Dennis R. Venema and Scot McKnight, Adam and the Genome: Reading Scripture After Genetic Science (BrazosPress, 2017). $19.99. 224pp.
The aim of Dennis R. Venema and Scot McKnight’s Adam and the Genome: Reading Scripture After Genetic Science is to harmonize the Bible and evolution, particularly with a view to recent genetic evidence and the challenge it poses to traditional beliefs about Adam and Eve. The first four chapters deal with the scientific issues and are authored by Venema, a professor of biology at Trinity Western University associated with the BioLogos Foundation; the next four deal with the Bible and are authored by McKnight, a New Testament professor at Northern Seminary and author of many books.
Adam is a hot topic these days. More and more he seems the focal point of both dispute about the doctrine of creation in the church, as well as the faith/science tension throughout our culture. Among the most important questions are these:
- Were Adam and Eve historical individuals?
- Were they the biological progenitors of all living human beings?
- Were they the first human beings and hence the only living human beings at the time of their creation—and, bound up with this, were they fresh, de novo creations or descended from previous hominins? (By the way, “hominins” is now the correct term, I believe, not “hominids”.)
- What then becomes of the fall and original sin in light of how questions 1-3 are cashed out?
The theological stakes are high in these questions, and there are also significant pastoral and apologetic implications for how we engage them. To put it bluntly, lots of people reject the gospel or lose their faith over evolution. This important concern runs like a thread through Adam and the Genone: both the afterword by Daniel Harrell and the foreword by Tremper Longman touch on it, and it comes up regularly throughout (Alexis de Tocqueville’s description of his own struggle with doubt, recounted by McKnight on p. 103, provides one poignant portrait). I appreciated the sensitivity to this issue.
I’m in the midst of a personal project of studying the doctrine of creation, and my engagement with Adam and the Genome comes in concert with this larger effort. I hope to write more about this in the future, but for now suffice to say that while I affirm a historical Adam, I am sympathetic to the effort of seeking to correlate Adam to evolution—in light of Genesis 4 no less than the paleoanthropological and genetic data. Nonetheless, I found this book more helpful for learning about the science of genetics than for accounting for this data theologically. Although my review here does not attempt a comprehensive or final evaluation of these challenging issues, I hope it might be useful as one volley in the ongoing conversation.
Learning About Genetics
Since I am not a scientist, my comments on Venema’s section of the book will be more descriptive and limited. Chapter 1 offers a broad introduction/defense to biological evolution generally, treating issues such as the objection that evolution is “just a theory” (3-8), the relevance of the heliocentrism/geocentrism legacy (9-11), and several points of evidence for evolution (12-18). Chapter 2 then focuses in more specifically on the genetic issues; chapter 3 relates this to Adam and Eve; chapter 4 responds to the intelligent design (ID) camp, particularly the contributions of Michael Behe and Stephen Meyer.
The existence and energy of chapter 4 reveals a clear line of distinction between the evolutionary creationism (EC) camp, on the one hand, and the intelligent design (ID) crowd, on the other. In some respects it seems like the polarization between these two camps is no less stark than that between old-earth creationists and young-earth creationists.
A strength of Venema’s work is his ability to communicate to the non-scientist. Scientists are not always skilled at popularization, and many branches in the natural sciences are not particularly friendly to popularization (genetics would certainly fall into this category, I think!). Venema is no newcomer to this discussion, and although his treatment of genetics in chapter 2 is by no means easy to understand, he does better than others in avoiding unnecessary jargon and pedantry. His metaphors of language evolution (19-23) and book evolution (23-24) for biological evolution are conceptually helpful, and chapter 3 is very informative regarding the evolutionary relation of various hominins, especially Denisovans and Neanderthals (see especially the phylogenies on p. 58 and p. 62). I learned a lot from this chapter.
Chapter 4, on the CE vs. ID debates, helped me understand a little better the concern about the god-of-the-gaps argument. Venema argues that ID thrives where there is a lack of knowledge, and that it has already shifted a lot in its 20-year history (90, 207). I’m not sure I agree fully with this, but I take his point more generally, and I do think there is a caution here in appealing to what is unknown. The Bonhoeffer quote on p. 67 was potent to this effect. My push back would be that we don’t know yet what are truly “gaps.” People in the CE camp often disallow any supernatural intervention in the process of evolution, as though it would amount to an imperfection in God’s design (I don’t recall Venema himself doing this). At the same time, they affirm miracles such as the resurrection. It seems to me a bit arbitrary to say “yes” to supernatural intervention in redemptive history and “no” to it in creation history. What’s the problem with leaving open, at the very least as a possibility, God’s supernatural intervention in the development of, say, the first cell?
And, if being open to supernatural intervention in the stream of biological evolution is falling prey to the god-of-the-gaps fallacy, what is our response when skeptics start to claim that other areas of traditional apologetics—say, the cosmological argument—amount to a god-of-the-gaps argument? After all, it is not difficult to conceive of naturalists insisting the cause of the Big Bang is simply a “gap” in our current understanding—in fact I have heard cosmologists like Stephen Hawking talk like this at times.
