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

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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.


References & Credits

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.

About the Author

Denis Alexander

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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