These are the Generations of Adam (RJS)

This it the final post on Peter C. Bouteneff’s book  Beginnings: Ancient Christian Readings of the Biblical Creation Narratives. Through this book we have looked at the way the OT and second Temple Jewish sources viewed and used the creation narratives in Genesis 1-3, the way Paul and the other NT writers used the creation narratives, the  second century apologists, the world of Origen, Athanasius, and the Cappadocians. Through this study we gain some important insights into the ways the people of God have approached scripture in general, and the creation narrative of beginnings more specifically.

The early church fathers took the whole sweep of scripture seriously, and the sweep of scripture as centered in the story of Christ.

Scripture made sense as a whole only when it was understood along the lines of its principle of coherence, its rule of faith, its canon of truth – which the early writers consistently identified with the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, with particular emphasis on the Son Jesus Christ. (p. 170)

It is clear that most of these people took Adam to be a unique historical individual, the first human, created in the image of God. The biblical story is the story of the generations of Adam. In fact, Adam’s function is primarily genealogical. This is an important, but not a perfect guide to how we should interpret the narratives. Unlike us the early church fathers had no reason to doubt a unique pair as the origin of the human species. The biology, cosmology, and philosophy of the day offered no counterpoint, except, perhaps, the view that the earth and the human race had always been.  Some of them took clues from the text itself to see an interweaving of historical and figurative elements, but “science” was not a significant consideration.

To what extent does it matter that the early Christians took Adam as a unique individual?

What is the theological significance of their approach to the creation narrative?

Adam, Yes … but what about Sin? The real stumbling block for many today is not the genealogy – but the view of Adam as original sinner and the transmission of original sin. One of the major themes of Bouteneff’s study is the absence of a theology of transmitted sin in the early church. This point is worth a rather extended quote.

All this leads back to the issue of genealogy: Adam and Eve are the human forebears, but even more important, they are the progenitors of sin, and through sin, death. Yet none of the writers, scriptural of otherwise, whom we examined here understood human beings as born guilty of the sin of Adam. With Paul, they interpreted Genesis 3 as illustrating, among other things, the link between sin and death. Death was no a punishment for sin, however, but its natural consequence and (from Theophilus onward) even a mercy on the part of God to deliver humanity from an existence eternally bound to the spiraling cycle of sin. With Paul, too, they understood that everyone sins, but even if it is a semblance of Adam, it is not a sin “in Adam” or a perpetuation of Adamic guilt. The consistent emphasis in our authors was on human freedom: the sins people commit in semblance of Adam are sins committed of their own volition; one is culpable only for one’s own sins. Here again, however, all thinking about Adam’s sin and its legacy found its roots in, and developed from, the perspective of Christ. (p. 175)

The conclusion of Bouteneff’s study is that there is nothing in the theological and moral way that the early church fathers read Paul or used the creation narratives, that is undermined by our current scientific understanding of the age of the universe, the process of creation, or the origin of the human species through a unique couple.  With the early fathers we all (all Christians that is) agree that God created the world, and that he did so with plan, purpose, and foreknowledge. We often, in my experience at least, fall short of a full appreciation of the Christ-centeredness of all of scripture including the creation narratives that shaped their readings of the text. Christ was not a response to Adam, but Adam was created in the image of Christ.

Bouteneff also makes the observation that in the early church emphasis on a strict literalism or historicity is always a response to a specific heretical challenge to the gospel of Jesus Christ. This is true in our age as well – the emphasis on strict historicity found in young earth creationism is a clear response to the very real challenges of modern rationalism and materialism. It does us no good to deny this challenge. We need, however, to step back and ask if this emphasis on strict historicity in the primeval history of Genesis is really the faithful way to counter this real challenge.  Do we really need to insist on the historicity of Adam or of a talking snake to counter the argument that Christ was not raised from the dead?

That’s a wrap. Bouteneff wraps his book up commenting on the issues raised by modern science and by the faithful reading of scripture throughout the early centuries of the church.

The point is not, then, whether the fathers took the seven “days” or Adam to be historical. For the fathers, as for us, the historicity question has much more to do with how the narrative, and scriptural narrative specifically, works to convey its message – something that both the fathers and we understand in the variety of ways. … They read the narratives as Holy Scripture, and therefore as “true.” But they did not see them as lessons in history or science as such, even as they reveled in the overlaps they observed between the scriptural narrative and the observable world. …

That being the case, those of us who seek fidelity to the fathers should refrain from overly conflating Scripture with science, in order to bring realistic expectations to each. …

If we follow the fathers, we will see the Genesis creation accounts as God’s uniquely chosen vehicle to express his truth about cosmic and human origins and the dynamics of sin and death, all recapitulated and cohering in the person of Christ. However we might reckon the narratives’ relationship to the unfolding of events in historical time, our gaze will be fixed decidedly on the New Adam. (p. 183)

As protestants, and evangelicals, many of us are probably not overly concerned to seek fidelity to the fathers, a concern much more significant for Bouteneff and those in his circle of acquaintance. Nonetheless this study has much to teach us about the way Scripture has been interpreted from the very beginnings of the church. It is also of profound significance that this study spans the era of the beginning of the church and the establishment of both canon and creed. As the fathers we should never approach the scriptures as judges to separate truth from error. We approach scripture as students to learn. But this does not require submission to the strict literalism of 20th century fundamentalism and it never has – not in the early centuries of the church or throughout the entire history of the church.

This is a book well worth reading, one that should be on the desk of any pastor or Christian leader who finds it necessary to deal with the issues of Adam, creation, and fidelity to the Holy Scriptures. It provides an excellent starting point for discussion. It isn’t necessary to agree with all of Boutneff’s conclusions – or even with most of them (although I do). But it is necessary to be aware of this history in the church.

What is the most significant thing we can learn from the early church fathers?

In what way should the approach of the Jewish and Christian thinkers, including Paul, influence the way we approach scripture?

If you would like to contact me directly you may do so at rjs4mail[at]

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  • Bev Mitchell


    Wonderful stuff – a keeper in fact! What appears below is nothing more than a restatement of part of the text. It is offered in the hope that stating these truths in a wide variety of ways will help get the message across to more people.

    “….the view of Adam as original sinner and the transmission of original sin.”

    Along with this goes the idea that the original creation was somehow perfect (as opposed to simply good and very good.)

    These two related images do a lot of harm, and fly in the face of common sense, not to mention lots of Scripture. The alternative view of creation in progress, humankind beginning in innocence, and forever lacking the wherewithal to deal properly with the knowledge of good and evil – even when it is spelled out in detail by God himself – is capable of supporting all of the arguments about the human need for a saviour to enable us to stand before a holy God. It can even handle total depravity for those who always insist on emphasizing this condition. We actually do lack what it takes to be good enough for Almighty God (how hard is that to imagine or accept?) Without the Holy Spirit, and the grace he bestows, we cannot, simply cannot, complete our story, as intended by our Creator who is the Word of God. Transmission of sin from Adam is one way to explain this situation. However, the incompleteness model fits better both science and Scripture, as long as we are willing to take a non- deterministic stance. A serious fault line is determinism. Christians believe that God is self-revealing and relational. He is also flexible and responsive to the, often sadly mistaken, moves we make as we freely chose all the little and big steps if life. This is, after all, a journey that God himself is enabling us to undertake. And, should we listen carefully, we do not walk alone. Our steps can indeed be ordered of the Lord.

  • CGC

    Hi RJS,
    It seems the newest Genome science may have some people doubt in a literal Adam and Eve from what the early church fathers believed. I believe there are several possible ways to work this out but it certainly would be way beyond anything Scripture suggests. I also understand why some may not believe in a historical Adam and Eve because of Geno-science. I guess in the end, I would rather see Christians not believe in Adam and Eve as historical figures because of the literary features and contextual indicators from the book of Genesis and other books in the Bible rather than science simply becoming the trump card that says that option is off the floor now.

  • phil_style

    @CGC, Agreed. I think in order to maintain intellectual integrity with respect to the text, the tradition and our physical reality, it needs to be shown that the text provides enough ambiguity for the sciences to provide clarity. If we are to proceed with a plural revelatory understanding (revelation through the word and through nature) then we need a “word” that does not contradict nature.

    At the moment, believing in an actual original pair (specially created or even evolved as such) seems as far as I can tell to not only lack empirical support (i.e. cannot be shown to have occurred), but to actually be contrary to what nature shows us must have happened.

  • RJS


    I agree that the more important feature here is not “science” but the literary and contextual features of Genesis itself – and that these are what should drive much of our conclusions. In this respect the study of Bouteneff is interesting because it looks at various positions that were taken throughout the eary centuries of the church and just before. If they were taken as literal figures (often yes, sometimes no) what was the implication of the reading of the text?

    There are several ways to work out a literal Adam and Eve to be consistent with science. I have written about them on several occasions and won’t rule many of them off the table (I think mature creation is a troublesome solution). But this is only of value if there is a reason to think that the historicity of Adam and Eve as unique progenitors of the human race is an unambiguous and necessary teaching of the text.

  • CGC and _style:
    With regard to the Genesis text itself, I really do think it is ambiguous enough to easily be reinterpreted in terms of our empirical knowledge about the way the world works. Namely, the Genesis text itself doesn’t seem to think Adam was the first man, nor does it seem to assume that through him everyone after him is born in sin.

    With regard to an actual original pair:
    When YHWH casts out Cain he says: “Behold, you have driven me this day from the face of the ground ; and from Your face I will be hidden, and I will be a vagrant and a wanderer on the earth WHOEVER finds me will kill me” (Gen 4:14)

    If Adam and Eve were the single original couple, at this point the only other “whoevers” that could have killed him would have been Adam and Eve themselves, in which case, why would he say “whoever” (the verb mats’a–find, is prefixed by kul–all, every). If there were only two other people, it would have made more sense to use the dual voice! (I’m being a little facetious).

    All I’m trying to show is that there is enough room in the original text itself to be interpreted in ways that might fit better with our empirical understanding of the world and its history.

    With regard to original sin, in the same story (in Genesis 4):
    When Cain is about to kill Abel, YHWH says to him: “If you do well, will not your countenance be lifted up? And if you do not do well, sin is crouching at the door; and it’s desire is fore you, but you must master it” (Genesis 4:7).

    If “Original sin” had already been somehow transmitted to Adam’s offspring, Cain would have already been a slave to sin, and it wouldn’t make much sense for YHWH to carefully warn him to master it–it would have already been his master.

    In my current understanding, it is much more difficult with the New Testament. Paul does indeed seem to think that Adam was the first man, and that he brought sin into the world. That is, I have found no exegetical gymnastics to get around this fact and make it resonate with my experience in the world.

    But when all is said and done, Paul was an ancient man, and science was not his concern, if he really thought Adam was the first man who brought sin into the world, I don’t think that alters the truth of his doctrine of justification by faith, or really any of his genuinely meaningful contributions to the faith. That is to say, I don’t think that Adam in fact being the first man who brought sin into the world is an absolutely necessary truth-value in Paul’s thought.

  • CGC

    Hi Ian,
    I agree with you with the original sin remarks but it seems you go from ambiguity of the Genesis text to conform it with science to the New Testament taught something different and therefore science is right and Paul or the NT is wrong and so what? I for one find this last solution filled with way to many problems.

    Do we really have to jutrapose science against Scripture? And why would people who believe in science as the ultimate authority over life and not Scripture follow us if we seem to be giving the primacy to science ourselves? Unless we are going to go down the comparmentalized road that Scripture has authority over our spiritual lives and science has authority over our actual lives (which just privitizes more the disparity between what people say they believe or do or the inconsistency of compartamentalizing their private spiritual life from their public physical life).

  • CGC

    PS – I will add I agree that Christ, not Adam is the determinitive paradigm. I just don’t think we have to go down the path you suggest Ian which I understand is your own take on working through these issues. First off, science is not even on the meter with Paul when it comes to whether he believes in a real Adam or not?; and secondly, I think we can read too much into science that is still working through the origins of man’s question as well as reading too much into Paul on what he thought specifically about the origins of man’s question which may as well may not really was his focus either.

  • **please do not read anything having to do with gender into what I am about to say. Thanks!**

    I find it interesting that we speak of Adam as the original sinner when clearly it was Eve who wa first deceived. The bride of Adam was first deceived and then Adam joined her in her sin and, pardon the pun, took the fall for her. Surely she suffered for her sin, but Adam was taken to task by God.

    In a way, it is very easy to see Adam as being created in the image of Christ. One who is sinless, but takes on the guilt of sin and experiences seoaration from God.
    Could eve be a parallel for the church if Adam is paralleled with Christ? Adam was the original revelation of God as one who moves into solidarity with others even if it is to die with them. Further, he reveals in Adam that christ’s bride (israel/the church) will share in this experience of death (that is, the accutely felt absence of God) because of their sin, but that, ultimately the one that is held responsible is Christ, the Son of Adam (man).

    Sorry for the random and almost unrelated comment, just a thought that occurred to me while reading your great post. Thanks!

  • On a more related note, I would be interested to learn more about how Christians have conceptualized “sin” throught the church’s history. I think of sin as, at its root, a failure to truly believe that we are loved unconditionally and especially to impress upon others that they are not worthy of love either.

    As such, sin is not a condition or a state itself, but a demonstration that we do not believe to be true about ourselves that which God declares by his countless promises to be true. Sin is not an opposite of righteousness, but rather an absence of faith that we are counted righteous by God.

    We spend so much energy describing supernatural ways that sin is handed down from Adam, when, to me anyway, it is a simple thing to explain without using some sort of sexual/spiritual metaphor. I believe that God demands that I make sacrifices to attain happiness, so I demand from others what I believe God demand from me. My demands on others speaks the message to them that they are not loved unconditionally, so they in turn demand from others so that they might attain the conditions of happiness. The cycle is passed down from every parent who is unjustly angered by their child, and by every husband who brushes aside his wife’s feelings. Sin IS passed from generation to generation, all the way back to the first person who came to see themselves as needing to sacrifice more to be near to and loved by God.

    I just can’t understand why sin has become such a literal physical “thing” that we are supernaturally infected with through reproduction when it is clearly able to be understood as a way of being that I passed through normal relational means.

  • Steve Robinson

    Good stuff indeed. It really doesn’t matter if “Adam and Eve” were created immediately or descended from apes, the crux (and I use that term precisely) of the matter is, at some point in history “man” became morally culpable to his Creator and set the course for humanity and salvation history. That is all that is important. “Young earth creationism” etc. is a logical by-product of modern fundamentalist literalism in defense of biblical inerrancy, the foundation of post Reformation Protestantism.

  • Marshall

    Adam doesn’t have to be the first Homo sapiens; in the Bible he’s the first human that knew God. The first image-bearer. Originally Adam lived as a perfectly reflected image, but the question of obedience came up. Eve’s sin was one thing; Adam’s sin was hiding from God, rejecting grace; Jesus replied by obeying God perfectly. All Christians are descened from Adam in the same way that we are descended from Abraham. All who know God act out Adam by hiding from him; and we act out Jesus by replying with obedience. In that way we participate in both “original sin” and “the body of Christ”.

    There is no problem imagining that when the first person became aware of God, there were many biologically similar organisms that had no more idea of God than a wild animal does. Like the animals, they aren’t guilty of rejecting God because they have no concept of him.

    The Homo sapiens species is a constructed scientific category. It has biological, not theological, boundaries (which recent Paleoanthropology shows are even more tangled than we thought). Linneaus invented taxonomy only in the 18th century, and the idea that this was a schematic of the “tree of life” took a while after that to form. So nobody up well past the reformers would need to think that “humans” … slaves, barbarians, everybody! … shared a common descent. They were free to go with the theological interpretation without remarking on it.

    Just sayin’. IMO. All the usual disclaimers, and so on.