For C. John Collins the historicity of Adam isn’t a matter of one of two biblical texts being understood correctly. Rather, he sees our entire understanding of the Christian worldview as being challenged if Adam and Eve are removed. In “Chapter 2: The Shape of the Biblical Story”he aims to convince the reader of this.
Collins begins by discussing the shift from source critical approaches to Scripture to, “…literary readings oriented toward the text as we have it (p. 23)” In other words, the evolution of the Book of Genesis is secondary to the final canonical form of the Book of Genesis. After introducing the reader to elements of biblical narrative (e.g. narrator as reliable and omniscient, narration as scenic, narratives as sparsely written, and authors’ use of heightened speech) along with some comments on idea like “sociolinguistics” and “speech-act theory” Collins explains that, “All of these factors will help us when we ask what a Biblical author is “saying” in his text: we are not limited to the actual words he uses (p. 25).”
As the Book of Genesis enters the canon of Scripture it no longer matters what Moses alone may have thought, or his editors, or the compilers of the Pentateuch. Rather, the text as it stands determines its meaning. God gave us canonized Scripture, not a historical process.
This canon provides Christians with a worldview. Collins writes,
“…the worldview is not an abstraction derived from the story; that is, one cannot treat the story simply as the husk, which we can then discard once we have discovered the (perhaps timeless) concepts. This is not to deny that there may well be such things as transcendent truths (such as moral norms); but they gain their power from their place in the story—that is, they equip the members of a community to play their parts in the story meaningfully. It is the worldview story that, if well told, captures the imaginations of those who own it, thereby driving them on and holding their loyalty (p. 27).
For Collins this does not eliminate the need for Scripture to be grounded in history. He spends time explaining the function of myth, how “myth” has come to mean “ahistorical” but how it really means a story that explains the world to a group of people, and then he asks what we should think about the historicity of Genesis 1-11. Collins walks a careful line between historicity and figurative language. He notes, “Some people draw a very tight connection between ‘historicity’ and ‘literalism’ in interpretation—that is, they assume that if a story is to qualify as “historical,” it must not make much use of figurative elements(p. 33).” Collins clarifies that his use of historical, “…will take the term “historical account” to mean that the author wanted his audience to believe that the events recorded really happened (p. 34).” Then he explains what “historical” is not:
(1) “historical” in this sense is not the same as “prose,” and certainly does not imply that our account has no figurative or imaginative elements;
(2) “historical” is not the same as “complete in detail” or “free from ideological bias,” neither of which is possible or desirable anyhow;
(3) “historical” is not necessarily the same as “told in exact chronological sequence” unless the text claims that for itself (p. 34-35).
Genesis 1-11 has a “historical core” wrapped in a theological message:
The theology is not separable from the story, as we can see from the fact that one of those ‘theological truths’ is that the one who created the world is the good God who revealed himself to Israel, and not the capricious gods of the other peoples—an historical assertion (p. 36)!
For Collins this is where it gets serious. If Enns is correct that there is no historical core to the message of Genesis 1-11 (and that human origins are better explained through an evolutionary paradigm) then questions like this one will be answered differently than traditional Christianity has answered them:
“…sooner or later someone will want to know, did God create humans with a tendency (or at least an openness) toward sinning, or did he make them good, only for humans to become sinful? If they became sinful, how did that happen? Do not our innermost intuitions favor the explanation that humans have somehow declined from a prior state of goodness and health (p. 37)?”
In my next post I will relay the biblical story as Collins understands it. Today, I’d like to hear your thoughts on the necessity of a Christian worldview and the necessity of a “historical core” in the midst of the theological message of Genesis 1-11. If we set aside the traditional reading of Genesis 1-11 and that of a historical Adam and Eve does this radically shift Christian anthropology?
Re “…sooner or later someone will want to know, did God create humans with a tendency (or at least an openness) toward sinning, or did he make them good, only for humans to become sinful? If they became sinful, how did that [happen?] Do not our innermost intuitions favor the explanation that humans have somehow declined from a prior state of goodness and health (p. 37)?:
Another possibility is that humans evolved as selfish creatures (“survival of the fittest” and all that), but God gave a pair or a group or the whole bunch a conscience (or an “image of God”), or let a conscience (or a “gradual growing awareness of God’s presence” [Denis Alexander, “Creation or Evolution: Do We Have to Choose,” p. 236]) evolve, gradually giving all humans an innate knowledge of good and evil, a la C. S. Lewis in “Mere Christianity,” all in concordance with God’s plan.
From your description – it sounds reasonable (and useful) for Collins to differentiate ‘historicity’ from ‘literalism’ in interpretation, and outline exactly what each means (to him). You ask about the necessity of a Christian worldview sustaining a “historical core” in the midst of the theological message in reading Genesis.
I’d say this issue is of gauging truth against evidence. If we can find evidence of historical elements in Genesis (Garden of Eden, biblical flood, etc) it strengthens our acceptance of the theological elements.
“Genesis WITH historicity is stronger than Genesis WITHOUT.”
Paul: Your proposal (2nd paragraph above) is interesting.
I’ll not spoil things for Brian (love this series, btw!), but Collins lays some criteria for a good theory on Adam and find’s Alexander’s scenario a bit lacking. He does think that a combination of C.S. Lewis’s view in “The Problem of Pain” and Kidner’s view to be be a possibility, though.
I am glad to hear you are enjoying it! I look forward to getting further into Collins’ book.
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