Abstract:Stephen Williams raises a number of concerns with the book, Adam, the Fall, and Original Sin. The authors, he concludes, fail to grasp the nettle of difficulties facing the Augustinian hamartiology. While some of his objections hit the mark, others are less convincing. Original guilt, in particular, is a resilient doctrine. Rooted in Scripture and of a piece with Christ’s atonement and imputed righteousness, this doctrine resists its detractors. Thus, rumors of the demise of original sin as a viable doctrine have been greatly exaggerated.
In the red dragon of Wales, we see a symbol of the strength and mettle of the Welsh soul. It is the emblem of their national flag (Y Ddraig Goch). Legend of old has it that King Arthur himself, that great warrior of Britain, used the red dragon as his trusted battle standard. Be that as it may, the spirit of the dragon lives on in Stephen Williams who has delivered a penetrating review of the book that I co-edited with Michael Reeves. In my rejoinder, I have limited my remarks to the three key concerns that Williams registers. I hope the exchange—precisely the kind of dialogue our book was aimed at generating—will bring clarity to some areas of contention swirling around the doctrines of the fall and original sin.
So let us begin with biblical authority and the theological significance of the Old Testament ANE background. Williams is troubled by methodological moves in chapters by Hamilton (ch. 9) and by Weeks (ch. 14). The issue seems to be this. Both Hamilton and Weeks claim that our only epistemic access to the thought and assumptions of the biblical authors is the canonical witness itself. Williams judges this a flawed stance that confuses the issue of biblical authority with hermeneutics. As he sees it, we cannot avoid interpreting the biblical authors in their own cultural (ANE) context. To quote Williams: “the proper response is a rigorous appropriation and hermeneutical use of ANE and extra-biblical materials, not what looks like an attempt to seal off the biblical world hermeneutically, an impossibility in any case if we are going to read the original languages” (pp. 205–6).1 Perhaps he means that Hamilton and Weeks should have couched their points more cautiously, less polemically; a fair criticism, if somewhat subjective.
But it’s more than that. Williams disagrees with their methodological assumptions. There may be a misunderstanding here. It seems to me that Hamilton and Weeks want to clarify the epistemological significance of the biblical canon as canon. If we conceive of Scripture dogmatically, as God’s Word written, then it follows that the inspired, divine discourse just is the canonical data. Williams, of course, is correct that extra-biblical data—e.g., linguistic, social, and cultural insights—are essential to interpret the canonical text. And yet, this point needs to be handled with care. Extra-biblical insights, the world behind the text, help us determine the meaning of the biblical words; but if we seek to hear what God is saying in Scripture, what counts is the meaning of the biblical text in the context of the rest of Scripture, the world of the text (the Reformers’ analogy of faith; Scripture interprets Scripture). Here’s the rub—what do we do when our best historical conjectures are in tension with, or even contradict, the biblical witness? I take Hamilton and Weeks to be saying that the intra-textual, canonical reading is decisive, every time there is a conflict.2 Given that these men are professional biblical scholars, it seems unlikely that they are denying the need to interpret the OT in cultural context. They are merely insisting, controversially perhaps, that what we hear God saying in the text, interpreted in its immediate context, and in the canonical context—that should always trump contrary historical conjectures. That is a legitimate hermeneutical extension of the Scripture principle.
