An Encomium for Christianity Today on “The Search for the Historical Adam”

Christianity Today deserves recognition and praise for their June 2011 cover story by veteran journalist Richard Ostling, “The Search for the Historical Adam,” and editorial, “No Adam, No Eve, No Gospel.” I have been following the science-religion debate closely, and unfortunately many Evangelicals are lagging behind the trajectory of modern science and what it means for our Christian faith. Rather than engage the data with humility, intelligence, and discernment, the tendency is to follow the ostrich: burying our heads in the sand and pretending that the data does not exist or, even worse, twisting what the data says. We can and must do better.

With a cartographer’s precision, Ostling carefully maps the terrain of the debate on the historical Adam, judiciously bracketing the noisy gongs (no names will be mentioned, although it’s tempting) and spotlighting figures hitherto unknown by vast swaths of Evangelicals, figures such as science-religion writers Karl Giberson and Denis Lamoureux, biblical exegetes Daniel Harlow and Peter Enns, theologian John Schneider, Old Testament scholars Bruce Waltke and Tremper Longman, public policy analyst Michael Cromartie, and biologists Dennis Venema and Darrel Falk. (Strangely, there is no mention of theologian-scientists Alister McGrath and John Polkinghorne who have been in the vanguard of the debate. Neither of them, however, are American Evangelicals; they are British Anglicans.) These figures deserve a patient hearing without reflexive and vituperative charges of heresy. The biggest star of all, who should and may already be a household name, is Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health and former director of the Human Genome Project. Posterity, I submit, will regard his research in genetics with the same indebtedness as other pioneers in modern science like Einstein and Watson & Crick. In 2007, he founded the San Diego-based BioLogos Foundation which is now the leading voice in the integration of faith and science, advancing evolutionary creation. (A rival organization to BioLogos is the Seattle-based Discovery Institute, home to the Intelligent Design movement.)

I was grateful to learn about a BioLogos workshop held in November 2010 at the Harvard Club in New York City that issued in “an accord that endorsed theistic evolution and affirmed ‘without reservation both the authority of the Bible and the integrity of science’ as two paths of divine revelation. The paper declared that ‘several options’ can achieve a synthesis between Scripture and science, ‘including some which involve a historical couple, Adam and Even,” as Ostling writes. The accord was signed by many of the aforementioned names and others, such as Andy Crouch (special assistant to the president at Christianity Today International), Tim Keller (pastor and founder of Redeemer Presbyterian Church), Randy Isaac (president of American Scientific Affiliation), Os Guinness (author and co-founder of The Trinity Forum), and Philip Yancey (best-selling author of evangelical Christian literature). I hope, as the years pass and the conversation improves, that more Evangelicals – church leaders, pastors, scholars, college presidents, and informed laypersons – will subscribe to the views in this equally sensible and faithful statement.

The editors of Christianity Today strike an appropriate balance between caution (steadfastly keeping core biblical doctrines) and openness (conceding that our understanding of the Book of Scripture may need to undergo adjustment in light of what we discover from the Book of Nature). The editorial concludes: “At this juncture, we counsel patience. We don’t need another fundamentalist reaction against science. We need instead a positive interdisciplinary engagement that recognizes the good will of all involved and that creative thinking takes time.”

A little clarification would be helpful when the editors contend “Christians have already drawn the line: there must be an original pair of humans endowed with souls – that is, the spiritual capacity to relate to God in the special way Genesis describes.” Must Christians insist that Adam is the progenitor of all humanity or is it acceptable to regard him as the corporate head? Must Christians insist that the original pair were specially created by God, biologically different from all other creatures, or is it acceptable to regard them as products of the evolutionary process, guided in part by God and in part by natural selection, sharing ancestry with other creatures? Must Christians insist that the apostle Paul’s Adam Christology, in which “Christ’s obedience undoes Adam’s disobedience,” requires a historical Adam or is it acceptable to regard Adam as a literary figure in a poetic allegory that communicates theological truth? On this last question, the editors equivocate: “This conceptual framework is almost impossible without a first human couple.” Notice the hedge word “almost.” So, where is the line to be drawn on these questions?

Reading the Books of Scripture and Nature consonantly will entail a rethinking of some traditional interpretations. The viability of Evangelicalism in the future will depend on its ability to sacrifice – when necessary – tradition on the altar of truth. Too often, I am afraid, an equal sign is put between tradition and truth when, in fact, truth ought to be the corrective of tradition (think: Copernicus and Galileo). Darwin is not the devil, and the sooner we make him a partner in the quest for truth the better. Yes, his disciples foolishly turned methodological naturalism into metaphysical naturalism (“everything is matter”), but we should no more blame him for their failures than non-Christians should blame Jesus for ours.

