Genetics, Theology, and Adam as a Historical Person, Part 1

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December 16, 2010 Tags: Human Origins

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 we believe here.

Genetics, Theology, and Adam as a Historical Person, Part 1

Note: This is the first entry in a series taken from Denis Alexander’s essay addressing the question, “How Does a BioLogos model need to address the theological issues associated with an Adam who was not the sole genetic progenitor of humankind?” This essay was presented in November 2010 at the Theology of Celebration BioLogos Workshop in New York City.

What is a model?

The question in the title of this paper raises an initial question: in general how should we go about the task of relating theological truths to current scientific theories? Theological truths revealed in Scripture are eternal infallible truths, valid for the whole of humanity for all time, although human interpretations of Scripture are not infallible and may change with time over issues that are not central to the Gospel.

Scientific theories, by contrast, represent the current ‘inference to the best explanation’ for certain phenomena as judged by the scientific community based on criteria such as the interpretation of observations, experimental results, mathematical elegance and the ability of theories to generate fruitful research programmes. Scientific theories are not infallible and will certainly change. However, change does not necessarily imply replacement. Usually scientific theories are not replaced, but modified. In this respect they are often likened to maps that incorporate many different types of data: the maps are revised, as required, to incorporate new data and are improved in the process.

Scientists sometimes use the word ‘model’ to propose one big idea, or a cluster of ideas, that together help to explain certain scientific data. To the despair of philosophers of science, the use of such words in scientific discourse can lack precision. The word ‘model’ is a case in point, its use sometimes overlapping with the term ‘theory’. Usually, however, ‘model’ has a more focused meaning: the way in which certain sets of data can be rendered coherent by explaining them in terms of a physical, mathematical or even metaphorical representation.

During the early 1950s there were several rival models describing the structure of DNA, the molecule that encodes genes. Linus Pauling proposed a triple-helix model. But Jim Watson and Francis Crick had the huge advantage that they obtained the X-ray diffraction pattern results of DNA in advance of publication from another scientist called Rosalind Franklin. The double-helix was in fact the only model that would incorporate all the data satisfactorily, as Watson and Crick published in their famous one-page Nature paper in 1953. Since that time everyone has known that DNA is a double-helix, it’s really not a triple-helix or some other structure. In science models are very powerful.

Not all scientific models win the day so decisively. For many years in my own field of immunology there were endless discussions about how the class of white blood cells known as ‘T cells’ are educated within the body to attack foreign invaders but not (usually) to attack ‘self’, meaning our own tissues. Those discussions are now virtually over because the general model that has emerged explains most of the data quite well, bringing in to the story research results from many different laboratories. But the successful model that prevails is far more ‘messy’ than the exceptionally elegant double-helical model for DNA. The most successful models are not necessarily the simplest. The best models are those that explain the data adequately.

Sometimes rival models exist for long periods of time in the scientific literature because they explain the data equally well. In that case a given model is said to be ‘under-determined by the data’. Everyone agrees with the data that do exist - the disagreement is about how to fit the data together to create the best model. Eventually new data emerge that count in favor of one model rather than another, or that decisively refute a particular model.

When we come to the question as to what ‘Biologos model’ might best address the relationship between the Adam of Genesis and the anthropological and genetic account of a humanity that did not have a single couple as the source of its genetic endowment, then we need to keep in mind these various ways in which the term ‘model’ is deployed in scientific discourse. We will start with an initial ground-clearing question: “Is model-building appropriate in relating theological and scientific truths?” and, having given an affirmative answer to this question, we will then go on to consider what model might be the most appropriate for relating the theological and scientific narratives.

Is model-building appropriate?

There are some who would maintain that the truths presented by the early chapters of Genesis are theological truths that are valid independently of any particular anthropological history. The purpose of the Genesis texts is to reveal the source of creation in the actions of the one true God who has made humanity uniquely in His image. The Genesis 3 narrative of man’s disobedience is the ‘story of everyman’. We have all sinned and fallen short of the glory of God and this passage presents this truth in a vivid narrative style that is about theology rather than history.

