Sunday, November 22, 2009

That's Not Cricket: Does Wisdom 11:17(11:18) Contradict the Teaching of the Catholic Church?

[Preface: Jamie Donald and Matt's comments on this subject in the comment section to my prior article were on spot in responding to the remarks made by Constantine. However, I was working on this detailed response and did not want it to go to waste.]

A Protestant gentleman who on occasion I have been blessed to dialogue with on matters of the Catholic faith and goes by the sobriquet of Constantine, raised some very worthwhile and thought-provoking issues to my last posting pertaining to Saint Augustine and the Catholic doctrine on Grace and Merit. As I originally sought to respond to them, my preliminary researches got so involved that in fairness I decided to respond in separate posting rather than short-shrift Constantine’s issues in a comment box. Without further adieu, here is the first posting.

This post will deal with the issue of whether the deuterocanonical Book of Wisdom sets forth doctrine that is contrary to the teachings of the Catholic Church. Specifically, does Wisdom 11:17 sets forth the principle that God created the earth and the heavens out of pre-existing matters as opposed to a creation of Creation ex nihilo (out of nothing)? Constantine’s words:

While you are quite correct (and document studiously) that Augustine used the Apocrypha (especially, as you note, the Book of Wisdom) we must note that, contrary to affirming his place in the Roman camp, this actually displaces him. For example, the Book of Wisdom contains egregious theological errors that are today contradicted by the Catechism (CCC). Wisdom teaches that God created the world out of pre-existent matter (11:17) whereas the CCC teaches the opposite (see para 290). Which leads us to a sticky wicket. If Augustine is to be seen as correct in his selection of the canon and his use of Wisdom, then he must be seen as a contradiction to modern Rome. If you uphold the CCC, then you must deny the efficacy of Augustine’s apocryphal selections, which undercuts your first point. Interestingly, too, Augustine’s position in this regard removes him from agreement with the eastern Fathers: Athanasius, Cyril of Jerusalem, Gregory of Nazianzus and Epiphanius. They all held that the “deuterocanonical books should be relegated to a subordinate position outside the canon proper.” (Kelly, Early Christian Doctrines, Continuum. 2003. p. 54 f.) So in addition to the theological quandary of your position, Paul, it denies to Augustine the “catholicity” which you claim on his behalf.
While this matter may portend to be a sticky wicket for some, an experienced bowler will often find that such pitches offer special opportunities to dismiss a batsman. In other words, this issue poses no difficulty for Catholic apologists because Wisdom 11:17 (11:18) properly understood does not teach that God created the world out of pre-existent matter in a way that contradicts Catholic teaching.

Before I set before you, the reader, what I have learned on this topic, I thought I would share how I deal with the rare occasion where it may appear that a Scripture passage could be understood in such way that it is at odds with what the Catholic Church teaches.

I start with the premise articulated best by John Henry Cardinal Newman:

It is, then, perfectly true, that the Church does not allow her children to entertain any doubt of her teaching; and that, first of all, simply for this reason, because they are Catholics only while they have faith, and faith is incompatible with doubt. No one can be a Catholic without a simple faith, that what the Church declares in God's name, is God's word, and therefore true. (Discourses to Mixed Congregations p. 215)
Since the Church declares the Book of Wisdom to be Scripture, by definition then, the contents of that book of the Bible are true. Thus, before I even open the Scriptures, I know as a matter of faith that there is nothing in them that contradict what the Church teaches-nothing at all.

Second, anytime anyone reads the Scriptures, they should do so only after praying. It is necessary to open one’s heart to the truth in the Word of God before one attempts to understand it. If one does not approach the Scriptures prayerfully, if one does not approach them with an open heart, if one does not approach them with an attitude of faith, that is with a believing spirit, then one does not approach the Scriptures correctly. To do so otherwise, is to doubt the truth of the Scriptures before one even opens the Bible. If one opens a Bible in an unbelieving spirit, and for an unbelieving purpose, does one not (to paraphrase Cardinal Newman) anticipate or rather hope to find things there inconsistent with Catholic teaching? (Ibid. at page 217.)

