Creation, Original Sin, and Genesis 1-3: A Response to George Murphy
Response to George L. Murphy, “Roads to Paradise and Perdition: Christ, Evolution, and Original Sin,” in Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith 58, no. 2 (2006): 109-118.
I would like to begin by thanking Steve Martin for inviting me to participate in this dialogue. I would also like to thank George Murphy for writing such a compelling and interesting article. Let me begin by introducing myself and the perspective I bring to this conversation. I am a doctoral student in systematic theology at Princeton Theological Seminary. While my work focuses on issues in the doctrine of God, christology, soteriology, theological exegesis, and cultural exegesis, I have long harbored a personal interest in the interaction between science and theology. I grew up in a home that emphasized the physical sciences above other disciplines, with a father who teaches high school chemistry and biology. At the same time, my parents are products of a particular era in American evangelicalism, and so I was schooled from an early age in the tenets of young-earth creationism. Even as a college freshman, I defended creationism on the first day of my geology class. My views on the matter did not change until I read Mark Noll’s The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind, which marked the beginning of a radical turn in my intellectual life. Today, while I am neither an expert in evolutionary biology or in the dialogue between theology and science, I approach the matter with great personal interest. And as readers of my blog will know, I am a passionate opponent of Intelligent Design.
Enough by way of introduction, it is time to turn to Murphy’s article. I have to start by confessing up front that I basically agree with what Murphy says in his paper. What I would like to do is pursue some of the points raised by the essay in more detail and attempt to offer some further theological reflection on the nature of sin and the narrative of Genesis 3. My comments will proceed by briefly addressing the following questions: (1) what is original sin?; (2) what is the relation between creation and the fall?; and (3) how ought we to read Genesis 1-3?
1. What is original sin?
While it’s not stated as clearly as I would like, I think one could summarize Murphy’s thesis in the following way: instead of a doctrine of “original sin” with a corresponding doctrine of “original righteousness,” we should reconceive these concepts in light of the biblical witness by speaking of a “sin of origin” that affects each person from birth and a corresponding progression, by the grace of God, toward maturity, righteousness, and fellowship with God. Based on what we have learned from science, Murphy rightly rejects the idea of an original human pair that spawned the rest of the human race as well as a state of “original righteousness” in which death was not yet operative in nature. Instead of longing for some mythical past, Murphy argues that we should construct a teleological anthropology, in which the goal of humanity is not a recovery of a perfect Eden but the redemption of the new creation, in which “the tree of life is found not in a garden but in the middle of a city” (117).
Murphy’s insights are important, but some further theological development is necessary. First, we need to explore Augustine’s contribution a little further. Murphy discusses Augustine in the context of the debate with Pelagius. He says that Augustine argued “that all are sinners from the beginning of life,” whereas Pelagius turned Adam into a bad moral example. While certainly correct, this does not account for the true innovation in Augustine’s doctrine—viz. the idea of “original guilt.” It’s not just that all people “are born not only with a tendency to sin but actually as sinners”; rather, it’s that all people are born guilty of the original sin. That is, each person is born as if he or she actually committed the sin of Adam and Eve. We are all co-responsible for that sin, because in a sense we were there. This doctrine of “original guilt” constitutes a central divide between Western and Eastern hamartiologies. Jean-Claude Larchet (“Ancestral Guilt according to St Maximus the Confessor: a Bridge between Eastern and Western Conceptions,” Sobornost 20 , 26-27) thus locates the distinction between Eastern and Western doctrines of original sin in the fact that the West connects guilt with the transmission of human corruption, while the East separates guilt from corruption so that only the latter is transmitted. Maximus the Confessor speaks of Adam’s “two sins”: the first and culpable sin was the free choice to disobey God, while the second and non-culpable sin was the “transformation of human nature from incorruption into corruption.” Those who come after Adam participate in the second “sin,” which is the corruption of our human nature, but not in the first. Adam’s descendents are not guilty of his original act of disobedience.
