The Historical Adam: It’s Time to Stop Hiding Under a Theological Security Blanket

The Historical Adam: It’s Time to Stop Hiding Under a Theological Security Blanket June 30, 2015

STOSOver at Books and Culture, I have been participating in a roundtable discussion concerning the historical Adam. The occasion is the launch of Karl Giberson’s latest book Saving the Original Sinner: How Christians Have Used the Bible’s First Man to Oppress, Inspire, and Make Sense of the World

Taking part in the discussion are 7 others who span the spectrum from “no historical Adam” to “without an Adam the gospel falls apart.” In round 1, we each wrote one post expressing our own position (here is mine). Now in round 2 we are responding as we choose (given limited space).

I chose to respond to the two “without an Adam the gospel falls apart” contributors, Hans Madueme and William VanDoodewaard. Both are staunchly conservative Calvinists, Madueme a theologian at Covenant College and VanDoodewaard a church historian at Puritan Theological Seminary.

Both are also quite confident that the Bible demands a literal, historical Adam, the church needs one, and whatever evolutionary science or biblical studies say to the contrary can safely be set to the side.

Some of my readers may remember Madueme’s review of The Evolution of Adam: What the Bible Does and Doesn’t Say about Human OriginsAs a rule I do not respond to reviews of my books on my blog, but Madueme’s was so transparently ideologically driven, I felt it would be worth while to expose the obscurantist rhetoric so common in this discussion. Unfortunately, he repeats the substance of his earlier view here in this roundtable.

And you wonder why people get frustrated at this discussion.

My post at Books and Culture is titled “Ignoring the Problem Won’t Make It GoAway.” I am reposting this post below (lightly edited), largely because it is not open to comments at Books and Culture. For those interested in this discussion, please be sure visit the roundtable!


I am happy to see this discussion taking place, and the posts thus far have certainly shared diverse perspectives, each of which could be engaged in detail.

We see a clear divide in the posts to this roundtable—and it is a routine divide to anyone familiar with the debate within evangelicalism over evolutionary theory: those who accept evolution and who then engage the resulting hermeneutical and theological issues, and those who do not accept evolution because of the perceived harm it does to existing theological categories.

I am among those on the former side of the divide. I accept evolution as the explanation for how life on earth came to be. The scientific community, which includes Christians in general and as well as evangelicals, is in harmony on this point: there is no “first human.”

This scientific conclusion is not a trend, nor is it a “theory” teetering on the crumbling foundation of godless thinking. It is well established and utterly uncontroversial, and for that reason requires serious engagement by any who seek to take seriously both Scripture and the advance of human knowledge.

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. Adam, though a minor character in the Bible, is—we are told—nevertheless a key pillar upon which the gospel rests.

That small minority position is represented with remarkable–even bracing–clarity by two of the contributors to this roundtable, Hans Madueme and William VanDoodewaard, both sharing a deep and nonnegotiable commitment to conservative Calvinist theology.

Though neither is trained in the study of Scripture in its ancient setting nor in the relevant sciences—both of which are central components of the discussion—they are nevertheless fully confident in rejecting the contributions of these disciplines and remaining steadfast in their unalterable commitment to a “historical Adam.”

By choosing to ignore or minimize the prevailing scientific consensus on human origins and generations of biblical scholarship in ancient origins stories, they have also chosen to leave the conversation rather than contribute to it.

On a personal level, I have no quarrel with Madueme and VanDoodewaard, or others who might be content with the view they espouse. But as presumably public voices of reason seeking to defend a point of view and persuade others to adopt it, they have pursued a rhetorical strategy of ignoring or minimizing factors elsewhere considered to be well established and utterly uncontroversial.

This strategy should be labeled for what it is: obscurantist apologetics, which neither serves followers of Christ nor truth. And the great irony is that such tactics wind up alienating people from the very faith tradition they are so concerned to perpetuate.

Theological needs, no matter how closely held, cannot and do not determine the matter before us—whether there was a first human—because the question of human origins leaves “footprints” amenable to scientific and historical investigation. In other words, “Where do humans come from?” is a public question that can be answered through scholarly/scientific means in a way that “Does God exist?” or “Did Jesus rise from the dead?” cannot.

The fact that the scientific investigation of human origins has caused a theological problem does not mean evolution “must” be wrong, as Madueme and VanDoodewaard seem content to establish as a logical premise. It means, rather, that Christians have a theological problem. The question is how—or whether—this challenge will be addressed.

The pressing nature of the theological challenges of evolution to Christian theology are not successfully handled through the adoption of apologetic tactics, the goal of which seems to be precisely disengagement from the hard theological, philosophical, and hermeneutical work before us.

The specific rhetorical tactic employed by Madueme and VanDoodewaard is to argue from theological consequences and goes something like this:

“If evolution is true and there is noTEA biological first man, then what we believe is false. Since what we believe is true, this consequence is unacceptable and we are therefore well within our right—indeed it is our sacred obligation—to do what is necessary to neutralize evolution by simply declaring it false.”

Arguing from theological consequences is at best bad logic and at worst a manipulative tactic rooted in deep fear. None of us, including Madueme and VanDoodewaard, would tolerate for one moment this line of reasoning if employed by defenders of other ideologies.

Madueme and VanDoodewaard will no doubt contend that their view rests on the solid foundation of Scripture, though putting it this way, admirable as it is, nevertheless ignores the hermeneutical and theological complexities of Genesis recognized by many others.

In truth, their foundation is not really “Scripture”—as if its meaning were plain—but rather the “proper” reading of Scripture, which is determined by their theological tradition (better, their interpretation of their theological tradition—not all Calvinists would agree with them!).

In other words, Madueme and VanDoodewaard give final adjudicatory authority not to the Bible (despite their rhetoric) but to their theological tradition whenever science or historical biblical scholarship raises questions about the historical nature of the Bible, including the historical reliability of the Adam story.

Such unwillingness to reflect critically on that theological tradition in view of historical studies is the reason why the impasse between the two “divides” mentioned at the outset continues. No true dialogue will emerge until this underlying issue is addressed.

I do not mean to suggest that Madueme and VanDoodewaard are lone voices for the view they espouse here in this roundtable. In fact, their view is common among fundamentalist and conservative evangelical apologists. But we do not do justice to the very real impact of evolution on Christian theology by disengaging from the challenge in favor of maintaining those very theological categories that the scientific and scholarly consensus has called into question.

Those committed to Christian faith amid the challenges of our contemporary world deserve better than hiding under a theological security blanket, wishing all the problems away.

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