In their attempts to find common ground between evolutionary science and Genesis, the scholars at BioLogos have written various articles on how to reconcile Adam with their belief in the common descent of men. In an article, “Were Adam and Eve historical figures,” they preface the discussion this way:
Genetic evidence shows that humans descended from a group of several thousand individuals who lived about 150,000 years ago. This conflicts with the traditional view that all humans descended from a single pair who lived about 100,000 years ago. While Genesis 2-3 speaks of the pair Adam and Eve, Genesis 4 refers to a larger population of humans interacting with Cain. One option is to view Adam and Eve as a historical pair living among many 10,000 years ago, chosen to represent the rest of humanity before God. Another option is to view Genesis 2-4 as an allegory in which Adam and Eve symbolize the large group of ancestors who lived 150,000 years ago. Yet another option is to view Genesis 2-4 as an “everyman” story, a parable of each person’s individual rejection of God. BioLogos does not take a particular view and encourages scholarly work on these questions.
At the second “Theology of Celebration” workshop, Denis Alexander, Director of the Faraday Institute for Science and Religion at St. Edmund’s College, Cambridge, presented a paper which outlines two of those models for reconciling Adam and Eve with the findings of contemporary anthropology. Here are some highlights from his paper.
First, Dr. Alexander describes the role of such models:
The models that we propose are not the same as the ‘data’. On one hand we have the theological data provided by Genesis and the rest of Scripture, true for all people throughout time. Uncertainty here arises only from doubt as to whether our interpretations of the text are as solid as they can be. On the other hand we have the current scientific data that are always open to revision, expansion or to better interpretation. Nevertheless the data are overwhelmingly supportive of certain scientific truths, for example that we share a common genetic inheritance with the apes. The role of models is to treat both theological and scientific truths seriously and see how they might ‘speak’ to each other, but we should never defend a particular model as if we were referring to the data itself. The whole point of any model is that it represents a human construct that seeks to relate different types of truth; models are not found within the text of Scripture – the most that we can expect from them is that they are ‘consistent with’ the relevant Biblical texts. Let us never confuse the model with the truths that it seeks to connect to each other.
Next, he lays out the problem these models should address:
The last common ancestor between us and the chimpanzee lived around 5 – 6 million years ago. Since that time we and the apes have been undergoing our own independent evolutionary pathways. Today we have religion, chimps do not. At some stage humanity began to know the one true God of the Scriptures. How and when did that happen?
The two models, the “Retelling Model” and the “Homo divinus Model, share certain basic presuppositions:
Both models accept the great theological truths about humankind made in the image of God and about the alienation from God brought about by human sinful disobedience. Both models accept the current anthropological account of human origins.
Dr. Alexander gives the following definition of the Retelling Model:
The Retelling Model represents a gradualist protohistorical view, meaning that it is not historical in the usual sense of that word, but does refer to events that took place in particular times and locations. The model suggests that as anatomically modern humans evolved in Africa from 200,000 years ago, or during some period of linguistic and cultural development since then, there was a gradual growing awareness of God’s presence and calling upon their lives to which they responded in obedience and worship. The earliest spiritual stirrings of the human spirit were in the context of monotheism, and it was natural at the beginning for humans to turn to their Creator, in the same way that children today seem readily to believe in God almost as soon as they can speak. In this model, the early chapters of Genesis represent a re-telling of this early episode, or series of episodes, in our human history in a form that could be understood within the Middle Eastern culture of the Jewish people of that time. The model therefore presents the Genesis account of Adam and Eve as a myth in the technical sense of that word – a story or parable having the main purpose of teaching eternal truths – albeit one that refers to real putative events that took place over a prolonged period of time during the early history of humanity in Africa.
Some would wish to press this model further to suggest that the Adam and Eve of the Genesis account do in fact represent the very first members of our species back in the Africa of about 200,000 years ago. This suggestion, however, faces a significant scientific problem. All that we know of the emergence of a new mammalian species is that this is a gradual process that may take thousands of years. A reproductively isolated population gradually accumulates a unique ensemble of genetic variants that eventually generates a new species, meaning a population that does not generally interbreed with another population. A new mammalian species does not begin abruptly, and certainly not with one male and one female.
According to this model:
[T]he Fall is interpreted as the conscious rejection by humankind of the awareness of God’s presence and calling upon their lives in favor of choosing their own way rather than God’s way. The Fall then becomes a long historical process happening over a prolonged period of time, leading to spiritual death. The Genesis account of the Fall in this model becomes a dramatised re-telling of this ancient process through the personalised Adam and Eve narrative placed within a Near Eastern cultural context.
Dr. Alexander then describes the positive elements he sees in this model:
In favor of the Retelling Model is the way in which the doctrine of Adam made in the image of God can be applied to a focused community of anatomically modern humans, all of whose descendants – the whole of humanity since that time – share in this privileged status in the sight of God. Likewise as this putative early human community turned their backs on the spiritual light that God had graciously bestowed upon them, so sin entered the world for the first time, and has contaminated humanity ever since. Such an interpretation is made possible by the fact that the very early human community within Africa would have been no more than a few hundred breeding pairs. If the Retelling Model is taken as applying to this very early stage of human evolution, prior to the time at which different human populations began to spread throughout different areas of Africa, then these putative events could have happened to the whole of humanity alive at that time.
