Adam and the Genome: Responses


#Introduction by Jim Stump

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). 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:

  1. There were two actual people named Adam and Eve who existed suddenly without precursors as a result of God’s creation.
  2. Those two have a biological relationship to the rest of humanity.
  3. Their DNA is our DNA.
  4. Those two sinned, died, and brought death into the world.
  5. Those two passed on the sin nature to all subsequent human beings.
  6. If they had not sinned and passed on their sin nature, human beings would not need salvation.
  7. 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.

#Some Thoughts from Pete Enns

Dennis and Scot have collaborated on a wonderful book on the ongoing controversy (hopefully becoming more of a discussion) within Evangelicalism concerning biological evolution. Dennis lays out the genomic evidence, in a way that only trained scientists can, and Scot rehearses the well-known contextual issues and recurring questions that biblical scholars of both Testaments have been engaging for the past century and a half, and that need to continue to be engaged. Both authors are admirably honest in drawing their conclusion.

I am happy to leave the scientific matters to real scientists rather than pretend, since my formal scientific training effectively ended when we were told to dissect a kitty in sophomore high school biology (but I digress). Let me focus my comments on Scot’s half of the book, the biblical side, on which I have taught and written a fair amount, including my 2012 book The Evolution of Adam. I find myself in substantive agreement with Scot’s conclusions, and I hope the relentless yet winsome pressure from Scot and others will continue to help those who are looking for ways to maintain their Christian faith and accept evolution, and perhaps convince those who aren’t sure this is even possible.

In the interest of space, I will summarize in list form what I think are the central issues of biblical scholarship that Scot brings to the table, while also giving a few twists of my own. There are certainly places where I would put things a bit differently (for example, if I were king I would ban the singularly ambiguous and unhelpful word “archetype” from any and all future discussions of Adam), but those differences, I would say, are in-house matters that do not affect the overall points Scot makes so compellingly.

Now, to my list. I have eleven points, and the first two are central.

  1. Any discussion of the “historical Adam” cannot proceed one step forward without taking into account the story of Adam in its ancient context. I don’t mean to suggest this is easy as pie. There is a lot to work through, and room for some variation in points of view. But the conversation cannot go on as if we’ve learned nothing in the last 150 years about antiquity and the function that origins stories played in ancient societies. Placing Adam in his ancient context immediately and significantly affects how Genesis is brought into the discussion over evolution.
  2. What goes for Adam goes for Paul. Paul’s understanding of Adam involves us in much more than simply accepting Romans 5 or 1 Corinthians 15 as “plain” readings of Genesis 2-3. Rather it puts us squarely in the middle of Paul’s ancient hermeneutical context—the world of Greco-Romanism and Second Temple Judaism. Coming to terms with Paul and his context, again, immediately and significantly affects how one engages the evolution/Christianity conundrum.

Scot explicates these two points with clarity and conviction, and his section of the book is essentially an elaboration on the implications of these two observations. The remaining points are in no particular order.

  1. Scientific concordism—the assumption that the biblical origins stories are (must be) compatible with science—essentially ignores point 1 above and therefore must be rejected as a reading that imposes modern concerns and questions onto an ancient text.
  2. There is no “fall” in Genesis 3, nor in Romans 5, in the sense in which “fall” is often understood: as inherited guilt from a historical Adam’s transgression. The idea of every human sinning “in Adam” is foreign to the biblical texts (Scot’s chapter on Romans is worth reading carefully here), and accepting this observation significantly tempers the problem evolution causes for Christian doctrine.
  3. Paul’s Adam in Romans is not a “plain reading” of the Adam story but an interpretation of that story for theological purposes that are not rooted in Genesis. This is largely Scot’s point in chapter 8, where he rehearses the diverse ways in which Adam was interpreted in Second Temple Judaism. Paul as a Jew of the time was engaged in the same type of creative interpretive exercise as were others before him. This is a vital chapter, though it will likely be hard for some to accept the notion that Paul is anything other than the true interpreter of the intention of the writer of Genesis (a core element of inerrantist exegesis). This point is further borne out by observing how Paul elsewhere and the other New Testament writers intentionally, knowingly, re-read, reframed, and transformed Israel’s story in light of an unanticipated ending. In Romans 5, Paul is not a systematic expositor of the original meaning of Genesis 3, but a creative, imaginative theologian, who is reading the biblical story backwards: he begins with the conclusion (the resurrected Jesus) and draws upon the language of Genesis 3 to drive home his understanding of the gospel, which features the full inclusion of Gentiles.
  4. The controversy surrounding evolution stems not so much from the Bible as it does from deeply ingrained but false expectations imposed onto the Bible that put it onto a collision course with science. The problem is not the Bible, but how we have been taught to read it. Commonly, the assumption is made that evolution imposes problems onto “the Bible,” and that “the Bible” is the stable factor that evolution needs to be “grafted” onto somehow. The truth, though, is that our readings of Genesis and Romans are what need to be adjusted to allow the graft to take (see #s 1 and 2 above).
  5. Many Christians today assume that the writer of Genesis intended to give (in some sense) an  historical account of origins. It is worth asking, however, whether this assumption is true: was Genesis 2-3 in fact ever intended to be “historical?” (see pp. 106-108). We might be underestimating ancient authors and their ability to know a good story when they saw one. Put another way, we should not impose upon ancient authors the modern fixation on the central importance of historicity as the conveyer of truth.
  6. Related to #7, I believe (though Scot may demur) we need to rehabilitate the concept of “myth” for discussing the Adam story. The term as it is used generally in biblical scholarship does not mean “false” but denotes an ancient means of expressing beliefs of ultimate reality in concrete and contextually meaningful ways. If we can get over that hurdle, we will be in a better position to focus on the theology of the Adam story rather than its historicity.
  7. The clear parallel between Adam and Israel, already noted in rabbinic Judaism, is a crucial element in understanding Genesis 2-3, and—if accepted—decentralizes the historical question concerning Adam and thus eases tensions with evolution. Adam is presented in Genesis 2-3 as a preview of Israel’s history: both are (1) “created” by God (Adam from dust, Israel out of slavery), (2) placed in a lush land (Eden/Canaan), (3) given commands to follow (the Tree of Knowledge/Mosaic Law), and (4) are “exiled” for disobedience, both of which are described as “death” (Genesis 2:17; Ezekiel 37 and Deuteronomy 30).
  8. Genesis 1 reflects the seven-day Sabbath week, certainly, and perhaps also the Temple construction (following ancient Near Eastern parallels), which is completed in seven years. This strongly suggests a liturgical/theological purpose to the creation story, namely its central focus on worship and the liturgical week, which further suggests that the story was written for that purpose. This observation is supported by the generally accepted scholarly view that Genesis 1 was written in light of Israel’s later liturgical practices: the origins story reflects later Israelite practices. This same logic should be applied, then, to the Adam story to see it (following #9 above) as Israel’s later reflection on its history written into their origins story.

