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A Humanist’s Invitation to Peaceful Science

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Does the world need another site for debates about creationism? No.

Does the world need more places to announce that “Darwinism” has been felled by using algebra and a paperback book by Richard Dawkins? Heavens no.

Does the world need more online forums for Christian apologists to wrangle over the meaning of ‘yom’? Please, no.

What about a place where scientists can answer questions from laypeople, about evolution and genetics and maybe even climate change? Yeah, maybe.

Or how about a place where people can hear about the ins and outs of Adam and Eve, the Garden of Eden, evolutionary genetics, and how genetics can be reconciled with Ancient Near Eastern accounts of the beginning of the world? That’s not for me.

Peaceful Science is all of the things I listed above, only one of which is of slight interest to me. Still, I believe that Peaceful Science is uniquely interesting and valuable.

First, I want to clear up some confusion about the purpose and mission of Peaceful Science.  It is common for people on the forum to assume that we exist for the sole purpose of addressing science-faith interactions in the context of evolution, but they are mistaken. A look at the mission of the organization and at its leadership reveals something bigger, better, and different.

This confusion is understandable. Peaceful Science was founded by an evangelical scientist (the smart and kind Joshua Swamidass) who recently wrote a book that explores genetic and genealogical evidence for recent common ancestry of present-day humans. His book and its ideas are a big focus of the site. The discussion forum is decidedly not the only activity of the organization, but for now its focus is mostly on evolution and religion. 

Still, it is the larger mission that attracts me to Peaceful Science and why I think that more secular humanists like me should have a look. Two things stand out to me.

First, the overarching goal is to foster dialogue built on trust. In my opinion, that is a bigger and more challenging goal than any attempt to bridge genetics and Genesis. But especially in 2020, it is one of the most important endeavors that a human can undertake. Disagreement and distrust are vastly different things, and we should not need a shared religion to share mutual human respect. I take this to be a bedrock humanist commitment: what another human believes about gods or magic is immaterial to their value as a human and unrelated to whether they are worthy of trust and respect.

This mission of dialogue with trust is based on principles published by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). This is important, not so much because the principles are deep or revolutionary but because the AAAS is a reliable touchstone for scientists and especially for unbelievers. The principles weren’t dreamed up by Dr. Swamidass or paraphrased from an ancient text; they were hammered out by diverse experts who were focused on helping science serve society.

Second, Peaceful Science’s mission is explicitly humanistic: “…encouraging conversation around the grand question: what does it mean to be human?

This is an inspiring goal that should sell itself to any secular (or religious) humanist. I’m drawn to it, and I want to be a part of that grand conversation. 

Fellow unbelievers might still have some hesitation. Is this “dialogue” tainted by the ethos of evangelicalism? Will we be treated as projects? Is dialogue just a means to a religious end?

Well, I’ve been hanging around Peaceful Science for more than a year. At least on the forum, there’s no way to avoid hearing about the demise of “Darwinism” from overconfident non-biologists with scant knowledge of evolutionary theory. True, there are regular conversations devoted to “theology.” But Peaceful Science is much bigger, and dare I say better, than all that. I also find challenging and interesting conversations, and dialogues that change people’s minds. 

So, here I am, way outside any humanist or atheist “bubble.”  I hope more secular humanists will participate, because we are welcome here, and this is a chance to help conversation about the grand questions of life grow.

Retrieving Augustine’s Doctrine of Creation

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Gavin Ortlund (PhD, Fuller Theological Seminary) serves as senior pastor of First Baptist Church of Ojai in Ojai, California. He is the author of several books, including Retrieving Augustine’s Doctrine of Creation and Finding the Right Hills to Die on. You can follow him on Twitter here. This article is an excerpt from his new book, Retrieving Augustine’s Doctrine of Creation. We also recommend the article The Contemporary Relevance of Augustine’s View of Creation by Davis A. Young.

How might Augustine’s doctrine of creation influence the current creation debate? Here are three possibilities. First, Augustine helps us wonder at sheer createdness. Creation is not a necessity. It reflects the generosity of God. As Augustine prays, “You created, not because you had need, but out of the abundance of your own goodness.” 1

Related to this, creation is, for Augustine, an emotional doctrine. He engages it at a deeply existential level. Specifically, he holds that the human soul was made for God, and thus every facet of human existence is dynamically oriented toward God. At every moment and in all that we do, we are constantly upheld by God, relating to God, and in need of God. He is the constant fact with which all existence has to do. Life and happiness are fully and only from him. As Augustine writes, “Even when all is well with me, what am I but a creature suckled on your milk and feeding on yourself, the food that never perishes?” 2

Augustine’s vision of creaturely dependence on God extends not only to the human soul but to the entire created universe. The whole world is reverberating with imperfection, longing to share with the angels in divine immutability—like a piece of pottery that has been constructed but has not yet gone through the firing and glazing stages. It awaits its final confirmation in God. Augustine may as well have prayed, “You have made all creation for yourself, and it will find no rest until it rests in you.” This is why the Confessions ends with Genesis 1, and why Genesis 1:1-2 sets Augustine’s heart throbbing. 3

Augustine’s reminder of the miracle of creatureliness makes it more difficult to take this doctrine for granted, or to put all our focus on simply how it happened. Creation is not a speculative topic but vitally concerns human happiness. Even secular people involved in the conversation may be intrigued by Augustine’s insights into the craving of the human heart.

Second, Augustine’s humility concerning the doctrine of creation encourages irenicism, particularly in the relation of theology and (what we would call) science. Now, this is not to say that Augustine is unwilling to debate about creation. He is deeply concerned to affirm the goodness of creation, for example, in response to Manichaean errors. We feel from Augustine the importance of creation and its foundational significance for the doctrines of sin and redemption. He is always willing to reject overreaching claims from philosophers, particularly when they threaten orthodoxy.

At the same time, within the rule of faith, Augustine is remarkably circumspect. His great concern is to avoid rashness (temeritas). He has enormous respect for the work of philosophi and medici, and is horrified at anti-intellectual dismissals of genuine discovery. He insists on the complete trustworthiness of Scripture, but remains keenly alert to his fallibility as an interpreter. He works hard to harmonize biblical texts with each other and with other fields of knowledge. He often functions with approximate or provisional views. He is willing to reconsider his claims.

Augustine’s presence in the current creation debate would encourage a more complicated view of the relation of Scripture and science, and more care in relating them. I can well imagine Augustine at the table, holding up his hands in protest, urging caution, listening, and patience—or, to use his terms, calling for less “obstinate wrangling” and more “diligent seeking, humble asking, persistent knocking.” 4

In both of these first two points—Augustine’s expansive vision of creation and his humble method of engaging it—he may remind us that the most important aspects of the doctrine of creation are not those typically disputed among Christians, but those held in common (such as creation ex nihilo). To put it colloquially, he might help us major on the majors, and minor on the minors.

