A Response to Coyne, MacDonald, Ruse, and Wilkinson, Pt 2
Today's entry was written by Denis Alexander. Please note the views expressed here are those of the author, not necessarily of The BioLogos Foundation. You can read more about what BioLogos believes here.
In December of 2010, we posted a paper by Denis Alexander, Director of the Faraday Institute, which presents two models (the Homo divinus model and the retelling model) for relating Adam and Eve with the findings of contemporary anthropology. The paper, which ran in five series, drew responses from biologist and atheist blogger Jerry Coyne and ex-Anglican priest Eric MacDonald, who questioned both the Homo divinus model and Alexander and BioLogos’ attempts to integrate modern science with Christian faith. Michael Ruse also made a passing comment on the discussion in a Huffington Post article. In January, philosopher and theologian Loren Wilkinson posted his own two part response to Alexander, Coyne, and MacDonald on The BioLogos Forum, voicing his concerns with the Homo divinus model while reaffirming the harmony between science and faith and calling into question the "positivism" he saw in Coyne and MacDonald's response. Today, we post the second part of Denis Alexander’s response to Wilkinson, Coyne, and MacDonald. The full response can be downloaded in PDF format here and the first part can be found here.
Revisiting the Retelling and Homo divinus Models
The comments so far are really by way of introduction so that we can get going again with the main topic. But a few more general points still need to be highlighted in the context of comparing these two particular models:
First, it should, I hope, be clear by now that I don’t think there is any problem with using the language of “data” and “models” in this context, providing that we don’t start thinking that we’re using the terms as they’re generally used in everyday science. Since such terms are used, as we have seen, in a wide range of disciplines, there seems no particular reason not to use them here. If pressed, then I would say that their use in our present context is somewhat akin to the various models posited to provide evolutionary explanations for the origin of music.1 In other words, it is quite possible to generate plausible models for things which are consistent with various kinds of data and argument, including in this case a good deal of aesthetic insight, yet without any realistic hope of deciding between different models in the foreseeable future. If someone would prefer to label the Retelling Model and the Homo divinus Model, ‘informed speculations’, then I have no problem with that at all, except to say that in the end even speculation A may be more plausible than speculation B, so it comes to the same thing in the end. Carrying out thought experiments is the way that human knowledge expands.
Speaking of knowledge takes me to a second point, this one for the positivists. In many ways this particular discussion is one internal to the Christian community, a point that will become even more apparent below. Clearly models that discuss the possible ways in which humans first came to know God are not going to gain much traction in the minds of those who do not believe that God exists. So I wouldn’t blame atheists at all for thinking that even discussing such models is a bit of a waste of time. If I was trying to present arguments to atheists for belief in God, then this is certainly not where I would start! But my intention here is not to present arguments for belief in God, but instead to present some reflections for the world-wide community of around two billion Christians, who do as a matter of fact believe in God and, in their various ways, do believe that God can be known, and who, one presumes, do believe that theological knowledge counts as real knowledge.
Thirdly, it is important in discussing models to make it clear what they are trying to explain, and what they are not. The temptation in generating models is to try and make them do too many things all at once. The models that work best are those that that try and join up a few points reasonably clearly rather than lots of points less clearly. Having said that, it is certainly not the case that the simplest model must by definition (due to its simplicity) be the best one. In science the best explanations are often provided by models that are actually quite complex, especially in the biological sciences. It all depends what you’re trying to explain.
What the Models are Not About
So let me emphasize here what I don’t think the present Models under discussion are about. In his recent article posted on the Huffington Post site, Michael Ruse was having a bit of a go at Alvin Plantinga’s views on original sin and, en passant, took a swipe for good measure at my BioLogos paper. Now Plantinga is well equipped to defend his patch, so I will leave that to him, but Ruse’s passing comment concerning the Homo divinus Model was, as it happens, based on a wrong assumption. Personally I do not believe, as Ruse seems to assume, in Augustine’s theory of original sin, which suggests that somehow we inherit the guilt of Adam’s original act of disobedience (but I suspect that Ruse has not read my Creation or Evolution – Do We Have to Choose?, so there is no reason why he should have known that). I find such a notion nowhere in Scripture, which is insistent that whilst it is certainly the case that, as a matter of fact, all do sin (Romans 3:23), yet each person is responsible for their own actions and their own sin (Deut. 24:16; Jer. 31:30; Ezek. 18:18-20; Matt. 12:36; Rom. 14:12; Hebr. 4:13 etc.). Romans 5:12 makes it clear that death came to all people by them actually sinning, not by inherited guilt.
