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!