If Evolution is Right… Then What About Adam? (Option 2: Adam as "Parable") [2 of 3]

This series wrestles with the questions of the compatibility of Biblical theology and biological evolution.  To understand my view of Genesis 1, you may read here as that chapter will not be discussed in this series.  Also, check out this series by RJS at Jesus Creed.  The rest of this series, go here (in the first post, I present an option of Adam being historical).

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For most evangelical Christian readers, the following perspective will be a bit more difficult to embrace, as it challenges some inherited beliefs about the historicity of Adam and Eve.  A word that has raised eyebrows when included in discussions of biblical interpretation is: myth.  An initial response to this word is that it seems to indicate that something is untrue.  If, for instance, Adam is simply mythological, the logic follows that we cannot be sure of any claims in Scripture.  This is an extreme jump because it completely ignores issues of literary form and historical context.  If we believe that the form and context in which God chose to inspire a sacred text matters, then asking questions about the historicity of Adam is not unreasonable.

If you remember the quote by C.S. Lewis that I posted in an earlier article, it certainly alludes to his belief that Adam and Eve were not actually the first historical pair of humans.  Tim Keller believes that there is room to have differing opinions on this issue even though his deep conviction is that Adam was indeed historical.  He states: “One of my favorite Christian writers (that’s putting it mildly), C.S. Lewis, did not believe in a literal Adam and Eve, and I do not question the reality or soundness of his personal faith.”[1] With this acknowledged, the language of myth may still be difficult for you to embrace.

In order to understand this perspective (rather than caricature it as many have done) we need to have some common language about the word myth.  We also need to realize that various scholars are on a spectrum regarding how they understand it.  For the sake of simplicity, I am going to borrow a concise definition from Peter Enns’ excellent book: Inspiration and Incarnation – Evangelicals and the Problem of the Old Testament.  He explains myth in the following way:

Christians recoil from any suggestion that Genesis is in any way embedded in the mythologies of the ancient world…  It is important to understand however, that not all historians of the ancient Near East use the word myth simply as shorthand for “untrue,” “made-up,” “storybook…” A more generous way of defining myth is that it is an ancient, premodern, prescientific way of addressing questions of ultimate origins and meaning in the form of stories: Who are we?  Where do we come from?[2]

So, are you still hung up on the word myth?  What if we used more of a “biblical” word like parable?  Think of Jesus and how he communicated truths about the kingdom of God.  He did not give people a list of historical facts, but stories containing a deep truth although not actually historically based.  Few Christians would imagine that there is an actual Prodigal Son or Good Samaritan, for they are characters in a parable that point us toward theological realities.  Could either of these two parabolic characters be based on actual people? Certainly.  But, they may simply be props in a story rather than the point.

From this standpoint, the same could be true of Adam and Eve.  John Goldingay believes that we could read the first three chapters as historical based parables.  If someone had a camcorder when the two creation accounts along with the “fall” took place, they would not have been recorded exactly as we read them in Genesis.  Rather, the reality that God created and humanity rebelled is what the parables of these chapters illustrate.  This is why it is possible to have two different creation stories as presented complementary in chapters 1 and 2.  As he states: “If you take them as would-be literal historical accounts, you have your work cut out to reconcile them, but this is unnecessary if they are historical parables.”[3]

It will be beneficial to explore the meaning of these texts based on a mythological or parabolic reading.  As we do so it is necessary to highlight an interpretive principle that is at work: biblical accommodation.  These are stories that were written in way with the original audience in mind. God communicated his perfect truth, while accommodating to the scientific worldview of the ancient world.  One form of biblical accommodation is described by Denis Lamoureux as the “message-incident principle.”  Message refers to the perfect theological truth that God communicated through inspiration, and incident refers to the idea that the ancient scientific perspective of the text is incidental to the message being conveyed.  In other words, “in order to reveal spiritual truths as effectively as possible to ancient people, the Holy Spirit employed their understandi ng of nature…  God came down to their level and used the science-of-the-day.”[4]

Garden of Edenphoto © 2010 James Hillyerd | more info (via: Wylio)

The science of the day taught that humans always gave birth to more humans; therefore, there must be an original human couple that were the source of all of them.  In this case, the Holy Spirit accommodated to this idea so the ancient Hebrews would understand that God is their Creator.  “Adam is simply an ancient vessel that delivers eternal truths about our spiritual condition.”[5] Such is consistent with what some have called the “Everyman” theory.  This is the view that Adam and Eve illustrate the reality of our propensity toward choosing rebellion against God.  They represent all of our stories, and in the “fall” they demonstrate the pattern that all of humanity continues to repeat.  In this way, we are in deep need of a Savior from our sin.  Adam and Eve are therefore not presented as historically real people, but as parabolic actors on an all too familiar stage of rebellious self-glorification.[6] John Goldingay summarizes this by saying:

I am told there are readers of Genesis who argue like this.  If evolution is true, there was no Adam and Eve.  If there was no Adam and Eve, there was no fall.  If there was no fall, we didn’t need Jesus to save us.  But this argument is back to front.  In reality, we know we needed Jesus to save us.  We recognize the way Genesis describes our predicament as human beings.  We know we have not realized our vocation to take the world to its destiny and serve the earth…  We know there is something wrong with our relationship with God.  We know we die…  The question Genesis handles is, was all that a series of problems built into humanity when it came into existence?  And its answer is that this is not so…  There was a point when humanity had to choose whether it wanted to go God’s way, and it chose not to.  The Adam and Eve story gives us a parabolic account of that…  God brought the first human beings into existence with their vocation and they turned away from it.[7]

What about Paul?  He seems to think that they are historical figures, so does it not follow that we should as well?  The answer to this could be the simple reality that Paul reflects the common scientific worldview of his day.[8] Then, some might say, if we are not descended from a literal Adam, then how does the logic of Romans 5 and 1 Corinthians 15 work where it compares him to Christ?  Jesus brings about life to all and Adam brought about death to all. To this Goldingay points out: “But everyone is not physically descended from Christ, so the parallel would not require all humanity to be descended from one original pair.”[9]


[1] Keller, Creation, Evolution, and Christian Laypeople, 7.

[2] Peter Enns, Inspiration and Incarnation: Evangelicals and the Problem of the Old Testament (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Academic, 2005), 40.

[3] Goldingay, Genesis for Everyone: Part 1, 29.

[4] Denis O. Lamoureux, I Love Jesus & I Accept Evolution (Eugene, Oregon: Wipf & Stock Publishers, 2009), 44-45.

[5] Ibid., 80.

[6] Biologos Foundation, “How Does the Fall fit into Evolutionary History?  Were Adam and Eve Historical Figures?” Peter Enns and Jeff Schloss http://biologos.org/questions/evolution-and-the-fall/

[7] Goldingay, Genesis for Everyone: Part 1, 62-63.

[8] Lamoureux, I Love Jesus & I Accept Evolution, 143-48.

[9] Goldingay, Genesis for Everyone: Part 1, 58.

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  • http://twitter.com/geoffmagill Geoff Magill

    I think it’s quite obviously a parable. The tale of the serpent talking to Eve is generally a big give-away. We take that to be a figurative representation of Satan right? Therefore it’s a parable.

    Look we have to see it as a very simple way of explaining a sophisticated philosophical truth. It rings as true now as it did thousands of years ago. That’s the beauty of it.

    • Pf

      Its a very simple way of expressing  pre-scientific knowledge of the origins of the earth, which is to say that it is very, very wrong. People just had no way of knowing and that’s the best they could do without microscopes and telescopes.

  • http://www.facebook.com/jamesmichael7 James-Michael Smith

    “Historical Parable” seems to stretch things too far, I would argue. Goldingay seems to use it (in “Genesis for Everyone” at least) as a way to skirt around any and all questions of historicity. “Parable” is a genre that serves to illustrate a main point by means of a hypothetical or fictitious story. Gen. 1-11, whatever else they may be, don’t seem to fit this genre category. I like C.John Collins’ label of the creation account as “Elevated Prose” and I think Enns makes good points in describing Genesis as heavily stylized and making use of ANE mythic motifs. But none of these need undermine the overall historicity completely. It’s tough to hold the tension between literary stylized archetypical accounts and actual ancient “history.” I think the “Historical Parable” views that I’ve read all seem to lose that balance.

    • http://thepangeablog.com Kurt Willems

      @facebook-837625581:disqus , I knew you would chime in on this because I heard you say this before. If you read Goldingay closely, he says this ‘points to a historical reality.’ He believes that Adam and Eve point to something that actually happened. His example in “for everyone” (if memory serves me correctly) was to use 2 of Jesus’ parables. 1) prodigal son — this was a story and not based on something that actually happened. 2) sheep and goats — this is also a parable but points to something that will actually happen. He places Adam and Eve in this second group… something that actually happened that is told in parabolic way. This is what he leans toward in his Fuller class (I listened to some of it via iTunes). Did you not catch this in your reading of him?

