The Historicity of Adam: A “Gospel” Issue?

I should be doing schoolwork, but where’s the fun in that?  Let’s blog.

Recently, Kevin DeYoung wrote an article titled, “10 reasons to Believe in a Historical Adam,” in which he, well, lists ten reasons to believe in a historical Adam.  Go figure.  In it, he shows his great displeasure towards those Christians who do not believe so or are accepting of those who don’t believe so, calling them “self-proclaimed evangelicals,” and he claims that the subject is a “gospel issue.”  He quotes Tim Keller, who essentially says that the gospel story falls apart if one does not hold that Adam was a real dude and that to do so denies the core of Paul’s teaching.

In response, a more liberal Christian, Dr. James McGrath, professor in New Testament language and literature at Butler University, wrote a scathing piece blasting all of DeYoung’s reasons, calling him a fundamentalist who may even be idolatrous by treating the Bible as completely infallible when only God is.  He goes on to say how the issue can be a stumbling block to more scientifically-minded people if Christians like DeYoung insist on treating Adam as historical.

When it comes to viewing the Bible’s overall authority, I would obviously side with DeYoung; I do believe in inerrancy, unlike McGrath.  However, this does not mean that I agree with everything DeYoung says or disagree with everything McGrath says.  Like McGrath, I will quote DeYoung’s reasons and write a brief comment on each because, well, I’m bored.

On the outset, I will say this:  While I require much more reading on this topic to review all the different arguments, I affirm the historicity of Adam, primarily because the New Testament seems to treat him that way.  That’s not me trying to supplant New Testament theology over Old (calm down, OT scholars), but simply that I am trying to use Scripture to interpret Scripture.  Anyway, let’s move on to DeYoung’s list:

1. The Bible does not put an artificial wedge between history and theology. Of course, Genesis is not a history textbook or a science textbook, but that is far from saying we ought to separate the theological wheat from the historical chaff. Such a division owes to the Enlightenment more than the Bible.

He’s right that the Bible doesn’t do this, but it also isn’t a book written with our modern historical or scientific standards in mind, nor does it preclude the use of other genres to communicate God’s truth.  None of this denies that the Bible is inerrant but only that it needs to be read in its ancient context and with its purpose in mind.  I’m honestly a bit puzzled about where DeYoung is going with this.

2. The biblical story of creation is meant to supplant other ancient creation stories more than imitate them. Moses wants to show God’s people “this is how things really happened.” The Pentateuch is full of warnings against compromise with the pagan culture. It would be surprising, then, for Genesis to start with one more mythical account of creation like the rest of the ANE.

Another puzzling reason.  He’s right that the biblical story of creation is, at least in part, polemical against other creation stories, but is Moses really trying to show the Israelites that that is exactly how God created?  Were they even asking the same questions we are now regarding that?  Wouldn’t this contradict his later statement that it’s ok for Christians to disagree on the age of the earth if that was Moses’ purpose?  Also, we need not separate ancient Israel from its ancient Near East setting to establish the Bible as true and authoritative.  They were significantly different than their neighbors in many important respects (like, obviously, monotheism), but they were a part of that world, and seeing similarities in thought between those cultures is not necessarily a pagan compromise.

Perhaps an example would help.  I reviewed a book by John Walton titled The Lost World of Genesis One, and in it he argues that the Ancient Near Eastern concept of creation had more to do with functions than material origins.  Thus, he contends that the creation account is a description of God setting up his cosmic temple rather than detailing how God created everything materially.  He emphasizes that the Israelites would have of course believed that God was responsible for material origins as well, but that was not the concern in  Genesis 1.  He holds that the Bible is true and authoritative but argues that this is the most faithful reading of the text because it is interpreted from their cultural mindset and not ours, “We have neither the right nor the need to force the text to speak beyond its ken… the most respectful reading we can give to the text, the reading most faithful to the face value of the text… is the one that comes from their world and not ours” (106).  Now, one can definitely disagree with Walton’s conclusions or quibble with the fact that he may be being presumptuous about knowing how ancient people thought, but it would be inappropriate to think that Walton does not respect the biblical text and therefore compromising with pagan cosmology.

Furthermore, my Hebrew professor (who is not a dummy) emphatically believes that Genesis 1 is polemical, showing the utter foolishness of worshiping things that were in fact created by God, which was something all of Israel’s neighbors were doing.  The sun, the stars, the moon, the land, the sea, animals, etc., were all created by God and are therefore stupid objects of worship.  In this view, it would actually not be surprising that Genesis 1 mimics other creation accounts precisely because it is ridiculing them (a parody, basically).  In his view, it is not intended to tell us scientifically or historically how God created everything.  By the way, he strongly believes in inerrancy.

Quite ironically, then, it seems that DeYoung is the one here who may be woodenly putting Enlightenment principles upon the Bible.

3. The opening chapters of Genesis are stylized, but they show no signs of being poetry. Compare Genesis 1 with Psalm 104, for example, and you’ll see how different these texts are. It’s simply not accurate to call Genesis poetry. And even if it were, who says poetry has to be less historically accurate?