Scot has at several points in his section statements that summarize his argument and orient the reader for what is to come. I’d like to end by citing one of them:

The category of a “historical Adam” is an anachronism with respect to the text because (1) it comes from the modern world of science, history, anthropology, biology, and genetics, and it is also accompanied by the quest to see if what the Bible says about the past can be proved true (and therefore believed as true); (2) any talk of the “historical Adam” is steeped in the theological conversation about original sin, which is not present in Genesis 3; and (3) the historical, biological, and genetic Adam and Eve are not, strictly speaking, what the writers of Genesis 1-3 were focused on. . . . the primal couple is created to reveal what humans in general are assigned to do in God’s cosmic temple. (p. 145, my emphasis)

I resonate with this comment, though I would (1) replace “not, strictly speaking” with “not remotely,” (2) understand “the primal couple is created” to mean created by the writer of Genesis 2-3, and (3) not tie Adam’s function in the story so exclusively to “cosmic temple.” Nevertheless, what we have here in Scot’s section is an Adam presented fairly and compellingly who is not “historical” and who presents no barrier to the acceptance of evolution.

My only overall criticism of the book is that it is pitched too high for the “people in the pew” who might most benefit from its content. But there is the rub: complexity may be unavoidable, given the technical realities of science and the subtle and layered nature of biblical/historical scholarship. All in all, for those willing to put in the effort, this book is worth their time and may well open up doors and windows onto a deeper faith.

#Some Thoughts from Denis Alexander

I have greatly enjoyed reading Adam and the Genome. Bringing scientists and Bible scholars round the table for such an important topic is certainly how a conversation between science and faith should begin. The authors do an excellent job in laying out the genetics and the biblical material clearly in ways that do full justice to their expertise in these areas. Neither author holds back from sharing recent scholarship in a relevant and accessible way for the general reader. New scientific ideas, in particular, are explained and illustrated extremely well.

The book also acts as a reminder to non-American readers, should one be needed, of the very different cultural and theological context in many Christian communities in other parts of the world.  It is not that creationism does not exist outside of North America—for it surely does—but rather the topic does not seem quite so fraught nor, in many cases, even a topic that attracts much attention.

I was brought up in an evangelical home in Britain, but I cannot remember a time, at least since studying biology in High School, that I did not believe in human evolution, nor believe in a first couple who were the genetic progenitors of all humanity, nor think that there was any problem at all in calling myself an Evangelical and holding to these beliefs. Clearly the term “Evangelical” carries with it somewhat different assumptions on either side of the Big Pond.

Furthermore, when one of the authors states that, “like many evangelicals, I (Dennis) grew up in an environment that was suspicious of science in general,” I think I can honestly say that in the past half a century I have never (knowingly) encountered even one Evangelical in the UK who could say that. Indeed, it is often remarked that in evangelical churches in the university cities of Britain, there generally tend to be far more undergraduate students in the sciences than in the humanities (in an average ratio of 2.8:1 the last time I measured the ratio over a 5-year period in my own church in Cambridge when the science:humanities ratio as a whole at the university was 1.1:1).

In reading through Adam and the Genome I was rather expecting that after the geneticist and the biblical scholar had laid out their positions, there would then be a final chapter, perhaps written by a philosophical theologian, that would lead us through some thought experiments with the aim of integrating the scientific and biblical narratives. Perhaps it was felt that this would be a bridge too far and that the focus should be on the initial “clearing up misunderstandings exercise” that this book represents.

