Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Sin, Death and Original Conditions

This past week there were two very interesting posts around the blogosphere that are related, even if not obviously so. The first was a post over at Jason Clark's by Stephen Webb. This was the third post in a three-post series on creation care and animal rights. The second was a post at Scot McKnight's on Augustine (or really, St. Paul) and the doctrine of original sin. Both posts raise important and interesting questions or puzzles about evolutionary creation and the biblical narrative . (The phrase evolutionary creation is one I am very fond of and picked up from my friend Steve Matheson, whose blog is always worth a visit or two or sometimes three. EC is a more apt locution than theistic evolution in that the latter might suggest such things as theistic chemistry, theistic embryology or theistic whiffle-ball. But there's really just chemistry, embryology and whiffle-ball. Likewise, there is really just evolution. Some, like me, think that's how God created the natural world; but, adding theistic to evolution is as strange, I think, as adding it to whilffle-ball.)

Let me start with Scot's post. Scot's provocative question was simply this: is there a gospel without original sin? Now to my ears, that's not a difficult question to answer at all. The answer is, no! There is no good news without the bad news of things having gone terribly awry, without there having been a cataclysmic fracturing of creation and ensuing misery. In any event, the puzzles and questions are just beneath the surface of Scot's question (and my answer), especially for those who accept evolutionary creation (as opposed to what the ID defenders are pedaling and what old-school creationists hawk) .

The puzzles are these. According to St. Paul, sin and death are related as cause and effect. The sin of the old man, the dirt-man--Adam--resulted in death and destruction. Death, on this view, is an intrusion into God’s good creation. It is the new man--Jesus from Nazareth--who undoes, atones for, puts to rights, and otherwise deals with sin and, according to St. Paul, it is the incarnation, life, death and especially the resurrection of Jesus that gains victory over both sin and death. See Romans 5.12, for example.

The problem or puzzle is how to reconcile the biblical story with an evolutionary account of our origins, especially the idea that death is an intruder into a previously deathless, earthly paradise. (There is also the problem of reconciling the idea of a historical, single Adam. Though, I myself find that issue less troublesome than the issue of death, and sin.) If you believe that God reveals himself in both books, that of nature and the bible, then you’ve got some explaining to do, as the two witnesses seem to give conflicting accounts.

Do you think the two can ultimately be reconciled? If so, how?

Now, over at Jason Clark’s blog, Stephen Webb suggests that animals were originally domesticated and that, apparently, either those ferocious fangs of the saber tooth tiger did not, pre-fall, exist at all or, if they did, they were not used for ripping to pieces its prey. In fact, to hear Stephen tell it, the predator/prey structure of the non-human animal kingdom is not original to creation.

Obviously, Webb’s view is also incompatible with an evolutionary account of our origins, with the very idea of common descent. One way to handle this problem is simply to dismiss the notion of evolution/common descent and embrace one of its rivals, ID or Young Earth Creationism. To do so, however, comes at a significant cost, namely, the cost of discounting the overwhelming evidence of common descent as a piece of Divine Deception. In other words, it may look for all the world like all living things are related by common ancestry, but they’re not really.

With respect to the first issue—death and evolution—I have some thoughts. But I’m really interested in how you folks think about these matters.


iYRe said...

I have some thoughts regarding animals.

1. In gen 3:15 we're told that as a consequence of what the snake did, there would be enmity between the snake and the woman. Now, theologically we understand that to be a spiritual thing. But the snake is also an animal, and suggests that as a result of the fall, there is now a change from "harmony" ( I guess thats the right word) to hatred.

2. In Gen 9:2 we're told this:
"The fear and dread of you will fall upon all the beasts of the earth and all the birds of the air, upon every creature that moves along the ground, and upon all the fish of the sea; they are given into your hands."
This takes this hatred even further. "Fear and Dread" is most commonly associated with war. I would suggest that this "hatred" has escalated now to a veritable war.

