Saturday, 8 June 2013

Why Biblical Literalism is Untenable - 1

For over one hundred years, there has been no doubt in the scientific world that evolution has occurred. As the evolutionary biologist Douglas Futuyma has pointed out: 
Darwin provided abundant evidence for the historical reality of evolution—for descent, with modification, from common ancestors. Even in 1859, this idea had considerable support. Within about 15 years, all biological scientists except for a few diehards had accepted this hypothesis. Since then, hundreds of thousands of observations, from paleontology, biogeography, comparative anatomy, embryology, genetics, biochemistry, and molecular biology, have confirmed it. Like the heliocentric hypothesis of Copernicus, the hypothesis of descent with modification from common ancestors has long held the status of a scientific fact. No biologist today would think of publishing a paper on "new evidence for evolution," any more than a chemist would try to publish a demonstration that water is composed of hydrogen and oxygen. It simply hasn't been an issue in scientific circles for more than a century. [1]
Despite the overwhelming scientific consensus on the fact of large-scale evolutionary change and common descent, many Christians remain reluctant to accept this fact. In fact, young earth creationist organisations such as Answers in Genesis, Creation Ministries International and the Institute for Creation Research claim [2] that the evidence for both the fact of evolution (common descent) and the mechanisms proposed to explain it (the modern synthetic theory) is flawed, implying that their rejection of evolution is predicated on scientific grounds. Arguably however, Christian opposition to evolution is primarily drive by theological presuppositions. The statement of faith for Answers in Genesis confirms this:
By definition, no apparent, perceived, or claimed evidence in any field, including history and chronology, can be valid if it contradicts the Scriptural record. Of primary importance is the fact that evidence is always subject to interpretation by fallible people who do not possess all information. [3]
The flaw in this statement is fairly easy to detect. Scriptural evidence likewise is “always subject to interpretation by fallible people who do not possess all information”, something which may contribute to the large number of Christian denominations which disagree over doctrinal points ranging from the nature of God to the correct interpretation of prophetic books in the Biblical canon. Those who interpret Genesis literally have simply assumed without justification, that this is the only way the early chapters can and should be interpreted.

However, resolving the tension between Christianity and science cannot be done simply by adopting a non-literal means of interpreting Genesis. The problem is more complicated than that. Davis Young, an evangelical Christian and former professor of geology at Calvin College examined the dilemma posed by the existence of anatomically modern human fossils [4] which predate the early date [5] for Adam and Eve implied by Genesis 4. Two of the solutions – Adam and Eve as sole recent or sole ancient ancestors of the human race, respectively – can be reconciled with the scriptural evidence, but are invalidated by geological, genetic and palaeontological data. A third solution – Adam and Eve were recent representatives of the human race but not the sole ancestors – is compatible with the scientific data, but runs into theological problems. As Young notes:
The theological difficulties of the position, however, are at least threefold. First, some biblical texts imply that Adam and Eve were the first biological ancestors of the race, and proponents need to provide convincing alternative exegeses of such texts. For example, Acts 17:26 speaks of God having made all nations from one. Though Adam is not specifically named in that text, conservatives have traditionally interpreted the text as referring to Adam. Does the text allow for having all humans biologically descended from "one" who pre-dated a representative Adam? In Genesis 3:20 Eve is called the mother of all living. The text has traditionally been interpreted by conservatives to teach that Eve is the biological ancestor of all humans. But does it teach that any more than it teaches that she is the biological ancestor of all living things? Is Eve perhaps the mother of the living in the sense in which Jabal was the father of cattlemen and Jubal was the father of all who make music?
Second, proponents of this position need to convince us on biblical grounds that biological inheritance is not a necessary component of the biblical view of original sin. And, if it is decided that transmission is essential, is it necessary that our fallen nature be inherited directly from only one person? Is it legitimate to argue, assuming the imputation of Adam's sin to all his contemporaries and all subsequent humanity, that a sinful nature would be transmitted to their descendants from all of Adam's contemporaries once they were declared sinners?
A third theological problem concerns the status of those anatomically modern humans who lived prior to Adam. If God entered into a new relationship with humans around 10,000 years ago through a representative, Adam, then would it not follow that the pre-Adamic humans were not image-bearers of God? But then what do we make of the intimations of religious belief from ancient art and burials? Is it legitimate to consider Adam serving as a representative for those who preceded him in the same sense that Christ represented people who lived before his time? Can humans be image-bearers of God before the new relationship was established? And if Adam's predecessors are constituted sinners retroactively by virtue of Adam's rebellion, then were they also actual sinners? And if actual sinners, would there not have been an earlier fall? Otherwise would not God have created them as sinners in a sinful condition? [6]
Any resolution to the problem which either mythologises Adam and Eve, or states that they were not the sole ancestors of the human race will need to intelligently explain the data – both OT and NT – that not only regards them as real people, but appears to regard them as ancestral to the entire human race.

