Adam and Eve: Real People?
Albert Mohler, President of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, yesterday posted False Start? The Controversy over Adam and Eve(hat tip to Joe Carter at First Things) which details the dispute in evangelical circles regarding the historical nature of human origins as described in Genesis and its impact on the Gospel story. This might be an old debate, but I am not certain it has ever been fought within evangelical churches before; historically, the fight has been directed from evangelicals out at theological liberals and Darwinists. A number of evangelical scholars, however, have challenged the former consensus. Mohler represents their views within his post:
(Barbara Bradley )Hagerty (of NPR) asked Dennis Venema, a professor of biology at Trinity Western University, if all humans descended from Adam and Eve. “That would be against all the genomics evidence that we’ve assembled over the last 20 years, so not likely at all,” Venema said. He explained that there is simply too much genetic diversity among human beings than would be possible with an original reproducing pair. Venema affirmed the standard evolutionary line of argument and explained that, in Hagerty’s words, “modern humans emerged from other primates as a large population - long before the Genesis time frame of a few thousand years ago.”
There are other evangelical scientists and scholars whom he cites in the same vein, but Mohler seemed most troubled by this assertion from Karl Gibberson regarding the impact of these claims regarding Adam and Eve:
The Bible is not a book. It is a library — dozens of very different books bound together. The assumption that identifying one part as fiction undermines the factual character of another part is ludicrous. It would be like going into an actual physical library and saying “Well, if all these books about Harry Potter are fictional, then how do I know these other books about Abraham Lincoln are factual? How can Lincoln be real if Potter is not?” And then “Aha! I have got you! So much for your library.”
Mohler ends with what he sees as the troubling implications of such a claim:
The implications for biblical authority are clear, as is the fact that if these arguments hold sway, we will have to come up with an entirely new understanding of the Gospel metanarrative and the Bible’s storyline.
The denial of an historical Adam and Eve as the first parents of all humanity and the solitary first human pair severs the link between Adam and Christ which is so crucial to the Gospel.
If we do not know how the story of the Gospel begins, then we do not know what that story means. Make no mistake: a false start to the story produces a false grasp of the Gospel.
Are these issues for Catholics in general or Catholic biblical scholarship? The Catholic Church in general has been more open at an official theological level to the reality of evolution, as long as one maintains the reality of divine creation and the meaningfulness and purposefulness of life, but does this openness to evolution extend to a denial of an actual human pair, Adam and Eve? The Catholic Church has also had little trouble reading the Bible symbolically, figuratively, and allegorically, but could it deny that behind the mythic accounts of Adam and Eve stand two real human beings? This seems to be where the evidence of evolutionary theory is taking us, but it also seems to me that the Church’s position has been somewhat ambiguous on certain matters or silent.
Humani Generis 38 says "that the first eleven chapters of Genesis, although properly speaking not conforming to the historical method used by the best Greek and Latin writers or by competent authors of our time, do nevertheless pertain to history in a true sense, which however must be further studied and determined by exegetes." What does it mean for something to "pertain to history in a true sense"? Two actual people created directly by God who then are tempted and sin? Or the reality that humanity has fallen? Certainly, reading these texts in a figurative or symbolic or even mythic sense, properly understood, is quite common amongst Catholic exegetes, but how does it "pertain to history in a true sense"? That is an ambiguous way to state asomething that could have been stated in this manner: those two people were historical persons. The Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC) states in 289 that “Among all the Scriptural texts about creation, the first three chapters of Genesis occupy a unique place. From a literary standpoint these texts may have had diverse sources. The inspired authors have placed them at the beginning of Scripture to express in their solemn language the truths of creation - its origin and its end in God, its order and goodness, the vocation of man, and finally the drama of sin and the hope of salvation. Read in the light of Christ, within the unity of Sacred Scripture and in the living Tradition of the Church, these texts remain the principal source for catechesis on the mysteries of the "beginning": creation, fall, and promise of salvation.” This passage names the literary character of the Genesis texts and speaks of how they express “in their solemn language the truths of creation - its origin and its end in God, its order and goodness, the vocation of man, and finally the drama of sin and the hope of salvation,” but is this the same as saying there was an actual Adam and Eve? Or does it deny that there was such a pair?
