The Primacy of Scripture, Adam, and the Fall (RJS)

The questions surrounding Adam and Eve and the Fall in Genesis 2-3 and concerning the role of inspiration in the formation of the Bible are issues that  won’t go away any time soon. They are not the only issues at play in discussions of science, Christian faith, and the intellectual coherence,  but they are major ones. I’ve been posting on these issues off and on since I first starting writing on Scot’s blog (some five plus years and 500 posts ago … wow!).  The post today is a slightly revised version of one of my older posts, but it brings up issues that remain and will remain important for quite awhile yet to come.

In volume one of Essentials of Evangelical Theology (2 Volumes in 1), Donald Bloesch has a chapter entitled The Primacy of Scripture and a section in his chapter on Total Depravity dealing with The Story of the Fall. Bloesch takes a rather conservative reformed evangelical stance over all, although probably not conservative enough for some. It is worth considering what he has to say.

In his discussion of the primacy of scripture Bloesch emphasizes the human and divine aspects of scripture and notes that many people have a docetic view of scripture – and that this view is mistaken.

Scripture cannot be rightly understood unless we take into consideration that it has dual authorship. … The Bible is not partly the Word of God and partly the word of man: it is in its entirety the very Word of God and the very word of man. … if we affirm … that the Bible is predominantly a divine book and that the human element is only a mask or outward aspect of the divine, then we have a docetic view of Scripture. Some would even say that the Bible is an exact reproduction of the thoughts of God, but this denies its real humanity as well as its historicity. (p. 52 – page numbers are from the 1978 original I’ve had since taking a theology course in college)

What does this mean to Bloesch?

First – The authority of scripture flows from the authority of God in Jesus Christ.

… we must bear in mind that the ultimate, final authority is not Scripture but the living God himself as we find him in Jesus Christ. … The Bible is authoritative because it points beyond itself to the absolute authority, the living and transcendent Word of God. (p. 62-63)

Bloesch sounds quite a lot like NT Wright here as he describes his view of the authority of scripture in The Last Word: Scripture and the Authority of God and in the enlarged revision Scripture and the Authority of God: How to Read the Bible Today. The central claim of Wright’s book is that all authority belongs to God – and thus scripture is authoritative only in the sense that the authority of the triune God is exercised through scripture. In fact, Wright goes so far as to say that scripture itself points — authoritatively, if it does indeed possess authority! — away from itself and to the fact that final and true authority belongs to God, now delegated to Jesus Christ.(p. 24 The Last Word)

And a great line from Wright’s book: When John declares that “in the beginning was the word,” he does not reach a climax with “and the word was written down” but “and the word became flesh.” (p. 23 The Last Word).

Second – inerrancy and infallibility nuanced.

The enlightened biblical Christian will not shrink from asserting that there are culturally conditioned ideas as well as historically conditioned language in the Bible. (p. 64)

We can heartily assent to this statement [the Lausanne Covenant] but with the proviso that the infallible truth of Scripture is not something self-evident. The doctrine or message of Scripture, which alone is infallible and inerrant, is hidden in the historical and cultural witness of the biblical writers. They did not err in what they proclaimed, but this does not mean that they were faultless in their recording of historical data, or in their world view, which is now outdated. … This is why our ultimate criterion is not the Scripture in and of itself but the Word and the Spirit, the Scripture illumined by the Spirit. (p. 65).

The message of God and his interaction with the world is, according to Bloesch, where we find the infallible and inerrant message of scripture. In my opinion, first and foremost we need to know, and be immersed in, the sweep of Scripture and the message of the story.  If we are not immersed in the sweep of the story including the hard bits, not just the highlights, we will miss the message.

But the nuancing of the idea of scriptural inerrancy is not a new phenomenon. Luther held that the scriptures do not err – but also said:

When one often reads [in the Bible] that great numbers were slain – for example, eighty thousand – I believe that hardly one thousand were actually killed. What is meant is the whole people. (p. 65 quoting from Luther’s Works vol. 54)

Luther also though that an ingenious, pious and learned man added to Job and that there was failure as well as success in prophetic prediction. Inerrancy did not mean for Luther what it means for many today.

Calvin thought that Jeremiah’s name crept into Mt. 27:9 by mistake and doubted that 2 Peter was actually written by Peter despite its self attestation.

Third – The Fall – mythic and historical.

Genesis contains mythic and legendary elements in common with the ancient near eastern milieu of the original audience. The Fall is not a myth – but the text of Genesis is distinctly mythohistorical. It uses myth to convey truth. To read the text as strictly historical is to misinterpret the Word of God, to force our definition of what God would or would not inspire onto the text.

