Mere Science and Christian Faith: Bridging the Divide with Emerging Adults, by Greg Cootsona: Chapter 5- Adam, Eve, and History
We are reviewing the book, Mere Science and Christian Faith, by Greg Cootsona, subtitled Bridging the Divide with Emerging Adults. Today we look at Chapter 5- Adam, Eve, and History. Cootsona starts the chapter citing a Pew poll from 2012 that found 64% of white evangelicals and 50% of black evangelicals do not believe humans evolved. The historicity of Adam and Eve remains one of the most contentious points between mainstream science and evangelical Christians. The same poll found 78% of mainline Protestants are in support of human evolution.
Cootsona outlines the 3 basic positions on human evolution that Christians could take. One being the basic YEC position that Adam and Eve were the first humans on earth, specially created, and all humans descended from them. The Garden story and the Fall are to be taken literally as recounted; any literary position is contradicted by the apostle Paul in Romans 5 and 1 Corinthians 15. Position 3 is the position outlined by C.S. Lewis; a literal Adam and Eve never existed; instead they are paradigmatic of the human condition. Lewis in The Problem of Pain wrote, “For long centuries, God perfected the animal form which was to become the vehicle of humanity and the image of himself.” In this view we are not descended from a single pair of humans, but from gradual evolutionary development and share a common descent with the great apes. This is the position that accords with mainstream science (and YECs would argue simply capitulates to modern science). The second position holds that Adam and Eve are, in some ways historical figures, but generally sets out a time period for common descent with other primates and then designates a point when God decided to set Adam and Eve apart as the first and original image-bearing Homo sapiens. This is the view of John Walton, S. Joshua Swamidass, C. John Collins, and Tim Keller.
The real problem is the interpretation of Paul in Romans 5:12-21 and 1Corinthians 15:21-22, 45-49. The Genesis text itself displays evidence it is not to be read in some modernistic, CNN-news report, type of historical narrative. A talking snake who loses its legs, magic fruit that make you wise when you bite it, another magical fruit that makes you live forever. Angels with flaming swords—so where is Eden, the Bible doesn’t say Noah’s flood destroyed it, we should at least be able to walk up to the flaming-sword-wielding guards. A man named “The Man”, a women named “Mother of All Living”, another man named “Spear” who kills his brother named “Fleeting Breath”. Then he worries about other people killing him—what other people? And he takes a wife- who would that be? Don’t say his sisters, Genesis 4 is pretty clear that after Cain killed Abel there were no sisters born yet. If these features don’t make you at least wonder what kind of literature this is—then nothing will.
Paul, on the other hand seems quite succinct in 1Corinthians 15:21-22:
For since death came through a man, the resurrection of the dead comes also through a man. For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive.
It seems obvious that Paul thought Adam was a historical person. Scot McKnight in the book Adam and the Genome, which I reviewed here, probably gave the best attempt at re-interpreting Paul that I’ve ever read. Cootsona tries his best to flesh out nuances in these positions with respect to emerging adults. Position 1 simply does not accord with mainstream science, and the risk of holding to that position is to present to the emerging generations the “all or nothing” approach; if you “give in” to evolution you can’t be a Christian. It’s become apparent that many emerging adults, when presented with this stark dichotomy, are choosing not to identify as Christians. Cootsona’s solution is to “keep our eyes on Jesus” as the historical figure, because He is our center, the author and finisher of our faith. He notes that Adam does not make extensive appearances in the Bible nor the creeds.
Cootsona notes bestselling author and theologian Greg Boyd read Lewis’ views as an undergraduate while he was struggling with YEC, which he believed to be the Christian consensus. He though YEC made little sense scientifically, and Lewis’ insights into Adam and the fall helped him keep the Christian faith viable. Ultimately, Boyd was inclined to believe in a historical Adam, vis-a-vis position 2, but the experience of reading Lewis and the purely typological view led him to this conclusion:
I, as a pastor of an evangelical and Anabaptist church, think it vitally important that we not put forth the historicity of Adam as a matter that is essential to Christian faith. Regarding those who can’t see a harmony between the statements “I believe in Christ” and “I don’t believe Adam was historical” he says, “I implore them to refrain from becoming dogmatic on this point and simply to trust the genuineness of those who disagree. The fact is, dogmatism on this point would have tragically barred C.S. Lewis, myself, and a multitude of others from the life-giving kingdom. This debate, he concludes, should be construed as a debate among orthodox Christians, not as a debate that determines whether or not one is an orthodox Christian.