However open the Church has been to theistic evolution, the CCC 375 states that “the Church, interpreting the symbolism of biblical language in an authentic way, in the light of the New Testament and Tradition, teaches that our first parents, Adam and Eve, were constituted in an original "state of holiness and justice". This grace of original holiness was "to share in...divine life.” This does suggest an original human pair, even in light of “the symbolism of biblical language,” which does not seem to square with the evolution of human beings. It might be more complicated than that, though, for on a number of occasions the Church has insisted that even if human beings developed through evolutionary processes, the human soul is created directly by God. This could open up the doors to an understanding of the evolution of beings and then a direct encounter with God in which two of these first beings are made human by being “ensouled.” According to Gaudium et Spes 14 when a human being “recognizes in himself a spiritual and immortal soul, he is not being mocked by a fantasy born only of physical or social influences, but is rather laying hold of the proper truth of the matter.”
Humani Generis 36 declares that “for these reasons the Teaching Authority of the Church does not forbid that, in conformity with the present state of human sciences and sacred theology, research and discussions, on the part of men experienced in both fields, take place with regard to the doctrine of evolution, in as far as it inquires into the origin of the human body as coming from pre-existent and living matter - for the Catholic faith obliges us to hold that souls are immediately created by God (my italics). Likewise CCC 33 speaks of “the human person: with his openness to truth and beauty, his sense of moral goodness, his freedom and the voice of his conscience, with his longings for the infinite and for happiness, man questions himself about God's existence. In all this he discerns signs of his spiritual soul. The soul, the "seed of eternity we bear in ourselves, irreducible to the merely material", can have its origin only in God.” It is vague and ambiguous, therefore, whether these texts are speaking of “Adam and Eve” as the original human couple, or the original beings who after development through evolution are made human by the process of entering into a relationship with God by means of the bestowing of a soul. This is not the only matter to be considered. As Mohler makes clear in his piece, as significant as the notion of human creation is the “Fall,” Original Sin, for it is from the depths of sin and death that human beings are saved in the Christian redemption narrative.
Again, though, ambiguity is found throughout these discussions. As CCC 390 has it, “the account of the fall in Genesis 3 uses figurative language, but affirms a primeval event, a deed that took place at the beginning of the history of man. Revelation gives us the certainty of faith that the whole of human history is marked by the original fault freely committed by our first parents.” What does “figurative language” indicate when the passage goes on to speak of “our first parents”? Does it mean that certain elements of the account are figurative, such as the Serpent? Or does it indicate that the whole of the account, including the notion of the two original human beings, is to be understood as figurative? “A primeval event, a deed that took place at the beginning of the history of man” is different, it seems to me, than stating simply that the Fall as described in Genesis is an historical event, but this is not clear.
They key component of human sin, after all, is a willingness to choose evil and this requires in the Christian salvific scheme not only free will, but the “likeness” to God, which is seen primarily in the reality of the human soul. Gaudium et Spes 13 states that “although he was made by God in a state of holiness, from the very onset of his history man abused his liberty, at the urging of the Evil One.” Yet, as Gaudium et Spes 18 goes on to say, “it is in the face of death that the riddle a human existence grows most acute. Not only is man tormented by pain and by the advancing deterioration of his body, but even more so by a dread of perpetual extinction. He rightly follows the intuition of his heart when he abhors and repudiates the utter ruin and total disappearance of his own person. He rebels against death because he bears in himself an eternal seed which cannot be reduced to sheer matter (my italics).” Human beings, though, share death with other creatures, for whom it does not create an existential dilemma; it is this eternal seed which cannot be reduced to sheer matter, the soul, which creates the problem of death. After all, the reality of human evolution would necessitate the death of many beings prior to the full flowering of homo sapiens. This is a question of a different order than the evolutionary development of our human bodies and suggests the giving of the soul is the beginning of our human dilemma. If the giving of the soul does not occur concurrently with the beginning of the evolutionary process then how we understand “Adam and Eve” changes from the model of creation in Genesis with a strictly "original pair".
This is what I mean by ambiguity: one could argue the point one way or another from Church documents and Catholic scholars certainly do, with some concentrating on the openness to reading these accounts of Scripture in light of literary myth and theistic evolution and others stressing the reality of one original human pair who "fell" in a specific event, even though all of the evolutionary evidence points away from such a reality. In theLetter Of His Holiness John Paul II To Reverend George V. Coyne, S.J. Director Of The Vatican Observatory (1988), John Paul II acknowledged that we were still in a feeling out period between science and theology. His comments though looked positively to the flowering of this relationship:
What, then, does the Church encourage in this relational unity between science and religion? First and foremost that they should come to understand one another. For too long a time they have been at arm’s length. Theology has been defined as an effort of faith to achieve understanding, as fides quaerens intellectum. As such, it must be in vital interchange today with science just as it always has been with philosophy and other forms of learning. Theology will have to call on the findings of science to one degree or another as it pursues its primary concern for the human person, the reaches of freedom, the possibilities of Christian community, the nature of belief and the intelligibility of nature and history. The vitality and significance of theology for humanity will in a profound way be reflected in its ability to incorporate these findings.
