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The Historical Adam, Round 2: Harry "Hal" Lee Poe


Musings on Our Speculations

I'll begin by responding to Karl Giberson, who criticizes reliance upon the "received wisdom from the past" and mentions "sacred texts, confessions, creeds, statements of faith or anything else." Normally, it is the "anything else" that creates the conflicts over science and religion. The big problems come from our tendency to interpret the Bible or our scientific data from some inherited philosophical perspective. Interpreting the Bible from a Platonic point of view, as Augustine did, leads to a view of sin and punishment transmitted biologically. Interpreting the Bible from an Aristotelian point of view leads to a belief in the creation of all life forms de novo by fiat.

If the Bible is only "received wisdom from the past," then it has no more relevance for our time than Homer's Iliad. On the other hand, if the Bible is revelation from God, as I believe, then we should be very careful to distinguish between the Bible and our theology. Theology is usually wrong to some degree. Some theology is more wrong than other theology, because it is always only human reflection and rationalization about our faith. It is not revelation from God. Just as scientific theories may sound good for a few centuries and then collapse, theology is a frail flower.

Next to Peter Enns. At some point in the modern world, Bible-believing people accepted the notion that scientific knowledge is the real knowledge. Both liberals and conservatives fell into this habit of mind typical to our culture, as illustrated by the Modernist-Fundamentalist Controversy. From this point of view, the Bible must be scientifically accurate to be true. If it is not scientifically true, then it is not inerrant. Modern evangelicals have accepted this Enlightenment critique of religion to disastrous ends.

Consider how this view would look over the course of world history. If Genesis were scientifically accurate in 326 B. C., then it was no longer scientifically accurate in A.D. 152. On the other hand, if it was scientifically accurate in A.D. 152, then it was no longer scientifically accurate by 1668. And if it was scientifically accurate in 1668, it was no longer scientifically accurate by 1740. The science keeps changing, which is why you never want to link your theology to science.

When Enns speaks of the implausibility of a "historical Adam," I believe he means that a literal reading of Genesis 2 is implausible. We have three different stories in Genesis 1-3 in which it appears that the word "Adam" is used in three ways. If the Bible is revelation, then God is telling us three entirely different kinds of things about himself, about us, about our relationships to one another, and about our relationship to him in these stories. The remarkable thing about them, which relates to their true nature, is that they continue to work even when the science and the culture changes.

Denis O. Lamoureux has a particular horror of concordism, by which I think he means the effort to make the Bible conform to a particular scientific view, usually an old, out of date scientific view. At one level, however, we must recognize that the Bible does correspond to the modern scientific view, if for no other reason than that the modern scientific view of the world reflects the biblical view. The anthropological problem with Genesis and the rest of the Bible is its linear view of reality, without which modern science is impossible. The order of creation is from simplicity to complexity. History in the Bible moves forward and things happen. History has a purpose and goal. The world changes. The human race had no empirical evidence for a linear universe until the 20th century. No other culture in the ancient world or since has derived a linear universe from a world which seemed to be governed by rhythms and cycles of nature.

The details of changing science are not the amazing thing about the Bible. The unaccountable feature of the Bible is its understanding of a universe in which new things happen and old things pass away. Where on earth did the ancient Hebrews get such an idea? It does not prove that the Bible is revelation, but it certainly is a difficult piece of evidence to ignore.

Ever since evangelicals first latched on to the term "worldview" and began mis-using it, I have reacted against the term "biblical worldview." Cultures have worldviews, but the Bible presents a faith that sweeps through many worldviews to which God speaks in the course of the Bible, including Chaldean, Canaanite, Egyptian, Israelite, Babylonian, Persian, and Hellenistic. One of the problems with Lamoureux's figure of the Bible's understanding of the three-tier universe is that he has constructed this cosmology from a variety of texts that speak to different cultural worldviews encountered by the people of faith from Chaldean to Hellenistic. Another problem is that he has accepted the Aristotelian interpretation of Genesis with reference to "kinds," "immutability of species," and creation "de novo," against which he reacts as if it were the biblical teaching instead of the medieval Aristotelian teaching.

