History Is The Best Theology

Theme Party for September 24 (’14), by Daniel Hoffman

I start41sZZOrxwbL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_ed reading a book—a kind of running commentary or series of essays, really—about Genesis by a non-Christian. It’s called The Beginning of Wisdom, by Leon Kass, who teaches at the University of Chicago. Kass is not out to critique or deconstruct Genesis though, quite the contrary. In the introduction he explains that he plans to read Genesis in search of wisdom; that is, to read it open to all the truth he can glean from it, the same way he might read any philosophical classic. This leads to an overall very positive assessment, and also lots of genuinely good and profound insights. I’m not very far into it, but I wanted to use some of his comments on the story of the the Fall as a springboard for a kind of follow-up to my earlier post on Original Sin.

Kass accepts the standard evolutionary scientific account of man’s origins, and so he can find no place in real history for an original human couple who, by their specific transgression in a real and geographically locatable Eden, brought ruin and misery to the world. He also points to the standard stock of supposed contradictions between the “first” and “second” creation stories (Genesis 1:1-2:3, and 2:4-3:24, respectively), and concludes that the story of the Fall cannot be, and more importantly is not really intended to be, read as a literal historical narrative. He puts this all quite positively though, saying things like,

“[I]f read morally, [the story of The Fall] enables us to see clearly and to experience powerfully the primary sources of many of our enduring moral dilemmas and much of our unhappiness. Like every truly great story, it seeks to show us not what happened (once) but what always happens, what is always the case. Like every truly great story, its truth may lie not so much in its historical or even philosophical veracity as in its effects on the soul of the reader.”

And again,

“[R]eading morally rather than historically, through God’s command about the tree the text teaches the reader that it is his own freedom – and its implicitly yet necessarily disobedient character – that is the cause of all human troubles.”


Not particular about the “apple”

In other words, Kass sees in the Fall story a parable or allegory of the source of human trouble, which he takes to be man’s autonomous use of reason. Now, there is much truth in this. The story certainly has much to teach us about human nature, the place of reason, and reason’s abuse, etc.  Kass is not alone in seeing the story as a myth with lots of profound truth, but not meant to describe a historical event. There are apparently “magical” trees, a talking animal, and the name Adam itself which means “mankind”—all these factors lead some to believe that the story’s genre is parable or myth, and so it should be read as one.

But for starters, on this question of genre and the story’s intent, Henri Blocher is certainly right to point out that some “mythical” sounding traits do not necessarily imply that the story does not have a concrete historical reference. In that regard, he points to the allegories in Ezekiel, Jesus’ own parables, and the apocalyptic visions in Revelation. And so even aside from the question of how literally we really need to take all the details, the real issue at stake is not, and this is vital – is “not whether we have a historical account of the fall, but whether or not we may read it as the account of a historical fall.” In other words, the question is whether there was a real, historical fall of man from innocence to guilt.

Now, I don’t think the details should be understood allegorically. The story is too explicitly woven into its surrounding context to be cut out from the running historical narrative of Scripture. Moreover, the story really seems concerned with things other than what the mythic view wants it to be about—man’s fear of snakes, or whatever. Plus, the bit about the four rivers, their names, and where they are sounds for all the world like the writer was telling the readers about a place they could have visited. But aside from the literary dress, the question I want to deal with is, should we maintain belief in a real, historical fall of man?

ParadiseWell, yes, we need to. For one, if we can all admit that there is such a thing as evil, the only alternative to a historical fall of man is to assume that evil is a necessary part of the framework of creation itself. There may be two (non-contradictory) creation stories in Genesis, but a huge reason for this is to make a sharp disjunction between God’s wholly good creation (the first story), and the introduction of sin, which is wholly man’s doing (the second story). Creation is God’s work; sin is man’s. The movement from non-sin (God’s original creation) to sin (the condition we are now in) is a qualitative leap. But if that is the case, sin must have a definite historical origin. No Christian – even the most hermeneutically liberal – will want to say that sin is woven into the very creation. But it’s actually a pretty standard liberal line that much of the Bible story (the resurrection of Jesus often included) is allegorical in nature, and speaks of timeless spiritual realities. You get this in milder forms when people talk about the “timeless truths” of the Bible, as though Scripture is some kind of philosophical treatise about metaphysical principles rather than an eclectic record of God’s redeeming work in the world. But the fact is, if sin and guilt are real, and if God is real, then sin must have entered the world after creation, through an agency other than God. And that means a historical Fall.

A non-historical understanding of The Fall also raises the depressing prospect that there will be no historical end to sin either. Will evil never really be defeated? Blocher is right, that “Only historical (and thus responsible) evil may be vanquished and perfectly eliminated. Historical evil, sin, the foe of both God and humankind, and true hope . . . go together. Only if the problem is historical will the solution happen.” Indeed, and the historical work of the last Adam makes little sense if the work of the first Adam was metaphorical. We don’t need metaphorical redemption.

Whatever the challenges to the story of The Fall in Genesis 3 from modern scientific reconstructions at human history, it remains the most satisfying way to account for the universality of human sin as well as the consciousness of guilt that accompanies it. It also assures us that sin is not a necessary part of human nature, and holds out the hope that the good creation can be freed from its bondage to corruption, after having been subjected to futility.




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