This Conversation is centered on the article by C. John Collins
Adam and Eve as Historical People, and Why It Matters”  published in the September, 2010 issue of PSCF.

The best way to account for both the biblical presentation of human life and our own experience in the world is to suppose that Adam and Eve were real persons, and the forebears of all other human beings. The biblical presentation concerns not simply the story in Genesis and the biblical passages that refer to it, but also the larger biblical storyline, which deals with God’s good creation invaded by sin, for which God has a redemptive plan; Israel’s calling to be a light to the nations; and the church’s prospect of successfully bringing God’s light to the whole world. The biblical presentation further concerns the unique role and dignity of the human race, which is a matter of daily experience for everyone: all people yearn for God and need him, depend on him to deal with their sinfulness, and crave a wholesome community for their lives to flourish. (author summary)

One of the better discussions was initiated by RJS in the
Jesus Blog

How Much History in Gen 1-3? (RJS)
Filed under: Adam, Bible, Science and Faith — rjs @ 5:06 am

This post is part 5 in a series on The Fall and Sin After Darwin. We’ve been looking at the essays in a book Theology After Darwin centered around a simple question: What are the implications for Christian theology if Darwin was right? In conjunction with this we are also looking at three articles in the recent theme issue of the ASA Journal Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith (v. 62 no. 3 2010) Reading Genesis: The Historicity of Adam and Eve, Genomics, and Evolutionary Science. Before continuing on to discuss the second half of Dr. Schneider’s article I would like to move over to discuss the article by C. John Collins, Professor Old Testament at Covenant Theological Seminary in St. Louis Missouri. In his article “Adam and Eve as Historical People, and Why It Matters” Dr. Collins makes a case for a historical understanding of Adam and the Fall and suggests scenarios that could be consistent with  an old earth and evolutionary biology. The historicity proposed by Dr. Collins stands in contrast to the literary understanding of Dr. Harlow, and his arguments will help frame some of the discussion of the Fall when we return to discuss the second part of Dr. Schneider’s article.

The arguments for Adam and Eve as historical people, first parents, through whom sin entered human experience are biblical and theological. Dr. Collins puts forth the position that the Fall is historical and uses this term as a shorthand:

To the extent that I use the terms myself, I employ them as a shorthand as well. I imply, not simply that humans are “sinful” (which is something we all can see), but that sinfulness was not part of our original make-up, and derives from some primal rebellion on the part of our first ancestors. (p. 148)

The Fall is a historical event, Genesis is history-like. While this does not mean that Genesis is “straight history,” there is a historical foundation.  Collins thinks that the author intended to convey history in literary form.

The author was talking about what he thought were actual events, using rhetorical and literary techniques to shape the readers’ attitudes toward those events. (p. 149)

The bottom line: while we may not have a historical account of the fall, we do have an account of a historical fall. (A turn of phrase borrowed from Henri Blocher.)

Do you think that there is a historical core to the story of Genesis 1-11? How important is this historical core?

In Dr. Collins’s article the concept of a historical fall, even if Genesis 2-3 is not a historical presentation of the fall,  is contrasted with  views often expressed where the author used imaginary history to convey timeless truths or story to convey theological and moral truths. There is an important distinction here – one that Collins fleshes out. The contact with ANE stories is significant, the author(s) used figurative language and forms of presentation familiar to readers of the day. But the intent is not fanciful presentation of timeless or moral truth.

Now, Genesis 1–11 has so many points of contact with Mesopotamian stories of origins, ancient kings, the flood, and subsequent kings, that we should find those stories as the proper literary backcloth against which the Genesis stories were written. Genesis 1–11 aims to provide the true pre- and protohistory of the Bible’s alternative worldview story, whose “purpose is to shape Israel’s view of God, the world, and mankind, and their place in it all.” (p. 150)

And after some discussion of various sources:

The conclusion to which this discussion leads us is this: If, as seems likely to me, the Mesopotamian origin and flood stories provide the context against which Genesis 1–11 are to be set, then they also provide us with clues on how to read this kind of literature. These stories include divine action, symbolism, and imaginative elements; the purpose of the stories is to lay the foundation for a worldview, without being taken in a “literalistic” fashion. We should nevertheless see the story as having what we might call a “historical core,” though we must be careful in discerning what that is. Genesis aims to tell the story of beginnings the right way. (p. 151)

The biblical story and the historical core of Genesis 1-11. Having framed the question in this fashion Dr. Collins turns to look at the nature of the biblical story that informs us of the historical core within Genesis 1-11. Genesis is not independent of the biblical story – and the story permeates all of scripture.  This is a story of creation, fall, redemption and the coming kingdom. Sin and rebellion from God form a core part of this story.

The story of Adam and Eve, and their first disobedience, explains how sin, the alien intruder, first came into human experience, though it hardly pretends to explain how rebellion against God (as expressed in the serpent’s speech) originated to begin with. (p. 155)

Collins discusses the image of God as expressing the truth that humans are special and that in some way there is a special creation, even if God’s created method used the evolution of primates to produce the vessel.  The key point, though, is that  sin is not part of humankind’s created constitution. Sin is an intrusive element that broke the relationships between humans and God, self, others, and the world. God’s action in the world, his covenant relationship with Abraham and Israel and the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus as Messiah are historical acts that address a historical problem.

So what elements does Collins suggest are required in an theologically sound scenario? He suggests that 40,000 years ago or 200,000 years ago there was some kind of special act that created humans in the image of God. The biblical chronology is not intended to be a chronologically accurate presentation without gaps. Some form of ‘polygenism’ in a small community is consistent, but we are all one people and are all part of the rebellion against God suffering from the consequences of broken relationships.  The death introduced by the fall was spiritual death – yet he feels that physical death was not the intended outcome for the original humans. “The spiritual death resulting from their disobedience ruined whatever process would have kept them alive.” (p. 159)

The four required elements according to Collins (p. 159-160):

1. To begin with, we should see that the origin of the human race goes beyond a merely natural process. This follows from how hard it is to get a human being, or, more theologically, how distinctive the image of God is.

2. We should see Adam and Eve at the headwaters of the human race. This follows from the unified experience of humankind, as discussed earlier (pp. 155–8). How else could all human beings come to bear God’s image?

3. The Fall, in whatever form it took, was both historical (it happened) and moral (it involved disobeying God), and occurred at the beginning of the human race. The universal sense of loss described earlier (pp. 155–8) makes no sense without this. Where else could this universality have come from?

4. If someone should decide that there were, in fact, more human beings than just Adam and Eve at the beginning of humankind, then, in order to maintain good sense, he or she should envision these humans as a single tribe. Adam would then be the chieftain of this tribe (preferably produced before the others), and Eve would be his wife. This tribe “fell” under the leadership of Adam and Eve. This follows from the notion of solidarity in a representative. Some may call this a form of “polygenesis,” but this is quite distinct from the more conventional, and unacceptable, kind.

This leaves a good bit of room for us to wrestle with the nature of Adam, Eve, and the Fall. The view expressed by C.S. Lewis in Ch. 5 of The Problem of Pain is an approach which includes all of these elements – the fall is historical, there was a real rebellion from God, and all humankind is involved. This is not the only possible scenario, nor is it necessarily the one that Dr. Collins prefers, but it is within the pale.  As I said on an earlier post on this topic, CS Lewis: Outside the Pale?, this kind of scenario is along the lines of my thinking these days, although other positions are also reasonable. I don’t find it a settled question in my own thinking.

Dr. Collins concludes where I think many of us will conclude. The Christian story makes sense of the world through the elements of good creation, Fall, redemption “as God’s ongoing work to restore creatures to their proper functioning“, and consummation.  If we deny that people have a common source or that sin is an alien intruder then we undermine this story and undermine the gospel.

This is not the last word on the subject – but is enough for today.


What do you think? Is there a historical core within the story of Gen. 1-11? Is this historical core an essential part of the Christian story?


Now a few of the 102 comments:

  • 1. Since all cultures preserve stories of origins, consider these stories to be important, and demonstrate the fact that oral traditions can be preserved for thousands of years, it seems probable that the same is true of the Genesis stories. Given that the Adam origin is important to the Son of God, and to the inspired Paul, it would seem that God took care to preserve a record of a historical event. Because the oral tradition would have started before there was any notion of history as we know it, and since oral histories are by and large not changed as they are handed down, what Moses, Paul and Jesus received was a literary recording of an oral tradition “history” formed in the manner that was used at the time of Adam’s children and essentially frozen.

    John I.

    Comment by John I. — November 2, 2010 @ 5:35 am

  • 2. John I,

    I don’t think that there is oral history in Gen 1-5 at all; probably not much in Gen 6-11. While there may be an oral connection to flood, the theological content is, I think, revealed. When we get to Abraham, the situation changes.

    The historical core in Gen 1-3 would be better described as revealed history. It explains the how and why of a situation.

    Comment by rjs — November 2, 2010 @ 6:34 am

  • 3.What do you think? Is there a historical core within the story of Gen. 1-11? Is this historical core an essential part of the Christian story?

    As noted in this article, there is so much relationship between the Genesis account (chs. 1-11) with other ANE accounts of origins and early history that there must be solid basis for what we have in the early chapters of Genesis. This shows it was not just fantasized and imagined, but has basis in history, if not literalistic, still based in the ANE traditions of our beginnings. And the early chapters of Genesis are unique and distinguished from other ANE accounts as the inspired, God-breathed account that Yahweh brought about amongst His people, Israel.

    I appreciate this saying in the article: while we may not have a historical account of the fall, we do have an account of a historical fall.

    And I think this could be adapted with other elements of the early chapters of Genesis: while we may not have a [literalistic] historical account of X (creation, first human beings, etc), we do have an account of a historical X.

    Hope that makes sense.

    Comment by ScottL — November 2, 2010 @ 7:43 am

  • 4. The distinction of an non “historical” account of a historical Fall is interesting and credible.

    But yeah, the real diffuculty is the issue of how to have a real “historical” fall that is theologically meaningful in a scientice evolutionary understanding of the development of humankind. So difficult, that it is probably the primary reason many believers reject evolution.

    I think that “understanding/explaination” is still out there. I think it is out there, but I have not seen it yet.

    Comment by TJJ — November 2, 2010 @ 7:50 am

  • 5. If we consider a “core” based in history, one such possibility/example may be the Flood. The event may not be what some have interpreted it to be, but the basis of a “core” flood appears to have some grounding in history.

    Comment by Rick — November 2, 2010 @ 8:15 am

  • This scenario is somewhat similar to that laid out previously by Dopderbeck.

    Following my (long) debate on the viability of such a scenario6.  with Dopderbeck, my main objection to this type of scenario boiled down to following:

    Evolutionary and anthropological findings depict the hominid ancestors of man as lustful, aggressive, selfish, etc. – in addition to being pro-social and altruistic, in part, of course. The evolutionary scenario here for inheritance of this nature is quite simple, we acquired these same characteristics from our hominid ancestors. In contrast, the “fall of man” scenario in Genesis posits a primordial rebellion against God and subsequent transformation from a pure human nature lacking in sin, to one that is attributes these same qualities of humanity being lustful, aggressive, selfish, etc.

    Here’s where I think the difficulty lies. It is both incredible and unnecessary to posit a nature that arose via evolutionary means to look so very much like our own lustful, aggressive, selfish, etc. nature in hominid ancestors leading right up to modern humans -> then have modern humans be granted innocence and purity in some form -> then have humans rebel against God and as a result have their nature transformed into exactly what basic hominid evolution would have produced!

    Doesn’t this seem just a little too incredible and unnecessary to anyone else?

    Also, don’t the numerous cues in the Genesis 2-3 story revealing strong and pervasive ancient near east parallels make a case that a historical look at Genesis is not exactly warranted (i.e., lady of the rib, perfect garden where eating forbidden fruit results in curse of death, humans being made out of clay, the snake, tree of life, etc.)?

