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

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January 13, 2011 Tags: Human Origins

Today's entry was written by Denis Alexander. Please note the views expressed here are those of the author, not necessarily of The BioLogos Foundation. You can read more about what we believe here.

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

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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GLW Johnson - #47104

January 13th 2011

Dr. Alexander are you suggesting by your critique of the Augustinian position that not only was there no Fall as the Christian Church has held for centuries but no Originial sin as well? If so the company you now find yourself includes the nortorious Pelagius .This is a slippery slope that all forms Peligianism   ends up going over the edge of a vast theological chasm that is bottomless.

Normbv - #47109

January 13th 2011

Dr. Alexander,

Again thank you so much for what I consider a logical and coherent approach to understanding the overiding theme of the biblical story. This approach is what will bring both science and theology together along with the realization that there are some questions that we simply can’t answer as the bible doesn’t deal with them.

GLW;  Augustine is not the authority on the fall and Sin. He is just another man with some Greek philoosphy permeating his thinking as he applied it to Hebrew theology.  We understand things better now than he does and we need to rid ourselves of misconstured baggage from those who were not as equipped as we once thought.

Jon Garvey - #47113

January 13th 2011

@GLW Johnson - #47104

(1) When, as Dr Alexander has done, one explains alternative models that exist, it is not particularly helpful to attribute those views as if they were the author’s own.

(2) Since the view he is presenting here endeavours to affirm the historicity of Adam and Eve, the doctrines of original sin and the fall are not in question

(3) What is (sometimes) being sacrificed in this view is Augustine’s theory of transmission of sin by concupiscent sexual intercourse, which in itself is an ancient attempt to account for the inference from Scripture that sin passed to the race by generation. Many believe that federal headship gives an adequate explanation of the Scriptural evidence.

(4) I don’t believe the last point, but the Homo divinus model is capable of encompassing the spread of sin by generation.

(5) it is some versions of the Retelling Model that are prone to Pelagianism. But that can arise, as it did in Pelagius’ case, even with a literal understanding of Adam and Eve.

freetoken - #47170

January 14th 2011

Dr. Alexander wrote:

Both models are heavily under-determined by the data, [...]

May I suggest that the problem is just the opposite: the “data” has led to overdetermination?

In other words, there are conflicting evidence (a better word IMO than “data”): (1) within the religious document (Genesis) in question, (2) within the following religious documents (the OT and NT), and especially (3) between the discoveries of science (paleoanthropology, archaeology, genetics, etc.) and the A&E stories.

freetoken - #47171

January 14th 2011

@GLW Johnson - #47104

Put simply, modern science has shown Augustine to be wrong.  “Sin” is not something which is passed down through the procreation process.

Augustine was just a man who struggled with his own personal issues and worked to incorporate and systematize ideas circulating in his own time and culture.

GLW Johnson - #47195

January 14th 2011

Freetoken you claim that modern science has show that the Augustinian understanding of the Fall and Original Sin to be wrong? How?  This is a can of worms you are opening . What other Biblical / theological doctrines does ‘modern science’ disprove?Mr. Garvey, you claim that Dr. Alexander is seeking to affirm the historicity of Adam and Eve. You are stretching the meaning of ‘historical’  beyond the way it has been empoyed in the classical Christian tradition. 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.

BenYachov - #47206

January 14th 2011

>Put simply, modern science has shown Augustine to be wrong.  “Sin” is not something which is passed down through the procreation process.

Yeh buddy, original sin is the privation of sanctifying Grace in the soul.  Such things are by definition immaterial in regards to substance.  What physical sciences have to do with it is anybody’s guess.  Sin and evil in general are metaphysically privations of being not positive existing things in themselves as such.  Original sin does not mean we are somehow born filled with the “Dark Side of the Force” or some such nonsense as you are imagining here.

So I’m sorry, yours is a nonsensical statement.

Jon Garvey - #47227

January 14th 2011

@GLW Johnson - #47195

“Mr. Garvey, you claim that Dr. Alexander is seeking to affirm the historicity of Adam and Eve.”