Now to Hans Madueme. One of the enormous problems with the Y-chromosome Adam and Mitochondrial Eve studies and the theological debate that has followed is the absence of a commonly agreed upon scientific or theological definition of what it means to be human. One thing the studies demonstrate conclusively is that humans descend from a common couple: the parents of Y-chromosome Adam, who might more properly be called Y-chromosome Seth. I don't suggest or believe that this common couple is the biblical Adam and Eve, but I strongly insist that the science does not dispute the possibility or probability of a common couple as the progenitors of the human race.

If anything, these studies provide background to such problems as who the children of Adam and Eve might have married, and what was going on East of Eden. In suggesting that humans arose in a population group, the studies still do not in any way challenge the idea that humans came from a common couple and that humans survived while their hominid cousins did not. What the studies do reveal is the extent to which humans enjoy speculating to fill in the gaps of both theology and science.

Madueme seems to take the position that Adam and Eve must have been real people in order for the theology to work out right. While many Christians in the West hold to Augustine's view that sin and the punishment for sin are transmitted biologically from the original ancestors, Christians did not hold this view for the first 400 years after Christ, and the more ancient Eastern Church still does not believe this view. The Eastern Church continues to hold the view expressed by Paul in Romans 5:12 that sin entered the world with Adam, who experienced death as a result, and that like Adam, everyone else dies because everyone else sins.

In the opening of A Preface to Paradise Lost, C. S. Lewis said in order to judge a piece of workmanship we must first know what it is, what it does, and how it is used. He argued that most people cannot understand epic poetry because they do not know what epic poetry is or how it works. Essentially, John R. Schneider makes the same argument related to the opening chapters of Genesis. Some people would argue that Genesis 2 is like the parables of Jesus, but parables have a different form. In some ways, Genesis 2 is more like the apocalyptic imagery of Revelation of Daniel. The remarkable thing about a narrative story like Genesis 2 or Revelation is that it can be true without being factual. In that sense, the parables are similar. The Enlightenment standard of truth as empirical knowledge and brute fact is alien to the variety of forms revelation takes in the Bible (Heb. 1:1).

William VanDoodewaard argues that the greatest challenge to the literal interpretation of Genesis comes from modern dating methods. From my perspective, the greatest challenge to a young-earth view is the biblical text. The Hebrew text does not allow for creation to have occurred within the time frame of one week.

The tradition of English translations is to translate the sequence of creation as taking place on the first day, the second day, the third day, and on till the end of the week. In Genesis 1, however, the text gives the time frame as occurring on one day, a second day, a third day, and so on till the end of creation. Furthermore, the action takes place in the imperfect rather than the perfect tense. The thrust of the action is that God begins to say, "Let there begin to be and to continue being light." Something begins one day and has not stopped continuing. The creation of plant and animal life does not take place by fiat, de novo, fully formed and mature, as Aristotelian-inspired theology would have it. Instead, God instructs the waters and the earth to begin to bring forth life in a continuing stream.

For those who want to pursue this issue, I have discussed it in other places, notably "The English Bible and the Days of Creation: When Tradition Conflicts with Text," Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith, 66:3 (September 2014), pp. 130-139; What God Knows (Baylor University Press, 2005), pp. 5-25; Science and Faith: An Evangelical Dialogue (B & H, 2000), pp. 71-81.

Finally, John H. Walton. If no real people known as Adam and Eve ever actually lived, it would pose no problem for the truth of the Bible, but it would pose enormous problems for Augustinian theology, and Augustine's closest Protestant relations, the Calvinists. Augustine's theory of universal sin is based on the biological transmission of sin together with its punishment from one generation to the next, beginning with Adam and Eve. The present controversy cannot be simply resolved by appealing to the science, because science does not deal with the issues at stake. The disagreements are deeply rooted in theological traditions, philosophical assumptions, epistemological presuppositions, hermeneutical methods, exegetical theories, personal convictions, and tribal loyalties.

Walton suggests an approach to interpretation based on determining which elements of a text have theological connections and which do not. It is a difficult approach because we tend to bring the connections with us, or in other cases we fail to recognize connections present. How frail we are: that is the biggest lesson I take away from our consideration of Adam and Eve.

This article is part of our Symposium on the Historical Adam:

Harry "Hal" Lee Poe is the Charles Colson Professor of Faith and Culture at Union University in Jackson, Tennessee. He has written or contributed to a number of books and articles on the intersection of culture and the Gospel, including his 2004 publication, See No Evil: The Existence of Sin in an Age of Relativism..


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