Thursday, 26 September 2013

Evolution does not threaten fundamental theology

One common way employed by special creationists to evade the fact that the evidence for common descent and large-scale evolutionary change is beyond rational dispute is to play the heresy card, and assert that the fundamental principles of the Christian faith are threatened by evolution. Such an argument has marginal tactical advantages, as it immediately presses all the right emotional buttons, neatly shutting down the rational side of the brain that is needed to  critically evaluate why evolution threatens Christianity, and creating the right sort of  moral panic that allows many people to acquiesce to the usual excommunications that follow such artificial crises. Strategically, it's insane. If you explicitly link Christian orthodoxy to science denialism, you are simply ensuring that any scientifically literate, intellectually honest believer will take you at your word, and reject Christianity once they realise that evolution is a fact.

 This raises the question of why special creationists reject evolution, and the fundamental problem is the classical doctrine of Original Sin, which requires every human being to be exclusively descended from Adam, so that the guilt and consequences of Original Sin can be genetically inherited. This is explicitly stated in the Catholic Catechism
402 All men are implicated in Adam’s sin, as St. Paul affirms: “By one man’s disobedience many [that is, all men] were made sinners”: “sin came into the world through one man and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all men sinned.…” The Apostle contrasts the universality of sin and death with the universality of salvation in Christ. “Then as one man’s trespass led to condemnation for all men, so one man’s act of righteousness leads to acquittal and life for all men.”
403 Following St. Paul, the Church has always taught that the overwhelming misery which oppresses men and their inclination toward evil and death cannot be understood apart from their connection with Adam’s sin and the fact that he has transmitted to us a sin with which we are all born afflicted, a sin which is the “death of the soul.” Because of this certainty of faith, the Church baptizes for the remission of sins even tiny infants who have not committed personal sin.

404 How did the sin of Adam become the sin of all his descendants? The whole human race is in Adam “as one body of one man.” By this “unity of the human race” all men are implicated in Adam’s sin, as all are implicated in Christ’s justice. Still, the transmission of original sin is a mystery that we cannot fully understand. But we do know by Revelation that Adam had received original holiness and justice not for himself alone, but for all human nature. By yielding to the tempter, Adam and Eve committed a personal sin, but this sin affected the human nature that they would then transmit in a fallen state. It is a sin which will be transmitted by propagation to all mankind, that is, by the transmission of a human nature deprived of original holiness and justice. And that is why original sin is called “sin” only in an analogical sense: it is a sin “contracted” and not “committed”—a state and not an act.
as well as the Westminster Confession of Faith:
1.  Our first parents, being seduced by the subtilty and temptation of Satan, sinned, in eating the forbidden fruit. (Gen. 3:13, 2 Cor. 11:3) This their sin, God was pleased, according to His wise and holy counsel, to permit, having purposed to order it to His own glory. (Rom. 11:32)

2.  By this sin they fell from their original righteousness and communion, with God, (Gen. 3:6–8, Eccl. 7:29, Rom. 3:23) and so became dead in sin, (Gen. 2:17, Eph. 2:1) and wholly defiled in all the parts and faculties of soul and body. (Tit. 1:15, Jer. 17:9, Rom. 3:10–18)

3.   They being the root of all mankind, the guilt of this sin was imputed; (Gen. 1:27–28, Gen. 2:16–17, Acts 17:26, Rom. 5:12, 15–19, 1 Cor. 15:21–22, 45, 49) and the same death in sin, and corrupted nature, conveyed to all their posterity descending from them by ordinary generation. (Ps. 51:5, Gen. 5:3, Job 14:4, Job 15:14)

4.   From this original corruption, whereby we are utterly indisposed, disabled, and made opposite to all good, (Rom. 5:6, Rom. 8:7, Rom. 7:18, Col. 1:21) and wholly inclined to all evil, (Gen. 6:5, Gen. 8:21, Rom. 3:10–12) do proceed all actual transgressions. (James 1:14–15, Eph. 2:2–3, Matt. 15:19)

5.   This corruption of nature, during this life, doth remain in those that are regenerated; (1 John 1:8, 10, Rom. 7:14, 17–18, 23, James 3:2, Prov. 20:9, Eccl. 7:20) and although it be, through Christ, pardoned, and mortified; yet both itself, and all the motions thereof, are truly and properly sin. (Rom. 7:5–8, 25, Gal. 5:17)

6.   Every sin, both original and actual, being a transgression of the righteous law of God, and contrary thereunto, (1 John 3:4) doth in its own nature, bring guilt upon the sinner, (Rom. 2:15, Rom. 3:9, 19) whereby he is bound over to the wrath of God, (Eph. 2:3) and curse of the law, (Gal. 3:10) and so made subject to death, (Rom. 6:23) with all miseries spiritual, (Eph. 4:18) temporal, (Rom. 8:20, Lam. 3:39) and eternal. (Matt. 25:41, 2 Thess. 1:9)
In both cases, physical descent from Adam is required for the consequences and guilt of Adam’s sin to be genetically inherited by everyone.

