John R. Schneider, ‘Recent Genetic Science and Christian Theology on Human Origins: An “Aesthetic Supralapsarianism"‘, Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith; Volume 62, Number 3, September 2010, 196-212
Recent genomic science strongly supports the theory of common ancestry. To classical Protestants, particularly, this theory seems incompatible with Scripture, most especially with the “historical Fall,” which Protestants presume to be manifestly biblical and so have cemented it securely into their confessions and theology as a whole. Nevertheless, John Schneider proposes that it is important for traditional Protestants to consider alternatives to this essentially “Augustinian” view. He invites readers to examine Eastern thinking (mainly in Irenaeus of Lyon) together with a minority of Protestants (such as Karl Barth and supralapsarian Calvinists), for whom the Incarnation and Atonement are the purpose of creation from the beginning. Their understanding differs from the execution of divine “Plan B,” as implied by the Augustinian western version of an unintended “fall” from utopian first conditions. Schneider appeals to a fresh reading of the book of Job in support of an “aesthetic supralapsarianism,” which sustains Protestant virtues of biblical authority, divine sovereignty, and grace, while opening avenues to compatibility with evolutionary science.
About the author:
- MA in theology, Fuller Theological Seminary
- DD (Doctor of Divinity), University of Cambridge
- Taught Christian theology at Westmont College (1981–1985)
- Has taught theology at Calvin College (1986-)
Summary and Critique
Basically, this author explores two views in the Bible (mainly OT) that account for the suffering, evil and imperfection in this world. From the dominant interpretation of Genesis 1-3, which John Schneider accredits to the Augustinian tradition, God created a perfectly harmonious world without suffering and death, and evil becomes a problem only after the Fall (Adam’s sin).
However, Schneider finds this view unconvincing on both moral and scientific grounds.
The evolutionary theory held by many today tend to believe that the first human beings are earth should be numbered at least 20,000, rather than 1 or 2. (This I explained in [文摘] 《聖經》創世記載的觀念整合與科學詮釋). On top of this, the first human beings should be extremely like animals in the sense of their moral capability, biological impulses, adaptation to the nature, and rationality.
So now, is God morally justified by leaving the first human beings- as moral novice- to confront the most cunning and shrewd species of HIS CREATION, namely, the serpent, and then blame them at their moral failure?
Not only is God’s world NOT so benign and innocent to begin with (besides cunning serpent, there were man-eating animals we suppose), but God also
inexplicably wanders off, purposely leaving moral novices alone in Eden with a master con artist who was out to wreck them and everything else God cared about, and then God wanders back only to seem shocked at what they had done, giving a good scolding, cursing the earth, taking away the serpents’ larynx and legs, and eventually wringing his hands in regret that he had made humans, and (literally) drowning his sorrows by washing most of them away. (204-205)
The solution, for the author, is to abandon this Augustinian dichotomy of perfection (creation) and imperfection (fall). It also means the abandonment of a historical fall (only to be substituted by an existential fall).
I am quite surprised that a Calvin College professor could venture so far away from the conventional interpretation to the rejection of the Historical Fall. Even though the proposal seems progressive and positive change to me, I still beg to disagree going so radical. In [文摘] 《聖經》創世記載的觀念整合與科學詮釋 I have mentioned that Adam could have well been a specially elect human being, to possess God’s living spirit and entitled as God’s Son, to be distinguished by his rationality and moral capability from all his contemporary homo sapiens. This preserves the historical Fall and also accounts for Cain’s "weird concern" and life style outside the Eden (Genesis 4) as well as the multiple-location/number anthropological theory of human origins.
But at any rate, for Karl Barth, Genesis 1-11 is saga and is beyond historical/scientific investigations. Its narrative function all points to the existential. This is why even though Barth holds on to the historical Fall, it is historical only as far as it is historic. To explain this point in Barth’s other words: there was no golden age of human perfection (determined by the pre-Fall Adam); human being is created to be followed by sin. That is to say, as soon as he faces his first moral encounter that is by "existential" and "personal" (Ricoeurian narrative) definition determines him as a human being, he falls.
