The Inspiration of Scripture and the Historical/Ideal View of Original Sin

| By and (guest author) on Reading the Book of Nature

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:

Further resources are being developed by some recipients of The BioLogos Foundation’s Evolution & Christian Faith program.

This series offers yet another perspective, as we serialize a paper by philosopher Robin Collins, entitled “Evolution and Original Sin.” Having seen in the first two columns what Robin Collins means by the “historical/ideal” view of original sin, it’s now time to see how he interprets the most important biblical texts, those in Romans and Genesis, in light of the H/I view. We begin today with Collins’ discussion of the overall situation facing the interpreter. In future columns, he’ll tackle texts in Romans chapters 1 & 5, followed by Genesis 1-4.

Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn, The Evangelist Matthew Inspired by an Angel(1661), Musée du Louvre, Paris.

The Scriptural Dimension: Introduction

In this section, we will develop the scriptural basis for the HI interpretation sketched [in the previous column]. To do this, we first need briefly to discuss the nature of the inspiration of Scripture. We will assume that the inspiration of Scripture takes at least two forms: (1) God’s enlightening human beings, both individually and as a community, at a very deep, semi-conscious level that involves their entire orientation to the world; and (2) God’s enlightening humans, both collectively and individually, at a more explicit conscious and propositional level, thereby enabling human beings explicitly to grasp new truths about the nature of reality and God—for example, that God created everything that exists or that God is Lord of Israel. Further, I assume that this revelation would be expressed through the various literary genres produced by the culture at the time, such as psalms, story, history, letters, and the like.

[Here Collins has a lengthy footnote, which I’ve shortened and inserted at this point.] Of course, there are other possible means of inspiration than these two, but they do not seem to undercut our main point below. Of particular relevance is the widely held theory of inspiration among more conservative Protestants that God inspired Scripture by guiding the hand of the authors, editors, and redactors, at least in limited contexts. One who holds this view must either hold that this guidance was very limited, or that such guidance often preserved the culturally conditioned viewpoint of the author, even for those cases in which the viewpoint is in contradiction to the moral and spiritual truths affirmed in other parts of Scripture. For example, in Ecclesiastes, the author states that “humans have no advantage over the animals; for all is vanity” (3:19); and in Psalm 137:9, a blessing is pronounced on anyone who will smash the babies of the Babylonians against a rock. Each of these passages clearly expresses the viewpoint of the author, not of God. Many other examples could be cited. So, even those who adopt this theory of inspiration must admit that the text often preserves the culturally determined viewpoint of the author. Thus, in general, one cannot dispense with the need to look for the theological truth behind the text, something I claim science can help us do. Further, as I argue below when we discuss Romans 5, even if God explicitly guided the writing of a text, there are good reasons for God to use the culturally conditioned, prescientific ideas of a culture as vehicles for revelation.

Now, revelation of form (1), which is arguably the deeper and involves the entire human being, is most naturally expressed through symbol, metaphor, stories, and other related forms of literature. Jesus, for instance, extensively used the rhetorical devices of parable and paradox. Given that much of our understanding of the world is subconscious or implicit—that the conscious, explicit, understanding that we can express in propositions is only the tip of the iceberg—we would expect much of revelation in Scripture to take this form. This will be particularly important when we address Genesis 1-4.

On the other hand, revelation in the form of (2) would probably most naturally take the form of propositional revelation—that is, specific theological claims such as those found in the Pauline letters—but could also be conveyed through literary genres. Often, however, the writer through whom propositional revelation is expressed will have an undeveloped grasp of this revelation: for example, Paul and the other New Testament authors appear to have had an undeveloped concept of the trinitarian nature of God, which is one of the main reasons it took three centuries for the Church to resolve the issue by developing the doctrine of the Trinity. Further, as biblical scholars are well aware, in practice it will often be difficult to exactly determine what the author is claiming, and whether the claims are to be taken universally or applied to a particular cultural situation.

