The Challenge of Adam 9 (RJS)

Today I wrap up this series on David N. Livingstone’s book, Adam’s Ancestors: Race, Religion, and the Politics of Human Origins. In Chapter 9, Dimensions: concluding reflections, Livingstone ties together several themes running through his book. For our purposes today I would like to consider one of these – concordism and the role of concordism in our understanding of the relationship between science and scripture.

Concordism expects a concord, an agreement between claims of scripture and reality. On one level I am a concordist – for example I believe that the historical and theological claims relating to the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus match reality. There is a historical and a theological concordance with reality.

But is concordism the right approach to all of scripture? When and at what level is agreement to be expected?

When it comes to Genesis 1-4 I am not a concordist … or am I? Perhaps the line is not so clear. I certainly don’t think that the purpose of Genesis One is to teach cosmology, history or science. Concordist approaches – finding modern science in the ancient text – seem deeply flawed. On the other hand an accommodationist view – that God “accommodated” his message to the knowledge and understanding of the day has problems of its own. Some find these problems particularly apparent in the issues such as Adam and Fall, the image of God and the soul. Both traditional concordist and accommodationist views seem to miss the target in understanding the nature of this Scripture passage as “God-breathed.”

Taking a slightly different look at the problem, as Christians we expect a concord between the teaching of scripture and reality. One of the difficulties is that the teaching of scripture can take many forms…poetry, story, proverbs, history, prophecy, apocalyptic imagery and more. These forms are molded in time and place – not only by the world view and knowledge of the day (ANE cosmology for example), but also by the literary forms at work in the culture. Neither concordism nor accommodation seems to provide the correct nuance of understanding and approach.

In the history of the development of thinking about pre-adamite man the concept wavered between a defense of the authority of scripture and a challenge to the authority of scripture. By and large, however, pre-adamite man is a concept that was and is embraced to keep faith with both science and scripture. Livingstone suggests that the investigation of the history of pre-adamism sheds light on concordism and the role of concordism.

As such it [pre-adamism] discloses something about the general nature of concordist proposals. By working to preserve the peace between science and theology, it is not so much that pre-adamism acted as a conceptual bridge between two discrete spheres of knowledge and belief. Rather it functioned as a kind of mold that sculpted both scientific commitment and theological conviction into a distinctive shape. Harmonizing schemes are not to be thought of as passively zipping together two disparate sets of beliefs. They are, rather, agents actively fashioning both scientific theory and religious doctrine into new forms. … Harmonizing strategies are thus rarely single-unit ideas; rather, they are  conceptual systems – packages of ideas – that transform the very notions they seek to unite. (pp. 220-221)

Livingstone’s insight – that there is always a package of ideas that transform the notions they seek to unite – is worth serious consideration. Every Christian thinker has wrestled with scripture and the story of scripture in the context of a day and age. Perhaps this two way street – with scientific theories informing and transforming doctrine and doctrine shaping the view of science is the normal, natural, God ordained approach. We read Augustine, not to see threads of modern science in his thought, but to see how he wrestled with the common knowledge of his day and the story of scripture. We read Aquinas, Luther, Calvin, Warfield, and Ramm, and see how they wrestled and thought, achieving a harmony between what they saw in scripture and what they knew from the world around them.

Paul told Timothy that scripture is God-breathed, but it is in the context of a statement that defines a purpose for scripture. It gives “wisdom that leads to salvation through faith which is in Jesus Christ” and it is “profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness.”  I suggest – and put out for discussion – the idea that both the concordist approach and the accommodationist approach miss the point. They fail to wrestle fully with the nature of scripture, its purpose and its form.

I’ve rambled somewhat here – but would like to conclude with a question or two and open a discussion.

What role do you think harmonization should play in our understanding of scripture? At what level should we expect a concord between science and scripture?

If you wish to contact me directly you may do so at rjs4mail[at]

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  • I’m probably not much of a concordist at all, at least when it comes to the Holy Scriptures and science. But that’s largely because I’m not sure I see the sense in which they are talking about or attempting to describe the same thing at all. Nor do I think they can.
    I take as the center of reality, truth, history, creation, and Scripture the Incarnation, Death, Resurrection, and Ascension (which is the language for taking the seat of power and authority — ascend to the throne at the right hand of the Father) of Jesus of Nazareth. While history (and the historical fields like archeology) can provide a context in which we can better grasp the world in which that occurred (and that is valuable), that is the only aspect which even moderately impinges on the realm of modern approaches to research.
    We cannot even develop a scientific theory about the union of God and man in the Incarnation, much less test it. We don’t know how exactly Christ defeated death and broke its power or the precise nature of his transformed and resurrected body. And though we can defend the historicity and physicality and strangeness of the Resurrection, we can’t explain it. We can only proclaim it. Science does not provide a framework that allows us to study God. At least, I can’t imagine a way to do so.
    So I tend to think that much of concordism ultimately leads to a destination other than the one toward which Scripture is trying to lead us.
    As an aside, I’ve been finding the historical, cultural, and anthropological perspective on this site (which I picked up from several references) interesting. I can’t personally vouch for any of it and don’t have a strong opinion, but it is a coherent and reasonable perspective. And certainly a different perspective than many you hear today. I thought you might find it interesting.

  • Interesting. On the drive to work, I was listening to Fr. Thomas Hopko’s podcast on the first creation narrative and its relation to science and realized he says much of what I would say on the idea of concordism. Scripture is not science and is not myth. (Well, I would make the caveat that some forms of “myth” were an ancient category of truth and I’m not sure the Holy Scriptures are entirely devoid of it. But certainly not “myth” the way people tend to use the idea today.) The first creation narrative is in some sense a polemic or a deconstruction or a rebuttal of ancient paganism. The seas are not gods. The heavenly objects (sun, moon, stars) are not gods. The earth is not god or goddess. Etc. Anyway, especially since I had this in mind right before I started listening, I found it pretty relevant.
    I’m listening to his podcast on the second creation narrative now. So far pretty interesting too. Just thought I would share it in case others might find it as interesting as I do.

  • I get why the concordist position fails but I’m not sure accommodation is a particular problem. Human communication is always about abstracting aspects of truth from reality and articulating them within the limits of language. God’s communication to us is the same but his infinite knowledge is so far beyond ours that he must accommodate to our finite limited understanding.
    The issue isn’t that God accommodated to ANE cultures but doesn’t need to for us today. God is always accommodating his message in all cultures. ANE culture used rich stories to communicate deep truths. God enters into that culture and communicates in ways that are compelling to that culture. We now know that some of the ANE perceptions of how the natural world functions were errant from the perspective of science and that God did not see it necessary to “correct their science” in order to communicate the essential truths. He accommodated to their understanding on these matters. Similarly, God is accommodating to our understanding on things that in 500 or 1,000 years will look foolish to people then.
    I guess I want to hear more about why accommodation is a problem.

  • John W Frye

    Adam and the Fall, image of God and the soul are problems in the accommodationist view. For discussion’s sake, I’m with Michael (comment #3), how do accommodationist views miss the target on the nature of Scripture as “God-breathed”?

  • RJS

    I expect we are not very far apart. But the idea of accommodation is often used to pick apart scripture – this bit is accommodation but that bit isn’t. Calvin used it this way – where Genesis (or other passages) differs from his theological expectation it is “accommodation” – when scripture agrees with his theology it is not. In the science faith discussion we often see accommodation used in this fashion – the bits we take issue with are accommodation, the rest is not.
    It seems to me that all of this distorts the nature of scripture. We take scripture as is – different genres, different forms, different literary expectations, different science, written in different times – and read for story not for dissection.
    All scripture tells our story in some form.

  • That makes sense … using accommodation more or less as rationalization. That is and ever present problem.

  • AHH

    I think a good hermeneutical rule of thumb in order to avoid the problems that can arise from concordism is
    Don’t ask the Scripture questions the inspired writers were not trying to answer.
    Of course that does not completely solve the problem, because we still need to decide what questions they were and were not trying to answer, and reasonable exegetes can soemtimes differ. But I think at a minimum we can put scientific details of God’s creative process in the category of things that the writers, in their mostly pre-scientific culture, were generally not concerned with.

  • BrianH

    #7 AHH: “Don’t ask the Scripture questions the inspired writers were not trying to answer.”
    Amen, and Amen.
    I too, appreciated the distinction between accommodation as rationalization, and accommodation as the ongoing means of telling God’s Christ-shaped story.
    What becomes interesting to me is not sifting through scientific/scriptural controversy, but wrestling with the image of God that gets portrayed in places in Genesis: i.e. God being ‘sorry’ for making humankind, God using the rainbow as a reminder (to God!) of the covenant between God and Noah, so that God wouldn’t destroy the world by flood again. Within the context of the narrative, it makes sense — but if we push that to theology; the implications of a mistake making, forgetful God aren’t ones that we’d want to run with, I think.

