The Quest for the Historical Adam: A New Book by William VanDoodewaard

| By on Reading the Book of Nature


This new book is likely to be very influential, especially in young-earth creationist circles. (image source)


I’m interrupting my series on Antebellum religion and science this week to introduce and comment on a new book about a crucial biblical and theological topic: the historicity of Adam and Eve. There are so many things I’d like to say that a full review of the book would take several columns, postponing other things I’d rather not postpone, so I won’t attempt that task. Instead, I’ll put the most important things into this one column. After introducing the book and the author, I’ll provide a general sense of its scope, content, and attitude before stating some reservations and cautions. I conclude with a detailed critique of a crucial flaw—namely, its highly misleading presentation of the history of creationism, in which VanDoodewaard says very inaccurate things about the scholarship of Ronald L. Numbers, the leading historian of creationism. In a second column tomorrow, Numbers himself will reply to VanDoodewaard.

The Potentially Wide Influence of This Book

Let me announce another new book about Adam and Eve: The Quest for the Historical Adam: Genesis, Hermeneutics, and Human Origins (2015), by church historian William VanDoodewaard of Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary in Grand Rapids, Michigan. With a spate of such books in the past few years, why does this one need to be on your radar screen? Why do I think this book will prove to be important?

Partly it’s the topic—Adam and Eve are on the front burner now among conservative Christians, and I don’t think that will change any time soon. We’ve long needed a much better understanding of how Christians have interpreted the Bible on matters related to science, especially on matters such as this. VanDoodewaard’s book includes a wealth of accurate, often lengthy, quotations from many very important authors since the church fathers. We need quite a bit more than this (see below), but not less. The book has some value for this reason alone, provided that it’s not read in isolation.

Partly it’s the author’s strict biblical literalism, not simply on Adam and Eve but also on the “days” in Genesis One and the absence of any creative activity prior to the first “day.” I’m not describing his approach as “literalism” in order subtly to slant my commentary to appeal to certain readers and not to others. He uses the adjective “literal” seemingly on every other page, preceding various nouns (literal sense, literal creationist, literal reading, literal hermeneutic, etc.), and always favorably, such that for me not to call him a “literalist” would be unfairly to misrepresent his viewpoint. He’s also a young-earth creationist, as implied by the fact that he formerly taught at the devoutly creationist Patrick Henry College.

Partly it’s also the author’s location at a staunchly Reformed seminary, from where he can be pointedly critical of some other self-consciously Reformed institutions for their failure to toe the line (where he draws it) on biblical literalism in Genesis, including even Westminster Theological Seminary (mostly the Philadelphia branch), the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, and the Presbyterian Church in America. Most Christians probably wouldn’t regard any of those places as hotbeds of liberalism, but VanDoodewaard apparently does. For about a quarter century there has been a prolonged conversation about hermeneutics, theology, and science among conservative Presbyterians, including prominent individuals associated with all of the bodies just named. For that reason alone, VanDoodewaard will probably sell lots of books.

Above all, however, it’s the fact that the author’s alternative account of the history of creationism will almost certainly have wide appeal in creationist circles, despite the fact that it refutes a straw man, since VanDoodewaard offers a highly misleading presentation of the standard account—the one he thinks he’s refuting—as found in The Creationists, by historian of science Ronald L. Numbers of the University of Wisconsin. I return to this below.

Prior to the title page are nineteen highly enthusiastic endorsements (some of them reprinted here) written by very conservative scholars and scientists from six continents, including two very influential voices in the American conversation, biologist Kurt Wise and Presbyterian theologian Ligon Duncan. The most significant endorsement, however, is the foreword by none other than Albert Mohler, the Calvinistic leader of the conservative takeover of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, KY, and one of the most prominent Christian commentators in the blogosphere. In Mohler’s opinion, this book is “just the type of antidote needed to rectify careless theological reflections” on the historicity of Adam and Eve, making it “a wonderful step forward in the conversation and a necessary project in the defense of biblical orthodoxy.” Commendations like these will draw attention and readers to the book. Since its publication, the book has been reviewed very appreciatively several times by Reformed readers, including a highly favorable review in Reformed Perspective magazine (note how this reviewer picks up on VanDoodewaard’s comments about Ronald Numbers) and another one in Christian Scholar’s Review by theologian Hans Madueme of Covenant College (not publicly accessible to non-subscribers).

