Science in Christian Perspective




From: JASA 18 (March 1966):

In the March 12, 1965, issue of "Christianity Today" Mr. Buswell of St. Louis reaffirmed the stand that he took in Evolution and Christian Thought Today that Christian anthropology has no quarrel with an historical Adam. The thought is that no matter where anthropology dates the emergence of man, there will be no conflict with Genesis since the genealogies of Genesis do not supply a reliable means of dating Adam. This position rests mainly on B.B. Warfield's paper, "On the Antiquity and Unity of the Human Race".

As many conservative theologians also rest heavily on this paper, it seems imperative that if any advance is to be made, someone must point out that Warfield's paper is intrinsically bound up with the science of his day and that since science has changed, there is a need for a change in the conclusions of the paper.

Warfield came to believe that as the theologian looked on the merely scientific debate as to the antiquity of man

he can scarcely fall to take away as the result of his observations two well grounded convictions. The first is that science has as yet in its hands no solid data for a definite estimate of the time during which the human race has existed on earth. The second is that the tremendous drafts on time which were accustomed to be made by the geologists . . . have been definitely set aside, and It is becoming very generally understood that man cannot have existed on the earth more than some ten thousand to twenty thousand years.1

He also says, "The past glacial period, which will roughly estimate the age of man . . ." and "If man is of post-glacial origin, then his advent need not be dated more than five or six thousand years ago."2

These statements reflect the state of science in Warfield's day, and had he written today he might have been less liberal in giving to science any amount of time they might ask for. As is seen in his article, he does, in fact, contend against scientists who asked for too immense lengths of time; and, he puts these men down as "speculative" and as passing away. He felt that the brand of science which was on the right track did "not demand an inordinate period for the life of human beings on earth."3

Had Warfield been confronted with modern means of dating the past by stratigraphic, archaeological, and paleontological correlations along with radioactive and other chemical means of dating in corroboration with each other-"sGlid data for a definite estimate of the time during which the human race has existed on earth"-he might have looked a little longer at the Biblical data. Had he met with a consistent wave of geologists and anthropologists asking for a period of time in excess of 500,000 years for the existence of man on earth, he might have looked' a little harder at the Biblical data.

In any case, Warfield, not seeing that the question of the unity of the human race was integrally related to the question of the antiquity of man and following Green closely, did not fully consult the context of the genealogies in Genesis 5 and 11. He only considered the genealogies per se and established that their purpose was not chronology and that they did often have gaps. He says,

There is no reason inherent in the nature of the Scriptural genealogies why a genealogy of ten recorded links, as each of those in Genesis 5 and 11 is, may not represent an actual descent of a hundred or a thousand or ten thousand links.4

So far as the Scripture assertions are concerned, we may suppose any length of time to have Intervened between these events (creation, deluge, and the call of Abraham) which may otherwise seem reasonable.5

But, it is a question whether or not the genealogies of Genesis 5 and 11 can bear the weight of 500,000 years. When they are seen in their context, do they lead one to believe that they are able to distribute 500,000 years across their frames? The crucial genealogy is Genesis 5, for few would wish to date the flood before 10-15,000 B.C., the time of the last glacial retreat.

In the first place, of the nine links in Genesis 5 ' three are bridged by direct father-son relationships, viz Adam and Seth (cf. 4:25), Seth and Enoch (cf. 4:26), and Lamech and Noah (cf. 5:29). With this context having been given, who would think to conclude that the other six links bear nearly 100,000 years apiece? Even with the gaps in Matthew in mind, this can scarcely bear the name of responsible exegesis.

Secondly, in Genesis 4:17-24 where the parallel genealogy of Cain is given, the seventh member (out of eight) can clearly recall the tradition about Cainprobably an oral tradition, So, with Lamech of the Seth genealogy who knows the tradition about Adam (Genesis 5:29). So, with the genealogy itself as known by Moses. Is it likely that they stayed intact over a period of 500,000 years?

Thirdly, Genesis 4:25, 26 resumes the narrative from 4:16 in such a nonchalant way that it is hard to believe that the intervening verses 17-24 cover a period of 500,000 years. Other parts of Scripture also leave time gaps silently, even between verses, but none with a gap of this magnitude or anything even remotely related.

