In the last year or so, Dr. Ron Choong has become known for his views on the historical Adam. Last week, Pastor Wes White posted an update on Dr. Choong and Metro New York Presbytery’s decision not to investigate based on his view of Adam as a group of hominids adopted by God. In researching Dr. Choong’s publications, I discovered that he is the founder of an organization, the Academy for Christian Thought (ACT).
According to their website, ACT was founded by the Rev. Dr. Ron Choong, an ordained minister in the PCA, to be a “research and educational non-profit organization in New York City.” Their goal is:
to engage the urgent issues of our times and persistent questions of all ages. We encourage interdisciplinary engagement with every field of human inquiry to better understand the impact of history, philosophy, culture and the natural sciences on the Christian faith. We seek to articulate an enriched worldview with integrity and foster a climate of inquiry within a sanctuary of doubt we call a theological safe space (TSS).
Their mission includes providing a theological safe space (TSS) to develop apologetics that “engage the natural sciences and world religions for fruitful dialogues,” to “foster a missional church climate in a global secular culture,” to “bridge the academy to the church,” and to develop discipleship programs that “commit to making the discipleship of the mind and body a priority.”
They go on to explain how they seek to develop such discipleship programs:
We develop globally relevant and conceptually holistic discipleship programs. In the sciences, we inquire into methodologies to distinguish science from scientism and evolution from evolutionism. … In biblical theology, we teach a method of interpretation that engages other religious convictions and scientific inferences while remaining faithful to the confessional integrity of the Bible as a trustworthy, divinely inspired writing of fallible, human effort.
ACT confesses a belief “in the divine inspiration and entire trustworthiness of the Scriptures.” What is interesting is that infallibility and inerrancy are not used to describe their view of the Scriptures.
Redeemer Presbyterian Church (PCA) in New York, a sponsor of ACT, has hosted ACT seminars and lists ACT as a valuable resource. Dr. Tim Keller, senior pastor of Redeemer, is one of three pastors on ACT’s Board of Reference.
One of ACT’s programs for discipleship is called Project Timothy (PT):
PT is a program of ACT – a ministry that encourages interdisciplinary engagements with every field of human inquiry for a fruitful understanding of Christian belief. PT provides a climate of inquiry within a sanctuary of doubt that we call a theological safe space (TSS) – to engage the Global Secular Culture. … PT teaches a method to make sense of the Bible by considering what the writer of each book intended to say, what the original readers and hearers would have understood and how we today might understand the texts for ourselves.
Project Timothy seminar materials are available for download through ACT’s online store. All of the following quotes are taken from Ron Choong’s The Bible You Thought You Knew: Volume 1 (New York: Academy for Christian Thought Publications, 2011).
Project Timothy’s The Bible You Thought You Knew opens with some thoughts about the goals and aims of Project Timothy:
TTT [Thinking Things Through] in a TSS [Theological Safe Space]: Are our beliefs consistent with each other, are they philosophically coherent, and are they scientifically convergent? While neither philosophy nor science leads to God, they are helpful tools to keeping a check on our prejudices and biases. We are wonderfully capable of convincing ourselves that our thoughts are true because we wish them to be so. If we are indeed committed to thinking things through, we need a safe place to do that thinking without fear of being denigrated or misrepresented. … In a TSS, we can question one’s view without questioning their motives or character. And we can change a view we once took for granted if it is no longer defensible in a holistic confessional Christian worldview (viii-ix).
PT [Project Timothy] provides a TSS [Theological Safe Space] to question assumptions about the scriptures. This strengthens our beliefs and equips us to responsibly proclaim the Gospel (x).
Dr. Choong goes on to describe the approach Project Timothy takes with the Scriptures and science:
Since the question of biblical reliability cannot be affirmed by its historicity, literary, or theological components, we pay attention to these characteristics of the Scriptures to get within hearing distance of the writers’ intent. Thus you will find lapses in historical and scientific accuracy as we increase our modern accuracy of historical and scientific knowledge. Even doctrinal articulation of theological points need to be revised in each generation to account for our greater understanding of the world we live in (xiii).
Biblical knowledge is an older source that is limited to disclosure (divine revelation) rather than discovery (human investigation). So science is an extremely helpful check on our interpretation of the Bible. By looking for convergence between our conclusions and what our minds can discover about the creation of God, we can compose a more comprehensive image of reality (xv).
While Project Timothy’s seminars cover all of the Old and New Testament books, this overview will look mainly at how Dr. Choong applies the above ideas to Genesis.
According to Dr. Choong, Genesis was written around the 6th century BC as the Jewish people were returning from their Babylonian exile (1). As such, it was not written by Moses, although Moses may be the author of some parts (3-4). The purpose of Genesis 1-11 was to provide a polemic against the Babylonian gods, not to explain the “how” or “in what order” of creation:
The final form of these primeval accounts described in Genesis 1-11 was completed during the postexilic period, later than most of the Pentateuch, to tell us about God who created everything including all of the “gods” worshipped by the Babylonians. They were not intended to tell us how the universe was made, how life originated from inorganic matter, or exactly how human beings first came about. Rather, they were intended to counter other Ancient Near Eastern creation accounts (1).
What does this mean for modern Christians and the meaning of Genesis?
The Christian should read Genesis 1-11 with the assurance that we worship the creator of all that exist, and not be troubled by working out the mechanics of creation itself, because the Bible is silent on this matter. Any theological reflection that engages literature, history, philosophy, and science will always result in provisional insights, none of which should form litmus tests of faith (1).
Dr. Choong believes that the Torah was written backwards starting with Exodus, then Genesis 12-50, and finally Genesis 1-11. Because it was written to combat other ANE creation accounts, we should not read it as historical or scientific:
The story of Israel actually begins with the exodus event, recorded in the book of Exodus. It was in the Sinai desert that different tribes of former Egyptian slaves formed the People of God YHWH. … The stories of Genesis 12-50 were told as a prologue to the exodus event and later, the accounts of Genesis 1-11 were told to link the formation of Israel to the very formation of creation itself. Every people group may trace their lineage back to the origins of creation, life and humanity, and Genesis 1-11 is Israel’s account. This account is theological rather than strictly historical. Thus, although it possesses dimensions of history and science, Genesis 1-11 is not historical or scientific and cannot be judged as such (2).
Why does Dr. Choong believe that Genesis 1-11 is not meant to teach us about the origins of the universe and life? He explains that:
Genesis 1 refers not to the origins of the material universe, but to how those pre-existing materials are now designed to function by God. The correct translation of Genesis 1:1 is “When God began creating” (15).
So, if Genesis 1-11 is not historical or scientific, what is it?
The first 11 chapters are primeval histories, not chronological ones. They are mythological. This does not mean they are untrue, but that they refer to events before there were human witnesses. They are therefore unverifiable and unfalsifiable. … The first five of these then stories up till the account of Shem, are not intended to be understood literally or even historically(12-13).
Dr. Choong believes that differences in the order of creation as told in Genesis 1 and 2 indicate that multiple perspectives on creation are given and, therefore, that Genesis 1 and 2 cannot be taken literally:
The religion-science debate is rooted in Genesis 1, which describes the creation of the world in a poetic fashion and employs a seven-day week framework. This seven-day chronology has sometimes been interpreted literally by religious persons opposed to scientific theories such as biological evolution and natural selection, so that the data from fossil records, geology, dinosaurs, and the like, must somehow fit into the seven days of the Genesis 1 creation account.
Genesis 2, on the other hand, discusses the creation of humans and then animals in an order that reverses that of Genesis 1. This makes any simple harmonization of the two accounts untenable. These two versions of creation cannot be reconciled at the level of logical order or sequencing. The narrators of Genesis 1 and Genesis 1 were different persons who lived centuries apart from one another. (13).
Dr. Choong notes that most modern people look to science instead of the Bible to answer such questions as the origin and development of life, but that this was not always so:
Most people, whether religious or not, look to the realm of science for hard data about the environment and cosmology. Prior to the modern period and the rise of the natural sciences, people tended to be more simple or naïve about such things and tended to think (if they thought about it much at all) about the origin of the world in religious and theological terms (Footnote 39, 13).
Given that Dr. Choong believes that Genesis 1-11 is silent on the “mechanics of creation itself,” what does he believe about the compatibility of evolution and Christianity?
Does the process of evolution undermine God’s Glory as Creator? Not at all (6).
Is the six-day creation account central to the Bible? Probably not. … The entire creation v. evolution controversy is based on a false dichotomy. (6-7).
What about Adam? Dr. Choong recognizes that many Christians insist on the historicity of Adam, but he sees some flexibility in the interpretation:
The OT description of the origin of humanity (adam) surely arises from an actual historical event. That much is evident. But whether the figure of biblical Adam represents a pre-existing group of people or a specially created modern-looking like human who was not born (hence, with no navel) and whether Eve refers to a single female crafted from a single rib, ought not divide the Church. There is sufficient grace in theological space to allow for variance in interpretation, as long as they remain provisional and open to review as we learn more and more about ourselves. Thus, we note the inconsistent use of the Hebrew word “adam” in the Bible and cannot say with certainty whether a first human couple was specially created with no biological link to other life forms (7).
Dr. Choong believes that:
Sometime in the distant past, God chose one hominid branch to receive the “image of God,” the potential to relate to God in love (7).
Such a convergent explanation of what the biblical writers were trying to convey is an example of a responsible apologetic that is at once faithful to the authority of the inspired Bible and accounts for the empirical findings of human discovery. … Did God create one male and one female from which to populate the Earth? Perhaps, and perhaps not. We will never really know. But the Hebrew word “adam” means humanity (7).
Since Adam’s name is also the Hebrew word for “humanity,” Dr. Choong sees biblical support for his view that the historical Adam of Genesis was a group of people and not a single individual:
Is there any reason to think that the biblical Adam was a single person? Yes. Genesis 5:5 refers to the exact age that Adam died, suggesting that Adam was a particular male who was never born but emerged as an adult with no navel and no childhood. Where it gets tricky is whether he also contributed one of his ribs to form Eve. These contrasting hints allow some theological space for a difference of opinion. … Finally, did Paul himself not refer to Adam as a first particular human? Most Christians use Romans 5:12 to infer that the Pauline Adam must be a singular adult male who was the second sinner (8).
According to Dr. Choong, Paul’s use of Adam is not as clear cut as it might seem to be. The real issue is not anthropology but soteriology. In other words, what matters in Paul’s use of Adam are the issues of sin and salvation:
The reality of sin is central to Christianity. The reason Jesus died on the cross is because of sin, so if the first humans did not sin, it makes the Cross redundant. … A literal reading of Paul suggests that sin entered the world through a single human being, and through another, all will be justified. This would describe universal sin accompanied by universal salvation or universalism – something Paul himself would reject outright. … So whatever Paul meant, he could not have meant this phrase literally (8).
Dr. Choong goes on to explain that the doctrine of original sin (a sin nature inherited from Adam as a result of the Fall) is also not found in Paul’s writings despite what many have believed:
While most of the Church Fathers saw that Adam was punished for his sin with sinful desires, Paul himself said no such thing. In fact, to our surprise, Paul in Romans specifically introduced the doctrine that Adam’s punishment was an expected outcome of his created humanity rather than something he did wrong. …
Elsewhere, Paul uses sin to describe behavior as in the teaching that sin was not caused by Adam and Eve but is a term that describes the defiant behavior of Adam and Eve. In this interpretation, Adam and Eve were made loaded with sinful desires already – not that Adam sought out sinful desires. This use of the word sin as behavior finds great convergence with the biological nature of human imperfection, despite our having been made good. But when Paul personified the word sin, his notion of a pre-Adamic existence of sin meant that Adam could not be blamed for any existence of sin per se (8-9).
According to Dr. Choong, therefore, Adam and Eve did not gain a sin nature through the Fall that they then passed on to their descendants. They were made with sinful desires:
If we think that there was perfect morality before Adam and Eve were ejected from Eden, we cannot explain why in their perfect state of moral goodness, they both disobeyed God – how can perfect goodness turn bad? (38)
Because Paul uses personification to explain sin, Dr. Choong believes that Paul’s use of “Adam” may also be a personification of sorts:
Paul expressed the word [sin] to mean at least three different things: a person, a causal agent that may or may not be personified, and a primeval state of the human condition that we inherited. Thus we conclude that Paul in Romans 5 and 1 Corinthians 15 did not intend to declare the doctrine that Adam of Genesis was a single progenitor of humanity who was never born, and biologically gave rise to Eve who was crafted from one of his ribs, thus losing a rib in the process (10).
So, what conclusion does Dr. Choong come to regarding Adam and Eve?
What we can say is that Adam and Eve were certainly historical figures. What we cannot say for sure is how many of them there were. Pure literalists suggest two – a male named Adam and a female made out of Adam’s rib named Eve. Although genetic markers suggest a much larger pool of first humans, science along cannot be trusted for a dogmatic statement of faith, so we ought not to rely on biology to determine a biblical interpretation. But the undisputed point that leans towards the origins of humans as a community rather than as a single couple is neither historical nor scientific, but purely scriptural – the Hebrew meaning of Adam is humanity (10).
Dr. Choong also applies his hermeneutic approach to other parts of the Torah. For example, the account of Noah and the flood isn’t an historical account of a family of eight that survive a worldwide flood with lots of animals:
There were already flood stories in the Ancient Near East. So an adoption of such a story would effectively make the point (16).
In fact, according to Dr. Choong, it’s dangerous to attempt to read Noah’s story literally:
The account of Noah’s Ark was not meant to explain the origin of spectral optics that formed the first rainbow, or to showcase ancient naval architecture capable of surviving a global flood. This would reduce biblical theology to the natural sciences. The rainbow is symbolic of a war bow (as in bow and arrow). … The fate of Noah’s three sons does not imply that all Africans are doomed from the beginning because Ham saw his father’s nakedness. … A literal reading of Ham (dark-skinned) led to the justification of African slavery by some in the Christian Church in the West. … Hence, to take a literal-historical reading of Noah’s story would reduce biblical theology to racism, sociology, and pop psychology (12).
The account of the Tower of Babel is also not meant to be read literally, but rather, symbolically:
The Tower of Babel does not explain the origin of human languages or prohibits skyscrapers. That would reduce biblical theology to evolutionary biology and structural engineering. Rather, it uses the mighty towers called ziggurats (“to build on a raised area”) found all over the Ancient near east to make a point about human hubris and lack of respect for the almighty God (12).
Dr. Choong warns that a literal reading of Scripture can cause great harm:
Always consider the medium used to convey the biblical message. Taking many biblical accounts literally wholesale is not a harmless act of naivete. It can actually be dangerous in creating bad theology to fuel racism, sexism and a host of social ills that are morally repugnant (15).
To summarize what Dr. Choong is teaching through Project Timothy’s The Bible You Thought You Knew, Moses didn’t write Genesis, Genesis was written as a polemic against the Babylonian gods, Genesis does not teach ex nihilo creation, Genesis does not speak to how the universe began or where humans came from, Adam is best understood as a group of hominids adopted by God to be imago dei, Adam and Eve were not created with perfect morality, Paul’s Adam wasn’t necessarily the singular progenitor of the human race, Noah’s flood was an adopted ANE story retold for Israel’s purposes, the Tower of Babel doesn’t explain the origin of languages, and interpreting the Bible literally can be dangerous.