Hump retrospective 2: old earth with death, carnivores and natural evils

Creation “groaning” for 13bn years?

My retrospective review of this aspect of the last ten years of my research is timely, it seems. For reviewing Joshua Swamidass’s Genealogical Adam and Eve YECs Robert Carter and John Sanford mention Josh’s citing of my book God’s Good Earth, in relation to the subject of death before the Fall.

Here’s what they say:

But what sort of ‘death’ before the Fall did most of the church countenance? It was not the ‘death before the Fall’ envisioned by modern old-earth compromisers that one finds in the fossil record, full of disease, carnivory, and suffering. Patristics scholar Benno Zuiddam documented a number of Church Fathers who explicitly affirmed Genesis 1:30 teaching that animal diets were non-carnivorous, and this was reflected in the Edenic allusion of Isaiah 11 and 65. And while ideas about ‘no animal death before the Fall’ may not have been universal among early Christian scholars, the same cannot be said about ‘no human death before the Fall’. Thomas Aquinas (in responding to an objection) is representative: “It would seem that death and other bodily defects are not the result of sin” with “On the contrary, The Apostle says (Romans 5:12), ‘By one man sin entered into this world, and by sin death.’” And how does this square with the historical evidence that the church was nearly unanimous in believing the earth was not more than a few thousand years old in 1517?

Let me first remind you that my core investigative principle was always “What does the Bible teach?” So as I recalled the old, troubling, scenario of innocent Adam walking the earth on the bodies of billions of years of corpses, my first recourse was to see what the Scripture actually says, and what it does not. To my surprise (and with some embarrassment, as a Bible student since 1965) positive teaching on the necessary corollary of a death- and suffering-free pre-fall world, ie that there was a fundamental shift in the nature of physical reality afterwards, simply wasn’t in Scripture at all.

To oversimplify the case here, all that Genesis suggests was affected in the natural world by Adam’s fall was that snakes would crawl, and that thistles and thorns would be more difficult to kill. The other passages cited in support of the idea are interpreted on the assumption that such a radical reworking of creation has occurred. Notably these passages include Isa. 11 and 65, which in fact look forward to the new creation, not backwards to the old, and which on close study turn out to be descriptions of a human, agricultural and pastoral, relationship to nature, and not statements about nature’s internal economy. The other commonly quoted passage, Romans 8 (about the groaning of creation) is, once more, upon close study found to be a contrast between the old, “natural” creation and the new “spiritual” creation, delayed in its consummation by human sin, and not about a perfect realm corrupted by the fall.

I’ve been an amateur student of the Patristic authors since 1993, when after gaining unique free access to Chelmsford Cathedral’s antiquarian library through the librarian, a patient and friend, I subsequently bought a complete set of the Ante-Nicene Fathers through a specialist bookshop. I read them avidly on underground trains and in other unlikely venues. Around the time of my reassessment of Scripture’s non-teaching on the “fall of nature” (2011) I stumbled across a passage in Augustine casting doubt on “the traditional view.”

When I mentioned it to a professional historian of theology, a true-blue Calvinist, he replied that there were a number of other Patristic passages with a similar content. Between us (mainly him, I hasten to add), we gathered a large collection of lengthy citations which eventually formed the middle third of God’s Good Earth. Apart from early Jewish writers my sources included many of the “big names” including Irenaeus, Clement of Alexandria, Lactantius, Athanasius, Cyril, Basil, Gregory of Nazianzus, John Chrysostom, Augustine, and John of Damascus.

Indeed, casting forward through church history via mediaevals such as Aquinas, we began to realise that the “traditional view” of a fallen creation was largely an innovation, which (for reasons I proposed in a new hypothesis) arose at the time of the Reformation.

I must emphasize that many of these ancient writers focus specifically on the wisdom and fitness of God in creating fierce carnivores, contrary to what Carter and Sanford say in their review. Since they mention Aquinas by name, let me quote him here:

In the opinion of some, those animals which are now fierce and kill others would, in that state [before the fall], have been tame, not only in regard to man, but also in regard to other animals. But this is quite unreasonable. For the nature of animals was not changed by man’s sin as if those whose nature now it is to devour the flesh of others, would then have lived on herbs, as the lion and the falson. Nore does Bede’s gloss on Genesis 1:30 say that trees and herbs were given as food to all animals and birds, but to some. Thus there would have been natural antipathy between some animals. (Summa Theologica, 1:99:A1)

Now, it is of course possible that these theologians wrongly interpreted the text. But that is scarcely the point when the issue is “what the tradition taught.” It did not, after all, teach the consensus claimed by YECs, as I found when I studied the Fathers directly (“Read the transcript,” as sombody once said).