This is why I mentioned above that I do not think any basic Christian doctrines hang upon the outcome of the various models under consideration. Christ’s atoning work upon the cross was for the redemption of all sinners (John 3:16) who repent of their own sin and put their trust in Christ for their salvation (Acts 2:38). Christ died for our sin, not for inherited sin. So when Michael Ruse calls the idea that there was an original human couple who sinned and whose sin was then inherited by the whole of humankind “silly” (thank you Michael), I am inclined to agree, although there might have been a politer word to express the disagreement that turns out not to be a disagreement after all.
Having cleared one misunderstanding out of the way, we now have to deal with one other. Since I agree with 90% or more of Loren Wilkinson’s two helpful articles (part 1 | part 2), I am somewhat relieved to find the odd point where I disagree, otherwise the discussion might have got boring. Wilkinson seems to think that the Homo divinus model is about the notion of when humankind first started being made in God’s image. In practice I have been careful not to try and include that important theological notion within the model; otherwise I fear that we might be trying to make it do too much work. Now it is certainly the case that commentators such as Prof. R.J. Berry – someone who was certainly promoting the Homo divinus model long before I started writing anything about it – have gone much more in this direction, so I don’t blame Wilkinson for not picking up on the distinction.2
The reason for not trying to include the notion of ‘image of God’ in the model is just that I don’t think it works very well. The language of ‘image of God’ first appears in Genesis 1, a chapter which I see more like manifesto kind of literature that lays down the principles and framework within which the rest of Scripture must be understood. ‘Image of God’ theology is a rich and diverse vein that runs like an undercurrent through the Old Testament, but which becomes much more explicit in the New, where we find that it is Christ who is the perfect image of God (Col. 1:15; 2 Cor. 4:4) and as we clothe ourselves with the “new self” we find ourselves being renewed in that image (Col. 3:10; 2 Cor. 3:18). For me a key point in the concept is that it is humankind that is made in God’s image – the whole of humankind – “male and female He created them” – without exception (Gen. 1: 26-28). The manifesto provides a basis for the way in which we should treat all people, irrespective of color, creed or nationality. Everyone has a value that is independent of their genetic or other endowments.
So personally I don’t think it’s so easy to conceptualize such a profound doctrine as being like a ‘thing’ that can suddenly be bestowed upon someone, though I certainly respect those who wish to build the model in that direction. I suppose I see it as more akin to the phrase “All men are created equal” in the US Declaration of Independence. They are endowed by their Creator with “certain unalienable Rights” and it seems to me that belongs more to manifesto literature. It is not that “unalienable Rights” began with Jefferson, just that this declaration encapsulated something deemed to be true for humanity in general, but (hopefully) to become especially relevant for this nation in particular.
What the Models Are About
Instead I start with a somewhat different set of questions when thinking about models such as the Retelling and Homo divinus models. Taking the corpus of Biblical literature as a whole, here we have a ‘grand narrative’ of creation, alienation from God due to human sin and disobedience, redemption through Christ, and a new heavens and a new earth. We have the possibility of fellowship with God through freely willed choice. Our nearest cousins, chimps and bonobos, to the best of our knowledge, do not. So the curious Christian is likely to ask at least some time during their lives, “Well, when did that possibility first begin? When did people first start knowing the one true God in such a way that they could pray, walk with God, and be responsible to God? When could they first be judged by God because they had sinned?” It is those kinds of questions that the Retelling and Homo divinus type of models are interested in addressing. Did all this happen rather slowly, as in the first model, or rather fast, as in the second? Notice that the questions raised are not to do with the origins of religion (however defined), which is another kind of discussion altogether, but with the origins of spiritual life, knowledge of God, the time when humans first became answerable to God for their actions. Notice also that the questions would still be there even if we had in our hands only the New Testament. It is not Genesis that poses the questions, though Genesis is clearly relevant, but rather the Christian theology of creation, sin and redemption. The themes of creation, sin and redemption keep replaying like a musical répétitif through the biblical symphony. The early chapters of Genesis is where the répétitif is first introduced, and so attracts our attention, but let us not forget the répétitif in the rest of the biblical texts.
