is not part of the Christian faith, according to Aquinas.
However, the question of how and in what order God created are quite distinct from the question of what God created. On this point, Aquinas is quite clear: God created "all things ... distinct in their species," as the header of the article cited above puts it (Commentary on the Sentences of Peter Lombard, Book II, Distinction 12, question 1, article 2). Neither side denied this. The question on which they differed was the timing: did it happen all at once, or over a period of six 24-hour days?
Even though Aquinas noted in the passage above that "many of the historical works" can be explained in different ways because of the diversity of opinions regarding the interpretation of these works, they still remained historical for Aquinas. As we have already noted, that St. Thomas believed that the literal, historical sense of Scripture was of primary importance: "all the senses are founded on one - the literal - from which alone can any argument be drawn, and not from those intended in allegory, as Augustine says (Epis. 48)" (Summa Theologica I, q. 1, art. 10).
Aquinas also insisted that Christians were bound to accept the literal interpretation of Scripture any events in the Bible that were "set down as matter of history." Thus when discussing the question of whether the word "Paradise" in Genesis 2 referred to an actual, historical place or a figurative, spiritual one, he writes:
I answer that, As Augustine says (De Civ. Dei xiii, 21): "Nothing prevents us from holding, within proper limits, a spiritual paradise; so long as we believe in the truth of the events narrated as having there occurred." For whatever Scripture tells us about paradise is set down as a matter of history; and wherever Scripture makes use of this method, we must hold to the historical truth of the narrative as a foundation of whatever spiritual explanation we may offer (Summa Theologica I, q. 102, art. 1).
We can see just how much of a literalist St. Thomas was from the following passage in his Summa Theologica I, q. 32, article 4, where he is discussing a speculative theological question regarding the Trinity. St. Thomas asserts that truths that are part of the Christian faith fall into two categories: Divinely revealed truths which are received directly from God, and truths which are not directly received from God, but which cannot be denied without contradicting some Divinely revealed truth. Denial of divinely revealed truths is simply heretical:
Anything is of faith in two ways; directly, where any truth comes to us principally as divinely taught, as the trinity and unity of God, the Incarnation of the Son, and the like; and concerning these truths a false opinion of itself involves heresy, especially if it be held obstinately. A thing is of faith, indirectly, if the denial of it involves as a consequence something against faith; as for instance if anyone said that Samuel was not the son of Elcana, for it follows that the divine Scripture would be false.
St. Thomas' logic is quite straightforward: denying that Samuel was the son of Elcana entails that Scripture is false, which is contrary to the faith; hence the proposition that Samuel was the son of Elcana is indirectly a matter of faith. However, Christians were free to have different opinions on questions where it has not been established that anything contrary to the faith would follow. That includes abstruse, speculative questions relating to the Trinity, such as the number of properties distinguishing the three Divine Persons. (These distinguishing properties were technically known as nodes in Aquinas' day.) "Concerning such things," Aquinas writes, "anyone may have a false opinion without danger of heresy, before the matter has been considered or settled as involving consequences against faith."
We have seen that any attempt to deduce Aquinas' position on evolution purely on the basis of his general exegetical principles is fraught with peril. In the following section, I shall put forward several arguments attempting to show why Aquinas would have rejected Darwinism, based on his exegesis of particular passages in Scripture. These passages, I believe, offer a surer guide to Aquinas' thinking, as they are based on specific cases. As such, they supply us with a clearer picture of the logic underlying Aquinas' thinking, both as a medieval theologian and as a philosopher.
If we focus on Aquinas' remarks concerning particular passages in Scripture, we can identify at least seven reasons why he would have rejected Darwinism, on Scriptural grounds alone.
Domenico Ghirlandaio, "St. Jerome in his study," 1480. Church of Ognissanti, Florence.
Aquinas shared St. Jerome's opinion that the world was less than 6,000 years old.
First, Aquinas evidently shared the opinion of St. Jerome, a Doctor of the Church who translated the Bible into Latin, that the world was less than 6,000 years old, even if he disagreed with St. Jerome's opinion that the angels were created long before the corporeal world. Aquinas argued that angels were created along with the world, rather than in some distant age before the world as St. Jerome held; however, he did not question St. Jerome's chronology for the cosmos. Thus for Aquinas, the angels were less than 6,000 years old, too. Readers can verify this for themselves: it is in Aquinas' Summa Theologica I, q. 61, article 3, objection 1. But there's more. St. Augustine, whose writings Aquinas constantly cited, explicitly taught that the human race was created less than 6,000 years ago. In his City of God, Book XII, chapter 12, St. Augustine wrote that "according to Scripture, less than 6000 years have elapsed since He [man] began to be." In fact, the Fathers of the Church were absolutely unanimous on this point. "What about Origen?" I hear some of you ask. "Didn't he champion an allegorical interpretation of Scripture?" Yes, he did, but even Origen vigorously defended "the Mosaic account of the creation, which teaches that the world is not yet ten thousand years old, but very much under that," against the pagan skeptic, Celsus, in his book, Contra Celsus (Against Celsus) Book 1, chapter 19.
Second, instead of interpreting the days of Genesis 1 as long ages, as some Christians began to do in the nineteenth century, Aquinas favored the opinion of St. Augustine, that the six days of Genesis were really a single instant. In his Commentary on the Sentences of Peter Lombard, Book II, Distinction 12, question 1, article 2, he notes the common view of the Church Fathers that the six days were sequential 24-hour days, but endorses St. Augustine's view that the work of the six days was accomplished in a single instant and subsequently revealed in stages to the angels, as they, with their finite minds, were incapable of taking it all in at once. St. Augustine thought that this view protected the Christian faith from the ridicule of unbelievers, who asked why it took God a whole week to make the world.
It is vital for the reader to appreciate that expressing a preference for St. Augustine's view over the conventional reading of Genesis, Aquinas was not rejecting the literal meaning of Genesis in favor of an allegorical one. For Aquinas the literal meaning was primary, and Genesis was an historical narrative, so there could be no question of doing that. But as we have seen, Aquinas' understanding of the word "literal" was quite different from ours. In his Summa Theologica I, q. 1, article 10), Aquinas discusses the possibility of a word in Scripture having multiple meanings. In this passage, the literal or historical sense of a word in Scripture, which is the primary meaning for St. Thomas, refers to the thing it directly signifies. However, for Aquinas, the author of Scripture is God. Thus each word in Scripture means what God intends it to mean. Hence what God means by "days" is what matters: this is the literal meaning, not the sense understood by the people who first read the book of Genesis.
Why did Aquinas depart from what he called "the more common opinion" (Commentary on the Sentences of Peter Lombard, Book II, Distinction 12, question 1, art. 2), which (as he admits) "superficially seems more consonant with the text": the view that the six days followed one another in a chronological sequence? Aquinas' motivation was simple: he wanted to preserve the honor of God from the ridicule of unbelievers: "scripture must be explained in such a way that the infidel cannot mock." What seemed ridiculous to some infidels was the idea that God, after each of his creative acts on the six days, suddenly stopped work until the beginning of the next day, as if he were exhausted. The beauty of St. Augustine's explanation is that it was invulnerable to this cheap jibe: God did everything at once, but He told His angels about it in stages, as they were incapable of understanding the entirety of God's creation in a single instant.
A modern reader might wonder what Aquinas would have made of the "day-age" theory, propounded in the nineteenth century in an attempt to harmonize Genesis with science, had he heard of it. Aquinas might have pointed out that whereas at least some of the Fathers (notably St. Augustine) had endorsed the view that the days were instantaneous, there was no theological precedent for the view that they referred to long periods of time. That would make it a novel view, although not necessarily a false one. St. Thomas might also have criticized the awkwardness of the "day-age" interpretation, since it needs to make the "days" overlap, to accommodate the order in which creatures appear in the fossil record. However, given his statement in his Commentary on the Sentences of Peter Lombard, Book II, Distinction 12, question 1, article 2, that "how and in what order" God's work of creation was accomplished did not belong to the substance of faith, I think it is fair to say that St. Thomas would not have regarded the "day-age" view as containing anything contrary to faith.