The Eastern doctrine of original sin is, in my estimation, an improvement over the Western doctrine, simply because of the absence of “original guilt.” Augustine’s construction of that doctrine on the basis of Romans 5 and Psalm 51 is deeply problematic, in part due to the very poor Latin translation of Romans with which he was working. However, both the East and the West remain far too mythical in their respective views on the transmission of this sinful corruption. On this point, the two sides essentially agree: the act of sexual intercourse is the agent by which the corruption of the parents is transferred to the child. In this, they were assisted by ancient views on sexuality, in which it was assumed that all the “material” necessary for the creation of a new human person is located in the male sperm. The woman is simply the passive recipient, the “oven” in which the “bread” bakes, so to speak. And so Adam’s guilt is passed from one person to another through sexual reproduction.
All of this is connected to the ancient debate over the origin of the soul. Very briefly, Origen proposed a Platonic doctrine of the pre-existence of souls—souls which God implants into the human fetus as a unique moment in the creative process. This theory is known as creationism, not to be confused with the fundamentalist theory about the origins of the cosmos based on a literal reading of Gen. 1-2. Tertullian countered Origen by arguing for what is called traducianism, in which the soul is a material object replicated in the act of sexual reproduction. Obviously, Augustine adopted traducianism to explain his doctrine of original guilt and inherited depravity, whereas Pelagius sided with Origen, so that each person is a kind of tabula rasa, unaffected by the corruption of the past. While I do not have time to discuss later Protestant developments, I will simply mention that the covenant theology of Reformed Orthodoxy introduced the doctrine of “imputed guilt,” in which God imputes Adam’s guilt to us, not unlike the way the creationist position had God implanting souls into human bodies. This erased the difficulty over the sexual transmission of the soul, but only by introducing numerous other problems. It was an advance that was actually no advance at all.
As modern Christians, we no longer hold to this notion of sexual transmission of corruption, at least not in the ancient form presupposed by Augustine and Maximus. Moreover, as a theologian shaped by the later Barth’s actualistic ontology, I have serious problems with the traditional priority of nature over act. Whereas the tradition says that we inherit a sin nature first before we commit any actual sin, I would argue instead that in our entrance into history with birth, we intrinsically act as individuals “curved in upon ourselves” because of our social environment. “By nature” we act in opposition to those around us. And in this “original” act of sin, we actualize our “sin nature.” Sin as act precedes sin as nature. We do not participate in Adam’s guilt, nor do we receive a corrupt essence from Adam by virtue of reproduction. On the contrary, we enter into a corrupt environment in which sin as incurvatus in se is inescapable. We are born into corrupt social relations that make it impossible for us to achieve perfection through the force of will. Augustine and Pelagius were both right in their own ways: Augustine was correct to argue that we are slaves to sin who depend upon grace alone, but Pelagius was right to argue that sin is primarily an act before it is nature. Against Pelagius, though, I would say that such acts are inevitable by virtue of our historical situatedness. In a very real sense, therefore, history began with the fall, and history as we know it is the continuation of “fallen” acts.
(It’s worth noting, I think, that Maximus the Confessor leans in this very direction. He has no period of “original righteousness.” For him, the instant that Adam entered the world, he sinned. For Maximus, the corruption of humanity is located in human passibility—an attribute that we would identify as constitutive of what it means to be human. The moment that Adam did anything in the world of time and space, he became a passible human being—i.e., he sinned, and thus fell.)
To sum up this section, an actualistic ontology means that being is determined by act. This goes for both sin and salvation. As sinners, we are what we do, viz. “sin.” As those saved by God’s grace, we are what Christ did, viz. reconcile us to God through his life of faithful obedience, his death in God-abandonment, and his resurrection to new life in the power of the Spirit. Theological anthropology is grounded not in substances or essences which precede human action. Rather, theological anthropology is defined by human acts: the individual act of sin that defines us as those “curved in upon ourselves,” and the christological act of reconciliation which defines us as adopted children of God. Here and now, we are dialectical creatures: simul iustus et peccator. At the same time, however, we are in Christ what we will be in eternity. Eschatologically, the old humanity defined by sin will be revealed for what it is, namely, dead and destroyed in the cross of Christ. In its place, the new humanity defined by the life of Jesus will be revealed for what it is: the hope and destiny of every person in accordance with the gracious will of the triune God. The tree of life that thrives in the New Jerusalem thus represents the fact that while we presently live in the antinomy of life and death, of sin and righteousness, God has resolved this antinomy in favor of life. Our telos is clear: God has elected us in Jesus Christ to share in his resurrection, to reign as co-heirs with Christ, and to enjoy life everlasting in the glorious kingdom of God.