Third, Augustine helps us to appreciate the complexity of interpreting Genesis 1. Having felt Augustine’s anxiety over this passage, and having traced the development of his views throughout his five commentaries, it will be more difficult to rebuke all those who can’t see its obvious “plain meaning.” Augustine may prompt us to deeper hermeneutical considerations when he suggests that the days function as an act of divine accommodation, “as a help to human frailty . . . to suggest sublime things to lowly people in a lowly manner by following the basic rule of story-telling.” 5 He will certainly complicate our terminology, since he regards a “literal” interpretation of Genesis 1 as concerning historical referentiality without excluding allegorical meaning or various kinds of figurative language. Some of his views on Genesis 1 may prompt quizzical looks, like his claim that the ordering of events is according to angelic knowledge. Yet the influence of Augustine’s exegesis of Genesis 1, particularly through the medieval era, discourages us from simply writing him off as an eccentric. Recall that Andrew Brown calls Augustine’s interpretation “the defining statement with which every medieval and Renaissance commentator on Gen. 1:1–2:3 would wrestle.” 6

In the current creation debate, the vigor of Augustine’s rejection of twenty-four-hour days will certainly be felt. For Augustine, “it can scarcely be supposed” that light turned on and off on days one to three before the creation of the sun; 7 it is “beyond a shadow of doubt” and “limpidly clear” that Genesis 2:4-6 confirm non-ordinary days; 8 it is “the height of folly” to read day seven in a literalistic way. 9 If all this fails to convince, there remains the challenge of squeezing the events of day five into twenty-four hours: “Here, surely, anyone slow on the uptake should finally wake up to understanding what sort of days are being counted here.” 10

The force of these rebukes is partially explained by the fact that Augustine associates literalism with the Manichaeans. Yet his views still undermine the claim that all rejection of twenty-four-hour days in Genesis 1 is motivated by scientific discovery. If we appeal to twenty-four-hour days as the “plain reading,” we must reckon with the towering fact that the greatest theologian of the early church found the opposing view equally “plain.” This would seem, at the very least, to encourage more space for legitimate disagreement concerning the interpretation of Genesis 1.

  1. Confessiones 13.4 (CSEL 33, 348).
  2. Confessiones 4.1 (CSEL 33, 64).
  3. Confessiones 12.1 (CSEL 33, 310).
  4. De Genesi ad litteram 10.23.39 (CSEL 28:1, 326).
  5. De Genesi ad litteram liber unus imperfectus 3.8 (CSEL 28:1, 463).
  6. Andrew J. Brown, The Days of Creation: A History of Christian Interpretation of Genesis 1:1–2:3, History of Biblical Interpretation (Blandford Forum, UK: Deo, 2014), 53. 
  7. De Genesi ad litteram 1.11.23 (CSEL 28:1, 17).
  8. De Genesi ad litteram 5.1.3 (CSEL 28:1, 138).
  9. De Genesi ad litteram 4.8.16 (CSEL 28:1, 104).
  10. De Genesi ad litteram liber unus imperfectus 15.51 (CSEL 28:1, 495).

Art & Ancestry: Humans Rendered Apart

Peaceful Science is inviting artists into dialogue with science. This is the third image of a series by David Rygiol. The Genealogical Adam and Eve is written in five movements: Fracture, Ancestor, Human, Mystery, and Crossroads. This image is Rygiol’s response to Human.

For years now, many of us in St. Louis have been contemplating the meaning of race. We are reckoning our history. David Rygiol was working on this image for months, long before Breonna Taylor, Ahmad Abrey, and George Floyd were killed. This Father’s Day, we remember them, their fathers, and their children.

Discussion of ancestry invites a conversation about theology and kinship, but also about race. Some have wrongly thought there were many biologically-distinct groups, each with different intellectual traits and abilities. Do we all have equal worth and dignity? Society was set up by those who thought the answer was “no.”

Let us now remember our true origins. We are all linked together in a web of genealogical ancestry, sharing ancestors as recently as just a few thousand years ago. The human race is a single family, linked in a common story. Whatever our skin color, country of origin, ethnicity, or culture, we are all one family. We are one blood, one race, the human race. 1.

Our ancestors divided us. We forgot our connections to one another. Our one family was rendered apart. Now, we all inherit this shared history of racism. This history is messy. It is complex and potent. It needs to be reckoned with care, courage, and understanding. If racism is sin, it seems that every camp has a history of sin with which to reckon. 2

This image shows a web of genealogical ancestry stretching into the past. A line of division appears, and rips through the web, rending arms and legs. The fractures, the dividing lines, they were not bloodless. Grieve what was lost that cannot be returned. Remember.

Rygiol’s image humanizes pedigree diagrams, like this one, that show our connections to one another. Our first understanding of race is enabled by forgetting the connections between us, the sharp tentacles that rip through our shared family. Rygiol’s image details the division in a different way.
  1. Swamidass, J. (2019) The Genealogical Adam and Eve: The surprising science of universal ancestry. Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 132
  2. Ibid, 130

The Biological Meaning of Race

What is the meaning of race? How are we the same and how are we different? At Peaceful Science, we gather around the grand question of what it means to be human. We gather around the questions of ancestry. Continuing a centuries long conversation, alongside many others, we wonder about the meaning of race.

Earlier this year, I told Christianity Today about one of my most vivid lessons in researching a book about origins,

One thing I’ve learned is it’s really common for people to bring race into questions about human origins, often to attack those with whom they disagree. We all inherit that legacy of racism. Origins is often approached from a very whitewashed perspective. It doesn’t really engage the concerns of people of color, who are often underrepresented in the conversations. What I found, as a dark Indian, is that these questions of origins are actually very closely tied to our concerns about our worth and dignity in the world.

This week, I was interviewed on National Public Radio (NPR) about the science and theology of race. The great population geneticist Alan Templeton also commented, and the recording is worth listening.

NPR interviewed Kennedy Mitchum right before us. She is a young woman in St Louis who just convinced Merriam-Webster to revise their definition of “racism.” Her story is important. She explained her experience with racism. She was ignored and dismissed by selective quotes from the dictionary definition of racism. Minorities, we find, are often silenced by dictionaries.

“Word games,” some might say. Don’t sniff. Definitions matter…much more than we think they do. Our perceptions can shift dramatically based on how authoritative sources define contested terms. Changing the dictionary definition of “racism” is a milestone event, giving voice, in a place of authority, to one who was silenced before.

Discussing race and racism is complex and difficult. In The Genealogical Adam and Eve, I explained some of the history of racism in both science and theology to reckon. If you go back about 150 years ago in science, and 500 years ago in theology, people have been wondering about this idea of polygenesis, a long-dominant theory of disparate human origins. Many scientists believed that there was a hierarchy of biologically distinct races, with Europeans at the top. That understanding of race strongly influenced how our ancestors set up society.

Though there is a dark history of scientific racism, we can now approach the science of race with confidence. Genetic science since the 1960s and ’70s strongly disproved such ideas. The caller into the NPR interview was an important reminder to me. He was so certain that race was an essential biological category, but he missed what we learned from genetics.

So, in what ways is race real? In what ways is it an illusion? We were fortunate, also, to interview both Quayshawn Spencer and Adam Rutherford about their work. Jordan Mantha recently hosted a book club on Steve Olson’s book. We have been fielding questions about this from several people in the last month. I have been recommending some good books to read about the meaning of race.

