[NOTE / UPDATE: 6/6/2020 – I was recently informed that BioLogos deleted that article mentioned below by Dennis Venema because the science in it was deemed indefensible. For details on that, click here.]
A few weeks ago I had offered some thoughts on a review of Peter Enns recent book, The Evolution of Adam. Readers recall that the purpose there was to object to some poor thinking maligning Enns theological thinking. In the course of that short critique, I also put forth some thoughts of my own about Enns position which, in a nutshell, is that evolution is a given, and that Adam in Genesis was designed by the biblical writers to typify Israel, not to provide any sort of scientific statement about human origins. Enns also believes that Paul was wrong about Adam (in that Paul presumed that Adam was indeed the first human), but right about Jesus being the answer to the universal human dilemma of sin and death. I promised more input on Enns and the Adam problem, and so that is my aim here (but note, this topic is still percolating in my head — I tend to think about things a long time before I feel they are settled). So … this isnt really a book review, but my thoughts on the issue.
The Science: The Discussion
Ive been following the discussion between Christian geneticists, biblical scholars, and certain science apologetics sites relating to the problem of a historical Adam for nearly two years. But for those who have not, some summary is in order.
Some Christian geneticists have recently concluded that, statistically, it is not possible that the current genetic landscape for human beings can be accounted for by an origin from a single pair of humans. The article by Dennis Venema that sort of started all this off was entitled, “Does Genetics Point to a Single Primal Couple?” This article was a distillation for lay people of the points discussed in a much longer journal and more technical article published in Perspectives on Science and the Christian Faith entitled, “Genesis and the Genome: Genomics Evidence for Human-Ape Common Ancestry and Ancestral Hominid Population Sizes.” This article drew many responses. The well known old-earth Christian apologetics site, Reasons to Believe, responded in a series of essays by Fazale Rana. Frankly, RTB does poorly here, a failure pointed out by both Venema and (ironically, to say the least) by young-earth creationist (and geneticist) Todd Wood. Wood simply has a better handle on the genetics material than RTB and, despite his young-earth position, candidly acknowledges that Venema’s science is solid (though he wonders about the statistics part). You can read the exchanges between RTB, Venema, and Wood here:
Venema responded to two books by Hugh Ross and Fazale Rana as they related to the issue of genetics and human evolution (November 2010):
Fazale Rana then responded on behalf of RTB (all December 2010):
Todd Wood went through Rana’s responses very carefully, and shows some disturbing “confusions” and even errors. Even though he finds Venema’s work uncomfortable, it is Rana that he takes to task on the science (all early 2011):
The Science: My Own Thoughts
Let me say first that, despite an interest in genetics, I find it hard to care about evolution, theologically. I’m not offended by the thought at all. I really don’t care what mechanism God used to do what He did. I’m actually more concerned with Christians who do embrace evolution wanting to be Darwinists, rather than credit God with a role. I really don’t see the point in calling oneself an Christian Darwinist (as Venema does) and then him-and-haw about whether God had anything to do with it (as Venema does: see here, here, and here — in an evasive “response” that smacks of sophistry).
Let me also say that, despite an interest in genetics, I’m not a scientist. Neither is Peter Enns. We both would say that it’s best to let scientists (and, specifically, geneticists) committed to the Christian faith parse all this. Fair enough. However, I am less “certain” about the evolutionary paradigm (and, consequently, Venema’s statistical argument) than Enns. I simply read too many critiques of evolution within the scientific journals and evolutionist community to feel secure about the paradigm being offered. I speak here of blogs by people with degrees in bioogy and genetics who know evolutionary theory very well, and who spend a great deal of time combing through the journals to produce instances where evolutionary theory doesn’t work as it should or as it is expected. (Try Cornelius Hunter’s Darwin’s God, for example — unless you are a fundamentalist evolutionist — this blog may shake your faith).1 The real question is whether the problems with evolutionary theory warrant scrapping the idea (overkill in my view) or re-articulating the idea (seems pretty reasonable to me). This relates to the current issue (for me) in this way. Given that, 150 years after Darwin scientists are only now, due to advances in technology, beginning to realize that evolutionary theory has problems, I’m betting that someone will come along a lot sooner than that and offer a serious-minded critique to Venema’s statistical analysis of the genetics. Statistical genetics is not what anyone would call a well-worn path, and so it is vulnerable (as even established scientific disciplines are) to correction. To illustrate why this matters, think of astrophysics. Even the slightest errors in calculations there mean the shuttle astronauts die, or that they never get back to earth. The math in that field is only secure because of steady attention given to it over decades. Statistical genetics is still in its infancy and is more given to subjectivity than celestial mechanics. Of course Venema’s work may indeed stand the test of time — but that requires time. Drawing too many firm conclusions now on its basis seems transparently premature.