Apart from the general claim that we cannot ignore the relationship between science and theology, significantly he stated that “theology will have to call on the findings of science to one degree or another as it pursues its primary concern for the human person, the reaches of freedom, the possibilities of Christian community, the nature of belief and the intelligibility of nature and history.” This is a task that will be perpetually unfinished in some ways, as both science and theology are perpetually unfinished, but it seems that clarity is still needed in determining the basic implications of what even a theistic understanding of evolution implies for human origins. This is quite apart from the literary study of Genesis, which has clearly outlined the complex nature of these myths of human origins, their relationship to and dependence upon other ancient Near Eastern accounts of human origins and the theological not historical nature of these accounts. As John Paul II asked,
“If the cosmologies of the ancient Near Eastern world could be purified and assimilated into the first chapters of Genesis, might not contemporary cosmology have something to offer to our reflections upon creation? Does an evolutionary perspective bring any light to bear upon theological anthropology, the meaning of the human person as the imago Dei, the problem of Christology – and even upon the development of doctrine itself? What, if any, are the eschatological implications of contemporary cosmology, especially in light of the vast future of our universe? Can theological method fruitfully appropriate insights from scientific methodology and the philosophy of science?”
These are all excellent questions, but for those of us who have thought the answers of human origins in Catholic theology were more clearly in line with the findings of evolutionary theory, there seems to be more ambiguity than I was aware. Even if Catholic theology is long beyond Mohler's unease that the Bible is more than history or his rejection of evolutionary theory, it seems that the questions he asks regarding Adam and Eve still have answers vaguely similar to his.
John W. Martens
Follow me on Twitter @johnwmartens
Perhaps a way thru this is to see Christ as the personification of humanity, the Son of Man/Humanity, in a similar sense that the Adam also personifies humanity ?
Perhaps Adam and Eve's original sinlessness and then the fall is more a mythic way of saying that our ability to make moral choices, which only comes at a certain level of human development (both personally in the growth of an infant into and adult and also in the evolution of humanity) not only has the potential for evil choices and in fact invariably does involve our making evil choices (''all have sinned'') ?
The catechism sometimes seems to be carefully crafted by committee to reach a compromise between older and more modern theologies.
''When, however, there is question of another conjectural opinion, namely polygenism, the children of the Church by no means enjoy such liberty. For the faithful cannot embrace that opinion which maintains that either after Adam there existed on this earth true men who did not take their origin through natural generation from him as from the first parent of all, or that Adam represents a certain number of first parents. Now it is in no way apparent how such an opinion can be reconciled with that which the sources of revealed truth and the documents of the Teaching Authority of the Church propose with regard to original sin, which proceeds from a sin actually committed by an individual Adam and which, through generation, is passed on to all and is in everyone as his own.''
Thanks also to all the commentors and their prespectives. Stephen M. O'Brien's background information on the church's rejection of "polygenism" seems to be very relevant to this controversy.
But as an intellectual matter I have to agree with Albert Mohler that having an actual Adam and Eve specially created by God and their interaction with God and Satan is an essential foundation to the rest of the Bible. Adam and Eve creation is a real event with hugh specific implications that a methphor such as "all of humanity" does not provide. Individual hman actors and their very specific actions and free will have always played rhe key role in all the scriptures not vague symbolic abstractions like "all of humaity". And Christ himself had always referenced and validated all the scriptures and sought to build on scriptures. Saying these essential relationships and elements were methphors distorts the key message being made that mankind haas been crated by God and has a relationship to God. Humanity is not rhe result of ages of impersonal natrual processes where an mpersonal God remains silent and unknown to humanity. God's direct and personal contact with individual human beings is essential to make the entire Bible story work and be meaningful as Albert Mohler points out.
The first parents story explains a great many things. Ironically in science if you have competing theories to explain something such as human origins,the rule of parsimony is used to favor the expalination that is simpler, more elegant and able to account for more detail when more compelling evidence is lacking . The first parent expaination (theory) of the origin of humanity from Adam and Eve ithout mentioning God , has scientific merit and is not so easily dismissed by new evidence that do not definitively disprove or explain human origns. As often is the case we still do not have enough scientific evidence on human origins.
Science requires that all data and and the interprretation of data be always viewed skeptically and questioned. It needs to be asked is the human gnome data accurate and correctly and logically applied and interpreted? Exhaustively has other processes that may account for the same gnome been considered and ruled out such the possibility that would allow for a first parent but also gnome variability? Mapping the human gnome is only ten years old. Do we really know everything about the how the human gnome formed as it now appears? Or might other processes still be still be unknown and therfore not accounted for?
