Case Study: the Fall

This is the seventh in a series of posts on inspiration, inerrancy, and hermeneutics.

The traditional doctrines of the Fall and of Original Sin teach that the first human’s first sin caused a rupture in the whole race’s ability to interact with God. How the death that Adam experienced because of his sin was passed on to all his descendants has been explained in various ways: the federal view says that Adam’s fall from God’s favor was effective for all humanity because he was the “head” of the race. Another view is that the Fall corrupted Adam’s very genetic makeup, causing humanity to be a slave to its own sinful and fallen flesh, which explains how it was passed on to his children, and thus the whole race.

Regardless of how they explain it, most Christians believe that God considers all humans straight out of the chute as culpable of sin, a stance of separation from God called “Original Sin”. This position explains why every human sins, and why we automatically start out life estranged from God. That we all sin and by nature act in ways that do not please God from early childhood at least is apparent to all. For this reason, it is accurate to say that unredeemed mankind is, as a race, “falling”, but as for “fallen”, what did we fall from? Or, more importantly, what caused this Fall? Allow me to present you with an alternative interpretation based on a view of the Genesis account as etiology.

I hope it is obvious to all why we should recover the mindset of the author and the original audience when interpreting Scripture. We must do the same when reading the writings of NT authors, who were in many cases themselves interpreting the OT. Comparing early Genesis material to ANE mythology or any other ancient genre would have been even further off the radar screen of a first century Jew in the Greco-Roman world than it is for so many 21st century interpreters. For the ancient Israelites, the mythology in Genesis was the mythology to end all mythology, intended by the compiler(s) of the Pentateuch to replace and render all competing mythology in the land obsolete. The sole artifact of the genre was crystalized in the form we see in Genesis such that later Hebrews would have no knowledge of its origins. The NT writers would not have thought of doing comparative literary analysis on genres no longer familiar. Nevertheless, anyone who looks long at ANE literature and then looks at Genesis 1-11 will see a striking similarity in certain aspects of style and substance. Paul, as a learned Hellenistic Jew, may well have seen the Fall story as history in much the same fashion as those of us in the modern world tend to. Yet none of the stories of Genesis were written in that mode that fits the modern view of “history”. Even if you view these passages as ANE historiography, keep in mind that the genre of historiography has evolved even since it became a conscious concern during the Hellenistic era, and the narratives of the Old Testament were written long prior to and quite independently of this movement.

The theological insight we look for in a given Old Testament narrative is related not to what the story says directly, but rather to what the story was meant for. Moreover, if we believe God chose the stories to be included in the Bible, we must assume that His sovereign hand ordains them beyond the author’s intent, so that although the author’s intent is valuable for understanding it in its original context, its continuing, cross-contextual usefulness is assured only through God’s intent for it. Thus there are often at least two strata of meaning, the author’s and God’s, although these do at times coincide. In the event of successive authors and redactors, as with the case of the Genesis mythology (the cultural myth and the version adapted by the creator[s] of the Pentateuch), there are more strata still.

The NT writers used the OT in ways that we would often not feel comfortable doing. Specifically, Paul for example read all kinds of typological observations into the Scripture, as part of the interpretive tradition among Jewish scholars of that time. I personally think there is a lot of truth to be distilled from a healthy appropriation of typology. Typology does not require that the story containing the types be historical. We can see Christ’s substitutionary atonement in the ram in the thicket, whether or not there ever was an actual ram in an actual thicket discovered by a man named Abraham under the precise cirumstances mentioned in the story. In 1 Tim. 2, Paul draws a typological parallel to substantiate his take (v. 11) on how women should act in worship services. Although he may have taken it for granted, the historicity of the events referenced is not required for his analogy, because as he himself admits, his position is based on a principle he sees in the Genesis story. Typology is the art of recognizing and applying patterns, and Paul asserts that he sees one in this controversial passage.

Now let’s take a look at the most seminal passage for the whole discussion on the Fall and Original Sin.

Romans 5:6-19 (NIV)

6 You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. 7 Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous man, though for a good man someone might possibly dare to die. 8 But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.

9 Since we have now been justified by his blood, how much more shall we be saved from God’s wrath through him! 10 For if, when we were God’s enemies, we were reconciled to him through the death of his Son, how much more, having been reconciled, shall we be saved through his life! 11 Not only is this so, but we also rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation.

12 Therefore, just as sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, and in this way death came to all men, because all sinned— 13 for before the law was given, sin was in the world. But sin is not taken into account when there is no law. 14 Nevertheless, death reigned from the time of Adam to the time of Moses, even over those who did not sin by breaking a command, as did Adam, who was a pattern of the one to come.

15 But the gift is not like the trespass. For if the many died by the trespass of the one man, how much more did God’s grace and the gift that came by the grace of the one man, Jesus Christ, overflow to the many! 16 Again, the gift of God is not like the result of the one man’s sin: The judgment followed one sin and brought condemnation, but the gift followed many trespasses and brought justification. 17 For if, by the trespass of the one man, death reigned through that one man, how much more will those who receive God’s abundant provision of grace and of the gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man, Jesus Christ.

