We continue our review of the book, Adam and the Genome: Reading Scripture after Genetic Science, by Dennis Venema and Scot McKnight. Today, Chapter 5.
The book now moves to the four chapters written by Scot McKnight that will explore the theological implications of what Dennis Venema established as the scientific viewpoint in the first four chapters. Right out of the gate, Scot raises the obvious point; what happens when science and the Bible disagree. Who are we to believe? Some of us will dig in our heels, others will shift with the latest conclusion of science. What the first thinks is faithfulness to the Bible the second thinks is intellectual compromise. To illustrate the first he quotes Martin Luther; “The more it seems to conflict with all experience and reason, the more carefully it must be noted and the more surely believed.” When Luther deals with Eve being formed from a rib, he says; “This is extravagant fiction and the silliest kind of nonsense if you set aside the authority of Scripture and follow the judgement of reason,” and “Although it sounds like a fairy tale to reason, it is the most certain truth.”
Scot calls this the “dominating” approach. Luther will allow the Scripture, against reason he admits, to dominate the evidence. Galileo then is the mirror image with another kind of domination: “A natural phenomena which is placed before our eyes by sense experience or proved by necessary demonstration should not be called into question, let alone condemned, on account of scriptural passages whose words appear to have a different meaning.” Scot then says:
“The choice to let either the Bible or science dominate the other is common enough, but there is a better way, one that permits each of the disciplines to speak its own language but also requires each of the voices to speak to one another.”
He cites the examples of John Walton, Tremper Longman, and Peter Enns as types of scholars who have opened up new pathways for this kind of dialogue to take place. Scot then tells his own story. He grew up being told that evolution was for atheists and those who embraced evolution could not embrace the Bible. But he then began meeting and getting to know scientists who were Christians who acknowledged that the evidence supported the basic theory of evolution. Their trustworthiness at the personal level made their science more credible as an option to him. He then says there were 3 defining moments when his intellectual questions about science and the Bible began to make sense.
The first was when he read a book (now nearly 40 years ago) that discussed “macro” versus “micro” evolution. That book, combined with reading a biography of Darwin, pried his mind open to the possible reality of the scientific truth of evolution. The second moment in his journey involved the last few years of blogging with his blog partner “RJS”, a PhD chemist, and reading Dennis Venema and John Walton, particularly Walton’s “Lost World of Genesis One”. RJS’s blog posts and Venema and Walton’s writings combined to open his mind to a new way of reading the Bible. I’ll let Scot tell his third moment in his own words:
“My third moment was the day a college student in tears told me that, had I not taught about reading Genesis 1 in the context of the ancient Near East, he would have abandoned the Christian faith. He wanted to be a scientist but knew there were some non-negotiables about science that were totally convincing to him. One of which was some kind of evolution. That Genesis could be read in ways other than what he was taught—young earth creationism—was a defining moment for him and for me. I am convinced that a kind of evolution—theistic, evolutionary creationism, or planned evolution—fits the evidence best and does not threaten the Christian faith or a fair reading of Genesis.”
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.
In reading the Bible properly and in context, Scot believes there are four fundamental principles we should keep in mind that the best readers of the Bible constantly bring into play. They are: respect, honesty, sensitivity to science students, and the primacy of Scripture. With regard to the first one, Scot says:
“To understand what someone is telling us, we must respect that person as a person, we must respect that person’s speech, and we must do our best to understand that person’s speech from that person’s context… That same principle of respect is needed for reading the Bible, especially a section of the Bible like Genesis 1-11, a text that, no matter how embattled it is, resounds with some of life’s deepest themes.”
It is manifestly obvious that the text of Genesis came to be in the ancient near East (ANE). It sounds like that world as read from similar contemporaneous texts, uses categories and terms and ideas from that world. It has the “pre-scientific” assumptions of that world. So if you don’t respect that text as designed for an ANE audience, you don’t really respect that text. Scot points out we have learned from specialists in ANE studies that these creation stories did double duty: they were mythic history and present theology. The most respectful reading knows this double duty feature of ANE accounts, and gives that same respect to the Bible’s own account. So, he concludes, it is disrespectful to Genesis 1-11 to think it somehow should be giving an account of the modern sciences of geology, astronomy, or biology.