  • John W Frye

    RJS, Michael and others,
    Do you think that those very uncomfortable with the science and faith discussion as it impinges on how we view Scripture stress the “divine” aspect of Scripture over the “human.” Such as, they may be all for reading the Scriptures according to the mindset/worldview of the original authors until that approach gets them, let’s say, too close to evolution. Then the God-aspect of Scripture creeps in and saves the day. The ancient writers may have been clueless about science, but God wasn’t, so God superceded the humanity of the authors. Does this make sense? God saves the day and enables the Scripture to speak with authority about scientific issues.

  • John H. Walton

    We have to be careful of category confusion in this discussion. “Concordism” can refer to a hermeneutic of harmonization between Scripture and Science. “Accommodation” is not a hermeneutic (that we apply to interpretation) but a statement about what God did when he communicated. In that sense, accommodation is a truism, for all communication requires accommodation and is defined by accommodation. In the realm of hermeneutics, more precisely, we are trying to identify the degree and nature of culture-specific locutions (such as flat earth or thinking heart) so that we do not confuse them with illocutions (e.g., the Bible teaches that the earth is flat). The hermeneutical challenge is to figure out which locutions are culture-specific and what criteria help us to determine that.

  • dopderbeck

    I’ve never been comfortable with the dichotomy between “concordism” and “accommodtion.” I appreciate the formal definition of “concordism” as the effort, particularly as a conservative response to modernist scholarship starting in the 19th Century, to find precise agreement between all the statements of scripture and all the findings of modern science. But it does seem that many “accommodationists” stretch this formal definition in a way that can call into question the integrity of the Biblical narrative.
    I like John Walton’s (#10) reference to speech-act theory. In my understanding of speech-act theory as applied to Biblical hermeneutics, however, I worry that there remains an undue and perhaps unsustainable emphasis on the concurrence of the human author’s “intent” with the Divine “intent.” (The emphasis is unsustainable, I think, becuase of what we have come to learn about how most of the Biblical texts were actually produced and redacted — in short, there is no one “author” for most of them).
    I think a more dynamic, neo-Barthian view of “revelation” makes more sense of how the Biblical text actually functions in the Christian community. For my money, I’ve yet to come across a better systematic treatment of this from a Protestant perspective than Donald Bloesch’s “Holy Scripture.” The Catholic tradition also has produced a rich literature, including Pope Benedict’s book “God’s Word.” As Benedict notes,

    “Revelation is a dynamic process between God and man, which consistently becomes reality only in an encounter. Teh biblical word bears witness to the revelation but does not contain it in such a way that the revelation is completely absorbed in it and could now be put in your pocket like an object. . . . In practial terms, this means that a passage can signify more than its author himself was able to conceive in composing it. . . . There is a surplus of meaning in an individual text, going beyond its immediate historical setting, and that is why there was the possibility of taking it up in a new historical context and setting it within a wider matrix of signification — the right ‘rereading’ of it.”

  • John #9
    I think influencing much of this is a Scottish Commonsense posture toward the Bible. Individuals can read the Bible unaided by the community and understand the “plain meaning” of the words. Furthermore, even though God communicated into different biblical cultures, God in his sovereignty authored the Bible in such a way the the “plain reading” would transcend cultures and that everyone would be able to understand it.
    This then gets married to a particular view about who God is and how God works. Thus any reading of scripture that might contradict this view has to be a misreading of the passage. Furthermore, if there is any “error” anywhere at all in the Bible then our whole premise that God created a perfect transcendent Bible is threatened.
    I think to truly embrace the cultural embededness of Scripture you largely have to scrap significant portions of this. You need a whole new paradigm of Scripture and God. Thus, the evolution/science and cultural context question ends up striking at the very heart of the basic paradigm that shapes how Scripture is to be read and God is to be understood. That is a very disorienting place to be that can have significant impact on your self perception and relationships with family and church. Thus the often seemingly inordinate reaction against the ideas. That’s my take.

  • Duncan R

    #12 Yes a new paradigm! One which acknowledges the divine inspiration of scripture as an article of faith and the doctrine of inerrency and infallibility as false, unsustainable and meaningless. That the authority of the Bible must rest on God’s authority and our faith in God not on its own properties. The Bible is a book with human authors and human readers. So even holding, by faith, to divine inspiration there is far to much humanity involved to demand either inerrency or infallibility and any comprehensive study of scripture and history demonstrates these as unsustainable position requiring extensive mental gymnastics. I think that in modernity’s love and demand for the material and objective Christianity has too often replaced the God of the book with just the book. Thus, when the book is threatened and our own fallibility exposed people often feel like Christianity can’t be true. A friend of mine was recently telling me of people in their church, who have now left, over the issue of 6 day creation. The argument running if the earth wasn’t created in 6 days then Jesus didn’t rise from the dead. I am sad that their faith in the book overrides grace and reasonable discourse.

