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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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Jon Garvey - #45332

December 30th 2010

@freetoken - #45302

“I don’t see how you can avoid the monotheism vs. polytheism conflict in the OT” - I’m not trying to avoid it, though I’m not sure it’s happening within the Genesis 2-3 account.

No, my quarrel is with those who state the matter as between theoretical monotheism and polytheism. The issue vis a vis Biologos is mainly back in pre-history: “Did ancient man believe in one god or many?” But the real issue, from a Christian standpoint,  should be, “When did man encounter the real God?”

The same issue applies to the OT, however - the conflict there wasn’t about the logical argument for a single Deity, but the self-revelation of the “actual” Deity, Yahweh. “It was I who made you/saved you/gave you blessings, and not those false Baals.”

The Genesis account shows God’s first self-revelation as being to a man named Adam, set pretty firmly in late Neolotic or Chalcolithic Mesopotamia. That’s tied to an unfolding narrative that ends up with Christ. So the question is whether the underlying message of those chapters can be validly transferred to nameless ancestors in deep time. Personally I doubt it.

eddy - #45336

December 30th 2010

There are those who respond to the question “why should I identify with the biblical Adam” who mighty not be my genetic ancestor by claiming that “in the same way I identify with Christ” who is obviously not my genetic ancestor. Fair enough. But Paul has a way to separate these two issues: no one would love to share in the wrongdoings of others but everybody would love to be part of the righteousness of others.

Romans 5:15—“But the gift is not like the trespass. For if the many died by the trespass of the one man, how much more did God’s grace and the gift that came by the grace of the one man, Jesus Christ, overflow to the many!”

His point is this. In order for us to be considered a part of Adam’s nature, sin, judgment and all that follows from his trespasses there must be a strong direct connection between us and Adam that demands that we be inseparably and qualitatively linked with Adam. But when it comes to our identification with Christ, Paul uses the word “gift”, in the sense that it is not our *right* that we share in Christ righteousness. It is a matter of gift or grace. You have the option, to accept it or not. But Adam’s all? You have no option. It is your right because you are Adam’s direct descendant.

Jon Garvey - #45337

December 30th 2010

@Wm Tanksley - #45306

One of the interesting things in these debates is that they generate new objections to old doctrines that don’t necessarily arise from the science. In the case of your objection to Martin’s exposition of entirely orthodox Reformed doctrine, maybe the issue is that on a site like this it’s easy to slip into biological mode where the Bible doesn’t.

You seem to do this in opposing “biological inheritence” from Adam to the work of Christ - and eddy later does the same in talking about sin being transmitted genetically. Yet not all that is inherited need be inherited genetically, or biologically. Augustine talked of inheritence through the sexual act (not as silly as itsounds if you read him), and if one believes in a spiritual soul, it would hardly be inherited biologically.

In my view the imputation of Christ’s righteousness is to us is by the transference of his sinless nature to us, which is surely a parallel to any transference of Adam’s sinful nature to us, if not at the strict biological level.

Jon Garvey - #45338

December 30th 2010

@Wm Tanksley - #45322

It seems that the possibilities for the imputation of Adam’s sin are either (a) federal headship or (b) inheritence (or both, as Paul seems to me to imply). Personally, I see big theodical problems with solely (a), though they don’t bother many good people.

But I question whether anthropology actually refutes inherited sin as a possibility. My particular old chestnut, which seems relevant here, is the MRCA study which shows how recently we need to look for common ancestors for the present human race. Resumé here: http://www.jongarvey.co.uk/download/pdf/AdamMRCA.pdf

Anthropology, remember, looks for common genetic heritage, which is actually quite distinct from common ancestry, the issue in view with a historic Adam. The former concludes a minimum population of a thousand or so @ >60K years. The latter concludes we are all descended from *every* individual who left descendants @ approx 8K, and from *some* individuals within the last, say, 2-3K. There would be plenty of time for an ANE Adam, under God’s providence, to be an ancestor of all living humans.

The argument then reverts to being theological, rather than anthropological.

Wm Tanksley - #45411

December 30th 2010

Jon Garvey, yes, Adam can be our father, without having to be the only human at the time. This fits the data nicely. It does leave some serious awkwardness: how long did it take to spread Adam’s fatherhood, and what about the people who were not descended from him? We can suppose that everyone eventually inherited from him, but this does go beyond the actual evidence.

