Evolution, Adam, Paul, and the Gospel

I’m not sure I was part of the target audience for Peter Enns’ book The Evolution of Adam, but I still got a lot out of it. Enns reviews the scholarship around the composition and authorship of the creation story, as well as its historical context, and argues that the Adam story (i.e., the version of the creation story found in Genesis 2 and the story of the fall in Genesis 3) simply isn’t trying to answer the question of human origins in the way that a scientific account would.

Rather, the creation story (and the OT more generally) is, Enns says, an exercise in Israelite national and theological self-definition in light of competing religions and a history of unfaithfulness, exile, and calamity. In particular, the Genesis creation story can be read as responding to the similar (though also very different) creation stories of the surrounding cultures (Egyptian, Babylonian, etc.), and enunciating the distinctive Israelite view of who God is.

Placing Genesis in its ancient Near Eastern setting strongly suggests that it was written as a self-defining document, as a means of declaring the distinctiveness of Israel’s own beliefs from those of the surrounding nations. In other words, Genesis is an argument, a polemic, declaring how Israel’s God is different from all the other gods, and therefore how Israel is different from all the other nations. (p. 6)

If this is right, Enns says, there is no inherent conflict between Genesis and evolution: the accounts are simply answering different questions.

Christians today misread Genesis when they try to engage it, even minimally, in the scientific arena. Rather, they must follow the trajectory of the postexilic Israelites and ask their own questions of self-definition as the people of God: In view of who and where we are, what do these ancient texts say to us about being the people of God today? (p. 33)

However, things are a bit different when we come to Paul. Enns notes that Adam doesn’t play much of a role in the rest of the OT, and there is certainly no developed theory of “original sin.” Moreover, later Jewish tradition creatively interpreted the Adam story in a variety of ways, many at variance with what became the standard Christian version.

But Paul does seem to think (as demonstrated most clearly in Romans) that Adam was the first human being, historically speaking, and that his disobedience has infected the rest of humanity. For Paul, Adam’s transgression is the cause of sin and death—the predicament from which we are delivered by God’s great act in Jesus. Thus, many have argued, Paul’s gospel only makes sense if there was a historical Adam and a historical fall.

But this is too quick. As Enns argues, Paul is working backwards from the death and resurrection of Jesus, not forward from a theory of original sin. Paul’s reading of the Adam story is not a “straight” reading, but a creative reinterpretation in light of the crucified and risen Messiah (as was much of his use of the OT). As Enns puts it:

In making his case, Paul does not begin with Adam and move to Christ. Rather, the reality of the risen Christ drives Paul to mine Scripture for ways of explicating the wholly unexpected in-breaking of the age to come in the crucifixion and resurrection of the Son of God. Adam, read as “the first human,” supports Paul’s argument about the universal plight and remedy of humanity, but it is not a necessary component for that argument. In other words, attributing the cause of universal sin and death to a historical Adam is not necessary for the gospel of Jesus Christ to be a fully historical solution to that problem. To put it positively, as Paul says, we all need the Savior to deliver us from sin and death. That core Christian truth, as I see it, is unaffected by this entire discussion. (p. 81)

I’ve tried to make a similar point before. I don’t think that when people responded to Jesus it was because they saw him as a  solution to “the Adam problem.” They experienced a concrete liberation from something that oppressed them: illness, possession, guilt, etc. This experience of liberation was not contingent on some prior theory about the origins of sin, suffering, and death. The Adam story can powerfully express the universal human predicament, but we needn’t take it as history to make sense of the Gospel.

Getting by without infallibility

An exaggerated or inaccurate view of Scripture is not a high view of Scripture, it is just a wrong view of Scripture. A high view of Scripture takes the Bible seriously, while also taking its historical context and the humanity of its authors seriously. A high view of Scripture is held by those who actually read Scripture, seek to understand why the human authors wrote what they did, and how they convey God’s timeless will for us today. A high view of Scripture includes not only reading the Bible, but seeking to live its timeless messages, which are discerned in the light of Jesus Christ, who is the definitive Word of God.

That’s from an interview with UMC mega-church pastor Adam Hamilton. (Yes, we mainliners have mega-churches too.)

It’s become a bit of a truism that any adequate Christian view of the Bible has to acknowledge both its human and divine character. What a lot of people worry about, though, is this: if you admit that the Bible contains some errors, even about peripheral matters, then how do you know it isn’t wrong about the major stuff?

