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Genetics, Theology, and Adam as a Historical Person, Part 3

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December 28, 2010 Tags: Human Origins
Genetics, Theology, and Adam as a Historical Person, Part 3

Today's entry was written by 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.

This is the third 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. In Part 1 and Part 2, Alexander describes the process of model building in science and lays the groundwork for two models that relate creation theology and anthropology. The first of these models, called the “Retelling Model,” is the subject of today’s post.

How do we relate the anthropological understanding with the profound theological essay that the early chapters of Genesis provide for us, with their carefully nuanced presentation of ‘Adam’? There are two main models that seek to answer this question, which we will here label as the ‘Retelling Model’ and as the ‘Homo divinus Model’, for reasons that will become clear in a moment. Both models accept the great theological truths about humankind made in the image of God and about the alienation from God brought about by human sinful disobedience. Both models accept the current anthropological account of human origins. But the models differ markedly in the ways in which they relate these two sets of data.1 Although personally I favor the second model, our aim here will be to assess the strengths and weaknesses of each model as objectively as possible.

The Retelling Model

The Retelling Model represents a gradualist protohistorical view, meaning that it is not historical in the usual sense of that word, but does refer to events that took place in particular times and locations. The model suggests that as anatomically modern humans evolved in Africa from 200,000 years ago, or during some period of linguistic and cultural development since then, there was a gradual growing awareness of God’s presence and calling upon their lives to which they responded in obedience and worship.2 The earliest spiritual stirrings of the human spirit were in the context of monotheism, and it was natural at the beginning for humans to turn to their Creator, in the same way that children today seem readily to believe in God almost as soon as they can speak.3 In this model, the early chapters of Genesis represent a re-telling of this early episode, or series of episodes, in our human history in a form that could be understood within the Middle Eastern culture of the Jewish people of that time. The model therefore presents the Genesis account of Adam and Eve as a myth in the technical sense of that word - a story or parable having the main purpose of teaching eternal truths - albeit one that refers to real putative events that took place over a prolonged period of time during the early history of humanity in Africa.

Some would wish to press this model further to suggest that the Adam and Eve of the Genesis account do in fact represent the very first members of our species back in the Africa of about 200,000 years ago. This suggestion, however, faces a significant scientific problem. All that we know of the emergence of a new mammalian species is that this is a gradual process that may take thousands of years. A reproductively isolated population gradually accumulates a unique ensemble of genetic variants that eventually generates a new species, meaning a population that does not generally interbreed with another population. A new mammalian species does not begin abruptly, and certainly not with one male and one female.

If we keep to the retelling model as summarized above, then the Fall4 is interpreted as the conscious rejection by humankind of the awareness of God’s presence and calling upon their lives in favor of choosing their own way rather than God’s way. The Fall then becomes a long historical process happening over a prolonged period of time, leading to spiritual death. The Genesis account of the Fall in this model becomes a dramatised re-telling of this ancient process through the personalised Adam and Eve narrative placed within a Near Eastern cultural context.

In favor of the Retelling Model is the way in which the doctrine of Adam made in the image of God can be applied to a focused community of anatomically modern humans, all of whose descendants – the whole of humanity since that time – share in this privileged status in the sight of God. Likewise as this putative early human community turned their backs on the spiritual light that God had graciously bestowed upon them, so sin entered the world for the first time, and has contaminated humanity ever since. Such an interpretation is made possible by the fact that the very early human community within Africa would have been no more than a few hundred breeding pairs. If the Retelling Model is taken as applying to this very early stage of human evolution, prior to the time at which different human populations began to spread throughout different areas of Africa, then these putative events could have happened to the whole of humanity alive at that time.

A further theological point consistent with the Retelling Model is Paul’s teaching in Romans 2:14-15 that the Gentiles have the requirements of the law “written on their hearts” even without the specific Old Testament revelation. In like manner, it is suggested, very early humanity knew God as He wrote His law upon their hearts, and it was their disobedience to this light that led to their alienation from God. This in turn left a spiritual vacuum that humankind has been trying to fill ever since with all kinds of different religious beliefs, none of which (outside the Cross), bring about reconciliation with God.

Against the Retelling Model is the way in which it evacuates the narrative of any Near Eastern context, detaching the account from its Jewish roots. If the early chapters of Genesis are about God’s dealings with the very early people of God who later came to be called Jews, then Africa is not the direction in which we should be looking. Much depends on how exactly the Genesis accounts of Adam and Eve are interpreted; on how much weight is placed on the Old Testament genealogies that incorporate Adam as a historical figure (Genesis 5; 1 Chronicles 1) and on the New Testament genealogy that traces the lineage of Christ back to Adam (Luke 3); and on passages such as Romans 5 and 1 Corinthians 15 that are most readily interpreted on the assumption that Adam is understood as a real historical individual. The second model seeks to address these concerns.


