Spinning our Wheels: A Response to a Review of “The Evolution of Adam” (with apologies to those with a 500 word, 1.6 minute internet attention span)

Recently, Hans Madueme, assistant professor of theological studies at Covenant College, wrote a lengthy review essay (5000 words plus footnotes) of The Evolution of Adam: What the Bible Does and Doesn’t Say about Human OriginsI appreciate the effort involved, and Madueme’s sincere attempts to maintain a balance between clarity of his conviction, Christian courtesy, and denominational constraints. (Covenant College is the denominational college of the Presbyterian Church in America, which requires belief in a historical Adam.)

Others have reviewed my book sounding similar themes (for example, two other reviews here and here, with my thoughts here and here). Madueme’s review stands out, however, not only for its length but also its methodological transparency.

Madueme is quite clear about why he disagrees with my arguments, and in laying out his case perpetuates many of the same problems that beset evangelical thinking in general about Adam and evolution. Responding to Madueme’s review allows me the opportunity to focus some of my general concerns with how I see things taking shape.

The core problem with Madueme approach to the Adam issue, the principle that guides his assessment of my book, represents an old and perennial conflict in the study of Scripture (my words):

Where dogmatic tradition is threatened by science or historical biblical scholarship, the latter should be held at bay, for they are the product of unstable and fallen human inquiry. When conflict is unavoidable, “Scripture” (i.e., the dogmatic tradition that flows from a “proper” reading of Scripture) will always have priority, regardless of the nature of the evidence to the contrary.

In other words, Madueme clearly gives final adjudicatory authority to theological/dogmatic traditions when science or historical biblical scholarship raise questions of the historical reliability of the Adam story. Reflecting critically on dogmatics in view of historical studies does not enter into the picture.

Embedded in Madueme’s assertion are two implicit methodological missteps:

(1) An underestimation, devaluing, and/or minimizing of the impact of biblical studies and/or the mainstream scientific consensus on evolution for an evangelical theology of Scripture.
(2) Functionally equating “dogmatics” and “Bible,” so that dogmatics and “what the Bible says” become  interchangeable.

This mindset is common in evangelicalism, not simply with respect to Adam/evolution but with most any matter where biblical studies, archaeology, or science raise questions of the Bible’s historical reliability. Such thinking may serve to protect evangelical boundaries, but it only perpetuates the very theological impasse I and others are trying to address more deliberately.

To his credit, Madueme himself comes clean with his methodology, though he does so only at the very end of his review (section 6, “Concluding Thoughts”):

I recognize the force of the mainstream evolutionary consensus, and I know that it raises tough questions for the viability of a historical Adam and the doctrine of the fall. But I am constrained by Scripture, tradition, and weighty theological considerations. I am a son of Adam. That is why I am a sinner. And it is why I need Christ.

Madueme is to be commended for saying plainly what many others only think: “I know there is serious evidence to the contrary that calls into question what I believe, but, come what may, I’m going to stick with ‘the Bible’ as understood by my tradition and the theological conclusions required to maintain theological stabilty.”

One might wonder, however, whether Madueme’s apologetic motives should have been stated at the outset, and perhaps led to a much shorter review. I mean no disrespect, but, after all, if Madueme truly recognizes the pressure that the scientific consensus on evolution (and I would add the study of ancient Israel) puts on the historical Adam and the fall, but then slips out the back door, so to speak, and returns home to his dogmatic commitments, all else is just filler. Any true engagement with counterevidence is in principle off the table at the outset.

I list below eleven (11) major examples from the review that show how Madueme’s dogmatic constraints skew not simply his assessment of The Evolution of Adam, but whether the serious historical study of Scripture can be in conversation with evangelical theology. (Since the review is online with no pagination, I give the section of the review.)

Section 2, “Doctrine of Scripture.”

1. Madueme claims that by saying a literal reading of the Adam story is “not an option,” I am assuming what needs to be demonstrated and so only employing a rhetorical strategy for “marginalizing” more conservative views. This is a discouraging comment, as my entire book is an argument to make that very case, not an assumption.