Cootsona begs people to remember that emerging adults are sick of the conflict between Christians and scientists. For the demographic that is the focus of this book, positions 2 and 3 both take mainstream science and mere Christianity seriously. Let’s agree to disagree without excommunicating each other.
Here is how I try to phrase the issue to evangelical Christians in my circles. Science hasn’t proven human evolution is true, and it never will. But that is because science doesn’t ever prove anything that is inferred about past historicity, it simply gives provisional preference to the current most probable explanation. In other words, we have, so far, failed to reject the hypothesis (no. 1) that humans share a common ancestral population with apes. The hypothesis (no. 2) that humans appeared instantaneously at one point in the recent past and have no shared genealogy or genomic history with the great apes has failed.
Evidential example number 1- the fossil record. If hypothesis #2 is correct, there should be no evidence of creatures in the fossil record that exhibit phenotypic characteristics shared between apes and humans. In fact, we see an incomplete but noticeable continuum with older fossils more apelike than human and newer fossils more human-like than ape. “Probable hominins” like Ardipithecus ramidus, a species that lived in Africa about 4 million years ago (mya) had skeletal characteristics intermediate between upright walking and the climbing of trees, and a small cranial capacity of 300-350 cubic centimeters (cc) (modern humans are about 1,300-1,400 cubic centimeters). Australopithecus afarensis (aka Lucy) about 3-4 million years ago shows further shifts toward walking and a cranial capacity of 400-550 cc. Later still we see pre-modern Homo erectus (“Upright Man”) dating to about 1.8 mya with full bi-pedalism and a cranial capacity of 700 cc. We have failed to reject the hypothesis (no. 1) that humans share a common ancestral population with apes.
Hypothesis number 2 fails to account for the physical reality of the fossil record.
Evidential example number 2- Endogenous Retroviruses. Endogenous Retroviruses (ERVs) are lingering remnants of failed viral infection, which occurred in an ancestor’s sex cell and got propagated in its offspring. The viral insertion site is completely random and finding one in the same location in two individuals indicates they each had that same ancestor. There are at least sixteen different known instances of common retrogene insertions between chimps and humans. The Odds of 16 in the exact same place are not possible except as explained by hereditary mechanisms. Hypothesis number 2 fails to account for the physical reality of Endogenous Retroviruses, however, we have failed to reject the hypothesis (no. 1) that humans share a common ancestral population with apes.
Evidential example number 3- Ubiquitous genes. The gist of the argument:
- Ubiquitous genes: There are certain genes that all living organisms have because they perform very basic life functions; these genes are called ubiquitous (universal) genes.
- Ubiquitous genes are uncorrelated with species-specific phenotypes: Ubiquitous genes have no relationship with the specific functions of different species. For example, it doesn’t matter whether you are a bacterium, a human, a frog, a whale, a hummingbird, a slug, a fungus, or a sea anemone – you have these ubiquitous genes, and they all perform the same basic biological function no matter what you are.
- Molecular sequences of ubiquitous genes are functionally redundant: Any given ubiquitous protein has an extremely large number of different functionally equivalent forms (i.e. protein sequences which can perform the same biochemical function).
- Specific ubiquitous genes are unnecessary in any given species: Obviously, there is no a priori reason why every organism should have the same sequence or even similar sequences. No specific sequence is functionally necessary in any organism – all that is necessary is one of the large number of functionally equivalent forms of a given ubiquitous gene or protein.
- Heredity correlates sequences, even in the absence of functional necessity: There is one, and only one, observed mechanism which causes two different organisms to have ubiquitous proteins with similar sequences (aside from the extreme improbability of pure chance, of course). That mechanism is heredity.
CONCLUSION: Thus, similar ubiquitous genes indicate genealogical relationship: It follows that organisms which have similar sequences for ubiquitous proteins are genealogically related. Roughly, the more similar the sequences, the closer the genealogical relationship. An example:
Cytochrome c is an essential and ubiquitous protein found in all organisms, including bacteria. It is a necessary part of a universal common metabolic process all cells with mitochondria need to synthesize energy used by the cell. The oxygen we breathe is used to generate energy in this process.
