The Fall and Sin After Darwin 2

We’ve been looking at the essays in a book Theology After Darwin centered around a simple question: What are the implications for Christian theology if Darwin was right? At the top of the list for many is the implication for the doctrines of sin and the Fall. After all, evolutionary creation calls into question the existence of Adam and Eve as historical individuals and this has, or so many think, serious consequences. I started a series a couple of weeks ago that began to look at the issues of sin and the Fall (part one) using one essay from Theology After Darwin and three articles from the recent theme issue of the ASA Journal Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith (v. 62 no. 3 2010) Reading Genesis: The Historicity of Adam and Eve, Genomics, and Evolutionary Science. Last week was rather busy and I didn’t have the time to dig into the topic, but today I return and continue the series looking at the article by Daniel C. Harlow, After Adam: Reading Genesis in an Age of Evolutionary Science (pp. 179-195 – pdf available at the link to the left).

Dr. Harlow is a professor of religion at Calvin College, he obtained his Ph.D. at Notre Dame studying the ever fascinating Greek Apocalypse of Baruch (3 Baruch). In his article in PSCF he takes a nonconcordist approach to Genesis and looks at the text as story rather than history. He considers Adam and Eve as symbolic literary figures, and yet upholds what he considers a viable doctrine of both original sin and the fall. He finds the biblical support for these doctrines, not in Genesis or the Old Testament, but in Paul. The doctrines don’t stand or fall with a historical Adam, he suggests, but with the gospel of Jesus Christ preached by Paul. There is much to consider in this article – and we will devote a couple of posts to it. The first, today, will focus on his view of Genesis and reasons for his conclusions; the second will focus on the consequences of this view of Genesis on the doctrines of Original Sin and the Fall.

To begin with, Dr. Harlow sees five basic scenarios within Christian thinking today:

  • Traditional young-earth view that Adam and Eve are recent ancestors of the entire human race (their children married each other because there were no other humans) ca. 10000 years ago (ybp).

  • Old-earth view that God created humans some 150000 ybp, but selected a representative pair some 10000 ybp.

  • Old-earth view that God selected or modified a unique pair of hominids some 150000 ybp.

  • Old-earth view that God revealed himself to a large group of humans some 150000 ybp and Adam and Eve are symbolic of this group.

  • Adam and Eve are literary figures in a divinely inspired story that intends to teach primarily theological not historical truth.

All five of these views take scripture seriously. Note that none of these options dismiss scripture as mere myth, none of them deny inspiration, and none of them deny the existence of God or of his active and personal relationship with his creation or his people. All of them take scripture very seriously as God given and revealed truth. The first is traditional, the next three assume a level of concordance between history and the Gen.2-3 story. The last four all are or can be consistent with modern science. The last assumes a concordance between truth and scripture, but not between Gen. 2-3 and history.

Before we continue – Which of these best describes your understanding – Literal, Concordist, or Literary? Which do you find troublesome?

Dr. Harlow finds the concordist scenarios, so common in evangelical thinking, distinctly unsatisfactory, in the way they shape and distort both science and the OT text. Even many otherwise outstanding books on science and faith (eg. Falk’s Coming to Peace with Science and Collins’s The Language of God) accept a level of concordism that Harlow questions. He points to Denis O. Lamoureux’s Evolutionary Creation as a welcome exception to this trend. (As an aside, I have Lamoureux’s book and will post on it in the upcoming months. Several readers have told me in e-mails that they found his book very helpful.)

According to Harlow:

The attractiveness of this last position is twofold: it does not contradict modern science (as the first scenario does), and it does not read into the biblical text anachronistic notions that would have been inconceivable to the ancient author(s) and audience(s) of Genesis (as the second, third, and fourth concordist scenarios do). (p. 181)

The textual problem with a young earth approach are as severe as the scientific problems. The problems with a concordist approach arise not on scientific grounds, but on textual grounds. It is important to realize this … while science plays a role in our thinking, it is not the major player in conclusions about Genesis – at least among biblical scholars and experts in ancient near east history or in literature. While modern scientific understanding is inconsistent with the population bottlenecks described in Genesis 1-11, archaeology and biblical studies alone provide an equally severe challenge.

The most general reason why biblical scholars recognize Adam and Eve as strictly literary figures has to do with the genre of the narratives in chapters 1–11 of Genesis. The vast majority of interpreters take the narratives in these chapters as story, not history, because their portrait of protohistory from creation to flood to Babel looks very stylized—with sequences, events, and characters that look more symbolic than “real” events and characters in “normal” history. All of the episodes are to a great extent etiological, designed to explain the origins or cause of aspects of human life in the world—marriage, sexual desire, and patriarchy; toil in agricultural labor; pain in childbirth; the beginnings of material culture and civilization; diversity in language; and so forth. (p. 181)

Harlow will continue on in the article to outline the various reasons for these conclusions – but first makes it clear that he has come to share the view …

… that the narratives in Genesis 1–11 were probably written and read as both paradigmatic and protohistorical- imaginative portrayals of an actual epoch in a never-to-be-repeated past that also bears archetypal significance for the ongoing human situation. (p. 182)

What is the textual evidence for this view – the evidence that he finds so convincing? First the primeval history (Gen 1-11) appears to be an inspired retelling and appropriation of ANE traditions and cultural understanding. The connections include the garden paradise, the creation from clay, process of trial and error, the lady of the rib, wisdom equated with becoming like the gods, immortality as a gift from the gods, the serpent, nakedness as a symbol of primitiveness, Harlow has tables in the article that compare and contrast various sources.

