I have taken up stands on both sides of the evolution and creation issue. As an avowed atheist in middle and early high school I liked to pick fights with Christians specifically over evolution. For me, at the time, the fantastical interpretive hoops of a young earth creationist perspective simply didn’t make sense. All too often people were reading into the texts of Genesis 1-3 what they wanted to see. Eventually I relented and my heart softened, and I came to understand the profound restfulness offered by Jesus in the kingdom of God. Post-conversion I didn’t change all that much. Instead of picking fights with Christians I started to pick fights with any atheist I could. There’s a major problem with that way of being though: It’s hard to communicate grace when you treat everyone like something to be conquered. I had switched sides and adopted a young earth creationist stance, all the while knowing there were significant hermeneutical problems with the position.
Seventeen years later, my approach has considerably softened. I spent a decade studying the cultural backgrounds of the bible and during that time I discovered that two of the most profound words in the English language is the statement “me too!” My previous graduate work had been focused on the Old Testament. I went to seminary to gain greater experience in New Testament studies and to round out my training in ministry and leadership development. I’ve learned that identifying with the other, finding common ground to approach struggles and doubts from the same place, has a significant impact on our ability to do ministry, especially with the growing number of unchurched and post-churched.
Because I write about and present on the cultural backgrounds of the Bible in church contexts I am frequently asked about issues of origins, creation, and cosmology. While this does not deal directly with my specific area of study (Archaeology), a cultural and contextual approach to the nineteen creation accounts in the biblical text does bear significantly on how we might begin to gesture towards the relationship between biblical cosmology and modern scientific cosmology. Normally, my stance as an old earth evolutionary creationist gets me into trouble in some church contexts. Where my stance proves fruitful is when I am reaching out to the unchurched and the post-churched who have only come into contact with people who demanded a young earth “literal” reading of the creation account. Ultimately, I must conclude that the cosmology presented in the biblical text is not scientific and should not be read according to a traditional “literal” interpretation. Instead, it should be read as a theological statement about who God is and how humanity relates to God. This leads me to deny any mode or demand of concordism between the biblical text and scientific cosmology. Much harm has been done to peoples’ faith by those who demand that they shut off their thinking mind to accept some predetermined notion of what Genesis 1-3 is all about.
The issue is complicated by science. As an archaeologist, I am a fan of various methods of dating including radiocarbon dating. While there are plateaus in the calibration curves for radiocarbon dating, it is accurate out to about twenty-thousand years before present. There are archaeological remains that are ten-thousand years old making it impossible for the earth to be only four thousand years old. Genomic research also complicates a literal reading of Genesis 1-3 as current research indicates that the genomic diversity in humans could not have come from a population less than ten thousand. That becomes problematic when we consider the words of Paul in Romans 5:12-14 and 1 Corinthians 15:21-22, and this is normally where the conversation leads for my young earth creation peers. If we are dealing with an old earth, and a large human population how are we to read and understand Paul’s words in these two places. My normal response, as with Genesis, is contextually. That was Paul’s understanding of cosmology. This issue will demand the development of an understanding of the nature of scripture and a greater articulation of an understanding of the nature of inspiration, the embodiment of God’s self-revelation.
These questions will significantly shape the church of the near future
The questions surrounding the relationship between scientific cosmology and biblical cosmology are particularly pronounced for Millennials and Generation Z (the current group of freshmen on campus). Frequently the church’s ignorance of and dismissal of scientific inquiry frequently creates a major stumbling block to faith for these age groups. Largely educated in a public-school system that has whole heartedly embraced Darwinian evolution, Millennials and Generation Z don’t have the same hang-ups about the scientific data that previous generations of evangelicals have had during the culture wars of the 80’s and 90’s. For them, the church’s inability to respond with both a robust understanding and a positive assessment of scientific inquiry leads them to be wary of the intellectual authenticity of the church and its leaders. Ultimately, if your young people are forced to make a choice between evolution and the bible, statistically speaking, many are choosing evolution, rather than choosing the bible and disregarding their intellect. Often, questions about human and cosmological origins become questions about the biblical text itself – or at least certain interpretations of the text: if Adam and Eve were not historical individuals, is the bible true and in what ways? Were humans originally innocent? Was there a “fall”? and Is there original sin?
