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Denis Alexander on Understanding Creation Theology

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February 15, 2013 Tags: Creation & Origins

Today's video features Denis Alexander. Please note the views expressed here are those of the author, not necessarily of BioLogos. You can read more about what we believe here.

Note: This video was originally posted May 15, 2010.


In this video Conversation, Denis Alexander addresses two prominent barriers for Christians to accept evolutionary creation. The first is Biblical interpretation. When contemporary Christians interpret the early chapters of Genesis literally, they do so out of a desire to take the text seriously. Yet the early church fathers saw these chapters as figurative—and that figurative interpretation did not lesson the important foundational truths taught in these passages. The contemporary literal reading is actually a modern approach to the text in that our scientific mindset inappropriately shapes the interpretation. Since science did not even exist at the time that Genesis was written, an overly literal interpretation can actually cause us to miss the inspired message that the Biblical authors were communicating.

The second barrier is the rhetoric of the New Atheists, who claim that it is impossible to accept evolution while still believing in God. Christians should challenge this. Traditional Christian views are not in conflict with modern science. Instead, they see nature as God's work, with St. Augustine writing that "nature is what God does." As humanity develops a scientific understanding of nature, we will only learn more about the handiwork of God. 

Commentary written by the BioLogos editorial team.

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.

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gingoro - #13872

May 16th 2010

Thank you for the post and also for your book which I am half way through reading.  Your book sits on the dinning room table and I try to read a few pages when I have breakfast and lunch.  Someone I correspond with David Alexander has written quite dismissively about your book, however I do not find his objections credible as he suggests that the modern diversity of life forms developed by RM + NS in just a few thousand years since the flood from the limited animals on the ark. 

I have peeked ahead a bit in your book and although you present a number of alternatives it appears that maybe you look at the genesis narrative as something like an epic story in which certain elements are historical?  At least you seem to have written more extensively on such an option.  However it may be that when I actually read that bit of the book I may see a different perspective. 

I post as “gingoro” which means monkey in the language of Ethiopia.  “gingoro” is the name for the Black-and-white colobus monkey that we had in the area where we lived when I was very young.  When one grows up often seeing monkeys in the trees the gap between them and us seems more like a river to cross than the grand canyon. 
Dave W



gingoro - #13873

May 16th 2010

If you click on gingoro above it will take you to my wife’s Flickr page there you can see an artistic epic rendering in fabric wall hangings of Genesis In the creation series.  Note that the new heaven and earth is represented in a minimal fashion on the right by a thin gold line.

A tiny bit of the portrayal is subtly contrary to some versions of YEC in that there are carnivorous animals present around about the time that Adam and Eve are shown in their innocence and joy but in general the wall hanging was not meant as propaganda for evolution. 

On the 3rd panel is a woman in a wheel chair that goes to our church thus showing that not all the effects of evil are resolved in this life. Sanctification has both a hear and now aspect and a not yet aspect.  The happy little ballerina represents my wife as she would have liked to be.  However her father kicked her with his combat boots when she was a toddler and was singing and dancing.  Thus she can’t dance to this day.  Thus there is a mixture of actual people and some imaginary ones in the whole portrayal.
Wm Dave Wallace

Bryan Hodge - #13884

May 16th 2010

When saying that the patristic authors don’t interpret the text of Genesis literally, are we referring only to Augustine, Clement, and Origen? It seems that everyone who did not accept the chronology of Gen 1 in the early church, accepted the chronology of Gen 2. The exceptions are Clement of Alexandria, Origen, and Augustine, who say the time of creation may be indefinite. However, it seems that they believe this to be the case in terms of the universe. In terms of the earth, they seem to all believe a literal chronology of Genesis. They all would have believed in a literal Adam and Eve as well. Should a person, therefore, use them as a way of saying that the literal interpretation is due to Modern ways of thinking? It surely is true that it is tied to our culture’s view of cosmology, and therefore, our interpretations of Genesis, but it certainly is not true to say that a literal interpretation, seen as far back as Jubilees, and perhaps within the Bible itself, must be due to Enlightenment-oriented hermeneutics.

Anthony Smith - #13918

May 17th 2010

I’m puzzled too - did even one of the church fathers believe that Adam and Eve were just two of a large population of human beings who had existed on the earth for thousands of years before Adam and Eve were born - as Denis Alexander believes? Is this really “traditional creation theology”?

Bryan Hodge - #13930

May 17th 2010

I think when we start to obscure the facts to win people to one side, it begins to look less like a conversation for the sake of truth, and more like propaganda. I really hope those involved in this site will interact more with critics. A lot in this video seemed to be common misperceptions that layman have. There seems to be little genuine interaction with the hermeneutics of the Fathers that often mimics the Second Temple hermeneutic that sees both literal and cryptic meanings in the text. If I had made this video, I would have simply said that some patristic authors did not take some things literally and it was never a matter of orthodoxy. However, the issue regarding the literal Adam and Eve, I think, may be different. In light of the Western reaction to Pelagianism and where it could lead, I would tend to think that they would have seen an assertion that Adam and Eve were not literal as an attack on original sin, and therefore, the gospel. Whether that is true or not, I don’t think one can use them to substantiate his or her orthodoxy today. It’s simply better to say that you are breaking from the two thousand year witness of the Church because you think it is no longer scientifically viable.

