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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 - #45208

December 28th 2010

When Denis describes it as a “re-telling of ... our human history in a form that could be understood within the Middle Eastern culture of the Jewish people of that time,” who is doing the accommodating? The authors? God?

It almost sounds as though the “Retelling Model” proposes that the authors of Genesis actually had in mind the Paleolithic homo sapiens? This seems highly unlikely given that this period of human history was unknown in the 1st millennium BC.

Robert Byers - #45231

December 29th 2010

This is just a accusation, without evidence, that those who wrote the bible were lying. Including the idea God wrote the bible.
Why/ its stood the test of time and is accepted by millions in the most intelligent nation in history.
Adam was real. Who knows better and why/
YEC are waiting for intellectual substance herein.

Martin Rizley - #45233

December 29th 2010

“The Fall then becomes a long historical process happening over a prolonged period of time, leading to spiritual death.”
This sentence highlights the decimation of Christian theology that inevtiably takes place when you abandon the literal import of Paul’s teaching that “Through ONE MAN sin entered the world. . .”  Biblical Christianity rests on the literal historicity of mankind’s fall into sin through the one sin of one man.  Abandon this, and the whole system of Christian theology collapses.  That is because at the heart of gospel lies the doctrine of imputation.  There are three great acts of imputation in the history of the world—the imputation of Adam’s sin to mankind, the imputation of the world’s sins to Christ, and the imputation of Christ’s righteousness to believers.  The gospel rests on these three acts imputation, just as a three-legged stool rests on all three of its legs.  Take one leg away, and the stool collapses.  Likewise, deny any of these three acts of imputation, and the gospel collapses, as well.  The following three-part series explains why:  http://alfredplace.simbahosting.co.uk/pages/sermons/imputation-and-the-christian.php

Wm Tanksley - #45237

December 29th 2010

I appreciate the weight of evidence in favor of the anthropology you describe; it seems to me foolish to argue with it. It would seem wiser to do as you do: to argue with something else. But I’m puzzled that the first thing you argue with is the historicity of sections of the Bible. Why not start by asking whether we’re making assumptions about the Bible that aren’t actually there. For example, we see that Adam was created by God; but do we see that Adam was the only man on Earth (no)? We see that Adam’s sin passed sin to all of us, but do we see that it happened via heredity or genetics (no)?

Although real anthropology does seem to demand some theological change, I don’t think it demands a complete rejection of the historicity of early Genesis.

Paul D. - #45238

December 29th 2010

Martin, while many will agree with your theology, I think you’re constructing a much more elaborate concept of “gospel” than Jesus or Paul would have meant by the term. As NT Wright puts it, the gospel to Paul was simply the message that “Jesus is Lord”. It was a message of hope and comfort for the world, not a doctrine of sin, atonement and imputation. That other stuff comes later and is subject to interpretation — indeed, the different branches of the Christian church differ greatly on these things.

The gospel does *not* rely on there having been a sole genetic progenitor named Adam, and even Paul’s theology can be given the respect it deserves without a literal Adam. We must not commit the logical fallacy of arguing from conclusions (“Adam was a literal person, therefore science is wrong”).

Chris Massey - #45242

December 29th 2010


Can you elaborate on your claim that the stool collapses without leg #1?

Suppose there was no imputation of Adam’s sin to mankind, but that the fall was a long historical process (as suggested by the “Retelling Model”).
How does that prevent the world’s sin from being imputed to Christ? How does it prevent Christ’s righteousness from being imputed to believers? What problem does it create for these understandings of Christ’s work on the cross that you are keen to preserve?

Jon Garvey - #45251

December 29th 2010

Wm Tanksley - #45237

Having sneak-previewed the essay, Denis will deal with this in a future post. Indeed, he seems to hint that his own preference (like mine) is for the approach you suggest. Maybe it’s a British thing.

Certainly to me, once one realises that neither Genesis 1 nor 2-3 are about the material origins of the creation, one is liberated to respect the text fully without making tenuous accommodations to evolutionary issues and without having to re-write Christian theology and gainsay the Biblical writers.

What Denis calls the “Retelling Model” has probably been the most extensively argued position in Biologos articles, yet for many of us the objections of people like Martin remain valid, for all that we may disagree with his YE/literalist position on the early chapters of Genesis.

freetoken - #45262

December 29th 2010

This proposition from the Retelling model:

“The earliest spiritual stirrings of the human spirit were in the context of monotheism ...”

seems to be rather ad hoc.

Certainly neither anthropology or archeology would suggest early humans were necessarily monotheistic, given all the evidence for fertility statues that later become attributed to gods.

And furthermore Gen 1-3 itself doesn’t state that the characters Adam and Eve are necessarily monotheistic - there is no dialogue there to suggest that the character Adam would have interpreted his situation in that manner.  It is the narrator of the story, the pen of the authors/redactors, which is telling the monotheistic story (and from an omniscient viewpoint, much like English fiction writers.)