The presence of two or three creation stories in the text is additional textual support intrinsic to scripture – it does not require connection with outside sources. Gen. 1 and Gen. 2 cannot both be completely literal historical. On top of this they both reflect common ANE motifs. Harlow points out that English translations sometimes hide the inconsistencies. The NIV uses a questionable translation, he suggests, to cover up or account for the inconsistency (after all … perhaps the translators thought … we know the two accounts must be consistent). Consider the translations of Gen 2-8 and 19 from the NASB and the NIV:

Then the LORD God formed man of dust from the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living being. The LORD God planted a garden toward the east, in Eden; and there He placed the man whom He had formed. … Then the LORD God said, “It is not good for the man to be alone; I will make him a helper suitable for him.” Out of the ground the LORD God formed every beast of the field and every bird of the sky, and brought them to the man to see what he would call them; and whatever the man called a living creature, that was its name. (NASB)

the LORD God formed the man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being. Now the LORD God had planted a garden in the east, in Eden; and there he put the man he had formed. … The LORD God said, “It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make a helper suitable for him.” Now the LORD God had formed out of the ground all the beasts of the field and all the birds of the air. He brought them to the man to see what he would name them; and whatever the man called each living creature, that was its name. (NIV)

The NASB is literal, with the implication of sequential action – man, then plants, then animals. The NIV – for consistency with Genesis 1 – changes the verbs to imply prior creation of plants and animals. The ESV uses planted (as the NASB) but had formed (as the NIV). The real question here – what is the intent of the original Hebrew. Harlow suggests that the intent in Genesis 2 is sequential action, this is inconsistent with Genesis 1, the translators harmonized the text. The fact that the two accounts are not consistent should inform our understanding of the genre and intent of Gen 1-3 (in fact set the stage for our interpretation of Gen 1-11).

Other textual clues. In addition to the parallels between ANE literature and Genesis and the parallel creation accounts in Gen 1-2, there are a number of other textual clues to the form and intent of Gen. 1-3 as well. Some discussed by Dr. Harlow include:

  • The trees, rivers, gold, jewels, cherubim, … these probably link to the symbolism of the tabernacle and temple. Formed by these traditions – not forming these traditions.

  • The names, Adam as “human” and Eve as “living one,” are symbolic and representative.

  • The talking snake is introduced with a word play and is obviously a literary figure – in ANE mythology, Harlow notes, “snakes were variously a symbol of life, wisdom, and chaos—precisely those themes seen in Genesis 3.”

  • The anthropomorphic portrayal of God – walking in the garden, creating a helpmate by trial and error.

  • The story of Cain and Abel in Gen 4

  • The form of the genealogies of Gen 4,5 (esp. the parallelisms). These are not history – and give no real indication of historicity. Such genealogies “were a popular and largely fictional literary device in the ancient Near East for asserting a people’s cultural importance or a dynasty’s political legitimacy.” Even the lengthy lifespans represent a common form that served “to suggest the superiority of primeval times over the present.

What does this mean for our understanding of the Bible as scripture? These observations from the text don’t undermine Genesis as scripture, they are not problems or puzzles to be solved. Rather, they inform our understanding of scripture and the nature of inspiration.

… None of these observations serves to discredit the Bible but only to clarify the nature of the passages in question. The ancient biblical authors did not miswrite these genealogies; we moderns have simply misread them. (p. 187)

This is an observation I have made in the past – and informs much of my approach today. Scripture contains truth in many forms and genres. We must read the text with faith and with literary intelligence. The ancient writers used the forms and ideas common to their day and culture to convey the truth inspired by God – as we find poetry in the Psalms, wisdom sayings in Proverbs, apocalypse in Daniel, and even the reference to the altar to the unknown God in Acts. We should also note that stories are a powerful way to convey truth – Jesus used the form in his parables for a reason.

The next step – having looked at the form of the text of Gen 2-3 – is to consider what it means to take Gen 2-3 on its own terms and to consider this in the context of Romans 5. Harlow addresses both of these – and we will consider his discussion in the next post. We will also consider, in an upcoming post, the article by Dr. C. John Collins who argues and opposing view – that a literal interpretation of Adam and Eve as real persons is theologically important and is a more appropriate interpretation of Gen 2-3.

For now I would like to consider the general argument outlined above, that the form of the text of Gen 1-11 itself argues for a literary interpretation as story. It is inspired truth – but it is divinely inspired story to teach theological truth. It is not divinely inspired, dictated, history.

Do you find Dr. Harlow’s arguments convincing?

If you wish to contact me directly, you may do so at rjs4mail[at]

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