Friday, June 03, 2011

The Search for the Historical Adam

The June issue of Christianity Today has a lead article called "The Search for the Historical Adam" which brings evolutionary theory and recent research in genetics back on the biblical interpretation of Adam as an actual historical person (rather than a representative literary figure). This issue has been around a long time, but the appearance of this issue in this well-read magazine combined with the content of the article itself show that this is likely to be a hot-button issue for evangelical Christians -- and probably for good reason.

I don't think I have a full-formed opinion at this time, but I am pretty curious about it and do have some preliminary reactions.

1) I do not feel like my faith in Jesus or confidence in Scripture is undermined by scientific theories to this effect, but definitely want to give the theological and hermeneutical ramifications much further thought. This issue is certainly going to expose our commitments regarding biblical interpretation isn't it? Seems like every issue does that, but so often we end up talking about the issue but not the hermeneutics. The day needs to come soon, I should think, when evangelicals from academia to local churches come to grips again with what they mean when they say "the Bible says."

2) The theological issues that the article flags as most immediately effected include:
- The reliability/interpretation of the Genesis account of creation,
- the undesrtanding of the image of God,
- the doctrine of original sin and the fall,
- and the New Testament references to Adam as a historical individual.
The texts in question in that regard include Luke 3:23–38; Acts 17:22–31; Romans 5:12–19; and 1 Corinthians 15:20–23. I actually tend to think the most pressing theological question has to do with the issue of when death entered human existence and how/whether it is related to sin, but I suppose that is included in the question of the fall. At a first glance, I don't see the texts referred to here as irreconcilable with the possibility of 150,000 first-humans rather than one or two.

3) The CT article talks about firings related to this issue at major Bible Colleges and Seminaries. Even though I am undecided on all these issues, I want to say that we should not support these actions. There needs to be freedom for real study here, not clamp-downs on what one can consider and inform students about. What kind of schools are these that would just run the party line rather than prepare students for the issues of their time with thoughtfulness and humility?

4) The article links to a Bible study which asserts some "eternal principles", including among them the claim that "God’s Word presents Adam as no less a historical figure than Jesus." Not only do I find the term "eternal principles" tantamount to idolatry, but I find this particular claim unnecessary and untenable. I actually think the Bible's level of investment in Jesus as a historical figure is far higher than in Adam. In other words, my initial thought is to balk at that statement. I mean, take those four passages listed above (with all their interpretive possibilities) and compare them with four whole gospels and a bunch of epistles which stake their claim entirely on the historicity of Jesus.

5) I understand the caution, here, and I will ascribe to a good degree of it myself, but I find the theological bastions being laid down in advance a bit sloppy and the rhetoric being lobbied forward (even by someone as respectable as Tim Keller) a bit heavy-handed. Is it not possible that sometimes we have questions arise which we have to think about for awhile with our presuppositions on the table? Doesn't faith free us to think after the truth which is by us not contained? Doesn't faith in a Creator who could also be Incarnate in creation lead us to promote rather than shut down such rigorous engagement between divine revelation and the findings and theories of scientific discovery? Let's consider this carefully without letting carefulness squash consideration in our attempt to keep consideration from squashing carefulness.

All this I offer in the spirit of preliminary observation intended to aid further thought and to indicate my desire to give it plenty of my own. What about you? Any initial observations? Can you direct me to some better thoughts and deeper issues?

PS. By the way, one of the featured scientists in this article is a friend of mine from elementary school and has commented on this blog in the past. Congrats Dennis Venema for what seems like some important work and may God give you grace, humility, and wisdom as you in faith seek (and promote) understanding among both colleagues and churches.


Randy said...

Good stuff. I think the hermeneutics piece is so important here and you point this out early on in your piece. I'm cautious on this subject as well but I do tentatively lean towards calling the first three chapters of Genesis saga or mythopoetic along with Barth/Bloesch. This means I'm open to understanding Adam as not a literal historical figure, but in some other way. Do you plan to sketch more on this subject? When do you guys leave for Canada?

Jon Coutts said...

I'm not planning anything more on this topic, but I don't really have any blogging plans so maybe I'll come back to it. I'm pretty happy to look on and engage with what you have to say on the matter, Randy, since you indicated you might launch into another post or two about it. I find myself resonating with your perspective pretty often.

We leave for Canada at the end of July. When are you arriving here?

Anthony Smith said...

Mike Reeves has explored some of the deeper issues in a book chapter that is available here:

Jon Coutts said...

Thanks for that link Anthony, those were some helpful questions and passages toward thinking this through.

I do have some hesitancy about how some of the ways things are positioned in that book chapter, however. For instance:

"If they were not the result of one man's act of disobedience, then there seem to be only two options: either sin was there beforehand and evil is an integral part of God's creation, or sin is an individualistic thing, brought into the world almost ex nihilo by each person. The former is blatantly non-Christian in its monist or dualist denial of a good Creator and his good creation;(1) the latter looks like Pelagianism,(2) with good individuals becoming sinful by copying Adam (and so, presumably, becoming righteous by copying Christ)."

That second point is interesting, but inconclusive. The "looks like Pelagianism" carries more weight then it seems capable of carrying.

It is not necessary to say that unless sin infects the human race in some genealogically inherited way then it must be by imitation. If we must describe its spread (and I'm not sure we must), why not speak sociologically rather than biologically? Sin begets enmity pretty quick. Doesn't Genesis 4-11 show us the rest of the story wherein which the original sin has infected all humanity? Why not have a dynamic account of the spread of this original sin rather than a biological one? Why not just believe that Adam (and Eve!) change the condition of creation's relation to God in a way that is immediately applicable and yet gradually effective upon the whole, without needing it to be strictly biologically passed on?

I can't be sure I've got the right explanation here, but I certainly think there are more biblically viable options worth exploring than those to which Reeves has narrowed us.

What's interesting to me is how all this emphasis on the one man Adam acts as if Eve were not present and active in the original sin. Paul surely knows this, and so when he talks about One Adam he is already treating him as a representative figure. What is the real difference if Paul has him representing 10,000 rather than 2?

Anthony Smith said...

Hi Jon,

Helpful thoughts there. I'll need to ponder it further, but a couple of immediate responses...

First, the spread of sin must be much more than a matter of society and a person's surroundings and environment. Jesus was in a sinful world but did not fall into sin. So why should other sinless human beings necessarily fall into sin because there are a couple of sinners on the planet? There might be mitigating circumstances, but at heart (if there is a connection between the sins of other human beings and the sin of Adam, which seems clear from Romans 5), it does seem that the other people sinned either (1) because they inherited Adam's sinful nature, or (2) because they freely chose to imitate Adam's sin.

Second thought is that Adam representing Eve is directly connected to ontology: Adam was connected to Eve biologically and socially (and in every other way). But Adam was not connected to the Australian Aborigines who may or may not have been alive at the same time as him. It seems entirely arbitrary that Adam should be chosen to represent them.

I suppose Adam and Eve would have both become sinners at the same time, so Eve's sinful nature wouldn't have been inherited from Adam as such. But I would struggle to conceive of 10,000 people falling into sin simultaneously all over the world.

Paul talks about the spread of sin in Romans 5, so I think we need to take up the challenge of connecting this with the biological history of humanity.



Jon Coutts said...

Good questions Anthony. Regarding the first one, I suppose the same question applies to the fallen creation, doesn't it. How is it that the 'ground' is 'cursed' (Gen 3:17) at the same moment as Adam and Eve? It doesn't 'inherit' this but is told of the situation.

As to the second thought, are the Australian aborigines any less arbitrarily inheriting this one person's sin than we are, simply because we inherit it biologically? Doesn't he represent them, and us, because his fall is our fall too? Are we not ontologically affected by the entrance of sin into creation whether we inherit it biologically or simply by virtue of being human with him?

This is where the Christological question you've raised is most intriguing, however. I'll have to think on it. Jesus is born into the same fallen world as all of us, but is without sin.

Is it possible that he takes on the fallen situation and yet does not enact it or participate in it, whereas the rest of us are born into a fallen world (whether biologically inheriting it or not) and do enact it, every single one of us? I actually don't have a hard time imagining all 10,000 first humans enacting that fallen state the same way the rest of us have.

Thanks for pushing me though, Anthony, I am responding as a sort of thought-experiment, and not trying to shout you down. Great questions.

3:58 PM

Tony Tanti said...

Great post. I've cringed for a long time at the anti-science movement in evangelicalism. If science overwhelmingly casts doubt on the literal interpretation of a story in the bible then we need to rethink the interpretation, not the science.

The earth is not flat nor is it 6000 years old. I will no problem believing that God made many people at first and told the story of two of them to shine some light on his creation process and on how sin entered the world.

Colin Toffelmire said...

Anthony said: "I suppose Adam and Eve would have both become sinners at the same time, so Eve's sinful nature wouldn't have been inherited from Adam as such. But I would struggle to conceive of 10,000 people falling into sin simultaneously all over the world."

What's the difference between 2 and 10,000 (or 10 million for that matter) in this context? If you have to explain Eve as an exception, perhaps the rule is flawed. Also, I would also point out that the category "biological" is an anachronistic imposition on Romans and anything else in the Bible. Our understanding of genetics and biological inheritance is not the same as the concept of "seed" found in Scripture. There are elements of overlap, but we are talking about two radically different world-views here.

Anonymous said...

The "seed" concept of biology / heredity in the Bible is a huge player in this conversation. Why doesn't Eve's sin "count" as it were (even though Paul elsewhere makes a point that it was her sin that happened first)? How can Jesus be sinless if he is born of a sinful human woman? Because "seed", in the Bible, is strictly paternal, inherited from the father only. Eve's sin is irrelevant, since we are not of her seed, but Adam's. Likewise, the ancients were not sitting around wondering how many chromosomes Jesus inherited from Mary. Moreover, the concept of seed means that there are fully-formed humans inside sperm, and that Adam would have had all of humanity nested like russian dolls within his loins when he fell. When Paul says "in Adam all sin" he's using this concept of heredity. Compare too the argument the author of Hebrews uses to establish the superiority of Mechizedek's priesthood over that of Aaron/Levi - the point is that Levi was THERE when Abraham paid the tithe. That's not fancy-schmancy rhetoric, that's basic biology as far as the author is concerned.

Dennis V

Jon Coutts said...

Excellent rejoinders from both Colin and Dennis. Thanks for refining the point, I find myself coming to more clarity on this issue.