In the last post of this series, I (Ted Davis) introduced readers to Robin Collins and presented the opening section of his paper on “Evolution and Original Sin.” In this post, we pick up from there, as he fleshes out his “historical/ideal” view of Adam and Eve. Sources of the quotations are listed at the end.
The Historical/Ideal View
Although the HI view denies that human beings were ever in a paradisal state, it nonetheless holds that the garden story in Genesis 2-3 is rich in theological meaning along several dimensions. First, this view claims, the original state described in the garden story represents an ideal state that was never realized. The idea is that Genesis 2 falls into the category of a “golden age” story. As the prominent anthropologist and historian of religion Mircea Eliade has pointed out, the idea of an ideal golden age was a widespread motif in the ancient world and symbolically represented the ideal for human beings. In light of the way these sort of golden age stories functioned in many ancient cultures, it is reasonable to suppose that the Genesis story would, among other things, serve as a symbolic story that provides a preliminary and partial sketch of what an ideal relation with God would be like.
Second, according to the HI view, Adam and Eve play two further representative roles, that of representing “everyperson”—that is, each one of us—and that of representing the first hominids, or group of hominids, who had the capacity for free choice and self-consciousness. With this capacity for self-consciousness and free choice, the HI view hypothesizes that these hominids also became aware of God and God’s requirements, but more often than not rejected them. One could even imagine that this awareness was particularly clear, uncluttered by the spiritual darkness that eventually clouded the minds of the human race because of their turning away from God. (See my discussion of Romans 1:18-32 in the next section [in the next installment] for a scriptural justification of this claim.) So, in this sense, these first ancestors were in what could be considered an original state of “justice and holiness,” free from bondage to sin. Nonetheless they were subject to various temptations arising both from the desires and instincts they inherited from their evolutionary past and from various new possibilities for self-centeredness, self-idolization, self-denigration, and the like that came with their new self-consciousness. Instead of the “Fall” being thought of as distorting human nature as in the traditional view, however, under the HI view the sinful acts of our first ancestors created a form of spiritual and moral darkness along with an accompanying bondage to sin. The motivations for preferring this view over the more traditional view will become clearer [in future columns].
[Here Collins has a lengthy footnote, which I’ve shortened and inserted at this point.] At least part of this spiritual bondage is bondage to the “principalities and powers” in heavenly realms. (For example, see Col. 1:13 and 6:12.) One way of understanding these principalities and powers, which fits well with the HI interpretation, is provided by Walter Wink’s extensive and important study of the New Testament’s use of these terms. The phrase “principalities and powers,” Wink claims, primarily refers to those spiritual and invisible forces and patterns that correspond to the internal dimensions of human existence, culture, and institutions, and that in turn exert great influence and control over human behavior. This spiritual or invisible dimension is claimed to be inextricably part of the nature of human culture and institutions, but not reducible to its outer manifestations. In the same way that the free choices of each individual affect our culture, [even] though culture is something that transcends the sum of individuals, Wink claims that human sin has perverted these principalities and powers from their true calling, as given in Colossians 1:16. Wink links this perversion with the Fall, which he sees as referring to the “sedimentation of thousands of years of human choices for evil.” According to Wink, the redemption we have in Christ in turn has broken the hold these powers have over our life, and further enables us to help redeem them to their true purpose (see, e.g., Col. 1: 13, 20).
Under the HI view, therefore, original sin refers to: (1) the sinful choices of these hominids, (2) the continuing sinful choices of the succeeding generations including ourselves as we come to self-consciousness, and (3) the resulting bondage to sin and spiritual darkness that is inherited from our ancestors and generated by our own choices. This spiritual darkness and bondage is hypothesized to be inherited in analogy to the way in which we inherit the genetics and culture from our ancestors. It should be stressed, however, that just as cultural inheritance operates at its own level, the psychological and social, this inheritance is hypothesized to operate on its own level (namely the “spiritual”), and therefore cannot be reduced to some sort of genetic or cultural inheritance, though it is no doubt deeply intertwined with these other levels. Further, like our cultural inheritance, this spiritual inheritance is not just personal, but has a communal dimension. And the hypothesis of such an inheritance makes sense. First, the existence of a spiritual dimension is plausible, being recognized by all major faith traditions throughout the world. Second, given that there is a spiritual dimension to human beings, it makes sense that it would be inherited just as our physical and cultural characteristics are inherited.
