Picking up where yesterday’s post left off, we have one more point to consider. Recall that the set-up here is that Edward Feser suggested a reinterpretation of the Adam and Eve story to bring it into line with modern genetics. In particular, Feser’s scenario hypothesizes that Adam and Eve were selected from a population of hominids to receive the gift of an eternal soul. Those other hominids were biologically human, but since they lacked souls they were not metaphysically human. I replied in this post. Feser then replied to my reply here.
In yesterday’s post I discussed two objections to his scenario. I argued that it is theologically implausible in that it asks us to believe that God behaved in ways that defy all reasonable standards of logic and fairness. I also argued that it is biologically implausible, in that Feser explicitly based his argument on the claim that an ability for abstract and rational thought represents a difference in kind between humans and animals, while the scientific evidence is against that possibility.
Today we consider a final problem. Feser’s scenario seems to be flatly contradicted by the Bible.
In attempting to respond to my challenge, Feser writes:
Rosenhouse has criticisms of his own. But though he does not miss the point the way Coyne does, his objections have no more force than Coyne’s. Rosenhouse says, first of all, that:
The first piece of evidence against [the scenario summarized above] is that the Bible does not teach anything remotely like what Feser is describing… Where in the Genesis story does he find a preexisting population of physically human but unensouled creatures? And how does he account for the Genesis language, which explicitly tries to account for physical bodies and not just for mental endowments?
In other words: “Wait, you’re not a fundamentalist! That’s not fair!”
That’s a remarkable ellipsis, since it completely omits the main part of my argument. I pointed to five specific verses in the Bible and noted two clear contradictions between what they plainly said and what Feser is asking us to believe. Here is what Feser left out:
Let us recall Genesis 2: 4-8:
In the day that the Lord God made the earth and the heavens, when no plant of the field was yet in the earth and no herb of the field had yet sprung up–for the Lord God had not caused it to rain upon the earth, and there was no one to till the ground; but a stream would rise from the earth, and water the whole face of the ground–then the Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground,* and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being.
Notice that, prior to the creation of Adam, we are told explicitly that there was no one to till the ground. Notice further that this account quite explicitly describes the creation of Adam’s physical body, and not just his mental endowments. Of course, later we are told of Eve’s creation from one of Adam’s ribs. This is further evidence that the story means to account for the origin of Adam and Eve’s physical bodies.
All of these points are in conflict with Feser’s account.
That’s the text represented by Feser’s ellipsis. You can decide for yourself whether any of Feser’s readers would have a fair view of my argument based on his rather truncated presentation of it.
Now, I really don’t think you need to be a fundamentalist to believe that when the Bible says, “there was no one to till the ground,” it does not mean, “there were lots of human-like creatures tilling the ground, but they lacked souls and therefore were not metaphysically human.” And when the Bible speaks of forming man from the dust of the ground, it seems clear that it is man’s physical attributes, and not just his mental attributes, that are being described. As I noted, both of these points flatly contradict what Feser said. If I am being overly literal in understanding these verses, then please tell me the figurative or metaphorical meaning they were meant to convey.
The simple fact is that a story in which Adam and Eve are chosen from a pre-existing hominid population for a special relationship with God is very different from a story in which Adam and Eve are created physically as the first humans. It strains credulity, to put it kindly, that what certainly appears to be the latter was meant to be construed as the former.
As I noted in my previous post, what Catholic theology requires is that all humans living today have Adam as an ancestor, and that Adam’s soul was infused directly by God. It does not require that Adam was literally made directly from dust or clay. And though Rosenhouse is correct that Genesis is interested in the formation of Adam’s body and not merely the origin of his soul, that too is consistent with the Flynn/Kemp account if we think of the matter God used to form that body as derived from pre-existing hominids rather than straight from the earth. I know Rosenhouse, Coyne, and Co. would like it to be the case that all Christians are crude literalists –after all, that would facilitate atheist combox smart-assery and other forms of Serious Thinking. But it just isn’t so. As a matter of fact, the most traditional Christians are not crude literalists. As Mike Flynn emphasizes in his post, that the literal and figurative senses of statements in the book of Genesis must be carefully distinguished is a long-standing theme in traditional biblical exegesis, and was famously explored by St. Augustine.
Of course, my point had nothing to do with what Catholic theology requires. I was discussing the Bible, not Catholic theology. I realize that Catholic authorities like to arrogate to themselves the exclusive right to hold forth on the Bible’s meaning, but for the purposes of this post I shall side with the Protestants on that one.
It’s nice that Feser at least concedes my point that the Biblical story means to account for Adam’s physical attributes and not just his mental endowments. Alas, he completely ignores the verse about how there was no one to till the ground just prior to Adam’s creation. Sadly, his further claim, that we can bring the text into alignment with his scenario so long as “we think of the matter God used to form that body as derived from pre-existing hominids rather than straight from the earth,” is ridiculous. Recall that under Feser’s scenario there was a population of hominids that were genetically and physiologically indistinguishable from human beings, but which nonetheless lacked souls. “Adam’s creation,” in his scenario, refers to the moment when God infused one of these already-existing bodies with a soul. Under that understanding, it makes no sense to say that God, in creating Adam, “formed man from the dust of the ground.” That just, flat-out isn’t what God did, according to Feser’s scenario.
Having exhausted himself by devoting an entire sentence to responding to my argument, Feser now reverts to form by hurling some random insults. His claim that I wish that Christians were all crude literalists is a figment of his imagination. It is not at all justified by anything I actually said. Since Feser invokes Augustine here, I feel compelled to point out that my understanding of the intent behind Genesis 2 and 3 is essentially the one defended by Augustine, not to mention countless other Christian teachers who came after him. If I am guilty of crude literalism then so are they.
