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Genetics, Theology, and Adam as a Historical Person, Part 5

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January 13, 2011 Tags: Human Origins
Genetics, Theology, and Adam as a Historical Person, Part 5

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 fifth and final 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. In Part 3 and Part 4, he introduced the “Retelling Model” and the “Homo divinus Model.” Today Alexander outlines the disadvantages of the Homo divinus Model and presents some conclusions.

The Homo divinus model has the advantage that it takes very seriously the Biblical idea that Adam and Eve were historical figures as indicated by those texts already mentioned. It also sees the Fall as an historical event involving the disobedience of Adam and Eve to God’s express commands, bringing death in its wake. The model locates these events within Jewish proto-history.

For some, however, a disadvantage of the model will be the appeal to the Federal Headship of Adam to satisfy the need to see God’s call to fellowship with Him as being open to the whole of humankind and, equally, to see Adam’s disobedience as impacting the whole of humankind. The notion of Adam’s headship is of course perceived through passages such as Romans 5:12 and 17, and 1 Cor.15:22, although Romans 5:12 makes it clear that spiritual death came to all men by them actually sinning. Each person is responsible for his or her own sin. The model is not therefore consistent with a strictly Augustinian notion of the inheritance of the sinful nature, but in any case many biblical commentators do not find this notion in Scripture, which emphasizes the fact that all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23), rooting that fact in Adam’s sin (1 Cor. 15:22), but also highlighting the personal responsibility that each person has for their own sin (Deut.24:16; Jer.31:30; Rom. 5:12).

The Homo divinus Model will not answer all the theological questions that one might like to ask, any more than will the Retelling Model. For example, what was the eternal destiny of all those who lived before Adam and Eve? The answer really is that we have no idea. But we can be assured with Abraham: ‘Will not the Judge of all the earth do right?’ (Genesis 18:25). Thankfully we are not called to judge the earth, and we can leave that safely in the hands of the one who ‘judges justly’ (1 Peter 2:23). The question asked about those who lived prior to Adam and Eve is not dissimilar to other questions that we could ask. For example, what was the eternal destiny of those who lived in Australia at the time that the law was being given to Moses on Mt Sinai? Again, we really don’t know and, again: ‘Will not the Judge of all the earth do right?’ Christians who spend time speculating about such things can appear as if they are the judges of the world’s destiny, forgetting that that prerogative belongs only to God.


The two tentative models presented here may be seen as a work in progress. Both models are heavily under-determined by the data, meaning that there is insufficient data to decide either way. Both models might be false and a third type of model might be waiting in the wings ready to do a much better job; let us hope so. But for the moment the various ideas that have been suggested seem to represent versions of these two models.

Is it likely that new data may come along that will render either or both of these models untenable? It is not impossible, though if that happens it is from science that the new data are likely to come. For example, the Out of Africa model for human origins could be over-turned by new discoveries, unlikely as that might seem at present. Equally it is not impossible that new data might come to light on the roots of monotheism that might influence the model-building exercise.

Given that both models presented here suggest that human evolution per se is irrelevant to the theological understanding of humankind made in the image of God, it is likely that a preference for one model or another will be made based on a prior understanding of the claims made by particular Biblical texts. It should also be apparent that the adoption of one model over another may well have an impact on other theological perspectives. For example, if the Genesis Fall account is the story of the gradual alienation from God that occurred during some unspecified early era in the emergence of Homo sapiens, as in the Retelling Model, then the interpretation of the Fall can readily start to centre around human antisocial behavior, or the emergence of conflict, or even just human behaviors required for basic survival. But, important as these things are, I would suggest that they do not bring us to the heart of the biblical doctrine of the Fall, which is not about sociobiology, but about a relationship with God that was then broken due to human pride, rebellion and sin against God – with profound consequences for the spiritual status of humankind, and for human care for the earth. The Fall is about moral responsibility and sin, not about misbehavior, and sin involves alienation from God. A relationship cannot be broken by sin unless the relationship exists in the first place.

Such reflections are a reminder that models should never take the place of the data itself; otherwise we have a case of the tail wagging the dog. Sometimes in science we have to hold on firmly to different sets of very reliable data without any idea as to how the two sets can be built into a single coherent story. In relating anthropology to Biblical teaching we are in a much stronger position than that, since the models proffered go at least some way towards rendering the two data-sets mutually coherent. But no-one is naïve enough to think that such models are completely satisfying. On the other hand, one or other may give some useful insights along the way, and hopefully stimulate the building of better models in the future.

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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penman - #47699

January 17th 2011

Jon Garvey - #47689

Yes, that’s my current model - an investiture of all of then existing humanity with God-consciousness. What residue of anthropological evidence this would leave I’m not sure. I’m open to ideas!

