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The Doctrine of the Fall

The second creation account in Genesis (Gen. 2.4-3.end) gives more emphasis to the origin of the human race than does the first account. It includes a number of key assertions upon which the Christian understanding of salvation is based. These include the unity of man and woman, the unity of the human species, the sin of our first parents and the consequences of the fall from divine favour.

The story thus provides a mythological explanation of the current and fallen state of humanity.

The story emphasises that “God fashioned man (adam) from the dust of the soil [adamah]”. There is no intention of suggesting that those who told and re-told this story ever had any evolutionary understanding in mind; they were no doubt thinking in terms of a clay image into which God then breathed life. Nevertheless, we could regard the phrase as providential, and accept it as an abbreviated and ‘poetic’ expression of the Earthly evolution of humankind. It is a serious error, however, to try to interpret either Genesis 1 or 2 in terms of evolutionary theory, not only because our understanding of evolution will undergo changes in the future, but because of the need to respect the intentions and world-views of the biblical authors.

It would be an equally serious error to try and rescue from the ‘Fall’ story in Genesis 3 a historical paradise of total vegetarian harmony. There have been various efforts to understand the reasons for the myth of Eden - it could even lie so deep in the human unconscious as to reflect the retreat of the forest which forced the most primitive proto-hominids to exercise what ingenuity they could out on the African savannah. But there is no evidence that hominids were ever in an idyllic, predation-free relationship with the non-human creation.Readers should not be confused in this regard by references in the literature to ‘mitochondrial Eve’, which is a reference to our likely common ancestors in Africa, rather than to any Edenic...The importance of the Fall story must be that it describes that peculiar sense of alienation that seems to characterise the life at least of technological humans, a sense that we cannot wholly settle in our ecological niche or network of relationships, a sense that we yearn for something other but cannot grasp it.

The need to move away from the historical Fall has been strongly emphasised by the scientist-theologians.See for example Polkinghorne, J, Reason and Reality (London: SPCK, 1991) pp99-104, Peacocke, A, Theology for a Scientific Age (London: SCM Press, 1993 expanded edn) pp222f.Peacocke takes the argument in a helpful direction when, drawing on his idea that relationship with God and right perception of our environment represent the highest-level ‘emergent’ in the biological hierarchy, he argues that humans’ ecological niche includes a right relationship with God, which for all sorts of reasons - some genetic, some cultural, some as mysterious as the appearance of evil in Gen.3 - continues to elude us.

Email link | Feedback | Contributed by: Dr. Christopher Southgate and Dr. Michael Robert Negus
Source: God, Humanity and the Cosmos  (T&T Clark, 1999)

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