Archive for June, 2011

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Tim Keller on Adam & Eve – Part II

June 19, 2011

In my first post on this topic, I discussed whether it made sense to think of the Adam & Eve story as “mythologized history”. In this post, I want to tackle something else from Tim Keller’s post in defence of a literal Adam.

Keller is convinced that in order for Christ’s salvation to work covenantally, Adam’s sin had to spread covenantally. In other words, just as Christ died for the benefit of all, so too must the sin of Adam have been laid to the account of all.

My initial reaction is to ask, “Why?”. Why must the cause of sin work the same way as the remedy? Sure, it makes for nice parallelism. I imagine that’s why Paul made the analogy. But there’s no logical reason why it has to work that way and Keller doesn’t offer one.

What really troubles me about Keller’s argument is how he goes about justifying the idea that sin works covenantally. He writes:

As a pastor, I often get asked how we can get credit for something that Christ did. The answer does not make much sense to modern people, but it makes perfect sense to ancient people. It is the idea of being in “federation” with someone, in a legal and historical solidarity with a father, or an ancestor, or another family member or a member of your tribe. You are held responsible (or you get credit) for what that other person does. Another way to put it is that you are in a covenant relationship with the person. An example is Achan, whose entire family is punished when he sins (Josh 7.)

It is telling, I think, that in support of his argument that God attributes individual sin guilt covenantally, Keller relies on one of the more disturbing stories in the OT. Joshua and his men have just finished putting the city of Jericho to the ban. That is, God has allegedly ordered them to slaughter everything that breathes and to devote the entire city to destruction. When Joshua attempts to take the city of Ai, his men are defeated. Why? Because God is angry that they didn’t devote the entire city of Jericho to destruction. Turns out some guy named Achan had helped himself to some booty (the pirate kind, not the other kind). The response was a little draconian, to say the least:

Then Joshua, together with all Israel, took Achan son of Zerah, the silver, the robe, the gold bar, his sons and daughters, his cattle, donkeys and sheep, his tent and all that he had, to the Valley of Achor. Joshua said, “Why have you brought this trouble on us? The LORD will bring trouble on you today.” Then all Israel stoned him, and after they had stoned the rest, they burned them. (Joshua 7:24-25)

Imagine the scene. “Little girl, I’m afraid your daddy has disobeyed God’s command. While we were busy running babies through with swords, your daddy was stuffing gold bricks down his pants. I’m sure you’ll understand that the only just thing to do is to stone him … oh and you as well. And your brothers. And your cat.”

Remarkably, according to Keller, this is a principle of general application for God. Immediately after referencing the stoning of Achan’s family, Keller writes as follows:

The ancient and biblical understanding is that a person is not “what he is” simply through his personal choices. He becomes “what he is” through his communal and family environment. So if he does a terrible crime—or does a great and noble deed—others who are in federation (or in solidarity, or in covenant with him) are treated as if they had done what he had done.

The great thing about proof-texting is that you can find an isolated story in support of your point, claim that it represents THE “biblical understanding” and then ignore other passages like Ezekiel 18:20:

The one who sins is the one who will die. The child will not share the guilt of the parent, nor will the parent share the guilt of the child. The righteousness of the righteous will be credited to them, and the wickedness of the wicked will be charged against them.

If you have a moment, read all of Ezekiel 18. The entire chapter is a refutation of the sort of thinking that Keller describes as the “biblical understanding” of the imputation of guilt.

For Keller, there’s no problem at all with the idea that all of humanity should be condemned for the sins of one man. He was our federal head and we get thrown in the stoning pit with him.

But it gets worse. It’s one thing to conceive of sin entering the world through the sole progenitors of the human race. In some way (if I turn my head sideways and squint) I can kind of see how it might be that once man had fallen, his offspring might then inherit that fallen nature and the consequences that go with it. But the whole point of Keller’s post is to contend for a historical Adam & Eve who are not the sole progenitors of the human race. Keller realizes that he must come to grips with the fact that the human population has never been smaller than several thousand. But he still wants to make us all vicariously liable for the actions of one man.

Keller provides no explanation as to why Adam would be in federation/solidarity/covenant with the rest of the existing human population of his day. Why should the thousands of other humans who co-existed with Adam be covenantally linked with Adam? Even Joshua didn’t stone the entire Israelite camp, just the responsible family.

Since Keller hasn’t attempted to guesstimate where Adam might fit into history, it’s hard to tell just how many contemporaries would have been stuck with the consequences of Adam’s sin. Was Adam a neolithic farmer in the middle east, as some have suggested? If so, that was rotten luck for the people in the Americas. They didn’t know Adam existed, their lineages had diverged thousands of years earlier, yet God thought it just to treat them “as if they had done what [Adam] had done.”