No, I claim that Dr Alexander is describing a view that affirms their historicity. He does not, in the article, claim it as his own view.

“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.” How does that stretch the definition of “historical”?

Personally I’m an Augustinian in many respects - but I’ve not come across any contemporary evangelical who accepts, unmodified, his theory of the transmission of sin through the lust of the act of procreation. Nor of his opinions on physical coercion in church discipline. Nor his Neoplatonist leanings. Nor his allegorical interpretations of Scripture… That doesn’t mean he isn’t great, but it does mean, like all theologians, he isn’t infallible.

+1 to the idea that science disproving the fall in nonsense, though.

GLW Jhnson - #47231

January 14th 2011

That is a red herring- the discussion centers around Augustinianism and not just Augustine particular take on the specifics. A denial of the historicity of Adam and Eve and the Fall in the Garden entails a denial of Original Sin.It likewise implies a denial of the imputation of Adam’s sin especially if Adam is not a real historical figure who was the Federal head of all humanity- mythical figures are not culpable and cannot be said to act for real people.

penman - #47235

January 14th 2011

GLW Jhnson - #47231

Hang on - Denis Alexander isn’t denying the historicity of Adam. In his book Creation Or Evolution, he affirms it (see ch.10, Who Were Adam & Eve? – his Model C). He also affirms a historic fall. What he denies is that Adam was the biological father of all humans. Dr Alexander prefers a federal headship model of some sort. Much as I do.

So we can still have original sin, theologically (we’re stuck with it existentially, whatever our theology). All it requires is a historical fall of the race, which Dr Alexander has. I don’t think it strictly needs an Adam, but he’s there too in the Alexander model (& mine).

What remains a mystery is the mechanism whereby the primordial corruption of human nature is transmitted. That’s in some senses an irreducible mystery in any theology. But the fact is palpable: all humans save One enter the world with a fallen nature that needs salvation. And somehow, that fact has its source in the primal sin of the first divine-image-bearing humans.

Cal - #47268

January 14th 2011

One thing to consider is the fact demons and evil spirits are at work. We talk of Sin being in the world but one must remember, without Christ we were all in bondage to the Devil. Satan is an important figure to leave out of the calculations of considering the idea of “original sin” and the Fall.

freetoken - #47272

January 14th 2011

@GLW Johnson - #47195

Freetoken you claim that modern science has show that the Augustinian understanding of the Fall and Original Sin to be wrong? How?

Sexual reproduction is about the combining of genetic material from two parents.  Unless you can point to locations along the human DNA (or mtDNA) that can be labeled “sin”, then sexual reproduction is not a process that (in itself) passes on sin.

Thus if one wants to keep the concept of “sin” being passed from generation to generation then it has to be like any other social relationship or household good - passed on by, say, a last will and testament - a legal/cultural institution.

Paul D. - #47306

January 15th 2011

Good point, Freetoken. The notion of “original sin” made more sense back when procreation was a mystical process.

Jon Garvey - #47312

January 15th 2011

@freetoken - #47272

I agree with you that sexual reproduction passes on genetic material, and that sin is not carried on genes. I agree with you that environment can pass on behavioural and social traits. That much is the basic social science framework I studied 40 years ago.

But just as I got annoyed by the social science insistence that “genes and environment is all there is” your statement fails to explain how science has excluded other factors. For example, it has no mechanism for free will (which was the source of my annoyance whilst studying).

If one accept some sort of supernatural aspect to man’s nature, such as the soul, the spirit, or an inbuilt state of relationship and/or enmity to God, then neither genetics or environment are sufficient to account for it.

Science can only exclude any non-genetic and non-environmental means for transmission of sin (including even by natural generation) one it has disproved the existence of the spiritual. Which with regard to sin kind of defeats the object, wouldn’t you say?

Jon Garvey - #47326

January 15th 2011

@penman - #47235

“What he denies is that Adam was the biological father of all humans”

I know you’ll forgive me for reminding people that “biological father of all humans” isn’t the same thing scientifically as “the first human”.

