Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Evolution is true; and Adam is historical

Scripture and science may well differ in the boundaries they would draw round early humanity.
So writes Derek Kidner in his pithy little commentary, Genesis (vol. 1 in the "Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries" series), p. 28. The observation is key to Kidner's speculation about human beginnings.

Kidner accepts the scientific evidence in support of evolution. On the other hand, he is a thoroughly evangelical scholar; accordingly, he maintains that Adam was a real, historical human being.
Palaeontology … depicts a species fashioned over perhaps a million years or more into the present human form, showing the outward characteristics of modern man upwards of twenty thousand years ago, not only in his bodily structure but in his practice of making tools, using fire, burying his dead, and, not least, creating works of art comparable with those of any period. Even at this remote time the apparent forerunners of our chief racial groups seem to be distinguishable, and the species had already spread widely over the world, displacing another type of hominid, "Neanderthal Man", whose own relics, rough as they are, indicate that tools, fire and burial had been in use for long ages before this. On the other hand, the first known signs of pastoral and agricultural life and, later, of metal working (e.g. by hammering copper or meteoric iron [Gen. 4:19-24]) are much more recent, appearing in the Near East, on present evidence, somewhere between the eighth and fifth millennia BC at earliest.

How the two pictures, biblical and scientific, are related to each other is not immediately clear. … The latter may need the whole range of literary genres to do it justice, and it is therefore important not to prejudge the method and intention of these chapters.

Other scriptures, however offer certain fixed points to the interpreter. For example, the human race is of a single stock ("from one", Acts 17:26); again, the offence of one man made sinners of the many, and subjected them to death (Rom. 5:12-19): and this man was as distinct an individual as were Moses and Jesus Christ (Rom. 5:14). Others too are counted as individuals in the New Testament: e.g., Cain, Abel, Enoch, Noah. These guidelines exclude the idea of myth … and assure us that we are reading of actual, pivotal events. (pp. 26-27)
As asserted in the title of this post, evolution is true and Adam is historical — those are Kidner's twin convictions.

Kidner points out that the vast age of the earth is only one of the difficulties we must tackle if we intend to reconcile Genesis with science. He emphasizes that we must also explain how the first farmer follows so soon (130 years is the upper limit) after the first man in Genesis.
To the present author [i.e., Kidner] various converging lines point to an Adam much nearer our own times than the early tool-makers and artists, let alone their remote forbears. On the face of it, the ways of life described in Genesis 4 are those of the neolithic and first metal-working cultures alluded to above, i.e., of perhaps eight or ten thousand years ago, less or more. The memory of names and genealogical details also suggests a fairly compact period between Adam and Noah rather than a span of tens or hundreds of millennia, an almost unimaginable stretch of time to chronicle. Yet this seems to widen the gap still further between Genesis and current chronologies.

The answer may lie in our definition of man.

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. It follows that Scripture and science may well differ in the boundaries they would draw round early humanity: 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. If, as the text of Genesis would by no means disallow, God initially shaped man by a process of evolution, it would follow that a considerable stock of near-humans preceded the first true man, and it would be arbitrary to picture these as mindless brutes. Nothing requires that the creature into which God breathed human life should not have been of a species prepared in every way for humanity, with already a long history of practical intelligence, artistic sensibility and the capacity for awe and reflection.

On this view, Adam, the first true man, will have had as contemporaries many creatures of comparable intelligence, widely distributed over the world. One might conjecture that these were destined to die out, like the Neanderthalers (if indeed these did), or to perish in the Flood, leaving Adam's lineal descendants, through Noah, in sole possession. Against this, however, there must be borne in mind the apparent continuity between the main races of the present and those of the distant past, already mentioned, which seems to suggest either a stupendous antiquity for Adam … or the continued existence of "pre-Adamites" alongside "Adamites". …

It is at least conceivable that after the special creation of Eve, which established the first human pair as God's viceregents (Gn. 1:27,28) and clinched the fact that there is no natural bridge from animal to man, 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.

