it’s unavoidable and biblical to move beyond the Bible—a quick word about evolution and the Bible

Posted by PeteEnns on January 11, 2017 in Christianity and evolution The Evolution of Adam 24 Comments

adam-and-eveSpeaking of evolution and Christian faith . . .

Much of the confusion, hand-wringing, angst, and raised hackles comes from failing to ask of ourselves a simple question: what do we have the right to expect from the biblical origins texts, namely the story of Adam?

I argue in The Evolution of Adam that, far from “attacking” the Bible, information from outside of the Bible “calibrates” the kind of expectations we bring to the biblical texts in question.

So, things like genomic studies, the fossil record, and ancient Mesopotamian creation myths help us see that Genesis 1-11 is neither science nor history. And so seeking from these stories scientific and historical information is to misidentify the genre of literature we are reading—to expect something from these stories they are not prepared to deliver.

The findings of science and biblical scholarship are not the enemies of Christian faith—they are only “enemies” of biblical literalism, which is not to be equated with the Christian faith.

In fact I’ll take this a step further: The discoveries of science and of ancient history are opportunities to be truly “biblical” precisely because they are invitations to reconsider what it means to read the creation stories well.

Although this means turning down a different path than most Christians before us have taken, it would still not be the first time Christians have had to divert their path from the familiar to the unfamiliar.

We need only think of the ruckus caused by Copernicus and Galileo, telling us the earth whizzes around the sun, as do the other planets, when the Bible “clearly” says that the earth is fixed and stable (Ps 104:5) and the heavenly bodies do all the moving. Sometimes older views—no matter how biblically grounded we might think they are—do and must give way to newer ones if the circumstances warrant.

In fact, shifts in thinking like this, where older perspectives give way to new ones, is a perfectly biblical notion.

The prophet Nahum rejoices at the destruction of the dreaded Assyrians and their capital Nineveh in 612 BCE, but the prophet Jonah, writing generations later after the return from exile, speaks of God’s desire that the Ninevites repent and be saved.

What happened? Travel broadens, and Israel’s experience of exile drove them to think differently about who their God is and what this God is up to on the world stage.

In fact, Israel’s entire history is given a fresh coat of paint in the books of 1 and 2 Chronicles, which differs remarkably, and often flatly contradicts, the earlier history of Israel in the books of Samuel and Kings.

Why? Because Israel’s journey to exile and back home again drove the Judahites to see God from a fresh perspective.

We could talk for hours about how the theology of the New Testament positively depends on fresh twists and turns to Israel’s story, such as a crucified messiah and rendering optional the “eternal covenant” of circumcision God made with Abraham (Genesis 17) as well as the timeless dietary restrictions given by God to Moses on Mt. Sinai (Leviticus 11).

What happened? Jesus forced a new path for Israel’s story that went well beyond what the Bible “says.”

**Simply put, seeing the need to move beyond biblical categories is biblical—and as such poses a wonderful model—even mandate—to move beyond the Bible when the need arises and reason dictates.**

Being a “biblical” Christian today means accepting that challenge: a theology that genuinely grows out of the Bible but that is not confined to the Bible.

And so I see the matter of Christian faith and evolution not as a “debate” but as a discussion, not defending familiar orthodoxies as if in a fortress but accepting the challenge of a journey of theological exploration and discovery.

For me, that approach is much more than an intellectual exercise—though it is that—but a spiritual responsibility.51pbY5KhyEL._SX322_BO1,204,203,200_

[An earlier version of this post first appeared in October 2015. I am reposting it today as I am beginning a new course on “Science and the Bible” and all this is on my mind. The original post was adapted from a lecture I gave earlier that fall at the annual meeting of the Institute for the Study of Christianity and Culture at Michigan State University on “Reconciling Human Origins and Religious Faith: Thoughts from a Christian Evolutionist.”]

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  • Sir Psalm 104:5 is taking about foundations being fixed and not the positions being fixed. If earth is fixed to its foundations then it means it is fixed to its axis with respect to rotation and revolution. Psalmist is not saying that earth is just there at a point in space.

      • How do you know he didn’t? Did the author of Psalm 104 leave us his beliefs about the rotation of the earth? All we know is that Ps. 104 is a poetic description of the world. It says nothing about his view of natural science.

        • I am more interested in Psalm 22 in respect to ‘knowledge of stuff the writer couldn’t have known about’ in the sense it ‘predicts’ Jesus crucifixion. The author of Psalm 22 clearly did not know the crucifixion would happen, yet it seems to me that it predicts something about the nature of those events, which suggests the author was somehow ‘inspired’ – i.e. what he was writing about was ‘higher’ than what he thought he was writing about, and that in turn makes me think well if that was inspired then maybe other stuff was too?

