A Book Review from Books At a Glance
by Bruce W. Speck
VanDoodewaard traces the church’s theology from the patristic era to the present, showing that until the Enlightenment the church consensus by a wide margin was that Genesis 1 and 2 should be interpreted using the grammatical-historical method, thus affirming six 24-hour days and Adam as a unique human created in the image of God without any biological ancestors. VanDoodewaard demonstrates that divergence from the historic Christian theology of Adam is an attempt to square the Genesis account (and other relevant Scriptures) with scientific claims. Indeed, variant readings of Genesis based on this divergence require new hermeneutical approaches that raise profound theological dilemmas and undermine historic Christian theology in various ways. As VanDoodewaard points out, when such errant hermeneutical methods replace the grammatical-historical method, no less than ten theological issues are at stake.
The endorsements for this book are numerous, widespread, and impressive, demonstrating the ecumenical concern VanDoodeward profoundly identifies and corrects. Not only does the author expertly address the hermeneutical detours in the search for the historical Adam, but he also confronts them, as one endorsement says, in a way that “is staggering in its scope, rigorous in its documentation, and sobering in its conclusion.” In short, “All future studies on Adam and Eve must now start with this tome,” which “arrives not a moment too soon.”
Quite appropriately, VanDoodewaard begins with reference to another historical quest: The quest for the historical Jesus. That quest, is based on an abandonment of the historical Jesus as portrayed in the New Testament, culminating in Albert Schweitzer’s classic, The Quest of the Historical Jesus. Schweitzer, while affirming some sense of the historicity of Jesus, also affirmed that Jesus died disillusioned because He went to the cross believing that His act of sacrifice would inaugurate the Kingdom. According to Schweitzer, Jesus’s cry, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me,” epitomized the last words of a disillusioned rabbi. The effects of the quest for the historical Jesus were predictable: “The undermining of Scripture’s authority and scriptural doctrine among scholars and teachers in the academy led to an ensuing loss of scriptural doctrine in the life of many mainline Protestant denominations—not only due to the teaching of liberal theologians, but also because of broadly evangelical majorities which either refused or failed to act against them” (p. 1).
VanDoodewaard acknowledges that the quest for the historical Adam is not new; “it has been pursued to some degree in evangelical academia for decades and has historical precedent going back to at least the nineteenth century” (p. 2). As examples of what the quest has taught, VanDoodewaard cites Peter Enns, who believes “that Adam is merely a mythical representative of early humanity,” and C. John Collins, who thinks “that as long as there was ‘a’ historical Adam, issues of who he was, when he lived, and what his origins are may be of little or no consequence to the Christian faith” (p. 2). That the quest for the historical Adam is driven by scientific claims about the origin and evolution of the human race means that the claims of science, for some, and, evidently, for an increasing number of evangelicals, must be the controlling paradigm for interpreting Scripture. VanDoodewaard makes the ancient claim that “an accurate understanding of Scripture will in most cases not contradict accurate scientific interpretations of present natural reality, nor vice versa” (p. 3). However, that claim is conditioned on two qualifications. One, “Scripture has an authoritative and interpretive role where it speaks to comprehending human biological and geological history” (p. 3). Two, “Special revelation (the Bible) and general revelation (the natural order) are in harmony with one another” (p. 3). In addition, a codicil applies: Exceptions to the noncontradiction rule include supernatural and miraculous events.
VanDoodewaard defines what constitutes a literal interpretation of Genesis 1 and 2 “as a nonfigurative, detailed, historical record of events and existence narrated as they actually were” (p. 6). Thus, “the six days are ordinary days, the sun was created after the initial creation of light, the dust was real dust, the rib a real rib, and Adam and Eve the first people specially created on the sixth day, without any evolutionary ancestry” (pp. 6-7). VanDoodewaard speaks to the need for engaging the quest for the historical Adam using historical theology. He decries the proliferation of scholarly materials appearing “almost monthly” related to the quest that either pays scant attention to history, particularly historical theology, or uses “pagan writings from the ancient Near East” as a lens for interpreting Genesis and the issue of human origins (p. 7). Thus, the virtual absence of focusing on “the historical understanding of Genesis and human origins within Christianity” fosters a “historical amnesia” that make de novo the current parade of ahistorical views, as though the church has said little or nothing throughout millennia about human origins as recorded in Genesis 1-2 (p. 7). Unfortunately, it appears that the average person in the pew and the typical wardens of higher theological education seem captivated by a worldview that makes easy alliances with those who undermine the historical validity of Biblical teaching. It is to this problem that VanDoodewaard addresses his apologia for a reading of Genesis 1 and 2 that “maintain[s] a faithful understanding of God’s revealed truth” (p. 7).