You can push Adam as far back into the Stone Age as you wish, but you will never eliminate the problem. It will always be patently unjust to hold an entire population of thousands of individuals liable for the actions of one of their contemporaries. It offends our most basic sense of justice. You wouldn’t do it. I wouldn’t do it. Why would God do it?

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Exciting New Jesus Documentary

June 13, 2011

What do you think? Have the revisionist Jesus scholars gone too far …

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Tim Keller on Adam & Eve – Part I

June 12, 2011

Tim Keller has joined the discussion on Adam-historicity with an article titled, Sinned in a Literal Adam, Raised in a Literal Christ, posted on the Gospel Coalition website. Keller accepts that life has an evolutionary history, but has concerns about treating Adam & Eve as mythological characters.

In response to the observation that the various Genesis narratives share remarkable similarities with other Ancient Near Eastern mythologies, Keller calls upon evangelical scholar Kenneth Kitchen. Keller writes:

The prominent Egyptologist and evangelical Christian, when responding to the charge that the flood narrative (Gen 9) should be read as “myth” or “proto-history” like the other flood-narratives from other cultures, answered:

The ancient Near East did not historicize myth (i.e. read it as imaginary “history”). In fact, exactly the reverse is true—there was, rather, a trend to “mythologize” history, to celebrate actual historical events and people in mythological terms.

In other words, the evidence is that Near Eastern “myths” did not evolve over time into historical accounts, but rather historical events tended to evolve over time into more mythological stories. Kitchen’s argument is that, if you read Genesis 2-11 in light of how ancient Near Eastern literature worked, you would conclude, if anything, that Genesis 2-11 were “high” accounts, with much compression and figurative language, of events that actually happened. In summary, it looks like a responsible way of reading the text is to interpret Genesis 2-3 as the account of an historical event that really happened.

Keller’s argument seems to be this: There was a tendency in the ANE for the memories of historical events and characters to accrue mythological elements over time. Therefore, seemingly mythological narratives may have historical persons and events at their core.

As a general proposition, I take no issue with the above. It was once assumed that the events and places in Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey were fictitious. When excavations in the late 1800s turned up the actual city of Troy, it became apparent that there might be some (minimal) historical truth behind the epic poems.

But there are serious limitations to this observation. While some mythologies have a historical referent, it is by no means the case that all mythologies do. Should we assume that the Babylonian tale of Marduk slaying the sea monster Tiamat to create the heavens and earth from her split carcass is an actual historical event that has become mythologized? Probably not.

So yes, it is possible to “mythologize history”, but it is also possible for mythologies to be invented out of whole cloth.

Moreover, even if we suppose that the Genesis narratives are mythologized accounts of two actual historical people named Adam and Eve, that’s not enough. To do the theological heavy-lifting that Keller wants them to do, Adam & Eve need to be more than mere historical figures. They need to be in some sort of special relationship with God and some sort of federal headship over mankind. They need to violate God’s command. They and their progeny need to be cursed by God as a result. In other words, the broad brushstrokes of the Genesis narrative need to be historical as well. So even if a comparative study of ANE mythologies leads us to conclude that there may be a historical Adam & Eve somewhere beneath the mythological trappings of the Genesis story, this does little to establish the Fall narrative as historical. The story of the Fall may simply be part of the legend that has developed around the historical characters.

How might we determine whether the Fall narrative is part of a possible “historical core” or part of later mythological accretion? Examine the text.

When we examine the text we find that the Fall story is rife with mythological elements:

  • a paradisaical garden
  • forbidden fruit
  • a talking snake (which, incidentally, doesn’t seem to surprise any of the characters)
  • an immortality-granting tree guarded by cherubim with a flaming sword!!

We also find that the story appears to serve an etiological function, explaining the origin of things that must certainly have predated any historical Adam and Eve:

  • pain in childbirth
  • weeds & agrarian toil
  • crawling snakes

In other words, the content of the narrative would lead any unbiased observer to recognize the Fall story as belonging to the category of myth, regardless of whether the characters in the story might have existed. To salvage the Fall as a historical event, Keller needs more than two neolithic farmers named Adam and Eve. He needs to contend that a story that bears all the hallmarks of mythology is actually part of the historical core and not subsequent mythologizing. That is not, as he suggests, “a responsible way of reading the text.” It is special pleading.

