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Monday, 25 February 2008

Reconciling the Fall and Evolution

The origin of sin in a universe created by an omnipotent, omniscient, and all loving God is a perplexing theological challenge. Traditionally, the disobedience of Adam and Eve is seen as the event that inaugurated the Fall. The rest of humanity is thought to have inherited Original Sin either biologically (if the couple is seen as the ancestor to all of humanity) or through some mysterious process of representation (the federal view). However, this story of sin’s origin is becoming increasingly difficult to defend. Genetic evidence indicates that humanity cannot trace its ancestry to a single pair of recent humans, so our shared biological parentage to a couple of Neolithic farmers is impossible to reconcile with the scientific record. On the other hand, the federal view runs into difficult theological issues (eg. were humans that pre-existed or coexisted with Adam and Eve only sinful after the curious incident with the forbidden fruit?)

As I indicated earlier in my post on the Theological Implications of an Evolving Creation, the origin of sin, and the related issue of reconciling the scientific record with the theology of the Fall, particularly as articulated by the apostle Paul (eg. Romans 5), are two of the most difficult theological issues for me personally. Although I can’t say I’ve come to any definitive conclusions, I’d like to point to two helpful resources for others that are thinking through these same issues. The first is a lecture given by Denis Alexander at the joint CIS / ASA / CSCA annual meeting last year. The second is a series of posts by Stephen Douglas on his blog Undeception.

Darwinian Evolution: The Really Hard Questions

Denis Alexander is not as well known as other Evangelical scientists that support an evolutionary creation (eg. McGrath, Polkinghorne, Collins), but he has made some significant contributions to the science-faith dialogue. (My selected bibliography has 4 entries for Alexander). I suspect his lecture entitled “Darwinian Evolution: The Really Hard Questions” was one of the conference’s more thought provoking presentations (You can download the audio, his powerpoint, and his accompanying handout from the ASA website).

Reconciling the Fall is one of the “Really Hard Questions” that Alexander discusses in his presentation. Before dealing with this question, he makes some pertinent introductory remarks:

Some Christians have a habit of making up the science to fit their apologetics. That’s not good enough. Integrity demands an equally robust stance towards both the science and the theology. Second, in practice that means that we have to get used to not knowing the final answers to some issues, which is clearly the case here, and yet at the same time doing the best we can in building sensible models that integrate both the science and the theology. And we need to discuss those models tentatively, because there simply aren’t enough data to be too sure.
He provides a quick scientific, biblical, and theological background to the problem, and then asks the key question:

So how, then, do we understand the Fall and the Adam & Eve narratives in conversation with our current understanding of human evolution? Of course some would say that the conversation shouldn’t even be attempted – it’s like comparing anthropological apples with theological oranges. But the fact remains that at some stage over the past few hundred thousand years anatomically modern humans gradually emerged, and it’s also a fact that personal knowledge of God must have started sometime when it wasn’t there before.
Alexander then provides three models for defining the relationship between the biblical and the scientific accounts. (Actually, there were 5 models – but I’m going to ignore the 2 models that discount the scientific evidence for biological evolution).

1. Model A is the “Ahistorical View”. The Fall in this model is a theological narrative that is not related to historical events.

2. Model B is the “Gradualist Protohistorical View”. This view defines the Fall as a process happening over a long period of time.

3. Model C sees the Fall as a specific event at a specific time in history whereby a covenant couple (or perhaps a covenant community) is called by God, but then through disobedience brings spiritual death on humanity.

Each model has unique strengths, but also unique flaws. Alexander indicates that he personally leans toward Model C, but admits to some vacillation between all 3 and quips that he holds to “Model A on Mondays, Model B on Tuesdays and Model C the rest of the week”. It is a good discussion that I recommend to others grappling with this issue.

Interacting with Paul’s Theology of The Fall

Stephen Douglas has just finished an excellent 8-part series on biblical inspiration, inerrancy, and hermeneutics. Some of the themes he develops will be familiar to those who have followed my own blog, but he goes into much more depth. You aren’t going to be able work through his whole series in a brief 20-minute browse (I suggest he consider writing a book :-) ) but it is definitely worth the time invested.

Of particular interest for me were the final two posts: Case Study: The Fall and The Fallout. In these two posts he applies the principles of biblical interpretation discussed earlier in the series to the issue of The Fall. What is noteworthy is that he focuses particularly on the New Testament (NT) discussion of the Fall, rather than concentrating on the creation narratives in Genesis.

