Saturday, 8 June 2013

Evolution, original sin and the origin of death: John Piper gets it wrong

In Romans 5:12 Paul states that "just as through one man sin entered into the world, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men, because all sinned." While many Christians argue that this means human death was unknown prior to Adam's sin, there are others who take this one step further and claim this means no living creature died prior to Adam's sin. 

The very existence  of the fossil record rules out this argument, as it is is a record of predation and death stretching back thousands of millions of years, well before the appearance of primates, let along hominids or anatomically modern human beings. Claims that radiometric dating is unreliable are demonstrably false [1] while the argument that the Earth was created with an appearance of age is an assertion incapable of disproof, and therefore worthless. It also ignores the fact that the argument rocks are created mature is incoherent, given that rocks unlike plants or animals are not living creatures. Death and predation predated Adam by hundreds of millions of years, while human death predated Adam by at least 180,000 years (assuming we date Adam to the Neolithic Revolution), and that completely rules out any interpretation of Rom 5v12 which seeks to exclude all death prior to Adam's sin.

Even among Christians committed to this scientifically discredited reading of Rom 5v12, there is evidence of significcant unease, quite likely driven by the wider dissemination of these scientific facts. Peter Enns has commented on the recent musings of the well-known Calvinist preacher John Piper on the difficulty in reconciling evolution with conservative protestant readings of Paul (emphasis in the original):

In a recent 6-minute podcast, “Can We Reconcile Creation and Evolution?”, John Piper shares his thoughts on the (in)compatibility of evolution and the Bible.  Piper summarizes his thinking under three headings:
Theoretically, evolution is a possible Christian option, provided God is not absent (which is a view consistent with some form of “theistic evolution” popular among many evangelicals).
Though allowing for the option theoretically, theologically a Christian view of evolution requires a first man–an Adam. (This would seem to undercut–neutralize–the theoretical acceptance of evolution.) 
Third, Piper says that exegetically evolution is very hard to accept, given the many clear passages about God creating animals “according to their kind” and humans. 
I think it would have been much better had Piper simply said, “For theological and exegetical reasons, I reject evolution,” rather than offering evolution as a theoretical possibility only to remove that possibility moments later.
In my opinion, what I sense here is Piper’s public expression of cognitive dissonance. He is smart enough to know that evolution cannot simply be brushed aside, but he is struggling with how to align that with a literalistic reading of the Bible, which is a non-negotiable requirement of his theology. [2] 
Piper's concession that evolution is a possible option for a Christian to maintain in theory is a remarkable concession given the hostility displayed by many evangelicals towards evolution.  His insistence on Adam as the first human being is of course driven by his theological presuppositions, which as chapter 7 of the Westminster Confession shows require universal human descent from Adam in order to inherit the guilt and consequences of Adam's sin:
1. Our first parents, being seduced by the subtilty and temptation of Satan, sinned, in eating the forbidden fruit. (Gen. 3:13, 2 Cor. 11:3) This their sin, God was pleased, according to His wise and holy counsel, to permit, having purposed to order it to His own glory. (Rom. 11:32) 
2. By this sin they fell from their original righteousness and communion, with God, (Gen. 3:6–8, Eccl. 7:29, Rom. 3:23) and so became dead in sin, (Gen. 2:17, Eph. 2:1) and wholly defiled in all the parts and faculties of soul and body. (Tit. 1:15, Jer. 17:9, Rom. 3:10–18) 
3. They being the root of all mankind, the guilt of this sin was imputed; (Gen. 1:27–28, Gen. 2:16–17, Acts 17:26, Rom. 5:12, 15–19, 1 Cor. 15:21–22, 45, 49) and the same death in sin, and corrupted nature, conveyed to all their posterity descending from them by ordinary generation. (Ps. 51:5, Gen. 5:3, Job 14:4, Job 15:14) 
4. From this original corruption, whereby we are utterly indisposed, disabled, and made opposite to all good, (Rom. 5:6, Rom. 8:7, Rom. 7:18, Col. 1:21) and wholly inclined to all evil, (Gen. 6:5, Gen. 8:21, Rom. 3:10–12) do proceed all actual transgressions. (James 1:14–15, Eph. 2:2–3, Matt. 15:19)
Needless to say, the Westminster Confession's views on the nature of man are not normative for Christianity in general. The Orthodox faith tradition rejects the concept of Original Sin as maintained by Catholic and Reformed traditions, which means that there is no theological imperative for the Orthodox to reject evolution. [3] Originally, Christadelphians did not believe there was any change in the nature of Adam, which of course meant there was no genetic consequence of Adam's sin to inherit:
"Our friend imagines there was a change in the nature of Adam when he became disobedient. There is no evidence of this whatever, and the presumption and evidence are certainly to the contrary. There was a change in Adam's relation to his Maker, but not in the nature of his organisation. Again it (sin-in-the-flesh) is not expressive of a literal element or principle pervading the physical organisation. Adam, before transgression, though a living soul (or mortal body, 1 Cor. 15: 44-45) was not necessarily destined to die, as obedience would have ended in immortality. After transgression, his relation to destiny was changed. Death (by sentence) was constituted the inevitable upshot of his career. He was, therefore, in a new condition as regarded the future; though not in a new condition as regarded the actual state of his nature.  [4]
Even among the Catholic tradition, arguments against Original SIn as a genetically transmitted entity are not unknown, Theologian Jack Mahoney notes that Augustine's flawed reading of Rom 5v12, based on the inferior Old Latin, as well as his opposition to the Pelagian idea that the power of Adam's sin was in setting a bad example for the human race lay the foundations for a view of Original Sin that required genetic transmission. Therefore, "it follows that there is now no need for theology to find a method by which to explain how all Adam’s offspring inherit his original sin." [5]

