Where's the (Philosophy of) Science? A Review of Four Views on The Historical Adam

Historical AdamLate in 2013 Zondervan released another installment in their Counterpoints series–this particular contribution offering different perspectives on the historicity of AdamSince their inception several years ago, I have appreciated these multiple-view books. Although I usually come to and leave these books holding firmly to one of the views, I am always grateful to learn, first-hand, how proponents of different positions articulate and defend their views. I am also encouraged to think afresh about my convictions and presuppositions, and nuance my own position if necessary.

In the case of Four Views of The Historical Adam, I come to the discussion as a young-earth creationist who believes in an historical Adam.

In this review, I will discuss a few weaknesses in of each contributor’s argument and methodology. I will then discuss one major weakness that afflicted the book as a whole.

Denis O. Lamoureux – Evolutionary Creation View
Lamoureux accepts human evolution as fact and therefore claims that Genesis, while clearly making material and historical claims, is simply wrong. The author of Genesis, like his contemporaries, had an “ancient view” of science and was therefore mistaken in his description of cosmic and human origins. Such a position, Lamoureux claims, does not undermine inerrancy, for God willingly accommodated his revelation to these mistaken ancient viewpoints in order to communicate inerrant theological truths.

One of the most significant weaknesses to Lamoureux’s argument is his attempt carve out a place for inerrancy within his proposal. In order to maintain a commitment to inerrancy, Lamoureux argues that God “accommodated the revelatory process and came to the level of ancient people in order to communicate inerrant, life-changing truths” (41). Because Lamoureux locates inerrancy in the theological truths rather than the incidentals that communicate those truths (e.g., statements in Genesis that speak of God created Adam out of dust of the ground), he is able to affirm emphatically that God does not lie, despite his claim that Scripture makes statements about cosmic and human origins that never really happened.

The problem with this kind of argument is not only its logical incoherence (God cannot lie, yet the Scripture he breathed out contains errors), but the fact that it assumes a mistaken view of accommodation. Historically, accommodation was never defined as God’s accommodation to mistaken human viewpoints. In fact, this view of accommodation was designated as heretical and outside the bounds of an orthodox understanding of Scripture during the post-reformation period. Richard Müller comments,

The Reformers and their scholastic followers all recognized that God must in some way condescend or accommodate himself to human ways of knowing in order to reveal himself. This accommodatio occurs in the use of human words and concepts for the communication of the law and gospel, but it in no way implies the loss of truth or the lessening of scriptural authority. . . . Note that the sense of accommodatio that implies not only a divine condensation, but also a use of time-bound and even erroneous statements as a medium for revelation, arose in the eighteenth century . . . and has no relation to either the position of the Reformers or to that of the Protestant scholastics, either Lutheran or Reformed (Dictionary of Latin and Greek Theological Terms, 19).

Like Rogers and McKim decades before him and like most evangelical non-inerrantists today, Lamoureux departs from the historical understanding of accommodation in order to draw a sharp distinction between the historical incidentals and spiritual truths of a given biblical text. These arguments are not new, but they were definitively answered by John Woodbridge over thirty years ago in his book Biblical Authority (1982) and more recently in a compilation of scholarly articles to which Woodbridge contributed the foreword: Do Historical Matters Matter to Faith: A Critical Appraisal to Modern and Postmodern Approaches to Scripture (2012).

John Walton – The Archetypal Creation View
Unlike Lamoureux, Walton believes in a historical Adam and Eve. But he also believes that the Genesis narrative is more concerned about establishing the archetypal function of Adam and Eve than about giving us a description of their material origins. With this assumption Walton is able to argue that the Genesis text allows for the mechanism of evolution and a pre-adamic race, so long as we recognize that Adam and Eve were historical people who at some point were endowed with the image of God.

The major problem with Walton’s argument is the false dichotomy he drives between functional and material aspects of the Genesis narrative. Why, as Lamoureux and C. John Collins asks in their responses to Walton, must we choose between a functional or material emphasis in the text? I agree with the argument that the Genesis narrative presents Adam and Eve as archetypes of humanity. I also believe there is evidence in Genesis 2 that suggests that Adam and Eve should be viewed as priests serving in God’s temple garden (thank you, G. K. Beale). But this affirmation does not preclude the text teaching that Adam came from the dust of the ground and his wife from Adam’s rib.

