Rejecting Adam

Emma Tyler (1864-1927)

My maternal great-grandmother was Emma Tyler, who came from a non-conformist family (Brethren, Primitive Methodists or Independents to a woman) that I can trace right back to the sixteenth century in Braintree, Essex. There it was, coincidentally, that I ran a back pain clinic for the last two years of my medical career. Many of the Tylers were bakers and confectioners in the nineteenth century, and any older readers who knew Cambridge “back in the day” may remember that the best bread came from Tylers bakery opposite St Johns College. That was started by my 3X great-grandfather’s brother English Tyler in around 1840.


Murder of Wat Tyler

Being dissenters, it’s not surprising that in family tradition we were said to be descendants of Wat Tyler, who some say was from Essex, and who led the Peasants Revolt of 1381. He was treacherously murdered at a parley with King Richard II in London. The revolt, apart from its immediately social causes of overwork and exploitation, was much influenced by the theology of John Wyclif (1320-1384), the so-called “morning star of the Reformation,” and another leader was the Lollard priest John Ball (who ended up hanged, drawn and quartered for his role). Ball coined the slogan:

When Adam delved and Eve span
Who was then the gentleman?

And unless you misconstrue the answer as “Adam”, his theology was spot-on. Universal human descent from a single couple actually does relativise all social divisions, including racial and biological ones, as secondary. As he preached to the crowds:

From the beginning all men by nature were created alike, and our bondage or servitude came in by the unjust oppression of naughty men. For if God would have had any bondmen from the beginning, he would have appointed who should be bond, and who free. And therefore I exhort you to consider that now the time is come, appointed to us by God, in which ye may (if ye will) cast off the yoke of bondage, and recover liberty.

Whether he was so radical as to be an anarchist is doubtful – his target was oppression and serfdom, and I don’t think either he or Wyclif would suggest the Bible forbids social structures established by consent. I was reminded of Ball’s words by reading C John Collins’ excellent book Did Adam and Eve Really Exist?, in which he discusses the human equality that follows logically from their progenitorship, and questions whether any other origins story provides such a secure foundation for social justice.

By way of example consider, for a moment, the model propounded by those like Denis Venema, in conscious opposition to Genealogical Adam specifically and “mere historical Adamism” (Collins’ deliberately clunky term) in general. In this view, mankind beyond doubt evolved from a common ancestor with chimpanzees, and furthermore population genetics shows that the population never dropped below some minimum of, perhaps, 1,000-10,000. Adam must, in that reckoning, be a purely allegorical figure, or as per Venema’s co-author in Adam  and the Genome, Scot McKnight, one whom Paul wrongly thought to be historical.

Often, those who hold this view are hesitant to ascribe any special supernatural activity to the formation of man, and of course such special divine action becomes even less plausible if a large-ish population, possibly scattered across the continents, is to be so endowed. It’s hard, after all, to imagine the whole human race waking up one day with an immortal soul.

Nevertheless if we conceptualise, anyway, true human origins as an event at the time of this bottleneck, whether natural or supernatural, the first human race consisted of several thousands of naturally-evolved creatures from the same stable as chimps and bonobos. I’ll leave to one side the work of Swamidass, Buggs et al., which shows a single couple bottleneck in deep time to be possible under population genetics after all, because Venema is having none of it, on the grounds of lack of a probable natural cause for it.

John Ball

But if you take any population of great apes, there is a clear social structure. There are alpha males, dominant matriarchs, and differently empowered individuals who all find their place in the social hierarchy. There seems no reason to doubt that, species differences notwithstanding, such a pecking order would have existed in that first population of hominids who evolved into true humans, by whatever biological or social route. This has profound consequences, because had John Ball known of it, he would have had to change sides on the grounds that:

When the first bottleneck obtained
Social heirarchy remained.

“By 1850 the American School’s polygenic theory had succeeded in challenging the biblical chronology of the history of the earth and its inhabitants. Freed from doctrine, the American School hailed a new era of “free scientific inquiry” into human origins. The proponents of the American School elaborated the polygenic theory with such rigor that it was taken as the accepted scientific truth in the two decades before the publication of The Origin of Species.”

Now, the mathematics of population genetics has disproven, as far as we currently know, the old evolutionary belief, held by Haeckel, Galton, H G Wells and that whole regiment of eugenicists and older anthropologists, in polygenism. But the science does allow for incomplete lineage sorting and for recombination of genetic material.

In other words, under the “many Adams” model,  although it is impossible to say that natural leaders, or whites, or smart atheists, have the right to dictate to others because they are descended from the alpha males, pale skinned or smart atheists from that first bottleneck population, nevertheless such inequalities were the case “in the beginning”, at the time of human “evolutionary creation,” and so there will certainly be those now who are naturally endowed with the requisite qualities to rule others, and others genetically predisposed to serve them. Just as the Darwinian eugenicists said, natural selection will have favoured those most fitted for power, and so God has blessed the mighty through creation itself. “He has lifted up the rulers to their thrones,/ and has humbled those who were humble.”