The current doctrine of Original Sin was alien to the early church

This was not the original Christian position. Early figures such as Clement of Alexandria argued that humans inherited a bad example from Adam, with the implication that humans had the freedom to choose between good and evil. Justin Martyr argued that Adam’s sin weakened human nature but did not eliminate the power to choose between good and evil. Therefore, humans were without excuse if they sinned. Even as late ass the 4th century, Theodore of Mopsuestia explicitly rejected the concept of Original Sin, claiming that only human nature could be inherited, rather than sin.

The doctrine of Original Sin was largely shaped by Augustine who himself was influenced both by his Manichean past and his guilt at his sexually hedonistic past, as well as by other early Church figures such as Cyprian, Jerome and Ambrose, not to mention the flawed reading of Romans 5v12 of the Old Latin text. As formulated, it was never part of the original Christian faith.

Adam was created mortal, capable of dying.

Of course, this raises the question of what Adam’s sin introduced into the world. In short, Adam introduced death as a punishment for sin. He never introduced mortality into the human race because Adam was created mortal:
Then the Lord God formed man of dust from the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living being.
The text nowhere says that man was created immortal, or created in an indeterminate state where he was neither mortal nor immortal. The Hebrew words for ‘living being’ are consistently used throughout the OT to refer to mortal life. There is no lexical or scriptural justification to read them as anything other than references to mortal creatures of finite lifespan dependent on breathing to maintain life.

It is fair to argue that in Eden, man had the chance for eternal life, but lost it through sin. This is implied by Genesis 3:19 where God states that they were dust, and would return to dust. Nowhere is there any reference to a physical change in their nature to make them corruptible. Adam’s physical nature was the same before and after the fall. What changed was his relationship with God.

This was the original Christadelphian position

This position is one which is well attested in early Christadelphian literature. J.W. Thirtle argued that the assertion that ‘dying thou shalt die” was evidence of a change of nature had zero support:
“We will first consider the second clause, “dying thou shalt die.” Some consider these words to have found verification on the day Adam sinned, by his becoming a corruptible creature, and ultimately dying. This, however, is not so. We have the Hebrew word “to die” repeated in two moods: the infinitive (moth) and the indicative (tamuth); moth, to die—dying; tamuth—thou shalt die.

“As the words stand, certainty is implied, and nothing more; so the authorised version is not far wrong in rendering the words, “thou shalt surely die.” It is out of the question to suppose that a process of decay is implied in the words, for they were afterwards used to one of the descendants of Adam—Shimei (1 Kings 2:37, 42), and we have no record of Shimei having occupied a similar relation to life and death to that which Adam sustained before the fall. If it had been intended to express a continued or lasting process, the order of the Hebrew words would have been reversed.’ [1]
John Thomas was hardly ambiguous when he argued that death and corruption were part of the original order:
“Adam's nature was animal. Very good of its kind, as was the nature of all the other creatures. These did not sin, yet they returned to dust whence they came. So probably would Adam, if he had been left to the ordinary course of things as they were. But he would not have returned to dust if he had continued obedient.

“He would doubtless have been “changed in the twinkling of an eye" on eating of the Tree of Life. But, being disobedient, his sin determined his fate, and that of the creatures. It doomed them all to death according to law, and "nature" unchanged was permitted to take its course.’ [2]

“OUR friend says, that his notion is that all creation became corrupt at the fall, even to the elements. This is the general idea. Moses tells us very plainly, that when the terrestrial system was completed on the Sixth Day, that God reviewed all that He had made, and pronounced it "very good."