If I want to know “what Christianity teaches,” I would be inclined to ask the Orthodox or Catholic churches, as they have near 2000 years of noodling over it. Yet when the Coynes of the world want to tell us ‘what Christians believe,’ they agitate over the idiosyncratic beliefs of Bill and Ted’s Excellent Bible Shack, whose teachings go back to last Tuesday. Go figure.
To be sure, this does not mean that Catholic theology allows us to reinterpret just any old passage of Genesis as we see fit. The point is just that the situation is far more complicated than claiming either that it all must be taken literally or that none of it need be taken literally. A reader calls attention to some articles by Fr. Brian Harrison — here, here, and here — which detail the history of the Church’s doctrinal statements concerning human origins and evolution, and argue that Catholic teaching on the subject is more conservative than many realize. In particular, Fr. Harrison argues that the miraculous formation of Eve from Adam’s side is binding Catholic doctrine. At the same time, Fr. Harrison acknowledges that the Church does not condemn either “special transformism” — the view (which Pius XII evidently had in mind in Humani Generis) that in forming Adam, God conjoined a human soul to matter derived from pre-existing hominids and “upgraded” so as to make it suitable for such infusion — or evolutionary accounts of sub-human species. And special transformism is all that is essential to the point that Flynn, Kemp, and I have been making about the compatibility of the doctrine of original sin with the genetic evidence. In any event, as I say, the situation is more complicated than fundamentalists, theological liberals, and New Atheists suppose. (Go to the original for relevant links).
Feser’s endless hand-waving is really getting tiresome. For all his gushing about the difficulties of Bible interpretation and the need to avoid crude literalism, he simply refuses to explain why the specific verses I cited should be interpreted in a way that seems directly contrary to their clear intent. The obvious way for Feser to have refuted my argument would have been to explain why the Biblical text, properly understood, supports his interpretation and not mine. Instead he goes on and on, including a bizarre digression on the views of Brian Harrison, doing everything except that.
That Flynn quote is especially remarkable. We should keep in mind that the ideas he is describing as coming from Bill and Ted’s Excellent Bible Shack were the mainstream teaching of the Church for centuries.
For heaven’s sake, it wasn’t atheists who invented this problem. We’re not the ones who decided, based on the Bible’s teaching, that there was a time when there were only two people on Earth. We’re not the ones who used the Bible to formulate the notion of original sin and then made it a bedrock principle in our theology. We’re not the ones who continue to write books and journal articles trying to devise ever more creative understandings of original sin to bring it in line with modern science.
Isn’t it interesting, for example, that Kenneth Kemp, publishing in 2011, felt that reconceptualizing original sin in the light of modern science was enough of a problem for Catholics that a journal article on the subject was called for? Isn’t it also interesting that the journal didn’t reject the paper on the grounds that it addressed a problem that had been resolved decades ago? If this issue is as simple as Feser and his friends would like us to believe, then what am I to make of the writings of Catholic thinkers like Daryl Domning and John Haught? Both have spilled considerable ink presenting their own modern understandings of original sin, and neither presented anything like what Feser has in mind. Why did Haught, in his 2001 book God After Darwin, write, “Thus far I have said nothing about “original sin,” which for many Christians is the most difficult religious teaching to square with Darwinian evolution.”? He certainly did not follow up by saying, “But they are wrong to be troubled, because this is really a non-problem.”
So whatever else you want to say about this issue, stop pretending that its just dumbass atheists who, in their theological ignorance, see a problem here. If you just want to strut around in your little corner of the blogosphere and high-five each other for your cleverness then go right ahead. But I’m still waiting to hear serious answers to my questions. At this point I very much doubt that Feser or his friends have much to offer in that regard.
Feser makes one last point:
Even given a completely literal reading of the relevant passages in Genesis, there is less conflict with Flynn’s and Kemp’s proposal than Rosenhouse suggests. We are told that Cain feared that others might kill him. Who were these others? That we are not told, and thus have to speculate. Perhaps they were further progeny of Adam. But Flynn’s and Kemp’s account provides another possibility — that they were (to use Rosenhouse’s words) members of “a preexisting population of physically human but unensouled creatures.”
Pathetic. We simply ignore the explicit verse in Genesis 2 that there was no one to till the soil prior to Adam’s creation, and instead go pawing around two chapters later desperately looking for unexplained people we can transport backwards in time to make our scenario work.
In his original post, Feser explained the importance of this in Catholic thought:
After all, the doctrine is hardly incidental. It is de fide — presented as infallible teaching — and it is absolutely integral to the structure of Catholic theology. If it were wrong, then Catholic theology would be incoherent and the Church’s teaching authority would be undermined.
Declaring that the doctrine comes from an infallible source rather limits your options. Having accepted that view, what more can you do but defend whatever ludicrous scenario seems necessary, while trying to accomplish through arrogance and swagger what you cannot accomplish through reasoned argument?
But people not so in thrall to Catholic teaching will have noticed another possibility. It could simply be that “original sin” was a dramatic wrong turn in the history of ideas. Perhaps the failure of the Biblical writers to get the story remotely right reflects the fact that they were not writing with the benefit of divine guidance. And perhaps all of those Christian scholars who taught, based on the Bible, that Adam and Eve were at one time the entirety of the human population understood the text correctly but erred in thinking they were in possession of a communication from God.
The Bible has many obscure sections, but Genesis 2 really doesn’t seem to be one of them. Feser has not provided a plausible reinterpretation of the text. He has simply discarded the text and has replaced it with what he wished it said.