Genealogical Adam and Reformed theology

It’s my impression (which admittedly may be mistaken) that the Reformed churches in America, at least, find it hard to avoid agnosticism on matters of creation and origins. Or when they don’t, they find it theologically necessary to cut across what they see as the current opinions of science, leading to a degree of cognitive dissonance. They’re not unique in that, of course – some Evangelical theology nowadays seem to be based on cognitive dissonance as a virtue.

One recent example of the former position would be Tim Keller, whose commitment, for whatever theological reason, to the special creation of Adam was retained in the face of his respect for, and knowledge of, science. Joshua Swamidass’s public defence of Keller, by showing that the Genealogical Adam hypothesis (dealt with extensively here, of course, since I’ve waved the flag for it since 2010) changes the scientific outlook, doesn’t alter the fact that at the time Keller actually made his decision he believed that it was incompatible with the science.

Yet Keller has never denied deep time or evolution: a more dramatic “worldview choice” comes from R C Sproul, for whom I have a great deal of respect as a thinker and believer, who eventually decided he has to go with a seven day creation and a young earth, after a period of agnosticism on the matter. In describing his journey he reviews the alternative views, including the Gap Theory, the Day Age Theory, and the Framework Theory (Google them if you’re not familiar with them).

In my view this is an outdated list, because they’re all basically nineteenth or early twentieth century approaches, uninformed by any of the more recent scholarship in OT studies, biblical theology and ANE literature. But I think Sproul may have also have done insufficient justice to the credentials even of his alternatives. For example, this is how he describes the origin of Gap Theory:

The gap theory was made popular by the Scofield Reference Bible (1909), which more than any other single edition of Scripture swept through this country and informed the theology of an entire generation of evangelicals. It became the principal instrument for propagating dispensational theology throughout America.

Now dispensationalism is, for very good reasons, not popular amongst the Reformed – dispensationalism and covenantal theology are diametrically opposed. But Scofield wasn’t, in fact, the original source for the Gap Theory, as I will explain.

If one’s library is any indication of ones theological credentials, I’m probably Reformed. I have two translations of Calvin’s Institutes, a complete sixteen volume set of John Owen’s works and seven volumes of his Hebrews Commentary, and two copies of the Westminster Confession of Faith, one a Scottish imprint from 1671, just 25 years after it was written.

My other copy of the Confession is a reprint of an edition of 1845, with a commentary by Dr Robert Shaw (1795-1863), who was a Scottish “Original Secession” Presbyterian theologian and minister at Whitburn (halfway between Edinburgh and Glasgow). His other, long out of print, work was a critique of a “New Theology” of that time, that had softened the Calvinist doctrine of atonement and provoked a strong and very typically Scottish Presbyterian response of synods, libel suits and all kinds of fun, much of which quoted Shaw’s analysis. In other words, Shaw was a Calvinist of Calvinists. So I was interested to see how he dealt with the section of the Westminter Confession that says:

It pleased God the Father, Son and Holy Ghost, for the manifestation of the glory of the eternal power, wisdom and goodness, in the beginning, to create, or make of nothing, the world, and all things therein, whether visible or invisible, in the space of six days, and all very good.

Apart from the important general theological truths in this, upon which Shaw principally enlarges, he starts by explaining the received 4004BC date of creation, but then mentions the fly in the ointment of modern geology (remember this was 14 years before Darwin’s theory). He then mentions Christian responses to this science, including the equivalent of Flood Geology held by “some” (“all the changes which have taken place in the materials of the earth occurred either during the six days of the Mosaic creation, or since that time”), but adds that most think that “the facts which geology establishes prove this view to be utterly untenable.” He then discusses the Day Age Theory, and its weaknesses, and goes on at last to the Gap Theory, which is based on the observation that Gen 1:1 “leaves the time before the six day creation altogether indefinite”.

What strikes me most, though, is that he concludes:

This explanation, which leaves room for a long succession of geological events before the creation of the existing races, seems now to be the generally received mode of reconciling geological discoveries with the Mosaic account of the creation [for which he gives several citations, inclusing one from the biologist Louis Agassiz].

Now this accords fully with what historian Ted Davis said about the Evangelical response to deep time geology in an essay on BioLogos a few years ago: recent creationism was a minority view amongst thinking Evangelicals, and the Gap Theory the most favoured option. It confirms that not only was that true in Britain as well as America, but amongst the most conservative of conservative Calvinists.