There may be a biblical hint of such a situation in the surprising impression of an already populous earth given by the words and deeds of Cain in 4:14,17. Even Augustine had to devote a chapter [of The City of God] to answering those who "find this a difficulty". … It may be significant that, with one possible exception [Gen. 3:20], the unity of mankind "in Adam" and our common status as sinners through his offence are expressed in Scripture not in terms of heredity but simply of solidarity. We nowhere find applied to us any argument from physical descent such as that of Hebrews 7:9,10 (where Levi shares in Abraham's act through being "still in the loins of his ancestor"). Rather, Adam's sin is shown to have implicated all men because he was the federal head of humanity, somewhat as in Christ's death "one died for all, therefore all died" (2 Cor. 5:14). Paternity plays no part in making Adam "the figure of him that was to come" (Rom. 5:14). (pp. 28-30)
I am not committed to Kidner's reconstruction of human beginnings. In fact, Kidner himself describes it as an exploratory suggestion and invites correction and a better synthesis (p. 30).

I have gone to the trouble of typing it out because I wish Kidner's proposal was in wider circulation. By daring to offer a bold and original interpretation, I think he shows up most evangelical interpreters, who demonstrate a lamentable paucity of imagination. Kidner shows that it may be possible to read the early chapters of Genesis as history without repudiating the theory of evolution, which has the weight of scientific evidence in support of it.

It seems to me that death was in the world long before Adam's sin. But consider:
  1. that human beings may not have had the moral capacity to sin until after God had breathed into Adam's lungs and reconstituted him in the image and likeness of God; and

  2. that the earlier deaths may have been physical only:  whereas spiritual death (estrangement from God) appeared for the first time as a consequence of Adam's act of disobedience.
In the end, I prefer a more mythological interpretation of Genesis 1-11 than the interpretation Kidner commends to us. I don't suppose that the events of creation necessarily occurred in the same order as in Genesis 1; or that Eve was formed literally of a rib from Adam's side; or that there was a literal tree with fruit that would impart eternal life; nor do I feel compelled to reconcile the variant accounts of creation in Genesis 1 and Genesis 2.

Nonetheless, Kidner provides a reconstruction that is thoughtful, scholarly, and evangelical. It merits our consideration, if only to show us how blinkered our perspective on scripture usually is.


Cliff Martin said...

Thank you, Stephen, for the insightful quotes from Kidner. As I indicated to you a week or so ago, I've had Kidner in my library for about 35 years, but never knew until now the jewels it contained. I like his footnote at the bottom of page 28 on Whitcomb and Morris, The Genesis Flood, which is simple and straighforward.

Like you, I do not see the same degree of literal history in Genesis 1-11 being essential. But Kidner’s approach might satisfy some of my friends who do. And for that reason, I think I will find his comments very useful.

Jewish Atheist said...

An almost identical hypothesis is common among modern Orthodox Jews. One benefit not mentioned in your excerpt is that it explains where, e.g., the wives of Cain and Able came from and who Cain needed protection from, etc.

I (unsurprisingly) find the whole enterprise to be kind of silly, as nobody would come to this hypothesis unless they were specifically attempting to reconcile the Bible with reality. Furthermore, pretty much all of Genesis reads as if it isn't even trying to be history, but is rather mythology (as you interpret it.)

Imagine if you'd never heard of the Bible before, but were aware of modern scientific knowledge. Someone hands you a book that talks about a tree of good and evil, a talking snake, the flood, the tower of babel, etc. It's preposterous that anybody would even think of taking it as literal history.

I think reconciling Genesis with evolution isn't completely impossible, but the flood and the babel story are completely impossible. Moving forward, the Exodus is pretty questionable even if you ignore the miracles.

Stephen (aka Q) said...

• Cliff:
I'm always prepared to consider a perspective that I haven't encountered before. I don't necessarily agree with it, of course; but it can at least function as a catalyst to inspire new ideas.

Kidner's perspective ties in with some of my own ideas. (Mind you, I first read Kidner many years ago; maybe he indirectly inspired the ideas I'm thinking of.) Our bodies evolved from simpler organisms, but I have long thought that consciousness was a special gift of God by which God made us human.

