Interpreting Adam: An Interview with Denis Lamoureux


This post begins the final installment of our series on Interpreting Adam which is a conversation with contributors to the recent Zondervan book, Four Views on the Historical Adam. After the introduction by BioLogos president Deborah Haarsma, we heard from John Walton about an Archetypal view, and from Jack Collins about an Old Earth Creationist view. Our last interviewee is science-religion scholar Denis Lamoureux.

Denis has a PhD in evangelical theology and a PhD in evolutionary biology, and he is a veteran of the origins controversy. He has written several books on the topic, which can be found in his author bio, and has developed a host of online materials that can be freely accessed on his homepage.Lamoureux presents an Evolutionary Creation position in the Four Views book, and he contends that science has shown that there never was a historical Adam and Eve or a literal Garden of Eden as described in Genesis 2. These were just the “incidental vessels” for conveying the inerrant spiritual truths that God wished to communicate through these ancient cultures.Denis summarizes his position immediately below, then we give the first part of his interview.

Christians throughout history have steadfastly believed that Adam was a real person. Yet in the light of evolutionary sciences, some evangelical Christians are questioning his existence. This chapter embraces evolutionary creation—the belief that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit created the universe and life, including humans, through an ordained, sustained, and intelligent design-reflecting natural process. Similar to the way that the Lord used embryological mechanisms to create each of us in our mother’s womb, He also employed evolutionary processes to create humanity. This chapter rejects the assumption that God revealed scientific facts in the Bible thousands of years before their discovery by modern science. Instead, Holy Scripture features an ancient understanding of the physical world (e.g., the 3-tier universe with a flat earth). The Word of God also has an ancient conceptualization of biological origins, which asserts that living [organisms] were created quickly and completely into fully mature forms. The apostle Paul’s references to Adam are rooted in this ancient biology. The chapter concludes that the biblical figure Adam is a vital, but incidental, ancient vessel that transports inerrant spiritual truths: only humans are created in the Image of God, only humans have fallen into sin, and our Creator judges us for our sinfulness. (p. 37)

Jim Stump: How important is the question of a historical Adam for Christians today?

Denis Lamoureux: I think that the historicity of Adam is quite an important question because many evangelical Christians are currently wrestling with this issue.

For example, a landmark issue of Christianity Today in June 2011 featured a cover with a Neanderthal-looking male and the title “The Search for the Historical Adam: The State of the Debate.” The cover blurb commented, “Some scholars believe that genome science [i.e., genetics] casts doubt on the existence of the first man and first woman. Others say that the integrity of the faith requires it.” Remarkably, this article not only assumed that biological evolution was a fact, but it contended that the debate today is whether or not there really was a human being who corresponds to the biblical figure Adam.More evidence that the historicity of Adam is not a settled issue comes from the book on which this series of interviews is based. This past November at the annual meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society, the four contributors of this book outlined their positions to a packed room of evangelical theologians. And this coming November these contributors will present their views in more detail at this same conference.And we must not forget the remarkable work of BioLogos. In recent years this organization has been instrumental in assisting Christian in coming to terms with biological evolution and to consider the various approaches to the historicity of Adam.

Though I find the topic of Adam to be fascinating, my central motivation for being part of this discussion is pastoral.

There is no doubt in my mind that biological evolution is a fact. It is also clear to me that human evolution is a fact. And in light of the recent genetic evidence, it is a fact that humans did not descend from only one pair of humans. Though many evangelicals will disagree with me, these three statements are embraced by the BioLogos Foundation and the evangelical Christian tradition needs to come to terms with these scientific facts.

Here is my pastoral concern. If evangelical young men and women attend a public university, they will simply not be equipped to face the scientific facts supporting human evolution. I see this all the time in my classes at the University of Alberta. The best that evangelical students can do is compartmentalize what they hear on Sunday at church (Adam exists and he is foundational to Christianity) from what they learn Monday to Friday at university (the evidence for human evolution and the fact and humans never descended from a single pair of humans). However, intuitively these Christian students know that compartmentalization is not the solution. They all want a way to integrate their faith and their science.

