Friday, 30 May 2014

Evolutionary Creationism - A Guide for the Perplexed

The sheer volume of material available on the evolution-creation controversy is frankly overwhelming. In order to help the layperson wanting to come to grips with the main issues, I've compiled a list of article and papers on the main biblical and scientific issues.

While the scientific evidence for common descent is beyond dispute, many laypeople will simply reject this evidence if it clashes with their interpretation of the Bible. Therefore, emphasising the problems arising from a fundamentalist reading of the Bible as well as the recent, sectarian origins of the YEC exegetical paradigm is important to show that even without evolution, the YEC / OEC way of reading the Bible is incoherent.

As OT scholar John Walton notes, Genesis 1 is ancient cosmology, not modern science. The clearest indication of this fact is the reference to a solid firmament in Genesis 1. If Genesis 1 was intended to be a scientifically accurate account of the origins of the universe to be interpreted literally, then we would not expect to see a clear reference to ancient cosmogeography. The fact we do see this, as Paul Seely notes in his paper on the firmament of Genesis 1  alone is enough to remind us that interpreting Genesis 1 as an account of material origins is an interpretive blunder. Seely's monograph is well regarded by both Christian and Jewish scholars, and to quote Natan Slifkin, [1] it is the "definite study on this topic." The solid firmament is not the only example of how a pre-scientific worldview is accommodated in the Bible. Isaiah 40:22 and Job 26:7, as Robert Schneider points out in a 2001 article in Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith do not provide evidence for a spherical Earth suspended on nothing, but rather are evidence for the accommodation of a pre-scientific cosmology.

A literal reading of the two creation narratives in Genesis 1 and Genesis 2, as legendary Reformed Christian scholar Meredith Kline pointed out half a century ago in his paper Because It Had Not Rained, is impossible to maintain when one tries to harmonise them as literal, chronologically sequential accounts of creation. As Kline notes:
The results, indeed, approach the ludicrous when it is attempted to synchronize Gen. 2:5 with Genesis 1 interpreted  in terms of a week of twenty-four-hour days. On that interpretation, vegetation was created on what we may call "Tuesday". Therefore, the vegetationless situation described in Gen. 2:5 cannot be located later than "Tuesday" morning. Neither can it be located earlier than that for Gen. 2:5 assumes the existence of dry land which does not appear until the "third day". Besides, would it not have been droll to attribute the lack of vegetation to the lack of water either on "Sunday" when the earth itself was quite unfashioned or on "Monday" when there was nothing but water to be seen?  
Hence the twenty-four-hour day theorist must think of the Almighty as hesitant to put in the plants on "Tuesday" morning because it would not rain until later in the day! (It must of course be supposed that it did rain, or at least that some supply of water was provided, before "Tuesday" was over, for by the end of the day the earth was abounding with that vegetation which according to Gen. 2:5 had hitherto been lacking for want of water.
Kline elaborates further on this point in his paper Space and Time in the Genesis Cosmogony.

Old Earth creationists have traditionally attempted to reconcile a literal reading of Genesis 1 with the geological record either by the day-age theory, in which each day of Genesis corresponds to an undefined geological age, or by postulating a recent re-creation in six literal days after a recent global catastrophe wiped out all life (the so-called Gap theory). One of the major problems with this approach is that the order of creation events simply does not correlate with the appearance of life as seen in the geological record. Paul Seely's article The First Four Days of Genesis in Concordist Theory and in Biblical Context neatly summarises the insoluble problems with strong concordism. Evangelical Christian and geologist Davis Young approaches the literalism - concordist problem in his exhaustive two-part survey Scripture in the Hands of Geologists, and likewise concludes that both literalism and strong concordism are untenable exegetical options, and need to be abandoned. Part two is here.

Biblical literalists argue that by summing the genealogies, one can arrive at a date for creation, which is assumed to be around 6000 years ago. However, as 19th century conservative Christian scholar WH Green pointed out in Primeval Chronology, the genealogies were simply never designed for this purpose, being a 'select and partial register' of names that 'do not fix and were not intended to fix the precise date either of the Flood or of the creation of the world.'  Implicit in this approach taken by fundamentalists to date the universe is the belief that Genesis 1:1 refers to the beginning of creation, but as Hebrew grammarian Robert Holmstedt points out:
In a nutshell, the interpretation and translation of the first complex word, בְּרֵאשִׁית, in the Masoretic text of the Leningrad Codex as an absolute temporal prepositional phrase, “in the beginning, …” is grammatically indefensible. Period. End of story.
As to how Genesis 1:1-3 should be translated, Holmstedt says:
The overall analysis of Gen 1.1-3 given above has a long history in biblical scholarship. It is also the analysis adopted in Baasten 2007, although with the tie-in to relative clause restrictivenes. Here is a basic English translation that would serve as a starting point for working out one that reflects whatever translation theory one adopts:
“In the beginning period that God created the heavens and earth (the earth was formless and void, and darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the wind of God was hovering over the surface of the waters), God said, ‘Let light be!’”