Indeed, whether we are dealing with the wealth of witnesses I cited at length in GGE, or the opponents whose existence Aquinas certainly admitted (and which I also cite, though to be frank in the early Fathers I could only find Theophilus of Antioch as a partially issenting voice), we need to remember that they were all as far removed in time and culture from the writer of Genesis as we are from them.

They were actually less attuned to the world of Moses than we are to the classical world of the Fathers, which still guides much of our own culture. Surely, they were great men of the Spirit and excellent theologians. But the Bible is such a robust text that it communicates its saving doctrine under even the most alien of cultural conditions. Yet it is self-evident that the closer we come to an understanding of the Biblical authors’ world, the better our understanding. The fact that many Christians have believed in a fallen natural world does not make it so, as I laboured to show at length in GGE from Scripture, theological history, and the natural world itself.

What about human death, then? I pointed out in GGE that, since the working assumption of most Christians before modern times was that Genesis teaches a young earth, the question just did not arise in their teaching. They simply did not consider “natural evil” as a subject worth discussing, so that death was dealt with entirely in the context of Adam’s loss of eternal life through sin. That, incidentally, also explains their relative silence on animal death – to them, that was simply not a problem to be addressed by theology.

But how did Adam gain eternal life in the first place? It was by being placed in the Garden of Eden after his creation from the dust of the ground, where there was a tree of life. Dust is not intrinsically immortal.

I then began to understand that as soon as one is compelled to deal with evidence from the historical sciences, the whole question of what is meant by “human” inevitably becomes more complex. Even Young Earthers have to consider whether Neanderthals or Denisovans were “human,” and whether or not they are included in the gospel promise of eternal life. It is hard for anyone to claim they were descendants of Adam, unless they repeat the discredited notion that Neanderthals were simply diseased individuals. Since the Christian tradition has nothing to say about this question, though it is undoubtedly real, we need not be surprised that it is also silent on people outside the garden of Eden about whom the tradition knew nothing.

In fact, it became my contention in the second book, The Generations of Heaven and Earth, that though Christian tradition knew nothing of them, in all likelihood the writer of Genesis did. And I seek to show there how a Bible aware of Adam as as special man amongst men makes sense of biblical theology in a way that casts new light on all the old, and sound, doctrines. It also grounds God’s salvific actions in history within the humanly shared reality of the past, and not within a dissident alternative history that pits the Bible against the whole world.

In particular, one discerns better that the biblical dipole of “sin/salvation” is not, actually, exactly the same as the related one of “physical/spiritual” or “perishable/imperishable.” Those distinctions are in the Bible and they are significant. The idea of a creation that was radically re-engineered through corruption, on the other hand, is not in the Bible and simply tends to fog our theology.

And God’s creation is all about light, not fog, yes?

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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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2 Responses to Hump retrospective 2: old earth with death, carnivores and natural evils

  1. eric says:

    You mention how Theophilus of Antioch is the only one who believed carnivores were not around before the fall, didn’t Irenaeus also believe that in against heresies 5.33.4? Also I was wondering what do you think Irenaeus means by creation’s “primeval condition” in against heresies 5.32.1 how does it fit with the tradition that nature didn’t fall?

    • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

      Hi Eric

      I cite 5.33.4 in my section on Irenaeus in the book (to show I’m being even-handed!). He’s commenting on the Isaiah 65.11 passage, assuming not only that in the eschatological world animals will return to their original diet of vegetables (alluding to Gen 1), but that they will be in obedience and subjection to man – the Scriptural source for which is less clear.

      I quoted it because, in my research, Irenaeus appeared to be an outlier in this. But in the context of my book’s thesis, his words say very little about the animals being participants in a fall of the whole natural physical order, which must be inferred. When he deals with Genesis itself, he says virtually nothing that isn’t in the text – that the ground was cursed for Adam’s sake, that Eve is punished in childbirth, and the serpent (which Irenaeus clearly identifies as Satan) is cursed. Indeed, it is the exile from the garden that accounts for the thorns that hinder cultivation. In other words, it’s far from clear that he has developed a clear idea of a “cosmic fall.”

      Note also that Irenaeus points out that some interpret the Isaiah passage symbolically of “wild” men coming to the obedience of faith, and he agrees with that, though he insists on its literal truth after the resurrection – commenting that if the lions will eat straw, the wheat must be even richer. It would be good to ask how he understands the continuation of human death in Isaiah.

      The XXXII.1 passage does not, I think, give us any greater clarity. He speaks of the fittingness of the saints who suffered and died in this creation being raised and ruling the same earthly realm, thus stressing the continuity of creation itself. But he contrasts this with its moral discontinuity, in that it was originally governed by righteousness, became governed by corruption (as it is now), and will revert to righteousness. He’s thinking of Romans 8, and even mentions the longing of “the creature” for this restoration.

      None of that is in doubt – the question is only what that “bondage to corruption” means (and I devote several pages to the Romans 8 passage in the book to explore this).

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