The short answer, I think, is you don’t know. But underlying this worry is a questionable model of how God acts, and one which the Bible itself seems to contradict.

What do I mean? Well, people sometimes talk about the inspiration of the Bible in a way that suggests God overrode the freedom of the authors (and presumably editors and compilers) to ensure that not one jot or tittle of the text was wrong. Even though most proponents of such a theory would deny that’s what’s happening, it’s hard to see how “inerrancy” could work any other way. Human beings are finite, limited, prone to error, and sinful; for God to inspire them to write without error would seem to require, essentially, annulling their finitude.

But is this consistent with how the Bible itself presents the relationship between God and humans? Consider the apostles. They all responded to Jesus, who Christians confess is the incarnate Word of God. Presumably this response was elicited, at some level, by God’s Spirit (since Christians generally deny that someone can turn to God without the action of the Spirit). But this didn’t prevent the apostles from erring–sometimes grievously–about what Jesus was saying to them.

If Jesus himself didn’t (couldn’t?) compel an “inerrant” response from the apostles (not to mention from the religious leaders and Roman authorities), does this tell us something about how inspiration works? At the very least, it suggests that there are cases where God allows human beings to err, even though God would presumably prefer they make a different kind of response.

So, unless we have good reasons for thinking that the composition of the Bible occurred under the influence of an entirely different kind of inspiration, isn’t it reasonable to think that the biblical authors could also have been prone to error in what they wrote?

What becomes of faith then? It would be in trouble if we thought that faith is based on a prior belief in the inerrancy or infallibility of the Bible. But why should this be the case? And on what independent grounds could we come to the conclusion that the Bible is infallible in the first place?

What I believe, and what I think many other Christians believe, is that the Bible presents a broadly reliable portrait of Jesus and that the New Testament (along with the Old Testament) provides the authoritative context for interpreting the meaning of Jesus.

But I don’t believe this because of some prior theory about the Bible’s inspiration. I believe it based on my experience (and the experiences of others) as part of the Christian community. There’s an irreducible degree of circularity here, but it needn’t (I think) be of the vicious variety. We trust the Bible because our encounter with Jesus–in the pages of Scripture, in the sacraments, in prayer, in Christian community–has changed us. Yes, we could be wrong. But that’s an unavoidable risk for creatures such as us.

The biblical case for same-sex relationships isn’t new

It’s great that some theologically conservative evangelicals are making the “biblical” case against Christianity’s historic anti-gay position. There are certainly many people–and not just in evangelical churches–who feel in good faith that they can’t accept a revision of the traditional view without sacrificing their trust in the Bible or other bedrock convictions.

But at the same time, most of the arguments mentioned in the article linked above boil down to saying that

(1) what the biblical authors (especially Paul) condemned is not the same thing we are talking about when we discuss monogamous same-sex relationships and

(2) the Bible’s “moral logic” or its “underlying values” point toward an affirmation of loving, mutually enriching, stable relationships, whether they be opposite- or same-gender.

I happen to think this is basically correct, but it’s also what more liberal scholars have been arguing for decades. It’s understandable that evangelicals would want to make the case to their co-religionists in a cultural and theological idiom that they’re more likely to accept, but this isn’t a substantive departure from the “revisionist” case that has been made in mainline Protestant churches. Framing it that way reinforces the view that mainline scholars and leaders don’t take the Bible and Christian theological tradition seriously and have just capitulated to “the culture.” But in fact, the decisions of churches to embrace full equality for gays and lesbians have typically been informed by painstaking biblical scholarship. This scholarship has led to essentially the same conclusions that are now being used by evangelical revisionists. Obviously not everyone has been convinced, but that’s not because the case hasn’t been made until now.

A “greatest common denominator” approach to the Bible

I don’t have much invested in the debate over biblical “inerrancy.” It strikes me as largely an intra-evangelical debate, one driven in large part by a very conservative, Reformed strain of evangelicalism. But I do have something invested in the inspiration and authority of the Bible. I think that a “liberal” view which regards the Bible as just one instance of great religious literature is inadequate for Christian faith.

