Fallen or flawed? Form and finality

Had a spat over at BioLogos with a guy named George (who makes rejection of the Fall his strapline, it seems), who was replying to GJDS to say that the biblical creation story is flawed because of Hebrew lack of scientific knowledge, and in particular because there was no Fall, and humans were actually created flawed.

He hasn’t replied to the question of just how he knows what happened so long ago, and the details aren’t important here. I just want to use the opportunity to look at what has been a pretty constant motif in “evolutionary theology” since Victorian times – that evolution is entirely incompatible with a fall from innocence, and that it demonstrates that man evolved to be “red in tooth and claw” from the start – hence, the universal experience of sin.

To be honest I’m less interested in entirely heterodox reworkings of Christianity than in the way this particular theme seems an almost inevitable result of ditching an historical Adam of some kind, even by otherwise evangelically-minded people. If there can have been no single innocent couple, how did sin arrive? The most obvious answer is that it evolved like all the other nasty things we think we see in nature.

I’ve suggested all kinds of problems with this before, but today I want to start with the word that George used to describe both the Scripture and man-as-created: “flawed”. After my reply, he in fact modified his post (naughty) to add that there aren’t even perfect examples of animals. But “flawed” is not the opposite of “perfect” … at least, you have to get busy with some definitions before you can decide whether it is.

“Flawed” has, in fact, the same hidden and crucial connotations to which I drew attention in a recent piece on DNA repair. “Flawed”, just like “repair”, has inevitable teleological significance, which is of importance in the scientific realm of evolution, of course, but even more so when one is talking openly about God’s creation of mankind. “Flawed”, by describing something as defective, necessarily means there is a norm to which it ought to comply but doesn’t. But what could that mean, in relation to creation (which George accepted as the event) and evolution (which, by implication, he assumed as the material process)?

In purely secular evolutionary terms, of course, “flaw” has no meaning at all to speak of. A thing is fit, and survives, or not, and doesn’t. “Evolutionary theologies” therefore tend to say that in order to arrive and survive by evolution, man had to be flawed in some non-evolutionary moral sense (usually meaning “selfishness”). But within naturalistic evolution, there can be no “norm” to which the actual can be compared, and therefore no standard by which one could say mankind is “flawed”. A spider is not sinful to eat its mate – if we believe it’s wrong to eat our spouses, where does the wrongness come from?

As soon as you talk “evolutionary creation”, though, there’s another problem. For in that system evolution is a tool for a creation goal of God, ie a final cause, and that goal is a living form. God creates only when he conceives an aim and achieves it.

Whilst George may be strictly correct in saying that there are no perfect cats or butterflies, there are nevertheless many normal cats and butterflies, and it’s that normality that defines how we would recognise one that was perfect: it would completely exemplify the natural form of “cat” or “butterfly”. A flawed cat or butterfly, then, is one whose form is deficient from the normal: the cat is autistic, say, or the butterfly has stunted wings.

If on the other hand cats, or butterflies, taken as species, were flawed, there would be only two possibilities: either God had conceived them in a faulty way, or he had designed faulty means to produce them. In the first place, those are both calumnies on the wisdom and power of God as Creator. In the second place they are logically incoherent – how could you ever decide how cats or butterflies could be better than they are as cats or butterflies? What sense does it make to say “elephants are flawed”?

So it is with humanity and sin. Sin is, definitionally, a falling short of, or deviation from, God’s will, or norm, for man. For God to create him, through evolution or anything else, with a nature (form) that is bound to sin (which is what “flawed” means in this context) would be the same as to create a cat that is predisposed to be a non-cat. Where would the wisdom be in that?

For a start, it would be as absurd for God to judge man for sinful actions as to condemn butterflies for metamorphosing. The siner’s counter-accusation, “You made me thus”, would be undeniable. Therefore, such a belief carries with it the need to remove the whole question of judgement (and therefore of law) from Christianity, or make God the judged, rather than the Judge.

Then again, if sin is part of man’s created nature, one has to account for conscience as something alien to nature – a kind of false guilt whereby one becomes ashamed of what one was created to be. The pricks of conscience would be like beating a dog for not walking on its hind legs. Moral goodness has to be flown into creation from elsewhere, and the goodness of creation is thereby radically denied, in a rather Gnostic manner. Salvation becomes an escape from creation to something else.

Yet in the Bible the theme of the goodness of creation, and the theme of salvation as the restoration of it (especially expressed in Edenic language) is ubiquitous. Moses pictured Canaan in terms of the garden of Eden. The prophets used Edenic imagery. Even the last chapters of Revelation are awash with allusions to the garden, albeit that in Christ the eschatological hope moves beyond what Eden was ever pictured to be. And so conscience only makes sense if sin is an offence against what should be normal for us. And sin must therefore be a perversion of that normality, and not something for which we were created.

Furthermore if conscience were indeed something that was historically added to created nature, its origin raises exactly the same problems as were supposedly posed by the Genesis story of Adam being historically deprived of righteousness. Adam, or something like him, comes in by the back door, only as the origin of conscience instead of sin.

Lastly let me return to the idea of the Fall as the bedrock of the salvation history of God, by earthing it particularly in the beliefs and teachings of Jesus. We believe that he, as Son of God, became man in order to save us from sin – and so one would expect that at least he would have the problem correctly diagnosed. If mankind came into the world flawed, then his task would have been essentially an upgrade to get us out of the flawed physical realm and up to a non-evolved heaven.

