Introduction (by Ted Davis)
Original sin and the Fall of Adam and Eve pose major challenges to proponents of Evolutionary Creation, both at the level of theology and also at the level of biblical interpretation. BioLogos does not endorse any one response to those challenges: our view is that the church deserves a serious, pluralistic conversation about evolution and original sin. In an effort to help foster that conversation, we already provide numerous resources, among them these:
- Denis Alexander, How Does a BioLogos Model Need to Address the Theological Issues Associated with an Adam Who Was Not the Sole Genetic Progenitor of Humankind? [PDF]
- Deborah Haarsma, Interpreting Adam: Introduction
- Loren Haarsma, Why the Church Needs Multiple Theories of Original Sin
- Daniel Harrell, Adam and Eve: Literal or Literary?
- Alister McGrath, What Are We to Make of Adam and Eve?
- David Opderbeck, A “Historical” Adam?
- Jim Stump, NT Wright and the Historical Adam: Reviewing “Surprised by Scripture” (Part 2)
- Benno van den Toren, Not All Doctrines Are Equal—Configuring Adam and Eve
Further resources are being developed by some recipients of The BioLogos Foundation’s Evolution & Christian Faith program.
In the brief section on the Ideal Interpretation, which he does not hold, Collins says that it fits well with process theism and evolutionary optimism. I fully agree with his assessment, but I want to add something about process theism in relation to Evolutionary Creation, the view of origins promoted by BioLogos. As I explained in another column, process theism is a non-traditional view of God that developed in the last century. It has been influential on some important Christian proponents of evolution, including the late Ian Barbour, a singularly important scholar of science and religion. Process theologians typically hold that God lacks omnipotence, that the universe and God are co-eternal, that creatio ex nihilo is not a mode of divine action (partly because God just lacks the power to do it), and that God does not determine the future. Indeed, the God of process theism strongly resembles Demiurge, the god in Plato’s creation story, in response to which early Christian thinkers formulated a much more robust doctrine of creation.
I do not regard process theism as an appropriate way of understanding the Christian God for many reasons, especially because it is entirely unable to make sense of the bodily Resurrection of Jesus—a specific display of divine omnipotence without which Christianity simply would not exist at all. Robin Collins also rejects process theism, though he does not go into that here.
Because process theists assert that God doesn’t determine the future, the process God can’t know the future in anything remotely like the classical view of omniscience; it’s complicated, and I don’t want to oversimplify. For this reason, process theism is sometimes confused with open theism, another non-traditional view, according to which God knows all that can be known—but some things, such as the actions of free agents, are not actually knowable in advance even by God. Open theists hold that complete divine foreknowledge of all human actions contradicts free will, and they resolve this dilemma by re-conceiving divine omniscience. However, the common claim that open theism collapses into process theism is simply not true, as evangelical theologian Greg Boyd so neatly explains.
Some proponents of Evolutionary Creation, including John Polkinghorne, are open theists, while others, including Robert Russell, are not. Robin Collins thinks open theism makes the most sense, but he is also open to Molinism, a version of closed theism. Regardless, open theism is not central to the position he has been developing in this series—to which we now turn.
In his important book The Problem of Pain, the most influential Christian writer of the last century, scholar and novelist Clive Staples Lewis, called the story of Adam and Eve a “a ‘myth’ in the Socratic sense, a not unlikely tale.” In this excerpt, philosopher Robin Collins compares his “historical/ideal” view with several other non-literal views of early Genesis, including that of Lewis.
The Historical/Quasi-literal Interpretation
The next view we will look at is what I will call the historical/quasi-literal view. Like the HI view, this view denies the existence of a literal Adam and Eve, but unlike the HI view, it still retains the traditional idea that humans fell from some sort of state of moral, spiritual, and intellectual integrity through an act of disobedience to God. C. S. Lewis, for instance, expresses this sort of view in what he calls a “Socratic myth” that is, a likely story (see The Problem of Pain chapter 5, particularly pp. 77-85). According to Lewis, when hominids reached a certain state of development, God gave them the capacity for both self-consciousness and consciousness of God, while at the same time putting them in a paradisal state in which all their appetites were completely under their control, and in which they lived in complete harmony with one another and God. Eventually, however, one or more of these creatures decided to choose their own selves over God, to “call their selves their own” (p. 80). Once this happened, they fell, their minds and hearts becoming darkened and alienated from God, and in the process losing control over their own appetites.
