Event Character and the Early Chapters of Genesis

The debate about the historicity of Adam and Eve, the Fall, the Flood, the Genealogies, the Tower of Babel continues. Faith/science and faith/history discussions are where the discussion seems to be the most pressing. Are these stories in the first chapters of Genesis in any way historical? Some of them, such as the Adam and Eve account and the Fall account in Genesis 2 & 3 are deeply embedded in the confessional documents of certain traditions–namely Reformed and Presbyterian 16th and 17th century confessions and perhaps others. Unless one moves to a very loose confessionalism, these expressions of the Christian faith are committed to historicity if they are committed to their confessional documents.

The Christian Reformed Church in North America (CRCNA) is a denomination that has struggled (and continues to struggle) with how to maintain the historicity of certain events in redemptive history (Adam and Eve’s creation in a state of innocence and their subsequent Fall and the effect of that Fall on the rest of humankind) especially in light of the findings of modern biology, paleontology, and anthropology concerning the origin of human beings which is largely regarded as being full legitimate.

In this post I provide an extended quote from the denomination’s 1991 report on Creation and Science that illustrates what the CRCNA refers to as event character. The point here to to illustrate that the CRCNA affirms some aspect of historicity, but does not claim to locate it precisely in ordinary history. Historicity is deemed to be an important part of what the text is claiming, but any attempt to identify the event with any particular ordinary historical event is doomed to failure because the historical account has been so stylized and adapted to serve an extraordinary redemptive historical purpose.  An earlier report from 1972 on The Nature and Extent of Biblical Authority initially developed the idea in the CRCNA.

What precisely is the character of the Bible’s account of the earliest history of the world and humankind? This question constitutes the nub of the problem we are dealing with, and at present there is no consensus among evangelical biblical scholars. The best we can do is to present an example which we believe does justice to what is known about pre-Abrahamic history, to what Report 44 says about the necessity of distinguishing between an event and the way it is reported even while maintaining the event character of biblical historical narrative, and to the revelational significance of the historical account.

The example is the Tower of Babel story. The traditional interpretation of this account in Genesis 11 seems to conflict with the findings of historical linguistics, for there is a great deal of evidence that the diversity of languages precedes Babylonian culture. Since babel in Hebrew is the standard word for Babylon and since the Tower of Babel very probably refers to a characteristic institution of Babylonian culture, the temple tower (or “ziggurat”), the biblical narrative refers to a civilization which already knew a diversity of languages, such as Akkadian, Sumerian, and Egyptian, to mention only three well-known languages from the Ancient Near East. According to linguistic evidence available today, it would seem that the diversification of language must have taken place long before the rise of the Old Babylonian culture.

Because of this conflict some propose to read the story as a parable illustrating human pride but not as a historical narrative related to an event or to a series of events. But “parable” seems not to do justice to the overall tenor and context of the story, which functions as a part of the broad historical prologue to God’s call of Abraham and the history of God’s chosen people. Thus various other interpretations have been proposed. One suggests that, while the story does indeed concern Babylon, the judgment of God refers not to the origin of languages but to a breakdown in communication. The word translated as ‘language” can refer to “talk” or to “speech” in a more general sense. Then the whole episode speaks of the religious pride of the Old Babylonian empire, centered in the ziggurat dedicated to the god Marduk in the City of Babylon, and of God’s judgment on this proud manifestation of pagan culture. Ultimately it was a breakdown of communication, of mutual understanding, which brought disaster upon the first great empire of recorded history. Others, however, think it necessary to retain the reference to languages and then suggest either that Genesis 11 as a historical event must be assumed to be prior to the table of nations in Genesis 10 or that Genesis 11 should be understood as a history that compresses into a single event a process that elapsed over a period of time. In all of these interpretations connecting Genesis 11 to Babylon, the interpreter is assuming that an extensive and complex historical tableau is being described in a highly stylized manner and from a perspective that compresses history into a single focus to serve the purposes of the history of salvation. In addition, by its use of this history, however stylized the shape of its report, the Bible intends to illumine the basic nature of human history when it is divorced from the God who is Creator and Redeemer. Hence, Babylon continues to serve, even in the book of Revelation, as a symbol of the cities and empires which humanity erects in opposition to God. Beginning with the story of the Tower of Babel, Babylon is both a historical city and, in Augustine’s terms, a symbol of the City of This World in rebellion against the City of God.