It is the calling of the church to equip young men and women for the future. But regrettably, within evangelical circles, this is rarely being done with this issue of origins. Instead, we continue to entrench the minds of young people with young earth creationism and tell them that this is the only Christian view of origins. We are packaging our young people for a pastoral disaster and the potential loss of their faith.

This is why I think organizations like BioLogos and the American Scientific Affiliation are so very important. They offer credible options for young people to integrate their faith and the science they learn at university. It is also this pastoral concern that moves me to focus much of my work in developing popular online lectures for both young adults and high school students.

JS: Many people in the church have been conditioned to respond to questions about evolution with “scientific” objections like “there are gaps in the fossil record” or “we’ve never observed macro-evolutionary change”, etc. Most such people have very little understanding of the actual scientific evidence for evolution, and instead their deeper concerns stem from their view of Scripture (thinking evolution to be inconsistent with it). Your position that Adam is not a historical person demands a different view of Scripture. Can you describe this view?

DL: You are absolutely correct that the central problem that Christians have with evolution involves Scripture. All the anti-evolutionary arguments we hear in churches today are a symptom of a deeper problem. Within my evangelical tradition, most embrace concordism (or better “scientific concordism”). This is the assumption that the Bible aligns with the facts of science. Or stated another way, it is the assumption that God revealed scientific facts to the biblical writers thousands of years before their discovery by modern scientists.It is important to note that scientific concordism is a reasonable assumption. After all, God created the world and He inspired the Bible, and to assume an alignment between the Lord’s Book of Nature and His Book of Scripture is a logical expectation. But here is the question: Is scientific concordism true and an inerrant feature of the Word of God?

Figure 1

My answer is “no.” The best evidence to support my answer is to consider the structure of the universe found in the Bible. As Figure 1 reveals, Scripture features a 3-tier universe. In other words, the Bible has an ancient understanding of nature which could be termed an “ancient science.” For example, we can appreciate why ancient people believed the sun moved across the sky every day. From an ancient phenomenological perspective, that is exactly what it looks like to the naked eye. In fact, people believed in the literal movement of the sun right up to the 1600s.

In the light of this ancient science in Scripture, some Christians are quick to ask me, “Did God lie in the Bible?” My response is as quick, “God does NOT lie!!!” As Hebrews 6:18 states, “It is impossible for God to lie.” Rather, it is by grace that the Holy Spirit descended to the level of the ancient biblical writers and used their ancient understanding of nature in order to reveal as effectively as possible inerrant spiritual truths. In other words, the Lord accommodated in the same way He comes down to our level when He speaks to us in prayer.

Figure 2

Figure 2 depicts the Message-Incident Principle and my approach to statements in Scripture dealing with the physical world. I suspect many Christians hold this interpretative principle in some sort of implicit way. Most would agree that the primary purpose of the Bible is to reveal inerrant Messages of Faith; and whether birds were created before humans (Genesis 1) or after the man and before the woman (Genesis 2) is ultimately incidental and not essential to our faith.

Let’s now deal directly with human origins in Scripture. If the astronomy and geography/geology reflect an ancient science, then it is only logical to argue that the Bible also has an ancient biology, and in particular, an ancient understanding of human origins. This is exactly what we find in Scripture. Humans and living organisms are created de novo (quickly and completely). De novo creation is the understanding of origins held by ancient Near East peoples, including the Hebrews and inspired authors of Genesis 1 and 2.

In applying the Message-Incident Principle to passages dealing with human origins in Genesis, we can draw these inerrant spiritual truths: God created humans, humans were created in the Image of God, humans are sinful, and God judges humans for their sins. In the revelatory process, the Holy Spirit accommodated and allowed the ancient origins science of the de novo creation of humans to be used as a vessel to deliver these life-changing Messages of Faith.

For those who have never been introduced to the idea that there is an ancient science in the Bible, I have prepared a series of audio-slide lectures with handouts for them to examine.

Jim Stump: Your “Message-Incident Principle” (p. 50) is crucial for sorting out the culturally bound statements in Scripture from the universally true message of Scripture. (1) But how do we know which is which? Christian theology itself seems to have “evolved” over the centuries from the writings in the New Testament to the Ecumenical Creeds to the Reformers. (2) Is the spiritual message of one generation the incidental vessel of another? (3) Does this principle put us on a slippery slope of dismissing those parts of Scripture that don’t seem to fit with our own culture as incidental?