Although Walton states repeatedly that he is driven by the text of Genesis in developing his view, it seems obvious that his exegesis is compelled by outside concerns; namely, to account for the so-called fact of evolution. Because of this, I find Walton’s argument the most inconsistent. Better to say, like Lamoureux, that the text tells us how Adam came to be but that it’s wrong than to force a false choice between two clear aspects of the narrative.

C. John Collins – Old Earth Creation View  
Like Barrick, I am closer to C. John Collins in my view than with Lamoreoux and Walton. He believes in an historical Adam and views Adam and Eve as the “headwaters” of the human race. What troubles me about Collins, however, is his repeated warning that we we not read the Genesis narrative “too literalistically.” Given the last 40 years of evangelical hermeneutical debate, I find statements like these most unhelpful. What this kind of plea typically means is “let’s not read the text in a way that excludes my view.” Because Collins accepts evidence for an old-earth, he must loosen the Genesis narrative to allow for such evidence.

Collins argues for this approach, in part, by appealing to Francis Schaeffer’s “generosity of spirit” and his desire “for Christians to get along with one another” (169). Collins continues,

This approach also recognizes that a well-functioning Christian has a hierarchy of commitments: he or she will insist more strongly on the tenets of “basic” or “mere” Christianity–say, the Trinity, or the resurrection of Jesus–than on some other matters that are important, but not quite so vital–say, the number of sacraments and their exact effects. If we add into our consideration the literary features of Genesis 1-11, we conclude that the very nature of this biblical material leads to some sort of freedoms and limitations rubric, since the material both resist a strictly literalistic reading and invites recognition of its historical impulse. In practical terms this means that the author’s main goal is to enable us to picture the events he recounts, without getting bogged down in the details (169).

While I am all for Christian unity and for developing a hierarchy of theological commitments that allows believers to fellowship around major doctrines while disagreeing on secondary matters, it appears that Collins makes an illegitimate logical move in this paragraph. He appears to go from a discussion of motivation–a “generosity of spirit” and desire for Christian unity that rightly recognizes a hierarchy of doctrinal commitments–to the hermeneutical conclusion that the literary features of the Genesis narrative allows for freedom within which to form our convictions about human origins. Since the the text “resists a strictly literalistic reading,” legitimate interpretations of the creation narrative can span a wider range than, say, young earth creation.

But isn’t this saying that a generosity of spirit leads us to conclude that the Genesis narrative allows for a generosity of spirit? Because Collins wants to measure out some exegetical room for evangelicals to form their convictions about human origins, he appears unwilling to restrict the Genesis narrative too tightly, regardless of whether or not the text calls for such restrictions.

As a young-earth creationist who shares very little with Lamoureux (see above) in terms of our respective interpretations of the Genesis narrative, I find it interesting that he is one who so strongly criticizes Collins’s handling of the biblical text. In his critique of his argument, Lamoureux reminds Collins that Genesis clearly teaches 24-hour creation days. These claims are wrong, of course, but let’s not play arbitrary games with the text. Collins might point us back to his claim that in Genesis “the author’s goal is to enable us to picture the events he recounts, without getting bogged down in details.” But this is special pleading: the details of the narrative exclude Collins’s view.

William Barrick – Young Earth Creation View
I hold to a young-earth and a historical Adam, so I am sympathetic to Barrick’s arguments. Nevertheless, I agree with Walton that Barrick did not accurately represent Walton’s archetype view in his refutation of it. It did seem as though Barrick set up a strawman in order to show the absurdity of arguing that the Genesis narrative is not making historical claims. Unfortunately, Walton is not claiming that his archetypal interpretation precludes historical realities; he does believe Adam was a historical person. Walton is certainly right when he says, “If one wishes to refute an argument, one must be careful not to misrepresent it” (238). Although he doesn’t mention Walton specifically, Barrick seems to admit to this unintentional misrepresentation in his rejoinder (see page 252).

One Main Weakness –  “Science” Left Undefined
A weakness that afflicted each of the contributors–including the editors A. B. Caneday and Matthew Barrett and the pastoral responses from Greg Boyd and Philip Ryken–was their failure to define what they mean by the word “science.” Yet, this is one of the primary issues that drive the entire discussion of origins, human and otherwise.