    Comment by Tim — November 2, 2010 @ 8:19 am

  • 6. …last sentence of 3rd paragraph should be: “to one that has these same qualities of humanity being lustful, aggressive, selfish, etc.

    Comment by Tim — November 2, 2010 @ 8:21 am

  • 7. Tim,

    What do you think happens to Israel’s system of sacrifice (for sins) or to the Christian gospel (salvation from sins) if one abandons a historical core to Genesis 1-3? I have my own thoughts on this, but I wonder what you’re thinking here. Is the Bible’s focus on sin off-base?

    Comment by smcknight — November 2, 2010 @ 8:25 am

  • 8.  Scot,

    Thanks for the question :)

    On issues of theology, I’m of course an amateur. So I hope if I put my foot in my mouth you’ll go easy on me :)

    In any case, I think that the idea of how sin separates us from God remains the same whether it arose through an original fall or through evolutionary means. In either case, we need something to solve the problem of sin and reconcile us to God.

    Where I do think things start to differ is on the whole Plan A / Plan B scenario.

    In the original sin scenario, all of the difficulties surrounding sin would have been God’s plan B. It wouldn’t have been what he originally wanted. So it would certainly make it easier to theologically reconcile all the worldly as well as soteriological difficulties facing mankind easier to deal with (as you could say none of it was God’s original intent).

    In the scenario that humanity simply inherited our nature that predisposes us to sin, this would have to be God’s Plan A. At least for a time. Perhaps you could say we’ve missed previous opportunities to reconcile, perhaps some previous covenantal relationship. But I don’t know what the Biblical basis for that would have been.

    In any event, however sin got here, I think that it does need to be dealt with. So Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross, and the OT sacrificial system would, to me, still make theological sense.

    Comment by Tim — November 2, 2010 @ 8:59 am

  • 9. Tim, your conclusion is the big picture item we need to keep in mind: the message of the Bible, at one level, is that humans are sinners and in need of admitting it and reconciling with God, self, others and the world. Whether there was a historical fall or a historical account of the fall leads to the fundamental recognition in the Bible that Eikons are cracked (image bearers are messed up).

    Comment by smcknight — November 2, 2010 @ 9:17 am

  • 10. Thanks for your comment Scot :)

    I think for me, I see God’s stamp on our image as less cracked and more just incomplete. I think we are meant for a closer relationship with God, and his image stamped on us represents a potential for that, a potential that has not yet been realized but that will be one day. I think this would be more compatible with an evolutionary inheritance of a sinful nature. Does this make any sense? And is this compatible with a Biblical point of view?

    Comment by Tim — November 2, 2010 @ 9:42 am

  • 11. I think Collins’ approach is very helpful. It is very close to my thinking on all this. I would differ from Collins to the extent he seems to be insisting on some kind of special creation of Adam — although, if this is nuanced to mean simply the spark of “soul” (not in a substance dualist sense but in a real ontological sense) I probably would agree with that too.

    Re: Tim’s points — I don’t think any of this requires thinking of redemption as “Plan B.” I don’t think of it that way. If I were a Calvinist, I’d be a supralapsarian. Since I lean towards a sort of Barthian Reformed approach, I’d say Christ was the elect from before the foundation of the world — not Plan B at all. God’s entire and ultimately inscrutable plan for creation from eternity past encompased the knowledge that humans would sin, that the second person of the Trinity would become incarnate, and that the telos of the creation was the new creation.

    Does all this seem “a little incredible and unnecessary?” Sure — if you don’t startwith the revelation of the Triune God in Jesus Christ and then build your epistemology from there. If you start with positivism, then anything that can’t be “falsified” will end up on the cutting room floor as incredible and unnecessary (in fact, I think you’ll end up nowhere, because positivism’s falsification criterion ends up not be useful for very much at all).

    Our primary data are the cross and the resurrection. From there, we move both backwards to our misty primal origins and forward to our eschatological future. The human condition is explainable only in Christ.

    Comment by dopderbeck — November 2, 2010 @ 10:03 am

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