The fact that VanDoodewaard’s book can be purchased from Answers In Genesis implies their approval of its content—something they never give to anything even remotely “compromising” of a strict YEC position. Thus, I was pleasantly surprised by the generous spirit with which he concludes the book. Mentioning three prominent authors from the past whose views on Genesis he does not accept—Simon Patrick, B. B. Warfield, and Meredith Kline—he goes on to say that many of their followers today “remain capable exegetes and expositors of much of the riches of God’s Word and the gospel of Jesus Christ. As fellow believers, they are to be loved, and the positive substance of their work appreciated.” A few lines later, he reminds his readers of the need to “walk humbly, … to be watchful in love for one another, and where there is error to respond in a spirit of Christlike faithfulness” (p. 316). Overall, I think VanDoodewaard usually did this, for which I commend him. The holy disgust I often hear from certain creationist leaders is not evident here. I sense the presence of someone with whom I could have a decent, perhaps even productive, conversation, rather than a shouting match. Indeed, I learned much about the ideas of many modern authors (and a few earlier ones) whose work was previously unfamiliar or unknown to me. I wouldn’t hesitate to use this book as a starting point for further reading in or about many of those authors. To that extent, at least, this book is worth owning and consulting—but do so with your eyes wide open.

The Scope and Attitude of the Book: Some Major Limitations

VanDoodewaard has written a very Protestant book—that is, a book in which Post-Reformation Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox thinkers are missing, as if they suddenly ceased to be Christians who read Genesis thoughtfully—and in which the conversation about patristic and medieval authors is somewhat truncated, though still useful for the many lengthy quotations it contains. Additionally, his particular focus on orthodox Reformed authors (especially from Holland and North America in modern times), though not entirely to the exclusion of others, is a further limitation, although his Puritan publisher probably views this differently. Of course no one can write about everything in a single book, but his zeal to find overlooked (and especially) Reformed proponents of literalism shapes the book in ways that will not always help readers form accurate conclusions about the larger historical picture. In fact, orthodox Reformed views about Adam and Eve are just one important component of that picture. VanDoodewaard is very narrowly focused on bringing attention to orthodox Reformed thinkers, and he has every right to define the focus of his own book, but consequently readers don’t really get a good sense of what they’re missing along the way. Readers looking for a broader view of the historical landscape, from a book that promises to provide “a historical survey of Genesis commentary on human origins from the patristic era to the present” (p. 8), are likely to be disappointed.


The Genesis Debate: Three Views on the Days of Creation (2001), edited by David Hagopian, contains lengthy presentations of three interpretations of Genesis—the “24-hour” view (literal, sequential days), the day-age view, and the framework view, mostly written by conservative Presbyterian scholars. Astrophysicist Hugh Ross, the only exception, is Minister of Apologetics in a very conservative Congregationalist church whose theology is broadly Reformed. This is just one of several places in which other voices in the ongoing, sometimes intense conservative Reformed conversation about origins can be found. VanDoodewaard devotes nearly two pages to summarizing the section in this book written by Ligon Duncan & David W. Hall advocating the literal view and about three times as much space to summarizing the position of the late Meredith G. Kline. However, the authors of the section on the day-age view are all but left out of VanDoodewaard’s book. Ross is mentioned only in a single footnote, and readers will look in vain for an index entry for the late Gleason L. Archer, one of the most respected evangelical scholars of his generation. Note the complete absence here of any view similar to Evolutionary Creation. (image source)


 

Even with his handling of Reformed authors, however, there are important omissions that might unduly influence his readers. For example, numbered among the missing are Wheaton professor Henri Blocher, a proponent of the framework view who wrote the InterVarsity Press commentary on Genesis; Robert C. Newman, a trained astrophysicist and opponent of evolution who taught New Testament at Biblical Theological Seminary for decades (now retired) and wrote an original old-earth creationist book about Genesis; and the late Jon H. Stek, an Old Testament scholar at Calvin Theological Seminary who helped translate the New International Version of the Bible and who wrote fascinating things about how to read Genesis. Karl Barth, the most important theologian of the twentieth century, is likewise ignored, being mentioned just once in passing and not in a very positive context. Perhaps VanDoodewaard doesn’t regard Barth as genuinely Reformed (some scholars do not), but since some non-Reformed scholars are discussed it doesn’t make much sense to leave him out.

