Adam and the Genome: Some Thoughts from Ken Keathley

| 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. 

Let me begin by thanking Jim Stump for the opportunity to review Adam and the Genome. Jim invited my input despite the fact that my position is different from that of BioLogos. I am an old-earth creationist who affirms a historical Adam as the special creation of God (although, I admit, using a different definition of the term “historical Adam” than the one laid out by Scot McKnight in this book). Last fall Dennis and Scot were kind enough to send me a manuscript of their book. At the same time I picked up a copy of Searching for Adam: Genesis and the Truth about Man’s Origin, edited by Terry Mortenson. The latter work, promoted by Answers in Genesis, contains a chapter by Nathaniel Jeanson entitled “Genetics Confirms the Recent, Supernatural Creation of Adam and Eve.” So this old-earth creationist read an evolutionary creationist text and a young-earth creationist text side-by-side. Reading their respective takes on genetics and the historical Adam was a surreal experience. I think that scientific laypeople like me (and most evangelicals) can be excused for feeling confused and conflicted. Someone is supplying us with “alternative facts.”   

Adam and the Genome is one of the more impressive evolutionary creationist works that I have read. Venema has a teacher’s knack for making difficult concepts easier to understand through the use of familiar analogies. A common objection to evolution is that it appears to require substantial (and improbable) changes in multiple organisms in the same generation. Venema replies that this is not how evolution works. “If indeed evolution works that way, they would be right. But, in fact, that’s not the way it does work. Evolution works by incremental change within a population, shifting its average characteristics over long periods of time” (19). Venema uses the analogy of how language changes over time, specifically showing how John 14:6 has read in English through the centuries. This is an effective illustration.

Venema demonstrates that the current understanding of the human genome holds that human beings descended from a population of several thousand rather than a single pair of original humans. So where does that leave Adam and Eve? He answers, “Science…is simply unable to weigh in on the historicity of Adam and Eve as individuals. What we can conclude, however, is that if they were in fact historical, they were not the sole parents of all humanity, but part of a larger population. Beyond this, science cannot say” (59).

After arguing for evolution in general and an evolutionary understanding of human origins in particular (chapters 1-3), the book takes a slightly surprising turn in chapter four.  Venema shifts gears, and instead of discussing perhaps the genetic and fossil evidence concerning hominids, he critiques Intelligent Design (particularly as espoused by Michael Behe, Stephen Meyer, and Douglas Axe of the Discovery Institute). On one level this makes sense. Venema explains his own personal journey away from ID. However, in terms of the flow of the book, this chapter’s purpose is not as readily apparent. Most within the ID movement avoid explicit attempts to interpret Genesis. Typically ID proponents do not discuss the age of the earth, the extent of Noah’s Flood, or the effects of the Fall. This avoidance usually includes addressing the historicity of Adam and Eve. One exception is the Discovery Institute Press release, Science and Human Origins, by Ann Gauger, Douglas Axe, and Casey Luskin. The book argues that the evidence of the human genome is compatible with the traditional view of an original couple. Since Venema devotes a chapter to refuting ID, one would expect that he would have addressed the book by ID proponents that directly speaks to the question at hand.

From the perspective of one who is a scientific layperson, Venema’s critique seems “off message.” Perhaps engagement with those who have used genetic evidence extensively to contend for a historical Adam (such as Fuz Rana and Hugh Ross) would have been more helpful. That being said, I have to admit that, over all, Venema makes a clear and strong case, one that I am not equipped to answer.

McKnight takes over at chapter five, and, like Venema, he is a gifted communicator who writes with sensitivity. He starts by arguing that four principles should be utilized when reading the Bible on this subject: respect, honesty, sensitivity to science students, and the primacy of Scripture. By respect, he means that we must recognize that Genesis 1-11 were written to an ancient Near Eastern audience, and the text must be interpreted in that light. Honesty, for McKnight, requires that we be candid about two things: science says that human DNA goes back to more than two people and the Bible really does present Adam and Eve as the ancestors of the human race. We need to be sensitive, he argues, to the struggles that young Christian scientists endure on this issue. Scot claims the number one reason young Christians leave the faith is the perceived incompatibility of Genesis and genetics. And concerning the primacy of Scripture, McKnight urges Christians to read the Bible “as God’s revelation to God’s people.” I found myself nodding my head in agreement as I read this portion of the book. With McKnight, I affirm these four principles.

McKnight gives an overview of other ancient Near Eastern creation stories such as the Enuma Elish and the Gilgamesh Epic. He argues, correctly in my opinion, that Genesis displays both similarities and differences with these competing texts. The author of Genesis wrote to an audience immersed in the ANE milieu, but he subverts the theological worldview of those texts. McKnight then presents the theological emphases of Genesis in a number of theses, about which I again found myself in general agreement. Genesis presents God as the sovereign Creator; creation serves as his temple; Adam and Eve were called to be worshippers of God and his representatives on earth. They rebelled, preferring to be little gods. The author of Genesis intends for us to understand Adam and Eve as archetypes: their story is everyone’s story.

