Adam, Adam, Adam … Wright (RJS)

Adam, Adam, Adam … Wright (RJS) July 23, 2013

All together now … Duck, Duck, Duck, Gray Duck. I prefer this to pin the tail on the donkey.  In this game someone is in the middle, someone is it, and we get to chase each other around in circles, having fun together.

Last Thursday Scot put up a clip, Strong Words, Certainly Fair, from Peter Enns that explored the question of Adam and Eve and ended with a plea for conversation: “It is time for evangelicalism to sit down and think this one through–without feeling that lines have to be drawn immediately, theological turf has to be protected, or that “the gospel is at stake” every five minutes.

I agree with Pete that we need to be able to have a conversation without believing that the gospel is at stake every five minutes. That includes exploring the way Pete approaches Adam, Eve, and Paul as he outlines in The Evolution of Adam. I learned a great deal from this book and recommend it highly as a conversation starter. Pete is serious about scripture. But it is only a beginning, it is not the end of the conversation. The argument that some views of Adam are an ad hoc variation of pin the (evolutionary) tail on the (evangelical) donkey is a bit harsh, but it is a point we have to consider in the conversation.

In The Language of Science and Faith by Karl Giberson and Francis Collins outline possible views one can take of Genesis 1-3 in light of modern science without dismissing Genesis as mere fiction. These must be both theologically and scientifically sound. Genesis 1-3 must be read for the text it is, looking for the intended theological message.

1. Non literalist readings with Adam and the fall as an “everyman” story. The story reflects the dark side present within all of us. We all rebel against God and we need God’s grace. This approach certainly avoids the problem of grafting evolution onto evangelical doctrine.  I wonder, however, if it does justice to the theological content of scripture.

2. Adam is Israel. Rather than an “everyman” story, some suggest that the story of Adam is the beginning of Israel not the beginning of humanity.  Pete Enns has suggested this “Adam is Israel” approach as an angle on the text and put it out for discussion. (See the post Adam is Israel and his book The Evolution of Adam). From Enns:

There are two ways of looking at this parallel. You could say that the Adam story came first and then the Israelites just followed that pattern. But there is another way. Maybe Israel’s history happened first, and the Adam story was written to reflect that history. In other words, the Adam story is really an Israel story placed in primeval time. It is not a story of human origins but of Israel’s origins.

This is an approach that takes scripture seriously as the word of God. It is an approach that must be on the table as we discuss the issues surrounding Adam. It avoids the problem of grafting evolution onto evangelical doctrine. It really sidesteps the issue of Adam. It may or may not be right, but it is not heretical and it does not undermine the gospel.

3. Historical Views. Finally, there are historical views that work with the evidence.

A common synthetic view integrating the biblical and scientific accounts sees human-like creatures evolving as the scientific evidence indicates, steadily becoming more capable of relating to God. At a certain point in history, God entered into a special relationship with those who had developed the necessary characteristics, endowing them with the gift of his image. With this spiritual gift came the ability to know and experience evil – an opportunity grasped with tragic consequences that have carried through the history of our species. (p.212)

The third approach is the one that raises some issues. There are many different ways a historical scenario can be placed on the table. Some of these are more strained or ad hoc than others. It is wise to consider how much they resemble pin the (evolutionary) tail on the (evangelical) donkey – but only as part of a more complete discussion. Pete mentioned two historical scenarios in his post: (1) to see Adam and Eve as the first hominids in the evolutionary line that God chose as the first representative humans, and (2) “Adam and Eve” represent the gene pool from which the current world population is has descended.” Sometimes these scenarios are presented in a way where they do seem to represent grafts of evolution onto evangelical doctrine. They strain credulity. This is particularly true when the overriding concern is to protect the inerrancy of scripture rather than to wrestle with the theological content of Romans 5 or Genesis 3 or the rest of scripture.

But do all historical scenarios necessarily fall into this same trap?

One of the commenter on last week’s post pointed to an interview with N.T. Wright by Andrew Wilson that has been posted (Andrew Wilson Interview with Tom Wright). The interview covered a number of interesting questions and I recommend it highly. You can download and listen to the whole interview through the link to Wilson’s site. (I was particularly interested in Wright’s answers to questions concerning the Holy Spirit.)  One of the questions Wilson raised in the interview was the question of Adam and Eve. Wright takes a historical view that works with the evidence but is a position that Enns likely considers ad hoc. Nonetheless it is a position clearly worth putting on the table. I transcribe just the relevant bits below (the section on Adam contains just a little more discussion).

AW Paraphrased question: What do you do with Adam as historical or not in the light of Paul? How do you read Adam in the Old Testament bearing in mind Paul?

NTW: It is very interesting. I’ve been privileged to be part of some conversations in America recently with the BioLogos Foundation …

There are basically four positions … But position one would be to say Genesis is just straightforward factual reporting. This is how it was ex nihilo. There is suddenly – ping – there’s human beings on the sixth day.

