Thursday, May 2, 2013

The Fall, Part II: Improving on Perfection

In my previous post I wrote of the problems I see both scientific and theological with continuing to hold the traditional narrative of the Fall. The idea of modifying or giving up such a central doctrine to the church no doubt makes you uneasy, as it does for me. But the decision must be made on the merits of the actual facts, not on the arrogant assumption that we already have complete doctrine on this or any issue and therefore any possibility of change can be shoved aside. Or again, the thought of changing doctrine based on evidence external to the Bible (nevermind that I spent most of my time on Biblical evidence) may seem like relinquishing the teaching we've been solemnly told to hold onto in favor of the newest ideas.

A precedent

And yet sometimes this change is necessary. Take the development of the theory of heliocentrism, the belief that the earth revolves around the sun rather than the other way around. The Polish Catholic priest and astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus was the first to develop a geometrical theory of heliocentrism, which he published in the year of his death and which, dedicated to the Pope, was initially attacked by reformers including Luther, Melanchthon, and Calvin, only banned by the Catholic Church over 50 years later. The few who read it mostly used it at the time as a more elegant mathematical model than the Ptolemaic system, rather than a representation of the real Solar System.

Then in the 17th century, the Italian astronomer Galileo Galilei sided with Copernicus' theory based on data from his own astronomical observations and was subsequently tried as a heretic and placed under house arrest. In the face of seemingly clear verses to the contrary like Psalm 96:10 or Ecclesiastes 1:5, he asserted, based on evidence that at the time was completely extrabiblical, that the earth moved and the sun stood still--and has since been completely vindicated. Let this be a warning for us not to assume a hierarchical view of the truth that places the words of the Bible (as we read them) over and against all possible qualifiers to those words, no matter how much doctrine we've built on top of them.

There is another lesson to be learned from heliocentrism. For millenia believers saw one particular interpretation of the Bible (geocentrism) as the only faithful reading, with all others as heresies. But once the assumptions making it up were dropped, people discovered new readings, new theologies previously unthinkable but at least as powerful and faithful to scripture. I've been going through a similar journey in regard to the evidence of sin that for most people is answered by the Fall.

Some Qualifications

I've become aware that in my previous post I was definitely critiquing one specific version of the doctrine of the Fall, the one I've grown up with. My friend Mitch pointed out that there are ways to modify it to get around some of the problems I mentioned. For example, it need not include the Platonic definition of perfection, instead being cast more as a fall from innocence and the beginning of a journey to greater maturity. It also readily accommodates a less dualistic view of sin and evil. Considering the Fall as a fall from an innocent, intimate relationship with the Creator to a drastically less-innocent, less-intimate or even hostile one sidesteps both problems, though it somewhat blunts the explanatory power that proponents of the Fall narrative as I originally described it like it to have.

So it becomes necessary to distinguish between nonessential or peripheral problems with certain versions of the Fall narrative, like its definitions of "fallen world", "perfection", or "evil" from what I consider to be the essential ones that can only be resolved by changing the doctrine into something altogether different. These are:
  • Its incompatibility with a nonhistorical Adam/evolution. If you don't believe in evolution, this need not be a problem, but as I pointed out last time, I think denying evolution usually involves an unhealthy view of truth that "ranks" truth from the Bible-as-we-interpret-it about other sources of truth, when God made us to use them all.
  • The light in which it casts the nature of God. Even if you aren't troubled by the conflicts of the Fall with science, and even if you make sense of it as a fall from innocence rather than Platonic perfection, it's essential to have a theology of the Fall/redemptive history that sees the present human condition as more than a mere setback or failure in God's plan, as if God were working against Himself or unable/unwilling to "do anything about it" just yet. It is this understanding that I'll attempt to develop in this post.
First, there is the matter of the text of Genesis 3 itself. I'm unwilling to simply say that science has declared it "obsolete". But if you no longer read it as a literal-historical account, what do you do with it? I see at least two possibilities.