However, St. Thomas would, in my opinion, be much more favorably disposed towards the view proposed by Professor William Dembski in The End of Christianity (B & H Publishing Group, Nashville, Tennessee, 2009), that the "days" of Genesis represent the order in which God planned the creation in His Mind, as opposed to the chronological order in which the creation took place. As Dembski writes:
The key to this reading [of Genesis] is to interpret the days of creation as natural divisions in the intentional-semantic logic of creation. Genesis 1 is therefore not to be interpreted as ordinary chronological time (chronos) but rather as time from the vantage of God's purposes (kairos).
Accordingly, the days of creation are neither exact 24-hour days (as in young-earth creationism), nor epochs in natural history (as in old-earth creationism), nor even a literary device (as in the literary-framework theory). Rather, they are actual (literal!) episodes in the divine creative activity. They represent key divisions in the divine order of creation, with one episode building logically on its predecessor (2009, p. 142).
Dembski's account has obvious affinities with St. Augustine's thinking, and does not therefore constitute a peculiar theological novelty. Nor is it difficult to accommodate with the fossil record.
Third, the very question at the head of the article discussed above (Commentary on the Sentences of Peter Lombard, Book II, Distinction 12, question 1, article 2) makes it clear that Aquinas could not have countenanced evolution. The question reads: "Are All Things Created Simultaneously, Distinct In Their Species?" As we have see, Aquinas was inclined to favor the opinion of St. Augustine, who held that plants and animals were created according to their kind, at the very beginning of time. Interestingly, St. Augustine suggested that the various kinds of plants and animals were originally created as tiny "germinal seeds" which lacked form; later on, God produced their forms (Quaestiones Disputatae de Potentia Dei Q. IV article II, Reply to the Twenty-Second Objection).
Lucas Cranach the Elder, "Paradise," 1533. Bode-Museum, Berlin.
Aquinas expressly taught that Adam and Eve were literal persons, whose bodies were immediately produced by God: Adam's from the slime of the earth, and Eve's from Adam's rib.
Fourth, Aquinas taught that the human bodies of Adam and Eve must have been produced immediately by God: there was no other way, he believed, in which they could have been made. In his Summa Theologica I, q. 91, art. 2, Aquinas addresses the question of whether the human body of Adam was immediately produced by God. In his Reply to objection 3, he describes both "the making of man from the slime of the earth" and the raising of a dead body back to life as "changes that surpass the order of nature, and are caused by the Divine Power alone." (As we saw in "Smoking Gun" number 8, in Part One of my reply to Professor Tkacz, Aquinas' essentialism explains why he believed that simple life forms were incapable of evolving into higher animals - in other words, Aquinas held that Adamís body couldn't have evolved from the body of another kind of animal.)
A recurring feature of Aquinas' discussion of the creation of man and woman is the extraordinary reverence which he accords to Scripture. Thus when discussing whether the creation of the first man (Adam) was fittingly described in Scripture, Aquinas enumerates no less than five common objections to the appropriateness of the Scriptural account, but instead of giving his customary one- or two-paragraph response to these objections, he responds in a single short sentence (Summa Theologica I, q. 91, art. 4):
On the contrary, Is the authority of Scripture.
Evidently, Aquinas feels that this response suffices. The Bible says God made man that way; so that settles it. End of story. Aquinas feels no need to make a case for Scripture's authority, although he did go on to address the five objections which he had raised.
Similarly, in his Summa Theologica I, q. 92, article 2, Aquinas listed three Scriptural reasons, plus one philosophical argument, as to why it was appropriate that Eve should have been produced from the body of Adam, as described in the second chapter of Genesis. In the following article, he gives two reasons why Eve should have been formed from Adam's rib, rather than his head or feet, and cites the authority of Scripture to settle the matter:
On the contrary, It is written (Genesis 2:22): "God built the rib, which He took from Adam, into a woman."
Subsequently, in his Summa Theologica, I, q. 92, article 4, Aquinas explains why only God could have done the job:
Now God alone, the Author of nature, can produce an effect into existence outside the ordinary course of nature. Therefore God alone could produce either a man from the slime of the earth, or a woman from the rib of man.
Jan Breughel the Elder, "Paradise," 1620. Gemaldgalerie, Berlin.
Aquinas believed that Paradise was a literal place, with a literal Tree of Life and a Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.
Fifth, Aquinas believed that Adam and Eve were placed in a literal Paradise, which was a real place. Aquinas felt compelled to reject the view held by some Christians, that Paradise was a purely spiritual state, on the grounds that Genesis 2 was clearly written as an historical narrative, and should therefore be interpreted as such. As he wrote in his Summa Theologica, I, q. 102, article 1:
I answer that, As Augustine says (De Civ. Dei xiii, 21): "Nothing prevents us from holding, within proper limits, a spiritual paradise; so long as we believe in the truth of the events narrated as having there occurred." For whatever Scripture tells us about paradise is set down as a matter of history; and wherever Scripture makes use of this method, we must hold to the historical truth of the narrative as a foundation of whatever spiritual explanation we may offer. And so paradise, as Isidore says (Etym. xiv, 3), "is a place situated in the east, its name being the Greek for garden."
Just how seriously St. Thomas took the physical reality of Paradise can be seen in his response to the objection (in the same article) that explorers, despite having traversed the entire world, had never found Paradise. Aquinas answers that Paradise still exists, but it is in a secluded location, which no-one can enter:
Reply to objection 3. The situation of paradise is shut off from the habitable world by mountains, or seas, or some torrid region, which cannot be crossed; and so people who have written about topography make no mention of it (Summa Theologica I, q. 102, art. 1, reply to obj. 3).
Likewise, when discussing the tree of life and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, St. Thomas insists (in the same article) that they were both real, material trees, but that in addition to their literal significance, these trees also had a spiritual significance:
The tree of life is a material tree, and so called because its fruit was endowed with a life-preserving power as above stated (question 97, article 4). Yet it had a spiritual signification; as the rock in the desert was of a material nature, and yet signified Christ. In like manner the tree of the knowledge of good and evil was a material tree, so called in view of future events; because, after eating of it, man was to learn, by experience of the consequent punishment, the difference between the good of obedience and the evil of rebellion. It may also be said to signify spiritually the free-will as some say.
Aquinas also taught that the Garden of Eden, being an earthly Paradise, must have been situated somewhere with an equable climate: "we must hold that paradise was situated in a most temperate situation, whether on the equator or elsewhere" (Summa Theologica I, q. 102, article 2). The equability of the climate was especially important, because St. Thomas believed that extremes of heat and cold were the main cause of aging and bodily generation, which would not have occurred in Paradise.
A literal tree of life, a literal tree of the knowledge of good and evil, and a Garden of Eden that's still out there somewhere, near the Equator ... one could hardly ask for a more literal interpretation of the Genesis account!
Now, a "modern Thomist" might object that Aquinas' discussion of Paradise is predicated on the assumption that the account in Genesis 2 is "set down as a matter of history" - i.e. that it was intended to be an historical narrative. But many scholars now claim that Genesis 2 was originally intended to be a figurative account, rather than a narrative - in which case, Christians are no longer bound to treat the Biblical account of Paradise as an historical one, as Aquinas felt he had to.
However, the view that Genesis 1 to 11 was not originally intended as an historical narrative is quite untenable, for a whole host of reasons relating to style and literary form. I refer the reader to the following online articles:
(1) Genesis 1-11 as Historical Narrative by W. Gary Phillips and David M. Fouts.
(2) Is Genesis poetry-figurative, a theological argument (polemic) and thus not history? by Dr. Don Batten, Dr. David Catchpoole, Dr. Jonathan D. Sarfati and Dr. Carl Wieland.
(3) The Biblical Hebrew Creation Account: New Numbers Tell the Story by Dr. Stephen W. Boyd.
(4) Five Arguments for Genesis 1 and 2 as Straightforward Historical Narrative by the Creation Science Association of British Columbia.
(5) Is Genesis Poetry or Historic Narrative? by Helen Fryman.
Thus it would be utterly mistaken to suppose that if Aquinas were alive today, he would abandon his literal interpretation of the Biblical account of Paradise, found in Genesis 2.
