t f p g+ YouTube icon

Cross, Creation, and Evolution

Bookmark and Share

November 5, 2010 Tags: Adam, the Fall, and Sin
Cross, Creation, and Evolution

Today's entry was written by George Murphy. Please note the views expressed here are those of the author, not necessarily of BioLogos. You can read more about what we believe here.

Dr. Murphy's new scholarly essay, "Human Evolution in Theological Context", can be found here.

Can I believe in God and accept evolution? That depends on what God you have in mind. The Christian answer is that God makes himself known to faith in the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus. The true God participates in creation, suffering and dying for it. Yet God is hidden from observation, for the cross looks nothing like our expectations of deity.

God’s typical way of working bears the mark of “emptying,” or self-limitation, of the incarnation (Philippians 2:7). God works in the world with creatures as “instruments,” limiting himself to the capabilities of natural processes - what we call laws of nature. (Thus scientific study of the world is possible.) Because we observe God’s instruments and not the one using them, they also mask God. He is concealed from observation in creation, just as on the cross.

This also helps us to understand why scripture makes statements about the world that science has shown to be incorrect, like the “dome” over the earth (Genesis 1:6-8). In inspiring biblical writers, the Holy Spirit respected their limited knowledge of the world. We will see an important example of this in the relationship between sin and death.

Evolution can be understood as God’s creative work through natural processes, within the context of belief that the triune God is the source of all that is. It poses no challenge to the Christian doctrine of creation.

Evolution does raise tough questions about human nature, however. Natural selection favored some selfish behavior in our pre-human ancestors, and tendencies for deception, sexual promiscuity, and violence were passed on to us. That challenges ideas about humanity’s “original righteousness,” a challenge intensified by genetic evidence that the first human population was considerably greater than two. It’s hard to retain a picture of descent from a literal Adam and Eve who were created in moral perfection but chose to disobey God.

Sin isn’t essential to being human. Jesus Christ is fully human, and Paul tells us that while “for our sake” God “made him to be sin,” he “knew no sin’ (2 Corinthians 5:21). But all other people are sinners. In Romans 3:23 Paul concluded that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” We share in a sinful condition of failure to trust in God above all else.

Why is humanity in this state if it didn’t have to be? It’s natural to look to the early chapters of Genesis for an answer. But they have been read in different ways by the western and eastern parts of the church.

In the west, Augustine saw unaided human inability to trust or love God as a condition that goes back to conception. It is an “original sin” with which each person begins life. Augustine traced this condition to a sin that was “original” in another sense, that of Eve and Adam. There was an abrupt fall from flawless heights to depths of depravity, and its effects were transmitted to the whole human race.

An eastern church bishop, Irenaeus, gave a different picture. He thought that God created Adam and Eve good but immature, expecting humanity to develop. Adam’s sin was “childish” and its effects not as serious as Augustine thought.

The first chapters of Genesis are religious statements about our relationships with God. Adam and Eve can be seen as theological representations of the first hominids with whom God communicated. Irenaeus’ interpretation provides a helpful way of thinking about human origins. It is open to evolutionary thought and true to the biblical statement that God’s creation was “very good,” not “perfect.”

God intended humanity to develop, but sin distorts that development. We took the wrong road, one leading away from God. Genesis pictures not a single abrupt “fall” from perfection but a gradual “falling away” that begins in Chapter 3 there and worsens in succeeding chapters.

This doesn’t exactly match our picture of early humanity because the writers of Genesis didn’t have our scientific knowledge. But it’s a better match to evolution than Augustine’s idea. We’ll consider this in more detail and discuss relationships between sin and death in the next post.

George Murphy has been active for many years in helping churches see the relevance of science for faith and to deal with religious issues raised by science and technology. With a Ph.D. in theoretical physics from Johns Hopkins he was for twelve years engaged in research and college teaching. After graduation from Wartburg Seminary and ordination he served as a parish pastor in Lutheran and Episcopal churches for twenty-five years. Now retired from regular parish ministry, he continues to write and speak on issues of science and theology. His most recent books are Pulpit Science Fiction and Models of Atonement: Speaking about Salvation in a Scientific World.