Cytochrome c is absolutely essential for life – organisms that lack it cannot live. It has been shown that the human cytochrome c protein works in yeast (a unicellular organism) that has had its own native cytochrome c gene deleted, and human cytochrome c inserted, even though yeast cytochrome c differs from human cytochrome c over 40% of the protein. Using a ubiquitous gene such as cytochrome c, there is no reason to assume that two different organisms should have the same protein sequence or even similar protein sequences, unless the two organisms are genealogically related.
From the theory of common descent and the standard phylogenetic tree we surmise that humans and chimpanzees are quite closely related. It is therefore predicted, in spite of the odds, that human and chimpanzee cytochrome c sequences should be much more similar than, say, human and yeast cytochrome c — simply due to inheritance. This has been confirmed: Humans and chimpanzees have the exact same cytochrome c protein sequence. In the absence of common descent, the chance of this occurrence is conservatively less than 10-93 (1 out of 1093). The number 1093 is about one billion times larger than the number of atoms in the visible universe. Furthermore, human and chimpanzee cytochrome c proteins differ by about 10 amino acids from all other mammals. The chance of this occurring in the absence of a hereditary mechanism is less than 10-29. Once again, we have failed to reject the hypothesis (no. 1) that humans share a common ancestral population with apes.
So why the big science lecture? The point I’m trying to make is that the explanation of common descent is the provisionally accepted most probable explanation we currently have. Could God have instantly created humans with the same ubiquitous genes in the same sequence as the great apes? Could God have permitted viral infections that took the exact same positions in apes that they took in humans? The answer is that, sure, he could have, God can do anything. But why? Why did he create creatures, now long extinct, that LOOK like they are transitionally developed between apes and humans? Why did he create gene sequences that LOOK exactly like they were inherited? My grandson had a paternity test conducted, as ordered by the court, when my great-grandson was born. The probability that my grandson is the father is 99.99%. The idea he isn’t the father is not seriously considered by anyone, not even by the most rabid creationist. The probability that we inherited the same cytochrome c sequence from the great apes is: 99.999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999%. There is no serious consideration that we aren’t related.
So why did Paul write what he wrote in Romans 5 and 1Corinthians 15? Well, I don’t know. Cootsona quotes Tim Keller:
[Paul] most definitely want to teach us that Adam and Eve were real historical figures, When you refuse to take a biblical author literally when he clearly wants you to do so, you have moved away from the traditional understanding of biblical authority… If Adam doesn’t exist, Paul’s whole argument—that both sin and grace work “covenantally”—falls apart. You can’t say that “Paul was a man of his time” but we can accept his basic teaching about Adam. If you don’t believe what he believes about Adam, you are denying the core of Paul’s teaching.
Keller, who is not YEC, makes a very good point, and probably speaks for most conservative evangelicals. Now consider this quote from Scot McKnight from his book with Dennis Venema, Adam and the Genome:
“If we are to read the Bible in context, to let the Bible be prima scriptura, and to do so with our eyes on students of science, we will need to give far more attention than we have in the past to the various sorts of Adams and Eves the Jewish world knew. One sort that Paul didn’t know because it had not yet been created was what is known today as the historical Adam and Eve. Literary Adam and Eve, he knew; genealogical Adam and Eve, he knew; moral, exemplary, archetypal Adam and Eve, he knew. But the historical Adam and Eve came into the world well after Paul himself had gone to his eternal reward, where he would have come to know them as they really are.”
As I said in my review of Scot and Dennis’ book, there is no way the ancient authors of scripture, including Paul or even Jesus, could have imagined the implications of current genomics. To them, if you wanted a sheep you bred a male sheep to a female sheep, if you wanted a cow, you bred a male cow to a female cow, if you wanted a man, then a man and a woman had to get together. So at some point, logically, there had to be a first pair of sheep, a first pair of cows, and a first man and woman. What other explanation could there be? There is no way they could have imagined a population emerging, hell, I have trouble imagining a population emerging. If our species emerges from a primate lineage, when and where did the first morally culpable human arise? Are there lineages of humans that were/are not morally culpable? What is sin, how is it revealed to us, and what are its origins?
The only way we are going to get satisfying answers to the question of origins and who we are as living beings is for scientists like Dennis Venema to keep pushing the frontiers of science forward and theologians like Scot McKnight to think through the implications. There is no going back, and the young adults, who are listening to our conversation, are certainly not going back.