There are some drawbacks to this model, according to Dr. Alexander:
Against the Retelling Model is the way in which it evacuates the narrative of any Near Eastern context, detaching the account from its Jewish roots. If the early chapters of Genesis are about God’s dealings with the very early people of God who later came to be called Jews, then Africa is not the direction in which we should be looking. Much depends on how exactly the Genesis accounts of Adam and Eve are interpreted; on how much weight is placed on the Old Testament genealogies that incorporate Adam as a historical figure (Genesis 5; 1 Chronicles 1) and on the New Testament genealogy that traces the lineage of Christ back to Adam (Luke 3); and on passages such as Romans 5 and 1 Corinthians 15 that are most readily interpreted on the assumption that Adam is understood as a real historical individual.
In contrast, the Homo divinus model addresses those concerns:
According to this model [Homo divinus], God in his grace chose a couple of Neolithic farmers in the Near East, or maybe a community of farmers, to whom he chose to reveal himself in a special way, calling them into fellowship with himself – so that they might know Him as the one true personal God. From now on there would be a community who would know that they were called to a holy enterprise, called to be stewards of God’s creation, called to know God personally. It is for this reason that this first couple, or community, have been termed Homo divinus, the divine humans, those who know the one true God, the Adam and Eve of the Genesis account. Being an anatomically modern human was necessary but not sufficient for being spiritually alive; as remains the case today. Homo divinus were the first humans who were truly spiritually alive in fellowship with God, providing the spiritual roots of the Jewish faith. Certainly religious beliefs existed before this time, as people sought after God or gods in different parts of the world, offering their own explanations for the meaning of their lives, but Homo divinus marked the time at which God chose to reveal himself and his purposes for humankind for the first time.
The Homo divinus model also draws attention to the representative nature of ‘the Adam’, ‘the man’, as suggested by the use of the definite article in the Genesis text as mentioned above. ‘The man’ is therefore viewed as the federal head of the whole of humanity alive at that time. This was the moment at which God decided to start his new spiritual family on earth, consisting of all those who put their trust in God by faith, expressed in obedience to his will. Adam and Eve, in this view, were real people, living in a particular historical era and geographical location, chosen by God to be the representatives of his new humanity on earth, not by virtue of anything that they had done, but simply by God’s grace. When Adam recognised Eve as ‘bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh’, he was not just recognising a fellow Homo sapiens – there were plenty of those around – but a fellow believer, one like him who had been called to share in the very life of God in obedience to his commands. The world population in Neolithic times is estimated to lie in the range 1–10 million, genetically just like Adam and Eve, but in this model it was these two farmers out of all those millions to whom God chose to reveal himself.
Just as I can go out on the streets of New York today and have no idea just by looking at people, all of them members of the species Homo sapiens, which ones are spiritually alive, so in this model there was no physical way of distinguishing between Adam and Eve and their contemporaries. It is a model about spiritual life and revealed commands and responsibilities, not about genetics.
One of the potential drawbacks of this model is that it does not address “when” mankind first began to be in the “image of God:”
Of course with our western mindset we would like to ask the chronological question: when exactly did the ‘image of God’ start applying in human history? But the Genesis text is not interested in chronology. Neither does the Homo divinus model as presented here seek to address that particular issue, but simply accepts the fact that the whole of humankind without any exception is made in God’s image. Instead the model focuses on the event from Genesis 2:7 in which God breathes His breath into Adam so that he becomes a nepesh, a living being who can respond to God’s claim upon his life. The model is about how Adam and Eve became responsible children of God, involving a personal relationship with God, obedience to his commands, and the start of God’s new family on earth consisting of all those who would come to know him personally.
According to this model:
[T]he Fall then becomes the disobedience of Adam and Eve to the expressed revealed will of God, bringing spiritual death in its wake, a broken relationship between humankind and God. In an extension of this model, just as Adam is the federal head of humankind, so as Adam falls, equally humankind falls with him. … And as with the Retelling Model, the physical death of both animals and humans is seen as happening throughout evolutionary history. Both models suggest that it is spiritual death that is the consequence of sin.
Dr. Alexander believes that the Homo divinus model has the advantage over the Retelling model because:
it takes very seriously the Biblical idea that Adam and Eve were historical figures as indicated by those texts already mentioned. It also sees the Fall as an historical event involving the disobedience of Adam and Eve to God’s express commands, bringing death in its wake. The model locates these events within Jewish proto-history.
However, he does recognize that a potential disadvantage of the Homo divinus model:
For some, however, a disadvantage of the model will be the appeal to the Federal Headship of Adam to satisfy the need to see God’s call to fellowship with Him as being open to the whole of humankind and, equally, to see Adam’s disobedience as impacting the whole of humankind. The notion of Adam’s headship is of course perceived through passages such as Romans 5:12 and 17, and 1 Cor.15:22, although Romans 5:12 makes it clear that spiritual death came to all men by them actually sinning. Each person is responsible for his or her own sin. The model is not therefore consistent with a strictly Augustinian notion of the inheritance of the sinful nature, but in any case many biblical commentators do not find this notion in Scripture, which emphasizes the fact that all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23), rooting that fact in Adam’s sin (1 Cor. 15:22), but also highlighting the personal responsibility that each person has for their own sin (Deut.24:16; Jer.31:30; Rom. 5:12).
Dr. Alexander ends with recognizing that neither model will answer all questions regarding Adam and the various theological implications:
The two tentative models presented here may be seen as a work in progress. Both models are heavily under-determined by the data, meaning that there is insufficient data to decide either way. Both models might be false and a third type of model might be waiting in the wings ready to do a much better job; let us hope so.