A Second Century View of Adam (RJS)

The church has been around for something like 2000 years. Christians have been wrestling with the scriptures, with the nature of God, trying to understand both Christ and Church for two millenia – well over 20 times the length of time any of us will have to wrestle with the issues. We stand on the shoulders of those who have gone before in many ways, and they all have insights from which we can learn much. They are wise who strive to understand those who came before. They are arrogant fools who think they have finally gotten it all right.

As a result we do well to consider the thinking of the early church fathers, not because they are authorities who got it right, but because they are fellow believers who strove, as we strive, to follow God. There are at least three powerful reasons this is valuable.

1. We can gain insight into our faith by reading the reflections of fellow Christians of all generations.

2. We can gain insight into the ways culture and context shape the interpretation of scripture.

3. We can gain a better understanding of the everywhere, everyone, always, core of Christian belief.

The early Church fathers, we are sure, got somethings wrong. But I will guarantee that there are some significant things that every Christian group everywhere has gotten wrong, including all of us today from, anabaptists to Calvinists. We need humility in our acceptance of current dogmas and pronouncements. Reading Christian thinkers of every generation (and of different “flavors” or tribes) can help us gain perspective.

The third chapter of Beginnings: Ancient Christian Readings of the Biblical Creation Narratives by Peter Bouteneff deals with the second century apologists – Ignatius (ok ~ 1st century), Justin, Melito, Theophilus, and most importantly Irenaeus of Lyon. Here we will highlight only Justin and Irenaeus – and concentrate only on their views of Adam and Eve and the primordial sin. In many respects the doctrine of Original Sin is the key conflict in the science and faith debate for many Christians.  Adam as primordial man – through whom sin entered into the world, and death through sin – is a central figure.  But is is not clear that Adam and Eve as unique individuals played such a key role in the thinking of the early church fathers.

How much stock do you think that we should put in the readings and interpretations of the early church fathers?

Did they simply err and it took ca. 300 years  until Jerome and Augustine, or ca. 1400 years  until Luther, Calvin and the reformers to get the gospel right?

Both Justin and Irenaeus have a Christ-centered view of  history and a Christ centered approach to the scriptures – primarily the OT;  they both preach the crucified and risen Lord; they both have a trinitarian outlook – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; they both describe salvation through Christ alone. Justin died for his faith.  Irenaeus may have – but whether he did or not he was certainly willing to face death for his faith.

Justin Martyr (ca. 110 – 165 AD) considered Christ the key to the OT and read the OT in the light of Christ Crucified. He saw the cross in everything. One notable example is in his interpretation of Exodus 17:8-16 where he finds significance in Moses’s outstretched arms making the form of a cross:

For it was not because Moses so prayed that the people were stronger, but because, while one who bore the name of Jesus (Joshua) was in the forefront of the battle, he himself made the sign of the cross. (Dial. 90)

Justin refers to Gen 1-3 several times in his Dialogue with Trypho.  Adam is seen as the first man and, with Eve, the first sinner.  There is no doubt that Justin took the primeval history in Genesis 1-11 both literally and figuratively.

[Jesus was born of a virgin] in order that, when the event should take place,it might be known as the operation of the power and will of the Maker of all things; just as Eve was made from one of Adam’s ribs, and as all living beings were created in the beginning by the word of God. (Dial 84)

Justin does not discuss Adam as the type for Christ despite the fact that he saw types of the cross in everything.  Justin also makes it clear that he does not interpret the sin of Adam as infecting the entire human race. Adam and Eve were the first – and all who follow also sin and become like Adam and Eve, judged and condemned and in need of Christ. Speaking of Jesus and his baptism by John Justin says: (Dial 88)

Now, we know that he did not go to the river because He stood in need of baptism, or of the descent of the Spirit like a dove; even as He submitted to be born and to be crucified, not because He needed such things, but because of the human race, which from Adam had fallen under the power of death and the guile of the serpent, and each one of which had committed personal transgression.

In Dial. 124 Justin says:

But as my discourse is not intended to touch on this point, but to prove to you that the Holy Ghost reproaches men because they were made like God, free from suffering and death, provided that they kept His commandments, and were deemed deserving of the name of His sons, and yet they, becoming like Adam and Eve, work out death for themselves; let the interpretation of the Psalm be held just as you wish, yet thereby it is demonstrated that all men are deemed worthy of becoming “gods,” and of having power to become sons of the Highest; and shall be each by himself judged and condemned like Adam and Eve. Now I have proved at length that Christ is called God.

A literal interpretation of Genesis is part of Justin’s hermeneutic – but Original Sin is not a part of his anthropology or Christology. Adam sinned and all sin of their own free will.

