I am currently reading a book by David N. Livingstone, Adam’s Ancestors: Race, Religion, and the Politics of Human Origins. David Livingstone is Professor of Geography and Intellectual History at Queen’s University, Belfast and this book reflects both of his interests. It is a readable, but thorough and academic, book looking at the history of the idea of pre-adamic or non-adamic humans in western Christian thinking from the early church (Origen, Gregory of Nyssa, and Augustine) through the middle ages, the explorations of the fifteenth and sixteenth century, the debates on racial supremacy, and on to the present day.
Chapter 4 of Adam’s Ancestors broaches a fascinating topic – Apologetics: Pre-adamism and the Harmony of Science and Religion. In this chapter Livingstone sketches a variety of approaches taken in the nineteenth century to find ways to synthesize what was being learned from investigation of the world with the accounts of origins found in scripture. Darwin’s The Origin Of Species did not start this activity – it was well underway before Darwin published. But Darwin’s theory did contribute to the mix. The key factors early on were the issues of geological age, the fossil record, and the discovery of tools and artifacts (and eventually human fossils) that predated any reasonable date for a literal Adam as calculated from the biblical genealogies. Another consideration – one we often don’t consider much today – was the history of language and the evolution of language.
This leads to the question I would like to ask today …
When should our understanding of scripture inform our approach to science?
When should science inform our interpretation of scripture?
Livingstone gives a fascinating discussion of the kinds of issues confronting Christians in the 1800’s – and the responses they devised. Two hermeneutical approaches were generally used to reconcile science and scripture; a gap between Genesis 1:1 and 1:2 or a distinction between the creation narratives of Genesis 1 and Genesis 2-3.
The “gap” … In the early 1800’s Scottish evangelical intellectual Thomas Chalmers and Oxford geologist William Buckland among others popularized the idea of a gap of unspecified length between Genesis 1:1 and Genesis 1:2.
John Harris, Congregationalist clergyman and later principle of New College, London wrote published The Pre-Adamite Earth in 1846 and Man Primeval in 1849 both of which had unoccupied geological ages and a six day Adamic creation.
Where Harris went beyond these standard concordist schemes was in his attempt to craft a metaphysics capable of mounting a robust defense of the idea that pre-adamite earth history was orchestrated by the Creator to be the theatre for human occupancy. (p. 83)
Herbert William Morris writing ca. 1870-1890:
Here then is a Hiatus – a vast gap – in the Mosaic narrative which it is important to observe. Between the creation of the earth, as stated in the first verse, and the condition in which it was found and described, in the second verse, there must have elapsed a long and indefinite period of time. (p. 85)
Two creations – successive human races. As evidence of human artifacts and later human remains in strata with long extinct animals came to light these narratives came to include pre-adamic people. Isabelle Duncan writing in 1860 suggested that the two Genesis stories reflect two creation narratives – the first, Genesis 1 is a pre-adamic creation. The six days are long ages and “the events of Creation must have passed in six successive visions before the mind of Moses.” Duncan’s pre-adamic world was populated by animals and by humans. The presence of “pre-adamic” human artifacts, but absence of “pre-adamic” human remains was explained by bodily resurrection to be come the Angelic Host. James Gall, on the other hand saw “a botched humanity under the influence of satanic forces” in the pre-adamic artifacts and remains. George Hawkins Pember speculated that Demons might be “the spirits of those who trod this earth in the flesh before the ruin described in the second verse of Genesis. (p. 93)”
The approach in all three cases – Duncan, Gall and Pember – was concordist, a direct attempt to reconcile new discoveries in archaeology and paleontology with the Biblical account.
Polygenism. Some thinkers and apologists took a concordist approach in a somewhat different direction. Harvard naturalist Louis Agassiz, as a prime example, sought a concordist approach that accounted for pre-adamic and non-adamic man and the diversity of mankind in a polygenic creation. Separate origins served to reconcile science and scripture and to provide a rational for racism. The lines of argument in these apologists, and Agassiz is only one of many, show a tendency to value scripture, to seek a concordance between science and scripture, and to justify and sanctify a deeply ingrained racism.
And we could continue – the history of relationship between languages spawned a substantial literature.
What lessons can we learn? Livingstone concludes this chapter:
In their encounter with the new geology and emerging human sciences, religious believers turned to the idea of a pre-adamite earth and pre-adamite races in order to retain solidarity between scientific knowledge and theological creed. … It facilitated the revelations of deep time that the geologists were exposing even while preserving a relatively recent date for the Mosaic story of Adam; it allowed room for archaeological excavations of primitive artifacts and, later, human remains; it offered a means of untangling the complex genealogy of human languages; and it provided an explanation for racial differences without postulating an extended biblical chronology. Securing these gains took many forms. For some the pre-adamite earth was uninhabited, … For others entire pre-adamic civilizations had populated the primeval earth, … According to some, these residents were entirely wiped out before the advent of Adam; others were sure that pockets of pre-adamites survived to intermarry with Adam’s progeny. (p. 107-108)
Why was all this industry so important? In large part, of course, it was motivated by a passion to retain good faith with religious heritage in the face of scientific challenges. But it also sprang from the fundamental importance of the adamic picture to the Christian West’s sense of its own identity, culture, and worth. (p. 108)
An undercurrent of racial and cultural superiority permeates the entire discussion. Preserve scripture – for sure – but also preserve the “status quo” as they saw it. The whole discussion is a mix of desire to follow God, defend scripture mixed with cultural blinders and human frailty.
I posed two questions above: When should our understanding of scripture inform our approach to science? When should science inform our interpretation of scripture?
These are important questions – because it seem obvious that the relationship must go both ways – but these questions can be refined and focused.
When should we expect a concord between science and scripture – and when is this simply the asking the wrong question of the text?
In what areas should scripture inform our understanding of science?
How can we know when the answers we reach reflect God’s truth – and when they reflect more clearly our human failings?
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