The same thought came back as I read the Afterword where Pastor Daniel Harrell describes how he convened a group of science students in his church in Boston to discuss the interactions between science and theology, but “we disbanded after just a few meetings, having failed to figure out how to have a productive conversation” (193). Now that really is a pity, and so my remaining comments will be directed at the challenge of having a productive conversation between science and faith in the context of Adam and the Genome.

A possible roadblock in the way of such a conversation is the dreaded accusation of “concordism.” I say “dreaded” because the accusation of concordism has become somewhat pejorative in recent texts on this topic. There are only a couple of mentions of concordism in Adam and the Genome, both in the context of N.T. Wright’s suggestion that perhaps God chose some individuals out of an early human population to bear his image. In a footnote the author describes concordism as “a way of reading/interpreting Genesis that is in concord with science as we know it now, thereby granting to the Bible knowledge of science transcending its historical context” (215). However, I very much doubt that N.T. Wright was seeking to be concordist in the way that the author suggests. In any case, McKnight’s suggestion here that the Genesis text points to a single human couple on the earth is not supported by the text itself, which portrays a world of cities in which the outcast Cain was afraid of being killed (Gen. 4:14-15).

There is no doubt that concordism as defined is an unhelpful way of approaching any biblical text, not least because scientific literature in its modern sense did not really start to get going until the founding of the first scientific journals in the mid 17th century.  Even then it took two more centuries or more until scientific literature began to attain the degree of specificity and specialization that it enjoys today. Clearly to claim that any part of the Bible is “scientific literature” in this sense is extremely anachronistic, and neither is it helpful to impose modern scientific meanings onto texts that were never intended to bear such a weight.

But that obvious fact should not send us scurrying off in the opposite direction so that scientific and theological narratives are kept enclosed in their watertight compartments and never the twain shall meet. In addition it is important, I think, to root ideas of Adam in the real physical world of the Jewish culture and not to create an Adam too distant from the flesh and blood of humanity (perhaps the term “theological Adam” might do more work in this regard than the “literary Adam” used in the book?).  I rather suspect that those, such as both the book’s authors, who have previously been immersed in a concordist hermeneutic, retain a particular allergy to this approach, which is well understood.

So let us be agreed that we denounce concordism in all its many forms, and then move on to consider “big picture theology.” Our task is to extract key theological themes from the biblical narratives, holding to mainstream science, and then ask how science and theology might generate an integrated account. If all truth is God’s truth, as Christians believe, such a task should surely be possible.

Adam and the Genome affirms the scriptural message that sin came into the world as a result of human autonomy and disobedience leading to a world of human sinfulness. Humans were, and are, all sinners, because they all sin. Nearly all the New Testament Adam references are to do with sin.  So to focus just on that single theological theme, how do we bring those conclusions into conversation with anthropology? How and when did sin come into the world?

In my book Creation or Evolution: Do We Have to Choose?, I laid out two approaches to answering these questions.  Both approaches assume the fact of human evolution and the understanding that evolution occurs in populations. Thus, there never has been a “founding human population,” but only a long series of gradually changing populations leading to the emergence of anatomically modern humans about 200,000 years ago.

In the first type of approach (which has many variants), some people in Africa, following the emergence of anatomically modern humanity, became aware of God’s existence, power and calling upon their lives and responded to their new-found knowledge of him in love and obedience, in authentic relationship with God. However, they subsequently turned their back on the light that they had received and went their own way, leading to human autonomy and a broken relationship with God (“sin”). The emphasis in this type of speculation is on historical process – relationships built and broken over many generations.

In the second type of model (my personal preference), God revealed himself to a couple, or community, of farmers in the Near East at the very beginning of a putative proto-Jewish era, the so-called Homo divinus.  These lived in fellowship with God, understanding their responsibility to care for God’s earth, but subsequently turned their back on God in disobedience, leading to human autonomy and a broken relationship with him (“sin”). The emphasis in this type of speculation is on a single family or community – relationships built and broken over a short time-span. God’s new family on earth had to begin somewhere and at some time: this was it.

There are many versions of such models. It should be noted that all of them assume human evolution is necessary for our big frontal lobes, our language, our consciousness, and our capacity to pray and relate to God. However, this “kit” of human traits is necessary but not sufficient to have fellowship with God. For that, God’s own revelation of himself is necessary, for fellowship with him depends on grace. It has always been so, and continues so to the present day.

Personally, I keep thinking of the disbanded scientists’ discussion group in that church in Boston. They need to re-convene, start with Adam and the Genome, get that sorted, and then move on to what scientists really love (or should love!) discussing – how can different bits of data be integrated together to construct a persuasive model?

#Some Thoughts from Ken Keathley

Let me begin by thanking Jim Stump for the opportunity to review Adam and the Genome. Jim invited my input despite the fact that my position is different from that of BioLogos. I am an old-earth creationist who affirms a historical Adam as the special creation of God (although, I admit, using a different definition of the term “historical Adam” than the one laid out by Scot McKnight in this book). Last fall Dennis and Scot were kind enough to send me a manuscript of their book. At the same time I picked up a copy of Searching for Adam: Genesis and the Truth about Man’s Origin, edited by Terry Mortenson. The latter work, promoted by Answers in Genesis, contains a chapter by Nathaniel Jeanson entitled “Genetics Confirms the Recent, Supernatural Creation of Adam and Eve.” So this old-earth creationist read an evolutionary creationist text and a young-earth creationist text side-by-side. Reading their respective takes on genetics and the historical Adam was a surreal experience. I think that scientific laypeople like me (and most evangelicals) can be excused for feeling confused and conflicted. Someone is supplying us with “alternative facts.”   

