I believe I’m genetically descended from Adam and Eve, but not just me: every human being can trace his or her lineage through Noah’s family all the way back to this first couple. I also heartily confess the doctrines of the fall and original sin, with Adam at the heart of what went tragically wrong with humanity. I would even say we misunderstand how Jesus put things to right, and what he did on the cross, without taking the full measure of this backstory.
In Adam and the Genome: Reading Scripture after Genetic Science, Dennis Venema and Scot McKnight contest my way of thinking. These are two authors at the top of their game—Venema a biology professor at Trinity Western University in British Columbia, who has written widely on evolutionary biology from a Christian perspective, and McKnight a New Testament professor at Northern Seminary in Lombard, Illinois, whose writings on Christian faith are both edifying and remarkably prolific.
The book unfolds in eight chapters divided into two parts; the first four chapters by Venema address the scientific questions, while the latter four by McKnight deal with Adam and Eve in Scripture. This volume is a must-read for those interested in the debate over the “historical Adam.”
The crux of the matter is this: The standard evolutionary account renders improbable a historical reading of the early chapters of Genesis; and with the genetic evidence scientists have amassed—especially since the completion of the Human Genome Project—many now think the traditional picture of our first parents is impossible.
In response to these developments, some repudiate the scientific consensus and cling to the biblical witness, while others accept the scientific verdict and eviscerate the Bible. Rejecting such strategies, Venema and McKnight develop an approach that accepts “the reality of genetic evidence supporting a theory of evolution along with an understanding of Adam and Eve that is more in tune with the historical context of Genesis” (173). Their book intends to offer hope for those disillusioned by the controversy who are seeking ways to transcend the alleged conflict between science and faith.
Recognizing that many evangelicals distrust evidence for evolution and sometimes take refuge in it being “just a theory,” Venema explains why such criticisms betray a fundamental misunderstanding of what it means to say evolution is a scientific theory. Scientific theories are far more epistemically secure than non-scientists usually think; in fact, “evolution has stood the test of time and remains our best explanation for biodiversity on earth” (11).
The second chapter unpacks the genomic evidence for evolution and common ancestry; skeptical readers will come away impressed at the deep explanatory power of evolutionary theory. We shouldn’t fear evolution, Venema reminds us, for we know that God is the Author of the “two Books”—Scripture and nature:
If indeed nature and Scripture have the same author, as Christians affirm, then there cannot, ultimately, be any disagreement between what we “read” in one book and what we read in the other. (8)
Venema cautions, however, that we interpret these Books imperfectly.
Even if evolution is true, why are people saying we can no longer believe humanity descended from a single, original pair? In the third chapter, Venema explains why scientists have concluded “that we descend from a population that has never dipped below about 10,000 individuals” (48, my emphasis). He concedes that future evidence may cause scientists to tweak current models, but
[W]e can be confident that finding evidence that we were created independently of other animals or that we descend from only two people just isn’t going to happen. Some ideas in science are so well supported that it is highly unlikely new evidence will substantially modify them, and these are among them. The sun is at the center of our solar system, humans evolved, and we evolved as a population. (55)
Can evangelicals dodge this conclusion? Is there any place to hide?
The large bunker for those dissatisfied with Venema’s conclusions has been the Intelligent Design (ID) movement. Chapter 4, then, is a hefty, detailed critique of the ID movement. Venema mainly interacts with Michael Behe, Stephen Meyer, and Douglas Axe (all three affiliated with the Discovery Institute in Seattle); they think the evidence points to “common design” not “common descent.”
According to Venema, that view renders God a deceiver since the evolutionary and genomic evidence give the appearance of common descent. Intelligent Design strikes him as a God-of-the-gaps argument, one that fails each time science fills in more gaps in our scientific knowledge. He asks us instead to view evolution “as God’s grand design for creating life” (90).
Apparently, there is no place for evangelicals to hide.
Resurrection and Methodological Naturalism
I’ve skipped over most of the details in Venema’s four chapters. Please read them yourself; they’re well written, refreshingly clear, and always interesting. I suspect he lights up the classroom. He certainly excels when explaining complex scientific concepts; one or two spots may be tough going for the average reader, but in the main, genetic science comes across as a thrilling field. I agree with Venema that the scientific case against Adam and Eve is impressive. If that were all we had, I too might be persuaded.
