A recent article in The Banner, the online and print magazine of the Christian Reformed Church, began with the following:
I suspect that a thousand years from now Christians will look back at the 21st century and say, “How could Christians have let themselves think that?” They’d have in mind our theology—some of the doctrines that are so precious to us and that we consider to be the backbone of Christianity.
Some saw this as provocative. Some as overstating the case. Others as unthinkable.
My thought was, “People are already saying this now.”
The article more or less centers around the issue of evolution, which, at least in one form or another, has attained a near consensus status among scientists as being part of the process of the development of life on earth, including all animal life. Animal life includes people, which is in many ways where the rub is.
Are we, as C.S. Lewis puts it in the Chronicles of Narnia, the “sons of Adam and daughters of Eve”?
Scientists argue that it is not genetically possible for present DNA diversity to have issued from a single pair of ancestors in recent history.
So the writer of the provocative article in the Banner rightly notes that we must begin to assess certain readings and/or doctrines which seem to rely upon a view of the world which may not, in the end, be accurate.
Yet some would say, can’t we just read the Bible literally? Well, no. At least not accurately (with regard to science. Or literature).
As Pete Enns put it in a Biologos article:
The biblical depiction of human origins, if taken literally, presents Adam as the very first human being ever created. He was not the product of an evolutionary process, but a special creation of God a few thousand years before Jesus—roughly speaking, about 6000 years ago. Every single human being that has ever lived can trace his/her genetic history to that one person.
This is a problem because it is at odds with everything else we know about the past from the natural sciences and cultural remains.
There are human cultural remains dating well over 100,000 years ago. One recent example is 130,000-year-old stone tools found on Crete. (Their presence on an island presumes seafaring ability at that time.) Ritual/religious structures are known to have existed as far back as 40,000-70,000 years ago. Recently, a temple complex was found in Turkey dating to about 11,500 years ago—7,000 years before the Pyramids.
In addition to cultural artifacts, there is also the scientific data from the various natural sciences that support a very old earth (4.5 billion years old) and the evolutionary development of life on it—things most readers of this Web site hardly need me to point out. Most recently, the genetic evidence for common descent has, in the view of most everyone trained in the field, lent great support to the antiquity of humanity and sharing a common ancestry with primates.
So reading the Bible literally is problematic for scientific and historic reasons. And there is another reason:
There is a third line of evidence that is a problem for a literal reading of the Adam story. Archaeological evidence gathered over the last 150 years or so has helped us understand the religions of the ancient Near East during and long before the Old Testament period. As is well known, Genesis 1 and the Adam story bear unmistakable resemblances to the stories of other peoples—none of which we would ever think of taking as historical depictions of origins.
And many people realize this, and have realized it for some time.
But apparently not certain readers of the Banner.
Objections ranged from: “Asking a whole lot of big complex questions without any attempt to answer it is not helpful” to “This article should have never made print” to “This article implicitly affirmed a lot of heretical propositions” and finally, “Is it possible to overture Synod to remove and replace the editor of the Banner for behavior so damaging to the well being of the churches?”
There were many more reactions, some of which were very thoughtful, others of which were more of the above (and worse!).
Was it a perfect article? I suppose not. But neither was it terrible. It opens the door to further dialogue, and that’s what we need. It is OK to ask a lot of big questions. And not only OK, imperative. Asking questions is an important, crucial step in learning anything.
Whenever you are no longer allowed to ask questions, you can safely assume you’re no longer in a good place.
We should be asking questions, and not just about tomorrow’s theology a thousand years from now, but about what we might, by grappling with Scripture, science, and the best of human understanding, believe today about ourselves, our world, and God.
Many are already doing it, and we should join them.
A few recommended resources:
Looking for the Missing Link – a documentary by my friend Leo Hagedorn
The Evolution of Adam: What the Bible Does and Doesn’t Say About Human Origins – Pete Enns. One of the best works I have read regarding how we are to read Adam through the biblical lens, both as understood in Genesis, by Israelites and Jews, and by Paul and Jesus.
Evolving in Monkey Town: How a Girl Who Knew All The Answers Learned to Ask The Questions – Rachel Held Evans
Network for Science, Technology, and Faith – the Episcopal Church