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NPR covers the new evangelical debate about Adam and Eve

Submitted by on August 24, 2011 – 8:00 am2 Comments

A couple of weeks ago NPR produced a fairly even-handed report on the nascent controversy among evangelicals regarding the question of Adam and Eve’s existence. At least it’s even-handed insofar as both sides were allowed to make their points to the extent that they could given the limitations of a less-than-eight-minute radio feature (or the roughly 1,400-word web article which was derived from it).

It was refreshing to read a lay-friendly summary from a secular reporter of the core of an issue important to Christian theology—in this case condensed from remarks by Southern Baptist Theological Seminary president Albert Mohler:

Mohler says the Adam and Eve story is not just about a fall from paradise: It goes to the heart of Christianity. He notes that the Apostle Paul (in Romans 5 and 1 Corinthians 15) argued that the whole point of Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection was to undo Adam’s original sin.

I think we should give the author of this report, Barbara Bradley Hagerty, much credit for at least trying to be fair to both positions. How well she succeeded is open to debate, but the tone of the report, at least, gave no obvious offense to either side.

A question of balance

Even though I have no trouble referring to Hagerty’s coverage as even-handed in a qualified sense, the first problem that presents itself to my mind is the question of how many spokespeople she found for each side of this issue. She presents four representatives for the pro-evolution viewpoint (Dennis Venema, John Schneider, Daniel Harlow, and Karl Gilberson) but only two for the anti-evolution viewpoint (Fazale Rana and Al Mohler).  This might seem nit-picky, but three of her four pro-evolution people were theologians, which can foster the impression that more theologians are turning against the traditional view than are remaining with it, and thus this is more of a crisis for evangelical theology than it actually is. Determining that question would require a separate investigation. Until then we are left with the flavor of one of logic’s most common informal fallacies: the fallacy of hasty generalization (or hasty induction).

Perhaps Hagerty thought that this imbalance was justified by the fact that she was simply trying to shine a spotlight on how breaking from the traditional view can jeopardize one’s career in evangelical academia? Perhaps; but it also tends to feed the “Galileo moment” bias that she describes (the radio program exploits this analogy more than the online article)—the argument which simultaneously assumes that the traditional position is wrong and that it wields unjust power over over dissenters, just as Galileo was persecuted by the Roman Catholic church for publishing his view that the Earth revolves around the Sun. So now we can add the fallacy of a subtly-implied argumentum ad misericordiam (the appeal to pity).

Or perhaps she thought the imbalance would not be so obvious if she presented only one scientist for each side (Venema is affiliated with Francis Collins’ BioLogos Forum; Rana with Hugh Ross’s Reasons To Believe). But then she referenced Collins, who is world famous for his research on the human genome (but declined to be interviewed) without mentioning Ross, who has been publishing works on this topic far longer than Collins has been involved with it.

Credit where credit is due?

In addition to Hagerty’s imbalanced sampling of views, there is also the fact that this topic was addressed in far more depth in a very recent high-profile magazine article. Even Bobby Ross, Jr. over at GetRelgion.org had to concede that NPR’s coverage was “meaty” and “intriguing,” although he struggled with the ethical question of whether Hagerty (or perhaps NPR) should have noted what appeared highly probable to most who make their livings covering journalism’s religion beat: i.e., that they got the idea for the story from Richard Ostling’s difficult-to-miss June 2011 cover story in Christianity Today, “The Search for the Historical Adam.” Ross notes that the only person Hagerty interviewed who had not already been interviewed by Ostling was Al Mohler, which could be interpreted as evidence that both NPR’s idea and interview leads were generated by Ostling.

Ross deliberately avoids an outright accusation of “idea plagiarism” on NPR’s part. After all: can we even say that such an ethical category exists in journalism? But even if we concede the possibility that NPR’s correspondent for its national religion desk does not read the premier magazine of American evangelical Christianity (which would be quite an embarrassing admission), or at least didn’t read its June 2011 issue, are we to believe that none of her interviewees alerted NPR or Hagerty to their earlier interviews for CT?

Thus, in my opinion, the question of whether NPR “stole” the idea for the story doesn’t quite touch the heart of the issue. By passing over the CT story in silence, NPR risks confirming the impression that already exists in the minds of many Christians that only secular coverage is considered valid or worthwhile by the mainstream media. CT may be the flagship publication of evangelicalism, but its coverage is apparently not even worth mentioning on NPR.

The “either/or” fallacy

I am not as concerned about whether NPR borrowed the idea for its story from CT or came up with it all by itself as I am by what it did with the story when it decided to cover it. The network prides itself on the depth of its coverage, and doesn’t mind reminding us of that from time-to-time when advertising its various broadcasts. But quite frankly, Ostling’s coverage of this issue a couple months back was much deeper than Hagerty’s. Even though this makes it appear more likely that Hagerty’s coverage was a derivative of Ostling’s, I don’t think we can also blame her for any shallowness caused by its brevity, since I assume her producers ultimately decide how much time she has to cover each topic. How can we expect her to accomplish in 1,400 words what took Ostling nearly 4,000?