Adam and the Genome is one of the more impressive evolutionary creationist works that I have read. Venema has a teacher’s knack for making difficult concepts easier to understand through the use of familiar analogies. A common objection to evolution is that it appears to require substantial (and improbable) changes in multiple organisms in the same generation. Venema replies that this is not how evolution works. “If indeed evolution works that way, they would be right. But, in fact, that’s not the way it does work. Evolution works by incremental change within a population, shifting its average characteristics over long periods of time” (19). Venema uses the analogy of how language changes over time, specifically showing how John 14:6 has read in English through the centuries. This is an effective illustration.

Venema demonstrates that the current understanding of the human genome holds that human beings descended from a population of several thousand rather than a single pair of original humans. So where does that leave Adam and Eve? He answers, “Science…is simply unable to weigh in on the historicity of Adam and Eve as individuals. What we can conclude, however, is that if they were in fact historical, they were not the sole parents of all humanity, but part of a larger population. Beyond this, science cannot say” (59).

After arguing for evolution in general and an evolutionary understanding of human origins in particular (chapters 1-3), the book takes a slightly surprising turn in chapter four.  Venema shifts gears, and instead of discussing perhaps the genetic and fossil evidence concerning hominids, he critiques Intelligent Design (particularly as espoused by Michael Behe, Stephen Meyer, and Douglas Axe of the Discovery Institute). On one level this makes sense. Venema explains his own personal journey away from ID. However, in terms of the flow of the book, this chapter’s purpose is not as readily apparent. Most within the ID movement avoid explicit attempts to interpret Genesis. Typically ID proponents do not discuss the age of the earth, the extent of Noah’s Flood, or the effects of the Fall. This avoidance usually includes addressing the historicity of Adam and Eve. One exception is the Discovery Institute Press release, Science and Human Origins, by Ann Gauger, Douglas Axe, and Casey Luskin. The book argues that the evidence of the human genome is compatible with the traditional view of an original couple. Since Venema devotes a chapter to refuting ID, one would expect that he would have addressed the book by ID proponents that directly speaks to the question at hand.

From the perspective of one who is a scientific layperson, Venema’s critique seems “off message.” Perhaps engagement with those who have used genetic evidence extensively to contend for a historical Adam (such as Fuz Rana and Hugh Ross) would have been more helpful. That being said, I have to admit that, over all, Venema makes a clear and strong case, one that I am not equipped to answer.

McKnight takes over at chapter five, and, like Venema, he is a gifted communicator who writes with sensitivity. He starts by arguing that four principles should be utilized when reading the Bible on this subject: respect, honesty, sensitivity to science students, and the primacy of Scripture. By respect, he means that we must recognize that Genesis 1-11 were written to an ancient Near Eastern audience, and the text must be interpreted in that light. Honesty, for McKnight, requires that we be candid about two things: science says that human DNA goes back to more than two people and the Bible really does present Adam and Eve as the ancestors of the human race. We need to be sensitive, he argues, to the struggles that young Christian scientists endure on this issue. Scot claims the number one reason young Christians leave the faith is the perceived incompatibility of Genesis and genetics. And concerning the primacy of Scripture, McKnight urges Christians to read the Bible “as God’s revelation to God’s people.” I found myself nodding my head in agreement as I read this portion of the book. With McKnight, I affirm these four principles.

McKnight gives an overview of other ancient Near Eastern creation stories such as the Enuma Elish and the Gilgamesh Epic. He argues, correctly in my opinion, that Genesis displays both similarities and differences with these competing texts. The author of Genesis wrote to an audience immersed in the ANE milieu, but he subverts the theological worldview of those texts. McKnight then presents the theological emphases of Genesis in a number of theses, about which I again found myself in general agreement. Genesis presents God as the sovereign Creator; creation serves as his temple; Adam and Eve were called to be worshippers of God and his representatives on earth. They rebelled, preferring to be little gods. The author of Genesis intends for us to understand Adam and Eve as archetypes: their story is everyone’s story.

At this point McKnight makes a distinction between the Adam presented in Scripture and the “historical Adam” of the current debates. Genesis presents us, McKnight argues, with a “literary Adam.” The historical Adam is a prejudice; a post-biblical construction of the Church. This appears to be McKnight’s primary argument: the author of Genesis presents the Adam and Eve as literary figures rather than historical figures. This does not take away from their historicity nor argues for it—historicity is simply not the point.

Thus the notion of a historical Adam, as defined by McKnight, is anachronistic. Such a view of Adam tries to understand him in modern, scientific terms, attempts to interpret him through later theological lens (such as original sin), and pays little or no attention to author’s original intent.  McKnight argues, “A contextual approach to reading Genesis 1-3 immediately establishes that the Adam and Eve of the Bible are a literary Adam and Eve. That is, Adam and Eve are part of the narrative designed to speak into a world that had similar and dissimilar narratives. Making use of this context does not mean Adam and Eve are ‘fictional,’ and neither does it mean they are historical” (118). Thus McKnight concludes, The Adam of Paul was not the historical Adam” (188).

