Is Genesis real impossibility?

Joshua Swamidass has become involved in what appears, at first sight, a minor disagreement on a BioLogos thread puffing a new essay by several authors entitled Is Genesis Real History? His objection was especially to one sentence (bearing the marks of John Walton’s hand, I suspect), which reads:

Or consider Genesis 2:7, when God forms Adam from dust and breathes into his nostrils. This could not have happened exactly as described, because we know from other passages in the Bible that God is Spirit with neither hands nor lungs.

Now coincidentally this ties up with a recent conversation in comments between Mark and myself here on The Hump, starting with my musings on the nature of creation here.

Mark points out in response that the language of the creation of Adam in Genesis 2 is suggestive of special creation, and my reply is to suggest that, given the genre of the passage, I am open to the idea that “creation from dust” might have a primarily symbolic reference to earthly origins (which might include taking an existing member of the humanity created in Genesis 1), and that the “breath of God” might be equally symbolic, but representative of a special spiritual endowment by God upon that representative man for his race, which would by that token be a true act of special creation, a new “form”. In that conversation I pick up on the BioLogos thread, which I hadn’t previously seen, in a comment on Wednesday morning.

Joshua’s point is that the sentence of the essay quoted above seems, on the face of it, to deny the special creation of Adam – a sticking point (as we discussed here) for many believers like Tim Keller, who is generally sympathetic to the aims of BioLogos and has even written for them. Keller said as one of three “red lines” on human origins (and I précis):

Not only was there an Adam and Eve… it sure seems like the text says that God created Adam and Eve, and didn’t just adapt a human-like being; it says he created him out of the dust of the ground.

Now, Joshua suggested that by, apparently, cutting across the core convictions of those like Keller quite unnecessarily (because nothing in science, except a metaphysical denial of direct divine activity, precludes the special creation of Adam), and, moreover by doing so in a part of the site that embodies BioLogos’ “official” position (their “Common Questions” section), BioLogos is excluding many people’s orthodox views on the basis of one particular theological bias. Both interpretations of Genesis 2 are possible and compatible with belief in evolution, so why prefer one over the other in Evolutionary Creation?

Now, I’m not sure from my understanding of Keller whether he sees the special creation of Adam as necessarily following exactly the narrative in the text, which he allows to be poetic. But he certainly does take special creation itself as an essential, as did Thomas Aquinas representing classical Christianity, and as did Evangelical theistic evolutionist B B Warfield regarding the body of Eve and, at least, the soul of Adam.

It’s true that the sentence in question does not directly exclude a literal Adam’s special creation, and I know John Walton himself believes Adam was a real individual. But the discussion in the thread seemed to lead to the deduction of ahistoricity all too readily: God, being spirit, can have no literal hands or breath – ergo, he could not have created Adam from the dust of the ground or breathed into his nostrils. At the least the matter is not clear, as commenter Jennifer Thomas points out:

It can be tempting to start pointing out the “logical” fallacies of Genesis, but that leads to a long, slippery slope. If one is reading Genesis as a poem rather than as a scientific treatise, it’s kind of ouchy, don’t you think?, to say “this could not have happened exactly as described.” Poems, as you know, aren’t a form of communication that rely on cognitive logic. Poems are about using peripheral vision instead of foveal vision; intuition instead of scientific argument; differential calculus instead of algorithms; heart instead of mind. So I don’t think we can single out Genesis 2:7 for its lack of logical consistency with other poetic writings; rather, in Genesis 2:7 we’re reading a poetic verse that tries to convey something important and true about God’s true nature (even if the facts themselves aren’t “true.”)

The point, surely, is that to express a historical act of special creation through “poetic” imagery is quite possible, and may, in fact be as unavoidable as the New Testament’s describing the Spirit descending on Jesus as a dove or on the disciples as tongues of fire. Just as the latter symbolism gives no warrant for explaining these events as fictional or even merely psychological, neither does the imagery of Genesis 2 give any indication whatsoever that natural circumstances, individual or as a species, are intended or should be inferred.