True enough; Genesis 1-2 does not seem to be poetry.  That still doesn’t mean it’s a historical narrative (at least, how modern historians would think of one) or a scientific account of creation.  It could be, but that is hardly settled by whether or not it’s poetry.

4. There is a seamless strand of history from Adam in Genesis 2 to Abraham in Genesis 12. You can’t set Genesis 1-11 aside as prehistory, not in the sense of being less than historically true as we normally understand those terms. Moses deliberately connects Abram with all the history that comes before him, all the way back to Adam and Eve in the garden.

Is it really that seamless?  Even many Young Earth Creationists will admit that genealogies often omit people–the Hebrew word for “son” can often just mean “descendent”–and therefore conclude that the earth is several hundred thousand years old rather than tens of thousands.  I agree that Moses deliberately connects Abram with those before him, but I’m not so certain he did so caring about our modern concerns of historical detail.  All that said, however, I agree with DeYoung that the existence of Adam in genealogies is a good reason to accept that Adam was, in fact, a historical figure, although I am not so sure that it is a “seamless” connection.

5. The genealogies in 1 Chronicles 1 and Luke 3 treat Adam as historical.

See above, and yes, they provide further biblical evidence that Adam is historical.

6. Paul believed in a historical Adam (Rom. 5:12-21; 1 Cor. 15:21-22, 45-49). Even some revisionists are honest enough to admit this; they simply maintain that Paul (and Luke) were wrong.

I agree, but one can debate this.  Paul’s rhetoric does not necessarily need a historical Adam, though I think it’s more straightforward to say that he believed there was such a guy.  On a side note, McGrath’s comment here shows his dislike for inerrancy, but he is woefully incorrect in accusing those who hold to that as being idolatrous.  We do not worship the Bible or believe that the writers themselves took on attributes of God.  We believe that they were led by the Holy Spirit to write certain things down and were enabled to do so without error concerning their intended purposes.

7. The weight of the history of interpretation points to the historicity of Adam. The literature of second temple Judaism affirmed an historical Adam. The history of the church’s interpretation also assumes it.

True, and such interpretation needs to be respected.  However, if Scripture is always our final authority, and we think a certain interpretation is more faithful to the text than a thousand years of interpretation, then we go with Scripture, although we must be wary of going against almost uniform interpretation over the course of centuries.

8. Without a common descent we lose any firm basis for believing that all people regardless of race or ethnicity have the same nature, the same inherent dignity, the same image of God, the same sin problem, and that despite our divisions we are all part of the same family coming from the same parents.

Don’t like this argument.  Denying that Adam is a historical figure in no way entails denying that men are created in the image of God and are therefore equal in nature, nor does it entail denying the sinful nature of man.  DeYoung swung and missed here.

9. Without a historical Adam, Paul’s doctrine of original sin and guilt does not hold together.

Not necessarily.  Even if a Christian believes that Adam is merely a typological figure, he believes that Adam is such a figure for the purpose of communicating the sinful nature of man.

As far as guilt, many Christians, most notably Eastern Orthodox Christians and even some Protestants, will deny that everyone is born guilty because of Adam’s sin.  This has to do with some Greek issues regarding Romans 5 and I will not get into it now, but suffice it to say, many Christians will disagree with the notion that Adam’s guilt is also imputed to his offspring, whether he was a real guy or not.  They believe that his sinful nature is inherited by everyone, but they believe that everyone is guilty for their own sins and not Adam’s.

10. Without a historical Adam, Paul’s doctrine of the second Adam does not hold together.

Again, not necessarily.  A Christian could hold that Paul’s rhetoric only requires the typological idea of Adam’s sin and how Christ saves us from that.  Paul’s comparison is not of a historical nature but one of type.  Typology does not necessarily exclude history (David was the prototype for the Messiah, and he was also a historical figure), but Paul could conceivably be comparing type vs. type without comparing the historicity of Adam with the more obvious historicity of Jesus.  However, once again, I do think this is strong evidence that Adam was a historical man.

At the end of the day, I am more sympathetic to DeYoung because such non-historical interpretations can get out of hand really fast; in fact, some try to apply it to the Gospels and deny the resurrection, like John Dominic Crossan, yet still call themselves Christian.  That is obviously nonsense.  Still, I am unwilling to go as far as to call it a “gospel issue,” as if the historicity of Adam is inseparably tied to the realization that one is a sinner who needs to place faith in Christ the Savior.  I think some of DeYoung’s reasons aren’t strong or could have been articulated better, and I’d be curious to see what his views are on the age of the earth.  I am glad he is trying to defend the truthfulness of Scripture, but I think we need to be careful about letting Scripture speak on its own terms rather than making it address questions that the authors may not have been concerned with.

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One thought on “The Historicity of Adam: A “Gospel” Issue?

  1. Pingback: Book Review of “The Language of Science and Faith:” Scientists Tackle Theology and Philosophy | leesomniac

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