Material creation, as it is in itself and as it is described in the Judeo-Christian revelation, is appropriately understood in the light of ancient Greek philosophy. This is not a bold statement. It is a commonly acknowledged fact:
The encounter between the Biblical message and Greek thought did not happen by chance. The vision of Saint Paul, who saw the roads to Asia barred and in a dream saw a Macedonian man plead with him: “Come over to Macedonia and help us!” (cf. Acts 16:6-10) — this vision can be interpreted as a “distillation” of the intrinsic necessity of a rapprochement between Biblical faith and Greek inquiry.
The Principles of Greek Philosophy Necessary to the Human Understanding of Creation
The First and Second Principles
The first principle is that material creation cannot be contemporary with human existence. This principle depends upon the conservation of matter, also known as Aristotelian substantial change.
In biblical revelation, material creation is described as occurring in stages. At the end of the final stage, God created man. With that God ceased material creation, resting from all the work he had done (Genesis 2:2). Thus, man lived in a world in which there was no material creation, a world in which there was the conservation of matter.
Unlike animal sentient knowledge, which is reactive, human knowledge is reflective. A coyote may know instinctively where to look for a rabbit, but he simply reacts to its presence, when he apprehends one. The coyote does not reflect on how the rabbit got there. It wouldn’t phase the coyote if the rabbit had simply popped into existence. He would simply react to its presence.
In contrast, man would be utterly bewildered by a rabbit’s popping into existence. Man knows that what exists is fully explained by what was. A new subsisting entity is fully explained by the potency of prior existing substances. Further, this is substantial change, not annihilation and creation. What persists through substantial change, in Aristotelian lingo, is prime matter which is neither created nor destroyed. This is the second relevant principle: Substantial change is change, not creation.
The Third Principle
The third principle is that there is a hierarchy of existence, a hierarchy of being, in material things that can only be bridged by creation. The hierarchy consists of a minimum of four levels: Inanimate plus three Animate Levels, namely Vegetative, Sentient, and Intellectual. Roughly corresponding to these levels in Genesis is the creation in successive temporal stages of plants, then aquatic sentient life and birds, then land-dwelling animals, and finally man. A common formulation of this third principle is: There is no such thing as spontaneous generation.
Although there may be a hierarchy of existence within the two animate hierarchical levels, vegetative and sentient, all inanimate substances are of the same level of existence. Among inanimate entities, there is no hierarchy of existence. This implies the corollary: No change among inanimate substances requires creation. Substantial change is the fully sufficient explanation of all substantial changes at the inanimate level of existence. Aristotelian substantial change is also the fully sufficient explanation of the substantial changes of assimilation and reproduction within the vegetative and sentient levels, once entities at these levels were created.
A Big Bang
The currently popular conjecture of a big bang is fully consonant with Aristotelian substantial change in the formation of a universe of galaxies of stars and planets from a single point source of energy. This created singularity is the full complement of matter in the universe. In itself, the point source possessed in potency the full differentiation into the present and future variety of inanimate substances. However, the creation of inanimate matter is insufficient as an explanation of the existence of the three animate hierarchical levels of existence.
In the Genesis sketch, these three levels of existence are attributed to successive temporal stages of creation.
Four Temporal Epochs of Creation
If indeed creation occurred in temporal epochs as suggested in Genesis, Chapter 1, then traces of such distinct epochs might be evident in the crust of the earth.
The first epoch suggested in Genesis is the immediate creation of the entirety of matter in the universe in one primal form. Yet, this primitive form had the potency to differentiate into all inanimate forms through substantial change, consonant with the conservation of matter, without any further creation beyond that of the primal form. The remaining epochs refer to our Earth.
The second epoch suggested is a temporal period of creation of all the forms of living vegetation.
The third epoch is a temporal period of creation of all sentient aquatic life forms and birds.
The fourth epoch is a temporal period of creation of all sentient terrestrial life forms, with material creation finally terminating in the creation of man in Adam and Eve. A recent Catholic Stand essay focuses on this final act of material creation.
The Relevance of Aristotelian Substantial Change
After the creation of material entities at given hierarchical levels of existence, there is no need for further creation. Aristotelian substantial change sufficiently explains all future changes, including (1) the coming into existence of new individuals of a living species by biological reproduction and (2) the sustenance of living entities by assimilation.
In the higher plants and animals, the male and female of a species form monoploid germ cells, which upon their union, form a new diploid individual of the species. The germ cells of animals before union are essentially vegetative but have the potency in their union to form a new, integral individual of that animal species.
A mammalian organ is in a vegetative state, upon surgical isolation from the mammalian body of its origin. Recent surgical art has demonstrated that a mammal can inform a donated organ while that organ is in a vegetative state. The mammal integrates the donated organ into its own body by the unifying power of the mammal’s substantial form.
The reproduction of a new individual of the human species does require creation at the immaterial level, because the substantial form of a human is immaterial, while its identity is derived from the particular matter which it informs as an integral living human being. The new human substantial form is created and simultaneously informs the human zygote at the zygote’s formation. Thereby a new individual human comes into existence, albeit as a single diploid cell, but with the potency to develop into a mature adult because of its substantial form, its animating principle.
From the two operations of organ transplant and sexual reproduction, it is evident that the human substantial form, or soul, has the power of informing already living matter, integrating the pre-existing living matter into a human being. Thus, it cannot be argued that the first man Adam could not have been created by way of his newly created immaterial soul’s informing already living matter as his human body.
St. Paul alluded to the providential union of the Revelation of God to the Jews with the natural wisdom of ancient Greek thought when he wrote:
As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promise. (Galatians 3: 27-29)