Next post in series >

View the archived discussion of this post

This article is now closed for new comments. The archived comments are shown below.

Page 6 of 6   « 3 4 5 6
Gregory - #39490

November 12th 2010

“scripture convicts all people without exception of being sinners” – GM

Yes, & both sinners sinning today & the logically inescapable ‘first sin’ happen(ed) in time. You accepted this partially above, but not fully as ‘real history’.

“whether it is history or not, the picture we get is a gradual falling rather than an abrupt point event” – GM

Good medicine for the over-gradualist is to meditate on the simultaneous! The gatekeepers for evolution-ISM keep tight watch on ‘under-gradual,’ ‘more than gradual’ & ‘discontinuous’ organic changes. ‘Just gradually it changed’ is a common cultural expression in this unique camp.

It may be ‘abrupt point events’ in Scripture have important messages for us too, right George? & there are many such ‘real, historical’ events in Scripture, including in Genesis. E.g. Abraham had ‘real, historical’ parents.

Is there a particular reason, George, why you won’t answer a basic question about how you distinguish ‘simultaneity’ & ‘gradualism’? There are philosophical repurcussions to gradualism, just as with committment to statics vs. dynamics.

Sorry for the pause in accompaniment, Jon. Please play on with smooth tunes if it suits you…

Jon Garvey - #39492

November 12th 2010

Rich - apologies for abrasiveness. This thread has been rather frustrating in terms of clarification of positions.

Nevertheless, for all you point out, would you not say that in the context of the Pentateuch (final redactors and all) Adam’s disobedience is seen as the start of human alienation from God, whether or not the “S” word is used? Nobody has ever seriously suggested that “Sin came into the world through one man ... yes, that’s right, Cain!”

Gregory: “Sorry for the pause in accompaniment, Jon. Please play on with smooth tunes if it suits you…”

Sometimes posting on Biologos feels a bit like playing an evangelistic gig in a Cambridge College Bar. So I’m off for a pint of Newcastle Brown now…

Rich - #39523

November 12th 2010


Your “abrasiveness” was mild compared to what some people dish out around here.  No offense taken.  My point was really off on a tangent from your debate with George; that might have thrown you.

Well, yes, Adam is alienated to a degree from God; he seems to be able to chat freely and familiarly with God in the Garden, and after he leaves it, there’s no more dialogue between them.

My difficulty is that I see no textual basis in Genesis for any causal connection between “sin” (as opposed to disobedience) and death, or for that matter for any notion of sin which is transmitted from Adam to his descendants.  As far as I can see, throughout the OT, sin is treated as a choice made by individuals (or by collectives of individuals, such as Israel).  I don’t see any inherited or “genetic” basis for it at all.  Thus, I have a problem with the Pauline reading of the text.  There is a sense in which Jesus restores man (Adam) to a right relationship with God, but as an explanation of the mechanics, I find the classical Augustinian position seriously wanting.  This will be equally horrifying to both George and yourself; but then, Biblical scholars are notoriously insubordinate to confessional theologians. 

Jon Garvey - #39548

November 12th 2010

@Rich - #39523

Rich, to me as a believer in the inspiration of Scripture one is tying one’s hands behind ones back by insisting the books of the Bible speak in isolation.

If one discounts Paul’s commentary on Genesis, one also discounts John’s definition of sin as “lawlessness”, which makes it virtually a synonym for “disobedience.”

Genesis doesn’t define sin, which even where the word is used leaves one without any ground on which to understand it ... unless, of course you take the Pentateuch with its legal codes and sacrificial system as sufficient indication of its author’s intent. Then sin is an offence against God’s stated will.

But assuming you’re taking sin in the sense of “sinful nature,” then I’d point you for a start to Jeremiah’s words on the human heart or David’s “in sin did my mother conceive me,” which even if not a statement of original sin is an indicator that the psalmist saw his sin as a character flaw and not a simple act of selfishness or disobedience.

I’d also recall that it was not Paul who said, “Out of the heart come evil thoughts..etc” or “If you, being evil, know how to give good gifts…”

As for Augustine, I don’t get the impression that George is a great fan of his.