For me then, the question is not whether the Wisdom 11:17 (11:18 in Douay-Rheims) contradicts Church teaching, but rather how does one reconcile what may appear to be an inconsistency with Church teaching to yield a proper understanding of the Scriptures, that is an understanding that is consistent with the teachings of the Catholic Church? Perhaps this is not how a Protestant would approach the Scriptures, but it is the way that the Scriptures should be studied if one believes that the transmission of God's revelation did not end with the writing of the individual books of the Bible, but continues in the activity of the Church, first in collecting and determining the collections of Scriptures through the process of canonization, and by the passing on of the teaching, interpretation, and application of God's revelation in the life of the Church and its members. The Bible is much more than a mere collection of proof-texts that one wields as weapons to use in attacking doctrines and teachings that one disagrees with.

Third, let us hypothesize and suppose that I did apprehend in the Scriptures a meaning that appears to contradict Church teaching, Saint Augustine’s advice is instructive:
In matters that are obscure and far beyond our vision, even in such as we may find treated in Holy Scripture, different Interpretations are sometimes possible without prejudice to the faith we have received. In such a case, we should not rush in headlong and so firmly take our stand on one side that, if further progress in the search of truth justly undermines this position, we too fall with it. That would be to battle not for the teaching of Holy Scripture but for our own, wishing its teaching to conform to ours, whereas we ought to wish ours to conform to that of Sacred Scripture.


When we read the inspired books in the light of this wide variety of true doctrines which are drawn from a few words and founded on the firm basis of Catholic belief, let us choose that one which appears as certainly the meaning intended by the author. But if this is not clear, then at least we should choose an interpretation in keeping with the context of Scripture AND in harmony with our faith. But if the meaning cannot be studied and judged by the context of Scripture, at least we should choose only that which our faith demands. For it is one thing to fail to recognize the primary meaning of the writer, and another to depart from the norms of religious belief. If both these difficulties are avoided, the reader gets full profit from his reading. Failing that, even though the writer’s intention is uncertain, one will find it useful to extract an interpretation in harmony with our faith. [Emphasis added]
Commentary on the Biblical Book of Genesis: the Work of the First Day, Chapters 18:38; 21:41
As Augustine teaches, we Christians have an obligation to try to understand read the Scriptures in such a way that our understanding does not contradict what the Church teaches. The very few times in my life that I have ever come across a passage where my understanding has varied with what the Church teaches, I assume that my understanding is wrong and that the Church is right. I then go to learn why my understanding was wrong rather than trying to prove that it is the Church that got it wrong This is the fulcrum upon which the Protestant notion of private judgment is broken.

What does it profit us to learn ancient Greek, Hebrew and Latin if such knowledge is going to be used to try to disprove what the Church teaches as true? After all, as Saint Paul says, the Church is the pillar and foundation of truth. (1 Tim. 3:15) And if I debate a thousand opponents and win a thousand times, what good does it do if the doctrine I defend denies the truth of the Gospel of Jesus Christ as transmitted by His One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church? For a Catholic, understanding comes from faith, hope and love, not the other way around. O Lord, please grant me the grace of faith so that I can understand Your truths as taught by the Church rather than mere human knowledge that could be used to promote my own self-will and disobedience!

Now that I shared with you how I believe that the Scriptures should be studied, let us deal with Constantine’s assertion that the Book of Wisdom can not be Scripture because it teaches an error that is contrary to the teaching of the Catholic Church. Specifically, does Wisdom 11:17 (11:18 Douay-Rheims and Latin Vulgate) teach that God created the world out of pre-existing matter? I humbly submit that it does not and thus does not teach anything that is inconsistent with what the Church teaches.

Now Constantine notes that the Catechism of the Catholic Church correctly states that God created Creation ex nihilo. While he refers to paragraph 290, it is actually paragraphs 296-298 that are most instructive:

296 We believe that God needs no pre-existent thing or any help in order to create, nor is creation any sort of necessary emanation from the divine substance.[fn 144] God creates freely "out of nothing":[fn 145]
If God had drawn the world from pre-existent matter, what would be so extraordinary in that? A human artisan makes from a given material whatever he wants, while God shows his power by starting from nothing to make all he wants. [fn 146]
297 Scripture bears witness to faith in creation "out of nothing" as a truth full of promise and hope. Thus the mother of seven sons encourages them for martyrdom:
I do not know how you came into being in my womb. It was not I who gave you life and breath, nor I who set in order the elements within each of you. Therefore the Creator of the world, who shaped the beginning of man and devised the origin of all things, will in his mercy give life and breath back to you again, since you now forget yourselves for the sake of his laws. . . Look at the heaven and the earth and see everything that is in them, and recognize that God did not make them out of things that existed. Thus also mankind comes into being. [fn 147]
298 Since God could create everything out of nothing, he can also, through the Holy Spirit, give spiritual life to sinners by creating a pure heart in them,[fn 148] and bodily life to the dead through the Resurrection. God "gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist."[fn 149] And since God was able to make light shine in darkness by his Word, he can also give the light of faith to those who do not yet know him.[fn 150].

