Must We Believe in an Historical Adam?
This article is the first part of a three-part series on the historical veracity of Adam.
There is nothing new about the question of how science relates to the Bible – it is as old as the Copernican Revolution of the 16th Century and older. There is, however, real urgency to the question in our present age when science is being increasingly exalted to an almost supreme status as the arbiter of what we can know and are to believe.
There are many areas in which this question affects Christian and non-Christian alike through the claims science makes and the way this affects our understanding of life. This is true most notably when it comes to how we frame our concept of good and evil and our views on whether or not there is a spiritual dimension to life.
It is an issue that affects people at different stages and circumstances of life. For those in school and college, it is something they are forced to face because, in secular institutions at least, only one perspective on these issues is taught: one that has no place for ‘god’ or any concept of the supernatural. For Christians who teach in such institutions, or who wish to venture into the working world of the applied sciences, it may well become an issue that will determine whether or not they will be offered employment.
The specific focus of this paper is to examine one particular area within this discussion that is posing a major challenge within the professing Christian church. It is the question of whether or not the Bible requires us to believe in an historical Adam.
Although this question has been debated for many decades in the broader Christian church, it has come home to churches that are more conservative in their theology with increasing force in recent times. Well-known Christian scholars have been publishing articles and books (not to mention influencing successive classes of seminary students) in which they openly challenge the notion of Adam’s historicity (the fact he was a real historical person).
It would be naive to pretend these views are not in wide circulation, or to think that we do not need to meaningfully engage with them. That is what we will attempt to do in what follows; but in a way and at a level that is designed to raise awareness as opposed to providing exhaustive answers.
1. The Bible vs. Science on the Origins of Human Beings
Ever since Charles Darwin first published his thoughts about evolution in Origin of the Species in 1859, there has been significant debate over the relationship between science and the Bible with regard to understanding human origins. This debate has intensified in more recent times in part as theories of evolution have themselves been developed, but perhaps especially because of the emboldened ‘New Atheism’ popularized by Prof Richard Dawkins and the late Christopher Hitchens and others like them. The publication of major research findings in relation to the Human Genome Project, as well as the level of publicity surrounding the CERN Project on the Franco-Swiss border in Europe have taken the debate to a new level.
The debate has been met with different responses from within the conservative Christian community during the larger timeframe. Some have distanced themselves from the modern scientific community entirely, arguing for a strict literalist approach to the first two chapters of Genesis. Others have embraced a so-called ‘concordist’ approach which seeks to bring the Bible and science into alignment. Both broad groupings sub-divide into particular emphases and approaches reflected in a range of opinions about the age of the earth, the length of the creation ‘days’ and the processes God may or may not have used in the act of creating.
Presbyterian churches (and others) have recognized a degree of latitude as to which of these views are acceptable within the confines of confessional orthodoxy. However, the question faced in a growing number of churches is whether or not it is acceptable to claim respect for the authority and inerrancy of Scripture while at the same time denying that Adam and Eve were a special creation of God from the dust of the ground at a particular point in history and the First Parents of all mankind as described in Genesis (1.26-31; 2.4-23).
Whereas there has been longstanding acceptance of the traditional interpretation of these passages which affirm the special creation of the first pair of human beings, this view has been challenged in light of the claims of evolutionary science.
A prominent alternative view being posited is that of God’s ‘adopting’ a pair of pre-existing hominids or a tribe of hominids who would become Homo Sapiens. This is not a new interpretation: it has long been held by those who hold to some form of Theistic Evolution which sees the creation account as God using evolutionary processes to bring the world as we know it into being. Historically this view was deemed to lie outside the range of views on the creation account that take the text of Scripture seriously. It is, however, increasingly gaining wider acceptance among conservative evangelicals.
The question facing a growing number of serious-minded Christians is how they should respond to this view.
2. Recognizing that Science has its Limits
A key component in this response needs to be the recognition that science has its limits, at least in terms of how it has come to be defined in a contemporary sense. The Merriam-Webster Dictionary offers five definitions of the term as it has been used through the ages, but the one that reflects its predominant current usage is:
knowledge or a system of knowledge covering general truths or the operation of general laws especially as obtained and tested through scientific method.
The latter part of this definition is its controlling element: ‘…obtained and tested through scientific method.’ Although this is not new, what is important in this present age is the way in which this approach to ‘knowledge’ has effectively displaced all other approaches that have equal validity.
The even bigger weakness of this approach to knowledge is the huge (and arrogant) assumption that what is ‘knowable’ is confined to what is tangible and measurable. By definition it excludes and denies the possibility of a spiritual realm or dimension to existence because such a realm lies beyond the scope of scientific analysis.
Arguably the greatest weakness bound up with this view of knowledge is that it makes human beings the ultimate reference point to what can be known and assumes that whatever can be known must somehow fit within the confines of our human understanding.
A more subtle and serious variation on this approach, however, comes from within the Christian community. Some, like Dennis Lamoureux in his book Evolutionary Creation and Hugh Ross elsewhere, argue that God has given us two books to read: ‘the Book of God’s Words and the Book of God’s Works’. This is absolutely true (John Calvin expressed a similar idea, but in different language and in a way that has been accepted by the church through the ages); but what is different in the claim that Lamoureux and others like him make is that they see these two sources of divine revelation as having equal ultimacy and authority. In that sense they put theology and science on the same footing in terms of what governs our knowledge (though, in reality, they make theology subordinate to science because they place greater emphasis on rational investigation than supernatural revelation.)
So, even though this approach is coming from a ‘Christian’ perspective, it is by no means clear that it is a biblical perspective. And, to his credit, Lamoureux does not claim biblical support for his view on this point.
Regardless of whether we approach science from a secular or Christian perspective, it needs to be acknowledged that science is not an omnicompetent discipline: it has very definite limits. The only being who is truly omnicompetent is God himself.
Part Two: "What Man is to Believe Concerning God"
Part Three: "Jesus and Adam"
Mark Johnston (MDiv Westminster Theological Seminary) is the Minister of Bethel Presbyterian Church (EPCEW) in Cardiff, Wales. He was previously Senior Pastor of Proclamation Presbyterian Church Bryn Mawr, PA and of Grove Chapel in Camberwell, London. He began his ministry as a church planter in Ireland. He serves on the Board of Banner of Truth Trust and has authored several books including three titles in the Let’s Study series, You in Your Small Corner, and Our Creed.