Albert Mohler, President of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, yesterday posted False Start? The Controversy over Adam and Eve (hat tip to Joe Carter at First Things) which details the dispute in evangelical circles regarding the historical nature of human origins as described in Genesis and its impact on the Gospel story. This might be an old debate, but I am not certain it has ever been fought within evangelical churches before; historically, the fight has been directed from evangelicals out at theological liberals and Darwinists. A number of evangelical scholars, however, have challenged the former consensus. Mohler represents their views within his post:
(Barbara Bradley )Hagerty (of NPR) asked Dennis Venema, a professor of biology at Trinity Western University, if all humans descended from Adam and Eve. “That would be against all the genomics evidence that we’ve assembled over the last 20 years, so not likely at all,” Venema said. He explained that there is simply too much genetic diversity among human beings than would be possible with an original reproducing pair. Venema affirmed the standard evolutionary line of argument and explained that, in Hagerty’s words, “modern humans emerged from other primates as a large population - long before the Genesis time frame of a few thousand years ago.”
There are other evangelical scientists and scholars whom he cites in the same vein, but Mohler seemed most troubled by this assertion from Karl Gibberson regarding the impact of these claims regarding Adam and Eve:
The Bible is not a book. It is a library — dozens of very different books bound together. The assumption that identifying one part as fiction undermines the factual character of another part is ludicrous. It would be like going into an actual physical library and saying “Well, if all these books about Harry Potter are fictional, then how do I know these other books about Abraham Lincoln are factual? How can Lincoln be real if Potter is not?” And then “Aha! I have got you! So much for your library.”
Mohler ends with what he sees as the troubling implications of such a claim:
The implications for biblical authority are clear, as is the fact that if these arguments hold sway, we will have to come up with an entirely new understanding of the Gospel metanarrative and the Bible’s storyline.
Are these issues for Catholics in general or Catholic biblical scholarship? The Catholic Church in general has been more open at an official theological level to the reality of evolution, as long as one maintains the reality of divine creation and the meaningfulness and purposefulness of life, but does this openness to evolution extend to a denial of an actual human pair, Adam and Eve? The Catholic Church has also had little trouble reading the Bible symbolically, figuratively, and allegorically, but could it deny that behind the mythic accounts of Adam and Eve stand two real human beings? This seems to be where the evidence of evolutionary theory is taking us, but it also seems to me that the Church’s position has been somewhat ambiguous on certain matters or silent.
Humani Generis 38 says "that the first eleven chapters of Genesis, although properly speaking not conforming to the historical method used by the best Greek and Latin writers or by competent authors of our time, do nevertheless pertain to history in a true sense, which however must be further studied and determined by exegetes." What does it mean for something to "pertain to history in a true sense"? Two actual people created directly by God who then are tempted and sin? Or the reality that humanity has fallen? Certainly, reading these texts in a figurative or symbolic or even mythic sense, properly understood, is quite common amongst Catholic exegetes, but how does it "pertain to history in a true sense"? That is an ambiguous way to state asomething that could have been stated in this manner: those two people were historical persons. The Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC) states in 289 that “Among all the Scriptural texts about creation, the first three chapters of Genesis occupy a unique place. From a literary standpoint these texts may have had diverse sources. The inspired authors have placed them at the beginning of Scripture to express in their solemn language the truths of creation - its origin and its end in God, its order and goodness, the vocation of man, and finally the drama of sin and the hope of salvation. Read in the light of Christ, within the unity of Sacred Scripture and in the living Tradition of the Church, these texts remain the principal source for catechesis on the mysteries of the "beginning": creation, fall, and promise of salvation.” This passage names the literary character of the Genesis texts and speaks of how they express “in their solemn language the truths of creation - its origin and its end in God, its order and goodness, the vocation of man, and finally the drama of sin and the hope of salvation,” but is this the same as saying there was an actual Adam and Eve? Or does it deny that there was such a pair?
However open the Church has been to theistic evolution, the CCC 375 states that “the Church, interpreting the symbolism of biblical language in an authentic way, in the light of the New Testament and Tradition, teaches that our first parents, Adam and Eve, were constituted in an original "state of holiness and justice". This grace of original holiness was "to share in...divine life.” This does suggest an original human pair, even in light of “the symbolism of biblical language,” which does not seem to square with the evolution of human beings. It might be more complicated than that, though, for on a number of occasions the Church has insisted that even if human beings developed through evolutionary processes, the human soul is created directly by God. This could open up the doors to an understanding of the evolution of beings and then a direct encounter with God in which two of these first beings are made human by being “ensouled.” According to Gaudium et Spes 14 when a human being “recognizes in himself a spiritual and immortal soul, he is not being mocked by a fantasy born only of physical or social influences, but is rather laying hold of the proper truth of the matter.”
