Hermeneutics, Origins, Ethics

Yesterday I put up two posts that, together, open up the question of how we should think about new ideas that challenge what Christians have “always thought.”

In the bounded-set thinking that comes most naturally to many of us, the arrival of a new idea, especially if it challenges an old one, automatically generates a response of rejection. It falls outside the boundary of received Christian orthodoxy.

It, and its proponents and adherents, is rejected.

This is what’s happening with the evolution and historicity of Adam question. And I understand it.

The Christian tradition has built a lot on Adam. The idea of a historical first parent who fell from a state of innocence is important for understanding humanity, creation, and even how salvation works.

But here’s what we’ve seen over the past hundred and fifty years: after scientists started working with a theory of evolution, data from innumerable branches and sub-branches of various scientific disciplines started making other discoveries that supported that theory and did not support instant appearance of diversified species on earth.

The latest challenge to the traditionally conceived Christian story of origins is genomic data that points to pools of thousands rather than a single individual.

So what do Christians do with all this?

First, we recognize that we are standing at a different point, downstream from our theological forebears. They had scientific worldviews that were impacting their articulations of humanity and sin (sin transferred in sperm, anyone?). And, their scientific worldviews were closer to the biblical writers: we hadn’t yet discovered that the earth revolves around the sun, for example, or found fossils of animals that died millions of years before anything like a human being was on the earth.

Image Copyright Javier Martinez
This does not mean that we will automatically get right what they got wrong, but it does meant that to be faithful to our point in the story we will have to say something that makes sense in our own day and time, even as those who came before us said something that made sense in theirs.

That first step is huge. It is, I think, the greatest hurdle: to clear the bar of setting our minds in such a posture that we can listen to the issue, wrestle with the problem, without defensiveness.

Second, we revisit the biblical story to see where we might have been over-reading our preconception into the story. The particular creation story in which there is a person named Adam who breaks a command and thereby brings ruin on himself and, apparently, the world, is the same story that then proceeds to have Adam’s son Cain run off to marry foreigners.

This indicates that Genesis 2-4 is a story that does not intend to give an entirely comprehensive account of the origin of humanity. Yes, it intends to tell a story within which God’s people have a unique place, and where a ruptured relationship with God wreaks havoc in every aspect of life, but there’s also a window into the possibility that this fits within a larger narrative of an already-extant humanity.

Then, of course, we step further back and realize that we have two creation stories in Gen 1-2 alone, and that each tells a different narrative about humanity as it fits within the unfolding of creation. Then there are other biblical stories–creation from a slain Leviathan, anyone?

We start to get a perspective on creation that is polyvalent, to say the least. When the question is opened up, by our modern scientists, about how we did, in fact, come to be here, we have our eyes opened afresh to see that the biblical narratives are anything but dogmatic about the answer. They give evidence of different ancient Israelites at different times and places painting different pictures in order to communicate something significant about humanity’s and, more importantly Israel’s, place in the cosmos.

And Paul did the same thing, building on Adam traditions.

The next step, then, is beginning to return to our time. What must we say about the creation of the world, about humanity, about “The Man” and “The Woman” whom we meet in the early chapters of Genesis?

We will not be able to provide a viable answer to that question if we are unwilling to ask it with integrity for our own day and time.

Bounded-set Christianity has not place for the question at all. Ironically, those most committed to history are least willing to learn from it. Yes, the earth does circle the sun; and yes, Christianity survived this knowledge. But conservative Protestant Christianity, in particular, refuses to be chastened by the mistakes of the past, and continues to insist on the absolute necessity of data that science has repeatedly disproved.

The question, as I see it, is not whether this scientific information is correct, but rather how we will articulate faithful Christianity in light of it.

We are downstream and there is no swimming back.

Ed. note: the author got so caught up in the “Trajectories and challenges” part, he forgot about “ethics.” What does all this have to do with how we act as Christians? Come back tomorrow and find out!

15 thoughts on “Hermeneutics, Origins, Ethics”

  1. Daniel,
    thanks again for clearly articulating what wells up in me as an ugly angst and frustration. I can’t help but wonder if this is in response to the NPR story yesterday which highlighted this debate within the Evangelical community.

    I would have liked to have them talk to you as a Fuller counterpoint to Southern Seminary’s Al Mohler.

    I also appreciate the desire to reach back into the community that would reject this and try to read it with empathy while critiquing it. Getting past mutual rejection and dismissal is the prerequisite for real communication. Keep making space.

    Also, thanks for installing highlighter. I think there’s real potential in the tool.

  2. “the same story that then proceeds to have Adam’s son Cain run off to marry foreigners.”

    is it?

    is there rabbinic tradition that that’s what the story was?

  3. I wonder if the centered-set model might allow us to claim our ecumenical creedal heritage of the Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds as the “theological non-negotiables” (after all, without incarnation and trinity why would anyone want to claim to be “Christian”?)and our various traditions as paths toward that center with their own particularities and idiosyncrasies that identify those paths but do not rule out other paths to the center. I’m just thinking off the top of my head here but I wonder what you think. Thanks


  4. Also, what happens when the racists seize on this idea and claim that white folks are descended from the original pair, Adam and Eve, and that other peoples are some of those that cain intermarried with.

    What story from the bible will convince them this must be wrong?

