(How) would you Adam and Eve it?

To my mind, by far the strongest theological argument against human evolution is the question of where this leaves Adam and Eve. Tim Keller turns to this in the reply to his third question in his essay Creation, Evolution and Christian Laypeople (PDF) (see previous posts 1 | 2):

Question #3: If biological evolution is true and there was no historical Adam and Eve how can we know where sin and suffering came from?

Answer: Belief in evolution can be compatible with a belief in an historical fall and a literal Adam and Eve. There are many unanswered questions around this issue and so Christians who believe God used evolution must be open to one another’s views.

Dr Keller observes that many Christians who accept evolution conclude that Adam and Eve were not historical but “an allegory or symbol of the human race”, with Genesis 2 being a “symbolic story myth which conveys the truth that human beings all have and do turn away from God and are sinners.”

Dr Keller accepts that individual Christians (including C.S. Lewis) may well be able to believe this, but that a loss of belief in a historical fall could be harmful “for the church corporately and for its growth and vitality over time”, for two main reasons.

First, because it harms confidence in the trustworthiness of Scripture: even if Genesis 2 could be read symbolically, Paul’s argument in Romans 5 clearly depends on there being an historic Adam to parallel the historic Christ.

Second, the New Testament’s account of sin and salvation is based on the historicity of Adam and his rebellion. If we don’t have that point of rebellion against God, what is the alternative? As Keller writes:

You may posit that some human beings began to slowly turn away from God, all exercising their free wills. But then how did sin spread? Was it only by bad example? That has never been the classic teaching of the Christian doctrine of original sin. We do not learn sin from others; we inherit a sin nature … we are “hard-wired” for sin.

So how can a historic Adam and Eve be reconciled with a belief that God used evolutionary processes (“EPB”, to use the terminology of the previous post) to create human beings?

Any answer we give here will necessarily be speculative: neither Scripture nor science gives us much to go on. The model Dr Keller gives most attention to is that set out in Derek Kidner’s commentary on Genesis:

First, he notes that in Job 10:8-9 God is said to have fashioned Job with his “hands”, like a potter shaping clay out of the dust of the ground, even though God obviously did this through the natural process of formation in the womb. Kidner asks why the same potter-terminology in Genesis 2:7 could not denote a natural process like evolution.

Keller then quotes Kidner as follows:

Man in Scripture is much more than homo faber, the maker of tools: he is constituted man by God’s image and breath, nothing less … The intelligent beings of a remote past, whose bodily and cultural remains give them the clear status of “modern man” to the anthropologist, may yet have been decisively below the plane of life which was established in the creation of Adam.

Thus Adam and Eve (whether or not we agree with Kidner that Eve may still have been made by special creation) were not necessarily the biological parents of the entire human race, they were established as “God’s vice-regents”, and:

…God may have now conferred his image on Adam’s collaterals, to bring them into the same realm of being. Adam’s “federal” headship of humanity extended, if that was the case, outwards to his contemporaries as well as onwards to his offspring, and his disobedience disinherited both alike.

But what about suffering and death? Doesn’t the Bible portray these as consequences of the fall? Dr Keller observes that “traditional theology has never believed that humanity and the world in Genesis 2-3 was in a glorified, perfect state”. Even in the Garden of Eden, “there would have had to be some kind of death and decay or fruit would not have been edible”, and God’s injunction to humanity to “subdue” the earth implies there was still work to be done to perfect even a “very good” creation. Keller continues:

The result of the Fall, however, was “spiritual death”, something that no being in the world had known, because no one had ever been in the image of God. Human beings became, at the same time, capable of far greater and far worse things than any other creatures.

Other models can be considered along similar lines, but the crucial theological point is (to quote Derek Kidner):

What is quite clear from these chapters in the light of other scriptures is their doctrine that mankind is a unity, created in God’s image, and fallen in Adam by one act of disobedience; and these things are as strongly asserted in this understanding of God’s Word as on any other.

In the conclusion to his essay, Dr Keller once again calls for Christians to form a “bigger tent” than either “the anti-scientific religionists or the anti-religious scientists”. He finishes:

When Derek Kidner concluded his account of human origins, he said that his view was an “exploratory suggestion … only tentative, and it is a personal view. It invites correction and a better synthesis.” That is the right attitude for all of us working in this area.