Humani Generis 36 declares that “for these reasons the Teaching Authority of the Church does not forbid that, in conformity with the present state of human sciences and sacred theology, research and discussions, on the part of men experienced in both fields, take place with regard to the doctrine of evolution, in as far as it inquires into the origin of the human body as coming from pre-existent and living matter - for the Catholic faith obliges us to hold that souls are immediately created by God (my italics). Likewise CCC 33 speaks of “the human person: with his openness to truth and beauty, his sense of moral goodness, his freedom and the voice of his conscience, with his longings for the infinite and for happiness, man questions himself about God's existence. In all this he discerns signs of his spiritual soul. The soul, the "seed of eternity we bear in ourselves, irreducible to the merely material", can have its origin only in God.” It is vague and ambiguous, therefore, whether these texts are speaking of “Adam and Eve” as the original human couple, or the original beings who after development through evolution are made human by the process of entering into a relationship with God by means of the bestowing of a soul. This is not the only matter to be considered. As Mohler makes clear in his piece, as significant as the notion of human creation is the “Fall,” Original Sin, for it is from the depths of sin and death that human beings are saved in the Christian redemption narrative.
Again, though, ambiguity is found throughout these discussions. As CCC 390 has it, “the account of the fall in Genesis 3 uses figurative language, but affirms a primeval event, a deed that took place at the beginning of the history of man. Revelation gives us the certainty of faith that the whole of human history is marked by the original fault freely committed by our first parents.” What does “figurative language” indicate when the passage goes on to speak of “our first parents”? Does it mean that certain elements of the account are figurative, such as the Serpent? Or does it indicate that the whole of the account, including the notion of the two original human beings, is to be understood as figurative? “A primeval event, a deed that took place at the beginning of the history of man” is different, it seems to me, than stating simply that the Fall as described in Genesis is an historical event, but this is not clear.
They key component of human sin, after all, is a willingness to choose evil and this requires in the Christian salvific scheme not only free will, but the “likeness” to God, which is seen primarily in the reality of the human soul. Gaudium et Spes 13 states that “although he was made by God in a state of holiness, from the very onset of his history man abused his liberty, at the urging of the Evil One.” Yet, as Gaudium et Spes 18 goes on to say, “it is in the face of death that the riddle a human existence grows most acute. Not only is man tormented by pain and by the advancing deterioration of his body, but even more so by a dread of perpetual extinction. He rightly follows the intuition of his heart when he abhors and repudiates the utter ruin and total disappearance of his own person. He rebels against death because he bears in himself an eternal seed which cannot be reduced to sheer matter (my italics).” Human beings, though, share death with other creatures, for whom it does not create an existential dilemma; it is this eternal seed which cannot be reduced to sheer matter, the soul, which creates the problem of death. After all, the reality of human evolution would necessitate the death of many beings prior to the full flowering of homo sapiens. This is a question of a different order than the evolutionary development of our human bodies and suggests the giving of the soul is the beginning of our human dilemma. If the giving of the soul does not occur concurrently with the beginning of the evolutionary process then how we understand “Adam and Eve” changes from the model of creation in Genesis with a strictly "original pair".
This is what I mean by ambiguity: one could argue the point one way or another from Church documents and Catholic scholars certainly do, with some concentrating on the openness to reading these accounts of Scripture in light of literary myth and theistic evolution and others stressing the reality of one original human pair who "fell" in a specific event, even though all of the evolutionary evidence points away from such a reality. In the Letter Of His Holiness John Paul II To Reverend George V. Coyne, S.J. Director Of The Vatican Observatory (1988), John Paul II acknowledged that we were still in a feeling out period between science and theology. His comments though looked positively to the flowering of this relationship:
What, then, does the Church encourage in this relational unity between science and religion? First and foremost that they should come to understand one another. For too long a time they have been at arm’s length. Theology has been defined as an effort of faith to achieve understanding, as fides quaerens intellectum. As such, it must be in vital interchange today with science just as it always has been with philosophy and other forms of learning. Theology will have to call on the findings of science to one degree or another as it pursues its primary concern for the human person, the reaches of freedom, the possibilities of Christian community, the nature of belief and the intelligibility of nature and history. The vitality and significance of theology for humanity will in a profound way be reflected in its ability to incorporate these findings.
Apart from the general claim that we cannot ignore the relationship between science and theology, significantly he stated that “theology will have to call on the findings of science to one degree or another as it pursues its primary concern for the human person, the reaches of freedom, the possibilities of Christian community, the nature of belief and the intelligibility of nature and history.” This is a task that will be perpetually unfinished in some ways, as both science and theology are perpetually unfinished, but it seems that clarity is still needed in determining the basic implications of what even a theistic understanding of evolution implies for human origins. This is quite apart from the literary study of Genesis, which has clearly outlined the complex nature of these myths of human origins, their relationship to and dependence upon other ancient Near Eastern accounts of human origins and the theological not historical nature of these accounts. As John Paul II asked,
“If the cosmologies of the ancient Near Eastern world could be purified and assimilated into the first chapters of Genesis, might not contemporary cosmology have something to offer to our reflections upon creation? Does an evolutionary perspective bring any light to bear upon theological anthropology, the meaning of the human person as the imago Dei, the problem of Christology – and even upon the development of doctrine itself? What, if any, are the eschatological implications of contemporary cosmology, especially in light of the vast future of our universe? Can theological method fruitfully appropriate insights from scientific methodology and the philosophy of science?”
These are all excellent questions, but for those of us who have thought the answers of human origins in Catholic theology were more clearly in line with the findings of evolutionary theory, there seems to be more ambiguity than I was aware. Even if Catholic theology is long beyond Mohler's unease that the Bible is more than history or his rejection of evolutionary theory, it seems that the questions he asks regarding Adam and Eve still have answers vaguely similar to his.
John W. Martens
Follow me on Twitter @johnwmartens