Saturday, January 28, 2012

Paradise Imagined (Part One): Toward an evolutionary account of Original Sin

Though a theistic-evolutionist might at first be tempted to set aside the doctrine of Original Sin as the product of a "pre-scientific" age, our previous examination of the "Two Minds" of Augustine revealed a rich theological tradition behind the Augustinian meta-narrative that could rightly be employed in the service of an informed contemporary accounting of the nature of humanity and of sin. Yet even after conceding as much, the theistic-evolutionist should still proceed with caution lest the temptation should arise again to cast the doctrine aside after plundering its riches. 

Truth be told, a theistic-evolutionary account cannot avoid its obligation to attempt a recasting of Original Sin in light of its own insights if those same insights should ever stand a chance of being recognized as Christian. This is not merely because Original Sin has been such a dominant theme in Christian theological discourse over the last two millennia. Rather, the Christian Gospel requires an etiology for sin in order for there to be any gospel at all. Simply put, there can be no remedy, no cure, no medicine, unless the sickness and its cause are identified for what they are.

Before moving forward from this point, it may be helpful to consider other insights that might be gleaned from the history of this doctrine, particularly the insights of a perspective we have only briefly considered in other articles: the perspective of Eastern Orthodoxy (e.g. Adam and the Undoing of Augustine). Generally speaking, Eastern views of Original Sin (more accurately "Ancestral Sin") have not been encumbered by the metaphysical speculations that have weighed down the Western discussion (e.g. original righteousness, transference of guilt, etc.). In contrast, Eastern views are refreshingly straightforward commentaries on the Genesis account of the Fall and of Paul's understanding of it in Romans 5: the story of "Paradise Lost."

To the Eastern mind, what Adam "lost" in the Fall for himself and his progeny had nothing to do with natural or supernatural attributes, either originally instilled or endowed in human nature -- issues we noted that so preoccupied Western discussions of Original Sin. Rather what Adam "lost" or, more accurately, what he "forfeited," was twofold: (1) communion and fellowship with God in the Garden; and (2) the gift of life (immortality) made possible by Adam's access to the Tree of Life. In fact, it would be accurate to suggest that not only had nothing been "lost" in the Fall with respect to human nature, but something had actually been "gained" in the Fall, namely the experiential knowledge of good and evil.

Two trees stood in the midst of the Garden: one conferring life and one conferring the knowledge of good and evil. As long as Adam remained obedient to the command not to eat of the fruit of the latter, he continued to have access to the fruit of the former. He would also remain in communion with God within the safe environment of the Garden. Beyond Eden lied the realm of death and dis-fellowship; expulsion from the Garden meant the same. This is precisely why the traditional Eastern Orthodox reading of Romans 5 sees the entrance of "death" into the world as its primary focus rather than that of "sin."

This is not to say that the Eastern Orthodox understanding of Ancestral Sin denies that, in some sense, human nature was affected by the Fall. Indeed, Paul's entire argument rests on the premise that "one man's trespass" effected death for all people. In other words, sin is never an isolated affair. The "knowledge of good and evil," once actualized, increases exponentially in the human condition -- "Through the disobedience of one man the many were made sinners" (Romans 5:19).

Finally, there is also a cosmic dimension to some Eastern explications. In some sense, Adam's death meant the condemnation of all creation -- "For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in childbirth until now" (Romans 8:22). The Garden of Eden was but a foretaste, the mere beginnings, of a theosis that would encompass the entire cosmos; and Adam, the Creator's appointed caretaker of the Garden, would in time graduate to become caretaker of the entire cosmos. Adam's fall was creation's fall. When Adam fails to live up to his calling, no hope remains that the cosmos will realize its own.

However, a theistic-evolutionary perspective still demands its own account, and one in which the Genesis story of the Fall must still serve as an etiology, though not in terms of "Paradise Lost," but rather in terms of "Paradise Imagined." Yet, before we attempt such an account (which we shall endeavor to do in Part Two), it will do well for us to review the insights from the Eastern view that could prove useful to it:

1. The Eastern understanding of the Fall as "forfeiture" of the paradisiacal conditions of Eden over against the Western understanding of the Fall as the "loss of original righteousness." In either case, the theistic-evolutionist is not looking to identify or locate a "primordial Eden" in the natural history of the universe. Yet the mythological account of "Paradise Imagined" -- lost to humanity through willful disobedience -- is illustrative of the nagging realization that something has gone terribly awry in the cosmos, that humanity has not lived up to its calling, and that the failure to do so has meant the forfeiture of the ultimate purpose for humanity's existence -- i.e., communion in the divine life ("Paradise Realized").