But I’m not, because it’s not all we have. The scientific literature Venema draws from is framed by methodological naturalism, the view that true scientific explanation can’t appeal to any supernatural entities—God, souls, or divine revelation, for example. I disagree with that stance (though I can’t argue the point here). Christians have a much wider evidence base, one that includes biblical revelation and rich resources within ecclesial traditions. And that makes a profound difference.
Further, Venema tends to give a deeply confident—almost serene and epistemologically unruffled—picture of mainstream science. Though he succeeds in demonstrating why the scientific method is far more impressive than many religious conservatives allow, I worry he glosses over genuine philosophical and historical questions about how effectively science tracks with reality—we need only recall, for example, that scientific “certainties” often turn out to have been ephemeral; as Del Ratzsch reminds us, “Recurrent claims that we finally have in hand all necessary materials for completing the scientific picture have just as recurrently failed.”
Quite apart from any theological considerations, the history of science invites more caution.
Of course, this doesn’t mean we should all get Thomas Kuhn tattoos, chant anti-realist anthems, and watch all our problems magic away. Still, Venema’s near reverence for scientific consensus is troubling, as if the authority of science is unquestionable. Quite apart from any theological considerations, the history of science invites more caution.
Having said that, Christians who agree with me on this point—and are committed to the traditional Adam and Eve—have much work to do. We’re still trying to figure out the most compelling apologetic replies to the kind of research Venema has ably presented. Responses that have appeared so far from various perspectives leave something to be desired. (As far as I’m aware, the best critique of the genomic evidence against Adam is from young-earth creationist Todd Wood—see his essay “Genetics of Adam,” co-authored with Joseph Francis, in What Happened in the Garden.) Venema’s well-substantiated critiques of Meyer and other ID theorists aren’t easily dismissed. At the very least, Adam’s would-be defenders had best roll up their sleeves.
Adam and the Genome has appeared because of a growing conflict between theology and science. In other words, it’s Adam versus the genome—and the way out is to jettison Adam. Yet I keep coming back to the nature of Christianity, a faith that turns on Jesus’s resurrection. Everyone knows, from multiple lines of evidence across countless generations, that the concept of resurrection is utterly unscientific (understanding “science” to imply methodological naturalism, as Venema does).
I agree . . . that the scientific case against Adam and Eve is impressive. If that were all we had, I too might be persuaded.
At the heart of the gospel lies a fundamental conflict between theology and science. But, of course, no sensible believer reinterprets or abandons belief in the resurrection just because of a deep conflict with science. If I’m right that a paradigmatic conflict between science and faith is internal to Christianity, then we shouldn’t wring our hands when such conflicts appear more generally. The point I’m making is strictly epistemological: Since believers have strong biblical warrant for affirming a historical Adam and Eve, countervailing scientific claims lose the force Venema claims for them.
Paul’s Adam ≠ Historical Adam?
The second half of the book by McKnight argues that what I take to be “strong biblical warrant” is really a misinterpretation of Scripture. As he strikingly puts it, “The Adam of Paul was not the historical Adam” (188). Most readers will find this conclusion rather counterintuitive, so it’s worth tracking the steps of the argument.
McKnight exhorts us to develop good habits when reading Scripture in dialogue with science, habits that protect us from making a hash of things. We should respect the Ancient Near Eastern context of the Genesis narrative. We shouldn’t fear the facts of science but engage them with honesty:
[A]t times the vitriol flowing from the more fundamentalist side of this debate, sometimes from so-called scientific creationists and other times from intelligent-design folks, indicates something deeper at work—namely, fear. (100–01)
We should recognize that the
number one reason young Christians leave the faith is the conflict between science and faith, and that conflict can be narrowed to the conflict between evolutionary theory and human origins as traditionally read in Genesis 1–2. (104–05)
Thus McKnight exhorts us to be sensitive to the student of science. And above all, we should respect the primacy of Scripture—“we look to the Bible in its context first” (106).