Without placing a stamp of approval upon any single interpretation, we suggest that the approaches mentioned above satisfy the requirements of Reformed hermeneutics. Our increased knowledge of early human history has underscored the highly stylized and compressed nature of the biblical account and cautions us against drawing historical inferences unrelated to the revelational intention of the account. In such historiography the Bible does not intend to present the entire history in which the narrative is rooted, and the stylized character of the account prevents us from inferring what the total historical picture may have been. In spite of these limitations imposed on us by the nature of these biblical narratives, the function of the historical narrative concerning the Tower of Babel in the unfolding history of redemption remains clear. In general we can say that the primary intention of the historical narratives in Genesis 1-11 is to serve the understanding of the unfolding history of redemption, not to present us with a detailed history of pre-Abrahamic times.

Notice particularly the last paragraph. There is a recognition that the account is “highly stylized and compressed.” We are cautioned “against drawing historical inferences unrelated to the revelational intention.” We acknowledge that the Biblical account does not “present the entire history” and that we can’t even “infer what the total historical picture may have been.” Nonetheless, the historical character, the event character, of the account remains.

Theologically speaking, there is little difference with so-called non-literal, ahistorical, or symbolic treatments of the text. But the CRCNA insists on the event character (a nuanced historicity) because of the narrative functions in the overarching history of redemption (as summarized by its confessions).

Perhaps this approach is a way forward on some of these issues. Historicity is preserved but there is no expectation that the historical narrative of the early chapters of Genesis can be readily connected with the history of our history books in any precise way.

Karl, Thanks, but No Thanks

Karl W. Giberson is a respected contributor to the faith/science (evolution/creation) dialogue. His contributions have been valuable, and I have learned from Karl. However, as a scientist myself with great interest in these issues and as a member of the Christian Reformed Church (CRC), I have to take some issue with his commentary about the CRC in The Daily Beast. The piece is a good reminder that the broader church and even the whole world is watching what happens when the denomination acts (or doesn’t act). But, honestly, to have Karl Giberson complain about actions of the CRC is like Bill Clinton complaining about what happens at the Republican National Convention.

There are several parts of The Daily Beast piece that warrant comment:

1) The CRC takes a strong stand on science, even on this issue of human evolution. Despite the controversy of the 80’s and 90’s concerning Howard Van Till, Clarence Menninga, and Davis Young, Calvin College (the denominational liberal arts college) and the CRC never flinched. The Synod 1991 report fully embraced an old universe, and old earth, and the evolutionary development of life on earth. (To be clear, “embrace” does not mean “adopt”–it would be inappropriate for Synod to make declarations about scientific matters–it is only qualified to address Biblical and theological questions. “Embrace” here means to say that there is no necessary inconsistency between the claims of science and the church’s views.) See the full 1991 report.

Synod 1991, however, did include “Declaration F” which more or less ruled out human evolution. Many thought this was a misstep and that Synod went further than necessary to safeguard its theological position (namely, a historical Adam and Eve–more on that below). However, in 2010 Synod declared that the restriction completely ruling out any notion of human evolution was no longer valid. See “Overture 18: Remove Declaration F of the 1991 Decision on Creation and Science” (http://www.crcna.org/sites/default/files/2010_agenda.pdf, pp. 697-700). I was the primary author of that overture. The gist of the matter is that there are ways of allowing for animal ancestry of human beings that do not necessarily conflict with a historical Adam, the theological point that the church desired to preserve.

The key point for Karl Giberson to hear is that the church has stood up for science. It has not closed the door on any aspect of the commonly accepted understanding of the history of the universe, the earth, life on earth, or even human origins.

Admittedly, these are difficult questions. I have had my own trials with the Orthodox Presbyterian Church prior to my joining the CRC. See this long after-the-fact-reflection on that experience. This is not to say that there are not continued struggles. But the gist of the Dan Harlow and John Schneider controversy at Calvin College and in the church has little to do with science. The CRC has not put up barriers to studying, teaching, researching, accepting science. Harlow and Schneider are theologians (not scientists) and were proposing significant changes in the church’s theological formulations–largely unnecessary given the CRC’s attitude toward the science.