2. The Eastern understanding that sin is never an isolated affair. As one man's trespass effected death for all humanity, so each subsequent act of willful disobedience compounds the problem of humanity's exclusion from Eden and estrangement from God. Again, the theistic-evolutionist is not interested in finding sin's origin in one primordial act of transgression. Yet "Paradise Imagined" is illustrative of sin's compound deleterious effects on the human race and compels the theistic-evolutionist somehow to account for sin's origination within the conditions of cosmic history.

3. The Eastern understanding of the cosmic dimension of the Fall. The entire cosmos is invested in Adam's destiny, so when Adam falls, all creation falls with him. Death becomes condemnation. Again, the theistic-evolutionist is not interested in blaming one common ancestor for the condemnation of all of creation. Yet "Paradise Imagined" is illustrative of the solidarity and theotic destiny of the entire cosmos as Imago Dei; a destiny only just recently actualized for the whole universe in the emergent consciousness and moral awakening of a tiny population of terrestrially-bound hominids ... as comical as that may appear to be.


Wednesday, January 25, 2012

The "Two Minds" of Augustine: Original Sin considered from an evolutionary perspective

Given its mythological grounding in the early stories of Genesis, it would be easy for the theistic evolutionist to downplay the concept of Original Sin. Indeed, the temptation to dismiss it altogether only intensifies when it is admitted that the doctrine owes more to Saint Augustine's controversies with Pelagius than to the Apostle Paul's interpretation of the Fall of Adam in Romans 5 (for a further discussion see Adam and the Undoing of Augustine). Yet this would prove too hasty a dismissal if only for the reason that to ignore the western discourse on Original Sin would amount to ignoring nearly two millennia of constructive theologizing on the matters of sin and human nature.

The idea that humanity had a share in Adam's "first sin" entered theological discourse as early as the second century (e.g. Tertullian, Irenaeus). Yet it was Augustine in the fifth century who provided the basic meta-narrative of the doctrine of Original Sin for western theology. Augustine taught that Adam's sin had an adverse effect on human nature, depriving it of original righteousness and subjecting it to concupiscence (i.e. sinful inclination). He further argued that, in some sense, all of humanity was present with Adam in the Garden; hence, all sinned in Adam (or so he understood Romans 5:12 to teach). For Augustine, this explanation not only satisfied the question of why humanity suffers the consequences of Adam's sin (i.e. death) but also why human beings cannot help but sin (non posse non peccare).

While this basic meta-narrative would provide the foundation for the western understanding of Original Sin, it would also provide the tinder that would ignite an internecine debate in the western church. For the next eleven centuries the debate on Original Sin in the west would not be content with Augustine's basic model, nor even some of his conclusions. Questions would arise about what humanity actually "lost" in the Fall, how this loss affected human nature, and about the nature and seat of sin. The resulting theological discourse on these questions would follow one of two main trajectories, coalescing in "two minds," until finally these "two minds" would end up on either side of the Reformation divide in the sixteenth century.

The "first mind" would come to view original righteousness as an essential attribute of human nature as originally constituted at Creation. This pristine human condition is what was lost to Adam and to his progeny in the Fall due to his willful disobedience. Consequently the loss of original righteousness meant that human nature became corrupted and warped, thus giving human nature a bent or propensity to sin (i.e. concupiscence). As this "mind" is arguably closer to Augustine's own mind, we can appropriately call this position "primitive Augustinianism." Ironically, this view would land on the Protestant side of the Reformation divide, only to end up being condemned, in part, by Trent.

The "second mind" viewed original righteousness in supernaturalist terms, as the endowments and prerogatives that God instilled in human nature at Creation, though are not natural to human nature as such. These included freedom from concupiscence, a mastery of lower "animal" desires and instincts, a high degree of infused knowledge, and the gifts of sanctifying grace, immortality, and freedom from pain. As divine endowments and prerogatives, these were conferred or "super-added" to human nature. Hence, the Fall involves the deprivation of supernatural attributes, not natural ones. Adam's human nature as nature is left essentially intact after the Fall, though now wounded and impaired so as not to be able to fulfill the purposes for which it was created. However, concupiscence, still defined theologically as the propensity or inclination to sin, does not involve the corruption of human nature, but rather the struggle to overcome the lower passions and desires which are natural to a human nature deprived of original righteousness. This is essentially the view defined as orthodox by Trent, to which we will assign the name "scholastic Augustinianism."