This will be my critique against Schneider. When he draws from the well of Irenaeus and Barth, he paints too lightly the thick connection between Barth and Augustine.
But then, Schneider offers to good food for thought in the latter part of the paper where he explores God’s revelation to Job in his plight.
In Job 38-42, we find out that God is not opposed to the causes of the evil and chaos of the world. Rather, God initiates them while remaining above them.
One of Martin Luther’s biggest theological struggles is to comprehend God as the causes of everything, good and bad. Job, for a large part, also faces the struggle and eventually comes to terms with such a God through personal encounter.
Evidently, God uses Leviathan, Behemoth, vultures, violent whirlwind, and thunder to manifest His “omni-causality” over even the chaotic aspects of life and nature (in ancient Near Eastern world, these elements were first associated with Baal and other pagan gods); even Satan is His servant to achieve the ultimate goodness that only He Himself defines and knows.
One major flaw which Schneider perceives in the Augustinian theological framework is the dichotomous worldview of God and the Devil/human, of heaven and earth/hell. We need to free our concept of God from these false dichotomies in order to experience this God as big as He really is (Job 42:5).
The author says,
In my view, this is what Job “sees,” and this is what causes him to withdraw his question and to repent in “dust and ashes.” Job does not get (nor do we get) an explanation for why God has done these unfair things to him. He also gets no explanation as to how God might put these evils right, “defeat” them, as it were, by integrating them in all their disorder and ugliness into a perfectly ordered and beautiful plan (although this eventual victory of God is still embedded in the tradition the poet shapes).
What Job does “see” is that God is in complete command and mastery—he sees in a “second-person” sense what cannot be explained to him in “third-person” terms, apparently. He is able to see now with his own eyes (as it were) that God has “rightfully,” or “justly,” and not immorally or amorally, decided to make and to shape the world (and in microcosm, his own life) in this unexpected, undeserved, and painful way, including inexplicably great violence, disorder, suffering, and injustice. He sees in this nondidactic way that God is the sort of Being who knows exactly what he is doing and why, and that despite appearances, God is completely in control of the otherwise uncontrollable, chaotic situation. (207)
Behind the evil plan carried out by the Devil’s hand, loh and behold, it is indeed God’s hand.
What then, about the so-called "aesthetic supralapsarianism"? (The term coined by Schneider is confusing, for his inarticulate use of ‘aesthetic’ seems to betray his not-so-well-founded metaphysics.)
It is basically just Barth and postliberal Barthians have reiterated and articulated so well for so long time (but certainly I think we postliberals have the more articulated version):
Tthe word "supralapsarianism" is all about God’s plan to save before human beings have done wrong, for human being’s fall and the creation’s curse were not something unexpected to God upon the creation.
God has created the universe as a challenging playground to His sons and daughters to experience their own lives and grow in it (Rom 1:20-21). But God’s providential care is also constantly at hand so the challenge will not be too overwhelming (1 Cor 10:13). Ultimately, God has a salvation plan that stands both in continuity and discontinuity to His original creation of Adam. This is through Jesus Christ, who manifests the True humanity, and through whose name and power exclusively human beings will find the path to the eschaton, the ending goal of the universe where all things will be perfected and be united with God.
The history of the universe is not to go back to the alpha point like we are to revert to the status of just-born babies. Just like in the book of Job, the story neither stops at Job’s speechless silence (he was silenced because he was without speech!) and inner peace, nor is the ending a simple restoration of Job to his beginning status. Rather, blessed with blessings of double measure, bearing both his traumatic past and his new-found strength in the faith, Job reaches his ripe age on earth and actualizes his human potentiality (Job 42:10-17).
Job 42:17 And so Job died, old and full of days.