Genesis, Original Sin, and Scientific History

Over at the Barthian Milieu, a recent exchange took place over the issue of Barth and original sin. The discussion began when one person stated that (1) since original sin is found in the narrative of the Fall in Genesis 3, and (2) since Barth views the first part of Genesis as mythic (the person used the word “allegory” but meant to say “myth”), then the conclusion this person drew was (3) that Barth denies original sin.

Now I do not wish to weigh down this discussion too much by discussing how Barth views Genesis 1-3. He specifically calls the Genesis account a “saga,” which denotes a kind of mythic narrative centered on a particular family lineage. Sagas generally have a particular purpose behind them, which is often etiological in nature. I don’t want to worry too much about biblical interpretation details. Suffice it to say, I agree with Barth and contemporary OT critics. But that is probably a separate discussion.

The point I want to make here is the assumption that since a story is understood as myth rather than as literal, scientific history, the truth conveyed in the passage in question must therefore be denied. While I would like to think such a notion is held by only the smallest percentage of Christians, I suspect that just the opposite is the case. The problem is in the equation of a particular theological truth with the historical nature of the narrative in which this truth comes to expression. Or to put it another way, it is the modern sin of equating science with truth, which has come to be held as axiomatic in the Western world today. Scientific history, scientific method, scientific anything is viewed as the rightful arbiter of what is true and false, right and wrong. If one denies the scientific accuracy of something, then the entire issue in question is denied.

The doctrine of original sin itself is not found in Genesis 1-3 as most people know. Of course, it is affirmed on the basis of the narrative of the Fall and comes to fuller expression in the letters of Paul, particularly Romans. The question is this: Does the doctrine of original sin depend on there actually being a literal “fall” of humanity from grace? Or to put it another way, is there such a thing as “metaphorical truth” (Jüngel) that has at least the same if not more validity than “scientific truth”?

Barth affirms the Fall as the beginning of temporal history. With the Fall, history as we know it began. By making this assertion, Barth gives Gen. 1-3 a qualitatively different status. Eden is a not a record of some historical actuality. If we went back in a time machine, we could not locate these events on the timeline of human history. Humanity as we know it begins with the Fall. The narrative of Gen. 1-3 is not scientific history but theological history—that is, truth is not contained in the literalness of the events but in the theological realities which come to expression in the narrative itself.

Barth says something similar of the resurrection, though he does not render it as purely mythical. Barth affirms a bodily resurrection, but he refuses to view the resurrection as an event in time, as a historical event. To do this would be to view the resurrection as something possible within the realm of human history. But the resurrection, as Barth notes, is a divine event; the resurrection is the revelation of God in Jesus Christ. The resurrection is not an event that could arise from the processes operative in history; it is purely a divine event, one in which the vertical plane intersects and disrupts the horizontal plane.

I make the comparison with the resurrection only to suggest that what is central with both the creation of the cosmos and the resurrection is that they are not events that can be scientifically analyzed. Eden and the Risen Christ are not “things” within the confines of the created cosmos. They do not denote just one more object on the timeline of history. What the person at the Barthian Milieu did not understand (others quickly corrected him) is that myth—what is non-scientific, non-literal—is not thereby without truth. The narrative of Scripture does not need to be scientifically supportable in order to be the witness to theological realities. Science is not the vehicle for truth. In fact, what the Bible demonstrates is that story and proclamation are the proper vehicles for conveying truth. And the vehicle of narrative does not exclude but rather includes the saga, myth, and legend. These are not the enemies of truth; they are the things of this world that are commandeered by God in order to bear witness to Godself.


Halden said…
David, I agree probably with everything that you said here. But here's my wondering, is the dichotomy between "literal, scientific history" and 'saga, myth, narrative', etc, really a helpful one. Does it not enshrine a particularly modernist and Enlightenment understanding of Truth, with simply the slight modification that 'myth' is also a vehicle of truth?

I guess what I'm saying is that I'm not so sure such a thing as "literal, scientific history" actually exists, ever has existed or ever will exist. All narrations of history are theological, whether that be acknowledged or not. If that is the case what seems to be more important is not to establish that our mythos is true and need not be "literal, scientific history", rather we need to show that the idea of "literal, scientific history" it itself a mythos that is based on faith.

In other words, to take a little cue from D.B. Hart, the issue, ultimately is one of rhetoric, the "war of persuasions." The question really is, can the form of life of the Christian community be shaped in such a way that the story of the Fall in Genesis is a credible way of accounting for the way things are in the world. At least that's where I'd want to take the discussion.
D.W. Congdon said…
Good point, Halden. I agree completely. I also don't want to see saga, myth, and narrative as non-historical. History itself is story; it is perspectival and dynamic.

We need to get beyond our modern idolatry of science as something that is somehow perfectly objective, non-contextual, transhistorical, transtemporal, transcultural, even supra-human. It is bizarre that the Western world has so strongly emphasized the contextualization of the humanities, including especially theology, and yet still views science for the most part as beyond all context (people like Polanyi notwithstanding).

Though, to be sure, we need to beware of the opposite idolatry of contextualization and perspectivalism. Some things are indeed common to humanity, and we must not forget this.

We need to rest in the difficult tension between worldviewism and perspectivalism, between scientism and contextualism.
Halden said…
Interestingly enough, Polanyi is simply ignored by most of the modern scientific establishment. His books never made the splash that Khun's did and so I think that most scientists have felt free to shrug him off, despite the profundity of his argument.

And yes, we also need to avoid a total perspectivalism that preculdes any actual epistemic contact with anything outside of ourselves. The important thing is that no discipline or tradition of enquiry be given autonomy as a source of unmediated knowledge as sience has tended to demand for itself (and to be fair, Christian theology in the Christendom situation did the same thing).