I responded to Ted with a piece back in 2013, in which I suggested that, if the Gap Theory was an acceptable interpretation in the state of knowledge of the early nineteenth century, then modern advances should make it even more so in an updated form (once one removes the dispensationalist “taint” of the Scofield Reference Bible!).

As I have pointed out before, a whole range of modern Evangelical scholars have rediscovered the temple imagery of the Genesis 1 creation account, and begun to understand the narrative’s purpose as a theological explanation of the world with which Genesis, and the Bible, intends to deal, and not as a scientific or materialistic narrative. The scholars that come to mind immediately are John Walton, Greg Beale, Richard Middleton, N T Wright, John Sailhamer and (recently reviewed here) Seth Postell – all Evangelical believers in Scriptural Infallibility to one degree or another, some identifying as Reformed. I should add that the last two named view Genesis 1 as describing the creation of Eden for Adam, not of the world, but the imagery remains the same.

So whilst those like Robert Shaw were happy to hide the distant geological past in the first verse of Genesis, but had to account for the whole modern world in a six-day “makeover”, the task for modern Reformed conservatives is easier: simply to recognise that the genre of the account is all about God’s constituting the world of mankind as the sacred space for his worship. It simply is not concerned about material origins in terms of cosmology, geology or biology before that situation of worship came to be. The “gap” is not hidden in Genesis 1:1, but in what the author has no interest in teaching. Note that this conclusion arises not from a desire to accommodate the Bible to science, but from the understanding of Scripture’s own purposes.

The main practical difference of this from the Victorian concept of the Gap Theory is that the latter supposed a radical discontinuity between the world of Genesis 1 and the world of geology – perhaps some unrecorded catastrophe. In particular, it supposed the de novo creation of man as Adam on the literal Day 6. But there’s really no need for such a discontinuity once genre is taken into account: the world as it is, or strictly, as it was before Adam, is described in terms of its being prepared for the the role of man as ruler and worshipper. It is about what mankind is, not about his origins, except insofar as he is, like all things, the conscious and beloved work of God, through the Son and by the Spirit and, uniquely, made in his image.

Of course, Genealogical Adam fits this perfectly well. It allows for there to be the kind of world described by non-biblical sources in history, archaeology, geology, biology, and so on, and even allows evolution to be part, at least, of the story, without jeopardising the possibility of special creation. When I look at Robert Shaw’s acceptance of the somewhat crude and undeveloped Gap Theory, which was clearly typical of a large number of conservative Reformed theologians and ministers then, it is hard to believe he would not have been willing to recognise temple inauguration imagery and genealogical science as a better option, had the knowledge been available. After all, one motto of Reformed theology is Semper reformans, and adjusting to new light on Scripture is the very least threatening kind of reformation.

Shaw, of course, had not faced the challenge of Darwinian evolution – its challenge being primarily in the metaphysical baggage laid on it by materialism then and now, and unfortunately carried over into modern theistic evolution to a worrying degree. But that would not have affected the interpretation of the Westminster teaching on the creation one jot, because that whole evolution question belongs back in the “gap”, not in the text. Maybe Reformed creationists could consider their forbears’ example again in their synthesis of science and faith.

Incidentally, my foray into the Westminster Confession showed me one more useful thing, in relation to my recent thoughts on what Genesis may be intentionally teaching about the world of men before Adam. There I suggested that the author intended, from the “architecture” of the cosmic temple described, that we should understand that in the original state of creation, God might only be worshipped as the distant sky God.

I argued that the choosing of Adam in Genesis 2 was intended to transform and complete creation, by graciously introducing man to a new and intimate covenant relationship. If, then, we concur with the existence of men and women before Adam and Eve, and before sin, what kind of spiritual world would they live in? The Confession actually seems to answer that very clearly, in ch. VII, Section I, “Of God’s covenant with man.”

The distance between God and the creature is so great, that although reasonable creatures do owe obedience unto him as their Creator, yet they could never have any fruition of him as their blessedness and reward, but by some voluntary condescension on God’s part, which he hath been pleased to express by way of covenant.

Couldn’t have put it better myself.

Jon Garvey

About Jon Garvey

Training in medicine (which was my career), social psychology and theology. Interests in most things, but especially the science-faith interface. The rest of my time, though, is spent writing, playing and recording music.
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