Thursday, April 15, 2010

Human Origins and Evangelicalism.

My friend Watson and I have been talking a lot lately about human origins. How do we reconcile the first three chapters of Genesis with science? Can systematic theology maintain that death only existed once the fall occurred? How do we make sense of these matters and how does it impact one's exegesis of Romans 5?

There has often been times when Watson, an analytic philosopher, pins me to the wall (figuratively) with questions about how systematic theology responds to scientific findings. And I have to simply reply "you know, I just don't know." And I become concerned. When I, Lord-willing, teach systematic theology someday, what will I say if students ask me questions about evolution, death, the historicity of Adam and Eve, and the systematic framework of Jesus as the "second Adam"? My first reaction is to think "who cares" and employ a hermeneutic of fear and suspicion. But if I have Christ, what is there to fear? How can science ultimately be a source of fear and anxiety? What does this reveal about my presuppositions, and my overall posture toward theology? Has theology ceased to be doxology and suddenly become an offensive against the world and culture?

Recently, this issue has surfaced in conversation with other friends of mine. It all started when a professor at a reformed seminary resigned after posting a video that the administration at said seminary interpreted as him denying a historical Adam and Eve. They were fearful that this professor might not hold to their particular views of Adam and Eve. While I found this to be very disheartening, I was mostly curious as to what they believed were the devastating systematic implications of denying a historical Adam and Eve. Obviously if they think such a position is such an issue, they would be able to produce a statement justifying their disapproval of a more figurative interpretation of Genesis 1-3. I didn't see any such explanation given.

As an evangelical, I grow increasingly concerned with the type of fundamentalism that is surfacing within evangelicalism. What is worse, this type of fundamentalism is being disguised as truly "evangelical." I don't know where I stand on the issue of inerrancy. However, I don't consider certain theologians like Barth, who hold a different view of Scripture from traditional evangelicalism, to be heretical or worse, not worthy of my study. I wonder if my views will someday be labeled "liberal" and will be easily dismissed by what claims to be "evangelicalism." The culture of fear and exclusion that has surfaced, especially within popular reformed circles, is disheartening. And please, let's not even begin to discuss issues of gender! Sometimes I grow hesitant of even mentioning to anyone that I might be leaning more egalitarian in my interpretation of biblical texts that reference the genders for fear of being labeled "cliche", "feminist", or "liberal."

Has evangelicalism lost its true identity? Has it lost sight of the essentials? Has it become so overtaken by fear and a lack of true scholarship that it actually supports a lack of critical engagement with ideas and culture? What kind of confession is my generation inheriting? Is this the (true) great deposit of faith that should be guarded? And what is worse, is the only home that I can find in the emergent Church? That is not meant to start a debate about emergent Christianity. But I consider myself to be reformed, evangelical, and Anglican. Where are the reformed evangelicals that are saying this trajectory is not acceptable?

This is why I appreciate Barth. For all his faults, the man understood the essentials. And I think evangelicalism has so much to learn from him. I will say though, beyond Barth, the BioLogos Foundation makes me give a big sigh of relief. Perhaps the conversation really is starting. Perhaps my friends and I have hope for change.

Correction: In the aftermath of the professor's resignation that I mentioned above, he formally stated in an open-letter that he willfully resigned and was not forced to do so by the seminary. His lack of carefulness when discussing this issue supposed led to the backlash that ensued from outside parties. For some reason, the open-letter did not seem convincing. No matter what the explanations, a video of that sort should not require it to be taken down from the website that it was posted nor cause for the professor to feel it was appropriate for him to resign from his position. That is the fruit of a much deeper problem.


Josh said...

I'm reading a book by James Barr called "Fundamentalism" right now, so I'll have more to say later.