Millennials and Generation Z craves authenticity and being drawn into a vision and mission that is greater than themselves. Being drawn into that mission and vision cannot come at the price of their own intellectual identity however. They are not willing to turn off their minds to assent to a particular interpretation of the text, instead they want to be drawn into a communal interpretative activity where individual perspectives change and shape the community’s understanding of the text.
Authors Setran and Kiesling and Kara Powell, in talking about emerging adults, cite several factors that contribute to decreased church attendance and faith engagement among emerging adults, including: 1) churches that overly cater to families and do not redeem singleness, 2) the church is perceived as unengaged with society, 3) a perception of shallow/trivial teaching with little relevance, 4) the church is perceived as repressive or outdated (particularly with regard to sexual standards), 5) the church is perceived as exclusive and judgmental, 5) the church is an unsafe place to express doubts and 6) the church is perceived as “anti-science” or at least simplistic in its response.
In response to these perceptions among emerging adults, we need to offer a degree of equipping, discipling and mentoring to emerging adults that produces a spiritual formation bent towards kingdom manifestation. This includes deep theological training and practical exposure to spiritual disciplines of abstinence and engagement. But it also includes a willingness to walk alongside emerging adults in their faith doubts and questions about how their faith relates to the modern social context, their individual vocations, and the modern scientific method. If we offer anorexic responses to their doubts and serious intellectual questions regarding cosmology, emerging adults will continue to eschew the church in preference for a moral therapeutic deism that requires much less of them.
The science is important
For emerging adults, the scientific data plays an important role in their understanding of the biblical text. Churches that insist upon concordism (the matching of a “literal” reading of the Genesis 1-3 with scientific inquiry) often alienate this group of people that are far more comfortable with accepting an ancient age of the earth and cosmos as well as biological evolution as the means through which God created biological diversity, including humans.
Generally young earth creationists identify the age of the earth as somewhere around six thousand years before present. Normally this number is arrived through a calculation of ages based upon the genealogical tables in the Biblical text. Unfortunately, the scientific data simply does not support such a young age for the earth and its materials. Radio-carbon dating is accurate up to about twenty thousand years before present. The earliest settlement in Israel, at Jericho, has been dated radio-metrically to about ten thousand years before present or the 9th millennium BCE. For much of Europe, we have a dendrochronology (tree ring) catalogue that can be traced to roughly twelve thousand years before present. Just those two data points alone make a young earth improbable. Things become even more complicated though as we consider dating methods for the age of the earth and the cosmos in general. The age of the earth and solar system has been determined using two methods: 1) Zircon Grain analysis and 2) radiometric dating of Argon-40’s half-life into Potassium-40. Several dates have been given using these methods for the age of the earth. Radiometric dating in Greenland produced an age of roughly 3.6 billion years for the earth. Zircon grain analysis of grains found in Australia dated the earth to some 4.4 billion years old. The standard though is provided through radiometric dating of meteorites which produces an age of roughly 4.5 billion years for our immediate solar system. Finally, the age of the universe is determined using a combination of the speed of light constant and stellar parallax to determine the distance of near earth and midrange objects in lightyears. The furthest limits of space is set by the cosmic background noise at 13.8 billion light years away (“How are the ages of the Earth and Universe Calculated,” BioLogos available online http://biologos.org/common-questions/scientific-evidence/ages-of-the-earth-and-universe).
In response to this data, young earth creationists tend to argue one of two tacks. Either they argue for a gap theory where there is a significant gap between Genesis 1:1 and Genesis 1:2 where Satan ruled earth for a period in Genesis 1:1 or they argue that God created the earth and the universe with the appearance of age, including geomorphology, dinosaur bones and light already in transit. The problem with such a position though is that is makes significant claims about the character of God which run counter to nearly every orthodox statement about who God is – loving, truthful, etc.
The genomic evidence following the human genome project produces another set of complications for biblical literalists. Namely, the present level of genetic diversity found in humans today indicates that there was never a population of humanoids fewer than roughly ten thousand (McKnight and Venema, kindle location 170). In other words, it would be impossible for us to see the present level of genetic diversity found in the human genome if humanity had descended from either a single pair (Adam and Eve) or a small group of people (Noah and his children). Genomic scientists used three distinct methods to determine the minimal viable population that could produce present levels of genetic diversity. Humans have about three billion alleles (gene data) and about 100 of them are mutated every generation. Using that known rate of mutation genomic scientists, used the method of Allele Diversity to indicate that the human population was never far below ten thousand (McKnight and Venema, L1106). Young earth creationist responded to this method by arguing that genomic scientists assumed a constant mutation rate as opposed to a variable rate. Perhaps, sometime in the past the mutation rate was greater? To account for the possibility of a variable mutation rate genomic scientists used two additional methods that did not require a known rate of mutation. First, “linkage disequilibrium” assumes that nearby alleles are inherited together. Occasionally there are copying errors and the alleles are copied in reverse order. This is called a crossover event. Regression curves based upon the known rate of crossover events also indicated that the human population never dipped far below ten thousand humanoids (McKnight and Venema, L1120). Finally, genomic scientists used “incomplete lineage sorting” which measures the diversity of alleles present in close genetic relatives (e.g. Humans, chimpanzees and gorillas). This method indicates that the lowest population of hominids was between seven thousand and ten thousand when humans first began to leave Africa (McKnight and Venema, L1181).
Between the age of the cosmos and the genomic data significant questions are raised for how we are to read and interpret Genesis 1-3. The traditional young earth “literal” reading that seeks to read into the text young earth science simple cannot account for either the age data or the genomic data that indicate that neither the earth, nor human origins could have occurred in the way young earth creationists normally “literally” read the text. If that is the case then we need to re-evaluate what constitutes a “literal” reading of the text and how we can understand the biblical text alongside what we know from the scientific data.
Why context matters
There are of course nineteen different accounts of creation in the biblical text (Gen 1-3; Prov. 3:19-20; 8:3; 6:8; 22-31; Psalm 19:1; 33:6-9; 65:6-8; 104; 139:13-14; 147:4-18; 148:5-10; Job 9:8-9; Isaiah 45:18; John 1:1-2; Col. 1:16-17; 2 Pet. 3:5; Rom. 4:17), yet the origins debate has tended to only focus on Genesis 1-3 in their discussion of either biblical or scientific cosmology. To properly read the Genesis account considering the scientific data we need to begin to gesture towards how reading the text in its original context, both Genesis 1-3 and Paul’s references to Adam in Romans 5 and 1 Corinthians 15, might alleviate some of the perceived conflict between a “literal reading” and scientific cosmology. While the biblical text was written for us, it was not written to us. Indeed, it is filled with several voices, each in their own social location and writing to specific audiences within their own time and place. I contend, along with John Walton that the most “literal” reading is one which assumes the identity of the text’s original audience, and therefore assumes the cultural norms of that audience as well.
For both the Genesis account and Paul’s understanding of Adam we have to assume that what goes unsaid is often the subconscious shared heritage between the texts’ authors and the texts’ audience. This is sometime called the “Ancient Near Eastern Cognitive environment” and it represents the assumed cultural beliefs shared by both the text’s author and audience (Walton, Ancient Near Eastern Thought). While cultural backgrounds studies do not directly allow us to better understand scientific cosmology they do allow us to better understand that ancient cognitive environment.
In the case of the Genesis narratives we can say two things: 1) It is ancient revelation because it does not receive special revelation outside the normal ways in which ancient near easterners would describe the world (e.g. it assumes an ancient cosmic geography); 2) it assumes a functional ontology (Walton, Lost World of Genesis One). The former statement assumes that there is not a single example of revelation revealing a scientific understanding that is not native to the world of the Bible’s ancient authors and audiences. For instance, what is normally translated as “the mind” in the Old Testament is usually the Hebrew word for “entrails” because this was thought to be the location of thinking in the Ancient Near East. In the case of the latter statement, a functional ontology is distinct from a material ontology in that functional ontology argues that things do not exist until they are named, separated, given a role within an ordered system, and someone benefits (e.g. humanity). We use this sort of ontology when we describe organizations today. A business for instance does not exists until it begins making sales or a school does not exist until students are enrolled and they begin taking classes.
