Editor's Note: This post is part of a series of responses to Adam and the Genome: Reading Scripture after Genetic Science, a new book by Dennis Venema and Scot McKnight. Readers are strongly encouraged to read senior editor Jim Stump's introduction to the series.
Dennis and Scot have collaborated on a wonderful book on the ongoing controversy (hopefully becoming more of a discussion) within Evangelicalism concerning biological evolution. Dennis lays out the genomic evidence, in a way that only trained scientists can, and Scot rehearses the well-known contextual issues and recurring questions that biblical scholars of both Testaments have been engaging for the past century and a half, and that need to continue to be engaged. Both authors are admirably honest in drawing their conclusion.
I am happy to leave the scientific matters to real scientists rather than pretend, since my formal scientific training effectively ended when we were told to dissect a kitty in sophomore high school biology (but I digress). Let me focus my comments on Scot’s half of the book, the biblical side, on which I have taught and written a fair amount, including my 2012 book The Evolution of Adam. I find myself in substantive agreement with Scot’s conclusions, and I hope the relentless yet winsome pressure from Scot and others will continue to help those who are looking for ways to maintain their Christian faith and accept evolution, and perhaps convince those who aren’t sure this is even possible.
In the interest of space, I will summarize in list form what I think are the central issues of biblical scholarship that Scot brings to the table, while also giving a few twists of my own. There are certainly places where I would put things a bit differently (for example, if I were king I would ban the singularly ambiguous and unhelpful word “archetype” from any and all future discussions of Adam), but those differences, I would say, are in-house matters that do not affect the overall points Scot makes so compellingly.
Now, to my list. I have eleven points, and the first two are central.
- Any discussion of the “historical Adam” cannot proceed one step forward without taking into account the story of Adam in its ancient context. I don’t mean to suggest this is easy as pie. There is a lot to work through, and room for some variation in points of view. But the conversation cannot go on as if we’ve learned nothing in the last 150 years about antiquity and the function that origins stories played in ancient societies. Placing Adam in his ancient context immediately and significantly affects how Genesis is brought into the discussion over evolution.
- What goes for Adam goes for Paul. Paul’s understanding of Adam involves us in much more than simply accepting Romans 5 or 1 Corinthians 15 as “plain” readings of Genesis 2-3. Rather it puts us squarely in the middle of Paul’s ancient hermeneutical context—the world of Greco-Romanism and Second Temple Judaism. Coming to terms with Paul and his context, again, immediately and significantly affects how one engages the evolution/Christianity conundrum.
Scot explicates these two points with clarity and conviction, and his section of the book is essentially an elaboration on the implications of these two observations. The remaining points are in no particular order.
- Scientific concordism—the assumption that the biblical origins stories are (must be) compatible with science—essentially ignores point 1 above and therefore must be rejected as a reading that imposes modern concerns and questions onto an ancient text.
- There is no “fall” in Genesis 3, nor in Romans 5, in the sense in which “fall” is often understood: as inherited guilt from a historical Adam’s transgression. The idea of every human sinning “in Adam” is foreign to the biblical texts (Scot’s chapter on Romans is worth reading carefully here), and accepting this observation significantly tempers the problem evolution causes for Christian doctrine.
- Paul’s Adam in Romans is not a “plain reading” of the Adam story but an interpretation of that story for theological purposes that are not rooted in Genesis. This is largely Scot’s point in chapter 8, where he rehearses the diverse ways in which Adam was interpreted in Second Temple Judaism. Paul as a Jew of the time was engaged in the same type of creative interpretive exercise as were others before him. This is a vital chapter, though it will likely be hard for some to accept the notion that Paul is anything other than the true interpreter of the intention of the writer of Genesis (a core element of inerrantist exegesis). This point is further borne out by observing how Paul elsewhere and the other New Testament writers intentionally, knowingly, re-read, reframed, and transformed Israel’s story in light of an unanticipated ending. In Romans 5, Paul is not a systematic expositor of the original meaning of Genesis 3, but a creative, imaginative theologian, who is reading the biblical story backwards: he begins with the conclusion (the resurrected Jesus) and draws upon the language of Genesis 3 to drive home his understanding of the gospel, which features the full inclusion of Gentiles.
