Adam, Billy Graham, and Biblical Authority

Adam, Billy Graham, and Biblical Authority October 1, 2015

Last week, I excerpted some highlights from a recent intra-evangelical debate about Adam’s historicity in the (online) pages of Book & Culture. Today, some commentary.

I agree with William VanDoodewaard that the somewhat lopsided nature of the debate is itself remarkable: “Combined as participants we present one quarter committed to the historical Adam of historic Christian orthodoxy, yet the reality is that the only predecessors to our three quarters who abandon this Adam are found in Enlightenment skeptics, 19th-century higher critics, and 20th-century theological modernists or liberals. It is a small society on the fringe of Christianity in its most broad definition—one which I see with sadness heading outside the parameters of millennia of mainstream Christian confession, away from the Word of God.”

VanDoodewaard is correct that it’s remarkable that the roundtable featured only two participants committed to “the historical Adam.” And, yes, the arguments of others partly reflect from the “Enlightenment skeptics, 19th-century higher critics, and 20th-century theological modernists or liberals.” And most evangelicals, to be sure, have no interest in following their own theologians down such paths.

Peter Enns writes that “negative voices come from a small minority, largely from those who feel that commitment to theological structures that require a first human, Adam, cannot be compromised without the entire Christian tradition crumbling right along with it.” What Enns describes as a “small minority” VanDoodewaard identifies as a vast majority.

What explains this point of disagreement? First, even though biblical scholarship has in some ways moved on to new methodologies, far more evangelical theologians today are comfortable with the fruits of historical-critical scholarship and do not see it as posing a threat to Christian faith. At the same time, “ordinary” evangelicals are largely not conversant with such matters. Moreover, evangelical ministers and popular writers are not as engaged in the “Battle for the Bible” as was the case several decades ago. Although more recent conflicts, such as those over both marriage and gender roles, relate to matters of biblical authority, those conflicts have to some extent sidelined older conflicts over biblical criticism. Thus, whereas most evangelicals accept a fairly literal interpretation of Genesis 1-3 (though one should mention that it is not easy to accept literal interpretations of Genesis 1-2:3 and Genesis 2:4-25 simultaneously), many evangelical theologians have questioned those interpretations. I suspect VanDoodewaard is more accurate about the question of how most evangelicals would approach this debate.

Though I disagree with Enns’s assertion that Adam is “a minor character in the Bible,” I am very sympathetic to his view (and that of many others in the forum) that because evolution is “well established and utterly uncontroversial” among scientists, it is unwise for evangelicals to hitch themselves to a view of human origins in conflict with human evolution. Enns identifies “obscurantist apologetics” as a factor in the alienation of individuals from Christian churches. That may or may not be a primary factor. Indeed, both perspectives on the historicity of Adam and Eve — or on the subject of evolution — probably alienate different segments of young Americans and young Christians. Perhaps strident opposition to evolution would play poorly among millennials, but open questioning of traditional interpretations of Genesis 1-3 would probably play poorly as well.

I have been reading Grant Wacker’s America’s Pastor: Billy Graham and the Shaping of a Nation. In his first chapter, Wacker discusses several components of Graham’s “theological core.” Among those is Graham’s faith in the Bible. For Graham, the Bible was a matter of faith. Wacker briefly narrates Graham’s encounter with biblical criticism through his friend and associate Charles Templeton. In the summer of 1949, Templeton was encouraging Graham to more fully grapple with matters of biblical authority through seminary education. Instead, Graham prayed about the matter while at southern California’s Forest Home retreat center. Graham emerged from the woods with his faith in the Bible restored. Many evangelicals are familiar with Templeton’s own “descent” into agnosticism and atheism, a warning that questioning the Bible leads to the collapse of faith.

