Shuck and Jive

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Where Augustine and Calvin Went Wrong

Christians often use the term "The Fall" to describe the disobedience of Adam and Eve in the garden and their subsequent punishment. Not only does this punishment effect Adam and Eve but all of humanity. Augustine and subsequently Calvin (Protestants) viewed this state of fallenness as total depravity. Aquinas (Roman Catholic) was not as severe. For Aquinas, the image of God in humanity was tarnished but not shattered.

For both Catholics and Protestants, a great deal of theological weight is placed on this little narrative in Genesis chapters 2 and 3. But when we simply read the narrative without Augustine's theology imprinted upon it, it really says nothing about a "Fall," certainly not to the extent that the church has emphasized it.

The RC church (officially) still reads this narrative as historical. Conservative protestants do likewise. Liberal protestants have read this as mythical but containing psychological truth about the state of estrangement between humanity and God.

There is no need to read it that way. In fact, to do so does a disservice to the text, to an understanding of humanity, and to a clearer understanding of Jesus. A plain sense reading of the text shows that it is a myth or story for entertainment. Why do snakes bite? Why are there weeds? Why is there pain in childbirth? Why is life a struggle? Why is God so distant? Why are we different from the animals? These are some of a variety of questions along the same lines as myths such as how the camel got his hump etc. It is a coming of age story from human innocence to maturity and the ambiguity of that. It is a fine tale, but nothing to build a theology upon.

Dr. Patricia Williams (a theologian and philosopher of science) in her book Doing Without Adam and Eve: Sociobiology and Original Sin, finds that a common intersecting point between theology and science is anthropology. What is a human being? Why is there evil? She suggests that Genesis 2 and 3 does not give us a true picture of humanity from either an historical perspective or a psychological one. Or for that matter, a theological one.

Human beings from a scientific perspective were not created perfect, but have evolved from other life forms. There was no single act of disobedience that messed us all up. We constantly have choices. Further, there is no need for Jesus to die on the cross to atone for the sin of Adam and Eve, since they never existed!

From a theological perspective, it is time to say so long to Adam and Eve as a defining event for humanity, for the problem of sin and evil, and as the reason for the incarnation of Jesus.

Check out Dr. Williams' book. It is a keeper. If in you're in the neighborhood, come to the conference on May 19th!


  1. I dunno, I think there is a little more value to the story than that. For one thing, I think a reason the story resonates is that it speaks to a human longing for a world that is free of toil and suffering where we are taken care of by a more powerful being. At the same time it also poses the question of whether such a presumably blissful world would come at certain costs, and whether human freedom necessitates suffering. I think that one can come up with a lot of philosophical riffs off the Adam and Eve story once you see it as mythological and not literally true.

  2. Thanks, Seeker. I agree that it does resonate with the human longing to return to Eden.

    I think the point Williams is making (and that I make) is that this story has been the basis for our theological anthropology. Too much weight has been placed upon it.

    There never was a blissful world. There never was an Eden and there never will be. Snakes have always bitten. Weeds, toil, death, choice, suffering, joy, have always been part of Earth for all of life. There was never a point in which God was with us more than God is with us now (however we define God).

    My disagreement with Augustinian Christianity is that Earth and humanity is fallen and alienated from God.

    I would say that:

    1) The story is not historical.

    2) Augustine, and subsequently, Calvin, were wrong in their interpretation of this story.

    3) Even as a myth, it is wrong in describing the state of humankind in relation to Earth and to God.

    Evolutionary theory understood theologically will provide a better understanding of our relationship with God, to Earth, and the problem of evil.

    I am also reading a book by Gordon Kaufman, "Jesus and Creativity." It is part 2 of his earlier work, "In the Beginning...Creativity."

    In these books, he suggests that God is not a Creator but is Creativity. In that sense, God is with us and the evolutionary process at all levels all the time.

    Evolutionary Blessings,

  3. I agree with your comments, John. I wonder if Gordon Kaufman is a process theologian or has been influenced by process theology? One of the things I like about process theology is that it incorporates the reality of evolution into an understanding of God's creative role in the universe.

    You might be interested in seeing what John Cobb wrote in response to the question, "Please explain God’s reason and the nature of suffering as defined in process theology." His answer is located at the process and faith web site and he discusses how suffering fits into a benevolent God in an evolutionary universe.

    Thanks for bringing up this topic. I think it is very interesting stuff.

  4. Mystical,

    I think that your reading of human escapism into the protohistory says more about our age than it does the world within the text.

    You'll notice that Adam is told to tend the garden and name the animals. He spends time getting to know the ropes of his job before God ever gives him Eve. It's crucial to recognize that his work life preceded the joys of marital and family life. Work isn't presented as a curse but as a colabor with God. Toil and dissatisfaction in that work - just like pain and disruptive desires in the marriage and childbearing of the woman - are the curse.

    A closer reading of the text - whether it's taken as history or as fictional myth - will help us all see the truth of the narrative. Neither thoughtless assent nor cavalier dismissal of the text (because "I've already got this figured out") will uncover the riches of the story. The narrative is deeply embedded in our psyche and its meaning-making powers are diminished when we attempt to "get on with it" because we already know what the text should have said.

  5. John,

    You said that the historical impulse in Augustine, and subsequently, Calvin, skewed their interpretation of this story. What do you make of the references that Jesus makes to the first three chapters of Genesis? Which of his teachings built on them do we need to ammend now that we know better?

    You further said: "Even as a myth, it is wrong in describing the state of humankind in relation to Earth and to God." Would you please help me come out of the bronze age by telling me the right way of describing the relation of humankind to Earth and to God?

  6. Seeker,

    Thanks for the John Cobb link. That is very good. I am not sure about Gordon Kaufman and Process thought. I will have to look into that!