So it’s no surprise that I appreciated this post from Ken Schenck, who is the dean of Wesley Seminary at Indiana Wesleyan University. He argues that much evangelical hermeneutics are driven by a “most difficult common denominator” approach. That is, individual difficult passages or verses are allowed to overturn the broader trajectory of the biblical message.

Schenck notes that in pre-modern times, “problem” verses were often interpreted in ways that were almost certainly contrary to the meaning intended by the original authors if they seemed to contradict more fundamental biblical principles.

He thus recommends viewing the Bible in a two-level fashion: there is the original, historical meaning of the individual books, passages, and verses; and there are the overarching themes and message as Christians have commonly understood them:

If we return to the sense of Scripture’s truthfulness before the Princeton Calvinists, we look rather to the “greatest common denominator” of Scripture.  What is the central teaching of the Bible on this topic? If there are other passages that seem to pull in another direction, you set them aside as unclear. After all, we don’t know all the history to interpret the original meaning of the Bible fully and certainly anyway.

Chalk it up to contextual uncertainty. Reinterpret it like a good premodern or just put an “unclear” tape on it. Invoke the notion of progressive revelation or situational particularity. However your tradition deals with unclear verses, do that. But don’t let the problematic trump the central principles of Scripture.

So, for example, the Canaanite genocide should not control our understanding of God’s nature, and an isolated verse in 1 Timothy shouldn’t determine our view about women in ministry.

One thing that sets Schenck’s proposal apart from a more strictly pre-modern approach is that he recognizes that we can’t go back to a pre-critical consciousness. Some of the Fathers may have thought that an allegorical interpretation of a particular passage provided the “true” meaning; but we now think that the original meaning of a text is its intended meaning in its historical setting. We may reinterpet it, set it aside, or just deem it unclear or irrelevant, but we at least need to acknowledge its original meaning (to the extent we can determine it).

It should be noted that the New Testament authors themselves often play fast and loose with the original meanings of the texts from the Hebrew scriptures that they quote or reference. It’s clear that, for them, God’s acts of salvation in Jesus provide the interpretive lens for understanding Scripture. And the Church Fathers had no apparent qualms about reinterpreting parts of the Bible if they seemed to contradict the Gospel.

In light of this, Schenck’s position seems more consonant with the mainstream Christian tradition than some modern forms of inerrancy. Christians have always regarded some parts of the Bible as more central or authoritative than others, no matter what their theory of biblical inspiration may say. The gospels and the Pauline letters are more central than the pastoral letters or Revelation; Isaiah and the Psalms are more central than 1 and 2 Chronicles or Obadiah, etc. And this priority is determined in part by a rule of faith, such as the creed, that provides a summary of the essentials of the Christian message.

This doesn’t mean that we can just ignore the parts of the Bible that we don’t like. But it does mean that our interpretation is shaped by the faith of the Christian community. A different rule of faith would undoubtedly result in some different interpretive choices (as modern Judaism demonstrates). But there’s really no getting around that. After all, the canon of Scripture itself was established in the light of such a rule.

Inerrancy versus sufficiency

In a post yesterday, Daniel Silliman quoted historian Molly Worthen arguing that biblical “inerrancy” became an entrenched position among evangelical Christians only when it seemed necessary to shore up beliefs that were under attack by theological modernists. Prior to that, evangelicals held a variety of views on the inspiration of the Bible.

He specifically mentions the Wesleyan-Holiness tradition’s emphasis on the “sufficiency” of Scripture:

[S]ome theologians of the Wesleyan Holiness tradition, including important figures in the early history of the Church of the Nazarene, rejected inerrancy. The ultimate revelation of God, they wrote, was not the Bible. The ultimate revelation was Jesus Christ, the Word made flesh. The Bible was to be thought of not as an authority but as a guide to the revelation of Christ.

It’s “sufficiency,” rather than inerrancy, was emphasized.

This remains the official position of the United Methodist Church, which of course also traces its roots back to Wesley. The Methodist Articles of Religion, which were adapted by Wesley from the Church of England’s 39 Articles and are shared by a number of churches in the Wesleyan-Methodist tradition, include this statement on the “Sufficiency of the Holy Scriptures for Salvation”:

The Holy Scripture containeth all things necessary to salvation; so that whatsoever is not read therein, nor may be proved thereby, is not to be required of any man that it should be believed as an article of faith, or be thought requisite or necessary to salvation.