Joshua raises the possibility of this passage describing a “human” theophany, in which case God could have both hands and breath. My first reaction to that was negative, in that nobody was around to witness the event, so why should God appear in human form? But that is, of course, incorrect. If Adam were created de novo, or even transformed from an existing non-spiritual human, he nevertheless awoke to the immediate presence of God, presumably as some kind of human theophany, in which form Yahweh appeared to him even up to the time of his expulsion from the garden, in which God walked.

Neither is such a theophany unique to “poetic” Genesis 1-11, for Abraham and others in the Old Testament also encountered God in human form. Brad Kramer even points to Mike Heiser’s contention that ANE thinking did not dichotomise the spiritual realm from the physical as we are prone to do. These considerations surely make even the original sentence in the essay an unsafe argument, quite apart from any unwarranted deductions about the creation of Adam. In human form God meets many people in many parts of the Old Testament, and he both speaks and acts physically, and sometimes supernaturally, in that capacity.

Abraham washes the feet of a triple version of such a theophany and feeds them. Later, in Sodom, it is these three men who physically drag Lot back into his house and slam the door. Jacob wrestles with God or his angel and, spirit or no, Jacob comes out of it with a dislocated hip. These passages are, in genre, historical, or as historical as their unique “family chronicle” genre allows many centuries before history as we understand it was developed. Yet even in the New Testament, angels (who are pure spirit too) make Zechariah dumb, move stones from tombs and unlock chains and prison doors. If we accept the Bible’s view of itself, and of God, it is absolutely not impossible for the creation of Adam in Genesis 2:4 to have happened exactly as described.


I suppose there are three related matters here that make this of some small significance, all of which were to some extent raised on the BioLogos thread and perhaps reflect its ethos.

The first is the idea that there is some problem with the spiritual and divine interacting with matter, both for philosophical reasons (how could they interact?) and theological ones (the old chestnut that God is so transcendent that his direct activity could not be seen in creation or else he would be “just another agent”). The simple answer to both is that our faith is based entirely on such an interaction: God became a man, and the Father was seen to raise him from the dead. God in Christ was not ashamed to appear, to human eyes, as “just another agent.” The Father was not afraid to be “just another voice” when he spoke from heaven about Jesus. He could therefore even more readily appear like a man and act creatively in that capacity in Genesis, and both philosophers and theologians will have to cut their cloth accordingly.

The second is that there is something wrong – perhaps unscientific – about special creation. Adam ought to have evolved “by natural causes” because… well, I’ve written enough on the cultural blinkeredness of that view (albeit it the cultural blinkers have exited for several centuries) to say “Fie on your ‘natural causes'” and insist you tell me what they actually are in relation to God’s sovereignty and governance of all things in heaven and earth in Christ. Yet it is pretty much the trademark view of the current incarnation of theistic evolution.

Thirdly, there is an arbitrary decision by some that nobody in their senses can really believe in a historical Adam, and that therefore to point to possible metaphor in Genesis is to remove the historical Adam by default – a logical error, as I have shown. That such a prejudice may be the case somewhere in the thinking of “official” BioLogos is shown by the continued non-mention, as a viable option, of the significant development of the Genealogical Adam hypothesis in the “Common Questions” section. This despite its being first propounded there in 2010, and despite its major proponent Joshua Swamidass’s having been, at one stage recently, officially associated with BioLogos. This science makes a “recent” Adam a plausible common ancestor of the entire present human race, and it does so even were he specially created, in whole or part, with or without the literal hand and breath of the Lord.

It’s a big mistake to exclude God’s direct creative role, at least in the case of man as he is today (in Adam), not only for the exegetical reasons of Warfield or Keller, but because of the metaphysical considerations of Aquinas and many modern philosophers and theologians. Man is both spiritual and physical, and whilst the physical aspect of man could, in principle, arise from evolution by natural causes, the spiritual, in the very nature of things, cannot.

We debase the nature of mankind if we strive too hard to explain ourselves by the forces of nature acting (according to Loren Haarsma in another recent BioLogos essay) like ice crystals making snow or undirected chess games playing themselves (it seems!). As Blaise Pascal pointed out in his Pensées, the consequences may be grave:

It is dangerous to explain too clearly to man how like he is to the animals without pointing out his greatness. It is also dangerous to make too much of his greatness without his vileness. It is still more dangerous to leave him in ignorance of both, but it is most valuable to represent both to him. Man must not be allowed to believe that he is equal either to animals or to angels, nor to be unaware of either, but he must know both.