2. What is the relation between creation and the fall?
Murphy’s opening section on the “christological context” of creation is perhaps the strongest of the entire article. With Barth, he defines creation in relation to election, reconciliation, and redemption: “creation [exists] for the sake of this election [in Christ]” (110). This is an important insight with far-reaching implications. For starters, if creation exists for the sake of redemption, then sin and the fall do not take God by surprise. As Murphy notes, the incarnation is not “Plan B.” For this reason, he rightly locates his position in proximity to supralapsarianism. A word on that Reformed debate is in order.
The polemical debate between supralapsarianism and infralapsarianism concerns two different orders of divine decrees. Infralapsarians adopted a more historical order: (1) creation and fall, (2) election and reprobation, and (3) the provision of a mediator (Christ). In this case, human sin catches God “off guard,” so to speak, and thus reprobation is contingent upon human actions, even if only foreseen by God. Supralapsarians, by contrast, adopted a logical order of decrees: (1) election and reprobation, (2) creation and fall, and (3) the provision of a mediator. For this position, the fall is a necessary corollary of God’s eternal decree of election and reprobation. The infralapsarians charged the supralapsarians with making God the author of sin; the supralapsarians responded by charging the infralapsarians with creating an arbitrary disjunction between election and reprobation, so that election is a purely divine decision while reprobation is based on God’s foreknowledge of human sinfulness. Supralapsarianism makes both election and reprobation solely dependent upon God’s eternal decision. From Barth’s perspective, if one had to choose between these two positions, supralapsarianism would be preferable, because it is better to make election the central act of God and leave sin a mystery than to make election a secondary decision. Of course, Barth’s own position is a radical departure from both, in that his central critique of supralapsarianism and infralapsarianism is that both separate election from the provision of a mediator. Jesus Christ is just an afterthought. In contrast, Barth’s new order of decrees is: (1) the provision of a mediator, Jesus Christ, in whom all are elected, and (2) creation and fall. Election and reprobation are located in the decision to become incarnate in Jesus.
Now, Murphy’s position on the relation between creation and fall is mostly Barthian, except for a few key differences. First, he rejects the necessity of the fall, speaking instead of its “inevitability.” Similarly, he refers to “the decrees of creation and permission to fall” (110). While this is technically correct—God did not command sin—it still gives the impression that humanity might have acted otherwise and so prevented the need for a savior. While Murphy explicitly rejects the notion that “God was the creator of sin” (111), there is a certain (albeit mysterious) sense in which this is required by a supralapsarian position. If God created for redemption, then God created a world bound to sin; there really is no way to get God “off the hook” for this—nor should we look for one.
In his most Barthian statement, Murphy writes: “The emphasis, however, should be on God’s election first of Christ, and then of others in Christ, of creation for the sake of this election” (ibid.). The problem here is that there are now two elections, “first of Christ” and then “others in Christ.” Maybe he simply means there are two sides to the one election, but it’s unclear from the article. Barth rightly had only one elected person, Jesus Christ, in whom all humanity is elect. This follows from the fact that Christ is the one mediator between God and all humankind. Moreover, if the created cosmos is grounded in the act of election, then any secondary election would be superfluous. The telos of humanity is determined by God’s eternal decision, and what happens in time and space is simply the historical manifestation of that decision. The history of creation, inclusive of the fall, is necessary as a constitutive element of God’s mission of reconciliation. Creation thus has its ground of being in protology (election) and eschatology (redemption), both of which are located in the one person, Jesus Christ, the electing God and elected human, in whom God reconciled the world to Godself (2 Cor. 5.19).
