Thursday, November 18, 2010

Harlow's After Adam

This week, I'm discussing a series of articles on human origins from the September issue of PSCF (see parts one, two, and three). Today's article is Daniel C. Harlow's After Adam: Reading Genesis in an Age of Evolutionary Science. This is the first biblical/theological article in the series to openly advocate a strictly literary interpretation of Adam and Eve.

I can't say I was the least surprised by anything in the article, and I found it totally unconvincing for that. This is basically a summary of standard liberal biblical scholarship. Indeed, Harlow seems to be quite open about that:
...the view of the majority of contemporary biblical scholars, theologians, and Christians working in the sciences, a view that is largely unknown in evangelical circles: Adam and Eve are strictly literary figures - characters in a divinely inspired story about the imagined past that intends to teach primarily theological, not historical, truths about God, creation, and humanity.
Why should we think of Adam and Eve this way? Because Genesis bears quite a number of similarities to Ancient Near Eastern myths, and if you want to read it literally, Genesis 1-11 contains contradictory details. He assures us that these passages are "narrative theology," like Jesus' parables, and that they are no less inspired for being a fictional account of origins.

To my surprise, Harlow even drags up the whole "where did Cain get his wife" issue. Regarding the obvious solution of Cain marrying his sister, Harlow says,
"Literal" interpretations of this story fail to take it literally enough; they regard these details as gaps that must be filled. But filling the gaps can be done only by reading into the narrative - not out of it - additional sons and daughters of Adam and Eve born before Cain and Abel.
That's an interesting perspective. I'm not sure where he gets the idea that we have to assume these additional siblings were born before Cain and Abel. Nor do I see why reading the text "literally" requires us to assume that Cain, Abel, Adam, and Eve are the only people on the earth at the time Cain murdered Abel. The text of Genesis 4 says absolutely nothing about how many people are on the earth at that time. Given the fact that Gen. 5:4 says that Adam "begat sons and daughters," it seems perfectly reasonable from the text itself to assume that Cain married his sister and was worried about his family members murdering him. So who exactly is reading into the text meanings that aren't there?

And so it goes with other examples I will not discuss here: Harlow's understanding of the "literal" reading of Genesis is not mine at all. It's smacks of a strawman argument, which is disappointing. At the same time, he does offer us some helpful glimpses of Christian theology reformulated "in light of evolutionary biology" and his critical reading of Genesis. Here are a few snippets of that:
...we share a transtemporal and universal biological and cultural heritage that predisposes us to sin. If the above is true, then we must be willing to detach the doctrine of the Fall from the notion of a single primordial event that brought about a drastic transformation in the human condition.
So no original sin, but if that's the case, what about atonement and redemption?
Once the doctrine of original sin is reformulated, the doctrine of the atonement may likewise be deepened. But the new understanding of sin requires that we now favor theories of the atonement like the Christus victor model or the moral influence theory, instead of the theory of a ransom paid to the Devil or a satisfaction paid to God’s honor.
What? Satisfaction to God's honor? See what I mean about the strawman?

I found the most interesting part of the article in the final footnote, which reads:
As a Christian in the Reformed tradition, I look to the Heidelberg Catechism and Belgic Confession for valuable guidance in grasping the essential truths of Scripture. Both of these documents forthrightly affirm an Augustinian-Calvinist understanding of the Fall and original sin, and both assume the historicity of Adam and Eve (esp. Heidelberg Catechism, Lord's Day 3; Belgic Confession, Articles 14, 15). In this article, my purpose has not been to undermine the Reformed confessions. Taking them seriously but not uncritically requires engagement with literary, historical, and scientific issues that were unknown to their framers.
What a carefully worded disclaimer! It's almost (but not quite) like he's trying to undermine the whole point of his article: that Adam and Eve were not historical people, that there was no primordial sin that tainted the human race and rendered us in need of redemption. Notice what he says, though. He doesn't believe or hold as authoritative the catechism or confession, he just looks to them "for valuable guidance." And his "purpose has not been to undermine the Reformed confessions?" Oh come on! Who is he trying to fool? That's exactly what he did.

So that's Harlow's article. A rehash of liberal scholarship, strawman arguments, a "rethinking" of the central truths of Christian theology, all wrapped up with a pseudo-disclaimer. No thanks. Like Collins, I'm going to stick with the traditional understanding of Christian theology, even if it means I have to hold to the unfashionable idea that Adam and Eve were real persons as Genesis describes.

Feedback? Email me at toddcharleswood [at] gmail [dot] com.