On to Adam

Dennis Venema, a Christian biology professor, spent the first half of the new book Adam and the Genome outlining the evidence that leads scientists, including the majority of Christian biologists, to conclude that evolution is a strong theory with massive explanatory power and that the evolving population that eventually led to humankind was never smaller than ca. 10,000 individuals. Whether you accept the evidence and the conclusions or not, it should at least be obvious that Christians like Dennis Venema, like Francis Collins, like Darrel Falk, like me, who accept the evolutionary origin of the human body … have strong reasons for this conclusion.

Now it is Scot McKnight’s turn. The scientific evidence outlined by Dennis sends us back to the Bible. How are we to understand the Adam of Genesis 2-3, the Adam of the genealogies (Genesis 5, 1 Chronicles 1, Luke 3) and the Adam of Paul (Romans 5 and 1 Corinthians 15)? Scot starts chapter five telling something of his background and the factors that led him to consider this a significant question that must be wrestled with. One of the most significant is personal interactions with a number of Christian scientists.

I found these Christian scientists to be faithful in their discipleship and humble in their knowledge of science, but clearheaded in believing that while science didn’t offer all the answers, there was very good reason to trust much of what was being claimed. Their trustworthiness at the personal level made their science more credible as an option. (p. 95)

Here we have the first, and perhaps the most important lesson from the book. We grow and learn through personal interactions with trustworthy witnesses. Minds are seldom changed by simple appeals to authority or incessant badgering. Relationships are key. These relationships must include honest and open discussion.

Scot goes on to introduce four principles that should guide our approach to reading the Bible: respect, honesty, sensitivity, and primacy.

Respect. We must respect the authors and context of the Scriptures. Although they are written for us, they were written into other cultures and contexts. We respect the divine and human authors of Scripture by respecting and seeking to understand that context. Specialists in the ancient Near Eastern cultures and languages provide important insights into the context of Genesis and the rest of Scripture. “Genuine respect begins when we let Genesis 1-11 be Genesis 1-11, which means letting Genesis 1-11 be ancient Near Eastern and not modern Western science.” and “Respect, then, means we learn to listen to Genesis 1-11 in its own world (and not our own).” (p. 100)

Honesty. We need to be honest about the Bible and about science – to face the facts rather than fear them. The differences between the order of creation events are part of the data, not problems to be solved. If we respect the Bible we will be honest in the way we read and wrestle with it. Scot brings up the example of Genesis 2:19. The Hebrew is more consistent with the NRSV “So out of the ground the Lord God formed every animal of the field and every bird of the air,” than the NIV “Now the Lord God had formed out of the ground all the wild animals and all the birds in the sky.” Unfortunately the NRSV translation, like the Hebrew, places the creation of the man before the creation of other animals, in contrast to the creation order in Genesis 1. The NIV translation is an attempt to harmonize Genesis 1 and 2. Not even a footnote to indicate ambiguity. This is not a respectful translation. “This oddity in translation illustrates the tension between Genesis 1 and Genesis 2, and that tension deserves to be kept – for that is the most honest reading of the text.” (p. 102)

Honesty leads us to say that Genesis 1-2 sounds like other creation narratives in the ancient Near East. If it does, it does. Where there are similarities we admit them; where there are dissimilarities, we admit them. We don’t need Genesis 1-2 to be totally unlike other ancient Near Eastern texts in order for it to be true, just as we don’t need Jesus to be totally different from the rabbinic teaching of his day for his teaching to be truth. What we need most in studying the ancient Near East and Genesis 1-2 is an openness to truth wherever it might be found. (p. 102).

Sensitivity. Here Scot emphasizes sensitivity to the student of science. It is important that any conversation about Adam, evolution, Genesis, and science keeps the student in mind. We gain no points by convincing the non-scientist using arguments that any competent specialist can rip to shreds. When a student encounters the evidence there is, on top of all the other questions and doubts, a feeling of being duped and made a fool. Trust can be hard to regain. When a student encounters “the talk” in a college biology or psychology class, accompanied by the “thoroughly vain notion that intelligent people don’t believe such things any longer, a student’s faith can be more than shaken.” (p. 105) We can soften this impact by the approach we take to the questions – no matter where you stand. Don’t set others up for failure to protect your view or authority.

Primacy. Here Scot means the primacy of Scripture. We affirm what the Bible says and teaches. We read and study the Bible. We seek to understand the context, whether ancient Near Eastern, first century Jewish Galilean, or the Roman and Jewish world of Paul, because we place Scripture first. Sometimes a so-called “plain reading” of Scripture neither respects Scripture nor gives it primacy it deserves. We should not try to squeeze Scripture into the mold we, as twenty-first century Westerners, prefer.

What principles do you bring to the reading of Scripture?

What does it mean to respect Scripture as the word of God?

If you wish to contact me directly you may do so at rjs4mail [at] att.net.

You may also comment on On to Adam at Jesus Creed.

In the introduction to this chapter Scot mentions my posts and the influence that they have had over the years. I can return the compliment, the ability to wrestle honestly with a wide range of issues through many of the posts on this blog has given me the opportunity to learn and grow and I am deeply indebted to the open and honest environment. For many years I simply bracketed away the intellectual questions raised by science and other disciplines because there seemed no way to address them in any satisfying way. This isn’t a healthy approach to faith.

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1 Response to On to Adam

  1. McKnight’s plea reminds me of a similar plaint about 1600 years ago:
    “Usually, even a non-Christian knows something about the earth, the skies, and the other elements of this world, about the motion and orbit of the stars and even their size and relative positions, about the predictable eclipses of the sun and moon, the cycles of the years and the seasons, about the kinds of animals, shrubs, stones, and so forth, and this knowledge he holds to as being certain from reason and experience. Now, it is a disgraceful and dangerous thing for a non-believer to hear a Christian, presumably giving the meaning of Holy Scripture, talking nonsense on these topics; and we should take all means to prevent such an embarrassing situation, in which people show up vast ignorance in a Christian and laugh it to scorn. The shame is not so much that an ignorant individual is derided, but that people outside of the household of the faith think our sacred writers held such opinions, and, to the great loss of those for whose salvation we toil, the writers of our Scriptures are criticized and rejected as unlearned men.” De Genesi Ad Litteram (On the Literal Interpretation of Genesis), Augustine of Hippo

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