I’ve been participating for years in discussions about evolution and Christianity, and I think I see more clearly what accounts for the deeply held, visceral, differences of opinion about whether Adam was the first man or whether Adam is a character in a story.
The reason for the differences is not simply that people have different theological systems or different ways of reading the Bible. A more fundamental difference lies at the root.
Christians actually believe in different gods.
The God we read about in the Bible does not hesitate to participate in the human drama and to encounter humanity within the limits of the human experience. This God even became enfleshed in the mystery of the incarnation. That is how God is fundamentally described in the Christian faith.
That’s one big reason why I have no difficulty—zero, zip—in seeing the biblical writers as writing about the God they encountered as they understood God within their cultural limitations.
Encounters with God, interpreted through and expressed in truly human, cultural, terms.
That’s why I have no problem reading the Adam story in Genesis as an ancient origins story like other origins stories of the ancient world, or understanding Paul’s take on Adam in Romans as an outworking of his Jewish world (where biblical texts are molded to fit an argument).
The Gospel teaches me that this kind of Bible reflects the character of God. And this is the kind of Bible I have come to expect and in fact encounter each time I open it.
The Gospel does not teach me that it is a problem for God to enter into the human experience and allow that human experience to shape—from beginning to end—how the Bible behaves. The Gospel teaches me exactly the opposite.
And the Gospel certainly does not teach me that God is up there, at a distance, guiding (micromanaging) the production of a remarkably diverse collection of writings that nevertheless contains buried deep within one single finely-tuned system of theology that we are charged to excavate and guard.
So when it comes to debates over the historical Adam and evolution, the question I have come to ask myself is, “What kind of God are you thinking of when you say X….?” Is it
an incarnating God—Immanuel, God with us, or
a Platonic god—where you have to peel off the obscuring “down here” hindrances to get to the untainted “up there” god, with the Bible as an encoded inerrant guidebook to get you there.
I don’t like the platonic god. I don’t think Jesus did either.
You can tell something about the god people believe in by paying attention to how they talk about controversial issues of the Bible—like Adam. Do you see a system-dispensing administrator who keeps his distance or “God with us”?
If you keep your eyes open, my bet is that you will see one or the other coming through loud and clear.
***A version of this post last appeared in August 2013. I’ve written more about evolution in The Evolution of Adam (Baker, 2012) and the Bible in general in The Bible Tells Me So (HarperOne, 2014) and Inspiration and Incarnation (Baker 2005/2015). Check out also my most recent book, The Sin of Certainty (HarperOne, 2016).***