3 Do we believe that God made a mistake when he designed animals that scavenge like the vulture and hyena? Is the ultimate predator, the great white a mistake? Did the king of the jungle used to eat grass?
I doubt it. I think that when the world was in an edenic state, these animals were subject to humanity and performed their "natural" functions.
In a post edenic world, the relationship between humanity and animals has escalated to a virtual war - look up other instances of "fear and dread" in Scripture and see the context.

4. I think that death is a natural part of the animal kingdom. The bible, as far as I can tell, does not speak about animals existing eternally. Only humans. Therefore there really isnt a conflict in my mind.

J said...

My own questions on the topic ride closely along the lines with what was brought up by your post. I read the post and comments in McKnight's blog but didn't see anything significant as an answer. (though by the time I was down to comment 30 or so, I started skimming)

Paul certainly treated Adam as a particular person, and not an abstract concept. And yes, I have a lot of difficulty seeing a way in which the Adam of which Paul talks can be reconciled with evolution in which mankind gradually comes about via successive generations from ape-like ancestors.

The only suggestion I've gotten when I've talked with people is that Paul didn't mean what we understand him to mean, or that he was dead wrong.

I would love to see a post on this topic. Even more, I would love to see a body of literature on the topic with books arguing this out in full depth. If anyone knows of any books like that, I would be VERY grateful if you would mention them!

Keith DeRose said...

There is no good news without the bad news of things having gone terribly awry, without there having been a cataclysmic fracturing of creation and ensuing misery.

I would have thought that all that's needed to make sense of salvation & good news is things being terribly awry (no need for them having been perfect before and having gone terribly awry). Fallenness seems to require some contrast with a better state, but it would seem sufficient for fallenness that things are, in an appropriate sense, not as they should be. That things actually were better at some past time doesn't seem necessary. Fallenness without a fall, brokedness without a breaking? They actually seem ok to me. But at any rate, so long as things are messed up, it makes sense that they might be fixed. Fixed up doesn't seem to entail fixed back up -- and news that things will be or might be fixed up would certainly seem to be good, whether or not the fixing up is fixing back up. Of course, one might have other reasons for believing things were perfect at some past time. I'm just saying I don't think it's needed to make sense of good news.

Rachel said...

I just listened to Polkinghorn's lecture from the Calvin summer seminar. He briefly argues that God had to build transience and death into creation so that we would choose him freely. Kind of like my dad making me work a couple minimum-wage jobs in high school so I would appreciate my college education. Sort of a cousin to the soul-building theodicy, don't you think? I'm not sure I'm wholly satisfied with that answer, but it's about the best I've heard so far.

Damian said...

In response to J,

The way of reconciling the way, for example, Paul, or any of the Jewish scholars of the day spoke of Adam as a person with other viewpoints, is by the study of the conceptual framework of the near east in Jesus' time. The Ancient Near East (which focuses on the Old Testament) is an entire area of study, and it basically looks at the culture of the area in terms of how Israel differed from it's neighbours (Mesopotamia, Egypt, etc.), and gives you an idea of what they actually thought about Adam, and all the other stories in the bible.

The key for Genesis, is that it is considered a 'mythical' story, that is, a story that concerns setting the scene for the world as they knew it. Hence, whilst Adam was talked about as a person, it is doubtful that they considered him a historical person in the way we think of it. In fact, the way ancient middle eastern people thought about history is very different from the way we think about it.

A good book to find out more of this in is 'Ancient Near Eastern Thought and the Old Testament', by John Walton.

Sorry for highjacking your thread, Kevin.

Damian said...

My answer to the original question is, in a nutshell, just that. I'm in doubt that Genesis warrants a literal interpretation, and is rather a framework that the nation of Israel used to understand the world around them. It's inspired in that in order to understand the messages of God, we must understand that worldview, but, because our worldview is different, it's important that we act accordingly, look into what Genesis meant back then, interpret related scripture accordingly, and then apply it to our own.