2. Madueme observes that my view of Scripture is built from the ground up “phenomenologically” rather than “dogmatically” (from the top down), which is functionally true. He contends, however, that this is not in line “the classical Reformation doctrine of Scripture.” From my own training in Reformed dogmatics, this is a fair but debatable point (perhaps a bit reductionistic), but I am happy to concede it for the sake of discussion because it is absolutely irrelevant. Failure to line up with tradition is not a counterargument, because lining up with tradition is not my intention. Further, appeal to tradition cannot be assumed to settle the hermeneutical question of how to read the Adam story. We are Protestants, after all.

3. Madueme challenges my suggestion that Paul can be wrong about Adam historically but still correct theologically. Madueme contends that I fail to provide epistemological justification for this distinction, and hence do not have a “functional” doctrine of biblical authority. My answer is that I have no more epistemological justification for my view than Madueme has for his. What I suspect Madueme means, however, is that a doctrine of inerrancy is an epistemological basis for interpreting Scripture, but of course that is not the case. Inerrancy does not provide a foundation for making sure hermeneutical decisions.

The fact is: we don’t know and we can’t be sure whether our interpretive conclusions are correct, Madueme included. Further, Bible readers cannot escape making the sorts of judgments I make with respect to Paul and Adam, for this is part and parcel of reading ancient literature and applying it today. Accepting Paul’s view of Adam would not make the epistemological question disappear.

At any rate, without implicating Madueme directly, shifting attention from concrete matters of biblical interpretation to “higher” matters of epistemology and theological prolegomena as the proper place to address the phenomena of Scripture is too frequently used as a stall tactic to hold at bay uncomfortable data. One would still need to engage the evidence credibly and knowledgeably without a predetermined outcome.

4. Following on the previous point, Madueme wants to know specifically how I can trust that Paul was right about the resurrection when I do not trust him about Adam. After all, Madueme argues, resurrection may be every bit as much ancient thinking as Adam, and science tells us people cannot rise from the dead.

First, “trust” is a scare word that already reduces a subtle issue to a simple matter of biblical authority. But the issue is not “trust” for the Bible, but understanding it well, which, again, cannot be settled apart from the nagging details that are part and parcel of proper biblical interpretation.

Having said that, Madueme is right–but perhaps more so than he realizes. Yes is possible that every last shred of the New Testament is as culturally determined as Paul’s view of Adam–including core matters of the Christian faith such as the resurrection of Christ. But that possibility has to be addressed on its own terms. The presence of that possibility does not give Madueme the methodological right, so to speak, to say, “Let’s not unravel that ball of yarn or open that can of worms. Let’s keep Adam historical so the resurrection is not threatened.” Arguing for the importance of a historical Adam because of what you might lose theologically without him is not an argument. At root it is an expression of fear.

But more importantly, I actually address resurrection specifically in my book, where I say that the origins of humanity (along with the earth and universe) are open to scientific inquiry whereas the resurrection of Christ not. How can I say this? Because there is scientific evidence for the former—testable, measurable, things—whereas by definition no such evidence exists for a one-time occurrence. Tying Adam and Christ’s resurrection together, as if they rest on the same evidentiary foundation, is simply wrong, though it is a common piece in arguments to counter theistic evolution.

Section 3, “Natural Science and Historical Criticism.”

5. Madueme claims that I place science in the “methodological driving seat” rather than Scripture. In my book I discuss this very problem of pitting science (and biblical studies) against the Bible like this. I point out that science (and the study of antiquity) help us “calibrate” the genre of Genesis and Paul so as not to have false expectations of what Scripture is prepared to deliver (e.g., to help us see that we should not expect science from Genesis 1.)

But Madueme continues his tendency to present us with an either/or choice, whether science or God has greater “authority.” That is a troublesome dichotomy, and we need to get beyond this if we are going to discuss the hermeneutical implications of evolution with the seriousness it deserves.

Further, there are many instances here I am sure Madueme puts something other than Scripture in the driver’s seat. I assume Madueme does not accept that a divine council conferred with Yahweh as he made decisions, or that other gods actually exist, or that a sea monster was tamed at creation. Exercising historical discernment is part of responsible Bible reading. (I am not suggesting, however, that only what can be verified historically is “true,” though that is another discussion and not relevant here.)

