Tuesday, August 09, 2011

Evolution, Adam & Jesus Christ: My Thoughts on NPR's Intriguing Profile

Today I posted on Facebook and Twitter a story on NPR that profiled the battle between evangelicals on the issue of the historical existence of Adam and Eve. First I want to say that I appreciated the balanced presentation of the story. No side seemed to be favored and a good guys vs. bad guys tone was avoided. Take the time to read/listen to it. Several folk have asked for my response. Below is a smattering of thoughts, a fairly unorganized list of what I think.
  1. Dennis Venema's argues that the historicity of Adam and Eve is dependent upon a "literal" reading of the Bible. He says that, "if you read the Bible as poetry and allegory as well as history, you can see God's hand in nature — and in evolution." He says that other readings allow for a "better understanding" which would lead to a rejection of their existence. Now I think he makes a good point.  I agree that the Bible has different genres. I think the Bible is filled with narrative, poetry, wisdom literature, and in places, allegory. But does that mean those genres aren't also "literal?" Can't one claim that Paul believed in a literal, historical Hagar and Sarah yet also used them develop an "allegory" (see Gal 4:22-33). The Psalms and the prophets rooted many of their poetic words in historical, "literal" situations. So I'm not quite sure what he means by literal. Does he mean holding the Bible as a historical document? His terminology is more combative than helpful.
  2. Venema's point also reveals his interpretive lens. His emphasis on evolution leads him to this conclusion:    
    To get down to just two ancestors, Venema says, "You would have to postulate that there's been this absolutely astronomical mutation rate that has produced all these new variants in an incredibly short period of time. Those types of mutation rates are just not possible. It would mutate us out of existence.
    What this communicates to me is that God is not in control. In fact, from his perspective it seems the possibility of getting down to two ancestors is just as likely as, say, someone raising from the dead (cf. Luke 16:16-30).
  3. I don't think this is a "Galileo Moment" as Karl Gibberson claims. What the Catholic Church did to Galileo is perplexing and is a black mark on the history of the Church, but the entirety of Scripture is not built on the notion that the earth is the center of the universe. The weight of this issue is much greater. The reality of sin and God's answer for that does not rest on the centrality of the earth, but on Jesus Christ.
  4. I agree with Dan Harlow that "This stuff is unavoidable." Developments in science and history have always been unavoidable, though history also tells us that Christianity has tried. The controversy over inerrancy of the Bible in light of the rise of evolution presented the challenge to Christians around the world to either engage or disengage. I do think today we should not look back to Galileo, but to that controversy and others since to see how willing we are as evangelicals to thoughtfully engage culture while also thoughtfully engaging Scripture.
  5. Today science is "fact" and by the standards of many cannot be questioned. Therefore the lens through which we see the Bible has shifted to that of biology, physics, and genetics. It has become for a growing number of evangelicals the first step on the path of getting a better understanding of the Bible. I have to admit that this lens has affected me more deeply than I realize. For example, though I claim theologically that miracles still do occur today, my deep-seated skepticism due to my learning of scientific laws and principles hinders a sincere belief immensely. Now I do not want to downplay science because it has been a great aid in many aspects of life, I merely want to suggest that my reading of the Bible is already colored because of science.
  6. I want to have intellectual integrity, for sure, and this will always keep me exploring, but I also want to submit that more to the worship of the God who exists and redeemed me through Christ. I have to be careful with what I say here because it may come across as if I am willing to "bury my head in the sand" as Harlow puts it for the sake of holding my theological convictions together. But again I turn to the resurrection of Christ. Paul's words in 1 Corinthians 15 are vital here. He writes:
    For if the dead are not raised, not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and  you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished.  If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied. 
    But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. For as by a man came death, by a man has come also the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive.
  7. Paul was no slouch. His letter to the Romans was once taught in law schools around the country. And here all of it ties together. Are Paul's words poetry here? Is this really allegory? Paul brings it all into clear focus. Death in our sins is a result of the Fall of a historical Adam, according to Paul. The answer is the physical death and bodily resurrection of the historical Christ to make us alive in the word's fullest sense. If it is not clear by now, the lens I choose to see the historical reality of Adam and Eve is the historical reality of Jesus Christ. Though there are some caveats and nuances, I believe the Bible calls Christians to begin with Christ. So in a sense, though I want to be aware and engaged in the conversation, I think the approach is flawed.
  8. Finally, from a literary and historical standpoint, there is a framework that holds Christianity together. In short, without a historical Adam and Eve, there is no historical Fall, there is no historical good and sin, there is no historical need for redemption, there is no historical need for God to become man, there is no historical need for Jesus to die, there is no historical resurrection, there is no historical ascension. The Bible and thus history from the Bible's perspective falls apart.
Anything to add or challenge?