At the other end of the scale you have the option which says this is all simply picture language and in fact hominids evolved over millenia and there was no special moment etcetra. So this is all creating a sort of a fictitious golden age of the past.

But then in between those two polar opposites … there are two other positions and the one which I think … I … hold would go something like this, and I’m not, this is not something I’ve spent a lot of time on, but the first thing to say is that it is very interesting that in the Old Testament itself hardly anything is made of Adam, which is kind of curious to a Christian looking at it. So when I started to work on Romans I assumed that an Adamic doctrine of Original Sin was deep in Judaism and Paul was just picking it up, and the answer is actually it isn’t. Talk to conservative Jews, liberal Jews, second Temple Jews, there isn’t a doctrine of Original Sin until 4th Ezra and 2 Baruch, which were written after the destruction of the temple in AD 70.  Where the destruction of the temple has forced them to say ‘we were aware of problems, but now we realize that it must be much worse than we’d ever imagined and maybe it all goes back to Adam after all.

And I think what you see in Paul is something very similar, that the death of Jesus has forced him to say ‘the problem of the world must be much worse than we ever imagined. It has been solved by one man. Goodness, maybe that’s actually what that story was about. It wasn’t just a picture to get us going as it were.

So I then want to say that, in so far as I understand contemporary evolutionary biology, which is not my field at all, I am not a scientist, I think I want to say that yes, over millenia God created creatures we call hominids, but that at a specific time, just like God called Abraham and Sarah from among the other potentially nomadic peoples of the middle east and said ‘you’re going to be the bearers of my purpose‘, so God called an original primal pair and said ‘Now this thing is fairly chaotic at the moment. You are going to be the ones through whom I am going to plant a garden and we’re going to bring my wisdom, my stewardship, and my love into the world in a whole new way.‘ And it seems to me that is a story one can tell with integrity, both as a serious reader of scripture and as somebody prepared to do business with contemporary science.

This is just a brief foray into the topic. I doubt that it is the final word, even from Wright should he continue to engage in the conversation. But it brings another set of issues to the table. Wright sees importance in a original primal pair called by God. We don’t have in this short interview enough detail to see where he would take it and how the details would work out (he may not have gone that far yet himself). But the idea that God called his people (or an original primal pair) is not necessarily a graft of evolution onto evangelical doctrine. It is an attempt to wrestle seriously with the theological point that Paul is making in Romans.

Is this simply an attempt to salvage some favored doctrine from the evolutionary trash can?

But I won’t simply put the views of others up for discussion and criticism. I’ll put mine forward as well.  Feel free to pick at it. Personally I lean toward a view similar to the view suggested by CS Lewis in The Problem of Pain, Ch. 5 The Fall of Man:

For long centuries, God perfected the animal form which was to become the vehicle of humanity and the image of Himself.  … Then in fullness of time, God caused to descend upon this organism, both on its psychology and physiology, a new kind of consciousness which could say “I” and “me,” which could look upon itself as an object, which knew God, which could make judgments of truth, beauty, and goodness, and which was so far above time that is could perceive time flowing past. … We do not know how many of these creatures God made, nor how long they continued in the Paradisal state.  But sooner or later they fell.

I am not convinced of a historical “Adam” as a unique individual, but more convinced of a historical fall of some sort. Genesis 3 describes some kind of universal fall and this is an important theological truth that sets the stage. One could take this to suggest that “Adam and Eve” represent the gene pool from which the current world population is has descended.”  That kind of explicit connection would be reading 21st century science into the text. However, I am not convinced that it is ad hoc to read some kind of concrete fall into Genesis 3 and to suggest that this concrete fall was in some sense universal, even as the writer uses a context well understood to the ancient audience to convey this idea (see for example, The Garden in Ancient Context).

Pete suggests that “Maybe Israel’s history happened first, and the Adam story was written to reflect that history.” I wonder if, perhaps, the strength of Israel’s experience caused those who compiled the Old Testament as we now have it to realize (and don’t discount the power of the Spirit here) that the problem went deeper than Israel alone. The pattern of rebellion and failure went all the way back to the beginning of mankind. The Adam story was written to reflect this truth, not to recapitulate Israel’s story. Paul reads this in the light of what he knows about Christ and his death and resurrection. He may or may not have thought of Adam as a unique individual – this doesn’t make much difference.

Is this simply an attempt to salvage some favored doctrine from the evolutionary trash can?

Christ is the point. I’d like to end with a final point, one I’ve returned to on many occasions. The central point of Christianity is Christ – God’s relationship with his people and the incarnation of God becoming human, entering time and creation. Christ is certainly the center of Paul’s theology and the focus of his argument in Romans. If salvation through Christ requires only that humans are sinful and accountable before God any of the scenarios above are theologically acceptable. The gospel isn’t at stake in the discussion.

Much more conversation and prayer is required to think through all of the details. But we have to have the discussion at a serious level.

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

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