But let’s assume he’s completely right for the rest of this post. Let’s assume we cannot speak of a historical Adam that produce all other humans, and that humans share a common ancestor with chimps. 2
What To Think — My Two Dollars’ Worth (Hey, it’s a long post, so 2 cents doesn’t cut it)
Assuming evolutionary theory is valid, and that theists would either feel enthused about or compelled to embrace the idea that God used the evolutionary process to produce all life as we know it (including homo sapiens), what is to be done with Adam?3
I feel less trepidation here than many believers and believing scholars for two reasons. First, since I’m already on record as insisting that we not make the biblical writers what they weren’t (scientists) and let Scripture be what it is (a document produced over long periods of time by many human hands under the providential oversight of God, who decided to use humans in the first place to produce this thing we call the Bible), I don’t have a problem affirming the pre-scientific nature of the Bible, and think critics sound stupid when they criticize Scripture for not being what it wasn’t intended to be.4 Second, I’m also on record that I don’t see Romans 5:12 as teaching the idea of the original *guilt* of all humans. (See my archive on that issue and fuller discussions on the summary that follows here). That is, while the biblical story does describe a fall, and Romans 5:12 alludes to that fall, Romans 5:12 does not teach that all humans need Jesus because they inherited Adam’s guilt. The text never actually says that. That has been read into the text for centuries. What it *does* say all humans inherit is death (i.e., mortality). Read it — it’s quite clear that what “passed upon all mankind” is death. The passage never says humans became guilty before God because of Adam; it says we all die because of Adam. Further, like the post-Fall Adam and Eve, we have no inherent access to the divine presence that would enable us to resist sinning for any meaningful amount of time (as it apparently did with Adam — though it obviously didn’t prevent him from willingly sinning altogether). We get that presence via the Spirit when we become believers (that is why we can resist sin, albeit imperfectly since we still live in an unredeemed body). The result of the fall is being a mortal human, and (pardon the pun) the fallout proceeding from that is “all have sinned” (i.e., every human invariably and inescapably will sin — and that is where our guilt before God comes from — what *we* do, not what Adam did). The exceptions to this guilt are: Jesus5 and humans who never get to sin.6
But don’t I need a historical Adam for my view as well?
How would I answer that? Well, here’s one possible short answer: That’ll work fine, but it isn’t necessary. Genesis 3 is a story aiming to describe several theological points and ideas, one of which is why humans die and why we cannot merit eternal life with God. It’s “just a story” but a theologically pregnant one, pointing us to spiritual certitudes. That is, I don’t need a single real-time event involving an original human couple to know with theological certainty that all humans are mortal, that all humans sin, and that all humans are totally helpless to remedy either problem. If Genesis 3, an important passage that communicates these truths, is only a story, the points are still clearly and forcibly put forth. Do we need Job to be a historical person to know that the righteous can indeed suffer and we must trust God for why that happens? That would be an incredibly narrow (and reality-defying) position to take.
