Monday, 10 June 2013

Understanding God's Word through His Creation - 8

No Original Sin? No Problem. Why we should have no problem with evolution

In defence of conservative Evangelicals who refuse to accept the evidence, one needs to remember that those who take Original Sin seriously as a doctrine are obliged to defend universal human descent from a primal pair. As Davis Young notes:
“At issue is the doctrine of original sin. Both Roman Catholic and Protestant confessional statements on original sin have incorporated the historic view that Adam and Eve were the very first human beings and the product of a special divine creation. Reflecting that view, the formulations of Roman Catholic, Lutheran, Reformed, Presbyterian, Anglican, Methodist, Congregational, and Baptist churches repeatedly use such expressions as "first parents," "first man," "hereditary evil," "hereditary disease," "by propagation of a vicious nature," "derived or spread from our first parent unto us all," "our first father Adam," "posterity," "inherited damage," "by propagation, not by imitation, transfused into all." Perhaps the most explicit statement is that of Answer 16 of the Westminster Shorter Catechism: "The covenant being made with Adam, not only for himself, but for his posterity; all mankind, descending from him by ordinary generation, sinned in him, and fell with him, in his first transgression." [93]
Any Protestant who maintains an adherence to the letter of the Westminster Confession will be faced with this problem, which makes the present controversy running through the Evangelical world understandable. Modern evolutionary biology contradicts certain clauses of the Wesminster Confession – reconciling both is simply not possible. Jerry Coyne is uncomfortably close to the truth (for Evangelicals at least) when he asserts:

“Science continues to invalidate the claims of faith. First special creation went by the board, so theologians—at least the rational ones—were forced to show that of course God would have used evolution to fulfill his Big Plan to Produce Humans. Now Adam and Eve have also become metaphors, leading to all kinds of humorous theological speculations about who were humanity’s parents and what, exactly, was the nature of their Original Sin.”  [94]
Coyne is correct when he excoriates the attempt to redefine Original Sin into something which bears little resemblance to the traditional Christian doctrine because of an awareness of the evidence that flatly contradicts it. Rather than redefine it, a better approach would be to see whether Original Sin could be Biblically justified. From our position (and that of the Orthodox Church), the answer is of course no. Original Sin is not a Biblical doctrine, and owes much to the adverse influence of Augustine on Christian theology. Henri Blocher notes that:
Critics of the traditional interpretation bemoan the use of very few passages as “seats” of the doctrine, basically Gen. 3 and Rom. 5:12–21, and complain that these are given a weight and signification they do not possess in the texts. It is an odd accident of history (in particular, Augustine’s reading of Rom. 5:12) that the Edenic story, that etiological tale (designed to explain why childbirth is painful, weeds grow faster than vegetables, snakes are unpleasant to women, etc.) with almost no echo in the OT, came to exercise such control of Christian thinking! Or, for critics more conservative, that such a skillful myth or symbol of humankind’s proneness to evil was (mis)read as teaching about causes. In Rom. 5, Paul is really interested in Christ; Ricoeur (Symbolism, 239) argues that Adam’s part constitutes “only a flying buttress,” “only a false column,” to serve homiletical symmetry. [95]
The paucity of direct references to the Fall in the OT is, as Blocher notes, a potent argument that can be made against it. Any doctrine as fundamental to orthodox Christian belief as Original Sin would need more than a few scattered verses capable of alternative interpretations to bolster it. Blocher continues by noting that criticism of Original Sin has largely focused on its mode of transmission:
The spearhead of critiques of traditional dogma is directed against its account of transmission, from Adam to his descendants. Ricoeur denounces the mixture of juridical (ethical) categories with biological ones (Conflict, 270, 280). K. Barth rejects the usual German word Erbs√ľnde (hereditary sin). It must be recognized that orthodox worthies have made themselves vulnerable here, since they spoke of heredity as if original sin were a physical disability, a genetic disease. The intentio of the doctrine, as it preserves the dimension of freedom through historical linkage, opposes such category confusion. [96]
Even without the spur of evolution and the revelation that the entire human race could not have descended from two human beings, it is telling that criticism of the doctrine of Original Sin has focused on the belief that it was genetically transmitted. [97]

The historicity of Adam and Eve is a separate issue, and we need to remember that while Original Sin as classically formulated is dependent on a historical Adam and Eve, the converse does not hold. Certainly, Paul appears to assume that Adam and Eve were historical figures, and I would argue that this is not an unreasonable position to maintain, provided one does not insist on universal human descent from them. [98]

Interestingly enough, the Bible itself suggests that Adam and Eve were not the only humans on the planet when they were created. The irony here is that literalists have resorted to strained, ad hoc interpretations of the text to resolve the problem, which is of course the classic question of the identity of Cain’s wife, and those whom he feared would kill him:
Cain said to the Lord, “My punishment is too great to bear! “Behold, You have driven me this day from the face of the ground; and from Your face I will be hidden, and I will be a vagrant and a wanderer on the earth, and whoever finds me will kill me.”
So the Lord said to him, “Therefore whoever kills Cain, vengeance will be taken on him sevenfold.” And the Lord appointed a sign for Cain, so that no one finding him would slay him. Then Cain went out from the presence of the Lord, and settled in the land of Nod, east of Eden. 
Cain had relations with his wife and she conceived, and gave birth to Enoch; and he built a city, and called the name of the city Enoch, after the name of his son.  [99]
A plain reading of Gen 4 would lead one to believe that Cain and Abel were the only children of Adam and Eve at the time of Abel’s murder, leaving the literalist with the old problem of convincingly answering the question of where Cain obtained his wife. The traditional response that Cain married his sister and was frightened of retribution from his brothers is forced, and relies on a strained interpretation of Gen 5:4 to imply the existence of other, unnamed children already alive at the time of Abel’s violent death. Ironically, it is the literalists who have left a plain reading of the text in order to preserve an a priori belief that Adam and Eve were the sole ancestors of the human race. Gen 4 simply assumes the existence of other people outside the covenant community, and leaves it at that.

This article first appeared on my Facebook page here


93. Young D.A. (1995), p 381

94. Coyne J “How big was the population bottleneck? Another staple of theology refuted.” Why Evolution is True. 18th September 2011

95. Vanhoozer, K. J., Bartholomew, C. G., Treier, D. J., & Wright, N. T. 2005. Dictionary for theological interpretation of the Bible (553). SPCK; Baker Academic: London; Grand Rapids, MI.

96. ibid, p 554

97. One would of course hope that Coyne and other New Atheist critics would acknowledge these points, but picking on the low hanging fruit is easier, and requires less research into the “sophisticated theology” they damn as so much cherry picking.

98. Hill C “The Garden of Eden: A Modern LandscapePerspectives on Science and Christian Faith 52 (March 2000): 31-46. Hill persuasively argues that the description of the Garden of Eden in Gen 2:10-14 allows one to identify the location of the Garden of Eden, giving the account geographical plausibility.

99. Gen 4: 13-17 (NASB95)