Laurent de la Hire, "Job restored to prosperity," 1648. The Chrysler Museum, Norfolk.
According to Aquinas, Christians are bound to believe that Job was a real, historical person, and not an allegorical figure.
Sixth, Aquinas clearly taught that the characters in the Bible were literal historical figures. This is readily apparent from the Prologue of Aquinas' Commentary on Job, where he alludes to the view (held by some Jewish scholars in his day) that the book of Job was intended as nothing more than "a parable made up to serve as a kind of theme to dispute providence, as men frequently invent cases to serve as a model for debate," and then forcefully rejects it. The Jewish philosopher and Rabbi Moses Maimonides (1135-1204), following other Jewish sages, had asserted in his Guide for the Perplexed, Part III, chapter 22, that the book was not factual, but a work of fiction, designed to teach us about Providence. Maimonides based his denial of the historicity of Job on the total absence of biographical information in the book concerning Job's ancestry, his parents and when he lived. All we are told about Job is that "In the land of Uz there lived a man whose name was Job" (Job 1:1, New International Version). In his Prologue, St. Thomas rejects the view that the book of Job is an allegory, on Scriptural grounds:
Although it does not matter much for the intention of the book whether or not such is the case, still it makes a difference for the truth itself. This aforementioned opinion seems to contradict the authority of Scripture. In Ezechiel, the Lord is represented as saying, "If there were three just men in our midst, Noah, Daniel, and Job, these would free your souls by their justice." (Ez. 14:14) Clearly Noah and Daniel really were men in the nature of things and so there should be no doubt about Job who is the third man numbered with them. Also, James says, "Behold, we bless those who persevered. You have heard of the suffering of Job and you have seen the intention of the Lord." (James 5:11) Therefore one must believe that the man Job was a man in the nature of things.
Note the language used here: "there should be no doubt about Job"; "one must believe that Job was a man." These are very strong words.
Now, if St. Thomas insisted that Job could not be allegorized away, then we can be sure he would have insisted even more strongly that the Biblical patriarchs from Adam to Noah were real historical figures. Unlike Job, their ancestry is given in Genesis 5; additionally, some of them are mentioned elsewhere in Scripture several times. For instance, Enoch is mentioned in Hebrews 11:5 and Jude 1:14-15, and Noah in Ezekiel 14:14-20, Sirach 44:17-18, Matthew 24:37, Luke 17:26, Hebrews 11:7, 1 Peter 3:18-22 and 2 Peter 2:5. And in view of the fact that Noah, the Ark and the Flood are explicitly referred to by Jesus Christ in two of the Gospels (Matthew 24:37-39, Luke 17:26-27), as well as in 1 Peter 3:20 (see also 2 Peter 2:5), we can be sure that St. Thomas would have regarded the literal historicity of the Flood as something which Christians could not question.
Additionally, Aquinas explicitly mentions three of these Biblical patriarchs: Adam's son Seth, who Scripture tells us was born after Cain murdered Abel and was banished by God; Enoch, who is identified in the book of Jude as "the seventh from Adam" (Jude 1:14), since he is the seventh person listed in the genealogy from Adam to Noah in Genesis 5; and Noah, who was warned by God to build an ark in order to be saved from the Flood that would destroy the rest of humanity. Let's look at each of these figures in turn.
(1) Seth. In discussing the question of whether angels exercise vital functions when they assume human bodies, Aquinas anticipates an objection relating to the Biblical account in Genesis 6:1-4, where the "sons of God" mated with the "daughters of men," causing them to give birth to giants (Nephilim), who were the mighty men of old, men of renown. This Biblical passage seemed to indicate that angels were capable of mating with human beings. In his reply, Aquinas does not contest the historicity of the story. Instead, he offers what he regards as a more sensible literal interpretation, which he borrows from Augustine's City of God, Book XV. The sons of God were the descendants of Adam's third son, Seth, while the daughters of men were the descendants of his first son, Cain, the first murderer in history:
Hence by the sons of God are to be understood the sons of Seth, who were good; while by the daughters of men the Scripture designates those who sprang from the race of Cain (Summa Theologica I, q. 51, art. 3, reply to obj. 6).
For Aquinas, then, there was no doubt that Seth and Cain were real historical individuals.
(2) Enoch. Aquinas also asserted the historicity of Adam's great-great-great-great-grandson, Enoch, who is said to have been taken up to heaven at the age of 365 (Genesis 5:23-24; Hebrews 11:5). Here is what Aquinas writes about Enoch and Elijah (Elias) in his Summa Theologica III, q. 49, art. 5 when discussing the question of whether Christ opened the gate of Heaven to us by His passion. Aquinas anticipates the objection that some of the prophets, such as Elijah (Elias), had already been taken up into Heaven, long before Christ's suffering and death on the cross, and replies that they did not go to the same heaven as the one opened by the saving death of Christ:
Reply to Objection 2. Elias was taken up into the atmospheric heaven, but not in to the empyrean heaven, which is the abode of the saints: and likewise Enoch was translated into the earthly paradise, where he is believed to live with Elias until the coming of Antichrist.
Here, St. Thomas teaches that these two prophets are not in the empyrean heaven (i.e. the supernatural realm) but are in the atmospheric heaven. According to Aquinas, these two men are now waiting for their encounter with the Antichrist, in the earthly Paradise that God originally created for Adam. As readers will recall, Aquinas held that Paradise still existed, in some secret, inaccessible place on Earth.
The point I wish to make here is that for Aquinas, the historicity of Enoch and Elijah was beyond question. The accounts in Scripture were "set down as matter of history; and wherever Scripture makes use of this method, we must hold to the historical truth of the narrative" (Summa Theologica I, q. 102, art. 1).
(3) Noah. Aquinas alludes to Noah and the ark several times in his Summa Theologica. For instance, he asserts that "Christ was born of those alone who descended from Noah through Abraham, to whom the promise was made" (Summa Theologica I-II, q. 98, art. 6, obj. 3), and he also cites St. Peter's Scriptural reference to "the days of Noe, when the Ark was being built" (Summa Theologica III, q. 52, art. 3, reply to obj. 3). However, the decisive proof that St. Thomas regarded the existence of Noah as a fact that no Christian could deny can be found in the Prologue of Aquinas' Commentary on Job), where he writes:
In Ezechiel, the Lord is represented as saying, "If there were three just men in our midst, Noah, Daniel, and Job, these would free your souls by their justice." (Ez. 14:14) Clearly Noah and Daniel really were men in the nature of things and so there should be no doubt about Job who is the third man numbered with them.
We may therefore safely conclude that Aquinas believed that no true Christian could doubt the existence of the patriarchs.
Joshua Reynolds, "The infant Samuel," 1776. Musee Fabre, Montpellier.
According to Aquinas, to deny that Samuel was the son of Elcana (as the Bible narrates) would be tantamount to claiming that Scripture is false.
Seventh, Aquinas taught that no Christian could deny the "begats" in Scripture. In Genesis 5, it is written that Adam begat Seth, who begat Enosh, who begat Kenan, who begat Mahalalel, who begat Jared, who begat Enoch, who begat Methuselah, who begat Lamech, who begat Noah. Evidence that Aquinas insisted on a very literal interpretation of these "begats" can be found in his Summa Theologica I, q. 32, article 4, where he asserted that the Scriptural statement that Samuel was not the son of Elcana was indirectly "against faith":
A thing is of faith, indirectly, if the denial of it involves as a consequence something against faith; as for instance if anyone said that Samuel was not the son of Elcana, for it follows that the divine Scripture would be false.
Some Christians, including old-earth creationists, have recently suggested that the Hebrew word "begat" in the Old Testament need not denote a father-son relationship. They claim that "X begat Y" could mean, "X was an ancestor of Y." However, this speculation is utterly unfounded. As Larry Pierce and Ken Ham point out in their article, Are There Gaps In The Genesis Genealogies?:
Nowhere in the Old Testament is the Hebrew word for begat (yalad) used in any other way than to mean a single-generation (e.g., father/son or mother/daughter) relationship.