And what are the implications of reading “the Bible in its context”? McKnight argues Adam and Eve must be understood as part of a narrative used by Israel in critical dialogue with its surrounding culture. At this point, it’s safer to quote McKnight in full:
A contextual approach to reading Genesis 1–3 immediately establishes that the Adam and Eve of the Bible are a literary Adam and Eve. That is, Adam and Eve are part of a narrative designed to speak into a world that had similar and dissimilar narratives. Making use of this context does not mean Adam and Eve are “fictional,” and neither does it mean they are “historical.” To be as honest as we can with the text in its context, we need to begin with the undeniable: Adam and Eve are literary—are part of a narrative that is designed to reveal how God wants his people to understand who humans are and what humans are called to do in God’s creation. (118)
This contextual reading enables us to see that there is no one “Adam and Eve.” These characters in the biblical narrative were interpreted in all sorts of ways in the intertestamental period prior to the New Testament and among Jewish interpreters like Philo and Josephus. Each of these interpreters used the literary Adam to advance their own purposes and agenda. The key is that “Adam has an interpretive history” (168).
So we arrive at the apostle Paul and what he says about Adam in 1 Corinthians 15:21–22, 45–49, and Romans 5:12–21. Paul inherits the same “literary Adam” refracted through a dialogue long underway among Jewish interpreters, and he extends this conversation—sometimes agreeing, sometimes disagreeing with what he received from those earlier Jewish readers. By the time we get to Romans 5:12, McKnight tells us the doctrine of original sin (including original guilt) is nowhere to be found. He blames Augustine for relying on Ambrosiaster’s infamous mistranslation of the verse:
Paul neither affirms nor denies transmission of sin, a sinful nature, and death by way of procreation and birth and a life lived before God. What became central in later theories of salvation—that each human sinned “in” Adam and that each human is born condemned and in need of salvation—no matter how clear this is in logic, cannot be found in Romans 5:12. (183–84)
McKnight does see a connection between Adam and his descendants, but the text isn’t clear what it is. Most likely it’s telling us, he maintains, “each person is Adamic in that each person sins in the way Adam sinned” (184). In fact, “Paul cannot blame Adam; he blames each person for sinning like Adam” (187). By the end we’re told that Paul’s Adam is “literary,” not “historical.”
I found McKnight’s chapters difficult to swallow. But I appreciate his candor on how he arrived at his views (e.g., see 96 and passim). The science prompted him to reread the familiar passages; nothing necessarily wrong with that, and I wish more of his fellow biblical scholars would be as transparent. I also think if Venema’s read on the science is the sober truth, then proposals like McKnight’s or Peter Enns’s (The Evolution of Adam) or John Walton’s (The Lost World of Adam and Eve) shoot up in plausibility. Presumably those are the kinds of strategies evangelicals would have to fall back on. But as for me and my house, we’re unpersuaded. My misgivings have to do with McKnight’s rhetorical moves, some vulnerable areas of his argument, and the questionable handling of Romans 5.
On the rhetorical front, McKnight has a tendency to write dismissively (and condescendingly) about those who disagree with him on Adam. Reading him, you wouldn’t think there are thoughtful or measured reasons for taking the traditional position. It’s as if from Augustine onward, dopy theologians were dishonestly eisegeting the Bible, inventing syllogisms to invest Adam with salvific import, glibly conflating modern concerns with the biblical text. This patronizing tone weakens McKnight’s argument. Given how most of the tradition stands against him, I can understand why he may (subconsciously?) have felt the need to strong-arm his way through the argument—but it comes off the wrong way.
Several times, with some urgency, we’re told controversies over Genesis and human origins are hemorrhaging the church of its young people (see 103–05, 171–73). McKnight isn’t alone; others regularly make similar claims. I don’t doubt the anecdotes, and I share the pastoral sensitivities, but such stories are unreliable as broad generalizations (e.g., the same narrative appears in chapter 7 of David Kinnaman’s book You Lost Me, where he relies on Barna research). Yet the real story, documented among 18- to 23-year-olds as part of the National Study of Youth and Religion, is more complex. It’s true unchurched young people view Christianity as anti-scientific, intolerant, judgmental, and so on. But crises over origins aren’t the main reason they’re leaving churches (for a helpful primer on the sociological data, see Jonathan P. Hill’s Emerging Adulthood and Faith, esp. 49–57).
