In Quest of the Historical Adam: A Biblical and Scientific Exploration
by William Lane Craig
Eerdmans | 2021 | 439 pages (hardcover) | $38.00
Editor’s note: In his most recent monograph, William Lane Craig takes up one of the most pressing issues in contemporary apologetics: the question of the origins of humanity and the historicity of the Genesis account of Adam and Eve. Because of Dr. Craig’s eminent reputation and the topic of this book, MR wished to provide two different perspectives on it, and so we invited both Dr. Hojin Ahn and Dr. Chad McIntosh to review Dr. Craig’s book.
William Lane Craig’s Inconsistent Hermeneutic
By Hojin Ahn
William Lane Craig, a prominent scholar of evangelical apologetics, published In Quest of the Historical Adam to open a new channel for hermeneutical communication between evolutionary theory and a Christian doctrine of creation. Instead of a “traditional” (literal) reading of Genesis, he suggests a scientifically “revisionist” one (xii). Within the scientific framework of evolutionary theory, Craig creatively explores Adam’s existence through a mytho-historical approach to the creation accounts in Genesis to preserve hermeneutical integrity between a historicity of Adam and the theory of evolution. Yet, as Craig predicts, many evangelical Christians—including me—are perplexed by his one-sided apologetics based on paleontology. Craig considers the biblical accounts of creation primarily in relation to scientific evidence supporting atheistic evolution theory. Arguably, the position he defends in this book stands in contrast to his career as a courageous defender of evangelical truth. This is because the biblical interpretation of the historical Adam he offers through the lens of evolutionary theory is inconsistent with the biblical hermeneutic he uses to defend the evangelical truth of God’s salvation through Christ.
Above all, we have to pay attention to Craig’s hermeneutical censorship of God’s divine word through the lens of evolution theory. Although Craig seems to justify the plausibility of his prehistoric-anthropological understanding of Genesis, he seems to disregard the critical point that Adam and Eve were created perfectly by a “transcendent God” before the Fall. I am deeply concerned with Craig’s biblical interpretation that must correspond to paleontological evidence supporting evolutionary theory. If Craig simply pursued a common grounding and hermeneutical continuity between the ancient sagas and the biblical accounts, then his “mytho-historical” approach would not be a problem. Considering that his book is written for people who struggle with reconciling evolution theory with their Christian faith, I would find this entirely acceptable. I am not criticizing his abandonment of any literal understanding of the creation accounts. The trouble for me is that Craig bases his entire interpretation of the biblical accounts on scientific evidence by radically minimizing the Bible’s divine content and purpose. It seems that as paleontologists find new evidence—hold on, give me time to shoehorn my biblical interpretation into it!
With his hermeneutical premises in evolutionary theory, Craig finally posits his main statement about the quest for the historical Adam and Eve. He is sure of discovering the hidden scientific fact of their existence in the mythological and figurative language in the passage about how God created the first human beings according to his own image (Gen. 1:26–27). Craig presumes that among numerous Neanderthals, God specially chose Adam and Eve and endowed them with human-intellectual ability and “rational souls” that are completely distinct from primates and animals (378). Here, Craig has the full assurance of his assumption that God’s sovereign election is compatible with natural selection by an extremely random process of evolution.
At first glance, Craig’s argument is logically persuasive because of his synthesis of evolutionary biology and biblical revelation. It is, however, ironic that although Craig seems so assured that paleontological evidence matches up with the mythohistorical reading of the creation accounts, he never offers any scientific evidence for the existence of the historical Adam. Consequently, among mainstream scientific circles, Craig’s opinion is indeed considered to be quasi-scientific on the grounds that there are no statistical data or objective evidence that modern humanity biologically descends from single male and female progenitors like Adam and Eve. Despite his apologetic intentions, Craig dangerously posits God’s creation within the evolutionary context, in which there is no need for the “transcendent” Creator’s existence. If God’s divine intervention miraculously occurred through evolution, then this would be an obvious violation of the law of the evolutionary creation process that God himself instituted or the unfair manipulation of the result of natural selection. By my estimation, Craig’s quest for the historical Adam amounts to a sort of Procrustean-bed-styled argument that arbitrarily squeezes God’s word into the evolutionary paradigm and vice versa.