After the Foreword and the author’s Introduction, the book is divided into seven chapters (as outlined below), an Epilogue, a Bibliography, and an Index.
Chapter One: Finding Adam and His Origin in Scripture
This short chapter cites and briefly comments on key Scriptural passages that are relevant to the origins of man. VanDoodewaard concludes, “From the positive teaching of Scripture, there is no inherent ground to posit anything aside from a special, temporally immediate creation of Adam and Eve as the first humans on the sixth day of creation. . . . This divine testimony was revealed, proclaimed, and believed from the earliest beginnings to the days of the Apostles. Now, however, a wide range of answers is given in the quest for the historical Adam” (p. 19). VanDoodewaard will next trace the historical development of the doctrine of the historical Adam.
Chapter Two: The Patristic and Medieval Quest for Adam
The burden of this chapter is to ferret out literal from allegorical interpretations of Scripture during the patristic and medieval periods. VanDoodewaard asserts, “For most of the history of the church, the quest for the historical Adam and his origin has been resolved primarily by turning to Scripture—especially to Genesis 1 and 2” (p. 21). However, some adopted Greco-Roman approaches that eschewed literal interpretations of texts—seen in the Iliad, Odyssey, and Aeneid—and found literal interpretation to be “crude to embarrassingly barbaric” (p. 23). Thus, Jewish interpreters, such as Philo of Alexandria, and Christian interpreters, such as Origen, resorted to non-literal interpretations of those parts of the Bible that offended the regnant culture. Origen, for example, believed that God created everything instantaneously, but to accommodate human weakness in grasping God’s creative effort, God had Moses present the creation in six literal days. However, alongside the non-literal days of Genesis, Origen believed Adam was created just as the Genesis account specifies, except that Adam’s spiritual being was preexistent to the material being. Indeed, Origen followed a literal reading for most of Genesis, holding that the age of the world is less than 10,000 years. Origen represents the Alexandrian school of interpretation, but the literal school of interpretation is represented by the Antiochian school, which included 1 Clement, Theophilus, Irenaeus, and Tertullian.
A point that bears consideration is that “Patristic writers sympathetic to a literal reading of Genesis on origins reflected both thoughtful nuance and variety in the application of hermeneutical approach to Scripture” (p. 27). This means an exegete could adopt a pronounced allegorical reading of the Song of Solomon and a literal reading of Genesis. However, the Alexandrian school pursued “a largely nonliteral, allegorical, or figurative approach to Genesis” (p. 28). Both the Antiochian and Alexandrian schools or streams of interpretation “exerted a significant and long-enduring influence in the history of Christianity” (p. 29). The interpretative problem of allegory involves two issues. First, interpreters mixed literal with allegorical interpretation, even in dealing with Genesis 1 and 2, as seen in the case of Origen. Second, a driving force in the allegorical interpretation was accommodation to the intelligentsia of the ancient world. Some Christian apologists simply called a pagan spade a pagan spade and refused to compromise the teaching of Genesis as ex nihilo and literal. Others attempted to make palatable the Biblical record of creation and other passages that pagans thought objectionable by allegorizing the offensive texts, but not necessarily all passages in the Genesis record of creation. Augustine fits in this compromising category. He allowed for the literal days of Genesis to be figurative, but he held “to a literal, supernatural, instantaneous creation of Adam from the dust and Eve from his rib” (p. 32).
These differing camps of interpretation continued in the medieval period in Europe. Bede represents the literal tradition, Eriugena the allegorical, breaking “new, unorthodox territory” (p. 37). Importantly, although Augustine is such a towering theological figure in church history, VanDoodewaard notes that the evidence for Augustine’s interpretation dominating medieval Europe is difficult to corroborate, providing contrary evidence that a significant number of theologians endorsed the literal interpretation, noting the influence of Peter Lombard. On the Jewish side, Maimonides blended allegorical with literal interpretation, but affirmed a literal Adam with no parentage and six literal days of creation. Grosseteste also used creative exegesis to expand allegorical interpretations of Scripture, which “appears to occur in a context of wanting to synthesize Scripture with aspects of prevailing natural philosophy” (p. 45). Aquinas also falls into the category of allegorists, with the consequence that “speculative philosophical theology [is] wedded to an allegorical hermeneutic” (p. 47). VanDoodewaard notes: “In each case, the adoption of an allegorical hermeneutic appears to occur in the context of seeking to harmonize Scripture with Greek natural philosophy” (fn. 96, p. 45). In short, with the exception of Eriugena and Grosseteste, all the medieval theologians believed in creation ex nihilo, with six literal days of creation in which Adam and Eve were created on the same day, Adam from the dust of the ground, Eve from Adam’s rib. God breathed into Adam life and our original parents were seen “as gloriously distinct from the rest of God’s creation of all living things” (p. 50).
