What We Believe
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An Attempt at Reconciling Paleoanthropology and Scripture: A Review Article

Jan F. Dudt

In Quest of the Historic Adam, by William Lane Craig. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2021, 439 pages, $38.00.

Over the last decade and a half there has been a proliferation of articles and books from Christian authors of various stripes over the matter of reconciling the message of human origins as described by the current science of paleoanthropology with the biblical account of human origins. The discussion has typically centered around how to weigh the claims of modern science with those of Scripture.

The continual discoveries of fossils and artifacts has pushed back the date of the earliest Homo sapiens to about 350,000 BP (years before present) as suggested by recent finds from Morocco. The picture is complicated by the modern genetics of human diversity. The raw number of genes and allelic variants of characteristics like the human leucocyte antigens (HLA) make it hard to imagine that there was an original single couple any time in human history. HLA antigens are those protein flags on our cells that define us as self, requiring very close matches if an organ or tissue donation is needed. The total number of variants for HLA genes is staggering. A single first couple could only contain a minute fraction of the variants currently seen across the human population. 

Complicating the picture are new discoveries that suggest that there were various forms of the genus Homo prior to the existence of Homo sapiens by hundreds of thousands of years. Names like Homo erectus and Homo heidelbergensis come to mind. In addition, there are discoveries of Homo species that were contemporary with modern Homo sapiens as recently as the last ice age, nearly 40,000 years ago, or less. Names like Homo neanderthalensis, Homo denisova (Denisovans), and the enigmatic hobbit man (Homo floresiensis) come to mind. In the last ten years or so the complete genomes of Neanderthals and Denisovans have been sequenced from DNA extracted from fossil bones or teeth. Rigorous comparisons of those genomes to modern human genomes across the continents has led to the conclusion that all non-African descended people and some African descended people show genetic markers consistent with cross breeding of Homo sapiens with Neanderthals and Denisovans. The genetic contribution from these ancient species is about 2%. The indication is that this occurred about forty or fifty thousand years ago, before Neanderthals and Denisovans disappeared from the fossil record.

Evidence from skeletal similarities of these Homo species and neurological and vascular markers in the bones of the Homo species compared to that of anatomically modern humans has led many to conclude that they were capable of speech and abstract human-like reasoning. Supporting this conclusion are discoveries of sophisticated throwing spears associated with Homo heidelbergensis dating to about 350,000 years BP and art associated with Neanderthal cave sites in Spain from 65,000 years ago, about 20,000 years before modern humans are thought to have arrived there.

The matter of reconciling these dates and the paleoanthropological complexities with the biblical account of human origins has generated much literature dedicated to the analysis. The literature spans the spectrum of perspectives of those who are committed to a historic understanding of biblical authority and inerrancy to those who have taken a more critical approach. Theologians and scientists alike have contributed. Such theologians as C. John Collins, John Walton, and Peter Enns populate the theological spectrum. Scientists such as Dennis Venema, Denis Lamoureux, and Francis Collins have contributed. Those who allow the science to arbitrate over biblical authority typically retreat from a historic Adam. In so doing classic doctrines associated with a historic fall and original sin are significantly reworked or abandoned altogether, often for something that looks strikingly Pelagian. Those who are committed to the historicity of the biblical narrative and characters are perplexed by the science and its implications for crucial doctrines such as the imago Dei and original sin. 

Into this mix William Lane Craig has written The Quest for the Historic Adam. He makes his case for the great antiquity of humanity as informed by modern science while desiring to secure the biblically nonnegotiable historic Adam. His attempt to reconcile science with Scripture is part of a noble Christian project that echoes the sentiment of Christians down through the ages. Even Galileo believed that “nor is God any less excellently revealed in Nature’s actions than in the sacred statements of the Bible.”[1]