While this says that everything necessary for salvation is contained in the Bible, it does not say that everything contained in the Bible is necessary for salvation. This at least opens the door for a non-inerrantist understanding of biblical authority.

It’s probably not wise to try to hang too much on this statement, since the origin of the 39 Articles was in Reformation-era disputes, not contemporary questions about biblical inspiration. The question for them was more about where ultimate doctrinal authority was to be found.

Still, it’s worth keeping in mind that inerrancy is not the only–or even historically the most common–way of understanding the Bible’s authority.

Francis Spufford on the “gnostic Jesus”

The Jesus of the orthodox story treats people with deep attention even when angry. [The gnostic] Jesus zaps people with his divine superpowers if they irritate him. Orthodox Jesus says that everyone needs the love of God, and God loves everyone. Their Jesus has an inner circle you can be admitted to if you collect enough crisp packets. Orthodox Jesus likes wine, parties, and grilled fish for breakfast. Their Jesus thinks that human flesh and its appetites are icky. Orthodox Jesus is disconcertingly unbothered about sexuality, and conducts his own sexual life, if he has one, off the page. Their Jesus can generate women to have sex with out of his own ribs, in a way that suggests the author had trouble talking to girls. Orthodox Jesus says, “Don’t be afraid. I am always with you.” The Jesus of these documents says, “Advance, Blue Adept, to the 17th Jade Portal of Amazingness, and give the secret signal with your thumbs.” Read much of the rival “gospels,” and you start to think that the Church Fathers who decided what went into the New Testament had one of the easiest editorial jobs on record. It wasn’t a question of suppression or exclusion, so much as of seeing what did and didn’t belong inside the bounds of a basically coherent story.

–Francis Spufford, Unapologetic, pp. 153-4

Lewis’s “trilemma” revisited

Alan Jacobs takes issue with Anthony Kenny’s discussion of C. S. Lewis’s famous “trilemma” argument in Mere Christianity for the divinity of Jesus. Here’s Kenny:

One line of argument he made popular went like this. Jesus said that he was God. Jesus was neither a deceiver nor deceived. Therefore Jesus was indeed God. Mocking the idea that Christ was simply a great moral teacher, Lewis wrote that a man that said the sort of things Jesus said “would either be a lunatic – on a level with the man who says he is a poached egg – or else he would be the Devil of Hell”. Yet even most conservative biblical scholars today think it unlikely that Jesus in his lifetime made any explicit claim to divinity, so that the argument fails to get started.

Jacobs responds:

Lewis’s trilemma argument does indeed have a serious weakness, and Kenny gropes towards it: Lewis’s argument depends on the assumption that the Gospels faithfully record Jesus’s words, but if you doubt the reliability of the Gospel accounts, then you can easily believe that Jesus was a “great moral teacher” who had certain words put in his mouth by later disciples. This is the assumption that underlies most skeptical redactions of the Gospels, from the Jefferson Bible to the work of the Jesus Seminar. But the great majority of biblical scholars today, as throughout the history of the Church, do indeed believe that the Gospels faithfully record Jesus’s teachings, which puts the trilemma into play.

While I agree with Jacobs that many (if far from all) biblical scholars hold that the gospels (or at least the synoptic gospels) faithfully record the spirit (if not the letter) of Jesus’ teachings, Lewis’s argument still faces some serious obstacles. The biggest problem, in my view, is that Lewis and those who follow him tend to read a full-blown doctrine of the Incarnation back into the gospel texts, and sometimes put questionable interpretations on ambiguous passages. Many of the proof-texts sometimes used to show that Jesus claimed to be divine are susceptible of much less exalted readings.

That said, I do think many contemporary scholars would accept that the historical Jesus claimed a special or unique role for himself in God’s unfolding plan. Many statements of Jesus in the gospels, while falling short of straightforward claims to divinity, do express the sense that one’s response to Jesus is determinative for one’s standing in God’s kingdom. This makes some on the liberal end of the spectrum uncomfortable, in part, I suspect, because it conflicts with the portrait of Jesus as a benevolent sage preaching a message of inclusive tolerance. (See the final chapter of Michael McClymond’s Familiar Stranger for a good discussion of this issue.) So if Jesus viewed himself as the agent of God’s inbreaking reign, even if he didn’t claim to be divine in Nicea-compliant terms, a modified version of Lewis’s trilemma argument could perhaps get off the ground.