Justin Poe - #13954

May 17th 2010

I’m glad a few of you pointed this out before I did.  I was going too right after I watched the video but didn’t want to be the very first person to post here on this.  It’s easy to make blanket statements without giving any sort of evidence, which I see going on allot here at Biologos in the articles and in the videos.  Today’s blog blasts fundy Christians for there stance on common decent but guess what….there’s no evidence given and no links to any quotes at all in the article.  Just a simple blanket statement with no proof.  Same as in this video about the early church fathers. 

Fine Dennis, if you really believe this, then why not give us a list of names and sources citing this.

gingoro - #13997

May 18th 2010

Denis Alexander
In your book you suggest that the evolutionary development of the eye is well understood.  I was wondering if you could point me at a book that covers a plausible genetic path for the evolution of the eye?  Things I would like to know include, which order and what genetic mutations occurred, what functionality was provided by those genetic mutations, what the survival value was for that functionality, if there is any physical evidence for particular species that had the increased functionality of the eye.  I well realize that some genetic modification provides no external functionality so that is not my assumption.  Estimates of the number of generations required to develop points of increased functionality would also be very relevant.
I submit that in terms of stellar evolution the physicists can provide such plausible paths and see no reason that the modern evolutionary synthesis should not be able to provide such. 
Dave W

R Hampton - #14053

May 18th 2010

Let’s examine the first step, the origin of the light sensitive cell. A team of researchers at UC Santa Barbara (not at UC Davis) found that Hydras - a genus of freshwater animals that are kin to corals and jellyfish - have these kinds of cells (opsins) all over their bodies. Because it’s the most primitive animal with functioning opsins, the team suspects hydras to be “the very origin of animal phototransduction.” (For a theoretical framework on the orgins of opsins, see - http://genomewiki.ucsc.edu/) It’s important to note that these creatures are pre-Cambrian.

So I must ask you if even this small evolutionary step seems impossible to you. If so, then continuing to provide further developments in the history of eye sight would be pointless.

gingoro - #14079

May 19th 2010

R Hampton @14053

I meant to assume what you asked for but upon reading my comment again it appears that I did not (sigh one worries about the 1250 char limit and then forgets stuff).  It seems that once one has some kind of skin, nervous system that detects at least heat it is not a huge change to detect other electro magnetic radiation.  I’d also assume some kind of relatively rudimentary “brain” or processing center possibly distributed.  I’m not saying that what I am assuming does not require similar explanation but that for the purposes of the development of the eye that they are a reasonable assumptions.  As we say in software development “separate the concerns” and deal with one issue at a time as much as possible.  A book reference would be most helpful as I am a long way from my alma matter where I have library privileges.  I’m thinking of a text such as would be employed in grad school that covers the entire process and not just a few highlights although I would much prefer a semi popular book on this topic similar to what I have seen on say stellar evolution.  However if you can do the same with a list of publications that might work as well although it would take me longer to access. 
Dave W

R Hampton - #14164

May 19th 2010

It seems to me that when you took the time to consider the first step in some important but limited, detail, you relented on your stance against natural evolution. I’m not surprised. When confronted with the depth of research you realized there is no sudden, inexplicable jump from blind cells to light sensitive cells. I urge you to continue this exploration on your own, in as much detail as you can handle. I suspect the you justify your doubt on scientific grounds when, truth be told, the only problem you are really struggling with is how to resolve your philsophical/theological upbringing with Natural Revelation.

DWDMD - #14172

May 19th 2010

gingoro (great name BTW)
  I really like
Coyne, Jerry. Why Evolution is True. New York: Viking Penguin Press. 2009.
It does not address questions of supernatural causation, but gives a good popular scientific explanation of the evidence for evolution. Though Coyne is a sort of evangelical atheist, he does not use this forum to blast Christians but just to give good information.

DWDMD - #14174

May 19th 2010

Anthony, in your quote:
did even one of the church fathers believe that Adam and Eve were just two of a large population of human beings who had existed on the earth for thousands of years before Adam and Eve were born - as Denis Alexander believes?
Here you are implying that Prof. Alexander believes that all of the “early Church Fathers” had a scientific evolutionary understanding of human development. His point was just the opposite - that the composition of Gen 1-3 was pre-scientific, and that the Patristic concern had mostly to do with the meaning revealed by God in the sacred text as to His own nature, the nature of His Creation, and the nature of humankind.
These short video clips are easily misinterpreted, especially since they are aimed at scientific and theological laypersons. I think you will really respect Dr. Alexander’s work if you take the tme to read it.

gingoro - #14204

May 20th 2010

DWDMD @14172

I have read Coyne, Hitchens and quite a few books by Richard Dawkins as well as books by most of the prominent ECs such as Ken Miller, Keith Miller, Ayala and on and on.  My library on this subject takes up two to three feet of shelf space.  Have also read four or more books by Dembski, two by Behe, and others on ID by O’Leary, Hunter and Meyer although at this point I do not find these ID authors convincing nor do I find Dawkins or Coyne convincing. 