1. The two models equate to the Models B and C that are described in greater detail in: Denis Alexander, Creation or Evolution – Do We Have to Choose? Oxford: Monarch, 2008.

2. Model B has been well presented by Day, A.J. ‘Adam, anthropology and the Genesis record - taking Genesis seriously in the light of contemporary science’. Science & Christian Belief, 10: 115-43, 1998.

3. Justin L. Barrett, Why Would Anyone Believe in God? Altamira Press, 2004.

4. Genesis does not use the term ‘Fall’ and it might be more accurate to title the account in Genesis 3 as ‘How sin began’, but since the language of the ‘Fall’ has become so embedded in the literature it will be used here as shorthand.

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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Chris Massey - #45605

January 1st 2011


I’m at a loss to understand how general relativity solves anything for creationists. Over 6000 years the difference between a clock at the top of Everest and a clock at sea level is approximately 0.18 seconds.

Steve Ruble - #45608

January 1st 2011

Martin, you wrote,

So reason, I repeat, is of lesser authority than what the Scripture teaches.

That doesn’t actually make any sense.  Without your reason, you wouldn’t even be able to read the scripture, let alone attempt to create a hermeneutic for interpreting it. 

Here’s what you’re really saying:

So your reason, I repeat, is of lesser authority than my [Martin’s] reason when it comes to what Scripture should be understood to be teaching.

Obviously you don’t realize you’re saying that, but just as obviously there’s nothing else you could mean. You are arrogating to yourself an absolute authority about your Scripture which you cannot possibly justify.

nedbrek - #45612

January 1st 2011

Chris, I didn’t mean that GR can solve all our time problems.  I meant that the principle of GR might remain elusive, while the data is present - so you have data that cannot be explained.

Chris Massey - #45615

January 1st 2011


It sounds as though general relativity can solve none of the YEC time problems. It simply serves as another hail mary pass that YECs throw out in the hopes that some as of yet undiscovered principle will explain away the overwhelming evidence for deep time.

Martin Rizley - #45618

January 1st 2011

Steve,    If ‘objective’ understanding of the Scripture is not possible, what do you make of Proverbs 3:5—“Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and lean not on your OWN understanding; in all your ways acknowledge Him, and He shall direct your paths”?  That verse holds out the promise of getting beyond our OWN understanding, by trusting in the Lord.  But we couldn’t “trust in the Lord” unless we understood something about Him—namely, that His character is trustworthy.  Where does that understanding of God come from?  From the Scriptures.  But such understanding is not our OWN, for it is not “sourced” out of our human minds.  It is a divinely imparted understanding, GIVEN by the Holy Spirit through the teaching of Scripture.  To deny the possibility of a divinely-imparted understanding is to hold blindly to Kantian skepticism about the possibility of objective knowledge.  As a Christian, I believe we can know by faith things that would be impossible to know without faith.  So I deny that human beings are condemned to live their lives in the subjective uncertainty of agnosticism and relativism.  I believe that a divinely-imparted understanding of reality and of the meaning of Scripture is possible.

Steve Ruble - #45619

January 1st 2011


I don’t make anything of Proverbs 3:5.  I don’t regard your book as anything more than a collection of ancient writings, with the same authority and general reliability as any other such collection. 

My point was, even if there was some reason to think that truths about reality could be extracted from your scriptures, that still wouldn’t increase the credibility of your hermeneutic over that of, say, Chris Massey.  Your arguments are still yours and your reasoning is still yours, no matter how fervently you claim that you get the truth injected directly into your brain by your god.  If you want people to think that your interpretation of your scripture is correct, you have to make an argument for that - it’s absurd to just assert that scripture is automatically on your side.

nedbrek - #45630

January 2nd 2011

“the overwhelming evidence for deep time.”

My point is that evidence does not speak for itself.  It must integrated into a story via assumptions.  Just because the story is self-consistent does not make it true (although an internal inconsistent story must be false).