On this troubled question about the historical Adam, I hope Christians with divergent views will remember what Karl Giberson and Francis Collins emphasize in their excellent new book, The Language of Science and Faith (InterVarsity Press): “Christianity is centered on Christ, not on Adam and certainly not on any particular scientific theory.”

Excerpt from “The Search for the Historical Adam”

BioLogos not only promotes the current scientific consensus on human origins, but ways in which Scripture can be reinterpreted to accord with evolutionary theory. Its staff biblical expert is Peter Enns, whose interpretation of the Old Testament led to suspension and eventual departure from Westminster Theological Seminary in 2008 (though the Adam-and-Eve question was not at issue in that case). To Enns, a literal Adam as a special creation without evolutionary forebears is “at odds with everything else we know about the past from the natural sciences and cultural remains.” As he reads the early chapters of Genesis, he says, “The Bible itself invites a symbolic reading by using cosmic battle imagery and by drawing parallels between Adam and Israel.”

The New Testament passages are different, he allows. Enns has little doubt that Paul indeed thought Adam was “a real person.” But Enns suggests that the apostle was reflecting beliefs about human origins that were common among the ancients. After scanning various interpretations of Genesis, Enns joins those who see the Genesis passages on Adam as “a story of Israelite origins,” not the origin of all humanity, in which case there is no essential conflict with evolutionary theory.

Another BioLogos writer, Denis Lamoureux of the University of Alberta, the author of Evolutionary Creation (2008), thinks that “Adam never existed, and this fact has no impact whatsoever on the foundational beliefs of Christianity.” In his view, “the Holy Spirit descended to the level of the biblical author of Genesis 1 and used his incidental ancient science regarding biological origins” to reveal “infallible messages of faith about the human spiritual condition.” As with Enns, he sees Paul’s epistles as reflecting the common biological understandings of that era. (Articles on the BioLogos website typically include a disclaimer that the views are the writers’ and not necessarily the foundation’s, but they are generally consistent on evolution and Adam.)

In yet another BioLogos article, Tremper Longman III of Westmont College admits, “I have not resolved this issue in my own mind except to say that there is nothing that insists on a literal understanding of Adam in a passage [Gen. 1-3] so filled with obvious figurative description.” He is similarly open-minded on the question of Paul’s epistles because “it is possible, even natural, to make an analogy between a literary figure and a historical one.” After BioLogos promoted Longman’s views in a video last year, Reformed Theological Seminary ended Longman’s role as an adjunct faculty member.

That dismissal was overshadowed at the seminary by a related dustup over noted Old Testament scholar Bruce Waltke. The administration abruptly accepted his offer of resignation due to a BioLogos video in which Waltke remarked that “if the data is overwhelming in favor of evolution, to deny that reality will make us a cult.” Waltke began teaching at Knox Theological Seminary this year.

Though that dispute concerned theistic evolution, not the historical Adam, Waltke is open to the new thinking. In an interview, the former president of the Evangelical Theological Society affirmed the “inerrancy of the Bible, but not of interpretations.” He sees Adam and Eve as historical individuals. But if genetics produces the conclusion that “Scripture has a collectivity represented as an individual, that doesn’t bother me,” he said. “We have to go with the scientific evidence. I don’t think we can ignore it. I have full confidence in Scripture, but it does not represent what science represents.” Waltke insists, however, that if a collective interpretation of Adam is established eventually, then fidelity to the Bible still requires “an origination point” with “a historical reality of man rebelling against God.”

Further resources:

2 thoughts on “An Encomium for Christianity Today on “The Search for the Historical Adam”

    • Jake: Thanks for passing along the lecture. I will read it. If you get your hands on The Language of Science and Faith by Karl Giberson and Francis Collins, read chapter 8 “Evolution and Human Beings” where the authors discuss Adam and Eve. In answer to the question “Can a literalist reading be reconciled with science?”, they answer “Such readings, unfortunately, do not fit the evidence, for several reasons.” Those reasons include the different chronological orders of the two creation narratives in Genesis 1-2, the historical trouble, and the scientific evidence. What are the other options available to us if we reject a literalist reading? Giberson & Collins sketch out the nonliteral interpretations, some of which posit a literary Adam and others which posit a historical Adam. (See the above excerpt from the CT article with BioLogos perspectives.) It all comes down to this: “If our understanding of salvation through Christ requires only that we agree that humans are sinful and in need of salvation, then any of the discussed scenarios are adequate, including the ‘everyman reading.’ On the other hand, if we insist that our theology includes an account of how sin appeared in a sinless world, then we need historical connections to explain what happened.” As of now, I am unsure of whether we need such an account.

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