Keeping his usual watch on BioLogos, reader Sigmund has spotted an interesting conundrum: if the Bible is read as a metaphor, then why did Church fathers like Paul and St. Augustine—and even Jesus himself—take the tale of Adam and Eve as literally true?
Pastor Keller and the Historicity Problem
Over on BioLogos, Pastor Tim Keller is continuing his series of guest posts “Creation, Evolution and Christian laypeople part 4”, answering questions about the integration of evolution and evangelical theology. The current post is particularly interesting because of the light it throws upon what might be described as the major problem faced by the BioLogos Foundation.
If it is indeed possible to interpret the Genesis story as an example of figurative language, a poetic story illuminating a deeper truth, then what exactly underlies the resistance from the evangelical community? Why do evangelicals reject the scientific explanation of natural history of the universe and biological development and instead insist that the biblical description is truly historical?
As can be expected from BioLogos these days, all bets are hedged when it comes to Adam and Eve and the Fall.
Question #3: If biological evolution is true and there was no historical Adam and Eve how can we know where sin and suffering came from?
Answer: Belief in evolution can be compatible with a belief in an historical fall and a literal Adam and Eve. There are many unanswered questions around this issue and so Christians who believe God used evolution must be open to one another’s views.”
While refusing to admit that the historicity of Adam and Eve as progenitors of humanity is disproven by modern discoveries in population genetics, Keller does raise a useful point of biblical criticism.
Keller, quotes the commentary by N.T. Wright on the New Testament ‘Epistle to the Romans’, generally ascribed to the Apostle Paul:
“Paul clearly believed that there had been a single first pair, whose male, Adam, had been given a commandment and had broken it. Paul was, we may be sure, aware of what we would call mythical or metaphorical dimensions to the story, but he would not have regarded these as throwing doubt on the existence, and primal sin, of the first historical pair.”
This argument and its implications for the church is taken seriously by Keller:
“I am not arguing something so crude as “if you don’t believe in a literal Adam and Eve, then you don’t believe in the authority of the Bible!” I contended above that we cannot take every text in the Bible literally. But the key for interpretation is the Bible itself. I don’t believe Genesis 1 can be taken literally because I don’t think the author expected us to. But Paul is different. He most definitely wanted to teach us that Adam and Eve were real historical figures. When you refuse to take a Biblical author literally when he clearly wants you to do so, you have moved away from the traditional understanding of the Biblical authority. As I said above, that doesn’t mean you can’t have a strong, vital faith yourself, but I believe such a move can be bad for the church as a whole, and it certainly can lead to confusion on the part of laypeople.”
In other words, whether you think Genesis was allegorical or not, Paul, the architect of much of modern Christianity, clearly thought it was historical. Since a great deal of the Christian religion is based on the authority of noted church fathers, the denial or contradiction of these figures can only lead to problems with the lay community. For if you say Paul was wrong about this part of the bible, on what basis can you claim he was correct about the rest?
In fact, the point raised by Keller in this post extends far beyond the writings of Paul.
Saint Augustine of Hippo, who commented extensively on Genesis was quite explicit in stating that the book was based on historical events.
“The narrative indeed in these books is not cast in the figurative kind of language you find in the Song of Songs, but quite simply tells of things that happened, as in the books of the Kingdoms and others like them.”
Modern investigation indicates that both Paul and Augustine were simply wrong about history. But they were human. They lived almost two thousand years ago. Devoid of the benefits of modern science, they clearly have little credibility about events that occurred thousands (or indeed billions) of years before they were born.
Jesus, on the other hand, is different.
If you accept Jesus as God (or part of the Holy Trinity) then you are forced to hold him to a higher standard of historical knowledge than either Paul or Augustine.
So what does Jesus say about the historicity question? For the most part, very little, but what he does say is telling. In the gospel of Luke, for instance, he mentions Abel, the son of Adam and Eve, in historical terms:
“So the people of this time will be punished for the murder of all the prophets killed since the creation of the world, from the murder of Abel to the murder of Zechariah, who was killed between the altar and the holy place” (Luke 11:50-51).”
Despite some desperate attempts at apologetic explanations for these words, it remains clear that many in the early church, including Jesus, thought that Genesis was based on historical events and real individuals.
At Pastor Keller’s BioLogos post, the idea that Jesus was wrong about history is troubling a few people in the comment section. Commenter KevinR sums up the implications nicely:
“The point should be clear – if you do not belief in a literal Genesis 1 and Adam and Eve, you are calling Jesus a person who does not know history. This would be a really strange phenomenom for someone who was there in the beginning, and through whom (sic) everthing was made. If that is the case then Jesus cannot be God either and thus is unable to be your Saviour.”
This is the essential dilemma faced by BioLogos. Modern science doesn’t just show that creationism is wrong about history. It shows that Jesus was wrong too.