Ted Davis’s challenge to Evangelical thinkers

In the last post I mentioned Ted Davis’s summary of his series Science and the Bible. At the heart of his article is a list of what he takes as key and non-negotiable Evangelical doctrines:

  1. The uniqueness of humans, who alone bear the “image of God.”
  2. The fall of Adam and Eve, the original parents of all humans, from a sinless state, by their own free choices to disobey God.
  3. The responsibility of each person for their own actions and beliefs, within a universe that is not fully deterministic.
  4. The redemption of individual persons by the atoning sacrifice of Christ.

He goes on to say this:

The 64-dollar question is: can these beliefs be maintained without simultaneously affirming the necessity of an historical, separately created first human pair?

My first impression is that this is, indeed, one $64 question, which is nowadays often treated as a $64,000 question by both TEs and their opponents. But I’m not sure it’s the main question being asked. My impression is  not that  TEs, like their opponensts, all affirm these 4 doctrines but differ on the nature of Adam. Rather I have encountered TEs who question the first point, the uniqueness of humanity (except as one end of a continuum); deny pretty well all parts of the second; subordinate our moral accountability to our inevitable evolutionary inheritance or redefine historic views of the atonement.

Christian doctrine does not stand or fall on the literal historicity of Adam, though it does have more implications than non-theologians often consider (like my old friend who used to say it didn’t matter whether Adam was actually “a lump of protoplasm”, but changed his mind once we’d preached through Genesis 1-11 together). Personally I think the big question is whether there are any significant Evangelical teachings that are fundamentally incompatible with a belief in evolution (defined as descent with variation), or to turn it round whether evolution requires the modifications historical faith that TEs seem so often to demand. My own answer to both questions is “No.”

But let’s look at Ted’s list of doctrines in detail, considering them in relation to “an historical, separately created first pair.” For it is the TEs who regard the existence of this first pair as a biological sticking point and consider the conservatives blinkered for maintaining their historicity. It’s therefeore as relevant to rephrase Ted’s original question and direct it to TEs:

The 64-dollar question is: Does Evangelical belief is an historical, separately created first human pair really cut across the findings of science?

The uniqueness of humans, who alone bear the “image of God”

There are many possible orthodox explanations for human uniqueness and “imageness”, granting the physical evolution of humans from hominids. Here are a few, to be taken singly or in combination. None of them actually requires a separately created first pair, though some suggest it:

(a) Image may be taken to be the planned result of theistic evolution: God achieved a desired physical result. The pre-existence of hats in no way undermines the uniqueness of a king’s crown. But evolutionfails to explain many of the characteristics usually included within the image of God, and especially spiritual attributes.

(b) Image may be taken as a divine non-evolutionary endowment of the rational eternal soul, or some equivalent, as in the Thomistic view. Evolution has not even begun to explain adequately self-consciousness, morality, free-will, consciousness of eternity, desire for life after death or indeed any of the undoubtedly unique human attributes. Man is unique – the fact that evolution doesn’t explain it is hardly a reason to deny the obvious. Such a non-evolutionary, discrete endowment must have happened at a point in history to someone, and independent of biology. And it is the act that, effectively, created true humanity.

(c) Image may be taken to be a functional status, as indeed Genesis almost certainly teaches primarily. It says what God has created mankind to do on his behalf, not how he created him thus.

(d) Image may be taken as a relational, covenantal status. Israel was created as Yahweh’s nation of priests independently of their evolutionary history: Genesis 2 has many parallels to, say, the call of Abraham. A covenenant, however, must be made with someone, and in Scripture that usually means with, or through, one individual.  We’re back to our first individual again. But…

(e) Mankind’s divine image is only gleaned from the Genesis 1 account, and there is no exegetical reason why Genesis 2 should refer to the same event, rather than the later call of a particular couple from the race. So if Genesis 2 did not exist, and mankind were considered to be created en masse rather than through a single couple, then the race would still be unique and bear the image of God.

The fall of Adam and Eve, the original parents of all humans, from a sinless state, by their own free choices to disobey God.

This point obviously rather loads the original $64 question, since “the original parents of all humans” rather presupposes an historical first human pair. But:

(a) Scripture does not actually state Adam and Eve were the original parents of all humans, though it certainly implies their ancestral role for many (table of nations) and particularly for the Jews.

(b) Scripture actually says (Paul in Acts 17) that the races all came from “one blood”, implying only the common ancestry that is confirmed by biology, and not necessarily descent from one man.

