Objections? We’ve Adam!

My earlier post on the historicity of Adam has received some critical discussion on another blog. I appreciate the thoughtful push-back from Nick and others, not least because this is one of those debates that can quickly degenerate into anathematizing partisanship. I tried to address the matter objectively, without personalizing the issue, and I hope we can maintain that level of respectful debate. Anyway, here are a few further remarks by way of response.

1. I didn’t claim (or even insinuate) that if you deny inerrancy then you’re not an evangelical or (worse still) that you’re not a Christian, not saved, etc. I didn’t make those claims because I don’t believe them, and I would argue against them.

One commenter (on yet another blog) remarked that I “appear to be one of the many other evangelicals who have concluded that if you disagree with him as to the genre of Genesis 1-4, then you are just a liberal heretic who has thrown aside the authority of Scripture.” This is simply untrue. I implied nothing of the sort. Ironically, the comment exemplifies the sort of hasty and uncharitable generalization that it purports to denounce.

2. I do believe, however, that the doctrine of inerrancy is important and worth defending. (Some of the reasons for that conviction I set out in my evaluation of Andrew McGowan’s arguments against inerrancy.) Furthermore, I believe that the label ‘evangelical’ is applied rather more loosely now than it was, say, 50 years ago. That’s a historical-linguistic thesis which I’m not inclined to defend right now. But the important issue here isn’t who gets to call themselves ‘evangelical’ (or any other label). The important issues are whether inerrancy is true and whether a commitment to inerrancy (along with other important doctrines) requires us to affirm that Adam was a real historical individual.

3. My earlier post was relatively modest in its goal. I deliberately stated that I was offering prima facie reasons for thinking that the Bible affirms the historicity of Adam as an individual. I think I succeeded in my goal, modest as it was. If I’m right, the important implications are these: (1) the burden of proof is surely on the one who denies that the divine inspiration of Scripture commits one to the historicity of Adam; and (2) justifying that denial requires one to deal with more than just the first few chapters of Genesis.

4. Nick Norelli raises the following criticism:

If the mention of Adam throughout the Bible is there to make a theological point then his real existence is quite beside the point.  The prima facie case to be made is not that Adam was a real historical individual, but that some of the writers of the Bible believed that he was.  The fact of the matter is that the Bible’s writers probably did believe that Adam was a historical individual, but that doesn’t of necessity make them correct.  They believed all manner of things that we don’t presently.

In other words, Nick thinks the considerations I raise prove at most that the biblical authors believed that Adam was a real historical individual, not that he actually was such an individual. He rightly observes that a high view of Scripture doesn’t require us to believe everything the authors of Scripture believed.

I think this response won’t do the work Nick thinks it does, for the following reasons:

(a) This isn’t an incidental, tangential belief on the part of the biblical writers, like the belief that (say) the sun orbits the earth; it’s an issue that has profound theological implications for human nature, for the origin of sin, for the role of Christ in salvation, and for family ethics, to name a few areas of relevance. If they were mistaken at this point, we have to wonder what else of theological significance they were mistaken about.

(b) Many of the points I mentioned imply rather more than that the writer personally believed in the historicity of Adam. In a number of cases, the historicity of Adam functions as a crucial presupposition of their claim or argument. In other words, if there was in fact no such individual then their claim turns out to be untrue or their argument turns out to be unsound. I think this is the case for points 2, 5, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, and possibly 4 and 6 as well.

(c) I accept that the biblical writers often — even always — express matters in culturally conditioned ways. I’m not a naive biblical literalist or one who denies the humanity of Scripture. However, I am concerned that the sort of cultural-accommodation hermeneutic required to justify a denial of (or even agnosticism about) the historicity of Adam can be applied equally effectively to justify a denial of most any other evangelical Christian doctrine or ethical standard: original sin, penal substitutionary atonement, forensic justification, heterosexuality as normative, the sanctity of life in the womb, and so on.

In other words, that sort of cultural-accommodation hermeneutic ultimately threatens the clarity and authority of Scripture and undermines in principle the ability of Scripture to challenge our culture today.

5. I think we need to see at least two things from those who want to take this route (regarding the historicity of Adam). First, they need to persuade evangelicals that the hermeneutic they advocate doesn’t turn the Bible into a “wax nose” such that (to mix metaphors) it can be washed away like a sandcastle by any cultural tide. Second, they need to show how Paul’s arguments in Romans 5, 1 Corinthians 15, and 1 Timothy 2 can be plausibly understood as cogent even if Adam and Eve never actually existed. (The same goes for Jesus’ argument in Matthew 19:3-9.) For example, how exactly does Paul’s argument in Romans 5 work if it mixes non-historical events (one sinful act that brought death) with historical events (one righteous act that brought life)? It’s not enough to explain away Genesis 1-4.

6. Finally, one commenter on Nick’s blog suggested that the solution is simple: abandon the doctrine of inerrancy. This is refreshingly candid. But even for those who take this step, I doubt it removes all the problems. It seems to me, on the basis of the considerations I gave, that denying the historicity of Adam has implications not only for the doctrine of inerrancy but also for numerous other Christian teachings. Time will tell whether one can reasonably sustain a high (but non-inerrantist) view of Scripture after dispensing with Adam.

I hope these comments help to clarify the purpose of my earlier post and to advance the discussion a little further.

Addendum: One commenter elsewhere in the blogosphere has chided me for using a “typical ‘slippery slope’ argument”. I’m not sure how he got that idea, unless it came from a misinterpretation of the concluding sentence of my earlier post. Anyway, I’m certainly not arguing, “If you throw out Adam you might as well throw out everything else!” or anything along those lines. It’s not a slippery-slope argument at all. Rather, my argument is that denying the historicity of Adam seems to commit you to at least some of the following: (i) very unnatural readings of several biblical passages; (ii) the conclusion that some biblical authors (and perhaps Jesus too) make claims that aren’t true or arguments that aren’t cogent; (iii) a hermeneutic that would undermine the clarity and authority of Scripture; (iv) a hermeneutic that would make it very difficult, if not impossible, to defend many other important biblical doctrines or ethical norms to which evangelicals are committed.

10 thoughts on “Objections? We’ve Adam!”

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  3. James: First, thanks for the charitable tone of this post (and the last).

    Second, I apologize if I misrepresented your view of evangelicalism and inerrancy in the comments to my post.

    Third, I think your point (a) about the theological importance of the NT authors’ use of Adam actually works in favor of my position rather than against it because it’s the theology that is connected with the character Adam that’s important, not the historical character himself, which in turn makes your (b) a non sequitur because it doesn’t follow that if the historicity of Adam is untrue (regardless of whether or not the author knew it) that their argument fails. I’ve argued by analogy that Luke 16:19-31 is intended to make a theological point which does not require the actual historical existence of either the rich man or Lazarus. And interestingly enough, concerning your point (c), I happen to deny a few of those things (original sin, PSA, forensic justification) but I think it’s easier to make a case for the historical Adam than those doctrines. ;-) And also, I’m not concerned with being evangelical (consistently or otherwise) or anything like that.

    1. Thanks, Nick. No, I don’t think you misrepresented my views. But others have imputed views to me that I don’t hold.

      I guess the cogency of your argument from analogy turns on whether Luke 16:19-31 is relevantly similar to Romans 5:12-21, 1 Corinthians 15:21-22, and 1 Timothy 2:12-14.

      I don’t have time right now for a full response, but I’ll simply state that I think at least three points stand against your argument: (i) the genre of the passages being compared; (ii) the authorial intentions; and (iii) the fact that in the latter cases we would be faced not only with a mixture of historical and non-historical characters but also an odd mixture of historical and non-historical events. The latter is much harder to swallow, particularly given the difference in genre.

      Finally, regarding your response to (c), I guess I could take that as a partial confirmation of my concerns. My original post was directed at an evangelical audience, with whom I have (I hope) more common ground. I don’t harbor any illusions that it would move someone who doesn’t share my general theological and hermeneutical outlook.

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  5. James,

    While almost everyone else (including me) is getting all fired up about this issue, you’re offering carefully reasoned responses with the kinds of points that matter in the long run. Thanks for keeping a cool head and being a good representative of orthodox Christian belief.


  6. James, how does belief in the historicity of Adam relate to belief in evolution?

    If we believe in the historicity of Adam and the inerrancy of Scripture, does this negate belief in the evolution of the human species?

    Does it also negate belief in the evolution of the rest of God’s creation?

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  9. The thing for those infatuated with scientific evidences is how to explain sin, in light of the fact that Paul sees all of humanity as fallen in Adam, Romans 3:9-19; Romans 5; Ephesians 2:1-5. Is this universality of sin by means of imitation of Adam’s example? How can Paul say that there is none who is righteous if sin spreads by imitation? Surely there must be a few pious righteous men untouched by Adam’s bad example. Lest I be taken to have drawn a false inference and associated any with Pelagianism, I will let those who deny the historicity and true existence of Adam speak for themselves; how do you explain away Paul’s bluntness in Romans, that for the sake of argument seems at least, to point towards the concept of original sin? How does Paul’s argument make sense if Adam never existed?

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