Fuller evaluation of this part of the book should come from scientists; for my purposes, I will simply say that I learned a lot from Venema’s work, and hope to dialogue further with him as I continue to learn about genetics.
How Prima is Prima Scriptura?
In chapter 5 McKnight offers four principles for interpreting Scripture after the Human Genome Project: honesty, respect, sensitivity to the student of science, and the primacy of Scripture. His discussion of this final point, prima Scriptura, is brief and unemphatic: in one small paragraph (50 words) he affirms that the Bible is God’s revelation to his people, opting without explanation for the label prima Scriptura rather than sola Scriptura (105-06). The rest of this section focuses on caveats: we must read the Bible as a story rather than as a systematic theology textbook (paragraph 2), and we must read it in its historical contexts (paragraph 3).
I appreciate all of McKnight’s principles, but this fourth principle needs further development. Furthermore, throughout the rest of the book it appeared that the first three principles are more functionally operative than the last. For instance, he regularly makes appeals to approach Genesis and Paul with honesty and respect (139, 148, much elsewhere), but prima Scriptura is relatively forceless—it is invoked once to side against Augustine on original sin/Romans 5:12 (184-85), and twice concessively (112, 194).
One gets the impression, not only in the relative laxity of prima Sciptura but also in the exposition of the other biblical principles, that conservative errors are the ones that really bother McKnight. Thus, to respect the Bible turns out to mean primarily to respect it as an ANE (Ancient Near Eastern) document (98-100); to be honest with the Bible turns out to mean primarily to acknowledge biblical difficulties such as tension between Genesis 1 and 2, and similarities between the Bible and other ANE creation accounts (100-02). McKnight helpfully appeals via Ronald Osborn to honesty and charity from both sides of the debate (101), but his real concern seems to be with fundamentalist fear, which he identifies as the root motive of much the “vitriol” coming from creationists and ID folks (100-02). His appeal here would be more balanced and more helpful if it applied the principles of respect and honesty to unhealthy progressive tendencies as well.
One also wonders, in a book on such a challenging topic, whether other biblical principles beyond these four could or should have been brought to bear. While it would be unfair to require a treatment of, say, those attributes for which Reformed readers will feel nostalgic (necessity, sufficiency, perspicuity, authority), one at least hopes for a more adequate account of biblical authority. Do we allow the Bible to yield revelation from heaven? Can we approach the topic of Adam and Eve with Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s expectation that the Bible will speak into our deepest questions in a way that nothing else can?
The larger structure and method of the book touch on this concern. The introduction explains that the second part on the Bible “assumes the correctness of the first part” on science, and then seeks to explain Adam and Eve in their Ancient Near Eastern context (xii). As I have indicated, I am personally open to reconsidering my understanding of Adam and Eve in light of modern science, not least genetics. But how we get there matters. The methodological prioritization endorsed here seems vulnerable to the criticism of letting the genetics run the whole program. Shouldn’t the Bible be able to talk to science, as well as listen?
After outlining the 7 components of common belief in a historical Adam, McKnight writes:
How much of this applies to what Paul says about Adam? It’s clear that Paul is not thinking biologically or genetically. Like conservative types of Christians—young-earth creationists—Paul believed in the Bible; and not only did he believe in the Bible, but he also considered the Bible to be in some ways ‘scientific,’ as he thought of science. Unlike these same types of Christians today, he could not and therefore did not know better (189, italics his).
Attempting to take this as charitably as we can, let’s assume that there is no condescension intended here toward Paul, as though the poor guy simply didn’t know not to take the Bible so literally. Let’s also pass over the assumed knowledge of Paul’s intentions, the stark assertiveness of the second sentence, and the ambiguity as to how the whole paragraph hangs together. More troubling is the apparent lack of interest in how the inspired apostle’s approach to Scripture should be authoritative over us.
Now, granted, there are complicated issues involved in how much biblical authors assumed the literal truth of “scientific” theories of their day when using the language of those theories—but these issues should be carefully engaged. It would have been more helpful if McKnight had demonstrated why and in what sense Paul took the Bible as “science,” and then engage what this means for the contemporary challenge of translating the Bible from its ancient to its modern context.
Surveying the Jewish and ANE Literature
I appreciate McKnight’s effort to read the relevant Biblical texts in relation to ANE literature (chapter 6) and inter-testamental Jewish literature (chapter 7). The survey of ANE literature is briefer and would have benefited from further commentary and analysis. I am not sure the format here was well chosen: McKnight briefly surveys some of the relevant texts (113-118) and then develops at length 12 loosely related theses (119-146). As helpful as it is to seek to situate the Bible in its ANE context, the method here feels a bit undisciplined, and some of the conclusions drawn seem unwarranted. For instance, the association of the theomachy (fighting among the gods) of Enuma Elish and Atrahasis with Psalm 74:13-16 feels asserted more than argued—one would expect at least some discussion of the identity of Leviathan (122-23). Nonetheless, McKnight does draw out a number of helpful insights regarding reading Genesis in relation to ANE texts, and readers unfamiliar with these texts may benefit from this chapter by learning about their relevance.