3. How should we read Genesis 1-3?
Barth argues in Church Dogmatics III/1 that the “history-like” Genesis story should be read in the genre of “saga” as a “third way” beyond the binary opposition of myth and history. Against myth, Genesis recounts a truly historical event: the event of creation. Against history, Genesis recounts an event which, as the editors of CD III/1 state in their preface, “cannot be historiographically expressed.” The event of creation is not unlike the event of the resurrection, in the sense that science cannot penetrate what is a divine occurrence, an event in the historical life of God that cannot be read off the face of creation itself. As Barth himself says,
I am using saga in the sense of an intuitive and poetic picture of a pre-historical reality of history which is enacted once and for all within the confines of time and space. … It is to be noted at this point that the idea that the Bible declares the Word of God only when it speaks historically is one which must be abandoned, especially in the Christian Church. … We have to realise that … the presumed equation of the Word of God with a “historical” record is an inadmissable postulate which does not itself originate in the Bible at all but in the unfortunate habit of Western thought which assumes that the reality of a history stands or falls by whether it is “history.” … Both Liberalism and orthodoxy are children of the same insipid spirit, and it is useless to follow them. For after all, there seems no good reason why the Bible as the true witness of the Word of God should always have to speak “historically” and not be allowed also to speak in the form of saga. On the contrary, we have to recognise that as holy and inspired Scripture, as the true witness of God’s true Word, the Bible is forced to speak also in the form of saga precisely because its object and origin are what they are, i.e., not just “historical” but also frankly “non-historical.” (CD III/1, 81-82)
While I have no disagreement with Barth regarding the theological interpretation of Genesis as saga, I do not have the same aversion to the word “myth.” As C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien rightly argued, myth expresses the truth in a culturally specific form. The story of Jesus Christ is thus the true myth, i.e., the myth that penetrated human existence. At the same time, I think Bultmann was correct to describe these stories as mythological, in that they presume certain ancient conceptions of the world that we now know to be scientifically incorrect. There is nothing theologically necessary about the ancient understanding of the blue sky as water over our heads, so I have no compulsion to protect such narrative details by using the word “saga.” And, of course, some of Barth’s polemic against the category of “myth” is really a polemic aimed at Bultmann himself. At the end of the day, Bultmann was right to see that the two of them have almost no disagreement about how to interpret the Genesis story. The difference is really a theological one which could just as easily be upheld using Bultmann’s terminology.
Having said all this, I tend to speak of Genesis 1-3 (though not only these chapters) as an “etiological myth” (or “etiological saga,” if you prefer). “Etiology” refers to the study of origins or causes, and here I think the opening of Genesis was crafted by the Israelites over a lengthy period of time—in contradistinction to Babylonian cosmology—for the purpose of narrating the nature of created existence and the cause of human sin and suffering in the context of their covenantal relationship with Yahweh. The creation narrative serves the Israelite self-understanding as those brought into a covenantal relationship with God, which includes the self-understanding as those distinct from other cultures. Since these texts were most likely compiled and redacted during the Babylonian exile, there is an important polemical dimension to the Genesis story. What all this means on an exegetical level is the Genesis story has to be read as the mythological introduction to Exodus. This doesn’t mean that Exodus is not also mythological in nature, but Exodus would be the primary myth while Genesis the secondary one. The creation account provides the necessary prelude to the account of Israel’s deliverance and establishment as God’s chosen people. Historically, then, I would argue, following other biblical scholars, that the canonical Exodus narrative came first in the minds of the Israelites, with the Genesis narrative taking shape only in relation to Exodus. While various parts of Genesis might have pre-existed the Exodus story—hence the two creation accounts, two flood accounts, etc.—overall the final form of Genesis is an etiological myth which provides the background context for the story of Israel’s liberation.