It is the later stories in the OT that introduce the struggle of monotheism vs. polytheism.  Indeed, that is one of the key points of the Abraham stories - that he should leave his idols (which were so common in Mesopotamia.)

The Retelling model is attractive to those who want to keep some moral imperative to the idea of a “fall”, but without adequate support from anthropological sources or Gen 1-3 it will likely fail to satisfy any camp.

Jon Garvey - #45275

December 29th 2010

@freetoken - #45262

I’d have to take issue with dumping the issue of monotheism on to later redactors of Genesis - there’s little point in asking the significance or relevance of a story if one doesn’t begin by taking it as we have it, rather than second guessing, 4000 years or so on, what it *originally* said.

Nevertheless, I believe you’re right in drawing attention to the lack of evidence for an original monotheism in the first traceable origins of (assumed) religious activity. Venus figures may or may not be fertility figures, may or may not represent goddesses - may or may not, even, reflect religious activity. But they certainly don’t represent Yahweh.

Indeed, monotheism isn’t the issue even in the Bible - it’s right relationship with Yahweh, the only true creator and redeemer that is the concern, not the simple affirmation that there is one god. It’s rather questionable to take a story in which God makes a man to serve him, and read it as a metaphorical description of how men developed “spiritual stirrings” about the existence of God.

Martin Rizley - #45290

December 29th 2010

Chris,  You ask, “Can you elaborate on your claim that the stool collapses without leg #1?  Suppose there was no imputation of Adam’s sin to mankind. . .what problem does it create for those understandings of Christ’s work on the cross that you are keen to preserve?”
To cure any disease, you must correctly diagnose it.  If we don’t understand what man’s basic problem is before God, we will misunderstand God’s solution (the gospel).  Our basic problem is not simply that we sin, or that we have chosen to follow the “bad example” of our ancestors who, through some “long historical process,” gradually drifted from God.  Our basic problem is that we are sinners ‘by nature,’ having inherited both an alienated status and a corrupt nature from Adam, who acted as the spiritual representative of all mankind.  Because the root of my problem lies not simply in what I do but who I am “in Adam,” none of my works can contribute in any way to my salvation.  I must therefore be reconciled to God in the same way in which I became alienated from Him—that is, through the representative work of another acting on my behalf.  That is what the gospel declares to be true. 

Christ acted to reverse the alienated status of sinners by fulfilling the demands of God’s law on their behalf.  He did this, first,  by living a perfect life of submission to God’s will, then, by dying a substitutionary death to remove from sinners the penalty of sin.  In this way, Christ worked out a perfect righteousness that is ‘imputed’ (credited) to sinners the moment they believe in Him.  This imputation of righteousness provides a definitive change of status before God—one of perfect acceptance—out of which flows a progressive transformation of heart and life.  I am not accepted as righteous based on what I do, therefore, but based on what Christ did for me, and I receive that righteous standing through faith alone in Him.  Paul’s point is that we are ’put right’ with God in the same way in which we fell out of favor with Him—through the representative action of one man who acts in a ‘public‘ capacity on behalf of others.  If Paul is wrong in his diagnosis of our problem, however, how do I know that he is right about the solution?  If he gives the wrong answer to the question, “Why am I a sinner?“  how do I know that he has the right answer to the question, “How can I be saved?“

nedbrek - #45293

December 29th 2010

Paul D. (45238) - I believe Martin is using the shorthand “gospel” to sum up what one must proclaim for people to be saved.

“Gospel” simply means good news (you said):

“It was a message of hope and comfort for the world, not a doctrine of sin, atonement and imputation.”

The questions then become, “why don’t we have hope right now”, and “what do we need comfort for”/ “what is troubling us”.

Chris Massey - #45295

December 29th 2010


It seems that your real complaint is that a lack of Adam-imputed sinfulness messes up your systematic theology. What I don’t see in your reply is an explanation as to why imputed sin from Adam is a necessary precondition to imputed righteousness from Christ.

You say it’s important that we are sinners “by nature” and not just because of our own sin. But that’s not at odds with the approach discussed in this article. Our nature can be sinful without the need for an imputing of sin from Adam. We can be sinful “by nature” because we are creatures predisposed to selfish actions.

Paul may draw an analogy between the way he understood sin to have entered the world and the way Christ’s death remedied that sin. But Paul never says that Christ’s death atones for sin BECAUSE it parallels the transmission of Adam’s sin.

Unapologetic catholic - #45301

December 29th 2010

“Because the root of my problem lies not simply in what I do but who I am “in Adam,” none of my works can contribute in any way to my salvation.”

Not an accurate orthodox Christian statement.  The discussion of this topic cannot be fit into one sentence, but nevetheless, not an essential point of Christianity, nor does it affect what is being attempted in Genesis.

freetoken - #45302

December 29th 2010

@Jon Garvey - #45275

I’m not inferring anything about the “original” text.  Rather, the prima facie evidence, Gen 1-3, is of a story with a narrator telling a story.  The character Adam in that story does not go into any theological discourse.