Now, if the word for "begat" were capable of having a broader meaning in the Hebrew Old Testament, then it could be plausibly argued that had Aquinas known this, he would not have been so rigid in his Scriptural interpretation. However, the article by Pierce and Ham leaves no room for doubt that the Biblical "begats" in the Old Testament have always been understood (by Jews and Christians) as referring to single-generation relationships (e.g. between father and son). Aquinas would therefore have seen no reason to budge on this point, were he alive today. And the New Testament reference to Enoch as "the seventh from Adam" (Jude 1:14) would surely have confirmed him in his plain reading of Genesis 5, which says that Enoch was Adam's great-great-great-great-grandson.
To recapitulate: Aquinas believed in a 6,000-year-old Earth. Far from believing in an old Earth, he was actually inclined to believe that the work of the "six days" in Genesis 1 was actually accomplished in an instant, and that plants and animals were simultaneously created by God at the very beginning of time. Aquinas also maintained that plants and animals were made by God, according to their kind (with the exception of those that were capable of arising by spontaneous generation). Additionally, Aquinas taught that the bodies of Adam and Eve must have been produced immediately by God, and by God alone. Finally, Aquinas held that Christians were bound to believe that Adam and Eve lived in a real Paradise, that Adam's descendants, Seth, Enosh, Kenan, Mahalalel, Jared, Enoch, Methuselah, Lamech and Noah, were all real historical figures, and that Enoch was Adam's great-great-great-great-grandson. For Aquinas, no Christian could deny that Lamech begat Noah, or that Elcana begat the prophet Samuel, without also denying Scripture.
Just out of curiosity, Professor Tkacz: how many of these things do you believe? How about Adam and Eve, for instance?
Given that Aquinas held all these opinions, I cannot see why any modern-day follower of Aquinas would be eager to marry either his philosophy or his theology with the scientific findings of Darwinism.
On exegetical grounds, we can safely say that Thomism and Darwinism are like oil and water: they don't mix.
4. What would Aquinas believe about questions relating to origins, if he were alive today?
Any hypothetical inferences about what Aquinas would think about this or that issue if he were alive today will be based on assumptions. The key assumption that I make is that if Aquinas were alive today, his metaphysical and theological beliefs would not change, but that Aquinas would be perfectly amenable to altering his views on scientific matters, in the light of modern discoveries. This, I think, is a very reasonable starting assumption: Aquinas did not attempt to construct his metaphysics on the basis of any particular scientific theory; consequently, there is no reason to suppose that his metaphysical views would change if he were alive today - much less his religious ones.
The really interesting question is whether modern scientific discoveries would force Aquinas to modify his views regarding the proper interpretation of Scripture. I shall argue that Aquinas' exegetical principles would allow him to accommodate modern scientific findings regarding the antiquity of the Earth and of the human race, but that he would he forced to impute a double meaning to Scriptural passages in Genesis 4-9, which refer to the patriarchs from Adam to Noah. As we have seen, Aquinas explicitly stated in his writings that the words of Scripture could carry multiple literal meanings, so this would not constitute a problem for Aquinas.
This final section of my post on Aquinas' interpretation of Scripture is divided into four sub-sections:
Left: the Canyon Diablo meteorite (weight: 2,641 grams). In 1956, this meteorite was used by geologist C. C. Patterson to date the age of the Earth to 4.55 billion years (+/- 1.5%). The modern estimate is 4.54 billion years.
Right: Meteor crater (a.k.a. Barringer crater), Arizona, where the Canyon Diablo meteorite was found.
In my opinion, Aquinas would probably accept that the Earth is old, if he were alive today. As we have seen, Aquinas was ready to set aside any interpretation of the literal sense of Scripture which "can be shown to be false by solid reasons" (Summa Theologica I, q. 68, art. 3). So how would he have reacted if he had been persuaded by solid arguments that the Earth was far older than 6,000 years?
Before we answer this question, we need to ask ourselves what kind of arguments would have convinced St. Thomas that the earth was old. We saw above that Aquinas regarded arguments from nature as decisive: in Summa Theologica I, q. 68, art. 2, he rejected a particular interpretation of the "firmament" because it required the waters above the firmament to continually behave in an unnatural fashion.
Aquinas' discussion of the Garden of Eden (Paradise) is also highly relevant to the question of how he would regard old-Earth creationism, if he were alive today. In his Summa Theologica I, q. 96, art. 1, reply to objection 2, Aquinas rejects the view held by many of the Christian Fathers, that the animals in Paradise would not have killed one another. Aquinas employs unusually forceful language to dismiss this theological opinion, and in the course of doing so, he enunciates an important theological principle: the nature of creatures was not altered by man's sin:
Reply to Objection 2. In the opinion of some, those animals which now are fierce and kill others, would, in that state, have been tame, not only in regard to man, but also in regard to other animals. But this is quite unreasonable. For the nature of animals was not changed by man's sin, as if those whose nature now it is to devour the flesh of others, would then have lived on herbs, as the lion and falcon.
Since Aquinas held that the nature of the animals did not change as a result of Adam's sin, it is reasonable to infer that he believed that other creatures did not change their nature as a result of the Fall either. Hence the nature of the elements did not change, which implies that the laws governing radioactive decay must have been the same.
Some modern-day young-Earth creationists have proposed that the laws of Nature changed after the Flood. However, Aquinas would be even less sympathetic towards this view than he was towards the view that the Fall changed the nature of things. For if Adam's sin could not change the nature of things, then surely neither could the sin of Adam's descendants, shortly before the Flood.
It is reasonable to infer, then, that Aquinas would have been impressed by a demonstrative argument, based on some regularly observed occurrence, showing that certain natural phenomena - for instance, varves (see the article, The Truth about Varves by Greg Nyman) - can only be accounted for within a 6000-year time frame, by denying the constancy of nature. For Aquinas, this would have been a reductio ad absurdum.
A highly resolved Tree Of Life, based on completely sequenced genomes. Bacteria are shown in blue, archaea in green and eukaryotes in red. It should be noted that the various groups of animals (Metazoa, the largest group shown in red) account for only a small part of the diversity of life.
From my reading of Aquinas' epistemological principles, I have concluded that he would probably he not be persuaded that all living things sprang from a common ancestral stock, if he were alive today. Aquinas' "Smoking Gun" number 7 contains two corollaries, the second of which is an epistemic corollary: "We shouldn't believe evolutionists' explanations of the origin of life or of various kinds of complex organisms, unless they can replicate them experimentally." The processes which are alleged by neo-Darwinists to have produced the various kinds of living things, in all their diversity, have never been replicated in the laboratory or observed in the wild. To be sure, we have seen new biological species emerge, but not new natural kinds, or families. For Aquinas, that would leave a gigantic question mark hanging over the theory of evolution.
However, I also believe that Aquinas would have had no theological objections to common descent as such, or even to the (Divinely guided) evolution of the human body. From a theological standpoint, there is nothing to prevent God from manipulating the body of an animal embryo, at the moment of conception, and thereby transforming it into another kind of animal. Likewise, God could have manipulated the embryo of an animal conceived from apelike parents, transforming it into a human embryo from the moment of its conception by deliberately manipulating its genome, and at the same moment infusing it with a human soul, thereby making it the first human being. If God made the first human being, Adam, in this way, then it would still be true that the body of the first human being was produced immediately by God, as Aquinas taught (see "Smoking Gun" number 11 in Part One of my reply to Professor Tkacz).
On Scriptural grounds, too, I think that Aquinas could have harmonized the book of Genesis with evolution in general, and human evolution in particular. To be sure, Aquinas did teach that God made the first man from the slime (or dust) of the ground, and that the first woman was made from the rib of the first man. But if Aquinas were presented with convincing evidence that the first man was born of apelike parents, Aquinas might have allowed that the account of God forming Adam from dust in Genesis 2:7, while a literal one, was not literal in a straightforward, superficial sense. The reader will recall that metaphor was also part of the literal meaning for St. Thomas. If God used the body of an animal to make Adam's body, could this animal (which is composed of the same elements as the earth) be metaphorically described as "dust" in Genesis 2? Perhaps.
