A Book Review from Books At a Glance
by Ransom Poythress
Recently, several OT scholars and scientists have advocated for new biblical readings that deny the existence of the historical Adam based on particular interpretations of the available scientific evidence. Here Craig argues that a faithful reading of Scripture demands a historical Adam and Eve and that this interpretation is allowed by science. Dr. Craig has delved into these murky and controversial waters where clarity is much needed.
The book is divided into two main sections. The first section attempts to pinpoint the genre of Genesis 1-11, which can then provide guidance on appropriate interpretation. This is accomplished by defining several different genres, showing the similarities and differences of Genesis 1-11 with those genres and other Ancient Near Eastern (ANE) writings representative of those genres, and looking at how the New Testament uses Genesis. Craig ultimately places Genesis 1-11 in the genre category of “mytho-history.” He concludes that a proper understanding of Scripture requires a founding human progenitor couple. The second half of the book focuses on current scientific understandings of humanity to gain a better picture of when Adam and Eve might have arrived on the scene. Craig concludes that an analysis of palaeoneurology, archaeology, and genetics indicates Adam and Even were part of homo heidelbergensis and appeared around 700,000 years ago.
Although several reviews have already been written that focus on the details and interpretations of the data that Craig presents, the book is just as notable for what isn’t presented. There are significant absences which weaken the overall presentation and cast doubt on the validity of the conclusions.
Overall the book is hampered by a neglect of worldview critique. Much of the science section presupposes the objectivity of the scientists. In fact, most scientists are not interested in the religious application of their research since they operate under the assumption of materialistic evolutionary processes. Therefore, they are not asking Biblical questions or seeking hypotheses connected to the Bible. In the rare event that they are making that connection, many of them are metaphysically invested in proving Christian belief wrong. That is, they start predisposed against Christian belief and actively seek experiments or interpretations to undermine Christianity. Therefore, although scientific evidence is important and useful, it is a bit naïve to take it all at face value.
For example, in order to define what it means to be human, Craig relies on a non-Christian scientific consensus (p. 257). This is problematic and will naturally distort any resulting conclusions. If your starting definition of “human” doesn’t include a soul, how trustworthy can your conclusions be? Craig also seems to assume the truth of materialistic evolution even though it is still under debate in both theological and scientific circles. These starting assumptions restrict the possible conclusions before the book even gets going.
In his genre analysis, Craig claims That Genesis 1-11 matches the qualities of myths (132), but there are “additional features” that necessitate a new genre categorization. However, in creating this new category, there is a distinct lack of consideration given to the popular meaning of the word “myth.” Craig gives a detailed list of 10 qualities in the “mythical family” and then spends a great deal of time explaining how Gen 1-11 evidences these resemblances. The qualities are broad and vague enough that some might argue that all of Scripture, (not just Gen 1-11) display the elements of “mythical” literature according to Craig’s special definition. But why should the reader agree with these 10 qualities of myth, rather than 8 or 9 or 11 or 15? One could easily add an 11th quality: “myths are false,” which would make much of the discussion irrelevant. Although Craig addresses this critique, pointing out that Wenham and Collins decline to use the word “myth” due to its connotations with falsity, he dismisses them in two short sentences by saying we just need to be careful to explain the meaning of words to people (pg 157). He says, “In contrast to common parlance, then, specialists do not take myth to be synonymous with falsehood” (p. 36). But this is precisely the problem. Regardless of the semantic precision you impose within academia, common parlance prevails and determines the meaning of words. It’s not possible to override the rest of the world by fiat. Whenever you use the word “myth” in association with Scripture, people generally assume “false,” and therefore any use of the word is problematic.
Craig includes little discussion of other possible genre categorizations and prematurely hyper-focuses on myth and mytho-history as if these are the only two genre options. By doing so, he sets up what could be a false dichotomy between genre and content. Just because we note a change in content between Gen 1-11 and 12-50 doesn’t mean we’ve entered a new genre, yet he dismisses the notion (pg 23). He argues that the repeated usage of the phrase “These are the generations of” throughout Genesis should not determine the structure of the book (p. 136). However, structure is different from genre, and he seems to be conflating them. This has the overall effect of impoverishing his analysis, since he fails to give credence to other reasonable genre classifications (e.g. non-fiction prose narrative) and instead quickly zeroes in on mytho-history.
The whole genre analysis leads up to Chapter 6, entitled “Are Myths Believed to be True?” This should be more appropriately titled, “Is Genesis 1-11 True?” Much of the chapter is focused on turning to “comparative anthropological studies and to comparative ANE literature in order to try to find an answer” (p 158). There is a serious error here though. If Adam and Eve were the ancestors of all living humans, then there is only one accurate and true origin story. This story would have been passed down orally through the generations. As people turned away from the one God, the true story would have been twisted, perverted, and counterfeited into every other existing secular story. Thus, we would expect all other ANE stories to share similarities with Genesis, since they all derive from it. So, although we can learn from ANE myths, in this context, comparative analysis has limited value. It does not do the all-important work of separating truth from falsehood.