Forest Home was not the end of the story for Graham, however. As Wacker explains, Graham’s “legendary encounter” with Templeton “ironically freed him [Graham] from the shackles of inerrancy and literalism. He embraced a faith-based foundation that trumped any sort of empirical or logical demonstration of the Bible’s factual accuracy — or inaccuracy, for that matter.” Thus, Graham in later years could tell David Frost that the Bible was not a “scientific book” and could inform Jon Meacham that he was “not a literalist in the sense that every jot and tittle is from the Lord.” In other words, especially as the years passed, when it came to the Bible Graham combined faith with flexibility.

In the Books & Culture roundtable on Adam, Hans Madueme very pertinently asks: “If scientific plausibility should guide the expectations we bring to Scripture, then why would we be Christians? Why would we believe that the Son of God became a man? That he died and rose again after three days? That he ascended into heaven? These fundamental Christian beliefs contradict everything we know from mainstream science. If we can no longer believe Adam was historical, then why should we believe in the resurrection?” As Madueme notes, Enns has addressed this question elsewhere, arguing that the resurrection occurred as a “present-day event”(more or less) for New Testament writers. It was not part of a mythical primordial history.

I don’t propose any simple answers to complex matters of biblical authority and scholarship. It occurs to me, though, that Billy Graham is not a bad model for how evangelical pastors might gracefully respond to issues of science and biblical scholarship as they emerge.




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  • stefanstackhouse

    Two problems:

    First, it is incorrect to think that it is merely Gen 2 and 3 that are at issue with regard to the historical Adam. We also have Luke 3:38 to contend with, among other NT passages. I am well aware that Genesis is among the most contentious books in the Bible when it comes to determining what is and is not original, and thus does or does not even belong there. This is just one of multiple disputes among scholars. However, after a couple of centuries of work in textual criticism by hundreds of scholars examining thousands of ancient manuscripts, we now can be reasonably assured that our modern critical text of the NT is very close indeed to being an accurate reproduction of the original autographs. Given Luke’s reputation as being more of a historian than any of the other NT authors, I don’t see how one can disbelieve Luke’s assertion that Adam was a real person and an ancestor of Christ and continue to claim to believe anything in the NT at all. To deny the historicity of Adam thus reduces one’s “Christianity” to little more than feel-good wishful thinking. I could find the same thing at the Unitarian church down the street – or maybe at the Buddhist shrine.

    Second, however, it is not true that holding to a historical Adam places one entirely at odds with what scientists actually know (as opposed to what some of them merely hold as opinion). There actually is a way to hold to both Adam and science with intellectual integrity. This does require that three questions be left on the table as being open to scientific inquiry:

    1) There is the question of WHEN Adam (and Eve) lived. The truth is that the Bible does not actually say. Efforts to deduce a timeline from the Genesis genealogies were a completely flawed and illegitimate interpretation, even if the numbers were unquestionable – and they are far from that. I am quite prepared to accept a historical Adam that is hundreds of thousands of years old, and there is no good reason not to.

    2) There is the question of HOW Adam was created. An omnipotent God can certainly make a modern human out of rock, bone, dust, or nothing; it thus cannot be logically asserted that He cannot also make a modern human out of a pre-human hominid primate. I’m not at all sure that there is all that much difference between any of these from God’s perspective. At the same time, however, it is one thing to believe that species can change and differentiate over time (and there is good evidence for this); it is quite another to claim that a pre-human hominid can change itself into a modern human made “in the image of God”. Gen 2:7 and and 3:19 form bookends for the entire passage, and they are PROFOUNDLY TRUE. Ask any scientist and they will affirm that we and everything in or on this planet comes from the dust of ancient exploded supernovae. (As for Eve and the whole rib thing, Adam was asleep and it wasn’t an eyewitness account, so can’t we all just read this as metaphor?)

