For this first post of this series, see here. Kenneth Reynhous, in his lecture “Darwin Made Me Do It: Evolution & the Doctrine of Sin,” explores how we might formulate a Christian doctrine of sin that takes into account biological evolution and the challenges this understanding brings to traditional readings of Genesis 2-3. No longer will science support an interpretation of the history of the world and of humanity that is derived from traditional readings of the early chapters of Genesis, particularly of an historical fall which introduces death into a perfect world. As Steve Wiggins recently put it, “There never was an Eden. Human existence has been brutal and harsh since we first stood upright and wondered why we could think.” At best, Eden serves as our eschatological hope (Isa 65:17-25; Rev 21-22), not our paradisiacal past.
Reynhous understands traditional readings of Genesis 2-3 to have their root in Augustine who, in battling the Gnostic devaluation of the essential goodness of creation and the Pelagian optimism of human nature, rightly aims “to affirm the essential goodness of created natural existence, without eliminating or unduly minimizing the reality of human sin and our propensity toward evil.” In this post, I will address how, if rejecting an historical reading of Genesis 1-3 in favor of a history informed by Darwinian evolution, Reynhous is able to affirm the essential goodness of natural existence in a way consistent with the text of Genesis 1-3.
At the conclusion of Genesis 1, God beholds his creation and declares it to be “very good” (1:31). Tempting though it may be to understand this evaluation as a divine confirmation of ontological perfection–as Augustine understood the cosmos before “the fall” of Genesis 3–it would be unwise to do so for numerous reasons. Consider, for example, how this same phrase is echoed in Judges 18:9 as the spies from Dan describe the land of Laish. “Arise, and let us go up against them, for we have seen the land, and behold, it is very good.” They go on to describe the land as “spacious . . . a place where there is no lack of anything that is in the earth” (vs. 10). This hardly suggests that the land is perfect; rather, it is a suitable place for the tribe of Dan to fulfill the human commission to “fill the earth and subdue it.” Fretheim agrees that “the divine evaluation ‘good’ does not mean that the creation is ‘perfect’ in the sense of needing no further development or attention,” and observes that the commission in 1:26-28 suggests “the potential of becoming is built into the very structure of things” (52). Thus, a land that is beneficial, productive, and conducive to human development is rightly understood as good.
Mark Smith builds on this understanding of “good,” but is open to attributing to it the additional significance of “the norms for holiness and good or moral behavior” (62; cf. Pro 2:20-22; 12:2; 13:22; 14:14; 15:3; Pss 14:1, 3; and esp. 33:4-7). According to Smith, “Genesis 1 provides a picture for the origins of creation and its goodness.” However, he does not conclude from this that moral evil is excluded or absent from the cosmos. “[Genesis 1] makes no concrete effort to explain evil or to justify the existence of evil, nor does it offer an explanation for the unruly cosmic waters at the outset of creation in verse 2; they are a ‘given,’ existing at the time when God begins to create” (62). This disinterest of inquiring into the origins of evil would explain why there is no explanation of the shrewd serpent’s existence and admittance into the garden paradise.
Furthermore, that early Christians could conceive of an Edenic cosmos wherein the symbolism for evil, the cosmic sea, was absent and the potential for transgression, the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, was also absent, suggests that even they did not too highly exalt the goodness of the cosmos as experienced by the man and his wife in Genesis 1-3. Thus, the idea that humanity and creation fell from a perfect ontological existence simply cannot be supported by a close reading of the text of Genesis, nor by one early Christian interpretation of that text. It would seem that, in a battle between Darwin and the Fall, Darwin is more successful at affirming the goodness of created natural existence.
In my next post, I will explore whether Reynhous is able to avoid “eliminating or unduly minimizing the reality of human sin and our propensity toward evil” by adopting an understanding of sin built on that of Reinhold Neibuhr’s, and whether in doing so he remains in essential harmony with the text of Genesis 3.
Fretheim, Terence E. God And World In The Old Testament: A Relational Theology Of Creation. Abingdon Press, 2005.
Smith, Mark S. The Priestly Vision of Genesis 1. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2010.