Interpreting Adam: An Interview with Jack Collins


Last week we began a series on Interpreting Adam. The first post was by BioLogos president, Deborah Haarsma, who gave an overview of the issue and an introduction to the recent book, Four Views on the Historical Adam, on which this series is focused. Then on Tuesday of last week we posted an interview with John Walton, who espouses the Archetype view of Adam and Eve.

Today we begin an interview with C. John Collins, Professor of Old Testament at Covenant Theological Seminary in St. Louis. “Jack” (as he is known informally) defends the Old Earth Creation view in the book. Essentially he argues that the Bible as a whole—as well as the common human experience—demands a view of Adam and Eve as real historical people through whom sin entered the world (i.e., there is also a historical Fall). Collins is well aware of the scientific evidences that stand in tension with his theological convictions, but he finds enough latitude in interpreting those evidences such that they can fit with the “Big Story” of humanity we find in Scripture.

There is much overlap between Collins’ and Walton’s views. Both have a historical Adam. But contrary to Walton, Collins insists that Adam must be at the headwaters of the human race. It is worth reading their critiques of each other’s positions in the book. Following is Collins’ summary of his position, and then the first part of the interview.

I argue that the best way to account for the biblical presentation of human life is to understand that Adam and Eve were both real persons at the headwaters of humankind. By “biblical presentation” I refer not only to the story in Genesis and the biblical passages that refer to it, but also to the larger biblical story line, which deals with God’s good creation invaded by sin, for which God has a redemptive plan; of Israel’s calling to be a light to the nations; and of the church’s prospect of successfully bringing God’s light to the whole world. That story concerns the unique role and dignity of the human race, which is a matter of daily experience for everyone: All people yearn for God and need him, must depend on him to deal with their sinfulness, and crave a wholesome community for their lives to flourish.

I argue that the nature of the biblical material should keep us from being too literalistic in our reading of Adam and Eve, leaving room for an Earth that is not young, but that the biblical material along with good critical thinking provides certain freedoms and limitations for connecting the Bible’s creation account to a scientific and historical account of human origins (p. 143).

Jim Stump: Your reading of Genesis 1-11 is quite sophisticated in a literary sense. You see the stories in a genre with other ancient Near Eastern literature, which might be said to have a historical core but are also packed with imagery and symbolism. As such you say, “no one expected the stories to be read in a thoroughly literalistic fashion” (p. 155). What elements of the creation accounts do you not take to be literal descriptions of historical events?

Jack Collins: Well, first, thanks for the compliment! I have developed my literary methodology by combining ideas from textlinguistics and speech act theory, literary criticism (e.g., C.S. Lewis, Mary Louise Pratt, Meir Sternberg, and Phil Long), and Biblical theology (e.g., N.T. Wright, Michael Williams, and Christopher Wright), together with my own reflections as a grammarian and lexicographer (mentored by one of the best, Alan Millard).

I would say that the creation account in Genesis refers to actual persons, things, and events, in ways that strike the imagination. So I take the six days of Genesis 1 as “God’s workdays” — God is presented as if he were a workman going through his work week. The way that God “rested” (Gen. 2:2–3) or “was refreshed” (Exod. 31:17) on his Sabbath is indicator enough that the description is analogical and not “literal.” Further, to the extent that the “expanse” is portrayed as something solid (as in the “firmament” of the King James Version), it is not a scientific description of the sky, but rather a pictorial one: it enables us to imagine the scene. The days of Genesis 1 march on in a clear sequence; but the sequence itself may well be part of the literary portrayal, so we should sit lightly on it. In general, the account says little or nothing about processes by which things took their shape: this is not to exclude the possibility of processes, nor even to make our scientific curiosity about them impious, but rather to sketch the portrait of a creation expressive of and obedient to God’s wishes.

And when in Genesis 2:7 God “forms” the man using dust, we don’t have to read that as a “straightforward” description of the process, especially since a deity acting like a potter in forming a man is a motif found elsewhere in the ancient world. (Of course that doesn’t mean that it can’t be what it looked like: my point is that detailing the procedure isn’t what the writer was aiming at.)

These are some examples. I consider the imagistic form to be as much a part of God’s inspiration as the content. The great virtue of the pictorial approach that Genesis has employed is that it enables us to imagine the events and to enjoy them; the goal of the creation story in Genesis is, besides getting the Big Story under way by narrating its beginning, to celebrate the creation as God’s achievement, so that human beings will honor God, and like and use and care for his stuff responsibly. Israel, the first audience, was God’s new start on humankind, and their life in the Land was particularly intended to show forth this purpose.