  5. I also don’t see why I first have to be convinced that the genesis 2-4 narrative allows for other people than A&E to be convinced that the story of A&E needs to be reinterpreted as a metaphor in the light of science.

    It seems like too much scientific creationism to seek to explain that the genesis story, properly read, STILL fits the new scientific understanding of descent from a troupe. Why bother.

  6. Both with atheists and Christian, I have found many people who say, “No one thought of Genesis any other way until Darwin came along.” The suggestion on both sides of course is that we must maintain the Bible vs. Science battle lines.

    My response is that the first Christian known to have suggested a different, more metaphorical, interpretation of Genesis was Augustine. And the first Jewish scholar was a contemporary of Jesus.

    As you cite here, we are not changing our minds just because science has shifted. The text allowed for that far before Darwin ever showed up.

  7. First, thank you Daniel for your honest and challenging discussions on this topic, written in a tone which promotes genuine dialogue rather than heated debate.

    As you continually pointed us back to in class, Jesus was building a community centered around himself. What do we do with Jesus, do we accept him or reject him?

    When the importance of believing the sun is orbiting the earth or a literal Adam is elevated to the same level of importance as our acceptance or rejection of Jesus, I think we have failed in our theology and muddied the living waters of the Gospel. For evangelicals today Adam should not be the crux of orthodox faith, our faithful adherence and pursuit after Jesus should be.

    In this moment of crisis for the evangelical church my prayer is that we would be firmly committed to Jesus as our Lord but have the humility to admit that his world and his redemption of it might work differently than we thought it had. Here we could stand to learn from the recovering alcoholic who has the humility to pray to “God as I understand You.” We just might not have God and the way God works in this world all figured out, God might be outside of our control. Similarly, I would hope the alcoholic could turn to the wrestling theologian and smell Christ all over her/him, and would be desperately thirsty to know this Mystery’s name and story.

    Thank you for your voice in this discussion Dr. Kirk.

  8. Hopefully in our dialogue with our anti-evolutionist brethren (who knows? I might still be in that group, it’s not something I really think about anymore) we can focus on the positive of allowing Genesis (and the rest of the Bible) to change our lives and world. I’m just concerned that simply telling someone “Science has disproved your reading of Genesis” might not produce fruitful conversation.

  9. “The question, as I see it, is not whether this scientific information is correct, but rather how we will articulate faithful Christianity in light of it.”

    Forgetting original sin and quickly moving forward…how would we even articulate the REALITY of Jesus the Christ if the “first human” Adam was a fictional human? Followed to its natural conclusion, Jesus Christ, Son of the Living God, ends up as a rather nice philosophical idea. So yeah, how will we articulate faithful Christianity in the light of that?

    Scientific research will have to show itself way more stable than what has been seen up to this point before the orthodox church establishment will even give them the time of day on this issue. I don’t yet see this as a Galileo moment…(Galileo was incorrect by the way…the sun is not the center of the universe.) I agree there is work to be done on both sides of the equation neither side has all the answers…some things must be accepted by faith…*: )

    1. Nancy, recognizing that “Adam” as such was not historical in that sense does not make Gen 1-4 drop off from the front of our Bibles. We might step back and ask other questions like, “Why is this person named The Human?” What would we think if we read a book whose main character was named “Everyman”? Adam as a way of articulating the story of the “problem” can still be a way for us to understand Jesus as the solution.

      But how we explain the significance of Jesus shifts from book to book and theology to theology. I don’t think we’ve lost Christianity if someone who confesses that Jesus is raised from the dead is struggling to articulate the significance of that resurrection given evolution.

      Also, I’m not sure that science is lagging quite so much as your post indicates!

      1. I’m thinking more on line with Adam (as a mythical human) being listed in the genealogy of Jesus and of course in Paul’s writings. I’m not throwing out science altogether either, just not willing to believe they have the whole picture. Evolution does appear to happen within species, and there are what seems to be two descriptions of the creation of the human race in Genesis. But jumping to conclusions from either of these two places is not proof that Adam and Eve were mythical beings or not the first of the human race. It does make a conundrum that is yet to be solved. With these things unsolved, I choose to remain skeptical of science rather than the orthodoxy of the church. Even when we can’t figure these things out…all things remain possible with God and someday we might just find the answers without doing violence to the actual inspired word of God.

  10. Daniel: Perhaps it would be wise to take scientific “discoveries” with a little more skepticism in light of the fact that science is so often incomplete/wrong when it first sets forth theories. Indeed, simply the fact that less than a decade ago Francis Collins was writing confidently about “junk dna” that no longer appears to be junk would seem to give one pause when yet another scientific “discovery” that disproves the Bible comes along.

    Also, whatever your own theories about Adam it is quite indisputable that Paul sets the historicity of Adam firmly into his understanding of theology. If words mean anything, you and Paul are at odds and no amount of theological contortions can change that fact. As for myself, I will side with Paul (and wait for the inevitable revelation of incorrect interpretation of scientific data that will come to light).

    As for Cain’s wife and differing creation accounts, you know very well that there are satisfying explanations that do not do violence to the biblical text as written.

    1. John, I’m caught by your last sentence.

      Does it do more violence to the text to accept that it tells us that there were other people besides the family of Adam? Or does it do more violence to the text to posit hundreds of years and untold of offspring that at some point went away and started civilization and founding cities? I’m not sure that the latter is more in step with the text as given.

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