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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7 Responses to Is Genesis real impossibility?

  1. Mark Mark says:

    They have “jumped the shark” with this one, if that phrase means anything to a Brit. Yahweh-Elohim had hands and breath. He was the pre-incarnate Christ, the second person of the Trinity fused with humanity. Not born of a woman yet, not with a nature like ours, but in human form all the same. The incarnation of the second person of the Trinity was not God’s back up plan which He resorted to after things failed to go as He anticipated. It was something He did in the beginning. The Christ-centered model of Early Genesis shows this. See video…. https://youtu.be/OyPly3A6fGo

    • Jon Garvey Jon Garvey says:

      Absolutely, Mark.

      However one handles the exact details of theophanies (and their distirubiution between God, angels and “The angel of the Lord”, one should be thinking in Trinitarian terms. And one of the oldest conceptions of the “economony” of the Trinity (as found in Irenaeus) is that the Son’s very function as the only-begotten is to mediate between the Father and his creation as his creative Word. There is an ontological fit between mankind and God, in the person of Christ, even before his incarnation.

      We see that in Colossians, for example, in which every aspect of creation and its sustaining is in every way related to Christ. We see it in Hebrews’ portrayal as “the exact image” of the Father, inviting the contemplation of how that relates to man made in the image of God. We see it in his prexistent glory (Jn 17:24) always intended to be shown to mankind, and in the eternal covenant of salvation summed up as “the Lamb slain before the foundation of the world.”

  2. Mark Mark says:

    Yes, that’s it. Many New Testament scriptures teach us what “God’s image” means. Christ is God’s image. He is the fusion of God whom we cannot see with Man whom we can see. He was not hopping in and out of human form throughout the old testament. Look at the Hebrew in Genesis 1:27. “God made THE Man in His own image.” That part of the triplet in 1:27 is the second Person of the Godhead becoming this Old Testament figure,and later when born of a woman as Christ.

    Adam is but an echo of Him on earth (in the image of God created He him). Note: on days three, four, and six parallel things are happening in heaven and on earth and the text reflects that. This is why the personal name “Yahweh” does not show up until chapter two, and God in chapter two is more anthropogenic than in chapter one.

    So it is an oversimplification in my view to say “Chapter one was talking about this other group of humans and chapter two was talking about Adam”. Chapter one covers a large arc of time and is talking about both the adamic race and adam the man. Chapter two is telescoping in to just the part about Adam the man. The “male and female created He them” with no mention of God’s image refers to both Adam and Eve and the larger human race. Adam lost the image of God through unbelief with the fall and at the end only claimed God’s likeness (Gen. 5:1-2). In Christ and through faith, we can get it back. Completely in heaven and in earth by degrees as we long for the Spirit to do His work in us.

    That the “Angel of the LORD” (really just “Messenger God” or “Word God”) is simply another name for the second person of the Godhead who has assumed human form see this article from answering Islam on the issue….. http://www.answering-islam.org/authors/rogers/malak_yahweh1.html

    • Mark Mark says:

      I guess I meant “Messenger Yahweh” or “Word Yahweh” on that last bit, Yahweh being the family name of God. Both the Father and the Son are “Yahweh” just as I share my father’s family name, but mankind is not on a name basis with God until 1:27, but speaks of the Divine by title, “God”.

      • Jon Garvey Jon Garvey says:

        Yes, I took that as read. Except (for refining the argument) I’d describe Yahweh as a covenant name more than anything, because it doesn’t so much say who God “really” is in himself, but who he is towards those he loves and relates to – which of course is the significant shift in Gen 2 over Gen 1, and the link forward both to Israel and the Church.

        • Mark Mark says:

          That is a good refinement. But I wonder if the two are not one and the same? That is your excellent point that “it doesn’t so much say who God “really” is in himself, but who he is towards those he loves and relates to” also applies to the three Persons in the Trinity. The “I AM” root is both pointing to their self-existence connected to one another and that each of them is whatever love is to those in that fellowship. May we enter it fully in Him!

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