More seriously, Craig’s synthetic perspective, which combines divine revelation with human reason, contradicts the theo-ontological logic in his evangelical apologetics. Craig has convincingly demonstrated the incarnation of God the Son, Christ’s penal substitutionary atonement, and physical resurrection by relying on a literal reading of the New Testament. So why does Craig perform a U-turn into a mythological understanding of the creation accounts in Genesis? Craig criticizes John Dominic Crossan for denying the literal reading of the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ resurrection, acknowledging only the mythological and existential dimensions of the Christian notions of resurrection; and Craig finds “theological double-talk” in Crossan’s historical quest for Jesus. Yet here, if we apply the same hermeneutical principle to Craig’s mytho-historical approach to God’s creation, there seems also to be “theological double-talk.” Although Craig still argues for the existence of God the Creator and his miraculous work, he makes his biblical interpretation of creation narratives valid only within the framework of evolutionary theory based on paleontological evidence. Crossan states, “Well, after evolution we don’t read those six days literally anymore.” It would not be unfair to argue that he and Craig seem to agree about the evolution-based biblical interpretation of Genesis. Crossan, at least, maintains his symbolic understanding of the Bible as a whole. By contrast, in Craig’s theology, a purely genetic-evolutionary idea of God’s creation and the biblical concept of Christ’s physical resurrection as God’s new creation are hermeneutically and ontologically exclusive to each other.
The now old question for positions like the one Craig takes in this book is still pressing: God’s saving grace in Christ—which Craig adamantly holds—seems to be ontologically unnecessary in a continuous, self-progressive process of evolution—which Craig also seems to hold based on current scientific theory. Without realizing the crack in his evangelical logic, he simply justifies the sole plausibility of a mytho-historical reading of creation account narratives by highlighting the similarity between the Scripture and ancient myths. The hermeneutical vulnerability is fundamentally attributed to Craig’s apologetics-oriented evangelical theology. He always employs external standards, such as philosophical reasoning and historical and scientific evidence, to prove and explain the divine events in the Bible.
At this point, Karl Barth’s prophetic voice sounds like thunder from above: “If the aim of theology is to understand the revelation attested in the Bible, theology as distinguished from all philosophical and historical science of religion will have to adhere to this method quite rigidly.” For my part, if I must select between an evolution-based symbolic understanding and a literal understanding of the biblical revelation of creation, I would rather be on the literal side. This is not because of the scientific credibility of creationism but because of the Creator God’s sovereignty that is beyond the demonstrated range of natural science. Yet Craig misconstrues that scientific immanence can grasp divine transcendence. Finitum non possit capere infinitum— “The finite cannot grasp the infinite”—is the hermeneutical premise that a genuine theologian must take.
More constructively, I would suggest that if one wishes critically to split creation accounts into the figurative and the historical, then that criticism cannot be only of the biblical accounts of creation from the standpoint of evolutionary theory. One also ought to take a critical stance on evolutionary theory from the biblical perspective of God’s revelation of the creation and Fall.
In conclusion, as an evangelical theologian, I have sincerely supported Craig’s apologetics movement toward reasonable faith. However, regarding the hermeneutical issue of Adam in Genesis, theological exegesis should not be confined to or judged by any scientific or external understanding to safely verify the Christian faith of God’s creation. The intellectual tendency of absolute reliance on science, apart from God himself, forebodingly debunks an unconsciously slow collapse of scientifically modernizing evangelical faith, just as the nineteenth-century Protestant liberals’ moralizing vision of genuine Christianity has sadly faded into the mists of history.
Dr. Hojin Ahn (PhD, University of St. Michael’s College) is the head minister of Korean Presbyterian Church of Nova Scotia (PCC) in Halifax, Canada. He is the author of A Constructively Critical Conversation between Nonviolent and Substitutionary Perspectives on Atonement: Theological Motifs and Christological Implications (Pickwick, 2022).
A Bad Time for a Good Book
By Chad McIntosh
William Lane Craig’s In Quest of the Historical Adam is a stimulating and rewarding study intended for, we are told on the very first page, “persons who are Christian philosophers, theologians, and other academics who are neither Old Testament scholars nor scientists” and for “intelligent laymen . . . for we are all laymen when it comes to areas outside our areas of specialization” (xi). So, despite my initial hesitancy to review this title given my lack of formal education in either biblical studies or a relevant science, perhaps I can lend insight as one from among the intended readership.