Although Lewis’s view runs into fewer problems than the literal Adam and Eve view, it still runs into two of the same problems which the HI interpretation avoids. First, it runs into the problem of accounting for how human beings fell: if they were in such perfect relationship with God, how could they be tempted to turn away? Second, as explained in more detail when we critiqued the literal Adam and Eve view at the end of the last subsection, God’s bringing these first humans into such a paradisal state knowing that they would inevitably fall seems unmotivated, a sort of game that God plays. The only advantage I can see of Lewis’s interpretation over the HI view is that it is closer to the traditional view of Adam and Eve being created in a moral, spiritual, and intellectual rectitude.
Finally, although this is not necessarily a problem, Lewis’s account involves more of an act of special creation than he suggests. The reason is that a linguistic community seems to be essential to human self-consciousness and free will. But, since a particular language is something that one learns from one’s ancestors, either that language would have had to slowly evolve—which would imply a slow evolution of self-consciousness, contrary to what Lewis presupposes—or God would have had specially to teach the first humans some particular language, which would involve a major act of special creation.
The Ideal Interpretation
As in the HI view, this interpretation sees the Genesis story as representative of an ideal for which we ought to strive. However, our “fallen state” is more the result of our evolutionary heritage than the result of free choice. The evolutionary process left humans in a state of incompleteness, with various impulses—such as aggression—that we must learn to transcend or control.
This view fits the best with process theology and traditional liberal theology, which typically embraced some sort of evolutionary optimism. Taken as a complete interpretation of the doctrine of original sin, this view, I believe, fails both to take sufficiently seriously the depth of our bondage to sin as assumed in Scripture and to include the social, communal, and historical dimension of sin as part of the doctrine.
Under this interpretation, Adam and Eve are symbolic figures that represent every man and woman. (Indeed, as mentioned previously, the Hebrew word for Adam simply means human being, thus rendering plausible the idea that Adam and Eve represent “everyperson.”) The Genesis story and the doctrine of original sin are about the existential choice each of us faces of God over self as we come to self-consciousness. As Langdon Gilkeyexplains, this is the view adopted within much contemporary theology. Original sin—which is defined as our estrangement and alienation from God—is seen as what inevitably happens to each of us when our “self forms itself, when the self, through its own freedom and choice of itself, constitutes its own existence” (Gilkey, “Protestant Views of Sin,” in The Human Condition in the Jewish and Christian Traditions, p. 159). This choice, which we continually make each day of our lives, is one in which we ultimately place ourselves at the center of existence, in which we depend on ourselves instead of God. This is the Fall, and is something that happens again and again everyday as we constitute our own self-existence.
Although this view is certainly insightful, as is existential philosophy which provides a large part of its philosophical underpinnings, as a complete account of original sin, it runs into the same problem as the last interpretation, in that it fails explicitly to include the historical and social dimension of sin as part of the doctrine. Further, as explained above, I do not believe it fits as well as the HI interpretation with the Biblical texts pertaining to original sin, such as Romans 1, Romans 5, and Genesis 2-3.
Langdon Gilkey, a former student of the great neo-Orthodox theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, was (like Niebuhr) an astute critic of the liberal humanistic view of human nature—basically the same view that Collins refers to as “evolutionary optimism.” His father, Charles Whitney Gilkey, served as pastor of the Hyde Park Baptist Church (now Hyde Park Union Church) and Dean of Rockefeller Chapelat the University of Chicago. The church and the university were both hotbeds of liberal Protestantism, places where the humanist view reigned supreme. During World War Two, Langdon was interned by the Japanese in China, where he found abundant evidence of a “fundamental bent of the total self in all of us,” leading him back to “the old idea of original sin.” Ultimately, he concluded that “the main article of faith of the humanist, the goodness of mankind and man’s consequent capacity to be moral, is refuted by any careful study of human nature,” and therefore “it is irrational to defend a humanistic faith that the evidence so universally contradicts” (quoting his memoir, Shantung Compound, pp. 115 and 230).