Since the model is a hypothesis, not a divinely revealed dogma, any further details would be equally hypothetical. But I don’t interpret Adam’s headship as God covertly appointing one man as race-head, with no one else knowing anything about it. The parallel with Christ’s headship would count against that. The New Humanity are not unaware of their Head! So in some sense, I’d envisage the old humanity as having a sort of collective consciousness, focused in Adam, such that his sin was truly “participated in” by the race.

Why one particular man not another was chosen as head, I’ve no idea. One has to leave space for mystery & divine sovereignty.

Every model has its problems in making sense of biblical or empirical data. The only points I’m ready myself to be theologically dogmatic about are the historicity of Adam & the collective fall of the race in him. Any model that incorporates this, & tries to take seriously the scientific data, gets fraternal greetings from yours truly. So I tip my hat to your model!

Jon Garvey - #47728

January 17th 2011

@penman - #47699

“What residue of anthropological evidence this would leave I’m not sure. I’m open to ideas!”

Starters (given that a historical Adam makes image and fall contemporaneous):
(1) Moral sense: the first legal frameworks and penalties. Evidence of wanton violence. Evidence of conscience.
(2) Sense of destiny from command to rule: a transition from to man *as* nature to man *over* nature: civilisation and empires, class divisions and kingship, anthropocentrism in art and culture.
(3) Sense of eternity (cf Ecclesiastes): the desire for immortality, and increased fear of death.
(4) The emergence of personal deities (cf Romans 1): if human religion is debased worship of the true God, then there should be a transition from ritual/totemism etc to religion. Altars and temples. Priesthoods (as opposed to shamans).
(5) Tales of a recent creation rather than an endless unchanging past.

There are a few possibles - they all seem to be incompatible with the natural innocence of the Happy Hominid!

penman - #47879

January 18th 2011

Jon Garvey - #47728

Useful indicators. Does point (5) mean a recent creation of humanity, rather than of the whole world? I suppose the two things might have got conflated.

Do these indicators actually have a timeframe that has been determined by archaeology etc? If so, do they converge to a particular date?

Jon Garvey - #47888

January 18th 2011

@penman - #47879

I’m cheating a bit in that I’m somewhat informed by the anthropology… point 5 arises from Genesis itself: if life before Eden has become too insignificant to remember, then it suggests an important new beginning. And one notes an interesting amnesia in the ANE myths of the same type. There’s a flood just a few hundred years before, a few generations before that and then the creation, complete with king, city and temple.

Contrast that with the Australian dream-time stories , which seems lost in endless time gone.

The problem with dating is that all this coincides (maybe not accidently) with the beginning of history. You won’t get named deities before writing, obviously. But there does *seem* a transition between Venus effigies, and the apparently totemic religion and ancestor reverence in, say, Catal Hayuk,, and the sophisticated pantheons, temples and priesthoods of the first city states.

I guess the most significant thing to find would be the emergence of a truly human moral sense (as opposed to the quite different quality found in Chimps). If you ask what you’d need to look for in archaeology, it might be quite hard to pin down.

Dick Fischer - #48121

January 19th 2011

penman - #47879 wrote,

“Do these indicators actually have a timeframe that has been determined by archaeology etc? If so, do they converge to a particular date?”

Eridu, the first city in southern Mesopotamia, and according to Babylonian tradition was near the garden itself, was dated by archaeologists at 4800 BC.  There are indications that Alulim, the first king on the Sumerian King List, was contemporary with Adapa the sage who I believe was the Hebrew Adam.

The legend of Adapa appears to be a story about Adam concocted by a talented Akkadian scribe who drew upon elements of Adam’s life that were known at the time.  The timing fits and the place fits with the details provided by the Genesis author.

Also, Enoch (Sumerian Unug) appears on the SKL and was dated at 4200 BC.  You’ll see Unug in other Sumerian literature such as “Enmerkar (possibly Nimrod) and the Lord of Aratta.”

Paul D. - #48135

January 19th 2011

Jon, evidence of creation myths (including Genesis) as evidence of a qualitative change in the human mind and relationship to the world is an interesting idea.

It’s a shame practically no one had writing before 3,000 BC. I’d love to see what kind of stories a human from 5,000 BC or 10,000 BC might have written.

Jon Garvey - #48145

January 19th 2011

@Paul D. - #48135

Yup - it’s a shame they put everything on i-Pad back then…

penman - #48147

January 19th 2011

Thanks for recent comments by Jon, Dick Fischer, & Paul D. All stimulating!

The emergence of creation stories may indeed indicate some qualitative change in human consciousness. Now we have creatures not just exploiting their environment for physical survival purposes, but trying to explain intellectually & imaginatively why an environment exists at all, & postulating some kind of transcendent origin for the whole show.

That’s not the same, of course, as saying that we necessarily know exactly when such creation story-telling first originated. But there seems a case for arguing that the origin of creation story-telling marks the origin of a new kind of consciousness in the world.

