Adam and the Genome: Some Thoughts from Denis Alexander

| By (guest author) on Faith and Science Seeking Understanding

Editor's Note: This post is part of a series of responses to Adam and the Genome: Reading Scripture after Genetic Sciencea new book by Dennis Venema and Scot McKnight. Readers are strongly encouraged to read senior editor Jim Stump's introduction to the series. Also, we're proud to announce that both McKnight and Venema will take part in a special session at our upcoming Christ and Creation conference in Houston, TX (March 29-31), discussing the topics of this book. We'd love to see you there! 

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?


Notes

Citations

MLA

Alexander, Denis. "Adam and the Genome: Some Thoughts from Denis Alexander"
https://biologos.org/. N.p., 2 Feb. 2017. Web. 11 December 2017.

APA

Alexander, D. (2017, February 2). Adam and the Genome: Some Thoughts from Denis Alexander
Retrieved December 11, 2017, from /blogs/jim-stump-faith-and-science-seeking-understanding/adam-and-the-genome-some-thoughts-from-denis-alexander

About the Author

Denis Alexander

Denis Alexander is a founding fellow of the ISSR and Emeritus Director of The Faraday Institute for Science and Religion, St. Edmund’s College, Cambridge, where he is Emeritus Fellow. Genes, Determinism and God was published by Cambridge University Press on July 13th 2017, and is based on the author’s Gifford Lectures given at St. Andrews University, Scotland, in 2012.

More posts by Denis Alexander

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