Amen to that.

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24 Responses to (How) would you Adam and Eve it?

  1. Thomas says:

    I find it pleasing to think that the effects of Adam’s rebellion rippled back through time, ‘resetting’ the cosmos if you will, making it rather acosmic. It’s a bit of speculation, but to my mind it makes sense of the data at hand. Of course, I have friends who think this a tad ‘scifi’, but…

  2. John H says:

    Thomas: my mind runs the same way at times. I think science fiction is theologically useful in expanding people’s minds and enabling us to look at things from a different perspective.

    Indeed, if I really wanted to engage in bonkers speculation it would go as follows: God created the world in seven 24-hour days, something around 6,000 years ago. However, Adam’s sin caused a ripple effect in spacetime, causing (as you put it) the whole cosmos to be “reset”, and establishing a new time-line (Star-Trek-franchise-reboot-style) in which the universe has existed for billions of years of death, decay and destruction…

  3. Xan says:

    And here I thought I was the only one picturing exactly that! 🙂 Such a “reboot” would certainly fit with creation “groaning”, I would think.

    On a more serious note, John, this series has been fantastic. Dr Keller’s EBP / GTE distinction is one that desperately needed to be made. I’ve found that whenever I make a statement supporting EBP, suddenly I’m challenged to defend GTE, which was never my intention or point of view. Dr Keller’s paper will certainly help me articulate that difference, and hopefully will lead to the common ground he advocates.

  4. Rick Ritchie says:

    I was once in a conversation with a Reformed theologian, who shall remain nameless, and he complained that Christians were watching too much Star Trek. I was more of the impression that they were watching too little. Their sense that they had exhausted all possible scenarios always came too soon.

    I do have some questions about Adam’s federal headship extending outward to his contemporaries, though it may be a fruitful speculation. On the one hand, it solves a few problems (that were never problems to me) that some bring up about “Where did Cain’s wife come from?” (Now it looks like, in the language of the Clan of the Cave Bear, he might even have married “one of the flatheads.”) On the other, it seems that under older ways of framing Original Sin, you either had to do an act of sin or inherit the condition to be guilty. Here, you can become guilty without either. That may be possible, but it sounds like a barrier I would not want to cross without good reason.

  5. Tom R says:

    How do those sects that accept Genesis as Scripture, but don’t read it as teaching original sin – ie, Jews, and Eastern Orthodox – view the “But what about Adam and Eve?” question?

  6. Phil Walker says:

    Rick: Hey, *I* watch Star Trek! Although in fairness, I prefer Battlestar Galactica. It’s more realistic about the weaknesses, foibles and sins in humanity: perhaps a difference between atheists and Mormons?

    Blocher has me on Eve: as he points out, she is called ‘the mother of all living’ (Gen 3:20, my emph.). If we’re to take that description seriously, she has to be the mother of Cain’s wife and everyone in the next generation. In other words, I think Genesis really does tell us that Adam and Eve were the first couple. Goodness knows I’d find it more convenient for them not to be, but I can’t see how Gen. 3:20 says otherwise.

  7. Rick Ritchie says:

    You’re probably right, Phil. Well, comment threads are good places for momentary speculations to get shot down. Well, that’s one theory of the origin of ADHD that people cannot use now. There are those who claim that they are Neanderthal descendants and that ADHD is a “trait” that they have inherited. I suppose that speculation COULD be saved with “mother of all” having a reference to Genesis 2:7, which might not include all those already alive, but living souls (humans) and their offspring, and the offspring of living souls with other humanoids, though not those humanoids. Doubtful speculation, to be sure. But one of those possibilities that it is good to have in mind as people get into this stuff.

  8. I looked for an important distinction in Pastor Keller’s essay and was unable to find it. This is the difference between Scripture using an element of the Israelite proto-science worldview and God teaching this element as binding on subsequent believers.

    I believe that the human author of Genesis 1-3 believed that the world was flat, that the sky was a solid crystal, that the sun traveled around the world and was perhaps extinguished in the seas at night, and that Adam and Eve were his actual physical genetic ancestors. The question in my mind is whether God wishes for me to believe each and every element of his man’s worldview, in short, is God teaching these elements or using them?