Martin Rizley - #45787

January 3rd 2011

I am not “asserting that Scripture is automatically on my side,” as you put it.  I am saying that both the structure of the book of Genesis and the New Testament interpretation of Genesis by Jesus, Paul, Luke, Peter, and others, indicate that the events recorded in the early chapters of Genesis were intended to be read as a record of real events that took place in space and time on the stage of history.  The fact that my ‘reasoning” leads me to that conclusion doesn’t make it a purely private or subjective matter of interpretation, for reasoning can be either sound or faulty.  If one is using reason simply to understand the meaning of a text within the framework of its immediate and wider context in order to believe what the text is saying, then one is using reason in a ‘minsterial’ role, as subject to the authority of God’s Word.  If, on the other hand, one uses reason to make authoritative pronouncements on the truth or falsehood of what a text says, then one is using reason in a ‘magisterial’ role, as if reason could determine truth by its own light apart from or even in opposition to what the Scripture teaches.  (continued)

Martin Rizley - #45788

January 3rd 2011

There is a difference between using human reason simply to understand and believe the teaching of a text, and using human reason to “sit in judgment” on the truth of what a text teaches, or to impose on it meanings that are clearly alien to that intended by the Holy Spirit.  It is this latter, erroneous use of reason that I am talking about when I say that reason is of lesser authority than what the Scripture teaches.  What I am saying is that one can only understand the Scriptures rigthly by subjecting one’s mind to it with an ‘a priori’ confidence that its teachings are true—being inspired of the Holy Spirit—and, therefore, the Scriptures are to be trusted implicitly, even above the ‘independent’ judgments of one’s mind.

Rich - #45830

January 4th 2011

Martin Rizley (45787):

“both the structure of the book of Genesis and the New Testament interpretation of Genesis by Jesus, Paul, Luke, Peter, and others, indicate that the events recorded in the early chapters of Genesis were intended to be read as a record of real events that took place in space and time on the stage of history.”


“The New Testament interpretation of Genesis by Jesus, Paul, Luke, Peter, and others” indicates *nothing* about how the early chapters of Genesis “were intended to be read.”  It indicates only how “Jesus, Paul, Luke, Peter, and others” read those chapters.  The New Testament writers hadn’t a clue how the original author of Genesis intended it to be read.  They were fishermen and tax collectors and third-string rabbis with no knowledge of the literary conventions operating 500-1000 years earlier.  And Jesus’s use of the OT was purely homiletical, not scholarly in the slightest; nor did he ever pretend otherwise.

And “the structure of the book of Genesis,” along with other literary features of the book, indicates that it *wasn’t* intended primarily as history, but as an artful, thematically controlled theological reflection upon the meaning of Torah.

Happy New Year, Martin.

Martin Rizley - #45832

January 4th 2011

As you can imagine, Rich, I disagree entirely with your contention that the inspired writers of the New Testament hadn’t a clue how the original author of Genesis intended it to be read.  Jesus’ frequent question to his fellow Jews, ““Have you not read?”  indicates that He regarded the intended meaning of the ancient text as quite patent to discerning readers of His own day, if only they took time to study the Scriptures prayerfully and carefully.    Happy New Year to you, as well.

penman - #45847

January 4th 2011

Martin Rizley #45832
=He regarded the intended meaning of the ancient text as quite patent to discerning readers of His own day, if only they took time to study the Scriptures prayerfully and carefully.=

Would that mean if someone disagrees with the interpretation you favour, it must be because they aren’t reading scripture carefully or prayerfully?

I agree there’s history in Genesis when it tells the story of Adam. The difference would be that I don’t think it’s told in a newspaper-journalism prose style. There seems a strain of symbolism running through it, eg the depiction of the serpent. Henri Blocher: “an account of a historical fall, but not a historical account of a fall.”

Genesis 1 is different. It doesn’t even read like Genesis 2-3. Much more like an “exalted prose hymn” (forget who coined that).

To answer a question you posed a few days ago, I think Adam was the head of an existing human race, on which God collectively bestowed His image. Prior to Adam, humanity lacked the image; the whole race was then given that image, & Adam constituted its head. I see the early genealogies as those of the Adamite line within a larger humanity. That explains where Cain got his wife, whom he feared would kill him, etc.

Martin Rizley - #45879

January 4th 2011

penman,  The fact someone disagrees with the interpretation I favor doesn’t mean they aren’t reading the Scriptures prayerfully or carefully.  We are all growing in our understanding of Scripture—no one has ‘arrived” at a perfect understanding.  The question is—is our understanding of Scripture growing in the right direction—that is, are we growing into an ever more robust acceptance of “all that the prophets have spoken,“ or is the truth of God‘s Word becoming gradually diluted through human philosophy?  I grant in principle the possibility that a ‘strain of symbolism’ may run through the Genesis narrative, if there is textual evidence to back up that claim.  I grant you that a serpent would be a perfect ‘metaphor’ for a spiritual being like Satan, since its twisting movements reflect so ideally the subtle, deceptive movements of Satan as the great deceiver.  Only, I see evidence in the text itself that there is something more than mere symbolism here.  Chapter 3 begins by classifying the serpent (apparently) among the ‘beasts of the field,’ which would suggest we are dealing with a literal animal. (continued)

