Adam and the Genome: Reading Scripture after Genetic Science
The 2005 publication of a comparison of the chimpanzee genome and the human genome revealed overwhelming evidence of common ancestry for human beings and other primates. For Christians trained in genetics and genomics, it also provided the most substantial challenge to date to the historicity of Adam. Until that time, many believers who study science would adopt a form of evolutionary creationism that had an exception for human beings. The science behind human evolution was clear before the 2005 paper, but maybe not so obvious that it was worth engaging the difficult theological questions that would result from rethinking Adam. According to its authors Dennis R. Venema and Scot McKnight, Adam and the Genome is written from pastoral concern for young Christians studying science who may feel compelled to choose between the evidence offered by genomics and the testimony of Scripture. The goal of this book is to explain the basic scientific evidence for human evolution and then to discuss how Scripture can be read in light of this scientific revelation.
The two authors each write half of the book from their professional expertise. Dennis Venema, associate professor of biology at Trinity Western University, writes four chapters explaining evidence from genomics supporting human evolution. The first chapter introduces readers to other situations in history when science has helped Christians to interpret Scripture. He discusses the fierce debate around heliocentrism and geocentrism, including long quotations from defenders of geocentrism written in the 1600s. Venema discusses this debate at length because, as he writes, the “basic issues that were on the table for them are the same as they are now: the veracity of the new science, and its perceived threat to biblical authority.” The first chapter goes on to describe surprising scientific results that have been predicted and then confirmed by evolution.
Chapters 2 and 3 are the most important contributions made in the first half of the book. Chapter 2 describes the key evidence from genomics for shared ancestry between humans and other organisms. The author is able to explain clearly how DNA is read, changed, and inherited over time while using very little scientific jargon. He uses the analogy of language to illustrate how DNA changes over time. Through this extended analogy, and easy-to-understand figures, he shows the remarkable similarity between the human genomes and those of other closely related organisms. The book includes some figures that show actual examples of genetic evidence. This chapter argues that humans, chimpanzees, and other organisms likely evolved from a common population of ancestors.
The topic of chapter 3 is the evidence supporting a large human population. Venema starts this section by showing the frustration felt by anyone who understands the lessons about evolution discussed in chapter 1. He writes, “If humans evolved, then we did so as a population. Doesn’t everyone know that?” (44). He goes on to offer multiple lines of evidence from population genetics that indicate that the human population has never fallen below about 10,000 individuals. He discusses genetic diversity, crossover rates (linkage disequilibrium), and genetic contributions from other ancient humans (Neanderthals and Denisovans). Together, chapters 2 and 3 help Christians not trained in science to see the predicament that Christian geneticists have been experiencing since 2005.
As Venema has presented these sorts of arguments for venues like the BioLogos blog, his fiercest criticism has come from the Intelligent Design community. In order to preempt the arguments from this group, chapter 4 is largely dedicated to refuting criticism he is likely to receive for chapters 2 and 3 that come from the Intelligent Design movement. Consequently, this chapter is written to a smaller audience than the rest of the book. Here the author is addressing the Intelligent Design community and those open to their arguments. Other readers may find this chapter less helpful and less thought-provoking than the first three.
By the end of his half of the book, Venema has laid out a defense of evolution, presented the evidence supporting common ancestry for humans and other creatures, explained the science indicating humans have always been a relatively large population, and defended his argument from his most likely adversaries. He concludes with hope that through this science we might come to know God more. Paraphrasing Dietrich Bonhoeffer, he writes, “Paul calls us to see God in what we know, not in what we don’t know – and as science reveals ever more about creation, we know more and more about how God chose to bring his creation into being” (91, emphasis original). With that, the book turns to Scot McKnight, Julius R. Mantey Chair of New Testament at Northern Seminary, for an explanation of how these results can align with the Biblical text.
While the first half of the book will be utterly uncontroversial for experts in genetics and genomics, McKnight’s contribution is likely to spur debate among theologians and biblical scholars. McKnight attempts to unpack what is meant by “Historical Adam” so that evidence for such a figure can be reasoned from the Biblical text. He asserts that the term “Historical Adam” means at least the following:
1. two actual (and sometimes only two) persons named Adam and Eve existed suddenly as a result of God’s creation;
2. those two persons have biological relationship to all human beings that are alive today (biological Adam and Eve);
3. their DNA is our DNA (genetic Adam and Eve); and that often means
4. those two sinned, died, and brought death into the world (fallen Adam and Eve); and
5. those two passed on their sin natures (according to many) to all human beings (sin-nature Adam and Eve), which means
6. without their sinning and passing on that sin nature to all human beings, not all human beings would be in need of salvation;
7. therefore, if one denies the historical Adam, one denies the gospel of salvation. (107, emphasis original).