At this point it is important to establish the correct hermeneutical procedure for understanding the “myth” of the fall. In order to discover what the author really intended we must take into consideration the literary genre of the narrative. In this way the literal sense is not less but more respected. … To affirm that there are mythical and legendary elements in the Scripture is not to detract from its divine inspiration nor from its historical basis but to attest that the Holy Spirit has made use of various kinds of language and imagery to convey divine truth. (p. 104-105).

Bloesch affirms a historical fall but not the story of Adam and Eve in Genesis as exact literal history. Adam and Eve may or may not have existed as a unique initial pair.

It seems, however, that the story of the fall does assume that mankind has a common ancestor or ancestors who forfeited earthly happiness by falling into sin. The story has a dual focus: it points not only to generic man but to primal man. Its message holds true in both cases: man is not created a sinner but becomes a sinner through a tragic misuse of his freedom. (p. 107)

He points to the views of CS Lewis and others as he discusses this (see Lewis in The Problem of Pain for example).

The emergence of man is attributed to divine action – but this does not deny the evidence for evolution, the antiquity of the species, or the connection with prior hominoid species. It simply states that mankind is not the result of blind cosmic evolution. In an end note he says:

We are open to the view of Karl Rahner that the first authentic hominisation (coming into being of man) happened only once – in a single couple. Yet it would not contradict the Christian faith “to assume several hominisations [pre-Adamites] which quickly perished in the struggle for existence and made no contribution to the one real saving history of mankind…” (p. 117-118)

For Bloesch it is the Fall that is the key truth, not a unique lone pair, Adam and Eve.

Many orthodox Christian scholars including evangelical and reformed scholars and thinkers have long realized that it doesn’t need to be either a unique Adam or throw the Christian story under the bus.  Many have wrestled with the issues. What trickles down to the local church and the individual Christian is unfortunately often much more rigid and much less nuanced.

I find no reason for an orthodox evangelical Christian to question the general observations of evolutionary biology, paleontology, paleethnology, and neuroscience among others. This isn’t “capitulation to evolution” as one commenter put it on my post Tuesday. Rather, it is an attempt to grow in faith and knowledge of God. This is certainly true for the many scientists who are Christians and who understand the depth of evidence for an old earth, common descent, and the basic principles of evolution. We deny blind cosmic chance and ontological purposelessness – we need not deny the evidence of our senses and the nature of God’s creation revealed in the creation itself.

What do you think of Bloesch’s view of scripture or of the Fall?

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

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  • Norman


    I personally believe that we need to filter the writings of the Bible through the overall themes and motivations we find embedded within and confirmed through the reality of Christ. I tend to put a lot of stock in Paul’s process and conclusions on the matter because I see a coherent hermeneutic approach by him that matches that big picture theme we see revealed within Hebrew writings.
    The essence of his conclusions starting with Genesis is not the fall that we
    evangelicals or even the early church fathers ascribe to it. We tend to apply a philosophical approach to understanding it from elementary evaluations.
    However IMO it is mostly a story of a Hebrew theological fall and has little
    to do with physical or biological concepts. Those physical stories appear to
    just be props for presenting the real matter that the Hebrew were dealing with
    and that is a corruption of the true wisdom revolving around a right
    relationship with God (which Christ is the culminating endpoint and Paul develops).

    By propagating our evangelical heritage into these evaluations we often end up only seeing these issues faintly as through a dark glass thus restricting the humanness or motivations of the writer’s purpose. The big theme I see in Hebrew writings (and I include much more than our received OT and NT) is the coming of messiah and judgment to set right what was lost and that was the purity of religious expression. The Adam and Eve fall IMO is nothing but a tale depicting that problem in Technicolor and the judgment of the flood is used in the same manner to expedite that someday a resolution will be coming forth (we see this unfolded in 2T writings extensively who take Genesis and expand the story). The binding and hidden theme is always the coming messiah and accompanying it will be judgment upon those who continue to rebel against the purity of a faith walk. The Hebrew were not monolithic in their approach to Temple worship and extreme works regulations and that is reflected often by the prophets who constantly castigated the ruling powers about their lacking. Christ was projected at least for 500 years through their writings because they were dissatisfied and that is what Paul reflects as the culmination and climax that had been projected for centuries.

    The strength of the Hebrew writings IMO is this constant drumbeat that projected exactly what would occur through Christ during previous centuries. I see the hand of deliverance and faithfulness spread out over time that occurred as projected and that happening is what confirms the Hand of God in their process. Otherwise we need to look at these writings from a human standpoint and their motivations instead of adding the evangelical baggage acquired over the last few centuries. As long as we attempt to appease our evangelical heritage we will struggle with a proper discernment regarding the nature of scriptures IMHO.

    Deliverance from the fall was not physical but theological in scope was I believe the understanding of Paul and the first Christians surrounding the time of Christ.

  • I appreciate Kenton Sparks’ thoughts from his book, God’s Word in Human Words. They address many of these issues.

  • Phil Miller

    Regarding the concepts of inerrancy, things like this always bug me:

    They did not err in what they proclaimed, but this does not mean that
    they were faultless in their recording of historical data, or in their
    world view, which is now outdated. … This is why our ultimate criterion
    is not the Scripture in and of itself but the Word and the Spirit, the
    Scripture illumined by the Spirit. (p. 65).

    It seems to me he’s trying to have his cake and eat it to. I understand why people have the desire to proclaim Scripture inerrant, but if you’re saying that the authors of Scripture actually made what we would commonly call mistakes while recording certain events in Scripture, than why insist on using a term like inerrancy?

    From the rest of the quote it sounds as if Bloesch is trying to say that because the Holy Spirit is still living and active guides us in the reading of the text, we can still trust its authority. That’s something I would agree with. But why insist on using terms like inerrancy?

  • Jeff K. Clarke

    I’ve always appreciated Bloesh’s work and his general view on scripture is helpful.

    As Clark Pinnock argued in The Scripture Principle, and elsewhere, we need to the the bible first as a collection of human documents and only then will we be in a position to better understand its general and specific meaning. Situated in historical and cultural contexts, it can be properly understood when we place the human element first. When we do so, God speaks through the human witness, based as it is in history.

    Even though we may find issues with culturally based ideas within their ANE contexts, the overall message and thrust of the biblical witness will never lead us astray when read on this light. It is what Pinnock referred to as the plenary profitability doctrine of scripture. The document are profitable towards the ends for which they were written and will never lead us off course. But only when we read them as human documents. Seeing it exclusively as a divine book not only diminishes the human element, it also causes problems when errors are found.

    I blogged about this a few days ago in a post I entitled, Embracing the humanity of the bible: Listening for the Divine through human words. I think it resonates well with what you’ve highlighted here.


  • glen

    Agreed, but I might take it a step further. If you’re going to concede that the Bible may have errors in science and history, on what basis can you affirm that it has no errors in doctrine, theology, and matters pertaining to faith and salvation? Is this not drawing an arbitrary line? I’m not saying that errors of history prove that there are errors in biblical doctrine, but it seems to at least open up the possibility. Or did God just safeguard some of the words in scripture from error, while letting other mistakes slide? Further, if inerrant doctrine is hidden within errant historical accounts, how are we to know when we’ve found it?

    More and more, I’m finding the well meaning distinction that the bible may have errors in history and science but is fully reliable/authoritative/inerrant in its spiritual message to be very unhelpful and grounded more in wanting to have our cake and eat it too, as you said.

  • No doubt about it, the written word points to the living Word. Sometimes a myth is a story that is true on the inside whether or not it happens to be true on the outside…

  • Glen –

    These are good thoughts. For many a Christians, the thought of having mistakes in Scripture is very scary. I think it’s because we, in our modernist, post-Enligthenment perspective, create these extreme either/or dichotomies. And then we apply wholesale conclusions across the board – if it got it wrong here, then how can we trust any of it. It seems a cousin of the fallacious slippery slope argument. We just want ‘the facts’ – is it inerrant or errant, true or false, right or wrong, black or white. I think the living & active word of God in Scripture is much more nuanced and organic than this extreme either/or approach.

    This is why Scripture tells us God does not change and God changes; the kingdom of God is present and the kingdom of God is future; God will reconcile all things to himself and God will judge the wicked; etc; etc. There is tension in Scripture because there are a multiplicity of authors, not to mention the shaping of Scripture (even certain books/portions) over centuries of time.

    As one theologian recently remarked: Many Christians today believe in Jesus because of the Bible. The early church believed in the Bible because of Jesus.

    One takes precedence.

  • Phil Miller

    If you’re going to concede that the Bible may have errors in science and
    history, on what basis can you affirm that it has no errors in
    doctrine, theology, and matters pertaining to faith and salvation?

    Well, I’d say that we believe the Bible in matters of faith and salvation because we are part of a community of believers that affirms those things. I would also say that our experience with Christ affirms those things.

    I think the issue is that many believers want something like forensic proof that their faith is grounded in absolute truth. So they end up grounding this desire in Scripture. But if you ask some of these Christians why a person should trust what the Bible says at all, the only answer they’re left with a lot if time is something like “because the Bible says we should”. It becomes very circular.

    I don’t know that something like inerrant doctrine exists. I do think there are foundational doctrines, but I don’t think I could point to one area of the Church and say, “yep, these people have everything right”. But I don’t think that’s the point.

  • glen

    “Well, I’d say that we believe the Bible in matters of faith and
    salvation because we are part of a community of believers that affirms those things. I would also say that our experience with Christ affirms those things.”

    Valid points, but what about when your experience – rather than affirming it – only causes you to question all the more? Then you’re left with just the community, and there may be other communities that are more in line with what your reason and experiences are telling you.

    Sorry, I don’t mean to be argumentative… I’ve been wrestling hard with this for 7 years, and I’m just working out my own thoughts as I comment. I agree strongly with your other points Phil. Thanks for engaging.

  • attytjj466

    Excellent thoughtful post. I enjoy thinking through and wrestling with these issues and questions. Bloesch provides a roadmap for how we can carefully and thoughtfully move beyond a literal Adam and Eve and still have a very high view of scripture and conservative evangelical theology. I think many have and are moving beyond Bloesch now but I very much appreciate his work.

  • attytjj466

    I think many (most?) pastors in conservative evangelical churches find it very challenging to introduce these concepts to their congregations, and not be accused of going soft on Bibical authority and or doctrine. So they don’t attempt it even though they may believe it to be a more authentic view of Genesis 1-3. But such an approach does a diservice to the many and increasing college educated members in church congregations who increasingly see the disconnect between what they hear in church and what they hear science overwhelmingly saying, and as a matter of intellectual integrity can’t breach the divide and lose faith.

  • Hendrikus

    2Peter 16-18 For we did not follow cleverly devised stories when we told you about the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ in power, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty. 17 He
    received honor and glory from God the Father when the voice came to him
    from the Majestic Glory, saying, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him
    I am well pleased.” 18 We ourselves heard this voice that came from heaven when we were with him on the sacred mountain.

    This passage is one of many that testifies to actual miracles. The Bible leads me to believe that the miraculous events, or most of the events anyway, of the New Testament, happened pretty much as described.

    This leads me into particular kind of belief. A belief in a God that occasionally crosses the divide and reveals and communicates with his creation in special ways. The birth, life with miracles, teachings, death and resurrection of Jesus is a major group of such communications.

    Consider for a moment had you been an eye witness to the resurrection. In the case of Jesus, if you heard his teaching, it would be easy to conclude that what just happened did indeed come from God. But now go a step further, would you be able to connect his death and resurrection to concepts of sin, sacrifice, repentance, and forgiveness?

    I’m not sure about this point, but it seems to me that the MEANING of the resurrection is developed more fully in the writings of Paul and the others, than they are in the Gospels, specifically the red letters in the Gospels. In other words, do the words attributed to Jesus alone, develop the theological meanings and implications as well as they are developed in the other New Testament books?

    Also, what if I had zero religious training, but I was an eye witness to the resurrection? How would I even know that what I just witnessed came from God? I don’t think I would.

    I have a point to this. Please hang in there with me.

    My point is that witnessing a miracle is only a part of it. It takes additional communication from God in order for the MEANING of the miracle to be communicated.

    For me, the miracles give credibility to the person who is proclaiming to hold the meaning of the miracle. To me it is fascinating that the Apostle Paul is one of the best communicators of the meaning of the Christ event, and he was not even an eye witness. But Paul did have his own miraculous encounter with God, and probably because of his Jewish training, he was good to go.

    For me, learning that Adam and Eve, the fall, and original sin are not actual, in the same sense that the resurrection is believed to be, does erode the theological MEANINGS related to the resurrection.

    The concepts of sin, sacrifice, repentance, forgiveness, restored fellowship with God, God sacrificing his son, God resurrecting him, etc., all these are theological constructs that I can only say are religiously true, and that I enter into a belief relationship with these concepts and God, through faith. I have no way of knowing if these things are ACTUALLY true.

    I don’t like have a conditional “religiously true” category. This is a new idea for me. Coming to understand this, is why I posted here in the first place.

    One of my hopes is that as my “spiritual eyes” open I will be more comfortable with this. In some ways it has happened already, but it is not quite as I was expecting.

    Any and all feedback is welcomed.

  • Hendrikus

    Phil, you state at the end, “But I don’t think that’s the point.” So what IS the point then? Would you agree with this? This is new ground for me, so please bare with me. (1) The Bible is a collection of cherished stories that serve to develop an understanding and orientation towards God. The stories are so cherished that we have a special classification for them known as “canonization.” (2) The miracles proclaimed in the Bible are true in one sense or another. For example, the resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth we hold to have truly happened. Had you been there you would have seen it with your own eyes. Other stories such as Adam and Eve we hold to be true in a mythical way. (3) But because the stories support the same broader theological concepts, and because the believer today really has no way of knowing which stories are actually true and which ones are not, the place to focus is the MEANINGS of the stories. In other words. The value to the believers of today, is to practice with in the theology and the theological implications. (4) We are left to surrender the idea that any of the miracles actually happened.

  • Hendrikus

    Phil, you state, “I would also say that our experience with Christ affirms those things.”

    Could I get you to elaborate on this point? I think this statement means different things to different people. Perhaps share an exemplary story from your “experience with Christ.”

    Mormons I talk with speak of a “burning bosom.” Some of my Pentecostal friends get frequent “downloads” from God/Christ/Holy Spirit.