At the end of the day one would expect that science and the Bible would be consistant with one another. Their should be only one truth. Generally the Bible is amazingly consistant with major findings currently know to science. The "Big Bang" theory is only a half century old but accumulating evidence points to the vaidity if an unmimaginable orgin from in one small point at one moment in time - a creation. Only a few decades ago many said the universe always existed. But it terns out the universe though vast and complex is finite and had a origin. What does that mean? It means that a major key point made in the first few senetences of the Bible - a creation - is consistant with what is currently known to science. The Bible and science can and does reflect the same reality.
My understanding is that the scientific evidence points away from common ancestry tracable to a single couple.
Pope Pius XII's statement in Humani Generis may well be a statement that will be developed by the Church in the course of time. Recent magisterial statements do not seem to be insistent on such a common descent.
Perhaps we loose a little theologically in our shared humanity from common ancestors but that seems to point us even further back into the past to find our common humanity in our common creator. It may also helpfully point us towards appreciating our common humanity through membership in the wider human community rather than through merely family ties (ties which the New Testament seems somewhat wary of).
Now, if one's biological time horizon is 6,000 BCE, then granted, one couple seems too few to account for humanity (especially as we're finding settlements from 11,000 BCE).
But if one pushes back humanity's origin to 100,000 BCE it's much more likely that a single couple either created ex nihilo or 2 monkeys endowed with a spiritual soul by God could account for us all.
After all, what does "settled science" declare about evolution? a single start of life from which all other life sprung. Darwinian dogmatists really don't like any talk about spontaneous generations billions or millions of years post their mythic "first life" starting line.... because the logic of "we're all in this together, we're all the same" breaks down if you posit various historic origins of various natures.
In terms of human morality, if we posit that various tribes or races come from different original parents we begin to slide into the fundamental underpinnings of ALL racist theories of superiority/inferiority and undermine the very premise of the concept of universal human rights (in that if we're not all of the same family, if we're not all ultimately equal, then we can't claim equality by right but only by temporary privileges...)
So I'm sure that since "settled" Science (in Darwininan terms) holds that a single origin must be taken on faith for the existence of all life on earth and that human rights doctrine likewise holds that all human beings must come from one pair... we'd be wise to give this "breaking scientific theories to the contrary" some time rather than make a hasty jump into "yeah, let's jettison the past and see what this brings us".
The science and the logic of evolution follow the Greek search for "arhea" or origin of all that is. How do we account for what is while acknowledging and making sense of change and difference?
It would make sense that all life is connected somehow - philosophic logic of deduction preceeds scientific exploration because it points to what we ought to look for. Unless you know what to look for, it's pretty hard to identify clues!
So did life arise spontaneously once for all or several times leading to several different outcomes but based on the same fundamental architecture (DNA)? That's a philosophic and scientific question.
Theological revelation holds that all of humanity came from one pair. Logic would demand that such a pair existed eons ago to account for the paleontological record of ancient and global settlements and remains. Science which is accepted as 'settled' on the score of evolution of life beginning 4 billion years ago and necessarily connected "somehow" with each other across plant and animal barriers would seem to point to humanity too being ultimately springing from 1 source - while it is indeed possible our DNA got mixed along the way with other tribes. Perhaps the "sons of men" and sons of god have to do with ensouled and non-spiritually ensouled hominids?
In any event, theology is what is revealed, not something we need wait until science tells us it's safe to accept! The meaning of 1 pair of spiritual ensouled hominids connected with all human beings ought to be clear enough no matter how our various races came to be different.
We need not doubt our theology even while we acknowledge there is plenty of details about Adam and Eve and what happened after the Flood and the exact biological pedigree behind Africans, Asians, and Europeans may come from Noah's 3 sons.... what I fear is that it's our theology that is so easily jettisoned as "maybe not so true" while we turn instead with greater deference to science when that's not called for.
It is also important to recognize that "laws" of science - therories that are veyr well proven - have centuries later been disprroven at least in part and in need of significant revison or full replacement. Newton's law of gravity was discovered to have very subtle discrepancies between the orbits of some planets it predicted and the planets actual observed orbit. 200 years later, Einstein's theory which in part explains gravity replaced Newtow's law. And decades later parts of Einstein's theory on other subjects was replaced by new theories. "Laws" of science are often found to be incomplete and therefore can be misleading explainations of reality.
Our scientific knowledge is often shown to be only a surface view of a far deeper and more complex reality that always remains unknown to us.