Guest Review: The Generations of Heaven and Earth

the generations of heaven and earth

The Generations of Heaven and Earth: Adam, the Ancient World, and Biblical TheologyJon Garvey. Eugene: Cascade Books, 2020.

Summary:  This book presents Jon Garvey’s views of the positive theological implications of a scientifically credible historical Adam and Eve who could have lived in the Ancient Near East around 6,000 years ago and been the genealogical ancestors of everyone living since the time of Christ.

Jon Garvey’s book is a companion volume to S. Joshua Swamidass’s book, “The Genealogical Adam & Eve” (GAE). It is not necessary to have read GAE first, because Garvey includes a summary of the scientific side while presenting the theological implications of an historical Adam who lived around 6,000 years ago.

GAE’s claim is that it is scientifically plausible that a historical couple living in the Ancient Near East, among an existing human population around 6,000 years ago, would almost certainly be common ancestors of everyone living since the time of Christ. This claim is based on detailed computer simulations that consistently showed that our probable most recent genealogical ancestor lived two or three thousand years ago, and that anyone living more than 6,000 years ago, who left any descendants, is a common ancestor for the whole human race.

Garvey has attempted to integrate a genealogical Adam and Eve into a coherent biblical theology without any radical revision of traditional Christian theological doctrine by examining its consistency with a number of issues, including the two creation stories in Genesis, the conflict of good and evil, original sin, atonement theories, and the metanarrative of the Bible. Garvey thinks of this as restoring the plausibility of older teaching which had been made to give ground progressively in the light of the “assured results” of science.

Garvey’s contention is that “Genealogical Adam is not just another concordist theory, attempting to find a fix for the incompatibility of the Bible account with other sources of knowledge, but instead as a means for recovering the original intention of Scripture” (p. xv), which is that Genesis 2 introduces the theme of a new creation that occupies the whole of the rest of the Bible.

Genealogical Adam implies some kind of distinction between Adam and those outside the Garden of Eden and the gradual merging of those distinctions through interbreeding as Adam’s genealogical descendants spread across the world. Garvey concludes that “there is no longer a scientific argument against the existence of the biblical Adam and Eve, provided we are willing to embrace the evidence that other, fully human, people existed “outside the garden” before and alongside Adam.” (p. 250) “If we take Genesis 1 and 2 as sequential, and chapter 1 as describing the creation of mankind en masse, including those who lived before and alongside Adam, then we have a human race created in the image and likeness of God which possesses all the intellectual, artistic, and cultural attainments that scientific and historical research has revealed to be ubiquitous from prehistoric times.” (pp. 116-7)

Garvey proposes that cultural inheritance can be as pervasive as genetic inheritance, and it is quicker and does not depend on any genes becoming fixed in the whole population: just on the spread of a strong idea or a habit.  It is culpable sinners who are formed through sinful communities. “[I]t is only possible to become human at all through the absorption of our parents’, and community’s, culture. Our nature is not exclusively “from our genes,” and in fact genetics has a relatively minor role in the inheritance of complex behavior.” (p. 184)   “If Adam were indeed the first person to have a true relationship with God, it would have affected every subsequent relationship of his.”  (p. 185)

Garvey notes that at some stage the apparently chronological narrative of the Bible has to become history. A Genealogical Adam within history solves the problem of where one places the division of allegory and history by placing it with Adam.

Every chapter ends with a short section titled “Conclusion relative to Genealogical Adam.” The book includes a nine-page bibliography, a general index, and a scriptural index.

It’s going to get really interesting when theologians react to this book and to Swamidass’s “The Genealogical Adam & Eve.” Perhaps those theologians, pastors, and Christian philosophers and scientists who had already come out publically for an historical Adam who was not the first human (e.g., Denis Alexander, Kathryn Applegate, Gleason Archer, Craig L. Blomberg, Roy Clouser, C. John Collins, Gregg Davidson, Darrel Falk, Gary N. Fugle, Daniel M. Harrell, Carol A. Hill, Tim Keller, Kenneth W. Kemp, Derek Kidner, Gavin Ortlund, Alvin Plantinga, Harry Lee Poe, John Polkinghorne, Jeffrey Schloss, John Stott, John H. Walton and N.T. Wright) were on the right track after all.

