Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Recurring mistakes in debating the historical Adam

I'm going to comment on a recent post by Peter Enns:

1. It’s all about the authority of the Bible.I can understand why this claim might have rhetorical effect, but this issue is not about biblical authority. It’s about how the Bible is to be interpreted. It’s about hermeneutics.
It’s always about hermeneutics.
I know that in some circles “hermeneutics” is code for “let’s find a way to get out of the plain meaning of the text.” But even a so-called “plain” or “literal” reading of the Bible is a hermeneutic—an approach to interpretation.
Literalism is a hermeneutical decision (even if implicit) as much as any other approach, and so needs to be defended as much as any other. Literalism is not the default godly way to read the Bible that preserves biblical authority. It is not the “normal” way of reading the Bible that gets a free pass while all others must face the bar of judgment.
So, when someone says, “I don’t read Genesis 1-3 as historical events, and here are the reasons why,” that person is not “denying biblical authority.” That person may be wrong, but that would have to be judged on some basis other than the ultimate conversation-stopper, “You’re denying biblical authority.
The Bible is not just “there.” It has to be interpreted. The issue is which interpretations are more defensible than others. Hence, appealing to biblical authority does not tell us how to interpret the Bible. That requires a lot more work. It always has.
“Biblical authority” is a predisposition to the text. It is not a hermeneutic.

i) That's a half-truth. To begin with, there's a common calculated ploy on the part of "progressive Christians" to recast the issue of Biblical authority in terms of hermeneutics. The ruse is typically used by theological revolutionaries whose agenda is to secularize Christianity and redefine the church from within. They don't begin by openly attacking the authority of Scripture. That would be too provocative. That would trigger instant opposition.

Instead, they resort to a softening up exercise. They insist that this is not about the inspiration of Scripture, but the interpretation of Scripture. They don't really believe that, but it's a useful tactic. It dupes the unsuspecting.  There are many examples. Take the claim that Paul doesn't really condemn homosexuality. 

ii) Enns is, himself, a purveyor of this tactic. Take his infamous book on Inspiration and Incarnation. Now, that was already bad enough. But I always figured that he was saying less than he really believed when he wrote it. The book was a trial balloon. If he got a favorable reception, then he'd feel free to stake out an even more radical position. 

And, in fact, after he was fired from WTS, he openly denied the historicity and inerrancy of Scripture. Although his attack was originally masked in "hermeneutical" categories, that was a decoy. 

I'm not saying the distinction between authority and interpretation is inherently suspect. That can be a legitimate distinction. But it's often abused–and deliberately so–to conceal an ulterior agenda. 

iii) In addition, the way he frames the issue is deception. For liberals typical read Gen 1-3 just as "literally" as conservatives. Liberals typically think the narrator intended to recount historical events. They just think he was mistaken. He didn't know any better. He couldn't know any better. Let's quote two liberal scholars on Genesis:

Etiology may be defined as "a narrative designed in its basic structure to support some kind of explanation for a situation or name that exists in the time of the storyteller." The term "etiology" may thus be applied to any narrative giving the past, historical reason for a present reality (the present of the author)…Often in Genesis, an episode is concluded with an etiological connection that helps the reader understand why something is as it is, and secondarily prepares the reader for the next unit of the book. So, for example, the Privemal History uses etiologies to explain sabbath law (2:1-3), marriage (2:24), serpentine locomotion (3:14), human hatred of snakes (3:15), pain in childbirth (3:16), and many others. B. Arnold, Genesis (Cambridge 2009), 10-11.

Over the last 10 to 15 years this term has been embraced by evangelical Christians who also accept biological evolution. Of course, the issue of Adam is a point of disagreement. Some who identify themselves as “evolutionary creationists” accept that there was a historical Adam. In other words, they tack Adam on the tail end of evolution.
But I disagree with this approach. It would be similar to attaching a 3-tier universe at the end of cosmological evolution. I doubt anyone wants to do that. Why? It’s categorically inappropriate. We cannot mix modern science (biological evolution and cosmological evolution) with ancient science (de novo creation of Adam and a 3-tier universe).
Those who pin Adam to the tail end of evolution are scientific concordists because modern genetics offers no evidence for his existence. Their belief in Adam comes from Scripture, not science. And from my perspective, scientific concordism always falls short.
Now there are some who attempt to argue that Adam was taken from a population of humans and that he was the first person to be in a relationship with God. The analogy used is that Adam is like Abraham in that he was called by God. However, this is definitely not in the Bible. Genesis 2 does not talk about Adam being called from some group of humans. Genesis 2 is a creation account and clearly states that the Lord made Adam de novo from the dust of the ground. 

