Darwin Versus the Fall – Part Three

For the previous posts in this series, see here and here. In this post, I will address whether or not, in rejecting an historical reading of Genesis 1-3 in favor of a history informed by Darwinian evolution, Reynhous is able to  articulate a universal doctrine of sin that provides an alternative reading to the texts of Genesis that has theological merit. The constructive image of sin that Reynhous adopts is built off of that of Rienhold Neibuhr. In an effort to do justice to Reynhous’ understanding of Neibuhr’s concept of sin, I quote him at length:

Neibuhr builds his concept of sin around three features of a distinctively Christian anthropology with clear echoes of Augustine. Number one, human beings were made in the image of God which involves our capacity for self transcendence. Two, humans are finite and connected to the natural world which is created good and therefore not the ultimate source of sin. Three, human sin is a consequence of our unwillingness to accept finitude and admit insecurity, which ironically makes us even more insecure. This human condition is fundamentally paradoxical because, although we find our true norm only in the character of God, we are nevertheless creatures who cannot and must not aspire to be God. Human sin is not due to our creatureliness, but rather to our efforts to overcome our creatureliness in order to comprehend or realize the whole through our own power. This will to power is an overreaction to our insecurity and our natural contingency which Neibuhr also describes as anxiety. We are anxious because we are both nature and spirit. Our existence is caught between our freedom and the limitations of our finitude. Neibuhr describes anxiety as the precondition of sin, even though our finitude is not by itself sin, our anxiety over our limitations provides us with the occasion for and temptation to sin. And giving in to this temptation is always an act of self-serving pride. Neibuhr describes two ways in which anxiety tempts humans to the sin of pride. In the first case, one can rebel against God and our finitude, exercising the ego and its will to power in order to make one’s self the center of existence. In the second case, one can selfishly seek to escape anxiety by hiding from one’s freedom, losing oneself in some part of the world’s natural vitalities[?]. This is an abortive effort to solve the problem of finitude and freedom that Neibuhr calls sensuality. Sin is thus the inescapable human tendency to either embrace spirit at the expense of nature, or to embrace nature at the expense of spirit, and both are manifestations of selfish pride. By anchoring human existence in both our biological nature and transcendent spirit, Neibuhr does seem to bypass the idealist dualism between nature and spirit that contradicts both science and good theology. . . . At some point in the course of our evolutionary history, we achieved a level of self awareness that established the condition of anxiety Neibuhr views as necessary for sinning. And in this specific sense, we could say that sin entered the world. It is also not irrelevant that we apparently evolved a religious sense around the same time as our moral sense, although this claim is even more controversial than the moral one. We could then say that the fall occurred, ironic as it might sound, when as a species we could recognize both a divine presence and moral categories such that we could be held responsible for our actions. In other words, when we became both religious and moral, we became sinners. Or is this view ironic after all? It is, I suggest, one way we could creatively reinterpret the narrative of Genesis 3, where we noted that the knowledge of good and evil came with the aspirations to become like God. Such divine aspirations would only make sense if we already had some knowledge of divine presence in the world.

Reynhous goes on to offer some criticisms of Neibuhr along with some minor adjustments, but this description is sufficient for our purposes. Perhaps this is summed up in the sentence, “Sin is thus the inescapable human tendency to either embrace spirit at the expense of nature, or to embrace nature at the expense of spirit.”

It is important to recognize that Reynhous is not necessarily approaching this subject by beginning with the biblical text. In other words, what Reynhous is not providing is an exegesis of Genesis 2-3. Systematic theology, properly understood, will not attempt to derive an “ahistorical core of universal truth” from an otherwise historical, contextual, and occasional text if, in so doing, the historical, contextual, and occasional features of the text are ignored or flatly contradicted. The relationship between biblical and systematic theology is more complex than some in the past have attempted to paint it. Strictly speaking, I think Reynhous’ approach to the subject is a helpful corrective to those who have assumed the historicity of the text and thus inquire as to the ontological significance of the actions the narrative is recording. There are those who might take issue with his methodological approach (i.e. not beginning with the biblical text), but I can think of some such as James Barr in The Concept of Biblical Theology and Ben Ollenburger in So Wide a Sea who understand systematic theology to be something that first precedes the biblical text.  As Barr puts it, “Doctrinal theology, however much it works with the Bible and acknowledges the Bible as authoritative, is not primarily about the Bible. . . . Even given the maximum authority of the Bible, the Bible is not the sole or even the sole controlling factor in its work. Its work is related to [among other things] natural theology” (74). These are issues I am still working through, but I feel confident enough to move forward assuming the legitimacy of such an approach.

The question is whether Reynhous has provided a satisfying alternative to reading Genesis 2-3. I appreciated the fact that he discusses earlier in the lecture those who in the earlier decades of the previous century interpreted Genesis 3 as a “fall-up” of sorts, that man was meant to acquire the knowledge of good and evil by eating from the forbidden fruit. Naturally, this represents an entirely different way of reading the text than traditional reading, and while the same could be said of my own reading, I believe this one creates too many questions than it answers. If for no other reason, this interpretation should be rejected (as Neibuhr rightly did) because of its connection to chapters 4-11 (see the article by Freitheim, “Is Genesis 3 a Fall Story?”  Word and World 14, 2).

Given that the movement in Genesis 3-11 is built on a moral decline (and in this way only could I call consider the primeval history a “fall” narrative), I think there is great potential for Reynhous’ appropriation of Neibuhr’s doctrine of sin to be applied, not just to Genesis 3, but to the entire primeval history. For example, is the woman lusting after a characteristically divine wisdom when the texts says, “the woman saw that . . . the tree was to be desired to make one wise?” Are the residents of Babylon attempting an assault on the heavens (Gen 11:4;)? These questions are debated today among scholars. For example, many reject the “assault on the heavens” view of Genesis 11 in favor of the attempt to evade the human commission to fill the earth (Gen 1:26; 11:4).  I think it fair, however, to argue that in both cases the conflict between the human and the divine concerns those things which distinguish them from one another. Whether she intends to or not, the woman’s actions result in her and her husband becoming “like God/gods, knowing good and evil.” If this is less about knowledge and more about discernment (i.e. the man and his wife become the antonymous arbiters of good and evil), then this only enhances the breakdown in the distinction between the human and the divine. To this, we could add the rather difficult text in Genesis 6 where “sons of God” (elsewhere in the HB understood as divine emissaries of YHWH) mate with human women which ultimately leads to the unraveling of creation.

I proceed here with greater caution than I did in my previous post simply because the issue is more complex. Nevertheless, I feel it safe to say that Reynhous’ doctrine of sin has the potential for providing a better understanding of what is going on in the early stories of Genesis than the one predicated on an historical reading of the text. In this, I agree with Reynhous’ that these texts are not historical (at the very least in their canonical context), but rather archetypal.


Barr, James. The Concept of Biblical Theology: An Old Testament Perspective. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1999.


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