This focus on the NT discussion is noteworthy for two reasons: First, Evangelical Old Testament (OT) scholars with a high view of the scriptures (eg. Enns, Walton, Wenham) have already laid the groundwork for the science / theology discussion with respect to the Genesis creation accounts, including the Fall narrative (eg. highlighting their place in ANE literature even while acknowledging their divine source). From a NT perspective, I don’t believe the groundwork for this discussion has been as prevalent. Secondly, it is unclear whether the ancient Hebrews believed the early part of Genesis was historical (it most likely was not an important question for them), but it is clear that the Apostle Paul, like his 1st century Jewish contemporaries, believed that Adam was a historical figure, and that the Fall corresponded to a single event in the Garden of Eden. Thus it is the relavent NT passages, and not the Genesis creation accounts, that provide the most significant challenge to the reconciliation of the Fall and modern science.

Douglas addresses this issue head on. He shows how Paul, following the traditions of his time, used typology and parallelisms as part of his interpretive framework. On the pertinent discussion in Romans 5 Douglas states:

Here (as well as in 1 Corinthians 15) Paul draws the parallel between the first Adam and the last Adam, Jesus, because he saw symmetry between the two. Notice, though, that the validity of Christ’s work for all is not stated to be dependent on sin coming through one man, as is often construed. Paul’s intention was to relate this brand new theological doctrine to something that was familiar to them: if they could see sin coming into the world through one man, they should be able to accept that one man could bring life to all. The symmetry he saw between the two was no less valid for one of the characters being non-historical.
Later Douglas sums it up with this:

In short, it doesn’t matter whether Paul believed an historical figure named Adam literally fell and passed death down to all his descendants in some genetic or federal fashion through resultant “original sin”. Christ’s work was not dependent on the sin of one man alone: every man’s sin necessitates Christ’s work.
I can’t possibly do justice to Douglas’s arguments in this post. If you want a more detailed account, I encourage you to visit his blog. I can’t say I’m completely convinced by his argument, but it has given me much food for thought.

Concluding Thoughts

Understanding the Fall is difficult, and it is likely that there will be much disagreement within the Evangelical community on how the theology can be reconciled with modern science. What we can agree on is the following:

A) The Fall, whatever it is, and whenever it happened, occurred in the distant past. No amount of theological teeth gnashing will change what has happened.

B) the "sting of death" that resulted from the Fall has been vanquished by Christ's death on the cross. So theological teeth gnashing seems somewhat inappropriate. (Why worry about losing the shutout, we won the game!).

C) Our hope that sin and death will not only be vanquished, but will also be destroyed, is assured. The Fall happened but we need no longer worry about "falling". We can say with Jude:

To him who is able to keep you from falling
and to present you before his glorious presence
without fault and with great joy—
to the only God our Savior
be glory, majesty, power and authority,
through Jesus Christ our Lord,
before all ages, now and forevermore!


James F. McGrath said...

I wouldn't actually necessarily agree with your statement "The Fall, whatever it is, and whenever it happened, occurred in the distant past. No amount of theological teeth gnashing will change what has happened" without further comment. I'd also like to suggest that 'theological' might be a better way of designating the option 'A' mentioned earlier in the post than 'ahistorical'.

The main character in the story in Genesis 3 is named "Human" (Adam is not a name in Hebrew). Is it not natural to read the story as being about what each of us is like as human beings?

As one Jewish work put it, "Each of us has become the Adam of his own soul".

From an evolutionary standpoint, it is perhaps easier to integrate the Jewish theological perspective (which shares the same creation stories). We each have a good and evil impulse, and the 'evil impulse' (to eat, to survive, to procreate) is only evil when we leave it unrestrained. The instincts themselves are ones without which we would not survive. There have certainly been interpreters (e.g. W. D. Davies) who have understood this rabbinic understanding to be the basis for Paul's teaching about 'the flesh'.

Thanks for an interesting post!

elbogz said...

Before Adam and Eve “fell” from grace, didn’t Satan and his fellow bad angels also fall from grace? Satan is already in the Garden, in the form of serpent. The story of how He and all the bad angels were kicked out of heaven must have occurred before the serpent tempted Eve. The book of Genesis seems to miss this point in its historical accounting. There must have been some period of time where other things happened, not discussed in Genesis.

This is probably off subject, but in Genesis 6

Genesis 6:2 (New International Version)
2 the sons of God saw that the daughters of men were beautiful, and they married any of them they chose.