18 Consequently, just as the result of one trespass was condemnation for all men, so also the result of one act of righteousness was justification that brings life for all men. 19 For just as through the disobedience of the one man the many were made sinners, so also through the obedience of the one man the many will be made righteous.

Here (as well as in 1 Corinthians 15) Paul draws the parallel between the first Adam and the last Adam, Jesus, because he saw symmetry between the two. Notice, though, that the validity of Christ’s work for all is not stated to be dependent on sin coming through one man, as is often construed. Paul’s intention was to relate this brand new theological doctrine to something they were familiar with: if they could understand sin coming into the world through one man, they should be able to accept that one man could bring life to all. The symmetry he saw between the two was no less valid for one of the characters being non-historical.

To illustrate my point, suppose we substitute for the Fall story another myth altogether. I often point out that Paul’s parallel between Adam and Christ is to some extent replicated (albeit less elegantly) with the following statement: “For as from one vessel (Pandora’s box) all evil entered the world, so from one vessel (the tomb of Christ) sprang into the world the remedy for all evil.” It’s a rough substitution, but does the obviously mythical referent in the comparison (much less the unfortunate clunkiness of how I state it) lessen the truthfulness of the parallel? The analogy to Adam adds the credibility of typology to Paul’s contention that Jesus’ redemptive work was for all. Using typology to justify a position is propositional and not authoritative, because at best all that can be done is the citation of precedent and an assertion that the principle holds for the present issue. When one cites typological analogy, he asserts that the type and the matter at hand share a pattern, not that the type existed solely to foreshadow and thereby substantiate the matter at hand; nor does it demand the historicity of the allusion. In short, it doesn’t matter whether Paul believed an historical figure named Adam literally fell and passed death down to all his descendants in some genetic or federal fashion through resultant “original sin”. Christ’s work was not dependent on the sin of one man alone: every man’s sin necessitates Christ’s work. In contemporary rabbinical fashion, Paul deftly creates a typological comparison in inverse position: one was a death-giving person, and one a life-giving person.

Etiologies, myths intended to explain the causes and origins of various things, are the most common sort of mythology. Our modern culture, while looking on myths as useless lies, continues to seek the answers to the whys and hows of everything: we tend to look to science and history, facts that tell us what created current situations. But what about cases in which those details are obscure or unrecoverable? Are we content to shrug our shoulders and say, “It’s just unknowable”? Not usually: there will be no end to speculation about those things, whether the subject is cosmic (what is the meaning of life?), or more incidental (why did that politician change his stance on that issue?). This discontedness to resign oneself to mystery is one of the very things that has occasioned the birth of etiological myths across the world.[1] Humans have always been speculative. The difference between the ancient and the modern motivations for and method of speculation about unknowns is that the ancients used mythological stories in order to apply meaning to the subject of their speculation and we tend to use scientific enquiry to sever meaning from the subject, and are thus generally skeptical that any meaning can or should be applied. The ancients were content to be ignorant of the mechanics of how, as long as they knew why. Modernists feel satisfied to have discovered the natural causes, the how‘s, and seem convinced that this abolishes meaning. The theory of evolution was very early on hijacked by atheists who thought that explaining how things happened obliterated even the possibility of any why‘s (let alone the necessity of the big Who). This nihilistic naturalism is incompatible with a Christian worldview in which all that matters, at the end of the day, is meaning.

Another way of making this distinction between the ancient and modern mindsets is articulated by John Walton, a professor of Biblical Archaelogy at Wheaton. He and others who study ANE literature and culture have noticed that while the modern world tends to think that structure determines function, the more common conviction in a pre-scientific world was that function is a consequence of purpose: the universe runs because it is supposed to, not because its physical make-up or structure determines it. Again, how it happened was seen as nowhere near as important as why it happened. The ancients concocted fanciful, fantastic, mythological explanations of how as place-holders, vehicles to the destination of finding meaning and purpose in the events described. Unfortunately for them, the pagans were as unable to know why as how the universe was created, because they had no special revelation of God. Enter Genesis 3.

The third chapter of Genesis is etiology at its finest: why men have to toil by the sweat of their brows just to make a living, why women have such horrendous pain in childbirth, why people feel shame at nakedness, and, as a dead-ringer for etiology, it explains why snakes don’t have legs. It also seeks to explain why there is sin in a world that a holy God created. The value of mythological etiology is that it does not need to use facts to illustrate meaning. We see the truth of the God-man struggle illustrated in the story of the Fall whether or not that struggle was the cause for our world being less paradisiacal than we might wish. Of course there are other truths and observations about God’s nature embedded in the Fall narrative, many of which I haven’t personally teased out. But we risk missing out on them if we insist on interpreting the stories of Genesis as impeccable 20th century-style historiography.[2] Suffice it to say that the Fall narrative is no more a revelation about the historical causes for man’s natural state of rebellion and the hardships of life than it is an explanation of why snakes don’t have legs.

