The Fall and Sin After Darwin 4 (RJS)

We’ve been looking at the essays in a book Theology After Darwin centered around a simple question: What are the implications for Christian theology if Darwin was right? In conjunction with this we are also looking at three articles in the recent theme issue of the ASA Journal Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith (v. 62 no. 3 2010) Reading Genesis: The Historicity of Adam and Eve, Genomics, and Evolutionary Science.

Today I would like to look at the first part of the article by John R. Schneider “Recent Genetic Science and Christian Theology on Human Origins: An “Aesthetic Supralapsarianism”.  We will look at more of this article, at the article by C. John Collins “Adam and Eve as Historical People, and Why It Matters“, and the chapter by John J. Jimson in Theology after Darwin entitled “Doctrines of the Fall and Sin After Darwin,”  as we continue through the series.

John Schneider obtained his doctorate in Divinity from the University of Cambridge and is a professor of  religion at Calvin College, where he has taught theology for more than 25 years. In his article in PSCF he focuses on the historical and theological discussion of the interplay of science and biblical interpretation and on the doctrine of the Fall in the context of both scripture and science. In the post today I want to concentrate on the first issue – the historical context of the interpretation of Genesis within the history of the church. The place to start is with Augustine as his thinking has formed and informed much of the interaction between science and scripture in the western church.

Augustine reflected at length on the book of Genesis, especially the early chapters on creation and his reflections have provided a foundation for much of the interaction between science or human reason and scripture for the last 1500 years or so. Dr. Schneider describes Augustine and the way he wrestled with the literal interpretation of Genesis, putting it in a context that is somewhat different than the context I’ve seen discussed in other places.  This perspective frames the entire discussion of the interaction between science and scripture in a slightly different way. As we continue there are two questions to consider:

In what way should our understanding of science inform our reading of scripture?

In what way should our reading of scripture shape the way we look at the world?

Dr. Schneider’s describes the situation and context for Augustine and his interaction with Genesis:

In his great commentary on the “literal sense” of Genesis (Genesis Taken Literally), Augustine established (contrary to the majority of eastern theologians) the teaching that the literal human propositions of Scripture were all products of verbal divine revelation, and therefore literally true.8 In saying this, though, he was greatly concerned to avoid intellectually embarrassing and ignorant applications, such as the “flat-earth creationism” that had apparently become somethingof a popular movement among the unlettered Christian populace. These “flat-earth” (or, if you wish, “solid-ceiling”) creationists apparently read Genesis simply and (so they believed) literally to teach that the earth is a flat disk resting on an ocean and covered by a solid ceiling, or dome, that protects it from a second ocean up above. (We will notice the irony of this “ignorance” in a moment.) They used the Bible (mainly Gen. 1:6–8) to proclaim the superiority of revealed cosmology over pagan Greek teaching, which was that the earth was a sphere, and that the heavens could not be an ordinary solid, as the Bible said. Augustine knew that the Greek theory was almost certainly right, and he judged that these Christians were unwittingly conferring their own ignorance on sacred Scripture, and bringing disgrace to the Gospel itself. (p. 198)

Augustine was confronted with a situation where Christians were taking the teaching of Genesis 1 literally and bringing ridicule on the church and the faith for their view – not of human origins, but of cosmology. They believed that the earth was literally flat with a solid dome above as the ANE cosmology in Genesis assumes. This was a problem for Augustine. In this context he wrote in this commentary on The Literal Meaning of Genesis:

Usually, even a non-Christian knows something about the earth, the heavens, and the other elements of this world, … about the kinds of animals, shrubs, stones, and so forth, and this knowledge he holds to as being certain from reason and experience. Now, it is a disgraceful and dangerous thing for an infidel to hear a Christian, presumably giving the meaning of Holy Scripture, talking nonsense on these topics; and we should take all means to prevent such an embarrassing situation, in which people show up vast ignorance in a Christian and laugh it to scorn. … If they find a Christian mistaken in a field which they themselves know well and hear him maintaining his foolish opinions about our books, how are they going to believe those books in matters concerning the resurrection of the dead, the hope of eternal life, and the kingdom of heaven, when they think their pages are full of falsehoods on facts which they themselves have learnt from experience and the light of reason?  (Vol. 1, CH. 19:39)

In response to the challenge of his day, in response to those who insisted that ANE cosmology must be correct because it is taught by scripture, Augustine formulated what has become a classic concordist approach to the relationship between science and scripture.

