Friday, May 10, 2013

Two Responses on the Historicity of Adam

Because of the high value I place on originality in my posts, I try to avoid writing direct responses to other articles, but this one on Justin Taylor's blog caught my eye. It critiques the view advanced by Peter Enns, Denis Lamoreux, and others that, in light of what we know about evolution, it's reasonable to conclude that Adam was not a historical person. There has, of course, been considerable pushback from evangelicals on this point, and Taylor himself links to two other articles which I'll address here.

Adam versus Claims from Genetics, by Vern Poythress

This fairly academic paper examines the claim that "voluminous data about the information contained in human DNA...demonstrates our ape ancestry." It seems to do a fairly faithful job of reporting scientific evidence brought to bear in support of evolution; unfortunately, it restricts itself to a tiny subset of the evidence: the resemblance of much of the human and chimpanzee genomes (he devotes a few pages to showing why this evidence can be misleading). Obviously there is much, much more that could be said for evolution than this point, but Poythress doesn't mention it.

He makes the excellent point that the raw data supporting evolutionary theory says nothing about any purpose behind it or the lack thereof; i.e. that evolution being true doesn't mean it's random and unguided as Dawkins and other secularists would say, and that God could have used it as a means to create. He then proceeds to ignore this point for the rest of the paper (at least for human origins) as he conflates Darwinism, gradualism, and evolution into one fuzzy package that is supposed to be opposed to good Biblical hermeneutics. (See the very title of the paper, which sets doctrine and science on opposing sides) He treats "gradualism" as the claim that God is somehow bound to natural laws and could only have created life via gradual processes, which he then proceeds to rebuke by demonstrating that God could have created Adam and Eve specially. Since I doubt any Christian holding to evolutionary creationism would consider God to be subject to the law of natural selection, this isn't very helpful.

Poythress explains that there are two ways to interpret the human-chimpanzee genome evidence: "Darwinism, with its purposelessness and gradualism" or a Christian framework. We see that he doesn't consider any separation between the domains of science and religion; theology can and should be used to interpret scientific data, not just results: "We cannot presume to say just how he did it without looking both at the data and whatever we have come to know about God." By this reasoning, theological reasoning should be brought to bear to control the interpretation of any evidence that could lead one away from sound doctrine. Having "science" in the name of my degree, I would argue that theology should affect scientific reasoning through basic, Christlike values like honesty, integrity, and fair-mindedness, not by steering our reasoning process to support preexisting theological conclusions.

Poythress goes into some other arguments about Jesus turning water into wine and population bottlenecks, but they all fall under the common head of establishing that, no matter the evidence, an original human pair could have existed at some point. (Which could be earlier than 4004 BC due to gaps in the genealogies) The implied conclusion, then, is that a faithful reading of scripture is enough to establish that they did exist: "If we receive the Bible’s instruction, we must be cautious about such assumptions." ("That the past is like the present, and that the rates of mutation and other genetic processes remain the same") He seems to be saying that we can trust our God-given intellect and intuition in the realm of science to the glory of God, until we start moving toward conclusions that cast doubt on our theology at which point even the most basic assumptions (like the regularity of nature) are no longer sound.

Overall, this paper assumes what I consider to be a rather unhealthy view towards scientific knowledge, as I have attempted to demonstrate above. It exploits whatever wiggle room there is in current conclusions to clear a place for its interpretation of scripture as it pertains to history, even if the evidence seems to be leading in a different direction. A quote towards the end worries me: "What looked like firm conclusions in the excitement at an early stage may be modified later. We need patience to assess the research." In other words, there is still plenty room for authentic Christian belief (in a historical Adam) in the uncertainty of the present scientific conclusions--a restatement of the "God of the gaps" view that proposes God as the explanation for what we don't know about the universe, rather than what we do know. The tricky thing about scientific gaps is that they close.

What Depends on an Historical Adam, by Steven Wedgeworth

This article incisively states the theological problem with evolution I observed a few months ago, namely that it casts doubt on our means of explaining sin and death, and even somewhat implies that God created death. Even more than Polythress above, Wedgeworth gets at the incompatibility between evolution and Christian belief in a historical Adam and original sin. he goes directly after the claims of Peter Enns in particular.