The Historical Dimension

For the post-exilic Israelites who compiled Genesis and much of the rest of the Old Testament, the purpose of the "historical" writings was never just to describe what they believed actually happened. As I mentioned in my review of Medieval Views of the Cosmos, a common theme of premodern thinking about the world and cosmos was that the way things "actually were" wasn't as important as what they "actually meant" here and now. In the case of the Israelites, this meant that the way they "did" history wasn't the objective, journalistic method we're accustomed to today. History did not exist in a vacuum but was always interpreted and applied to present situations.

So, for instance, the creation account in Genesis 1 is not just an ancient way of explaining how the world came to be (which it certainly could be) through story rather than rigorous theology or the scientific method, neither of which the Israelites had access to, but a statement about the God who made it to be in contrast to the gods of other nations--a God who is not controlled by external rules or powers but sets up life and nature exactly as He wills, a God who needs nothing from humans but creates everything to supply their needs, a God who does not create out of chaotic struggles and cosmic battles but peacefully and according to an orderly plan. It's really helpful to read about Ancient Near East history and religions because it helps all the implicit contrasts being made between the true God and pagan gods that would have jumped out at the OT's original readers.

When reading from the Jewish perspective, another application of Genesis 3 becomes almost blindingly obvious: the parallels with their more recent history of exile. A story of people enjoying a carefree life of ease in a God-given paradise, in harmony with God and each other, but who disobey and are thus exiled from paradise and the direct presence of God would obviously have resonated with Israelites who had recently returned from an analogous experience. Maybe in previous generations, the story of the creation and Adam and Eve (which was likely transmitted orally for centuries before being "officially" written down in the book of Genesis) may have been told in different ways so as to speak into other situations.

At any rate, interpreting Genesis 3 as the definitive origin of sin, death, and evil in the world seems to be taking the text well beyond what it is actually meant to say, greatly spiritualizing and universalizing its simple words. The things it consciously sets out to explain (pain in childbirth, marital strife, and the difficulty of work) are much more earthy and close to home, readily identifiable for any reader, not just theologians.

The Personal Dimension

I also think the Fall narrative does have something to say about sin, even if it isn't a literal-historical account of where it came from. Just as it describes the pattern of disobedience that led the Israelites into exile, I think it also describes how sin works in human hearts, at least on a subconscious level. The fact is that God desires to live in close relationship with us, to be our Father, our source of security and meaning, but we continually reject His offer, disobey Him, and so fall out of this relationship, whether by actually deceiving ourselves like Eve or simply by apathy like Adam. So Paul says, "For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive." (1 Corinthians 15:22) As Adam "died" (broke his life-giving relationship with God), so do we. A literal-historical reading of Genesis 3 is not necessary to draw this conclusion.

The process of sin we see in Genesis 3 may not seem familiar or immediately "grab" you because it is analogous to our sin on a deep level we may not be aware of; obviously very few people sin today by eating forbidden fruit. As Jeremiah 17:9 says, "The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure. Who can understand it?" Certainly not us! So in this reading, Genesis 3 offers us a window into something that we do every day (turn from God to idols in our hearts) and may not even be aware of.

The Road to Glory

But alternate readings of Genesis 3 are far from a full alternative to the grand edifice of doctrine that is the Fall. Traditional theology has turned a simple story in a garden into a comprehensive account of why the world isn't as it should be, and even if it was never meant to explain this, another theology that fails to answer this question will be unsatisfying by comparison. So, if the explanation for sin, suffering, and death isn't an original sin, what is it? To explain, I'm going to look to a text in Romans (yes, the same letter that gets used as a proof for the Fall and literal existence of Adam) that I had previously never made much of, but that jumped out at me as I was reading it in light of this question. Romans 8:18-22 reads:
I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us. For the creation waits in eager expectation for the children of God to be revealed. For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time.
Paul has just finished an exposition of what it means to life to God, by the Spirit, as adopted sons and daughters, instead of against God, by the flesh. So in verse 17 he says, "Now if we are children, then we are heirs—heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, if indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory." To which I wrote, in my Bible, "the road to glory in Christ is paved with suffering". Union with God--the healing of sin--means being so identified with Christ that we share both in His sufferings and in the glory that they achieved for Him. Jesus was exalted to the highest place and given the highest honor precisely because He completely humbled Himself by dying (Philippians 2:6-11, Revelation 5). Could the same be true for us who are in Christ?