When they are able, from reliable evidence, to prove some fact of physical science, we shall show that it is not contrary to our Scripture. But when they produce from any of their books a theory contrary to Scripture, and therefore contrary to the catholic faith, either we shall have some ability to demonstrate that it is absolutely false, or at least we ourselves will hold it so without any shadow of a doubt. (Vol. 1 CH. 21:41)

Augustine was committed to scripture and in his view scripture must be correct. Thus when a fact is proven in science it, by definition, could not be in conflict with the literal meaning of Genesis. This approach was the foundation for the Catholic approach from Augustine to Galileo and Copernicus, and is the foundation for much Protestant wrestling with issues such as the age of the earth and the possibility of evolutionary creation. The irony here is that most scholars of ANE history today realize that those Augustine was criticizing were both correct – and incorrect. They were correct that the Ancient Near East (ANE) cosmology presumes a flat earth and a solid dome. They were incorrect in assuming that therefore the earth was flat and the sky was a solid dome. But Augustine’s view of scripture controlled the way he looked at the problem as well. It required that he deny the ANE context of Genesis and find a concord between observation, reason, and scripture.

Schneider points out that the fiasco with Galileo and the Copernican revolution has served to chasten the Catholic approach to the interaction of science and scripture. There is still a high regard for reason, a respect for science, and a profound respect for scripture as inspired by God, but there is a more guarded and realistic hermeneutical approach to the interpretation of scripture, especially with regard to science.

The protestant approach, especially among conservative Christians committed to sola scriptura and the perspicuity of scripture still has a way to go. But there is an important hermeneutical lesson here – one we would do well to remember. We should have a high regard for scripture as inspired by God and for the revealed nature of God in the world around us – but a “triumphal synthetic” rendering will misuse scripture and be subject to future correction as our understanding of the nature of God’s creation increases.  The purpose of scripture is not to teach cosmology, biology, the history of creation, or even the material details of human origins. The scientific context of scripture – from Genesis through Revelation – is the cultural context of the day. This is apparent in the ANE cosmology of Genesis 1 and the context of Job to give just two examples. The purpose of scripture is to reveal God and his interaction with his creation and his people and it does not appear that he saw fit to teach science in this interaction.  We learn science by exploration, not by special revelation; not because God could not reveal scientific detail in scripture, but because it seems clear that he did not choose to do so.

This has implications as we move on in the next post on Schneider’s article to consider Adam, Paul, and the Fall. Today, though, I would like to stop at this point and consider the lessons from Augustine and the interaction of science, human reason, and scripture.

Was Augustine right? Should we expect agreement between reliable evidence and facts of physical science and the literal reading of Genesis?

Does the veracity of scripture require this kind of agreement?

If not, why not? How should we view the relationship between science and scripture?

If you wish to contact me directly, you may do so at rjs4mail[at]

You can subscribe to a full text feed of my posts at Musings on Science and Theology.

"People like the seminary student above who respond with such vitriol always come across as ..."

What Women Want (Leslie Leyland Fields)
"Ben Witherington has said you cannot be an evangelical Christian and not believe the New ..."

The Word of God is Not ..."
"Note what that NPR article says; he's no longer president of the university, but they ..."

Wade Burleson And Paige Patterson
"I am glad the article was prefaced by "This is a statement that needs more ..."

The Word of God is Not ..."

Browse Our Archives

Follow Us!

What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • scotmcknight


    I find it fascinating that Augustine was worried about the credibility of the faith if people were offering ignorant opinions rooted in what they thought were correct hermeneutical methods and simple readings of Scripture.