There is another point where again I rather part company with Wilkinson’s view, because he seems very clear that one type of model must be right (the Retelling Model) and the other wrong (the Homo divinus Model). But I just don’t think it’s that clear. I have often remarked that I maintain the first Model on Mondays and Tuesdays, and the second Model the rest of the week. I think it’s a bit like libertarian and compatibilist views on free-will. I know in which direction I lean on that particular question, but at the same time I could give a pretty strong defense of the position I personally don’t believe. And when Wilkinson says he doesn’t like the Homo divinus Model because it’s “too complicated”, to an immunologist that’s like a red rag to a bull! All the best immunological models are actually rather complex because what they’re seeking to explain is rather complex and, as mentioned already, the best models are those that provide the best explanation, not necessarily the simplest. I realize that we’re not talking about immunology here, but life is complex.
Furthermore, when Wilkinson speaks of the ‘Retelling Model’ I don’t think we’re really talking about the same thing. Wilkinson wishes to draw attention to the non-historical nature of the early chapters of Genesis and remind us that they recount the story of ‘every man’. We are all God’s earth-keepers who have fallen short of caring for God’s earth properly due to our sin and failure to listen to God’s commands. That’s fine, we’re all agreed on that. But it’s not what the Retelling Model is about (and its label may not be helpful at this point). Instead the Model is seeking to speculate about when and how humans first came to know God. I can easily see how that question might not even interest those whose days are filled mainly with literary pursuits, but it does interest those of us who spend our days reading evolutionary biology, evolutionary psychology, anthropology, cognitive psychology, and so forth. Models that fail to at least take this literature into consideration don’t really count as models in my book.
So the only commitment that I’d recommend is to be committed to the strengths (and weaknesses) of both positions – or you can simply kick the ball into Barthian touch and refuse to ask the questions. However, I do think that most Christians find themselves asking these kinds of questions at some point in their lives, even though they might not think (as I don’t think) that the fact that we don’t know the answers is that important (and for the foreseeable future we’ll never be sure either way, though you never know when unexpected data might come along in the far future, so the golden rule is “never say never”).
Since either model can be incorporated equally comfortably within the current understanding of human evolution, preference for one model or the other is likely to be made on theological and aesthetic grounds, and on one’s own sense, informed by Scripture, of their plausibility/implausibility, coupled with one’s reading and understanding of the various scientific disciplines already mentioned. Contra Wilkinson, I do not think discussion of predestination is going to help us much here. Think of the Retelling Model. Here in this context it is imagined that a population of early humans at some unspecified time come to an awareness of God as creator and of (at least some of) their responsibilities toward God, but reject the light that they have received. This is perceived to happen as a process over a long period of time, maybe thousands or even tens of thousands of years. In the case of the Homo divinus Model, such ‘spiritual enlightenment’ is seen as occurring less as a process, more as a saltation, again in a small human community or even in a single couple. In either case, it is clear that God at some stage begins to hold people responsible to Himself. So is that ‘predestination’? That hardly seems to be the best description for what is going on here. Throughout the Old Testament God calls people for particular tasks to fulfill His will – Abraham, Moses, Isaiah, Jeremiah, and on the list could go. Is that predestination? I don’t think that’s the right language. God can call whom He wants. And whatever Model you may hold to regarding the origins of spiritual life, you have to accept that the people coming before that did not experience such spiritual life of whatever kind you envisage. And here is where the biology comes in useful, because it simply won’t do to identify your ‘spiritual life model’ with the first group of Homo sapiens, because the emergence of a new hominin species most likely takes tens of thousands of years. So where are you going to draw your before/after line? ‘Saltations’ might work in spiritual experience, but they certainly don’t work in mammalian evolutionary biology.
Comparing the Two Models
Once you understand that these Models represent faith seeking understanding as to the origins of real human spiritual life, with its attendant responsibilities towards God, then you can see why I tend to lean more towards the Homo divinus type of model. For it is easy to conceptualize beings that have no moral responsibilities toward God, so cannot be judged. Likewise it is easy to comprehend that beings have been given sufficient knowledge of God and His claims upon their lives such that they are now truly responsible to God. What is less easy to conceptualize is some kind of half-way house between the two, which is what a lengthy process would entail. Either you’re responsible for something or you’re not. Now the fact that we find the half-way house position difficult to conceptualize doesn’t rule it out of court; we might just be limited in our comprehension (and you can always invoke the partial responsibility of young children in the spirit of Irenaeus), but in my book it does make the Retelling Model look less coherent.