It should come as no surprise to readers of this blog that the "scholastic Augustinian" position (that espoused by the Roman Catechism) would be the more "theistic-evolution-friendly" of the two minds of Augustine, particularly in light of the arguments set forth in Theosis Interrupted and Theosis Realized. This can be seen by contrasting how the "two minds" answer our earlier questions, namely (1) What was lost in the fall? (2) How did this loss affect human nature? and (3) Wherein lies the nature and seat of sin?

Nature versus Supernature

For most theistic evolutionists, the question of what was lost in the Fall is a non-starter, since the Fall considered as historical event is denied. Simply put, a prelapsarian state of perfect, immortal bliss for the first human beings never existed. The western meta-narrative is more the story of "Paradise Imagined" than it is of "Paradise Lost."  Yet as an "imagined paradise" it is still very instructive for our purposes in what it tells us about how western Christian thinkers down through the ages have regarded human nature as nature. A view that posits original righteousness and immortality as inherent human attributes and qualities is incompatible with a view of the cosmos (and our species) as emerging from evolving, indeterminate processes. Hence, the verdict of science is decidedly against "primitive Augustinianism" as an adequate theological explanation for the presence of sin in the world.

Yet "scholastic Augustinianism" holds up rather well, not in its assertion of what was "lost" in a supposed historical fall, but rather in what it tells us about human nature as nature, that is, how we "find" it in our own experience. Human nature in and of itself (i.e. without supernatural endowments) is mortal and in constant struggle with its lower passions and desires; at the same time it aspires to transcend and overcome these same passions and desires. Also implicit in this scholastic model is a denial that human nature is "sinful" or "corrupt" as a result of the Fall (or a denial that human nature is sinful in and of itself without a historical fall). Human nature as nature is weak and impaired, yes; but not evil.

Concupiscence as Corruption verses Concupiscence as Natural Inclination

While neither "mind" of Augustine would view the inclination to sin as a condition intended by God for human beings, there is nonetheless a huge difference between a view that posits concupiscence as a distortion and corruption of inherent human qualities and attributes and a view that understands it essentially in terms of human nature left to its own devices after being deprived of supernatural ones.

Arguably, the latter position (again the "scholastic Augustinian" position) shows great promise in pointing theistic evolutionists toward an understanding of sin as conditioned on the primal instincts and components from which consciousness and moral awareness would eventually emerge in our species. For example, earlier instincts that our biological progenitors once depended upon for survival become "base desires" that require harnessing in socially aware moral beings -- a constant struggle in which we often fail.

Sin as Nature verses Sin as Action

The advocates of "primitive Augustinianism," particularly the Protestant Reformers, followed their fifth century mentor's opinion that Adam's descendants now live "in sin." Hence they viewed sin primarily as a state or condition -- something inherent in the post-fall human nature itself. This inherent corruption renders humanity liable to God's wrath, for as Calvin stated:
Original sin, therefore, seems to be a hereditary depravity and corruption of our nature, diffused into all parts of the soul, which first makes us liable to God's wrath, then also brings forth in us those works which Scripture calls "works of the flesh" (Gal 5:19). (Institutes II:1:8)
Taken to its logical conclusion, the Reformers reckoned that human beings were guilty apart from any sinful actions by virtue of their share in Adam's nature, which is the seat of sin. Hence, primarily speaking, sin is grounded in nature, not action; one's subjective guilt for sinful actions is secondary to one's objective guilt in Adam. In the words of the oft repeated aphorism, "We are not sinners because we sin, we sin because we are sinners." Furthermore, Original Sin is identified with concupiscence (the propensity to sin). As it states in Article IX of the Thirty-nine Articles of Religion, "therefore every person born into this world, it deserveth God's wrath and damnation."

Unquestionably this is where the "scholastic Augustinian" mind is at most variance with its more primitive sibling. As far back as the eleventh century, Anselm of Canterbury had argued for a radical distinction between the "privation of righteousness that every man ought to possess" and concupiscence, a distinction that would be developed further by Thomas Aquinas in the thirteenth century.  Finally, the Council of Trent in 1597 would condemn the (Protestant) view that identified Original Sin and concupiscence; instead, the council would teach that concupiscence, which remains in the baptized, is "not truly and properly 'sin'...but only to be called sin in the sense that it is of sin and inclines to sin" (Decree 5, Concerning Original Sin).

To this day the official Roman Catholic approach to sin is voluntarist, that is, rooted in the exercise of free will. In the Catholic view human nature cannot be called "evil," because it is still a natural creation of God. Indeed, human nature, though an influence on the will to sin, cannot be said to be the cause of sin. One can be said to be guilty of sin only subjectively, not objectively, and only when sin is voluntary (that is, when one is willfully disobedient).

The implications of this view for a theistic evolutionary account of sin should be obvious. The voluntarist understanding of sin is happily at home in an evolving universe of undetermined possibilities, within which sin must be considered not only a very real possibility in the actualized moral realm of this universe, but an inevitable one as well, yet, in a way that exonerates "nature" as its cause.

In the final analysis, the centuries-old struggle between the "two minds" of Augustine has helped the theistic evolutionist find a way through the fog of this issue more than it has hindered the search; not so much in rooting the cause of sin in some primordial event, but in raising (and in some cases answering) the questions that inevitably arise concerning the nature of sin and the nature of humanity.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Sound Bite Theology: Two important precursors to a post-catholic consideration of original sin

Man is by nature capable of communion with God, and only through such communion can he become what he was created to be. "Original sin" stands for the fact that from a time apparently prior to any responsible act of choice man is lacking in this communion, and if left to his own resources and to the influence of his natural environment cannot attain to his destiny as a child of God. (Doctrine of the Church of England, 1938, London: SPCK, p. 64)

Original or hereditary sin is neither original nor hereditary; it is the universal destiny of estrangement which concerns every man ... Sin is much more a universal fact and state, than an individual act, or more precisely, sin as an individual act actualizes the universal fact of estrangement ... Therefore it is impossible to separate sin as fact from sin as act. (Paul Tillich, Systematic Theology 2:56)

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Theosis Realized: An evolutionary look at creation, the fall, and our restoration in Christ (Part Two)

"God does not exist without humanity, because God has decided in Jesus Christ not to be God without us. Likewise, humanity does not exist without God, because Jesus Christ has decided in our place and for our sakes not to be human without God" (George Hunsinger, How to Read Karl Barth, p. 153).
"Everything else about us," Hunsinger continues, "is regarded as an abstraction that is destined to disappear." Christianity has one central doctrine, indeed, one defining moment, that distinguishes it from all other ideas or held beliefs: the Incarnation. All else in Christianity, even teachings deemed essential to the Faith (e.g. the Trinity, the resurrection, salvation), hinge on the question of who we believe Jesus of Nazareth to be, and what significance there is in this belief.

If creation ex nihilo constitutes the divine gift of "being," and creatio continua the divine gift of "becoming," then Incarnation constitutes the supreme act of kenosis in that the Creator unites and identifies with creation itself. The One who is immutable and impassable in the divine-self becomes, in time and space, mutable and passable in something else, i.e., in what the divine-self assumes. In Johannine terms, the Word that was with God, and was itself God, became flesh.

It stands to reason then that the Incarnation should not be seen merely as the possibility of a "theosis restored" in view of willful disobedience in an actualized moral realm.  Rather it constitutes the goal of a "theosis anticipated" from the initial act of creation, and the very ground of a "theosis realized" in the eschaton, that "God may be all in all" (I Cor. 15:28).

The reader might be tempted here to speculate (as so many great thinkers have) whether, if humanity had not sinned, God would have become incarnate. Yet the suggestion that the Word becomes flesh only in view of disobedience leads to the unacceptable conclusion that the Incarnation was a second thought, a divine contingency plan, a mere remedy for sin.  As Athanasius asserts, "God became a human being that humanity might become divine." Certainly this must hold true whether sin-as-possibility is actualized or not. Theosis, that is, God's call to and drawing of the cosmos to share in God's own inner life, is of grace from first to last.

Yet if the implications set forth in my last essay (Theosis Interrupted) hold true, then the above question would seem to be redundant. If the "freedom-to-become" means, in the physical realm, that an evolving, contingent and undetermined universe includes the possibilities of false-starts, misdirections, and dead-end processes in the survival-of-the-fittest struggle towards greater and greater complexity, then the same principle applied to the actualized moral realm of this evolving universe appears to compel us to regard sin not only as a very real possibility, but perhaps also an inevitable one. (Though we need to take caution lest we stumble into the Gnostic notion of sin as an essential condition.)

As an actualized event, the Incarnation contains within itself the realization of theosis not only for the whole human race, but indeed for the entire cosmos as well. This is not to say that historically and experientially theosis has reached its completion in each individual, but only that a real irreversibility of process towards theosis is begun, but in such a way as to leave the future of each individual open to the real possibility of acceptance or rejection. Yet the grace and offer of God is such as to cut through the ambivalent situation of Adam's free-agency with all of its conflicting loyalties and confused passions, so as to address each individual as individual. Hence, the prospect of God's "Yes" canceling out Adam's "No" by persuasively and lovingly cutting through the human condition to negate and reverse each act of willful rebellion is not only a real possibility, but also a real hope for the Christian.

Part One (Theosis Interrupted)

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Theosis Interrupted: An evolutionary look at the creation of the cosmos and the fall of Adam (Part One)

Creation is an act of kenosis, i.e. a “self-emptying,” whereby the Creator pours out the divine-self to “make room” for something other than the divine-self.  Yet creation is not so much “event” as it is a series of dynamic, ongoing, purposeful and transformative processes. In the initial act of creation, God calls the cosmos into being from non-being (creatio ex nihilo). But God also continues to call and draw the cosmos towards the gradual attainment of greater and greater complexity (creatio continua), eventually manifesting itself in the emergence of life, sentience, consciousness, rationality, moral awareness, spiritually, love, beauty, joy, and, ultimately, the beatific vision. Considered in terms of mere physicalism, these processes may be rightly subsumed under the scientific term “evolution.”

If the initial act of creation is the gift of “being,” then kenosis – the divine “making room” – must also include the gift and dynamic of “becoming.” Hence, in principle, the transformative processes of creatio continua are contingent and “free” rather than determined and pre-ordained. It also stands to reason that death, considered from a pre-lapsarian point of view, plays an important role in this. From the extinction of stars to the exterminations that result from the energy demands of biological life forms, each instance of death constitutes the sacrificial act of a self-recapitulating universe responding to the call of its Creator towards greater and greater complexity.

However, considered only in terms of physicalism, this description is inadequate. Hence, theologically, we may call this transformation theosis – the deification of the cosmos as God draws it into communion with his own inner life. Seen from this perspective, the image of God is instilled in the cosmos at initial creation as imago Dei in potentia. Consequently, the emergence not only of consciousness but also of the moral awareness of the imago Dei is inevitable, even if the precise conditions and occasions for such emergence are contingent and undetermined.

Yet once the divine image is actualized (imago Dei in actu), indeterminacy and freedom take on new significance in a newly actualized moral realm – namely in the efficacy of volition and the possibility of willful disobedience. In the moral realm, death takes on new significance as well – as judgment and condemnation in view of disobedience. Death becomes a malignancy in the cosmos when Adam (i.e. humanity) awakens to his moral calling before God, and falls short of it through the misuse of the gift of freedom. Self-recapitulation becomes self-condemnation – the Fall.

Therefore, as one trespass led to condemnation for all men, so one act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all men.  For as by the one man's disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man's obedience the many will be made righteous. (Romans 5:18-19)

Part Two (Theosis Realized)

Friday, January 13, 2012

Sound Bite Theology: The Judgment of Death

From an evolutionary perspective, physical death cannot be seen as something imposed upon the human race as the judgment of God against sin.  Rather, we have interpreted it as such in view of our moral awakening and calling to live up to the Imago Dei, and in view of death's brutal finality in the face of a life that did not live up to that calling.  Death becomes judgment, for what hope is there in death for those who have failed God in life?

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Sound Bite Theology: The Meaning of Eden

Given the evolutionary origin of the human species, the story of Adam and Eve is about moral awakening. When as a species we became conscious of our moral calling before God, sinfulness became an inevitable part of our finite experience, and thus death became, for us, judgment whereas before it was simply part of the natural cycle.

Monday, January 9, 2012

Adam and the Undoing of Augustine

There are two main issues at stake for those who insist that a belief in a historical Adam and Eve is essential to the Gospel. The first issue concerns the integrity of Scripture, the charge being that if Paul were mistaken in his belief in a historical Adam and Eve then Scripture would be mistaken as well. Hopefully my previous article Weighing in on the Adam Debate was to some degree an answer to this charge.

The second issue is probably the more emotive of the two because, as SBTS president Al Mohler contends in his recent article on the historicity of Adam, a whole way of thinking about the Gospel is at stake. States Mohler, "The denial of a historical Adam means that we would have to tell the Bible's story in a very different way than the church has told it for centuries as the Bible has been read, taught, preached, and believed." While I understand why Mohler is keen to assert that a belief in a historical Adam constitutes the linchpin of the Gospel, I would contend that this has more to do with faulty theology (namely, Augustinianism) than it does with what the Bible actually teaches.