    I also appreciate Augustine’s candor about knowing the world/universe, or what we call science, on the basis of experience. Contradictions between what we know from the experienced world and what we think Scripture says ought to make us much more circumspect.

    But it seems many Christians have moved toward another view, one that pushes back against concordism to a view that is more a recognition of the historical conditionedness of the Bible’s statements about cosmology. That approach follows, so it seems to me, from Augustine’s own theory of knowing the experienced world.

  • Dan

    Seems to me we can’t separate Augustines comments about Genesis 1 from his acceptance of the historicity of Genesis 2-11. He is saying the text of Genesis 1 is unclear regarding the initial acts of creation, all one-off events. Our understanding may be in error. But he seems to be saying we must not attribute error to the text or the authors, even if our understanding is incomplete or in error.

    I think he is correct. Let go of the 24 hour day or the precise age of the earth or a dogmatic assertion of “how God created”. But do not let go of Adam and the fall.

  • rjs


    Jack Collins argues for a literal Adam and Eve, John Schneider argues for a different look at the Fall for theological reasons and puts this in the context of evolution. I will put both of these up for discussion in future posts. The issue of Adam can be separated, in part at least, from the question in today’s post.

    Augustine argued that we must not attribute error to the text or the authors – even on issues of science. Basically he said that ANE cosmology is wrong, therefore the author could not have presumed ANE cosmology in the text. The question I would like to address here is whether Augustine was right or not. Is this the correct approach to scripture. When we see clearly, in “the age to come” should we expect to see how a proper scientific understanding of the world was embedded in the text?

  • normbv

    Augustine was confused himself. He applies parts of Gen 1 through the lens of the earlier first century church and also brings some of his own Greek view into play in a hybrid manner of application. So his applications are simply a mixed bag that has to be filtered through better scholarship which fortunately today is more achievable than during his day and age. He was somewhat on the right path when in one of his writings he illustrates that Genesis creation Days should be taken as representing the ages from Adam to Christ. He doesn’t employ science but reverts back to earlier first century church concepts using a metaphoric application of what people consider was ancient science. Concordism and ancient science therefore are not appropriate when the scriptures appear to use analogy and symbolism extensively.

  • John Calvin seems to have gone a slightly different direction with the seeming conflicts. For the most part he seems to have assumed Genesis to be an historical account. Nevertheless, in his “Sermon XLII on Deuteronomy”, he notes scientist have determined that their other planets larger than the moon. He saw that as a conflict with the language of the Bible. He reasoned that, like a mother of a small child, the language of the Bible stoops to human understanding in order to communicate more central truths (say, the majesty of God.)

    I’m not a Calvin scholar and I don’t know to what degree Calvin was a concordist, but he seems to open the door to the idea that God accommodates to the scientific understanding of his hearers in order to convey theological truth.

  • Rapha

    Another major factor, I’m coming to see as this discussion carries on, seems to be how one believes inspiration to work. While do not at all adhere to a “dictation”-like model, to me saying/implying there is scientific error in scripture because the scripture writers had erroneous scientific beliefs is minimizing the work of the Spirit to an unacceptable degree.

    While I have no problem with “the Bible isn’t a science book” and that details like that are unimportant to what the Spirit is trying to accomplish through His inspiration, surely He would be interested in keeping demonstrable error out of His Word?

    Which is why, to me, Scripture writer’s belief in the literal person of Adam is evidence for the actual existence of Adam (not trying to jump ahead, just a good example of what I mean). The firmament, with Calvin’s comments in mind (thanks Michael!), is another good example of not being interested in scientific detail but still giving enough of an idea to avoid flat out error (“ocean” seems like a decent way to describe outer space to me).

  • I think this is a very good summary statement:

    The purpose of scripture is to reveal God and his interaction with his creation and his people and it does not appear that he saw fit to teach science in this interaction. We learn science by exploration, not by special revelation; not because God could not reveal scientific detail in scripture, but because it seems clear that he did not choose to do so.