I ask those that say a day means a day in the bible, Does the “sons of God” mean sons of God? When I asked a pastor that question, he had to put on his tap dance shoes and give me the “well, you have to take the bible in context” answer. To determine if Adam and Eve’s are historically our ancestors or not comes down to the same question. Is the bible a historically accurate day by day event of the world or is it a metaphor of our life?

So here we stand once again at the same cross-roads. Some will go down the historically accurate path, and some will go down the it’s a metaphor of our life path, and as they wander, they grow farther and farther apart.

Cliff Martin said...

Great post, Steve. I have recommended it to several of my friends.

Mike Beidler said...


Outstanding post, and one that I intend to revisit when I finish chronicling my step-by-step journey from YEC to EC and move into examining the faith implications of EC.


There have certainly been interpreters (e.g. W. D. Davies) who have understood this rabbinic understanding to be the basis for Paul's teaching about 'the flesh'.

I'll be danged if I wasn't thinking that same thing just a few days ago. This, too, I'll be touching on in blog posts down the road.

Seth said...

Dear Steve,
Thank you for a very valuable post. You spoke directly to a question I've lately been pondering with pain and lonliness. Well done.

I was particular impressed with Stephen Douglas's observation about Romans that "the validity of Christ’s work for all is not stated to be dependent on sin coming through one man". Very helpful indeed. I have been struggling to understand how to reconcile the doctrine of the Fall with various strands of science, and Stephen's point- and your excellent post generally- were a real encouragement.

Also, I'm glad to find through your blog a community of thoughtful people who want to know Christ better, in part by reconciling faith with evolution. I've been impressed by the tone and insight of the contributors.

I often feel we are, in a sense, living in 1544, the year after Copernicus's De Revolutionibus was published. Few then were willing to reconcile the new theory to faith in God, and few today, it seems, are willing to reconcile evolution to the faith. Yet, today, no Christian believes the sun orbits the earth, and none would ever say Copernicanism leads to atheism. We've learned something. It took a while, but we've learned. The fact that we have also gives me some hope that we have can and will learn more as a body.

When I remember that, I remember that God isn't going anywhere; all that's at stake is our ability to understand Him better.

It's great to find the thoughtful, insightful blog you've created. Thank you for your excellent work on it. Please keep it up.

Steve Martin said...

Hi James,
I agree: “theological” rather than “ahistorical” is a better term for Model A. It expresses it positively (what the narrative is) rather than negatively (what it is not).

I was aware of the different (three) Hebrew terms translated to simply “Adam” in English. However, I hadn’t thought about the irony of insisting that all of the references refer to a specific man & woman. For the rest of my readers, here is the concluding paragraph from James’ post referred to in the comment above:

I also point out the irony of reading the story as though it is about two historical individuals in the past rather than about us. In Genesis 3, blame-shifting and finger-pointing accompany the loss of innocence and the breakdown of relationships that follows. Could there be anything more ironic than a reading of this story that uses it to shift blame? - to say, in effect, "If it hadn't been for Adam and Eve, I wouldn't be in this mess. It is all their fault!"

That is good. Thanks.

Elbogz: Yes, as you note, you can tie yourself into quite the intellectual knot trying to be a literalist. On your (rhetorical) question about historicity vs. metaphorical – I don’t believe this is necessarily an either/or question, but you are right that it is causing much division in the Church.

Cliff, Mike: Thanks for the kind words and recommendations. And Mike, I am following your posts – looking forward to your thoughts on this subject.

Seth: Welcome. I’m glad you find the conversation both useful and encouraging. As you’ve noted, there is a “thoughtful community here” - so, thanks to you for your kind words, and thanks to them for helping make that thanks possible.

Steve said...

Thanks for this well-thought-out post, and for the links to my writing. I want to make it clear that my view on the Fall, like God's creation, is always subject to evolution. I welcome dialogue on anything and everything.

I really appreciate Alexander's methods -- I am torn between them. Method A is agnostic on the issue of whether the Genesis text tells us anything about how sin is distributed throughout humanity. This means that it is actually slightly incongruous with the other two in that it is actually compatible with either B or C. I believe as far as the Genesis text itself goes, I'm right there with A, but in further speculation I think I side more with B than C...right now, anyway :)

SFMatheson said...

Steve and Steve--
Thanks for encouraging and enlightening words. And Seth: welcome, and God bless. It's not the gospel of Adam, or of Noah, or of Ken Ham. It's the gospel of Jesus Christ, and it's his story we need to know.