Guest post written by Eric
Many of the posts in this blog, and even more so the discussions that usually follow, have highlighted the differences between Mormonism and traditional or evangelical Christianity. However, there is at least one area where evangelicals may differ more among themselves and Mormons may differ more among themselves than the two religious traditions differ from each other. And that has to do with how to understand the first three chapters of Genesis: Should the accounts of the Creation and of the Fall be viewed as real events that happened in history, or should they be viewed primarily as allegory?
How believers in the Bible answer that question could have significant implications. For evangelicals, those implications were detailed in an excellent cover story, “The Search for the Historical Adam,” published last year in Christianity Today magazine. The article pointed out that while the traditional Christian view, included in some denominations’ statements of faith, is that Adam and Eve were the historical parents of the human race, that belief is about to collide (if it hasn’t already) with research into genetic diversity that shows that the existing human race could not have descended from two individuals a few thousand years ago. Just as in the past century or two science has forced most educated Christians to abandon a belief that the Earth is less than 10,000 years old, the article suggested, it is becoming just as clear that defending any idea of two common human ancestors is scientifically untenable.
Part of what is at stake for many adherents of evangelicalism (Catholicism too) is the understanding of original sin being traceable to Adam (and Eve too, although she’s mentioned less often). Also, the writings of Paul develop complex arguments seemingly based on the historicity of Adam, and the genealogy of Jesus in the Gospel of Luke traces Jesus’ earthly lineage to Adam.
Even though we Mormons don’t believe in the doctrine of original sin, the problem of Adam and Eve is no less acute for us, since we also accept the New Testament as scripture. Additionally, many church leaders, including Joseph Smith, have clearly assumed the historicity of Adam and Eve. Smith even said the Garden of Eden had been located in what is now Missouri.
For many evangelicals, and probably an even higher percentage of Mormons, to question the historicity of the Creation and Fall accounts strikes at a foundation of the Christian faith. Such a view is behind the attempt of many evangelicals to promote intelligent design, which claims that there is scientific evidence of a Creator; smaller numbers, usually from the fundamentalist wing of evangelicalism, have fought against any teaching in public schools that advanced forms of life developed over millions of years. And while the LDS church has no doctrine denying evolution, it isn’t difficult to find Mormons who interpret verses such as Moses 6:48 to support a belief that no death existed before the Fall, which if true would seem to preclude evolution.
But there are evangelicals and Mormons who disagree with the prevailing views. Most prominent among such evangelicals is DNA scientist extraordinaire Francis Collins, who believes that humankind came about through the randomness of natural selection, that while God set life in motion, how we turned out was a matter of chance. Brigham Young University biologist Steven Peck seemingly has adopted a similar view, and has written that he is proud to have descended from apes. Yet both men have reconciled their faiths with what they see science clearly telling them.
Is there a necessary conflict between science and believing that the first three chapters of Genesis are part of the inspired word of God? I am writing to suggest that the answer is no.
In my view, science becomes a problem for the believer in the Bible only when we try to understand the Bible as telling us something the authors never intended to teach us. The Bible (and for us Mormons, other scripture) isn’t intended to be a scientific textbook. And the text of Genesis 1-3 gives us clues that neither is it intended to be seen as history, but rather as a way of conveying divinely inspired truth about the relationship between God and humankind.
In other words, Genesis 1-3 teaches truth even if it isn’t history.
In a comment earlier in this blog, blog host Tim said:
I don’t deny that inerrancists generally reject theistic evolution. What I’m saying is that if the internal textual evidence were clearer (similar to the parables), it wouldn’t be a rejection of inerrancy to say that Genesis 1-3 are an allegory. There is a difference between literalism and inerrancy.
I would argue that such textual evidence does exist, opening the way for us to take Genesis 1-3 seriously without taking it literally. My interest in doing so isn’t intend to weaken anyone’s faith in Genesis; on the contrary, I’m concerned that by trying to make Genesis say more than God intended it to, we set up an unnecessary barrier to faith.
Here, briefly, are what I see as some of the signs that Genesis 1-3 shouldn’t be viewed literally:
- The account is full of blatant symbols that suggest a truth that goes beyond history, among them the tree of life, the tree of knowledge and a villain in the form of a despised animal. Even the name Adam is simply a Hebrew word for “man” (or “human”), and Eve’s name comes from a word meaning “living.” In this way, the story is written to apply to every man and every woman rather than to two specific individuals.
- The structure of the creation account in Genesis 1 seems to be written in an order designed for literary purposes. For example, the first day parallels the fourth, the second day parallels the fifth, and the third day parallels the sixth. It would make no sense as history to make plants before the sun, but it does make sense if the writer is trying to evoke a sense of order and awe.
- A creation account starting in Genesis 2:4 directly contradicts the order of events in the account beginning in 1:1. It makes more sense to see the accounts as having two different purposes than it does to reconcile the factual details.
- There’s a huge disconnect between Genesis 3 (which ends with the ejection from Eden) and Genesis 4 (which tells of Cain and Abel). The latter presupposes the existence of an agrarian society as well as of other human populations, which makes no sense with a literal reading of what comes before.
So if Genesis 1-3 doesn’t teach science or history, what does it teach? For starters, that God had a purpose in creating us. That God gave us free will, and that our decisions have consequences, including the misery that sin brings. That what God created is good. That the making of humankind is the pinnacle, even the ultimate purpose, of God’s creation. That we were created in God’s image.
I’m not suggesting that there are no problems with taking an allegorical approach to understanding Genesis 1-3. But in our quest to know what “really happened,” it becomes easy to lose perspective on the broader truths of what God is using this ancient, inspired writing to teach us.