Irenaeus of Lyon (ca. 120-140? – ca. 202?) also read the OT with Christ at the center – and coined the term “Old Testament” (in Greek of course).  The subject of Genesis, creation, and Adam and Eve comes up fairly often in the writings of Irenaeus – especially his best known work “Against Heresies” (AH). As a counter to Gnostic heresies Irenaeus was emphatic on creation ex nihilo – out of nothing.

For Irenaeus, the key was that God does not work from preexisting matter; God creates and shapes matter in a single act in a manner unexplained by Scripture and best left unexplored (AH 2.28.7) (p. 77)

Like Justin, Irenaeus interpreted Gen 1-3 literally – but his interpretation was shaped by his understanding of recapitulation in Christ. Fall and redemption are not bookends in Irenaeus’s  view of history rather:

For him, Adam is not the real beginning nor is Christ the end. Rather, the passion and resurrection of Christ are the recapitulating center and underlying sense of trajectory of human personhood. (p.81)

In the divine scheme of things, Christ comes first, then Adam. In effect the crucified and risen Lord comes first, and Adam is made with reference to him.The nature of the recapitulation, which puts Christ at the center of the human trajectory from creation to salvation, is therefore such that Irenaeus can speak of Adam as being made in the image of the incarnate Christ (AH 4.33.4)(p. 82).

Irenaeus viewed Adam and his sin gently – the blame is transferred to the serpent. In AH 4.40.3 we read that the apostate angel and the enemy is cast from God’s presence as the one who brought about the transgression.  God had compassion on the man, he removed his anger from the man, and cast it upon the serpent – whose head was crushed by the seed of the woman in the recapitulation of the crucified and risen Lord.  As for Justin, Original Sin is not a part of Irenaeus’s anthropology or Christology.

Both Justin and Irenaeus read the creation narratives with a christ-centered focus using hermeneutical methods considered appropriate in their day and age.  Both, along with their contemporaries not considered here, read the narratives literally and figuratively.  Neither found “Original Sin” in the narratives. (As an aside – The images above are from wikipedia, and “artists renditions” from 1500’s or so, not contemporary with either Justin or Irenaeus.)

Bouteneff summarizes the second century apologists. Here I quote and/or paraphrase from pp. 86-87.

1. The overwhelming conviction in the nascent Christian church held that the Scriptures, in both the law they dictated and the salvation they promised, were transfigured in Christ.  The OT was fulfilled in the words, character, and events in the person of Christ.

2. History was not a linear trajectory from Adam – first created perfect, then fallen – through sinful humanity to Christ and beyond. History began with the incarnate Christ, such that Adam was made in his image.

3. They emphasized creation out of nothing. God is creator of all. He did not reshape preexisting matter. And creation is Christ-centered. Here the ideas in the opening of John and the great Christological hymn of Colossians assume importance.

4. None of them were interested in commenting on Adam’s character as royal, pure, perfected, ignorant, or anything else. The sense is that Adam and Eve were like children not yet fully developed who partook of the intended fruit ahead of their time. They emphasize complete human freedom – in Adam and in those who follow. The sin of the first couple is linked to death, but this death is a merciful dispensation in view of the reality of sin (Theophilus and Irenaeus). Adam and Eve were the original sinners, but not the origin of sin.

Is this significant for the way we think about the gospel and the creation narratives today? Or is it irrelevant?

What can we learn from the view of Justin or Irenaeus or the others?

If you wish to contact me directly you may do so at rjs4mail [at] att.net.

If interested you can subscribe to a full text feed of my posts at Musings on Science and Theology.

"People like the seminary student above who respond with such vitriol always come across as ..."

What Women Want (Leslie Leyland Fields)
"Ben Witherington has said you cannot be an evangelical Christian and not believe the New ..."

The Word of God is Not ..."
"Note what that NPR article says; he's no longer president of the university, but they ..."

Wade Burleson And Paige Patterson
"I am glad the article was prefaced by "This is a statement that needs more ..."

The Word of God is Not ..."

Browse Our Archives

Follow Us!

What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • Norman

    This discussion of second century early Christians illustrates how differently the early church often interpreted scripture. As I stated in a post yesterday today’s fundamentalist Evangelicals would not be comfortable with Justin Martyr’s or even Augustine’s hermeneutic approach by and large. It’s common to see them reading Christ into so much of the OT in ways that just don’t make sense to our logical minds.

    “Justin Martyr (ca. 110 – 165 AD) considered Christ the key to the OT and read the OT in the light of Christ Crucified. He saw the cross in everything. One notable example is in his interpretation of Exodus 17:8-16 where he finds significance in Moses’s outstretched arms making the form of a cross:
    For it was not because Moses so prayed that the people were stronger, but because, while one who bore the name of Jesus (Joshua) was in the forefront of the battle, he himself made the sign of the cross. (Dial. 90)”

    That is why I make the point that understanding their ancient minds from a classical ANE view does not do justice in fully describing the Jewish 2T interpretive mindset. One just can’t say that they saw everything through a literal lens of a dome shaped sky and pillars holding up the earth. They may use them but their appropriation of those ideas is usually underlying a more specific Christocentric/messianic override which is alien even to the ANE mindset even though it is birthed out of it.

    We see Paul do the same thing as Justin Martyr did above over and over with his interpretation of the “seed” and what I think is one of the most notable examples is his interpretation of Genesis 2:24 in Eph 5:31-32. No one except an ancient Jew is going to read Christ into what Paul reads into Gen 2:24.

    Eph 5:31-32 “Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.” THIS MYSTERY IS PROFOUND, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church.

    When Paul says this mystery is profound is because he is revealing through new eyes to the church the interpretive skills that united them around Christ in view of the OT.

  • Irenaeus is huge. It was only after reading him that I realized how much I was reading “Original Sin” into Paul. Pelagius gets a bad rap, I think, but many of his arguments are basically recitations of Irenaeus. Thanks, Scot.

  • Rick

    “Pelagius gets a bad rap”

    Is that the logical outcome of rereading Paul/Adam/Original Sin in this different light?

  • @Rick: Not sure I was say it’s the “logical outcome.” I was familiar with Pelagius before I read Irenaeus. When I read Irenaeus, it became clear to me that Pelagius was just expressing what Irenaeus had written long before him. It doesn’t necessarily mean he was right (though I think he mostly was), only that he was not the first to express those ideas.

  • Reading the Fathers is great and necessary. They said essential things, key things, things that we need to listen to. I think their testimony should be considered when thinking theologically through certain issues. The Irenaeus and Justin did not affirm Original Sin as it was formulated by Augustine and the subsequent tradition does not necessarily invalidate the doctrine. To say that Augustine took Pauline insights that might have been neglected given Irenaeus’ current battles with the heretics does not mean to say that before Augustine everybody got it wrong, any more than affirming the Nicene Creed should lead to disparagement of Irenaeus’ doctrine of the Trinity. In any case, it would be interesting to read about Irenaeus or Justin’s intepretations of Romans 5 and other texts.

    Beyond that, Pelagius “mostly was” right? Really?! Pelagius?

  • DRT

    I am fascinated by the emphasis placed on the symbol (not symbolism) of the cross. As a childhood RC, I have crossed myself many times and had a quite difficult time breaking myself of the habit so as to not make the baptists uncomfortable.

    I get particularly uncomfortable when the OT is mined for symbols that we have adopted for Christ. There is enough material in the OT that we can find anything we want to find. Make up a new symbol and I bet you find it there.

    As far as weight given to the historic scholars, humility is indeed a central tenant in the process of moving forward. Moving forward is not linear, and what provides no insight may provide vast insight as the learner advances. We can read the church fathers, digest and expand, but we must revisit those who have come before to see what else is there now that the learner is in a new place. Wisdom and insight are funny things since I may not be ready to comprehend what is being said today, but may tomorrow as I grow.

  • Dana Ames

    To the questions:

    “How much stock do you think that we should put in the readings and interpretations of the early church fathers? Did they simply err and it took ca. 300 years until Jerome and Augustine, or ca. 1400 years until Luther, Calvin and the reformers to get the gospel right?”

    When I came to understand that claiming “what the bible says” is always an interpretation, I became very interested in how the second generation of Christians interpreted Jesus and his actions, along with the OT. For me, understanding how the ante-Nicene writers understood and interpreted things was very, very important, since they were “closer to the action”, so to speak, and I thought it was very important on that basis alone. I was also interested in knowing if they interpreted the atonement the same way I had been told the NT writers did. As I continued reading, far from thinking that Augustine and/or the Reformers made needed corrections, I saw the 2 views as being so different that one really had to choose between them.

    When I moved along in time reading the other Eastern writers, what I found was that they had in common with the earlier writers those things you pointed out that J. and I. had in common with one another. The later writers added insight and brought up additional ramifications, but they did not change the basic viewpoint/interpretation summed up in the 4 points of your paraphrase. That made a big impression on me. I began to think that this consistency over time, and still so close to the “historical events”, indicated that this interpretation may indeed have stretched back to the days of the First Generation – the C1 believers themselves – and had been faithfully handed on, especially in the east.

    “Is this significant for the way we think about the gospel and the creation narratives today?”

    You betcha – especially when we get around to the questions about the character of God, what human beings are, what human life is for, Trinitarian relations, what “salvation” means, and the list goes on. In terms of origins, ultimately the views of the Christian writers of the first 4 centuries are fairly elastic, because they weren’t fighting over what it means to be a “bible-believing Christian” – at least for the same reasons we fight about that. Yes, most saw the “literal” view as valid, but it was actually seen as the *least important* of all the ways to interpret the meaning of creation. So “creation vs evolution” is just not a point of contention for most Eastern Christians, and some form of evolution can be accommodated.

    “What can we learn from the view of Justin or Irenaeus or the others?”

    That we don’t have to re-invent the wheel – a whole lot of the answers to the questions we are asking were articulated within those first centuries, and those answers give us a different picture of the character of God than the proponents of “original sin” do. This was a big piece of the puzzle in my journey over the last 10 years or so, though it took some time and processing of this and other information for me to see how things fit.

    As for Pelagius,
    1) his teachings were known and were problematic in the west. At the same time, the eastern church was preoccupied with the problems with Arianism, so Pelagius didn’t really show up on their radar. I think the eastern church would have investigated and clarified his views and corrected some them, and would probably not have condemned them, but we can’t know for sure because of his teachings not having migrated there;
    2 “history is written by the winners” and Pelagius’ works themselves were destroyed, so all we have about what he believed is second-hand information;
    3) as is the case with many charismatic teachers, it is likely that his followers took his teachings and ran with them in a direction P. would not have approved.


  • RJS

    By the way, the picture at the top is of the 5th century octagonal church in Capernaum built upon older churches and/or gathering places, with a 21st century Catholic church above.

  • dopderbeck

    First note re: Pelagius – I don’t agree with Dana or Wyatt here. Ireneaus most certainly was not a proto-Pelagius, nor were any of the other Greek Fathers. It is clear in the Greek Fathers, and in modern Eastern Orthodoxy, that we cannot be saved apart from grace. That is contra Pelagius. Now, it is true (IMHO) that Augustine’s later anti-Pelagian writings veered too far in the direction of determinism — and even many Western (Catholic) theologians will agree (indeed the Latin Church has repeatedly and vigorously condemned determinism just as it has condemned Pelagianism). But let’s not fall into the trap of setting the Greek Fathers _apart_ from all of the later Western tradition — that can become a “pristine Church” myth just like any other such myth.

  • dopderbeck

    Re: theological method and reading the Fathers: the Fathers are absolutely necessary and essential for anyone who wants to develop a sound Christian theology. Period. They are more than examples of Christians from a particular time period working on particular ideas. They are _formative_, because without them we don’t even have a doctrine of the Trinity, a two-nature Christology (a Jesus who is fully God and fully man), or a canon of scripture. They are not infallible, but they are essential. (And some of their _definitions_: those of Nicea and Chalcedon — I think we must say were arrived at with the guidance of the Holy Spirit and though formally subsidiary to scripture are to be received as normative interpretive lenses).

  • dopderbeck

    And a note on Adam and original sin: this is one of those fascinating and difficult divisions between East and West, obviously. I wonder, though, how much of the division results from misunderstanding. Irenaeus, for example, quite clearly taught that all of humanity is implicated in the corruption of Adam’s sin. As Bouteneff (an outstanding scholar!) notes, in the Greek Fathers this didn’t take on the same “judicial” cast as it did in Augustine and in the West. But nevertheless, for Irenaeus, the participation in all humanity in the corruption of Adam’s sin means that humanity is incapable of attaining to divinization (of living righteously and being united with God) without God’s help. But aren’t there ways in which the West can become more participatory and less “judicial,” and the East can become more attuned to the “law” of sin and death? I think you actually see this move in much contemporary Catholic theology, e.g. in Popes John Paul II and Benedict’s personalism; and someone like Bouteneff or John McGuckin is probably a good bridge from the East — though it may take another 1000 years to figure it out.

  • RJS


    With respect to some theological questions, especially Christological questions, I agree. It was during this period that Christology was being articulated with fulness from the apostolic witness and further reflection. The canon of the NT was also established. Reading the early Fathers is absolutely necessary.

    I was thinking here more of questions of hermeneutics, readings of the OT, and some more “mundane” applications of how to live as the people of God. In day-to-day relationships with each other and with the surrounding culture they don’t seem to have had any special guidance beyond other times and places.

  • dopderbeck

    RJS — I think reading the Fathers is necessary for hermeneutics too! And for morals and ethics and ecclesiology, at least generally if not always in specific application!

    Anyone interested in faith, science, and hermeneutics should read the sections in Augustine’s Confessions where he discusses the interpretation of Genesis, for example. So subtle, so sophisticated, so multivalent…