(c) Romans 5 teaches that sin came into the world through Adam (note the covenant context as it wasn’t through Eve, though she sinned first) and so to all men, but doesn’t specify how. The inheritance of sin through procreation may or may not be an adequate explanation in the light of science, but is not a core doctrine.

(d) Federal headship has long been the key concept in Reformed concepts of original sin, and need not imply physical ancestry any more than does Christ’s federal headship for his people.

(e) It is no less reasonable to account for the spread of sin through imitation from one man than it is for Jack Mahoney to account for the spread of eternal life from Jesus to be through moral influence. So it is at least conceivable for an Adam to be the fountainhead of human sin even though not the first ancestor.

(f) Adam could easily be one common ancestor of the current human race even if he were born in the historical setting implied in Genesis (ie Mesopotamia c3000 BC) – see the MRCA studies. If he were, say, a palaeolithic ancestor (eg at the time of the alleged cultural explosion c 40K ago) then there is no doubt that he is a common ancestor of all historic humanity, as those same studies indicate we are all descended from all who have left any descendants from that time.

(g) Regarding the fall by free choice, remember that a free human in God’s image choosing to sin is not the same as, say, a lion created to predate eating an antelope. Or even an enraged hominid clubbing his neighbour. Evolution has to prove there was never a single man given simultaneously (and for the first time in history) free-will, original righteousness and a relationship with God. How would it go about doing that? In the same way as showing that there was never a man who was the Son of God, or one who received the indwelling of God’s Spirit by grace?

The responsibility of each person for their own actions and beliefs, within a universe that is not fully deterministic

I’m not sure how belief in a first human pair impacts on this at all. Evolutionary science has discovered nothing either way about the determinism of the Universe. Quantum theory, on the contrary, strongly suggests it is not physically so, but as people like Polkinghorne, Alvin Plantinga and Robert Russell have shown, can say nothing about its determination by God, or what that would mean within science. Practically, even the deniers of free-will live as if they had it, so it’s scarcely likely that any variation of Christianity will arise in dialogue with evolution that totally denies accountability on the grounds of scientific determinism.

And yet we do see TEs placing human actions at God’s door as the one whose evolutionary process led man “inevitably” into sin through his genetic heritage. Here is just a variation on those materialists who berate the public for choosing to believe free will exists – they are self-confuted. So, I ask these TEs, if we are not to be judged for our sin because “evolution did it”, why all this criticism of people for their stubbornness in being YECs, conservative evangelicals and the like? And why credit belief in theistic evolution with any validity beyond your genetically grounded preferences?

The redemption of individual persons by the atoning sacrifice of Christ.

One of the biblical arguments in support of Christ’s atoning role, ie that of Paul in Romans 5 and 1 Corinthians 13, seems to presuppose a historical Adam, though without his necessarily being our first biological progenitor. But the doctrine of atonement itself doesn’t depend on it, and evolution has nothing useful whatever to say about atonement. There are arguments about the meaning and scope, and scriptural appropriateness, of the English term “atoning sacrifice”, but none of them have any bearing on evolution, and few have any direct connection to a historical Adam.

Interestingly, that doesn’t stop many voices on BioLogos, and elsewhere in theistic evolution circles, inveighing against historical doctrines of atonement. Once again that is evidence, if evidence were needed, that a lot more than science is driving these discussions. When a feminist theologian referred to penal substitution as “cosmic child abuse”, it wasn’t evolution that inspired her, nor evolution that made evangelicals like Steve Chalke over here use the phrase in his own book. Yet supporters of evolution seem prone to conclude that it necessitates a complete reappraisal of Christ’s work. I disagree.

Ted Davis’s article itself brackets Evangelical skepticism about evolution with its distrust of higher criticism, and rightly so  because they are both products of the same Enlightenment rationalism. In fact, Davis has some sympathy with this doubt:

Sometimes there are good reasons: the claims of some biblical scholars are so outrageous and the claims of some scientists so anti-religious, that a strongly negative response is entirely appropriate.

What is lacking in the article is any set of criteria for distinguishing the outrageous and the anti-religious from the valid. For example, some would say that the theologian who says Jesus or Paul were mistaken about divine truth is being outrageous, or that the biologist who sees fit to deny the existence of a historical individual like Adam is being anti-religious. I don’t believe Adam and Eve is the biggest issue causing Evangelicals to fight shy of enndorsing evolution. There are many more of far more weight.

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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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