Our topic is Adam and Eve, and we face two main questions: First, does the Bible present them as real, historical persons or mere literary figures used by biblical authors to illustrate theological truths? Second, if they are real, historical persons, then is belief in this original pair as the font of humanity in conflict with current science of human origins? William Lane Craig embarks on a quest to answer these and other questions, using the sharp tools of an analytic philosopher to hack through the thick jungles of diverse academic terrains, including ancient mythology, Old and New Testament scholarship, paleoneurology, archaeology, and population genetics. In brief, here is what he found.
We first encounter Adam and Eve, of course, in the primeval narratives of Genesis 1–11. Were the genre of Genesis straightforward historical narrative, the answer to the first question would be settled. But matters aren’t so easy; according to Craig, Genesis 1–11 exhibits nearly all the hallmarks of the genre of myth. But we must be careful here: as literary scholars use the term, a “myth” is not a popular idea or falsehood, but a traditional, sacred narrative believed by members of a society that explains present realities by anchoring them in the prehistoric past. Yet at the same time, historical interest is not absent from the author of Genesis, as the genealogies show. Thus Craig thinks that Thorkild Jacobsen’s genre of “mytho-history”—a genre where real, historical events are narrated but with nonliteral literary devices used to communicate theological truths—is therefore an apt classification of Genesis, popular aversions to the word myth notwithstanding. “Scholars simply need to be careful to explain our meaning to laymen” (157). So, while the author of Genesis “intends for his narrative to be at some level historical, to concern people who actually lived and events that really occurred, . . . those persons and events have been clothed in the garb of the metaphorical and figurative language of myth,” which makes it “futile to try to discern . . . what parts are historical and what parts are not” (201). We must therefore look elsewhere in the Bible for its stance on the historicity of Adam and Eve.
Of the dozen (or so) relevant New Testament texts, Craig finds only a handful in Paul’s letters that plausibly assert a historical Adam. The rest, he argues, require the pair to be no more than literary figures that illustrate theological truths. For instance, when Jesus refers to the monogamous union of Adam and Eve, he does so “to discern its implication for marriage and divorce, not asserting its historicity” (221). By contrast, Paul’s theology requires a historical Adam (and Eve), for Paul identifies Adam as responsible for a real-world event (the Fall) that led in time to other real-world effects, most importantly Christ’s atonement (see 1 Cor. 15:21–22, 45–46; Rom. 5:12–21). For Craig, this “suffices for the affirmation of a historical Adam” (242).
Having completed the first leg of his quest, Craig sets out on the second—that is, to determine whether belief in an original pair as the font of humanity is in conflict with current science of human origins. The main objections to this, considered in the book’s penultimate chapter, turn out to be surprisingly weak so long as the primordial pair are located far enough in the distant past to account for the genetic and geographic diversity that we see in the human population around the world today. This is exactly what the evidence already surveyed in the third part of the book indicates: paleoneurological and archaeological evidence concerning when the first humans emerged places them within the Pleistocene epoch, commonly known as the Ice Age, from 2.5 million to 12 thousand years ago. To establish this, of course, one must first determine what counts as “human.”
Here, Craig cautions against simplistically equating the natural kind of “human” with organisms scientifically classified as Homo. There is a wide variety of organisms within Homo that are plausibly not human, and others that are plausibly human but not Homo sapien (e.g., Homo neanderthalis). To be human in the relevant sense is to exhibit sufficient anatomical and cognitive similarity with modern humans. Cranial size is especially important, “given the correlation between brain size and cognitive capacity” (258). One of the more interesting (and dramatic!) aspects of Craig’s study is how multiple lines of evidence across several disciplines slowly converge, pointing to the common ancestor of Neanderthals and modern Homo sapiens as the earliest species with the anatomical features and cognitive capacity to count as fully human. This was Homo heidelbergensis, whose image the book’s dust jacket bears. Craig therefore identifies Adam and Eve as members of this group, having lived between 750,000 and 1,000,000 years ago.