There are certain features of the narrative in Genesis 2, however, which I believe Aquinas would have regarded as settled Christian doctrine, namely:
(i) the creation of Eve from Adam's side, by a special act of God (as we have seen, Aquinas lists four reasons in his writings for why Eve should have been made in this way, and Our Lord's citation of Genesis 2:24 - "For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh" - in Matthew 19:5 would have surely clinched the matter for Aquinas);
(ii) the fact that there were only two human beings in the beginning (the statement in Romans 5:12 that "sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, and in this way death came to all men," would surely have settled this for Aquinas); and finally,
(iii) the fact that human beings would not have died had Adam and Eve not sinned (again, Romans 5:12).
I cannot imagine Aquinas ceding any of these three points, given his literalistic approach to interpreting Scripture. Thus even if he could be persuaded to accept intelligently guided evolution as the mechanism whereby Adam's body was formed, he would still have insisted that Eve was formed from Adam's body.
Let us return to the evolutionist case for universal common ancestry. Five general lines of evidence are commonly cited by evolutionists as evidence that all living things sprang from a common ancestral stock:
(i) the fundamental genetic and biochemical similarities between all living things;
(ii) the genetic and anatomical imperfections found in living things;
(iii) the vestigial features of living organisms;
(iv) the fact that it is possible to classify living things in a nested hierarchy; and
(v) the parsimony (as shown by Bayesian probability calculations) of assuming that all living things are all descended from a single common ancestor, as opposed to multiple ancestors which evolved independently.
As I read him, Aquinas would be rather unimpressed by the first line of evidence; diametrically opposed to the conclusions of the second and third; intrigued by the fourth; and probably unpersuaded by the fifth.
Let's have a look at the first line of evidence: the profound similarities between all living things. In his book, Time's Arrow, Time's Cycle (Harvard University Press, 1987, hardcover), the late paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould wrote:
A perfect wing may have evolved to its current state, but it may have been created just as we find it. We simply cannot tell if perfection be our only evidence. As Darwin himself understood so well, the primary proofs of evolution are oddities and imperfections that must record pathways of historical descent - the panda's thumb and the flamingo's smile of my book titles (chosen to illustrate this paramount principle of history) (page 84).
In this quote, Gould reveals both the weakness of arguments for common ancestry which are based on similarities - "See? They've all got DNA!" - and the pivotal importance to the evolutionary case of identifying imperfections in living things, at both the genetic and anatomical levels. Of themselves, the underlying biochemical and genetic similarities between living things prove nothing: they could equally well be used as evidence of common design. The same goes for the DNA sequences for different species, which can be use to reconstruct phylogenetic trees which are the same as those which already vhave been constructed from morphological and biochemical studies. These pervasive similarities are perfectly compatible with the hypothesis that all kinds of living organisms embody designs which are the result of well thought-out plans which were executed by an Intelligent Creator. Since common design explains the same features as common descent, the mere fact of similarity alone cannot be used to establish universal common ancestry.
Creationist Todd Wood has argued, however, in a very thoughtful article, entitled The Chimpanzee Genome and the Problem of Biological Similarity (copyright 2006, Baraminology Study Group), that not only the degree of similarity but also the pattern of similarity observed between the human and chimpanzee genomes cannot be adequately explained simply by ascribing it to the will of the Creator, unless a theory can be developed to explain why the Creator would will such similarity. For Wood, this pattern of similarity constitutes strong prima facie evidence of a shared common ancestry between humans and chimpanzees.
Would Todd Wood's line of reasoning persuade Aquinas, if he were alive today? I think it certainly would give him pause, and he would surely acknowledge, as Wood does, that here is something that Christians need to explain. On the other hand, he would also point out because that the emergence of a new natural kind (i.e. family) has never been observed in the laboratory or in the wild, the hypothesis of evolution, considered as a scientific hypothesis, remains speculative. For Aquinas, the theory of evolution would appear much more plausible, if considered purely as a theological hypothesis: it explains (to some degree) the patterns of similarity between living things, as a consequence of God's antecedent decision to produce the forms of all kinds of living creatures, by manipulating the genes of a common ancestral stock. Thus even if he did come to accept evolution, it would be for theological rather than scientific reasons. Somehow, I don't think too many neo-Darwinists would be happy with this line of reasoning.
The second line of evidence for universal common ancestry, which is based on the alleged imperfections in living things, is another matter. If there are indeed imperfections in the genes and anatomical structures of living things, then these can hardly be ascribed to God's design. But as we saw in "Smoking Gun" number 13, in Part One, Aquinas was firmly committed to the view that all of God's works are perfect (Deuteronomy 32:4), and creationists have a well thought-out response to Gould's charge that the panda's thumb is poorly designed. We looked at other examples of alleged design imperfections in organisms, in Part Two, and found them wanting (with the exception of imperfections caused by sexual selection, which do not characterize whole families, or natural kinds, but only certain species belonging to those families). Thus if he were alive today, Aquinas would very likely reject arguments based on imperfections as evidence for common ancestry.
Likewise, we can immediately discard the third line of evidence for universal common ancestry, which is based on the supposedly vestigial features of living organisms - whether at the anatomical level or the genetic level. As we have seen, Aquinas' theological principles would not have allowed him to accept that living creatures possessed any vestigial features; for him, it was axiomatic that "God and nature make nothing in vain," as we saw in "Smoking Gun" number 14, in Part One of my reply to Professor Tkacz.
The fourth line of evidence for universal common ancestry is intriguing. The fact that living things can be classified in a nested hierarchy on the basis of their morphological similarities or their genetic similarities, and that various features of organisms, even when compared according to different criteria, give rise to the same family trees, would have intrigued Aquinas. In addition, the presence of a nested hierarchy is a singular prediction which we would expect from a naturalistic evolutionary mechanism, as Dr. Douglas Theobald explains in his 29+ Evidences for Macroevolution - Prediction 1.2:
The only known processes that specifically generate unique, nested, hierarchical patterns are branching evolutionary processes. Common descent is a genetic process in which the state of the present generation/individual is dependent only upon genetic changes that have occurred since the most recent ancestral population/individual. Therefore, gradual evolution from common ancestors must conform to the mathematics of Markov processes and Markov chains. Using Markovian mathematics, it can be rigorously proven that branching Markovian replicating systems produce nested hierarchies (Givnish and Sytsma 1997; Harris 1989; Norris 1997). For these reasons, biologists routinely use branching Markov chains to effectively model evolutionary processes, including complex genetic processes, the temporal distributions of surnames in populations (Galton and Watson 1874), and the behavior of pathogens in epidemics.
The foregoing argument contains a strong element of question-begging, however. To be sure, the only known natural process which generates a nested hierarchy is a Markov process, which is by definition stochastic and memoryless. However, there is no reason why an Intelligent Designer could not generate the same nested hierarchical pattern in living organisms.
Dr. Theobald could respond that the hypothesis of common descent is a superior explanation of this singular fact, as it specifies a natural process (Markov chains) which entails that nested hierarchies must result, while common design by an Intelligent Agent is a neutral process, through which nested hierarchies may result. In other words, "God just decided to make living things that way" is a very lame, ad hoc explanation for the fact that living things can be classified into a nested hierarchy.
In reply, St. Thomas would point out that if the world was made by God (we can show, using reason), whether directly or indirectly, then God must have selected the mechanism whereby life originated, in all its diversity. Thus religious believers still need to explain why He chose Markov chains to generate the branchings in the tree of life. Why didn't He choose something else? If God's choice of Markov chains was a purely arbitrary one, then this undercuts the argument that the hypothesis of theistic evolution has superior explanatory value to creationism. For if you're a theist, then from a God's-eye perspective, the existence of a nested hierarchy of life will be just as arbitrary if you believe in theistic evolution as it will be if you believe in creationism.
If, on the other hand, there turns out to be an objective reason, from a biological perspective, why living things would be more biologically robust if their anatomical and genetic characteristics embodied a consistent nested hierarchy, then Aquinas could turn around and say: "Well, that's the reason why the nested hierarchy exists. It's not arbitrary after all. In that case, it makes perfect sense that God would have designed living things that way."
Thus, whether the nested hierarchy is an arbitrary or a non-arbitrary feature of living things, someone who believes in that God selected the processes by which life originated and diversified (as Aquinas did) cannot consistently appeal to the nested hierarchy per se as evidence for universal common descent. Additional evidence is needed.
