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The Historical Adam, Round 2: John Schneider

The Tragic Artistry of God

In the current controversy among evangelicals over the story of Adam and Eve, several issues have become tangled, and we need to untangle them before progress in conversation is possible.

One issue is how to understand the divine inspiration and authority of Genesis, while another closely related issue is how best to read the story and relate it to science. Young Earth Creationists say that Genesis 1-11 is a revealed record of events exactly as they happened, and this leads them to employ the text as a weapon against evolutionary science. In contrast, the majority of biblical scholars urge Christians to place Genesis 1-11 in its own ancient context, and to read it in its own historical and literary terms, and not to use it against science. It seems to me wise to heed what these scholars are saying, and dangerously foolish to ignore or even condemn them as destroyers of the Bible and faith.

However, I want to comment briefly on a second issue that is entangled with the rest: the doctrine of a historical Fall, understood as a way to place all responsibility for evils on creatures, and to avoid putting it on God. It is a separate subject that we should treat in its own right. For a long time now, some notable Christian scholars have been saying that we should not employ the Fall as a "theodicy" or "God-justifying" account of evils, and I agree with them. Why?

For one thing, modern science makes it seem as clear as could be that violence, brutality, and death have been inscribed into the design of nature from the very beginning. We can see this "inscription" in rocks and fossils, and in the genomes of both non-human and human beings (there is absolutely no trace of a line demarcating a "before" and an "after" Paradise). Charles Darwin underscored the point with his theory of natural selection, according to which brutality and death are inscribed into the very mechanism that "designed" and "created" species! If God employed natural selection, then responsibility for natural evils does not fall on Adam and Eve, or any other creature, but entirely on God. And surely Karl Giberson is right on the subject of evolution and human moral evil: if the thesis of common ancestry is true, then the first humans emerged with an unformed non-human psycho-somatic heredity and not as the morally mature creatures required in order for the Fall to exonerate God from causal responsibility for evils.

But even if the first modern humans did exist in a beatific state of "original righteousness," as the Fall "theodicy" requires us to imagine, the difficulties only grow. Is it plausible that anyone in that state—enjoying knowledge and love of God in the bliss of Paradise—could be prone to ignore and in effect to hate God, much less to do the wickedest thing possible for any human person? Even Augustine, who did more than anyone to ingrain the Fall "theodicy" into the minds of (especially) Western Christians, admitted that he did not understand how a supernaturally endowed Adam could have been deceived and led into such evil (Augustine suggested that the seduction of sex with the woman clouded Adam's mind and will!). In his Genesis commentary, he admitted that God did build fragility into Adam—otherwise he could not have sinned. But that admission reopens the problem of responsibility for evils going back to God.

Since Schleiermacher, theologians as diverse as John Hick, Karl Barth, and Marilyn McCord Adams have been urging us to abandon the Fall "theodicy" and to grapple with the reality that God has deliberately included some evils in the world, and has done so for a morally good reason that vindicates God. Some writers at this roundtable represent the opinion that there could not be any such morally good reason. One writer goes so far as to say that removing the Fall as the explanation of evils is "poisoning God," i.e., injecting the toxic substance of moral evil into the character of God. Is that so? Not if we consider these last points, all too briefly made.

First, it isn't at all obvious that the Bible itself supports use of the Fall as a "theodicy" that lays responsibility for all evils on creatures alone, and none on the deliberate will of God. The Book of Job reminds us that God has included elemental Chaos in the created Cosmos—the Darkness, the Sea, the Wilderness and creatures of the Wild (including deadly predators) are not the offspring of a Fall, but unexpected yet good creations of God! Even in Genesis, the Serpent who inexplicably lurks amid the delights of Eden, unattended and unconstrained by God, is identified as a "wild" creature of God, not as a miscreant, or as Satan. God includes the Serpent for some reason.

Are such suggestions theologically poisonous? Not if we consider that a morally perfect divine Being might well wish to create higher, second-order goods that are possible only via first-order evils. The valuable good of moral courage, for instance, is possible only if directed at evils that call for it. Likewise, the great good of the risen and glorified Christ is possible only following the horror of a crucifixion. If someone suggests that God planned the Incarnation and the tragic horrors of the Atonement from the beginning of beginnings, as many have done (probably including Paul!), it would be strange indeed—and mistaken—to accuse him/her of attributing moral evil to God.

Art provides a good analogy. There is strong support in Scripture for envisioning God as a cosmic artist, who pursues his own vision freely, yet wisely, and morally well. God is the "Potter," says Isaiah, and Paul takes on this metaphor in Romans 9-11. Paul also envisions God as the artistic cultivator of a remarkably complex, enigmatic, yet beautiful vineyard that is still taking shape. Great artists—especially in post-classical forms—very often deliberately include bad things in their art. They do so in order to "defeat" the bad things by integrating them into a whole that could not be as great without them. We do not "poison" God morally by ascribing to God a preference for the deep beauty and goodness of tragedy over lighthearted comedy in the creation of a great world. We do not make God out to be the author of evil, as the sententious trope goes. On the contrary, we revere God as the creator of the highest and best art, in which the artist transforms evil things, such as the cross, by means of masterful irony, into artifacts of maximal beauty, goodness, and truth.

This article is part of our Symposium on the Historical Adam:

John Schneider teaches philosophy at Grand Valley State University and is publishing actively on the implications of evolutionary science for Christian faith. Long a leading evangelical theologian, Professor Schneider taught at Calvin College for 25 years. He is the author of many papers and three books, including The Good of Affluence: Seeking God in a Culture of Wealth.

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