    3) Finally, there is the question of whether or not Adam and Eve were the ONLY humans that God created initially. The scientific evidence seems to suggest that there was at least a small population of modern humans from the beginning. The Bible is actually silent as to whether or not there were other humans besides just Adam and Eve created. Absence of evidence does not mean evidence of absence. We can consider this, however: where did the brides for the sons of Adam and Eve come from? Their sisters??? That seems to be what most people have always thought, but can that really be right? In Gen 1, God pronounces His creation as being “good”. How good can it have been if incest was programmed in as an absolute necessity right at the very beginning? There is a much better answer, and that is that He created a small population of other humans at the same time in order to provide a large enough gene pool and interbreeding possibilities. Given a few generations of interbreeding, everyone would carry Adam’s genes, and it can fairly be said that all of us today do as well. Both theology and science can coexist.

    Theologians can believe if they want that fidelity to the Bible requires throwing science in the trash can, and Scientists can believe if they want that fidelity to the scientific evidence requires throwing the Bible in the trash can. I choose to believe that all truth is God’s truth, that there need be no final conflict between science and scripture, and that it is possible to reconcile both with intellectual integrity.

  • iain lovejoy

    If the Bible is a book about God and his relationship with man, rather than a history or science textbook, is it not inerrant on these subjects, and inerrancy irrelevant when it comes to anything else?
    The point of, for example, the story of the flood is not to tell the reader that there was a flood (since, which we can forget, this was a traditional story everyone already knew before the Bible was written) but to explain to the reader what the flood story said about God.
    Is it relevant that the story of the prodigal son never happened? Did Jesus err?
    Would it be relevant if the flood was not global but only in the known world of those who suffered it, or did not last as long, or the number of animsls on board were mistaken, or the precise dimensions of the ark? Would this mean we could not rely on it for our understanding of God?

  • The empty tomb, resurrection and bodily ascension tales in the NT raise obvious questions. There is the partisan nature of the eye witnesses, since the non-partisan majority in Jerusalem heard tales but didn’t see the raised Jesus for themselves. Nor does anyone in the NT say they saw Jesus exit the tomb. There is also the lack of first-hand testimonies in the NT except for Paul who only says “he appeared to me.” The rest of the testimonies are second-hand, third-hand or more, repetitions of tales.

    Empty tomb stories, or translation to heaven stories, constituted part of a common script in the first century.

    Also, the rise of a belief in, and expectation of, bodily resurrection preceded the tales in the NT concerning Jesus. Those NT tales might reflect such a rising tide of belief and expectation, and thus one might expect “post-death appearances” of Jesus to have been interpreted and presented in the form of “bodily physical resurrection” stories.

    The bodily ascension tale of Jesus parallels many such tales, from Enoch and Elijah to Moses’ own ascension, a tale that had become popular in Josephus’ day. It also reflects the ancient cosmological view that heaven lay literally above the earth, which cosmologists no longer believe.

    Christianity raises as many intellectual and historical questions as it claims to answer, if not more…

  • I got to interview Chuck Templeton before he began to suffer from Alzheimer’s and died. Billy also visited him when he had Alzheimer’s. Chuck also allowed me to republish the story of his Evangelistic years (and his debates with Billy Graham) in Leaving the Fold: Testimonies of Former Fundamentalists. That chapter is online here:

  • accelerator

    1. Graham supported “The Battle for The Bible,” as a point of accuracy. He simply thought it was secondary. Some things cannot be finally proved. But he believed in Inerrancy like Old-schoolers, and looked for no compromises like those spelled out now.

    2. This parallel the Mormon’s “Book of Abraham” saga. They believe it by faith, all evidence to the contrary. But the big difference here is evolutionn JEPD, etc are all simply far, far away rom being proven theories. While the LDS Book of Abraham can be placed under the microscope, Genesis cannot in the same way be examined and disproven. Whether it is providence or luck, faith in the Bible remains more credible or arguable a position, no matter the protestations of Moderns. Unlike bad translations of Egyptian.

    3. Christianity stands or falls on a series of doctrines, one of which is Original Sin. Peter Enns is trying to reinvent the religion so he can still believe it. His project may be well-meaning, but it is arrogant and self-defeating. If Paul is wrong, the whole Born-Again thing collapses. There is a reason Evangelicals are so fond of the Book of Romans.