There is both internal and extra-biblical evidence to indicate that creation in genesis is operating under a functional ontology. The extra-biblical evidence such as various creation account from elsewhere in the Ancient Near East (e.g. The Epic of Atra-Khasis, Enuma Elish, The Memphite creation, and the instructions of Merikare) all emphasize the gods’ roles in naming, separating, and giving roles in an ordered system. Internally the Hebrew word for “create” (ברא) is used fifty times in the Old Testament. God is always the subject or the implied subject. More significantly however the types of object taken by bara’ are ambiguous. No object clearly demands a material ontology and no materials for the creative acts are ever mentioned (Walton, Lost World of Genesis One). In the Genesis account of creation material exists prior to God’s creative acts – namely, the waters of the deep. Additionally, tohu and bohu (“formless and void”) seem to be functional terms rather than material terms. They denote that the cosmic waters lacked a function in an ordered system. Finally, a functional ontology provides a better account of God’s creative activities in each of the seven days of creation, including the seventh where God takes up residence in his cosmic temple (Walton, Lost World of Genesis One).
If however we accept the modern scientific understanding of human genetic diversity, as well as scientific cosmology a problem is created for how we are to understand Paul’s use of Adam in the New Testament in Romans 5:12-21 and 1 Corinthians 15:20-23; 45. This problem is especially acute when people argue that Paul is referring to an actual “historical Adam.” By “historical Adam,” people have tended to assume that this is a reference to two persons (Adam and Eve) who have a biological relationship to all humanity, that those two sinned and brought death into the world, and that sin nature was passed on to all humanity through sexual embodiment. Unfortunately, “historical Adam” does not appear to be the type of Adam Paul is referring to in Romans and Corinthians. More likely, given the intertestamental and extra-biblical references to Adam in early Jewish sources, Paul is using Adam as an archetypal figure.
Here again, we can draw on both internal as well as external extra-biblical evidence to support this position. Internal to the text in 1 Corinthians 20-23; 45 Paul refers to Adam as the first man and Jesus as the last man. The fact that we know Jesus was not the last biological human means that Paul must be referring to Adam as the first and Jesus as the last in a different way. The most likely option is to argue that Adam was the archetypal first (an archetype of disobedience) and Jesus was the archetypal last (an archetype of obedience). In Romans, Paul admits that “death spread to all men because all sinned” (Romans 5:12). While Paul is drawing a contrast between Adam and Jesus, he does not identify Adam as the source of all of humanity’s sin. No, each human has sinned and the evidence of their sin is the fact that every person dies.
The external evidence comes from intertestamental and late first and second century CE references to Adam in Jewish texts such as Sirach 5:11-15; 17:1-10, 4 Ezra 7:118; 127-28, and 2 Baruch. In each of these extra-biblical text Adam is an archetypal figure. There is no notion of “original sin” that was passed by Adam and Eve onto the rest of humanity. Instead each person has the opportunity to behave like Adam (disobedience) or choose the path of obedience. 2 Baruch is particularly informative because the path of obedience and disobedience are characterized as either the path of Moses or Adam respectively. Like in Paul’s texts everyone has the opportunity to be Adam, and everyone has the opportunity to be Moses/Jesus. None of the authors show a concern for the “historical Adam,” rather their concern is with guiding human behavior in their own time (McKnight and Venema, L2304, L3538 and L3575).