145 Lateran Council IV (1215): DS 800; cf. DS 3025.

146 St. Theophilus of Antioch, Ad Autolycum II, 4: PG 6,1052.

147 2 Macc. 7:22-21,28.

148 Cf. Ps. 51:12.

149 Rom. 4:17.

150 Cf. Gen. 1:3; 2 Cor. 4:6.
Interestingly enough, in reading various Scripture passages that are frequently used to establish the doctrinal truth that God created Creation ex nihilo, the passage from 2nd Maccabees quoted in the Catechism is perhaps the clearest expression of that truth in the Bible. It certainly leaves no wiggle room for doubt.

Ludwig Ott in his great opus, The Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma, [St. Louis, Mo.: B. Herder Book Co. (1955)] offers the following on pages 79-80:
All that exists outside God was, in its whole substance, produced out of nothing by God. (De fide.)

The Vatican Council declared against the ancient pagan and gnostic-manichaean dualism, as well as against modern monism (materialism, pantheism): Si quis non confiteatur mundum resque omnes, quae in eo continentur, et spirituales et materiales, secondum totam suam substantiam a Deo ex nihilo esse productas anathema sit. D 1805. Cf. The Symbols of Faith and “Caput Firmiter” (D 428).

In philosophical and theological parlance, by Creation is understood: The production of a thing out of nothing (productio rei ex nihilo, i.e. non ex aliquo), and indeed, ex nihilo sui et subiecti (not ex nihilo causae), that is, before the act of Creation, neither the thing as such, nor any material substratum, from which it was produced, existed. St. Thomas defines Creation as: Productio alicuius rei secundum suam totam substantiam nullo praesupposito, quod sit vel increatum vel ab aliquo creatum (S. th. I 65. 3). From Creation in the proper and strict sense (creatio prima) is to be distinguished the so-called creatio secunda, by which is understood the modelling of formless material and the bestowal of life upon it.

The creation of the world out of nothing may be proved indirectly by the fact that the name Jahweh, and with it, necessary self-existence (Aseity), is attributed to God alone, while all other things in comparison with God are called nothing. From this follows the conclusion that everything outside God must attribute its existence to God. Cf. Is. 42, 8; 40, 17. The Divine name Adonai (κύριος) represents God as the Lord and Proprietor of Heaven and Earth by virtue of the Creation. unlimited rights attributed to a lord and proprietor signify that the property has its origin solely in the proprietor himself Cf. Ps. 88, 12 ; Est. 13, 10 et seq.; Mt. 11, 25.

The creation of the world out of nothing, according to general Jewish and Christian conviction, is directly expressed in Gn. 1, 1 : "In the beginning God created Heaven and earth." It must be noted that in this basic text no substratum of creation (materia ex qua) is named. "In the beginning," without a more detailed definition, means the absolute beginning, that is, that point in time, before which there was nothing side by side with God, and in which the things external to God began to exist. “Heaven and Earth” is the whole universe, that is, all extra-Divine things, the world. The verb bara (=create) can, indeed, also mean produce in the wider sense, but it is used almost exclusively of the Divine Activity; apart from Gn. 1, 27, it is never associated with the presence of a material, out of which God produces some¬thing. According to the usage of the biblical narrative in Gn. 1,1, it expresses creation out of nothing only. Cf. Ps. 123, 8; 145, 6; 32, 9.


Wis. 11, 18 : "For thy almighty hand which made the world of matter without form (ἐξ ἀμὀρφου ὔλης)" is, according to the context, to be understood as referring to the creatio secunda, as is also Hebr. 11, 3: "By faith we understand that the world was framed by the word of God; that from invisible things, the visible things would be made." Cf. Gn. 1,2, according to G: "And the earth was invisible (ἀὀρατος) and unformed."
Creation ex nihilo is something that Saint Augustine also adhered to as well. For example we find his position most frequently stated in his disputations against the Manichaeans:
But if you ask whence God made the soul, remember that you and I agree in confessing that God is almighty. But he is not almighty who seeks the assistance of any material whence he may make what he will. From which it follows, that according to our faith, all things that God made through His Word and Wisdom, He made out of nothing. For so we read: "He ordered and they were made; He commanded and they were created."
Acts or Disputation Against Fortunatus, the Manichæan. Disputation of the First Day. 13 (392 AD).
“For He is so omnipotent, that even out of nothing, that is out of what is absolutely non-existent, He is able to make good things both great and small, both celestial and terrestrial, both spiritual and corporeal. But because He is also just, He has not put those things that He has made out of nothing on an equality with that which He begat out of Himself."

