Evolution and the Fall

I received a trio of books recently, so I’m providing some brief thoughts on what I’ve read so far.

fallFirst, Evolution and the Fall is an anthology of essays edited by William Cavanaugh and James Smith. The latter was featured on the MI Podcast talking about secularism and his book How Not to Be Secular: Reading Charles TaylorOf course, I had just submitted the final version of an article on the nature and translation of Adam in Genesis 2-3 from the 2013 Mormon Theology Seminar on Genesis 2-3. And of course, that meant there was great material in this book I wish I had seen earlier. The problem, as the evangelical editors state, is this.

This book addresses a set of problems that arise from the encounter of traditional biblical views of human origins with contemporary scientific theories about the origin of the human species. The scientific theories are, of course, a moving target; new evidence is unearthed, and different theories are frequently proposed, attacked, defended, and discarded. Nevertheless, there is a broad scientific consensus on some key issues that fits uneasily with the biblical tradition and cannot be ignored by theologians and the wider church. The scientific consensus points to the evolution of humans from primates. It indicates that humans emerged in a group, not an original pair. And the emergence of humans from primates seemingly leaves little room for an original historical state of innocence from which humanity suffered a “Fall.” What then to do with biblical accounts of human origins and the doctrinal reflections of the Christian tradition on the Fall and original sin? Must we either relegate the biblical accounts to the category of “myth,” or ignore the science of evolution?

Each essay addresses a different aspect of this problem. Smith writes in his own essay,

In light of accumulating archeological and genetic evidence, it is difficult today to simply affirm the existence of an original human couple, Adam and Eve. Indeed, such an affirmation entails a unique theological challenge: If all humans are descended from a single pair, why would the Creator of the universe seem to indicate in his creation (i.e., via general revelation) that humanity has a long, evolutionary origin and is descended from many more individuals? Any assertion of this received account of one historical couple will have to grapple not only with the scientific evidence to the contrary, but also with the theological problem that is generated when the “book of nature” seems to say something very different. There may indeed be theologically cogent ways to address this discrepancy, but it is important that we concede that the “traditional” picture of one historical couple, Adam and Eve, is not theologically unproblematic….any attempt to secure this traditional model will have to deal with the theological problem of apparent false history. In other words, while a certain burden of proof is borne by theological developments that depart from this traditional picture, the traditional picture should not get a “free pass,” as it were: the assertion of one historical couple and a punctiliar Fall face theological challenges if we—for theological reasons—are going to take the science seriously.

Some very good analysis here from a variety of perspectives.

adamSecond, Adam and the Genome: Reading Scripture after Genetic Science by Scot McKnight (a Biblical scholar) and Dennis Venema (a geneticist.) This book lays out the scientific evidence for evolution, addresses the issue of “theory” (which means something very strong within a scientific context, not merely an idea or hypothesis), and examines

Adam and Eve in context. This means we need to interpret Genesis 1–3 in the context of some ancient Near Eastern texts like Enuma Elish, the Gilgamesh Epic, and Atrahasis. In a later chapter we will discover that the ancient Hebrew texts continued to interact with specific cultures—apocalyptic, wisdom, Greek philosophy like Plato’s Symposium—and that by the time Paul wrote what he said about Adam (and Eve) in Romans 5 and 1 Corinthians 15, he was taking that interactive relationship of what Jews thought about Adam and Eve in their contexts to the next level. In what follows we will see that God speaks to the church through a process of his people interacting with their cultures, absorbing and appreciating their cultures, differing from their cultures, and battling their cultures.

Sound familiar? I’ve read the least of this book so far.


Third, the excellent website Biologos (I’d like to do a Mormon version of Biologos someday) has collected stories from a number of prominent Protestant scholars in How I changed My Mind About Evolution: Evangelicals Reflect on Faith & ScienceMore personal narrative than scholarly analysis, these essays tend to support my thesis here and at the FAIRMormon conference ; Creationism and religious opposition to evolution do not derive from scientific reasoning, but a particular reading of scripture, falsely called “literal reading.” What changes minds, then, is not scientific argument, but better understanding of scripture’s nature and purpose in general, and Genesis in particular.

Not every author here came from the same starting point with regards to evolution nor the same field of professional training. They include biblical scholars like N.T. Wright and Tremper Longman (author of two books on Genesis), scientists like geneticist Dennis Venema (coauthor of #2 above) and Francis Collins, who headed the National Institute of Health and the Human Genome Project. James Smith of book #1 has an essay, wherein he writes that

I began to realize that the way I had been taught to read the Bible alongside selective presentation of scientific data was, in fact, quite aberrant in the history of Christianity—a modern hermeneutical invention that was strikingly different from the way the Bible had been read from Augustine to John Calvin. So in a way, it was discovering the orthodox voices of Augustine and Calvin and Warfield that made me suspicious of the notion that I needed to be a young-earth creationist in order to be orthodox.