The genetics suggests that Y-Adam was one of a population bottleneck of c1000 60+ K years ago. He is our ancestor because, over the millennia, all the other Y chromosome types then became extinct. But he is not our only ancestor from that time.

Unlike the evolution of species, which can be seen as a tree, descent within a species is a net. At 200-250 years after Y-Adam, each human would have had 1056 10th generation ancestors. Statistically, and possibly actually within that small a group, they were descended from the whole human population at the bottleneck. The genetic pool was thoroughly mixed every few hundred years. Everybody was descended from everyone who left descendants at all.

Today such mixing is slower because of a larger population and worldwide dispersion, but not astronomically so. We have many common ancestors, and there is no scientific reason for a historic Adam not to be one of them.

Jon Garvey - #47327

January 15th 2011

Sorry, for “1056” read “1024”.

Paul D. - #47472

January 16th 2011

@ Jon Garvey

“We have many common ancestors, and there is no scientific reason for a historic Adam not to be one of them.”

Quite true. But is there any theological reason to propose that the Hebrew authors of Genesis in the first millennium BC actually had in mind a biological progenitor from 60,000 BCE, and that this interpretation of Adam is superior to (A) a more recent patriarch with a closer spiritual connection to the nation of Israel, or (B) an allegory of all mankind and his fallen nature?

Jon Garvey - #47494

January 16th 2011

@Paul D. - #47472

Paul, quite agree. I’m not proposing 60K - mixing of the gene pool is measured in 100s-1000s of years rather than 10,000s. In other words, entirely compatible with the Hebrew understanding you mention in (A).

To place a historic Adam in the palaeolithic is to take Genesis 2-3 not only out of their own stated historical context, but out of the flow of the narrative in the rest of the book. That is you have problems putting a a context on Lamech and Methuselah and end up just junking them, having arbitrarily accepted Adam.

The “allegory” idea is, of course, popular but in my view leaves too much unexplained theologically, doesn’t sit well with Biblical doctrine generally and tends to a naturalistic view of spiritual matters and big problems with theodicy. Like many, I believe Adam and Eve are essential, not peripheral, figures.

penman - #47685

January 17th 2011

Jon Garvey #47326
=I know you’ll forgive me for reminding people that “biological father of all humans” isn’t the same thing scientifically as “the first human”=

Hi Jon
I forgive you. And I’ll probably get hilariously out of my depth if I try to say what Denis Alexander’s view of this is.

My view is that “human” here is ambivalent. Prior to God’s bestowal of His image, I think there were “humans” around, in the sense that they were anatomically human, & had mental capacities not unlike ours. But they lacked a spiritual God-consciousness, & were not accountable to God for good or evil. Nor did they have an eternal destiny - I’d see that as bound up with the divine image.

I think God’s bestowal of the image made these humans into the “higher” kind of human we know: God-conscious, “homo divinus”. In my view Adam wasn’t the only one, but he was their federal head. I don’t want to identify Adam with a purely biological ancestor who lived 60,000 years ago; the hints given in Genesis put him much closer to us - say between 4 & 10 thousand years ago roughly. But I can’t see anything in Genesis or elsewhere that makes him the progenitor of all other image-bearing humans (as distinct from their federal head).

Jon Garvey - #47689

January 17th 2011

@penman - #47685

To interact with that view (not a million miles from mine, as you know) it demands a sudden, or not, simultaneous investiture of the whole human race with God-consciousness, accountability and whatever else “image” entails.

Would you say there would be noticeable signs of that change in archaeology or history, and if so in what possible ways? One would imagine some ripples from the world waking up and finding itself in new relationship with God and each other. In what did Adam’s federal headship consist, and would the whole race have known of it? That is was he their king or priest, or just someone delegated as such by the grace of God in one corner of the globe?

For some odd reason I’m reminded of a Marty Feldman sketch in which a Jewish man living in a bedsit in Clapham gets a telegram asking him to be Pope. The absurdity lies both in the arbitrary choice and the incongruity of having a Pontiff living in obscurity.

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