In other words, although no black and white case can be made, the tendency of the genealogy in context is contrary to a faith that it may cover 500,000 years. As Unger wrote in his Bible dictionary,

The appearance of man upon the earth is set forth as the result of a direct creative act of God, which took place at least over 4000 years B.C., and perhaps as early as seven or ten thousand years B.C. "which is more in the spirit of the Biblical record than either Ussher's compressed chronology or the evolutionist's greatly expanded ages" (Laird Harris ... ).

It is to be noted that this is the same order of magnitude for the period of man's existence on earth which Warfield thought science was teaching in his day.

I would say then that Warfield's exegesis of the genealogies was good as f ar as it went, but it did not go far enough. The context of Genesis 4 gives data relevant to the exegesis of Genesis 5 and as will be seen, far more data than Warfield even began to consider. In a word, contrary to Warfield, the Scriptural data do not leave us "wholly without guidance in estimating the time which elapsed between the creation of the world (I would say Adam) and the deluge."

Warfield also wrote that the span of time before Abraham could only be calculated on the basis of the genealogies in Genesis 5 and 11. If they "supply no solid basis for chronological inferences, it is clear that we are left without Scriptural data for forming an estimate of the duration of these ages."6

However, as is well known, an archaeologist is not left to the mercy of epigraphic material for the dating of his finds. It has been found, for example, in the Near East that particular styles of pottery are found in particular time zones; so that as a general rule a find can be dated by the type of pottery associated with the find.

The same technique in effect can be applied to Genesis 3-5. In particular, what does chapter 4 reveal about the associated culture of the people in the period of time covered by the genealogy of Genesis 5? It is plain that Cain and Abel lived a settled existence with domesticated animals and the sowing and reaping of settled farming (Genesis 4:2,12). To this picture of settled living may be added the city of building of Cain (Genesis 4:17). This I would take to refer to some kind of settled housing probably within walls. This economy is in contrast to the nomad life suggested in verse 20. As time went by, both musical instruments and metallurgy were introduced to this pre-diluvial culture (Genesis 4:21,22).

As with pottery, we may ask concerning these cultural characteristics, "When in other sites, do these cultural modes appear?" The answer is generally given as c. 9000 B.C. So, the dating of Adam and his descendants of Genesis 5 who had this Neolithic (or Mesolithic) culture is easily reduced to a span of time of approximately 9000 years. Since Abraham is dated at c. 2000 B.C., the genealogies of Genesis 5 and 11 can only cover a span of time of c. 7000 years. This is the usual picture as given by archaeologists and anthropologists.

Yet, the anthropologists are asking for a million years for the "Oldest tool-making Hominidae ('men')", half a million years for the "Oldest homines (large brained men)", and 40,000 years for the "Oldest examples of modern man".7 The professional, Christian anthropologists basically concur but would perhaps question calling the first group of Hominidae even "men".

But, if this anthropological dating of Adam and of the contrasting emergence of man is allowed to stand, the unity of the descent of the human race falls. The question of the antiquity of man is then not a separate, merely scientific question as Warfield thought.

It is interesting that besides the Bible, Warfield appealed to four areas of extra-Biblical proof for the unity of the human race, namely, physiological, psychological, philological, and historical. For the first three proofs, he as much as admits that they only prove unity of kind, not of the line of descent from Adam which is thought crucial to orthodox theology. Unfortunately, the historical proof which he adduced as powerfully supporting the Biblical doctrine (as understood by Warfield) of the unity of man has capsized like a canoe and proves the disunity of the descent of the human race.

The original historical argument which Warfield gave was that,

The possession of common traditions by numerous widely separated peoples is only a single one of many Indications of a historical intercommunion between the several peoples through which this essential unity is evidenced, and by which the Biblical account of the origination of the various families of man In a single center from which they have spread out in all directions is powerfully supported.8

Now, "traditions" as Warfield here uses the word is plainly interchangeable with "cultural characteristics" or "cultural artifacts". But, suppose these "cultural' are greatly dissimilar. Then "the Biblical account of characteristics and artifacts" are not in "common" but the origination of the various families of man in a single center from which they have spread out in all directions is just as "powerfully" unsupported as it was supposed to be supported, and is even disproved.

As it stands, in fact, the "cultural characteristics and artifacts" of Paleolithic man are greatly dissimilar from the Neolithic culture of Adam; hence, the orthodox doctrine is powerfully disproved.

Even supposing for a moment that the genealogy of Genesis 5 allows us to place Adam prior to 500,000 B.C., the culture which he had in Mesopotamia is still greatly dissimilar from that which his supposed children had in Palestine and Egypt and the West or in China and the East in Paleolithic times. The culture which Adam knew is described in Genesis 4 as being refined until the time of the Flood. This Neolithic culture would be handed down from generation to generation both in Cain's line and in Seth's line, growing and being improved up till the discovery of metallurgy (Genesis 4:22). 1 assume that metallurgy would be, as it is in the text, one of the last things to be developed before the Flood. In this case it is incredible that the culture would not spread with the dispersing children. So, even in this supposed case of Adam predating Paleolithic men in both West and East, the historical argument powerfully disproves the "orthodox" teaching.

On the above supposition, if one wishes to avoid the implications, one must not only believe that all of Adam's children who left home did not take their culture with them, but also that the Flood when it did come obliterated every piece of evidence of this Neolithic culture in Mesopotamia, which had been developing for over 500,000 years. But, if exegesis brings one to these conclusions, why exegete at all?9

It appears then that Christian anthropology cannot simply assert that she believes both her story of the origin of man and the theologian's story as well. The Scriptural data cannot be put into a pigeon hole separate from the anthropological data, because they have a fundamental bearing the one upon the other.

I can only chalk it up to the power of dogmatic theology that Dr. Buswell and his colleagues "find no contradiction".10 But it appears to me that the theologian must be reminded at this point that he cannot lawfully speak ex cathedra. Theology depends upon an extra-Biblical knowledge of grammar and history and culture. History and culture depend in this area in particular upon anthropology. Theologians and anthropologists must work in close cooperation on the problem of the antiquity and unity of the human race with neither group having to distort its data in order to reach the truth.

There needs to be more creative thinking in future attempts to correlate the Scriptures with anthropology, and theologians and anthropologists ought to quit trying to hide behind Warfield's paper. This may be the time to remind theologians that when they tried to ignore or suppress astronomy they only brought a bad name on theology. This ought to serve as a warning not to attempt to suppress anthropology, but to seek a lawful change in the interpretation of one or both sets of data.

It appears to me that we have open only two roads: literalism with "catastrophism" or figurative language with "scientific creationism". But, in any case, there must be a fresh start on the problem and a more thorough-going correlation of the two sets of data.


1. B. B. Warfield, "On the Antiquity and Unity of the Human Race". Theological Studies (1932) p. 245.

2. Ibid., pp. 249, 250.

3. Ibid., p. 236.

4. Ibid., p. 238.

5. Ibid., p. 244.

6. Ibid., p. 237.

7. Kenneth P. Oakley, "Dating the Emergence of Man!'. Advancement of Science, January, 1962, p. 425.

8. Warfield, op. cit. p. 256.

9. Byron Nelson's idea that all discovered human fossils are post-diluvial not only gives an untenable date for the Flood (in excess of 500,000 years B.C.), but also simply gives the same problem of cultural discontinuity to Noah instead of to Adam and permits Genesis 11 Instead of Genesis 5 to bear the 500,000 years.

Another "exegetical possibility" Is to assume that Genesis 4 is only parallel to Genesis 5:1-8 and that an unnamed disaster destroyed all that had been developed before anyone left Mesopotamia and before 5:9-32 takes place. In other words, we go back to a Gap theory, but this time without even a hint from the text or context.

If a date for the emergence of man is used which Is later than 500,000 B.C., the arguments of this paper are virtually unaffected. I have used the date 500,000 B.C. because it is the date usually given for the emergence of man and because the evidence of the Australopithecines may eventually push the date even earlier.

10. Mr. Buswell and others have occasionally acknowledged the problem of cultural discontinuity between Adam and Paleolithic man, but they have all too often made It a problematic appendage to their discussion. It seems apparent to me, however, that this problem is crucial and cannot be relegated to a subordinate position. Until a good reason can be given for dating a man with a Neolithic culture before Neolithic times, there is little value in appealing to Warfield.

The editor regrets that he has lost the author's name. Will he please reveal himself so credit may be given to him.