Experts are likely to be frustrated by the lack of precision in McKnight’s list. For example, in number 2, the use of “that are alive today” as oppose to “that have ever lived” opens the door for a number of technical complications. One could conceive of a situation where a literal Adam and Eve were called from a larger population of humans and that over time their descendants thrived and others struggled so that (through a kind of spiritual selection) today, the human population is made up only of people related to Adam and Eve. This rebuttal would be impossible if McKnight meant all humans “that have ever lived.”
To theologians the list may seem to progress without logical justification. Here it is important to remember the audience of this book. While few modern theologians would argue genetic ancestry is required for the gospel of salvation, this is not an uncommon view among college-aged students who study science.
McKnight goes on the challenge the assumptions in his list by interpreting Adam and Eve within their context: the Old Testament and the Ancient Near East. He goes on further to consider how Adam and Eve were used by other Jewish writers in apocryphal texts like Sirach, The Wisdom of Solomon, and 2 Baruch. The purpose of these discussions is to argue that ancient writers used Adam and Eve to advance their own theology and to responded to their own cultures. For example, McKnight expounds on 2 Baruch 54:15, which states, “For although Adam sinned first and has brought death upon all who were not in his own time, yet each of them who has been born from him has prepared for himself the coming torment. And further, each of them has chosen for himself the coming glory.”
McKnight sees in 2 Baruch a literary Adam, a genealogical Adam, and an archetypal Adam but McKnight’s broader point is that each ancient author used the story of Adam in different ways. There is no universally accepted view of Adam. Instead, he says,
Each interpreted the Adam (and far less often Eve) of Genesis 1-3 for particular reasons and purposes in the context of debates and discussions, with the result that Adam has an interpretive history. No author left Adam in Genesis and read the biblical text simplistically; no author cared about giving Adam a “historical” reading; each author adapted and adopted and adjusted the Adam of Genesis. (168, emphasis original) McKnight’s argument is that we should expect the same when reading how the Apostle Paul uses Adam in Romans 5.
When determining how Paul interprets and adapts Adam, McKnight argues that Paul does not necessitate a historical Adam by the definition above. Instead, Paul requires
an Adam and Eve who were made in God’s image; an Adam and Eve who were commanded by God not to eat of the tree; an Adam and Eve who chose to disobey; an Adam and Eve who therefore were aimed toward death; an Adam and Eve who passed on death to all humans. (189)
If McKnight’s arguments are correct, then of course the Adam and Eve of Scripture can be consistent with the science offered in the first half of the book.
Other books have been written that attempt to clarify Adam and Eve in response to evolutionary science. Important contributions include, but are not limited to, The Lost World of Adam and Eve: Genesis 2-3 and the Human Origins Debate,1 The Evolution of Adam: What the Bible Does and Doesn’t Say about Human Origins,2 and Evolution and the Fall.3 Adam and the Genome is important because it clearly explains the scientific evidence that calls all believers to engage their theologies that are based on Adam and Eve and then goes on to offer one possible reimagining of these beliefs. The book would have been strengthened if McKnight’s chapters had been offered as a possible understanding of the text while considering the science. Instead, he puts forward a bold position as the single correct understanding of Romans.
Nonetheless, this book is an important contribution to the discussion and has the potential to aid the church in many ways. Christians who are not trained in genetics can come to understand the science behind a theory they may find threatening. Christians trained in science are offered assurance by at least one New Testament scholar that genomic science is not a threat to the claims of Scripture. And we can all be reminded that the God of the Bible is also the God of genomics.
Cite this article
- John Walton, The Lost World of Adam and Eve: Genesis 2-3 and the Human Origins Debate (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2015).
- Peter Enns, The Evolution of Adam: What the Bible Does and Doesn’t Say about Human Origins (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2012).
- William Cavanaugh and James K. A. Smith, eds., Evolution and the Fall (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 2017).