For now, though, I'll just say this. Fundamentalism seems to have arisen from evangelical revivals in which both those in and outside the Church were converted, disgusted by 'nominal' Christianity, convinced that Darwinism and intellectualism deeply threatened faith, and that only quite conservative Protestantism counts as true Christianity. The uncompromising commitment to biblical inerrancy goes without saying. Everyone falling outside this camp is either not a true Christian or is an immature or confused Christian. This atmosphere was married to political and social platforms to the point that it became a legitimate question whether a Christian could even consider voting for a Democrat. Even today believing in such things as global warming still has a dangerously liberal feel. Boundaries between the 'true Christians' and everyone else are, in practice at least, well-understood. Needless to say, Catholics and the Orthodox don't count. Deep suspicion toward biblical criticism characterized this culture, and therefore severe reservations developed toward seminaries, where people are encouraged to read more broadly and seriously consider new ideas. Jokingly (or not?), fundamentalists referred to such institutions as 'cemeteries.' Taking seriously egalitarian views of the ministry is an impossibility, and the best at the game of proof-text poker is considered the authority. Little attention is paid to the creeds of the Church (at least by the 'laity'), but familiarity with Scripture is far more typical.

I think this group is increasingly becoming a sub-culture, and I hope that as generations arise, a lot of this stuff dies out completely. It's not all bad. The emphasis on the importance of sincere faith on the part of the individual is good. Unfortunately, that jewel is almost always accompanied by misinformation that sets young people up for disaster as they enter both the universities and the seminaries.

Marc said...

First, some random comments about origins and evolution. Second, some obscure, uninformed comments about Romans 5.

How do we reconcile the first three chapters of Genesis with science?

In his The Blind Watchmaker, Richard Dawkins claims that "Darwin made it possible to be an intellectually fulfilled atheist." In Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview, William Lane Craig notes, "Barrow and Tipler list ten steps in the evolution of Homo sapiens, each of which is so improbable that, before it would occur, the sun would have ceased to be a main-sequence star and incinerated the earth!" Even assuming that Barrow and Tipler's probability assessment is mistaken, I'm rather skeptical of the intellectual fulfillment which the truth of evolutionary theory is alleged to yield for atheism. At most, it seems to me that accepting evolutionary explanations might present a problem for some specific forms or expressions of theism, not theism simpliciter.

So, as you asked, do the deliverances of science present a problem for, say, a Christian theism which (to some extent) accepts Genesis 1-3? I'm not persuaded to think so. It would appear that some scientific theories conflict most with the creation account which young-earth creationism endorses, but, in addition to there being other accounts available, I don't think that the Christian theist is committed to the young-earth creationist view. Old-earth creationism and theistic evolution, for instance, seem much more accommodating to science.

Can systematic theology maintain that death only existed once the fall occurred?

From what I understand, this is the orthodox position, but I don't believe that the Christian theist is committed to it either. As I'm sure you know, proponents of old-earth creationism argue that the orthodox position is false, or at least that there's a plausible alternative.

How do we make sense of these matters and how does it impact one's exegesis of Romans 5?

In connection to your previous question, consider Paul's discussion of death in the latter half of the chapter. I've been told that the orthodox position maintains that physical death and spiritual death, while distinct, have generally been treated together and associated with one another. That is, it isn't the case that physical death can obtained prior to spiritual death. But it seems pretty clear that Paul's discussion doesn't concern physical death, but spiritual death.

Another component of Paul's discussion is that he, of course, appears to presuppose a historical Adam. Verse 12 (ESV) identifies how sin entered the world through one man, and verse 15 reports how many have died by virtue of one man's trespass. Does our exegesis of this chapter, then, necessitate an affirmation of an historical Adam? It's not immediately obvious that it does, for a variety of interpretive options present themselves. Suppose that the Genesis creation account and the ensuing chapters are intended to be highly symbolic. It's not unlikely that Paul understood this, and so he perhaps he incorporated such an interpretation into his treatment in Romans 5. Another option suggests that God's employed evolutionary mechanisms to bring about and perpetuate all non-human biological life, but He chose to bring about human life in a different manner. And still another option more fully embraces evolutionary theory and holds that Genesis 1-3, Romans 5, and other relevant passage refer to the first Homo sapiens. And I'm sure there are others as well. I don't know, however, what degree of plausibility we should associate with these interpretive options.


-- Marc

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