[Collins has another lengthy footnote, which I’ve shortened and inserted here.] Similar interpretations of original sin have been offered by many others, such as theologian and Christian apologist Bernard Ramm, scientist/theologian Allan Day, scientist/theologian John Polkinghorne, and Walter Wink. None of these authors work this idea out in detail, however. Somewhat related theories of Original Sin can be found in the contemporary Roman Catholic theologians Piet Schoonenberg and Bernard Lonergan. For references to the writings of these thinkers and for an accessible summary of some major Western understandings of the doctrine of original sin, see the book by Tatha Wiley cited below.
Further, I submit, this understanding of original sin increases the overall plausibility of the doctrine. First, under this understanding, original sin can be seen as a natural consequence of the assumption that human beings are spiritually interconnected, and that we have free will: if our ancestors had free will, it makes sense that they might have misused it, and thus that this misuse would have had negative spiritual consequences for their decedents. Second, the hypothesized original state of relatively “clear” awareness of God by our first ancestors follows from the assumption that God did not abandon the human race to moral and spiritual darkness from the very beginning. Without this hypothesis, one is left with a picture of God as an “abandoning father.”
Fernand Cormon, Cain (1880), Musée d’Orsay, Paris. In the traditional Christian doctrine of original sin, the sin of Adam and Eve affected all of their posterity by a divine curse, starting with their son Cain, who unjustly slew his brother Abel and was sentenced to being a perpetual wanderer. The artist explained this depiction by quoting Victor Hugo’s poem, “Conscience,” (1859):
“When with his children clothed in animal skins / Dishevelled, livid, buffeted by the storms / Cain fled from Jehovah, / In the fading light, the grim man came / To the foot of a mountain in a vast plain...” Robin Collins believes that the traditional notion “is not found in Scripture,” so he proposes an alternative view of original sin, in which “God did not abandon the human race to moral and spiritual darkness from the very beginning.”
Finally, it should be noted that although the HI view is in close conformity with many aspects of the traditional doctrine of original sin, with one qualification it disagrees with the idea that the Fall somehow deeply affected human nature, an idea advanced in both the Western and Eastern branches of Christianity. One problem with this idea [the traditional view of the Fall] is that it is not found in Scripture, as we will see when we look more closely at the relevant scriptural passages below. In fact, as I will argue below, scripture seems to suggest something closer to HI view—that is, the loss of direct awareness of God and bondage to sin. Another problem with this idea is that it is difficult to make sense of how human nature could have been corrupted or distorted, especially within an evolutionary perspective. There are three major views of the human person: the view that we are merely physical objects, the view that we have a soul that emerges from the brain/body (either as an irreducible aspect of the brain or as a separate “immaterial,” or quasi-material, entity), and the view that we have a soul or spirit that was directly created by God and united with the body sometime at conception or between conception and birth. Under the first view, the Fall would have had to somehow corrupt or deeply distort our physical bodies, which seems particularly implausible from an evolutionary perspective. Under the second view, one would have to postulate that the Fall corrupted or distorted the laws governing the emergence of the soul from the brain in such a way that the soul now emerges in a distorted form. Under the third view, since God creates each soul/spirit individually, God would have had to create each soul/spirit in a corrupt or distorted state in response to the Fall, which implies that the Fall did not directly cause each soul/spirit to be distorted. Finally, one might claim that the Fall disrupted the relation between soul/spirit and body. This would mean that God changed the laws governing the relationship between soul and body in response to the Fall, which once again implies that the Fall did not directly corrupt human nature.
I’m not claiming that there is no way around these difficulties, only that they present a significant problem. One could, for instance, try to circumvent this problem by holding a view in which original sin is a sort of inherited “virus” that infects the soul as soon as it is created by God; or one could conceive of the soul as an inherited “form” of the body whose distorted nature gets passed on from generation to generation. As explained above, the HI view does not run into these difficulties because it views the spiritual dimension of our existence as analogous to the cultural dimension; and since the latter can clearly be corrupted, it is plausible to think the former can. Further, as argued in the next section, the HI view has a significant basis in Scripture. Finally, one could understand this communally shared spiritual dimension of human experience as constituting a core part of our nature. Understood in this way, the HI view is compatible with the traditional idea that our nature was distorted or wounded by the Fall.
In the next post, Collins examines the relevant biblical texts, starting with the first chapter of Romans.