From Concerning the Nature of Good, Against the Manichaeans.
"O Lord, who are not one thing in one place, and otherwise in another, but the selfsame, and the selfsame, and the selfsame? Holy, holy, holy, Lord God almighty, did in the beginning, which is of you, in your wisdom, which was born of your substance, create something, and that out of nothing. For you did create heaven and earth, not out of thyself, for then they would be equal to your only-begotten [Son], and thereby even to you; and in no wise would it be right that anything should be equal to you which was not of you. And nothing else except you there was not whence you might create these things, O God, one Trinity, and triune unity; and, therefore, out of nothing did you create heaven and earth."

Confessions 12:7 (400 AD)
"[T]hough God formed man of the dust of the earth, yet the earth itself, and every earthly material, is absolutely created out of nothing; and man’s soul, too, God created out of nothing, and joined to the body, when he made man."

The City of God 14:11 (419 AD).
I believe that the above passages demonstrate the learned Bishop of Hippo’s opinion on the matter. Given his view on creation ex nihilo and (as Constantine would concede) his view that the Book of Wisdom is Scripture, it would be fair to state that Saint Augustine might have understood the inspired text at Wisdom 11:17 (11:18) a bit differently than how Constantine suggests that one should understand it. Let us proceed then.

Wisdom 11:17 (11:18) states:

{11:18} Non enim impossibilis erat omnipotens manus tua, quæ creavit orbem terrarum ex materia invisa, immittere illis multitudinem ursorum, aut audaces leones[.] (Latin Vulgate)

{11:18} For it was not impossible for your all-powerful hand, which created the world from unknown [or invisible or secret]* material, to send forth upon them a multitude of bears, or fierce lions[.] English translation of the above. * Invisa can be translated as unknown, invisible or secret.

{11:18} For thy almighty hand, which made the world of matter without form, was not unable to send upon them a multitude of bears, or fierce lions[.] (DRB)

{11:17} For not without means was your almighty hand, that had fashioned the universe from formless matter, to send upon them a drove of bears or fierce lions[.] (NAB)

{11:17} For thy all-powerful hand, which created the world out of formless matter, did not lack the means to send upon them a multitude of bears, or bold lions[.] (RSV 2nd CE)

{11:17-18} And indeed your all-powerful hand did not lack means-the hand that from formless matter created the world-to unleash a horde of bears or savage lions on them[.] (Jerusalem Bible)
Going through some commentaries on this passage one might find:
Therefore, he says: For your almighty hand, which made the world of matter without form, was not unable to send upon them a multitude of bears, or fierce lions. I have said well, that you have punished them by those things in which they sinned, and this because the punishment fits the sin, not because of a lack of power. For your hand, ‘that is, your Son’,[51] was not unable, that is, quite powerless, according to Psalm 143:7: ‘Put forth your hand from on high’; almighty; so below in Wisdom 18:15: Lord, your almighty word leapt down from heaven. Which created, that is, formed the world; for to create is to make something from nothing, but to form is to use pre-existing matter. The world came from pre-existing material but it was first created without form; so he adds: of matter without form, that is, from prime matter which is unseen, invisible. From the point of view of the world, it was then without a distinct form, and from the view of the one acting, it lacked light which is necessary for bringing the sense of sight from potency to act; so Genesis 1:2: ‘The earth was void and empty’, as regards the first defect, ‘and darkness was upon the face of the deep’, as regards the second defect.

St. Bonaventure. Commentary on the Book of Wisdom.
Certain Solifidian commentators (at least the ones they tell me I should read) offer a similar view of Wisdom 11:17:
(Genesis 1:2-5)

And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters.