Craig’s theological commitments are not Reformed nor are they classically evangelical. For him the doctrine of original sin has scant biblical support and is not crucial to the Christian faith, though he does recognize that a historic Adam is crucial to the doctrine (4–6). He also has an apparent misunderstanding of limited atonement, calling it a “strange teaching” that would not encompass the sins of archaic humans (365). In addition, as one reads his book, it is unclear how he sees the inspiration of Scripture. He never clearly says. However, his commitment to the concept of historic Adam is commendable. His appreciation for Peter Enns’s position that “Paul’s Adam in Romans is not a plain reading of the Adam story but an interpretation of the story for theological purposes that are not rooted in Genesis” (6) is revealing. Craig does not clearly distance himself from Enns’s position that the Old Testament is a post exilic second temple polemic on Hebrew identity. Hence, it is left to serious doubt whether Craig sees the Scriptures as a clearly inspired set of books with linked continuity. Perhaps it is for this reason that Craig spends the first half of the book contextualizing Genesis within its ancient Near Eastern cultural setting. For Craig this seems to be the greater influence on the narrative of Genesis 1–11 than the Holy Spirit himself, who is never mentioned in the book.  

Craig makes it clear in the first chapter that “we need to consider the option that Genesis 1–11 need not be considered literally” (14). Here he sides clearly with non-concordists, leaving one to wonder what useful information can be gleaned from the Genesis narrative. He is desirous of taking “a canonical approach to Adam” that prevents him from reducing Adam to complete figurative myth. However, he appeals to ancient Near Eastern mythology to do this.

Chapters 2 and 3 are dedicated to convincing the reader that myth need not reflect real events or linear time while it maintains a sacredness in the mind of the adherent. It looks to him like the Genesis narrative has ample parallels to classic Near Eastern myths. Those parallels are used as a commentary against “crass polytheism” punctuated by genealogies that were “regarded as authoritative” by the “undisputed post-exilic Chronicler.” It is curious that he never mentions Moses and how the Holy Spirit would guide the narrative to accomplish its purpose. Craig’s take on Genesis is not that it is a description of real events worked out in historic time, rather it is a commentary against the contemporary polytheistic myths. It makes one wonder why even bother with a historic Adam and not just default to the classic position of many higher critics that reject the historicity and the heart of the gospel. The reader is required to assume that Craig is unwilling to go that far due to a conviction that the rest of Scripture accepts Adam as historic. Why the authors of Scripture would be seen as authoritative without Craig’s clear articulation of his view of biblical authority is an unanswered question.

In chapters 4 and 5 Craig makes the case that although Genesis 1–11 is mythic it is not the same type of myth as was found among the Hebrews’ contemporary neighbors. While trying to retain some historic flavor in the narrative, he points out that in Genesis, cultural practices like livestock herding and vine dressing are attributed to humans not the gods. But this point could be made using myth to attribute these skills to human invention rather than to the deities. This is also the case with anthropomorphisms such as God breathing life into nostrils, walking in the garden, or smelling Noah’s sacrifice. His take is that the author of these descriptive events would have assumed his readers would see these anthropomorphisms to be part of the storyteller’s art and not serious theology (102). Strangely, Craig fails to make the case that Jewish and Christian people have not seen these descriptions as serious theology. He goes on to make the case that fantastic things like six creation days, a crafty snake, cherubim with flaming sword, unions of angels and humans, and trees with special qualities would likely have been considered less than factually true by the biblical author. Yet, despite the fantastic elements and inconsistencies, these stories would have been objects of belief for the ancient Israelites. Chapter 5 is Craig’s attempt to anchor Adam in history despite the mythic qualities of the Genesis 1–11 narrative. Genealogies from the Old and New Testaments make historicity an insurmountable matter. His belief is that the purpose of the genealogies in ancient Near Eastern tradition, including Genesis, is domestic, political, and religious. The history is an incidental preservation (141). However, the characters in the genealogies would have been considered by ancient readers as real, even if the life spans were believed to be fantastic (146). He does not make a good case at this point why ancient supernaturalists would reject the long-life spans while holding to the historicity of the individual, whether considering a Sumerian king or a biblical patriarch. Craig jumps to favor the term mytho-history, real people from the primeval past whose actions are significant for mankind in a highly symbolic story. I suppose he would see this historical account to be on par with the account of Davey Crockett riding on a lightening bolt. You might believe in Davey but not the ride on the bolt.

Building on this perspective, Craig goes on in chapter 7 to see Paul’s treatment of Adam in Romans 5 and I Corinthians 15 as truly historic. He does not go as far as some to suggest that Paul assumes the history of Adam because he misses the point of mythic Genesis. However, he also does not go so far as to say Paul got it right because he was writing under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. Consequently, for many of us Craig’s choosing of the historic Adam is not a much better opinion than those who reject the historic Adam for the figurative myth of Genesis. However, Craig needs his Adam to be historic in order for him to make his case from the science outlined in the last part of his book.