      • Yes. Psalms are poetic in nature. They are collection of prayers. So, do you think it’s a good reference when we juxtapose it with our views that are scientific?

        • No, it’s not a good reference. That’s the problem. YEC use all sorts of genres (Gen 1-2 are poetic, are they not?) to make their points about what it “literally says”

    • Go read the statements of Rome and the Reformers and their use of the scriptures in their insistence on geocentrism.

  • I completely agree with your genre recalibration insights in terms of the early Genesis stories. I think they really help in asking the right questions of the text.

    I agree that a believer must “move beyond Scripture” and apply its teaching in today’s very different circumstances from when Scripture was written. A believer must also “move beyond Scripture” in digging up what Scripture means by investigating what the words meant and what the original cultural context was; that is, it is a mistake to think of Scripture as some kind of self-contained system.

    However, I think you go too far when you wrote: “We could talk for hours about how the theology of the New Testament positively depends on fresh twists and turns to Israel’s story, such as a crucified messiah and rendering optional the “eternal covenant” of circumcision God made with Abraham (Genesis 17) as well as the timeless dietary restrictions given by God to Moses on Mt. Sinai (Leviticus 11). What happened? Jesus forced a new path for Israel’s story that went well beyond what the Bible “says.””

    I think the examples you give are all in continuity with Israel’s story and are not discontinuities. I think Jesus did not force a new path in Israel’s story, rather, Jesus called people back to Israel’s story. turning around is what “repent” means at the basic level. The suffering servant Messiah prophesied in Isaiah was fulfilled by Jesus being crucified. The eternal covenant of circumcision still applies for those among Abraham’s descendants and for those that wish to join them; but doing such does not mean one is saved (declared righteous), as that is based on an active faith in God’s promises, which both Jews and gentiles can have today and could have before Jesus, see the book of Hebrews Hall of faith. The Leviticus dietary restrictions still apply for those that wish for them to apply to themselves (practicing Jews including some Messianics), but are not required for gentile believers, except of course when they eat together in table fellowship, then one defers to the dietary restrictions of others.

  • A big discussion on Adam and Eve has just blown up among theologians here in Sweden. I’m not at all involved, I’m just a simple Science teacher/Biologist, but I’m interested and I’m so glad I read your books (three of them at least- “got stuck with Paul” in The Evolution of Adam) in August- September before this started. Just wanted to say Thank you!

  • The everlasting covenant God made with Abraham (Gen. 17) *could have* been everlasting, if Israel obeyed. However, they failed to obey over, and over. Hence the need for a new covenant to replace the old, broken one.

  • You write, “Jesus forced a new path for Israel’s story that went well beyond what the Bible ‘says.'” I’ve recently been looking at NT passages in which the various writers say that Jesus’ death and resurrection [and other events as well, of course] took place “according to the scriptures” (Paul), or “as it is written” (Mark), or “to fulfill what had been spoken….” (Matthew), etc. Would it be fair to say that these NT writers, in a sense, forced Israel’s story into a new path, to show that the story of Jesus conformed to the will of God as revealed in scripture?

  • Reading the Genesis’ creation story as a scientific text of creation requires the existence of a different set of laws of physics than we have today, unless the early earth of Adam was in a different dimension.
    I say this because there is no other way to explain an earth with a dome of the sky, or an absence of rain to water the Earth unless evaporation and condensation were not part of the laws of physical matter at that time. It requires a different reality.
    This only scratches the surface of these differences in natural phenomena from the perspective of a creation story, but it must require either an eventual transformation of the laws of physics not mentioned (and so, also, chemistry, biology, etc) or a non-literal description of creation.

    • Another point is that in Genesis it talks about the garden of Eden being near three rivers. Now where does rivers get there water from?/ From rain/ and snow melting, So this idea that there was a dome in the ski goes down the drain.

  • I wonder if developing a competent understanding of nature, ourselves, and the physical world we live in while maintaining trust and confidence that the eternal God of the Bible continues to lead us forward into all truth, is perhaps a bit harder and comes at a greater cost than making a religion out of the insight and revelation given to men thousands of years ago.

  • Pete,

    I have to admit I’m not a geneticist, paleontologist, nor Ancient Near East scholar. However, and I may be going out on a limb here, I’m pretty sure that modern genetic or fossil knowledge of human origins has effectively zero bearing on the genre assignments of ancient documents. So I’m confused by your statement here:

    “So, things like genomic studies, the fossil record, and ancient Mesopotamian creation myths help us see that Genesis 1-11 is neither science nor history. And so seeking from these stories scientific and historical information is to misidentify the genre of literature we are reading.”

    Any thoughts on why you made that leap?

    • Isn’t it evident? No leap. The study of origins scientifically and the the study of ANE myth “calibrate” the genre of Gen 1-2 and preclude the genre designation of “science” or “history”

      • Pete,

        No. I honestly don’t follow. Genre has to do with authorial intent. What was their message? What did they want to communicate? Who was their audience? How did they craft that message? What’s literary forms did they use? And so on.

