ESN is currently creating a Faith/Science curriculum for young adult small groups. We’ve partnered with InterVarsity graduate student discussion groups to identify faith/science questions that are important to emerging scholars, and we’re commissioning thoughtful Christians in science or theology/philosophy to explore those questions in this series at the ESN blog. We will publish these posts as a booklet curriculum for campus groups.
Debates over evolution and origins are a challenging area for many Christians as they engage with modern science. To discern how to address these issues in this curriculum, we talked with graduate students, InterVarsity grad staffers, and professors. Based on their feedback, we commissioned two pieces from InterVarsity Press and ESN author Gerald Rau that articulate the major views held by Christians on evolution generally and human evolution in particular. These particular pieces are not designed to argue for a specific position, but to help readers explore the range of positions fellow believers hold on an issue and to increase the ability of Christians to build thoughtful conversations about the theology and science of origins. These posts include discussion questions to help believers better understand each other’s positions on both theology and science. Check out last week’s post on Christian views of origins here, or read on for today’s post on different Christian views of Adam. For more on origins, take a look at Gerald Rau’s other work as author of Mapping the Origins Debate (InterVarsity Press 2013). Gerry has also written for Scholar’s Compass as an ESN contributor.
This project was made possible through the support of an award from the Science and Theology for Emerging Adult Ministries project at Fuller Theological Seminary. The opinions expressed are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of Fuller or the STEAM project.
Adam is important to Christians, not only as the first human in the Bible, but more so because Christ is called the second Adam, so our understanding of creation is inextricably linked with our Christology. As with models of origins in general there are different evangelical perspectives on Adam, and our interpretation of the scientific evidence on human origins will either reflect or affect our theology.
Let’s begin with a few basic things everyone should be able to agree on. First, Adam was not originally a proper name, but is the generic Hebrew word for a man, which in modern English versions is translated in some places as “Adam,” in others as “the man,” and yet elsewhere as “mankind.” Thus interpretation is built into all English versions. Second, New Testament references to the Old are mostly from the Greek Septuagint translation, which also distinguishes these three ideas. Third, Paul spoke of Adam as if he were a singular historical person.
On the scientific side, humans are far more similar to apes than to any other animal, both physically and genetically, although the apparent degree of similarity varies depending on what trait is examined and how the statistics are cited. Whether this is a result of common descent or similar design is the crux of the matter.
Young earth creation (YEC) retains the traditional view that Adam was directly created by God de novo, based on what it considers the most literal and natural reading of Genesis. Old earth creation (OEC) likewise points to a single man, directly created, but within the framework where each day represents a long period of geological time (or the currently less common view that there was a long gap between the original creation of matter and the six day creation of the current world order recorded in Genesis). In both of these views all humanity traces to a single human pair, and our sinful nature is transmitted by physical descent. In both of these models, a singular, historical Adam is regarded as necessary based on Paul’s statements, and the scientific evidence interpreted as common design.
As explained in the previous essay, theistic evolution (TE) includes a wide range of theological perspectives. Some deny the inspiration of scripture, but many affirm it, although they treat the opening chapters of Genesis as non-literal and non-historical, construing them as either myth or symbol. It is important to note that in this context myth means a story that conveys cultural identity or spiritual truth, but not historical or scientific truth, rather than something that is entirely false.
Non-teleological evolution (NTE) is the only branch of TE that denies the inspiration of scripture. For example, according to process theology, the whole world is evolving toward perfection, after which the whole world will be redeemed, rendering questions of individual responsibility for sin irrelevant. This is obviously at odds with any evangelical theology.
Planned evolution (PE) asserts that there was no historical Adam, that a population of an ape-like creature split at some point, with apes diverging in one direction and humans in another (humans did not evolve from any living ape, but there was a common ancestor to both), but the population in the human lineage never dropped below a few thousand individuals. This obviously requires a very different theological explanation of the origin of sin. According to one view, Paul spoke as a man of his time, viewing Adam as a singular human, but the Bible was written only to convey spiritual truth, not scientific. That spiritual truth is still affirmed: we are sinners in need of salvation. But rather than our sinful nature being transmitted by physical descent, we all prove our sinfulness by making the same decision that Adam did. The justification for this position points to the advance in human knowledge over time. Just as some things that were previously considered scientific truth have been overturned by later discoveries, we should be willing to move beyond traditional theologies that are in part based on that outdated science, in particular, mechanisms of reproduction and inheritance.
Scientifically the directed evolution (DE) model is identical to PE, but this model differs theologically in that Adam is seen as either an archetype or a representative. Adam could have been a single individual, but whether he was the only human at the time or whether we are all his direct biological descendants is considered to be irrelevant. Humans are seen as physically continuous with previous creatures, but spiritually novel due to the direct bestowment by God of a human soul in the image of God. The argument rests on the proposition that Genesis should be understood in light of contemporaneous surrounding cultures, and that in the creation stories of other nations in the ancient middle east the historicity of the figures was unimportant; what is important is what we can learn from them about the world. Thus to take the text as literal, linear history is to impose on Genesis our modern understanding of the world. As with PE, the strength of the scientific evidence for an evolutionary relationship between humans and apes is taken as an indication that we need to reexamine our theology.
At least one book, whose authors come from the Reformed tradition and generally support a DE model, considers all these options, then concludes, “Not satisfied with any of these scenarios? Neither are we!” So far no model has been proposed that would fully explain how there could have been a historical Adam and Eve within an evolutionary framework, but several scientists are considering that direction. Certainly such a model would require further work outside the constraints of both Darwinian evolution (because the mechanism of natural selection requires gradualism) and current theologies.
Some choose not to part with a literal picture of Adam and Eve, and so explain the similarities between apes and humans as common design, and fossil hominids as either ape or human, not intermediate. Others cite the strength of the scientific evidence as reason to seek a different theological explanation of original sin. Each decision is based on an underlying philosophical preference for a certain type of knowledge.
- How much have you read about different models of human origin, from either a scientific or theological perspective?
- Do you know your church’s position on human evolution, and the theological justification for that position? When was that theology developed?
- Do you believe the Bible the inspired word of God? What exactly does that mean? Are translators inspired? How about theologians?
- If two sources of information seem to be in conflict, how do we determine what is truth?
 Barrett & Caneday (eds.), Four Views on the Historical Adam, Zondervan 2013.
 Rau, Mapping the Origins Debate, IVP 2012.
 Collins, Genesis 1-4, P&R Publishing 2006.
 Intelligent design (ID) does not take a stance on Adam, but most in ID favor the OEC model.
 Haught, Making Sense of Evolution, WJK 2010.
 Lamoureux, Evolutionary Creation, Wipf & Stock 2008.
 Walton, Lost World of Adam and Eve, IVP 2015.
 Enns, Evolution of Adam, Brazos 2012.
 Haarsma & Haarsma, Origins, Faith Alive, 2011, p. 270.
About the author:
In his freshman year, Gerald Rau cofounded the Intervarsity chapter at Wesleyan University. As a Ph.D. student in plant breeding at Cornell University he helped establish the First Ithaca Chinese Christian Church. After teaching science for many years at the American School in Taichung, he is currently semi-retired, starting an English ministry for international students while teaching scientific writing part-time at National Chung Cheng University in Chiayi, Taiwan. He has written Mapping the Origins Debate (IVP) and is working on publications on an eclectic array of topics including human origin, philosophy of science, scientific writing, and teaching English as a lingua franca.