The second principle is honesty. In keeping with the topic of this book that means to be honest about the Bible and the science. Scot tells his students not to fear the facts but to face the facts. The fact is that the Bible really does make it look like Adam and Eve are the only two humans from which we all descend. But science tells us that human DNA goes back to more than two people.
Scot notes that FEAR motivates the vitriol and vehemence on both sides. The more fundamentally-minded Christians are afraid that the science undermines the Bible; that the Bible might be wrong and their entire faith might collapse, and take down society with it. The more fundamentally-minded secularists are afraid that the Bible believers are going to force their religious beliefs on education and the rest of society. There is a modicum of truth to both fears.
“Honesty leads us to say Genesis 1-2 sounds like other creation narratives in the ancient near East. If it does, it does. Where there are similarities, we admit them; where there are dissimilarities, we admit them. We don’t need Genesis 1-2 to be totally unlike other ancient near East texts in order for it to be true, just as we don’t need Jesus to be totally different from the rabbinic teaching of his day for his teaching to be true. What we need most in studying the ancient near East and Genesis 1-2 is an openness to truth wherever it might be found. Openness to truth is the most Christian principle I know of.”
The third principle is sensitivity to the student of science. By “student” Scot means students nurtured in Christian homes and churches and under the tutelage of public school teachers. This means they hear the Bible in one context and science and evolution in another context (often hostile to one another). While some parents think they can avoid this dilemma for their children; it has been seen over and over again they are just kicking the can down the road. Eventually, the student is going to experience the raw capacity of evolutionary theory to explain scientific realities.
The very purpose of this book is to avoid the “crisis” or “all or nothing” mentality of the evolutionary issue, particularly in regard to Adam and Eve and human origins. Scot has had students come up to him in tears thanking him for saving their faith. They had been told they either buy into six-day creationism and “literal” Bible interpretation or they couldn’t be Christians. As they studied science in college they realized this false dichotomy was forcing them to choose between their love of God and the Bible and their love for science and discovery. Scot’s honest and irenic exposition of the issue gave them a third way out of the dilemma. We do our children a disservice if we don’t follow Scot’s example.
The fourth principle is the primacy of Scripture. Christian’s affirm the Bible as God’s revelation to God’s people. The Reformation statement was “sola scriptura” but Scot likes the slight modification of “prima scriptura” instead. He says:
To go to the Bible first means respecting the Bible as it is—a developing narrative. God doesn’t give us a systematic theology textbook, nor does God give us a question-and-answer resource book. Rather the Bible is an ongoing and constantly updating narrative, what we often call a ‘story’…
In affirming this Scripture Principle, however, I hasten to add that we don’t go ONLY to the Bible. The affirmation of ‘prima scriptura’ means we look to the Bible in its context first, as we have already stated above. Reading the Bible in context leads us to the Bible’s dialogue with its context. We will discover already at work in the Bible an interaction between the Bible and its culture—both challenging culture and affirming culture. At the most basic of levels, the Bible comes from a Semitic and Hebraic culture, Jesus came out of a Galilean Jewish culture, and the apostle Paul was reared in a Roman world as a deeply observant Jewish man and so became a man of two worlds in a profound way as he evangelized gentiles. To read any of these without respect to their contexts is to misread them.
Scot ends the chapter with a discussion of the meaning of attaching the word “historical” to Adam. It is the most frequent asked question when discussing human origins; do you believe in a “historical Adam”? He questions the appropriateness of making “historical” the ruling adjective. Is that not prejudicial in and of itself? First he clarifies what is meant by “historical”:
- Two actual (and sometimes only two) persons named Adam and Eve existed suddenly as a result of God’s creation
- Those two persons have a biological relationship to all human beings that are alive today (biological Adam and Eve).
- Their DNA is our DNA (genetic Adam and Eve); and that often means;
- Those two sinned, died, and brought death into the world (fallen Adam and Eve) and ;
- Those two passed on their sin natures (according to many) to all human beings (sin-nature Adam and Eve), which means
- Without their sinning and passing on that sin nature to all human beings, not all human beings would be in need of salvation;
- Therefore, if one denies the historical Adam, one denies the gospel of salvation.
Scot doesn’t dispute the adjective has an important role to play in our theology, but he does dispute that what most mean by “historical Adam” is what Genesis meant in its world. The alternative to using an adjective like “historical” when it transcends what the text says is to find more organic terms that are more natural to the world of these texts. That is what Scot proposes to do in the chapters that follow.
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Other posts in the series: