In 2009 we Christians are commemorating the 2000th Birthday of St. Paul the Apostle to the Nations. In this same year, the scientific community is remembering the 200th Birthday of Charles Darwin, and the 150th Anniversary of the publication of Darwin’s THE ORIGIN OF SPECIES.
While Darwin grew up in a world greatly influenced by the writings of St. Paul, St. Paul himself did not show a lot of interest in the things which became Darwin’s concern. Paul in his writings was almost singularly concerned with pleasing God, and showed little interest in the natural world except in as much as it too was revealing God to us. Darwin on the other hand, following the ideas of Francis Bacon, had no interest in allowing his thinking to be shaped by ancient wisdom or revelations and was singularly interested in discovering as much as he could about nature – including its ancient past – through observation of the empirical world. Bacon was convinced that ancient wisdom, especially Greek pagan wisdom and philosophy, was in fact misinforming and misshaping our understanding of the visible universe. He believed that God wanted us to come to as clear an understanding of the physical world as is possible, but this meant pursuing observation and deductive testing rather than allowing ancient wisdom to shape our way of seeing the world.
While Darwin was interested in the origin of species (something empirical and observable), St. Paul’s writings are much more influential in Christian thinking on the origins of sin. Darwin only later in his life applied his thinking to humans and to human ancestry in writing THE DESCENT OF MAN, whereas Paul early in his Christian career wrote about the effects of the original sin of our human ancestors and human history to this day. Darwin saw the history and descent of man as an evolution from earlier ape forms to the existence of modern humans. St. Paul on the other hand saw the descent of man as referring to humanity’s loss of closeness with God due to our sinning.
The reality is St. Paul did not write much about the origins of humanity. He certainly was aware of the Genesis creation story and accepts the basic revelation it contains. But he does not quote Genesis 1-3 all that often, nor is the creation of the world his biggest concern – in fact he writes as much about the new creation in Christ (eschatology) as he does about the Genesis creation (origins). Paul shows no real interest in the origins of the rest of the animal world or creation. His main interest in Adam is in understanding Christ. For St. Paul the significance of Genesis is that it helps us to understand Christ and he reads the text Christologically not scientifically. Adam is important but not as a study in the origins of humanity but as a prototype of Christ. In this sense Adam is about all of us in that he shares in our humanity and he is a prototype of Christ who also shares in our humanity. Adam for St. Paul helps us understand Christ theologically, metaphorically, allegorically and prototypically. St. Paul thus reads Genesis in order to understand Jesus Christ not in order to understand the science of the world’s origins. In fact for St. Paul as for the Judaism of his day (and of the Torah for that matter) the origins of the human species are not as significant as the fact that humanity did not have a proper relationship with God. St. Paul is more concerned about the effects of sin on humanity than he is in the origins of mankind.
I do not read St. Paul in order to learn science or the origins of humanity. St. Paul did not read Genesis to learn about science or the origins of humanity. He read Genesis in order to understand the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. I do read St. Paul to understand humanity especially theologically. St. Paul writes to help us understand Christ and he uses the Genesis story of Adam to help us understand Jesus Christ and salvation. I do not believe St. Paul would have been much troubled by the writings of Charles Darwin not because he would have thought Darwin was false, but because Paul’s singular focus was on God, on what God has been doing in humanity through history and through Jesus Christ. Darwin on the other hand was focusing on what he could understand about creation (and thus humanity) by focusing on the observable created world. St. Paul was focused on the way on what he called our spiritual body (1 Corinthians 15 – what our bodies are to become in Christ) and he would have understood Darwin as being interested only in the natural physical body (what are bodies are as a result of our relationship to Adam and to sin). Paul would have simply been amazed that anyone could be so concerned with that body of death which is passing away rather than in the body as it shares in the resurrection of Christ. Ultimately Darwin’s origin of species is about this world, natural selection, death and that which is passing away, while St. Paul is concerned about the renewal of life in the resurrection, the triumph over death and life in the world which is to come.