Perhaps McKnight’s most effective rhetorical move is to charge conservative Christians with reacting out of fear, a fear that prevents honesty and dealing with the facts (101). He offers much wisdom here, but the situation is more complicated than he lets on. If deep worry about extra-textual challenges to the faith betrays fear, then most serious Christians in the history of the church were tirelessly fearful people. At any rate, the accusation simply begs the question. Depending on where the truth lies, defensiveness or anxiety (or fear!) may be a perfectly rational, fitting response. Such emotional reactions may reflect how committed one is to the point at issue; serene equanimity may mean one couldn’t care less. No doubt some Christians operate in the unseemly ways McKnight worries about, but there’s more than one way to look at this situation.
On the more substantive issues, weak areas in McKnight’s argument hamper the overall thesis. At one point he notes the church fathers interpreted Scripture allegorically, privileging Trinitarian and Christological elements. Then he says:
For our purposes it is enough to observe that at times the earliest interpreters of the creation narrative were willing to diminish the historicity of the accounts in favor of theology and allegory. (209 n. 20)
That introduces a disjunction where there is none. It’s truer to say that those fathers were quite happy to allow historicity—often assumed since no one denied it—to sit side-by-side with theology and allegory.
Another disjunction rears its head with a vengeance when McKnight distinguishes the “literary Adam” from the “historical Adam,” and he stipulates the following seven-part definition of the adjective “historical” (quoting from 107–08, repeated on 188–89):
- 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.
Even with the best of wills, it’s hard to know how to respond to McKnight’s literary-vs.-historical distinction. The conceptual move strikes me as tendentious and deeply implausible. It’s perplexing why he adopts this bloated definition of “historical.” Properly speaking, that adjective means something closer to #1 and #2. Granted, many in the tradition for both exegetical and theological reasons believed some or all of those other points follow too. I don’t disagree with their significance in this discussion. But why fill the adjective “historical” with all seven meanings?
Understood minimally (e.g., #1 and #2), the “historical” Adam is necessary for the full-fledged Augustinian doctrine of original sin, but it’s bewildering to equate the two (without allowing for the intricacies of doctrinal construction and development). The more relevant question for the earlier part of McKnight’s argument is what Scripture has to say about a real, historical Adam from whom we all descend and who brought sin into the world. Dragging in those other items from the outset, and as a result sullying the adjective “historical,” only muddies the water and allows McKnight to avoid wrestling properly with a more minimal understanding of “historical” clearly present in Genesis.
The unusual implication of McKnight’s exegesis is that no one in church history until the last century or two really understood these early chapters of Genesis, since they allege a historical Adam that never existed. But that seems unlikely. Ironically, our current science preconditions McKnight to be prejudiced in that way. I have similar misgivings about his particular take on “contextual” reading, demonstrated in what I quoted earlier:
Adam and Eve are part of a narrative designed to speak into a world that had similar and dissimilar narratives. Making use of this context does not mean Adam and Eve are “fictional,” and neither does it mean they are “historical.” (118)
Can he be serious? If that’s the implication of taking the Ancient Near Eastern world seriously, then weird things follow. For instance, why not think “Yahweh” is part of a narrative designed to speak into a world that had similar and dissimilar narratives? Making use of this context doesn’t mean Yahweh is “fictional,” and neither does it mean he’s “historical.” Or again, why not think the miraculous divine activities in the Old Testament are part of a narrative designed to speak into a world that had similar and dissimilar narratives? Making use of this context doesn’t mean those miracles are “fictional,” and neither does it mean they’re “historical.” You get the idea—the literary-vs.-historical distinction is false and artificial.
Like Venema and McKnight, I affirm sola scriptura. But, of course, affirming Scripture as the supreme authority is consistent with church tradition as a God-given, secondary authority. I’m surprised, then, by how easily McKnight dismisses virtually the entire catholic tradition—both East and West—prior to the modern period. He ends up rejecting any kind of participation in Adam’s sin (cf. 183), despite the fact almost all Christians agreed on this point. Appealing to prima scriptura as justification passes over weighty theological considerations—not least of which are (1) the kind providence of God who guides the church, even in the midst of her imperfections, as well as (2) the Holy Spirit who illuminates the individual (and corporate!) mind of his people to grasp the essential meaning of his Word. Are we really to think that on such crucial exegetical and theological questions, God didn’t allow the church to come to a knowledge of the truth until the last century when we were finally blessed by the insights of modern science?