Paul certainly seems to think so. Verse 18 is tremendously heartening: the glory that will be revealed in us is so unimaginably grand that it makes all the pain and suffering in the world seem insignificant by comparison. Again, I try to avoid simply thinking of "glory" and "suffering" as quantitative things, as if they were being weighed on a scale. Paul says the suffering is "not worth comparing" at all to the glory. I think this points to a difference between them not so much in quantity but in kind. In the same way that the new Narnia at the end of The Last Battle was greater, fuller, more real than the old, so I think Paul is saying the glory in store for those who are in Christ eclipses their present suffering.

In 8:19, Paul brings all of the creation into the equation, waiting eagerly for the children of God to be revealed. The word for "revealed" here is αποκαλυψιν, "apokalypsin"--the root of our word "apocalypse", which in its original sense means not a catastrophe or the end of the world but a revealing. So something--the children of God--is hidden now and will be revealed, and the hope of all the struggling creation is in this supreme revelation.

Then verses 20-21 are the ones that really struck me: "For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God." Not by its own choice. NOT BY ITS OWN CHOICE. The narrative of the Fall says that the current, broken state of the world is our doing through Adam--that God made everything totally good and it would have continued that way forever had Adam not gone and messed everything up. Not here.

Instead, Paul says, the current "frustration" of creation is the will of God, the means by which "the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God." This seems almost inconceivable--that the frustration (or "futility") could be intentional, until you recall what Paul was just saying about Jesus achieving glory through suffering. This is how God has apparently set up glory to work--for Jesus, for us, and for all creation.

Or consider Isaiah 45:7, where God boasts, "I form light and create darkness, I make well-being and create calamity, I am the LORD, who does all these things." This verse isn't speaking in the primeval, metaphysical origin-story sense of the Fall narrative, but it establishes calamity as something that God is able to do and use--I don't think He suddenly received license to use it for His purposes after humanity established the precedent of the creation being "frustrated" by sinning. The more natural reading is that light and darkness, well-being and calamity are both tools at God's disposal to accomplish His will in us.

Hitting home

I'm worried, both for myself and for my readers, that this concept of suffering not just being an obstacle or something to be conquered in Christ but as a means to glory in Christ that makes us "more than conquerors" (Romans 8:37) may seem strange or abstract, disconnected from our own experience, and therefore hard to accept. As we learn spiritual truth, or theology, it's essential that we learn to "see" it playing out not just in our intellect, but in our lives. So, searching my own life for an example of this concept of glory-through-suffering, I realize that I've had a ridiculously easy life, and I'm bizarrely disappointed.

In the very beginning of his second letter to the Corinthians, Paul says, "Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves receive from God." In other words, whatever we've been through in life, God uses to equip us to comfort others who are going through similar situations. For me, at least right now, that situation seems to be doubt. In a journey that's surprisingly well-documented on this blog, God saved me from an overly logical, modern way of trying to read the Bible that was crumbling under its own impossibility and set me on a journey, which I'm still on, to appreciating His word in a new, better, more vivid way. Now I'm quite concerned for others who may be barred from greater faith in God by what they've made of the Bible, and I try to do something about it here.

Of course this example won't demonstrate my point to everyone. Maybe it only works for me. This is an important implication of theology not just being a field of study that is about abstract concepts "out there", but is meant to deeply affect and change the one studying it. You probably have your own, better story demonstrating the truth of the statement, "The road to glory in Christ is paved with suffering" to you personally, even if you need to take time to think of it.