- The controversy surrounding evolution stems not so much from the Bible as it does from deeply ingrained but false expectations imposed onto the Bible that put it onto a collision course with science. The problem is not the Bible, but how we have been taught to read it. Commonly, the assumption is made that (as I’ve heard Denis Lamoureux describe it) evolution imposes problems onto “the Bible,” and that “the Bible” is the stable factor that evolution needs to be “grafted” onto somehow. The truth, though, is that our readings of Genesis and Romans are what need to be adjusted to allow the graft to take (see #s 1 and 2 above).
- Many Christians today assume that the writer of Genesis intended to give (in some sense) an historical account of origins. It is worth asking, however, whether this assumption is true: was Genesis 2-3 in fact ever intended to be “historical?” (see pp. 106-108). We might be underestimating ancient authors and their ability to know a good story when they saw one. Put another way, we should not impose upon ancient authors the modern fixation on the central importance of historicity as the conveyer of truth.
- Related to #7, I believe (though Scot may demur) we need to rehabilitate the concept of “myth” for discussing the Adam story. The term as it is used generally in biblical scholarship does not mean “false” but denotes an ancient means of expressing beliefs of ultimate reality in concrete and contextually meaningful ways. If we can get over that hurdle, we will be in a better position to focus on the theology of the Adam story rather than its historicity.
- The clear parallel between Adam and Israel, already noted in rabbinic Judaism, is a crucial element in understanding Genesis 2-3, and—if accepted—decentralizes the historical question concerning Adam and thus eases tensions with evolution. Adam is presented in Genesis 2-3 as a preview of Israel’s history: both are (1) “created” by God (Adam from dust, Israel out of slavery), (2) placed in a lush land (Eden/Canaan), (3) given commands to follow (the Tree of Knowledge/Mosaic Law), and (4) are “exiled” for disobedience, both of which are described as “death” (Genesis 2:17; Ezekiel 37 and Deuteronomy 30).
- Genesis 1 reflects the seven-day Sabbath week, certainly, and perhaps also the Temple construction (following ancient Near Eastern parallels), which is completed in seven years. This strongly suggests a liturgical/theological purpose to the creation story, namely its central focus on worship and the liturgical week, which further suggests that the story was written for that purpose. This observation is supported by the generally accepted scholarly view that Genesis 1 was written in light of Israel’s later liturgical practices: the origins story reflects later Israelite practices. This same logic should be applied, then, to the Adam story to see it (following #9 above) as Israel’s later reflection on its history written into their origins story.
Scot has at several points in his section statements that summarize his argument and orient the reader for what is to come. I’d like to end by citing one of them:
The category of a “historical Adam” is an anachronism with respect to the text because (1) it comes from the modern world of science, history, anthropology, biology, and genetics, and it is also accompanied by the quest to see if what the Bible says about the past can be proved true (and therefore believed as true); (2) any talk of the “historical Adam” is steeped in the theological conversation about original sin, which is not present in Genesis 3; and (3) the historical, biological, and genetic Adam and Eve are not, strictly speaking, what the writers of Genesis 1-3 were focused on. . . . the primal couple is created to reveal what humans in general are assigned to do in God’s cosmic temple. (p. 145, my emphasis)
I resonate with this comment, though I would (1) replace “not, strictly speaking” with “not remotely,” (2) understand “the primal couple is created” to mean created by the writer of Genesis 2-3, and (3) not tie Adam’s function in the story so exclusively to “cosmic temple.” Nevertheless, what we have here in Scot’s section is an Adam presented fairly and compellingly who is not “historical” and who presents no barrier to the acceptance of evolution.
My only overall criticism of the book is that it is pitched too high for the “people in the pew” who might most benefit from its content. But there is the rub: complexity may be unavoidable, given the technical realities of science and the subtle and layered nature of biblical/historical scholarship. All in all, for those willing to put in the effort, this book is worth their time and may well open up doors and windows onto a deeper faith.