De novo creation is the ancient conceptualization of origins found in the Bible. This term is made up of the Latin words de meaning “from” and novus “new.” Stated more precisely, it is a view of origins that results in things and beings that are brand new. This type of creative activity is quick and complete. It appears in a majority of ancient creation accounts and it involves a divine being/s who act/s rapidly through a series of dramatic interventions, resulting in cosmological structures (sun, moon, stars) and living organisms (plants, animals, humans) that are mature and fully formed.
Considering the limited scientific evidence available to ancient peoples, this conceptualization of origins was perfectly logical. As with all origins accounts, including those held by us today, the ancients asked basic etiological questions (Greek aitia: the cause, the reason for this). These included: Where did these things or beings come from? Why are they this way? Who or what is responsible for their origin? There was no reason for ancient peoples to believe the universe was billions of years old, and they were unaware that living organisms changed over eons of time as reflected in the fossil record. Instead, the age of the world was limited to the lengths of their genealogies, many of which were held by memory, and therefore quite short. Biological evolution was not even a consideration because in the eyes of the ancients, hens laid eggs that always produced chicks, ewes only gave birth to lambs, and women were invariably the mothers of human infants. Living organisms were therefore immutable; they were static and never changed.
In conceptualizing origins, ancient people used these day-to-day experiences and retrojected them back to the beginning of creation (Latin retro: backward; jacere: to throw). Retrojection is the very same type of thinking used in crime scene investigations. Present evidence found at the scene is used to reconstruct past events. In this way, the ancients came to the reasonable conclusion that the universe and life must have been created quickly and completely formed not that long ago. And this was the best origins science-of-the-day.
Grasping the notion of de novo creation is one of the keys to understanding Genesis 1 and the origins debate. This creation account refers 10 times to living creatures reproducing “according to its/their kind/s.” Young earth creationists and progressive creationists argue that this phrase is incontestable biblical evidence against biological evolution, because God created separate groups of organisms. They term these groupings “created kinds” or “baramins” (Hebrew bārā’: to create; min: kind). However, this popular anti-evolutionist belief that the Creator intervened dramatically in the creation of individual groups of plants and animals fails to appreciate the ancient mindset and its intellectual categories. The phrase “according to its/their kind/s” reflects an ancient phenomenological perspective of living organisms (Note: this is not to be confused and conflated with our modern phenomenological perspective. What the ancients saw, they believed to be real and actual, such as the literal movement of the sun across the sky. In contrast, what we see today, we understand to be only apparent and a visual effect, such as the “movement” of the sun). Ancient people always saw that birds reproduce birds, which reproduce birds, which reproduce birds, etc. They retrojected this experience back into the past and came to the logical conclusion that there must have been some first or original birds that the Creator had made de novo. Thus, the de novo creation of living organisms, such as birds in Genesis 1, is based on the classification of life in static or immutable categories, as perceived by ancient peoples like the Hebrews. More specifically, it reflects an ancient biology; and in particular, an ancient understanding of taxonomy.  

Notice that Denis Lamoureux and Bill Arnold both think Genesis was meant to be a book of origins. A book of firsts. The narrator intended his account to explain the source of many familiar and fundamental, present-day aspects of human experience by tracing them back to their historical point of origin. Where did the world come from? Did it always exist? Or did it begin to exist? Where did plants and animals come from? Where did humans come from? Why do humans die? Why do humans suffer? 

That understanding of Genesis doesn't require any prior commitment to the veracity of the account. Rather, it assumes the viewpoint of the narrator for interpretive purposes. It understands the text on its own terms, according to the assumptions and intentions of the narrator. 

