From Creation Ex Nihilo to the Fall
I’ve been working through the short book, Creation, by University of Edinburgh professor of divinity David Fergusson and blogging on the topics of his chapters. I’ll start today by thinking a bit more about the doctrine of creation ex nihilo from last week’s chapter. Too often we think of “creation from nothing” as primarily about the temporal sequence of things: there was absolute nothingness (aside from God); and then God did something to bring the universe into existence. But if we focus too much on solving the problem of how things got started, we may lose focus on God’s continued involvement in the workings of things. It is easy to slide from that view into deism. Even if we say God established the laws according to which nature operates and therefore “governs” what nature continues to do, it is still difficult to see God as actively involved in the natural order. I suspect that’s why many people are attracted to views that have God frequently stepping into the chain of natural causes in order to keep him involved. But that misses the primary point of creation ex nihilo: that the continued existence of things depends on God as the ultimate source of being (see discussion of Aquinas from last week).
Here’s another way to think about the radical difference between created things and the uncreated Godhead: the Nicene Creed asserts that Son of God is “begotten, not made” from the very being of God the Father, and the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father (and the Son, if you follow the addition to the creed by the Western church). That means all the members of the Trinity are the same kind of thing and dependent on nothing. But everything else in the universe is created, and because it is created from nothing—rather than being an emanation from God—there is a mutability to it that the members of the Godhead do not have. Material reality has the potential for change. At least that is how Augustine understood it, and that is why he thought Adam and Eve—though, as he believed, created in a state of perfection—were nevertheless capable of choosing to sin in the Garden of Eden.
Fergusson’s third chapter is called, “Creation and Fall”, but it is primarily an exploration of Augustine’s notion of creation and fall. Fergusson notes that the traditional Augustinian doctrine takes some interpretive liberties with the Scriptural accounts. And he himself accepts the evolutionary account of human beings that Augustine knew nothing about. Still, Fergusson thinks it is fruitful for us to reflect on Augustine’s understanding of the Fall as a “parabolic description of the human situation before God” (p. 47).
Paul and the Fall
Theologians often note that the doctrine of Original Sin and the Fall, as understood by most people in 21st century American Evangelicalism, is largely a product of Augustine’s interpretation of Paul’s interpretation of Genesis 3. That by itself doesn’t mean it is wrong, but we need to keep in mind that the details of the doctrine do not read right out of Scripture—and definitely not right out of Genesis 3. Paul’s reading of the Adam and Eve story is unique among all biblical authors and is a significant embellishment of Genesis 3. It does fit with the genre of Jewish literature of the first century that appealed to the Adam story as a way of illustrating the points authors were trying to make. (For an introduction to that genre of literature, see this blog post by Scot McKnight or his plenary address at our conference last summer.) That forces us to ask whether we are to take Paul’s interpretation as the definitive one, citing the principle of progressive revelation; or whether we should understand his description of Adam and Eve as culturally conditioned and part of the genre of literature that adopted them as characters to illustrate his message for his specific audience (who understood what he was doing within the genre). As we’ve said many times before on this website, BioLogos thinks the conversation about the historicity of Adam and Eve is important, and we’re not looking to shut it down with some definitive pronouncement on the topic. So let the conversation continue.
No matter which way we go with Paul, there are good reasons why Augustine should not be held up as his definitive interpreter—especially as it relates to Adam and the Fall. For starters, Augustine’s interpretation is partly based on a bad translation of Romans. Augustine read the Bible from the Latin Vulgate, and in it Romans 5:12 reads, “All die because in Adam all sinned”. The original Greek is more accurately rendered, “death spread to all because all have sinned.” Augustine claimed that all humans inherit a flaw from Adam which is propagated through the human reproductive system, and furthermore that all humans inherit Adam’s guilt. Even if the mistranslation is ignored, this is still quite an expansion of Paul’s claims. Fergusson quotes New Testament scholar Luke Timothy Johnson, who says, “Paul is simply stating that everyone has sinned the way Adam did, so the effect of Adam’s sin continues, and continues to be symbolized by the death experienced by all humans” (p. 40).