By His Grace.


  1. Anonymous2:14 PM

    lisi: good points all around. these are issues i wrestle with as well. you address certain scientific issues like the rate of genetic mutation. how would you address other related issues like the existence of animal death prior to the Fall? (which clearly poses an apparent problem, if you accept a literal Fall some 10 or so thousand years ago, and also accept standard estimates on the age of the earth/life on earth) i'm not trying to stir up a debate. just offering a tough question (at least for someone like me who believes that a literal Fall is necessary for the Christian worldview to make sense, but also doesn't buy into fundamentalist claims that the earth is 6,000 years old) - brando

  2. andrew stravitz4:39 PM

    Dear Anselm, Bosso here--But how should we respond to their obvious retort? Yes, "without a historical Adam and Eve, there is no historical Fall, there is no historical good and sin, there is no historical need for redemption...The Bible and thus history from the Bible's perspective falls apart." And we so readily believe this, with the Church of ages behind us. But for the sake of understanding, please help us consider their certain caveat- Won't they just come back and say:
    "We never said there was no historical good and sin, no need for redemption-almost the opposite! Certainly there is a sinful nature that plagues our species! Certainly we've been created in God's image (though we think God took a lot longer to form us than you do). We simply said that there is no historical Adam and Eve. They must've been the Spirit's ANE-metaphor for what happened in some really, really ANE.
    As for Paul, he is simply using the metaphor as it was given to him, not historically (as in our modern sense of the term), but a metaphor communicating an historic and true reality nonetheless!
    And sure, you may also try to take our logic and say, 'What's to stop such logic from applying to the Cross of Christ as well?!' Our response is this: we know both from the passage you cited from Paul as well as from numerous other historical texts, that Jesus did live and die and rise again. The science of history demands it just as much as the Scriptures do! While Paul did say, 'If the dead are not raised, then Christ himself is not raised,' he did not also follow with, 'And if Adam was not a real man, then not anyone actually shares in his death.' You see, scripture and history demands Christ's actual death and resurrection. But neither scripture nor the genome project requires Adam and Eve's real death."
    So you see, teacher, that their response is so well reasoned. But we want to believe God alone, and fear no man, nor man's wisdom. On the one hand, right order demands that we should believe the profundities of the faith before we presume to discuss it logically, but, on the other, it seems to me negligence if, after we have been confirmed in the faith, we do not make an effort to understand what we believe. So,please reveal to us something which many besides me ask.

  3. agreed, stravitz, let us not pretend to be alternately bound by reason and then bound by faith but let us affirm our paradoxical bindings to both, an organic whole.

  4. quick thought, then a long one.

    the first chapter of genesis does carry a sense of plurality in regards to man in its creation account:

    1:26 Then God said, 'Let us make man...And let them have dominion over the fish...'

    1:27 So God created man in his own image,
    in the image of God he created him;
    male and female he created them.

    1:28 And God blessed them.

    also odd, is the finishing of the creation account with the seventh day before going into the detailed account of man's creation. that begins with this introduction in verse 4:

    "These are the generations
    of the heavens and the earth when they were created,
    in the day that the Lord God made the earth and the heavens."

    this seems to me, to be an injection of a literal story into the sixth day. this prefatory statement also seems to introduce the remainder of the book of genesis.

    this is but a layman's exegesis, but every time i read this book, i cannot help but feel more and more that the text is saying that the seventh day has not yet occurred with its chronology.

    as for the literal or figurative story of the creation of man, it seems as if we are forgetting the flood. what does it all matter since mankind was bottlenecked to noah's house? it is there that we must begin to speculate (and ever so accurately) whether or not man could evolve quickly enough into different races. adam and eve only had to be as white, brown, red or yellow as him.

