An Adam Seminar (RJS)

An Adam Seminar (RJS) August 20, 2015

france_paris_notre-dame-adam_and_eve-dsAs I wrap up a rather exhausting (and exhilarating) period of travel I would like to take the opportunity today to highlight yet another set of conversations on the question of Adam, perhaps the key issue at the intersection of science with Christian faith for many. Books and Culture just recently concluded a series of posts – a Symposium on the Historical Adam. The series consists of initial positions and responses on the question of Adam with contributions covering a range of views. Contributors include in alphabetical order: Peter Enns, Karl Giberson, Denis O. Lamoureux, Hans Madueme, Harry “Hal” Lee Poe, John Schneider, William VanDoodewaard,  and John H. Walton. Links to all of the articles in the series can be found in John Wilson’s brief wrap-up article Adam’s Ancestors and with each of the separate contributions as well.

We’ve covered works by many of these authors in the past, in particular Peter Enns (The Evolution of Adam), Denis Lamoureux (Evolutionary Creation), John Walton (The Lost World of Adam and Eve) and Harry Lee Poe (God and the Cosmos with Jimmy H. Davis) among others. You can find links to the posts on these books under the Science & Faith link at the top of the blog.  All of them have thought quite deeply and carefully about the issues involved, although they emphasize different points.

Hans Madueme and William VanDoodewaard argue for a “traditional” understanding of Adam. VanDoodewaard just published a book The Quest for the Historical Adam laying out his position in more detail – I haven’t read it yet, but will see about getting a copy. Madueme edited a book defending the need for a historical Adam Adam, the Fall, and Original Sin, although not all contributors take this to require a young earth perspective.

Peter Enns, Denis Lamoureax, Karl Giberson and John Schneider do not take the “traditional” view.

We’ve just finished a long series on John Walton’s book – although he sees Genesis as teaching a historical Adam, he doesn’t see Genesis as teaching a straightforward Adam and Eve as unique progenitors of all humans.

Harry Lee Poe takes yet a different tack – and doesn’t give a clear position that I could discern. But he makes a number of good points, especially in his second round response.

If the Bible is only “received wisdom from the past,” then it has no more relevance for our time than Homer’s Iliad. On the other hand, if the Bible is revelation from God, as I believe, then we should be very careful to distinguish between the Bible and our theology. Theology is usually wrong to some degree. Some theology is more wrong than other theology, because it is always only human reflection and rationalization about our faith. It is not revelation from God. Just as scientific theories may sound good for a few centuries and then collapse, theology is a frail flower.

He suggests (if I read him right) that much of the controversy surrounding Adam derives from interpretation, tradition, and theology rather than from scripture. This can be seen in the way that the conversation is so often framed. If Adam is not historical this or that aspect of our theology is undermined. This is the wrong approach – we need to put the Bible, not our flavor of theology or favorite interpretation, front and center. As many an Old Testament scholar will acknowledge, the “traditional” view is not the only reading of the text, and perhaps not even a particularly careful reading of the text. In fact Poe argues that “the greatest challenge to a young-earth view is the biblical text.”  We have to know what the text is and what truth it is trying to convey in order to interpret it properly. “The Enlightenment standard of truth as empirical knowledge and brute fact is alien to the variety of forms revelation takes in the Bible (Heb. 1:1).”

I would put it like this. We need to be grounded in the sweep of scripture from Genesis to Revelation, especially in the Prophets and the Gospels. If we are grounded in the sweep of scripture then the Adam question can be put into perspective. It becomes clear that our theologies and systems are human reflections and as such imperfect pictures of God and His truth. It seems impossible to get all the data into one nice neat wrapped package. We need a degree of humility as we wrestle with our faith. On top of that Adam simply doesn’t come up that much at all … essentially absent from the picture from Genesis 3 to Romans 5 (except for a few genealogies). He vanishes from the picture again after 1 Corinthians 15. In Romans 5 and 1 Corinthians 15 Paul’s focus isn’t on Adam. Paul’s focus is on Christ. We can be wrong about Adam and nothing really changes if we are focused on Christ and on the sweep of scripture.

The topic of Adam is worth careful consideration and much conversation. We will learn a great deal in the process. But I am convinced that nothing of true significance hangs in the balance.

320px-Michelangelo_SündenfallJohn Wilson’s brief wrap-up article highlights a book, Adam’s Ancestors by David Livingstone, that I’ve posted on and found useful. (The three most recent here: Adam’s Ancestors, Pre-Adamite Populations?, Pre-Adamism and Hermeneutic.)   The history of Christian thought and the rabbit trails that have been followed at times should lead us in a direction of caution and humility.