  • Rapha #6

    Here is the challenge. People in Augustine’s day were teaching the ANE cosmology as fact because that was what was in the Bible. (For a graphic representation of the ANE view, click here.) Where did they get the idea that the Bible teaches an ANE view?

    Ps 24:1-2

    “1 The earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it, the world, and all who live in it;
    2 for he founded it upon the seas and established it upon the waters.” NIV

    Here is the earth floating upon the deep.

    Gen 1:6-7

    “6 And God said, “Let there be an expanse between the waters to separate water from water.” 7 So God made the expanse and separated the water under the expanse from the water above it. And it was so.” NIV

    Ps 148:4-6

    “4 Praise him, you highest heavens
    and you waters above the skies.
    5 Let them praise the name of the Lord,
    for he commanded and they were created.
    6 He set them in place for ever and ever;
    he gave a decree that will never pass away.” NIV

    These passage point to our atmosphere being a space between waters above and the surface of the earth. We debate the raquia language in Gen 1:6-7 all day but the point is that something separates the waters above from the surface below and this comports perfectly with ANE cosmology.

    Gen 7:11-12

    “11 In the six hundredth year of Noah’s life, on the seventeenth day of the second month — on that day all the springs of the great deep burst forth, and the floodgates of the heavens were opened.” NIV

    The ANE cosmology envisioned a dome with gates/windows in it that let the water fall to the earth. Here why have waters coming up from the great deep, already highlighted above, and the waters falling through the gates in the dome.

    Now let’s be clear. This is not a metaphorical description. This is the ANE understanding of how things really work and it is simply assumed in the Bible. If we believe that Scripture is inspired and superintended by God we are left with essentially three choices:

    1. Our science is wrong. Indeed the earth is essentially a flat plot of landing floating on a great deep, with a dome separating waters above from waters below that lets water fall to the earth through gates.

    2. God erred in his inspiration of the authors.

    3. God accommodated to the understanding of his listeners in matters that were peripheral to his message and mission. Like a mother with a small child, accommodation is made to the understanding of the listener.

    I’m saying it is number three. It won’t do to say “the waters above” is just a metaphorical flourish. The way it was written and heard was as a description of an objective reality … a description we now know to be incorrect but inconsequential to the message.

  • rjs


    I think there is another option – accommodation perhaps, but not exactly as you’ve outlined it. The image of a mother and child doesn’t quite strike the right note when I think about it.

    Now certainly the way God interacts with his creatures always has a note of accommodation, and this image of parent to child is a good analogy. But I don’t think that this applies in general to the inspiration of scripture.

    God didn’t give his revelation in “baby talk.” We don’t have a dictated word accommodated to mankind. Rather we have an idea and relationship that is then expressed by the human writers in a form and language appropriate to the day and age.

    The use of ANE cosmology is the translation and expression of the people to the experience and revelation of God. Any human language and image will be limited. As you say – the reality of “waters above” was inconsequential to the message.

    At least this is more in line with my thinking about it these days.

  • normbv


    The heavy usage of biblical analogy and symbolism appears to undermine the idea of accommodation to a degree. If ancient literature is written as an Aesop fable for example we would not call that accommodation but would refer to it as specialized literature with a veiled intent. There is so much symbolic literature and language that get confused with ancient science that trying to pigeonhole it into the accommodation category is problematic at best and more likely just a plain overstatement.

    So the bottom line seems that yes there is accommodation but it is proably less useful than made out to be by some of our scholars.

  • #9 RJS

    Good qualifications. Much of it goes back our understanding of how inspiration took place.

    I’m not suggesting God dictated anything. Rather I’m thinking of revelation in terms of the total experience of God by his people. He “spoke” to his people in many ways. Had he deemed it necessary it seems he might have found ways to unveil the true cosmology. In his wisdom, he did not unveil it … or rather he let people stay in their own understanding and express their experience through that understanding.

    So maybe would could say that rather than teaching something scientifically incorrect, we could say God did not intervene to correct secondary misunderstandings that were inconsequential. In that sense I think there is accommodation.

