We Had to Destroy the Bible to Save It
Last time I stated the postulates I’m starting with in order to move forward in considering the Fall. They seem reasonable to me, in light of what has been looked at and discussed in this series over the last nine months. However, I want to look at one alternative (which I reject) in order to elaborate on why I reject it and what I see as being problematic about it.
First, I need to correct something I omitted in my last post. I gave my “postulates” for this discussion, but left out the most obvious and important one, the zeroth postulate, if you will, without which there’s no point in even having written this series to begin with.
0. Science is correct in asserting the vast age of the Earth and universe, and the evolution of humans from lower animals.
Comment: As noted in my update to the previous post, this is not a postulate properly so-called; but it’s solid enough.
Corollary: Any theology which does not take 0. into account is to that extent erroneous, and thus can–and should–be dismissed out of hand. Therefore, for example, young Earth creationism, anti-evolutionism, and so-called Intelligent Design as presented, are non-starters.
Having set the stage, let’s move on to look at an account of the Fall that seems fairly popular in some circles and discuss its ramifications.
The account goes thus: The universe began some thirteen billion years ago, and our solar system came into being about four billion years ago or so. Over time life came into existence and evolved into its various forms. Humans, like all other living things, evolved from previous life forms, beginning with the microbial and ending with the primates. We share a common ancestor with all life forms (distantly) and more recently (evolutionarily speaking) we share a common primate ancestor from which we and the great apes all descend. Some seven million years ago (estimates vary), we split from our last common ancestor with chimpanzees and bonobos, the two living species most closely related to us (about 97% genetic similarity, depending on the criteria). The lineage leading to humans ultimately developed into the genus Australopithecus, the one immediately preceding ours, and ultimately to our own genus, Homo.
Throughout most of the evolutionary process, these various hominids lacked the one thing crucial to humans as we know them: a soul. Therefore, despite their genetic closeness to us and despite even their relatively high intelligence (tool-making, etc.) they were in effect mere animals. At some point, God, as part of His plan, bestowed souls upon one pair of these humans (or proto-humans), a male and a female–in short, those whom we call “Adam” and “Eve”. This ensoulment could have happened at any of several points. It could have been some early form of our species, Homo sapiens, that was first ensouled. On the other hand, some postulate this event as occurring in an earlier species: perhaps Homo erectus, H. habilis, or some other member of Homo. I haven’t seen anyone bold enough to suggest one of the species of Australopithecus, but that could be hypothesized.
In any case, Adam and Eve–the first ensouled hominids–became the first true humans. They were not the first members of their species; but since to be truly human is to have a soul, Adam and Eve, while two among hundreds or thousands of their species, were the only ones to be humans. The rest were merely hominids of the same species. In addition to awareness of self (however dim compared to us), the primal pair had awareness of God, and were in communion with Him in a way that we, their more evolved descendants, are not.
At some point, the first human couple were given a test. Mythologically, we say they were told not to eat of the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil; but what the test actually was, we do not and cannot know. Regardless, whatever it was, Adam and Eve failed it. This ruptured their communion with God, resulted in the “banishment” from “Eden” (understood here not as a change of location, but a loss of connection with God). Moreover, both ensoulment and the taint of Original Sin were transmitted to all of Adam and Eve’s descendants. This would seem to entail that for some period of at least several generations early humans–the ensouled descendants of Adam and Eve–mated with their non-ensouled neighbors. The children of these unions would “inherit” the characteristic of having a soul (and Original Sin) from the ensouled parent. Eventually, “ensouledness” would spread throughout the population until all humans had souls. This seems to be a necessary assumption: it seems biologically impossible for the observed human diversity today to have arisen if the descendants of Adam and Eve mated only with each other. Thus, while we all descend from Adam and Eve, we do not descend only from them, biologically speaking; but they are our unique parents in terms of our souls.
Sometimes it is postulated that a primal group was ensouled and sinned; but the mechanics and metaphysics of this are rarely discussed (at least, I haven’t found anything like a detailed discussion of this idea). Almost always the assumption is that the primal parents were the only ensouled couple.
In any case, the advantages of this scenario are said to be the following:
1. It does not conflict with known science, especially evolutionary biology and anthropology.
2. It preserves the traditional account of Original Sin as committed by a single human couple and then passed on to all future humans from them.
3. It preserves the traditional theology of the Atonement, which is usually assumed to rely on the Biblical account of the Fall.
So what’s not to love? Well, let me tell you.
