At a recent conference promoting harmony between science and biblical faith, a New Testament professor at an American Baptist seminary said genetic evidence suggesting that humans descend not from an individual pair but from a large population changed the way he interprets the first three chapters of Genesis.
Scot McKnight, a professor at Northern Seminary in Lombard, Ill., who writes the popular blog Jesus Creed, said at the 2017 BioLogos conference on Christ and creation in Houston that in years of teaching introduction to the Bible to undergraduate students he typically encountered one of two responses.
“My conservative students were frightened by the prospect of the Bible being wrong, and so they were afraid of evolution, better to keep it suppressed,” McKnight said in a conference address video posted on YouTube. “You could call it whatever kind of evolution you wanted — theistic or creationary evolution or evolutionary creationism or just plain old Darwinian evolution — it’s the term evolution that created the problem.”
“The other students were science students, who as those conservative students were worrying about evolution, these students were worrying about the Bible and its truthfulness,” he said. “For them if they were to hear yet again that belief in evolution was dangerous or that the Bible teaches six-day creationism or that the earth was only a few decades or thousands of years old, they would no longer be able to trust the Bible.”
McKnight, who grew up Baptist but in 2014 was ordained as an Anglican deacon, said Adam and the Genome, his recent book co-authored with evangelical geneticist Dennis Venema, is geared toward the student who believes in both evolution and the Bible and wants to avoid a crisis of conscience resulting from conflict between the two.
McKnight, a recognized authority on the New Testament, early Christianity and the historical Jesus, said the stakes for such students are high.
“The number one reason young people walk away from the faith is the conflict of their interpretation of Scripture with their interpretation of science,” he said. “Let it be emphasized that we are dealing here with the interpretation of Scripture, not necessarily Scripture’s truest meaning. And, yes, we are dealing with a theoretical construct called evolution.”
“Some scientists think we are fools for believing in the Bible and therefore in Jesus,” he said, “while for some conservative theologians and pastors and bloggers, scientists are materialists, atheists, and those who think they are Christian and evolutionist are oblivious to the slippery slide they are halfway down.”
McKnight said the question he hears most often when discussing Gen. 1-3 is “do you believe in a historical Adam?” It’s a question “loaded with theological meaning,” he said, including belief that Adam and Eve were real people who had a “biological and procreative relationship with every human being who has ever lived” and that all people living today possess a share of their DNA.
Since that inheritance includes sin, death and the universal need for redemption, McKnight said, “the gospel is at stake” in the argument.
“Unless I am mistaken, there never was only two solitary human beings on planet Earth from whom we have descended and from whom we get our DNA,” he said.
McKnight draws from church history to explain the discrepancy. “St. Augustine said when natural scientists are able from reliable evidence to prove some fact of physical science we shall show that it is not contrary to Scripture,” he said.
“I begin with the assumption that the Bible is truthful and right, and not wrong,” McKnight said. “Some call this inerrancy. I like to call it truthfulness.”
The professor said as he became familiar with findings of the Human Genome Project he was drawn to writers who interpret the first chapters of Genesis as an ancient Near Eastern creation narrative instead of as literal history.
McKnight, author of more than 50 books, said even he struggles with describing the specific genre. “When I read a text that names a male Dusty or Clay or Earth Man and a female fashioned from the side of a rib of Dusty named Mama of All Living Humans, and when I read of a serpent that talks and actually fools people made in God’s image, I do have to ask questions about genre,” he said.
McKnight said he doesn’t like the terms “myth,” “fable” and “legend” when applied to Genesis, so he uses “theological narrative.”
“I read the text as a theological narrative about God as creator, about humans assigned by God to a vocation in God’s cosmic temple on God’s sacred time, and I see the tragedy of humans who refuse to do what God said,” he said.
The BioLogos Foundation, founded in 2007 by Francis Collins, the scientist who directed the Human Genome Project and in his personal life moved from atheism to Christian belief, presents “an evolutionary understanding of God’s creation” while seeking “gracious dialogue” with those who disagree.
Northern Seminary, founded in 1913, is affiliated with American Baptist Churches USA. The current president, Bill Shiell, is a graduate of George W. Truett Theological Seminary and former pastor of Cooperative Baptist Fellowship churches including First Baptist Church in Tallahassee, Fla.; First Baptist Church in Knoxville, Tenn.; and Southland Baptist Church in San Angelo, Texas.
The seminary recently announced plans to move from the Lombard location in Chicago’s western suburbs to a new center in nearby Lisle, establish an additional new center on Chicago’s South Side, offer new programs at its existing Lawndale center on Chicago’s West Side and expand online learning.