Chapter Three: Adam in the Reformation and Post-Reformation Eras
The Reformation and Post-Reformation eras reaffirmed a literal hermeneutic for interpreting the Bible, thus repudiating the allegorical interpretation of Genesis 1-2 supported by some of the Church Fathers. For example, “Like Luther, Melanchthon was committed to the recovery of the literal interpretation of Genesis and viewed Origen and Aquinas as corrupting influences on biblical interpretation and theology” (p. 54). Two particular issues, however, merit consideration. One, the claim is made that Calvin believed God accommodated His revelation to the human understanding and thus allowed for allegorical readings of Genesis 1 and 2. Proponents of this view include Robert Letham and contributors to the Biologos website. VanDoodewaard refutes this position by stating, “While a case may be made that Calvin believed the text was written in a manner to accommodate the reader, this idea did not lead him to depart from any aspect of the literal tradition: God had both acted and spoken in a way accommodated to man” (fn. 26, p. 57). Indeed, VanDoodewaard quotes Calvin’s commentary on Genesis: “‘The error of those [which] is [here] manifestly refuted, who maintain that the world was made in a moment. For it is too violent a cavil to contend that Moses distributes the work which God perfected at once into six days, for the mere purpose of conveying instruction. Let us rather conclude that God himself took the space of six days, for the purpose of accommodating his works to the capacity of men’” (p. 57).
Two, the claim is made that historical evidence is insufficient to prove that the Westminster Assembly endorsed six 24-hour days for creation. VanDoodewaard notes that requiring the mention of 24 hours as the only evidence admissible is too narrow a criterion. The proof is the divines’ literal interpretation of Genesis. VanDoodewaard adds, “Correctly interpreting the English Puritan view of creation also requires an awareness of the limited alternatives to a literal, six-ordinary-day interpretation that existed in the early to mid-seventeenth century when a figurative reading of Genesis included either an instantaneous or extratemporal creation. In this context, arguments that the Westminster Assembly’s statements of creation taking place ‘in’ or ‘within the space of six days’ potentially communicate something other than a space of six ordinary days appear anachronistic, if not simply revisionist” (pp. 76-77).
Not all exegetes of Scripture adhered to a literal approach. “Figurative interpretations that posited an instantaneous or extratemporal work of creation continued among post-Reformation Roman Catholics, Socinians, and Anabaptists” (p. 85). However, “The prevailing paradigm among the Reformed orthodox was that the pursuit of natural philosophy in relation to creation and human origins was a legitimate and potentially helpful endeavor—when pursued within the parameters set by the literal interpretation of the Genesis text. Anything that contradicted or failed to cohere with the literal reading of the Genesis text was rejected as subversive to God’s revelation. However, post-Reformation Protestants committed to the literal tradition, like their patristic, medieval, and early Reformation predecessors, also faced substantial challenges from those who accommodated the authority, sufficiency, and perspicuity of the Genesis account of creation and human origins to Greek natural philosophy” (p. 86).
Chapter Four: Adam in the Enlightenment Era
Even sympathetic historians of the Enlightenment ideals note frankly that the philosophes were people who saw religion—especially Christianity—as the arch-villain of history, particularly in the Middle Ages but also the ancient world. Thus, the pugnacious character of the philosophes set the stage for a raw-boned conflict with Christianity. One point of conflict was the dignity of all men, based upon a literal interpretation of Genesis 1-2. Hohenheim, upon discovering the African pygmies, believed that they did not descend from Adam, might not have souls, and were not human. Likewise, in 1655, La Peyrère published Men before Adam, a book that asserted “both an eternally preexisting world and pre-Adamic humanity” (p. 89). Only the Jews descended from Adam. La Peyrère’s thesis required the repudiation of the Genesis account of creation, of Mosaic authorship of Genesis, and, by extension, of the authority of the Bible.
In response, Francis Turretin provided a Biblically sound criticism of the “‘Preadamic fiction’” as “‘absurd in itself and foreign to all reason’” (p. 92), by exegeting Scriptural texts that defended the historical Adam as the first human, without ancestors, the font of the human race, the lawbreaker who passed on his sinful nature to all his offspring. Indeed, “some forty works [were] published in the following decades [after 1655] that either in part or whole were aimed at refuting his [Peyrère’s] arguments” (fn. 20, p. 91). But even within the Reformed fold, critics arose to refute the orthodox hermeneutic. For example, Jean Le Clerc was a student of Turretin and “the son of a Genevan professor of Greek” (p. 94). Yet, he thought the first day in Genesis was “immense,” but the other days were 24-hours each. He also believed Adam was the first parent of all humanity, but his skepticism included denial of the global flood and miracles. “With La Peyrère, Le Clerc represented a small but increasing number who were departing Reformed orthodoxy and taking steps away from the literal approach toward the early chapters of Genesis” (p. 95), an example of the slippery slide.