And … the female serpent so common in medieval and Renaissance art should caution us against assuming that there is and always has been one simple unified interpretation of Genesis.  Few of us today would read this into the “traditional” view of the snake in Genesis 3, yet it was quite common in the past (Notre Dame Cathedral above, Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel here).

To what extent should our theology guide our view of Adam?

How important is the question of Adam and why?

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

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  • Norman

    RJS, I would like to quibble a bit with your statement here. “On top of that Adam simply doesn’t come up that much at all … essentially absent from the picture from Genosis”. Technically you are correct and this is a point that Pete Enns likes to make. However it tends to leave the impression that the first Christians and 2nd T Jews were not interested in the Adam perspective which I would challenge a little. Our problem is that we just aren’t familiar with the rest of the Story that was part of 2nd T Judaism. This is where Scots talk was indeed helpful for those who aren’t cognizant that there was a “literary Adam” that was useful for theological examination. I would go as far to say that Paul was a product of this environment and his excursions in Romans 5 and 1Cor 15 reflect this influence. I believe it is helpful to understand this background to perhaps decipher what Paul implies that we may be missing.

  • Chris Criminger

    RJS says, “We can be wrong about Adam and nothing really changes if we are focused on Christ and on the sweep of Scripture.” I believe this really says it all and sums things up quite nicely.

  • Eric Anderson

    The understanding posited here robs the lowly of us from simply opening our Bibles and taking the words for what they say. It would have us rely on men who, for the most part, do not shepherd local congregations. To dismiss a simple reading of Scripture is not an interpretation, tradition or theological issue. It is an offense to common sensibility.

  • RJS4DQ


    But the lowly of us always rely on men who do not, for the most part, shepherd local congregations. The text wasn’t written in English in the modern culture. We rely on scholarly translation of language and culture to lead us to the meaning of the text.

  • Phil Miller

    I have encountered some “simple readings of Scripture” that are pretty atrocious. Look at some the horrible readings of Revelation, for example, or some of the stuff related to the prosperity gospel.

    I understand the concern to a degree. I recently finished Eugene Peterson’s Eat This Book, and he spends a good deal talking about how the language of Scripture is the language of the common man, not of the elite. I think, though, it’s also important to realize that Scripture was meant to be read in the context of the community of believers. So when beliefs that are different from the historic core arise, they can be dealt with. As far as the age of the earth, it was never a dogmatic issue until relatively recently. Even the historicity of the OT in general was not something that was always taken as literal and wooden.

  • Don Bryant

    I am inclined to think this is true, though I struggle intellectually fully defending it. I have found this to be true with respect to any number of other “necessary” doctrines that in the end didn’t seem to negatively affect the final outcome of a person’s full-orbed adherence to Christ. In system building, of course, every piece of the system becomes necessary, and in this manner there can no difference between a major and a minor. Thus, majestic systematic theologies are constructed. Individual doctrines are then judged by how necessary they are to the fuller system. It is a deductive argument that seems to offer us final proof, and the deduction becomes as important, maybe even more so, than exegesis.

  • danaames

    If one is a sola scriptura kind of person, the question of Adam is important, even if one does not hold to inerrantism, because Adam is the pattern for where a human being is at least to start, as well as St Paul making the typological connection to Christ.

    The theology of EOrthodoxy is found in its liturgical sung verse. Adam figures quite prominently in Lent, especially. Listening to the texts, which usually involve God speaking, it is very often as if God is speaking not only to one person named Adam, but also to the whole of humanity. I think this is consistent with not only the Hebrew meaning of the word “adam,” but also with God’s saving activity benefiting all people.

    Most Orthodox don’t get hung up on this. The Greek fathers were not sidetracked by questions of historicity – those weren’t the questions with which they were dealing.


  • Andrew Dowling

    The Bible was originally written in Hebrew and ancient Greek; I don’t know of any “common folk” who can sit down and translate a 2000 year old Greek text into modern English.

  • Eric Anderson

    Brothers, this is not a matter of translation here. The hard work of translation has been done. If no other English translations come about, we have all of the words and they are pretty clear. The issue isn’t that man has been the translator of Scripture. The issue is that this post trades a more fundamental approach to Scripture for science, culture and cleverness. Instead of getting its interpretation, tradition and theology from the words of Scrpture, it imposes outside influences onto it and those things become a kind of sieve. It will eventually make the Scripture itself dependent on whatever those things are and become, because those things are always changing.

  • Andrew Dowling

    They aren’t “pretty clear” hence countless denominations and interpretations over thousands of years.