  1. Mapping Human History: Genes, Race, and Our Common Origins by Steve Olson.
  2. Rethinking Race: The Case for Deflationary Realism by Michael O. Hardimon.
  3. What Is Race?: Four Philosophical Views by Joshua Glasgow, Sally Haslanger, Chike Jeffers, and Quayshawn Spencer.
  4. How To Argue With A Racist: History, Science, Race and Reality by Adam Rutherford.
  5. Who We Are and How We Got Here: Ancient DNA and the New Science of the Human Past by David Reich.

There is debate about how precisely to understand race. Still, everyone agrees that the biologically-thick, essentialist understanding of race, once common, is false. Polygenesis looms over history, shaping how society was set up. But polygenesis was false. We are far more alike than we first perceived, linked together into a common family.

It turns out that the biological reality of race is deflationary, in the best sense of the word. We’ve understood our differences to be rooted in our essential nature, but maybe they are not. So, maybe some of the ways the world is can be changed.

Quayshawn Spencer: Is Race Real?

Is race real? Or is it an illusion? With the death of George Floyd in the custody of a police officer, we are once again asking questions about race. In our last episode, we invited Adam Rutherford to discuss his book, How to Argue with a Racist. This episode, we invite Dr. Quayshawn Spencer to a conversation with two biologists, Dr. Nathan Lents and Dr. S. Joshua Swamidass.

Dr. Spencer is a philosopher of biology at the University fo Pennsylvania. In two papers, he maps out the debate over the last few decades on the reality of biological race and “folk” conceptions of race.

Racial realism I: Are biological races real?

In this article, I discuss and critique how metaphysicians of race have conceived of and defended racial realism according to how biologists use “race”. I start by defining “racial realism” in the broadest accepted way in the metaphysics of race. Next, I summarize a representative sample of recent attempts from metaphysicians of race and biologists to defend racial realism and the main criticisms against each attempt. I discuss how metaphysicians of race have defended racial realism according to how ordinary people use “race” in Part II.

https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/phc3.12468 7

Racial realism II: Are folk races real?

This article is Part II in a pair of articles on racial realism. In Part I, I defined “racial realism” and discussed the major attempts in the past twenty years among metaphysicians of race and biologists to defend racial realism from the viewpoint of what biologists mean by “race.” In this article, I continue discussing and critiquing how metaphysicians of race have conceived of and defended racial realism, but with a focus on how ordinary people use “race.” I focus on two broad groups of racial realisms in this article: biological racial realism and social racial realism. After defining each one, I summarize a representative sample of recent attempts from metaphysicians of race to defend both types of racial realism. I also discuss major criticisms against each attempt. I end by sketching a new, radical pluralist way of being a racial realist, and I provide some empirical motivation for why it’s promising.

https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/epdf/10.1111/phc3.12467 1

Dr. Spencer argues that there are many distinct meanings of “race,” and depending precisely what we mean, it can be either an illusion or real. The right answer to the question, then is “it depends.”

This contingent answer raises a whole new set of questions. In what ways is the concept of race legitimate and not? Is recognizing any legitimacy to race dangerous? These are difficult questions of ancestry. They are contentious and they are important.

Peaceful Science seeks to engage these questions with rigor and honesty, with courage, curiosity, and empathy. Join the conversation with us.

Adam Rutherford: How to Argue With A Racist?

With the death of George Floyd, we are facing societal questions about ancestry. What is the meaning of race? Science has important information to add to the conversation. Dr. Adam Rutherford authored a book, released next month, which is important for our moment.

Today, two biologists, Dr. Lents and Dr. Swamidass, interview geneticist Adam Rutherford about his new book, “How to Argue With a Racist. Come join a conversation with three biologist about the surprising science of race.

We might wonder…why even argue with a racist? Don’t forget the black man that talked 200 KKK Members out of their robes.

If you spend five minutes with your worst enemy — it doesn’t have to be about race, it could be about anything…you will find that you both have something in common. As you build upon those commonalities, you’re forming a relationship and as you build about that relationship, you’re forming a friendship. That’s what would happen. I didn’t convert anybody. They saw the light and converted themselves.

Daryl Davis

Don’t forget the woman that left the Westboro Baptist “Church.”

One day while Megan was holding a ‘God hates Jews’ sign during a protest in New Orleans, a man named David, who ran a blog called ‘Jewlicious’, approached her after several months of heated but friendly arguments online. Megan said: ‘He brought me a Middle Eastern dessert from Jerusalem, where he lives, and I brought him kosher chocolate.’ The interaction with the outside world blurred the lines of good and evil enforced by the church during Megan’s childhood and she slowly became aware of hypocrisy within Westboro Baptist Church’s preaching.

Megan said: ‘How could we claim to love our neighbor while at the same time praying for God to destroy them?

Peaceful Science‘s mission and values are to seek understanding across differences, even in the most difficult areas of controversy. Join us as we discuss one of the most difficult and important topics of all: race.

J. P. Moreland: Brains, Minds and the Soul

Dr. Swamidass and Dr. Lents are live streaming an interview with philosopher J.P. Moreland on Brains, Minds and the Soul.

We wonder together if artificial intelligence could ever have a mind? Will an atheist biologist agree we have a “soul”? What is substance-dualism, and is this the only faithful Christian view?

Join this conversation with us. Together, let us consider the grand question: what does it mean to be human?

Jon Garvey: A Biblical Theology of People Outside the Garden

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Born in Guildford, England, Jon Garvey studied medicine at Cambridge University, and later studied theology through the Open Theological College, University of Gloucestershire. Since 2011, his blog The Hump of the Camel has explored the theology of creation, attracting an extensive readership across the world, and he has also contributed extensively at BioLogos and Peaceful Science. In January 2019 Cascade published his first book, God’s Good Earth, and a year later his second, The Generations of Heaven and Earth.  He lives in south-west England, is married, with three adult children and five granddaughters, is a Baptist elder, and played guitar and saxophone semi-professionally until he was recently placed, like everyone else, under house-arrest because of Coronavirus.

  1. You recently published the first book-length response to The Genealogical Adam and Eve, titled The Generations of Heaven and Earth: Adam, the Ancient World and Biblical Theology.  This is fitting, because you have been thinking about the ideas here since back in 2010. Can you tell us the story?

I’d not long started researching some of the knotty problems regarding scientific origins and the Bible (the story of how that began is in a post on my blog, the Hump of the Camel) when David Opderbeck published the first article on what became the Genealogical Adam and Eve at BioLogos. The idea of an Adam called from amongst an existing human race was familiar to me from writers like Derek Kidner and C. S. Lewis, but this proposal seemed to give it scientific traction within a traditional theological framework. It looked like the direction to take on Adam and Eve.

I chased up the scientific articles on which his article was based, and began to toss some of the implications around in my mind. When Joshua Swamidass reintroduced the notion in a thread at BioLogos in 2017, it reawakened my enthusiasm. Partly in collaboration with him and the community he formed at Peaceful Science, I wrote a large number of blogs which became the backbone of Generations.