So, for example, it is sometimes argued that Adam and Eve were two hominids or symbolic of a group of hominids with whom, at some point in evolutionary development, God entered into a relationship. At this point God endowed them with his image, thus making them conscious of God and thereby entering into a covenant relationship with them. Such a scenario is thought to preserve at least the general story of Genesis.
I support the effort to take seriously both the theological heart of the Adam story and natural science, and to be willing to rethink the biblical Adam in the process. But as well intentioned as this approach is–and many thoughtful people envision such a scenario–I see several problems.
First and foremost, it is ironic that in trying to hold on to biblical teaching a scenario is proposed that the Bible does not recognize: gradual evolution over millions of years rather than the sudden and recent creation of humanity as the Bible has it. Now I will say it is possible that, tens of thousands of years ago, God took two hominid representatives (or a group of hominids) and with them began the human story where creatures could have a consciousness of God, learn to be moral, and so forth. But that is an alternate and wholly ad hoc account of the first humans, not the biblical one. One cannot pose such a scenario and say, “Here is your Adam and Eve; the Bible and science are thus reconciled.” Whatever those creatures were, they were not what the Biblical authors presumed to be true. They may have been the first beings somehow conscious of God, but we overstep our bounds if we claim that these creatures satisfy the requirements of being “Adam and Eve.”
[S]earching for ways to align modern-scientific and ancient-biblical models of creation— no matter how minimal— runs the risk of obscuring the theology of the biblical texts in question. The creation stories are ancient and should be understood on that level. Rather than merge the two creation stories— the scientific and the biblical— we should respect that they each speak a different language.
Enns, Peter (2012-01-01). The Evolution of Adam, What the Bible Does and Doesn’t Say about Human Origins (p. 139). Baker Book Group. Kindle Edition.
This, in a nutshell, gets it exactly correct, in my view. The only possible motivation for proposing this theory to begin with is to preserve some historical basis for the Genesis account–that is, a literal first couple, a literal Original Sin, etc. This is on the grounds that the truth of the Bible must be upheld (especially for Evangelical Protestants), and on the grounds that such an account is necessary to preserve the doctrine of the Atonement. The problem is, as Enns points out, that this account is really nothing at all like what the Biblical authors envisioned. They certainly believed in a literal 7-day creation not more than about 5000 years ago, a first man made from the dust, a tree, a fruit, and a serpent, and so on. They most certainly did not entertain an idea of evolution or of ensouled and non-ensouled hominids. In order to preserve what is perceived as a necessarily literal understanding of the Bible, a scenario is proposed that undermines the literal meaning of the Bible–hence my title, riffing on the famous Viet Nam War-era maxim. It’s not exaggerating that such attempts at reconciling the Bible and science are destroying the Bible to save it.
My attitude is “In for a penny, in for a pound.” If you’re going to ditch the Seven Days of Creation, accept evolution, and make Adam and Eve of the species H. erectus (or maybe even australopithecines!), then why do you need to make Adam and Eve historical at all? It’s somewhat like the recent hypothesis that the story of Noah’s Flood in Genesis is the mythicized memory of, not a global Deluge, but the breaking into the Black Sea of the Mediterranean. This may or may not be true, and is in any case interesting; but the Bible is clear that the Deluge was global and covered the highest mountains. Once again, one destroys the Bible to save it.
If all narratives of the Bible could be proved to be perfectly historically true, then none of this would be necessary. However, it has long been clear to anyone not committed to an ideology that denies actual fact that large swatches are, while broadly historical, not correct in detail; or semi-historical; or historically confused or impossible; or totally mythical. Many, on this basis, reject faith (at least Christian faith) altogether. Many, though, myself included, do not. To be committed to the faith and to the inspiration of its holy scriptures by God while acknowledging that those very scriptures contain large amounts of errors and myths requires a careful theory of Biblical interpretation. I’ve written a whole series about this. More specifically, I’ve discussed before the ultimate basis of my faith, and its implications for interpreting the Old and New Testaments. Given the historicity of the life, death, and Resurrection of Jesus Christ, and the fact that it brings atonement between us and God–all of which I accept, including a literal Resurrection–everything else is more or less negotiable. Thus, if the evidence makes it extremely difficult to see how a single couple sinned and transmitted this sin to all of us, rather than desperate attempts to make Adam and Eve into Missing Links, it’s better just to allegorize the story altogether. If it’s hard to see how the traditional theories of the Atonement fit what we know of human evolution, well, we’ll just have to come up with better theories (it won’t be the first time that kind of thing has been done in Christian history). I don’t claim to have specific answers for this, though I’ll be playing around with some hypotheses in the future; but to insist on something that’s untenable is worse than not having a clear alternative.