“But, in what sense was it very good ? In an animal and physical sense; for it was a natural and animal system, not a spiritual one. Such a system is essentially one of waste, and reproduction; and was organized with reference to what God knew would come to pass.’ [3]

‘This is implied in the placing of the earth in such a position with respect to the sun, moon, and stars, that there should be a diversity of seasons, &.c. Thus, fall and winter, seasons of decay and death, were institutions existing before the Fall; and presented to Adam and Eve phenomena illustrative of the existence in the physical system of a principle of corruption, the extent of which, however, they might not have been fully apprized of.’ [4]

“Death and corruption, then, with reproduction, the characteristic of spring and summer, is the fundamental law of the physical system of the Six Days. Adam and Eve, and all the other animals born of the earth with themselves, would have died and gone to corruption, if there had been no transgression, provided that there had been no further interference with the physical system than Moses records in his history of the Six Day.’ [5]

“Now, if these two results are ordained upon two essentially dying creatures, because animal creatures, what is implied ? Why, that in the one case the dying process shall not be interrupted, and therefore death would follow: while in the other, the process should be interrupted, and therefore life should be established.

“In the former case, all that would be necessary would be to let things take their natural course; but in the latter, this would not do; and therefore it would be necessary to bring into play a transforming force which should change the very good animal nature into a very good spiritual , or incorruptible nature, which latter formed no part of the system of the Six Days.’ [6]

“From these premises it will be seen, that we dissent from our correspondent's “notion" that all creation became corrupt (by which we understand him to mean, constitutionally impregnated with corruptibility) at the Fall. We believe that the change consequent upon that calamity was moral, not physical. The natural system was the same the day before the Fall as the day after.” [7]
In these words, Thomas left no room for any reading of Scripture which argued that physical death was introduced into the world as a consequence of Adam’s sin. The upshot of this is that if human nature remained unchanged after the fall, there is no physical change that needs to be genetically passed on to the entire human race.

Robert Roberts, the first editor of The Christadelphian,  echoed John Thomas in his belief that humans were corruptible creatures prior to Adam’s sin:
‘Our friend imagines there was a change in the nature of Adam when he became disobedient. There is no evidence of this whatever, and the presumption and evidence are entirely the contrary way. There was a change in Adam’s relation to his maker, but not in the nature of his organization. What are the facts? He was formed from the dust a “living soul,” or natural body. His mental constitution gave him moral relation to God.’[8]

‘Adam, before transgression, though a living soul (or natural body—1 Cor. 15:44–5), was not necessarily destined to die, as obedience would have ended in life immortal. After transgression, his relation to destiny was changed. Death (by sentence,) was constituted the inevitable upshot of his career. He was, therefore, in a new condition as regarded the future, though not in a new condition as regarded the actual state of his nature. In actual nature, he was a corruptible groundling before sentence, and a corruptible groundling after sentence; but there was this difference: before sentence, ultimate immortality was possible; after sentence, death was a certainty. This change in the destiny lying before him, was the result of sin.’ [9].
The evidence that the first generation of Christadelphians believed Adam was created capable of death – corruptible – with death an integral part of creation from the beginning is fairly clear, and argues against any claim that such ideas are heretical, or novel speculation. They were there right from the beginning.

What about the NT references to death?

Given that Genesis refers to Adam as being created from the dust of the ground and becoming a living soul, Paul’s references to death in 1 Corinthians and Romans 5 need to be viewed in this context. What we need to get right is the difference between mortality (being a corruptible creature with a finite life span) and death (the termination of existence).

Romans 6:23 states that “…the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Note the parallelism:

  • Wages of sin --> death
  • Gift of God --> eternal life
What it does not say is:

  • Wages of sin --> mortality
  • Gift of God --> eternal life
I’m already mortal, not because of Adam’s sin, not because of my own but because I am a flesh and blood creature. However, if I sin and remain unrepentant, then I will suffer eternal death as a punishment for that sin. The parallelism in Romans 6:23 is destroyed if death is read as mortality.

Similarly, in 1 Cor 15:21-22, the parallelism is lost of death is replaced by mortality:
For since death came through a human being, the resurrection of the dead has also come through a human being; for as all die in Adam, so all will be made alive in Christ.
Of note here is the question of what it means to ‘die in Adam’. The argument that we have solidarity in Adam through physical descent from him does not follow, as the reference here is more to participating in two examples – Adam’s failure to trust God, and Christ’s ability to follow God’s way. It is by participating in either of these two examples that we are either in Adam or in Christ, with physical descent having nothing to do with it.