Paul Tillich’s proto-”new perspective” on (the other) Paul

Luther believed that his was a restatement of the New Testament, especially of Paul. But although his message contains the truth of Paul, it is by no means the whole of what Paul said. The situation determined what he took from Paul, that is, the doctrine of justification by faith which was Paul’s defense against legalism. But Luther did not take in Paul’s doctrine of the Spirit. Of course, he did not deny it; there is even a lot of it in Luther, but that is not decisive. The decisive thing is that a doctrine of the Spirit, of being “in Christ”, of the new being, is the weak spot in Luther’s doctrine of justification by faith. In Paul the situation is different. Paul has three main centers in his thought, which make it a triangle, not a circle. The one is his eschatological consciousness, the certainty that in Christ eschatology is fulfilled and a new reality has started. The second is his doctrine of the Spirit, which means for him that the kingdom of God has appeared, that the new being in Christ is given to us here and now. The third point in Paul is his critical defense against legalism, justification by faith. (Paul Tillich, A History of Christian Thought, pp. 230-1)

Like proponents of the “new perspective” on Paul, Tillich, Lutheran theologian though he was, saw the limitations of the traditional “Lutheran” interpretation of Paul’s theology. Tillich doesn’t deny that justification by faith is present in Paul’s thought–indeed it remains very important for Tillich’s own theology. But also important is the idea that Christ inaugurates a new age and that Christians “participate,” through the Spirit, in the life of the risen Christ (or the “new being,” to use Tillich’s preferred term).

The Bible as a laboratory notebook

To use an analogy that comes naturally to me as a scientist, the Bible is not the ultimate textbook in which one can look up ready-made answers to all the big questions, but is more like a laboratory notebook, in which are recorded critical historical experiences through which aspects of the divine will and nature have been most accessibly revealed. I believe that the nature of divine revelation is not the mysterious transmission of infallible propositions which are to be accepted without question, but the record of persons and events through which the divine will and nature have been most transparently made known.  – John Polkinghorne, Testing Scripture: A Scientist Explores the Bible, p. 1

Schleiermacher on the authority of the Bible – 2

The New Testament writings, Schleiermacher says, are the first in the ongoing series of presentations of the Christian faith, but they are also normative for all succeeding presentations. He writes, “all that has approved itself in the way of oral presentation of Christian piety in later ages of the Church has kept within the lines of these original forms, or is attached to them as an explanatory accompaniment” (§129.1). But, he asks, if redemption is being “ever more completely realized in time,” then how can these first writings retain their normative status? Might they not be replaced by newer, fuller insights? This is true in a limited sense: when we compare the apostolic age as a whole with later ages. For during the apostolic age there was a variety of Christian writings that possessed uneven quality in terms of how clearly they expressed the essence of Christian piety. However, those testimonies that “stood near[est] to Christ”–for instance, narratives of his words and deeds–exerted a “purifying” influence on the church, allowing it gradually to separate the wheat from the chaff. Thus the writings existing at the time were later divided into the apocryphal and canonical. So, in that sense, later ages may have an advantage over the apostolic.

The influence of apocryphal elements was bound to diminish, Schleiermacher says, precisely because of the purifying influence of what later came to be recognized as the canonical witness. These writings were the ones that contained memories of those who actually knew Jesus. And those testimonies constitute an irreplaceable source and norm of Christian faith. The Church “could never again reproduce the canonical, for the living intuition of Christ was never again able to ward off all debasing influences in the same direct fashion, but only derivatively through the Scriptures and hence in dependence on them” (§129.2). The New Testament is authoritative because it contains memories of the historical Jesus and the testimonies of those who first came to have faith in him. So, later ages may have the advantage over the apostolic in having been purged of certain competing influences; but they can never side-step the authority of the canonical scriptures.

He goes on to say that not every part of the New Testament enjoys this authority–only what pertains to the central message and not “side-thoughts.” Nor is all later Christian thought to be confined to simply repeating what’s in the New Testament. “For since the Spirit was poured out on all flesh, no age can be without its own originality in Christian thinking” (§129.2). Yet all Christian thought has to be tested for its harmony with the canonical writings, and no later writing can provide the same kind of yardstick.