In yesterday’s post we gave an overview of Jack Collins’ position that Adam and Eve were real historical people and that there was a real historical Fall. The first part of the interview, then, focused on what other elements of the story must be taken literally and what might be literary conventions. In the second half of the interview today, we talk more generally about biblical interpretation and theology.
Jim Stump: One of your criteria for whether Adam and Eve should be taken as historical persons is whether other writers, and especially biblical ones, take them to be historical (p. 157). In your view, did the biblical writers have any false beliefs about the world? And if so, how do you treat those passages where false beliefs of authors are apparent?
Jack Collins: Here is where we need what you called a “sophisticated” set of literary skills. What I mean by that is we need to be clear on what a writer is doing when he describes things and events. His naming of them will generally reflect some combination of (1) his own conceptions of them, (2) his culture’s conventionsfor designating them, and (3) whatever rhetorical concerns he might have in mind for shaping people’s attitudes toward them. So when I call the earth a globe, I can have lots of goals in mind beyond simply designating its physical properties. If I say that my college friends have been “scattered to the four winds,” I am using a convention; it’s a mistake to suppose that this phrase conveys a theory about where the winds come from! When my children were young, I told them about the “thousands” of papers I had to grade, and neither they nor I considered that to be a claim about the “actual” number.
Hence in any Biblical passage about the world, you can’t easily tell what combination of these three factors is involved, but you can tell that most of those statements aren’t concerned with physics or chemistry. When Isaiah says that God “stretched out the heavens” (40:22; 42:5; 44:24; etc.), this is not about cosmic expansion. I’ve already explained that when Genesis describes the making of the world its manner of referring serves the purpose of conveying a stance toward the world, and has little to do with anyone’s beliefs about the physical composition of the things.
A lot of the assertions one sees from scholars about ancient pictures of the world fail in this regard. Shall we really infer from a poem (1 Sam. 2:8) that the author thought the world physically rested on pillars? Or that the earth has “corners” (Job 37:3; Isa. 11:12; 41:9; from a vision, Rev 7:1; 20:8)? (I could go on, but won’t.) This is a literary failure.
John Wenham noted that “it is to the writings rather than to the writers that [Christ] ascribes authority.” I find this helpful for a number of reasons; but for the present, it focuses our attention on a text and the ways in which it refers to persons and events. I can normally identify the referents and cooperate with the rhetorical purposes, and the author’s personal conception of the details has very little bearing. (For more on this, I can refer you to my discussion of “good faith communication,” in my God of Miracles [Crossway / Inter-Varsity, 2000], chapter 4.)
This is why the question you raise doesn’t really come into play, at least in these discussions.
JS: You also make the case theologically that Adam and Eve are real historical people at the headwaters of the human race, and there is little doubt that they have been understood as such for most of church history. But theology has changed over the centuries, as we’ve come to understand things differently (e.g., doctrines of Trinity, atonement, eschatology, women). What kind of scientific evidence would it take to persuade you that your theological position on Adam and Eve needs to change?
JC: Another fine question! But let me push back on it a bit, if I may. First, “theology has changed over the centuries.” At its purest, the discipline of theology is aiming to use the best tools available to draw out applications of Biblical teaching. (In saying this I am not intending to settle the differences between various branches of historic Christianity; they all would affirm some version of this.) We may say that Christian teaching about the Trinity, or the atonement, have developed, but what we should mean by that is that controversies forced Christian scholars to clarify and refine their understandings of Biblical teaching. That is, Christian theologians (the traditional ones, anyhow!) count themselves obligated to warrant their views ultimately from the Bible. So the “changes” are supposed to derive from better insight.
As I read Genesis, I find the author making use of knowledge that all farmers have. They all know that humans are “animals” in the sense that we have bodies and bodily functions and movement like every other animal; and they also know that we occupy a distinct role in relation to the other animals and to the environment, a role that stems from their unique capacities. The Greeks called the human being “the rational animal” in order to express this, while Genesis captures it more fully in calling the human “a ‘living creature’ (=animal) who is in God’s image.” Developing science isn’t going to overthrow knowledge of this sort.
My “theological position on Adam and Eve” is similarly oriented toward everyday experience (Four Views on the Historical Adam, p. 164):
In sum, the storyline of the Bible, to be coherent, leads us to expect that: (1) humankind is actually one family, with one set of ancestors for us all; (2) God acted specially (“supernaturally”) to form our first parents; and (3) our first ancestors, at the headwaters of the human race, brought sin and dysfunction into the world of human life. Bible believers have treasured the Adam and Eve story as the true and proper narrative that grounds these expectations. Certainly without this front-end narrative it is hard to see how we can affirm these points—which means that we wind up telling a different Big Story than the one I have outlined here.
I think this leaves plenty of room for scientists to explore all manner of interesting issues. As I say in my chapter, “far be it from an exegete or theologian to tell a geneticist what he or she may or may not find in the genome, or a paleontologist in the fossils!” That is one reason why science is so much fun.
But I go on to say, “At the same time, when that geneticist or paleontologist wants to try to put those findings together into larger theories that tell the human story, then that person is reasoning as a human being, and his or her reasoning is subject to review for its compliance with good critical thinking.” For example, I read an article in PNAS, written by a biologist, which claims that humans have no free will because we are just a complex arrangement of chemicals (Anthony Cashmore, “The Lucretian swerve: The biological basis of human behavior and the criminal justice system,” PNAS 12 January 2010). His problem is that he didn’t stick to what he is entitled to say as a biologist; I don’t need a degree in biology to reject this argument! (Actually, the biology I do know helps me to see where he has overstepped his bounds.)
JS: Finally, why is this debate among Christians important? What ultimately hinges on our answer to whether Adam and Eve were historical people?
JC: The best way to think of Adam and Eve is as characters in the true Big Story of the world — and we want to have a handle on this Big Story in order to make sense of our lives. We have to account for humankind as one family, with common faculties, aspirations, and needs; this implies a common and special origin. And we must account for sin as an alien intruder, so that we will accept God’s solution for it, and respond when he enlists us to play a responsible role in the unfolding of this Story; this is why the “fall” matters.
G.K. Chesterton put it best (no surprise):
The Fall is a view of life. It is not only the only enlightening, but the only encouraging view of life. It holds, as against the only real alternative philosophies, those of the Buddhist or the Pessimist or the Promethean, that we have misused a good world, and not merely been entrapped into a bad one. It refers evil back to the wrong use of the will, and thus declares that it can eventually be righted by the right use of the will. Every other creed except that one is some form of surrender to fate. A man who holds this view of life will find it giving light on a thousand things, on which mere evolutionary ethics have not a word to say. For instance, on the colossal contrast between the completeness of man’s machines and the continued corruption of his motives; on the fact that no social progress really seems to leave self behind; ... on that proverb that says “the price of liberty is eternal vigilance,” which is only what the theologians say of every other virtue, and is itself only a way of stating the truth of original sin; on those extremes of good and evil by which man exceeds all the animals by the measure of heaven and hell; on that sublime sense of loss that is in the very sound of all great poetry, and nowhere more than in the poetry of pagans and sceptics: “We look before and after, and pine for what is not”; which cries against all prigs and progressives out of the very depths and abysses of the broken heart of man, that happiness is not only a hope, but also in some strange manner a memory; and that we are all kings in exile.