I’m surprised . . . by how easily McKnight dismisses virtually the entire catholic tradition—both East and West—prior to the modern period.
McKnight is also unconvincing when using the diversity of interpretations within the intertestamental period as a counsel to skepticism about Adam per se:
There is, then, a history of interpretation of Adam from Genesis to the first century AD, a history revealing a bold and astonishing diversity in which one might say accurately that authors made of Adam what they needed of Adam. Or, if you prefer, one might say that the literary Adam was a wax Adam and that Jesus’s and Paul’s views do not stand over against but instead are instances of this diversity of interpretations. (149)
But that conclusion says too much. For there were diversities of interpretation on all kinds of topics—whether Yahweh was going to save Israel, or when the Messiah was coming, or who he would be. McKnight’s argumentative strategy would imply that the biblical authors made of Yahweh what they needed of Yahweh, they made of the Messiah what they needed of the Messiah, and so on. But even if true, so what? That’s irrelevant to what Christian readers should make of the canonical perspective on all these questions—irrelevant because the canon has a divine Author. God’s perspective on Adam is what ultimately counts; and I take Jesus and Paul’s views not merely as “instances of this diversity of interpretations” but also as divinely authorized and supernaturally inspired.
Dealing with Romans 5
McKnight’s exegesis of Paul ends up avoiding the big theological issues raised by Romans 5:12–21 (not just v. 12) and a number of other passages in Scripture. This exegetical minimalism leaves too many questions unanswered. He claims “Paul is concerned not just with Adam unleashing cosmic death but with each of us as an Adam or Eve generating our own death” (184). But why do we generate our own death? Is that self-generation connected to Adam, or is it limited to each person only? If Adam unleashed a “cosmic death,” what does our self-generated death add? Similar questions could be added.
On the several occasions when McKnight insists each person sins “like Adam,” it would’ve been nice to know if and how his position differs from Pelagius (e.g., unlike Pelagius, McKnight seems skittish about affirming a real, historical Adam). And when he blames Ambrosiaster for the doctrine of original sin, more needs to be said. I don’t want to downplay the mistranslation, but plenty of Christians held to original sin without falling into that error (as other biblical scholars have noted, not least C. E. B. Cranfield). Overall, McKnight’s dismissive approach to the concerns of the tradition can be contrasted with what another scholar wrote last century:
We are quite willing to grant theology cannot really be done well without exegesis, but we are not as willing, it seems to me, to grant that exegesis cannot be done without systematic theology. Exegesis, armed with the original text and modern critical tools and methodology, too frequently sees itself as autonomously self-sufficient, pouring out its arid and superficial grammatical, syntactical, and critical comments, while the deeper meaning of the texts in the light of the broader problems at issue is lost to it. (S. Lewis Johnson, “Romans 5:12—An Exercise in Exegesis and Theology,” in New Dimensions in New Testament Study, 299)
In sum, Adam and the Genome sends a strong signal for where the wind is blowing for many evangelicals (alas, not everyone will read it cover to cover, which is why I’ve belabored some matters in this lengthy review). The book is well-written, informative, engaging, and relentlessly provocative. Despite these strengths, however, the book failed to convince me. It exemplifies what many Christians on the sidelines find concerning as they watch these science-theology debates unfolding. And once again—to borrow a Mark Twain misquote—rumors of Adam’s demise have been greatly exaggerated.
We shouldn’t miss the deep irony. One of the authors’ main motivations for writing this book is to remove a stumbling block for young people. McKnight goes on to tell us, repeatedly and insistently, that most lay believers consider the “historical” Adam central to the faith. As we’ve seen, his main thesis is that there is no historical Adam in the Bible and that Adam, contrary to what most Christians believe, plays no central role in Scripture’s redemptive-historical structure. But in doing so, he places a massive stumbling block to their understanding of the faith. The pastoral dilemma cuts both ways.
Dennis R. Venema and Scot McKnight. Adam and the Genome: Reading Scripture after Genetic Science. Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos, 2017. 240 pp. $19.99.