Craig claims Adam to be historic. However, when was he and what was he like? In the last third of the book Craig explains why he thinks Adam is very old, perhaps 750,000 years BP. He relies heavily on mainstream paleoanthropology and modern human genetics to make his point. He does a masterful job of surveying the current science to make his case. This might be a tough read for those who have not followed the field over the last few decades. The terms, dates, and anthropological theory could be a slog for the unfamiliar. However, I believe he represents the science accurately. It is good to remember that the modern science of Paleoanthropology has no Christian voice and spends a lot of time in rancorous debate of the evidence, with no sympathy for Christian concerns. Classically, the idea of humans being defined biblically as image bearers is rejected if not scoffed at. For Christians the matter of being in the image of God is of far greater importance than knowing when Adam walked the earth.

Based on the modern state of the scientific data, Craig chooses Homo heidelbergensis as the species that most likely represents the first couple. Recent finds that show this archaic species to be capable of sophisticated tool making in a temperate climate suggests that H. heidelbergensis was as capable as modern humans. Cranial capacity in the lower range of modern humans would not preclude their human identity. Skeletal evidence of neural and vascular pathways like those in modern humans supports the claim. Craig is correct to claim that the modern science chooses Homo heidlebergesnsis to be the forebearers of Homo Neanderthallesis, Homo densiova, and Homo sapiens. All of these appear to be fully possessing of human capabilities when the latest evidence is considered. There is evidence for tool making, speech, and art among all of them. Neanderthals and modern humans were burying their dead as early as over 100,000 years ago. Based on the evidence, Craig finds it hard to exclude any of them from Imago Dei, even though they are classified as different species. The implication is that heaven could likely look more like Tolkien’s Middle Earth than we typically think.

However, Craig puts a lot of weight on a functional definition of what it means to be in the image of God. He is less sympathetic to an ontological approach to being Imago Dei. This could be unsettling to some traditional Christians who realize that human possession of the Imago Dei is not a function of capabilities that can be gained or lost. Function can certainly define the group, but it is insufficient to define the individual’s status. Function can be lost or gained, identity cannot. Fortunately, Craig does not reject an ontological approach entirely (366–67). Significantly, he rejects monism and retains the dualistic Christian doctrine of humans as physical body and immaterial soul. He sees human consciousness as seated in the immaterial soul. There is mystery here for sure. To his credit, he is clearly stating that God imputed the soul in a direct act to create Adam, the first human, as Imago Dei.

Craig’s final effort in the book is to make the case for an original first couple as the progenitors of all humans. This position has regained some traction among Christians who have reconsidered the long history of humanity and the genetic complexity that drove many over the last couple decades to reject the idea of a historic first couple. He makes the point that the great antiquity of Homo heidelbergensis (+700,000 PB) as outlined in the work of Joshua Swamidass has demonstrated that a genealogical ancestor is not necessarily a genetic ancestor, as one’s genealogical ancestor may not have a genetic contribution to the offspring after many generations. Here a lot of speculation is done to show that the original Image Bearing couple, Adam and Eve, could conceivably be the ancestor to all living. 

A lot more could be said about William Lane Craig’s In Quest of the Historic Adam. He has obviously done a masterful job on the research and thought needed to write this book. The book is useful for understanding how an old earth creationist can make sense of a thorny scientific problem associated with the origin of humans. However, it is also clear that Craig does not adequately treat what it means to have authors writing Scripture who are inspired by the Holy Spirit. Could biblical authors who knew less about ancient Mid-Eastern manuscripts than some scholars today write books under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit that are consistently coherent with linked continuity? I am not convinced that Craig believes that they could. Hence, there is a major weakness in his argument.

Endnote

[1] Galileo, “Letter to Madame Christina of Lorraine, Grand Duchess of Tuscany” 1615. https://inters.org/Galilei-Madame-Christina-Lorraine

Jan Frederic Dudt is a professor of biology at Grove City College in Grove City, Pennsylvania. Ordained Servant Online, January, 2023.

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Ordained Servant: January 2023

Historical Adam

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