What follows hereafter is not an attempt to recast the biblical metanarrative sans a historical Adam, but rather to expose the faulty theology that lies behind the dominant, centuries-old Western telling of the story of the Gospel, a telling more dependent on St. Augustine than on St. Paul.  The undoing of Augustine is set forth below in three premises drawn from the Adam-story, especially as it relates to Paul's discussion in Romans 5:12-21.

First Premise: The entire human race did not participate in the guilt of Adam's sin, but rather in the consequences of it.

The concept of "original sin" is the hallmark of the Augustinian system, stoutly defended today by most expressions of Western Christianity. But is the concept really taught in Scripture? In Romans 5?  Actually, it stems from Augustine's take on a misleading Latin translation of the last phrase in Romans 5:12 -- "in quo omnes peccaverunt," which translates "in whom [Adam] all sinned." However, the Greek phrase "ἐφ᾽ ᾧ πάντες ἥμαρτον" is more properly translated "because all sinned."  So rather than Romans 5:12 teaching that all die because in Adam all sin, it simply means that, like Adam, all die because all sin.

Second Premise: The story of Adam's fall is not primarily a story about how sin entered the world, but rather about how death entered the world.

Paul's point in Romans 5:12-21 is not to tell us about how we contracted "original sin" from Adam, but rather about how death became the defining factor of human existence through one man's transgression. The key to understanding this passage is found in Verses 13-14:

13 for sin indeed was in the world before the law was given, but sin is not counted where there is no law. 14 Yet death reigned from Adam to Moses, even over those whose sinning was not like the transgression of Adam, who was a type of the one who was to come.
Paul teaches here that prior to the Law of Moses the only "law" (i.e. explicit command with a penalty attached to it) was God's instruction to Adam not to eat of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Unfortunately for Adam and his progeny this particular "law" had a death sentence attached to it. Thus, because of Adam's one transgression we all face death. This is not to say that there was no other sin in the world prior to Moses or that our individual sins do not factor into death. Rather, the story of Adam as re-told by Paul is that death was unleashed by Adam's one transgression and was then free to spread throughout the earth to inflict all who, like Adam, commit sin.  As Verse 12 says, "Death spread to all people because all sinned."

SIDEBAR NOTE: Verse 12 does say that "sin entered the world through one man," but this simply means that Adam was the first sinner. The real point of the passage is to tell us how Adam's one transgression led to death for all in contrast to Christ's one act of righteousness that leads to grace for all. 

Third Premise: The story of Adam's fall does not tell us how we became sinners, but rather about how we became subject to death (i.e. mortal).

The account of Adam's own sin is instructive here.  Sin did not enter the world on account of the fall. Rather the fall was the result of sin -- Adam's sin.  Simple logic tells us that sin cannot be the result of the fall if the fall is the result of sin. If humankind needed a fall to become sinful, then how do we explain Adam's sin prior to the fall?

An Augustinian reading of the text insists that we receive a "fallen nature" from Adam on account of the fall, which (we are told) is the reason why we are "sinners" even before we commit an act of sin. But Scripture nowhere teaches this idea; it is a complete interpolation into the story.

The idea is meant to explain, in Augustinian fashion, why in the human experience we find it impossible "not to sin" (non posse non peccare).  Yet even Augustine admitted that sin was possible prior to the fall, as something inherent to human nature as originally constituted (posse peccare). So why do we need to "up the ante"?  Employing Occam's famous razor, could we not simply say that as descendants of Adam (metaphorically speaking) we inherit his (pre-fall) ability to sin? As it turns out, the inheritance of a "fallen nature" subsequent to the fall is unnecessary as an explanation of why we sin. Indeed, experience tells us that the compulsion and propensity to sin is very much a part of human nature, and most certainly always has been, Adam not excepted. This is a profound mystery, which the Bible never really explains, Augustine notwithstanding. The old adage that "we are not sinners because we sin, but rather we sin because we are sinners" turns out at best to be a distinction without a difference.

In summary, the three premises above address three theological fallacies of the Augustinian system: (1) inherited guilt, (2) the origin of sin, and (3) the contraction of a fallen nature. Given these Augustinian assumptions it is easy to see why most Western Christians, even many who embrace some form of theistic evolution, are keen to retain some semblance of historicity in the Adam-story. Without a historical Adam, there is no historical fall; without a historical fall, there is no need for a Savior in history, or so the argument goes.

