Tomorrow, a new book by Dennis Venema and Scot McKnight will hit the market, titled Adam and the Genome: Reading Scripture after Genetic Science. I don’t know of any other book in the history of books that is jointly written by a geneticist and a New Testament scholar. That fact alone might warrant our giving some attention to it. But add to that the fact that the book came from a BioLogos meeting and grant program, and you can bet that we’ll be promoting it heavily.
This week on the blog we’ll have a series of reflections on the book from people across a range of views. Tomorrow will feature Pete Enns of Eastern University (and former BioLogos Senior Fellow); later in the week we'll hear from Ken Keathley of Southeastern Baptist Seminary and Denis Alexander of the Faraday Institute at Cambridge University. We’ve invited Venema and McKnight to respond to these posts on the blog next week. Today I’ll give an overview of the book—hopefully just enough to whet your appetite to get the book and read the whole thing.
The BioLogos statement of beliefs doesn’t mention Adam and Eve (neither do the historic creeds of the church), and different members of our community come to different conclusions on the topic. We think it is important for there to be continued conversations among informed and committed Christians on this and other important issues.
I think Adam and the Genome will help to foster a more substantial conversation between contemporary evolutionary science and biblical interpretation. It is a healthy model of allowing scientists to do their science and biblical scholars to do their interpretation, while both do their work in the company of the others. No doubt some critics will say this is one more example of science trumping the Bible. That is a misreading and a failure to seriously engage what Venema and McKnight have done.
It might be more accurate to say the book is an example of science making us question a major tradition of interpretation. Almost certainly we can say that Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, and a host of other important pillars of church tradition believed Adam and Eve to be “historical” figures (a term that gets some unpacking and qualifying below); they had little reason to think otherwise. But remember they believed a lot of other things we don’t accept today (e.g., the earth doesn’t move, slavery is defensible). So of course not all beliefs represented in our tradition should be accepted. But did the inspired authors of Scripture believe Adam and Eve were real people who gave rise to the entire human race, and if so, does that compel us to believe it today, despite what science says?
The first section of Adam and the Genome gives us a substantial account of what science has to say related to our understanding of Adam and Eve. Some readers will be tempted to skip this and get right to the biblical interpretation. I strongly urge you not to do that. Take the time to work through the explanations and examples; look up terms you don’t know; acquaint yourself with the evidence. This is how you truly become informed about this topic and might be able to explain some of it to others (instead of merely saying, “well I’ve heard the experts say this”).
Venema walks through how genetics provides amazing evidence for evolution and common ancestry (you can see more of this at his massive series, Evolution Basics, and other posts on his blog). Most relevantly for this book, he argues that humans evolved from previous lifeforms, and that since the beginning of our species, there has never been fewer than about 10,000 individuals. These two claims undermine the traditional view of Adam and Eve as having no biological parents themselves, and as being the sole progenitors of all other human beings.
Regarding the minimum population size, Venema gives four different ways this is calculated. When skeptics do address this issue, they typically only cite the calculation based on mutation rates and claim that these rates are unverifiable assumptions. But there are other ways of calculating the minimum population size that do not depend on mutation rates. These give remarkably similar values, and this is powerful evidence that we understand the science correctly. It’s like asking eyewitnesses what happened at some particular scene: if you only ask one and don’t know much about that person, you might not be persuaded that her account is correct; but if you ask several others independently and get substantially the same account, that makes you think you can trust the original person and that what they are all reporting really did happen.
So, the scientific “eyewitnesses” have weighed in and claim there is not an original couple who gave rise to the rest of humanity. How does the Bible scholar respond? McKnight’s chapters are not some sort of forced attempt to make science interpret Scripture, but rather to let science prod us to look at Scripture again more carefully. His basic argument is that the Adam (and Eve) we find in Scripture is not the “historical” Adam as we typically understand that qualifier today, but rather is the “literary” Adam. That is to say, when Paul talks about Adam, he is not talking about the actual historical circumstances of some guy named “Adam” but rather he is talking about the Adam who is a character in the Genesis account which had been passed down in Jewish communities for hundreds of years. Many other writers in Paul’s day used this literary Adam to illustrate and explain the stories they wanted to tell. So it is completely legitimate to conclude (beyond a reasonable dispute) that, when talking about Adam, Paul was participating in an established genre of literature that treated “history” much differently than people do today. So, if we want to understand better the intentions of the human authorship of the Bible (which was God’s chosen instrument to convey his word to us), we need to understand the thought world they lived in.
Now, this affirmation of a “literary” Adam doesn’t mean there was no “historical” Adam in the sense we mean it today—just that Paul was not concerned with that question in the same way that we are today. McKnight claims (and much hangs on this claim) that most people today, when they talk about a historical Adam, mean the following:
- There were two actual people named Adam and Eve who existed suddenly without precursors as a result of God’s creation.
- Those two have a biological relationship to the rest of humanity.
- Their DNA is our DNA.
- Those two sinned, died, and brought death into the world.
- Those two passed on the sin nature to all subsequent human beings.
- If they had not sinned and passed on their sin nature, human beings would not need salvation.
- Therefore if there was no “historical” Adam, there is no gospel.
McKnight contends that many of these points go far beyond what Paul was actually trying to communicate about Adam. Thus, one cannot just wave Paul around as a way to affirm the necessity of a “historical” Adam. There are subtleties here that require slow and careful reading, as is true of the book as a whole. And of course not everyone will agree with the conclusions—you’ll see some disagreement among the people we’ve asked to comment on it. But this argument cannot be brushed aside.
Christians who take the Bible seriously want to interpret it correctly. We’re not looking to bend and shape it to our personal beliefs, but to have it shape us and our beliefs. As such, we should be open to considering whether we have inherited ways of interpreting Scripture that are more a product of previous cultures than they are the absolute and unchanging word of God. If science can help us see more clearly what God has communicated, then we should be grateful.
I hope you’ll join us the rest of this week as we engage Adam and the Genome from several perspectives.