Today I would like to respond to a blog post written by Kirk Durston. I have never met Dr. Durston but I want to say I appreciate the post he has written even as I will disagree with points made within it. The post does a great service by pointing out many of the doctrines that would need to be examined and adjusted to fit an evolutionary understanding of creation. He notes, with Edwin Walhout, that “original sin,” “salvation,” and “God’s purpose in history” need to be re-examined. I will not take up any response to the issues of our understandings of “salvation” and “God’s purpose in history” for it seems to me that these two are more readily explainable and cause less of an issue than our concept of “original sin” and indeed it is this doctrine to which Durston refers throughout the rest of his post.
Our present understanding of original sin is highly linked to the understanding that historical persons named Adam and Eve lived in the literal Garden of Eden and made choices that were forever passed down to their descendents. Eve sinned first by eating fruit from the “Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil” and then Adam joined her in this sin. There are several ways in which this rebellion against God is understood to be passed down from generation to generation but the key uniting factor in how this is viewed is that all of the physical descendents of this couple, in some fashion, receive this tendency toward rebellion or this sin into their lives at birth or shortly after. You can already see by my choice of words that there is a great deal of argument, confusion, and disagreement among theologians as to how precisely this occurs; but we will leave that out of things for now.
Durston points out the problem of accepting that humans were created by God through a process that involved ancestors who were more primitive hominids. He shows how this might require that we choose some couple within the evolutionary process to be the original Adam and Eve and make this couple the initial pair in God’s redemptive process for humanity. Yet, the problem with God simply choosing two humans and declaring them to be Adam and Eve, is that the same contemporary science which states that humans descended from other primitive hominids also states that the human population has never been less than a few thousand individuals.This means that we did not all descend from just two individual homo sapiens.
Up to this point, I agree with Durston’s post. It is here that we diverge in our hypotheses of how God began the redemptive process. I, along with such authors as Dennis Venema and Darrell Falk, would begin to disagree with certain statements in Durston’s next paragraphs. There are other ways to solve the difficulties of our present theology than the ones presented by Durston’s post. He rightly points out that the fact that the humans now on this earth descend from a few thousand original humans means that we could push the original chosen couple even further back in time and further back in evolutionary history such that the original Adam and Eve were one of the antecedent hominids. Adam and Eve may have been Neandertals (Homo neanderthalensis) or Denisovans (Denisova hominins) or a combination of the two. Of course this creates other questions with which our theology must wrestle but these are not insurmountable challenges, as Durston seems to suggest.
The other possibility to which Durston points is to suggest that there never was an historical couple named Adam and Eve. Although this may be a difficult concept to accept, again, it is possible to imagine that God speaks to us through Genesis in a fashion that was readily understandable to the people of the time in which it was written and must now be understood in a different fashion. Durston suggests that if we get rid of the concept of an historical Adam and Eve then the New Testament writers “were sincerely mistaken in their acceptance of Adam as a real historical figure” and that the Bible must be viewed as a document containing “divinely inspired misinformation.” I am tempted to take issue with Durston’s use of the words “mistaken” and “misinformation” because, to my mind, these words are too harsh and convey too much about the alleged character of our God, but I do not want to make this the main issue and so let us use the terms which Durston uses. Then we would say that the New Testament writers who refer to an historical Adam would be mistaken and that the New Testament would contain misinformation. Surely Mr. Durston is not unaware of other examples of mistaken ideas and misinformation in the Bible. Take for example the Old Testament commands regarding “clean” and “unclean” animals. Both Leviticus 11:3-6 and Deuteronomy 14:7 state that the hare chews a cud. This is clearly a mistaken concept based on Ancient Middle Eastern understandings. Hares or rabbits do not chew cuds and so this information in the Old Testament is technically wrong and “divinely inspired misinformation.” Despite this fact, we do not call into question the entire Bible or the entire Old Testament. What of Joshua 10:13 which speaks of the “sun standing still” to prolong the length of the day? Wouldn’t it be more accurate to speak of the earth standing still? What of Matthew 13:32 that refers to the Mustard seed as the smallest of all seeds? This is a mistake and represents a false understanding of the scientific world. We could go on with other examples.
Perhaps the New Testament writers were mistaken in their assessment that Adam was an historical figure. Is this an insurmountable theological problem? No. Is integrating an understanding of evolutionary creation going to require that we re-think some of the theology that has been created over the last two millennia? Yes. I respectfully submit that Kirk Durston is not willing to follow some of these possibilities to their theological ends; but they may indeed be workable and consistent with both divine inspiration and scientific discovery. Alternatives that reject an evolutionary understanding of creation have their own theological issues that must be explained. If God did not create humans using more primitive hominids, why do we find such ancient hominids in the fossil record? Why does our own DNA seem to contain DNA from ancient neandertals? Why does the earth and the universe appear to be extremely old?
Theology must work toward answers that are not yet seen. We need new hypotheses that may be tested to see how they work before moving on to seek to explain the next challenges that may come at our collective theologies. I pray that we might be able to live with uncertainty and hope until all uncertainty is banished and we see clearly the object of our hope. Of course, that time will only be when we see “all things with perfect clarity.”1
1 1 Corinthians 13:12 (New Living Translation)