Jon Garvey - #48155

January 19th 2011

@penman - #48147

It is an interesting fact that creation stories - and flood stories - are also the earliest stories we have. The explanation of that, of course, is that they coincide with the development of writing. That may be coincidental and misleading. Nevertheless the fact that they also coincide (in subject matter and context) with the onset of civilisation, metallurgy, science, priestcraft and so on seems at least intriguing.

That the Genesis narratives relate to those first stories - even retaining their geographical and cultural context - and not to some later invention, is of more note than the fact that they merely have a literary connection to tales in the region.

Jon Garvey - #48158

January 19th 2011

@Paul D. - #48135

“It’s a shame practically no one had writing before 3,000 BC. I’d love to see what kind of stories a human from 5,000 BC or 10,000 BC might have written.”

Surely! Yet that shows the danger of projecting back modern notions to what we *do* have from prehistoric times. For example, the most popular explanation of paleolithic art invokes modern shamanism (though I’ve read recently that unjustified liberties were taken with the modern data in propounding that theory). More generally, the art is taken as evidence of aesthetic and spiritual awareness in 20K BC.

But if there was a “God” event in more recent times, all such explanations could be completely off the mark. All we have for certain are signs that conceptual art - the ability to represent reality as image - had evolved, together with some (pretty advanced) aesthetic sense. Anything more is an projection back from our own inability to represent reality without some kind of consciousness of the spiritual.

We can’t actually know about any psychology between Homo divinus and Pan troglodytes.

Beckett - #48256

January 19th 2011

I agree wholeheartedly with this statement: “. I am somewhat taken back by the cavalier way a person like Augustine is dismissed. The ‘Augustinian’ tradition includes all of the Reformers and the bulk of Christian theologians down through the centuries.” (GLW).  Sadly, as we see an increase of thinkers jumping on the Darwinian bandwagon* I fear that much more of the Christian tradition will be dismissed as ignorant and outdated mush…since we moderns think we know so much more than they. On the other hand we should not hold our traditions up as if they were infallible. I may not agree with Augustine’s ideas on the transmission of sin. But, I certainly don’t dismiss it as easily as some of the commentators on this page have. I want to warn the growing group of scientists/theologians/philosophers who are suspicious and even hostile to our great Christian tradition to tread lightly in matters of science and faith. All too often I have seen a concern for academic respectability trump concern for faithfulness. If your science and philosophy are not subject to a passionate love and faith toward God, I fear you will drift further away from even a generous orthodoxy.  -B (*personally agnostic on this issue)

Cal - #48498

January 21st 2011


One must remember historically, Augustine was somewhat cavalier jettisoning ideas from other Christians (even though a great many Christians believed in an eventual Universal reconciliation, he chose not). He thought with a platonic spin (not necessarily a bad thing) and disliked the greek language.

Again, Augustine was a scholar and learned man who sought after coming closer to the heart of God and conforming to Christ, but we can not hang orthodoxy on him. We are to know Christ, Him crucified and His Resurrection, everything else there is liberty to ponder upon.

Wm Tanksley - #48674

January 22nd 2011

I’m sorry I missed GLW’s comment way up there on the 13th. He’s historically incorrect to say that denying Original Sin affirms Pelagianism. The Eastern Orthodox historically deny Original Sin, and emphatically deny Pelagianism.

I know, it surprised me too .

They also add that just as we cannot save ourselves, so also Adam and Eve could not save themselves—they accuse the concept of Original Sin as leading directly to pre-fall Pelagianism, since if the only thing separating us from a pelagian soteriology is Original Sin, then since Adam and Eve didn’t have that, they must have been able to save themselves by simply not sinning.

Keep in mind I’m not endorsing their view—I see an overly strong assumption being made, that just because pelagianism is heresy post-fall it must be heresy pre-fall—but at least they have an argument for their position.


Jon Garvey - #48848

January 23rd 2011

@Wm Tanksley - #48674

I think the historic Orthodox position is more nuanced than many people say (and closer to traditional western teaching) : see this - http://www.orthodoxchristianbooks.com/articles/310/-correct-translation-romans-5.12/

On the question of Adam and Eve, surely you only need to save yourself if you’re lost, which they weren’t? Most formulations in traditional systematic theology talk of their having original righteousness through God’s grace, so Pelagianism doesn’t really apply at all as far as I can see… except for the many people nowadays who don’t know what it means anyway as they don’t accept such a thing as sin.

Beckett - #49257

January 26th 2011


I’m not sure what you are getting at. In any event, I think I agree with you. I still maintain that too many of us moderns, especially since we think we know more than the ancients, are slowly but surely abandoning tradition (or at least pertinent aspects of it). We are also to love God with all of our minds and give a reason to everyone who asks. I think these things are part of, as you say, to know Christ etc. However, we do not know Christ in a vacuum….that is, apart from tradition(s). To be human is to be in a certain tradition, with particular presuppositions etc.  I don’t “hang my hat” on Augustine. I think I was trying to say that as well. A professor of mine told us: “never swallow a man whole.” Reformed, but always reforming.  -Beckett

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