Further increasing the stakes here is that dismissing the scientific evidence is simply not an option. Despite what special creationists allege, the weight of evidence firmly shows that large scale evolutionary change and common descent are a fact. [7] Any resolution will need to be made in the theological domain in the light of what evolutionary biology has shown about our origins, without dismissing mainstream science as wrong, or reducing our faith to merely an ethical system garnished by a few cultural flourishes. As the philosopher Michael Ruse noted in a review of Stephen Gould's book "Rock of Ages":
Perhaps, if like certain liberal theologians of the last and present century, you are able to understand your faith solely in terms of ethical principles - Christianity reduces to moral sentiments about loving your neighbour and so forth - then probably you can go along with Gould.  But if you think your faith makes existence statements - ontological commitments to such things as God's being creator of heaven and earth, of Jesus being the divine incarnate, and of the promise of eternal life for the saved - then I simply do not see how you can avoid trying to understand these statements and commitments in the light of the existence statements, the ontological commitments, of science.  Comparison and influence comes with the territory. [8]
This requires us to take the Bible seriously, and understand it in the context of its original audience. In other words, rather than trying to teach a pre-scientific community that their views about the origin of the human race or the structure of the universe are inaccurate, the Bible has accommodated itself to these views. [9] Furthermore, I will argue that the early chapters of Genesis make use of a literary framework in order to deliver a polemic against Ancient Near Eastern myths, while accepting the pre-scientific cosmology of that era. Literalism when applied without recognition of literary genre or cultural context will lead to error. Failure to recognise this simple principle  contributes in no small part to the long-standing tension between science and Christianity.

This article first appeared on my Facebook page here


1. Douglas Futuyma, Evolutionary Biology (Sinauer Associates, 1998. 3rd ed.)

2. Creationist arguments against evolution are simply not regarded seriously by the scientific community, irrespective of whether the scientists are believers (Francis Collins, Simon Conway Morris, Kenneth Miller, Keith Miller) or non-believers (Jerry Coyne, Richard Dawkins). The well-regarded TalkOrigins archive maintains a list of mainstream refutations of creationist arguments.

4. The earliest anatomically modern human fossils are almost 200 thousand years old, and were found at the Omo Kibish formation in Kenya. See Mcdougall I et al  "Stratigraphic placement and age of modern humans from Kibish, Ethiopia". Nature (2005) 433: 733

5. Events implied in Genesis 4 such as the domestication of animals and plants took place approximately ten thousand years ago in the Ancient Near East, and place an upper bound on when Adam and Eve were created.

6. Young  DA “The Antiquity and the Unity of the Human Race Revisited” Christian Scholar’s Review XXIV:4, 380-396 (May, 1995)

7. Apart from the fact that anatomically modern human beings predate the earliest possible date for Adam and Eve, there is overwhelming evidence from molecular biology which shows that it is impossible for the genetic diversity we see in the human race to have arisen from an ancestral pair ten thousand years ago. Furthermore, chimpanzees and humans share identical genetic errors at the same places in our genomes, providing overwhelming evidence that we share a common ancestor in which these genetic errors occurred, and were then passed down to both species. See Fairbanks D "Relics of Eden: The Powerful Evidence of Evolution in Human DNA" (Prometheus Books, 2007) or Carroll SB "The Making of the Fittest: DNA and the Ultimate Forensic Record of Evolution" (2006 Norton) for an accessible overview of the genetic evidence for evolution. See also Dennis Venema's article "Genesis and the Genome: Genomics Evidence for Human-Ape Common Ancestry and Ancestral Hominid Population Sizes" Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith 62, 3 (2010): 166-178. This article is accessible here.  

9. This is actually a fairly simple concept to accept. Five hundred years ago, belief in geocentrism was nearly universal, while prior to the 5th century BCE, there was no recorded evidence of belief in a spherical earth. Any attempt at astronomical accuracy in any Divine revelation given at those times would have been met with incomprehension. As someone has said, it is better to be slightly inaccurate and understandable rather than be 100% accurate and incomprehensible.