In his essay, Longman writes of his own journey which took him through a PhD at Yale.

The next phase of my journey in considering Genesis and cosmic and human origins came when I wrote a book on Genesis (How to Read Genesis). I didn’t engage the question head on in the book or devote much space to it, but throughout I advocated the importance of reading Genesis as a whole, including the creation account, in the light of its ancient setting: “The important point that comes to the fore through this kind of study is that the Bible is a literature of antiquity and not modernity. This truth will have a great impact on our study. For instance, we will come to realize that the biblical creation accounts were not written in order to counter Darwinism but rather the Enuma Elish and other ancient ideas concerning who created creation.”

With echoes of Peter Enns’ experience, Longman details how he was interviewed for a documentary, which resulted in his loss of a job.

I had no idea what he was going to do with this film, but soon found out when I got an email from the dean of Reformed Theological Seminary, who had just viewed it on YouTube. I was scheduled to teach at Reformed’s Washington, DC, campus in a matter of days. His concern was not only with the issue of the historical Adam. He began with my view that the biblical account did not require a rejection of evolution. Within a couple of days of that first email I was fired from my job as a regular p 52 adjunct at Reformed. I didn’t know that their board prohibits anyone teaching (apparently part-time as well as full-time) who did not believe that Genesis was incompatible with the theory of evolution. Soon after I was fired, my good friend and former colleague Bruce Waltke resigned under pressure from his more full-time position with Reformed for the same reason.

These issues are still charged, in Mormonism, in Protestantism, Catholicism, and Islam too. LDS Church schools teach evolution unabashedly, but lay members don’t always know that or know what to make of it. I’m very glad to see books like these exploring the issues from a perspective of expertise (both scientific and theological) but aimed at non-experts. Mormons, I think, can profit from reading these, and wish we saw more within the LDS world.

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6 thoughts on “Evolution and the Fall

  1. Hi Ben, thanks for the info on these books — So much more reading to do now! If I might put in a shameless plug, one of the chapters of my own book deals with my personal journey on the question of evolution & church doctrine… and a doctrinal idea about the tree of life giving immortality (temporarily) to Adam and Even in the garden. https://www.amazon.com/Faith-Reason-Doctrine-Explorations-Insights-ebook/dp/B01NBDOBLY/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1504025638&sr=8-1&keywords=faith%2C+reason+and+doctrine+wheeler


  2. While growing up in the 50s and 60s I don’t remember anyone who didn’t believe the earth was created in 6 days. When I was at BYU in the early 70s some science teachers were quietly starting to teach the truth of evolution, but most religion teachers were still teaching forcefully against it. In the early 80s I knew a girl who’s scientist father had been marginalized by many church members for his complete belief in evolution. The process of understanding how evolution fits into religion is still ongoing in the church. It’s not surprising that there are still some who have troubles believing it since they have been taught otherwise and it is deeply ingrained. I know I have come around completely in my thinking and am just trying to figure out how evolution fits into scripture and doctrinal teaching. Such as, I think that Cain’s wife came from another type of human and that’s why his progeny was different from Adam’s and Eve’s. The pursuit of knowledge is so personally fulfilling, wouldn’t life be boring if God told us everything? It’s much more interesting having mysteries to figure out!


  3. As always, your book recommendations are appreciated.

    On a side note, we experienced a humorous example of genre confusion recently. We have rambunctious kids, and one of our house rules is “no climbing on the table!”. Well, one day my wife was showing the movie “Newsies” to our 6-year old daughter for the first time. She (our daughter) got very concerned during one of the dance numbers and asked, “Why are they jumping on the tables?” Apparently, she was very bothered that the boys weren’t following the rules.


  4. Don’t think it’s compatable unless we yield to all Gospel and religion as metaphorical. Church history was sticky, but my leaving church and faith altogether was promulgated totally by Darwin’s dangerous idea. Explanations are just that, and machinations of galactic proportions follow. Sometimes it’s not complex and the sharp razor of Ockham carves out the truth. We are an evolved bi-pedal hominid that had evolutionary pressure to develop Gods for our cognitive and sociological needs. That has to be an option in your treatment of this subject, because it’s not only possible, but probable. All else is faith, and faith against reality will soon topple.


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