Since it happens to be a Friday as I write this, and not a Monday, let me also say that I think the Retelling Model doesn’t do a very good job on the biblical notion of sin. Now there is no one single biblical definition of sin, but rather an ensemble of key ideas that together comprise the notion. But certainly important elements of sin include the idea of broken fellowship with God and alienation from His presence, consequent upon failing to give God the glory and placing oneself in the position that only God can rightfully hold, the creature seeking to become like the creator, a story vividly recounted for us in Genesis 3. This is difficult to conceptualize with the Retelling Model, much easier so with the Homo divinus Model. I think it is no accident that as versions of the Retelling Model (although it may not be called that) gain traction, so the tendency is to think of sin more as unfortunate sociobiology, poor humans in thrall to the dictates of their genes, but fortunately ‘saved’ by evolutionary theories of altruism. I have a feeling that Michael Ruse would like Christians to go in that direction because it makes it easier to ‘naturalize’ the language of sin. But I think such accounts are profoundly deficient from a theological perspective. In biblical thought, sin is a theological concept which only makes sense in relation to God and to God’s will. If there is no God then there is certainly no sin, and what you’re left with is human misbehavior, certainly not ‘evil’ except as a socially convenient label.
Whichever model you hold to (if any!), you still have the problem of interpreting how the first reality of sin impacts upon humankind as a whole. This is where I don’t think Wilkinson has really grasped the nettle. In the Homo divinus Model I have the first sin impacting upon the world not through inheritance (as in Augustine), but via the theological notion of Federal Headship, involving a lateral rather than a linear fall-out. This is an aspect of the Model that is somewhat arm-waving, I freely admit, but I don’t think the Retelling Model does much better, unless you want to push the Model right back to the emergence of Homo sapiens somewhere around 200,000 years ago and locate spiritual life and its subsequent rejection within a community of a few hundred breeding pairs, their innate rejection of God’s purposes then becoming the pattern for all who were to follow. The problem with that scenario is the uncertainty about the linguistic and creative capacities of the first humans, about which we know nothing. Some anthropologists continue to highlight the ‘cultural revolution’ in human tool-use and, possibly, linguistic and other cultural capabilities, that appear to have occurred during human development about 50 thousand years ago as part of the so-called Upper Paleolithic Revolution. Others prefer to highlight the continuity in cultural development over this period and before. Whatever the outcome of that particular discussion, it does impact to some degree on the Retelling Model. If humanity did not yet have a sufficiently developed theory of mind, together with other cognitive capacities, to be in a position to be responsible to God for their actions until the era of the Upper Paleolithic Revolution, then the Retelling Model has to cope with the fact that there were many different communities of humans within Africa by that stage, and humanity was already well on its way in the Great Trek out of Africa to populate the rest of the world. So at the least Retelling Models have to take such factors into account in their discourse on sin, and, to be frank, at this point in the discussion the notion of the transmission of sin – either lateral or vertical – becomes as arm-waving as in the Homo divinus Model. In other words, it is not that the Homo divinus Model has a problem on this point which the Retelling Model does not – both Models are in the same boat; both Models have to give account as to how/why/when sin entered the world and in what sense sin ‘spread’ or ‘became relevant’ to the rest of humanity.
It is also worth pointing out that the notion of Federal Headship has not been arbitrarily invoked to help in this context, but has a long and respectable theological lineage stretching back to Calvin and before.3 We can also think of it as involving corporate responsibility, which is a difficult concept if you happen to have been raised in the individualistic West. Having lived in the Middle East for 15 years, one becomes acutely aware of how one is deemed to represent one’s perceived leader, however much (as an individualistic westerner) you might like to be perceived as just yourself. I was reminded of this during one of our many crossings over the ‘Green Line’ that separated West from East Beirut during our time spent in the Lebanon in the early 1980s. The usual bearded militiaman holding the usual Kalashnikov put his head through the car window, checked my papers and then gave a big friendly smile with golden teeth shining: “Breetish!” he said “Margareet Thaatcher!” and then laughed uproariously. In his eyes I was the representative of the whole of Britain, the country headed up by a female Prime Minister, which must be some kind of joke. The point in the present context is that in Middle East culture Federal Headship is an ever present reality, even though you might not be that pleased (as in this case) to be identified with the ‘Head’ in question. Talk about corporate responsibility!
