J. Daniel Kirk, a fine young professor at Fuller Theological Seminary, has a new piece at the Fuller website on Adam and Christ. He’s asking if we need a historical Adam to believe what Paul says about Christ, but Daniel turns it around: since we know about Christ we can learn to think about Adam. So the issue is about Where we begin.
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.5 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.”6 A decade later E. P. Sanders concurred, claiming that Paul reasons “from solution to plight.”7Because Paul knows that God has provided the solution to the problem of human sin in the crucified and risen Christ, he therefore reassesses the place of the Law, in particular, in God’s saving story. Romans 5 is one particular outworking of this.
Both Ridderbos and Sanders have come to the same conclusion: what is a “given” for Paul is the saving event of Jesus’ death and resurrection. The other things he 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. Contrary to the fears expressed by Douglas Farrow, 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.