Because none of the contributors are careful to engage the question of how we should define “science,” readers are left with the impression that the difference between these men has more to do with an unwillingness to recognize obvious, indisputable facts than it does with biblical interpretation. Ryken observes this problem when he writes,

Many are sincere in seeking to understand carefully what the Scriptures do–and do not–claim about human origins. Still, the starting point for most challenges to the special creation of Adam is science rather than Scripture. According to the mainstream scientific consensus (there are dissenting voices, of course), the human race did not being with a single pair but must have started with some larger population. Some Christians think that this emerging consensus gives us the real facts and find it at odds with the Genesis account of human origins. . . . Fortunately, we do not have to choose between biblical orthodoxy and scientific credibility. General revelation and special revelation both tell us the truth. As time goes on, we may hope to understand better how the truth claims of science and Scripture converge (269).

But even here, because Ryken does not approach the foundational problem of how we should define science, readers are allowed to conclude that those who do not accept an evolutionary framework in developing their theology of human origins are simply guilty of ignoring reality for the sake of theological dogma. Because the majority of people in our contemporary setting assume the word “science” denotes a philosophically neutral activity where unbiased practitioners merely relay indisputable public facts to the ignorant masses, any dissent from these “findings” is intellectual stubbornness at best, pathological religiosity at worst.

But years ago it was Berkley law professor Philip Johnson who overturned the idea that contemporary science is a philosophically neutral enterprise. When it comes to human origins, Darwin himself admitted that he was seeking a natural (as opposed to supernatural) explanation for the origin of life. Subsequent articulation and popularization of his theory has continued along these lines while naturalism as a philosophical starting point is assumed to the degree that departure from this starting point (by positing a Creator) implies a departure from science itself. This is why, as Johnson observes, “it is pointless to try to engage a scientific naturalist in a discussion about whether the neo-Darwinist theory of evolution is true” (Darwin on Trial, 123) and why creationists are often labeled “unscientific.”

But for the Christian to accept a definition of science that assumes philosophical naturalism is an unnecessary concession. As Johnson explains with devastating logical force, the Darwinian theory of human origins does not derive from empirical observation. Rather, it is a philosophy about reality that dictates one’s conclusions about various so-called evidences.

A good empiricist insists that conclusions be supported by observation or experiment, and is willing to discard even the most cherished doctrines if they do not fit the evidence. Naturalism and empiricism are often erroneously assumed to be very nearly the same thing, but they are not. In the case of Darwinism, these two foundational principles of science are in conflict. The conflict arises because creation by Darwinist evolution is hardly more observable than supernatural creation by God. Natural selection exists, to be sure, but no one has evidence that it can accomplish anything remotely resembling the creative acts that Darwinists attribute to it. . . . As an explanation for modifications in populations, Darwinism is an empirical doctrine. As an explanation for how complex organisms came into existence in the first place, it is pure philosophy (Darwin on Trial, 117).

Now, someone might argue–like editors Barrett and Candeday, for example–that this particular Four Views was not compiled to deal with questions of scientific methodology but with interpretations of Genesis 1-2. But it is difficult to see how we can separate these two areas of inquiry, especially when (1) it appears that at least two of the contributors accept evolution as indisputable fact and thus develop their interpretation of Genesis accordingly; and (2) a biblical worldview cannot consistently affirm a definition of science that assumes philosophical naturalism. The discussion, by its very nature, requires participants, regardless of speciality, to ponder the philosophy of science question.

While there is certainly some value in this kind of interaction between professing evangelicals who hold to different views of human origins, I do not suspect much progress will be made in this discussion until scholars are willing to engage the foundational question of how science should be defined. This will require more than exegesis and evaluation of ANE documents. Scholars will have to demonstrate awareness of how their worldview generally and their definition of science specifically influences their interpretive work. Until then, we might talk much, but it will mostly be past each other.

One thought on “Where's the (Philosophy of) Science? A Review of Four Views on The Historical Adam”

  1. Good points all, Derek.

    I would add that science is predicated upon uniformity, something that philosophical naturalists presume and take for granted. Christians, however, do not presume uniformity at all times because the Bible says expressly the opposite: that uniformity in the natural world was not present at the dawn of creation, nor is it present at the end. Christians are to remember that this EXACT issue was addressed by Peter (and the Holy Spirit) when he wrote (2 Peter 3:3-4), “Above all, you must understand that in the last days scoffers will come, scoffing and following their own evil desires. They will say, “Where is this ‘coming’ he promised? Ever since our ancestors died, everything goes on as it has since the beginning of creation.” The philosophical naturalist who claims to be a Christian must address these two questions: (1) Who is the scoffer to whom Peter refers? (2) Based on the pejorative manner by which Peter presents those who claim “everything goes on as it has since the beginning of creation,” is it really a good idea to base your philosophy on the tenet these scoffers uphold–at all times this world is marked by scientific uniformity?

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