One of the key insights in recent times that enables Christians to integrate a Biblical worldview with a scientific one is that expressed in John Walton’s seminal Lost World of Genesis One. In this he shows how the Genesis creation account was originally intended not as a material description of creation, but as a functional account of God’s ordering of it as his temple, with mankind in the privileged position of both priest-king and temple-image.
Before Walton, most Evangelicals who accepted deep time and/or evolution had come to some kind of rapport with the idea of Genesis as a literary account – maybe an allegory. But Waltons’s (with others’) concept enables a whole new positive engagement with Genesis on fresh terms, which casts light on the whole of the rest of the Bible. For example, it has facilitated G K Beale’s exploration of cosmic temple imagery throughout the whole Bible, from Genesis to Revelation. It was all there, but we never saw it because our minds were moulded by the western materialist worldview.
Yet old habits die hard. I find that in theistic evolution circles, the questions of the nature of mankind’s divine “imageness”, the origin of sin, or even the touchstone question of Adam and Eve’s historicity quickly lead to an exploration of deep time. Genesis is still being required to answer evolutionary questions, though we say we’ve departed from Creationist literalism.
When can we find evidence for religion’s origin? Are Venus figurines goddesses? Is palaeolithic art shamanistic? Neanderthals seem to have honoured their dead – maybe God’s image was on early hominids as well as modern man?
Then we see evidence of violence in prehistoric remains, and murderous or promiscuous activity even in higher primates. More often than not this starts a theological cascade through the whole of evolutionary history – not only are chimps selfish (ignoring the fact that evidence for a concept of “self” only exists in man), but insects “sinfully” parasitise other insects, genes (in some minds) pursue selfish goals and, even apart from life, the Universe is full of natural evil like tsunamis and asteroid strikes. To a good few this seems to lead to varieties of open theism in which God allows creation “freedom” (in some obscure sense linked to randomness) which then, maybe inevitably, strays into evil. This appears to me a return to animism – I don’t think my house would really appreciate being given the vote, nor would most of us tip our cashboxes into the wind to liberate our banknotes.
But even without this element, sin becomes something that emerges from evolution. Given the system of death and suffering, it was inevitable, and the task is to show how God was justified in allowing it to happen that way, and how he has dealt with it in Christ. But the net result of this attempt to apply Genesis to science symbolically is that we end up contradicting it: instead of a good creation from which man falls into sin, we get an evil creation from which mankind rises to consciousness of God.
We are making the same old category error. We have stopped trying to use Genesis as a textbook of material origins, but are still trying to use it as a textbook of human spirituality and morality. But it’s not. The Bible is not God’s book about theism. It’s his book about Yahwism. It’s not about how man first became aware of the spiritual realm, but about how the true God, the God of Israel, as opposed to the false gods that pepper its pages, revealed, and reveals himself, to man in covenant relationship.
And it’s not about how man became sinful, aka selfish. The story of Genesis is of man messing up his covenant relationship with Yahweh, with ungodly behaviour of all kinds as the result. Sin is always described with reference to man’s relationship to Yahweh, whether that’s the first and second tablets of the Law, Paul’s historical overview in Romans 1, or Jesus giving his life to bring us, first, to God and then to our neighbour.
Clearly there are anthropological questions that are worth considering from this. How does ancient spirituality relate to God’s revelation and appointment of Adam as his image? What was early man’s behaviour, and if it was “evil”, could it also have the character of sin in the absence of covenant relationship? But as to answering the questions actually posed by Genesis itself – in other words, putting it in the context intended both by its ancient author and the Holy Spirit – we must surely avoid invoking scientific discoveries and attitudes if we’re not to fall into the old Creationist error. Genesis does not map science. Neither does it map anthropology. It maps Yahweh’s self revelation.
So what theology ought to be interested in is not when hominids first considered the immaterial, but when men first called on the name of the Lord. Bearing in mind that there is no clear evidence of named deities before the late neolithic, we’re not going to be looking too hard at Neanderthal graves. Neither is the key hamartological question when the concept of self first led to acts the Law later deemed sinful, still less when creatures with no sense of self unconsciously broke the Law written for men, but when those in covenant with Yahweh first disobeyed what he had commanded them to do.
Oddly, when I do that I find not only that orthodox Evangelical theology doesn’t need to be turned on its head at all, but that the early Genesis accounts begin to make more sense even in their mytho-historical context. Semi-creationism is dangerous – it leads to heterodoxy. Let’s not get stuck in it.