Now, the longer answer might follow the trajectory of other thoughts …
Genesis 3 (the fall account) is very consistent with ancient Near Eastern epics that seek to explain why humans are mortal — why we die — unlike the gods (who, even when they die are often [always?] not really dead, or not dead for long). Immortality is an attribute foreign to humans, so that must be explained in the ancient epics. Immortality must be bestowed or granted by God/the gods. It is not part of the human situation.7 Lesson: humans are mortal, and to be human means you’ll invariably offend God (sin). And our guilt (not that of someone else) means we need deliverance and forgiveness — things we cannot merit or obtain through our own effort, not to any degree.
The story of Adam and Eve then, as the product of a pre-scientific culture, isn’t about science in any way. As With respect to theology, it could be viewed as only a *story* (not the record of a literal event) of why we die and why we need redemption (Answer: because we aren’t God and cannot enter God’s eternal life without his gracious invitation and the removal of our guilt, caused by our offenses toward him). The Adam story illustrates both truths quite clearly (and Israel’s own history — hence the “Adam as Israel” view of the biblical author, articulated by Peter Enns in his recent book).
So, here’s how I’d parse Romans 5:12, 18-19:
5:12 – “Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned…”
Without a historical Adam, we’d have an allusion to a story designed to teach us why we are other than God — why we die and how the attribute of mortality contributes to why we offend God and cannot be part of his eternal life as we are.
Rom 5:18 Therefore, as one trespass led to condemnation for all men, so one act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all men. 19 For as by the one mans disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one mans obedience the many will be made righteous.
Yep. As the story of Gen 3 shows us, humans from the very beginning of humanity are condemned to life apart from God’s own unique, eternal life. The failure of the Adam character drives home the awful reality that we are human and therefore mortal, and because mortal and not Deity, we are all sinners. And these same conditions are true of all humans. Even Jesus was mortal since he was fully human. He only didn’t sin like all humans because he was (uniquely) God as well. But he did die. And it was through that voluntary death on the cross that both the plagues of humanity can be solved: mortality yielding to immortality, and the guilt we incur via our sins being forgiven. And so, we understand our need and helplessness from the Adam story — that is how God chose to communicate our condition to us. And we are real — we are in history. But the story need only communicate our problem and its universality. God is also real and intrudes into human history. Once he did that in the person of the Son as a human being.8 And through that historical intervention, our very real historical problems as they relate to mortality and inability to have God’s eternal life, got solved.
So, where does this differ from Peter Enns? I think Paul could have looked at Genesis 3 as a story. While it’s likely he believed Adam and Eve were the first two humans, I’m not completely convinced that he couldn’t have seen it as only story. Why? Did all ancient people believe in their creation stories in a literal sense? I doubt it. Did a Sumerian really read their creation stories and think that they were composed of the blood of a god and clay? Or that the first humans grew out of the ground like plants? I’m sure some of them did. But I’m also sure that some of them would look at you and say, “Hey, it’s a story — who knows how we all got here; the gods must have done something to put us here, but growing us out of the ground — really? Come on.” I say this because the language of appearances that Peter and I (and others) refer to in order to drive home the point of a pre-scientific worldview actually cuts both ways. EXPERIENCE would also have told our Sumerians that people didn’t grow out of the ground (they’d never experienced that) and that there didn’t seem to be any residual divinity in people (the kings and their bloodline might be an exception). Snakes really don’t talk, and so it’s conceivable to me that a devoted ancient Jew might look at Genesis 3 and presume it was only a story designed to teach spiritual truths and conflict among divine beings, having nothing to do with real members of the animal kingdom (many readers know my thoughts on Gen 3 in regard to the serpent in that respect). Did Paul think that? I have no idea. Could he? I think so — and so he might be “more right about Adam” than Peter Enns would allow. If that’s the case, then “being right” about Genesis 3 and Adam would amount to reading it as story, as I have tried to illustrate here. I can give Paul more of a nod there than Peter Enns. But both Peter and I would agree that Paul was right about the human condition and its solution in Jesus.
At any rate, those are my thoughts at this point. But it’s still percolating.