The putative Mask of Agamemnon

Agamemnon may have existed. If he did, he may or may not have laid siege to Troy. But it he did exist and he did lay siege to Troy, we can be pretty darn sure that it wasn’t because Paris stole Helen after adjudicating among the goddesses as to who should receive a golden apple from the gods.

Why are we so adept at recognizing mythology in the literature of other cultures but so willfully blind to it in our own?

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No Adam, No Eve, No Problem

June 6, 2011

The recent cover story in Christianity Today about the historicity of Adam and Eve has spawned a lot of discussion.

Today, Biologos President Darrel Falk discussed the Christianity Today editorial piece that accompanied the cover story. Falk is encouraged by the willingness of the CT editors to accept the conclusions of modern genetics. Specifically, the editors acknowledge the compelling data that the human race cannot trace its roots back to a single couple, but, rather, evolved from ancestral hominid populations that were never smaller than several thousand. (For more on the science behind these conclusions, you’ll want to read Dennis Venema’s paper in the ASA journal, Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith.) This is, indeed, a courageous move for the editors of so prominent an evangelical publication.

What should we make of the story of Adam & Eve in light of this knowledge? Upon discovering that the Genesis creation account is a highly symbolic piece of literature that sits comfortably within the well-attested ancient near eastern genre of creation mythology, many Christians (and not a few biblical scholars) have drawn the natural inference that the characters in this highly symbolic story are almost certainly symbolic as well.

But here is where the CT editorial piece is far less encouraging. The editorial is titled, “No Adam, No Eve, No Gospel.” Not a lot of nuance in that position, is there? Here are a few excerpts:

Christians have already drawn the line: there must be an original pair of humans endowed with souls—that is, the spiritual capacity to relate to God in the special way Genesis describes.

What is at stake? First, the entire story of what is wrong with the world hinges on the disobedient exercise of the will by the first humans. 

Second, the entire story of salvation hinges on the obedience of the Second Adam. The apostle Paul, the earliest Christian writer to interpret Jesus’ work, called Adam “a type of the one who was to come” (Rom. 5:14, ESV), and wrote that “[j]ust as we have borne the image of the man of dust [Adam], we shall also bear the image of the man of heaven [Jesus]” (1 Cor. 15:49, ESV). He elaborated an “Adam Christology” that described a fallen humanity, headed by Adam, and a new, redeemed humanity with Christ as its head.

The editorial is sparse on detail when it comes to providing a workable solution, but it does say, “we can still conceive of Adam and Eve as leaders of that original population” and observes that there is biblical precedent for God holding “groups of people morally responsible for the actions of some of their members.” The editors seem to be proposing that God either breathed souls into or specially created two prehistoric humans of unspecified vintage who were prominent members of a larger population. This couple was made perfectly righteous, but chose to sin (no indication of whether the gospel requires a historical talking snake to make this happen). Because Adam & Eve were leaders of this early human population, the whole lot of them were deemed to have fallen. I’m not certain what the others would have fallen from if only Adam & Eve had been given the special relationship with God at that point. In any event, that’s their proposal for maintaining a historic Adam & Eve while accepting the genomic data.

The CT editors are insistent on maintaining a historical role for Adam & Eve because, as the editorial title implies, they feel that too much doctrine is at stake. They have basically posed three main objections to a non-literal Adam & Eve:  Souls, the Fall, and Paul. Let’s consider them in turn…

Objection #1: SoulsOur animal ancestors didn’t have souls. Humans do. Therefore, there must have been a specific point in history in which God endowed homo sapiens with souls.

I suspect that this argument would make little sense to the authors of Genesis. It hinges on the dualistic presumption that man is composed of two (or more) distinct components: a corporeal body and an incorporeal soul. Evangelicals may be accustomed to thinking this way, but it is by no means the only Christian viewpoint, nor would it have been the viewpoint of the authors of Genesis.

But even if one accepts that humans have a unique thing called a soul, why does this necessitate a first couple? Couldn’t God just as easily hand out souls to the entire hominid population? Can’t Adam & Eve just be symbolic representations of that population? Frankly, this seems far more reasonable to me than the idea of giving souls to just two lucky people. Can you imagine being their neighbors? “Hey Urzug, have you noticed Adam and Eve in the cave down the block? They think they’re soooo cool with their new souls. Makes me want to wipe the grin off their faces with a hand axe.” Seriously though, what kind of scenario are the CT editors envisioning? How do souls spread throughout the population? Maybe Adam and Eve’s kids inherited souls, but what happened when they interbred with their non-souled neighbors? Did soulishness spread through the population like a gene? Wouldn’t geographic isolation have meant lingering pockets of non-souled humans all over the world until modern times (unless you imagine Adam and Eve going back some 50,000+ years to predate global human migration – an impossibly long time for oral tradition about Adam & Eve to survive)?

