Unforeseen consequences of de-historicizing theology

I haven’t commented much about BioLogos in recent months, perhaps realizing more that it’s just one small player in the scheme of the science-faith discussion, which is in turn one small player in God’s project of salvation. But I still get occasional reminders that its approach is problematic. One is the excellent article by Jamie Smith, which in turn responds to a piece by Loren Haarsma.

Jamie is not some fundamentalist ostrich regarding evolution, but is a philosopher-theologian involved in the Biologos-funded project on the Colossian Forum to tackle the serious issues around science and faith – a project that also includes Darrel Falk and J Richard Middleton, a subscriber here, of course.

The article is current, so I won’t rehash it except to say that perhaps his main point is that efforts to re-interpret the account of Adam, in order to de-historicize it, inevitably leave sin not only unexplained, but the responsibility of God rather than man. I’ve said much the same thing on many occasions, so I need say no more on it here.

I would just note that the kinds of “re-interpretation” that are proposed – and that have been in very similar form since nineteenth century liberals gave “evolutionary” accounts of sin – largely depend on collapsing biblical inspiration down into fallible authorial belief. Thus Paul’s discussion of Adam, which undoubtedly depends on his individual existence, is held to reflect the errors of his own culture, and to misrepresent the original intent of the author(s) of Genesis. But they themselves were ancient authors unaware of the truths of evolution and struggling in their own way to explain the phenomenological experience of sin. The only important truth, it is said, is the undeniable fact that sin exists – a fact however that, when it comes down to it, is routinely denied by many of those skeptics who don’t accept the biblical account of humanity but do accept the evolutionary account.

Jamie’s 2012 essay on Colossian Forum explores this further, the keynote being that such theories exclude almost entirely any real engagement with the divine author of Scripture. This is crucial – I’ve yet to see an account of what is called the “incarnational approach” to inspiration that isn’t in practice psilanthropic.

The question of sin’s origin was the point at issue in Smith’s BioLogos piece, but here I will take that as read and consider some other consequences that seem to follow from the denial that “sin came into the world through one man.”

The first is that such teaching does not only leave us without an explanation of sin, leaving us to assume it is a natural consequence of the process of evolution, “red in tooth and claw” (and therefore necessitating further theological acrobatics to distance God from evolution by making it autonomous in order to preserve his goodness – an evasion of accountability that would rival Sepp Blatter’s. He eventually had to resign anyway, and his prophetic example is the writing on the wall for such a theodicy.)

No, this teaching also leaves us without a Christian understanding of the nature of sin. We see this in the common practice, in these discussions, of taking sin to be selfishness, making connections with the supposed self-preservation (or sometimes, the “selfish-gene” metaphor) behind evolution, and so making God’s salvation entirely to do with showing us a new way of unselfishness, presumably bucking the natural process (“evolutionary creation”) that produced us.

But Genesis teaches us that sin came into the world by one act of disobedience to a specific command – the direct denial of the Lordship of Yahweh, the preference for seizing our own kind of wisdom instead of learning from our true Teacher. Paul develops the relationship of this to the more general manifestion of evil in Romans 1, and it is an historical (as well as a personal) process. The roots of this process are religious and relational: sidelining the God men knew led them into idolatry, and idolatry to sexual perversion and all the other “moral” perversions, in themselves an act of reprobation by God. Note the repeated phrase, “God gave them over…” in Romans 1.

It is only because the root of sin is the historic event of breaking existing fellowship with God that we can know that the solution to sin must also begin in restoration of that fellowship. Attempts at moral reformation cannot succeed because it is God who has, for both chastisement and to spur repentance, “given us over” to sin. And so the gospel order is repentance that leads to obedience, which breaks the idols in our hearts, which opens the way to our sexual and moral reformation and our ability to return to the role Adam was given in God’s Kingdom.

Mention of that Kingdom, and man’s role in it, demonstrates another thing that is lost by ahistoric re-interpretations of Genesis. Evolution gives mankind no role except that of survival, a role inherited not only by men but by animals, plants and lowly protists. The creation ordinance to rule and subdue the earth – and Adam’s more specific priestly role – are superadded to that, and must have become so at a point in time, at least as far as linking whatever “natural” royal endowments of mind and will we have with the conscious service of Yahweh, the only true and living God.

This cannot be divorced from the question of God’s image in man. This image seems to be one of those fundamentals that is never questioned, even when its sole source – Genesis 1 – is regarded otherwise as a primitive attempt at ancient science. Such a selective and arbitrary hermeneutic! In its context, of course, as Richard Middleton has demonstrated as much as anyone, the divine image is inextricably linked with the creation of man as God’s viceregent and servant on earth, and so with the eschatological hope that runs through the Bible. The Son, the second Person of the Trinity, is the eternal image of God: man was created in that image, to represent Christ on earth. That can only happen by a creative process over which God is sovereign, and whilst one might conceive of it as some kind of emergent process, it cannot possibly be ahistoric.

One commenter on Jamie Smith’s BioLogos piece reminds us that to focus on the origin of sin alone is to neglect the context of Genesis: he reminds us that the endowment of conscience – uniquely human – is what makes both sin and conscious obedience possible. Conscience is a unique spiritual dignity. Once again, Paul integrates conscience into his whole theology of sin, based remember on the Genesis narrative, in Romans 2.12-16. Conscience is the flip-side of sin, but it too must have an historical origin, for no animal has it. In relation to the biblical concept of sin, it must also have an original command, for Paul also says “sin is not taken into account where there is no law” (Rom 5.13).

In short, to remove the question of sin from history entails removing the whole of human origins from history, as far as any truly theological account of man goes – and Christianity is nothing if not a theological account of man. In effect it is to render mankind itself ahistorical, in the same sense that the vagaries of an unguided evolution are ahistorical because meaningless. But God’s dealings with us are a story – a salvation history. No story makes sense without an ending. And no ending makes sense unless it resolves the beginning.

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About Jon Garvey

Training in medicine (which was my career), social psychology and theology. Interests in most things, but especially the science-faith interface. The rest of my time, though, is spent writing, playing and recording music.
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