Now, none of those Christians who take the non-historical Adam position would follow that logic, on the grounds that Jesus taught equality, humility and so on, sealing it with his own self-giving death on the Cross. And they would be right. But without Adam, just as an evolutionary view of sin makes righteousness an innovation contrary to selfish created nature, so the equality in Christ is no longer the restoration of the way we were created to be, but a new order of things in opposition to nature.

There’s more – none of these people, so far as I know, disagree that we participate in the blessings of Christ through faith. That is why there is supposed to be a special bond of love and equality within the Church of Christ, as brothers and sisters in Christ. But what logical Christian basis is there, under the “many Adams” scheme, for treating those outside the faith as also equals under God? Or for seeking to bring about secular social change for the equal dignity of all humanity – and especially the weak and disadvantaged – if it is no longer possible to base it on God’s created order before sin, but only on participation by faith in Christ? How can you speak truth to power if that power can reply with a truth that “in the beginning it was so“?

The logic of monogenism alone won’t cut it – every day thousands of fetuses with Down’s Syndrome are aborted because they are held not to be equal to healthy members even of their family, let alone the human race. If such children were exposed or quietly bashed on the head in that first, bottleneck, population of humans, then what’s the difference now? Whereas if they are born in the same image of God represented by that rather glorious, if sadly fallen, couple at the fountainhead of humanity, Adam and Eve, that dignity alone makes them of equal dignity. This should give us serious pause for thought about our theology of origins.

Incidentally, my initial personal family history provides a valuable illustration of the Genealogical Adam theory here. From my grandchildren to the oldest Tyler ancestor I have traced, John Tyler of Bocking, born c1568, is 16 generations. That actually means they each have no less than 64,000 ancestors from that generation. Add maybe another ten generations back to Wat Tyler in the fourteenth century, and that’s c.64 million ancestors each, or close to the entire population of Europe then. John Tyler is our true ancestor, a real person recorded in Essex parish records, but so is virtually everybody else living in the country then.

15th century Woolpack, Bradford Street, Bocking, where Anthony Tyler sold bread (the bay behind the two small boys) in the early nineteenth century .

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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, Genealogical Adam, Science. Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Rejecting Adam

  1. mchenoweth says:

    Really interesting post! Let me see if I can poke a few holes in it.

    “so there will certainly be those now who are naturally endowed with the requisite qualities to rule others, and others genetically predisposed to serve them. Just as the Darwinian eugenicists said, natural selection will have favoured those most fitted for power, and so God has blessed the mighty through creation itself. “He has lifted up the rulers to their thrones,/ and has humbled those who were humble.”

    If we modify the views of Maximus the Confessor a bit, why not say that the first humans sinned “together with their coming into being,” then we can say that science has ALWAYS studied fallen human nature. This preserves the idea that we didn’t begin IN SIN, and yet there has been no time when we weren’t sinners. I don’t see why someone who doesn’t affirm a literal Adam is stuck with “ontologizing fallenness” as Jamie Smith puts it.

    And why are we looking at Adam as the image of God instead of Christ? Christ is the true human being. How do we know God didn’t create the genealogical Adam (GA) with a propensity for domination or subjucation, etc.? or with the opposite: a weak and cowardly character? Under both the GA scenario, or a non-historical Adam scenario, the first human sin(s) would have come about through the “evil husbandry of the mind” (G. Of Nyssa); through humanity’s CHOICE to misuse instead of transmute what could be used for either good or evil.

    Nyssa: “If reason instead assumes sway over such emotions, each of them is transmuted to a form of virtue; for anger produces courage, terror caution, fear obedience, hatred aversion from vice, the power of love the desire for what is truly beautiful.”

    Why can’t we say the first humans were supposed to let reason assume sway over such emotions but failed to do so?

    I’m not sure your criticisms apply to the proposals of Richard Middleton, Robin Collins, C.S. Lewis, and James K.A. Smith, all of whom allow the possibility of a non-literal Adam. I DO think your criticisms are more powerful against Enns and Adam and the Genome since they seem to have an extreme allergy to anything that even HINTS of concordism. Since they don’t offer ANY speculative historical reconstruction of the fall, then yes, your Downs Syndrome critique may work.

    • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

      Hi Mark

      Sinced this post was somewhat speculative, poking holes is a good exercise. But let me reply first by remembering that Jesus relativised divorce by saying “it was not so in the beginning.” In Irenaeus’s reckoning (and, from your information, Maximus’s) that pattern came under threat from sin by the end of the sixth day of creation. Yet the original, innocent, state was still paradigmatic for Jesus, and I’ve suggested a similar understanding for human equality. (Though I don’t think Scripture entails quite such a short timeframe before sin as Maximus seems to be implying).

      The argument doesn’t actually depend directly on man’s creation “in the image” – which, I confess, does cast some question on it, for there is a good case for saying that those made “in the image” needn’t ever have fully reflected Christ, the true Image (see C John Collins, for example).

      Still, the antithesis I was making was between a single Adam and a largely naturalistic model (as you recognise, the “Adam and the Genome” type), in which (usually) “the image” appears to be somewhat vague, and perhaps grafted on to the large human population as some covenantal arrangement. Such a population actually emerges with inequality, rather than falling from it. Multiple Adams in the sense of a whole race created in innocence, and falling corporately, could still model the western model of original righteousness, however soon they fell (if not the Eastern anthropology which, I guess, you champion).

      The requirement is only, broken down, a point in history at which today’s “mankind” begins, in innocence and, specifically, equality of worth.

      I interact quite a lot with Richard Middleton, but haven’t done on this, so I can’t really predict what his response might be. I’m not sure about Lewis, though – even his speculative model in Problem of Pain is more a supernaturally created corporate “version” of Genealogical Adam than what I was examining. Thus:

      Then, in the fullness of time, God caused to descend upon this organism, both on its psychology and physiology, a new kind of consciousness […] In perfect cyclic movement, being, power and joy descended from God to man in the form of gift and returned from man to God in the form of obedient love and ecstatic adoration.

      In other words, he is representing Adam, the originally righteous, specially created single progenitor, as ha’adam the originally righteous, specially ensouled progenitor race. In any case, as has been pointed out by Lewis scholars, in pretty well every other place in his writings he gives great weight to Adam and Eve as individuals, notably in his noble portrait of the King and Queen of Perelandra.

      No, my biggest doubt about what I have presented here comes in applying it to the Genealogical Adam model under development. The commonest forms of this have the mankind of Gen 1, prior to Adam, created in God’s image (optionally including evolution, but with the “how” of this creation not being clearly developed theologically), with the assumption that they may display all kinds of non-Christlike behaviour, enabling any signs of savagery in the evidence for early man to be unsurprising.

      In this view Adam is, in some way, a fresh start from this either by special creation (classic Swamidass presentation) or by some kind of “upgrade” of a representative from the wider race.

      Many variations are possible – it would be possible to take the creation of man in Gen 1 as the creation of Adam, Gen 2 being a parallel rather than sequential account, but that makes the Scripture entirely silent on the existence of other people apart from suggestive hints in, eg, Gen 4.

      I’m encouraged by such questions to enquire further into the status of human beings before Adam – even without covenant relationship with Yahweh, creatures with mind and culture would be pretty special, and even more so if they are “created in the image of God.”

  2. Robert Byers says:

    its cool you come from the dissenting, really evangelical protestant, folks.
    i do see these people as the unique element in English history/society and the origin for the superior moral and intellectual curve of Englishmen in human history. the dissenters raised the common man in other words as opposed to rising curves of the upper classes as was the usual story.
    I’m not sure if the peasant rebellion had anything to do with Wycliff. Hmm.
    They would not of been involved in violence or radical overthrow.

    • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:


      I’m not sure if the peasant rebellion had anything to do with Wycliff. Hmm. They would not of been involved in violence or radical overthrow.

      You’re right, in generalk terms. To fine-tune the history…

      Amongst the Lollards, as is the case with any such movement, there were more extreme radicals. It is true that once in all his writings Wycliffe had briefly justified a communist society. He had said first in his De Civili Dominio: “All good things of God ought to be in common. The proof is as follows: every man ought to be in a state of grace. If he is in a state of grace he is lord of the world and all it contains. Therefore every man ought to be lord of the whole world. But because of the multitudes of men this will not happen unless they hold all things in common.” But this is in Latin and in a learned treatise, and Wycliffe immediately went on to say that history since the sin of Adam had led to authority and the unequal distribution of wealth in which all good Christians should acquiesce, as long as it is in the hands of laymen. This is the standard orthodox treatment. If all men were in a state of grace, wealth and poverty would not exist…

      It was not until (the peasants) sacked the archbishop’s palace and liberated the prisoners in the episcopal prison that they liberated John Ball, called a Lollard, but more likely a millenarian heretic of the old style. William Morris’s A Dream of John Ball has made Ball famous and given him a greater role in the revolt than in fact he actually had.

      Nevertheless, my OP enables me to introduce both Ball’s rather good slogan about Adam, and my ancestral story.

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