Saturday, August 20, 2011

Adam had 'em

Both Christianity Today and BioLogos have recently argued that in light modern science, it’s time for Christians to ditch the historicity of Adam and Eve. This raises several issues:

1) There’s nothing inherently wrong with exploring alternative interpretations to the traditional interpretation of Scripture. That can be a useful exercise. It helps us to avoid overlooking what may be a better interpretation. That’s something the Reformation did.

2) What’s wrong is when theologians say to scientists, ethicists, et al., “Just tell us what to believe, and we’ll come up with a new interpretation to match.”

Christianity is a revealed religion. If the Bible is divine revelation, then you can’t treat the meaning of Scripture as modeling clay or plasticine, to be refashioned into whatever shape the establishment demands at any given time. Do you need a giraffe? Then we’ll shape the Bible to form a giraffe. Do you need a kangaroo? Then we’ll reshape the Bible to form a kangaroo? Just tell us what you need to the Bible to say, and we’ll find a corresponding interpretation!

Any alternative interpretation must be grounded in the text and context. And it should be the best interpretation.

3) What motivates the exhortation to ditch the historicity of Adam and Eve is the conviction (held by some) that modern science has rendered this doctrine unbelievable. Therefore, to salvage the credibility of the Christian faith, we must adapt Christian theology to the current realities.

However, this strategy is bound to fail on its own terms. It doesn’t make the Christian faith more believable to admit the Bible is less believable. If you take that concession seriously, then that’s just one more reason to disbelieve the Christian faith.

As far as the Pentateuch is concerned, Adam and Eve are no more or less historical than Noah, or Abraham, or Moses. The record of their creation and their downfall is no more or less historical than the flood, the calling of Abraham, or the Exodus. You can’t bracket Gen 2-3 from the rest of the Pentateuch narrative. It’s all of a piece.

So this strategy fails to solve the problem it proposed for itself.

4) This isn’t a novel challenge to the Christian faith. This goes all the way back to the 19C. If you believe in universal common descent, then you can’t believe that Adam and Eve were the first human pair.

At most, this is introducing new ostensible evidence for an old objection.

5) Genomics is a fairly recent science. And mapping the human genome is even more recent. To my knowledge, comparative genomics is still a very fluid field of research.

Likewise, “Mitochondrial Eve” and “Y-chromosomal Adam” have been kicking around for a while. It’s not as if some far-reaching discovery was made this year to challenge traditional Christian theology.

What about the specific scientific evidence?

6) From what I’ve read, these are the basic arguments:

i) Humans are genetically closer to apes (including common pseudogenes and retroposons) than other species,

ii) If you retrace the process by backward linear extrapolation, you don’t end up with one human couple.

iii) A single breeding pair (i.e. Adam and Eve) doesn’t have enough genetic information to account for modern human diversity.

7) By way of response:

i) The comparative genetic evidence is disputed, viz. W. Dembski and J. Wells, The Design of Life.

ii) Likewise, we can explain commonality either by appeal to common design or common descent, viz., J. Sarfati, The Greatest Hoax on Earth? (chap. 6).

iii) If the special creation of Adam and Eve is true, then it’s fallacious to retroengineer the process, for the point of origin is a singularity rather than a continuum. Adam and Eve would jump-start the process.

Put another way, if the first human pair were created as adults, then it’s as if they had human ancestors. As if they inherited their genetic makeup from mothers and fathers and grandmothers and grandfathers.

They embody trace evidence of a genetic prehistory even though, as a matter of fact, they initiated the cycle. If they were all you had to go by, you’d infer heredity further up the line. But that’s fallacious.

iv) The objection raises a parallel problem for any evolutionary candidate to be our common ancestor. Must a common ancestor contain all the genetic information necessary to account for current genetic variation?

v) From what I’ve read, the common ancestral genetic information must be augmented by genetic drift:

Evolution from the origin of life to the level of modern diversity must have required more variation than existed in the original population. Where did the extra variation come from?…Mutation also introduces new variation…In all species, mutation is an abundant source of new variation, providing raw material for evolutionary change. M. Ridley, Evolution (Blackwell, 3rd. ed., 2004), 87-88.

vi) So this seems to be the actual objection: Adam and Eve could not be the first human pair, for they alone don’t have sufficient genetic information to supply the current gene pool, and there wasn’t enough time for random mutation to compensate.

If that’s the objection, then there’s an obvious problem with the objection. Why assume mutation is a random process rather than a guided process? Likewise, why assume a uniform rate of mutation?

Perhaps the objection is that mutations can be harmful as well as beneficial. But on a theistic interpretation, there are providential controls on the process.

While that’s incompatible with naturalistic evolution, that’s not incompatible with a providentially directed process. And creationism allows for microevolutionary factors.

Therefore, the historicity of Adam and Eve remains internally consistent.

vii) In addition, the BioLogos material I’ve read doesn’t discuss the potential role of epigenetic factors, or alternate splicing.

viii) Even if Adam and Eve are deemed to be unscientific, that doesn’t settle the factual question, for there’s the thorny issue of whether scientific theories are true, approximately true, or useful fictions. You still have longstanding debates over idealization, underdetermination, verisimilitude, and paradoxes of confirmation. In addition, evolutionary biology is reconstructive science, with all its the besetting imponderables.

To take a trivial example, suppose you walk into a kitchen and find an egg splattered on the floor. Can you reconstruct the accident from the outcome? Perhaps gravity, acting on the slighted tilted surface, caused the egg to roll off the edge. Or maybe a child rolled the egg off the edge of the table. Or maybe a house pet like a cat jumped on the table, and swept the egg off the edge. Too many theories chasing too few facts.

ix) On the related note is the issue of doxastic warrant. If the Bible is divine revelation, then it ought to enjoy at least as much credence as science. Indeed, that’s an understatement.

[I’d like to acknowledge constructive feedback from James Anderson, Patrick Chan, and Greg Welty on a preliminary draft.]


  1. ‎When I talk with atheists about God, and then Adam and Eve, it's as if this is quite silly to even suggest. But what do we do with Teachings in the Bible about Adam from Paul, and others, Luke, and Jude even?

    "The first man Adam was made a living soul; the last Adam a quickening spirit. ...The first man is of the earth, earthy; the second Man is the Lord from heaven." 1st Corinthians 15:45 Here are the two Heads of humanity. "As the animal-souled body is the fruit of our union with the first Adam, an animal-souled man, so the spiritual body is the fruit of our union with the second Adam, the quickening Spirit (2 Cor. iii. 17)."-A.R. Fausett

  2. Or we might simply conclude that men hate the God of the Bible and therefore seek to deny, undermine, and otherwise attack Him and suppress His truth in any and every way conceivable, as it is written:

    "18 For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. 19 For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. 20 For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse. 21 For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. 22 Claiming to be wise, they became fools, 23 and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things.

    24 Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the dishonoring of their bodies among themselves, 25 because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever! Amen."
    - Rom. 1:18-25

    "For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God." - 1 Cor. 1:18

    As Phil Johnson explains, BioLogos is representative of Socinianism in Lab Coats

    In Christ,

  3. TF posted an article which nicely dovetails into your piece here, Steve.

    What sayeth Dave Armstrong?

    In Him,

  4. This is really an exceptional post. Christianity Today and Biologos should be ashamed of themselves.

  5. While the team at Biologos fashions themselves as the new Galileo, they are more like Friedrich Schleiermacher who, while trying to make the Christian faith more believable, ended up making it pointless to believe in.

    "Why assume mutation is a random process rather than a guided process? Likewise, why assume a uniform rate of mutation?"

    I've been wondering about that as of late. Don't most scientists who hold to the naturalistic view of mankind believe that most of the genome is "junk DNA"? If this assumption is false (and it certainly is), then it's possible that some part of that "junk DNA" could have a diversification function, a designed micro-evolution machine.

  6. Why is the Bible less true if Adam and Eve are allegorical truths? Christ spoke about events in parables and stories to relay important theological ideas but whose historical reality was irrelevant to the point He was trying to make.

    I'm not saying there wasn't a "first human", but simply that perhaps there wasn't a talking snake and an apple tree. The snake could represent the ego, the apple, desire for the forbidden.

    Besides, forcing a literal reading of Adam and Eve requires a belief in God-ordained incest given that their offspring were only males.

  7. Depends on what you mean by incest. Parent/child incest is immoral. That doesn't mean sibling-incest (between consenting adult brothers and sisters) is immoral. You'd need to show that these are morally equivalent behaviors.

    The usual objection to sibling incest is a prudential objection, viz. inbreeding results in a higher incidence of genetic defects.

  8. Gen 2-3 is "less true" if it was meant to be taken literally. If it was meant to be taken allegorically, then your argument goes through.

    So it's a question of establishing original intent. Scientific objections to Gen 2-3 don't take original intent as their point of departure. Indeed, scientific objections which leverage a reinterpretation of the account are generally anachronistic.

  9. If the evolutionary origin of man is your alternative to special creation, what makes you think incest is immoral on evolutionary grounds?

  10. Very good post, thanks.

    vi) So this seems to be the actual objection: Adam and Eve could not be the first human pair, for they alone don’t have sufficient genetic information to supply the current gene pool, and there wasn’t enough time for random mutation to compensate.

    If that’s the objection, then there’s an obvious problem with the objection. Why assume mutation is a random process rather than a guided process? Likewise, why assume a uniform rate of mutation?

    To this I would add Acts 17:26:

    From one man he made every nation of men...

  11. I'm agnostic on the question of Adam and Eve's singularity (but not on their existence), and I do think that Gen 1-11 are literary presentations of primeval history (a time unknown to the author) meant to convey theology through ANE forms of communication (, but I'm wondering if the human genome argument stems from the naturalism that is used in the argument that assumes God does not take from the two parents to create a new human in each procreative event. Hence, the genetic information of the parents plus any new information God might decide to change/guide in a different direction or through mutation, etc., which would give us the variation and similarities we now have. As for the similarity with apes, I've never found this argument compelling. It is, however, possible, from an ANE standpoint, to see Adam and Eve the way that C. John Collins does, since multitudes are created at once together with a king to govern and represent them to the gods. The question is whether this is in continuity or contradiction to the biblical data.

  12. You can’t bracket Gen 2-3 from the rest of the Pentateuch narrative. It’s all of a piece.

    You can’t bracket Daniel 7-12 from the rest of the Daniel narrative. It’s all of a piece.

  13. Most helpful. Can you define 'doxastic warrant' concisely? A Google search was less than enlightening!

  14. "Doxastic warrant"=what we are justified in believing.

  15. Now that's concise!
    I have used the term 'epistemological primacy' when defending the factual-histirical nature of the Bible's teaching on origins.