In this context, Madueme picks up on my view of the historical relationship between Genesis 1 and 2 (Genesis 1 is about the cosmos in general and chapter 2 begins to shift focus to Israel).  But for Madueme, making such an informed historical/literary assessment, “shifts the locus of epistemic authority from the canonical text to the world behind the text.” Apparently for Madueme, the relationship between Genesis 1 and 2 is too obvious to be burdened with historical analysis, and providing such an analysis (as all biblical scholars do) is an affront to biblical authority.

As we have seen, reducing complex matters to one of biblical authority vs. some other authority is an undercurrent in Madueme’s thinking about biblical scholarship, and to pose hermeneutical issues in this manner dooms the discussion before it begins. At this stage in his review I began wondering whether Madueme sees any difficult issue of biblical interpretation that cannot be easily solved by a simple appeal to biblical authority.

6. Madueme concludes that I do not have a “functional notion of biblical authority.” I would rather say that I do not have a notion of biblical authority governed by Madueme’s dogmatic requirements. “What does biblical authority mean?” is an open discussion, in my opinion, that will not be curtailed by older dogmatic assertions. A more narratival/biblical theological approach to biblical authority, such as what N. T. Wright articulates, is more promising.

7. It simply will not do for Madueme to assert that I am “too romantic about the reliability of mainstream scientific consensus” [sic] or  or “modern academic consensus [sic].” This is a

portion of Gilgamesh epic

common apologetic maneuver, that these disciplines are too muddled to be trusted, and Christians are to be patient to maintain sola Scriptura, knowing that God’s word will eventually be vindicated. Madueme even offers us, once again, a clear choice:

The two main options in biblical studies are the methodological naturalism of standard biblical criticism or a more robust, theistic, Augustinian supernaturalism.

This is a stunning and, frankly, inexcusable caricature of biblical criticism that effectively colors Madueme’s engagement of the historical data throughout his review. Caricaturing “standard biblical criticism” as beholden to “methodological naturalism,” the fruit of spiritual rebellion, is misinformed, minimizes the gravity of the situation, and will get us nowhere. This is not the way to work through the problem before us.

To be clear, I have no concern one way or the other where Madueme places his dogmatic convictions, and my purpose in life is not to change his mind. But I will raise a red flag when I see a legitimate and widely (if not universally) acknowledged hermeneutical problem essentially neutered by positing the unassailable priority of dogmatic non-negotiables.

8. Following on the previous point, Madueme poses another either/or:  the divine author’s intention is definitive for biblical interpretation, not what modern biblical scholars or historians say. Madueme acknowledges the human setting for Scripture, but that setting apparently has no real bearing on understanding what the divine author is saying. One might ask how Madueme is able to discern the divine meaning apart from the historical settings, to free it, as it were, from its unfortunate historical limitations. The answer for Madueme seems to be, without saying it explicitly, that a dogmatic system allows us to move beyond humanity to reveal the mind of God.

My disagreement with Madueme here is theological. To acknowledge Scripture’s historical dimension but then lay it aside when making dogmatic assertions fails to grapple with why God, in his wisdom, spoke truth in a world where myth and tribal culture were ubiquitous. Are those forms utterly inconsequential in how we approach biblical interpretation? Are they the shell that must be peeled away in order to arrive at a higher dogmatic truth? To say, as Madueme does, the we should “move on” from Scripture as a product of culture to get to the more valuable dogmatic nuggets obscured within the text is not a stable theological assertion.

The reason I suspect that Madueme can so easily equate his dogmatic structure with the divine meaning of Scripture is that he does not truly appreciate that hermeneutics, not dogmatics, is the arena for discussing matters of biblical interpretation such as what the Genesis story was written to convey concerning Adam, which necessarily involves us in a historical discussion of “Bible in context.” Dogmatic concerns are part of the discussion, but as a give and take dialogue, not the arbiter of how the very pressing and very real challenges raised through biblical studies, archaeology, and science are to be handled. What is sorely needed is true synthesis, not a reflex adherence to dogmatic priority.

9. Madueme insists that my observation that Adam is “absent” from the Old Testament betrays a myopic “historicism” for failing to take into account the witness of Scripture as a whole. Madueme contends that Paul’s references to Adam in Romans 5 and 1 Corinthians 15 provide the canonical context by which Adam’s true presence in the Old Testament can be understood. That canonical reading also gives us, as we saw in the previous point, the divine intention for the Adam story.