So Enns has the relationship precisely backwards. The authority of Scripture is the bone of contention–not hermeneutics. Liberals like Arnold and Lamoureux construe Genesis in the same basic way as conservatives. The parting of the ways comes downstream. They feel free to reject what the text asserts to be the case. 

2. You’re giving science more authority than the Bible.This, too, may have some rhetorical effect, but it misses the point.
To say that science gives us a more accurate understanding of human origins than the Bible is not putting science “over” the Bible—unless we assume that the Bible is prepared to give us scientific information.
There are numerous compelling reasons to think that Genesis is not prepared to provide such information—namely the fact that Genesis was written at least 2500 years ago by and for people, who, to state the obvious, were not thinking in modern scientific terms.
One might respond, “But Genesis was inspired by God, and so needs to be true.”
That assertion assumes that “truth” is essentially synonymous with historical accuracy and that a text inspired by God in antiquity would, by virtue of its being the word of God, need to give scientific rather than ancient accounts of origins.

One basic problem with this formulation is that it misdefines the issue. The question at issue is not whether Gen 1-3 is written in scientific terms, but whether it makes factual claims. 

4. Both Paul and the writer of Genesis thought Adam was a real person, the first man. Denying the historicity of Adam means you think you know better than the biblical writers.More rhetorical punch, but this assertion simply sidesteps a fundamental interpretive challenge all of us need to address on one level or another.
All biblical writers were limited by their culture and time in how they viewed the physical world around them. This is hardly a novel notion of inspiration, and premodern theologians from Augustine to Calvin were quite adamant about the point.
No responsible doctrine of inspiration can deny that the biblical authors were thoroughly encultured, ancient people, who spoke as ancient people. Inspiration does not cancel out their “historical particularity,” no matter how inconvenient.
Any notion of inspiration must embrace and engage the notion that God, by his Spirit, speaks within ancient categories.
We do indeed “know more” than the biblical writers about some things.

Notice that in #'s 2 & 4, Enns implicitly contradicts what he said in #1. Now he's admitting that this really is about Biblical authority. He thinks the narrator was ignorant. He thinks the account is erroneous. 

Or course, that's only possible if he himself interprets the account "literally" in the sense that he thinks the narrator intended to record historical events. If the narrator never meant his account to be about real people, real places, and actual events in the past, then what he wrote couldn't be wrong even in principle. A necessary precondition of historical error is the determination to make statements that match reality.  

This may be a hermeneutical issue in abstraction, but at a concrete level, Enns has resolved the hermeneutical questions to mean that Gen 1-3 makes factual claims. He simply thinks the author got it wrong. Either Enns is prevaricating, or he's so conditioned by his polemical tactics that he fails to recognize his contradictory objections.

5. Genesis as whole, including the Adam story, is a historical narrative and therefore demands to be taken as an historical account.It is a common, but nevertheless erroneous, assumption that Genesis, as a “historical narrative,” narrates history.
Typically the argument is mounted on two related fronts:
(1) Genesis mentions by name people and places; we are told that people are doing things and going places. That sounds like a sequence of events, and therefore should be taken as “historical.”
(2) Genesis uses a particular Hebrew verbal form (waw consecutive plus imperfect) that is used throughout Old Testament narratives to present a string of events—so-and-so did this, then this, then went there and said this, then went there and did that.
As the argument goes, we are bound to conclude that a story that presents people doing things in a sequence is an indication that we are dealing with history.
That may be the case, but the sequencing of events in a story alone does not in and of itself imply historicity. Every story, whether real or imagined, has people doing things in sequences of events.
This does not mean that Genesis can’t be a historical narrative. It only means that the fact that Genesis presents people doing things in sequence is not the reason for drawing that conclusion.
The Lord of the Rings masterfully records in great and vivid detail people (and others) doing things in sequence. But is it still pure fiction. A Tale of Two Cities does the same, but that doesn’t make it a reliable guide to historical events.

