Thursday, February 17, 2011

“What Genesis Doesn't Say”

The Christian Century had an article1 that escaped my attention, back in November of last year on the rise of modern creationism and the misinterpretation of Genesis. It is behind a subscription wall, so I cannot quote liberally but I will try to give you the gist of it. The author, Conor Cunningham, has this to say:
MANY PEOPLE BELIEVE that according to the Bible, there has been a cosmic Fall as a result of the sin of the first humans, and death was a consequence of this supposed Fall. Many such approaches to scripture are lamentably lacking in theological sophistication. In certain respects, some of the approaches recommended by no doubt sincere religious believers are more consonant with atheism than with the orthodox Christian tradition of scriptural interpretation.
As those of you that read this blog know, this is something that I have been struggling with for quite some time—the idea that modern protestant fundamentalist evangelical Christianity has really gone off the rails and is flirting with some very unsound doctrine. That frustration really came home to me a few weeks ago.

Interestingly, he points out a passage that has great significance for the position advocating the existence of a historical Adam. In the NIV, Romans 5:12 reads:
Therefore, just as sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, and in this way death came to all people, because all sinned—
However, according to Cunningham, the original Greek reads:
Death came to all insofar as all sinned
When we add the first part of the passage to the text, it takes on completely new meaning, firmly rooting Adam in a place and time. Without that preface, original sin takes on a more generally Eastern Orthodox flavor in which all are born with the capacity and inclination to sin but not actually “in sin” as protestant theology has generally come to understand the concept. Sin was separation from God, which leads to decay.

The article is a bit slow-going in places and I don't agree with all of his conclusions but I would recommend it if you can find it.

1Cunningham, C. (2010). What Genesis doesn't say. Christian Century, 127(23), 22-25.

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  1. WebMonk8:25 AM

    I tend to be skeptical of people who say a certain passage of scripture has been mis-translated significantly by hundreds of experts for centuries. Especially when many of those translations are well-known for their accuracy and precision.

    I'm not enough of a Greek expert to be able to say authoritatively which phrasing best matches the original intent, but I can tell it doesn't obviously coincide with Cunningham's translation. It tends to sound closer to the traditional translations.

    If you don't know Greek, one thing that is a quick-and-dirty translation check is to grab the original Greek for a passage, and run it through Google Translate.

    Original Greek from multiple sources can be found:

    On the technical details Cunningham is shaky, and his general reasoning in the article is less than convincing. Put the two together and I would personally discount the article heavily when considering the topic.

  2. I'm Roman Catholic, but tend to take an Eastern Christian view of original sin. On the website the interpretation of the fall is that we sin because we die, or more specifically we sin because we know one day we will die. I think this fits in more comfortably with evolution, because we were probably the first species to be aware of this fact long before our death actually occurs.

  3. WebMonk, thanks for the insight. I have seen this passage interpreted many different ways by different people. It is true that Cunningham's article has some suspect logic in it, but his take on the general tenor of modern evangelicalism is, I think, correct. I don't think they have original sin correct.

  4. Serena, thanks for the note. I have trouble with a concept of original sin that cannot accept any form of evolution because there is plainly so much evidence for it.

  5. Thanks for commenting on this article. I think the "Adam question" is one of the more difficult for most people, myself included, and every resource helps.

    WebMonk, I would agree with your suspicion about accusations of mistranslation through the ages. On the other hand, those centuries of translators never faced the questions that we do regarding Adam. Moreover, I don't think Cunningham claims that the passage has been 'mistranslated' so much as that the translation has been misapplied.

    The Greek is relatively straightforward, and constructs a simple argument: "Therefore, just as through one man sin entered the world—and through that sin came death to that man—in the same manner also death came to all men insofar as all were sinning."

    The 'traditional' English translation is not wrong, and terms must be defined in each. The question remains either way, whether death comes to me because I sin, or because Adam sinned (or both?).

    Also, I would highly advise against using Google translator for analyzing ancient forms of Greek. :)