t f p g+ YouTube icon

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

Bookmark and Share

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.

< Previous post in series Next post in series >

View the archived discussion of this post

This article is now closed for new comments. The archived comments are shown below.

Page 3 of 4   « 1 2 3 4 »
Jon Garvey - #45484

December 31st 2010

@penman - #45466

‘Twas eddy’s idea, penman, and he’s now recanted - which is good, since I hate the smell of burning flesh!

Jon Garvey - #45485

December 31st 2010

@eddy - #45471

I too am uneasy about the concept of “soul” in any way separable from the body, but it’s convenient and also avoids unnecessary offence to our Catholic and Orthodox brethren.

Much of what is in Genesis seems relational: God reveals himself to and makes a covenant with Adam, which Adam breaks. He loses actual or potential eternal life because he loses relationship with the source of life he’s encountered. But, like an metaphysical soul, such things are not amenable to science’s dissection except, perhaps, through secondary effects.

Jon Garvey - #45486

December 31st 2010

@beaglelady - #45472

“Perhaps it spreads as an STD.”

That isn’t million miles from Augustine’s conception, the disease being “concupiscence”.

Jon Garvey - #45488

December 31st 2010

@Martin Rizley - #45483

Martin, I agree that “image” was new, though I view it functionally in that man *became* the image of God on and for the earth. It’s hard for me to reconcile that with scattered hunter-gatherers and their mother-goddesses, and I certainly have problems with mankind being the image, or image bearer, with only a federal relationship to Adam.

“Dominion” is actually “kabash”, subdue, which far from being some kind of unbridled tyranny can have the sense of bringing to order, especially under God (as in Micah 7.19, of God’s compassion towards sinners). Surely that’s a suitable word for a king like Adam?

Of apparent age, personally I think it more likely people are getting their Genesis chronometers wrong than the multitude of scientific clocks available to us.

beaglelady - #45489

December 31st 2010

That isn’t million miles from Augustine’s conception, the disease being “concupiscence”.

It’s difficult to see how we’d be here without concupiscence.

Chris Massey - #45495

December 31st 2010


“then why is it not possible that some event in the cosmic past has ‘thrown off’ the chronometers used to date the fossils? “

There are several different, unrelated radiometric dating methods, which all produce consistent results. The Wikipedia page on “radiometric dating” summarizes many of them. So the first problem is the completely ad hoc nature of the argument that some unknown event in the past altered the laws of physics to such a degree that our measurements of radioactive decay are unreliable by enormous orders of magnitude.

The second problem is trying to explain why multiple independent clocks that have been dramatically altered by some unknown event are all still in agreement with each other. If I check my watch and it says it’s 2:00 p.m., it may be that my watch is off. But if I also check my stove, my microwave, the dash of my car, my neighbor’s DVD player and the clock in the town square and they all say it’s 2:00 p.m., then it’s highly unlikely that all those clocks are wrong.

Martin Rizley - #45496

December 31st 2010

John,  When you say that you view God’s image in man as a ‘functional’ reality, are you saying God’s image only has to do with what man ‘does’ on the earth, rather than with what he ‘is’ intrinsically?  I agree that man reflects God’s image, in part, by ruling over the earth.  But it seems to me that God’s image in man goes farther than that.  It has to do with capacities that man has that other creatures lack, such as the capacity to know God, to communicate with Him, and to worship Him in spirit and truth.  Man also has an aesthetic faculty that we do not observe in the animal kingdom.  With regard to the scientific clocks available to us, is it not possible (at least) that some of these clocks,  such as the rate of radioactive decay in rocks,  were ‘thrown off’ by some past supernatural event in history, while other clocks—such as the data from astronomy—provide us with an accurate indication of the age of the universe?  From the standpoint of Christian philosophy, can we eliminate with such unquestioning certainty this possibility—that only some, but not all, of the chronometers scientists use are reliable?

Rich - #45497

December 31st 2010

Re: 45472

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

beaglelady:  Perhaps it spreads as an STD.

beaglelady, your one-liner was tasteless.  The choice of “STD” (calling up images of AIDS, syphilis, etc.) was clearly deliberate, and the effect (I suspect intended) is to make mock of the Western theological notion of hereditary sinfulness.  And this isn’t the first time.  Not long ago you were implicitly mocking the idea of translation to a higher spiritual form by asking whether the parasites were translated.  It’s a very odd form of Christianity you subscribe to, that encourages such sarcasm regarding theological doctrines.  But then, I’m used to seeing very odd forms of Christianity from TEs.  One day perhaps I will see the form known as orthodox Christianity.

Jon Garvey - #45500

December 31st 2010

@Martin Rizley - #45496

Without being dogmatic about it (it’s fairly unimportant to the specific issues on this thread) I’d suggest that not all that makes man *capable* of being God’s image is actually that image.