Those who adopt this position may also point to the dangers of a ‘concordist’ view of biblical interpretation. The term ‘concordism’ (in its traditional sense) generally refers to the attempt to interpret Scripture inappropriately using the assumptions or language of science. Calvin famously countered such tendencies in his great Commentary on Genesis, remarking on Chapter 1: “Nothing is here treated of but the visible form of the world. He who would learn astronomy and other recondite arts, let him go elsewhere.” But the term ‘concordism’ is also sometimes stretched to include virtually any attempt to relate biblical and scientific truths. Such a critique appears to be a step too far, for in that case our theology becomes too isolated from the world, contrasting with the famous ‘two books’ analogy in which the Book of God’s Word, the Bible, and the Book of God’s Works, the created order, both speak to us in their distinctive ways about the same reality. This powerful analogy has held sway for many centuries in the dialogue between science and faith, and the challenge is to see how the two ‘Books’ speak to each other, for all truth is God’s truth.

Building models to relate biblical texts to science requires no concordist interpretations of the text (in the traditional sense of the word ‘concordist’). The disciplines of both science and theology should be accorded their own integrity. The Genesis texts should be allowed to speak within their own contexts and thought-forms, which are clearly very distant from those of modern science. We can all agree that the early chapters of Genesis exist to convey theology and not science. The task of models is then to explore how the theological truths of Genesis might relate to our current scientific understanding of human origins.

The models that we propose are not the same as the ‘data’. On one hand we have the theological data provided by Genesis and the rest of Scripture, true for all people throughout time. Uncertainty here arises only from doubt as to whether our interpretations of the text are as solid as they can be. On the other hand we have the current scientific data that are always open to revision, expansion or to better interpretation. Nevertheless the data are overwhelmingly supportive of certain scientific truths, for example that we share a common genetic inheritance with the apes. The role of models is to treat both theological and scientific truths seriously and see how they might ‘speak’ to each other, but we should never defend a particular model as if we were referring to the data itself. The whole point of any model is that it represents a human construct that seeks to relate different types of truth; models are not found within the text of Scripture – the most that we can expect from them is that they are ‘consistent with’ the relevant Biblical texts. Let us never confuse the model with the truths that it seeks to connect to each other.

In practice any western reader of the Genesis text, raised in a culture heavily influenced by the language and thought-forms of science, can hardly avoid the almost instinctive tendency to build models or pictures in their heads as to what they might have observed had they been there when ‘it’ happened. This is the case irrespective of whether someone comes to the text as a young earth creationist, an old earth creationist, or some kind of theistic evolutionist. Given that we all tend to build models anyway, we might as well ensure that the model we do maintain has been thoroughly subjected to critical scrutiny. This is important not only for own personal integrity but also in the pastoral context in which we seek to avoid unnecessary cognitive dissonance in the minds of those under our pastoral care.


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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Maurizio - #43969

December 16th 2010

Denis,

Thanks for sharing this. I commend Biologos and their continued endeavor to bridge the gap between these contentious scientific and theological issues among brothers and sisters in the Body of Christ.

To HIM be all the honor and glory!


John VanZwieten - #43970

December 16th 2010

For the moment I’m resisting the urge to read the whole essay right away, as I’m quite intruiged by this undertaking.

It seems to me that the heart of the “concordist” idea is the conviction that modern science must have somehow been taught in the Bible—that God “beamed” future knowlege into the writers of scripture even as they thought what they were writing meant the opposite.  It usually involves using peculiar translations and highly speculative interpretations.  The best example of concordism is the centuries-old attempts to show that scripture actually teaches heliocentrism.

As long as model-building avoids putting words in the mouths of scripture’s writers that they never would have said, I think trying to reconcile Genesis with what we know of the world is a worthwhile endeavor.

Looking forward to the series ...


pds - #43996

December 16th 2010

“When we come to the question as to what ‘Biologos model’ might best address the relationship between the Adam of Genesis and the anthropological and genetic account of a humanity that did not have a single couple as the source of its genetic endowment . . . “

Once again, Biologos fails to acknowledge that the best historical sciences can do is draw inferences that humanity “did not have a single couple as the source of its genetic endowment.”  This conclusion requires inferences based on extrapolating population genetics back in time and presupposes the non-intervention of God.  Whether and how God intervened in human history is exactly the question that most people are asking, and many would be surprised to know that the scientists they are asked to trust are taking this as a starting point.

NOTE ADDED BY BIOLOGOS: ALTHOUGH UNDOUBTEDLY SINCERE, PDS IS WRONG ABOUT THIS.  WE MAKE NO ASSUMPTIONS OF NON-INTERVENTION.


Cal - #44001

December 16th 2010

John:

I wouldn’t say that the Concordist (in the more broader, modern sense of the word) is trying to jam awkward and jagged pieces of science into the nice mold of the Bible and say, “Well, voila! The Bible is teaching science!”.

I’d rather think that they are saying that when the Bible, when making a Theological point (which is what it always intends to do), uses a metaphor relating to the Natural world it gets the mechanics of the Natural world right to make the point.

Some examples:
Relating the Spirit to Wind,
Relating the Heart to plants producing fruit
Relating God’s separation and creation to the Universe (Existence) having a beginning

Sure there are metaphors for the Natural world used for other metaphors (i.e. the sun rises and the sun sets) but in passing, the Scriptures are not blatantly wrong (e.g. the Vedas saying the world is riding on the back of a giant turtle or the Koran saying that “seed” originates from the spinal cord). Maybe I have my terms confused but that is how I define myself.


John VanZwieten - #44027

December 16th 2010

Cal,

So when the writer of Genesis, believing like the cultures around him that there is a hard dome in the sky holding back that blue water up there, writes of a “firmament” separating the waters above from the waters below, did he “get that right”?

The Bible-science guy says: “Well, there used to be waters up above the firmament that all fell down and flooded the earth in Noah’s day.”

The concordists says “Yes, of course he got it right, the ‘firmament’ is just the air and the waters above it are just clouds.” 

So the bible-science guy rejects modern science in favor of the Bible, while the concordist accepts modern science but sacrifices normal Bible interpretation methodology.  The approach Biologos is trying to take here is to try to find potential models that respect both scientific discovery and proper biblical interpretation.


beaglelady - #44035

December 16th 2010

Concordist views have always failed.


Roger A. Sawtelle - #44040

December 16th 2010

Who says theological truths are eternally true? 

If so they why do we have the New Covenant and the Old Covenant?


Roger A. Sawtelle - #44041

December 16th 2010

The real model which needs replacing is the Malthusian model of natural selection used by Darwin and most evolutionists.


Chris - #44049

December 16th 2010

This bit is metaphorical, This bit isn’t metaphorical, This bit is metaphorical, This bit isn’t metaphorical..

“Uncertainty here arises only from doubt as to whether our interpretations of the text are as solid as they can be. “

Ah yes, because it is your interpretations that must be incorrect, not the bible.  Do you not realise how ridiculous this sounds to people who have not been indoctrinated with any of the thousands of religions that have ever existed?

At what point do you say to yourself: 

“Oh ok, all the prophecies in the bible are tenuous and clearly BS,  Oh ok the Bible hasn’t given us any scientific truths, Oh ok its been shown that sections of the bible have been added waaay after its initial creation, Oh ok we now realise that most of the stories in the bible were just metaphors and didn’t actually happen, Oh ok the bible has been interpreted in millions of conflicting and different ways to how do we know ours is the correct one?”

How long must you continue with this?  Accept you have been brainwashed with this falsity and move on.

Darwin once said that if any body part could be shown to be irreducibly complex then his theory would collapse.  It is a real shame that the bible doesn’t say that.