  • TJJ

    I agree with Augustine that scientific discovery and knowledge, that is accurate and not driven by ideology or agenda, but accurately observed and defined and understood, will not and does not ultimately contradict the Bible, correctly understood, interpreted, exegeted, contextualized, etc.

    The problem is seems to me, is that ideology, agenda, convention, tradition, prejudice, limited knowlwdge and insight, etc., can and do creep into both science and Biblical interpretation/exposition.

    And, error in judgment can be made in both. Sometimes, todays “scientific truth/discovery”, is tomorrows mistake that is thrown overboard by a different truth/understanding. I remember Hawkings one time saying that he had been wrong three times, for every time he had been right, if indeed in the long run he was “right” about those things. Same happens sometimes with Biblical interpretation/exegesis.

    Humility and an unquenched and also unafraid search for truth and understanding, with a little healthy skepticism thrown in out of recognition that we are often wrong about such things, seems to be the way to approach this. IMHO

    I tend to be very skeptical about both the scientc and Biblibal exegesis of young earth creationism, but I do not attack or dismiss those who believe it. I tend to believe the general framework of current scientific understanding
    of how the universe and the earth came to be as they now are, but I do so rather lightly, and not hook, line, sinker, in that I question and I am skeptical of some aspects of current scientific theory (Astrophysics) of the cosmos also, and have a sense that some of it at least, will not turn out the be correct.

  • Normbv #10

    Take the Genesis passages above. I understand them to be in stories conveying metaphorical theology. They are not simply fiction but they share some common elements. But as with any story, the writer sets a scene and from the clues given the reader fills in the greater context. So when we read about separated waters and floodgates, the writer is drawing on a shared understanding of cosmology. The reader gets the clues and envisions the larger context.

    Not every passage is trying to describe a “this worldy” imagery. We see images in Daniel and Ezekiel that are quite bizarre and are intended to either describe “other worldly” realities or to describe this world in poetic and symbolic imagery.

    I’m saying that in those cases where the writer is trying to describe “this worldly” events (whether actual or fictional) in non-symbolic ways, he or she is going to be limited by the cultural stock of knowledge. In the Genesis passages, I don’t see anything that suggests that the are other than matter of fact statements of “this worldly” events. Same with the Psalms. Just as I might write:

    You, oh God, are the one who exploded the universe into being.
    You set the galaxies on there courses.
    You cause the planets of our solar system to orbit the sun
    And you brought forth life over eons on our planet.

    By the same token, when the psalmists are writing of waters of the great deep and the waters above the earth, this isn’t just symbolic or poetic language. They are describing facts about their world that bring awe.

    This cosmology is incorrect and it is present in Scripture. While some seemingly troubling passages can be clarified by understanding their symbolic nature, that will not resolve the problem here. So in that sense, I think there clearly is accommodation, but accommodation doesn’t clarify every biblical difficulty.

  • I’ve been reading Augustine’s Confessions for a paper this week (on his shifting views of creation) and two things that stand out to me are:

    1) though he believes in a literal Adam, his interpretation of Genesis is neither literal nor metaphorical but heavily allegorical, a largely unused interpretive technique today, and
    2) his accommodating attitude toward other points of view.

    After laying out his (again, largely allegorical) interpretation of the creation accounts in Genesis, and arguing against other interpretations, he ends up reminding himself and his opponents that the purpose of the law (including the creation accounts) is to promote love. He specifically references Matthew 22:40 here. The whole point of the Scriptures is that we love God and our neighbor.

    So Augustine argues for charity regarding the intention of others and their differing interpretations. He is not interested in arguing with those with disingenuous motives, but for his opponents who regard the Scriptures as trustworthy and sincerely hold different opinions, he says this:

    “But for those who feed on your truth in the wide pastures of charity, let me be united with them in you, and in you find my delight in company with them. Let us approach the words of your book together, and there seek your will as expressed through the will of your servant, by whose pen you have dispensed your words to us.