To sum up McKnight’s argument (if I’m reading him correctly):

  1. The author of Genesis presents Adam primarily as a literary figure, and only secondarily as a genealogical figure.
  2. How the literary Adam of Genesis relates to history (i.e. history in the modern sense of the term) cannot be easily discerned from the text of Genesis itself (190).
  3. This ambiguity does not present an obstacle to faith, since Paul utilizes only the literary Adam of Genesis.
  4. Paul’s Adam—a literary (albeit genealogical) Adam—is not the historical Adam as construed throughout much of Church history or as understood in the current debate.
  5. Therefore, in the light of the latest scientific findings in genetics, Christians should be willing to revisit their understanding of Adam and human origins. A literary Adam poses no obstacle to an evolutionary understanding of human origins.

To be candid, no one desires a resolution to the current tension more than I do. Like McKnight, I do not want to put scientists in the position where they have to choose between doing science and having faith. However, I have at least two concerns about McKnight’s proposal. First, the author of Genesis seems to make real historical claims (and this includes chapters 1-11). And second, even McKnight acknowledges that Paul understood Adam as a real person who had a real impact on all humanity.   

As to the first concern, I agree with McKnight that there is a literary structure to Genesis 1-11 and to not recognize the author’s use of figurative language is to misread and mishandle the text. However, Moses is presenting to us actual events. He intends us to understand them as historical. Jack Collins has also explored the questions of genre and historicity of Genesis 1-11, and I agree with his definition of historical: “There is a simple, ordinary language sense of the word “history,” and this will be my meaning: I will take the term ‘historical account’ to mean that the author wanted his audience to believe that the events recorded really happened.”   

McKnight admits that though he dismisses the category of “historical Adam,” the Bible does present a “genealogical Adam.” He states, “No matter how much emphasis is given to a literary, archetypal, an image-of-God reading of Adam and Eve, the fact remains that Genesis 1-2 presents Adam and Eve as what might be called the genealogical Adam and Eve” (144). When he distinguishes between “biological Adam” and “genealogical Adam,” I am not sure what he means. It seems to me to be a distinction without a difference.

As to the second concern, McKnight’s argument hinges in no small part on his definition of “historical Adam.” He asks, “Is Paul’s Adam the literary-genealogical Adam who will become the archetypal, moral Adam? Or is Paul’s Adam the historical Adam of Christian theology?” (169) This seems to me to be a dilemma of false alternatives. McKnight himself says that Paul’s gospel requires the following about Adam and Eve: they were made in God’s image, and they were commanded by God not to eat of the tree. When they chose to disobey they were “aimed towards death,” and they “passed on death to all humans” (188-89). There seems to be a significant overlap between the “historical Adam” and “Paul’s Adam.”

Venema and McKnight have written a significant work. Darrel Falk may be right in his endorsement of the book when he describes it as a watershed moment in the conversation about Scripture and evolutionary science. I expect that we will be talking about Adam and the Genome for some time to come.

#Some Thoughts from Scot McKnight

Long long ago I gave an academic paper about Satan and demons. The paper was received well, and a publisher offered me a contract for a book. However, I got some wise advice from some veteran pastor-types, and I chose not to write the book. Why? I didn’t want to spend my time warding off all the complexities and downright weirdities of that kind of discussion, and the accusations and questions it provokes. I made the right decision, as I look back on it.

I wonder the same about the Adam discussion. Any discussion of Adam, in particular the probing into the so-called “historical Adam,” which is a theological construct in the history of the church but which was not believed by any single author in the entire Bible – well, any discussion of the historical Adam raises the hackles for many. But it is so entrenched in thinking that any discussion of it seems like taking on City Hall.

I’m neither interested in raising hackles nor responding to the hackle-raised. I came to this discussion largely for one reason: I had science students who were thoroughly convinced they could not believe in evolution and the Bible. They had been taught the incompatibility of the Bible and evolution by their pastors and parents or mentors, and they still wanted to believe. I write on this topic because I want to help students who know evolution is more or less true and want to know then how to read the Bible. For those who think evolution is buncombe the proposals by Dennis Venema and me will simply not be of interest. I’ll put this stronger: if you don’t accept Dennis Venema’s section, then my section of the book need not be read. I write in the aftermath of the kind of science found in Venema’s part of the book. Science provoked me and prodded me and pushed me to give more serious attention to the Bible, and to how I had learned to read the Bible and to how many of my fellow Christians were reading the Bible. Science provoked me to become more sensitive to my science students when they are reading the Bible.

Furthermore, how Adam is reconceived and interpreted in the Jewish interpretive traditions is essential for my proposal about Adam. If one doesn’t want to interact with that material then, once again, my section in the book may be of no interest.

I groped for answers during some of those years of teaching science students. I knew the answers lay in embedding Genesis 1-2 (or 1-3, or 1-11) in the Ancient Near East (ANE), but I was a NT specialist and needed guidance and a motivation for probing the ANE. That all coalesced one day when I read John Walton’s The Lost World of Genesis One. That book “did it” for me – and by that I mean it gave me categories and some texts, and off I was looking into some of these ANE texts. I spent an entire week in a hermeneutics class looking at Atra Hasis. I came to the conclusion that my science students were in fact “safe” because Genesis 1 and 2 were not seeking to provide a scientific account of cosmic origins or human origins and shouldn’t be used that way.

