Adam and Eve in Scripture, Theology, and Literature

Sin, Compassion, and Forgiveness

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Peter B. Ely
  • Lanham, MD: 
    Lexington Books/Fortress Academic
    , January
     350 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


In his book, Adam and Eve in Scripture, Theology, and Literature, Peter B. Ely conducts a broad examination of sin, compassion, and forgiveness as discussed in biblical, theological, theoretical, and narrative texts. The book is broken into three sections based on “three types of expression in which history has unfolded,” namely, “symbolic, theoretical, and literary” (16). This provides the forward momentum of the book’s discussion, from ancient biblical text to 20th century mystery.

Ely follows Paul Ricoeur’s language of myth in discussing the events described in Genesis 3 (25) and asserts that his “fundamental aim ... is to seek the truth of the Adamic myth” (14). His discussion of Ricoeur’s analysis of the Adamic myth in light of other myth types constitutes chapter 1 and provides the justification for his focus on this particular myth (53). He argues for the primacy of the Adamic myth as the only one that “resolves the dilemma of the servile will,” “sees God as fully on the side of human freedom,” and “opens the way for a healing of the human will” (52). Chapter 2 embarks on a summary of the narratival and theological uses of the Adam and Eve story and, more specifically, the notions of sin and forgiveness in the Old Testament. While his subsequent chapter on “The Adamic Myth in the New Testament” (chap. 3) is primarily written using the interpretive lens of Pauline theology, his chapter on the Old Testament is heavier on theory, engaging biblical scholars Gerhard von Rad and David Clines.

The second section of the book seems to move away from the narrative of Adam and Eve to focus on the theoretical concepts embedded in their story. Chapter 4 begins with a comprehensive overview of Augustine’s work on original sin in an effort to discern if he connects sin and compassion (107). This chapter is particularly important as Augustine is cited heavily throughout the book. Chapter 5 explores the themes of original sin and related concepts through a smattering of perspectives, including papal decrees, evolutionary thought, and feminist theory. The sixth chapter logically moves to the topic of forgiveness, positing that the healing of four “damaged intimacies”—namely, “intimacy with self, intimacy with God, intimacy with one another, and intimacy with nature”—“opens us to the possibility of compassion and forgiveness” (173). The very doctrine of original sin enables individuals to acknowledge the dialectic of good and evil present in every human being and moves them toward compassion and finally forgiveness, understanding that the evils committed against them are evils that they are capable of committing themselves (179). This notion of compassion as a “prelude to forgiveness” (165) is the heart of the book. The final chapter (chap. 7) in the second section focuses on René Girard’s work on mimetic rivalry. Ely uses Girard’s theories of mimetic rivalry and the scapegoat mechanism as another way of examining original sin. Girard’s own thought posits that the cross and subsequent resurrection of Christ exposes and reverses the scapegoat mechanism (199). Compassion and forgiveness occur when the “violence is identified” and “denounced” (204). 

The third and final section of the book focuses on original sin, compassion, and forgiveness in literature. Chapter 8 presents Chrétien de Troyes’s Perceval as a fall-and-redemption narrative that follows a similar structure to the Adam and Eve story of Genesis 3 (212). Revelations of Divine Love by Julian of Norwich is the subject of chapter 9. Ely emphasizes that Julian’s work is characterized by the “unifying principle” of compassion—this is most readily seen in her parable of the lord and servant and God’s statement that “all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well” (235). Just as Augustine held the notions of grace and inherited sin in tension (109), Julian held the traditional teaching of original sin and judgment in tension with her belief that God does not blame individuals (257). In chapter 10, Ely discusses Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure, which illustrates the dialectic between justice and mercy on the state level (257). The play also powerfully illustrates Ely’s assertion that “recognition of sin in oneself” is “a motive for compassion” (280). The final chapter (chap. 11) provides an overview of Georges Simenon’s Maigret stories, which are deeply anthropological (284). Ely contends that Maigret’s method of entering into the lives of his suspects and becoming a “mender of destinies” is incarnational (293, 297). He argues that while a nonreligious individual can show compassion, the act of standing in another person’s shoes—as Maigret does—in order to understand their motivations, feel compassion towards them, and stand in solidarity with them, is an integral aspect of Christianity (303). 

Ely takes an unusual route in discussing the story of Adam and Eve and the concepts that have impacted history, theory, and literature for centuries. His subtitle “Sin, Compassion, and Forgiveness” really forms the basis of the book, while the narrative of Adam and Eve hovers in the background. Ely focuses on the concepts embedded within their story that have influenced thinkers and have enduring implications for church and society today. His method of analysis encourages readers to look beyond traditional theological and theoretical texts for examples of brokenness, compassion, and forgiveness.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Sarah Gane Burton is an Independent Scholar.

Date of Review: 
October 4, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Peter B. Ely is associate professor of theology and religious studies at Seattle University.


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