I subscribe to the idea that what is in view in Genesis is the same concept as the image of a false god in an idol, rather than trying to pin down how man can be “like” God. So to the pagan, the idol is merely a statue until, by the right rituals etc, the god indwells the image and makes it worthy of being put in the temple, revered etc as the interface between the god and the world.

Apply that to the true God whose temple is the world, and whose representative image is (or was intended to be) man. and the main qualification is God’s indwelling. Of course, the “image” needs to be suitable for purpose, just as the pagan idol needs to be suitably beautiful, valuable etc. But without the dedication it’s just a statue, not an image. So man needs to have the capacities you state plus some strictly biological ones like reason, speech etc - but those things of themselves do not constitute God’s image, which is his function before God.

Chris Massey - #45501

December 31st 2010


You aren’t grappling with the problem. What kind of supernatural (or natural) event would fundamentally alter the physics of over a dozen different types of radioactive decay, but do so in such a way that the resulting “thrown off” clocks all told the same consistent story? (which just happened also to be consistent with astronomical data, tree ring data, ice core data, lake sediment core data, etc.)?

These God-just-made-it-that-way arguments invariably turn God into a deceiver. If I run around my house and set every single clock to the same wrong time, I have to know that I will mislead everyone in my house as to the true time . And that is why we can eliminate this possibility from the standpoint of Christian philosophy.

Martin Rizley - #45506

December 31st 2010

John,  I can see one problem with a ‘functional’ view of God’s image in man—what does that say about the unborn fetus, which does not appear to be fulfilling any image-bearing ‘function’ on earth?  Does the unborn fetus possess the image of God?  One of the strongest arguments against abortion is that, from the moment of conception in the womb, human beings are made in the image of God, because they possess an immortal soul capable of knowing God and worshipping God.  The fetus is never just an ‘aggragate of cells,’ nor is it ever equivalent in value, at any stage of its development, to a fish or amphibian.  It is a ‘person’ from the moment of its conception in the womb—that is evident from the fact that Christ was a person from the moment of his conception in the womb of Mary— so to kill the unborn fetus deliberately and wilfully is to commit an act of murder.  God’s image in man is something more than a mere ‘function’ man performs, therefore.  It has to do with his intrinsic nature as a personal being; God’s image in man surely sets him apart from the animals from the moment of his conception in the womb.

Martin Rizley - #45510

December 31st 2010

Chris,  The Bible records several incidents that could conceivably, have affected some of the chronometers scientists use to date the age of fossils.  For example, we read of an incident in Joshua 10 when God caused the sun to stand still in the sky for the space of about a day.  What physical processes were involved in this event?  We do not know.  Did God bend the light waves in space to make it appear as if the sun were standing still?  Did He punch the ‘pause’ button on the movements of heavenly bodies, so that the earth stopped rotating on its axis and/or other heavenly bodies simply ‘froze’ in their movements.  Such an event would violate everything we know about the laws of physics.  It would require God to put forth powerful forces to keep the universe intact.  Conceivably, such forces might have affected the amount of radioactive decay we now observe in the rocks.  This is admittedly a purely ‘ad hoc’ idea; but my point is this—if we live in a supernatural universe—the only kind of universe that Christians believe in—can anyone discount the POSSIBILITY of some extraordinary event like this affecting the chronometers on which scientists rely for their calculations of age (continued)?

Martin Rizley - #45511

December 31st 2010

Regarding the ice core data, I remember that Helen Fryman has an interesting article on the CARM website, in which she points out how the interpretation of the ice core data relies heavily on the assumptions that one begins with.  The main point I am making is this—that the Christian cannot accept with unquestioning faith the uniformitarian assumptions on which so much of modern historical science relies.  After all, we believe in a God who not only can, but has intervened supernaturally in the past to perform miracles on a cosmic scale—such as that of Joshua 10—which may well have affected in some way the data on which scientists rely to determine the age of the rocks.  My point is this—given all the ‘unknowns’ about God’s actions in the past, and their possible effect on the physical data, there is no compelling reason why Christians must abandon their faith—and it is FAITH— in the literal truthfulness of the biblical record,  It is by FAITH we know—not bt science or reason—that God created the universe out of nothing, and that He created Adam and Eve as the very first human beings made uniquely in His image.

Chris Massey - #45513

December 31st 2010

None of the supernatural interventions you have described would have any bearing on radioactive decay rates. You may wish to read some non-creationist literature about radiometric dating before resting your hopes on such explanations.

Even if I grant you that God may have intervened supernaturally in ways that have fundamentally altered the physics of the universe, that still doesn’t address the main issue, namely, the consistency of the data.

If the clocks are all off, why are they all off in such a coherent fashion? Why do independent radiometric dating methods agree with each other? Why do radiometric dating methods agree with methods that having nothing to do with radiometric decay, like tree rings and lake sediments? It’s the consistency of the data that your ad hoc supernatural explanation cannot account for in any coherent way.

