Adam and Christ, where do we begin?

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.

About Scot McKnight

Scot McKnight is a recognized authority on the New Testament, early Christianity, and the historical Jesus. McKnight, author of more than forty books, is the Professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lombard, IL.

  • Joey Elliott

    “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.”

    Yes, ok, sure. But also, the gospel need not be compromised if we believe and stand by Paul’s “assumption” that Adam was and is a real, historic person. We share Paul’s fundamental conviction that the crucified Messiah is the resurrected Lord over all, yes. And Amen! But to stand by Paul’s “assumption” that Adam was real is still a very solid and reliable biblical interpretation that fits very well into Paul’s (and Jesus’!) overall articulation of the good news.

    This is all just another attempt to justify explaining away the historical Adam when such an effort is just not necessary. My opinion at least.

  • http://www.yeshua21.com/ Yeshua21.Com

    Enjoyed… Clearly– whatever else they are –both Adam and Jesus are archetypes and Paul’s use of them remain relevant…

    http://jeshua21.wordpress.com/2013/03/25/a-myth-is-a-story/

    “…from now on know we no man after the flesh: yea, though we have known
    Christ after the flesh, yet from now on know we him no more. Therefore
    if any man be in Christ, he is a new creation: old things are passed
    away; behold, all things are become new. And all things are of God, who
    has reconciled us to himself by Jesus Christ” (II Corinthians 5:16-18 KJV 2000).

  • MatthewS

    Thought-provoking.

    Initial reaction: This feels to me like deconstructing and reconstructing the entire story from the middle out, both backward and forward in time. Initially, that strikes me as significantly different from seeing the story as telic, beginning in a garden and winding through Abraham, Moses, David, Jeremiah and the rest of the band of characters on up to King Jesus, rightful and eternal heir to David’s dynasty.

  • http://twitter.com/Chris_Wiegand Chris Wiegand

    I wish I had more time to give a fuller reply. These are the first three things that popped into my head as I read this:
    1. Who is Jesus referring to in Mark 10:6? (I can’t believe he didn’t mention Mark 10:6)
    2. What else was Paul wrong about?
    3. What other parts of the Bible were not divinely inspired by the Holy Spirit?

  • http://flavors.me/gflagg Greg Flagg

    Full disclosure, I had some classes with Dr. Kirk at Fuller and am thoroughly indebted to him for breaking down and helping me reshape my theology and faith.

    With that said, I agree with Joey, there is nothing theologically compromising about believing that Adam was a real, historical person. As long as we are talking with people who share those same convictions, there really is not a problem. I think the issues creep in when people start debating between the revelations of science, research and archeology and the revelations to scripture. The problem is not that we are TRYING to explain away the historical Adam, it’s that many feel that he HAS been explained away. If the overwhelming evidence seems to say that there is not one, common ancestor and that death seems to be a part of the creation *LONG* before humanity even existed, how do we make sense of what the Bible is telling us? As is a big theme with Scot, and what Dr. Kirk is getting at here, I think we need to realize what we’re reading in Genesis. Dr. Kirk writes in his article,

    “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).”

    Genesis and the story of Adam and Eve then direct and introduce us to the greater story the Bible is telling about God’s relationship to the world, the people of Israel and ultimately God working to restore the creation through the incarnation, death, resurrection and Lordship of Jesus. Genesis is then not so much a cold, historical account of the primordial condition that must stand immovable but an introduction or musical overture that sets the stage and orients the hearer for the rest of the story they are about to hear.

  • Adam

    Chris, Mark 10:5-9 is about marriage and not about salvation or Christ’s work in redemption. I don’t see how pulling a single verse out of context is proof of anything.

  • Adam

    MatthewS, how about Coloassians 1:15-20? Paul states that all things are created in Jesus and that Jesus is the beginning of everything. He goes so far to say that Jesus is the firstborn of the dead. I think we can easily state that Jesus was not dead before he was born. Therefore only the resurrection can be the beginning.