What this means is that we need to read Gen. 1-3 with Exodus firmly in mind. The story of creation has to be read in relationship with the story of God’s de-construction of Egypt and re-construction of Israel. The story of Adam’s sin has to be read in relationship with Israel’s confession of sin, their promise of covenant fidelity, and their continual failures as a people before God. The story of Eden and “original righteousness” should be read as the mythological acknowledgement of creation’s disruption through human sin and the need for a covenant with God. The covenant is thus the restoration of humanity’s relation with God. The myth of humanity’s fall in the Garden of Eden serves as the narratival introduction to the story of humanity’s redemption in the exodus from Egypt. Egypt is the literary foil to Eden, just as Pharaoh is the literary foil to Yahweh: Egypt is a place of enslavement and Pharaoh the one who enslaves; by contrast, Eden (and later Sinai) is a place of freedom, and Yahweh is the one who liberates. Moreover, the affirmation of “original righteousness” is similar to our affirmation of the soul: both are logically necessary in a sense, though not historically or scientifically true, because each affirms that there is “more than meets the eye.” Just as creation is more than sin, suffering, and death, so too we are more than the sum total of bodily matter. Though we do not have access to this “something more,” the mythological accounts of “original righteousness” and a human “soul” testify to this theological truth.
My observations here are assisted by the fact that the Jewish canon identifies the Pentateuch as the Torah, the Law. There is no independent historical record here; rather, every aspect of the Genesis narrative serves the elaboration of God’s law. Just as I remarked above how the doctrine of creation serves the doctrine of redemption, so too the text of creation serves the text of redemption. Genesis serves Exodus; creation serves the covenant. When we read Genesis, then, we have to interpret the text in a threefold context: (1) the theological context of the doctrines of creation, sin, and redemption (the first two serving the third); (2) the literary/textual context of the Torah as the history-like narrative of God’s covenant; and (3) the historical-cultural context of Israel as a people living in exile from the land promised to them by God.
Finally, while these three contexts are primary, as a Christian interpreter of Genesis, we have a fourth and determinative context: the self-revelation of God in Jesus Christ. The creation account must be read with the prophetic and New Testament witness to the new creation, and the exodus story must be read together with the story of the cross as the final and definitive event of our liberation. Christians have long interpreted Gen. 3.15 as the “protoevangelium,” the first annunciation of the gospel. Whether this is a good reading of the text is certainly debatable. Where a specifically Christian interpretation of Genesis is quite helpful is in the interpretation of Gen. 2.17: the promise of “death” upon the eating of the fruit of one particular tree. As Murphy correctly notes, this has long been understood as the threat of “spiritual death” resulting from alienation from God (117). Christians then connect this to the cry of dereliction in the Synoptics (Matt. 27.46; Mark 15.34) and the “second death” described in Revelation (Rev. 2.11, 20.6, 20.14, 21.8). The conclusion one reaches from this kind of canonical-theological exegesis is that in his death on the cross, Jesus dies the second death destined for all people because of our sinfulness, the death in which we are definitively separated from God for eternity. Jesus enters into solidarity with humanity by throwing himself into the lake of fire, so to speak, so that we might receive new life instead of eternal death. In Christ, God takes upon Godself the punishment promised Adam as a result of his disobedience, and so freeing us for the enjoyment of communion with the triune God.
I have sought to reflect on the ideas and insights touched upon by George Murphy in his fascinating article. My disagreements are all rather minor and mainly have to do with theological consistency. Further exploration of this topic could be pursued many different lines, but two in particular stand out. The first is the account proffered by Daryl P. Domning and Monika K. Hellwig in their work on Original Selfishness: Original Sin and Evil in the Light of Evolution. While I have not yet read this work, it seems to me that their project has the possibility of being a very interesting theological proposal, one that retains continuity with the tradition while incorporating the scientific insights of evolutionary biology. I would like to see future discussion of this topic engage this particular study. The second is a theological reappropriation of Schleiermacher’s theology. Though he is often dismissed as a 19th century liberal who is no longer worth reading, such an attitude is greatly mistaken. Schleiermacher is a profound thinker of the highest quality, and his theology, particular his doctrine of creation, offers substantial room for incorporating the insights of evolutionary science. It would be exciting to see what a post-Barthian appropriation of Schleiermacher and contemporary science might look like for a doctrine of creation.
This concludes my essay. I wish to thank Steve and George again for the invitation and the article, respectively. I look forward to reading the dialogue that follows.
David W. Congdon
Princeton Theological Seminary