Many Evangelicals worry that the science of human origins is at odds with core theological doctrines at the heart of Evangelical faith. But the situation is not as dire as some would claim. Are there ways to bring science and the Bible together on the important question of our beginnings?
In a word, I answer “yes!” Christians who find the scientific data compelling can also accept the authority of the Bible, and in fact see the biblical story as an even more essential description of the human condition. The Bible tells of a people who are created in the image of God, yet profoundly flawed sinners in need of a Savior.
In June 2018, I gave a scholarly paper at the 2018 Dabar Conference at Trinity International University’s Henry Center. Now this paper is available here on the BioLogos website. In it, I discuss ways that recent scientific developments can be brought into dialogue with Scripture and theology, especially in ways that affirm an historical Adam and Eve.
Rather than an obstacle, science can help theology by promoting creative, synthetic thinking in this area. British neuroscientist and Christian Donald Mackay puts it this way
…the primary function of scientific enquiry … is neither to verify nor to add to the inspired picture, but to help us in eliminating improper ways of reading it…[T]he scientific data God gives us can sometimes serve as his way of warning us when we are standing too close to the picture, or at the wrong angle, or with the wrong expectations, to be able to see the inspired pattern he means to convey to us.[i]
While 21st century notions of science should never be read into ancient texts, they may serve as a stimulus to work even harder to understand the core biblical message and its implications. My hope is that this paper will encourage new syntheses that lean into the astonishing findings of recent science without jumping too quickly to positions that scrap classical theological categories.
The paper begins with an overview of biblical teaching on human origins and an overview of biological evidence for human origins. It then examines fruitful ways in which science interacts with theological anthropology on key questions: Who was Adam? What is the nature of human sinfulness? I propose multiple models that bring science and the biblical witness into dialogue. What do these models have in common? First, any model must affirm universal human sinfulness. Second, treating Adam and Eve primarily as archetypes or representatives is being faithful to the main thrust of Genesis and the Pauline corpus. Third, any model should take the scientific data seriously regarding humans that have an evolutionary past. Fourth, many in the Western church are heavily influenced by that great saint, Augustine. If a model is to follow in his footsteps, it will need to connect to a primal catastrophe involving humans at the “headwaters” of humanity, and will need to contend with how that catastrophe reverberates to all people.
The recent Adam and Eve podcast and the BioLogos Common Question “Were Adam and Eve historical figures?” are good places to get started on this topic, introducing multiple models for understanding Adam and Eve. The Common Question gives a brief overview of 3 models, both non-historical and historical. There are other options beyond what you’ll find there. This scholarly paper goes in more depth, exploring 5 models, with many references for further reading. Two additional historical models in this paper are what I’ve called a Protohistorical Model and the Genealogical Ancestor Model. The latter is timely given the recent publication of the book The Genealogical Adam and Eve: The Surprising Science of Universal Ancestry by Josh Swamidass (founder of Peaceful Science). Until recently, many biologists overlooked the area of genealogical science, and Swamidass’ work has been very helpful in showing the need for greater precision in this area, especially in discussing the results of genetic analyses. Scientists within the BioLogos community and outside it are working hard to synthesize these new findings and update past work. BioLogos plans to publish an in-depth review of The Genealogical Adam and Eve in coming months.
Modern science can be a friend to theological anthropology, by sharpening our focus on theological essentials and by avoiding missteps as we construct a robust, biblically based anthropology. But Augustine reminds us of something important as we build these models: the need to hold them loosely:
In matters that are obscure and far beyond our vision, even in such as we may find treated in Holy Scripture, different interpretations are sometimes possible without prejudice to the faith we have received. In such a case, we should not rush in headlong and so firmly take our stand on one side that, if further progress in the search of truth justly undermines this position, we too fall with it.[ii]
None of the models discussed in this paper are without challenges. One piece of good news about the Good News, is, of course, that “God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.” (1 Cor. 1:25, NRSV) The work of developing models that are faithful to the core biblical message and to the witness of God’s creation will require wisdom that only God can provide.