This is where the flawed Old Latin translation of Rom 5:12 has caused a considerable amount of problems. If we compare the Douay Rheims (based on the Vulgate) and the NRSV, the problem becomes clear:
  • NRSV: Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death came through sin, and so death spread to all because all have sinned.  
  • Douay-Rheims: Wherefore as by one man sin entered into this world and by sin death: and so death passed upon all men, in whom all have sinned.
The NRSV states something entirely unremarkable. Everyone dies and remains dead forever because they sin. The DR however states that death has passed to all men because they have somehow sinned in Adam, a reading which has been used to justify the genetic transmission of sin and death. The flawed reading of Rom 5v12 has been known since the time of Erasmus, and in fact was known to those at the Council of Trent, called in response to the challenges faced by the Catholic Church in response to the Protestant Reformation. (They however elected to ignore it). Significantly, Jesuit theologian Jack Mahoney recognises that the proper reading of Romans 5v12 takes away any need for Original Sin to be genetically transmitted:
On this several comments can be offered, the first crucially relating to where it all starts, namely, to what Paul meant in Romans 5:12 when he used the Greek phrase eph’ hō relating to Adam’s action. Augustine and others, including the council fathers at Trent, relying on the Old Latin translation, took this to mean in Latin in quo, or “in whom,” with the clear implication that everyone had sinned in Adam. Most exegetes today understand this phrase as using the common Greek preposition epi to imply succession rather than inclusion, thus giving the meaning “since when” all have sinned rather than “in whom” all have sinned…

As a consequence of this reflection, it follows that there is now no need for theology to find a method by which to explain how all Adam’s offspring inherit his original sin. [10]
Adam the First Man?

The other claim made by evolution denialists is that Adam was the first human being who ever lived, and that he was the sole ancestor of the human race. The scientific evidence rules this out, so it does not matter how many times a special creationist appeals to Romans 5:12, it will not make the fossil evidence and genomic record of human-ape common ancestry vanish.

The question we need to ask is what does it mean for Adam to be the first Man? While it is quite likely that Paul believed Adam was the first human being to exist (Paul of course not being privy to the palaeoanthropological data), does Paul’s theology depend on it?

The key verses are of course 1 Cor 15:45-47
Thus it is written, “The first man, Adam, became a living being”; the last Adam became a life-giving spirit. But it is not the spiritual that is first, but the physical, and then the spiritual. The first man was from the earth, a man of dust; the second man is from heaven.
Paul refers to Christ as the Last Adam, which gives us the context in which we can work out how Adam was the first Adam. Christ most certainly was not the last human being to exist, and therefore one can argue that from Paul’s perspective, Adam did not have to be the first Homo sapiens to walk the earth, but the first human being in salvation history. Prior to Adam, countless millions lived and died and passed into oblivion. However, none of them were sinners, because God’s law had not been revealed to them. Where there is no law, there is no sin, and where there is no sin, death as a punishment for sin had no meaning. Salvation history began when God revealed himself to Adam and placed him under the law of sin and death. Adam failed, and we have been swift to follow his example since then. Christ is the Last Adam because salvation history finishes with him. He followed God’s way perfectly, and has given us a perfect example to follow. What Adam failed to do, Christ completed.


Opponents of evolution claim that Christian theology is ruined by evolution. That is true only if you believe in the classical doctrine of Original Sin, which demands universal human descent from Adam, and as we know, that assertion cannot be maintained. When respected theologians from faith traditions that have Original Sin as one of their doctrines recognize that evolution has made Original Sin untenable in its classic form, it is hardly alarmist to say that it is time to see whether the doctrine is Biblically sound.

For Christadelphians, as I have shown, our original position was that physical death was part of creation from the beginning, and Adam was created corruptible. Therefore, there is no need for us to insist on universal descent from Adam, as there was no physical change in Eden for us to inherit. Adam’s pre-sin nature was the same as his post-sin nature. Furthermore, Paul’s argument in 1 Cor 15 refers to salvation history, not human history. Irrespective of whether Adam was the first human being to walk this planet or not, he was the first person with whom God made a covenant relationship. Evolution leaves our theological position unscathed, and rather than fear-mongering, we should be making this fact known, in order to show that evolution is simply not an issue theologically.


1. Thirtle, 'The Day of Adam's Transgression', The Christadelphian (17.187.26-27), 1880.
2. Thomas, ‘The Bible Doctrine Concerning the Tempter Considered. No. II.’, The Herald of the Kingdom and Age to Come (2.8.181), 1852.
3. Thomas, ‘Our Terrestrial System Before the Fall’, The Herald of the Kingdom and Age to Come (5.7.159), 1855.
4.  ibid., p. 159.
5.  ibid., p. 159.
6.  ibid., pp. 159-160.
7.  ibid., p. 160.
8. Roberts, ‘The Relation of Jesus to the Law of Sin and Death’, The Christadelphian (6.578.85), 1869.
9. Roberts, ‘Apparent Contradictions Reconciled’, The Christadelphian (6.62.243), 1869.
10. Mahoney, Jack Christianity in Evolution: An Exploration (2011: Georgetown University Press) p 55-56