Happily, within biblical scholarship, the analysis I have promoted above is being adopted by my peers (e.g., Mark Smith in his Priestly Vision of Genesis 1, and Ellen van Wolde, in her 2009 JSOT article).
The implications of this were highlighted by Holmstedt in the comments in his post:
To put it simply: there is no direct connection between the grammar of the passage and giving up one’s views. Rather, it works the other way: our analysis of the grammar of Gen 1.1-3 opens the passage up so that one cannot simply assert that “It’s about THE beginning.” 
As a restrictive relative, this “beginning” is defined as the one in which God created the heavens and the earth. Thus, the grammar indicates the statement to be ambiguous with regard to the modern old-earth-vs-young-earth debate. It might have been the first and only ראשׁית period, but it also might have been one of many ראשׁית periods. 
So, a young-earth person can say, “this is the only and first ראשׁית,” but such a claim does not proceed directly from the grammar; it interprets the meaning of the text in light of a view brought to the text from some other place. And an old-earth person can say, “this relativizes the claims Genesis 1.1-3 makes so that the old-earth and the big-bangity-bang are not disallowed by the text”. Take your pick, but you must do it based on texts or issues outside Gen 1.1-3; the decision cannot be tied directly to the grammar of the passage since the grammar allows for both.
Holmstedt's academic article on this subject is found here.

As for how the Genesis narratives should be understood, Conrad Hyers' "The Narrative Form of Genesis 1: Cosmogonic, Yes; Scientific, No" and his Dinosaur Religion: On Interpreting and Misinterpreting the Creation Texts, along with Rikki Watts' "Making Sense of Genesis One" provide an accessible overview into how understanding the genre and cultural context of the narratives allow the reader to avoid forcing ancient texts into an inappropriately modern exegetical framework.

Genesis is only one part of the story. The belief that Paul's theology demands universal human descent from two people in order to genetically inherit the consequences of Adam's sin is the other major problem fundamentalists have with the implications of evolution. However, even if evolution is kept out of the picture, as Davis Young notes:
If the data in Genesis 4 are correlated with the cultural setting of the Neolithic Revolution in the ancient Near East about 8000 to 7500 B.C., then the biblical representation of Adam as Cain's immediate father suggests that Adam and Eve lived only about 10,000 years ago. The fossil record of anatomically modern humans, however, extends at least 100,000 years before the present. There are at least three solutions to this dilemma. All three alternative solutions pose difficult exegetical or theological challenges that result either in a refinement of the doctrine of original sin or a significant departure from traditional historical readings of Genesis 2-4. 

Daniel Harlow's 2010 Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith article After Adam: Reading Genesis in an Age of Evolutionary Science postulates a non-literal Adam, a solution I regard as unnecessary. Harlow's mastery of the multiple issues involved in understanding Paul's view on Adam is undeniable, and warrants reading, if only for his reading of Romans 5:12, arguably the single verse at the core of the fundamentalist objection to evolution:
What does the apostle actually say about Adam’s role in sin and death? If one examines carefully Paul’s wording in Rom. 5:12, his use of prepositions is revealing. He says that sin entered the world through (not because of) Adam, and that death spread to all because (Greek: ’ep’ ho) all sinned. Adam was the first sinner, but the responsibility for humanity’s sin falls squarely on the human race as a whole, as in Rom. 1:18–3:20. Moreover, Paul never claims or even implies that human nature underwent a fundamental change with Adam’s sin. For Paul, then, Adam’s act affected the human race but did not infect it; he attributes to Adam less a causal role in the sin of all humanity than a temporal and representative one. Something similar to Paul’s  view was held by his near contemporary, the author  of the Jewish apocalypse 2 Baruch: “Adam is therefore not the cause, except only for himself, but each of us has become our own Adam” (54:19; cf. 54:15;  4 Ezra 7:118). This was also the view of early Christian writers like Justin Martyr, who wrote that human beings, “having become like Adam and Eve, work out death for themselves … and shall be judged and convicted as were Adam and Eve” (Dialogue with Trypho, 124).46 If this reading is right, then Paul is not really the initiator of the doctrine of original sin. That credit must go rather to Jerome, whose Latin translation of Rom. 5:12, which says that Adam was the one “in whom” (in quo) all humanity sinned, was taken up and interpreted by Augustine.
John Schneider's Recent Genetic Science and Christian Theology on Human Origins: An “Aesthetic Supralapsarianism", which features in the same issue of Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith also argues against this Augustinian view of Paul, and can be read as a companion piece to Harlow's article. While I would disagree with any reading which makes Adam a non-literal figure, both papers provide excellent summaries of the main issues which anyone who wants to read the Bible in the light of the fact of evolution needs to master.

BioLogos has an interview with John Walton whose view of Adam comes close to mine:
In my view, Adam and Eve are historical figures—real people in a real past. Nevertheless, I am persuaded that the biblical text is more interested in them as archetypal figures who represent all of humanity. This is particularly true in the account in Genesis 2 about their formation. I contend that the formation accounts are not addressing their material formation as biological specimens, but are addressing the forming of all of humanity: we are all formed from dust, and we are all gendered halves. If this is true, Genesis 2 is not making claims about biological origins of humanity, and therefore the Bible should not be viewed as offering competing claims against science about human origins. If this is true, Adam and Eve also may or may not be the first humans or the parents of the entire human race. Such an archetypal focus is theologically viable and is well-represented in the ancient Near East (p. 89).
You can find it here.

Once these issues have been appraised, the theological imperative to read Paul and the creation narratives in a naive, literal, wooden should be seen to be marginal at best. More importantly, one should be able to see that the question of evolution simply is irrelevant if one sees Adam and Eve as recent representatives in a world already populated by human beings. Then, one can move onto an overview of the science.


1. Cited in the previous link.