If talk of Federal Headship and corporate responsibility is not really helpful to you on this point (and for people not pre-soaked in a culture with different assumptions, it is a difficult notion), then why don’t we think of a metaphor based on cricket? I have deliberately chosen cricket because its rules are as arcane to most Americans as the rules of American football are to most Brits. Cricket was certainly being played in England by the mid-sixteenth century, although its roots go back much earlier. But for this thought experiment I want you to imagine two scenarios. In scenario one (which happens to be correct, but let that pass) the present rules of cricket develop slowly over a period of centuries. In scenario two, let us imagine that the present rules of cricket were created de novo all at once in the sixteenth century. Either way, notions such as “getting runs”, “losing a wicket” or being “run out” only make sense within the particular game labeled “cricket”. The terms have no meaning out of that context. Now imagine that in China at the same time (either for scenario one or two) there were people in Shanghai who had certainly never heard of cricket, but who regularly started playing around by throwing a ball at each other and trying to hit it with a stick, and were even judged to be “out” when the ball was caught. Were they playing “cricket”? Well, not really, because you can only play cricket if you play according to the rules, even though there might be some accidental similarities between the two games.
The point here is that the concept and status of being “caught out” (and therefore no longer being in the game, as a batsman at least) has to begin somewhere, in scenario one as a consequence of slow development, in scenario two rather abruptly. For the first time on planet earth, a new system has come into being that sheds a new light on the meaning of hitting balls with pieces of wood, and then catching the ball, a meaning that didn’t exist before. In analogous manner, the notion of “sin” only begins to be theologically meaningful once a new framework for its meaning has been established, at least somewhere in the world. Certain concepts, with their attendant language, only make sense once the framework is in place.
Now I have deliberately set up the story with two scenarios so that it can fit either the Retelling Model or the Homo divinus Model, because both Models have to face up to the same questions. And like most metaphorical stories it can only achieve maybe making one point at best (so please do not start blogging about Adam and Eve playing cricket…), but hopefully it might help on this one point, the idea that certain concepts only have meaning once the framework is in place that provides their meaning.
In terms of biblical theology, I do think that the Homo divinus Model does greater justice to New Testament teaching, in particular to the understanding of the first and second Adam as expounded in Romans 5 and 1 Corinthians 15. As already mentioned, it is the aim of Models to take into account the overall corpus of Biblical teaching, and I find it ironic that people think that the Homo divinus Model draws its inspiration from the early chapters of Genesis, when the reality is that it depends more on New Testament narratives. I realize that not all commentators think that the parallel between the ‘second and first Adams’ in Romans 5 and 1 Corinthians 15 needs to be taken too stringently, but I have to say that the parallel looks pretty stringent to me.4 This for me is certainly an important factor providing a nudge in the direction of the Homo divinus Model. But do we really know what happened? Absolutely not! It is “tempting to speculate…”, but all we can be quite sure about is that the person who is quite certain they know the answer must definitely be wrong! As I said at the beginning of these comments, for me the discussion itself scores only 1, maybe a maximum of 2, on a scale of 1-10 in the list of items that Christians should be concerned about. And when it comes to writing about it, I’m quite sure that the number of words I’ve written on the topic is far less than 1% of all the words that I’ve written on other topics. But scoring 1 on a scale of 1-10 is not zero, and it’s fun to bat these ideas around with the hope that, one day, people might come up with much better models.
In the interim I do hold to one model more than another, and that not for merely utilitarian reasons, as I’ve already emphasized. And it is really important that Bible-believing Christians realize that there are conceptual resources that enable them to preserve essential Christian doctrines that are important for their faith without the need to worry that some new scientific findings are going to come and snatch them away. And passionate Christian Darwinians can go on happily being passionate Christian Darwinians, just as they have been since 1859.
1. See, for example, Stephen Mithen’s entertaining book The Singing Neanderthals - The Origins of Music, Language, Mind, and Body, Harvard University Press, 2007
2. e.g. Berry, R.J. and Jeeves, M. ‘The nature of human nature’, Science & Christian Belief 20: 3-47, 2008 – plus much earlier citations
3. Grant, J.A. & Wilson, A.I. (eds.) The God of the Covenant, Leicester: Apollos, 2005
4. On this also see the forthcoming article: R.J. Berry, ‘Adam or Adamah?’, Science and Christian Belief 23: 23-48, 2011, In Press
Denis Alexander is the Director of the Faraday Institute for Science and Religion at St. Edmund’s College, Cambridge, to which he was elected a Fellow in 1998. Alexander writes, lectures, and broadcasts widely in the field of science and religion. He is a member of the International Society for Science and Religion.