    I do not see any knowledge of the physical world in Genesis 1-3 that was not present in the cultures surrounding Israel at the time these words were written, simply put, God did not see fit to put any easter eggs(in the sense of hidden treasures in software) in Scripture, there is no modern knowledge of what the universe is and how it operates in Genesis. Now what can we do with this? Are we to believe as the author of Genesis 1-3 did that Adam/Eve were his actual genetic ancestors or are we to believe the author-Creator of the world, the writer of the book of Nature, that such a couple could not have the necessary genetic variation to give birth to the human race without deadly founder’s effects?

  9. J. Random Hermeneut says:

    Genesis 1-3 is also about the Tabernacle, liturgy and priestly ministrations. Or perhaps one could say they are about Genesis 1-3. All of which is a type of the one who tabernacled among us.

  10. Jesse says:

    John: Reading over this series, I have to say that your earlier series about creation, evolution, and vocation was far more compelling. I’m not sure why but your approach to the issue then seems much better than Keller’s. Even without having thought through the sensation, I’m willing to say his approach would be a step backwards from your earlier series.

  11. Rick Ritchie says:

    “I believe that the human author of Genesis 1-3 believed that the world was flat…and that Adam and Eve were his actual physical genetic ancestors.”

    I find this difficult to fathom. Unlike other people alive at the time the author of Genesis knew of genetics, but didn’t know the earth was round? More likely you mean something lesser by “genetics” than the word would suggest. But what?

  12. John H says:

    Rick: did people believe the world was round at the time Genesis was written? My understanding (corroborated by Wiki, FWIW) was that the concept of a spherical earth came from Greek science of a later date (6th century BC onwards).

    In any event, the point is not what the level of scientific knowledge enjoyed by the author of Genesis was, but to ask whether we are required to adopt it. Even if the author believed the world was round, it’s pretty safe to say he did not believe the universe was billions of light-years in size – a scientific discovery that (coupled with the discovery of the speed of light itself) raises far more questions of compatibility with Genesis 1 than the shape of the earth.

  13. John H says:

    Jesse: thanks for your comment. I don’t see Dr Keller’s approach as a step back from what I’ve said previously – on the contrary, as I said in a previous post, I still want to insist on the need for “other stories” rather than looking for gaps in the “scientific story”.

    But even if one thinks about the issues in terms of “other stories”, the “vocational universe” and so on (which is where the heart of things lies for me), people will still quite reasonably ask the basic questions outlined by Dr Keller: “That’s all very well, but what about…?”

    Dr Keller’s points may not be all that can, or needs to, be said – we’re back to “other stories” again 😉 – but I am in basic agreement with him on them.

  14. Phil Walker says:

    To reinforce John’s point from another direction, the author of Genesis needn’t have known about genetics to believe, and to have desired us to believe, that every single human that ever lived (but for the first couple, naturally) is physically descended from Adam and Eve. You don’t need to read much Scripture to know that they certainly had the categories for that concept, even though they didn’t have the scientific understanding to go with it. Questions of what scientific knowledge the author of Genesis had are red herrings: what matters is what he wants to communicate to us. If I might put it this way, ‘the text, the whole text and [apart from textual and contextual resources] nothing but the text’ is what we need to be dealing with in Genesis 1-3.

  15. John H says:


    ‘the text, the whole text and [apart from textual and contextual resources] nothing but the text’ is what we need to be dealing with in Genesis 1-3.

    I agree with you re the scientific knowledge of the author being a “red herring”. In principle I agree with your statement above. I think. But in practice it’s impossible to treat the text in such a pure, unsullied, “decontextualised” way (and indeed, the claim that we are doing so is ultimately a power-play to impose our point of view, to get all postmodern about it…). In addition, truth is ultimately unitary, so we can’t escape the tension between what the text tells us and what we perceive by different means.

    Actually, the more I think about it, the more I completely disagree with that statement. But I don’t have time to go into that, other than to post this exchange I had with @jrhermeneut on Twitter yesterday:

    JRH: For a deliberately ambiguous text or one which straddles the exoteric/esoteric boundary a dogmatic presumption of perspicuity is bollocks. But since the text in question /is/ ultimately esoteric those making the dogmatic assumption are incapable of seeing their judgmental error. That is, until they are made privy to the mystery. But a dogmatic clinging to perspicuity preempts any progress towards a fuller reading.

    Me: is the problem a simplistic understanding of “perspicuity” as “any idiot can understand it from a standing start”?

