Adam & ho anthropos

NPR’s Talk of the Nation Thursday had a 30-minute segment on “Christians Divided Over Science of Human Origins. Apart from a few callers and e-mailers, the discussion was basically between Daniel Harlow of Calvin College and Albert Mohler, President of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.

I will not even try to sort out their debate overall, but Mohler said something I believe to be demonstrably false. I’m not saying he lied, but that he’s ignorant of history and has a novel (in Orthodoxy, anything less than 1000 years old is suspected of novelty) way of approaching the Bible.

Harlow claimed that many Christians do not understand the Bible’s intentions in early Genesis as does Mohler. Mohler replied:

Only of late. Only those who come to the Scripture with a prior agenda coming from modern science. Only those who try to bring genomic evidence and other things to try to say that Genesis doesn’t mean what any straightforward, honest reader would think that it means.

(Emphasis added) Taking Mohler seriously, nobody before the advent of modern science, genomic evidence and such should have taken the story of the six days of creation other than literally, as if it were a scientific account.

But here is a lengthy account of Genesis, Creation and Evolution from an Orthodox Christian perspective, which inevitably asks how the (pre-modern) Church Fathers understood things. A few excerpts contra Mohler:

The account of creation in the first chapter of Genesis is known as the Hexaemeron (Greek for ‘six days’), on which a number of Greek and Latin Church fathers wrote commentaries. Some of them interpreted the six days of creation quite literally, like St Basil the Great who was much influenced by Aristotle’s natural philosophy. Yet the same Cappadocian father insisted that the scriptural account of creation is not about science, and that there is no need to discuss the essence (ousias) of creation in its scientific sense. Others followed a more allegorical approach, such as St Gregory of Nyssa who saw the Hexaemeron as a philosophy of the soul, with the perfected creature as the final goal of evolution. Or in the words of the Greek Orthodox writer Alexander Kalomiros, the Hexaemeron is like an immense mystical vision that Moses experienced when he encountered Christ on Mount Sinai. It is therefore wrong to treat Genesis as an astronomical or zoological manual. Alas, this is precisely what generations of Christians have done, often leading to a loss of religious faith among those who take the natural sciences seriously.

In his commentary on the early Patristic understanding of Genesis 1-3, the American Orthodox scholar Peter Bouteneff discussed the Hebrew and Greek terminology pertaining to humankind. The Hebrew adam could mean human beings generally, any particular person, or a specific person. It first occurs in Genesis 1:26-27, where it refers to humankind rather than a specific person. From Genesis 2:7 onwards the Hebrew text focuses on man (is) and woman (issa), in other words sexually differentiated humanity. For its part the Septuagint, the early Greek translation of the Old Testament, uses ho anthropos in Genesis 1:26 and 2:7. From Genesis 2:16, where the Divine command on eating is given, ‘Adam’ is used in the Septuagint. This distinction is a logical one, with anthropos referring to humankind in general and Adam to a particular person.

Nobody cares more about historic, patristic understanding of Scripture and the faith than do Orthodox Christians, and they have an interpretive tradition that warrants an inversion of Mohler:

Only of late – the last two centuries or so. Only those who come to the Scripture with a prior agenda drawn from post-enlightenment individualism and a Radical Reformation rejection of Church tradition and history, clinging instead to a hermeneutic of “when possible, literal,” will insist that the first chapters of Genesis are to be read as literal scientific accounts.

3 thoughts on “Adam & ho anthropos

  1. I think this is absolutely right, and I wish I had had the time to refute Mohler on this point. Further, science has not been the only challenge to taking early Genesis as documentary history. The challenge has come from the discovery of older ancient Near Eastern epochs of creation and primeval times, and from literarily sensitive studies of Genesis itself. Quite apart from science, biblical scholarship figured out long ago that the genre of Genesis 1-11 is story, not history. So Adam and Eve are theological representations of early humanity, and the narratives are paradigmatic of the human condition. — Dan Harlow, Calvin College

    1. HT Kevin Corcoran, who I knew well from the Lafayette CRC when he was a doctoral candidate and I was not yet Orthodox. I would not have heard this exchange on Talk of the Nation had he not mentioned it on Facebook.

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