Rodhocetus kasrani, an archaeocetid whale from the Eocene of Pakistan. Courtesy of Arthur Weasley.
Rodhocetus had hind limbs, a large pelvis fused to the vertebrae and differentiated teeth. On the other hand, its ear bones were very whale-like, and its body proportions and elongated feet were clearly adapted for life in the water, although its swimming style was different from a whale's.Its tail may have acted as a rudder.
I believe this is how Aquinas would probably reason, if he were alive today. On this point, I would have to say that I personally accept the nested hierarchy that we find in living things as evidence of common descent, as it also agrees with what we find in the fossil record. Would Aquinas be impressed by this line of argument? I have to say that I doubt it. Aquinas would probably point out that the fossil evidence for evolution at the taxonomic levels of the class, order and family, is confined largely to chordates, which constitute just one out of the 40-odd phyla of animals, which are themselves only a small branch on the tree of life. Intermediate forms are certainly not a pervasive feature of the alleged "tree of life"; and for most of the branches, there are no known fossil intermediates. Given Aquinas' epistemological criteria, he would probably demand to see much more complete fossil evidence of intermediate forms, before committing himself to the general hypothesis that all living things - or even all animals - share a common ancestry.
Aquinas would also point out that religious believers who accept the nested hierarchy as evidence for common descent are obliged to interpret it differently than evolutionists who are non-believers. In particular, the view that the branchings on the tree of life are entirely random is one that evolutionists of a religious persuasion are bound to reject. The nested hierarchy we see in living things must therefore be a reflection of God's intelligence.
The reader may be wondering whether Aquinas would accept the fossil evidence for human ancestry, at least. Jim Foley's Fossil Hominids Web page provides an excellent summary of the fossil evidence for human evolution. Impressive though it is, I would imagine that Aquinas, were he alive today, would have some reservations. He might respond as follows:
"Consider, if you will, the human brain, which is the most complex structure known to exist in the universe. Now consider the vast difference between what we can do with our brains, and what chimpanzees can do with theirs. Any decent scientific account of how we got here, should also tell us how the human brain came to be the way it is, with the capacities that it has today. And this is precisely the question that science can't really answer. We don't know when our cognitive capacities appeared. Still less do we know when our ancestors first acquired a spiritual human soul. Was it 200,000 years ago, when Homo sapiens first appeared, or around 2.5 million years ago, when the genus Homo first appeared? Until you can answer those questions, I shall remain leery of your hypothesis, for which there is admittedly good circumstantial evidence, that humans share a common ancestry with chimpanzees."
Getting back to the topic of universal common ancestry, it remains to examine the fifth line of evidence that all living things spring from a common stock: statistical reasoning. In order to see why this would not impress Aquinas, it will be instructive to read Dr. Cornelius Hunter's blog entry, Let the worship begin (May 15, 2010), about a recent conversation he had with Dr. Douglas Theobald, author of a new scientific paper ("A formal test of the theory of universal common ancestry," in Nature 465, 219-222, 13 May 2010, doi:10.1038/nature09014). Dr. Theobald compared 23 different proteins in organisms belonging to all three domains of living things (bacteria, archaea and eukaryotes). Using statistical analysis, the paper demonstrated that the hypothesis of universal common ancestry is overwhelmingly more probable than various rival hypotheses of multiple independent ancestry for these organisms.
It is also worth keeping in mind that the rival hypotheses of independent ancestry that were tested against the hypothesis of universal common ancestry were all naturalistic hypotheses, that assumed unguided evolution.
Dr. Hunter describes a conversation he had with Dr. Theobald, after his paper was published:
In a public discussion I asked the paper's author about these problems. I reminded him that one hypothesis comparing well against others does not translate into very strong empirical evidence for the hypothesis. But he disagreed. He assured me that his analysis is fundamentally based on modern, cutting edge statistical methods, and that he firmly stands by his conclusions. Indeed, no scientist or statistician would find them to be controversial, he added.
I explained to him that the problem lies not with the statistical methods. Daniel Bernoulli also used cutting edge methods of the day (he was the first that I know of to use a null hypothesis based on random distributions). But when comparing such scores a scientist or a statistician would merely claim that the hypothesis with the significantly higher score is the winner of the group. That is entirely different than his high claim that the results constitute very strong empirical evidence for the hypothesis...
But again the evolutionist continued to disagree. You are simply incorrect, he replied. From a model selection perspective, from a likelihood perspective, and from a Bayesian perspective, empirical evidence can only be evaluated relative to other hypotheses. That's all we have. No hypothesis can be evaluated in isolation - such an idea is impossible and incoherent.
I again explained that when one hypothesis beats out others you cannot make the claims you are making. What you have is very strong evidence that the hypothesis beats out the other hypotheses, period. You do not have very strong evidence for the hypothesis, as you are claiming...
At this point the evolutionist turned the blame on me. We have, he explained, overwhelming evidence that universal common ancestry beats out competing multiple independent ancestry hypotheses. If you don't consider that as evidence for universal common ancestry, then you are certainly entitled to that opinion. But the rest of us are not required to believe that your opinion makes any sense. Yours is a strange philosophy, to my mind, and I'm sure to most people who will read your words. (Emphases mine - VJT.)
The point at issue is a fundamental one: if you believe that empirical evidence can only be evaluated relative to other hypotheses (as Bayesians do, for instance), then you are likely to find Dr. Theobald's article convincing; but if you're not a Bayesian, and you don't believe that empirical evidence can only be evaluated in this way, then you won't be convinced.
What about Aquinas? As I pointed out in the longer version of "Smoking Gun" number 12 in Part One of my reply to Professor Tkacz, Aquinas lived in the thirteenth century, when the mathematical notation for representing probabilities had not yet been invented - which is why Aquinas confines himself to writing about things that happen always, for the most part, or rarely, when discussing the frequency of events. Throughout his writings, Aquinas' reasoning is about as non-probabilistic as you can get. His proof of God's existence from the contingency of the natural world, for instance, starts from the obvious fact that things sometimes cease to exist. How often they do so does not concern Aquinas.
Aquinas was an intelligent thinker, and I am sure that if he were alive today, he would happily take on board the key notions of modern probability theory. However, I see no reason to infer that Aquinas, were he alive today, would suddenly convert to the philosophically controversial belief that empirical evidence can only be evaluated relative to other hypotheses. That being the case, I doubt whether Aquinas would be convinced by the modern scientific case for the universal common ancestry of organisms.
James Tissot, "Cain Leadeth Abel to Death," 1896. Watercolor.
The "begats" denoted literal, father-son relationships
We saw above that the Hebrew word "begat" is always used to denote the relationship of between a parent and his/her child, as Ken Ham and Larry Pierce point out in their online article, Who Begat Whom? :
Nowhere in the Old Testament is the Hebrew word for begat (yalad) used in any other way than to mean a single-generation (e.g., father/son or mother/daughter) relationship. The Hebrew word ben can mean son or grandson, but the word yalad never skips generations.
This finding rules out the possibility of harmonizing the genealogies with the great antiquity of the human race by proposing that the sacred writer of Genesis may have skipped over some generations. So we are left with literal "begats."
The ages of the patriarchs
I know of no decisive reason, however, to take the ages of the Biblical patriarchs in the plain chronological sense, especially when numbers like 7, 10, 13 and 365 abound in the genealogies of Genesis 5: for instance, Adam begets Seth at the age of 130 (10 x 13) and dies at the age of 930 (1000 - (7 x 10)); Enoch is taken up to heaven at the age of 365; and Lamech has a son at the age of 182 (half of 365) and dies at 777. These numbers seem to have originally had a metaphorical sense, even if their exact significance remains a mystery. The reader will recall that for Aquinas, metaphor was part of the literal sense. The fact that the patriarchs were real people does not necessarily imply that their ages were meant to be interpreted chronologically.
Finally, it should be pointed out that nowhere else in the Bible are the ages of the patriarchs referred to again. This leaves scholars considerable freedom to debate and discuss the meaning of these ages, and we may suppose that Aquinas, if he were alive today, would agree that there are several possible meanings for the ages in Genesis 5. Andrew Kvasnica's excellent article, The Ages of the Antediluvian Patriarchs In Genesis 5, provides a useful overview of the different interpretations that have been proposed by scholars.