Instead, it began with a baptism of repentance, and led to an act of atonement, to restore a “flawed” Israel to a state before sin, and to give the gift of the Spirit to keep them, and subsequently the gentiles, in that state of innocence before God. The last goal was a resurrection both to a sinless, physical, existence and the eternal life lost in Eden, and for God himself as a result to dwell amongst mankind, as had been the model in Eden and the purpose in the Exodus. Rewrite chapter 1 of the story, in Genesis, and you quite literally “lose the plot” of salvation history that Jesus completes.

And Jesus knew that. Jesus dealt with sin in Edenic terms. Like John the Baptist, he refers to his opponents as “offspring of vipers” in Matt. 12.33 and 23.33 (cf Gen 3.16). In John 8, equally angrily, he calls them “children of the devil”, which only makes sense in the Eden context. Moreover he calls Satan “a murderer from the beginning” ie for maliciously incurring the punishment of death for Adam and Eve by means of being “the father of lies” in his temptation. In this way Jesus accuses them of trying to obstruct his work as the new Adam, just as the snake did for the first Adam.

But if sin generally, and his enemies’ malice in particular, was really just the inevitable outworking of evolution, then not only was Jesus’s whole idea of his mission badly mistaken, but he owes the scribes and Pharisees an apology for condemning them by a misdiagnosis, based on his swallowing the Eden story uncritically.

I think that’s all too high a cost to pay for making a smoother path for twentieth century fashions in biological theory.

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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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6 Responses to Fallen or flawed? Form and finality

  1. Cath Olic says:

    You make some good points here.
    Yes, “evolutionary creation” does have some thorny theological problems, at least from a traditional Christian perspective.

    Your piece brought to my mind one of the readings from yesterday’s Mass. I think it covers the cats, butterflies, elephants, etc., too:

    “I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us.
    For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God;
    for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of him who subjected it in hope;
    because the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and obtain the glorious liberty of the children of God.
    We know that the whole creation has been groaning in travail together until now;
    and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies.
    For in this hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what he sees?
    But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.”

    • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:


      The passage shows a hard-done-by creation suffering from us, rather than a wicked creation from which we need rescue.

      Paradoxically, its liberation comes through us – or to follow Paul’s reasoning a little more fully, through Christ the perfect man/ new Adam, whose liberation of us from our sin spills over into the rest of creation, transforming it into the “glorious liberty” which, if I’m not mistaken, is the full presence of God that would have been forever ours in Eden, “if only…”

      The narrative of both the creation and the Adam story (for all that we have disagreed on the material details they portray) set the whole agenda for the Bible’s over-arching message, from the nature of nature to the “suffering, kingdom and patient endurance” that underpins hope.

      That gives me the excuse to quote Gordon Wenham on Gen 1:

      Any attempt to trace the subsequent use of this chapter in Scripture would be most unsatisfactory just because its themes and motifs are so pervasive and its theology so fundamental to the biblical world-view… these simple but far-reaching affirmations have become the presuppositions of the rest of the sacred story.

      That’s why it annoys me so much when people think it’s easily-jettisoned, and especially so when it’s jettisoned on such shallow grounds as bone-headed materialism.

  2. Timothy Hicks says:

    I think it’s good to recognize that “flawed” and “inadequate” are subjection definitions and can’t be nailed down.

    Here’s what I thing.

    You can only “fall from innocence”, until you are given a commandment to disobey I.e., you would need to know the difference between good and evil before any such judgement can be made on you.

    That being said, if we are being hypothetical here, suppose Adam when he was outside the garden he was amoral …. After all he was created outside, and God “took” him INTO the garden. And when he was given the commandment by God, signifying a right and a wrong, that’s when God gave him a conscience … Adam, originally amoral, turned innocent with a potential for corruption. After he disobeys, he then gets exiled from the Garden, and hence his “fall”.

    Does this scenario make sense from an evolutionary standpoint, or is my reasoning flawed?

    Note: not arguing for a particular mechanism here … Just evolutionary change in the general sense.


    • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

      Hi Tim, and welcome to The Hump

      I think your suggestion is very reasonable in general terms. Paul in Romans 5 (in a trickily convoluted passage, ’tis true) distinguishes Adam’s transgression of a command from his descendants prior to the giving of *torah* who, apparently paradoxically, were subject to the penalty of death even though they did not transgress any commandments.

      In some way that must relate back to “the law of conscience” in ch2, which if it were an “actual” law, would contradict ch5. My best guess, then, is that “conscience” is part of what came to mankind through the Eden events – which seems to be hinted at in the sudden shame of Adam and Eve only after eating the fruit.

      Assuming some evolutionary element for man (ie assuming common descent with non-humans) there *must* be a point at which, like other animals, “man” was not making moral choices, but simply functioning according to his God-given animal nature.

      The way to see that is as an imposed “natural law for hominids”, and it would, as you say, be as amoral as the chimp or the horse or the tiger going about its duties. There is no place for conscience in a preying tiger because it’s fulfilling its place in God’s scheme of things (cf Augustine etc).

      So I’d see conscience as one of the results of seizing knowledge/wisdom illicitly within the primary relationship with God, with its single simple command. They didn’t wrestle with conscience, so much as with unbelief and rebellion. Thereafter they became increasingly corrupt – and through conscience, knew it.

      I’d speculate that, had they not sinned, God would have led them into true wisdom (in Christ the Logos, of course), and conscience wouldn’t come into it, being “clear” from beginning to end.

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