Denis Lamoureux: Thank you for this question because it helps to further explain the Message-Incident Principle. As stated, this question subtly introduces the concept of culture into my interpretative principle. The notion of culture is an extremely wide concept. However, as Figure 2 reveals, the Message-Incident Principle is restricted to statements about the physical world as understood by an ancient science and conceived through an ancient phenomenological perspective.

Consequently, if we respect the limits of my interpretative principle, I believe most Christians can easily distinguish between statements dealing with the physical world (e.g., sun, moon, stars, earth, seas, plants, animals, etc.) and statements about spiritual realities (e.g., God, Image of God, goodness, sin, Divine Judgment, etc.).

Regarding the “evolution” of Christian theology, it is true that there has been development throughout church history. However, we must always remember that theology is a human endeavor and that humans are finite and sinful, and we make errors. I know this personally as a professional theologian. Consequently, theology is not inerrant. Only the spirituals truths in Scripture are inerrant.

Figure 3. Artwork courtesy of Andrea Dmytrash.

Let me give an example. When Protestant reformer Martin Luther read the first verse of the Bible, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth,” he did not conceive the structure of the world as we do today, or as it was understood by the author of Genesis 1 (see Figure 1 inyesterday’s post). Instead, Luther believed in a geocentric (earth-centered) universe as depicted in Figure 3. Notably, this diagram appears across from Genesis 1 in his 1534 German translation of the Bible.

There is no doubt Luther definitely believed that Figure 3 was the actual structure of the universe. In his Lectures on Genesis (1536), he argued:

Scripture . . . simply says that the moon, the sun, and the stars were placed . . . in the firmament of the heaven (below and above which are the waters) . . . The bodies of the stars, like that of the sun, are round, and they are fastened to the firmament like globes of fire. . . We Christians must, therefore, be different from the philosophers in the way we think about the causes of things. And if some are beyond our comprehension (like those before us concerning the waters above the heavens), we must believe them . . . rather than wickedly deny them or presumptuouslyinterpret them in conformity with our understanding (Martin Luther, Luther’s Works: Lectures on Genesis, J. Pelikan, ed.(St. Louis: Concordia, 1958 [1536]), 30, 42-3; my italics).

Do Christians today believe they are “wicked” or “presumptuous” for not believing in a heavenly sea (the waters above)? I don’t think so.

Here’s the lesson we can learn from history. Theologians throughout time have embraced many different understandings of the structure of the physical world. In light of the Message-Incident Principle, I contend that these are all incidental and not essential to our Christian faith. However, all these theologians throughout church history, including Martin Luther in the 16th century, were able to identify the most foundational inerrant spiritual truth in Genesis 1—God created the entire world. As the history of theology reveals, this spiritual message has never become an incidental vessel.

The Message-Incident Principle does not put us on the proverbial slippery slope. Instead, it challenges us to separate the inerrant spiritual truths in the Bible from the incidental ancient science that acts like a vessel carrying these life-changing Messages of Faith.

So let’s return to our topic of Adam and the great creeds of the church. The historicity of Adam is clearly present in the Council of Carthage (418), Augsburg Confession (1530), Thirty-Nine Articles (1571), and Westminster Confession (1646). But is this surprising? No. The theologians who formulated these creeds all accepted the science-of-their-day, which was the de novo creation of Adam. Human evolution was not part of science in those generations.

In reading these creeds we need to be aware, that similar to Scripture, they were composed at a certain point in history. Consequently, they feature an ancient understanding of human origins. And in the same way that we can apply the Message-Incident Principle to the Bible, we can draw the inerrant spiritual truths (which originated from Scripture) from the incidental science-of-the-day held by the formulators of the creeds. In this way, the historical Adam found in the creeds is an incidental ancient vessel that is not essential to our Christian faith.

JS: You’ve advocated the term “evolutionary creation” for emphasizing all Christians’ commitment to God as the Creator, and evolution as the means of creation. Do you see the “No Adam” position as an essential component of the “evolutionary creation” view, or is there room for other views on Adam to fit under that rubric?