Genesis 5 and the antiquity of the human race: could the genealogies have a dual significance?
The key difficulty facing any harmonization of Genesis with scientific estimates for the antiquity of the human race is that according to Genesis 4:1-2, Eve (the first woman) gave birth to Cain and Abel, yet both of these men practiced agriculture: Cain was a farmer and Abel was a shepherd. According to the latest research, the dawn of agriculture only goes back to 9,400 BC. However, the dawn of humanity must have occurred no less than 200,000 years ago, when anatomically modern Homo sapiens arose. And if we count Neanderthal man as a true human being, then we will have to push the dawn of humanity back to 825,000 years ago (the date when the Neanderthal line diverged from the modern human line). Finally, if we want to include the earliest Homo, we will have to go back about 2.4 million years. This leaves us with a gap of 190,000 years, at the very least, and possibly more than 2,000,000 years, between Adam and Cain!
There is, however, a sensible way in which Aquinas might have bridged this gap, while remaining faithful to his principles for interpreting Scripture. Readers will recall that St. Thomas wrote in his Summa Theologica I, q. 1, art. 10 that the same word in Scripture could have multiple senses, if God (the author of Scripture) intended these. Thus a word might have a literal sense, and also one or more spiritual senses. Not only that, but even the literal sense of a word could be multiple:
...since the author of Holy Writ is God, Who by one act comprehends all things by His intellect, it is not unfitting, as Augustine says (Confess. xii), if, even according to the literal sense, one word in Holy Writ should have several senses.
Now St. Thomas, like the other Christian Fathers, believed that certain historical figures mentioned in Scripture were also types or symbols of later historical characters. For example, Melchizidek (Genesis 14:18) was viewed as a type of Christ (Hebrews 7). Of course, types were considered to belong in the category of "spiritual meaning"; however, as the passage above shows, St. Thomas believed that Scripture could have multiple literal meanings as well. Without doing any violence to his principles for interpreting Scripture, St. Thomas could have maintained that the Biblical narrative of Cain actually refers to two historical individuals, widely separated in time, one of whom prefigured the other. Cain-1 might have been the son of Adam and Eve (the first humans) and also the first murderer in human history, who lived around two million years ago; Cain-2 might have been a later individual, who lived 6,000 years ago in the Middle East, who practiced agriculture, and whose wicked act of fratricide was still preserved in oral tradition. The Biblical narrative of Cain, Abel and Seth would thus have a dual significance, as referring to both Cain-1 and Cain-2. The references to agriculture in Genesis 4 would apply in their plain sense to Cain-2; but for Cain-1, they might signify his earthly, carnal mode of thinking, which displeased God. Similarly, would be required for Cainís brothers, Abel and Seth.
I should mention that many Church Fathers have seen Cain and Abel as types of the earthly and spiritual man - e.g. St. Augustine, in his City of God, Book XV). In chapter 18 of this book, Augustine also discusses the typological significance of Abel, Seth and Enos.
To us moderns, the kind of Scriptural exegesis I have proposed here sounds far-fetched, and even incredible. But for St. Thomas, it was a logical consequence of the fact that the Author of Scripture was God, whose all-embracing intellect was perfectly capable of assigning multiple meanings to a word, including the name of an individual in Scripture. Scripture is Godís work: it is as deep, as rich and as complex as God, its Author, intends it to be.
In short: St. Thomas viewed the book of Genesis not only as a literal text, but as a very rich text, laden with multiple meanings - including multiple literal meanings. I conclude that St. Thomas' faith would not have been fatally undermined by recent scientific findings regarding the antiquity of man.
Edward Hicks, "Noah's Ark." 1846. Oil on canvas painting. Philadelphia Museum of Art.
Could the Flood have been geographically universal?
By now, it should come as no surprise to readers that St. Thomas followed the plain, literal sense of Scripture when writing about the Flood, even while acknowledging a deeper spiritual significance of the event, as the following excerpts from the Summa Theologica show:
Therefore God is said to have repented, by way of comparison with our mode of acting, in so far as by the deluge He destroyed from the face of the earth man whom He had made. (Summa Theologica I, q. 19, art. 7).
...as Augustine says in a sermon on the Passion (Serm. CI, De Tempore), an ark of wood preserved the human race from the waters of the Deluge... (Summa Theologica III, q. 46, art. 4)
Damascene enumerates certain figurative Baptisms. For instance, "the Deluge" was a figure of our Baptism, in respect of the salvation of the faithful in the Church; since then "a few ... souls were saved in the ark [Vulg.: 'by water']," according to 1 Pet. 3:20. (Summa Theologica III, q. 66, art. 11).
Augustine says (De Civ. Dei xx, 18) that "the same world which perished in the deluge is reserved unto fire." (Aquinas' posthumous Supplement to Summa Theologica III, q. 74, art. 6).
In view of the fact that Noah, the Ark and the Flood are explicitly referred to by Jesus Christ in two of the Gospels (Matthew 24:37-39, Luke 17:26-27), as well as in 1 Peter 3:20 (see also 2 Peter 2:5), we can be sure that St. Thomas would have regarded the literal historicity of the Flood as something which Christians could not question. It might be questioned whether "all" in the Gospel passages refers to the entire human race (with the exception of Noah and his family), but the explicit reference in Genesis 6:6 to God being sorry that he had made man, leaves no doubt for anyone who takes the literal meaning seriously.
It is likely, however, that Aquinas, if he were alive today, would set aside the claim, made by young-earth creationists, that the Flood covered the entire Earth. Problems with the animals taken on the Ark are neatly summarized by the old-Earth creationist Greg Moore in his article, Rapid Post-Flood Speciation: A Critique of the Young-Earth Model. If we suppose (sensibly) that Noah took only a few thousand different "kinds" (or families) of animals aboard the Ark, rather than millions of species, then we also have to suppose that these families naturally diversified into the various species we see in each family of animals today, in the space of just 5,000 years, which would in turn require us to suppose that the laws of Nature were different in the immediate aftermath of the Flood, allowing rapid evolution to occur. But as we have seen, Aquinas rejected the supposition that the laws of Nature were radically different in the past from what they are now.
Additionally, passages in Scripture which appear to assert that the Flood was a global catastrophe are open to alternative interpretations, as the following articles show:
Deluge (Maas, Anthony. "Deluge." The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1908.)
The Genesis Flood: Why the Bible says it must be local by Richard Deem.
It is reasonable to suppose, then, that if St. Thomas Aquinas were alive today, and if he were presented with convincing scientific arguments showing that no global deluge could have occurred in the past unless the laws of Nature were radically different, he would reinterpret the Flood story in Genesis as referring to a regional catastrophe which destroyed all but eight members of the human race at some point in human history. What he would have insisted on, however, is that Scripture cannot be set aside when it asserts that the Flood was a catastrophe which befell the whole human race, and that only Noah and his family were saved from the Flood. As the article cited above from The Catholic Encyclopedia (1908) puts it:
As to the teachings of the Bible, the passage which deals ex professo with the Flood (Genesis 6-9), if taken by itself, may be interpreted of a partial destruction of man; it insists on the fact that all inhabitants of the "land", not of the "earth", died in the waters of the Deluge, and it does not explicitly tell us whether all men lived in the "land". It may also be granted, that of the passages which refer incidentally to the flood (Wisdom 10:4; 14:6; Sirach 44:17 sqq., and Matthew 24:37 sqq., may be explained, more or less satisfactorily, of a partial destruction of the human race by the inundation of the Deluge; but no one can deny that the prima facie meaning of , 2 Peter 2:4-9, and 2 Peter 3:5 sqq., refers to the death of all men not contained in the ark. (Maas, Anthony. "Deluge." In The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1908.) [N.B. I've linked the Biblical references to the NIV and NAB, because of their widespread use in the English-speaking world - VJT.]
The author of the article adds: "Up to the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries the belief in the anthropological universality of the Deluge was general."
Could the Flood have wiped out the entire human race, except for eight people?