 Ultimately it comes down to what an author is trying to accomplish. VanDoodewaard certainly hasn’t written the kind of comprehensive history of interpretations that some readers will expect from reading the introduction, but he has put on display ideas about early Genesis from many important theologians and biblical scholars, most of them since 1500 being Reformed. That may satisfy many of his readers, but it won’t leave them as well informed about the larger picture as he might wish. 

The Content of the Book: Some Misleading Facts, Omissions, and Conclusions

Many readers of VanDoodewaard’s book will probably not be scholars, and most will surely not be experts on the history of science and religion. They will be relying on him to read and interpret the original sources for them. Unfortunately, VanDoodewaard sometimes says very puzzling, even erroneous, things that are likely to mislead. I’ll offer a few examples, before dealing separately with a major misunderstanding about Seventh-Day Adventism and modern creationism that lies at the heart of the book and has already influenced its favorable reception in some quarters. 

His presentation of Charles Darwin’s racist view of human evolution comes to mind first. He quite properly quotes a pertinent passage from Darwin’s Descent of Man (pp. 200-201), in which Darwin places “the Caucasian” higher on the evolutionary ladder than “the negro or Australian [aborigone],” but this is followed immediately by this sentence: “Abandoning the plain language of the text of Genesis meant the abandonment of the unity of the human race in the dignity and equality of being created in the image of God” (p. 141). That’s probably true specifically for Darwin, but I think many readers will take this as a sweeping generalization about the history of ideas, carrying with it a crucial message for our own time—namely, that to save us from the sin of racism we must hold the line on the separate creation of the first humans. If I have misinterpreted the author’s intent here, then I withdraw my objection, but it would still be helpful to avoid juxtaposing Darwin’s words with that sentence, which concludes his treatment of Darwin and therefore functions as the takeaway message. However, if VanDoodewaard intended to lead readers down that path, then he will have very badly misled them, for some of the most vocal Antebellum defenders of slavery were also among the most vocal proponents of biblical literalism in the Reformed tradition—the very kind of people that VanDoodewaard elevates in his book. Racism is racism, whether it’s added onto evolution or special creation. History is replete with instances of either, but this book could easily leave its readers with more fuel for the wrong fire.

Later in the same chapter, VanDoodewaard mentions Hugh Miller, the enormously influential Scottish evangelical writer and stonemason who wrote about 10,000 words per week for nearly twenty years. He says that Miller and Thomas Chalmers “were convinced of an old earth and approached Genesis using a gap theory” (p. 157). Both men accepted an ancient earth, and Chalmers advanced the gap theory, but in The Testimony of the Rocks, the only book of Miller’s cited by VanDoodewaard, Miller held that the Genesis “days” were metaphorical, not literal, even though he regarded the gap view as a legitimate option and presented Chalmers sympathetically as a proponent of that idea. That’s a very minor error, to be sure, and most readers probably wouldn’t care very much even if they noticed it. I mention it because it suggests the possibility that VanDoodewaard either didn’t read Miller’s book himself (perhaps he relied on an erroneous uncited account of it by someone else), or else that he didn’t understand what he read. Either way, this is problematic, given his responsibility to interpret sources for his readers. Miller occupies a huge place in the history of evangelical thinking about natural history—he was far more important than most of the authors that VanDoodewaard is trying to rehabilitate. He had (for his day) cogent reasons for his position that some readers might appreciate seeing, all the more so given his commitment to freeing Scottish Presbyterians from state control.

In fact Miller is merely mentioned, while another widely influential Reformed writer, Edward Hitchcock, isn’t mentioned at all (or, if so, in such an inconsequential manner that he’s not in the index). No one influenced Antebellum evangelical conversations about science and the Bible more than Hitchcock, who was unabashedly Calvinistic and devoted to the Bible, which he always sought to interpret literally. He simply couldn’t ignore the fact (as he saw it) that the earth is far older than 6000 years, a fact that (in his opinion) had no bearing on the divine authority of the Bible. As with Miller, modern Reformed readers would benefit from encountering Hitchcock in a book like this.