    Another example of God not following chronological time is the discussion in Mark 12:35-37. Whose son is the Messiah?

  • AHH

    At no place does Kirk say that this passage was not “divinely inspired by the Holy Spirit”.
    The problem, of course, is the faulty assumption by some that “divinely inspired by the Holy Spirit” entails the sort of scientific and historical perfection that Enlightenment moderns look for but that the Biblical writers (and the Holy Spirit that inspired them) did not seem to care so much about.
    By the way (to Scot), it is annoying that there does not appear to be a way to comment without registering with Disqus or some other social media. Even worse, when you discover that roadblock and go to register with Disqus, it then deletes the comment you were trying to post.

  • jrdkirk

    Yes, what gflagg said!

    The problem isn’t with a coherent biblical narrative, but the world as we’re learning it to have been historically and scientifically. Where does that leave us? Do we have to choose between science and Christianity? Given that this tension exists, I’m saying no.

    Also, an important point that gflagg raises is that when we’re reading Adam for “history that just happened,” we’re not actually giving a great reading of the story as an introduction to the narrative of the Bible. There’s a great deal more going on that we miss when we get wrapped up in our modern debates.

  • jrdkirk

    1. I was writing about Paul!

    2. That people shouldn’t get married because Jesus is coming back within a few years. That nature itself teaches me that men shouldn’t have long hair.

    3. I addressed this question is a follow-up post on my blog. Paul’s actually read Adam correctly: http://www.jrdkirk.com/2013/05/05/what-exactly-did-god-breathe/

  • Norman

    I’m going to post my response that I published on Pete Enns site concerning Kirk’s ideas.

    First I want to interact with this statement: …” The other things he says, especially about sin, the Law, and eschatology, are reinterpretations…”

    I really don’t like the word “reinterpretations” applied to Paul as I think that is misleading. But that idea needs extensive fleshing out which is beyond this post scope.

    I think this is a simpler yet more complicated issue in some ways than Kirk is presenting. I really get annoyed at the idea that Paul is reinterpreting Genesis from its original meaning. I think the problem is that many scholars still want to interpret Genesis from something of a literal perspective as the original intent when the jury is still out (except possibly in their minds) regarding the original intent. Paul obviously applied a Midrash hermeneutic to Genesis as evidenced by his interpretation of Gen 2:24 in which he correlates that verse as prophetic toward Christ and the church.

    Eph 5:30 because we are members of his body. 31 “Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.” 32 This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church.

    There is enough evidence from Paul’s and other 2nd T pieces of literature to indicate that Genesis written with prophetic intent was not that uncommon of an application. Paul didn’t really invent that hermeneutic would be my counter argument but instead Genesis was written with an analogical bent with messianic prophecy in mind in the first place and Paul is reading it as some trained Hebrew scribes would have.

    Here is another point that I would raise; just because it’s quite obvious that Adam is a Hebrew construct for mankind doesn’t mean that there wasn’t a first man in the Hebrew mindset that can be assumed. The point being that Adam very likely is represented in the Hebrew mindset of someone much more Jewish than representative of humanity at large. The Jews segregated themselves between Jew and Gentile and I believe their literature recognizes and reinforces that acknowledgment. Adam is representative of the first Covenants man and not humanity at large and that entails Adam’s priestly expectation and duties in relationship to God thus him being called the “son of God” as was Christ. Adam was therefore “a representative type” that Christ fulfilled more completely and so Christ is designated the “last Adam”. Calling Christ the Last Adam tells us that Adam meant something more than just a representative human at large. Take the time to see how the 2nd Temple Jews and earliest Christians represented Adam. I can’t think of an example where Adam represented a Gentile man but was always Jewish in scope.

    The Jews were writing this story from their perspective and there are plenty of side stories and implications to indicate an eventual folding in of Gentiles into this Covenant family if you will. The question is can one assume a literal first Covenant man whom God began His work with? I think literally we can actually say that at some point in history one can “assume” a covenant origin that eventually brought forth the covenant people. It doesn’t really matter to the Jews that they could identify that specific person but one is on solid ground assuming as much. Genesis is a Jewish story of origins and Adam I believe reflects that even in his Hebrew name which I believe connotes covenant man generally speaking. The Hebrews had other generic words for “man” and in fact Gen 2 & 3 conflates two of those terms together in their usage.

    I don’t think we have to jump through hoops to impugn Paul’s interpretation, especially if we are possibly reading him through the wrong colored lenses still. I think it is important to sort out better what Paul understood about Adam and I think Kirk has good intentions but I think there is good evidence that the process is not as contrived as he is making out. There is plenty of work to be done in this study and I think our critical scholars would serve the faith community even better if they would enlarge the scope of this investigation. Sometimes the scholarly community runs with the fad of the times and about a generation later we find there arises even better analysis overlooked and had more potential to reveal Paul’s thinking. Just be patient and the cream will rise to the top over time.

    Let me make another ANE comparison; the Romans “invented” the Romulus and Remus story to describe their origins. No one believes that story as a historical description but we also believe that indeed there was an origin to Rome but it just happens to be more mundane than that story. Doesn’t mean there wasn’t real people involved in Rome’s origins but that story wasn’t meant to satisfy us moderns and neither was the Genesis story of origins. The Adam story also has other purposes than we often suppose.

  • AlanCK

    Saul has a telic story, beginning in a garden and winding through Abraham, Moses, David, Jeremiah, and the rest of the band of characters right on up to this guy named Jesus who some were saying was the Christ. Saul’s salvation history led him to persecute this guy’s followers. But then on the Damascus Road he had his telic story deconstructed by that very Jesus and had to reconstruct the entire story from the middle out, both backward and forward in time. Yes, the story is telic, but it is telic only in light of Jesus being both the Alpha and the Omega.

  • Bill Donahue

    So … just as sin entered the world through one (non-historical) man and (non-historical) death through sin, and in this way (historical) death came to all (historical) men, because all sinned…etc….Nevertheless, death reigned from the (non-historical) time of (non-historical) Adam to the (historical? does it matter?) time of (historical???) Moses, even over those who did not sin as (non-historical) Adam …for if, by the (non-historical) trespass of the one (non-historical) man, (historical???) death reigned through that one (non-historical) man, how much more…etc. Really?

    Seems like this falls apart if historical Adam falls apart – so condemnation came to all people by the non-historical actions of the non-historical Adam-rep? Does sin come to us through a poetic figure (like Macbeth) and become a historic reality? Seems to me the whole comparison is problematic. Makes you feel sorry for Paul…he was duped into thinking that historical death and sin’s impact came from a real person, not originated and transferred to us through poetic representations of mankind. Is this where the narrative runs?

  • NateW

    Truth is not about what I know, but who I am known by. To argue about the historicity of Adam is to already miss the point.

    1 Corinthians 8:2-3
    If anyone imagines that he knows something, he does not yet know as he ought to know. But if anyone loves God, he is known by God.

    Truth is not a matter of objects, people, facts, and events that existed/occurred within time. The eternal Christ Alone is Truth and all else that truly “is” proceeds eternally from Him. In Christ there is no past or future, only eternal present. Adam is True regardless of his historicity because he is spiritually present in every instance that we yearn to be more, fail to believe God’s promises, disobey His commands, experience shame, seek to distance ourselves from his presence, and find ourselves separated from Him. He is true for nations, familiesc and individuals. We have all taken the form of Adam. Adam is True whether or not he is historical because the present manifestation of the eternal Christ has revealed him to be in every

    We can’t possibly know whether Adam existed as a literal human being. If our salvation is about who we are known by, rather than what we know, why should we be anxious about whether its necessary to affirm his literal historical existence? 

    Salvation is by Grace through Faith, not knowledge!


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