Unless you’ve been hiding under a rock, you know that evangelicals are embroiled in a lively debate about Adam and Eve. On one side are those who insist that Adam and Eve were the first and sole progenitors of the entire human race. The other side cautions against reading too much dogma into Genesis 2-3; it is a mythical tale that teaches us about God and humanity. Which are the white hats and the black hats? Depends on who you ask.
Whither Our Evangelical Future?
But the two sides do agree on one thing, namely how to understand the phrase “historical Adam”: this fellow is not merely the first man created by God long ago but he stands in for Augustine’s idea that all humanity sinned in Adam, and since we inherited his sin nature and guilt, the only cure is salvation in Christ.
The problem is that according to science today this traditional picture of a first couple is almost certainly impossible. Augustine’s picture of Adam and Eve seems to be a lost cause. This conclusion has brought on the usual hand-wringing and soul-searching among evangelicals. The problem is that according to science today this traditional picture of a first couple is almost certainly impossible.Many are suspicious that this debate is the latest round in the old warfare between science and faith: secular science vs. inerrant Bible, and the winner is . . . ?
Needless to say, none of this bodes well for the reputation of evangelical Christianity within the broader culture. None of this bodes well for evangelical scientists who accept the compelling scientific evidence but are also looking for thoughtful ways to integrate their faith and their callings. And surely none of this bodes well for gifted young people eager to enter the sciences yet worried they’ll have to abandon Christianity as the price of admission.
That’s the dilemma facing evangelicals, according to Dennis Venema and Scot McKnight. Their new book, Adam and the Genome (Brazos Press, 2017), is an important proposal for how to move beyond this impasse. While they disagree with evangelicals who champion a “historical Adam,” they don’t agree with merely fictional views of Adam either. It’s more complicated—the Bible has something distinctive to say about Adam, just not what people usually think.
Adam and the Genome: A Brief Summary
Venema, a biology professor at Trinity Western University in British Columbia and a frequent speaker and contributor for BioLogos, has a gift for clearly explaining the complexities of evolutionary biology from a Christian perspective, while McKnight is a widely recognized New Testament professor at Northern Seminary in Lombard, IL, a prolific author, and popular blogger at Jesus Creed. The book comes in eight chapters, the first four by Venema and the last four by McKnight—from start to finish their argument is well-written and stimulating, raising very provocative questions for evangelicals who seek an informed faith in dialogue with science.
In the first half, Venema introduces readers to the evidence for biological evolution as the best explanation for the diversity around us. He also argues from the human genome that all organisms, including bacteria, plants, and animals, derive from the same ancestor (i.e., common descent). Different lines of evidence confirm that our human population has never been less than about 10,000 individuals. That obviously rules out the idea that all human beings descended from an original pair. Many Christians disagree, of course, but Venema explains in detail why he thinks the best counter-arguments by the ID movement miss the mark.
McKnight’s half of the book accepts Venema’s conclusions, which then prompt him to revisit what the Bible actually says. His overriding concern is that a wrong picture of the “historical Adam” has held our minds captive. The picture that people have in their minds goes something like this (quoting from pp. 107-108)—
- Two actual (and sometimes only two) persons named Adam and Eve existed suddenly as a result of God’s creation;
- Those two persons have a biological relationship to all human beings that are alive today (biological Adam and Eve);
- Their DNA is our DNA (genetic Adam and Eve); and that often means
- Those two sinned, died, and brought death into the world (fallen Adam and Eve); and
- Those two passed on their sin natures (according to many) to all human beings (sin-nature Adam and Eve), which means
- Without their sinning and passing on that sin nature to all human beings, not all human beings would be in need of salvation;
- Therefore, if one denies the historical Adam, one denies the gospel of salvation.
Genesis 3 says nothing of the kind, McKnight insists. There’s no hint of a “sin nature,” or the transmission of sin, or most of the other ideas people associate with the “historical Adam.” In fact, when we actually re-read the biblical passages with fresh eyes, when we read Scripture in its historical context, we find Adam to be primarily a literary figure. He’s a character in the Genesis story who has been interpreted in multiple ways by generations of Jewish readers. In Romans 5, Paul is tapping into that long tradition of interpretation. He likely assumed the historicity of Adam, but we shouldn’t think that Paul invested “historical” with the kind of significance we do today. McKnight’s argument, in other words, is that Scripture doesn’t give us a “historical Adam” at all, but rather a “literary Adam.” The pay-off is that Christians don’t need to be fearful of what evolutionary science is telling us.
Here ends the teaser. There’s much more to this book—take up and read!