    • http://thepangeablog.com Kurt Willems

      @facebook-837625581:disqus , it seems you are very concerned that a historical Adam stay in tact. Is that true as well? (My main comment is the other blurb, but this seemed to stand out after having responded to you initially)

      • http://www.facebook.com/jamesmichael7 James-Michael Smith

        Yeah, I picked up on it and see him wanting to hold the tension…I just don’t think he does it as successfully as others have and is too willing to ignore genre considerations to make it work in the end.

        As for Adam and Eve being actual historical individuals, I can see an archetypal function in the Eden narrative certainly, but I do believe that based on the NT’s content, there is an EXTREME burden of proof on those who would deny their historicity altogether as an original human pair (i.e. Acts 17, Rom.5-8, etc.). I don’t consider views that deny their historicity as “heretical” outright…as many conservatives and fundamentalists do; but I believe they are in too great a contrast to the rest of the Canon’s teaching to be tenable in the end.

  • http://thepangeablog.com Kurt Willems

    For those who wish to respond with any connection to Genesis one, please watch this video to understand my views http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vk_gMxjALUk&w=640&h=510

  • Lauren Sheil

    I’ve always considered the earliest parts of the bible to be allegorical, parable, myth. poetic story telling – whatever you want to call it. Just don’t call it history or science that’s just stupid.

    • Conrad

      Damn… I guess im stupid then… thanks for pointing that out for me

      • Pf

        She’s right. Do you really think women were made from a man’s rib? That’s just …. well, stupid.

        • Conrad

          LOL seriously??? stupid from what perspective? your perspective based on what you think you understand? you really think you understand everything that God has done, could do, would do, or even might do?

          be careful what you call foolish out of your own prideful ignorance

  • http://www.facebook.com/adam.borsay Adam Puma Borsay

    I would contend that you are taking liberties with Keller’s writing on this that would not be honoring to his conclusions. In his third point on the issue of Adam and Eve I believe his point of being in “federation” with Adam in sin is an important issue. I feel as if you are not addressing this key issue. Whether or not this is a parabolic story to illustrate something “true” about ourselves, it is a dangerous and slippery slope to deny the literal existence of Adam and Eve. I would disagree with Goldingay because the ancient concept of being in federation with someone is not limited to a “genetic” issue of relation, but instead, that we are inescapably associated with them. This would create a thematic consistency between Jesus universal act of salvation on the cross to the universal act of sin by Adam.

    • http://thepangeablog.com Kurt Willems

      Adam, did you read the first post in this series? I use Keller as a main source there and do not ‘take liberties’ as far as I can tell. In this section, I merely use Keller as an example of one who is ok with a Christian who doesn’t agree with him, even as one who holds to the historical view. I invite you to read the first post in this series and then comment :-)

  • Micheal

    How about both truth and prophetical parable? God teaches us by oral/written parable and also by physical actions carried out by action of His prophets (like in Jeremiah 13, for example). What if God gave us some lessons by physical example without detailing the instructions for them in the scriptures? What if Adam was a real life person, who’s history is accurately portrayed in the scriptures… and also an orchastrated life lesson from God? After all, nothing is impossible for Him.

  • Zack Allen

    Not expressing opinion one way or the other, but how does this reading square away with the genealogies? There seems to be a very deliberate use of genealogies in these narratives (genealogies were undoubtedly important to early Hebrews) and I’m lead to believe that this is for a very deliberate purpose. So how does that fit with it being mythic?

  • Zack Allen

    And I think Goldingay’s comment about not being physically descended from Christ K’s pretty weak. He is, after all, the firstborn of all creation through and for which everything else was made.

  • Dana

    We must
    juxtapose the creation account with other ANE accounts of literature (Seven
    Tablets of Creation, Gilgamesh and many more). We will discover that the
    biblical account is less sensational; however, this doesn’t imply it’s literal.

    I think
    an important question is for hermeneutics. Would the author of Genesis raise
    the question of biological evolution? No. Why? It was pre-scientific. Rather,
    the author of Genesis is interested in separating God from the polytheism of
    other ANE literature. For me, this concern is consistent with God’s concern for
    Israel
    and its history.

    That
    said, I lean toward a non-literal view of the biblical account, of which
    I think opens more space to engage faith and reason within science, especially
    biological evolution, although I understand some Christian scientist believe the
    Genesis account is literal. Yet we can engage the splendor of the theological
    message: the worship of one God. Great post!