The Generations of Heaven and Earth (GHE) completes somewhat of a trilogy that includes The Genealogical Adam and Eve (GAE) and begins with God’s Good Earth. The GAE shows a large range of what is scientifically possible, and GHE narrows in to show one way to make sense of this theologically.
  1. How does your book relate to The Genealogical Adam and Eve? How is it different? What does it add to the growing conversation?

Joshua Swamidass’s The Genealogical Adam and Eve (GAE) is careful to keep all theological options on the table. This befits the introduction of a paradigm that opens up a wealth of new perspectives. Joshua intends for people of many persuasions to apply the paradigm as they see fit.

For example, as a scientist he is open to the idea of a much earlier Adam, as favored by a number of theistic evolutionists and old earth creationists. He has already collaborated on refining the population genetics of such a proposal, and is exploring it further in another book, for the benefit of both science and the church at large. The GAE paradigm can even be useful for those who take certain Young Earth positions.

In partial contrast, Generations is deliberately written as a first example of how GAE may be used to make deliberate choices, to present a particular application to the interpretation of Scripture and, specifically, to build a biblical theology from it. Any research programme is, in the end, only as useful as the specific results it achieves by closing down options. Needless to say, I hope others will find my ideas a useful contribution.

But from another angle, I retain the same intention in my book as Joshua Swamidass does in his – to demonstrate that the paradigm itself is widely useful. So even if none of my conclusions take root, the book will have done its job if it suggests to others how they might use the lens of GAE for their own, more worthy, work.

If Adam and Eve really were historical figures living in relatively recent times, then their story in Scripture will have been based, like the rest of biblical history, on genuine traditions, and not on inspired myth-making. It is akin to the difference between handed-down memories about George Washington, and a mythical figure like Uncle Sam. The truth of the first depends on the accuracy of transmission, whereas the latter is an expression of perceived national character – a different kind of truth.

Assuming such a well-known tradition, it is very likely that the original author of Genesis would have been fully aware of Adam and Eve being “special” people living within an already existing human race; furthermore, that he will have written his book on that basis, rather than on the traditional Christian assumption that Adam and Eve were the first rational couple in a brand new world. He would, perhaps, feel under no more obligation to reinforce the particular historical background of his source than a modern writer would have to point out that Washington was, indeed, the first American President (or that Uncle Sam was not!). Readers in the distant future might miss the distinction, without some clues as to the kind of world America represents. In my view, genealogical science is just such a big clue for us about Genesis.

  1. What is the significance of genealogy in the creation story?

I spend some time in Generations discussing why genealogy matters at all. Historically, the doctrines of both the unity of mankind (positively) and the transmission of original sin (negatively) have depended on descent from Adam both in the Augustinian (Western) and the Irenaean (Eastern) traditions.That alone would be sufficient reason for offering GAE to the church, as David Opderbeck realized when he first presented the idea.

Another partial explanation is that the Bible itself lays enormous stress on the concept of genealogy, and (as I explore in the book) deals with this in relational terms both of biological descent and, interestingly, adoption. Many significant meanings can be investigated in the Bible once one frees oneself from modern science’s stress on genes and inherited traits and thinks more as the ancients thought.

Indeed, it is arguably genealogy that is the entire basis of history, which is important if the Bible is to be seen as a record of primarily historical dealings between God and humankind. History deals with peoples, nations, inherited culture, dynasties of power and so on, all of which ultimately arise from family relationships. It is not only under modern capitalism that “family” is crucial.

  1. Is the presence of people outside of the Garden a challenge to traditional narratives of creation?  What is your case that this could be both Scripturally and theologically sound?

The Genesis 1 account of the creation of people occurs entirely outside the garden! To me, the story of Adam isn’t a creation account at all, but a commissioning rather like that of other biblical pioneers like Abraham. Adam originates out in the natural world, and is placed in the garden, a special, spiritual place. The creation story is told in a literary, “mythic” way, but surprisingly little of the following chapters, though also stylized and poetic, reads as an “Uncle Sam” myth, but rather as “George Washington” history.

Incidents like the talking snake seem magical, rather than mythical, but even that could be a misunderstanding. Old Testament scholar Mike Heiser has made a strong case that the serpent (nachish) would have been understood as a member of the divine council, so that speech – and an appearance of authority – would be expected, if supernatural. There is no doubt that the New Testament consistently identifies the serpent with Satan.

I see the creation account as a short, a-historical preface to the Bible’s action, beginning at Gen 2:4, from which comes the book’s title. Specifically, I take Genesis 1 as a phenomenological account of the world structured, as much mainstream scholarly opinion now holds, as a temple-building narrative, showing that the universe is the temple God built for his own worship. That seems theologically absolutely orthodox to me.

Adam, in the context of Genesis, is primarily the fountainhead of the line that became Israel, and so is a figure in their history. But there is also a hint of universalism, notably in the Table of Nations of Genesis 10, which becomes central to Paul’s New Testament understanding in Rom 5, and is shown to be scientifically possible through the Genealogical Adam and Eve. Nothing has changed theologically, but the theology now connects directly to the world of history and science.

If we assume, for a moment, that an Eden narrative received by a historical tradition would, from everything we know from secular knowledge, take people outside the garden for granted, then we begin to discover that those people are implicit in the text itself. The assumption is also consistent with the well-known literary parallels to Genesis in the Ancient Near eastern literature (ANE). We should not forget that these accepted parallels, including such sources as Atrahasis and Eridu Genesis, are from the very earliest stratum of human literature. Their existing texts date from the early second millennium BCE which, as archaeologist Kenneth Kitchen argues, is also the most likely time for the composition of the tradition that Genesis embodies. 

This means that Genesis is neither derivative from, nor the direct source of the ANE parallels but an equally valid parallel tradition which, like the others, may well have its earliest literary roots in the mid-third millennium. All these accounts may well reflect actual events passed down in oral form for a quite plausibly short period before this. The ANE sources give some useful clues about why Genesis would express  such a reality in the ways it does.

There are other such clues to be found in disciplines such as the history of languages, ethnology, ancient cosmology and paleogeography, which I tap in order to consolidate a picture of the kind of world Adam and Eve would have inhabited and, just as importantly, the kind of world that the writer of Genesis knew.

  1. Why does it matter to place the Eden account into real history?

The most important contribution of the book, in my opinion, is that by placing the Eden account into a real history – by which I mean the account of history shared by the rest of humanity in its studies – the “big story” of the Bible, nowadays often called its metanarrative, can be seen to be rooted into a gritty reality from its very beginning. The stark historical truths central to Christianity – the cross and resurrection of Jesus – are the solution to the stark historical problem described in the early chapters of Genesis. The whole Bible is describing God’s active intervention in human history to solve a particular historical problem, which is of course what traditional Christianity has always taught in its concept of “salvation history.”

There is now an increasing body of scholarly literature showing how this story is inherent within the authorial intent of the biblical writers from Genesis onwards. In my book, I draw particular attention to the work of John Sailhamer, Greg Beale and Seth Postell, but even whilst my book was at the publisher, Kevin Chen produced a new study focusing on the Messianic themes in the Pentateuch.