The Dutch Reformed and Lutherans affirmed the literal teaching of Scripture, but in England, the Anglican Thomas Burnet began a descent down the slippery slope by assigning precedence to philosophy as the primary interpreter of nature when exegeting the Scriptures. He quoted Maimonides as warning that if people insisted on a literal approach to Scriptures, they would find the story of Adam to be fable. “When critics warned of a slippery slope, Burnet avowed his was a ‘safe’ approach in which reinterpretation of Scripture would take place only where ‘necessary.’ However, Burnet’s life proved his critics right. In his Of the State of the Dead (1720), published posthumously, it became clear that on the basis of ‘reason, the nature of God, and the nature of things that are on the other side,’ Burnet’s hermeneutic had also led him to reject the eternality of hell, going so far as to say it would be ‘foolish and unworthy of God’” (p. 103).
English Nonconformity and Scottish Presbyterians affirmed the literal interpretation of Genesis 1 and 2. In the American Colonies, Cotton Mather was at times ambiguous about a literal interpretation of Genesis; however, Jonathan Edwards adhered to the literal tradition. In the Enlightenment of the mid-to-late 18th century, the literal understanding of Genesis 1 and 2 is not only mocked but also racism is advocated because Africans must have come from a different root than Caucasians. This view opened the way to endorsing slavery. James Hutton also abandoned Scriptural truth and promoted evolutionary ideals. James Burnett, Lord Monboddo, chided Hume for his atheistic attack on religion but then employed an allegorical approach to Genesis and came to believe “that orangutans and other apes ought to be considered as part of the lineage and present range of the human species as the ‘wild man of the woods’ in proximity to somewhat more developed ‘savages’” (p. 127). Not coincidentally, Monboddo’s writings influenced Erasmus Darwin, grandfather of Charles Darwin, as did the writings of Buffon. Erasmus Darwin used a figurative approach to Genesis that vitiated any sense of a literal Adam. He grounded his views in Greek natural philosophy and pagan mythologies. “Darwin’s figurative approach to Genesis gained its impetus in his belief that mythology, Scripture, and the ‘testimony of nature’ were of equal credence in assisting human reason in the quest for a natural philosophy which explained all origins, including those of humanity. The teaching and authority of Scripture were jettisoned for a new syncretism of ancient paganism and philosophy” (pp. 129-30).
From our contemporary perspective, the fissure VanDoodwaard charts broadened to become the regnant paradigm today, particularly as scientific achievements captured the imaginations of people. Thus, the rejection of Scripture as inerrant and inspired, the replacement of the literal hermeneutic with alternative readings of Genesis (the gap theory and modification of the allegorical or figurative hermeneutic), and confusion regarding “scientific method and interpretive philosophical constructs in natural philosophy” (p. 132) played out historically to banish the Bible as a supernatural document and replace it with an interpretative approach that bowed to the findings of science.
The deepening chasm between the authority of Scripture and the authority of science to interpret the natural world can be traced, in part, to advancements attributed to science and technology. “A swelling human optimism was fed by remarkable advances in industrial machinery, shipbuilding, and railways; discoveries in medicine; new insights in biology, chemistry, and physics; the exploration of remote corners of the world; and the proliferation of books and articles about these advances. Man placed increasing faith in both the ability to accurately read and understand the book of nature and in great expectations of humanity’s incipient progress” (p. 133). In this historical context, the Bible became increasingly marginalized, not only as a faithful revelation of human origins but also as an accurate record of human history. Thus, Auguste Comte created positivism, a new religion explaining all of existence based on scientific laws. Charles Lyell advanced naturalistic interpretations of existence based on uniformitarianism. Lyell’s explanations of new geological findings “tended to be more thorough and detailed than the geological theories proposed to be in harmony with the literal Genesis interpretation. In fact, Lyell was so convinced that he had outpaced others that he believed his work would ‘free the science from Moses’” (p. 135).
