Recently in Fuller Theological Seminary’s Spring 2013 issue of “Theology, News, and Notes,” New Testament professor Daniel Kirk posted an article that causes much discussion and debate these days – Does Paul’s Christ Require a Historical Adam? It’s a hot topic due to engagement with scientific findings and the desire for many Christians to maintain a historically orthodox faith.
This topic is of great interest to me these days, but more theologically than scientifically. I’d like to get more in to the science of things, and I’ve got some books that can be of help (Francis Collins’ The Language of God or Denis Lamoureux’s I Love Jesus & I Accept Evolution). But I’m drawn more to think through things theologically, since I love the disciplines of biblical studies and theology.
Hence why my attention was drawn to Kirk’s article – a theological look at Adam as presented in both Paul, and the whole of Scripture, while discussing whether Adam must be a literal, factual human being (also noting that I appreciate the way Kirk writes and thinks, as evidenced in his book Jesus Have I Loved, But Paul?).
You see, here are how things unfold in the discussion (or debate) over the nature of the first chapters of Genesis and Adam himself.
Many Christians feel that if we allow for any non-literal reading of Genesis 1-3, including consideration that Adam was not a factually historical figure, then we will create all sorts of theological problems. For example, to deny a literal Adam will lead to such things as a denial of our sin problem (including death as a consequence of sin) and ultimately a rejection of our need for the work of Jesus Christ.
For some, to reject Adam as a historical person is to reject the authority of Scripture and trustworthiness of the very passages within which we learn of justification and resurrection. Others are concerned that to deny a historical Adam is to deny the narrative of a good world gone wrong that serves as the very basis for the good news of Jesus Christ. In short, if there is no Fall, there can be no salvation from it and restoration to what was and/or might have been.
However, as I recently shared in another article, the slippery slope argument is quite flawed. This argument says: If one believes A, then it will lead to belief in B (if not also C, D and E). Guilt-by-association doesn’t work well AT ALL. There are plenty of theologians and pastors (not to mention Christians in general) that do not hold to a literal reading of Genesis but who maintain a historically orthodox faith. Daniel Kirk is one of those (as am I).
So what I want to do is highlight some of Kirk’s points in his article. But, of course, I would encourage you to read the full article here. Below are 3 summary points from the article.
1) This is primarily about Paul, not Genesis
Of course we need to look at Genesis in discussing Adam. But, oddly enough, after Gen 5 we only have one mention of Adam in the rest of the Old Testament (1 Chron 1:1). There are a total of 8 references in the New Testament, with half of those coming in the all-important chapters of Rom 5 and 1 Cor 15, which were penned by Paul.
Kirk notes this early on in his article:
Such theological claims derive more from our reading of Paul’s reflections on Adam than from the Genesis story itself. For many, the most significant theological reasons for affirming a historical Adam have to do not with what Genesis 1–3 may or may not teach about human origins, but with the theology of Adam that Paul articulates in Romans 5 and 1 Corinthians 15. In short, if there is no historical Adam with whom we are enmeshed in the guilt and power of sin, how can we affirm that in Christ we participate in the justification and freedom of grace? (emphasis mine)
Hence why Kirk’s discussion is strongly centred in Paul’s theological thoughts. It’s not to disregard Genesis, as just about everyone maintains the need to work through the early narrative of Genesis. But many will agree that the theological focus of Adam needs to be worked out above and beyond a simple reading of the early chapters of Genesis.
2) The bigger story of Genesis
By noting the bigger story of Genesis, I don’t simply mean it’s ‘bigger’ because it’s a detailed account of the creation of the universe. For many, it seems this is the point. But there is something bigger theologically going on here, all connected to the people Israel. As Daniel Kirk clarifies:
When the ancients told stories of human origins, it was never simply to tell people “what happened.” Instead, such narratives indicate why their particular people and their particular god played the roles of sovereigns of the world. Genesis 1 is an introduction to the covenant story of Israel, in which God promises to make fruitful Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob and also multiply them (17:6; 28:3; 35:11; 47:27; 48:4). The story of Adam in Genesis is written with the latter story of Israel in mind, so that the reader can see that Israel is destined to fulfill God’s primordial promise of not only filling the Earth but also ruling over it (cf. 17:6). (emphasis mine)
There are many scholars who note the Israel-context of Genesis, even prior to Abraham and Gen 12. Genesis is ultimately about the formation of Israel, Yahweh’s covenant people. And, so, the text is underlining and reminding Israel that they are God’s people not only because of Abraham, but also stating such in a unique way pre-Abraham. Remember, however you think Genesis was formed and whoever you think penned the words, such was written while Israel was already a covenant people formed. Gen 1:1 has Israel in mind and was meant for Israel.
This is why I think it highly probable that the early chapters of Genesis were not given as a straightforward historical account of the beginnings of all things. Not to mention that many scholars also note how Gen 1 is similar to ancient temple coronations. Israel had a temple, the true temple of the one God, Yahweh. The pattern of Gen 1 points to ancient temples and this was Yahweh’s ancient temple, which was overseen by the priests of Israel. I share more here.
So while we focus a lot of our efforts in Paul, and we will come on to that just below, we must recognise that from ‘the beginning’, the Scriptures of old were telling the story of Yahweh’s people Israel. Not to mention that there is much written across church history that shows a literal rendering of Genesis is not the only perspective (see Beginnings: Ancient Christian Readings of the Biblical Creation Narratives by Peter Bouteneff)
3) The argument starts with Christ, not Adam
The most important point in Kirk’s whole article is that our theological starting point is not Adam, nor anything else, but rather it is the crucified and risen Christ! This is absolutely key! He notes some developments over the past 50 years on this front:
New Testament scholarship over the past half century has developed the insight that the first data point in Paul’s Christian theologizing was his understanding that the cross and resurrection formed the saving act of God. In the 1960s, Herman Ridderbos argued that this fundamental conviction becomes the great act of God by which all other acts and ideas are understood. The significance of this focus on Christ is that it ripples out in all directions: not only does Paul rethink the future in light of Jesus’ death and resurrection, but he also reinterprets what came before. Thus, Ridderbos concludes that “Paul’s whole doctrine of the world and man in sin . . . is only to be perceived in the light of his insight into the all-important redemptive event in Christ.” (emphasis mine; Kirk is drawing from and quoting Ridderbos’s work, Paul: An Outline of His Theology)
Kirk summarises this way:
The other things [Paul] says, especially about sin, the Law, and eschatology, are reinterpretations that grow from the fundamental reality of the Christ event. Recognizing this relieves the pressure that sometimes builds up around a historical Adam……we can now recognize that Adam is not the foundation on which the system of Christian faith and life is built, such that removing him means that the whole edifice comes crashing down. Instead, the Adam of the past is one spire in a large edifice whose foundation is Christ. The gospel need not be compromised if we find ourselves having to part ways with Paul’s assumption that there is a historical Adam, because we share Paul’s fundamental conviction that the crucified Messiah is the resurrected Lord over all. (emphasis mine)
I don’t have time to address all of the re-interpretive efforts of the New Testament writers as they freshly approached the old Hebrew Scriptures. But if one wants to read a bit more on this idea, then they could read ch.4 from Peter Enns’s book Inspiration and Incarnation. Enns specifically notes how the apostles and their colleagues carried a christotelic hermeneutic, which simply means this:
To read the Old Testament “christotelically” is to read it already knowing that Christ is somehow the end to which the Old Testament story is heading. (Inspiration and Incarnation, p154, emphasis his)
You can read more of my thoughts on Enns’s work and his christotelic hermeneutic here (I focus on it half-way down the article).
The New Testament writers were happy to re-interpret the Old Testament. And this is exactly what Paul does with his Adam theology.
I know the big question is this – If Paul believed in a literal, factual, historical Adam, then for us to say he was ‘wrong’ means that we cannot trust anything he said. What if he were wrong elsewhere? How do we know?
But this argument is just as fallacious as the slippery slope argument. This isn’t so much about Paul being ‘wrong’ (from our modern view). Rather it’s about allowing the ancients to actually be ancients. They were first century Jews. They quite likely believed in a flat earth, geocentric astronomy (that the earth was the orbital centre), etc. It’s no problem to state this knowing that Scripture does not look to give us a perfected scientific understanding of the universe.
It’s quite like someone from 20 or 30 years ago giving a teaching about the greatness and magnificence of God while referring to 9 planets in our solar system. Today, we hold that there are only 8 planets (Pluto has now been disregarded as an actual planet). But to reference science from 30 years ago does not negate the validity of the empowered teaching of a servant of God. For the ancients to speak about the cosmos from their ancient understanding should be expected. Remember, God’s revelation of himself and his plan always comes within a particular historical context, not some abstract ethereal perspective.
Now, to counter, I would say there is no hard evidence that Paul adamantly believed in a literal, historical Adam. Again, it’s not even a major focus across the sweep of Scripture. He could have believed in such; he might not have. Ultimately, as Kirk notes in his own article, this does not sway us from Paul’s great focus in Rom 5 and 1 Cor 15:
…faithful articulation of our story will have to attempt to hold together for our day what Paul’s articulation held together so beautifully for his own: humanity as a whole, not one particular race or ethnicity or nationality of people, is the purview of God’s saving work in Christ; humanity’s final destiny has been determined by the advent of the new creation in Christ’s resurrection; and this solution in Christ indicates that the problem to be solved entails not only personal estrangement from God, but a whole world that fails to live up to the harmony, peace, fruitfulness, life, and eternality of the God who created it. (emphasis mine)
Do you see it? The gospel is not compromised. Historic, orthodox tenets of Christianity are not thrown out of the window. They remain in tact as we think through things theologically (and even scientifically) in our world today.
I must admit that it seems odd that, when science benefits us, we accept its findings (I’m thinking of medical science at this moment). But, if it challenges the theological babies we hold so closely, we can get quite protective. And it’s understandable. I used to be quite offended at the notion that someone would call themselves a faithful Christian believer and interpreter of Scripture, but did not hold to a literal 6-day creation. However, time, study and a some spiritual growth has allowed me to see that this does not have to be the case.
Now, I’m not suggesting science has the last word. This is what Kirk advocates as well:
Perhaps most importantly, we must not allow biology or physics or chemistry to have the last word about the destiny of humanity. The reality of our lives as creatures limited by death and decay must stand in subordinate relationship to the eschatological reality of new creation that God has granted us in Christ.
Remember, in all, Christ has the final word. His work of redemption and new creation have the final word. Again, I submit that I am not scientifically knowledgeable to know the in’s and out’s of evolutionary biology. I’m very much open to considering that God used what science identifies as evolution to bring about his good creation (always noting that God is the great orchestrator of creation). But whether we have a 6-day creation and a young earth, thousands of years of creation and and an old earth, or evolutionary creation over billions of years, none of these matter in regards to the redemptive and restorative work of God in Jesus Christ. I find it very simple to see things through the Christ lens, however the science of it all plays out.
Therefore, to proclaim this truth, that all truth falls under the work and lordship of Christ, is to stand in line with Paul. For Paul, his Adam theology changed in light of the work of Christ. His thoughts in Rom 5 and 1 Cor 15 were radical in his own day. And this radical re-focus has continued and should continue until all things are made new in Jesus Christ.
Update: Let me point readers to an interesting article (a ‘real’ article at 29-pages long) by John Schneider called The Fall of ‘Augustinian Adam’: Original Fragility and Supralapsarianism Purpose. The article compares the Adam of Ireneaus’s and Augustine’s writings, all the while trying to answer the question of whether Adam is compatible with evolution in any sense. Schneider also believes there is compatibility.