The scientific problem that arises in this context is that there is strong genetic evidence (based on a comparison of human and chimp DNA), which strongly indicates that the last time during which the human race could have passed through a severe population bottleneck was approximately two million years ago - although even at that date, the bottleneck would have been much larger than eight persons: about 10,000, according to modern scientific estimates. (See Population Bottlenecks and Pleistocene Human Evolution by John Hawks, Keith Hunley, Sang-Hee Lee and Milford Wolpoff, in Molecular Biology and Evolution (2000), Volume 17, Issue 1, pp. 2-22.) On the other hand, the evidence of Genesis 7-9 indicates that Noah was not only a farmer but a very accomplished boat-builder, which means that he could not have lived more than a few thousand years ago. The genetic evidence clearly indicates that no severe population bottleneck occurred at this time.
How would St. Thomas respond to these findings, if he were alive today? First, as we saw in "Smoking Gun" number 7, corollary 2 in Part One of my reply to Professor Tkacz, Aquinas' epistemological assumptions would have left him quite unimpressed with the evidence for the neo-Darwinian theory of evolution, and as I argued above, he would probably not be persuaded by the evidence for universal common ancestry if he were alive today. Hence Aquinas would probably be highly skeptical of any arguments based on genetic evidence, which take the common ancestry of humans and chimpanzees are their starting assumption, when attempting to identify population bottlenecks in human prehistory.
St. Thomas would also point out that estimates of the size of the bottleneck are all based on naturalistic assumptions (e.g. regarding rates of human population growth after a severe bottleneck), whereas Scripture tells us plainly that Noah received Divine guidance and assistance, both before and after the Flood.
However, Aquinas would probably welcome the finding that the human race passed through a severe population bottleneck about two million years ago, as this was the last time that the human race all lived in one region (East Africa) before dispersing across the globe. As we have seen, if St. Thomas were alive today, he would be forced (by his own principles) to accept the scientific finding that the Earth - and consequently the human race - is very old, and that there never was a Flood that covered the entire globe. However, Aquinas would still insist that there was a Flood at some stage in human history, and that only eight people could have passed through it, because Scripture affirms this. That being the case, the most parsimonious course of action would be to look for a flood at a very stage in human history, when the human race was confined to one region.
Scientists are generally agreed that the human race arose somewhere in Africa over two million years ago. East Africa continues to be the most favored location for the cradle of humanity, although South Africa is an alternative possibility. The Great Rift Valley is believed to have undergone repeated flooding between two and three million years ago. It is therefore plausible that Noah's flood refers to one of these events.
What about the Ark?
This would still leave the problem of how to interpret the numerous Scriptural references to Noah's ark in both the Old and New Testaments (e.g. Matthew 24:38; 1 Peter 3:20), for the notion that our two million-year-old ancestors possessed the skills required to build such a large ship is surely untenable. Note that in Genesis 6:14, God instructs Noah, "So make yourself an ark." God assumes that Noah knows how to make a ship; all Noah needs are the specifications (size and material).
However, if (as I suggested in part (c) above) the genealogies in Genesis 5 refer to two sets of people who are widely separated in time, then we can still preserve the literal meaning of the Flood story, by supposing that the account of the Flood in Scripture has a double meaning, and that it refers to two separate individuals, one of whom prefigured the other. (We saw above that Aquinas' principles for interpreting Scripture would have allowed him to see two literal meanings in a single passage, and even to hold that a passage about a person described in Scripture may in fact by intended to refer to two literal people.)
In other words, there may have been two Noahs:
(1) an ancient Noah who: (a) lived over two million years ago, (b) was preserved by God from a Flood which nearly wiped out the entire human race (all of whom lived in a tiny region of Africa at that early stage in human history), and (c) obviously lacked the technological wherewithal to build an ark, although he might have escaped from the Flood in a primitive raft; and
(2) a more recent Noah, who: (a) lived in the Middle East about five thousand years ago, (b) was an ancestor of Abraham, (c) was loyal to God, and (d) was warned by God to build an ark for himself and his family, to save him from a large local Middle-Eastern flood.
I think it is fair to say, however, that Aquinas would not have been altogether happy with the proposed reconciliation, in which Noah-1 (who lived over two million years ago) experienced a flood that wiped out most of humanity, but did not build an ark, while Noah-2 (who experienced a Middle-Eastern flood that didn't destroy humanity) was nevertheless instructed by God to build an ark. "Why?" Aquinas might reasonably ask if he were alive today. "What would have been the use of an ark? Why not just run away instead?"
Problems with the proposed "two-Noah" harmonization - and a possible resolution
Artist's impression of a major impact event. The collision between Earth and an asteroid a few kilometers in diameter may release as much energy as several million nuclear weapons detonating simultaneously. Some scientists believe that a collision like this occurred in 2,807 B.C., triggering 180-meter high mega-tsunamis worldwide, massive flooding and extended atmospheric rainout.
There is one scientific proposal that I am aware of which might answer these questions, but I should warn readers that it is a speculative hypothesis. I am referring to the recent theory that the Earth was hit by a very large comet, about 5 kilometers wide, on May 10, 2807 B.C., causing a "1-2-3 punch" of mega-tsunamis worldwide, massive flooding from storm surges and extended atmospheric rainout, and finally, hurricane-force winds. Most of the rainfall, which lasted for about seven days, was supposedly due to ocean-fed prolonged cyclonic storm activity stimulated by atmospheric rainout and blockage of sunlight. The Burckle crater, located in the Indian Ocean about 1500 kilometers south-east of Madagascar, is believed to be a relic of this cometary impact, but there may have also been a second impact about two or three days after the first. This global catastrophe is estimated to have wiped out 50 to 75% of humanity. It is hypothesized that this event is what lies behind the Flood stories that are found in civilizations all around the world. About half of the recorded Flood myths indicate that the few survivors saved themselves on boats, canoes, makeshift rafts, or by floating on or in a log or other buoyant debris, which then typically became grounded on mountainsides or other high spots. For a scholarly account of this theory, see The Archaeology and Anthropology of Quaternary Period Cosmic Impact by W. Bruce Masse (in Bobrowsky, P., and Rickman, H., eds., Comet/Asteroid Impacts and Human Society: An Interdisciplinary Approach, Berlin, Springer Press, 2007, pp. 25-70) and scroll down to page 46. For a scholarly review of this bold hypothesis, see Recent Cosmic Impacts on Earth: Do Global Myths Reflect an Ancient Disaster? by archaeologist Thomas F. King. For a popular summary of the theory, see Did a comet cause the Great Flood? (article by Scott Carney, in Discover magazine, online edition, November 2007) and Ancient Crash, Epic Wave (article by Sandra Blakeslee, in The New York Times, 14 November 2006; see also here). The Website of the Holocene Impact Working Group is here.
If this proposal is correct, then the story of Noah-2 would indeed have global significance, and if it were publicly known at that time that Noah claimed to have been instructed by God to build an ark (in order to save himself, his family and his precious livestock), then the Flood itself would have been rightly interpreted by Noah's family members - and by any other remaining survivors who knew him - as a sign from God.
Finally, the fact that Noah-2 survived a global catastrophe which wiped out most of humanity lends further weight to the harmonization proposed above, as it does justice to the "plain meaning" of Genesis 6-9, which suggests a global flood.
I'd like to summarize the results of my investigation into Aquinas' exegetical principles as follows:
(1) Aquinas' exegetical principles would allow him to accommodate the confirmed findings of modern science - especially the geological time scale and the antiquity of the human race - as his Scriptural literalism was literalism of a highly creative sort, allowing him to assign double meanings to a passage of Scripture. Hence the fact that no single event in the Earth's history exhibits all of the characteristics of Noah's flood in Genesis 6-9, would not bother Aquinas unduly.
(2) Aquinas would be tolerant of the view that all living things are descended from a common stock, and that God manipulates the DNA of living things to produce new families of organisms, although my guess is that he would probably not find the arguments for common descent very persuasive, because of his epistemological principles.
(3) Aquinas' philosophical essentialism, coupled with his theological beliefs that all of God's designs are perfect, that God does nothing in vain, and that God is a micro-manager - would make it impossible for him to embrace neo-Darwinian evolution, were he alive today.