And, I don’t see how you can avoid the monotheism vs. polytheism conflict in the OT, especially given all the warnings/lamentations about following other gods.

Evidence from the 1st millennia BC (in the region attributed to the Bronze age Israel) shows that idols were common, implying polytheism was existent.  The struggle of the Yahweh-ists vs. the polytheists is a primary religious battle in that region in the 1st BC, or so the history books tell me.

Wm Tanksley - #45306

December 29th 2010

Our basic problem is that we [...] inherited both an alienated status and a corrupt nature from Adam [...].  I must therefore be reconciled to God in the same way in which I became alienated from Him—that is, through the representative work of another acting on my behalf.

Do you see the contradiction here? You say that you inherited a corruption of sin from Adam, and you must cure this the same way, so you must have righteousness imputed by Christ. But these are not at all the same things. If your corruption were a biological inheritance from Adam, the parallel cure would be a biological inheritance from Christ, which is NOT a Christian doctrine.

Therefore, your argument is foundationally flawed; the two cannot be exactly parallel unless Adam’s sin is imputed to us on the same grounds that Christ’s righteousness is imputed to us.

Now, I think there’s good reason to think there are parallels between the two, but the same passage that gives us parallels also makes a point of saying: “But the gracious gift is not like the transgression.” Thus the two are not parallel.


Martin Rizley - #45312

December 29th 2010

You say,  “Our nature can be sinful without the need for an imputing of sin from Adam. We can be sinful “by nature” because we are creatures predisposed to selfish actions.” 
My question then is, where does this sinful predisposition come from?  Is it innate to our humanity, as such?  If so, then did Christ share in this sinful predisposition?  I grant you that He was subject to temptation, but that is different than saying He was inclined in His spirit to rebellion against God.  After forty days off fasting in the wilderness, the thought of stones suddenly becoming hot, fresh bread would certainly have appealed to His physical desires, making it necessary for Him to deny His human appetites as these were ‘tickled’ by the devil’s wicked suggestion; but at the same time, His impeccably pure spirit would have abhorred the very thought of rebelling against His Father’s will to gratify the cravings of nature.  So He was not ‘inclined” to rebellion against God as we are, despite the fact that He was fully human.  (continued)

Martin Rizley - #45313

December 29th 2010

Moreover, in our case, it is not true that we are merely ‘predisposed’ to selfishness.  The Bible says that we are actually selfish by nature— “dead in trespasses and sins” and “children of wrath” BY NATURE (Ephesians 2:1-3)).  It says that we are naturally “alienated” from God and “enemies in our minds” against Him (Colossians 1:21).  Was this true of Christ?  Of course not.  Therefore, our natural enmity and alienated status from God is not something intrinsic to human nature, as such (for then Christ would have shared in it).  It is not a vestige of ‘bestiality’ left over from an evolutionary past.  It can only be the fruit of an historic fall that deprived man of his originally righteous standing and heart condition before God.

Martin Rizley - #45318

December 29th 2010

Wm Tanksley,
I grant you that the nature of our connection to Adam is different from the nature of our connection to Christ.  Our union with Adam is established by our physical descent from him, as the father of the human race; our union with Christ is established through the regenerating work of the Spirit, who imparts to us the gift of faith.  Nevertheless, in both cases, it is true that an organic union is established between ourselves and a representative head, whose action on our behalf determines our legal status before God and effects a change in our spiritual nature.

Wm Tanksley - #45322

December 30th 2010

Martin in #45318: Amen.

But… It doesn’t follow that Adam was the only man on earth at any time. In fact, there’s no need for sin to descend through bloodline. The Bible doesn’t say that; it’s merely a speculation, and the evidence of anthropology makes it relatively unlikely to be true.


eddy - #45330

December 30th 2010

“But… It doesn’t follow that Adam was the only man on earth at any time.”

But that is an anthropological speculation and not what God’s Word suggest. If Adam and Eve are not our genetic ancestors there is no way to tell that anyone of us human shares in their transgressions. My original ancestors (who possibly are not Adam and Eve) may not have done anything wrong before God. Then where is God’s justice that we share in the consequences of Adam & Eve wrongdoings—death, toiling for survival, fatal pregnancies, etc?

The reason I sin is because I am human and it is human nature to sin—a nature that is transmitted genetically from one generation to another.  If it is not necessary that we all genetically inherit an Adam’s nature in order for us to be considered sinners by nature, then that requires some of us to ignore the biblical Adam’s nature and not feel like we identify correctly with the biblical story of Adam. In fact, during that gradual non-linear evolutionary processes some of our ancestors may have been “properly human” who have crossed the apish-human threshold while others not yet attained that threshold and still apes in their nature. The big question is, why should I identify with the biblical Adam?

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