The book’s strength is that it enables the traditional doctrines associated with Adam to remain intact, while maintaining consistency with secular findings on history, archaeology, and various evolutionary understandings of creation.

I can recommend this book to anyone interested in the issues surrounding a historical Adam and Eve. It is a fresh look which should elicit much commentary in the near future.

This guest review was contributed by Paul Bruggink, a retired technical specialist whose review interest is in the area of science and faith.

Review: The Genealogical Adam and Eve

genealogical adam and eve

The Genealogical Adam and Eve, S. Joshua Swamidass. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2019.

Summary: A physician/scientist who studies genomics argues on the basis of genealogical science that the existence of a historic Adam and Eve, specially created by God, who are universal ancestors of us all, is not contradicted by evolutionary science.

I have always been troubled by wooden attempts to find a concord between the biblical accounts of origins and what the sciences of cosmology, geology, and evolutionary biology tell us about planetary and human origins. At the same time, I have been troubled at times by biblical scholars whose acceptance of evolution leads them to deny a historical Adam (and Eve). Both Jesus and Paul speak of the first couple as historical beings, with Romans 5:12-21 being a key text (in addition to Genesis 2:2ff). I find I am not alone in my concerns. On The Gospel Coalition website, respected pastor, Tim Keller, wrote of his own acceptance of evolution, and yet also his belief in a historical, specially created Adam and Eve and a historical fall. In response, Keller was sadly attacked by both those who take a theistic evolution stance and young earth creationists.

S. Joshua Swamidass, a physician and professor of laboratory and genomic medicine at Washington University, witnessed this discourse, and as part of an effort to foster what he calls “peaceful science” has advanced a hypothesis, which he elaborates in this book, that provides what he calls a “narrative” that would undergird Keller’s assertions. He takes an approach that denies neither evolution nor a historical Adam and Eve, but is not another concordist proposal.

There are several things Swamidass assumes. He assumes a standard evolutionary account of the rise of life and evolution of homo sapiens. He assumes that genetically, we arise from a population, not a single couple. Yet he also assumes the possibility of the special creation of Adam and Eve, in the special setting of the garden, even as recent as 6,000 to 10,000 years ago although a greater time is also possible. Critically, they existed alongside a human population outside the garden and were genetically and reproductively compatible with that population (one of the first questions that arises when one reads Genesis is “who did Cain marry?”).

From this he argues that by 1 AD it is possible genealogically (not genetically) that all human beings can trace their ancestry back to Adam and Eve, and that we can all be claimed to be universal descendents of Adam and Eve. A friend of mine researching genealogy mused in a recent Christmas letter how many ancestors we might have if we went back a thousand years. He was assuming 20 generations or 50 years to a generation. He figured it would have equaled the world population at that time. So that got me curious. Using the same assumption and a geometric progression, it appears that it would take approximately 33 generations to equal the current world population or roughly 1650 years. From a mathematical perspective, it appears to me, as well as to a number of scientists who reviewed Swamidass’s work, including Nathan H. Lents, an admitted atheist, that if one accepts the premises of Swamidass argument, there is nothing in evolutionary theory to controvert the possibility of what he proposes.

One of the keys to this argument is the existence of a human population outside the garden. When most evolutionary scientists argued against universal descent from Adam and Eve, what they argued, on the basis of genetic evidence, that there is no support for common genetic descent from Adam and Eve. That is not what Swamidass argues. He simply argues for the possibility of Adam and Eve as common genealogical ancestors of us all. While he accepts the possibility that his hypothesis may not be true, he also contends that it shows there is no compelling scientific reason that one must deny a historic Adam and Eve as an impossibility, either for scientists or biblical scholars.