Chris Massey - #45425

December 30th 2010


How could sin be inherited genetically? Is there is a nucleotide sequence that codes for sin?

eddy - #45440

December 31st 2010


I theorize sin is a quantitative trait with distinct DNA components which can be modified more or less by environment (culture, peer pressure, age, drugs, etc)....can we scan QTLs for sin in a lab experiment? I have no idea. But sin is an inevitable product of human nature. You inherit everything human from your parents including sin. Sure, some people have more or less expression of sin behavior than others but so is any of the human character.

If sin is not a heritable character how are we sinners?

Jon Garvey - #45449

December 31st 2010

@Wm Tanksley - #45411

The spread of Adam’s heritage, remember, includes both his privileges (which are?) and the burden of sin. The MRCA evidence suggests the spread across Eurasia would take about 500 years. But in the Bible, the significance of this is limited initially to Seth’s line, then to Abraham’s, then to Israel and those who are adopted into Israel. Only with the Gospel is the whole world open to salvation.

As for evidence, let’s make a thought experiment: presupposing such an Adam as we’re discussing, if scientists could go back and compare post-fall Adam with his non-Adamic neighbours, what would they find? Possibly nothing more demonstrable than the difference between a Christian and a non-Christian, for you can’t measure “soul”.

I would suggest most differences are Yahweh-relational: vague awareness of and enmity to him, ie conscience in Biblical terms. Maybe a new sense of eternity, probably the deliberate execution of wrong that distinguishes us from animals, perhaps the sense of destiny man has. Civilisation might be a crude marker. But in the end, we’re likely only to be able to say, “This is plausible and fits the Biblical data and theology without denying science.” Need we ask more?

Jon Garvey - #45452

December 31st 2010

@eddy - #45440

Eddy, you’re getting perilously close to “Salvation by grace, through genetic engineering,” here!

eddy - #45455

December 31st 2010

Oh, Jon, “post-fall Adam with his non-Adamic neighbours”? I will force myself to engage in this idealized experiment. The first thing to do is to understand if this non-Adamic neighbors are really humans. And inextricably linked with being human (as far as we understand what humanity is) is the Fall: moral discernment and self- and God-consciousness and their inevitable consequences.

“Possibly nothing more demonstrable than the difference between a Christian and a non-Christian, for you can’t measure “soul”.”

Jon, are you making a parallel between Adam with a Christian, non-Adamites with non-Christians? I suppose that non-adamites didn’t Fall and so they weren’t humans.  But Christians and non-Christians are all fallen creatures and so they are all properly human beings. I stand corrected.

eddy - #45456

December 31st 2010

“Salvation by grace, through genetic engineering,”

Jon, I don’t get it. May be I am unorthodox here but really it makes sense to me! We inherit human nature from our human parents, isn’t? So why is it hard that Sin cannot be one of the package of a human nature. Again, I stand corrected.

But salvation by grace? I thought I said it somewhere above that it is just that, by grace. Not everyone will be saved, but everybody does sin? Could you care to explain why?

Jon Garvey - #45457

December 31st 2010

@eddy - #45455

It’s not so hard if you think about it. “Understanding what humanity is” is the crux of the matter. A chimp is not human, and you are. What about Homo erectus? Or Neanderthal? Or a Neanderthal/Homo sapiens hybrid? A palaeolithic Homo sapiens? A neolithic Homo sapiens with no knowledge of God, no knowledge of eternal life, no awareness of sin against God, no sense of conscience (aka knowledge of good and evil).

If we’re basing humanity on Biblical (adamic) criteria, rather than human scientific criteria, a human is one who shares Adam’s nature, in being the image of God, who received God’s commission to rule over the earth and subdue it, and who (since the fall) is accountable before God for sin. The first two are huge privileges of grace, the last a fitting judgement for spiting those privileges.

All these are spiritual endowments (which many would equate with “soul”), just as the Life and the indwelling by the Holy Spirit of a believer are spiritual endowments. The parallel I drew was that both are difficult or impossible to test scientifically - there is no test that detects baptism of the Spirit, and no scientific theory of the soul.

eddy - #45460

December 31st 2010

Jon, thanks for your insights.

Naturally I am skeptical of Homo fossils stuffs and anthropological inferences drawn from them and I see you are very confident with it but, thanks goodness, we both converge with the idea that our humanity must be traced from the biblical Adam. Not sure if you are a subscriber of a biblical Adam is not for all humankind, which sounds too racist for my tastes! and invites so may questions for a Christian but you are really a very thoughtful thinker.

I will wait your response on my concept of Sin being a heritable character as part of a human nature.

Jon Garvey - #45462

December 31st 2010

@eddy - #45456

Eddy, I’m entirely conventional on my understanding of the fall and the transmission of the sin nature. But I don’t think the Bible teaches (at least necessarily) that sin is carried on a set of somatic genes. If it did it would favour Lamarckian evolution, because a sinless Adam sinned voluntarily, and the physical transmission of acquired characteristics doesn’t have good evidence.