    A great variety of interpretations, many of them legitimate, confronts our expiring minds as we search among these words to discover your will. Is there any one of us who is so sure of having found it that he can declare with as much confidence that Moses meant this or that in his narrative, as that so-and-so is true, whether Moses meant that or something different?”

    Finally, it’s interesting that a major reason he left the Manichees (the heretical sect of which he was a part) and eventually became a Christian was because their teachings did not comport with the science he had learned, so he could not trust their spiritual teachings. The role of science in Confessions is generally very positive, rightly oriented.

  • David Himes

    If God is who we believe he is, then scientific truth is not a threat to faith in God.

    Of course, scientific truth is subject to revision. Faith in science is not as reliable a foundation as faith in God.

    Am I being too simplistic?

  • David #15

    I’d simply add that faith in our interpretive frameworks for Scripture is subject to revision. Faith in our interpretive frameworks is not as reliable a foundation as our faith in God.

    Also, yes, science is subject to revision. But as someone here has pointed out, in the debate about flat earth versus round earth, the discovery that the earth isn’t perfectly round is a revision to science. But we won’t find out that the earth is indeed flat or some other approximate shape. On many of the really big issues of science, our certainty is of this type.

  • normbv


    I like to use Ezekiel and Revelation as the examples because it appears they draw their imagery from Gen 1-3 so we have intertextual validation of early Genesis ideas. These concepts also can be further applied to the flood account of Genesis.

    Ezekiel uses the Garden motif of the trees of Eden often in his explorations and we can determine from his application how they were defined. They are indeed ANE motifs but these people fully recognized that describing Nations as Trees under which the Gentile animals lived was not the real world but stylized images of the real world. No ancient science involved as far as I can determine. At the end of Ezekiel in chapter 47 we have the prophetic messianic overview of the coming times of Christ.

    The language there details the similar picture of Revelation 21 & 22 in which the River of life emanating from the Temple waters the ground of the trees bearing fruit and interestingly enough we find the same animals of Gen 1 & 2 in Ezk 47 receiving these life giving waters. This is not ancient science but ancient Temple language. As I stated it finds its origins in Gen 1-3 and pretty well demonstrates that early Genesis should not be considered ancient science either but is founded in Temple imagery common to the ANE.

    G. K. Beale has a very useful book that those who are interested in putting the pieces together should read:

    “The Temple and the Church’s Mission: A Biblical Theology of the Dwelling Place of God”.

    In it he develops the application of Gen 1 & 2 as ANE Temple language as applied by the Hebrew in their own proprietary way. He traces this Temple imagery throughout scripture and in my opinion this supports a better thesis of how to view early Genesis than as ancient science. This Temple application of course is strengthened by Walton in his recent book on Genesis One. So if the literature is heavy ANE Temple writing then one must be careful in overly applying what we think is God accommodating ancient science when it doesn’t truly represent science.

  • DRT

    David Himes@15, I agree. You are not being too simplistic.

    But you are saying “Faith in science is not as reliable a foundation as faith in God.” Many equate a faith in God with a their literal interpretation of the bible and we then spiral towards nonsense.

  • AHH

    Michael K. #5, regarding Calvin on such issues, a good book is John Calvin and the Natural World by Davis Young, retired Prof. of Geology at Calvin College.

    Calvin was indeed a proponent of the idea of accommodation, and as I recall Young says that if Calvin were applying his same interpretational methods in light of today’s knowledge, he would conclude that Genesis 1 reflects the (incorrect) scientific understanding of the day, and that it was God’s gracious accommodation to the original audience to use the commonly understood pre-scientific concepts rather than try to correct scientific points that were unimportant to the purpose of the text.

    One indication that this is how inspiration actually worked (of course God could have corrected the science had God wanted to) is that nowhere in the Bible do we see any “science” that is not the common understanding at the time of the writing (a few people make strained arguments otherwise, but I think they don’t hold up). That should be a big clue right there about the revelation being accommodated to the knowledge of the time.

  • David Himes

    DRT #18
    Michael Kruse says it well at #16