Improving on perfection

Last time I explained why the Platonic definition of "perfect" Christians often bring into the Fall narrative is unbiblical and is, in fact, vastly inferior to the notion of "progressive perfection" embodied by, say, the ending of The Chronicles of Narnia. I have a bit more to say on the subject of perfection. One text that came to mind last time that I didn't touch on was 1 Corinthians 13:10, which in the ESV reads: "but when the perfect comes, the partial will pass away." This is interesting: Paul contrasts perfection not with imperfection, evil, or brokenness, but "the partial". Other translations like the NIV and KJV call it "what is in part". The word for "the partial" is μερος, not a value judgment but simply the word for "part". It is used largely in a nonspiritual context to mean a region (or "part") of a larger territory (Matthew 15:21, Mark 8:10), a piece of fish (Luke 24:42), or some parts of Paul's message (Romans 15:15), among others. It definitely doesn't mean "flawed", "marred", or anything else we'd expect to be contrasted with "perfect".

This is a clue that the word Paul uses for "perfect", τελειος, has different connotations than our English word "perfect". The NIV translates it as "completeness" meaning the state of lacking nothing, and I'm inclined to think this might be more accurate to the underlying meaning. Instead of a flawless vase without a single scratch on it, this definition of "perfection" is more like a jigsaw puzzle with all the pieces in place. James 1:4 makes the connection even more explicitly: "And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing." "Perfect" and "complete" are used nearly synonymously, both reinforced by "lacking in nothing".

This definition of perfection as fullness or completeness is perhaps compatible with Platonism, but it is much more so with perfection as a direction or endless story, especially if we consider that τελειος also means having reached a final goal or purpose (τελος). It has allowed me to see God's plan of redemption not as the recovery of a tragically lost state of flawlessness, but as a purposeful, intentional journey to fullness and maturity. The same word, τελειος, is also repeatedly translated to mean "mature" (Ephesians 2:13, Philippians 3:15, Colossians 1:28, Hebrews 5:14), in the sense of growing from an immature child to a fully-rounded adult.

Verses like James 1:4 and Colossians 1:28 do seem to present this perfection or maturity as a destination that we will fully reach at some point. But even this doesn't mean a return to Platonism. The difference being that being complete, lacking nothing does not preclude continued growth in joy, in love, or any of the other wonderful things we become by union with Christ. Yes, we are called to be perfect as God is perfect (Matthew 5:48)--but what if God's changelessness (Malachi 3:6) is not a direct consequence of His perfection as we usually make it out to be?

If we see creation as an ongoing venture in which we are graciously allowed to take part rather than a one-and-done affair, we can drop our expectation that God must create everything exactly as it should always be.  Instead of creating a perfect little line of porcelain statues that need to be protected from breakage or corruption, maybe creation is more like planting a garden and watching it grow. (A metaphor which enjoys Biblical corroboration, 1 Corinthians 3:7)

This also alleviates the paradox of God coming to earth and carousing with sinners when God is supposed to be far too "perfect" to tolerate the slightest imperfection or allow it into His sight, as though imperfection were an infectious disease. (Nevermind Job 1 and 2) If anything, the "disease" goes the other direction--God comes to us so that we may be "filled to the measure of all the fullness of God" (Ephesians 3:19), and there isn't the slightest risk of us harming His own perfection, any more than empty vessels are a danger to an ocean. How could there be?

The purpose of imperfection

Finally, more directly to the question of how the world got to be the way it is, this definition of perfection frees us from the necessity that God must have created everything perfect, because the opposite of perfect is sin or evil with which God can have nothing to do, so if there is sin it must be because the creation has gone horribly wrong, and on and on... Again, the bare fact of Romans 8:20 stares us in the face: the "frustration" creation is going through is not because we went and messed everything up, it is "the will of the one who subjected it in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God."

Does this mean that God intentionally created sin? No, because sin is not an external metaphysical concept that can be created or destroyed, but the result of beings created with the ability to choose using that ability to turn away from the God who gives them life. Sin is a reflection of our own incompleteness and present disunion with God, of which we are being cured by His continuing act of creation. And one day, not by an act of destruction but by the restoration of this union, we are promised that sin will be no more.

What about death? (Physical death--which I see as distinct from "spiritual death", which is sin and separation from God) I see it as a member of the "old order of things" that is on its way out (Revelation 21:4). Again, even if physical death and spiritual death are dissociated from each other, the question is begged, "why would God create the world with something as awful as death in it?" From an evolutionary perspective, it's undeniably true that death has been around for longer than there have been humans to sin.