2) Giberson makes it sound like Howard Van Till left the CRC over these faith/science issues. It may well be the case that the controversy precipitated Van Till’s departure, but it wasn’t over science questions. You can find Van Till’s own telling of his story in the Foreward to David Ray Griffin’s book, Two Great Truth: A New Synthesis of Scientific Naturalism and Christian Faith (Amazon.com link). So let’s get the facts straight.

3) Giberson does not seem to understand how a doctrinal confession works in a conservative confessional church such as the CRC. He rightly quotes the Canons of Dort, a 17th century document, that together with the Belgic Confession (16th century) and the Heidelberg Catechism (16th century) and the ecumenical creeds of the early church summarize the beliefs of members of the CRC. A confessional church such as the CRC believes that its creeds, confessions, and catechisms summarize the teachings of scripture. Officers in the church (pastors, elders, and deacons) and professors in the denominational college and seminary (Calvin College and Calvin Theological Seminary) declare in the Covenant for Office-Bearers (formerly known as the Form of Subscription) of these creeds, confessions, and catechisms that their “doctrines fully agree with the Word of God”. I taught chemistry and biochemistry at Calvin College, have been an elder in a local CRC church, and a delegate to Synod 2010 and 2012–in all three cases I reaffirmed the Covenant for Office-Bearers. Perhaps, John Schneider and Dan Harlow meant something other than what the Form of Subscription says, but not because there is any ambiguity about it. The way it is supposed to work is that people become pastors in the CRC and professors at Calvin College because they agree with the denomination’s theological views (not vice versa).

Giberson claims that evangelical theologians have said that Christianity can survive the “loss” of Adam and Eve. Sure, he may find some will say that. Less conservative theologians have been saying that since the late 1800’s. Giberson seems to be asking the CRC to join that crowd. This is where he seems like Bill Clinton at the Republican convention. CRC theologians and the Synod as a whole, as well as other conservative theologians in the Reformed world, have not been willing to say such a thing. According to them, a historical Adam is a key part of the Biblical story and changing that story cannot happen unless one changes his or her fundamental approach to the Bible and to theology. There are many conservative scholars (inside and outside the CRC) who don’t see that option as being viable.

So what to do? Interestingly, the CRC is willing to let the science take its course. We stand up for science just fine in the CRC. As far as I know, the Calvin College biology department teaches the standard fare on human origins. Perhaps Giberson insists on saying that if you hold to the standard fare, you can’t embrace a historical Adam. I don’t think that, nor do I think the CRC Synod thinks that. (It could be that Harlow and Schneider think that.) See my own suggestions here for some ideas.

I would also suggest that a posture of ignorance (a docta ignorantia) is possible as suggested in the 1991 report noted above. Perhaps we cannot in a fully satisfactory way put the two accounts together. We ought not twist science or our theology to make them fit. Because of its Reformed and Kuyperian roots, the CRC has a robust view of science. Christians ought to do science. We’re not afraid of it. The conclusions of science are simply human expressions of what we see God doing in Creation and Providence. Christianity is not anti-science. But we have an understanding of the Bible that is equally robust. The Bible and Reformed theologizing have been around for a long time (much longer than the sciences in question) so it is not a trivial matter to change those basic views. Our tradition is one that seeks to understand the Bible correctly as well. We don’t guard our confessions just for the sake of preserving the tradition, but because we believe the confessions rightly summarized the teaching of the Bible. Thus, the CRC has not changed its views on a historical Adam because it does not find a Biblical warrant for doing so.

Ironically, I think it could be said that Synod’s reason for inaction on this matter was a belief that the church’s position is adequate, allowing science to flourish and preserving the historical understanding of the Bible and our creeds. My own reading of “Overture 18: Establish a Study Committee to Look into Recent Theologies That Teach That the Genesis Accounts of the Creation and Fall of Humankind Are Not Historical Events and That Adam and Eve Are Literary Rather Than Historical Characters” (http://www.crcna.org/sites/default/files/2014_agenda.pdf, pp. 408-420) is that the overture springs from a concern based on the Schneider and Harlow writings and an article from the Banner, the monthly denominational magazine, that the CRC needs to reaffirm its commitment to a historical Adam. Thus, Synod’s decision to deny the overture suggests that Giberson’s concerns are unfounded: both our theology and our commitment to do good science are being upheld by the way the issue is already being addressed by Calvin College and by the Synod.