Caravaggio, The Inspiration of Saint Matthew (1602), San Luigi dei Francesi, Rome. According to the traditional view of biblical inspiration, God spoke directly to the human authors of the Bible, as if they were scribes taking dictation. Working at a time when that view was widely received, Galileo used the Augustinian principle of accommodation to argue that the Bible is nevertheless not an authoritative source of scientific information. As he wrote in his famous Letter to the Grand Duchess Christina, borrowing the words of Cardinal Cesare Baronio, “The intention of the Holy Ghost is to teach us how one goes to heaven, not how heaven goes.” Robin Collins and Galileo have much in common: both hold that God’s revelation to us is culturally embedded—accommodated to the ordinary understanding of the time in which it was written—and therefore God sometimes used “incorrect” prescientific ideas about nature as vehicles for revealing profound theological truth.

Especially in these cases the theologian must try to determine the truth about reality that the author only partially grasped or the truth that underlies what the author says. This is where sources of information external to those normally used in exegesis play a key role: in determining what an author intends to say or what a text meant to the hearers at the time, one must restrict oneself to information such as the author’s other writings, the character and background of the author, and the culture at the time. Bringing in modern science, for instance, would be inappropriate. But, in determining a truth that the author only partially grasps, or that underlies what an author is saying, one can appropriately bring in the full resources of information one has available, such as philosophy and science.

Now, this is true of any author we might consider to be inspired, even if he or she was not inspired directly by God. For example, when trying to understand the deep truths of Shakespeare’s plays, which certainly went beyond even the intention of Shakespeare, it is fair to bring in all the insights of later authors, and even some areas of science, such as that of psychology. This is even more true for Scripture, of which we believe in some sense God is the ultimate author. If God is the ultimate author, we would expect Scripture to point to truths beyond the grasp of any individual author, indeed truths that people might not be able to understand nearly as well without the knowledge gained from modern science.

Accordingly, after attempting to determine as best that we can the intention of the author or the meaning of a passage for the hearers at the time, we will use all of our knowledge, including that of science, to try to understand the theological truth to which the text is pointing. This means that we will inevitably go beyond what the text actually claims, while nonetheless trying to remain grounded in a careful exegesis of the text. In other words, we properly use every resource at our disposal to search out the theological truths hidden in the text.

Given these preliminaries, we will now turn to looking at the major scriptures relevant to the doctrine of original sin.

Looking Ahead

Romans chapter one is next. Collins sees that as the single most important biblical text dealing with the Fall: don’t miss his insightful analysis.




Collins, Robin. "The Inspiration of Scripture and the Historical/Ideal View of Original Sin" N.p., 17 Dec. 2014. Web. 19 February 2019.


Collins, R. (2014, December 17). The Inspiration of Scripture and the Historical/Ideal View of Original Sin
Retrieved February 19, 2019, from /blogs/ted-davis-reading-the-book-of-nature/the-inspiration-of-scripture-and-the-historical-ideal-view-of-original-sin

References & Credits

Robin Collins’ chapter from Perspectives on an Evolving Creation, ed. Keith B. Miller (Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2003), is reproduced by kind permission of the author and the Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company. We gratefully acknowledge their cooperation in bringing this material to our readers.

All Scripture quotations in this paper are from the NRSV translation.

About the Authors

Ted Davis

Ted Davis is Professor of the History of Science at Messiah College. A former high school science teacher, Ted studied history and philosophy of science at Indiana University, where his mentor was the late Richard S. Westfall, author of the definitive biography of Isaac Newton. With the English historian Michael Hunter, Ted edited The Works of Robert Boyle, 14 vols. (London: Pickering & Chatto, 1999-2000), but his interests include the whole 2000-year interaction of Christianity and science. Author of dozens of scholarly articles and essays, Ted is one of few historians who have written extensively about both the Scientific Revolution and modern America. He and his wife Kathy enjoy theater, music, and traveling to new places.

More posts by Ted Davis

Robin Collins

Professor Robin Collins, Ph.D., is Distinguished Professor of Philosophy and Chair of the Department of Philosophy. He specializes in philosophy of science, philosophy of religion, metaphysics, and philosophical theology. He is well-versed in issues relating to science and religion, with graduate-level training in theoretical physics. He has written almost forty substantial articles and book chapters in these areas with some of the leading academic presses, such as Oxford University Press, Cambridge University Press, Blackwell, and Routledge. He has also spoken on issues relating to God and the cosmos at many colleges and universities (including Oxford University, Cambridge University, Yale University, and Stanford University) and has appeared in the popular Christian and secular media – for example, in Christianity Today, Lee Strobel’s Case for the Creator, and Robert Kuhn’s PBS series Closer to the Truth.

More posts by Robin Collins