Introduction (by Ted Davis)
Original sin and the Fall of Adam and Eve pose major challenges to proponents of Evolutionary Creation, both at the level of theology and also at the level of biblical interpretation. BioLogos does not endorse any one response to those challenges: our view is that the church deserves a serious, pluralistic conversation about evolution and original sin. In an effort to help foster that conversation, we already provide numerous resources, among them these:
Further resources are being developed by some recipients of The BioLogos Foundation’s Evolution & Christian Faith program.
This series offers yet another perspective, as we serialize a paper by philosopher Robin Collins, entitled “Evolution and Original Sin.” In the previous installment, we presented the lion’s share of Collins’ study of early Genesis, ending with comments about evolution and the human tendency to do evil things. Today, Collins concludes the section on Genesis by focusing on the heart of the matter: Adam, Eve, and the Fall. He gets right down to business, so buckle up for the ride!
Genesis 1-4 (continued):
Finally, it is important to note that the word “Adam” is “the common noun in Hebrew for ‘humankind’.” Only in Genesis 1-5 and 1 Chronicles 1:1, when used without the article, does it function as a proper name (The Oxford Companion to the Bible, p. 10). Thus, the word “Adam” can represent human beings in general or a particular human being. This has suggested to many people that Adam in Genesis 1 is a figure that is representative of human beings in general, and thus is a story about the “fall” of every human being as we come to self-awareness. To understand this interpretation, one could imagine substituting every occurrence of Adam in Genesis 1-4 with the word “everyman.”
Although I think this interpretation captures an important representative role of Adam, I would suggest that “Adam” should also be understood as having an historical reference, as also representing what could be called the “stem-father” of the human race. In evolutionary terms, such a “stem-father” would be the first group of evolving hominids that gained moral and spiritual awareness. This idea of Adam representing the “stem-father” fits better with Paul’s use of “Adam” in Romans 5 than merely viewing “Adam” as representing human beings in general. Moreover, it fits better with the fact that there is a continuous saga connecting Genesis 1-4 and the later chapters of Genesis which recount the call of Abraham and the formation of Israel and clearly purport to be historical. Given this, and given that the early chapters of Genesis should not be read as literal history, as I mentioned above, I suggest that a plausible interpretation of the early chapters of Genesis is to regard them as a theological commentary on and partially symbolic reconstruction of primal history using the concepts and re-renderings of the various stories around at the time, such as the Babylonian Gilgamesh epic. In this way, it is sort of prophecy in reverse: just as prophecy, in the popular sense of prediction, uses images and concepts of the time to theologically comment on the future, Genesis 1-11 does the same for the past. [Here Collins has a footnote: For a fuller development of this view and discussion of others, such as Karl Barth, who held a similar view of Genesis, see Bernard Ramm, Offense to Reason: A Theology of Sin, chapter 4. Of course, this interpretation does not exhaust the theological purpose of these texts. For example, these texts also functioned as commentaries on the surrounding nations and as theological alternatives to their myths.]
Indeed, I suggest, chapters 1-11 should be considered an extended theological commentary on the “fall” of the human race, beginning with the various first humans represented by Adam and Eve, and then continuing with the story of Cain and Abel, the flood, and the Tower of Babel. Up until the time of Abraham, the initiatives that God takes are all negative and ultimately ineffective, simply means of temporarily slowing down the tide of evil; immediately after the flood, for instance, sin and evil began all over again. One theological message here is that our bondage to sin is so deep that it cannot be cured simply by wiping out the bad people. Rather, only a positive initiative on God’s part can solve the problem of human sin. Thus, just as Paul’s account of the Fall in Romans 1:18-32 is a prelude to his discussion of salvation through faith in Christ, Genesis 1-11 becomes a fitting theological prelude to the story of the call of Abraham, in which God makes the first positive initiative to solve the problem of human evil, an initiative that from a Christian perspective foreshadows the work of Christ.
Finally, the following analogy might help those who still feel uncomfortable with reading the early chapters of Genesis symbolically or “mythically,” as I have suggested. Imagine God inspiring Hollywood. What would God do? Would God make Hollywood only write true stories? No. God would probably inspire them to write more edifying fiction, not override the kind of writing that they are already doing. So, if, as scholars tell us, writing origin stories was a common practice in the ancient world (much as futuristic science fiction is a common practice today), it makes sense that God would inspire an author or community to write an inspired version of such a story using the concepts and myths around at the time as raw materials. Further, such a story could convey theological truth in a much more powerful, imaginative way than any mere prose could, and finally, the text itself seems to almost cry out that it is not literally history, being loaded with symbolism.Colorized version of Christopher Switzer’s frontispiece from John Parkinson, Paradisi in Sole Paradisus terrestris (1629), showing Adam and Eve in the garden of Eden. An English botanist, Parkinson’s name as the author is coded in Latin as the top line of the writing in the medallion: “Paradisi in Sole” literally means, “park-in-Sun.” The actual title of the book (Earthly Paradise) is on the next line. Collins believes that “the anthropomorphism of God’s walking around in the garden” (not depicted by Switzer), indicates that the Genesis story should be read symbolically.
At least part of the continuing resistance to reading the early chapters of Genesis in a non-literal, symbolic way, I believe, is motivated by two factors. First, unlike parables or “once upon a time …” stories, we are not familiar with the genre of literature to which I am suggesting Genesis 1-11 belongs: namely, a theological commentary on and partially symbolic reconstruction of primal history using the concepts and stories of the time as raw materials. Many readers thus tend to overlook the literary markers—such as the anthropomorphism of God’s walking around in the garden—that indicate it is a symbolic story. Consequently, they are tempted to read it literally, as has been done traditionally. Nonetheless, there do exist some analogies. One analogy to this sort of literature is the historical novel, which attempts to provide a generally accurate, though non-literal account of some period in history. (Further, such novels attempt to link their fictional characters with actual historical characters and events. In a similar way, Genesis links its theological reconstruction, such as the genealogies in chapters 1-11, with the historical figures such as Abraham.) Another analogy is certain plays of Shakespeare, such as Othello, which reworked older stories in order to provide a profound commentary on human existence. Similarly, Genesis 1-11 can be understood as a reworking of older stories and myths to provide a theological commentary on the origin and nature of human evil.
Second, I suggest, among many contemporary Christians, the desire to read Genesis as literal “scientific” history is often motivated by a latent form of scientism, in which one holds that the most legitimate and informative form of discourse is the type that occurs in science, thereby relegating other more imaginative forms of discourse to an inferior status as far as helping us understand the nature of reality. Thus, in their own way, many advocates of a literal reading of Genesis fall into a similar trap as those who let the purported findings of science drive their theologizing.
At this point, Collins has laid out fully his own interpretations of the most important biblical texts touching on the “Fall” and original sin. When we return in about two weeks, he will start to compare his “Historical/Ideal” interpretive scheme with other schemes, starting with the traditional, “Historical/Literal” interpretation. Be sure to join us again for that illuminating exercise.
References and Credits
Robin Collins’ chapter from Perspectives on an Evolving Creation, ed. Keith B. Miller (Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2003), is reproduced by kind permission of the author and the Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company. We gratefully acknowledge their cooperation in bringing this material to our readers.
All Scripture quotations in this paper are from the NRSV translation.
This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at https://biologos.org/blog/adam-as-everyman