Martin Rizley - #45881

January 4th 2011

Yet its ‘cleverness’ is owing to the fact that MORE than a mere animal is present here.  So I believe that Genesis 3 is what Robert McNeill calls “the record of actual events of a spiritual nature in physical life.  Spiritual evil is represented as taking physical form to reach spiritual man through his physical being.”  In other words, Satan seems to have been in some way ’incarnated’ in the body of a serpent—a form of demonic possession similar to what we see in the gospels when a legion of unclean spirits enters into a herd of swine.  But I grant that there is a certain ambiguity in the text, since a MERELY literal reading of the text is inadequate.
Regarding the creation of Adam and Eve, if the human race originated biologically in a purely ‘naturalistic’ manner through evolution, what do you make of Paul’s clear affirmation that Eve came literally from the body of Adam? (1 Cor. 11:8-12, 1 Timothy 2:13).  Paul says explicitly that “Adam was formed first, then Eve.”  The reference seems to be to the formation of Adam’s body in Genesis 2:7, followed by the formation of Eve’s body in Genesis 2:22.  (continued)

Martin Rizley - #45882

January 4th 2011

I don’t see any way to interpret this in a non-literal or metaphorical manner, for Paul makes a theological point about the respective roles of men and women in the church based on the order of their formation.  Now, you can do what many evangelical churches do in our day and simply ignore this teaching as uninspired, but that is to allow one’s Christian faith to become diluted by human philosophy and cultural conformism—it is not moving in the direction of more robust acceptance of ‘the whole counsel of God;’ it is simply ignorning the teaching of inspired Scripture. So what do you say about the creation of Eve, given your acceptance of human biological origins by evolution?

penman - #45961

January 5th 2011

I’m agnostic on whether Eve was literally created from Adam’s side, or whether there’s some symbolism here. I’ve no desire to quarrel with anyone over the point. If there’s symbolism, then Paul’s statements too would take on some element of symbolic or analogical meaning. But if (for the sake of argument) Eve was literally created from Adam, that wouldn’t affect my belief in an evolutionary origin for anatomical humanity. I’d see Adam as one of the anatomically modern humans, upon whom God impressed His image. So Eve’s creation from Adam would link her biologically with the preceding bio-history of humankind & all life.

I’m not convinced by your exegesis of the serpent. He is, in my judgment, not presented in the text in the way you suggest, as a demonically possessed snake. First to last he’s presented as a talking snake. His introduction is as the craftiest BEAST OF THE FIELD which the Lord God had created. But I presume no one thinks he really was a particularly sly beast of the field. In other words, there’s the surface-level discourse in the text, & there is theological interpretation of its deeper meaning. That’s why I think Genesis is giving an account of a historical fall in (partly) symbolic forms.

Martin Rizley - #46141

January 7th 2011

You say that you regard Adam as “one of the anatomically modern humans, upon whom God impressed His image.”  If being “human,” however, means being made in the image of God, then it follows that there were no humans before the creation of Adam and Eve, for no creature prior to them was made in the image of God.  Notice, God did not say in Genesis 1:26, “Let us GIVE man our image,” as though ’man’ already existed and simply received some new ’feature’ from God.  Rather, God said “Let us MAKE man in our image, in our likeness.”  It was at that point, the Bible says,  that God CREATED man both ‘male and female’ AND ’in His image.’  So any creature made before Adam and Eve would have belonged to the ANIMAL realm over which mankind was given dominion.  You cannot speak biblically of “human” existing before Adam. 
You also say, “Eve’s creation from Adam would link her biologically with the preceding bio-history. . of all life.”  (even though she would not have emerged from the womb of any creature).  (continued)

Martin Rizley - #46143

January 7th 2011

If you admit that possibility, why couldn’t the same thing be true of Adam‘s creation by God?  By that I mean, why couldn’t God take a few cells from an ape and genetically restructure those cells to create the body of Adam by an act of special creation?  in that case, Adam would have had no biological ancestors historically, through he would be ‘linked’ genetically with the bio-history of the ape from whose cells his own body was fashioned.  Moreover, if the cells were taken from a dead ape that was ‘returning’ to the dust and in some sense already dust, it could then be said that Adam’s body was made from “the dust of the ground.”  Is there anything that could be said against that hypothetical scenario of human origins from a scientific standpoint?  If not, that shows how little science can tell us with certainty about the history of human origins.  The purely naturalistic vision of human origins of neo-Darwinism,  in which mankind ‘emerges’ naturally through a reproductive process from lower organisms would be totally false.  So the fundamental question in the debate over human origins is this, “What is the most reliable source of information we have about events in the ancient past?”

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