And no — this is not the longest post in the history of this blog. (I checked; there have been three longer posts).
- Several of Hunter’s recent posts illustrate his main points: that evolutionary theory has problems and that scientists often make theological statements. Samples: Heres a Very Complicated and Unique DNA Finding That Contradicts Evolution; Even Evolutionists Admit Its a Mess; Evolution Falsified Yet Again: They Are So Complicated That its Stunning; This Paper Discusses Problems With the Evolutionary Tree That You Didnt Learn in Biology Class; You Wont Believe Who Denies Evolutionary Beliefs; Gene Splicing Stuns and Bewilders Evolutionists. ↩
- The Neanderthal issue is too much of a rabbit trail for this post. For those new to the discussion, comparison of the human genome with Neanderthal DNA that showed most humans carry 1-4% Neanderthal DNA has led to debate over whether it is proper to consider Neanderthals a different species than humans, or as a different kind of human. Todd Wood, a young-earther, has done a lot of good work here making the genetics digestible. See here (May 2010) . It should be noted that RTB’s view of this issue, on the other hand, requires widespread bestiality in human populations, since RTB insists that Neanderthals cannot be human. This is absurd both in terms of scale and in terms of how non-humans could mate with humans — which isn’t biologically possible, at least judging from everything I’ve read on that. Yet RTB clings to this position. ↩
- This post sets aside the image of God issue. Readers will know that my view of the image is functional — that humans are imagers of God. The image is not a thing in humans or an attribute; it is a status. To be human is to image God. And so, the image concerns homo sapiens, not how homo sapiens came to be. ↩
- I don’t see this as a problem for either inspiration or inerrancy since my definition of inerrancy — and all views of inerrancy require a definition — distinguishes between what Scripture affirms and reports, as well as distinguishing what Scripture affirms from how writers argue toward an affirmation. For those interested, see my archive on Inspiration. ↩
- While Jesus was fully God in flesh, he was also a fully human descendant of Adam (see Luke 3:38). This direct descent is why the traditional view has a problem — If Jesus was fully human and descended from Adam, why doesn’t he have a sin nature, too? He must, given the traditional view. Many theologians have invented weird (and exegetically and logically lame) ideas to circumvent this — like the virgin birth preventing Jesus having a sin nature. Too bad Mary was a human being (you can see here why catholicism felt compelled to argue for her sinlessness — despite that being taught nowhere in the New Testament). Too bad also that this doesn’t overturn Luke 3:38, which says point blank that Jesus is in Adam’s line. See the archive for more ↩
- I speak here, for example, of aborted babies or any human born that cannot discern right from wrong — volition *is* needed for moral guilt — due to mental impairment. This issue relates directly to whether babies and such persons are with the Lord after death. I believe they are and that is an exegetical standing for that — but you have to surrender the traditional Christian view of Romans 5:12 for that. And incidentally, no one goes to heaven on the basis of any merit or works – to any degree — including those in this category. For how salvation works here — and how I argue it from the biblical text — see the archive. ↩
- If you are thinking Sheol contradicts that, it really doesn’t — it is an eternal death — described as an everlasting “existence” in the realm of the dead. (But my heart is warmed that I have readers who would think of Sheol!) The hope of the biblical writer was to escape it, not to be content with it, even though one kept on “living” in the realm of the dead.) So, I could look at Genesis 3 and says its whole point is to answer why humans are mortal. Got it. And the absence of ever-present divine presence (no garden, no Yahweh all the time, 24-7-365) means the odds just got way worse that I’ll sin (moving from a minute possibility to an every-moment likelihood). ↩
- My presuppositions are very simple ones: There is a God (this assertion is intellectually more coherent than its antithesis); if there is a God that God can do things, like interact with humans; the notion that God could be in more than one person, and that one of those persons could become human is trivial in comparison to creating the universe and our world. Consequently, this assumption about God and Jesus and history proceeds from a simple but quite intellectually defensible chain of thinking. ↩