I have never settled on the “genre” of Genesis 1-11, so when Pete Enns speaks of “myth” I wince just as I wince when I see someone refer to this section of Scripture as “history.” The book Three Views of Genesis 1-11 provides categories, and surely the genre is somewhere in that book, but no one convinced me. One might call it a “theological narrative” but that, too, seems a bit too undefined for me.

What I am convinced of is that the Adam of Genesis 1-4 is a theological, moral Adam, a literary Adam, a figure in a text who tells the truth of human beings – that humans are made in God’s image, that humans chose not to do what God commissioned them to do, and for that reason the blessing of God’s good creation is upstream and against the grain of humans. This perception of humans both counters and compares with ANE accounts of humans. The Bible’s distinctions are breath-taking in scope – all of us are “images” of God. And I am also convinced that the Adam of Genesis became the First Person as Hebrews, Israelites and Jews read the Bible. The interpretive tradition grew and Paul was part of it.

Pete said something intelligent about the science portion of Adam and the Genome: “I am happy to leave the scientific matters to real scientists rather than pretend, since my formal scientific training effectively ended when we were told to dissect a kitty in sophomore high school biology (but I digress).” I lasted longer than Pete, and I was never asked to dissect a kitty. Rather, we dissected a worm, and it was nowhere as interesting to me as German class. It will be interesting how many will be capable of interacting with Dennis Venema’s section of the book. My section rests entirely on the conclusions of his work.

But the battle remains because so many are suspicious of anchoring our Bible in the ANE context and reading out of that context.  So, I like what Pete Enns said in his review of mostly my portion of the book.

The controversy surrounding evolution stems not so much from the Bible as it does from deeply ingrained but false expectations imposed onto the Bible that put it onto a collision course with science. The problem is not the Bible, but how we have been taught to read it. Commonly, the assumption is made that (as I’ve heard Denis Lamoureux describe it) evolution imposes problems onto “the Bible,” and that “the Bible” is the stable factor that evolution needs to be “grafted” onto somehow. The truth, though, is that our readings of Genesis and Romans are what need to be adjusted to allow the graft to take (see #s 1 and 2 above).

I’ve seen this routinely in discussions, letters, and questions on these topics. One simply proceeds to show how the traditional reading is better while ignoring the science. I’ve tried to understand and even embrace the science, and it made me wonder if there was not a more historical reading of Adam.

Pete also pressed into a point that deserves more attention than I could give it in my book (Thesis 11, pp. 142-144), but it is one that I will perhaps return to in future discussions of the genre of Genesis 1-3.

The clear parallel between Adam and Israel, already noted in rabbinic Judaism, is a crucial element in understanding Genesis 2-3, and—if accepted—decentralizes the historical question concerning Adam and thus eases tensions with evolution. Adam is presented in Genesis 2-3 as a preview of Israel’s history: both are (1) “created” by God (Adam from dust, Israel out of slavery), (2) placed in a lush land (Eden/Canaan), (3) given commands to follow (the Tree of Knowledge/Mosaic Law), and (4) are “exiled” for disobedience, both of which are described as “death” (Genesis 2:17; Ezekiel 37 and Deuteronomy 30).

In other words, Adam and Eve in Genesis 1-3 are fashioned as the first narrative of the Story of Israel – obedient, disobedient, and then exiled. This approach to Genesis 1-3 deserves more attention.

In some important ways my sketch of the Adam and Eve of Genesis 1-4 is my own synthesis of John Walton, John Levison’s exceptional study of Adam in Judaism, Pete Enns, and J. Richard Middleton. My synthesis is then wrapped up in a discussion of what “historical” Adam means, and I think that Adam Construct I build at the end of my first chapter is an important stimulus to further study. I make the case, for instance, for a biological and DNA Adam and Eve, two approaches to Adam and Eve that were not even known in the ANE because my points are connected to modern science.

That discussion, Denis Alexander very clearly states, is quite nation-specific. Alexander’s book on evolution and the Christian faith is a truly helpful book and I have read it and will continue to use it. He’s right, though he himself has been part of “our” discussion for a number of years even if his nation, England, simply doesn’t know the intensity of this discussion as we do. He is worth quoting in full:

The book also acts as a reminder to non-American readers, should one be needed, of the very different cultural and theological context in many Christian communities in other parts of the world.  It is not that creationism does not exist outside of North America—for it surely does—but rather the topic does not seem quite so fraught nor, in many cases, even a topic that attracts much attention.

I was brought up in an evangelical home in Britain, but I cannot remember a time, at least since studying biology in High School, that I did not believe in human evolution, nor believe in a first couple who were the genetic progenitors of all humanity, nor think that there was any problem at all in calling myself an Evangelical and holding to these beliefs. Clearly the term “Evangelical” carries with it somewhat different assumptions on either side of the Big Pond.