I wonder whether you would agree with that statement, or whether you think that consciousness evolved spontaneously as our brains arrived at a sufficient level of complexity.

That's interesting, that Orthodox Jews have come to a similar position.

One benefit not mentioned in your excerpt is that it explains where, e.g., the wives of Cain and Able came from and who Cain needed protection from, etc.

Actually, Kidner was hinting at that when he talked about "the surprising impression of an already populous earth given by the words and deeds of Cain in Gen. 4:14,17. Kidner squeezes a lot of content into very few words. (He would make a good blogger!)

I'm aware that Kidner's reconstruction will look like a silly rationalization of scripture, from an atheist's perspective. And probably from the perspective of conservative Christians, too.

Imagine if you'd never heard of the Bible before, but were aware of modern scientific knowledge. Someone hands you a book that talks about a tree of good and evil, a talking snake, the flood, the tower of babel, etc. It's preposterous that anybody would even think of taking it as literal history.

I agree. There are some elements of the narrative that are obviously mythological: for example, a tree that bears a fruit that will cause anyone who eats it to live forever. The idea doesn't jibe with Jewish theology or Christian theology; but it's a recurrent idea in the world of mythology. We might conclude that the "tree of the knowledge of good and evil" is similarly mythological.

We may nonetheless assume that there was a first sin, with catastrophic consequences. Christian theology depends rather heavily on the idea of a historical "fall of man" which was (or will be) reversed by Jesus, who is thus characterized as a "second Adam".

But even that doesn't necessarily preclude that Genesis could be a purely mythological account of the fall of man. History can be articulated in mythological symbols.

Cliff Martin said...

• Stephen,

I have long thought that consciousness was a special gift of God by which God made us human .... I wonder whether you would agree with that statement ...

Yes! That is exactly what I think. And that is pretty much where Francis Collins comes out as well (though his emphasis is on Moral Law, a distinctly human characteristic unshared by lower animals, which Collins postulates we received as a kind of download when God made hominids into humans). I see two possibilities. Either God selected a man and a woman as representative of the race, breathed spirit life into them, and they subsequently failed some test and fell, or he breathed life into the entire species, in which case the Fall might have been a corporate rebellion. If it was the former, I presume that the rest of human kind received spirit life, already tainted by the Fall, at some point following the Fall.

An interesting corollary from Collins: he says that current studies in DNA show that the entire human race all descended from an original stock of about 10,000 people.

• Jewish Atheist:

Thank you for your insightful thoughts.

Your analysis about trying to fit Genesis to our knowledge of history & science: if we had just discovered those writings, any effort to bring them into line with current understanding would indeed be silly. However, that is not the case. The books of Moses have served mankind well in the development of society, and laws, etc. They serve as the backbone of Judaism and Christianity. And Jesus held them in high regard. So, it is not so easy for me to dismiss them.

geocreationist said...

Though I am not as familiar with Kidner as I now want to be (thanks to your post), the views you quote echo my own.

What convinced me that evolution occurred in some manner was when I found scientific studies of zircon crystals that suggest that conditions on the earth 3.9 billion years ago were exactly what Genesis suggests they were before Creation Day 1: Dark, lifeless, covered in water, torrential rain, no visibility of the sun, moon, or stars. The first 4 days then changed conditions in the precise order recorded in geographic and geologic history. It helped point me in a direction that convinced me that the earth could be old, and that Genesis 1 literally describes it. And while God did not need to use Evolution in any way, I believe those fossils got there somehow, and that God did whatever He did on purpose.

As for Adam, there are peculiar phrases on Day 6 and Genesis 2 suggesting Adam was not the first man: both sexes created and given world dominion on Day 6, no plants of the field yet in Genesis 2(i.e., crops, suggesting other plants did exist), but there were animals of the field (suggesting livestock farming).

Though you may not be sold on such interpretations as of yet, I commend you for giving ideas such as Kidner's a fair chance.

Stephen (aka Q) said...

Thanks for the comment. I certainly agree that evolution is an established fact. If so, Christians need to recast their theology and exegesis accordingly. I'm glad to see that folks like you (with more knowledge of the science than I have) are working on it!