But the problem that surfaces as you allow less space to cover a complex issue such as this is that the coverage will tend to emphasize a polarity rather than a diversity of views. It will be drawn to the black-and-white opposites that are easier to summarize rather than to the shades of gray that actually exist—not that shades of gray are necessarily better, but they tend to be more realistic about how most issues are represented among large groups of people, such as, say evangelical Christians in the U.S.

We’ve seen this scenario repeatedly over the years in morning smorgasbord “infotainment” TV shows. They only give themselves a few minutes to discuss a controversial  issue in, say, education. For example: consider the topic of government-subsidized vouchers for private school tuition. Typically a producer will bring in one person to advocate for the view that vouchers will ultimately improve all K-12 education, both public and private, and one who declares that they are nothing but a cynical plot to destroy public education. And then the program brings in its own “unbiased” in-house expert, who is no doubt aware that the issue is much more complicated than can be explained in a ten-minute segment, and yet he or she is expected to summarize the entire debate in under two minutes. Thus the “either/or” fallacy (a.k.a., the “black-and-white” fallacy).

And so here’s the “either/or” we’re left with in Hagerty’s piece: either evangelicals can believe in evolution, or they can believe in the actual historical existence of Adam and Eve, along with what Francis Schaeffer called the “historic, space-time fall.” Thanks to his more thorough approach, Ostling’s CT article avoids this fallacy.

The territory between the poles

I myself do not subscribe to theistic evolution. I do not believe that it does justice either to the text of Scripture or to the perennial changeability of the science of origins—especially human origins. I realize that because I write this some will write me off as one who rejects science. Alas!—logical fallacies so permeate this topic they often make sincere dialogue unfeasible. But my point here is that I do have my own view, which I find more intellectually satisfying than the other options, and which I am prepared to defend at the appropriate time and place.

It’s probably not unfair to observe, however, that my view is fairly close to one pole in the global world of views on this subject. Nor can it be unfair to note that there is another pole that is opposite mine. What is unfair is to treat all the territory between those poles as if it either didn’t exist or has no bearing on my evangelical brothers and sisters.

For most of my life I’ve belonged to an evangelical community that has included a diversity of carefully-considered views for much longer than I’ve been alive, and I become annoyed when I and my fellow evangelicals are portrayed as unable to think our way out of the paper bag known as the alleged “conflict between science and Scripture” without shedding doctrines in the manner of some lizards who detach their tails when frightened by predators. Granted, some who call themselves evangelical more than live down to that stereotype, but the integrity of any movement does not lie with those who trade off its distinctive values for societal recognition and prestige.

For me, this is not about who has the right view, but whether evangelicalism is being portrayed rightly. Evangelicals and other Christians who feel compelled to accept some form of evolution have been giving serious thought about reconciling it with the theological necessity of an historic of Adam and Eve along and their fall into sin, and it’s a shame that Hagerty took no note of it.

The Adam issue is hardly new. In 1940, C. S. Lewis wrote in The Problem of Pain that “for long centuries, God perfected the animal form which was to become the vehicle of humanity and the image of himself.” Lewis thought that in the process God eventually caused the new divine consciousness to descend upon this organism, but “we do not know how many of these creatures God made, nor how long they continued in the Paradisal state.”

A 1967 InterVarsity Press commentary on Genesis by British evangelical Derek Kidner proposed a “tentative” concept that could fit with geneticists’ theory of human origination with a larger population. He thought it conceivable that “pre-Adamites” and “Adamites” from the same genetic stock existed simultaneously but with “no natural bridge from animal to man.” After God conferred his image upon Adam, he did the same with the others who then existed, “to bring them into the same realm of being.” In Kidner’s view, Adam’s “headship of humanity extended, if that was the case, outwards to his contemporaries as well as onwards to his offspring, and his disobedience disinherited both alike.”

[Richard N. Ostling, "The Search for the Historical Adam," Christianity Today, June 2011.]

In these scenarios, those who insist that the entire human genome cannot be accounted for by a single pair but recognize the difficulties inherent in rejecting the historicity of the biblical pair can keep their cake and eat it too, as it were. What issue that has been raised by evolutionary biologists such as Dennis R. Venema is not accounted for here? Why do biblical theologians such as John R. Schneider feel the need to create a crisis out of a problem that appears to have been resolved decades ago?

The bald man fallacy

I’ve known that I’ve been going bald since I was 16. I’ve never been in denial about it. I had all the evidence I needed in my comb.

My mom regularly sent me to get my hair cut by a lady who worked as a cosmetologist in her basement studio. “Oh, there’s no way you’re going bald,” she would try to console me. “Your hair is so thick—women would kill to have hair like yours! You’ll never go bald.”

But I knew better, and the passage of time has vindicated me. I already had a receding hairline in my teens. It was plain to see.