    i will end here. there is a fundamental difference in asking whether or not adam and eve were purely symbolic and my earlier ramblings about whether or not the genesis account is not simultaneously historical, current and prophetic. if simply divine symbolism, adam and eve represent a lack of ability, or even a laziness in the creator of the universe. allow me to explain.

    we humans encounter God and scripture as both reality and symbolism. for example, i personally resonate with the pride and deceit of jacob, the lust of david, the stubborn forgetfulness of israel, and am spoken to by God as i read him speaking to these men. this seems to be God's intent as the more i see myself in the scriptures, the more i believe it actually happened in history. we also have things like the covenant of marriage, passover and we are even told, by God, to call God our father.

    notice that it is all real symbolism. by that i mean that through actual reality, God speaks symbolically. jacob was actually full of deceit and pride but still blessed by God, human fatherhood is the closest reflection of God's relation to us, the passover actually happened and people actually get married. through these inferior realities, God has simultaneously given us symbols that make this superior supernatural business a bit easier for our human minds to comprehend.

    my speculation on the account of creation fits with this characteristic in that God's rest coming after the redemption of mankind makes allegory out of reality. the seven day week becomes a reminder of creation and the rest to come.

    what is being said in denying adam and eve's existence, is that the earth was not created, rather that it was allowed and was the result of some natural cause that God oversaw and then told us a story about it that was not true. for if God did not create adam and eve, he certainly created doug and tina. why would he not tell us what actually happened? he does everywhere else.

    do not get me wrong, it remains poetry. purer than simply prose. it is simultaneously both reality and symbolism.

    saying the story of adam and eve is purely allegory is only saying that Christianity is closer to being a myth than reality as well as that God chose not to do something he has been doing for all of time and instead chose to give us a story that never actually happened.

  5. Josh's friend Melissa here. I really enjoyed this post and your points... nice to have someone else articulate the thoughts that have been swirling in my mind since I read a few articles about this back in June. Hope you don't mind the spiel that follows. I haven't listened to the NPR story, but I have the same questions that your friends above have. What do we say about evolution if there is no death before the fall? And how do we answer a person professing Christ who just doesn't think Adam and Eve are necessary? Why is a historical moment of original sin necessary for man to be sinful and need a redeemer? I wonder about this a lot, with questions of what caused Adam and Eve to sin, if they were fully in God's presence, which I suppose is temptation by Satan, but then I wonder, too, what caused Satan and other angels to fall and choose sin in the first place? It's all confusing questions of free will and sovereignty and it comes back to whether we "need" Adam and Eve.

    I would agree with you that "without a historical Adam and Eve, there is no historical Fall, there is no historical good and sin" but disagree that necessarily "there is no historical need for redemption, there is no historical need for God to become man, there is no historical need for Jesus to die, there is no historical resurrection, there is no historical ascension. The Bible and thus history from the Bible's perspective falls apart" - Adam and Eve were not "born into sin," yet they sinned, and I would suppose that all people born would be the same after them.

    I don't know if that makes sense, or if what I'm saying is correct, but to add something new to the conversation instead of just reiterating previous points/questions, I've been spending a lot of time with three Muslim girls lately and as we've talked about issues surrounding our different beliefs, I came to the realization that one of the most fundamental differences we have is belief in original sin. My friend told me she just didn't think it was fair or logical that we would be born into the sin of adam and eve, and that each child is born a blank slate. There is also the issue of the consequences of sin - they (just these girls, i'm not generalizing about all muslims) believe that a good work is good for any sin, as though if I broke all the windows of your car but then I walked your dog, we'd be okay, whereas I believe, because of God's holiness, just one sin permanently separates us. So these are the places where I really want to work through an issue like this - when it comes to sharing the Gospel and the truth of what Jesus did and why we need Him.

    It's hard to resist the urge to bury my own head in the sand, but our God is bigger than our questions and that's what I stand firmly on when I get bogged down like this. As long as my questions are about wanting to know and therefore love God more and loving others well and not just about having the “right” or “best” answer, I think I’m okay. Oh and I totally visited Trinity Evangelical when I was in college and thinking about going to seminary after finishing! I really loved it. Also, I look forward to reading more of your thoughts on this blog!