The neglect of people like Chalmers, Miller, Hitchcock, and many other highly influential writers who fully accepted an historical Adam and Eve but otherwise did not interpret Genesis quite as literally as VanDoodewaard does not benefit readers one bit. It would be very helpful for them to see why they felt it necessary to seek alternative interpretations of the six “days,” and why they did not believe this threatened the divine authority of Genesis. This was often related to their attitude toward the principle of accommodation, the notion that the Holy Spirit “accommodated” the verbal and conceptual language of Scripture to the understanding of the ordinary person at the time it was written. Although this is a classical notion associated with the very greatest of theologians, including Augustine and Calvin, and VanDoodewaard accepts it as a legitimate idea (see p. 297), it hardly enters his historical narrative at all.

This is an inexcusable omission. Accommodation is such a crucial part of the history of interpreting biblical passages about nature that it just cannot be left on the periphery of a book like this. The modern controversy about interpreting early Genesis simply cannot be separated from the early modern controversy about interpreting other biblical passages touching on the Sun’s apparent motion across the sky and the Earth’s apparently stability in the midst of the heavens. Denis Lamoureux has stressed this more than most other contemporary authors, and he is yet one more person who is barely mentioned by VanDoodewaard, despite the fact that his academic qualifications (earned doctorates in both biology and theology) place him among the most learned evangelical writers on topics related to origins. Historically, it was Christian astronomers like Rheticus, Kepler, and Galileo, not theologians like Luther, Calvin, or Turretin (all featured in this book), who initiated the conversation about re-thinking universally accepted interpretations of the Bible in terms of geocentrism, and accommodation was openly at the very heart of their case. This is a conversation that VanDoodewaard needs to include, but seemingly wants to avoid.

Finally, there seems to be some confusion involving some of the medieval Catholic authors who made it into the book. VanDoodewaard rightly emphasizes the prevalence of allegorical interpretations of the Bible at that time, but he says conflicting things about it. Readers are told that Thomas Aquinas “stands as the last significant proponent of medieval allegorism in Genesis interpretation” (p. 46), only to be told three pages later that “by the late fourteenth century [a full century after Aquinas] it seemed uncertain at best whether the literal tradition or its allegorical alternative would prevail” (p. 49). Two pages after this, William Tyndale (another 150 years after Thomas) is said to have led the way “in rejecting the late medieval allegorical tendency” heading into the Reformation (p. 51). I’m left scratching my head: if Thomas was the last important allegorist, then what happened over the next two and one-half centuries, since it wasn’t until Tyndale that the allegorist tradition was decisively rejected? I realize this book wasn’t written narrowly for scholars, and most readers will probably just gloss over this, but we deserve better than this, especially as it seems very important to the author.

All told, readers who want more reliable, and more detailed, accounts of pre-modern interpretations of the Genesis “days” (lacking however a focus on subsequent chapters of Genesis, including Adam and Eve) should consult Andrew J. Brown, The Days of Creation: A History of Christian Interpretations of Genesis 1:1-2:3 (2014), an erudite work with a much wider ecclesiastical range. The only major drawback is the fact that the historical coverage stops in 1860. Otherwise it provides insightful, accurate coverage since the earliest Christian authors. Dr. Brown is under contract to write a second book for an American publisher that will present some of his findings in a more accessible form. Look for it in about two years.

VanDoodewaard’s Misrepresentation of the History of Creationism

By far my biggest concern about this book involves the way in which VanDoodewaard misrepresents the scholarship of Ronald Numbers, author of The Creationists, a book that is almost universally accepted as the definitive history of modern creationism. A former Seventh-day Adventist, reared in a strict creationist household, Numbers drifted away from his faith and ultimately into agnosticism once he realized in graduate school that the earth was probably at least 30,000 years old (that’s the number he heard in a lecture about fossil forests in Yellowstone National Park). I doubt many readers of VanDoodewaard’s book will have a stronger commitment to biblical literalism than Numbers had prior to that point, and very few people are more widely read on the subject. Having worked his way through countless books and mountains of private correspondence, Numbers wrote a fulsome history of the creationist movement, following the ideas as they passed from person to person, according to accounts written by those persons themselves. The single biggest takeaway from his book is as follows. The creationist movement today, associated with organizations such as Answers In Genesis and the Institute for Creation Research, owes its existence to The Genesis Flood, a ground-breaking work by John C. Whitcomb, Jr. and Henry M. Morris published in 1961. Both authors had originally accepted an old earth, prior to encountering the ideas of George McCready Price, a self-taught “geologist” and Adventist who was repackaging ideas he’d borrowed from Ellen White, a founder of Seventh-day Adventism. Price’s books persuaded both men to accept two key tenets of scientific creationism: the earth was created in six literal days only a few thousand years ago, and most fossil-bearing rocks were produced during Noah’s flood.