You see, my mom’s cosmetologist was committing the bald man fallacy: the argument that seemingly small or minor differences are not or cannot be all that significant. It is a fallacy that relies on the frequent vagueness of the terms we use. Just how many hairs do you have to lose to be considered “going bald,” or even “bald?”

It’s also called the fallacy of the beard: how many hairs must appear on a man’s face before we can say that he has a beard? It’s also called the fallacy of the heap: people will argue that no matter how many items you pile on top of each other, it’s still not enough to constitute an actual heap. Taken to it’s logical terminus, if you keep adding things but can never make a heap, we must conclude that heaps do not exist!

Apply this fallacy to architecture and you begin justifying the removal of minor-looking support beams from a structure.  They may look minor, but the passage of time will demonstrate otherwise.

Ostling quotes Cavlin College’s professor of religion, Daniel C. Harlow, as asserting that “Whether or not Adam was historical…is ‘not central to biblical theology.’” In other words, taking away this one little thing is not all that significant. According to Harlow, you can still have biblical theology without the person the Bible uses as the main support for such wide-ranging doctrines as monogamous marriage, original sin, the cause of human death, and salvation in Christ.

Welcome to the bald man fallacy.

Less than 20 years ago, an evangelical Anglican of much higher stature than Harlow and who also embraced theistic evolution came to a conclusion precisely opposite of Harlow’s:

It is fashionable nowadays to regard the biblical story of Adam and Eve as ‘myth’ (whose truth is theological but not historical), rather than ‘significant event’ (whose truth is both). …

We should certainly be open to the probability that there are symbolical elements in the Bible’s first three chapters. …

But the case of Adam and Eve is different. Scripture clearly intends us to accept their historicity as the original human pair. For the biblical genealogies trace the human race back to Adam; Jesus himself taught that ‘at the beginning the Creator “made them male and female”‘ and then instituted marriage; Paul told the Athenian philosophers that God had made every nation ‘from one man’;

Adam, then, was a special creation of God, whether God formed him literally ‘from the dust of the ground’ and then ‘breathed into his nostrils the breath of life’, or whether this is the biblical way of saying that he was created out of an already existing hominid. The vital truth we cannot surrender is that, though our bodies are related to the primates, we ourselves in our fundamental identity are related to God.

[John R.W. Stott, Romans: God's Good News for the World, (Downers Grove, IL, USA: InterVarsity Press, 1994), 164.]

It’s important to note that within the context of writing this Stott endorsed Kidner’s proposal, which retains both an historical Adam and Eve and an historical Fall of humanity through them. I don’t know what kind of theologian Harlow sees himself as being, but these doctrines remain non-negotiables for true evangelical theology.

Cut at your own risk

Stott passed away on July 27, 2011, but he is destined to cast a long shadow over the 21st century, as is his fellow Anglican, J.I. Packer. Ostling cited him in his article, and I can think of no better person to quote in closing. Advice he gave more than 50 years ago remains instructive for any among us who might feel backed into an indefensible theological or scientific corner by the recent NPR article. At least, that’s the way the final sentence in Hagerty’s article seemed to be pushing. And I wonder if Mohler felt comfortable with the way she worded her indirect quotation of him in that sentence. Is this about whether or not to accommodating science per se, or accommodating a scientific consensus that could change with the next new discovery? I am confident that Mohler sees it as the latter.

When he wrote his watershed ‘Fundamentalism’ and the Word of God, Packer was equally concerned with the anti-intellectualism that pervaded many segments of Bible-believing Christianity as well as the knee-jerk compulsion found in other Christians to surgically remove those biblical doctrines that for one reason or another the secular world tries to embarrass us with. Both approaches would “cut the knot” with the knife of denial, as it were, and are intellectually dishonest.

We need, therefore, to be constantly searching Scripture to find what lines of approach it indicates to the problems raised by secular studies—history, natural science, philosophy, psychology and the rest—and how we should view what those studies teach us in the light of God’s written truth. Sometimes this will be hard to see; the one may seem to conflict with the other, and there will be tension in our minds. In such cases our attitude must be determined by the principle that, since the same God is the Author both of nature and of Scripture, true science and a right interpretation of Scripture cannot conflict. We shall, therefore, continue loyal to the evidence both of Scripture and of empirical enquiry, resolved to do justice to all the facts from both sources while we wait for further light as to the right method of relating them together. Meanwhile, we shall look to see whether the appearance of contradiction is not due to mistakes and arbitrary assumptions, both scientific and theological, which a closer scrutiny of the evidence will enable us to correct. It is tempting in such cases to cut the knot and deny the problem, either by discounting one or other set of facts, or by locking them into two separate compartments in our minds and refusing to bring them together; but this, the easy but unrealistic way out, is actually sin (it is always sin to dodge facts), and may well bring its revenge in intellectual upheaval and disillusionment later on.

[J.I. Packer, 'Fundamentalism' and the Word of God: Some Evangelical Principles, (Grand Rapids, MI. USA: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1958), 134-135.]


Note: the first image in this article was cropped from “Adam and Eve” (1504), an engraving by German artist Albrecht Dürer (1471-1528). Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

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