Wednesday, August 24, 2011

To Albert Mohler: Nah, I don't think so...

It's interesting that my posting the other day apparently resonates with another issue that a lot of Christians are thinking about these days; namely, whether or not we really need a literal interpretation of every part of the Bible, esp. Genesis (thanks for the link, Ben!).

For many Christians, this is not a question to be debated -- if the whole thing isn't viewed historically, it falls apart.  Thus, to disclaim the historicity of any part of the Bible (that isn't explicitly non-historical) is tantamount to denying the faith.  This is the view put forward by Albert Mohler in a recent essay:

Mohler's argument centers around two very basic points: first, he notes that a non-historical view conflicts with the views of Paul, and even Jesus.  In other words, to reject the historical interpretation of Genesis means disagreeing with the founders of the faith -- and, implied therein (since Jesus is God), disagreeing with God. Mohler states that "it is clear that the historical character of these chapters is crucial to understanding the Bible’s central message -- the Gospel of Jesus Christ."  For Mohler, as for Paul, "The fall of the human race in Adam sets the stage for the salvation of sinful humanity by Jesus Christ."

Second, Mohler argues that deviating from the historical view of Genesis not only impacts Christian doctrine, but also how we view the authority of the Bible.  For, if Adam is a fictional character, and Jesus is historical, on what basis do we determine this?  How can we make such claims?  Mohler states, "The implications for biblical authority are clear... if these arguments hold sway, we will have to come up with an entirely new understanding of the Gospel metanarrative and the Bible’s storyline."

So, he concludes: "The denial of an historical Adam and Eve as the first parents of all humanity and the solitary first human pair severs the link between Adam and Christ which is so crucial to the Gospel... If we do not know how the story of the Gospel begins, then we do not know what that story means. Make no mistake: a false start to the story produces a false grasp of the Gospel."

This seems fairly straightforward, and convincing, right?  Well, no, I don't think so.  Actually, I think perhaps Mohler's argument is precisely the problem -- not because it doesn't have some merit, but because it puts the cart before the horse, so to speak.

First of all, does changing our view of Genesis really mean we need "an entirely new Gospel metanarrative?"  I don't see why it should.  Christians can certainly remain convinced of the basic truth of the Gospel (creation needed a savior, God saved us by becoming human, and somehow metaphysically rescued humanity by defeating sin and death) without a literal Genesis.  For that matter, much of the Bible could be non-historical; what matters is whether Jesus Christ really lived, died, and was resurrected.

So, against Mohler, I suggest that maybe we DO need to examine some new understanding(s) of the Gospel narrative -- not because we are rejecting Christ, but because we recognize that Christ does not need a literal Adam to complete his work of salvation.

But, what about Paul's teachings, and the other places in the Bible that not only indicate the historicity of Adam, but also link it intimately with the Gospel of Christ?  Well, two points here: 1) Whether Paul, or even Jesus (and this depends on how we view the extent of Jesus' knowledge as a human being), believed in a literal Adam really doesn't matter.  Paul also believed in a lot of other things that we now recognize to be false.  His view of cosmology, for example.

Not to mention there are areas of Paul's teachings that are hotly disputed among Christians already, like his views on the roles of women.  So, obviously, what Paul says does not maintain some monolithic hold on Christianity, even if we recognize his apostleship and God-given role as one of the founders of our faith.

The question here is, really, whether what Paul says about Adam and Jesus has only one possible interpretation -- a literal, historical interpretation.  And I don't think it does.  I'm not a Pauline scholar, but from what I've read and heard on this issue so far, I am not convinced that Romans 5, or any other biblical passage, requires a literal Adam to be meaningful.  The Gospel is not dependent upon a literal Adam.

But what about the second charge, that adopting such a view is a 'slippery slope' wherein we can no longer provide any reason for why we believe anything?  Or, to say it another way (closer to Mohler's words), if Adam isn't historical, then how can we be sure that Jesus is historical?  And if we can't be sure of the historicity of Scripture, how will we defend our faith?

My answer to this is: we can't be sure.  About any of it.  That's why we call it faith.  This may sound trite, but I think it deserves repeating.  We don't know whether Jesus was God or not.  We believe that Jesus is God because we have a variety of evidences that seem reasonable to us (and these vary from person to person).  But come on, people -- we believe that a Jewish man who lived 2,000 years ago was truly God (even though we also believe God is one, and not multiple), was murdered, and defeated death by resurrecting in a new body of some sort, and then vanished, leaving a 'Spirit' of some kind who interacts with people and draws them into a relationship with God.

Is there anyone who thinks this isn't a bit outlandish?  At least from a common sense, everyday perspective?  If you really believe this is a story that you can just accept as normal, I would say that you are fooling yourself.  It's bizarre.  It's a stumbling block.  It is, in the words of Kierkegaard, an 'offense'.  Why?  Because it just doesn't make sense, given the way the world seems to work.  It requires faith.

I am sure Mohler and others would agree with me here.  But then he goes on to suggest that there is some point at which faith becomes invalidated by a lack of biblical historicity.  But who decides what that point is?  And on what grounds?  Mohler's argument is a sword that cuts both ways.  The slippery slope argument is false, because it assumes too much.  It is flawed because it assumes that what is true for a part must be true for the whole.

Mohler says that if Adam was not historical, this threatens the historicity of Jesus and the Gospel.  But that makes no sense.  Even if Adam never existed, Jesus could have still existed, and there is not a 'quota' of faith that can be worked out to show us that the person who has faith in Jesus 'without a historical Adam' doesn't measure up, but the person who believes in a historical Adam measures up.  Faith just doesn't work that way.  In fact, it could be argued that the person who doesn't accept a literal account of Genesis has more faith, precisely because they follow Christ in the absence of a literal Adam.

But which path is the more accurate?  We don't know.  And we can't know.  That's the point.  Faith is not a probability equation, nor is it predicated upon a correct interpretation of the Bible.  We need the Bible because it reveals God-in-Christ to us, and Christians believe this is due to God's revelatory power which is found uniquely in the Bible, but how this takes place is a mystery.  And the very fact that it continues to be debated so extensively suggests that we can never solve this mystery.  But we aren't asked to solve it, we are asked to have faith in Jesus Christ.

So, at the end of the day, I think Mohler, and others like him, are missing the point.  Whether Adam existed or not doesn't matter.  Whether Jesus existed or not does.  That may be difficult to rationalize, but then, faith has never been rationalizable (if that's a word!).  The ancient Christian formula 'Faith seeking understanding' seems to have been misunderstood.  Yes, we ought to seek understanding, but faith comes first.  Perhaps too many Christians have forgotten that, and made understanding into the goal.  But faith is the goal.

This does not mean understanding is not important.  Understanding helps us to develop our faith.  And if that understanding includes taking seriously ideas about human origins that seem to undermine a literal reading of Genesis, then as people of faith we should listen to, and study, those ideas, and see if there is something to be learned from them.  Because, it just might be that our faith will grow in the process.

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