Williams is already cringing and I’m barely out of the gates. He worries that, on those terms, “the Bible [becomes] an exception to rules of general hermeneutics” (p. 205). But why let your heart be troubled, O Williams? The rules of general hermeneutics imply at least two handicaps that cannot be true for the Bible, precisely because of its property of divine inspiration. First, those rules typically operate within methodologically naturalist limits. Common books are not generally read as if they have been composed, supernaturally, infallibly, by a Divine Author. That’s just as well; even Pulitzer authors are only human. But, of course, that would be a disastrous reading strategy with the Bible (the minimalism of the Copenhagen School in OT studies is an extreme example, but it makes the point). Second, even our best extra-biblical conjectures are always hampered by the noetic effects of sin and the intrinsic limitations of the extant evidence. None of these facts obviate the need for the hard work of interpreting the biblical text, and perhaps that is Williams’s sole point. Even so, once the church is convinced of what God’s Word says, taken as a canonical whole, she is obligated to use it as a rule that can decide conflicts with other readings (including any extra-textual ANE conjectures that can be pitted against it). In sum, ANE conjectures in biblical exegesis work best ministerially, not magisterially.3
Williams’s second major concern is twofold, relating to how I handled original sin in the chapter co-authored with Michael Reeves. He thinks we overreached theologically and complains that we gave no justification for the concept of original guilt. I’ll take each in turn. In our chapter—“Threads in a Seamless Garment”—we argued that our connection with Adam secures the very possibility of salvation, for then we know that Christ assumed our Adamic nature and not some other nature. Our sin problem runs deep; “though sin is certainly something people do, it is more fundamentally a disorder that inescapably conditions all our doing—and thereby reminds us that our hope properly rests in God’s doing rather than our own.”4 That is well said, and we would add that our Adamic link is the metaphysical backdrop. But Williams disagrees. He thinks we lack a viable rationale for that brand of “theological necessity” (p. 209). He prefers a much more agnostic stance: “I know for sure that Christ has assumed my human nature and died for my sin; I know the unfathomable depth of my sin and dire corruption of my nature through the gospel or, if you like, through the New Testament witness. I know it unshakeably while I may puzzle over how to understand it theologically, how to interpret Romans 5, or how to regard the relative claims of monogenism and polygenism” (pp. 209–10).
I admire this theological agnosticism. Williams shows dogmatic restraint. A good theologian should not be ashamed to concede mystery on any number of theological realities—that kind of reticence can be the mark of wisdom (cf. Prov 18:13, 20:25). And yet, it all depends, doesn’t it? In this case, his view amounts to a deep conviction that we are sinners coupled with agnosticism on why that is the case—a minimalist hamartiology. Such a move is common in the wider debate. For instance, George Murphy writes this: “The crucial distinction here is between the idea of an ‘original sin’ which took place at the beginning of human history and that of a ‘sin of origin’ which affects all human beings from their beginnings and from which they cannot free themselves. The need for a savior is dependent upon the latter belief but not upon the former.”5 Such a move is common because it affords less tension with the scientific story. Is that why Williams has adopted this posture? I wonder about that, but I can’t say (I’m agnostic!). I can say this: our chapter on original sin sketches out the dogmatic reality undergirding our experience of grace and our existential knowledge of sin. If the exegetical case is sound, then our argument for theological necessity more or less follows. So while I typically laud Williams’s dogmatic minimalism, it may have let him down here.
Consider the distinction between the ordo essendi (the order of being) and the ordo cognoscendi (the order of knowing). As recipients of God’s saving grace in Christ, we know that we are sinners. This is the ordo cognoscendi, and I take Williams to be emphasizing this point. No disagreement from me. But Reeves and I were seeking to address the ordo essendi, viz., our solidarity with Adam as the more basic, fundamental reality, which alone makes sense of, gives meaning to, the experience we have of being sinners. I’m thus skeptical that Williams’s agnosticism is a stable position in our present intellectual context. Mainstream scientific narratives give us a very different account of these matters; in less capable hands, Williams’s agnosticism simply translates, in practice, to assimilating the scientific hamartiology.
Am I missing the camel, straining at gnats? Williams writes, “I confess that I am reminded of the argument that if you deny the historicity of Adam, then belief in the historicity of Jesus Christ is unsafe. As though belief in the historicity of Jesus depended on belief in the historicity of Adam!” (p. 209). He’s right: “belief in the historicity of Jesus” does not depend on “belief in the historicity of Adam.” One can affirm that Jesus was historical and deny the same for Adam. Williams, I suggested, has emphasized the ordo cognoscendi. But that ignores a crucial metaphysical sense in which—given what the Bible says about Adam6—the historicity of Jesus does depend on the historicity of Adam. These two individuals are part of the same human family, bound together by the same ontological and genealogical networks. To take away Adam’s historicity, and everything it entails, threatens the integrity of the biblical story.