So I take it that the nature referred to is our spiritual core, which no doubt affects our minds and bodies but does not stem from them.

My original point was that one would be able to isolate genes responsible for sin, alter them, and hence solve sin without all the trouble of repentance on our part and the atonement on God’s. That doesn’t bear thinking about.

Jon Garvey - #45464

December 31st 2010

@eddy - #45460

You’re right in saying that the concept of non-Adamic man has been used from quite ancient times (ie 17th century) as a basis for racism.

The theological counter to that is that the Gospel that arises from the same Bible that teaches about Adam is quite plainly to be preached to all men, and whatever may have been the case “in the beginning” we have no grounds nowadays to deny the gospel to any living person.

The scientific counter is (a) the solidarity of man as a species is demonstrated unequivocably by genetics (so don’t despise that science!) and (b) the solidarity of man as a thoroughly mixed family is demonstrated by the MRCA studies. There are no communities that can be shown to have been completely isolated throughout historic times (the nearest were the Tasmanian aborigines, who seem likely to have had some genetic input from Melanesian migrants, though since the purebred race is extinct we can’t be sure).

I’m persuaded that there is no adequate explanation for the biological origin of H sap that doesn’t take into account the other hominids, especially since the discovery of the admixture of Neanderthal genes in the west (and the newly described likely admixture of Denisova Man DNA in the east).

penman - #45466

December 31st 2010

Jon & Eddy
Whence the idea that sin is in any sense genetic or carried by the genes? I’ve lost the thread here!

Adam’s first sin cannot have been determined by his genes, otherwise he was already sinful before he sinned. It must have been a free act. (Certainly the traditional view.) But if sin originates in freedom, a spiritual act of mind & will, I’m not sure how it then suddenly becomes genetic.

The “mechanism” whereby all human beings are born sinful (or with a predisposition to sin that manifests itself as they grow), & the nature of their unity with Adam such that it entails this sinfulness, are matters that may have to be left in the “mystery” category, I think. But I’m convinced of the two facts - the universality of sin in humanity from birth, & Adam as the historical source of that condition. As for Adam himself - Jon knows what I think! The covenant head of humankind, but not (or not necessarily) its biological father.

I hope the snow & ice have cleared up in Axminster…

eddy - #45471

December 31st 2010

Now, Jon, you have successfully persuaded me and I have changed my mind. At least, I no longer believe Sin is something heritable by principles of Mendelian genetics! But….will keep on thinking about the nature of Sin…and what is this “spiritual core” for Sin? Part of my problem is that I do not believe in body-spirit/soul duality. I firmly believe in human soul and human spirit (though can’t tell the difference and abhor preachers who try to tell the difference) but think that our intact material bodies are fine-tuned, in all its knowable and unknowable details, to produce human soul and human spirit.

beaglelady - #45472

December 31st 2010

Whence the idea that sin is in any sense genetic or carried by the genes? I’ve lost the thread here!

Perhaps it spreads as an STD.

eddy - #45473

December 31st 2010

“.... whatever may have been the case “in the beginning” we have no grounds nowadays to deny the gospel to any living person.”

On that point, you have successfully shut my mouth up!

“I’m persuaded that there is no adequate explanation for the biological origin of H sap that doesn’t take into account the other hominids,”

At the risk of being called a despiser of modern science, I think I will have to stay agnostic on the details about human origins except those derived from biblical information.

Martin Rizley - #45483

December 31st 2010

I’m curious as to how those who view Adam as “the covenant head of mankind, but not its biological father” understand the words of God in Genesis 1 when He says, “Now, let Us make man in Our image, in Our likeness.”  Apparently, God was doing something ‘new’ when he created Adam and Eve, for no other creature prior to them was in possession of the ‘image of God.’  From a biblical standpoint, therefore, there is an absolute ontological discontinuity between Adam and Eve and all creatures on earth.  Moreover, Adam and Eve were given dominion over the other creatures.  If there were other humans around at the time that they were created, does that mean that A & E were given ‘dominion’ over other humans, who were biologically similar to A & E, but devoid of a human soul and lacking the image of God?  That seems a bit hard to swallow!  If the apparent age of the fossils is the only thing that hinders people from accepting A & E as the biological parents of mankind, then why is it not possible that some event in the cosmic past has ‘thrown off’ the chronometers used to date the fossils? Why isn’t it possible, as Todd Wood theorizes, that homo neanderthalis and other fossils represent variant forms of mankind?

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