Numbers never said that similar or identical ideas could not be found outside of Adventist circles before Whitcomb and Morris, and he never denied that many modern Christians have held such ideas. But, he clearly said that only a tiny number of prominent Christian writers have believed all of the things spelled out in the previous paragraph, even though most of the authors he studied considered themselves to be fundamentalists and/or evangelicals. He focused his attention on authors who were often cited by others at the time—a proper historical method for finding out the state of learned opinion among conservative Protestants.

Numbers’ conclusion has not gone down well in creationist circles; they aren’t happy with the fact that Adventists played a central role in the history of their ideas. Perhaps VanDoodewaard isn’t happy about this either, since he says uncomplimentary things about Numbers’ scholarship. He tells readers (most of whom have probably not read Numbers’ book) that “Numbers’ thesis is significantly weakened through his scant attention to what he terms ‘clerical-creationists’,” that “more thorough scholarship” reaches a different conclusion, and that another scholar named James Moore “presents a more accurately nuanced historical account” in a book of his own (a book that isn’t really about scientific creationism); and, he criticizes some other Reformed scholars for “relying on Ronald Numbers’ weak historiography” (pp. 157 and 236).

In Numbers’ defense I will say only this, based on my own primary-source research on the history of American creationism—a subject on which I have published far more work than VanDoodewaard. Virtually all of the leading evangelical and fundamentalist authors in the century after Darwin—the authors who were being widely read, inside and outside their own religious communities—accepted an old earth and did not invoke the flood to account for the fossil record, regardless of what they thought about Adam and Eve (most of them held a traditional view on that). VanDoodewaard says almost nothing about flood geology, a topic that is central to understanding Numbers’ conclusion. It was indeed Whitcomb and Morris who launched the scientific creationist movement—a crucial fact that VanDoodewaard almost downplays into an afterthought (p. 193)—and they did so using ideas they had both knowingly obtained from the Adventists, though they took steps themselves to understate that connection in The Genesis Flood. There is no doubt about any of this, but VanDoodewaard would like his readers to conclude otherwise, as some already have.

But, don’t just take my word for it. Perhaps the best response to this misrepresentation of the accuracy and fairness of Numbers’ work is to quote something that Whitcomb himself said about The Creationists, a book in which he and his late friend Henry M. Morris figure substantially: “Dr. Morris agrees with me that this is an objective study by one who claims to be an agnostic on the subject of ultimate origins.” Given that Numbers stresses how Whitcomb and Morris drew heavily on Price, readers should flatly reject the increasingly strident claim of VanDoodewaard and some other creationists that Numbers overstated the influence of Adventist ideas on modern creationism. 

Looking Ahead: Ronald Numbers Replies

Seeing that VanDoodewaard depicts Ronald Numbers’ exemplary scholarship as a great deal less than that, it’s important to give Numbers a chance to defend himself.   I’ll do that tomorrow.

Notes

Citations

MLA

Davis, Ted. "The Quest for the Historical Adam: A New Book by William VanDoodewaard "
http://biologos.org/. N.p., 14 Apr. 2016. Web. 26 May 2017.

APA

Davis, T. (2016, April 14). The Quest for the Historical Adam: A New Book by William VanDoodewaard
Retrieved May 26, 2017, from http://biologos.org/blogs/ted-davis-reading-the-book-of-nature/the-quest-for-the-historical-adam-a-new-book-by-william-vandoodewaard

About the Author

Ted Davis

Ted Davis is Fellow of the History of Science for the BioLogos Foundation and Professor of the History of Science at Messiah College. A former high school science teacher, Ted studied history and philosophy of science at Indiana University, where his mentor was the late Richard S. Westfall, author of the definitive biography of Isaac Newton. With the English historian Michael Hunter, Ted edited The Works of Robert Boyle, 14 vols. (London: Pickering & Chatto, 1999-2000), but his interests include the whole 2000-year interaction of Christianity and science. Author of dozens of scholarly articles and essays, Ted is one of few historians who have written extensively about both the Scientific Revolution and modern America. He and his wife Kathy enjoy theater, music, and traveling to new places.

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