I should say at this point that the Adam-and-Eve-as-hominids hypothesis, strictly speaking, does not violate what we know of human origins. Souls are obviously not preserved in the fossil record, so there’s no way it can be proved it didn’t happen that way. Still, I find it deficient for the following reasons:
1. As I’ve said before, and as Enns notes, too, it’s ad hoc–essentially it’s a “just so” story made up to preserve the Genesis account of the Fall.
2. Unfortunately, it doesn’t even manage to do that–as we have seen, the Hominid Hypothesis doesn’t preserve the Genesis account at all, but something that its proponents think is something like the Genesis account.
3. In my view, any perspective on Scripture that does justice both to faith and to secular knowledge must acknowledge that large portions of the Old Testament and even a few of the New (e.g. the Infancy Narratives) are partially or fully mythological, legendary, or allegorical.
4. Given 3, one should apply Occam’s Razor and not assume more than is needed. To argue for a literal Adam and Eve, a literal individual act precipitating a Fall, and so on, seems to violate parsimony by assuming more than is needed, in view of the other issues.
5. I’m not sure if I’ve explicitly stated this before; but if not, I will now, and if I’m repeating myself, then so be it. I think that in cases like this one should assume a “worst case scenario”. In other words, one ought to assume whatever viewpoint is hardest to reconcile with traditional faith. This requires more work and a tougher attitude; but it’s better in the end. The danger of not doing this is accepting some kind of notion of a “God of the gaps“. This is almost always a bad thing, as the gaps have a habit of being filled in over time as we learn more. The unfortunate result of this is that the basis of people’s faith is swept away, with the result that they retreat into reactionary, anti-intellectual fundamentalism (for lack of a better word) or lose faith altogether. Thus, if we confront the more challenging theological options to begin with, we eliminate the danger of a God of the gaps argument; and if it turns out that the simpler framework (in this case, the Hominid Hypothesis) is, in fact true, then nothing is lost and at least the exercise was interesting.
6. Finally, the Hominid Hypothesis seems to physicalize the spiritual in a really bizarre way, postulating that somehow souls are “inherited” from parents who have them. More subtly, it posits a sharper distinction between humans and lower animals than I think is warranted (but that’s an issue for another time).
Therefore, while the Hominid Hypothesis cannot strictly be disproved (as it can also not be proved), I think there are good reasons for rejecting it. In coming posts, I’ll try to develop an approach that I think will be more promising.
Addendum: This post (obviously) was originally written in the context of evolutionary biology and the Biblical account of the Fall of Man. However, I think what I’ve written here is equally applicable to other attempts to take a literalist reading of the Bible. One thinks of the attempts (which I noted above) to argue that the Flood wasn’t a world-wide deluge that covered the highest mountains, but a folk-memory of the breaking into the basin which is now the Black Sea when the high ground containing the Mediterranean collapsed at the end of the last Ice Age. That’s an interesting hypothesis, and maybe even true. However, just as Ens says about the hominid hypothesis, that’s not what the Bible actually says! Exodus says the Flood was indeed global and indeed covered the highest mountains. An ancient flood of the Black Sea is not what the Bible actually describes.
Other examples abound: attempts to argue that the (impossibly large) Israelite contingent of six hundred thousand in the Exodus is a mistranslation “six hundred families” (or “clans”); mental gymnastics to square Luke’s statement that Jesus was born when Quirinius was governor of Syria with facts that Jesus was born c. 4 BC and Quirinius was governor of Syria in 6 AD; and last but certainly not least, the impressive, if futile, efforts over the centuries to harmonize the incompatible genealogies of Jesus found in Matthew and Luke.
All of these and more result in once again “destroying the Bible to save it” through mental gymnastics, improbable interpretations, ad hoc hypotheses, and interpretations that posit things that the Bible does not, actually, envision. These are pretty much always a bad idea, for reasons I discuss in point 5 above.
So let’s quit shooting up the Bible and give it a break, OK?
Part of the series Legends of the Fall.
Also part of the series “The Pretty Good Book“
Posted on 20/02/2013, in Bible, Christianity, religion, science, theology and tagged Bible, Catholicism, Christianity, evolution, exegesis, Fall of Man, Legends of the Fall, religion, science, scripture, theology. Bookmark the permalink. 5 Comments.