We had a good series of Friday posts on Alan Jacobs’ excellent book “Original Sin.” The essays in his book are outstanding and explore many facets of Original Sin in history and in contemporary thought. But Jacobs is an English Professor, not a theologian or a scientist. His book raised as many questions as it answered. Most importantly, how does a theologian deal with the doctrine – and how does it mesh with contemporary science? Henri Blocher’s book Original Sinprovides an excellent entrée into this subject. Today we begin to ask this question: how do developments in the origins of life and the beginning of humans relate to original sin? Before delving into Blocher’s book in the next post let me (RJS) lay forth a preamble on the science and human history.
I. Science, Scripture, and Tradition
Over the last several centuries, and especially the last century, we have witnessed an exponential growth in our understanding of God’s creation; from fossils to geology, from astronomy to astrophysics, from medicine to the human genome. The flood of data and interpretation overwhelms our ability to synthesize and digest. Information overload hits the church and the average Christian. When confusion runs rampant it is often easiest to retreat to the safety of 1500+ years of church tradition. After all we read scripture through tradition, correct? If it was good enough for Luther, or Calvin, or Augustine, or those who framed the Westminster Confession, it is good enough for us. God’s truth doesn’t change.
Or do we, should we, read scripture with tradition and in the light of God’s creation and revelation? God’s truth doesn’t change — but human culture and human understanding most certainly do change. We always come to God and wrestle with his action and his word in context of our understanding of the world. We don’t follow God effectively when we wear time-fixed blinders – rather, with blinders we miss most of the elegance and beauty of God’s creation and most of his mission in the world today. There is – there must be – an element of “that was then and this is now” in our approach.
Until the sixteenth or seventeenth century there was little reason to doubt the Genesis account of origins, little evidence to raise concern. Thus a literal historical interpretation was the traditional consensus opinion, although allegorical interpretation was often added to the mix on top of not instead of the historical meaning. There were variants. Augustine, for example, thought that creation was instantaneous with all matter and life created simultaneously, thus the days of creation were analogical, an accommodation by God to human perspective.
Today the landscape has changed completely. Evidence has gradually accumulated to revolutionize our understanding of God’s creation. Don’t fool yourself. There is no going back. The only way to hold to a literal historical interpretation of Genesis is to postulate that God created the earth with evidence deeply and intricately embedded to make it appear as though it was of great age, to make it appear as though there was a succession of geological ages, to make it appear as though evolution was true, and then gave us Genesis so that we would know the truth. A young earth view today reveres scripture, but the inescapable conclusion is that it sets God up as the great deceiver. Those who hold to young earth creationism do so on the basis of a doctrine of scripture, in the face of the evidence, not on the basis of or in the absence of evidence to the contrary.
The earth is not 6-10,000 years old. Rather the earth is some 4.6 billion years old. The geological processes and strata are inescapable. These include layers of fossil deposition. The theory of evolution explains the evidence for the progression of life in profound and predictive fashion. The genetic record – the genome – provides distinct evidence for the inter-relatedness of species and the evolution of one species from others. In fact, the genetic record provides just the sort of evidence one would expect from the theory of evolution, formulated well before any concrete knowledge of the structure and composition of the genetic material.
Of course it is possible for a Christian to affirm some form of intelligent design or progressive creationism with intellectual integrity, and many Christians in the sciences do. The nature of the scientific evidence is such that it cannot refute such a claim. But neither does the evidence require such an assumption.
II. So what about mankind?
The human race – homo sapiens sapiens – is some 200,000 years old give or take. Other hominoids existed before and alongside modern humans. The archaeological and paleontological evidence is pervasive and persuasive, but the genomic evidence is overwhelming and inescapable. The evidence for common descent – the human relation to mammals, apes, and chimpanzees – coming from the study of the genome is astounding. Evolutionary theories are being refined and strengthened – not questioned and overturned.
The general scenario (subject of course to future refinement) is this – we all descend from one woman (best estimate of age based on genetic evidence ca. 230,000 years ago) and one man (best estimate of age based on genetic evidence ca. 100,000 years ago). It is not necessary to conclude that these two individuals were contemporaries or mates, in fact most think that they were not. But whether they were contemporaries, mates, or existent at times spaced by a hundred millenia, these individuals were parts of larger populations with whom their descendents interbred. It’s a complicated problem. There is no scientific evidence for one unique couple from whom all others descend in simple pyramid fashion.
However, on the basis of science we are all one species with only minor variations. The best estimate based on scientific analysis alone is that we all descend from one population of about 1000 individuals living in East Africa ca. 100,000 years ago. Populations left East Africa ca. 100,000 years ago and migrated throughout Africa. Migration to Europe, Asia, Oceania occurred more like 40-60,000 years ago, migration to the America’s some 15-30,000 years ago. This migration scheme is corroborated by multiple threads of evidence, each of which could conceivably snap if taken alone, but which weave together to form an entirely self-consistent picture. There are even estimates published in scientific journals that because of intermarriage and migration all humans may have at least one common ancestor from the population of homo sapiens sapiens present on earth as recently as ca. 10,000 years ago.
Where does this leave us in terms of theology and the nature of man? On the testimony of science and scripture we are one species, one people. On the testimony of scripture we are one people created in the image of God. Science, of course, has nothing to say on the latter – it does not, cannot, refute the statement or even address the question. What does it mean to be created in the image of God? What makes us both like God and unlike the lower animals? These are interesting questions that have intrigued theologians and lay thinkers alike for millennia.