Thinking Aloud Together, Part 3
Note: At the Biologos Theology of Celebration workshop in New York City in March, Scot McKnight was one of the featured speakers. This is the third of a three-part series from his lecture.
Where do we go from here?
As a professor I teach my students at least two things about method: face the facts and do not fear the facts. I believe this means we have to face both what the New Testament teaches and what science teaches. So we are right back with our two facts: science’s view that human DNA goes back to more than two people and the Bible’s view that sin goes back to Adam (and Eve).
So we face the facts. The Bible really does make it look like Adam and Eve are humans from whom we descend, sin and death entailed. But scientists are going to tell us straightaway that Adam and Eve themselves had ancestors, one of whose millions of years old grave I walked into just outside Johannesburg South Africa in what is called “The Cradle of Humankind.” Here I encountered hominid fossils dated at 2-4 million years. (Well, not the fossils themselves but the places they found them and the pictures.) Others are going to tell us that the DNA make-up of humans today goes back to thousands and on and on… so we come to this point and it is for me the most significant pastoral question pastors need to ask in tandem with scientists is this one: What if we are wrong in our interpretations of the Bible?
In other words, if the common hypothesis that our DNA owes to more than two people, the original couple, Adam and Eve, then maybe we have been reading “Adam” wrong for a long, long time. In other words, what if Adam and Eve are understood more in archetypal terms, as we find in the work of John Walton, the way the writer of Hebrews reads Melchizedek? Or, what if Jonah’s whale is a parable for the captivity of Israel (or Judah) and that when Jesus uses the analogy of Jonah he implies “Jonah as we know the story of Jonah”? Surely the “Enoch” of Jude 14-16 begins with the biblical text – seventh from Adam – and then incorporates the developed narrative history in the pseudepigraphical Enoch. To whom did “Enoch” refer when Jude used that name? Now to Adam: what if when the New Testament speaks of Adam it is simply referring to “Israel’s story about Adam” as the representative human who does/did what we all do – sin and die? What if, a la Hans Frei, Paul and Luke mean the “narratival Adam” who happens to have been an “archetypal” Adam? Is this interpretation viable? I’d like to suggest it is at least viable. Is it what Jews in the 1st Century thought? Maybe not. They thought their Story was the Story because that is what they were taught and how they thought.
We are pondering our mode of conversation. The one thing we theologians need to be wary of and that we need avoid with all our might is to say “If you don’t believe this the whole gospel comes crumbling down.” Really? The gospel comes crumbling down if we don’t believe in the so-called “historical Adam (and Eve)”? Really? Resurrection? Yes. Atoning death? Yes. Historical Adam? Slippery slope arguments don’t work for me. We might need to think about this again and maybe we theologians need to embrace our theological beliefs with what Polkinghorne called the “boldness of provisional commitment.”1 We need to have the courage to face the facts and not fear the facts and be able to ask ourselves What if our interpretation is wrong? because our framework has such a bold, provisional commitment.
Who will do this if it isn’t done in cooperative contexts of churches and scientists? Until heavy weight pastors, like Tim Keller and the good (former) Bishop Tom Wright and John Ortberg announce they are at the table, this discussion cannot gain credibility. When they do, the conversation might work.
In my own lifetime I have found science to be something that on more than one occasion has taught me to rethink a reading the Bible. A naïve reading of Genesis to Chronicles might lead to Ussher’s dating, but no one really believes that any longer. A naïve reading of pillars holding up the earth might lead to ancient cosmology but no one believes that any longer. And the reason we don’t believe such things is not because of careful consideration of ANE evidence but because science told us to look again. But hear this: if pastors join this conversation, we’ve got a chance to influence a young generation of scientists, too.
So what becomes of Adam if science tells us to look again? That is, what becomes of Adam if our DNA pool, the genetic material, could not have come from just two individuals but needed to be from thousands? Is it possible for us to reconsider what Paul meant in Romans 5 and 1 Corinthians 15 and at least wonder if we have a theology constructed on a mistake? Is it possible for us to see Adam and Eve as King and Queen of a herd of homo sapiens? Or, is it possible for us to see “Adam” as the one who represents us all, sin and death and all, and still be faithful to the Bible, to Paul? The one thing we don’t want to do is lock ourselves down to some reading that science not only denies, but that science may well blow apart. That is, when the student suddenly encounters some unassailable scientific fact, the logical webs we spin as we construct our theological interpretations suddenly falls into pieces. If we are not wise we will have more than tears in the eyes of our students.
1. J. Polkinghorne, Science and Religion in Quest of Truth, 9.
Scot McKnight, a New Testament scholar who has written widely on the historical Jesus, Christian spirituality, and the emerging church, has been the Karl A. Olsson Professor in Religious Studies at North Park University since 1994. He earned a bachelor’s degree from Grand Rapids Baptist College, a masters from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, and a doctorate from the University of Nottingham. He has written several books, including the popular The Jesus Creed, which won an award from Christianity Today in 2004, and his latest book The King Jesus Gospel. You can read more from McKnight at his blog Jesus Creed.