The second half of the book explored scientific and theological implications for this idea. He explores intriguing questions about what it means to be human both in science and theology. He discusses the problematic nature of theories of polygenesis in both science and theology, and how this has often been used in racist ways. He explores intriguing implications of why Adam and Eve were specially created in the garden when there were other human beings outside (a question this hypothesis especially raises). He also explores theories of the fall and human sinfulness, which raises the question of whether common genealogical descent from Adam is necessary for pervasive human sinfulness.

There are some unusual elements in the theological section. One was his use of the “periscope of scripture” language, by which he means different tunnel vision views of reality. This may be confusing to some because of the common use of “pericope” in biblical scholarship, a narrative or thought unit. He also takes a view of Genesis 1 and 2 as consecutive accounts (first the earth and its creatures including humans, then Adam and Eve), rather than the second being an expansion of the first. He also raises an interesting question about what the status of humans outside the garden was. Are they also in the image of God? Plainly, there is more theological discussion to be had and this seems to be something Swamidass welcomes and even has facilitated (cf. online responses from theologians).

Both in the introductory chapter and in the concluding materials, we may discern some of what motivates this proposal. Swamidass sees a sad fracturing or splintering that has occurred between Christian and scientific understandings of beginnings that assumes no place where Christians and scientists may meet. Furthermore, there is significant splintering among young earthers, old earthers, and theistic evolution camps. Most would not be fully sympathetic with what Swamidass proposes, but he writes respectfully of all. He advocates for courage, curiosity, empathy, tolerance, humility, and patience among scientists and theologians.

I believe this book is a good faith effort that exemplifies these qualities. It involves professional courage to write, he exemplifies curiosity in the questions he both explores and opens up, empathy for points of tension, tolerance of different views, humility in his interactions with scientists like Jerry Coyne, an outspoken atheist. I pray for the grace of patience he will need to carry forth this conversation over time in an often contentious climate.


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary advance galley of this book from the publisher. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: The Lost World of Adam and Eve

Lost WorldThe Lost World of Adam and Eve, John H. Walton. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2015.

Summary: Building on his earlier The Lost World of Genesis One, Walton contends that Adam and Eve are both archetypes of humanity and also historical figures, though not necessarily our biological progenitors, that their disobedience brought disorder into the sacred space of the creation affecting all people, and that Christ’s work has to do with restoring that order.

Genesis 1-3 are both foundational texts for Christian belief, and heavily contended texts because of the apparent conflict between scientific understandings of origins and the biblical account read “literally.” It has always been my sense that a significant part of the problem is that many of our discussions violate a fundamental principle of good scripture study which is, to the best of our ability, to understand what it would have meant to its original recipients rather than try to relate it with contemporary science, or show that it is a “scientific” account of origins as do those advocating “creation science.” I don’t think Moses, or whoever we believe wrote these texts was thinking at all about the science. I do think these accounts were shaped very much by the ancient Near East context, and the distinctive claims that the God of Israel was making about Himself, his world, and human beings.

In this book, and his earlier The Lost World of Genesis OneJohn H. Walton, who is an Old Testament scholar, rigorously explores these texts in light of the growing body of material about the ancient Near East, and through careful reading of the texts himself. Usually I would not paste in a “table of contents” to summarize the book, but in this case it is the best way for you to see Walton’s argument, summed up in twenty-one propositions:

Proposition 1: Genesis Is an Ancient Document
Proposition 2: In the Ancient World and the Old Testament, Creating Focuses on Establishing Order by Assigning Roles and Functions
Proposition 3: Genesis 1 Is an Account of Functional Origins, Not Material Origins
Proposition 4: In Genesis 1 God Orders the Cosmos as Sacred Space
Proposition 5: When God Establishes Functional Order, It Is “Good”
Proposition 6: ’adam Is Used in Genesis 1-5 in a Variety of Ways
Proposition 7: The Second Creation Account (Gen 2:4-24) Can Be Viewed as a Sequel Rather Than as a Recapitulation of Day Six in the First Account (Gen 1:1-2:3)
Proposition 8: “Forming from Dust” and “Building from Rib” Are Archetypal Claims and Not Claims of Material Origins
Proposition 9: Forming of Humans in Ancient Near Eastern Accounts Is Archetypal, So It Would Not Be Unusual for Israelites to Think in Those Terms
Proposition 10: The New Testament Is More Interested in Adam and Eve as Archetypes Than as Biological Progenitors
Proposition 11: Though Some of the Biblical Interest in Adam and Eve Is Archetypal, Yet They Are Real People Who Existed in a Real Past
Proposition 12: Adam Is Assigned as Priest in Sacred Space, with Eve to Help
Proposition 13: The Garden Is an Ancient Near Eastern Motif for Sacred Space, and the Trees Indicate God as the Source of Life and Wisdom
Proposition 14: The Serpent Would Have Been Viewed as a Chaos Creature from the Non-ordered Realm, Promoting Disorder
Proposition 15: Adam and Eve Chose to Make Themselves the Center of Order and Source of Wisdom, Therefore Admitting Disorder into the Cosmos
Proposition 16: We Currently Live in a World with Non-order, Order and Disorder
Proposition 17: All People Are Subject to Sin and Death Because of the Disorder in the World, Not Because of Genetics
Proposition 18: Jesus Is the Keystone of God’s Plan to Resolve Disorder and Perfect Order
Proposition 19: Paul’s Use of Adam Is More Interested in the Effect of Sin on the Cosmos Than in the Effect of Sin on Humanity and Has Nothing to Say About Human Origins
Excursus on Paul’s Use of Adam, by N. T. Wright
Proposition 20: It Is Not Essential That All People Descended from Adam and Eve
Proposition 21: Humans Could Be Viewed as Distinct Creatures and a Special Creation of God Even If There Was Material Continuity
Conclusion and Summary

A few key things to note. One key contention is that Genesis 1 is a functional rather than material account of creation. The focus is on the functions and functionaries of creation rather than their material origins, which is key to Walton’s understanding that the creation, and the garden are an ordered sacred space. Another is that Walton sees Genesis 2 as a sequel–humans have already been created, but God then makes a garden, and two particular humans who are both real figures and serve as archetypes acting on behalf of the human race. This allows Walton to contend for a historical Adam and Eve, without needing to insist that they are the progenitors of all human beings. Their decision to make themselves the center of order and source of wisdom had the opposite effect of bringing disorder into the world, which affects all humanity down to the present. Walton also deals with the important Pauline texts concerning Adam, with the help of N.T. Wright, arguing that the concern is the disordering of the cosmos rather than sin’s effect on humanity.

It is true that Romans 5:12 says that through one man sin entered the world (cosmos), it also speaks of death coming through sin, a clear effect of Adam’s sin not only on the cosmos but on humanity. I wonder here if Walton presses his ideas of order and disorder in the cosmos too far. I also find myself questioning the “functional” versus “material” distinction since both the spaces God makes and the creatures he fills them with are material as well as functional. What this pointed up to me is that while I want to take Walton’s argument as it stands, I also want to go back and take a closer look at the texts.

I do think it is important that those who take the biblical accounts seriously investigate to see whether Walton’s propositions can be sustained. If Walton’s argument stands the test of good exegesis, then he makes a critical contribution in ending the contentious battle between science and scripture over origins. His account does not insist that scripture makes claims about the material origins of the universe, nor does he insist that Adam is the biological progenitor of all human beings. Yet he argues for creation as an ordered sacred space, disordered by the sin of a historical Adam.

A number of the online reviews I found of Walton’s writing seemed more interested in defending a particular view of origins rather than carefully engaging his exegesis. For those interested in such things, this review by Richard Averbeck seemed among the most helpful in confirming Walton’s arguments at some points while raising important questions at others.

What I most appreciate about Walton’s book is the careful effort to look at Genesis as an ancient Near East text, while also taking it seriously as scripture. While mindful of the scientific arguments, his concern is to discern most clearly what scripture does and does not assert. Whether you agree or not with Walton’s argument, I hope it will have the effect it had for me of driving you back to the scriptures themselves “to see if these things are so.”