Perhaps, then, we need to reread Paul and the doctrine of Original Sin and the Fall without these Augustinian lenses we’ve inherited. Of course, Scripture is clear that “all humans sin”, and we think the evidence from the natural world is clear that Homo sapiens evolved over time from earlier species. How do we incorporate these truths into one coherent account?
Evolution and the Fall
We could put our theological foot down and assert that God picked out two individuals from among the population of Homo sapiens and put them in a garden, where they disobeyed God’s direct command not to eat from the tree. Their disobedience was the first act of sin, and as representatives of the entire human race, when their “eyes were opened” so too were the eyes of all humans, and from that point on all were culpable before God. That preserves the traditional creation-fall-redemption narrative. You could even go further and say that Adam and Eve were specially created without a biological relationship to the other Homo sapiens at the time, and you could even say that all humanity today counts Adam and Eve as a biological ancestor. Nothing in an account like this contradicts the science of evolution as we understand it now.
Not everyone, though, thinks it is theologically necessary to assert these things as historical realities, and of course an allegorical reading of Adam and Eve is the easiest to reconcile with the science of evolution. But it doesn’t solve all the problems. If the Adam and Eve story is taken as allegorical, we still have to account for how sin entered the world. There are several ways of doing this, but it seems to me most consistent to suggest there was a gradual awakening to sin. That is to say, in the same way that each human individually becomes morally responsible for actions as he or she grows up, so too the species gradually developed an awareness of their sin. On this account, there is no stark before-and-after line, but rather a gradual “coming of age”. We hold two-year-olds responsible for some things that we don’t hold newborns responsible for; and we hold ten-year-olds responsible for some things that we don’t hold two-year-olds responsible for; and we hold eighteen-year-olds responsible for even more. We can’t give a precise day that a person transitions from non-culpable to culpable for certain things; but that doesn’t mean there is no clear difference between a two-year-old and an adult.
Could it work the same for the species as a whole? Perhaps God held Homo species 500,000 years ago responsible for some things; species 200,000 years ago for more; 30,000 years ago even more; and when the law was given to Moses, God held the people accountable in a new way. Perhaps that is an evolutionary reading of Romans 5:13, “sin was in the world before the law was given, but sin is not charged to anyone’s account where there is no law.” For people before Moses, we might still say the law was “written on their hearts”, but they became gradually and more fully aware of that over time.
There is no getting away from some speculation as we try to harmonize natural history and theological history. That’s what Augustine was doing too. His was an important and influential voice in the development of church doctrine, but we must remember that he was not infallible. He was separated from the time of Christ by almost four centuries. We have better translations of Scripture today than he had, and we know much more today about the natural history of our planet and species than he did. So our harmonizing of natural history and theology will undoubtedly look different for us than it did for him.
I’m not suggesting that we scrap Augustine’s theology, just that we understand that his circumstances were not our own. His approach to fides et scientia quaerens intellectum would therefore be different. Much of his thinking about original sin was in response to the Pelagian controversy. Pelagius taught that in order to be held responsible for sin, we must have the capacity to choose right or wrong at each moment. Later Pelagians even claimed that all people are born in the same state that Adam was and only become sinful through their own choosing. Augustine’s insight was that the state of sin in which we find ourselves goes beyond what we ourselves have chosen. This is still an important insight for us today. Fergusson says,
“Our freedom is conditioned and constrained in a variety of ways. We find ourselves in the grip of desires and impulses that are not necessarily of our own choosing, and often these are almost overpowering. . . Hence the fall doctrine can work as an account of the human condition and its need for forgiveness, grace, and healing. In this context, Augustinian theology has an important therapeutic quality with its recognition of a grace that can work successfully upon even the most depraved elements of human nature” (p. 4)
Thanks be to God! Next time we’ll consider the providence of God and how it is related to the doctrine of creation.
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