Furthermore, we find precious little discussion or acknowledgement of God’s authorship and the role of inspiration in Genesis. The overriding force of secular scholarship and its commitment to methodological naturalism ultimately permeates the book, as illustrated by a marked hesitancy to invoke God’s supernatural power in events. In discussing “fantastic” elements of Genesis, Craig simply states that “we are not dealing with miraculous fruit” (p. 200) from the tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil and seems to reject out of hand that other things in the Genesis account could have been supernatural. Unfortunately, his criteria for determining what is “fantastic” and what is not seems to be quite subjective and ultimately not useful. For example, some might consider the resurrection “fantastic.” He furthermore rejects as “desperate” (p. 218) some instances when scholars appeal to God’s providence in preserving the truth of his word, such as when Jude quotes the apocryphal 1 Enoch. According to Craig, when it comes to human creation, God’s involvement seems to come in as an after-thought in the wake of the unquestioned evolutionary machine. “The radical transition effected in the founding pair that lifted them to the human level plausibly involved both biological and spiritual renovation, perhaps divinely caused” (p. 376). At this point Craig does allow for something special. But it is with a “perhaps.” Why that wording? It is too concessive to the materialistic assumption that secondary causes are sufficient. And it is technically flawed, because all of orthodox theology agrees that God is a primary cause involved even in ordinary events (Ps. 104:14; Eph. 1:11). In this sense, every event whatsoever is “divinely caused,” and there are no “perhapses.”
Craig spends a good deal of time looking at archaeology, palaeoneurology, and genetics, but again, what’s most striking is what’s not said. These disciplines rely on seeing snippets of the past to construct a larger picture, but the underlying assumption is that the rest of the puzzle is exactly the same as the fragmentary pieces we do have. In other words, archaeology can only tell us so much. Not every human that ever existed has been preserved in the archaeological record. It’s possible that Adam and Eve and their progeny were not preserved in the fossil record for quite some time. Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. It’s a mistake to assume the few fragmentary fossils we have are absolutely determinative of the breadth of what actually lived.
Finally, there is a glaring absence of discussion of the de-novo creation of Adam and Eve. This is perplexing given that special creation would seem to be the primary belief held by Evangelical Christians. Yet, the de-novo creation of a founding pair is first considered only 5 pages before the end of the book and is brushed aside in a footnote (p. 376). It is curious why this is passed over so quickly since the one objection that’s raised (shared pseudogenes with chimps) has been robustly addressed elsewhere. Instead, he chooses to stick with methodological naturalism and rely on regulatory mutations. In summary, Craig’s own view seems to be that Adam and Eve were the sole progenitors of humans and arose, as a result of some mutations (perhaps “miraculously wrought”), from a population of non-human hominins with which they did not interbreed (p. 376).
This was, at times, a frustrating book to read. There is an impressive amount of research, but the focus of that research often felt misplaced and irrelevant. Why spend so much time focusing on “myth” if you’re not going to use that genre? Why not devote more time to examining other possible genre classifications? Why spend so much time on what we think is biologically necessary for cognition and so little time on arguments for de-novo creation? A book like this is needed, and the critiques of Walton, Enns, and Venema (to name a few) are well-founded, but many of the emphases were in the wrong spots. It felt a lot like walking into a playroom after 10 toddlers had made a mess, but then spending an hour cleaning a few small spots with a magnifying glass and barely glancing at some larger issues. Yes, those few spots are immaculately clean, but the room as a whole is still a mess, since large portions were ignored or overlooked. I’m thankful for the good faith effort Craig makes here, but wish he would have gone into less detail in several places so he could explore some alternative hypotheses with more care.
Craig is an apologist, and the tone and tenor of the book reflects that. His goal is to bring lost souls to Christ. But it feels like his method involves too many concessions in order to make Christianity minimally intrusive and disruptive to a non-Christian. The book essentially argues that some conceivable naturalistic scenario exists such that an unbelieving scientist could accept the biblical version of events without having a seismic shift in core beliefs. This approach runs the risk of diluting Christianity to the point where it is no longer recognizable. Yes, the Bible and science ultimately must harmonize perfectly, but it feels more like surrender than harmony when Craig unquestioningly concedes so much ground to the materialistic worldview. The reasoning behind a materialistic approach to the sciences is itself affected by sin and in need of redemption. It isn’t clear in Craig’s writing how Christianity upends materialism and provides a totally different perspective. A book that had been bolder in emphasizing the transformative nature of Christianity in how we view current biblical and scientific scholarship would have found firmer footing.
Ransom H. Poythress, Ph.D. Associate Professor of Biology, Houghton University
Note: This review first appeared in Westminster Theological Journal 84 (2002): 1–17. Republished here with permission.
Buy the books
IN QUEST OF THE HISTORICAL ADAM: A BIBLICAL AND SCIENTIFIC EXPLORATION, by William Lane Craig