How do we decide what truths the etiologies were meant to convey? As you may suspect, this cannot be answered in an easily quantifiable manner. However, a principle I already alluded to helps guide us. Remember, the main purpose of the Bible, Genesis to Revelation, is to reveal Jesus as the Door between man and his estranged Creator. It follows, then, that the key without which we cannot decode the Bible’s truth is its testimony to the work and words of Jesus. The Old Testament is a window to truth, a window of glass peppered with cracks and imperfections, streaked with the incomplete understanding of its authors and dusty by the great antiquity of its origin. The New Testament is a window newly washed, benefiting from the more immediate proximity of its Witnesses to the Truth, Who was Jesus Himself. Naturally, the truth we see revealed in the New Testament would thus be the more essential for life and godliness, which is another reason I extend Paul’s description of the usefulness of the Old Testament to the New.

Let me be clear: I am not trying to make the meaning of Scripture unjustifiably vague, as “liberal theologians” often appear wont to do. I think it important, however, to correct the possible misconception that I view the story of the Fall to be an allegory, the type of story in which every detail maps into some spiritual truth. Instead, the details must be taken as strokes in a larger picture, finding the concepts they were seeking to convey, the notions they wished to counter, or the themes they were trying to address. The original legends and mythologies, whether or not originally intended by the proto-Israelite sages and storytellers that first formulated them, were used to explain how things could have gotten so screwed up from a presumed pristine beginning. They could not imagine a God that would have created a world that did not meet the ideals they held. Moreover, the presentation of the story of the Fall was incorporated into what we now call Genesis, fitting into a larger thematic emphasis, what Boadt describes as “a four-part story of sin, God’s warning punishments, divine mercy, and then further sin.”[3] This pattern plays prominently throughout the OT books. This was a didactic method intended by the authors to warn and advise the original audience. Paul’s analogy of Adam and Christ is, in effect, doing the same thing that the person(s) who added the Fall story to the Genesis material did, using it to illustrate the cycle of grace -> sin -> punishment -> grace. After all, that pattern is in fact an accurate representation of how we perceive the individual’s life experience: a man is born (the gift of life a grace in itself), a man sins, the penalty of expulsion from God’s presence is exacted, and God offers the fallen man the grace of being born again. Every human is Adam. Paul, however, noticed the end to this cycle with Christ succeeding where everyone else fails: His punishment and God’s resultant grace is efficacious for the same population that sins, which of course is everyone. Of course, just as with sin, what is universal is not the distribution of but the opportunity for grace. This grace, once apprehended, removes us from the consequences of (and perhaps, some Wesleyans argue, the inevitability of) the calamitous God/man struggle.

These early Israelites understood God does not create things that are not good. We see this belief explicitly stated seven times in the first chapter of Genesis. The world was indeed sinless (i.e. was not at odds with God and His purposes) until sentient beings with God-consciousness chose to do what they knew was wrong. This is where God’s intent for the Genesis mythology enters despite the authors’ misconceptions: whether or not there was an original paradisiacal state, we do see that mankind falls because it chooses its own interests over God’s. We are all Adam and Eve: all fall prey to the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life.

Some may object that, if the Fall is simply another exposition of the God-man struggle, it reveals nothing new and therefore rings hollow and inconsequential. First, I respond that this is not the story’s only value, only that this emphasis was primary enough to serve as the skeleton for the story. Second, for the original audience, it was indeed a revelation, albeit an incomplete one. This was, for the Israelites, the primordial metanarrative that served as the backdrop for their understanding of their place in the world. Appealing to later revelation to explain and clarify the proper interpretation of earlier revelation of less apparent interpretation is a fundamental principle of hermeneutics. Jesus is the Word of God, revealing God and His ways to man far better than the OT could ever do. Augustine was dead-on when he said, “The New Testament is in the Old Testament concealed; the Old Testament is in the New Testament revealed.” Sometimes what we get from Genesis (and the Old Testament in general) has to be read back into it from what we know about God revealed perfectly and definitively in the message of Jesus. Far from superfluous, these early glimpses at truth reveal a continuity of testimony to a timeless revelation.

The problem with a viewpoint like the one presented here is that there is much more ambiguity about spiritual truths of Scripture than is usually posited by Fundamentalists. We usually prefer to have systematization, and as little confusing ambiguity as possible. But, as I have said a hundred times, God could have chosen a much less leaky vessel than men through whom to communicate His truths to us, but He obviously chose to do so. I choose to embrace the mysteries as mysteries, even as I always seek to unravel them.

The next installment will deal with some specific implications of this version of the doctrine of the Fall.

[1] People even today have been known to set out to write their own etiologies. For example, J.R.R. Tolkien wrote a remarkable set of etiological myths in the first few chapters of the Silmarillion, but what we glean from his stories tells us mainly about his view of God and the universe, and not at all about the true-to-life historical particulars of our own universe, or the purpose of man in this world, etc.

[2] Notice I say 20th, not 21st century – one of the blessings of post-modern thought is its mistrust of the morally naked empiricist epistemology. We are gradually moving away from historiography as the modernists did it, which is bad for historiography, but good for understanding ancient storytelling.

[3] Lawrence T. Boadt, Reading the Old Testament.

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