The biological interpretation sees original sin as nothing more than biologically inherited propensities, such as aggression and selfishness, that help the individual or one’s kinship group survive, but typically do not promote the flourishing of the larger community. Essentially, under this view, the doctrine of original sin, the Genesis story, and the various statements in the epistles tell us nothing more than what science tells us. [Collins has a footnote here: This view of original sin is fairly common. For example, theologian Phil Hefner suggests a version of this view, suggesting that “concepts of the fall and original sin may well be considered to be mythic renditions of this biologically grounded sense of discrepancy” between the requirements of culture and our genes (The Human Factor: Evolution, Culture, and Religion, p. 132). For further examples of this view, see Patricia A. Williams, “Sociobiology and Original Sin,” Zygon 35 (December 2000): 783-812, and Michael Ruse, Can a Darwinian be a Christian? The Relationship Between Science and Religion.] Advocates of this view often assume that we are purely biological and physical beings. Hence science, not theology, becomes the primary place to look to understand the nature and origin of human beings.
There are at least four major objections to this view. First, I believe a strong case can be made for thinking that human beings are more than merely physical creatures. Such qualities as consciousness are difficult to explain on merely physical grounds. (Much has been written of the problem that consciousness presents for physicalism. One good recent book is David Chalmers, The Conscious Mind: In Search of a Fundamental Theory.) Second, this view tends to reduce evil merely to our acting on biological impulses, ignoring the particularly serious forms of evil that are made possible by our own self-awareness and transcendence—evils such as idolatry of self, viewing other people as mere objects, and the like. Many present-day Christians and other religious believers agree with this criticism: they will argue that events of the twentieth century, such as the Holocaust, show that the roots of evil go very deep, well beyond our biological nature.
Third, within this understanding, the voices of theology, Scripture, and Church tradition are practically ignored, becoming simply a sort of fifth wheel. Instead, it is the purported findings of science that are claimed to provide us with the correct understanding of human nature and the human condition. The only role theology plays is to give a name—original sin—to what science discovers. Specifically, this view ignores those scriptures on which the doctrine of original sin has been traditionally based, such as Romans 5 and Genesis 2-4, which provide a clear link between human bondage to sin and the free choice of our ancestors.
Finally, as theologian Langdon Gilkey has pointed out with regard to similar views held by liberal Protestantism (see “Protestant Views of Sin,” p. 163), this sort of view tends to minimize the necessity of atonement: if evil is simply the result of instincts and dispositions bred in us by the evolutionary process, human beings can be perfected through proper social or genetic engineering. A bloody death on the cross certainly does not seem as necessary. Of course, advocates of this interpretation could respond that Christ’s atonement and the related work of sanctification by the Holy Spirit give us the power to transcend, overcome, or transform these instincts and dispositions. Even with this response, however, Christianity will be put into a losing competition with science: wouldn’t neurology and related disciplines eventually offer a surer and better means of dealing with these otherwise negative instincts and dispositions, such as aggression? If our problem is biological, then a biological solution seems most appropriate, not a religious solution. The vitality of religions in general, not just Christianity, depends on the claim that the human problem is at least in part “spiritual,” not merely physical or cultural. (Nonetheless, the spiritual might very well be interwoven with both the cultural and physical, just as the cultural is interwoven with the physical.)
Despite these problems with the biological interpretation, it could plausibly be thought of as providing a component of original sin. My objection to the biological account is that it reduces original sin to certain inherited biological traits.
This series concludes next time with a lengthy “theological postlude” in which Collins explains his view of “theistically guided evolution,” an ID-friendly position that is motivated by his wish to place God “into a deeper relationship with creation while still leaving room for creation to act on its own.” For more than a few readers, that might prove to be the single most interesting part of this very interesting essay. I hope you will be part of the conversation once again.