Consider this analogy. Suppose my dad is my hero, my very reason for existence. Let us also say that I’m ethnocentric; for me, to be is to be Nigerian. But I’ve always lived in the UK, never set foot on African soil. The only way that I know I’m Nigerian is because my dad told me and he has an old Nigerian passport (plus, I look Nigerian). He has also told me many times that he had a grandfather who lived in a tiny village in Nigeria, a chief, a prince of princes; my dad would be nothing without my grandfather and what he did for his family. Now someone starts claiming that my grandfather never existed, that he was not even Nigerian and certainly no prince. Sure, on one level, my love for my dad and my relationship with him does not depend on whether my grandfather ever existed, or whether he was Nigerian. On another level, however, it certainly makes all the difference. If it was all lies, my whole conception of reality, my identity, would begin to unravel. And so it is: For most of church history, we thought we were children of Adam, only to find out that we are orphaned moderns fashioning new ontological identities in a post–Darwinian world.
The problem is not that Williams denies a historical Adam—he doesn’t—it’s his dogmatic minimalism that I am questioning. He is agnostic on whether the biblical account of sin speaks meaningfully, or clearly, to implicit questions raised by the scientific story (e.g., monogenism vs. polygenism); I worry that such agnosticism, in this case, can indirectly, unwittingly, feed into “neo-Gnostic” tendencies widespread in modern doctrines of Scripture. In their reticence, they judge Scripture reliable on matters of “spiritual” or “religious” significance, but helpless, even destitute, on the rest of material reality. Natural science confidently deciphers the historical and physical aspects of creation, so that the Bible is rendered less and less articulate about the actual world we live in. I find that modern theologians like what the Bible says religiously but get skittish about its witness to the material world.
There is still the problem of original guilt, and that brings us to Williams’s second complaint, framed as an unresolved riddle running through our book. Why does God hold us guilty for the sin of Adam when none of us were there? How could this be just? Williams is right that none of the contributors develop an answer to this question (he takes particular aim at the Reeves/Madueme chapter). I confess: Guilty as charged. He gives the impression that the Augustinian doctrine cannot justify why the idea of original guilt is just—or, at least, our book fails to make the case. And he is in good company; others have argued that Augustine’s formulation cannot explain the justice of original guilt. Oliver Crisp, to pick one example, has made the same argument in a recent essay on original sin.7
There seems to be an implicit argument that carries Williams’s essay along. It goes like this. The Augustinian tradition, in its premodern and Reformation incarnations, has never been able to answer the objection against original guilt. There is no plausible reason for God to consider all of Adam’s descendants guilty of that one trespass. This dilemma was not “invented” by the Enlightenment or by Darwin or by modern scientists. Hardly. It’s the dirty secret of the premodern tradition. The received doctrine of original sin is thus vulnerable at just this point; part of the reason modern theologians are attracted to evolutionary hamartiologies, and part of the reason modern biblical scholars are seeking fresh exegetical approaches to Romans 5, Genesis 3, etc., can be traced back to this weakness within the tradition, a weakness begging for a more compelling account. It’s unclear whether Williams sees this development as salutary. But it is clear that he wants a proper accounting of original guilt. To that we now turn, with fear and trembling.8
Given the limitations of this forum, I can only offer a few quick remarks. I take our federal (or covenantal) union with Adam to be a brute theological fact, revealed in holy writ.9 As with the Trinity and the Incarnation, I doubt we shall ever fully grasp the way of it, certainly not before the Eschaton. God has appointed Adam and Christ as the federal heads of humanity. Adam’s fate was to be the fate of his descendants. God has revealed it, we can only confess it—the mystery that explains everything else. “[W]ithout this most incomprehensible of all mysteries,” Pascal understood, “we are incomprehensible to ourselves. Within this gnarled chasm lie the twists and turns of our condition. So, humanity is more inconceivable without this mystery than this mystery is conceivable to humanity.”10
If that be true, then the alleged problem of original guilt cannot be separated from the blessing of Christ’s atonement. If original guilt is unjust, then by the force of biblical logic we must say that the imputation of Christ’s righteousness is also unjust (Rom 5:12–21). We can either accept—or reject—both.11 If Adam cannot be the federal head for our guilt, then Christ cannot be the federal head for our righteousness. Or so it seems to me. Adam and Christ stand or fall together as federal heads. Interestingly, Williams’s concerns with imputed guilt carry over to inherited corruption. If it is unjust for us to be counted guilty because of our union with Adam, then it is surely unjust for us to be born morally corrupt because of our union with Adam—for we had no say in having a moral disposition traceable to what Adam did eons before we were conceived.