Cal - #44059

December 17th 2010

John:

The Firmament jab is always a good and fair critique. However, is it possible God inspired the word chosen (Raqia I believe, which is “expanse, or hammered out”) in a way that makes sense in the mind of the writer (i.e. ANE cultures believed in a dome of some sort over the Earth) but applies the truth, even if not fully understood by the writer (There were other words in Hebrew that could have more firmly painted a dome or firmament in the mind of the reader). The same is applied to Biblical prophecy, I’m sure Isaiah had no idea that Emanuel would be in the form of a poor Jewish carpenter who would be hammered to a bloody instrument of execution, sent by the voice of His very own people and crowned with a diadem of thorns. This is just a possibility I’ve considered, but I know that I am still young in the Faith given over me (I’ve been a Christian for almost a year now).

Also, may I ask, in your mind what makes the Old & New Testaments true over other “holy” texts like the Koran, Vedas or Book of Mormon?


freetoken - #44077

December 17th 2010

Dr. Alexender has crafted an essay (yes, I sneaked ahead but only skimmed!) aimed at helping evangelical Christians deal with anthropology.  Yet I can’t help getting over some slight of hand, and I’m not implying malfeasance here, when it comes to the groundwork at the beginning.

Namely, in the very first sentence “theological truths” and “scientific theories” are implied to be in opposition, then “theological [truths]” and “scientific truths” are put in apposition, and then “theological [narratives]” and “scientific narratives” are put in parallel.

And, while I can appreciate Dr. Alexander’s skilled use of presuppositional tactics - simply stating “... Genesis and the rest of Scripture, true for all people throughout time” as “data”, it does not help from a scientific perspective.  Presuppositions such as these are useful for apologetics but in searching for an understanding of how science and Genesis can possibly co-exist in the minds of modernity-yearning evangelical Christians glossing over the issue of indeed whether the contents of Genesis are true, or even more so “true for all people throughout time” has to be addressed.

Why not accept Genesis as an ANE text intended for that time and culture?


Jon Garvey - #44086

December 17th 2010

@freetoken - #44077

“Why not accept Genesis as an ANE text intended for that time and culture?”

Without addressing individual issues, it’s because the use of Genesis underpins much teaching in the New Testament, which was set in a very different time and culture from that of the origins of Genesis. Some of that teaching was by Jesus himself.

It would be perverse to say that an inspired ANE text was worthy of enculturation in both 1st century Judaea and the Gentile Roman empire, but lost its truth along the way since.

Indeed, if as the scholars tend to say Genesis was not completed until exilic times, it was even written with the understanding that stories from 3rd millennium Mesopotamia had key relevance in late 1st millennium Judaea. Its very authorship undermines your premise.

Nothing to do with “Modernity-yearning” or “glossing over”, by the way - it’s those who dismiss ancient texts without respecting and understanding them who do that.


Peter Hickman - #44123

December 17th 2010

Whilst I am a Christian believer (from a fundamentalist Baptist background) who holds the Bible in very high esteem, I do not rule out the possibility that the original texts of Genesis may have contained error. Accordingly, it is not essential for me tohold a concordist position.
The BioLogos mission statement includes, ‘We believe that the Bible is the inspired Word of God’.
Furthermore, as a newcomer, it appears to me that most BioLogos contributors believe that all Bible texts reveal truths in some sense, theological or other. 
Am I to conclude that BioLogos and perhaps most of its contributors believe the Bible to be inerrant? If so, is this open to discussion? This seems to be an important question given the clear difficulties arising out of trying to harmonise interpretations of Genesis with scientific theory.


John VanZwieten - #44135

December 17th 2010

Cal,

Your statement regarding prophesy is reasonable, I just wonder how widely the principle should be applied.  The challenge with matching up natural world descriptions to current science is that science is always in a state of flux, to one degree or another.  So scripture must not only have the meaning intended by the original author to his original audience, but must also have enough possible meanings to match up to the best science of the day at all times, in order for concordism to work.  That seems at least an order of magnitude more difficult than prophesy, which basically just has statement and fulfillment to reconcile.