i) To begin with, that oversimplifies the conservative position. It's not merely a sequence of events, but a causal sequence of events. Genesis says some things happened at a later date because other things happened before then. Historical causation. For instance, humans die because they were denied access to the tree of life when Adam and Eve were expelled from the Garden. Later humans are linear descendants of the first breeding pair. God sent the flood because humanity was engulfed in depravity. And so on. 

ii) Enns is correct that, in theory, a fictional history can have the same format. But notice how radical that is if systematically applied. The conservative argument is that it's artificial to sequester Gen 1-3 from the rest of Genesis, or the rest of the Pentateuch. This unit is part and parcel of a continuous narrative. Indeed, this is what initiates the aftermath. If, therefore, you regard Gen 1-3 as fictional, then, to be consistent, you should treat Gen 4-11 as fictional, or the calling of Abraham, or the calling of Moses, or the 10 plagues, or the wilderness wandering. Enns is probably prepared to take that to its logical extreme. But when he's in attack mode, keeps his cards closer to his vest. 

7. Since Adam is necessary for the Christian faith, we know evolution can’t be true.Evolution causes theological problems for Christianity. There is no question of that. We cannot simply graft evolution onto evangelical theology and claim that we have reconciled Christianity and evolution.
The theological and philosophical problems for the Christian faith that evolution brings to the table are hardly superficial. They require much thought and a multi-disciplinary effort to work through. For example:
  • Is death a natural part of life or unnatural, a punishment of God for disobedience?
  • What does it mean to be human and made in God’s image?
  • What kind of God creates a process where the fittest survive?
  • How can God hold people responsible for their sin if there was no first trespass by a first human couple?
A literal, historical, Adam answers these and other questions. Without an Adam, we are left to find other answers. Nothing is gained by papering over this dilemma.
But, here is my point: The fact that evolution causes theological problems does not mean evolution is wrong. It means we have theological problems.Normally, we all know that we cannot judge if something is true on the basis of whether that truth is disruptive to us. We know it is wrong to assume one’s position and then evaluate data on the basis of that predetermined conclusion.
We are also normally very quick to point out this logical fallacy in others. If an atheist would defend his/her own belief system by saying, “I reject this datum because it does not fit my way of thinking,” we would be quick to pounce.
The truth of a historical Adam is not judged by how necessary such an Adam appears to be for theology.

i) Enns takes the truth of human evolution for granted, but that's hotly contested. Indeed, even some very prominent Darwinians concede that the theory of evolution  has failed, thus far, to identify mechanisms adequate to generate the outcome. 

ii) Because Enns is intellectually superficial, he fails to appreciate the skeptical consequences of evolutionary psychology for the reliability of human reason. You can't remove the Creator and leave the creature intact. You undermine human rationality in the process. 

Theistic evolution can attempt to salvage human reason by positing a guided or directed process. But one issue is whether that's a makeshift position. 

iii) Actually, it's perfectly logical to say that if Christian theology is true, and evolution conflicts with Christian theology, then that falsifies evolution. Whatever you take to be true forms the frame of reference. So Enns's position logically reversible. It all depends on your standard of comparison. 

To be a Christian is to evaluate claims from a Christian perspective. By definition, a Christian will assume a Christian position. A Christian will assume the truth of Christian theology. Otherwise, he wouldn't be a Christian believer. 

iv) Apropos (iii), the problem with how he frames the issue is that a Christian believer is someone who already crossed that checkpoint. The question of whether or not Christian theology is true is now behind him. He wouldn't be a Christian believer in the first place unless he had already resolved that question in his mind, and resolved it in favor of Christianity. This is not the situation of an agnostic who's considering the Christian faith. For a Christian believer, the truth of Christian theology is a "predetermined conclusion" at that stage of his deliberations. 

At best, Enns's only makes sense in reference to professing Christians who are revisiting that question, who are now questioning their Christian faith. It's no longer settled in their minds. They have reopened the inquiry. They may conclude that Christian theology is unbelievable. 

To accept a tenet that doesn't fit a Christian way of thinking is to cease thinking like a Christian. At that point he's no longer operating within a Christian framework. That's not a choice between two different ways of conceiving Christian theology, but a choice between accepting or rejecting Christian theology.  

1 comment:

  1. Very good analysis. Thanks for posting this.