DL: Let me begin by stating that though I have written a 500-page book entitled Evolutionary Creation: A Christian Approach to Evolution (2008), I did not coin the term, nor do I have the copyright for it (!). It was a professor a Calvin College who introduced me to the category in 1996; and it was another Calvin professor who pointed out to me that it probably originated with Abraham Kuyper in 1899.Over the last 10 to 15 years this term has been embraced by evangelical Christians who also accept biological evolution. Of course, the issue of Adam is a point of disagreement. Some who identify themselves as “evolutionary creationists” accept that there was a historical Adam. In other words, they tack Adam on the tail end of evolution.But I disagree with this approach. It would be similar to attaching a 3-tier universe at the end of cosmological evolution. I doubt anyone wants to do that. Why? It’s categorically inappropriate. We cannot mix modern science (biological evolution and cosmological evolution) with ancient science (de novo creation of Adam and a 3-tier universe).

Those who pin Adam to the tail end of evolution are scientific concordists because modern genetics offers no evidence for his existence. Their belief in Adam comes from Scripture, not science. And from my perspective, scientific concordism always falls short.

Now there are some who attempt to argue that Adam was taken from a population of humans and that he was the first person to be in a relationship with God. The analogy used is that Adam is like Abraham in that he was called by God. However, this is definitely not in the Bible. Genesis 2 does not talk about Adam being called from some group of humans. Genesis 2 is a creation account and clearly states that the Lord made Adam de novo from the dust of the ground.

From my perspective, a foundational tenet of evolutionary creation is that it rejects scientific concordism. Consequently, those who accept human evolution and a historical Adam should really be classified with the progressive creationists because they embrace concordism.

JS: What do you take to be the most vulnerable point of your “No Adam” position?

DL: Let me respond to this question by asking a question: What is the most vulnerable point to the view that we do not live in a 3-tier universe? Needless to say, if indeed we live in a 3-tier universe, then we are going to need to respond to centuries and centuries of arguments against this view of the structure of the cosmos.But let me now answer your question more directly. If the central concept to my origins position deals with biblical interpretation as I stated in Question 2, then the most vulnerable point is my interpretative approach to Scripture.Here is what my critics need to do. They need to show me that scientific concordism is true and that it is an inerrant feature of the Bible. Find me only one verse in Scripture where God has revealed a modern scientific fact to a biblical writer thousands of years before its discovery by modern scientists. Do that and I will rethink my position. However, I do not know of one such verse. From my reading of Scripture, every statement about the natural world reflects the science-of-the-day as conceived through the ancient phenomenological perspective at that time.

JS: You’ve been involved in the science and Christianity conversations for many years as an unabashed Evangelical who accepts evolution. Sometimes, no doubt, you must have felt yours was a lonely voice crying in the wilderness. Have you seen the climate change at all in this respect for Evangelicals?

DL: One of the great blessings of academic life is that you have the privilege of meeting some of the best scholars in the world. I have found that there are many evangelical colleagues who hold views similar to mine regarding Adam, but they reveal this to me in private because they fear reprisal from their academic institutions. It is a fact that professors have lost their jobs for rejecting the historicity of Adam. In fact, I have experienced this personally with the two evangelical denominations where I have fellowshipped. I was blocked by one, and dismissed by the other.But as I noted in the first question, there is a shift going on in evangelical circles. I suspect it will take a generation for us to come to terms with biological evolution, in particular human evolution. If there is one thing we can learn from the history of science it is that the church is always cautious in embracing new scientific ideas, but in the end she is able to accommodate them into her theology, without any loss or damage to the inerrant spiritual truths of the Bible. I see the same happening with the issue of Adam in the future.

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.  
  • Denis Lamoureux

    Denis Lamoureux

    Denis Lamoureux is the associate professor of science and religion at St. Joseph’s College in the University of Alberta. He holds a PhD in evangelical theology and a PhD in evolutionary biology. Lamoureux is the author of the books Evolutionary Creation: A Christian Approach to Evolution (2008) and I Love Jesus and I Accept Evolution (2009). More on his work can be found here.
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