Interpreting those early chapters through the lens of the GAE paradigm significantly clarifies the nature of both the problem and its solution in Christ. For example, the Table of Nations of Genesis 10 shows more clearly the surprisingly universalist tone of Genesis when seen as the local spread of an Adamic line rather than the expansion of the human race.

Adam is no longer the first man, but a new kind of man called by God from amongst mankind on behalf of mankind. This closely resembles other figures like Abraham, Moses, and even Jesus himself who, though uniquely the Incarnate Son is also God’s chosen from amongst mankind on behalf of both Israel and the whole of humanity in Adam. The salvation of the whole human race, then, is not a Gentile corruption of the national religion of the Jews, but a theme that goes back to the very beginning of Genesis.

6. In your book, you make a strong distinction between old creation and new creation. What is the difference, and how are they connected to each other?

Space prevents me describing in full here some of what I consider the most interesting specific proposals of Generations. For example, applying GAE to the “temple imagery” noted in Genesis by John Walton, Greg Beale, Richard Middleton and others casts significant new light on the genre and literary purpose of the Genesis 1 creation account, showing how, properly understood, it should never have been thought to conflict with science. Keeping in view the two creations also answers the objections raised by some scholars against that temple imagery, by showing that the biblical authors were consciously writing about two patterns of temple – one corresponding to the old physical creation of Genesis 1, and one to the new spiritual creation which, contrary to our common assumption, was intended to be inaugurated through Adam and Eve in the garden.

The most far-reaching conclusion I draw from the strands of evidence enabled by the GAE paradigm is that the whole Bible is all about the new creation (though Greg Beale has come to much the same conclusion apart from GAE in his New Testament Biblical Theology). That relieves the tensions with historical sciences, but more importantly changes the whole way we approach the Bible.

7. The cover of your new book is a painting depicting the risen Christ releasing captive souls from sin and death, starting first with Adam and Eve. What is the meaning of this painting, and how does it relate to the overall message of your book?

We used a traditional painting for the cover of my first book, which is about the first, “natural” creation. Generations is really about how the new creation begins in Eden, so it seemed right to use another traditional image to show the two books as an “Old and New Testament.”

In God’s mind, the Fall was already closely linked to his eternal purposes in Christ. This idea is not really represented strongly in traditional Christian imagery, but the common mediaeval theme of the “harrowing of hell” illustrated on the cover, in which the risen Jesus comprehensively undoes the work of Satan by liberating the dead, links Jesus with Adam nicely.

The fact that the demons in the image somewhat resemble Australopithecines is purely coincidental – they do not represent the fully human people outside the garden!

What Became of the Genetic Challenge to Adam and Eve?

Does population genetics challenge a single-couple origin to humanity? In early 2017, Dr. Richard Buggs raised scientific concerns about Dennis Venema’s book, Adam and the Genome. His concerns were distinct and addition to concerns that Dr. Swamidass raised that year too. In late 2017, Dr. Venema responded at BioLogos, and a conversation grew. Together, several scientists did indeed find several fundamental mistakes with Dr. Venema’s argument against a single couple origin of humanity. Eventually, in 2020, even BioLogos began backing away from Venema’s scientific claims. In this article, Craig summarizes for a lay audience the science behind this shift. For technical readers, the forum thread for this article expounds and clarifies his summary with greater precision.

This article is a footnoted transcript of Dr. Craig’s Defenders class on May 10, 2020.

The traditional view of Adam and Eve as the fountainhead of all humanity has been vigorously challenged by some on the basis of the science of population genetics.

In order to understand this challenge, it is important to understand that according to the theory of evolution, and perhaps contrary to popular impression, evolution does not proceed along an isolated individual line. It is not as though some sequence of individual reptiles evolved, for example, into the first bird. Rather, the idea is that whole populations evolve over time. So the ongoing front of evolution is not like a pointed spear; it is rather like a broad front, as a whole population of organisms evolves together over time. In this case, a whole population of reptiles would be evolving bird-like characteristics. Similarly, in the case of human evolution, there is a whole population of hominins – man-like primates– which is gradually evolving characteristics of modern human beings. So, it is typically thought that there weren’t originally two human persons – a couple – that were the ancestors of everybody else. Rather, modern human beings evolved through a whole population of hominins moving gradually toward more recognizable modern human forms.

But why couldn’t there have been within this wider population of non-human hominins a first couple who made the transition to humanity and whose descendants became the human race? Some critics have alleged that this scenario is impossible, since it contradicts the data of population genetics. In order to understand this challenge, let’s briefly review what we learned in high school biology.

Human beings have in each nucleus of each cell of their bodies 23 pairs of chromosomes containing the DNA that determines our genes. A segment of DNA is called a locus (Latin for “place”). The sequence of DNA letters at any locus is called an allele. Since our chromosomes come in pairs, we therefore have one allele at a locus on one chromosome and another allele at a similar locus on the other chromosome. These alleles determine features like eye color, height, skin color, and so on. Now the claim is that when we look at the genetic profile of the human population today, it is impossible that it could have stemmed from an original couple alone; there had to be numerous ancestors from the very beginning in order for the human race to have arrived at its present condition.

The Problem

So what’s the problem supposed to be? Computational biologist Joshua Swamidass distinguishes at least four different problems that have been put forward in the popular literature as incompatible with an original human couple:

  1. Multiplicity of alleles: There are just too many different alleles in the present population to have all come from an original human couple within the last 18 million years, which is long before human beings ever appeared on this planet.
  2. Effective population size estimates: Various independent methods of estimating past population size all concur that the human population in the past was never fewer than around 10,000 people.
  3. Trans-species variation: In order for all the alleles which we have in common with chimpanzees to be passed on to us from a common ancestor, there needed to be more than one couple who transmitted these genetic lines from that ancestor to us. In other words, a single couple could not have passed on to us all the genetic material which we share with chimps.
  4. Divergence of alleles: To grasp this point it is vital to differentiate genetic divergence from genetic diversity. I shall take “genetic diversity” or “variation” to refer to the multiplicity of alleles in a population.[1] Genetic divergence, on the other hand, has to do with the mutational distances between alleles in a population. We can visualize divergence by representing alleles as dots plotted on a plane. The more mutations separating two alleles, the greater the distance between them on the plot. One way to measure divergence would be to measure the distances of the farthest alleles from the most central allele. Draw a circle around all the dots, and the radius of that circle provides a measure of their genetic divergence.

Notice that the multiplicity of alleles (what I’m calling genetic diversity) is irrelevant; what matters is the spread of the alleles (genetic divergence). The wider the spread, the more ancient the most recent common ancestor of those alleles. We want to compute genetic divergence across the whole human genome. We can then ask how long and how rapidly mutations must have been occurring for the distances separating alleles in the present population to arise from a pair of sole genetic progenitors. Given the known mutation rate, we can use genetic divergence to calculate the time back to the most recent common ancestor (TMRCA). The argument is that it would take millions and millions of years for the observed divergence of alleles to have arisen from a common ancestor. We cannot reach single pair of sole genetic progenitors of the human race within the time during which hominins have existed on the earth. As one writer put it, this would make Adam literally “a monkey’s uncle!”[2] Therefore, there could not have been an original human pair from whom we all descend.