The First Day. - Though treating of the creation of the heaven and the earth, the writer, both here and in what follows, describes with minuteness the original condition and progressive formation of the earth alone, and says nothing more respecting the heaven than is actually requisite in order to show its connection with the earth. He is writing for inhabitants of the earth, and for religious ends; not to gratify curiosity, but to strengthen faith in God, the Creator of the universe. What is said in v. 2 of the chaotic condition of the earth, is equally applicable to the heaven, "for the heaven proceeds from the same chaos as the earth."

"And the earth was (not became) waste and void." The alliterative nouns tohu vabohu , the etymology of which is lost, signify waste and empty (barren), but not laying waste and desolating. Whenever they are used together in other places (Isa 34:11; Jer 4:23), they are taken from this passage; but tohu alone is frequently employed as synonymous with 'ayin (OT:369), non-existence, and hebel (OT:1893), nothingness (Isa 40:17,23; 49:4). The coming earth was at first waste and desolate, a formless, lifeless mass, rudis indigestaque moles , hu'lee a'morfos (Wisdom 11:17) or cha'os .

"And darkness was upon the face of the deep." tªhowm (OT:8415), from huwm (OT:1949), to roar, to rage, denotes the raging waters, the roaring waves (Ps 42:7) or flood (Ex 15:5; Deut 8:7); and hence the depths of the sea (Job 28:14; 38:16), and even the abyss of the earth (Ps 71:20). As an old traditional word, it is construed like a proper name without an article ( Ewald , Gramm.). The chaotic mass in which the earth and the firmament were still undistinguished, unformed, and as it were unborn, was a heaving deep, an abyss of waters ( a'bussos (NT:12), LXX), and this deep was wrapped in darkness. But it was in process of formation, for the Spirit of God moved upon the waters, ruwach (OT:7307) (breath) denotes wind and spirit, like pneu'ma (NT:4151) from pne'oo (NT:4154). Ruach Elohim is not a breath of wind caused by God (Theodoret, etc.), for the verb does not suit this meaning, but the creative Spirit of God, the principle of all life (Ps 33:6; 104:30), which worked upon the formless, lifeless mass, separating, quickening, and preparing the living forms, which were called into being by the creative words that followed. rchp in the Piel is applied to the hovering and brooding of a bird over its young, to warm them, and develop their vital powers (Deut 32:11). In such a way as this the Spirit of God moved upon the deep, which had received at its creation the germs of all life, to fill them with vital energy by His breath of life. The three statements in our verse are parallel; the substantive and participial construction of the second and third clauses rests upon the whyth of the first. All three describe the condition of the earth immediately after the creation of the universe. This suffices to prove that the theosophic speculation of those who "make a gap between the first two verses, and fill it with a wild horde of evil spirits and their demoniacal works, is an arbitrary interpolation" ( Ziegler ).

Verse 3. The word of God then went forth to the primary material of the world, now filled with creative powers of vitality, to call into being, out of the germs of organization and life which it contained, and in the order pre-ordained by His wisdom, those creatures of the world, which proclaim, as they live and move, the glory of their Creator (Ps 8). The work of creation commences with the words, "and God said." The words which God speaks are existing things. "He speaks, and it is done; He commands, and it stands fast." These words are deeds of the essential Word, the lo'gos (NT:3056), by which "all things were made." Speaking is the revelation of thought; the creation, the realization of the thoughts of God, a freely accomplished act of the absolute Spirit, and not an emanation of creatures from the divine essence. The first thing created by the divine Word was "light," the elementary light, or light-material, in distinction from the "lights," or light-bearers, bodies of light, as the sun, moon, and stars, created on the fourth day, are called. It is now a generally accepted truth of natural science, that the light does not spring from the sun and stars, but that the sun itself is a dark body, and the light proceeds from an atmosphere which surrounds it. Light was the first thing called forth, and separated from the dark chaos by the creative mandate, "Let there be," - the first radiation of the life breathed into it by the Spirit of God, inasmuch as it is the fundamental condition of all organic life in the world, and without light and the warmth which flows from it no plant or animal could thrive.

From Keil & Delitzsch Commentary on the Old Testament., (Genesis 1:2-5)
Simply put, properly understood, Wisdom 11:17 in no way asserts the eternity of "matter." Rather, the passage merely references Genesis 1:2 and God’s creatio secundo, that is His modeling of formless material that He first created out of nothing. While Constantine commented on the difficulty for Catholics to bowl a game of cricket on Saint Augustine's wicket, it is the Protestant batsman in this instance who scored a duck.

God bless!