In the final chapter, Craig adds some reflections on how his findings square with the Christian view of the afterlife, the image of God, and mind-body dualism, for which the engaged reader will have been patiently waiting. Unfortunately, details are sparse here. In particular, what it means for man to be made in the image of God is left unclear, which is a surprising lacuna given the book’s topic. To be made in the image of God, Craig argues, is to “have certain faculties like rationality, self-consciousness, freedom of the will, and so forth” —that is, to be “persons in the same way that God is personal and thus have the attributes of personhood. It is precisely the properties of personhood that are manifested by the cognitive behaviors to which we have appeals as evidence of humanity” (370). This can’t be quite right, since angels and demons are persons in this sense but are not human and not created in God’s image (or at least not explicitly stated in the Bible to be so). There must be something else about bearing God’s image that makes one human. But what? It can’t be having a humanoid body, for man is not fashioned in the likeness of God’s body (God is spirit), and humans can exist unembodied (370–76). So, what is it about being made in God’s image that makes us human? “The stubborn fact is that Genesis leaves the image and likeness of God undefined” (367). That may be so, but can’t we as Christian philosophers say more? It’s odd that cranial size should do more work in picking out humans than the imago Dei!
I was also surprised by the scant attention given to Jesus’ comments in Matthew 19:4–5, as Craig says in the introduction that it seems plausible, on the basis of this text, that Jesus believed in the historicity of Adam and Eve. Indeed, this seems to be the main concern; for if there is no historical Adam, then “even if Jesus were not guilty of teaching doctrinal error, he still would have held false beliefs concerning Adam and Eve, . . . which is incompatible with his omniscience” (7). Craig concludes that “as crazy as it sounds, denial of the historical Adam threatens to undo the deity of Christ and thus to destroy orthodox Christian faith” (8). Recall that it was the real-world effects of Adam’s sin that committed Paul to a historical Adam. But in Matthew 19:4–5, is not Jesus also appealing to the real-world effects of marriage, which itself is a real-world effect of God’s causal activities?
Finally, I can’t help but wonder about the book’s reception and impact. The chapters on the genre of Genesis are a tour de force, and they could be an invaluable contribution to popular debates about the meaning and interpretation of Genesis. But will they be? I have my doubts. Despite being described as a “popular-level book” (320), Craig’s quest may be too challenging for the average layperson. For example, Craig makes four distinctions crucial for discerning whether the Bible teaches that there is a historical Adam: (1) the literary vs. historical Adam, (2) truth simpliciter vs. truth-in-a-story, (3) using a text illustratively vs. assertorically, and (4) what a person citing a text believes vs. what they assert. These are indeed crucial distinctions for understanding the biblical claims with respect to Adam and Eve, but I’m afraid such subtlety would really try the patience of lay Christians, as frustrating as that may be to Christian academics. And it would be no less frustrating to lay Christians that responsible positions must be handed down to them by scholars. So, are we to despair at the prospect of a responsible position ever becoming mainstream among evangelicals?
Finally, Craig just does not appreciate how steep of a mountain the word myth will create for Evangelical Christians. It is in my estimation insurmountable. That word and the book’s cover will almost certainly alienate a large and important audience who wrestle with reconciling their faith with the claims of (popular) scientific accounts of human origins. That said, as all Christians know, a precious gift can be refused for foolish reasons.
Chad McIntosh (PhD, Cornell University) currently lives in central Ohio where he enjoys homesteading and writing when he can.
Footnotes:1. Stephen Schaffner, “Adam, Eve, and the Evolution of Humankind: In Quest of the Historical Adam: A Biblical and Scientific Exploration” by William Lane Craig,” Science (American Association for the Advancement of Science), vol. 374 (2021): 162. A senior computational biologist, Stephen Schaffner says, “Biologists are likely to be highly skeptical of the idea that humanness is a binary condition that can be induced by a change in a single pair of ancestors—declaring the change to be miraculous and to incorporate an immaterial soul, as Craig proposes, will not make it more appealing.”
2. Regarding divine satisfaction of justice, Craig demonstrates a forensic logic of God’s punishment of the innocent Christ instead of fallen humanity. Craig, Atonement and the Death of Christ: An Exegetical, Historical, and Philosophical Exploration (Texas: Baylor University Press, 2020).
3. “Craig on Crossan,” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aw9jvJp_nAo.
4. James Halstead, “The Orthodox Unorthodoxy of John Dominic Crossan: An Interview,” Cross Currents vol. 45 (1995), 513.
5. Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics I/2 (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1963), 9.