The failure of tradition
For the earliest interpreters of the Christian cannon, the patristic church fathers, concerns over historicity were often varied and divergent from modern understandings of historicity and the concordism demanded by young earth creationists between biblical and scientific cosmology. Indeed in describing the early church fathers Peter Bouteneff has argued that in “reading the ancients, we find that during any single era perceptions of and concerns about historicity and its relationship to truth vary among contemporaries at least as much as they do across millennial divides” (Bouteneff, Beginnings: Ancient Christian Readings of the Biblical Creation Narratives, xi). Indeed the early fathers were far more comfortable with reading Genesis 1-3 using a hermeneutic of typology or allegory that modern readers tend to feel squeamish about, particularly if their theology is tied to a certain understanding of original sin and “total depravity.” Bouteneff concludes his argument about the patristics noting that “Genesis 1-3 was read in terms of the Trinity … and even more in terms of Christ” (Bouteneff, 170). This is significant because it allowed the patristic fathers to have a greater freedom with their hermeneutic and exegesis. By maintaining, a Trinitarian focus, Bouteneff concludes, “which our writers identified as something made known through the apostolic witness, was both the hermeneutical key and the treasure sought through early patristic exegesis whether served through literal, typological, or allegorical readings or through a combination thereof” (Bouteneff, 170).
Our modern notion of original sin and “the fall” is rooted in an Augustinian reading from a mistranslation of Romans 5:12 in the Latin Vulgate that read “All die because in Adam all sinned.” Nearly every modern version of this text now uses the original Greek source which reads “death spread to all men because all sinned.” That one error, coupled with Augustine’s own misgivings about sexual embodiment has left a legacy on the transmission of original sin through sexual procreation. Rather than reading in Paul that all men die because all sin, Augustine produced a reading which led to the unleashing of cosmic sin and death because of Adam’s original disobedience. Individuals were no longer personally responsible for their own adherence to the way of disobedience (Adam) or the way of obedience (Jesus) for each had inherited a sin nature which prevented obedience. By the time of the reformation, this position becomes enshrined in Calvin’s assumed total depravity. Against this assumed total depravity I would cite passages such as Genesis 1:26-27 and 9:6 where, even after “the fall” humanity is still considered to have been created in the image of God. Likewise, I would cite Exodus 19:6 and 1 Peter 2:9. The former calls Israel a “kingdom of priests and a holy nation”, who, having just come from Egypt, would recognize that this moniker gave them the responsibility of being intermediaries between Yahweh and the rest of the nations of the world. In the latter case, the same image is being drawn on and applied to the Church. We are a “royal priesthood, a holy nation” responsible for mediating the presence of Christ to the rest of the world. Such positions go against any notion of total depravity for all believers in Jesus.
Finally, we should deal with the present disconnect between faith and science and the insistence of young earth creationists that scientific cosmology must match biblical cosmology (concordism). I contend that Genesis 1-3 is ultimately teleological not scientific. It is concerned with who God is, what is humanity’s anthropological purpose, and the ultimate purpose and function of the cosmos. In this way, Adam and Eve are archetypal characters designed to speak into the Ancient Near Eastern cultural context about who humans are and how they are to function in creation. Ultimately, empirical science focuses on causation sequences but it cannot clearly identify teleological purpose. As noted above, there is not one good example of biblical revelation, disclosing a scientific truth which is not native to the culture of either the text’s author or audience. By demanding that we read modern materialism into the Genesis 1-3, young earth creationists wind up negating the Genesis story according to its own functional terms and meanings. In making such demands young earth creationism requires a type of eisegesis by injecting a modern scientific understanding into the text. This means that the text is not being read, as claimed by young earth creationists, “at face value.” There is no reason that we should expect an ancient text to include a modern scientific understanding. If it doesn’t happen for the locus of the mind, or embryology (Psalm 139:13-14) why should we expect it when it comes to scientific cosmological and human origins.
McKnight and Venema’s Adam and the Genome offers an important corrective to this failure of tradition and the the failure of the modern church it address serious scientific inquiry and doubts held by it’s youngest members. If we want a thriving church filled with emerging adults over the course of the next decade we need to do a better job than offering anorexic one line responses to their doubts and questions. We need to engage young people deeply, walking with them in their struggles of faith. Every statistical indicator shows that in doing so young people walk away from the experience with even greater faith formation. McKnight and Venema’s book is a fantastic resource for guiding you through an alternative perspective on how that conversation might go. I can’t recommend it enough.