In this case, original sin is described as a narrative involving Adam, Eve, God, Snake. It's purpose is to explain the place of sin and death in our world - why it's not perfect. It does this within the framework of 2000BC thought, that is, one where natural phenomena was explained supernaturally. We don't have that framework, so we have to take the paradigms and apply it to ours - that is, an evolutionary framework. Hence, it's not necessary for the 'fall' to have occurred to a man, but rather may have been a result of a branch evolution, the direction of society as a whole, or whatever you choose.

I'm sorry, I've gone on far too long.

J said...

I happen to have Walton's Ancient Near Eastern Thought on my book shelf, though it's one that I've never done more than read a chapter here and there.

I agree that he very definitely frames Genesis as a supernatural epic description rather than a physical description. I'm not an OT student of particular skill, but he seems to be roughly in line with many(most?) other scholars.

Nothing I'd read so far really deals with any NT concepts, hence the title. My main question though has to do with Paul's statements. I can get Paul to mean something other than a sinful fall of an individual in the past, but that does quite a bit too much damage to reasonable interpretation than I care to practice.

I'm a bit more familiar with NT scholarship than with OT, and I've never heard anything that would cause me to understand that Paul did not intend to mean an individual, or that his reading audience would have taken it any other way. Several turns of phrases seem to deliberately go out of their way to insist on an actual person of Adam who sinned.

Thanks for suggesting Walton's ANET. I'm reading a bit right now before work, and while I can't say it's exactly riveting stuff, it is good.

Damian said...

My pleasure, J. The meat is in the 'Comparative Explorations' that are separate from the rest of the text. You're right, Walton has a fairly standard interpretation.

I'm no expert in the NT, but to me the relevance is that Paul (and others at the time) would have considered Adam a historical figure, just not necessarily one that conforms to our image of a historical figure.

These people had a much simpler understanding of the way the world works than we do, and the Bible reflects that. I'd argue that Paul's view was not more complex than the author(s) of Genesis, and hence whilst he wrote of Adam as a person, we can interpret it in the same (or similar) way as we would interpret Genesis - with respect to ANE thought.

Why does doing this does damage to reasonable interpretation? It is simply admitting that views of how the world works have moved from solely supernatural to largely scientific, and that we must interpret Genesis and Paul (indeed, the entire bible) accordingly.

iYRe said...

If we dont understand Adam as an historical person, we lose the whole of Gen 1-5 as a historical event in humanities history. If Adam was not a person, perhaps we are not really descended from him. If we are not descended from him, then perhaps we did not inherit his fallen condition (because he wasnt a real person).

D J Clines once said that, iirc, Jewish history is recorded around real people; Adam in Eden, Abraham in Ur, Job in Uz. Its grounded in human history or it isn't "real" to humans.

I can recommend Henri Blocher's excellent "Original Sin" - where he has a chapter on this very issue:

J said...

Damian, I think there are a couple things that we're going to differ on.

A basic rule is that there are definite things may be stated in a poetic/epic/non-literal form and shouldn't be taken to represent the same sort of scientific understanding that we have today. I suspect that we're in agreement to that point.

Where I think you and I would differ is on whether or not Paul and Jesus would intentionally pass along an epic/poetic story as literal history. Paul's entire point is formed around the concept of Adam being a literal person. Paul obviously took Adam as a real person, as did all of his audience. (Jesus communicated the same concept - that Adam was a literal person, not just part of an epic/poetic story of pre-history.)

That means that Paul, under the direction of the Holy Spirit, is propagating a falsehood - that Adam was a literal person.

That's a bit further than I'm willing to take the concepts of epic history in a cultural understanding. That the Holy Spirit inspired the writers of the Bible to pass along epic stories understood to be epic stories is one thing. That the Holy Spirit inspired the writers to falsely pass along epic stories as literal events and persons is further than I care to go.

That's what I see Paul doing here if Adam was not a literal person.

Stephen Krogh said...


You always seem to bring up great questions, which end up disturbing my faith (for the better, always, but it is a disturbance nonetheless).

I am with Keith in as much as I think that moral failings and imperfection, given the evolutionary account of life on earth, or even the thermodynamic account of the origins of the universe, predate the existence of humanity at all. Well before we see humans on the scene we see the majority of all life on earth having gone extinct. I suppose one could argue that Adam's sin had a retroactive effect on creation (in the same way that the church has traditionally taught that Christ's resurrection retroactively made the Patriarchs, David and Solomon and even Adam and Eve holy (depicted in the icon 'the Harrowing of Hell')), but that seems strange and a bit like a cop out.

I do not think animals are moral agents and thus cannot be judged as moral agents would be (in other words, there is nothing tragic or immoral happening during the billions of years of death the planet experienced before it experienced its first human, because what is happening there does fall within the scope of moral judgment), so perhaps death is not tragic until it happens to and is perpetrated by moral agents, especially when those agents are the bearers of the image of God. I haven't thought through this a lot, so any thoughts, critiques, different viewpoints, would be appreciated.

As for the existence of an actual Adam, I've long thought that Genesis is largely poetic and allegorical. I am not too moved when confronted with the idea that Adam never really existed as the first human, though I suppose, there had to have been a first human who communed with God (I do, as do most Christians, I think, believe in mystical experiences, and communication with the divine; in fact, I believe I have the privilege of experiencing one every Sunday at Mass, when I take the Eucharist).

I don't think it is correct to say that St. Paul or Jesus were communicating misinformation in speaking of Adam as a person, or even really believing he was a real person. If someone says to me that I have an obligation to Uncle Sam, I don't think that he is misinformed or is some how communicating something false to me. Further, the scriptures tell us that Jesus grew in wisdom and stature so in the same way that I think Jesus probably didn't understand the laws of quantum mechanics, he also probably didn't understand the theory of evolution and the implications which accompany it in relation to the existence of an actual Adam. This neither denies his divinity nor the scriptures' authority. At least I think I can hold on the one hand the authority of scripture, and the divinity of Christ, and on the other hold the tenets of evolution and all that follows from it and not see a contradiction among the three.

Kyle said...

Hi Kevin,

I have not read the thread of comments to ascertain this, but, have you read the Cappadocian Fathers? The reason I ask is because I tend to think that their thought resonates well with evolutionary thinking. A few works I have read recently have convinced me of this even further (Nesteruk: Light from the East; Bergmann: Creation Set Free).

While I love Augustine I think the Cappadocians have much to offer the theological-scientific dialogue in this area.

Blessings, Kyle

Anonymous said...

I am curious as to when and why christians who have assumedly in the past taken the OT to be literal decide to figurativly interpretate what they read. I would say that taking the Bible as literal is default unless taken otherwise. It is apparent that many passages are surely literal as when Jesus refers to himself as a vine it is obviously a metaphore (John 15:5). It is accepted by not only the Christian population that Jesus' existence was not a myth but that he acctually did exist.

So knowing that some passages in the Bible are quite literal you must be careful to not call something figurative that could very well be literal without ample evidence.

We as Christians must be very careful when we conform our interpreations of the Bible to science. I am not saying that we should be ignorant of science but that we should view all things with a critical mind.

I personally have never been presented with an arguement that with scientific evidence can conclusivly disprove a literal 6 day creation as depicted in Genesis.

I am curious as to how christians whom accept evolution explain the multiple genealogies listed in the Bible. Luke 3 is a simple quick example that shows a genealogy that leads from Jesus to Adam (as well as God)

Where on that genealogy does one reject it and claim that the rest of the names are mythical beings? What evidence is made to create such a rejection. Asside from the Bible, to my knowledge, it is not until king David that other sources document the existence of Israel. For example the Mesha Stele and Tel Dan Stele offer possible references to David. Before this the Bible is the only known source that documents pre Davidic history. Where is the claimed end of mythical characters with the start of actual historical figures?