At this point McKnight makes a distinction between the Adam presented in Scripture and the “historical Adam” of the current debates. Genesis presents us, McKnight argues, with a “literary Adam.” The historical Adam is a prejudice; a post-biblical construction of the Church. This appears to be McKnight’s primary argument: the author of Genesis presents the Adam and Eve as literary figures rather than historical figures. This does not take away from their historicity nor argues for it—historicity is simply not the point.

Thus the notion of a historical Adam, as defined by McKnight, is anachronistic. Such a view of Adam tries to understand him in modern, scientific terms, attempts to interpret him through later theological lens (such as original sin), and pays little or no attention to author’s original intent.  McKnight argues, “A contextual approach to reading Genesis 1-3 immediately establishes that the Adam and Eve of the Bible are a literary Adam and Eve. That is, Adam and Eve are part of the narrative designed to speak into a world that had similar and dissimilar narratives. Making use of this context does not mean Adam and Eve are ‘fictional,’ and neither does it mean they are historical” (118). Thus McKnight concludes, The Adam of Paul was not the historical Adam” (188).

To sum up McKnight’s argument (if I’m reading him correctly):

  1. The author of Genesis presents Adam primarily as a literary figure, and only secondarily as a genealogical figure.
  2. How the literary Adam of Genesis relates to history (i.e. history in the modern sense of the term) cannot be easily discerned from the text of Genesis itself (190).
  3. This ambiguity does not present an obstacle to faith, since Paul utilizes only the literary Adam of Genesis.
  4. Paul’s Adam—a literary (albeit genealogical) Adam—is not the historical Adam as construed throughout much of Church history or as understood in the current debate.
  5. Therefore, in the light of the latest scientific findings in genetics, Christians should be willing to revisit their understanding of Adam and human origins. A literary Adam poses no obstacle to an evolutionary understanding of human origins.

To be candid, no one desires a resolution to the current tension more than I do. Like McKnight, I do not want to put scientists in the position where they have to choose between doing science and having faith. However, I have at least two concerns about McKnight’s proposal. First, the author of Genesis seems to make real historical claims (and this includes chapters 1-11). And second, even McKnight acknowledges that Paul understood Adam as a real person who had a real impact on all humanity.   

As to the first concern, I agree with McKnight that there is a literary structure to Genesis 1-11 and to not recognize the author’s use of figurative language is to misread and mishandle the text. However, Moses is presenting to us actual events. He intends us to understand them as historical. Jack Collins has also explored the questions of genre and historicity of Genesis 1-11, and I agree with his definition of historical: “There is a simple, ordinary language sense of the word “history,” and this will be my meaning: I will take the term ‘historical account’ to mean that the author wanted his audience to believe that the events recorded really happened.”   

McKnight admits that though he dismisses the category of “historical Adam,” the Bible does present a “genealogical Adam.” He states, “No matter how much emphasis is given to a literary, archetypal, an image-of-God reading of Adam and Eve, the fact remains that Genesis 1-2 presents Adam and Eve as what might be called the genealogical Adam and Eve” (144). When he distinguishes between “biological Adam” and “genealogical Adam,” I am not sure what he means. It seems to me to be a distinction without a difference.

As to the second concern, McKnight’s argument hinges in no small part on his definition of “historical Adam.” He asks, “Is Paul’s Adam the literary-genealogical Adam who will become the archetypal, moral Adam? Or is Paul’s Adam the historical Adam of Christian theology?” (169) This seems to me to be a dilemma of false alternatives. McKnight himself says that Paul’s gospel requires the following about Adam and Eve: they were made in God’s image, and they were commanded by God not to eat of the tree. When they chose to disobey they were “aimed towards death,” and they “passed on death to all humans” (188-89). There seems to be a significant overlap between the “historical Adam” and “Paul’s Adam.”

Venema and McKnight have written a significant work. Darrel Falk may be right in his endorsement of the book when he describes it as a watershed moment in the conversation about Scripture and evolutionary science. I expect that we will be talking about Adam and the Genome for some time to come.




Keathley, Kenneth. "Adam and the Genome: Some Thoughts from Ken Keathley" N.p., 1 Feb. 2017. Web. 22 January 2019.


Keathley, K. (2017, February 1). Adam and the Genome: Some Thoughts from Ken Keathley
Retrieved January 22, 2019, from /blogs/jim-stump-faith-and-science-seeking-understanding/adam-and-the-genome-some-thoughts-from-ken-keathley

About the Author

Kenneth Keathley

Kenneth Keathley is Director of the L. Russ Bush Center for Faith and Culture, Senior Professor of Theology, and Jesse Hendley Chair of Theology at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest, North Carolina.

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