On the basis of evidence such as the above biologist Dennis Venema expresses supreme confidence that humanity did not descend from a single human couple:

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.[3]

He here expresses what has been called “heliocentric certainty” against an original human pair.[4]

The Problem Analyzed

Swamidass has subjected the above arguments to searching criticism.

Dr. Craig attended the 2019 Peaceful Science workshop on The Genealogical Adam and Eve, which explored a recent Adam and Eve. He, however, prefers an “ancient” genealogical Adam and Eve.

Multiplicity of Alleles and Population Size

Swamidass dismisses arguments based upon (1) and (2), as “just wrongheaded. These arguments are total misdirections that have nothing to do with the key question. They are category errors.”[5] From the mere number or variety of alleles in the human population today, nothing at all follows about population sizes in the deep past. What matters is the divergence of alleles in the population. The argument from genetic diversity, as I have defined the term, is a red herring.

Arguments based on estimated effective population size are misleading because such estimates are averages over a window of time and so are consistent with peaks and valleys within the intervals. Venema consistently errs in taking these estimates to concern minimum population size rather than average population size.[6] In 2017, geneticist Richard Buggs pointed out that the hypothesis of a bottleneck of two people had in fact never been tested scientifically.[7]

Indeed, as Swamidass observes, we know that at some point in the past the number of human beings goes to zero and therefore to fewer than 10,000 individuals. In thinking otherwise, Venema is guilty of a crucial equivocation between “ancestors” and “humans.”[8] Even if the ancestral population of hominins leading to humans remains constantly above several thousand, it does not follow that there were not at some time exactly two humans who emerged within that population. It is entirely possible that at some time in the past, the total number of humans was exactly two, even though the total population of hominins at the time was much greater. The descendants of these early humans might or might not have interbred with their non-human contemporaries. If they did, then the founding couple would not be our sole genetic progenitors, for outsiders would have had genetic input into the human race. On the other hand, if such interbreeding never occurred, the founding couple would be the sole genetic progenitors of the human race, there being no outside input. In either case, there could have been an original founding pair.

Trans-Species Variation

What, then, of the argument from trans-species variation? While initially plausible, the argument dissolves upon examination. Since every human being has two sets of similar chromosomes (not counting the X and Y chromosomes determining sex), a founding human pair can together carry at most four alleles at any locus into the descendant population. So if it could be shown that there are more than four allele lineages exhibiting trans-species variation, then we should have strong evidence against an originating human pair. But apart from an outdated study by Francisco Ayala, there is no evidence for this. Although this issue is still under debate, Swamidass reports that other studies have failed to uncover evidence of trans-species variation between humans and non-human ancestors involving more than four allele lineages. Even if such variation should be discovered, it could indicate no more than the fact that Adam and Eve were not our sole genetic progenitors, but that there was interbreeding with outsiders, who introduced more alleles into the human population. 

Moreover, there is a plausible alternative explanation of trans-species variation among hominins, namely, convergent evolution. In convergent evolution, similar alleles evolve independently in different species. Convergent evolution seems to be common among hominin species, producing similarities, for example, bipedalism, among independent species that may be misleading in determining lines of descent. Swamidass notes that the particular gene studied by Ayala is “one of the genes with clear evidence of convergent evolution.”[9] This finding robs the argument from trans-species variation of its force.

Genetic Divergence

The decisive question, then, concerns the divergence of alleles in the human population. Swamidass points out that a founding couple could have been heterozygous, each carrying two different alleles at any locus of their chromosome pairs, for a total of four alleles between the two of them for any locus to be passed on to their descendants.[10] In that case the relevant time is not the TMRCA but the time to the most recent four alleles (TMR4A). Population genetics has been concerned only with the TMRCA, so that no studies of the TMR4A had been published prior to Swamidass’ work, requiring him to do his own original modeling in order to obtain a date. I’ll skip the fascinating details and cut to the chase. Swamidass determines a date of 495 ± 100 kya for the TMR4A.  So there could have been a founding couple about 500 kya who were the sole genetic progenitors of mankind. On the basis of this work, Richard Buggs agreed that Swamidass, for the first time, had tested the hypothesis of an original human pair.

More recently these findings have been confirmed by Ola Hössjer and Ann Gauger, who explore what they call a Single Couple Origin (SCO) model of the human race.[11] They find that the data are consistent with at least two different SCO models: (1) A model featuring a homozygous

first couple dating to about 2 mya and (2) a model featuring a heterozygous first couple who lived about 500 kya ago. Thus, they conclude, given common assumptions shared by evolutionary geneticists, a single-couple origin is possible, despite claims to the contrary.

So while a recent bottleneck is ruled out by the genetic divergence exhibited by today’s human population, a bottleneck before 500 kya is possible, in which case the founding pair would be the common ancestors of Homo sapiens, Denisovans, and Neanderthals. “The dust has yet to settle on the scientific details,” says Swamidass, “But it looks likely at this point that a bottleneck anytime before 700 kya is undetectable in genetic data.”[12] Such a date well within the range of our proposed classification of Adam as Heidelberg Man.

After extended discussion with Buggs, Swamidass, and others, Venema came to acknowledge in 2019 the failure of his arguments against a single couple origin. “Based on some new simulations and some other published studies that we drew on, our group came to an agreement – that if an event like this had happened, we would be able to detect it if it happened more recently than 500,000 years ago. That was surprising to me, to be sure – I thought beforehand that an event like that would show up even further back in time.”[13]

Venema nonetheless insists that, despite the possibility of a founding pair before 500 kya, the existence of such a couple is highly improbable. “In order for this to work, one would have to propose that in one generation all of them were obliterated, save two.”[14] This bold claim is obviously false, since a founding pair could have existed as part of a wider population with whom the founding pair’s descendants may or may not have interbred.

It is important to understand that the existence of a historical Adam and Eve need not imply their sole genetic progenitorship, especially over tens of thousands of years. Even if their descendants were for a time reproductively isolated, such isolation could result, not from population reduction, but from social distancing due to a myriad of factors, including geographic isolation, tribalism, language barriers, xenophobia, cognitive capacity differences, racism, just plain revulsion, and so on, as well as any population reduction we might imagine. Perhaps these barriers were sometimes breached, but then we do not have any idea whether there were offspring of such unions that had genetic input into the human line. Of course, once Adam and Eve’s descendants replaced Heidelberg Man, we know that there was interbreeding among the extended human family, but we can only conjecture as to what happened prior to that.

Dr. Craig holds that Adam and Eve were ancient, but The Genealogical Adam and Eve explores a recent Adam and Eve. See the discussion between Dr. Swamidass and Dr. Craig here about this difference. As Richard Buggs puts it, “Is the most important thing about them the time in which they existed, or something that made them objectively unique?

In conclusion, Adam and Eve may therefore be plausibly identified as members of Homo heidelbergensis and as the founding pair at the root of all human species. Challenges to this hypothesis from population genetics fail principally because we cannot rule out on the basis of the genetic divergence exhibited by contemporary humans that our most recent common ancestors, situated more than 500 kya, are the sole genetic progenitors of the entire human race, whether past or present.