Once you’ve acknowledged that Adam & Eve are not the progenitors of the entire human race, the original pair of souls idea becomes highly problematic.

One does not need an original pair of first soul recipients in order to believe that at some special point in history God endowed humans with souls. God is perfectly capable of providing an entire extant human population with the “capacity to relate to God in the special way Genesis describes.” He doesn’t need to pick favorites.

Objection #2: The FallGod must have made us in a state of original righteousness. We aren’t righteous now. Therefore, there must have been a point at which men fell into sin and Adam is the prime culprit.

Part and parcel of coming to grips with the implications of evolutionary history is the realization that disease, predation, pain and death have been with us from the beginning (i.e. hundreds of millions of years before the first hominids). “What is wrong with the world” cannot be attributed to the disobedience of human beings who only appear on stage at the tail end of the planet’s history. If it is essential to you to be able to blame earthquakes, cancer and those little fish that swim up your urethra on “the Fall”, then I strongly recommend you stick with Young Earth Creationism.

If, like the editors of CT, you realize that YECism is intellectually untenable, then you have to adjust your theodicy. Period. Adam and Eve and the Fall simply aren’t going to explain it all anymore, whether they’re historical or not.

Perhaps the CT editors meant only that the Fall was necessary as an explanation for moral evil (as distinct from natural evil). The idea of God creating morally perfect people only to have them rebel and permanently corrupt their lineage makes some sense if these are the prototypical people. But where does this state of perfection fit in an evolutionary narrative in which our ancestors were anything but perfect? There is no reason to think that the inclination to violence, licentiousness and self-centered behavior that characterizes our sinful nature was not also characteristic of our hominid ancestors. When men commit evil acts in pursuit of wealth, sex and power, is there really all that much of a discontinuity with the australopithecine competing for limited resources, mating opportunities and dominance within his herd? We may wish to appeal to being “made in the image of God” to explain our most noble qualities, but we need look no further than our lowly origins to explain our base qualities. To paraphrase a certain chanteuse: I evolved this way.

Did God take a pair of hominids out of a population with this base animal nature and make them morally perfect, only so that they could immediately return to the same behavior as their ancestors (and non-souled contemporaries)? What would be the point? Do you take a pig out of the mud and give him a bath when you know he’ll be back wallowing in the mud before the tub has finished draining?

Unless you’re content with postulating a paradise that was a brief (and seemingly pointless) aberration, evolutionary history leaves little room for a state of perfection from which men could “fall”.

To move beyond Augustinian notions of the Fall and original sin – as I believe we must do – does not mean that we deny sin as the central problem. As a dysfunctional part of a pain-filled world, we are as much in need of redemption as the rest of creation. But it may be that the hope of the gospel is not that Christ’s death and resurrection allow us to return to a paradisaical state we once enjoyed and lost, but rather that it opens the door to a state of righteousness and freedom from sin that we have never known.

Objection #3: PaulPaul describes Christ as a second Adam who, through the cross, undoes the effects of Adam’s sin. Therefore there must have been an Adam who sinned or Christ is out of a job.

Pete Enns has addressed this issue thoroughly in a series at Biologos: (Part I, Part II, Part III, Part IV). So I’ll be brief.

For the most part, Paul is using Adam typologically. There it no need for a figure to be historical in order to be used in this analogical way. Is Christ incapable of being our high priest if Melchizedek turns out to be a figure of legend rather than history? Or what about Jonah? Jesus himself said, “For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of a huge fish, so the Son of Man will be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth” (Matt. 12:40).  Is Easter undone if we recognize the story of Jonah as a heavily ironic fictional tale (as most scholars do)? Surely not.

Paul most likely believed Adam to be a historical person; he had no reason not to. And it does appear that Paul took at face value the account of Adam’s disobedience as the means by which “sin entered the world”. But Paul doesn’t have to be right about the origin of sin (an incidental point) in order to be correct about God’s solution to sin (the central point). Regardless of where our sinful nature originates, the fact and problem of sin remain. So, no, Christ is not out of a job without Adam.

Like Darrel Falk, I applaud the editors of CT for acknowledging that “sometimes, Christian ways of thinking must adjust” in light of the discoveries of science. But I am saddened by the kneejerk response of simply drawing new lines in the sand – lines which exclude all sorts of devout Christians, scholars and scientists who do not find the idea of a historical Adam & Eve probable or necessary.