He uses several of the same tactics I disagreed with Polythress on (check the context if you like), such as conflating the scientific theory evolution with the secular worldview of "Darwinism":
The reason that evangelicals are losing the historical Adam are several, but they all reduce down to the dominance of the Darwinistic evolutionary theory, both in the academies and in the media.  
Or only allowing other scripture to be used as a reason for interpreting Genesis nonliterally (that is, the literal-historical hemeneutic is the "default" for faithful interpretation), and assuming that the only alternative to Genesis being historically true is its authors simply being wrong:
It is clear that only Biblical exegesis remains in the dock. Indeed, what we are seeing in theological circles is a new refusal to exegete at all. Instead of demonstrating the ways in which the rest of the Bible supports a figurative or mythical reading of Genesis, we are told that it doesn’t matter if even the Old and New Testament writers were mistaken.
His main argument, though, is somewhat more fundamental than Polythress': if we deny the historicity of Adam, we also deny the historicity of the Bible in general and the Gospel. Paul uses Adam as the counterpart to Jesus in Romans 5:12-19, and if the historicity of Adam is lost, then Jesus' work loses its meaning:
If the first Adam was mythical, then the nature and work of the Second Adam, precisely as Second Adam, would have to be mythical as well. This does not mean that the Judaean man whom Paul identified as the Second Adam was himself a myth, nor that his life did not unfold in real history. Rather it would mean that his redemptive identity, along with the nature of what He said was his work, was merely mythical, not an objective event with objective effects. He would have been seeking to fulfill a myth.
After mentioning Peter Enns almost as a kind of theological boogeyman at the beginning of the article, Wedgeworth never mentions him again or shows evidence of having read his book The Evolution of Adam, which devotes an entire chapter to the question, "What do we do with Romans 5:12-19?" Besides ignoring all of the arguments (both intra- and extrabiblical) that Enns uses to make his case, this also means he ignores Enns' response that, in far fewer words, Paul understands Adam as distant history and Jesus' as resurrection as a current event that had become central to his understanding of everything--that is, Paul is interpreting the Genesis account in light of the present reality of the death and resurrection of Christ, not the other way around. And not just interpreting, but reinterpreting (the OT and Jesus themselves significantly make no mention of Adam as the root of the human predicament).

He shows just how much doctrine evangelicalism has staked on its reading of Genesis 1-3 (emphasis added on the last sentence):
If Adam was not a historical individual, and if instead the Genesis account is a sort of mythical story which was employed in order to make a uniquely religious point, then Christianity is necessarily rendered merely metaphorical, expressing truths of the human condition through symbols. The Bible in this case is no longer an authoritative account of human origins, history, and final destiny. It no longer addresses all men in all places and times, but rather expresses one faith-narrative the seeks to convey a meaningful but wholly internal truth.
Put more simply: if Adam is mythical, then so is redemption. While it does not follow that if Adam is mythical, then the historicity of Jesus must also be denied, it does follow that if Adam is mythical, then the historicity of Jesus as Second Adam must be denied. And Christianity is founded on Jesus as Second Adam.
Apparently the only reason to believe in the historicity of Jesus is the historicity of Adam (nevermind the fact that there is actual historical evidence for the existence and ministry of Jesus): "The progressive evangelicals certainly believe in the historical Jesus. But apart from an earlier historical Adam, they have no coherent need to." I'd like to defer to N.T. Wright who provides an excellent explanation (which I've already linked to) about how the significance of Genesis 2 and 3 can be independent of its historicity. And not just the core of the gospel, but the very fabric of religious truth itself, and reality with it:
What exactly does this reimagining accomplish? The none-too-insignificant answer is that it changes our narrative of reality altogether. The Scriptures, and our religion, no longer tell a story about the structure of reality, but rather only of a particular subset of experience within it. In short, this retelling and reimaging also accomplishes a significant privatization of religious truth.
His interpretation of Romans 8: 20-25 is also interesting:
For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it in hope; because the creation itself also will be delivered from the bondage of corruption into the glorious liberty of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation groans and labors with birth pangs together until now. Not only that, but we also who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, even we ourselves groan within ourselves, eagerly waiting for the adoption, the redemption of our body. For we were saved in this hope, but hope that is seen is not hope; for why does one still hope for what he sees? But if we hope for what we do not see, we eagerly wait for it with perseverance.
To which Wedgeworth says, "Sin is not only an internal and personal problem for the Apostle Paul. It is an ontological issue, affecting the very creation itself, the entire cosmos. Because of Adam’s sin, 'the creation was subjected to futility.'" He seems to be interpreting "him who subjected it in hope" here as Adam, not God; this is unbelievable to me. I have already tried to show how interpreting God as "him who subjected it" not only allows Christians to accept evolution, but results in a better hope and a better picture of God (which I am still working out) than the "Adam broke everything" narrative (which, again, begs the question of how on earth Adam's sin could have had such far-reaching consequences as changing the tectonic structure of the earth, creating disease, and apparently planting a bunch of old dead things in the ground that couldn't have died before?).

