On Tuesday, Drs. Averbeck and Hoffmeier will be leading this month’s Table Talk on “The Historical Adam.” Now, if you’ve traveled in theological circles for a while, you’re probably familiar with the issues going on here (and if so, please forgive me for the VERY quick and dirty analysis I’m about to do). If not, you might be wondering why we’d take an entire month to focus on this topic — so, then, let me give you a little background on the issue so you don’t feel like you’re walking right into the middle of a conversation.
Through much of church history, the predominant view among Christians has been that humanity stemmed from one literal man named Adam and one literal woman named Eve, whose story is told in the opening chapters of Genesis. However, scientific advances of the 20th century — especially in the final quarter or so — have called that belief into question for some Christians. Francis S. Collins, a self-identifying evangelical Christian and the director of the National Institutes of Health, is perhaps foremost among this group. In his 2006 book The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief, he makes a couple key assertions that come into contradiction with traditional understandings of the Genesis account. First, he argues that modern humans emerged from their primate ancestors approximately 100,000 years ago; and second, he claims that the necessary genetic material for the human race to be what it is today had to have come from an original population of at least 10,000 (not just the two that Genesis records).
Obviously, trying to line up science and faith isn’t an easy task. This case is no exception — and Richard Ostling, in his Christianity Today article “The Search for the Historical Adam,” describes four main streams of thought that try to make sense of this apparent mismatch:
- Young Earth Creationism. In this view, the earth (and the whole cosmos, for that matter) was created as a fully-functioning package deal about 6,000 years ago. Young earth creationists argue that evolution couldn’t have happened, because there simply hasn’t been enough time.
- Old Earth Creationism. Like the young earthers, old earthers discount evolution. They too believe in a fully-formed, fully-functioning creation — but they affirm science’s view of the earth taking a whole lot more than 6,000 laps around the sun. Some folks in this camp also allow for intra-species evolution — in other words, they posit that animals and humans can adapt to their changing environments, but a fish stays a fish and a monkey stays a monkey.
- Intelligent Design. Proponents of this view discount evolution as well, believing that the heavens and earth were created according to a specific plan. However, they don’t necessarily define the “planner” as the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.
- Theistic Evolution. This is the view held by Collins and his associates. In a nutshell, they affirm that God created (and is continuing to create) the cosmos, but did (and does) so by using evolutionary processes like natural selection and genetic mutations over millions of years.
Now, why am I telling you all of this to get you ready for a talk on Adam and Eve? Well, if you think about it, the way we conceive of where we come from can have a pretty big impact on the way we understand who (and what) we are as human beings. Here are just a few of the philosophical and theological questions that come up as a result of the interaction of Christian faith with genetic and evolutionary theory:
- If we hold to the idea that humans are the product of evolutionary processes, how does that affect our understanding of being God’s image-bearers?
- If we claim that we as humans hold a special place in and over the rest of creation, how should we wrap our heads around the scientific finding that we “share common ancestry” with many primate species?
- If we hold to a literal view of the “Historical Adam,” how do we reconcile the idea that the Bible itself hints at a larger initial population than just Adam and Eve? (For example, who did Cain marry?)
- How might our conception of original sin change if the initial human population was 10,000 instead of 2?
- How might our understanding of (and faith in) Christ as the “Second Adam” (Rom. 5; 1 Cor 14) be affected if there didn’t happen to be a first one?
- How might these questions also affect our conceptions of family, birth, death, work, and any of the other identity-forming experiences we have as humans?
Hopefully, by this point, your head is swimming — you’re starting to see that this seemingly simple issue has remarkably far-reaching effects. And you know what the worst part is? I’m not going to answer a single one of the questions I just posed. I’m just going to leave them hanging, in order to entice you to the library at noon on Tuesday (11/11/14) so that you can talk about them with people who are also thinking about these ideas. See you then!