First, Madueme can only come to this judgment by ignoring the hermeneutical problem of the New Testament’s use of the Old, namely the creative and theologically driven manner in which the New Testament authors draw Israel’s story into their gospel proclamation, which also reflects the Second Temple interpretive conventions the New Testament writers share. The entire second half of my book deals with this topic.

Also, claiming Adam’s absence in Old Testament is not a product of historicism, but a simple observation of the topics treated in the Old Testament. Adam typology is certainly at work in the Old Testament, where, for example, Noah and the Patriarchs are presented by the biblical writers as carrying forward the Adamic project (which is one very good reason for seeing Adam as a proto-Israelite, but I digress). But the role that Paul assigns Adam (cause of universal condemnation) is absent in the Old Testament, though there are echoes of such a view in Second Temple Judaism before we arrive at Paul.

Clearly, Madueme is operating from a different “data set” than I, which illustrates the seriousness of the impasse.

Section 4, “Further Theological Concerns.”

10. Madueme is correct that an Augustinian notion of the fall is lost if there is no historical Adam. And once we lose the fall, Madueme contends that we are left with no adequate explanation for why people sin. I understand the point, but retaining a historical Adam because it is needed to maintain a theological position is a non-argument that Madueme has posed before, and it is not the the kind of argument we would tolerate from someone protecting another religious system. “If you’re right, then I am wrong so you must be wrong” is not an argument.

We would do better to acknowledge the implications of evolution for Augustinian theology and try to work through it collaboratively. I attempted to do this, as others have, by suggesting that an Orthodox view of the Adam story (Adam’s failure to follow the path of wisdom) is worth considering for evangelicals. Madueme, however, feels that Irenaeus (whom I mention in this regard) will not help, since he believed in an historical Adam. Yes, of course he did, but that is not the point. The point is that Irenaeus, unlike Augustine, did not think that Adam’s transgression was somehow downloaded onto all posterity. If an Orthodox view is adopted, Madueme’s concerns about the fall are undercut.

Section 5, “A Methodological Aside”

11. Madueme claims it is an “overstatement” to say that Genesis has nothing to say about “scientific concerns.” He also feels I am ”cocksure” and “breezy” when I say that Genesis, “cries out to be read as something other than a historical description of events.” Madueme’s comments here suggests perhaps an unfamiliarity with the dominant voices in biblical studies and science that must be taken with greater seriousness. He may not agree, of course, which is his prerogative, but I am hardly shooting from the hip. These are conclusions I and others have reached, not cocksure and breezy overstatements. Were Madueme to make this claim in scientific or scholarly debate, he would quickly see they have very good reasons for arriving at their conclusions.

Apparently Madueme feels that Genesis does indeed have something to say of scientific value and that it should be read as a historical account. One would ask on what basis he makes these claims, other than an appeal to a dogmatic structure that requires it. Has he worked through and interpreted the scientific and extrabiblical evidence on his own and arrived at compelling conclusions to the contrary? What type of account is he prepared to give for how he reads the scientific and historical evidence differently—an account that deals with the data and not at the distance from the data that theological prolegomena afford? I would like for Madueme to give an argument for his hermeneutic that goes beyond dismissing contrary evidence as the by-product of unbelief.

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The problems I see with Madueme’s thinking pervade the entire review and rest on the core assertion that his dogmatic structure is the first and final court of appeal for handling difficult matters of biblical interpretation, one of which is Adam vis-a-vis evolution. This train of thought recurs in the defensive strategies of traditionalist evangelical responses when dogma is challenged.

No one should conclude, I hope, that I am making the opposite error, of casting aside theological categories for biblical interpretation, and a reading of either The Evolution of Adam or Inspiration and Incarnation should make that clear whether one agrees or disagrees with the argument. I am calling, rather, for a true dialogue among biblicists and theologians. I understand that this has been difficult in evangelicalism, mainly because the latter is functioned as a guardian against the troubling influence of the former.  Neverthless, that discussion needs to happen deliberately, not accidentally in blog posts.

As I said at the outset, I genuinely appreciate the time invested and the clarity and generosity with which Madueme expresses his convictions. I encourage interested readers to read the review themselves and give it more attention than I have been able to give here. If anything, Madueme’s review serves a purpose of making absolutely clear where some feel the lines need to be drawn. For my tastes, I would rather see fewer lines of separation being drawn and more lines of communication opened.