Irrespective of what one's faith tradition may be, this diversity of opinion on whether there was a change in Adam after the Fall or not, and whether Paul's theology demands universal Adamic descent should cause opponents of evolution to consider that the contested parts of the Bible cited as proof may not oblige the Christian to reject evolution.

Enns continues by evaluating Piper's reasons for rejecting evolution (emphasis again in the original):

1. Death as a curse–both in Genesis and Romans–does not refer simply to human death but to all death. Hence, the Bible’s view of the origin of death and evolution are incompatible. 
2. Genesis affirms that God made animals according to their own kind.
3. Genesis affirms that Adam was created out of the dust of the ground and animated by God’s breath.
If these are the types of blocks that cause Piper to stumble, then (1) Piper needs to move to a deeper level of engagement, and (2) there is no real ”theoretical” acceptance of theistic evolution: Piper’s theological and exegetical misgivings already dictate how God created, and that “how” rules out evolution in any meaningful sense of the word.
4. Intuitively, Piper cannot comprehend how evolution can account for the complexity of life. 
Point 1 is easily dismissed by the existence of a fossil record stretching back hundreds of millions of years before Adam. Point 2 demands of Genesis an interpretation of 'kind' motivated entirely by special creationist presupposition, and as Richard Hess notes: 
In this context, the Hebrew term mîn carries a sense of all types of divisions between plants and animals, not necessarily in the taxonomies of modern scientific divisions but certainly in those distinctions that were meaningful to ancient Israel, movement within their domain of sky, sea, and land, and clean and unclean. [6]
Furthermore, the existence of transitional fossils such as Tiktaalik roseae, which blur the difference between fish and tetrapod (fairly major kinds!) into irrelevance, and with it the special creationist belief in the fixity of species.

Point 3 holds no problems for those who like myself argue for a literal Adam who was however not the first human being and ancestor of the entire human race, but rather a special creation in a world already populated with human beings who had arisen via evolutionary processes, one who was the first person with whom God made a covenant relationship.

The final point is simply an argument from incredulity, and coming from a theologian whith no recognised expertise in evoltuionary biology is readily dismissed. Furthermore, Piper ignores the fact that while the mechanism of evolution is still a matter for active research, the fact of common descent and large scale evolution has not been doubted for over a century. Piper's four reasons owe everything to flawed exegesis and ignorance of the evidence for evolution, and represent the threadbare nature of evangelical opposition to evolution, even from its more intellectually respectable elements.

While the early Christadelphian community did not accept evolution, it did not regard the great antiquity of the Earth, and the existence of animal death prior to Adam as ruled out a priori by Romans 5v12. Furthermore, the belief that Adam's nature had changed after the Fall were alien to the early writers, as Robert Roberts' 1869 article indicates. Even without the spur of evolution, our original community did not believe that we inherited from Adam a genetically altered nature, and recognised that Adam's sin did not introduce death into the animal world. Evolution therefore merely underlines what we had already determined via a careful study of the Bible. It is not a litle frustrating to see us adversely affected by speculative nonsense on this subject, particularly when it is so easily exposed as scientifically and theologically vacuous.

This article first appeared on my Facebook page here


1. See the accessible article by Christian geophysicist Roger Weins "Radiometric Dating: A Christian Perspective"  

2. Enns P "Evolution is “theoretically possible” but “unbelievably unlikely”: thoughts on creation and evolution from John Piper" Peter Enns: rethinking biblical Christianity March 27th 2013 

4. Robert Roberts "The Christadelphian" pp.241-242 (1869) Later formulations of Christadelphian theology, prompted by internal dispute on the atonement and the nature of man have unfortunately retreated from this original position, though even among those who reject evolution, the assertion that the consequences of Adam's sin have been genetically inherited are contested. The Cooper Carter Addendum bears witness to this diversity of opinion on Romans 5v12 in the Christadelphian community.

5. Mahoney, Jack "Christianity in Evolution: An Exploration" (2011, Georgetown University Press) p 55

6. Hess R "The Meaning of mîn in the Hebrew Old Testament, Part 2" Science and the Sacred July 22 2012