  • Michael @ 12,
    Exactly. For many people, what we’re talking about here really is a dramatic redefinition of how the Bible has authority, and thus has huge implications for how we know what we know, what is truth, and so on. I am personally convinced that is a more faithful, helpful, and biblical conception of truth and Scripture, but for many people it is as disruptive as the destruction of the Temple was for 1st century Jews. If you’re saying the Bible isn’t a magic book that fell from the sky to tell me what to do, you might as well be saying God doesn’t exist, Jesus didn’t rise from the dead, there’s no such thing as truth or morality, etc.

  • RJS

    All of which means that it is crucial to build up an appropriate view of scripture – and this needs to be taught (with pastoral tact) from the top down.
    Knocking out a pillar without providing a replacement is counterproductive.

  • AHH

    Somebody made a good point that “accommodation” can sometimes be a cop-out. If something is found in Scripture that is “wrong” (like the solid firmament holding back the waters above), those who cling to things like “inerrancy” can preserve their doctrine of Scripture by appealing to accommodation. And that is valid up to a point, but at times the better response may be to recognize a deficient notion of inspiration.
    And there are different levels of accommodation, some of which don’t mesh as well with doctrines like inerrancy. Consider the two statements:
    A) God caused the writer of Genesis to mention the firmament in order to communicate effectively to the culture in which that erroneous concept was believed.
    B) The writer of Genesis believed in the erroneous concept of the firmament, and God’s inspiration did not bother to correct this because it was not important to the purpose, thereby leaving a human error in Scripture.
    I think a lot of Evangelicals would be uncomfortable with statement (B), and would want to limit “accommodation” to statements like (A) to preserve a “high view of Scripture”. That is still better than doing contorted exegesis and/or science in order to make everything “line up” in a concordist manner (I’m thinking of Hugh Ross), but may stop short of what is really needed.
    I think Pete Enns has it right that our doctrine of Scripture should be informed by the phenomena of Scripture, rather than determined a priori by our modern human concepts of what we think Scripture is supposed to be like. A lot of our problems in the science/faith area have their roots in human-constructed doctrines about the Bible that need rethinking.

  • RJS

    The difference between your A and B were part of my thinking in putting together this post (as was the “cop-out” use of accommodation).
    John Walton,
    I agree that on an important level accommodation is simply a truism. But on an important level concordance is also a truism – there is agreement between the teaching of scripture and reality.
    Using either of these as hermeneutical technique simply misses the point and essence of scripture. It seems to me that your book is a step in the right direction as it is an approach that lets the phenomenon of scripture tell us how to wrestle with scripture. Neither accommodation nor concordance was forced upon the text. But perhaps you disagree.

  • John W Frye

    Michael (#12),
    Thanks for that informative response. Like so many things, we get pushed to the limits of conventional thinking, dare I say, theology, and discover that some other “way of seeing” (paradigm) is needed. I always appreciate your thoughtful responses. And others, too, in this thread.

  • John H. Walton

    RJS 17
    I agree–it is just as important to distinguish between an understanding of concordism as an expression of the integration and unity of our understanding truth and reality (on the one hand) and concordism as a hermeneutic and interpretation principle (on the other).

  • #14 Travis
    “…it is as disruptive as the destruction of the Temple was for 1st century Jews.”
    Interesting analogy and probably a lot of truth to it. And ditto RJS #15.
    It also means patiently absorbing lots of frantic thrashing about from the disoriented. Others have patiently waited me out as I thrashed around on some issues and I expect they will have to again. 🙂 I think it is part of the ministry we offer each other.
    #18 John
    You are welcome. Thanks.

  • Wyatt Roberts

    Why do you choose chapter 4 of Genesis as the boundary (others choose chapter 11)? It is a sincere question.

  • RJS

    I would take Gen 1-11 as boundary as well.
    I only used 1-4 here because this is the story of Adam and we’ve been discussing Adam’s Ancestors. Ch. 4 is included because of the perennial problems introduced by Cain, his wife, and those he fears and dwells among.
    The text moves on after this.