Thursday, 10 May 2012

The Fathers on the Historicity of Adam & Eve: Augustine

When the Old Testament strikes a leak, the water inevitably seeps into the New Testament.
Norman Nagel (Australian Lutheran theologian).

Recently a Roman Catholic correspondent of this blog suggested that the recent public revisionism of Cardinal Pell on the historicity of Adam and Eve (see a recent post) could be justified in light of the approach of the Fathers of the Church this subject. In the back of this correspondent's mind, I deduced, was the belief that the allegorical method of Biblical interpretation practiced by some of the Fathers who were associated with or influenced by the Alexandrian school of Biblical interpretation led them to espouse the view that Adam and Eve are not intended by the Biblical author to be taken literally but figuratively, as is proposed by Cardinal Pell and - let us not hesitate to admit it - very many modern theologians. This modern view has been adopted principally, it would seem, because it is thought that science has rendered an historical  interpretation of the Biblical narrative of Genesis 2-3 obsolete; a figurative first human couple, then, is thought to be a way of preserving Christian doctrine from the corrosive acids of scientific discovery.   

Whatever the we may think of the merits or otherwise of such an approach to Holy Scripture, my first thought in response to my correspondent was that anyone who thinks that a figurative view of Adam and Eve was widely held by the Fathers has not read deeply in their works and is probably only familiar with them through the secondary writings of their modern interpreters (who inevitably come to the Fathers with their own agendas). I cannot, off the top of my head, think of a single church Father who would have entertained the figurative view of Adam and Eve as his mature position (there may be such, I grant, but if so I think they would be the proverbial exceptions that prove the rule - I'm not claiming to be an authority, mind you, but I have at least read widely in the Father's writings on the subject over the course of many years: let the evidence speak for itself is all I say!).  Typical of the Fathers, I would contend, is the view expressed by Augustine in his City of God:             

"...some allegorize all that concerns Paradise itself, where the first humans, the parents of the human race, are, according to the truth of holy Scripture, recorded to have been; and they understand all its trees and fruit-bearing plants as virtues and habits of life, …as if they had no existence in the external world, but were only so spoken of or related for the sake of spiritual meanings. As if there could not be a real terrestrial Paradise! ...No  one, then, denies that Paradise may signify the life of the blessed; its four rivers, the four virtues, prudence, fortitude, temperance, and justice; its trees, all useful knowledge; its fruits, the customs of the godly; its tree of life, wisdom herself, the mother of all good; and the tree of the knowledge of good …and evil, the experience of a broken commandment.. .These and similar allegorical interpretations may be suitably put upon Paradise without giving offence to any one, provided we believe the truth of the story as a faithful record of historical fact."

Augustine, City of God, Book XIII.XXI [italics mine]

This excerpt is particularly useful for our purpose because Augustine, discussing allegorical interpretation as it was practiced by some of his contemporaries, explicitly states that the literal, historical sense remains foundational and is to be understood as setting forth historical fact. Augustine's approach was to hold sway into the Middle Ages and be reiterated by Thomas Aquinas in his great synthesis of medieval theology, the Summa. I will post further patristic and medieval quotations on this subject in the weeks to come, but for now I am proposing that Augustine's approach was typical of the Fathers and became normative for the medieval church and also for Roman Catholic movement which later came into being on the doctrinal basis established  by the Council of Trent. This history of interpretation presents a particular problem for our modern-day Roman Catholic revisionists, including Card. Pell and my correspondent, as I shall also hope to show with reference to some official teachings of the Roman Catholic magisterium, the official teaching office of the RC church, which show that the Roman church has historically understood a historical Adam and Eve to be essential to the integrity of Christian doctrine (I hope the import of the Nagel quote will become clear as these posts proceed).  

Why the focus on Roman Catholicism? Does not Luther have something to say on this subject? Yes, of course! Indeed,  Luther's theology of creation as expressed in his sermons and lectures on Genesis is probably the richest example of creation theology in the history of the church (it is understandable but regrettable nonetheless that Luther's re-discovery of the scriptural doctrine of justification which constituted his "theological Copernican revolution", has all but eclipsed awareness of his creation theology outside the Lutheran Church). But the writings of a Luther or an Augustine, however helpful and enlightening we may find them to be, are themselves to be judged by Holy Scripture, which is the only infallible norm and judge of doctrine. Roman Catholicism, in contrast to this position of the Lutheran Reformation, makes the unique claim among the churches to be the sole divinely appointed, infallible interpreter and teacher of Holy Scripture for all humankind, and this claim is pointed to by Lutheran converts to Roman Catholicism as the solution for the doctrinal confusion they believe inevitably results from the Lutheran practice of sola scriptura. This is a momentous claim which one must decide for or against! But, as I hope to show, not even Roman Catholic cardinals in practice take the Roman claim to be the infallible interpreter of scripture seriously in their heart of hearts - or, at least, so it would seem if Cardinal Pell serves as any kind of example! 



The Talking Donkey said...