    JRH: Yes. I’d say so. Also #fail is an attempt to interpret a text from outside the context of the “insiders” for whom its written. Revelation is textbook example. One must absolutely master OT and 1st c. Judeo-Christian context and read like an insider. … But ultimately we’re all “outsiders” in a sense. That’s why there is exegesis; and revelation as a /phenomenon/.

    The words I’ve highlighted are critical. The danger with saying “The text, the whole text and nothing but the text” is that it can encourage a “naive” reading that fails to “interpret the text from outside the context of the ‘insiders’ for whom it’s written”.

  16. John H says:

    You really should join Twitter, btw…

  17. re:
    “Questions of what scientific knowledge the author of Genesis had are red herrings: what matters is what he wants to communicate to us.”

    the first level of the communication of the Scriptures is from the author to it’s first hearers, who shared this early Israelite cultural context. The problem is that in order for communication to occur, pieces of this matrix are being used along with the words. To a subsequent reader, such as us, on a second level, not sharing these cultural matrix elements, it becomes difficult to understand which elements are being used simply to communicate and which elements are being taught by God as corrective to our erroneous cultural analogs.

    That is that problem here. The author believes Adam and Eve to be his direct ancestor, he also believes that all the earth is watered from 4 rivers flowing out of Eden, this is deeply embedded in the idea of a flat earth with those rivers flowing to the 4 corners. Now i know from looking at google maps that the earth is not flat and that it is physically impossible to water it with four rivers flowing from a single spot. Now the issue is how Scripture is to correct my worldview, am i to believe that Gen 2 requires me to believe as did it’s author that the world is flat? In order to be faithful to Scripture, to demonstrate my love for God and His Word, must i correct my idea of the shape of the earth?

    Ditto with Adam and Eve as actual physical human beings who are the sole founders of the human race. If God is teaching this as binding on all subsequent readers of Scripture as an actual description of reality then i ought to, but if God is using this element of the human author’s worldview in order to communicate at all, then it is not designed, nor must i take it to be, a corrective to my current worldview corresponding elements.

    it is the difference between being used in order to communication and being taught as binding truth for all time.

  18. Rick Ritchie says:

    John H, I was quoting richard williams, I think. And the point is not that I think the author of Genesis believed the world was round, but that the word “genetics” seems out of place in a description of beliefs held by the writer of Genesis. I think it important not to use expressions like this in such a context. It reminds me of a Theological dictionary which wrongly defined consubstantiation as the Lutheran view (first error) that the molecules of the body and blood of Christ are present with the molecules of the bread and wine (second error). I looked in a Concordance to the Book of Concord, and could not find the word “molecule” anywhere. Somebody might wish to harmonize consubstantiation with molecular theory, but the doctrine is not ABOUT molecular theory.

  19. Rick Ritchie says:

    I’m not faulting richard williams’ overall question, however. It’s a good one. And seeing his blog and his more recent comment, I have a better sense that I have affinity with his statement of the problem. I would have just left a particular word out of the question, as it comes from “our matrix.”

  20. Phil Walker says:

    The danger with saying “The text, the whole text and nothing but the text” is that it can encourage a “naive” reading that fails to “interpret the text from outside the context of the ‘insiders’ for whom it’s written”.

    Uh-huh. Didn’t you just take JRH’s words and invert the meaning? Perhaps he can clarify, but I thought he was saying that to interpret a text from outside the perspective of its recipients is to fail. You’re saying that we fail if we don’t interpret it from outside their perspective. I’m saying that of course we’re outside, but we need contextual resources to help us get a grip on what it’s like to be inside. (In other words, I’m dead set against the idea of ‘perspicuity’ as ‘any idiot can understand it from a standing start’.) Nevertheless, there has to be a privileged perspective in understanding texts, and literary humility if nothing else demands that we place the author’s above our own. Otherwise all texts, from being fixed by ‘then’, dissolve into the liquid ‘now’.

    Still, if that’s right, then hey, look everyone! John’s agreeing with me! 😀

    You really should join Twitter, btw…

    You realise how much of a time-sink blogging is, right? I’d never get my thesis finished if I sat despatching my thoughts in easily-digestible 140-character chunks!

