Adam: Assumed or Accentuated?

The attempt at an alliterative title hopefully will not obscure what this post is about, which is an attempt to clarify my thinking about Adam in Paul’s letters. This is a follow-up to my earlier post, in which I explained some of the reasons for concluding that Jesus and Paul were not literalists, which in turn emerged from the comment thread on an earlier post about evolution.

In saying that Paul was not a literalist with respect to the Adam story, that doesn’t mean that Paul necessarily thought of Adam as a purely literary figure.

If we think by way of comparison about Paul’s use of the term “heart,” he clearly regards it as the seat of human thought. In adopting this view, he was following Aristotle, among others. Paul would have assumed such language to be literally factual, just as his contemporaries did. But he is not emphasizing its factuality over against other viewpoint, and certainly not arguing against the much later discoveries of science regarding the function of the heart and brain.

Most readers of Paul do not feel bound to embrace what Paul assumed regarding the heart, adopting a stance contrary to the abundance of evidence which we have at our disposal but Paul did not. This is presumably because Paul himself is not emphasizing the importance of taking the terminology of “heart” literally. He is using the term, and assuming it is literal. But his point lies elsewhere, in that which the term denotes, namely activities of thought, emotion, reasoning and judgment.

And so, if we turn back to the figure of Adam, there is no reason to think that Paul would not have assumed the stories about Adam to be factual. He most likely did. But having already shown that no one feels bound to believe, contrary to evidence, what Paul assumed in his own time without that evidence available to him, the question becomes whether the case of Adam is different, and if so, why.

In my earlier post, I showed that in Romans 5, Paul was quite happy to contradict the story in Genesis 3 when it suited his point (and he contradicts Genesis 17 even more radically elsewhere). The symbolism of contrasting the one man Jesus with the one man Adam was more important to him than the literal details of the Genesis story. And when he contrasts Adam and Christ, he uses language that makes absolutely clear (to anyone with basic reading comprehension skills and a dose of common sense) that he is dealing in metaphor. He talks about human beings being “in Adam” and “in Christ.” Neither of those phrases can be taken literally without arriving at nonsensical conclusions.

Yet for some reason there are those who not only ignore such clues within the text, but assume that their own twisted understanding of Paul’s letters is the only natural one! I recently had someone insist that it is obvious that Paul was a literalist, if you just read him within the framework of his worldview. This is extremely ironic. The truth is that knowledge of Paul’s worldview, knowledge of ancient approaches to interpreting the Bible, knowledge of the way Paul treats texts, and close attention to the details of his argument, in fact prove the opposite, and show that Paul’s concern was with the symbolism of the text, not its factuality or otherwise – whatever he may have assumed about the latter.

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  • Craig Wright

    I have also pointed out that Paul used “heart” metaphorically (especially in dealing with Romans 10: 9-10). Can we teach people about accepting Jesus into our “minds?” Another interesting use of the metaphor of “heart” is that Jesus said that the son of man would be in the “heart” of the earth, as Jonah was in the “belly of the sea monster” (Matthew 12: 40).

  • Kaz

    Aside from the fact that you’ve once again arrogantly placed those with whom you disagree in the worst possible light, asserting once again that they ignore clues that they don’t actually ignore, you overlook what many observe, i.e.:

    “The key for interpretation is the Bible itself. I don’t think the author of Genesis 1 wants us to take the “days” literally, but it is clear that Paul definitely does want readers to take Adam and Eve literally.”

    Found here:

    So you disagree with us, and that’s your right, but the megalomaniacal manner in which you couch your disagreements is likely to make those with whom you disagree simply tune you out as an unchristian antagonist.

    • James F. McGrath

      I find it amusing that you happily quote the “Gospel Coalition” and then accuse others of being megalomaniacal.

      • Kaz

        And I find it predictable that you respond with yet another implied insult against those with whom you disagree.

        • James F. McGrath

          There is no implied insult. The “Gospel Coalition” has posted some despicable things, and their claim to represent the Gospel saddens me greatly. If that is your understanding of Christianity, then we are going to find ourselves at odds on a great deal.

          • Kaz

            I don’t endorse the organization called “The Gospel Coalition”, and there’s really no reason for you assume that I do. What I was trying to show — and this should have been obvious “to anyone with basic reading comprehension skills and a dose of common sense” (to quote you) — is that there are people out there who have thought hard about this issue and come to very different conclusions from your own.

          • James F. McGrath

            Given their reputation, why quote them? Why not quote some source that has demonstrated an interest in getting at truth rather than merely engaging in hostile polemics? No one ever disputed that there are people who hold other views. Whether they have thought not merely hard but honestly and in an informed manner in this case would have to be investigated. But I cannot believe that your reason for referring to them was to demonstrate something that no one disputes and did not require any demonstration.

          • Kaz

            First, I didn’t quote “them”, I quoted an article by Tim Keller. Second, your inability to believe my reason for posting the link is of no consequence to me. You’ve made it quite clear, again, and again, and again, and again, and again, and again, that you think I’m an ignoramus. I think this approach of yours says a whole heaping heck of a lot more about you than it does me.

          • James F. McGrath

            If you think that I think you are an ignoramus, then you must be projecting your own attitude onto me. I had a very positive impression of you, apart from some of this recent behavior which has surprised and disappointed me.

            And sorry, I meant to say cite and not quote.

          • Kaz

            James, when you frame arguments so that you not only imply that those who favor the other side are ignorant (or “twisted” in their approach or “liars”, or lack basic reading skills, or whatever, etc) but even explicitly say so at times, how can we infer anything else? I realize that the use of rhetoric is at play here, but it becomes wearisome to constantly find my views or the views of others with whom I agree placed in the most negative light possible.

            If there’s been a shift in my behavior lately it’s because my patience with this aspect of your apologetic has worn thin. Yes, I know, no one’s forcing me to follow your blog. Point stated and taken.

    • Kaz

      I find it predictable that you respond with yet another implied insult against those with whom you disagree.

  • Kaz

    I think it also bears pointing out that your understanding of how symbolic language works seems to lack the level of sophistication necessary to speak on this issue.

    • James F. McGrath

      Please do not waste my time with vague insults. If my understanding of symbolic language lacks sophistication, please explain how and correct me on it. Anyone can dismiss anything by saying it lacks sophistication.

      • Kaz

        So you consider it insulting when someone suggests that someone else lacks understanding of some field of study?