  • http://www.theology21.com Eric McClellan

    @kurtwillems:disqus , I appreciate your thoughts on this subject. I have been thinking about this subject more recently and it helps to have someone who is actually talking about it.

    My biggest problem with Adam being parabolic is the Paul’s use of comparison with Jesus in Romans 5. I know that you address this at the end, but I’m not fully satisfied with that answer. It seems to me that the historicity of Adam is not just a trivial fact in the passage that we can brush away as “common scientific worldview of the day.” Paul’s whole point is based on the fact that sin and death were brought into the world through one man and resolved by one man in Jesus. We also find in this passage that it is not just the sin of individuals that requires Jesus’ atonement, but rather that “death reigned from Adam to Moses, even over those who did not sin in the likeness of Adam’s transgression.” We are held accountable for the sin of the human prototype. If Adam is not an historic figure, then Paul’s entire point unravels. How do you square this idea of Paul’s misconception as a “common scientific worldview of the day” with your views on the infallibility of scripture?

  • Anonymous

    This is quality Kurt.  A very good summary of the position and has given me some new names to read up on.  I am definitely not agnostic on this issue and I decided this after studying theology for a year at Birmingham over here in the UK.  I think that reading theology at a secular university is so important (or at least it was for me).  A concept that seemed so obvious after studying it was that of the Deuteronomistic History.
    As with all developing theories there various takes on the principle, but in its rawest form it says that during the exile many different tribal stories were collected and penned to form the books from Deuteronomy to Kings.  Where there were different accounts of what seemed like the same stories they faithfully recorded along side each other.  I had never heard anything like this in the evangelical church, but once you start to look at the bible in this way it starts to make much more sense!  In this case we see that there are two accounts of the creation of the world, both conveying a spiritual message in a contextually relevant way.  I also love what you have said here about the myth/parable.  A great way of looking at it.

    Anyway, this is why I can no longer see the creation story as an exact historical truth, but that doesn’t make it any less meaningful!

    I also love what you have said about using the science of the day to explain spiritual truths.  I have come to this understanding too, but I have not tried to write it down and I think you have conveyed it very well here.  This contextual way of looking at the bible has helped me a lot to reconcile many aspects of evangelical teaching that I have found difficult.

    Do you think that this extends to moral questions that are influenced by a science-of-the-day view of the world?  I think it does.  Is that controversial?

  • Muddleglum

    1. Didn’t Lewis define myth? Wasn’t it something like a story that has meaning?
    2. As an atheist that God dragged into His kingdom (and is now Amish-Mennonite) I was very strong on evolution. I still FEEL deeply that it is truth. Yet, even in Zoology I pointed out so often how the professor was taking liberties with science that she called me a creationist. I aced Genetics, though, because I understood the mathematics of it at a much deeper level than she did. Natural selection, BTW, can be shown mathematically to support the status quo.
    3. Over the years I have come to the conclusion that Genesis 1 is truth. It happened (“before” and) in time.
    How can we reconcile the two? I’ve no problem. Remember when God spoke from the sky and some of the people heard thunder? I don’t think He wants to coerce us to believe, but is willing to let us trust the material evidence after we assign our own patterns onto it.

    4. Here’s another problem for you. If we go back into time and investigate the wine that purportedly came from water, would we accept the definition of wine only if it contained certain ingredients? If so, wouldn’t those ingredients reveal that it took time to make the wine? “Look at that yeast cell budding. Has to be at least x days old. Of course it takes x amount of time to turn the grape juice into wine, and isotope analysis indicates that it is from such and such an area and microscopic evidence points to such-and-such a grape. So it would have take more time to grow in that region.”
    I could go on with more tests that could be performed, but I think you get the idea – Christ did not turn the water into wine. Obviously He had underground conduits connected to the jars. If you don’t accept Genesis and Adam as truth and fact, then forget the wine story. The only difference is that the scientist skeptics hadn’t been able to get their hands on that wine.
    5. Of course the chapters in Genesis are to be taken as parables and dark sayings of old. Even John used them that way.

  • Dr. Dennis Bonnette

    It is interesting to note that the Catholic Church still maintains the existence of a literal Adam and Eve as the sole rational foundation for the doctrine of Original Sin. Moreover, it turns out that recent scientific claims against the very possibility of such a single mating pair of first true human beings, arising from paleoanthropology and genetics, are not definitive.

    If you doubt these points, please take a look at my recently published article in the online Homiletic and Pastoral review, entitled “Time to Abandon the Genesis Story?”
    See it at http://www.hprweb.com/2014/07/time-to-abandon-the-genesis-story/


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