Rich - #39568

November 12th 2010

Jon (39548):

Yes, one can find partial connections scattered throughout Biblical books written in widely different periods, out of which one can work up some elements of a doctrine of inherent sinfulness.  But that strikes me as an ahistorical procedure.  And here I suppose I’m under the spell of Enlightenment prejudices regarding “history.”  But then again, many of the columnists here operate under Enlightenment prejudices regarding “nature” (that God in creation acts uniformly and solely through natural laws, that hands-on activity in creation is beneath God’s dignity, etc.).  It seems illogical to insist that we apply modern scientific principles regarding the uniformity and consistency of nature to control what conclusions are allowed to be taken out of Scripture regarding “creation,” while rejecting the use of modern scientific principles of literary and historical criticism to control how we understand “the fall.”  If we can say that Aquinas was dead wrong to believe the human body was created directly, why can’t we say Paul was dead wrong to back-read 1st-century rabbinic notions into Genesis?  It seems to me that “selective modernity” is being endorsed around here (I’m not speaking of you particularly).

Jon Garvey - #39571

November 12th 2010

@Rich - #39568

Well, I’d agree about “selective modernity,” though some of it seems to be fairly thoroughgoing - NOT ONLY is creation beyond God’s dignity, BUT Paul was dead wrong. It’s called an incarnational model…

I’m not sure if it’s my being a pre-Victorian conservative or my being post-modern and ahead of the curve, but it seems to me both fields outlive their human utility when they go from “there are natural laws” to “there are only natural laws”, or from “there are useful rational tools to investigate history/literature” to “what is not amenable to these tools is not history/literature”.

Apart from anything else, such inflated claims look quietly ridiculous when, for example, the “scientific consensus” on the Documentary Theory falls apart after Whybray to leave what looks, to an outsider, like a marquee without guy ropes waiting for a gale.

After years of doing hard science I did a module of social psychology in my last year at university, which whilst pretending to be scientific was actually so subjective and humanly-orientated that I felt a strange surge of liberation. That persuaded me that too much science makes you shortsighted. Music does the same thing for me nowadays. And worship, I guess.

R Hampton - #39574

November 12th 2010

If we can say that Aquinas was dead wrong to believe the human body was created directly, why can’t we say Paul was dead wrong to back-read 1st-century rabbinic notions into Genesis?

Since this is indirectly addressed to me, let me respond with Pope Benedict XVI’s timely, “Verbum Domini”. Too long to summarize, it does answer to your question. For example:

The Church’s living magisterium, which is charged with “giving an authentic interpretation of the word of God, whether in its written form or in the form of tradition”, intervened in a prudent and balanced way regarding the correct response to the introduction of new methods of historical analysis. I think in particular of the Encyclicals Providentissimus Deus of Pope Leo XIII and Divino Afflante Spiritu of Pope Pius XII ... Pope Leo XIII’s intervention had the merit of protecting the Catholic interpretation of the Bible from the inroads of rationalism, without, however, seeking refuge in a spiritual meaning detached from history. Far from shunning scientific criticism, the Church was wary only of “preconceived opinions that claim to be based on science, but which in reality surreptitiously cause science to depart from its domain”.

R Hampton - #39575

November 12th 2010

(cont.) ...The Encyclical Divino Afflante Spiritu was careful to avoid any hint of a dichotomy between “scientific exegesis” for use in apologetics and “spiritual interpretation meant for internal use”; rather it affirmed both the “theological significance of the literal sense, methodically defined ” and the fact that “determining the spiritual sense ... belongs itself to the realm of exegetical science”. In this way, both documents rejected “a split between the human and the divine, between scientific research and respect for the faith, between the literal sense and the spiritual sense”. This balance was subsequently maintained by the 1993 document of the Pontifical Biblical Commission: “in their work of interpretation, Catholic exegetes must never forget that what they are interpreting is the word of God. Their common task is not finished when they have simply determined sources, defined forms or explained literary procedures. They arrive at the true goal of their work only when they have explained the meaning of the biblical text as God’s word for today”

Page 6 of 6   « 3 4 5 6