Let me ask another question/analogy. Why did God give the Israelites, His chosen people, the law, which turned out to not make anything perfect (Hebrews 7:19) and withhold Christ from them for so long? This question was at the center of my struggle to see the Bible in a new, better, more coherent way, because in my old paradigm it seemed like an undeniable failing on God's part. But when we stop seeing imperfection as toxic or evil or a broken vase and start seeing it as incompleteness or immaturity or an empty cup to be filled, we can stop expecting God to get rid of it all instantly. We start to understand how God can reveal His word, His law, His very self to people progressively rather than all at once. And we see how God can create the world to operate in one way (with physical death) while promising to change it to operate in a better way. (Isaiah 65, particularly v.20, even hints at an intermediate stage between these, a new Jerusalem with no weeping or crying but where people still die at a ripe old age)

The culpability question

One more loose end that I felt I couldn't end this series without tying up. I mentioned in passing earlier that Romans 8, the chapter that has been foundational to my new understanding of sin and the human condition, is in the same book as Romans 5, the foundational text for the doctrine of the Fall. What's up with that? Verses 12-21 read:
Therefore, just as sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, and in this way death came to all people, because all sinned—
To be sure, sin was in the world before the law was given, but sin is not charged against anyone’s account where there is no law. Nevertheless, death reigned from the time of Adam to the time of Moses, even over those who did not sin by breaking a command, as did Adam, who is a pattern of the one to come.
But the gift is not like the trespass. For if the many died by the trespass of the one man, how much more did God’s grace and the gift that came by the grace of the one man, Jesus Christ, overflow to the many! Nor can the gift of God be compared with the result of one man’s sin: The judgment followed one sin and brought condemnation, but the gift followed many trespasses and brought justification. For if, by the trespass of the one man, death reigned through that one man, how much more will those who receive God’s abundant provision of grace and of the gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man, Jesus Christ!
Consequently, just as one trespass resulted in condemnation for all people, so also one righteous act resulted in justification and life for all people. For just as through the disobedience of the one man the many were made sinners, so also through the obedience of the one man the many will be made righteous.
The law was brought in so that the trespass might increase. But where sin increased, grace increased all the more, so that, just as sin reigned in death, so also grace might reign through righteousness to bring eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.
First of all, I'll point of that Paul's purpose here is not to explain the origin of sin but to contrast Adam's sin with Christ's righteous sacrifice, which can be accomplished by a reading with or without a historical Adam. But even then, he does seem to assume the traditional Fall narrative, that Adam brought sin into the world. So who is responsible for the "frustration"--God or Adam?

I don't think Paul is one to make such a clear distinction--later in Romans 8 he writes, "And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him". Later in verse 36 he makes it pretty clear that "all things" here does include human acts of sin, evil as they are. A human act can be a crucial step in a divine plan of which its agent has no idea.

So I think Paul would agree that Adam's sin is no hangup to God's hope that "the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God"--in fact, God uses the suffering brought about by sin to bring this liberation to pass. This fact is true whether or not sin originated in the garden of Eden. It's also worth noting that Paul doesn't make any causal connection between Adam's sin and the "frustration"; that is an interpolation. He may even have seen it going the other way, the Fall being part of the frustration by which God perfects the creation.


And so I've answered, at least for myself, one of the big questions raised by my continued thinking about human origins. But I pray that this series was not done simply for the sake of logical consistency. A quote I heard in a Jonathan Martin sermon has been kicking around in my head like crazy the last few days: "Innocence for the believer remains the only condition in which intellectual truths can occur. Wonder is the precondition for all wisdom." The purpose of all theology is to inspire greater faith, greater joy, and greater wonder in the theologian and others--to let God be God in the arena of the mind, not to put Him under a microscope. I think that has been accomplished, especially in my exploration of Paul's concept of glory-through-suffering that is so easily forgotten in middle-class America. If my thoughts don't accomplish this for you, pay them no further mind and find your own way for Genesis 3 to leave you on your knees.

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