JS: Once you allow “historical” accounts to have non-literal elements to them, what are the criteria by which you determine the “historical core”? Is it legitimate to affirm the Genesis accounts as historical if we acknowledge that God really did create the heavens and the earth and all the life, but we don’t think that these accounts give the details of how or when that happened?

JC: JC: Fair question, and it’s important not to be arbitrary. I would consider the events in light of their place in the over-arching storyline of the Bible. Of course the world in which we live, and whether it came about by God’s intention or by some other factors, are relevant at all stages of that storyline! So Genesis is concerned to clarify that the world we know is just the right kind of place for our little stories to take place in.

In addition, the way that the rest of the Bible refers to the persons and events of Genesis is good guidance as to the importance of those persons and events to the shape of the Big Story. No Biblical author makes anything, so far as I know, of most of the details. Nevertheless, the persons of Adam and Eve do play a bigrole in the rest of the Biblical Story — and this, not so much as individuals who lived, but as actors whose disobedience affected everyone else, which thus led to the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus. As I’ve indicated in the book, I think it’s proper to entertain some leeway on just what it means that Adam and Eve were “at the headwaters” of humankind, and just how long ago that was. Hence, for example, the discussion that Tim Keller gives in his white paper on the BioLogos site fits within what seem to me to be reasonable bounds.

In Genesis 3 the temptation comes through a conversation between the woman and a talking snake. The crucial thing here is not the literality of the description, but rather the referentiality of it. That is, a good literary reading of the conversation will conclude that the snake is the mouthpiece for an Evil Power, because snakes don’t talk, and Israelites knew that; and because what it says is pure evil. But whether that Evil Power used a “literal” snake and spoke through it is not important, except insofar as it enables us all to envision the scene. We must come away feeling the tragic loss this involved for all humankind, so that we are open to, and compliant with, whatever scheme God has for remedying our predicament.

Jim Stump: One of your criteria for whether Adam and Eve should be taken as historical persons is whether other writers, and especially biblical ones, take them to be historical (p. 157). In your view, did the biblical writers have any false beliefs about the world? And if so, how do you treat those passages where false beliefs of authors are apparent?

Jack Collins: Here is where we need what you called a “sophisticated” set of literary skills. What I mean by that is we need to be clear on what a writer is doing when he describes things and events. His naming of them will generally reflect some combination of (1) his own conceptions of them, (2) his culture’s conventions for designating them, and (3) whatever rhetorical concerns he might have in mind for shaping people’s attitudes toward them. So when I call the earth a globe, I can have lots of goals in mind beyond simply designating its physical properties. If I say that my college friends have been “scattered to the four winds,” I am using a convention; it’s a mistake to suppose that this phrase conveys a theory about where the winds come from! When my children were young, I told them about the “thousands” of papers I had to grade, and neither they nor I considered that to be a claim about the “actual” number.

Hence in any Biblical passage about the world, you can’t easily tell what combination of these three factors is involved, but you can tell that most of those statements aren’t concerned with physics or chemistry. When Isaiah says that God “stretched out the heavens” (40:22; 42:5; 44:24; etc.), this is not about cosmic expansion. I’ve already explained that when Genesis describes the making of the world its manner of referring serves the purpose of conveying a stance toward the world, and has little to do with anyone’s beliefs about the physical composition of the things.

A lot of the assertions one sees from scholars about ancient pictures of the world fail in this regard. Shall we really infer from a poem (1 Sam. 2:8) that the author thought the world physically rested on pillars? Or that the earth has “corners” (Job 37:3; Isa. 11:12; 41:9; from a vision, Rev 7:1; 20:8)? (I could go on, but won’t.) This is a literary failure.

John Wenham noted that “it is to the writings rather than to the writers that [Christ] ascribes authority.” I find this helpful for a number of reasons; but for the present, it focuses our attention on a text and the ways in which it refers to persons and events. I can normally identify the referents and cooperate with the rhetorical purposes, and the author’s personal conception of the details has very little bearing. (For more on this, I can refer you to my discussion of “good faith communication,” in my God of Miracles [Crossway / Inter-Varsity, 2000], chapter 4.)

This is why the question you raise doesn’t really come into play, at least in these discussions.

JS: You also make the case theologically that Adam and Eve are real historical people at the headwaters of the human race, and there is little doubt that they have been understood as such for most of church history. But theology has changed over the centuries, as we’ve come to understand things differently (e.g., doctrines of Trinity, atonement, eschatology, women). What kind of scientific evidence would it take to persuade you that your theological position on Adam and Eve needs to change?