In light of Williams’s agnostic stance, it’s possible that he rejects inherited corruption as unscriptural. In fact, he floats a different scenario: “the proposition that we all would have done what Adam did. This would involve both setting out the logic of putting our post-lapsarian individual selves in the place of another human being and observing the distinction between saying that, contingently, any one of us would have done the same and saying that sin was inevitable for humanity” (p. 216n23). Alas, I doubt that proposal will get us very far. The idea, roughly, is that God omnisciently knows what every human being would do, counterfactually, had they been in Adam’s place. Based on that “middle knowledge,” God knows that each of us would have acted as Adam did; as a result, God can then justly impute Adam’s disobedience to all of humanity. The problem with this idea is that, on Williams’s view, humanity was created originally sinless. There was the possibility of sin without the disposition to sin. On that premise, how could he possibly say that no single human being (barring Jesus) could have been in Adam’s place and acted otherwise? Williams can only arrive at the conclusion—that all would have sinned as Adam did—by stipulating that each of us, from the beginning, was in a postlapsarian state, disposed to sin. But that’s no solution at all. It leaves us in a position analogous to God justly creating humanity in a sinful state based on his middle knowledge that each of us would have sinned.12 In my view, the cure is worse than the disease.
Furthermore, Williams’s starting assumptions merit scrutiny. He is operating with a notion of divine justice that is clear, from which he then intuitively recognizes the injustice of the divine imputation of guilt. Is he putting the epistemic cart before the horse? Our intuitions about fairness and justice have a history, and in this instance his specific intuitions are of rather recent provenance.13 To be sure, everyone has an intuitive sense of justice independent of Scripture, but there are good reasons—bound up with a Christian doctrine of sin—to doubt their reliability. Williams presumably agrees that God’s revelation about justice in Scripture should control what we think constitutes divine justice. The traditional doctrine of original guilt, I would argue, is grounded in Scripture. The nature of divine justice is not so transparent that we can confidently set aside traditional doctrines; to the contrary, doctrines that are counterintuitive to moderns such as original corruption, substitutionary atonement, hell, and yes, original guilt—such doctrines should define and mold how we conceive divine justice. Now perhaps Williams will contest that Scripture supports original guilt, but my core epistemological point still stands.
Williams’s third (and final) concern is with the bad advertising. The book’s subtitle promises dialogue with science but fails to deliver. The contributors fail to wrestle adequately enough with the difficulties of their position given the scientific challenges arrayed against them. That was the weakest part of the book, I agree. In that regard, Williams’s frustration is valid: “What is puzzling [in the Reeves and Madueme chapter] is the total silence not only in this essay but in the whole volume of a key passage in this discussion: Genesis 4:14–17” (p. 210). Indeed, the editors should have included a detailed analysis of that passage somewhere in the book. As Williams indicates, the text raises implicit questions relevant to the broader conversation. Most famously—or infamously—Isaac La Peyrère was the first person of note to suggest there were men and women living before Adam and Eve. Part of La Peyrère’s argument turned on ambiguities that he perceived in Gen 4:14–17.14 I’m not persuaded by this line of argument, partly because of explicit statements in the text (e.g., Gen 2:18), but that’s beside the point. Our book missed an opportunity to address these questions directly.15
The main chapter addressing scientific questions is by William Stone (a pseudonym). Again, Williams is right that this chapter (and the entire book) lacks any discussion of genetics, arguably the greatest challenge to a historical Adam and Eve.16 While the inference is tempting, the omission is no sign the editors were asleep at the wheel (I’d have blamed Reeves anyway). There were prudential reasons; we could not find anyone with the scientific and philosophical expertise to tackle that question well. We also feared that a detailed discussion would immediately become out of date. And even if that danger faces any discussion in science and theology, we felt it acutely in this case. Whether that was the right decision or not, the omission admittedly left the book vulnerable.
