On Geniality and Genealogy
The goal of BioLogos is to create a space in which Christ-followers can creatively explore the fruits of the best science and biblical and theological scholarship together, even when they disagree.
This week we celebrated the 500th anniversary of one of the great, pivotal periods in the history of God’s people: The Protestant Reformation. As a former German major in college, I’ve had the privilege of reading original works by one of the Reformation’s chief – although at times reluctant – architects, Martin Luther. What made Luther such an icon of church history was his creativity in recapturing what at the time was an under-appreciated aspect of the biblical witness: justification by grace through faith in Jesus Christ, contextualized for his generation. But as anyone who knows the history of the Reformation will be quick to say, the creative genius of Luther and the other Reformers also led to some combustible moments, as their differences in how they worked out the implications of their ideas threatened to tear the fledgling movement apart.
Making room for creativity within biblically grounded, dynamic Christian faith is a challenge that remains today. BioLogos has set a demanding goal: to create a space in which Christ-followers can creatively explore the fruits of the best science and the best biblical and theological scholarship together, even when they disagree. Why is this challenging? Friends of BioLogos agree on many things (see here for our core commitments and beliefs). We agree on the authority of Scripture and core Christian theology related to human origins: God created all humans in his image with unique spiritual capacity to relate to God, but we are fallen and in desperate need of a Savior. And at BioLogos we agree on well-established scientific findings about our origins and our genetic unity. But within those commitments, friends of BioLogos have explored a range of diverse ideas. A good example of this sort of diversity relates to a Common Question at BioLogos: Were Adam and Eve historical figures? There is no single “BioLogos view” on Adam and Eve and the biblical, theological, ethical, and philosophical issues of our origins (e.g. see this 2014 book). The BioLogos range of views on this topic has always included views of Adam and Eve as real individuals living in a real past. Evolutionary science does not exclude an historical Adam.
Recently, two friends of BioLogos, Drs. Dennis Venema and Josh Swamidass, engaged in a further discussion of this topic. Dennis is a developmental geneticist, Professor of Biology at Trinity Western University, and a Fellow with BioLogos who has coauthored a recent book, Adam and the Genome, with biblical scholar Scot McKnight. Dennis has helped many to understand important ideas about evolutionary biology, including authoring the Evolution Basics series on this site. Josh is a computational biologist and an Assistant Professor at Washington University in St. Louis, with a great heart for helping the church to have God-honoring conversations about science and the Scriptures through his work in such venues as the Veritas Forum and the AAAS/DoSER Science for Seminaries project. Although on his blog, Peaceful Science, Josh recently wrote that he sees himself as speaking outside of organizations like BioLogos and any particular view of evolutionary creation, he has written in the past for the BioLogos web site and shares many BioLogos commitments. Both Josh and Dennis love Jesus, are committed to His church, and both have hearts – evident in their words and their lives – for the “least of these” (Matt. 25:40). I count them both as friends.
Just as Luther and the other Reformers recaptured underappreciated aspects of Christian theology, sometimes underappreciated aspects of science need to be recaptured. In a June piece for our friends at the Sapientia web site, part of Trinity Evangelical Divinity School’s exciting Creation Project, Josh correctly highlighted work on genealogical science, a scientific area that is often underappreciated by biologists. Contextualizing this work as part of the historical Adam discussion, Josh explained that there are plausibly many recent and ancient “genealogical adams” and “genealogical eves”, each of whom are individually universal genealogical ancestors of all of us, as recently as 6000 years ago. Josh’s work is based on science that goes back some years, including an influential paper in the journal Nature in 2004[i]; I and others have reviewed these and other references and confirm these scientific points. [For a popular-level presentation of the issues and how genealogical science works, please see this decidedly non-theological piece; you may not know it, but you are likely related to royalty!]. Josh now has a more extensively referenced version of this work in press with our friends at the American Scientific Affiliation, in Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith, and an updated overview blog post on his own site, which I encourage you to read for additional details.
Josh rightly reminds us to use caution in using the term “human” in scientific claims; the ambiguity and theological weight of the term “human” can create confusion about what science does and does not say. He also notes that genealogical science allows a scenario in which Adam and Eve were miraculously created, de novo; if their descendants interbred with a larger population who were created in an evolutionary process, such a scenario can be consistent with the findings of genetic science. In such a scenario, we would still share ancestry with the great apes, and our ancestors would still arise as a population that never dipped down to a single couple, evidence BioLogos presents regularly, see here and here. Understanding how such statements can all be true at the same time requires some hard thinking about genetics and genealogy!
Josh’s main goal was to make a scientific point; he left open the theological implications raised. When Dennis was asked to respond to Josh’s Sapientia piece, however, he commented on those potential theological implications. Dennis’ questions arose from particular ways of construing important theological ideas, such as the Imago Dei (image of God), the transmission of original sin, and other fundamental theological categories. Dennis has told me recently he has apologized to Josh for his blunt and forceful response and is sorry that he didn’t use more measured language. With Josh’s recent blog post, Dennis now recognizes that Josh was not advocating for a particular theological construal. All of this was unfortunate, because Josh’s genealogical insights are scientific. Just as in so many other areas at BioLogos, there are multiple ways that science, including genealogical science, and theology can be brought into dialogue. We look forward to continued thinking about these things together.
We are grateful for both Josh and Dennis. They are both brilliant communicators and devout Christian brothers who love Jesus. We pray that their creativity will lead us all to celebrate both the glories of God’s created world and the glories of His revealed Word, so that we might all honor the living Lord about whom the Reformers cried, solo Christo! – by Christ alone!
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