What it means to be created human

The creation of man, as envisaged by the Bible, isn’t as obviously biological as is often assumed, which is important if one wants to take a “science and faith” approach that doesn’t lapse into mere scientism. Take, as a limiting case, the Christian who, according to both Jesus in John’s gospel and Paul, is a “new creation”. As far as I know, every man or woman who has ever been a Christian was born by generation in the usual biological way, and if one accepts evolution has ape ancestors – none of which has any bearing on the process of their new creation whatsoever, which is of the Spirit.

Now, I became a Christian back in 1965, and according to biblical teaching I was, at that time, created as a child of Abraham by the supernatural gift of faith, as part and parcel of my new creation. I am, in the eyes of John the baptist, one of those children raised up for Abraham “from these stones”, for it’s not a biological matter – there is no guarantee that I have Abraham as an ancestor (though it’s by no means impossible that I have, for on the genealogical understanding of humanity, anyone born 4,000 years ago will have a large proportion of mankind as his physical descendants). But to the Bible, the creation of children for Abraham from stones is a spiritual matter, not a genetic nor even a genealogical one.

Genesis says that Adam was created, comparably to the Baptist’s children-from-stones for Abraham, from the adamah, the soil. Historically that has been considered an act of literal, special physical creation (though not the complete act, for the supernatural breath of God was also required to make Adam a living soul).

John H Walton takes the parallels in ANE literature, in which mankind is made from clay, to suggest the text is saying metaphorically that Adam came, ultimately, from the earth in the same way that all men do. This, of course, opens the way to an evolutionary understanding of human biology, if evolution was the means God used to bring the ultimate transformation of dead elements into living mankind in his image. It still requires the special enlivening breath of God, though, even accepting the application of the metaphor.

But reasonable as Walton’s proposal is, it still makes the common error of nearly all discussion of the origin of man in relation to evolution: it presupposes that by “man”, Scripture means the same thing as biology does. And that’s highly problematic, not least because biology has no single view of man, nor can it have one under evolutionary restrictions.

In the last post I looked at the surprisingly restricted views of humanity gained from anthropology, in that “man” usually meant, in primitive societies, “my tribe”. But modern science, whilst it may have overcome (if not repented) its previous delusions of polygenism to encompass, in practice, the unity of present humanity as one species, still has enormous conceptual problems with defining humanity, as I hinted in that previous post.

Strictly speaking Charles Darwin, although his book was called On the Origin of the Species, denied the possibility of universals called “species” at all. This is not accidental, but is the necessary foundation of his argument for gradualism. He spends much time, near the start of the book, showing the arbitrary nature of classifications of varieties versus sub-species and species, in order that he may break down the boundaries of species to make way for the gradual piecemeal transformations his theory requires, and which all modern versions of evolution also demand.

A species (even if one can agree on a definition – here are 26 possibilities for starters!) is, under all current theories of evolution, only a snapshot of a gene-pool in flux. Interbreeding, a common criterion, is not testable between distant generations. So are “archaic modern humans”, classified as Homo sapiens, actually the same species, when many or most of their genes have been modified by mutation, selectiuon and drift over 100,000 or more years? And do the proven genetic contributions of Neanderthals or Denisovans, through hybridisation, to current mankind make them human too? If so, what if they in turn sometimes bred with earlier humans? Does that make earlier hominins, too, “human”, and so on all the way back to LUCA, logically?

Evolutionary creationists of the modern type have tended to bypass the problem by reductive redefinition. Sometimes the concept of “man” is reduced to a particular set of endowments, such as reason or creativity or spiritual awareness. In this way man can be declared to have emerged through evolution, by the acquisition of these, at some ill-defined period in the past. In undirected “free process” evolution, this enables some to envisage God watching out for any intelligent ape, dolphin or octopus to appear and deeming it to be worthy of his attention. Needless to say, any such definition actually excludes from the human race any who lack the relevant acquisitions – the fetuses and newborn, the senile or the idiots, for example, as well as the apes: a fact used even by some Christians in support of abortion, euthanasia and so on, on the grounds that you cannot murder a non-person.

Others, or the same people at other times, similarly reduce their concept of man in order to dehistoricise the biblical accounts of man’s creation. Only instead of reducing man to set of endowments considered necessary to relate to God or be his image, they reduce him to his genome, and argue from that to say genetics precludes the existence of an historical Adam.

But remember, I introduced this piece by claiming to have been specially created anew by God through the new birth, which is orthodox New Testament doctrine. And my genetics, my evolutionary history and even, of itself, my position in the tree of life were irrelevant to that. And I suggest that the creation of a human being – and notably the creation of the first human being – encompasses much more than biology, just as does the new birth.

The biblical understanding of man cannot be divorced from his relationship with God, because man is introduced in that context. In chapter 1, male and female are created in God’s image, and given either various commands to fulfil on God’s behalf, or from another aspect given the earth as a gift from God to use for him. Either way man is described in relation to his purposeful creation by God. In chapter 2, Adam is created directly by Israel’s God Yahweh to serve in his garden, and it is the failure of his relationship with God that defines mankind as “sinners” for the rest of the Bible. Adam’s creation, therefore, is at least as much the creation of his relationship with God as that of his body or mind.