Back to Stone’s chapter. Williams is not guilty of this, but other reviewers were confused about the genre of that essay. It may help readers to know that Stone believes the earth—and, by implication, Adam!—is less than 10,000 years old. But in his line of work, that position is anathema. His essay was a deliberate methodological exercise in minimalist apologetics, i.e., “for the sake of argument let us assume all or most of the mainstream perspectives on paleoanthropology; do they cancel out the possibility for a historical Adam and Eve?” The conclusion that Adam roamed the earth 1.8 million years ago is not Stone’s own view. He was trying to demonstrate that paleoanthropology does not necessarily undermine Adam’s historicity. The merit of this essay’s strategy is worth debating, surely, but a proper assessment needs to get straight what Stone was actually trying to do.
We come now to Williams’s critique of my own chapter. His main complaint is that I have given a “statement of faith” and not, as I signaled, a methodological proposal for a dialogue. That’s a fair point. Of necessity, my account was compressed and prevented me from laying out the argument in detail.17 That said, one of my aims was to resist a particular monopolistic conception of “dialogue” between science and theology. In practice, the call to dialogue typically means we take the scientific view at face value, more or less, and prevent dogmatic concerns from delimiting the rules of the encounter. I’m not sure what Williams thinks about this view of dialogue (though I was heartened to see that he appears to reject methodological naturalism, a sacred cow in the academic context, cf. p. 212). Given that view of dialogue, theology is reshaped according to the whims and fancies of the scientific project. Hence my reservations. In my essay, I explored a different way of conceiving dialogue, one that takes science seriously but critically.18 Williams’s helpful comments on philosophy of science suggest he is amenable to probing such possibilities. While I am less sure about Locke’s value in this context, Williams’s broader suggestions are valid (I’m happy to report that the philosophical contribution plays a central role in my forthcoming work).
On the matter of B. B. Warfield, Williams challenges my claim that, while Warfield was a theistic evolutionist, he rejected human evolution. In the 1888 lecture that I cited, Warfield does reject human evolution; but Williams is right to point out my failure to reference Warfield’s review of Orr—one that I am very familiar with—in which he allows for the possibility of human evolution.19 I stand corrected. One should not forget, however, that in that same Orr review Warfield insisted that God would have placed a human soul in Adam, supernaturally; in Warfield’s mind the soul distinguishes Adam from the animal kingdom (needless to say, that is not what scientists today mean by human evolution). Warfield’s arguments in favor of human evolution did not imply human evolution tout court. It should be clear from what I have said here, and in the book, that I agree with Williams’s critique of Fred Zaspel’s interpretation.20 Based on the textual evidence, Warfield was a nuanced, conservative theistic evolutionist; he accepted the possibility of human evolution but insisted that Adam received his soul by God’s direct, supernatural intervention.21
As I bring this rejoinder to a close, I take pride in getting Williams to first base. He agrees with us on the necessity of a historical fall; in the current theological climate, that’s no small thing. I’ll take what I can get. Above all, I am grateful that he has given me this opportunity to clarify my own thinking on these central hamartiological questions; it has been a pleasure engaging his incisive review. I have no doubt he remains unsatisfied, but I trust our dialogue (!) will continue, despite the riddle that lies between us. Which reminds me of another riddle, actually an old joke, whose punch line I can’t recall—a Nigerian, a Welshman, and a Scientist walk into a bar. . . .