Also, may I ask, in your mind what makes the Old & New Testaments true over other “holy” texts like the Koran, Vedas or Book of Mormon?
Both it’s source and content, according to my understanding and belief.  I agree with Jesus’ disciples when they responded, “To whom shall we go, you alone have the words of eternal life.”


John VanZwieten - #44137

December 17th 2010

Peter Hickman,

Certainly the issue of inerrancy is open to discussion here, and you could find some of the longest discussion here to be about that topic.  Not only is there the question of whether the Bible is inerrant (a claim which it never quite makes for itself) but there’s the question of just what is or should be meant by “inerrant,” “inspired,” “literal” and other terms applied to scripture.

To me, the best thing is to realize the Bible was not writen as a science text, so I can safely look to the world around me and the people who study it carefully for that type of information.  That said, I expect scripture to be “true” according to its intent, which I might understand pretty well, or not so well on a case-by-case basis.


Cal - #44141

December 17th 2010

John:

Fair enough and good explanation in your quotation of the twelve. I don’t really put in firm stock in any particular brand (concordism for example), but I try to keep my eyes open for whatever the truth may be, knowing that the King is Truth and Life.

I know my possibility inquiry isn’t to say that we need to mine further into the Scriptures to find scientific explanations, but to take it as true and remain agnostic in contentious areas and stick to the fundamental diagnosis it lays out (Man is in chains to Sin, and we need a Savior who must be as strong as God but in the same situation of Man, which resides in the divine human-logic paradox of Jesus the Messiah).

Thanks for helping me expand my understanding, Christ bless you brother!


Peter Hickman - #44263

December 18th 2010

John,

Thanks for that. I should have used the search facility before asking (sorry!).

It has been a long, difficult and lonely journey for a born and bred fundamentalist like me to even consider questioning inerrancy. There may be more difficulties ahead, but having discovered BioLogos it is a blessing not to feel lonely any more.


John VanZwieten - #44361

December 19th 2010

Cal,

Maybe “agnostic” goes to far with regard to contentious matters.  I’d rather suggest simply charity and openness with regard to them.  It’s well and good to explore such matters and come to a reasoned opinion about them, we just want to avoid letting them become divisive within the church.  I like the idea of being most sure about the things that matter most (like the things you pointed out) and being okay with less surety about things that matter less.

Blessings on you as well, brother!

Peter Hickman,

I hear you on the “long and lonely journey,” as I have a fundie streak in my background as well.  Here’s a great post by Darrel Falk in which he treats quite well the issue of inerrancy in the context of deciding whether to create a Biologos “statement of faith”:

http://biologos.org/blog/on-adopting-a-biologos-faith-statement/


eddy - #44475

December 20th 2010

“We can all agree that the early chapters of Genesis exist to convey theology and not science.”

That is already presumptuous. I have yet to read the entire essay but then, if the model is going to be built with this notion in mind, everything goes.

1. if part of Scripture does not square with Evolution that part is going to be thrown out along the lines of “Genesis does not teach modern science”.
2. the doctrine of the inerrancy of Scripture dismissed as “fallible interpretations of the text “.
3. criticism implicitly discouraged as “being a fundie, uncharitable and divisive within the church”


eddy - #44477

December 20th 2010

Yet how do we separate science from theology? The very fact that Genesis begins with “At the beginning God created heavens and the earth” is a very forceful proclamation that Genesis is not not about science. The very fact that Genesis says only humans are made in the “image of God” is in and of itself a provoking scientific statement. If by “science” one means pursuit of the knowledge about how history worked out through strict methodological naturalism (all appeals to Genesis outlawed), a Christian will scream: “Well, by all means this kind of science will inevitably comes to sporadic conclusions which do not square well with my Faith, I will learn to live with this as long as I am on earth but, anyway, any model that is going to be built from notions that severely contradict what is revealed in scriptures is like going to be a model based on untruths”


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