A brief apology
I wish to extend my sincerest apologies to @Dominic2090, with whom I had been having an interesting discussion about intelligent animals, morality, and heaven. Life in the real world had gotten a bit hectic for me and I lost track of my online activities. I am sorry, my friend. I didn’t mean to disappear without any warning like that.
Again, just to remind him and the readers of my perspective, I am a Bible-believing evangelical Christian who accepts the science and history of evolution within a biblical world-view.
A quick recap
So, where had we left things?
@Dominic2090 was saying that there are some really smart animals that seem to exhibit a degree of moral sense and culpability (as seen in primate sociality and the behaviors of other social animals). He would often refer to a hypothetical chimpanzee that can display “the moral culpability of a five-year-old,” which then raises the question of whether that chimpanzee has any “understanding [of] God and heaven” and can be held morally culpable before God. Granting for the sake of argument that the chimpanzee is “able to understand some rights and wrongs,” can he be “slightly accountable for them”?
To other chimpanzees, yes, but not to God. In my opinion, that chimpanzee cannot be held accountable before God. Why? Because “there are no creatures on Earth with whom God has a covenant relationship other than humans,” I had said. “I am willing to grant that some animals are capable of wrongdoing and may be morally culpable to their peers, but that wrongdoing cannot be a sin against God without a covenant relationship defining that term.” In this way I was drawing a distinction between moral wrongdoing (a sociobiological concept) and sin or evil (a theological concept). “A creature can be capable of and culpable for moral wrongdoing without being guilty of sin,” I said. Humans are not unique in their ability to engage in wrongdoing, but they definitely are unique in their ability to sin. What sets us apart is that covenant relationship with God, which is the context that defines sin and righteousness.
“As far as I can tell,” I said, "it would seem to follow from the biblical witness that there is no such thing as ‘sin’ apart from a covenant relationship with God. No creatures on Earth other than humans are either capable of or culpable for sin, despite the fact that other creatures demonstrate characteristics of moral agency—a state of affairs which could arguably apply to humans prior to a covenant relationship with God (i.e., before Adam). That is,
Thus, this view preserves Adam’s state of posse non peccare et posse peccare, as per Augustinian theology (which I know is a minority concern here, as there seem to be very few Calvinists).
@Dominic2090 didn’t seem to grasp this distinction between the horizontal orientation of “wrongdoing” (a sociobiological concept) and the vertical orientation of “sin” (a theological concept), for he continued to characterize the moral dimension of this chimpanzee as a “spiritual concept.” So he asked me to clarify this position more, which I was happy to do.
“Moral wrongdoing as a spiritual concept (sin) requires a covenant relationship with God,” I explained, “which did not exist until six thousand years ago, starting with Adam and Eve in the garden, and is exclusively between humans and God.”
And this is where our conversation died. He asked me to define what a “covenant relationship” with God is, among other questions, but I never replied to him because … well, real life demanded my full attention for a little while.
The discussion going forward
So I would like to pick up this discussion with @Dominic2090 and others because I find it interesting and it’s acutely relevant to my personal studies currently. For Calvinist evangelicals like me who are open to evolutionary science and natural history, the question of Adam and Eve and the entrance of sin into the world are pressing concerns. These are some of the things that I’m trying to wrap my head around, convinced as I am that there can’t be any conflict between the theology of redemptive history and the science of natural history, as God is the one author of both.
So, allow me to return to the questions @Dominic2090 had for me.
1. "A child who’s four years old goes to heaven. Why can’t a chimpanzee also go to heaven, since he’s [roughly] as smart?"
Because the only creatures with whom God has a covenant relationship are humans, and chimpanzees are not human. (I am assuming a Sunday School picture of heaven here, which is sufficient for the point we are exploring. I don’t want to open that can of worms known as eschatology.)
2. "I don’t know what you mean by ‘covenant relationship.’ Can you define it?"
The term “covenant” comes to us by way of the Latin con venire, which means a coming together. It presupposes two or more parties who come together to form a binding relationship, agreeing on promises, stipulations, privileges, and responsibilities. There are several covenants described in the Bible, but some are more theologically important than others (e.g., Abraham). This is a hotly debated subject, as many things are, but on my view God’s personal relationship with mankind began with Adam in the garden of Eden, who was appointed the federal head of all mankind. In this way, “sin entered the world through one man and death through sin” (Romans 5:12). There are only two federal heads over humanity mentioned in the Bible, the first Adam and the last Adam (Jesus Christ). Adam represents the old humanity, while Jesus Christ represents the new humanity. From Eden onward, every single human who has ever lived is either “in Adam” (by default) or “in Christ” (by grace). In Adam we are reckoned covenant-breakers (by imputation) who are spiritually dead and separated from God, whereas in Christ we are reckoned covenant-keepers (by imputation) who are made alive and reconciled to God. Paul explains the importance of this covenant relationship throughout his epistles to the churches, but especially Romans 5:12-21 and 1 Corinthians 15:35-49.
3. "What does [this covenant relationship] have to do with all of us, exactly? Please help me better understand what you said."
Covenant is the context of our relationship with God, either in Adam or in Christ. Nobody has a relationship with God apart from one of these two federal heads. There are many who disagree with this view (e.g., Pelagius), including many here, I’m sure. However, I am not interested in debating the matter, only in exploring these questions from an Augustinian perspective.
R. C. Sproul, “Augustine and Pelagius,” Monergism (n.d.).
4. "The only thing I know is that Adam and Eve were in paradise and received a command from God. How exactly does this make them from now on accountable for sins in general? You believe that, by being given the Holy Spirit, they then started knowing God’s will and that they shouldn’t go against it or else they’d become sinners?"
They became accountable for sin the moment they transgressed a command they knew was from God. That is the very definition of sin: “lawlessness” (1 John 3:4). I like how J. B. Phillips translated Romans 3:20, “It is the straight-edge of the law that shows us how crooked we are” (cf. James 4:17). At its most basic root, sin is a disregard for the law of God, which is inherently a disregard for the law-maker, God himself. Those who disobey God are accountable for sin.
Unless you were asking how they became “accountable for sins in general” as in the sins of all mankind. In that case, I would say this: First, it was Adam who was our federal head, not Adam and Eve together. Second, our status as sinners (covenant-breakers) traces back to Adam because he was appointed our federal head.
5. "What about those who existed outside of Eden and didn’t receive God’s Holy Spirit?"
As Derek Kidner put it so simply, “Adam’s federal headship of humanity extended, if that was the case, outwards to his contemporaries as well as onwards to his offspring, and his disobedience disinherited both alike” (Genesis: An Introduction and Commentary [Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1967], 29).
6. "And what about the fact that according to Romans 1:18-20 it seems […] that humans can understand God’s will on their own without having the Holy Spirit, and are thus capable of sinning? What is your take in this?"
Romans 1:18-20 doesn’t refer to God’s will.