Furthermore, when one of the authors states that, “like many evangelicals, I (Dennis) grew up in an environment that was suspicious of science in general,” I think I can honestly say that in the past half a century I have never (knowingly) encountered even one Evangelical in the UK who could say that. Indeed, it is often remarked that in evangelical churches in the university cities of Britain, there generally tend to be far more undergraduate students in the sciences than in the humanities (in an average ratio of 2.8:1 the last time I measured the ratio over a 5-year period in my own church in Cambridge when the science:humanities ratio as a whole at the university was 1.1:1).

I’ll tell you why I like this, and there are two reasons: (1) if this is the case, then this debate in North America is a context-specific debate and may well be as much derived from our history (the fundamentalist-modernist debate of the 20th Century) and may not be as profoundly orthodox as many think, and (2) his observation means very little to us: the issue is very much alive in the USA even if it isn’t in England. Hearing that this issue isn’t as important in England as it is here matters not to the critics of BioLogos, it doesn’t matter one wit to the many lay persons searching for answers, and it certainly doesn’t take the Angst out of the science student reared in a Christian conservative environment.

At one point I observe that NT Wright’s very creative suggestion — Adam and Eve may have been elected out of the many (hominins) who were available, and that they in some sense represented all of humanity – sounded to me a bit concordist. Denis wasn’t so sanguine about my reading of Tom, though I would say when I first heard Tom say this in the midst of some pastors they were profoundly relieved by the interpretation because it got them off some of the scientists’ hooks. Even if I’m mistaken about Wright’s concordism, I see the same concordism in Alexander:

In the second type of model (my personal preference), God revealed himself to a couple, or community, of farmers in the Near East at the very beginning of a putative proto-Jewish era, the so-called Homo divinus. These lived in fellowship with God, understanding their responsibility to care for God’s earth, but subsequently turned their back on God in disobedience, leading to human autonomy and a broken relationship with him (“sin”). The emphasis in this type of speculation is on a single family or community – relationships built and broken over a short time-span. God’s new family on earth had to begin somewhere and at some time: this was it.

Perhaps I’m wrong again but I see Denis creating his own narrative, part biblical and part genome-theory and evolution-theory shaped. There’s a nice happy narrative here held by no one in the Bible but one that makes a scientist like Denis happier. That’s concordism. The concord I prefer is one that sees Genesis 1-3 more in conversation with the Ancient Near East accounts of origins and purpose.

#Some Thoughts from Dennis Venema

Over the last week, I have greatly enjoyed reading the thoughts of three valued colleagues on Adam and the Genome (AatG). (And yes, the fact that the acronym for the book is made up entirely of letters also used to represent DNA is a coincidence—one that I noticed only after the book had gone to press. It’s a pleasing coincidence nonetheless—there’s even a “start codon” in there. But I digress.) In reading them, I am again reminded of the unique community that we have here at BioLogos—a place where people of differing views are welcomed, and gracious dialogue is possible. Thank you, Ken, Pete and Denis for your willingness to engage with us.

My goal for my half of the book was to lay out, as clearly as possible for the average reader, why it is that mainstream biologists—Christian or otherwise—agree that humans evolved, and that we did so as a substantial population. While other books on evolution can be quite good on the evidence for common ancestry, I am not aware of any other book that deals as thoroughly with the evidence for our ancestral population sizes as we became human. This evidence, over the last few years, has become a key part of the evangelical conversation about Adam (and as Scot McKnight reminds us, his often-neglected partner, Eve). That conversation has been hampered, in my view, by this evidence being something of a “black box” for Evangelicals. My hope is that the book will allow non-scientists to see what scientists see when they examine the genome—and that this will inform the theological and exegetical conversation for others, even if they might disagree with Scot’s take on things.

In response to Ken Keathley’s puzzlement about the chapter on Intelligent Design (ID), I agree that it may not seem obvious why a chapter debunking the claims of the ID movement would be a natural follow-up to the genomics evidence for common ancestry and population genetics. The chapter is primarily for those who, having seen the genetic evidence for common ancestry and found it convincing, then wonder if there might yet be something to “hold onto” in some form of Intelligent Design—i.e., if there is something that evolution can’t explain in which they might take comfort. This is a very, very common response—something I have called “ratcheting concordism” (PDF) in the past. If someone has something of a “God of the gaps” mentality (even unconsciously), then it is very natural, having been dislodged from a previously-held gap, to look for another one. Just this last weekend I spoke twice to lay audiences on the topic of the book, and due to time constraints I had to limit my presentation to the evidence for common ancestry and population genetics. The results were predictable: in both cases I was asked during the question and answer period about common ID claims—that evolution cannot produce new information, or that certain biological structures could not have evolved because they are “irreducibly complex.”  These questions are good and natural for folks to ask. My gut instinct to include this material – even at the expense of other topics—seems warranted.

That said, material more germane to Ken’s position – evaluating the credibility of anti-evolutionary arguments against population genetics and common ancestry – is also a very reasonable subject. Though there simply was not room for it in the book, I have written on this extensively here at BioLogos. For example: 

Evaluating the “testable creation model” of the OEC organization Reasons to Believe (RTB)

Responding to OEC arguments about population genetics – the claims of Vern Poythress, William Lane Craig, and RTB

Responding to claims that vitellogenin pseudogenes in the human genome – remnants of genes from a time when our lineage laid eggs – are not actually “real pseudogenes”

So, those who read the book and have similar questions can find my replies in these sources.