McKnight’s discussion of the meaning of the imago Dei in this chapter is often helpful as well, particularly in his usage of the excellent work of J. Richard Middleton (e.g., 127-131). I found McKnight’s treatment of humanity as male and female rather uninspiring and bland; it seems eager to stay within egalitarian sensibilities and only references an alternative view of gender in relation to the controversial text Genesis 3:16 (141). But his recurrent desire to emphasize the theological significance of (often neglected) Eve is admirable.
Complementary or Conflicting Adams?
The most perplexing part of the book, in my view, was the last chapter on Paul’s view on Adam, and especially the last part of this chapter, where it now becomes clear to what consequence McKnight has been marshaling ANE and Jewish texts. After expounding his final thesis that “the Adam of Paul was not the historical Adam” (188), the book concludes with this paragraph:
We 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 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 (italics his).
There are at least three difficulties here. First, McKnight has over-freighted the term “historical Adam,” imputing 7 distinct assertions onto this label (108, 188) which ultimately amount to a cruder, popular-level way of thinking about Adam, rather than more sophisticated evangelical attempts to uphold a historical Adam alongside human evolution (e.g., Stott, Alexander, Kidner, Packer, Keller, etc.). As one who holds to a historical Adam but not all 7 theses he advances as describing that label, I felt that he didn’t represent the best version of a “historical Adam” view.
Second, McKnight unnecessarily dichotomizes this over-burdened “historical Adam” with the various other “Adams” he recounts (literary Adam, genealogical Adam, archetypal Adam, etc.). Throughout the book McKnight has been speaking in terms of a taxonomy of titles for Adam based upon his different functions (literary Adam, genealogical Adam, archetypal Adam, many others—he defines [some of] these labels on p. 108). Although he states early on that the “literary” does not mean either “fictional” or “historical” (118), in his conclusions he nonetheless often infers that the presence of a literary Adam or archetypal Adam excludes the presence of a historical Adam. “The standard Jewish Adam,” McKnight affirms, is “the literary, genealogical Adam who becomes an adjustable figure who can be used in theology for a variety of presentations and ideas” (183). Thus, the theological employment of Adam results in “other interpretations of Adam” (188), such that Paul had no conception of a historical Adam as such (191, quoted above).
The fundamental problem here is that it is specious to set the theological deployment of Adam against his historicity: a literary or archetypal Adam may also be a historical Adam, or may not; that must be settled on other grounds. By comparison, to borrow Fitzmyer’s classic categories, the theological deployment of Jonah by Jesus (Matthew 12:40) or Melchizedek in Hebrews 7 does not require Jonah and Melchizedek to be ahistorical. How strange to assume that a literary figure must be only literary!
Finally, McKnight’s engagement with the Jewish literature seems to involve a level of special pleading, downplaying elements of the “historical Adam” and emphasizing the other conceptions of Adam. For instance, although Sirach 25:24 claims that “from a woman [Eve] sin had its beginning, and because of her we all die,” McKnight claims that the Adam of Sirach is archetypal and moral, and “while there are traces of a genealogical Adam, the Adam of Sirach is not the historical Adam who plays such an important role in Christian theology” (156). No further comment substantiates this claim. Likewise, McKnight acknowledges that Wisdom of Solomon references “the first-formed father of the world, when he alone had been created” (10:1) and claims that each human is “a descendant of the first-formed child of earth” (7:1). But he insists that the author “is not thinking scientifically, biologically, genetically, or even historically but instead is affirming his tradition and theologizing in light of it (158). Once again, no further commentary undergirds this remarkable assertion.
When McKnight gets to Philo, he admits that Philo probably believed that Adam was the first human, since Philo repeatedly calls Adam “the first man” and “ancestor of our race” throughout On The Creation. But even here he downplays this conclusion, emphasizing Philo’s strange beliefs and other uses of Adam, and leaving the historical Adam out of his summary (see 160-61).
Surprisingly, then, in his summary of the Jewish literature, McKnight concludes that “no author cared about a ‘historical’ reading; each author adapted and adopted and adjusted the Adam of Genesis” (168); and that “the historical Adam that Christians now believe in has yet to make his appearance on the pages of history … the construct Christians use when they speak of the historical Adam is not to be found in the Old Testament or in other Jewish sources” (169).
But, to sum up, this assertion only holds if you isolate the crudest contemporary expression of a historical Adam, set this way of thinking about Adam at odds with other ways that are actually complementary to it, and ignore much of the data (we have not yet even touched upon Genesis 5:1-3).
Thinking through the theology of Adam and Eve in light of modern genetics is a crucial task. This book is an important part of the conversation regarding that task. It will help readers understand the science of genetics, and human evolution more generally; it will introduce them to much of the background ANE and Jewish literature; it will provide a good example of the EC viewpoint on such matters. Readers will need to look elsewhere, however, for a more careful account of how biblical authority functions across the ancient/modern worldview divide, a fuller engagement with the ANE literature and a more balanced one with the Jewish literature, and a more responsible delineation of biblical claims regarding Adam and Eve.