JC: Another fine question! But let me push back on it a bit, if I may. First, “theology has changed over the centuries.” At its purest, the discipline of theology is aiming to use the best tools available to draw out applications of Biblical teaching. (In saying this I am not intending to settle the differences between various branches of historic Christianity; they all would affirm some version of this.) We may say that Christian teaching about the Trinity, or the atonement, have developed, but what we should mean by that is that controversies forced Christian scholars to clarify and refine their understandings of Biblical teaching. That is, Christian theologians (the traditional ones, anyhow!) count themselves obligated to warrant their views ultimately from the Bible. So the “changes” are supposed to derive from better insight.

As I read Genesis, I find the author making use of knowledge that all farmers have. They all know that humans are “animals” in the sense that we have bodies and bodily functions and movement like every other animal; and they also know that we occupy a distinct role in relation to the other animals and to the environment, a role that stems from their unique capacities. The Greeks called the human being “the rational animal” in order to express this, while Genesis captures it more fully in calling the human “a ‘living creature’ (=animal) who is in God’s image.” Developing science isn’t going to overthrow knowledge of this sort.

My “theological position on Adam and Eve” is similarly oriented toward everyday experience (Four Views on the Historical Adam, p. 164):

In sum, the storyline of the Bible, to be coherent, leads us to expect that: (1) humankind is actually one family, with one set of ancestors for us all; (2) God acted specially (“supernaturally”) to form our first parents; and (3) our first ancestors, at the headwaters of the human race, brought sin and dysfunction into the world of human life. Bible believers have treasured the Adam and Eve story as the true and proper narrative that grounds these expectations. Certainly without this front-end narrative it is hard to see how we can affirm these points—which means that we wind up telling a different Big Story than the one I have outlined here.

I think this leaves plenty of room for scientists to explore all manner of interesting issues. As I say in my chapter, “far be it from an exegete or theologian to tell a geneticist what he or she may or may not find in the genome, or a paleontologist in the fossils!” That is one reason why science is so much fun.

But I go on to say, “At the same time, when that geneticist or paleontologist wants to try to put those findings together into larger theories that tell the human story, then that person is reasoning as a human being, and his or her reasoning is subject to review for its compliance with good critical thinking.” For example, I read an article in PNAS, written by a biologist, which claims that humans have no free will because we are just a complex arrangement of chemicals (Anthony Cashmore, “The Lucretian swerve: The biological basis of human behavior and the criminal justice system,” PNAS 12 January 2010). His problem is that he didn’t stick to what he is entitled to say as a biologist; I don’t need a degree in biology to reject this argument! (Actually, the biology I do know helps me to see where he has overstepped his bounds.)

JS: Finally, why is this debate among Christians important? What ultimately hinges on our answer to whether Adam and Eve were historical people?

JC: The best way to think of Adam and Eve is as characters in the true Big Story of the world — and we want to have a handle on this Big Story in order to make sense of our lives. We have to account for humankind as one family, with common faculties, aspirations, and needs; this implies a common and special origin. And we must account for sin as an alien intruder, so that we will accept God’s solution for it, and respond when he enlists us to play a responsible role in the unfolding of this Story; this is why the “fall” matters.

G.K. Chesterton put it best (no surprise):

The Fall is a view of life. It is not only the only enlightening, but the only encouraging view of life. It holds, as against the only real alternative philosophies, those of the Buddhist or the Pessimist or the Promethean, that we have misused a good world, and not merely been entrapped into a bad one. It refers evil back to the wrong use of the will, and thus declares that it can eventually be righted by the right use of the will. Every other creed except that one is some form of surrender to fate. A man who holds this view of life will find it giving light on a thousand things, on which mere evolutionary ethics have not a word to say. For instance, on the colossal contrast between the completeness of man’s machines and the continued corruption of his motives; on the fact that no social progress really seems to leave self behind; … on that proverb that says “the price of liberty is eternal vigilance,” which is only what the theologians say of every other virtue, and is itself only a way of stating the truth of original sin; on those extremes of good and evil by which man exceeds all the animals by the measure of heaven and hell; on that sublime sense of loss that is in the very sound of all great poetry, and nowhere more than in the poetry of pagans and sceptics: “We look before and after, and pine for what is not”; which cries against all prigs and progressives out of the very depths and abysses of the broken heart of man, that happiness is not only a hope, but also in some strange manner a memory; and that we are all kings in exile.


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Jim Stump
About the Author

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 or follow him on Twitter.