I was also pleased to read the reviews by Pete Enns and Denis Alexander – two scholars who agree with the science. Pete, I don’t have much to say, except to say that I am delighted to see you thoughtfully critique Scot’s ideas. Ever since I learned of your “Adam is Israel” thesis – shared here on BioLogos many moons ago – I’ve thought it has a lot of merit. I think it fits in well with Scot’s take on things, and I think Scot’s work complements some of your ideas. Of course, I’m way outside my area of expertise here, but I look forward to you, Scot, and others testing and critiquing one another in the coming years. That’s a conversation that I will continue to watch with great interest.

Thanks also to Denis for his measured thoughts and irenic critique. Denis, you correctly note that neither Scot nor I decided to wrap things up in, as you put it, “big picture theology,” perhaps because of an allergy to concordism. I think your critique on that front is pretty much spot on for me, though I will let Scot speak for himself. For me personally, those sorts of models do have a concordist flavor to them. I would similarly hesitate to sketch out a model that deals with the firmament, or the serpent, or the various trees in the Garden of Eden, and so on. I recognize that some do feel very strongly that such models are possible, or even preferable. The more I have learned about the ancient Near East, the more I have my doubts about the profitability of such models. Early on in the project I told Scot that he had a free hand to follow the evidence where it led, in his opinion. That neither of us wanted to pursue such thoughts was to me a happy convergence. That said, nothing in Adam and the Genome precludes one from engaging in speculation if one finds it helpful – and I recognize that some folks very much do, and may find our lack of speculation problematic. It is speculation, though, since none of these models, in my opinion, can be established from either Scripture, or science, or a combination of the two.



Table of Contents

So What Is BioLogos?

Well it all began with a scientist and a book. Francis Collins, the physician and geneticist who led the Human Genome Project, wrote the book, The Language of God. In it he describes his own journey from atheism to Christian faith, and the harmony between Christianity and science.

Today, BioLogos continues to carry out the vision of Collins, showing that you don’t have to choose between modern science and biblical faith.

I want to learn more

About the Authors

  • Jim Stump

    Jim Stump

    Jim Stump is Vice President at BioLogos. He oversees the editorial team, participates in strategic planning, and hosts the podcast, Language of God. Jim also writes and speaks on behalf of BioLogos. He has a PhD in philosophy and was formerly a professor and academic administrator. His books include, Four Views on Creation, Evolution, and Intelligent Design; Science and Christianity: An Introduction to the Issues; How I Changed My Mind about Evolution; and The Blackwell Companion to Science and Christianity. You can email Jim Stump at james.stump@biologos.org.  
  • Pete Enns

    Pete Enns

    Pete Enns is the Abram S. Clemens Professor of Biblical Studies at Eastern University. He is a former Senior Fellow of Biblical Studies for BioLogos and author of many books and commentaries, including Inspiration and IncarnationThe Evolution of Adam, and The Bible Tells Me So. His most recent book is The Sin of Certainty: Why God Desires Our Trust More Than Our "Correct" Beliefs.
  • Denis Alexander

    Denis Alexander

    Denis Alexander is the Emeritus Director of The Faraday Institute for Science and Religion at St. Edmund’s College, Cambridge, where he is a Fellow. He has spent the past 40 years in the biological research community. From 1992-2012 he was editor of the journal Science & Christian Belief, and he currently serves as an Executive Committee member of the International Society for Science and Religion. In his book Creation or Evolution: Do We Have to Choose? Alexander presents his belief in both the biblical doctrine of creation and the coherence of evolutionary theory. Alexander’s other books include Rebuilding the Matrix – Science and Faith in the 21st CenturyScience, Faith and Ethics: Grid or Gridlock? (co-authored with Robert White); and The Language of Genetics – an Introduction. Dr Alexander gave the Gifford Lectures at St. Andrews University in December 2012 on the theme ‘Genes, Determinism and God’ to be published by Cambridge University Press 2016/17
  • Kenneth Keathley

    Kenneth Keathley

    Kenneth Keathley is Director of the L. Russ Bush Center for Faith and Culture, Senior Professor of Theology, and Jesse Hendley Chair of Theology at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest, North Carolina.
  • Scot McKnight

    Scot McKnight

    Scot McKnight, a New Testament scholar who has written widely on the historical Jesus and Christian spirituality, is Professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lombard Illinois. He earned a bachelor’s degree from Cornerstone University, a masters from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, and a doctorate from the University of Nottingham. He has written fifty books, including the popular The Jesus Creed, which won an award from Christianity Today in 2004. You can read more from McKnight at his blog Jesus Creed.
  • Dennis Venema

    Dennis Venema

    Dennis Venema is professor of biology at Trinity Western University in Langley, British Columbia. He holds a B.Sc. (with Honors) from the University of British Columbia (1996), and received his Ph.D. from the University of British Columbia in 2003. His research is focused on the genetics of pattern formation and signaling using the common fruit fly Drosophila melanogaster as a model organism. Dennis is a gifted thinker and writer on matters of science and faith, but also an award-winning biology teacher—he won the 2008 College Biology Teaching Award from the National Association of Biology Teachers. He and his family enjoy numerous outdoor activities that the Canadian Pacific coast region has to offer.