If John Walton’s analysis is correct, then man’s physical body is pretty much just a starting assumption carried over from ch1, on which the story of Adam’s creation as the founder and archetype of the race is then built.

At this point I must acknowledge that the germ of this article came from a 2012 BioLogos article by David Opderbeck, an article that seems to arise from the same thinking that led him to propose in March 2010 (I think for the first time ever) the genealogical view of Adam which, now supported by Joshua Swamidass, went down like a lead balloon at BioLogos (except with me!), perhaps because he is a lawyer by training, rather than a geneticist.

Not only did David realise from the work of Douglas Rohde et al that Adam could be the common ancestor of all mankind even according to a literal biblical timeframe, but he saw long before I did how the biblical concept of genealogy itself is wider than biological bloodlines. The discussion on this recent post touches on the same ground as Opderbeck’s more recent article.

The bottom line is this: it is now well established, even scientifically, that you are not your genes. You did not join your profession because it was in your DNA, despite the colloquial cliché, nor choose your favourite music or the football team you support on that basis. Genes did not determine who your spouse would be (if they did, the genetic diversity that sexual reproduction allows would be destroyed in a generation or two). And nor was your faith a product of a religion-gene, but of the supernatural grace of God working in you.

Neither are you only your body – our faith says that we will be raised in the body, but also that between our death and that time, “we” shall be with Christ.

So if “I” am neither just my body, nor just the product of my genes, then neither was Adam, though he certainly had a body, and genes. Neither is the humanity of which Adam was the fountainhead merely the sum of their bodies and genes, though those are certainly part of the story. Exactly what else we should consider in our understanding of “mankind” is not an easy question, given how little we know of the things of the spirit. But I’d wager that the account of Genesis 2-3 is a lot more concerned with the totality than with any of the physical “building blocks”.

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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.
This entry was posted in Adam, Creation, Genealogical Adam, Science, Theology. Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to What it means to be created human

  1. Avatar photo Stuart Kaye says:

    I’m not sure that this post is appropriate for your blog so feel free to keep it to yourself. I grew up am0ngst the aLunda, an African tribe located in the North-Western Province of Zambia, then Northern Rhodesia. Their word for people was “antu” but I didn’t come across the word Bantu until I lived in South Africa in apartheid days, when it was used as a racial classification in a somewhat derogatory sense. The singular is ” muntu”, pejoratively shortened to “munt” with its verb “munted”, which refers to any project inadequately completed or wrecked. Its offensiveness is akin to “nigger” but it was given the Royal Seal when Bill Windsor infamously referred to post-earthquake Christchurch as “munted”. Thus an innofensive word such as “muntu” has been appropriated by a culture that precieves others as inferior.

    • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:


      I think it’s most appropriate (though of course a complication of the simple process of calling ones own “people”).

      Steve Olson, my source for the etymology of “Bantu”, mentioned its hi-jacking under Apartheid. The main thrust of his book was the stupidity of racial considerations, given the thorough mixing of most of our genes.

      During this he introduced the concept of genealogical mixing and common ancestors, which (being objected to by geneticists) he went on to model rigorously with Douglas Rohde et al.

      From there (I believe) it was David Opderbeck who realised this would also apply to Adam, and I picked it up from him (I’m not sure where Joshua latched on to it). Given the idea’s history, it’s rather bizarre that at BioLogos the “Genealogical Adam” theme has been met with accusations of racism, when in fact it sounds the death knell for it.

      That said, I guess it’s because of Adam that sin, and therefore the idea of “munting” etc, entered the world. However, I stress again that whilst the idea that “Adam” may well have been originally intended to cover only a part of the human race, the whole tone of the Genesis narrative is much broader.

      Incidentally, since writing this I’ve come across a Society of Biblical Archaeologists article suggesting the very same thesis about the scope of “mankind” in Genesis: “great minds…” 😉

  2. Robert Byers says:

    Possibly also off topic.
    Indeed species do exist. they are real reproducing populations and so have the same body plans.
    This means mankind is made up of many species.
    its a wrong idea to define species by whether they can interbreed.
    the important thing is mechanism, whatever it is, creating a new population our of a previous one. this means a new body plan relative to the previous one.
    Even if there was no new body plan it would be another population.
    So another species.
    So I conclude species should be retired as a concept in biology.
    All there are ARE is segregated populations with different body plans from a mechanism affecting the body.

    Is that a species?

    • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

      Won’t work, Robert, in that taking the body plan (in enough detail to separate humans into species) would make every variety of dog a different species. In fact, it would make me and my children different species, until you could explain why their differences from their parents and each other should be exempted.

      The fact is that the whole human “species” (which is “of one blood” according to St Paul) has been mixed to the point that a recent survey of a quintessential “white” English village (in Herefordshire showed many genes from Africa, the Far East, Eastern Europe etc… and that is just the evidence of mixing in the last few centuries – earlier mixing would have been diluted out.

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