And then there’s Charles Darwin. VanDoodewaard provides a good overview of Darwin’s discoveries and how those discoveries moved him further and further away from the Anglican Church due, in part, to influences of the Scottish Enlightenment. Darwin accepted William Paley’s defense of intelligent design when he was studying for holy orders, but later moved further from orthodox Christianity. VanDoodewaard makes two observations about Darwin’s view of evolution that merit repeating. First, in quoting from The Descent of Man, VanDoodewaard notes that Darwin’s attitude toward primitive people—human beings he calls savages, preferring to have the “‘heroic little monkey’” as his ancestor—is based on a flawed understanding of human corruption via the fall. Thus, “Darwin’s abandonment of a literal Genesis left him unable to consider that the condition of such peoples was in part a reflection of generations of fallen life, in spiritual darkness and rebellion against God, and apart from Christ” (p. 140). Primitive people are not an example of a stage of evolution but the descent of man from the pinnacle of creation to the debasement of rebellion against God. Two, VanDoodewaard calls into question Darwin’s new “hierarchy of animal humanity: Caucasians were most advanced, then came the Negroes or Australians, followed by the gorilla and the baboon,” noting: “Abandoning the plain language of the text of Genesis meant the abandonment of the unity of the human race in the dignity and equality of being created in the image of God” (p. 141). Racism is a logical outcome of Darwin’s views.
The Protestant response to this nascent evolutionary theory was mixed. Some referenced La Peyrère’s departure from orthodoxy in the seventeenth century to promote the gospel by making it acceptable to the heathen and defending that position. But as VanDoodewaard notes, “it is dubious that La Peyrère adhered to a genuinely orthodox Christianity” (p. 143), so the synthesis of Christianity and science became the ascendency of science over Christianity, leaving a supernatural Christianity simply unacceptable to man. Even Charles Hodge (1797-1878), in seeking to accommodate scientific findings, “proffered two alternative readings of Genesis 1: gap theory and day-age approach” (p. 144). Hodge was influenced by James Dwight Dana (1813-1895), who believed that science had finally allowed the church to interpret general revelation correctly, thus repudiating the historic understanding of the church. Archibald Alexander Hodge (1823-1886) followed his father’s theology of creation regarding the earth’s age, noting that the literal creation of Adam as the first human without ancestors was nonnegotiable. Thus, the Hodges affirmed a great deal of historic Christianity but veered to non-literal approaches given the age of the earth.
VanDoodewaard states that this mixture of non-literal interpretation of certain parts of Genesis mixed with a grammatical-historical hermeneutic was an inclination for both C. H. Spurgeon and B. B. Warfield. The blending of the literal and allegorical had a deleterious effect on the Southern Baptists, leading to the opinion of one historian that by the 1940s at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary candidates for faculty positions who rejected evolution would not have much of a chance of being appointed. Indeed, liberal Protestants, moving beyond the gap and day-age theories, championed a poetic and mythical approach to interpreting Ancient Near Eastern texts, assuming that the Bible was merely another such text. The history of the spread of liberalism is painfully familiar, and its indictment of those who maintained a literal interpretation of Genesis as bound to an outdated and anti-scientific view continues to this day. However, champions of orthodoxy were not silenced, and John Dick (1764-1833) wrote, regarding the Mosaic account of creation: “‘geology as sometimes conducted, is a monument of human presumption, which would be truly ridiculous were it not offensive by its impiety’” (p. 159).
In this chapter, VanDoodewaard also recounts the struggles in denominations throughout the Western world, noting that the lines regarding the use of the grammatical-historical hermeneutics (1) held firm, or (2) were subject to a latitudinarianism allowing flexibility regarding the length of the days of creation, or (3) were rejected in favor of scientific findings. One staunch proponent of the grammatical-historical hermeneutic, Louis Berkhof (1873-1957), rejected any countenance of theistic evolution, writing, “‘it is a very dangerous hybrid . . . a contradiction in terms . . . in a word, it is a theory that is absolutely subversive of ‘Scripture truth’” (p. 181). Such pointed estimates of theistic evolution did not vanquish the liberal approach, even though this chapter ends by citing the outspoken orthodoxy of Valentine Hepp (1879-1950).
Chapter Six: The Quest for Adam: From the 1950’s to the Present
VanDoodeweaard writes, “Throughout the twentieth century, vast amounts of materials were published in the debates over Genesis interpretation, scientific interpretation, and human origins. Despite the increasing volume of publications, the hermeneutical field on Genesis 1 and 2 interpretation remained largely unchanged from the mid-twentieth century onward” (p. 194). Thus, as we have seen in the previous chapter, the non-literal approach to Genesis 1 and 2 was used to chip away at the historic teaching of Genesis. A group of scholars (Harry Rimmer, George McCready Price, John Whitcomb, and Henry Morris) defended the literal approach to Genesis 1 and 2 and were labelled “creationists,” a term that is often used derisively by its opponents as non-scientific and linked with fundamentalism in religion. The battle for orthodoxy intensified.