        So I just don’t follow this at all. I mean, let’s say we’re reading Herodotus. And find historical inaccuracies (of which they abound), the only argument we can make as to why he wasn’t intent on “writing history” on certain portions of his work would be if we can make the case that he likely would have been aware of those inaccuracies and wrote them in anyway.

        But if the source of your information is some methodology like genetics or paleontology that did not exist in Herodotus’ time, and the events he described far precede him, then what evidence is that of his writing within a different genre? He would have had absolutely no reason to question those ancient accounts as there was no science at that time that would have enabled him to do so.

        We know now that magic isn’t a thing. We live in an age where so much of that has been debunked that suffice to say most people do not take ancient accounts of magicians working the wonders they are claimed to have seriously. But we then do not assign a different literary genre to works describing the actions of magicians. It is clear to us that the author believed these magicians to be authentic. Or at the very least in his culture he would have had no reason to doubt such magic existed. Though we do now.

        Yet a scientific finding of what happened hundreds of thousands of years into millions and billions preceding the author informs his genre? Really? Why? That makes no sense. But if you can explain something maybe I’m missing, I would like to hear what you have to say.

        • A modern generic label of an ancient text does not depend on authorial intent. If it did we could never label an ancient text because we can never know the author’s intent.

          You’re overthinking this, Tim. Standing alone, it is possible (suppose) to read Gen 1-3 as science or history. Comparing/contrasting Gen 1-3 to science and ANE studies, however, shows that these chapters cannot be designated as such.

  • What about Christianity having to accommodate some of its revelation to things that science has revealed? The vast ages of the earth and of humanity, the shared ancestry of humans with the animal kingdom, and the debate still in progress among Christians concerning whether there ever was a “first couple,” a literal “Adam and Eve?” Catholic doctrine still posits that one must believe in a first couple, as do many Evangelicals, but the science of genomics has increasingly challenged the idea that a literal first couple existed and instead argues that a population of humans evolved together. Moreover, what about the idea of a “fall?”

    “It is a difficult task fitting evolutionary ideas into the Christian framework, beginning with Paul’s exposition in Romans 5:12 that ‘Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death came through sin, and so death spread to all because all have sinned’… And what about Paul’s thoughts on the direct connection of sin with one man and redemption with another in Romans 5:18, ‘Therefore just as one man’s trespass led to condemnation for all, so one man’s act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all.’ Was the trespass that Paul mentions perpetrated by some particularly evil Homo habilus or an especially cunning Homo erectus? The common modern explanation is that Genesis 1-3 is to be interpreted metaphorically. If that is so, why does God require a bloody, horrific, non-metaphorical sacrifice of his Son? This is the difficult task of reconciling evolutionary thought and Christianity… One also has to wonder what it means to live in a ‘fallen’ world where no such fall has occurred [where death, predation, aggression, have always been, long before any species vaguely resembling an ‘Adam’ ever evolved]. So without an historically ‘good’ creation ‘in the beginning,’ and without an historical Adam and Eve or historical fall, the problem of natural evil becomes one of even more stark contrast. The answer to suffering parishoners that we ‘live in a fallen world’ makes less sense if every living thing was cursed with death–and over 90% of every ancient species was cursed with extinction–long before human beings even showed up in this less than Edenic cosmos.”
    — Terry W. Ward in a letter published in Christian Century, April 22, 2008 [with edits]

    “Did a separate group of hominids reach a certain point at which their brains could handle a ‘soul?’ And where was the cutoff point? Can you imagine the heartbreak of knowing your mom and dad aren’t endowed with the image of God? Try this on for size: ‘Grandma and grandpa aren’t going to heaven — not because they sinned, but because they were animals.’”
    –Tim Widowfield, Strange Bedfellows — Evolution and Christianity

    “So long as people believed, as St. Paul himself did, in one week of creation and a past of 4,000 years – so long as people thought the stars were satellites of the earth and that animals were there to serve man – there was no difficulty in believing that a single man could have ruined everything, and that another man had saved everything.”
    — Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, Christianity and Evolution [Pope Pius XII in the 1950s called the writings of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin “a cesspool of errors”: Humani Generis, Pope Pius XII, August 12, 1950,]

    If this history of death and suffering is intrinsic, if more feature than bug, if scarcity has always been the rule, if there really was no magical time of pure shalom in our past from which we “fell” (or what IS the “fall”?)… Or more specifically, what does it mean for our characterization of death and suffering if they (1) aren’t the result of a primordial failure of vocation and (2)wouldn’t have been eliminated by a fulfillment of vocation by ‘Adam’?
    — Mike H at Scott McKnight’s blog

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