  21. J. Random Hermeneut says:

    To clarify:

    Yes, the posture of the exegete is to approach the text from the a priori assumption that one is, ab initio, necessarily an outsider – culturally, linguistically, theologically and so on. Exegesis, as far as I understand it, strives to establish a contextuality for reading — re-learning of how to read the text from the perspective of the “insider.” The attempt to achieve this new vantage point, the reading of an “insider”, brings about, as a Thistleton-type would put it, the “fusion of the horizons” of perspective from which interpretation proceeds. We strive to interpret from this vantage point. That is the hermeneutical task.

    Also, as to the matter of the original post, these first two installments of how Peter Enns “Adam and Eve’s it” might be of interest to some, if they like that sort of stuff (I wish he’d just get to the point already, quit deferring what he’s setting up to say):



    For those with an understanding of Hebrew and library access I commend the following as starting-points for exegetical dialogue and wrestling with the text and the identity of ha-adam, “the human being,” (a “man” i.e. “ish”, whose name, the ironic strikingness of which in the Hebrew is part-and-parcel of the manner in which the hearer is to receive and interpret the story, is basically “the human”) and the relationship of this “ish” (man) to his “isha” (woman) who receives the first “proper” name in the Bible, within the context of a story which includes an account of how all the creatures received their names, as Eve, said to denote her status as “mother of all living”.

    Grant, Alison, ‘Adam and ‘Ish : man in the OT. Australian Biblical Review 25 O 1977, p 2-11.

    Grant’s linguistic study is good prolegomena for the “Adam” as humanity vs. “Adam” as actual person in narrative, which has also been debated by two academic heavyweights:
    James, Barr, “One man, or all humanity? a question in the anthropology of Genesis 1,” in Recycling biblical figures (1999) p 3-21.
    Clines responds in :”The Hebrew for “human, humanity” ” in Vetus testamentum 53:3 (2003), p. 297-310.

  22. Rick Ritchie says:

    J. Random Hermeneut, interesting links. It looks like a conversation that has only begun. But possibly quite promising. (And possibly not, though I’m hopeful.)

    One thing I would want to suggest. Some of the material you cited at the bottom goes into broader linguistic questions which are, as you said, best suited for those with Hebrew background. But looking at some of that material, I also know of a pitfall readers will fall into. Certain possibilities and constraints on meaning arise from the passage itself. Readers of technical linguistic material can forget that.

    In my early years as a reader, great emphasis was placed on learning the meanings of words from the surrounding context. It was drilled in. Deep. Year after year. I fear many never learned to do this, or to trust it. Where the technical material is especially good is for alerting the reader to possibilities that have not been considered because they come from a foreign frame of reference. But they still need to be plugged into the passage. And before we even do that, we do see some interesting features. The first is that the passage itself seems to offer some etymology. ‘Isha’ is taken from ‘ish” which, with the story of the rib, creates a mental image of a pretty literal forming of the one from the other. This needs to be remembered when there is mention of “ish” being a person in relationship to a larger group. When I read Genesis, I think, “What larger group? There are no other people yet!” And if Adam comes from a group, does Eve?” My question doesn’t directly refute anything, or even necessarily say that this relational quality is false or has no bearing. But it does put me on guard. A kind of guard that can be argued past if someone notes the same features. But a guard that I think some readers might miss. (I have a friend who will automatically latch onto any reading in any context that is not individualistic. Incidentally, his name is Adam. Hmmm.) Even the English carries some of the dynamics we find in the Hebrew. “Man” and “woman” are similar to “Ish” and “Isha” in that the first word is found in the second. I am for using the linguistic study of the sort mentioned above. I do worry that many students who do so start treating words as mere puzzle pieces in a way that the original hearers would never have done.

  23. Eric Rutgrink says:

    Just finished an interesting book: The Selfless Gene by Charles Foster. He delves a bit deeper into the ‘death and decay in the garden’ issue. His views are built around the creation story of Genesis being almost ‘prophetic’ in nature – in so much as it presented God’s intentions rather than reality for humanity – with the fall and redemption necessary for it to become real. hmmm, interesting to chew over.
    Foster points out that Isaiah would have known carnivores existed in reality, yet spoke about the lion and the lamb coexisting in peace prophetically and in a similar way, Moses may have been inspired to write similarly.
    Foster presented some views I’d not previously heard much about – would be interested on your view or if you have read any of Foster’s works?

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