Coyne by the way admits that the kind of thing I am asking for in terms of all the steps for a complex evolutionary development is not available yet. 

“gingoro (great name BTW)” 
Glad you liked it.  It means the black and white monkey in Ethiopia where I grew up and seems appropriate for someone who accepts common descent. 
Dave W

DWDMD - #14219

May 20th 2010

Coyne by the way admits that the kind of thing I am asking for in terms of all the steps for a complex evolutionary development is not available yet. 
Dave, I am sorry if I underestimated your question about resources. The problem is that in trying to go beyond these popular level books, one actually needs the expertise of a molecular or evolutionary biologist to evaluate the evidence primarily. So we are reading at a second or third order level and bringing in our preconceptions as we basically try to decide whose argument we like best. I am a biologist in background and still find this to be true. So I find my best resources on questions of evolutionary evidence to be those qualified scientists, who are also Christians, who speak on questions IN THEIR OWN FIELDS OF EXPERTISE.
Of course all the “steps” in evolutionary development are not yet discovered or mapped, and may never be. The question is: what theory best fits the evidence we do have, and do ongoing discoveries tend to refute or support/deepen the active theory?

BenYachov - #14316

May 21st 2010

>I’m puzzled too - did even one of the church fathers believe that Adam and Eve were just two of a large population of human beings who had existed on the earth for thousands of years before Adam and Eve were born - as Denis Alexander believes?

I reply: I don’t know about the Church Fathers but the Rabbis had some interesting ideas & Traditions that might be lent to that interpretation,


BenYachov - #14317

May 21st 2010

>When saying that the patristic authors don’t interpret the text of Genesis literally, are we referring only to Augustine, Clement, and Origen?

I reply: If we believe Fr. Stanley Jaki the 1st Church Father to give a purely literalistic interpretation of Genesis was St Ephram in the 4th cent.  Even those Church Fathers who took the Days in Genesis to be literal days often mixed metaphorical interpretation with the literal when reading Genesis.  Even St Basil who decried the metaphorical interpretation of Genesis did this to some extent. 

>It seems that everyone who did not accept the chronology of Gen 1 in the early church, accepted the chronology of Gen 2. The exceptions are Clement of Alexandria, Origen, and Augustine, who say the time of creation may be indefinite.

I reply: Of course Christians back then had only two “scientific” views of the world to choose from.  Aristotle’s view the world & Mankind where eternal Vs the Biblical view the world had a beginning.
The Fathers where not channeling ANSWERS IN GENESIS back then.

Jeffrey L Vaughn - #14601

May 22nd 2010

DWDMD - #14174,

I don’t know about the church fathers, but the Apostle John certainly believed Adam and Eve were 2 people among a large group.  John also believed the serpent was a person, probably one of the people in that group.

Rev. 21 equates the new H&E, the bride, and the new Jerusalem.  If it is correct to assume John understood the bride to be the church, then the new heaven and new earth is also the church.

The second half of vs. 1 is a direct reference to Genesis 1, and the passing away of that H&E when the bride of Christ came.

Jesus spoke of the end of the H&E in context with the destruction of the temple.  The temple was destroyed, the Genesis 1 H&E was destroyed (according to Jesus and John).

The first century view of the H&E was not the physical universe, but was instead, the covenant order/people.


Bryan Hodge - #14710

May 23rd 2010


The claim of this video isn’t that the CF used allegory in some elements of the Genesis text. The claim is that they didn’t largely take it as literal with the implication that what they were allegorical about were time periods and A&E. None of them saw A&E as mere allegory, and most of them believed in literal days beginning a six thousand year old earth. If we are speaking about these subjects specifically, which I believe the video in the context of this site implies, then the objections stand.

Beck - #15111

May 25th 2010

Jeffrey L Vaughn - #14601

This particular scripture reference is speaking of an event that has yet to take place.  It is referring to the second coming of Christ.  We can know this for sure by reading on to verse 4.  Right now there is still death, mourning, crying, and pain because Christ has not returned.

Revelation 21

1Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea. 2I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. 3And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Now the dwelling of God is with men, and he will live with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. 4He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.”

Anthony Smith - #15729

June 1st 2010

DWDMD - #14174,

Denis Alexander argues against using science to interpret the biblical text, so whether the early Church Fathers knew about evolution seems to be beside the point.

But the implication seems to be that Denis Alexander regards his own understanding of creation as “traditional creation theology” as understood by the “early Church Fathers”. I would like to see that substantiated: what did the early Church Fathers believe about Adam and Eve?

For what it’s worth, I have read “Creation or evolution: do we have to choose?”, which doesn’t discuss what the early Church Fathers believed about Adam and Eve.

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