Published here with permission, this is the transcript of a Defenders class by Dr. William Lane Craig on May 10, 2020.


[1] This how the term is used by Dennis Venema and others who press argument (1) (Dennis R. Venema and Scot McKnight, Adam and the Genome: Reading Scripture after Genetic Science [Grand Rapids, Mich.: Brazos Press, 2017], pp. 46-48).

[2] David Wilcox, “Finding Adam: The Genetics of Human Origins,” in Perspectives on an Evolving Creation, ed. Keith B. Miller (Grand Rapids, Mich.: William B. Eerdmans, 2003), p. 252.

[3] Venema and McKnight, Adam and the Genome, p. 55.

[4] Joshua Swamidass, “Heliocentric Certainty Against a Bottleneck of Two?https://discourse.peacefulscience.org/t/heliocentric-certainty-against-a-bottleneck-of-two/61/4.

[5] Personal communication, June 6, 2018.

[6] Venema and McKnight, Adam and the Genome, pp. 44, 52, 53, 60.

[7] Buggs, “Adam and Eve: a tested hypothesis?”

[8] Swamidass, “Heliocentric Certainty.”

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ola Hössjer and Ann Gauger, “A Single-Couple Human Origin is Possible,” BIO-Complexity 1 (2019):1-20. Swamidass, however, thinks that their study has some serious errors.

[12] Joshua Swamidass, “Reworking the science of Adam,” http://peacefulscience.org/reworking-Adam/.

[13] Dennis Venema, “Adam — Once More, with Feeling,” (November 24, 2019),

https://www.patheos.com/blogs/jesuscreed/2019/11/04/adam-once-more-with-feeling/. N.B. that this statement confuses necessary and sufficient conditions. Venema should say “only if it happened.” Swamidass informs me that in fact the group did not conclude that such a bottleneck would be detectable if it occurred within the last 500,000 years. To say that a bottleneck prior to 500 kya is not detectable does not imply that a bottleneck less than 500 kya is detectable.

[14] Venema, “Adam — Once More, With Feeling.”

Gavin Ortlund: Which Hills to Die On?

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Gavin Ortlund (PhD, Fuller Theological Seminary) serves as senior pastor of First Baptist Church of Ojai in Ojai, California. He is the author of several books, including Retrieving Augustine’s Doctrine of Creation and Finding the Right Hills to Die on. You can follow him on Twitter here. This article is adapted from his book, Finding the Right Hills to Die On: The Case for Theological Triage. We hope that The Genealogical Adam and Eve, whatever one’s own view of origins, helps move evolutionary science into a “third rank” doctrine too.

One of the most controversial issues in the church today, at least in my context in the United States, concerns the interpretation of the days of creation in Genesis 1. A Christian radio host once told me there were three topics the station knew would get calls when addressed, no matter what perspective was offered: racism, Donald Trump, and creation. 

Al Mohler, who has been instrumental in popularizing the notion of “theological triage,” is an outspoken proponent of a young-earth creationist view. Nonetheless, Mohler identifies the debate over the creation days as a third-rank doctrine, stating that he not only has many friends who hold to the contrary position, but he hires them as faculty. 1 Here, I offer brief remarks in agreement with Mohler’s ranking of this debate.

A Historical Perspective on Genesis 1 

Like the millennial debate, different views on Genesis 1 are less practically relevant to the organization of a local church, or its worship, evangelism, or witness to the gospel than a number of other doctrines are. Now, of course, some young-earth-creationists dispute this claim. Some even argue that interpreting the days of Genesis 1 as something other than 24-hour days undermines the gospel itself, effectively making this issue a first-rank doctrine. First, some argue that if we “compromise” on a literal reading of the first chapter of the Bible, why won’t we compromise elsewhere? Second, some claim that allowing for animal death prior to the human fall makes God the author of evil. Proponents of this view are quite outspoken, and it has become widely embraced in many American evangelical churches.

On both of these points, history can once again provide some perspective. The creation days have not always been so divisive, even since Darwin. In evangelical circles, particularly American evangelical circles since the 1960s, the bandwidth of what is acceptable has developed in a somewhat eccentric, parochial way. 

For instance, many conservative Protestant Christians in the 19th and early 20th centuries had no hesitation seeking to reconcile Genesis 1 with geological data indicating an older earth and older universe. Many prominent critics of theological liberalism, such as J. Gresham Machen, and defenders of an orthodox view of Scripture, such as B.B. Warfield, affirmed an older earth and an older universe, and had trouble reconciling this with Genesis 1. The same can be said of an enormous variety of Christian leaders from diverse places and traditions, from the Baptist preacher Charles Spurgeon, to the Scottish churchman Thomas Chalmers, to the Reformed Dutch theologian Herman Bavinck, to evangelical leaders in the United States like Carl Henry or in Britain like John Stott—and on and on we could go. 2

Take Charles Spurgeon as an example. In a sermon on the Holy Spirit, preached on June 17, 1855, four years prior to the publication of Darwin’s The Origin of Species, Spurgeon quoted Genesis 1:2 and then claimed:

We do not know how remote the period of the creation of this globe may be—certainly many millions of years before the time of Adam. Our planet has passed through various stages of existence, and different kinds of creatures have lived on its surface, all of which have been fashioned by God.3

Spurgeon proceeded to describe the Spirit’s role in bringing order out of chaos in the process of creation, quoting a John Milton poem to highlight the Spirit’s power in this role. In a sermon a few months later, he claimed, “we have discovered that thousands of years before that God was preparing chaotic matter to make it a fit abode for man, putting races of creatures upon it who might die and leave behind the marks of His handiwork and marvelous skill before He tried His hand on man.” 4 What is most striking, perhaps, is not so much Spurgeon’s affirmation of millions of years before Adam, but his apparent lack of anxiety or difficulty in accepting this notion  without much argumentation or concern, in the context of a sermon.

Is Young Earth Creationism the “Traditional” View?

Things have changed since Spurgeon’s day. Views on creation have grown more polarized as the “creation-evolution” debate has become a more publicly visible flashpoint in American culture through events such as the Scopes trial in the 1920s, and particularly since the launching of the “young-earth creationist” movement in 1961 with the publication of John Whitcomb and Henry Morris’ The Genesis Flood. 5 Prior to this, young-earth creationism was not insisted on by most Christians, or widely perceived as the “conservative” or default Christian view. The Scofield Reference Bible (enormously popular in the early 20th century) had advocated for the Gap theory, a species of old-earth creationism. William Jennings Bryan (who represented the prosecution at the Scopes trial) held to a Day Age view; this too is an old-earth creationist interpretation of Genesis 1. 6 Such views were common enough that, strikingly, the conservative evangelical publisher Moody Press could even decline to publish The Genesis Flood out of concern that “firm insistence on six literal days could offend their constituency.” 7 As Tim Keller summarizes:

Despite widespread impression to the contrary, both inside and outside the church, modern Creation Science was not the traditional response of conservative and evangelical Protestants in the nineteenth century when Darwin’s theory first became known.… R. A. Torrey, the fundamentalist editor of The Fundamentals (published from 1910-1915, which gave definition to the term ‘fundamentalist’), said that it was possible ‘to believe thoroughly in the infallibility of the Bible and still be an evolutionist of a certain type….’ The man who defined the doctrine of Biblical inerrancy, B.B. Warfield of Princeton (d. 1921) believed that God may have used something like evolution to bring about life-forms.” 8

Augustine’s “Literal” Reading of Genesis

Additionally, it is not just in the modern era that Christians have read Genesis 1 differently. Many Christians in the early church, far before any pressure from scientific discovery of the age of the universe, held that the days of Genesis 1 were not 24-hour periods of time. Saint Augustine, for example, in the fourth and fifth centuries, wrote several different commentaries on Genesis. In his final effort, a “literal” commentary on Genesis, he emphasized the difficulty of this question:

“it is indeed an arduous and extremely difficult task for us to get through to what the writer meant with these six days, however concentrated our attention and lively our minds.” 9

Augustine’s struggle with Genesis 1 stands contrary to those who claim that the interpretation of the text is a matter of obviousness or common sense. Ultimately, concerning the relation of 24-hour days as we know them to the “days” of Genesis 1, Augustine affirms that “we must be in no doubt that they are not at all like them, but very, very dissimilar.” 10 Augustine understood the depiction of God’s work of creation in seven days as an accommodation to human understanding, drawing a comparison between divine creation and a human week of work. Augustine came to this view for a variety of textual reasons, including the problem of light coming in day 1 prior to the luminaries in day 4, the problem of dischronology introduced in Genesis 2:4-6, and the presentation of God’s rest on day 7. 11

Early Christians held similarly different intuitions about animal death compared to many American evangelicals. Augustine, responding to the criticisms of God’s creation by the Manichaeans, vigorously defended the goodness of animal and plant death before the fall:

“it is ridiculous to condemn the faults of beasts and of trees, and other such mortal and mutable things as are void of intelligence, sensation, or life, even though these faults should destroy their corruptible nature; for these creatures received, at their Creator’s will, an existence fitting them.” 12

Both Ambrose and Basil, in their famous treatment of the creation days, emphasized God’s wisdom in creating carnivorous animals. Basil, for instance, warned against rash judgments about how God created the animal kingdom: “let nobody accuse the Creator of having produced venomous animals, destroyers and enemies of our life. Else let them consider it a crime in the schoolmaster when he disciplines the restlessness of youth by the use of the rod and whip to maintain order.” 13 In the medieval period, Thomas Aquinas maintained that “the nature of animals was not changed by man’s sin, as if those whose nature now it is to devour the flesh of others, would then have lived on herbs, like the lion and falcon.” 14

Context for Modern Readers

This historical backdrop provides some context for our current debates about creation. It also helps us to appreciate that many of those who affirm a “historical” reading of Genesis 1 do not interpret the days as 24-hour periods of time. The issue is how Genesis 1 is narrating history. Virtually all commentators recognize differences of language and style between Genesis 1:1-2:3 and the rest of Genesis—as well as between the more compressed, pictorial narrative of Genesis 1-11 and the subsequent narrative of Genesis 12-50. 15 The Bible uses diverse literary genres to convey historical events, and many historical passages employ stylized, symbolic, or elevated language.

David’s poetic descriptions of salvation in Psalm 18, the night visions of Zechariah 1-6, Deborah and Barak’s song in Judges 5, and John’s apocalyptic visions in Revelation are all concerned with events that happen in history. But it would be hermeneutically careless to read these passages in the same way we read, say, the Gospels, which are widely considered in the genre of ancient biography. We should work hard to identify and understand the literary character of each particular passage in which the Bible narrates historical events, including Genesis 1. 16

Much more needs to be said about the creation debate, but hopefully what is said here will at least encourage more humility and openness in the process. Think of it like this: if you make only 24-hour day interpretations of Genesis 1 acceptable within your church or theological circle, then the following Christians become unacceptable to you: Augustine, Charles Spurgeon, B.B. Warfield, and Carl Henry. Does this seem right? This is exactly the kind of situation in which theological triage would urge caution.

We can happily co-exist within the church amid differences on this issue. Our unity in the gospel is not at stake. Instead, we should put more focus on the aspects of the doctrine of creation that Christians have classically emphasized, and that are distinctive to a broadly Judeo-Christian worldview, such as the doctrine that the world was made from nothing, or the historicity of the fall, or the claim that human beings are made in God’s image. These are better hills to die on. 

Featured image credit: https://pixabay.com/photos/nature-landscape-mountains-sky-3616194/

  1.  This comment was made during a discussion with C. John Collins on the question, “Does Scripture Speak Definitively to the Age of the Universe?”, held at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in February 2017. See http://henrycenter.tiu.edu/resource/genesis-the-age-of-the-earth-does-scripture-speak-definitively-on-the-age-of-the-universe, accessed April 15, 2019.
  2. For further reading, see Ronald L. Numbers, The Creationists: From Scientific Creationism to Intelligent Design (1992; expanded edition, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2006), and Darwin, Creation, and the Fall: Theological Challenges, eds. R.J. Berry and T.A. Noble (Nottingham, U.K.: Apollos, 2009).
  3. Charles Spurgeon, Sermon 30, “The Power of the Holy Ghost,” in The Complete Works of C. H. Spurgeon, vol. 1, 88.
  4. Charles Spurgeon, Sermon 41-42, “Unconditional Election,” in The Complete Works of C. H. Spurgeon, vol. 1, 122.
  5. John C. Whitcomb and Henry M. Morris, The Genesis Flood: The Biblical Record and its Scientific Implications (Philadelphia: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1961).
  6. The Gap Theory, popularized by Thomas Chalmers in the 19th century, affirms a gap between Genesis 1:1 and 1:2, while the Day Age view sees the “days” as long epochs of time.
  7. Matthew Barrett and Ardel B. Caneday, “Introduction,” in Four Views on the Historical Adam, (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2013), 19
  8. Tim Keller, The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism (New York: Dutton, 2008), 262.
  9. Augustine, The Literal Meaning of Genesis 4.1.1, trans. Edmund Hill (Hyde Park, NY: New City, 2002), 241.
  10. Augustine, The Literal Meaning of Genesis 4.27.44, 267. 
  11. I unpack Augustine’s views further in my Retrieving Augustine’s Doctrine of Creation: Ancient Wisdom for Current Controversy (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2020).
  12. Augustine, The City of God 12.4, trans. Marcus Dods (New York: Modern Library, 2000), 383.
  13. Basil, Hexaemeron 9.5, in Basil, Letters and Selected Works, eds. Philip Schaff and Henry Wace, trans. Blomfield Jackson (Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers 8; Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1994 (1895), 105.
  14. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica I, Q. 96, Art. 1, trans. Fathers of the English Dominican Province (Notre Dame, IN: Christian Classics, 1948), 486.
  15. For an eloquent expression of this point, see J. I. Packer, “Hermeneutics and Genesis 1-11,” Southwestern Journal of Theology 44.1 (2001).
  16. As a good resource, see V. Philips Long, The Art of Biblical History (Foundations of Contemporary Interpretation, vol. 5; Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1994).