What I have presented above is a way to read the Adam-story apart from Augustinian assumptions, something that Eastern Orthodox Christians have been doing for quite some time. It is the most natural reading of the story, free of theological interpolation. Moreover, it has a distinct advantage over the Augustinian reading in that it roots the human condition in something more constitutional and "original" than the legal fiction of an inherited guilt from a primordial act of transgression. It roots the human condition in the "Adamic nature" itself.  As such, it is a reading that is less dependent on the question of whether the story should be taken as "event" or as "metaphor."

END NOTE: The title of this post is a play on the words of a title and theme that C. Baxter Kruger has used for a number of articles, lectures, and at least one book, Jesus and the Undoing of Adam.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Weighing in on the "Adam Debate"

Peter Enns' latest book, The Evolution of Adam, seems to be generating a lot of buzz on the internet of late.  Currently it is ranked #1 on Amazon for new books on Science and Religion -- quite an accomplishment for a book that (to date) has yet to be released.  I have always enjoyed Enns' contribution to the science and religion dialogue, particularly his work with the Biologos Forum, so I'm looking forward to reading this book.  (Incidentally, Enns is no longer employed by Biologos.)

Meanwhile, I was thinking that the "historicity of Adam" debate might be just the thing to kick-off the Post-Catholic Project.  So, as an inaugural post, I will weigh in on a rather heated charge made by SBTS president, Al Mohler, in his recent article, Adam and Eve: Clarifying Again What is at Stake, namely that a denial of a historical Adam and Eve is detrimental to the "Apostle Paul's telling of the story of the Bible and the meaning of the Gospel."  Mohler's concern is to demonstrate that the historicity of Genesis 2-3 is an essential proposition in Paul's "telling of the story of the Bible" (e.g. Romans 5 and 1 Corinthians 15).  Simply put, according to Dr. Mohler, without a historical Adam and Eve there is no Gospel. To quote Mohler more fully:
If Adam was not a historical figure, and thus if there was no Fall into sin and all humanity did not thus sin in Adam, then Paul’s telling of the Gospel is wrong. Furthermore, Paul was simply mistaken to believe that Adam had been a real human being.
My first inclination as a self-confessed "post-catholic thinker" is to ask: Why would it be such a big deal if Paul were "simply mistaken"?  But then I realize that in asking this question I would be jumping way ahead of where many Christians are, particularly those who identify with evangelicalism (the very camp that Dr. Enns is keen to persuade).  So I'll ask my question in a different way:

Why should we assume that the Apostle Paul would have understood the Adam-story differently than any other traditional Jewish thinker of his day?  

The answer is self-evident.  He wouldn't have.  Mohler would not deny this; in fact, Mohler might probably say a hearty "Amen!" at this point.  But once we take as axiomatic the premise that Paul shared an understanding of the Adam-story that was considered "a given" within his own religious context we are halfway there.  As a follow-up question we might then ask (within the context of this present debate) whether it would have been possible or likely that a traditional Jewish thinker, like Paul, could have held any other position?  Here again I would answer in the negative.  Why?  Simply because it would be a gross anachronism to suggest that the question of whether the Adam-story may or may not have happened in the manner portrayed in Genesis, or have happened at all for that matter, would ever have occurred to Paul or to anyone else in his religious context.  So should it really surprise us that Paul assumed that Adam had been a real human being? Does it really matter that he did? (More on this question later.)

Granted, one might well counter this line of thinking by asserting that a proper understanding of divine inspiration would require the intervention of the Holy Spirit at this point to correct Paul's understanding of the Adam-story (perhaps by whispering in his ear as he wrote Romans 5), or otherwise to preserve the text of scripture from any erroneous, albeit pious, assumptions that Paul or any other writer of scripture might otherwise be inclined to make.  But is it really necessary to go through such hermeneutical gymnastics to prop up our theological assumptions, especially when additional information and evidence fly in the face of those assumptions?  (E.g. one could cite the overwhelming genetic evidence for the polygenic origin of the human species, thus calling into question the status of Adam and Eve as the "first humans"...but I digress.)

For Paul, there would have been no way of going back to witness these events himself, nor could he have appealed to any contemporaneous witnesses or records of these events either to confirm or deny them.  The historiographical or literary methods available to us today did not yet exist.  There was no way to examine the stories of Genesis in light of a plethora of other ancient origin stories, nor (as yet) any scientific considerations that might well have called their historicity into question.  Paul possessed neither the tools of inquiry, nor the methodologies of research, nor even the categories of thought, that we take for granted today.  Simply put, it would never have occurred to Paul to ask the questions of the texts that we ask of them today.  The biblical accounts of Genesis were simply stories; sacred stories, to be sure, but stories nonetheless.

