One sunny winter day while I was doing my doctorate (whose story I’ll introduce near the end of this post), I sat by a window in the Boston College library. A loud swishing sound interrupted my reading. I looked up just in time to see a heavy column of snow slide down a broad chute formed by the corrugations of the copper roof on an adjacent building. Other columns made similar downward flights throughout the afternoon. The sun had been slowly, indiscernibly melting the bottom of the snow until, column after column, it slid off the roof on a cushion of water. Sometimes changes that seem dramatic when they occur are actually the result of incremental influences that have accumulated over time.
This was the case with my ultimate abandonment of the belief that the earth was only a few thousand years old. I never experienced “rock shock” the way my brother-in-law did. (This may be because I’d held an “old earth” view as a child before becoming a creationist as a teenager, though I didn’t know enough to use those terms at the time.) But eventually a growing body of evidence, a more satisfying way of interpreting the Bible, and my increasing awareness of intermediate positions made me free to hold the all-or-nothing young-earth paradigm I’d been taught in creative tension with other possibilities. At one point, some of these other possibilities simply began to appear more reasonable.
As anticlimactic as it may sound, I accepted the reasonableness of the earth’s antiquity one day while sitting in my living room watching television! I’m not sure exactly when this incident took place, but it was in the years after I had left seminary and the ministry, while was working as a writer, and clearly some time after I taught my Genesis course. I was watching an educational program that was not primarily about evolution, but rather about a certain region of our country which is now inland and gently mountainous, but which also contains marine fossils. I was now somehow able to accept that the area had been covered by seas once; then mountains had thrust upwards; then these mountains had eroded. And this, I was able to admit, had to have taken a long time!
I still didn’t know how this recognition could be reconciled with the biblical chronology that, taken as a whole, seemed to require a young earth. But I felt that some explanation could eventually be found, and so my new time frame for natural history did not really upset my faith very much. Nevertheless, I did not rush to embrace a Darwinian model of biological development, either. I was still aware of enough unresolved problems within that paradigm that it did not appear to be a completely satisfactory account of the origins and development of life. So I moved from a position in which I had a personally satisfying and harmonious vision of science and the Bible to one in which I suspended judgment on many questions.
Five years after I left seminary, I returned to Gordon-Conwell to complete a master’s degree in theological studies, graduating in 1988. From there, after a year of further preparation, I entered the joint doctoral program of Andover Newton Theological School and the Boston College Department of Theology. At the same time, I accepted a call to the First Baptist Church in Newton as assistant minister, and I began pursuing ordination with the American Baptist Churches in the U.S.A. Each of these three endeavors presented challenges that at one point or another refined and shaped my understanding of the early chapters of Genesis.
First, during the fall semester of my first two years of doctoral studies, I met weekly in a colloquium with the other members of the program who were similarly still in course work. They represented different specialties: systematic theology, historical theology, and ethics. Many, like me, had Bible minors. Our task was to work our way through the Western theological and philosophical tradition by reading and debating the writings of its greatest figures.
In one of our discussions, a student, without using the actual term, characterized people as beset by “original sin.” Another student became indignant. “Come now,” he protested, “you don’t mean to tell me that there are people in this room who still believe in the myth of Adam and Eve!” A third student responded cautiously, “That depends what you mean by ‘myth.’” The rest of the group, knowing slim conversational prospects when they saw them, moved on to other issues.
But the question stayed with me. I did believe in “original sin,” in that I believed all people needed God’s deliverance from innate self-destructive and spiritually deadening tendencies. This is all my classmate had meant by the “myth of Adam and Eve” that he didn’t believe in. But did believing the story mean more than that?
I recognized that I now held two possibilities in creative tension: The human race may have been descended from a first pair, about which some historical details have been preserved; or, the story may have originated as an explanation and exposé of the innate destructive behavior patterns humans are only too ready to ignore or deny. The tension was tolerable, and thus did not cry out for immediate resolution, but at the same time it was creative and stimulated my thinking.
Another endeavor presented a second challenge to my thinking. As I moved through the ordination process in those same years I eventually wrote a paper, meant to be read aloud in my ordination council, describing my faith journey and sense of calling, and outlining my positions on a specified list of theological subjects. In advance of the council, I discussed my paper with ministerial preparation committees of my local and regional associations.
The draft I shared with the local committee included, under the subject of “creation,” the sentence, “Man and woman were made last but highest, to rule over creation as God’s stewards.” When I read this sentence, one minister on the committee said aloud, “No.” He insisted that man might have been made last according to Genesis 1, but that according to Genesis 2, he was created first. When I looked at him with uncomprehending eyes, he said simply, “Read it for yourself.”
We moved on, but when I got back to my office at the church, the first thing I did was read it for myself. And sure enough, he was right. More than a little embarrassed that I had never observed this before, my first step was to change my paper to read, “Humans were created with a special responsibility to superintend creation, as God’s stewards.” My next step was to figure out how the Bible could claim, in adjacent accounts, that man was created both before and after the animals.