Last week we began a series on Interpreting Adam. The first post was by BioLogos president, Deborah Haarsma, who gave an overview of the issue and an introduction to the recent book, Four Views on the Historical Adam, on which this series is focused. Then on Tuesday of last week we posted an interview with John Walton, who espouses the Archetype view of Adam and Eve.
Today we begin an interview with C. John Collins, Professor of Old Testament at Covenant Theological Seminary in St. Louis. “Jack” (as he is known informally) defends the Old Earth Creation view in the book. Essentially he argues that the Bible as a whole—as well as the common human experience—demands a view of Adam and Eve as real historical people through whom sin entered the world (i.e., there is also a historical Fall). Collins is well aware of the scientific evidences that stand in tension with his theological convictions, but he finds enough latitude in interpreting those evidences such that they can fit with the “Big Story” of humanity we find in Scripture.
There is much overlap between Collins’ and Walton’s views. Both have a historical Adam. But contrary to Walton, Collins insists that Adam must be at the headwaters of the human race. It is worth reading their critiques of each other’s positions in the book. Following is Collins’ summary of his position, and then the first part of the interview.
I argue that the best way to account for the biblical presentation of human life is to understand that Adam and Eve were both real persons at the headwaters of humankind. By “biblical presentation” I refer not only to the story in Genesis and the biblical passages that refer to it, but also to the larger biblical story line, which deals with God’s good creation invaded by sin, for which God has a redemptive plan; of Israel’s calling to be a light to the nations; and of the church’s prospect of successfully bringing God’s light to the whole world. That story concerns the unique role and dignity of the human race, which is a matter of daily experience for everyone: All people yearn for God and need him, must depend on him to deal with their sinfulness, and crave a wholesome community for their lives to flourish.
I argue that the nature of the biblical material should keep us from being too literalistic in our reading of Adam and Eve, leaving room for an Earth that is not young, but that the biblical material along with good critical thinking provides certain freedoms and limitations for connecting the Bible’s creation account to a scientific and historical account of human origins (p. 143).
Jim Stump: Your reading of Genesis 1-11 is quite sophisticated in a literary sense. You see the stories in a genre with other ancient Near Eastern literature, which might be said to have a historical core but are also packed with imagery and symbolism. As such you say, “no one expected the stories to be read in a thoroughly literalistic fashion” (p. 155). What elements of the creation accounts do you not take to be literal descriptions of historical events?
Jack Collins: Well, first, thanks for the compliment! I have developed my literary methodology by combining ideas from textlinguistics and speech act theory, literary criticism (e.g., C.S. Lewis, Mary Louise Pratt, Meir Sternberg, and Phil Long), and Biblical theology (e.g., N.T. Wright, Michael Williams, and Christopher Wright), together with my own reflections as a grammarian and lexicographer (mentored by one of the best, Alan Millard).
I would say that the creation account in Genesis refers to actual persons, things, and events, in ways that strike the imagination. So I take the six days of Genesis 1 as “God’s workdays” — God is presented as if he were a workman going through his work week. The way that God “rested” (Gen. 2:2–3) or “was refreshed” (Exod. 31:17) on his Sabbath is indicator enough that the description is analogical and not “literal.” Further, to the extent that the “expanse” is portrayed as something solid (as in the “firmament” of the King James Version), it is not a scientific description of the sky, but rather a pictorial one: it enables us to imagine the scene. The days of Genesis 1 march on in a clear sequence; but the sequence itself may well be part of the literary portrayal, so we should sit lightly on it. In general, the account says little or nothing about processes by which things took their shape: this is not to exclude the possibility of processes, nor even to make our scientific curiosity about them impious, but rather to sketch the portrait of a creation expressive of and obedient to God’s wishes.
And when in Genesis 2:7 God “forms” the man using dust, we don’t have to read that as a “straightforward” description of the process, especially since a deity acting like a potter in forming a man is a motif found elsewhere in the ancient world. (Of course that doesn’t mean that it can’t be what it looked like: my point is that detailing the procedure isn’t what the writer was aiming at.)
These are some examples. I consider the imagistic form to be as much a part of God’s inspiration as the content. The great virtue of the pictorial approach that Genesis has employed is that it enables us to imagine the events and to enjoy them; the goal of the creation story in Genesis is, besides getting the Big Story under way by narrating its beginning, to celebrate the creation as God’s achievement, so that human beings will honor God, and like and use and care for his stuff responsibly. Israel, the first audience, was God’s new start on humankind, and their life in the Land was particularly intended to show forth this purpose.
JS: Once you allow “historical” accounts to have non-literal elements to them, what are the criteria by which you determine the “historical core”? Is it legitimate to affirm the Genesis accounts as historical if we acknowledge that God really did create the heavens and the earth and all the life, but we don’t think that these accounts give the details of how or when that happened?
JC: JC: Fair question, and it’s important not to be arbitrary. I would consider the events in light of their place in the over-arching storyline of the Bible. Of course the world in which we live, and whether it came about by God’s intention or by some other factors, are relevant at all stages of that storyline! So Genesis is concerned to clarify that the world we know is just the right kind of place for our little stories to take place in.
In addition, the way that the rest of the Bible refers to the persons and events of Genesis is good guidance as to the importance of those persons and events to the shape of the Big Story. No Biblical author makes anything, so far as I know, of most of the details. Nevertheless, the persons of Adam and Eve do play a bigrole in the rest of the Biblical Story — and this, not so much as individuals who lived, but as actors whose disobedience affected everyone else, which thus led to the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus. As I’ve indicated in the book, I think it’s proper to entertain some leeway on just what it means that Adam and Eve were “at the headwaters” of humankind, and just how long ago that was. Hence, for example, thediscussion that Tim Keller gives in his white paper on the BioLogos site fits within what seem to me to be reasonable bounds.
In Genesis 3 the temptation comes through a conversation between the woman and a talking snake. The crucial thing here is not the literality of the description, but rather the referentiality of it. That is, a good literary reading of the conversation will conclude that the snake is the mouthpiece for an Evil Power, because snakes don’t talk, and Israelites knew that; and because what it says is pure evil. But whether that Evil Power used a “literal” snake and spoke through it is not important, except insofar as it enables us all to envision the scene. We must come away feeling the tragic loss this involved for all humankind, so that we are open to, and compliant with, whatever scheme God has for remedying our predicament.
Come back tomorrow for Part 2 of this interview.