For example, while Lutherans, in general, were departing from their historic moorings of interpreting Genesis 1 and 2 literally, the conservatives in the Missouri Synod helped purge Concordia Seminary of the President and faculty members who challenged a literal reading of Genesis 1 and 2, but the hermeneutical debate about how to interpret Genesis had a wider context: challenges to the inerrancy of the Scriptures. Thus, the slippery slope of non-literal interpretation of Genesis culminated in a denial of Scriptural authority as a supernatural document, a logical consequence, whether intended or not.
The Dutch Reformed also waged a battle over the literal interpretation of Genesis 1 and 2, but the theology of Nicholas Herman Ridderbos was influential in moving the Dutch Reformed church away from the literal interpretation of Scripture. Ridderbos pointed to Jan Lever as providing insight into the issues of origin. According to Lever, Scripture cannot provide “exact physical, astronomical and biological knowledge, and thus also not exact historical knowledge. The Bible simply is not for that purpose” (p. 201). Thus, the Christian Reformed Church and Calvin College succumbed to the enticements of liberal theology and abandoned the literal Adam, and, whether intentionally or not, the Second Adam (1 Cor. 15:45-47).
At Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, “a school with Dutch Reformed influences” (p. 208), John Murray challenged B. B. Warfield’s position that “potentially allowed for harmonization with a theistic approach to evolutionary theory” (p. 208). In addition, J. G. Vos, professor of Bible at Geneva College in Pennsylvania, affirmed the literal hermeneutic when interpreting Genesis, warning “‘those who reduce the supernatural element in Genesis tend to do the same all along the line. . . . The tendency is to seek consistency by giving up more and more of the supernatural’” (p. 211).
Meredith Kline’s framework hypothesis removed “the time and chronological order of six ordinary days,” thus not requiring a “temporally immediate creation of Adam and Eve” (p. 218). Kline’s approach did not insist on an evolutionary biological origin of Adam, but it allowed for it. Indeed, Kline affirmed the special creation of Adam and Eve without any pre-human ancestors. But some of Kline’s disciples, such as Michael Horton and Bruce Waltke, were open “to evolutionary ancestors for Adam” (p. 218). Greenville Presbyterian Theological Seminary hosted a conference and published the papers from the conferees in Did God Create in Six Days? The majority view of conferees was the literal interpretation of Genesis 1-2, and the book “created significant consternation among Presbyterian proponents of alternative views” (p. 223). Indeed, a Presbyterian Church in America study committee and an Orthodox Presbyterian Church study committee produced reports that sought to promote the results of a literal hermeneutic while preserving the viability of a diversity of hermeneutical methods in interpreting origins. “As time went on, both denominations would see an increase of openness among ministers, elders, and laity toward a figurative interpretation of human origins compatible with theistic evolution. This interpretation, however, would remain a minority position which was out of accord with denominational commitments” (p. 226).
The conflict continued, as professors in Presbyterian seminaries taught divinity students to reconsider the feasibility of the grammatical-historical approach to Genesis 1 and 2, such as Peter Enns at Westminster Seminary. “Settling to adopt a mytho-poetic approach to the text, Enns denied not only a special, temporally immediate creation of Adam apart from evolutionary biological origins, but also the existence of Adam as a historical individual from whom all humanity was descended. Enn’s quest for the historical Adam ended with a clear conclusion: “‘there is no ‘Adam’ to be found’” (p. 233). Enn’s theology brought controversy, his removal from Westminster, a general shakeup of the institution, and a reaffirmation of the orthodox position regarding Genesis 1 and 2 and the inerrancy of Scripture at Westminster in Philadelphia.
But Westminster Seminary California continued to promote alternative approaches to the literal hermeneutic in interpreting Genesis 1 and 2. And the quest for the historical Adam touched a nerve at Reformed Theological Seminary in Orlando, where Bruce Waltke, “a venerable Old Testament professor and proponent of the literary framework hypothesis and theistic evolution,” (p. 237) stated in a video produced by Biologos, “‘If the data is overwhelmingly in favor of evolution, to deny that reality will make us a cult . . . some odd group that is not really interacting with the world’” (p. 238). Such comments brought attention to Waltke’s hermeneutic, and he resigned from Reformed Theological Seminary. Covenant Theological Seminary, the denominational seminary for the Presbyterian Church in America, also veered in the direction of non-literal interpretations of Genesis. C. John Collins, professor of Old Testament at Covenant, affirmed an analogical approach to Genesis 1 and 2 that interwove the historical account of creation with an analogical method that interpreted the days of Genesis as God’s work days but not the same literal 24-hours days humans experience, “a position markedly similar to the day-age approach, but without the requirement of an exact chronological sequence of ages correspondent with the days” (p. 240).
Collins claimed that his approach was a literal approach, but as VanDoodewaard comments, Collins’s “self-definition as holding to a ‘literal’ or ‘grammatical-historical’ approach . . . on Genesis 1-2 stands in contrast to the Reformation and post-Reformation uses of ‘literal,’ versus ‘allegorical’ or ‘figurative’ in relation to this passage; as such I would argue they are a redefinition of the historic use of the terms in relation to Genesis interpretation” (fn. 169, p. 240). Fast forward to a decade later. “Where Collins had stated a decade earlier that his analogical approach was incompatible with theistic evolution, he was now, though still committed to the same hermeneutic, unable or unwilling to discount the possibility of hominid-human hybrids; he supported the ‘evolved chieftain of a tribe’ model as an option coherent with the teaching of Scripture. His description of boundaries for what he described as ‘the traditional view’ of Adam and Eve did not in fact cohere with the literal tradition, but rather reflected a hybrid lineage of his own” (pp. 244-45). VanDoodewaard goes on to reflect, “Collins’s argument for the sufficiency of a representative Adamic leadership of contemporaries, rather than the necessity of physical descent for all humanity from Adam, was remarkably similar to La Peyrère’s” (p. 245).
Chapter Seven: What Difference Does It Make?
What difference do all these technical theological arguments about how we interpret Genesis 1 and 2 have to do with just loving Jesus and doing what God calls us to do as witnesses to the lost world? Arguments about the need for a grammatical-historical hermeneutic make a startling difference if the Word of God is foundational to how we love Jesus and how we witness the lost world. And VanDoodewaard demonstrates just how much such hermeneutic matters by addressing ten doctrines intrinsically connected to the historic Adam: scripture and hermeneutics; man and the ethics of human life; marriage and unity of race; human language; God, the creator; the goodness of creation; in Adam’s fall sinned we all?; Christ as creator and redeemer; Adam, Christ, and the covenants; and Adam and accountability: the last things. Unfortunately, VanDoodewaard notes, “There is an evident willingness to embrace ambiguity on the origin and existence of Adam and to live with unsatisfying theological models that challenge the historic theological consensus. There is little or no willingness to live with scientific models that challenge the scientific models of origins accepted in the contemporary mainstream. The wider commitments and priorities are clear” (p. 284). The entire section is worth a close reading.
Epilogue: Literal Genesis and Science?
VanDoodewaard begins the Epilogue with a question: “If special revelation and general revelation form a coherent testimony, why does the literal tradition on Genesis and human origins conflict with the mainstream of contemporary scientific interpretation?” (p. 313). VanDoodewaard posits several possibilities, including the observation, “Contemporary scientific interpretation is extrapolated into the distant past with a spirit of high certainty, often equated with truth, and is typically done without any impetus to consider whether human ability, the tools of science, and the way those tools are used may be more limited than is commonly believed” (p. 313). He suggests ways the literal interpretation of Genesis 1 and 2 can be harmonized with science, but that harmonization hangs on the necessity of taking the dramatic repercussions of the fall seriously. He also argues for a level of loving tolerance for those who err in their exegesis of the Biblical history of creation, citing, for example, Simon Patrick, B. B. Warfield, and Meredith Kline. “As fellow believes, they are to be loved, and the positive substance of their work appreciated” (p. 316), and, VanDoodewaard cautions, “the views of proponents of alternative hermeneutical approach on Genesis 1-2 only rise to the level of heresy [and here he quotes Geerhardus Vos] ‘when on principle they raise the so-called results of science to grant precedence to them over the Word of God,’ encroaching on human origins and history” (p. 316).
I have provided evaluative comments throughout this review, but I want to touch on three points in evaluating The Quest for the Historical Adam. The first point concerns the slippery slope. I imagine a wintery decline that has been iced over. You can test the slipperiness of the decline by keeping one foot on the ledge, while testing the ice with the other. But once you take the initiative to step out on the decline, both feet committed to the adventure, you will have trouble not increasing your acceleration as you slide down the slope. Historically, there are many, many instances of this.
Look at the encroachment of liberal theology, as in the quest for the historical Jesus, that ended with orthodoxy removed as a contender in the debate. The educational establishment, be it secular/pagan or nominally Christian, hoots orthodoxy out of court. Nothing is seen as so ridiculous as anyone who would hold to literal fundamentalism. Unthinkable for the intellectual elite. As VanDoodewaard has documented, the slide to the bottom, where a theological liberalism that derides what had for centuries stood as orthodox Christian doctrine awaits with open arms, does not necessarily happen in one generation. Begin with a La Peyrère, who, recall, was defended as someone who wanted to make Christianity relevant to skeptics and, therefore, considered himself orthodox, and the slippery slope is greased for a C. John Collins or a Peter Enns generations later. Indeed, the feature of the slippery slope that should be most concerning is that such theologians teach prospective ministers to question the authority of the Bible through arguments that may never be challenged by unsuspecting seminarians, who are looking for authoritative answers to Biblical questions. The slippery slope is real.