"Reformed Fundamentalism makes the relationship to Christ depend on the relationship to the Bible, as Catholicism makes it depend on the relationship to the church. This is a wrong deduction from the fact that without the Scripture or the oral Word which is based upon the Scripture we would know nothing of Christ. The faith of the Lutheran church in the Scripture is based on her faith in Christ. It is basically faith in Christ, because the Bible, and this is true of the whole Bible, is testimony concerning Christ. Our faith in the Bible as the infallible Word of God is therefore an entirely different faith from the faith of Fundamentalism in the Bible, which at least logically and factually precedes faith in Christ. The conviction that the Scripture from beginning to end is inspired and therefore the inerrant Word of God, whose statements can be trusted absolutely, is not necessarily Christian faith. The orthodox rabbis have the same faith with respect to the Old Testament. The “Christadelphians,” “Jehovah’s Witnesses” and other heretics who deny the true deity of the Son and therefore also the true deity of the Holy Spirit, who therefore do not even know what inspiration in the biblical and Christian sense is (Mt 10:20; Jn 16:13ff.), but make out of the Scripture a book of oracles after the fashion of the heathen sibyls, likewise teach the plenary inspiration and the absolute inerrancy of the Scripture, which shows plainly that this doctrine is not an absolute defense against false doctrine. Least of all does it guard against unbelief. On the contrary! As it was but a brief step from the Orthodoxy of a Hollaz to the Rationalism of a Semler, so also there is but one step from Fundamentalism to unbelief. One can only respect the seriousness with which earnest Reformed Christians desire to hold to the authority of Scripture. But one must also see the tragic reality when human opinions, for instance, concerning the age of the earth, are proclaimed as divinely revealed truths, with the result that with these opinions the authority of the Scripture collapses. What kind of Christianity is that which can be refuted by a photograph of the depths of space, or by the facts—(not theories)—of radioactivity! No, Luther’s mighty faith in the Scriptures as the infallible Word of God has nothing in common with this understanding of the Scripture current in Fundamentalism. One seeks for it in vain in the Lutheran confessional writings."

Herman Sasse, “Confession and Theology in the Missouri Synod”

Acroamaticus said...

I'm not certain as to what point you are making in regard to my post, Rubati. Perhaps you would care to elucidate?
In the meantime I'll venture a guess that you think that the quote from Dr Sasse shows that a concern for the historicity of Adam and Eve is somehow beyond the remit of confessional Lutheran theology and is more a concern of Reformed fundamentalism (?).
If this is the case my response would be 1) In regard to Sasse, the opinions he expressed in writing in the period 1950-51 about scripture and orthodoxy were written as part of a process by which he came to a more conservative position on this doctrine. That position can be found summarised in the theses of agreement on scripture and inspiration of the Lutheran Church of Australia, available via the 'net; more than once after these theses were published Dr Sasse requested that his earlier writings be read in light of the theses and not the other way around, and he corrected several views he expressed in his previous writings, including vis a vis what he called Lutheran "fundamentalism"; 2) the Chrstocentric appraoch tot he scriptures which Sasse rightly identifies as key to the Lutheran approach, in distinction from the Reformed, includes as a pre-supposition a historical fall int sin. The writings of Luther and the Confessions everywhere assume this. A concern to maintain the belief in a historical Adam and Eve self-evidently, then, cannot be construed as somehow "unLutheran".

The Talking Donkey said...

Yup, you've guessed rightly. Although it is quite an effort to trawl through Hermann Sasse's prodigious writings, can you direct me to his letter/article/essay/etc where he specifically says that questions as to the historicity of the Genesis account belongs to confessional Lutheran theology?

Acroamaticus said...

The paper to read would be his 'Comments on the Basic Problems Resulting From Genesis 1-3' (1967). In this paper Sasse strives to defend the creatio ex nihilo and the creatio specialis of the first humans in the light of the discoveries of modern science. Whether he does so effectively or not is open to discussion.
Unfortunately I do not seem to have a copy of this paper, although I once did. I shall have to obtain another one from Adelaide. If I do I may put it onto 'What Sasse Said' in its entirety if there is no copyright infringement.

I do, however, have an excerpt in my electronic files which touches on the question of the Bible narrative's historicity: "(II, Thesis 8): “The constancy of God, his faithfulness to his people is inseparable from historical facts. The historicity of the call of Abraham and of his faith, the historicity of the events of the Exodus, to mention only these examples, is the necessary presupposition to the saving truth of God that is witnessed to in these events.”
Also one could cite this from Sacra Scriptura: "biblical reliability cannot exist without what we call basic truth or historical fact, because otherwise the revelation of Scripture would be reduced to myth”.
In order to understand Sasse's writings on scripture one must understand his context: he sought a tertium quid between the Barthian neo-orthodoxy he experienced in Germany and the Lutheran orthodoxy he encountered in Australia. To some extent this seeking of tertium quid is reflected in the LCA Theses of Agreement on Scripture and Inerrancy and the later statement on Genesis 1-3 (1972). Sasse beacme progeressively more conservative on the question of scripture over his Australian years, but imo he never quite left some of his German baggage behind - not that he was ever a Barthian, bvut he struggled with the same questions of historicity that led Barth (and most German-speaking theologians of the era) to want to draw a line between historical and theological truth.
In any case, as I say in the post, I would caution against using Sasse, Luther or Augustine as authorities in themselves - the authority of their writings derives from their faithful exposition of scripture.

Acroamaticus said...

Btw, all of this is not to deny Sasse's point in the quote you cite: for Lutherans submission to the Bible as the Word of God derives from submission to Christ as Lord and Saviour, and not the other way around, as Reformed Fundamentalism ocassionally seems to make it. We do not need to "prove" the Bible true in order to believe in Christ; our faith in Christ bids us to humbly believe and trust His Word.