It is time now to return to our earlier question: Does it really matter that Paul assumed Adam's historicity?  More precisely, if Adam had not existed, then was Paul's "telling of the Gospel" false?  It is here that C.S. Lewis' concept of "true myth" can be instructive. Both Lewis and Tolkien understood Christ's saving work (i.e. atonement, resurrection) as God's "true myth," acted out in space and time.  In their view God was at work even in the minds of pagan storytellers, whose myths of dying and resurrected gods and/or godlike heroes were likened to "divinely-inspired glimpses" and precursors to God's "true myth" -- the drama of the Christ-story. In Lewis' words:
The story of Christ is simply a true myth; a myth working on us in the same way as the others, but with this tremendous difference, that it really happened, and one must be content to accept it in the same way, remembering that it is God's Myth where the others are men's myths.
If the man-made myths of pagan poets and storytellers can serve as precursors to God's "true myth" in history, how much more natural and appropriate the sacred, divinely-inspired myths of Hebrew poets and storytellers?  When seen from this perspective then the correspondence between the work of Christ and the primordial story of the human condition and solidarity in sin and death as personified in Adam is something that would obviously have resonated deeply with Paul, the faithful Jewish exegete that he was.  Far from being detrimental to the Gospel, such a correspondence confirms both the sacred stories of the Hebrew people as the divine backdrop and stage of the drama of the Christ-story, and the Gospel as God's remedy and cure for the ravages of sin and death as portrayed in the drama of the Adam-story.

The Adam-story was Paul's heritage as a descendant of Abraham, the heritage of his immediate faith-community, as well as the heritage of the faith-community that lives on today.  It is a sacred story which continues to be part of the faith-community's sacred text; a story not subject to negotiation as an integral part of how the People of God understand themselves in relation to their God and to the world.  For the ancient Israelites the story served to reify the human condition as they understood it, providing an etiology (i.e. origin story) for the entrance of sin and death into the world.  As such, it is reasonable to conclude that the ancients would have found theological meaning in the telling of the Adam-story as "event."  Yet people of faith today continue to tell the story, and continue to be instructed by it as a metaphor of the human condition (e.g. the universality of sin, as well as its nature/consequences, and "death" as our cosmic enemy, etc.).  It has just as much theological meaning when understood as "parable," perhaps even more.  We can say this because the Adam-story's rightful inclusion in the "Torah" is no more contingent on ancient assumptions than its canonical status as the "Word of God" is jeopardized by our modern ones.

Monday, January 2, 2012

What is Theistic Naturalism?

Theistic Naturalism represents an approach within the general movement of Religious Naturalism that appeals to the primacy of the sciences in reimagining what it means to be a person of faith in a scientific age. Their conclusions may vary greatly, yet all religious naturalists begin with the same general epistemological assumptions. Among the most important are:
  • The presupposition of the ontological unity of the cosmos over against dualism;
  • The evolutionary emergence of all biological life;
  • The primacy of the scientific method in understanding the world around us and our place in it;
  • The recognition of the limitations of the sciences in giving a full account for human judgments of value and aesthetics, as well as of our religious impulses.
The author of "The Science of Knowing God" assumes these general assumptions, while standing apart from other religious naturalists in affirming the uniqueness of God as ontologically distinct from the cosmos (hence, Theistic). The author also identifies as a neoclassical Christian, scrutinizing and reimagining traditional normative theologies in light of scientific progress. The following characterize the starting points for this position: 
  • A belief in the sacredness of all life, of which human beings are an interconnected and emergent part; 
  • The directional evolutionary emergence of consciousness and morality;
  • The priority of faith-event over creedal affirmations;
  • The priority of spiritual narrative, story and myth within the faith community over against historical reification; 
  • The pursuit of authenticity over against claims of interpretive or dogmatic authority;
  • The primacy of metaphor over against metaphysical speculation;
  • The pursuit of a Christocentric-anthropology over against Anthropological Exceptionalism.
"The Science of Knowing God" is a theological pursuit rather than an apologetic one. Grasping the distinction between an apologist and a theologian will go a long way in helping the reader to understand the bullets above. The author approaches all questions as a "Believing Thomas," looking into the holes and finding Christ.

Posts that may interest the reader: