Is Belief in a “Historical Adam” an Essential Christian Belief?

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Is Belief in a “Historical Adam” an Essential Christian Belief?

No doubt I have blogged here before about this as it is a recurring question in my line of work. As an evangelical Christian theologian, this question—about the importance of belief in a “historical Adam”—seems never to be resolved or disappear.

This question is of interest, I assume, only to Christians; non-Christians put no “stock” in it. It doesn’t matter to them. Why does it matter to Christians? The simple answer is our belief in the Bible as God’s Word, whether verbally inspired or not, and especially the New Testament. Narrowly focused, the crucial passage is Romans 5.

But also, it is of interest to Christians because, for nearly two millennia, Christians of all kinds believed in the real, historical existence of a common ancestor of all humanity whom the Bible, including the New Testament, calls “Adam” (“man”). (Yes, of course, this common, historical belief also included Adam’s companion Eve, but because of Romans 5, I assume, focus has been on Adam and, I assume,” “Adam” became a metonymy for the two—the pair, couple from whom all humans are descended.

But there’s more to the story than that. The church fathers, even before Augustine, pinned the “blame,” so to speak, for sin and mortality on Adam—based on both Genesis 3 and Romans 5. That is not to say they removed blame from his descendants; it is only to say they regarded Adam as the progenitor and representative of all humanity in terms of the “fall into sin” with all its consequences including the need for redemption.

*Sidebar: The opinions expressed here are my own (or those of the guest writer); I do not speak for any other person, group or organization; nor do I imply that the opinions expressed here reflect those of any other person, group or organization unless I say so specifically. Before commenting read the entire post and the “Note to commenters” at its end.*

There is no space here to go into details—about the different interpretations of Adam’s sin and its consequences among different tribes of Christians; certainly (to mention only one) Eastern and Western Christians, from Augustine onward, tended to interpret it differently. But one thing almost all Christians agreed on up until the nineteenth century was some interpretation of “In Adam’s fall we sinned all”—a Puritan way of putting the matter. Yes, of course, Eastern Christians and many other Christians would prefer to put Adam’s role in original sin differently than that, but that pretty well sums up the common belief of Christians for nearly two millennia: Adam’s disobedience is the reason humanity needs redemption.

Beginning especially in the nineteenth century, as a result of the scientific revolutions in geology and biology, even some otherwise orthodox Christians began to question the necessity of a historical Adam and began to interpret Genesis 1-3 non-literally with “Adam” representing every individual human or humanity as a whole. Conservative Christians pushed back against this pointing to Romans 5 which seems to require an original sinner from whom all humans are descended and from whom all humans acquire sinfulness (“fallenness”) and need for redemption.

This became one of the dividing lines separating conservative Christians from “modernist” or “liberal” Christians. Conservatives pointed to the gradual disappearance of belief in universal sin and need of supernatural redemption among progressive Christians as they dared to question or even deny the real, historical existence of a common ancestor of all humans who introduced sin into humanity and history. Some progressive, liberal Christians denied that this was their intention or necessary trajectory; some appealed, for example, to philosopher Immanuel Kant’s belief in “radical evil” without Adam or a historical fall and/or to a “Kingdom of Evil” to replace a literal interpretation of Adam and a historical fall. The fall narrative in Genesis 3 was interpreted mythically—as literature depicting in story form a universal condition.

Conservatives responded that this cannot explain Romans 5 and leaves unexplained and “hanging in the air” the crucial questions of why all human beings are sinful in some very real sense and why all people need a savior.

It seems there are three large, general answers among equally sincere Christian thinkers to the question about “Adam’s historicity.” First, some conservative Christians stick with tradition and say yes—Adam was a real person from whom all real humans are descended. (Some admit that there may have been human-like beings before Adam but that Adam was the one God made into a “living soul” and not only an animal.) Second, liberal-leaning, progressive Christians tend to say no—“Adam” is a character in the biblical story but not one who must be thought of as real and historical; he simply represents humanity in our not-yet-fully-evolved state (where “evolved” refers not to biology so much as to morality and spirituality). Third….

Third, twentieth century theologian Paul Tillich referred to existentialism as “the good luck” of modern Christian theology partly because, so he and many others thought and think, it provides a way of thinking about Adam and sin that avoids the problems of both the conservative “yes” and the liberal-progressive “no” explained, however, partially, above. Tillich and other twentieth century existentialist theologians (many of who like Reinhold Niebuhr would not call themselves “existentialists”) reached back to Danish theologian-philosopher Søren Kierkegaard and later existentialist philosophers for an answer. The answer is basically “It doesn’t matter” because humanity’s “fallenness” and need of redemption can be explained without reference to a literal, historical Adam from which we are all descended. (Some of these twentieth century existentialist Christian theologians—such as Tillich and Niebuhr—would say “no,” but the “gist” of the existentialist response is that it does not matter.

Eventually this “it doesn’t matter” response filtered into relatively progressive circles within conservative Christianity (as did and does “neo-orthodoxy” or “dialectical theology” in general). Many relatively progressive conservative Christians borrow from existentialism, especially that of Kierkegaard, who seems to have founded that philosophy (if it can be called a philosophy), to say simply that “Adam” in both Genesis 3 and Romans 5 can be regarded as a cipher for humanity. Theologically interpreted, then, “Adam” represents us—all humans. We do what the character named “Adam” did in the story and in the Romans 5 midrash on the story. But existentialism, unlike true liberal theology, emphasizes the universality of the fallenness of humanity and our inability to escape it without redemption from outside ourselves.

One problem with this approach, of course, is the temptation it presents to equate “fall” with “creation”—not chronologically, perhaps, but ontologically. Tillich seems to have given into that temptation insofar as he taught that “fall” happens with the first actualization of freedom—in every person’s life. Awakening from the “dreaming innocence” of childhood, then, coincides with, if not causes, the fall into sin and need of redemption (by the “New Being”). The problem, then, becomes one of “ontologizing sin.” Can the existentialist answer avoid that?

One theologian who struggled with this mightily was relatively conservative Swiss “dialectical” theologian Emil Brunner who, in volume 2 of his Dogmatics (“The Christian Doctrine of Creation and Redemption”) adamantly rejects belief in a literal, historical Adam and belief in a “historical fall” but affirms just as adamantly that all humans need redemption. For him, drawing on existentialism, the “fall” is not a matter of chronology; there never was a literal “paradise” but the fall is, so it seems, one from “essence” into “existence” (to use Tillichian language and meaning). But Brunner refuses to pin that fall on ontology or even psychology; it just “is.” We cannot explain it. It is what philosophers would call a “surd”—something that is but has no explanation.

According to Brunner, any explanation of human fallenness, whether conservative or liberal or even existentialist (e.g., “finite freedom” causes it), reduces sin to causation and thereby removes responsibility from the sinner. So he chose simply to leave “original sin” (universal falleness and its accompanying need for redemption) a mystery. So he wanted to have his cake and eat it, too (some would say). There is a “fall” but it is not explainable because, if it were—by whatever means—it would be caused by something outside the responsible self and therefore the self would not be responsible. It is simply a basic fact about humanity but it is not humanity’s essence or any part of it.

So, Brunner interpreted the fall story non-literally and Romans 5 as using “Adam” to refer to humanity as a whole (except Jesus Christ). For him, the crucial message of the New Testament is that every person stands before God called to responsible decision either to enter into communion with God through Jesus Christ by faith or to decline the offer of God’s grace and remain in sin, cut off from God. (He did not address the question of “age of accountability” or what happens to infants or imbeciles who die without any opportunity to make a responsible decision. However, in Volume 3 of Dogmatics (“The Christian Doctrine of the Church, Faith, and the Consummation”) he advocated believer baptism and thus strongly hinted that there is an age of accountability at which a person needs to repent and before which he/she does not.

I suspect this debate, like so many others in Christian theology, will never get solved in such a way that a consensus emerges. This debate about “Adam” will no doubt go on forever.

So the real question is this: Is belief in a “real, historical Adam” necessary for authentic, biblical, orthodox Christianity and, if so, how does one reconcile that with modern science?

*Note to commenters: This blog is not a discussion board; please respond with a question or comment solely to me. If you do not share my evangelical Christian perspective (very broadly defined), feel free to ask a question for clarification, but know that this is not a space for debating incommensurate perspectives/worldviews. In any case, know that there is no guarantee that your question or comment will be posted by the moderator or answered by the writer. If you hope for your question or comment to appear here and be answered or responded to, make sure it is civil, respectful, and “on topic.” Do not comment if you have not read the entire post and do not misrepresent what it says. Keep any comment (including questions) to minimal length; do not post essays, sermons or testimonies here. Do not post links to internet sites here. This is a space for expressions of the blogger’s (or guest writers’) opinions and constructive dialogue among evangelical Christians (very broadly defined).

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