My second point concerns self-deception, a nasty concept that makes liars of all of us at times. I have often read about someone who took a decisive step away from a long-cherished position and was lauded as heroic, honest, bold in broadcasting an uncomfortable truth. I suspect most Protestants would place Luther and Calvin in that position. But sincerity is not the measure of truth. I have been sincere and sincerely wrong. One of the measures of truth is the historic witness of the church, which VanDoodewaard uses as the basis for his argument that the grammatical-historical method has been the hallmark of interpreting Genesis 1 and 2 from the earliest exegetes of Scripture until the present time.
But here’s a problem: What about significant figures in church history who have thought otherwise about the literal interpretation of Genesis 1 and 2? What about Augustine and Origen? When someone refers to Augustine, the argument may be considered won because he is held in high regard throughout church history. VanDoodewaard notes that his method was mixed. His notion of instantaneous creation, an assumption based on God’s omnipotence, led him to base a doctrine on an inference. His notion of allegory was, therefore, inappropriate in dealing with Genesis 1 and 2. For those who want to pursue an allegorical approach by appealing to Augustine (or even Origen) the weight of evidence is not on their side. Regarding hermeneutics, Augustine and Origen, in as much as they use an allegorical approach to exegete Genesis 1 and 2 are in error.
But that’s not the most important point to be made about Augustine and Origen. Why they resorted to the allegorical approach is the real issue. They wanted to accommodate pagan understanding of the supernatural so as not to make the Bible seem ridiculous. Pause for a moment and consider such an approach. First, the Bible is ridiculous for the pagan. How can it be otherwise? In C. S. Lewis’ memorable alliteration, Christ is either a liar, lunatic, or Lord. When Christ makes supernatural claims to divinity (and the consequent right to tell people how to live) pagans should be deeply offended. He is rebuking them for their sin. Believers should be humbled. Their Lord is claiming his rights as the Sovereign over their lives, lock, stock, and barrel. The impulse to soften the demands of God on His creation goes hand-in-hand with a weakening of the Gospel. For if Genesis 1 and 2 dare not be read as literal for fear of the church alienating the culture, and, in the case of our present moment in history, of appearing to be stupid about the truths of science, i.e., antiscientific, then, by all means, let’s water down the stupendous work of creation in six days in which God miraculously created Adam as the first man without any animal lineage. Let’s capitulate to the god of science and soften the historic fall so that it becomes some sort of metaphorical stubbing of the toe. Let’s accommodate all we can for—and this is a monstrous irony—the sake of the gospel, for reaching the lost with the life-saving message of a Jesus, who, without a literal Adam, really is both a lunatic and liar, but we’ll grant him the status of a quite good moral teacher.
My third point is that the people in the pew, the ultimate object of any teaching from the pulpit, though not mentioned much by VanDoodewaard are, nevertheless, always in the background. Why worry about what may seem like esoteric arguments about Genesis 1 and 2? We should worry because those arguments are translated into sermons that are designed to persuade the faithful that reason trumps revelation. Seminarians taught that Genesis 1 and 2 cannot be taken literally or not entirely literally prepare sermons that tell their parishioners, however subtly, that the Bible really means what any intelligent person who believes in the dogmas of science understands it to mean. When Godly people acquiesce to unhealthy teaching that is supposedly based on the Bible, they are engaged in aiding and abetting the enemy of their souls. Oh, but if there’s not a literal Adam, there probably is not a literal Satan. And if there is not a literal Satan, the whole notion of spiritual warfare between the forces of darkness and light resolved into human choice about doing what is right, being moral. The causal chain really does lead to the descent of man into a Darwinian world of chance that has no purpose other than the random natural selection of what works best.
If I were a minister, I would buy a copy of this book for all the leaders in my church. My purpose would be to educate the leadership of the church with the goal of educating my congregation about the spiritual conflict between the evolutionary biological processes models and orthodox Christianity. I would be particularly interested in reaching the youth because they are flooded with the claims of evolution at school and in the culture. I would challenge people to read the evidence VanDoodewaard provides as a corrective to redefining the gospel to attract people to Christ while simultaneously cutting the nerve of Christianity, the historical revelation that correctly interprets natural revelation as it rightly does.
Bruce W. Speck, Ph.D., is a Ruling Elder in the Presbyterian Church of America and a member of Covenant Presbyterian Church in Fayetteville, Arkansas.
Buy the books
THE QUEST FOR THE HISTORICAL ADAM: GENESIS, HERMENEUTICS, AND HUMAN ORIGINS, by William VanDoodewaard