With all of that being as it may, Wedgeworth's article really falls short in that it doesn't address the view of evolutionary creation by looking at its chain of reasoning, pointing out weak points, and offering superior interpretations of the evidence it uses. (Which is exactly what I tried to do with the Fall narrative in my two-part post on it) Instead, it argues against it based on the perceived consequences of its being true, using an argument that is based on fear--fear of incorrect doctrine. (Which I no longer think is a good idea for Christians to follow) He says, "In light of what we already know, this can't possibly be true" rather than asking "This looks like it might be true; what would that mean?" Rather than dissecting the viewpoint of evolutionary creation, he fights it based on what lies at the bottom of the slippery slope of Biblical interpretation: the denial of the redemptive work of Jesus Christ. The tricky thing about slippery slopes is that they're rarely as slippery as you'd like.

The heart of the matter?

I'll say one more thing about an interesting quote by (of all sources for a Calvinist website) Pope Pius XII (emphasis added):
14. In theology some want to reduce to a minimum the meaning of dogmas; and to free dogma itself from terminology long established in the Church and from philosophical concepts held by Catholic teachers, to bring about a return in the explanation of Catholic doctrine to the way of speaking used in Holy Scripture and by the Fathers of the Church. They cherish the hope that when dogma is stripped of the elements which they hold to be extrinsic to divine revelation, it will compare advantageously with the dogmatic opinions of those who are separated from the unity of the Church and that in this way they will gradually arrive at a mutual assimilation of Catholic dogma with the tenets of the dissidents.
15. Moreover, they assert that when Catholic doctrine has been reduced to this condition, a way will be found to satisfy modern needs, that will permit of dogma being expressed also by the concepts of modern philosophy, whether of immanentism or idealism or existentialism or any other system. Some more audacious affirm that this can and must be done, because they hold that the mysteries of faith are never expressed by truly adequate concepts but only by approximate and ever changeable notions, in which the truth is to some extent expressed, but is necessarily distorted. Wherefore they do not consider it absurd, but altogether necessary, that theology should substitute new concepts in place of the old ones in keeping with the various philosophies which in the course of time it uses as its instruments, so that it should give human expression to divine truths in various ways which are even somewhat opposed, but still equivalent, as they say. They add that the history of dogmas consists in the reporting of the various forms in which revealed truth has been clothed, forms that have succeeded one another in accordance with the different teachings and opinions that have arisen over the course of the centuries.
Wedgeworth comments: "Pius’s concerns about viewing dogma as the reporting of mere forms or as intellectual clothings which only exist over and around the true reality is precisely the problem we are dealing with today." He seems to be saying, at least implicitly, that Biblical doctrine is absolutely true and not clothed in any particular intellectual or philosophical context. This is interesting because I directly and completely disagree with it. In any disagreement, I strive to understand exactly where the two parties diverge, which may be hidden under multiple layers of inference and rhetoric, and I suspect that in this case the above statement may be it.

So I'd be interested to hear other peoples' thoughts on this question, which has more than two answers--basically, how contextualized the truth in the Bible is. In the case of human origins or in general, what are the "elements [that are] extrinsic to divine revelation"--where does the human side of scripture end and the divine begin? Or, to push Enns' incarnational analogy to its logical conclusion, is scripture somehow 100% human and 100% divine? This is a fascinating question that I'll have to explore more in future posts.

As I said at the beginning, directly critiquing the work of anyone, let alone two men with several times as many years of life and degrees than me, gives me the heebie-jeebies--even if there is realistically no chance of their ever reading this post unless it is the one that finally breaks me into the Christian blagosphere. All I ask, faithful reader, is that you consider our words and not our credentials. I pray that these responses were not written out of selfish ambition or a disdain for those I disagree with, but of love for the truth. A healthier faith is one that encompasses and transforms more of our experience, and so we should seek a view of creation that explains our external knowledge instead of pushing it aside.

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