I would say that everything is indeed perspectival and mediated, but that fact does not mean that the different perspectives do not "see things" or that just because everything is mediated that nothing "gets through."

And that of course puts us on the doorstep of moving into the necessary discussion of a doctrine of revelation.
Shane said…
I guess the difference I see between genesis and resurrection is that I don't think the garden of eden actually happened, but i think the bodily resurrection did.

I grasp what Barth is driving at by saying the resurrection is Geschichtlich rather than Historisch. But, I think, in principle that it is historically falsifiable. If somebody ever managed to persuade me on good scientific grounds that he had a bone from Jesus's skeleton, then Christ didn't raise from the dead and Christianity is false. I don't know how anyone would ever prove such a thing, of course. But I think it is important to recognize at least the possibility, since Christianity is, after all a historical in-flesh-and-blood faith rather than a gnostic path-to-spiritual-enlightenment one.
Lee said…
Thanks for this helpful post. I think these discussions sometimes get confused by a failure to distinguish between "history" as a human scientific endeavor to understand the past and "history" as "what actually happened" or the events themselves. History the discipline tries, ideally, to comprehend history in the sense of "what happened." Obviously all our postmodern theorists of suspicion have taught us to be skeptical of simplistic accounts of our ability to grasp the way things are. But if that isn't at least what we're trying to do then it's not clear what the point is.

So, in that sense I'm with Shane in affirming the Resurrection as a historical event in the second sense even if it isn't fully understandable the categories of history in the first sense. And in that sense I would deny that the Genesis story is historical (though I think it may refer obliquely to events that did in fact really happen).
Shane said…
Put it this way,

I can see how to make sense of christianity even if there wasn't a guy named Adam banging around eating apples from forbidden trees. But there is no real way to make sense of it if Christ didn't raise from the dead. Paul says it best: "if Christ isn't raised, then you are still in your sins." A "Spiritual" or figurative resurrection won't cut it in this case just because I don't want to go to 'figurative' heaven. I want to go to real heaven.

I remember a couple of years ago I got into trouble on my old blog for suggesting that genesis was a myth and the problem my interlocutor threw me was how to say that the resurrection was real if genesis was a myth. I think i've now come to see that this isn't really a problem. Not much hangs on the reality of adam and eve (unless you take a very augustinian understanding of original sin as sexually transmitted, etc.). By contrast, everything hangs on the real resurrection of Jesus.

If i stop believing in the resurrection, then I might as well fold my cards and turn secular humanist.
D.W. Congdon said…
Shane, I think I might have misled you (or others) regarding Barth's view of the resurrection. Barth states, as you probably know from the Romans commentary, that the resurrection is an event in history but not of history. Thus, the resurrection is something that definitely occurs in time and space, but it is a divine event and not a historical event (i.e., not an event produceable by the forces operative on the face of history).

Now there is most definitely a difference between Eden and the Resurrection. The narrative of Eden and the Fall are simply the mythic form expressing the theological content of our relation to the Creator-God, to each other (male/female), and to the world as well as the brokenness of these relations that we call "sin." The resurrection is not simply a form containing content which could have been expressed using a different form. It's not as if the story of the resurrection could be replaced with the story of the disciples having a moment of enlightenment in the upper room. The resurrection is the thing itself. Adam and Eve or the garden are not the things themselves which are important; what is important in the Genesis narrative is the identity of the God who creates by the power of the Word and the creation which exists in a dependent relationship to this God. The content is not equatable with the form in which it is told.

That said, I think and Barth is helpful in distinguishing between form and content with regard to the resurrection in a very different way. Not between myth and truth but between something "of history" and something "in history," between a historical event and a divine event. The narrative as we read it in the Bible could be and has often been read as a historical event possible within history. In making this distinction, Barth separates what is humanly possible from what is divinely possible.

Now here is the wrinkle: If the identity of the resurrection is to be found in the divine nature of this event and not in its simple historical nature, is Bultmann's move entirely inadmissible? The question is to what extent the historicity of the resurrection is part of its necessary definition. I'll put it this way: Can we emphasize the nature of the resurrection as "not of history" over "in history"?

Now I agree with Barth and with the stress on the bodily resurrection, but I do wish to defend Bultmann by pointing out what I think his claim entails. I see Barth and Bultmann as both emphasizing "not of history" more than "in history." The difference is that Barth's dialectical method means that the two are held in necessary tension. Bultmann does not feel so constrained dialectically on this point. But both are making a similar distinction; Bultmann just happens to carry this distinction through, whereas Barth retains a dialectic.
Shane said…

Yeah, I'm not saying Barth didn't really believe in the resurrection. (I've taken enough classes with Mark Husbands to remember the extreme lengths he went to defending against this misinterpretation--which I think might have come from Carl Henry, maybe.)

Clearly there is also a difference between Barth's position and Bultmann's. You know more about Bultmann than I do, so I'll defer to your judgment on the matter, but I wonder about two things.

1. Is it the case that both Barth and Bultmann are trying to react to that thing Lessing said about the contingent truths of history (as opposed to the necessary truths of reason) not being sufficient for religious belief?

2. When Bultmann makes his claim that nobody who's seen an electric lightbulb can believe in the bodily resurrection isn't he much more beholden to the positivist spirit of the 19th century than Barth?

These just seem like interesting ways to try to interrogate the similarities and differences of their opinions. And, of course, I'm constantly trying to rework my own position vis a vis the hermeneutic situation of the resurrection and the garden of eden from conversations I've had down the years with you and others, so don't take me as really attributing anything much to Barth here so much as I'm trying to get some clarity about my own position.