The Problem of Relating Human Evolution to the Biblical Account of Origins, Part 1—The Warfare Model and Concordism

Although there are divergences of opinion on details (since the science is always being refined), most paleo-anthropologists date the first hominin remains (the australopithecines) to some five million years ago and think that the first examples of the genus Homo appeared about two million years ago (Homo habilis). The most likely hypothesis for the evolution of anatomically modern Homo sapiens places their origin some 200,000 years ago, with an original population of perhaps 10,000.

Many religious skeptics and committed Christians alike have judged this scientific account incompatible with the biblical version of the origin of the humanity recounted in the early chapters of Genesis.

The Warfare or Conflict Model of the Bible and Science

From the skeptical side, the Bible has often been dismissed because its mythical or prescientific account of origins (both cosmic and human) is thought to contradict what we know from modern science. This skeptical approach is most evident in the “warfare” model of science and religion made famous by John W. Draper and Andrew Dickson White in the nineteenth century, and perpetuated by the new atheists like Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.

Many Christians (especially evangelicals and fundamentalists in North America) have bought into the warfare model, with the difference that they assume the “literal” truth of the biblical account—taking “literal” in the sense of necessitating a one-to-one correspondence between details of this account and events and actualities in the empirical world. This approach, which often goes by the name “scientific creationism” or “creation science” (or, more recently, “origin science”) assumes that the Bible intends to teach a true scientific account of cosmic origins—including a young earth and the discontinuity of species (particularly the discontinuity of humans from other primates).

Christian Attempts to Harmonize the Bible and Science Deriving from the Warfare Model

Since this way of reading biblical creation accounts clearly contradicts the understanding of origins provided by modern science (both in cosmology and in evolutionary biology), proponents of “creation science” typically dismiss the putative claims of modern science (at least in the case of cosmic and biological origins) as ideologically tainted. The result is a concordist attempt to force science to fit what the Bible (on a superficial reading) is thought to say about these topics.

A more recent, equally problematic, concordist approach works in the opposite direction, attempting to harmonize the Bible with the conclusions of modern science. This approach, spearheaded by Hugh Ross and the organization called “Reasons to Believe,” attempts to make the Bible agree with major scientific findings, at least at the level of cosmology. Thus, the Bible’s cosmological and cosmogonic statements (about the nature and origin of creation) are not understood in their ancient conceptual context, but interpreted so as to make them harmonize (anachronistically) with modern scientific claims (including a universe of galaxies billions of years old).

Yet at one point this alternative concordist project agrees with that of “creation science”—biological evolution (especially human evolution) is beyond the pale.

Despite what many Christians think, there isn’t at present any genuine scientific debate about the reality of evolution, including the descent of humans from previous life forms. The only debate is about certain details (as is to be expected in any empirical discipline). I myself have become convinced (by both genetics and paleontology) that biological evolution is the best scientific account of the development of life on earth—human evolution included. I have come to believe that the evolutionary process is simply the menchanism through which God has been creating life over the eons.

The Problem of Relating Evolution to the Bible’s Account of the Origin of Evil

Nevertheless, simple honesty requires me to admit that there are ongoing problems concerning how we are to relate human evolutionary history with the biblical teaching concerning origins.

One of the most problematic dimensions of affirming both biblical origins and biological evolution is the doctrine of the “Fall,” since the Bible seems to teach (in Genesis 3) a punctiliar, one-time event in which an original couple transgressed God’s commandment after an initial paradisiacal period.

I don’t believe that the classical, Augustinian doctrine of “original sin” is required (in all its specificity) for creedal orthodoxy. Nevertheless, the Bible itself certainly seems (at first blush) to tie the origin of evil to an understanding of human beginnings that is quite different from what we find in evolutionary biology.

Given the putative contradiction between biblical-theological claims and evolutionary science, what’s an honest Christian to do?

In my next post, I’ll examine some alternatives to the warfare model (and the resulting Christian attempt to make science harmonize with the Bible).

4 thoughts on “The Problem of Relating Human Evolution to the Biblical Account of Origins, Part 1—The Warfare Model and Concordism

  1. Hi Dr. Middleton,

    I’m a theology nerd who has been engaged the evolution/creation debate for many years. I have familial roots in the Creationist movement, but I have been deeply influenced by the scholarship of folks like John Walton, Denis O. Lamoureux, John Polkinghorne, Greg Boyd, and Peter Enns.

    My take on resolving the problem of “the Fall” goes like this:

    The imago dei isn’t a mysterious part of human nature that YHWH imparted to the first two homo sapien sapiens. The imago dei is a unique priestly and royal *Calling* that God placed on a representative couple. (Dr. Walton makes this point well in _The Lost World of Genesis One_) Humanity was called to reflect the image of God into the world the way an ancient king (e.g. Pharaoh believed he was the image of God) into a kingdom, and the way a statue was the image of God in a temple (i.e. the earth is God’s temple, in it humanity is God ikon).

    Once we remove the mysterious imago dei, “the Fall” is no longer mysterious either. The first couple rebelled against their royal and priestly calling. So, there’s no need to explain the millions of years of death that preceded “the Fall”. That death was not the separation of humanity from the imago dei. But the rebellion of the chosen couple is death because it is a rejection of the imago dei—or at least it’s distortion.

    Correcting the distorted imago dei is the restorative mission of God—the missio dei. And that mission is spearheaded and accomplished by Messiah Jesus.

    • Thanks so much for the comment. I certainly agree with the main lines of what you say here; in fact, I’ve been one of the strongest proponents of this view of the imago Dei. And I agree that death in the sense of mortality wasn’t introduced by human sin. But there are still complex interpretive issues that need to be addressed in thinking Genesis 3 together with human evolution (including the notion of a “first couple” and how that rebellion transpired in the history of Homo sapiens). That’s what I’m going to explore in my follow-up posts (and ultimately in an essay I’m writing on the topic).

      • Dr. Middleton,

        Would you agree that the notion of “Adam and Eve” being chosen, representatives of humanity is more in tune with the metanarrative of Scripture (e.g. Abraham, Moses, Jesus, etc.)?

        Also, would you agree with Enns and others that the Eden narrative has more to do with telling the story of post-exile Israel, their election, their calling, etc. than material origins?

        Thanks for the interaction. One of your students is a friend of mine 🙂

  2. I personally wouldn’t commit myself to a post-exilic dating for the Eden narrative. I don’t know when it was written.

    But I would certainly see the imago Dei as being an integral part of the biblical metanarrative. I have myself argued for a parallel between the election of Israel and the calling of humanity to be the image in the cosmic temple. On this point, see chapter 6 in Truth Is Stranger Than It Use to Be; chapter 2 in A New Heaven and a New Earth; and the entirety of The Liberating Image (plus various articles I’ve written).

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