Chris Massey - #45514

December 31st 2010


Re: assumptions in ice core data.
This is the standard answer that creationist apologists give for every dating method - that they rest on an assumptions. Tree rings, ice cores, sedimentary layers, C-14 dating, radiometric dating. Every single time a line of evidence paints the same consistent picture of the age of the earth, the creationist dismisses it by saying that it rests on assumptions, hoping (without evidence) that in every single case one of those assumptions is wrong by astonishing orders of magnitude.

It may be that each dating method is plagued with a grossly inaccurate presumption that renders it unreliable (though inexplicably consistent with all the other unreliable dating methods). But I would propose a far more parsimonious explanation - an explanation that requires only one assumption to be wrong, namely, that Genesis was meant to be taken literally.

That’s all it takes to make sense of ALL the data - revisiting one simple assumption.

Jon Garvey - #45517

December 31st 2010

@Martin Rizley - #45506

I’d argue quite the opposite of this: Adam was the image-bearer (or image) because God ordained that he and his progeny were. The very fact that Adam’s biological makeup in itself was insufficient for him to be God’s image applies to the unborn, the damaged and the unloved: they are God’s image because God declares them to be so.

Or to put it another way the image is a collective, rather than an individual, property: “in [as] the image of God he created him/male and female he created them.” Individuals may lack biological faculties, but are part of the progeny of Adam.

It’s the allocation of “image” to some human faculty that makes for discrimination: “that fetus is not yet self-aware, and so is a non-person.” “That man is brain-damaged and that woman is dementing, so cannot be called truly human.” “That slave is black, so under the curse of Ham.” As it is, God’s covenant with Noah confirmed the sacredness of all human life because of the image borne by the race.

“...From the moment of conception in the womb, human beings are made in the image of God, because they possess an immortal soul capable of knowing God and worshipping God.” That’s your function, too, then.

nedbrek - #45576

January 1st 2011

Chris, I think you are on the wrong track.  Creationists do not need to provide an alternate explanation to claim that deep time is wrong.

Also, consider clocks running at the top of Everest, versus those at sea level.  They will run at different rates.  No one without an understanding of general relativity would be able to explain it.

Martin Rizley - #45583

January 1st 2011

You say, “I would propose a far more parsimonious explanation - an explanation that requires only one assumption to be wrong, namely, that Genesis was meant to be taken literally.”  The problem is, that is the only assumption we can be sure is right, if by “taking Genesis literally” you mean taking it literally to the extent that Jesus and Paul took it literally.  They obviously believed that Adam and Eve were the literal parents of the human race, for Paul talks about the man being created first, then the woman coming from the man—an obvious reference to the creation narrative in Genesis 2.  He also talks about sin entering the world through one man, an obvious reference to Adam in Genesis 3.  So the one thing we can be sure about is that Adam and Eve literally existed and that human sin and death literally “entered the world” through them.  Before a certain moment, sin was not in the world, after that moment, it was.  So it is my conviction science must be willing to yield at that point to the teaching of Scripture.  (continued)

Martin Rizley - #45585

January 1st 2011

When it comes to the various chronometers you mention—  tree rings, ice cores, sedimentary layers, C-14 dating, radiometric dating—it is true that when one interprets the data on uniformitarian assumptions, a fairly consistent picture emerges of great age.  That is not to say that the ages all agree, or that they are ‘fixed.’  In fact, the age of the earth and the universe has been recalculated various times during the last century.  This past summer, a geological study concluded the earth was 70 million years younger than previously thought.  Other recent studies have recalculated the age of the dinosaurs, the age of the Andes mountains, the age of Peking man, the age of Saturn’s rings, the age of the solar system, the length of time that ’homo sapiens’ have been on the earth, and the length of time oxygen has been produced on the earth.  So it is a bit misleading to suggest that the age of things has been decisively determined by science.  The conclusions of science are provisional and based on the available evidence.  Still, it is true that the data, when interpreted on uniformitarian assumptions, gives a fairly consistent picture of great age (continued).

Martin Rizley - #45586

January 1st 2011

But, if the earth underwent dramatic changes in the past—for example, at the time of the fall, the flood, the stopping of the sun in the sky in Joshua‘ day—it seems possible that the cumulative effect of these supernatural catastrophes and divine interventions could be to give a consistently old appearance to the earth, far in excess of its actual age.  That would mean that the calculations of uniformitarian science may yield answers that are reasonable, and from the standpoint of Occam’s razor, ‘elegantly’ simple—but wrong, nevertheless.  One mustn’t equate the reasonable with the true.  After all, a Unitarian view of God is much simpler and, from the standpoint of human logic,  more ’reasonable’ than belief in the Trinity—but the Unitarian view of God is simply wrong.  So reason, I repeat, is of lesser authority than what the Scripture teaches.  And there can be no doubt about what the Scripture teaches concerning Adam and Eve and the ‘point in time” entrance of sin into the world through them..

Page 3 of 4   « 1 2 3 4 »