Considering Adam, by Hans Madueme

THE HISTORICAL ADAM: HANS MADUEME

Death of God by Poison

“Adam, where art thou?” The Lord’s rhetorical question in Eden is now the intense cry of incredulous Christians in a post-Darwinian world. Influential evangelicals are urging the church to jettison the doctrine of an original couple who fell into sin. Most believers in the world today would find this fact astonishing; they would never think to question that sin’s origin with Adam lies at the foundation of the entire biblical story (Gen 2-3). If you pressed them for scriptural support, they might invoke Adam’s integral role in the genealogies ofGen 1-11 and Luke 3:23-38, and in a biblical theology of marriage (Matt 19:1-11;Mark 10:1-9; 1 Cor 6:16; Eph 5:31); his existence is declared or implied throughout the canon (see Jack Collins, Did Adam and Eve Really Exist?[Crossway, 2011]). Without a historical Adam, most would think, we cannot make sense of original sin or the origin of evil, nor did any of the major branches of Christendom ever doubt the existence of Adam and Eve. That’s all just for starters.

But, for many, that Adamic edifice is collapsing. Two key reasons deserve mention. The first reason is scriptural interpretation, i.e., hermeneutics. Biblical scholars have experienced an explosion of growth in their understanding of the ancient Near Eastern contexts of the Old Testament; in turn that has led them to reinterpret the early chapters of Genesis (and other passages). The historical significance of Adam, as a result, is either radically diminished or entirely rejected. In denying Adam’s role in history, these scholars often make the distinction between biblical authority and hermeneutics: “We don’t deny the Bible’s reliability; we simply disagree with your interpretation of Gen 1-3, Rom 5, etc.” Properly understood, they insist, God’s Word no longer commits us to a historical Adam.

The second reason is the evidence from the natural sciences. For example, mainstream accounts from disciplines like paleoanthropology, evolutionary biology, and population genetics leave no room for an original couple. People are thus left asking, is this our “Copernican” moment? If we keep defending Adam, don’t we risk becoming like the Roman Catholic Church in the 17th century, digging in our heels and insisting that the Bible—interpreted through a particular lens—trumps all scientific theories? Many evangelicals are saying yes; in light of what scientists are reporting, we must recast biblical Adam in mythical terms. Serious Christians take science seriously; good science is an examination of general revelation, a gift of God’s common grace. We can’t be ostriches, they warn, burying our heads in the sand whenever the scientific facts rule against us.

I’m not convinced by either reason, and here’s why. Regarding the hermeneutical point, on one level, yes—a rousing Amen!—Protestants committed to sola scriptura insist on separating Scripture’s inerrancy from our interpretation of it. But we should tread carefully, because this valid Reformation insight can become a truism, a shibboleth, especially in the science-theology dialogue. I don’t know anyone who denies it. My problem is not with the principle of distinguishing the inerrant Scriptures from our fallible interpretations, except to note that using it rhetorically often begs the question, i.e., assumes the truth of what is precisely in question. Obviously, if you agree with scientists that a historical Adam is impossible, then devising fresh hermeneutical strategies to resolve the tension with Scripture is a logical move. In fact, however, the Bible does very clearly depict a historical Adam; such revisionist exegesis goes against the grain of the text, driven by scientific prejudgments that set epistemic limits on what the Bible can say. That’s a mistake; Scripture unshackled—not science—is the self-authenticating authority.

Turning to the scientific “facts,” let me call into question any commitment to methodological naturalism, the notion that we can only appeal to naturalphenomena when doing genuine science. Methodological naturalism is the status quo among scientists and enshrined in the scientific perspectives that conflict with the Adamic events of Scripture. Theologically speaking, methodological naturalism strikes me as deeply problematic. To use Alvin Plantinga’s language, it yields a truncated science; it does not appeal to the full evidence base—an evidence base that, I would argue, includes divine revelation and all the glorious realities to which it attests. Once we reject methodological naturalism, we will have a truer and richer appraisal of the biblical witness and the world it signifies. An appropriately expanded understanding of biblical reality includes Adam’s historicity and its vital theological implications; for those of us who find those implications compelling, any scientific opinion that rules out Adam will fail to convince.

And there’s the rub. One side judges an original couple impossible by dint of the scientific testimony; my side judges their scientific claims impossible by dint of Adam’s theological significance. We can unpack this last point with reference to soteriology and the doctrine of God. The incarnation and redemption were necessitated by Adam’s ruinous disobedience of God (Rom 5:12, 16). Notice the redemptive-historical logic. Adam, through whom we became sinners, sinned in history; Jesus Christ, through whom we have justification, brought salvation in history. “The two truths or facts by which all of Christian dogmatics is governed,” remarked Herman Bavinck, “are (1) the fall of Adam and (2) the resurrection of Christ” (Reformed Dogmatics 3:38). The tapestry of salvation history extends between Adam and Christ; take away Adam and the whole thing unravels.

Our picture of God is also in jeopardy. Whatever verdict we make on Adam’s fall has a direct bearing on our theology of evil. Why are human lives riddled with sin that never ceases and with the agonies of pain, suffering, and death? What is the origin of evil? There are only three possible answers to this ancient question. The first is Dualism, the idea that evil is an eternal, godlike principle that has always existed alongside God (e.g., Zoroastrianism; Manichaeism). The second is Monism—good and evil are forces jostling within God himself; God becomes morally ambiguous, unholy, light and darkness springing from the very being of God. Without Adam’s fall, evil is part of the fabric of creation, and the holiness of God—the Creator—is thus poisoned, incurably.

The only answer left, an answer fraught with theological moment, is that in history evil ruptured God’s good creation; that evil was the rebellion of a historical Adam, an event wondrously rescinded by the atoning work of a historical Jesus. Current scientific orthodoxy may judge this position impossible, but it is the only possible position for theological orthodoxy.

Hans Madueme is an Assistant Professor of Theological Studies at Covenant College in Lookout Mountain, Georgia, and previously served as the Managing Director of the Carl F. H. Henry Center for Theological Understanding at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. He has published numerous journal articles and reviews, and edited the 2014 book, Adam, the Fall, and Original Sin: Theological, Biblical, and Scientific Perspectives.

Confessional Baptists

John Mason’s Hymn is the main reason I reproduce Paul Helm’s post on Baptist Confession. It is good to distill beliefs into summary statements when they are composed with great care. Such is the example of John Mason’s Hymn and, if I may say, The Second London Baptist Confession of 1689.

http://paulhelmsdeep.blogspot.com/2015/06/baptists-and-phrase.html

In an earlier post we noted the Baptist Confessional tradition (at least since 1689) consciously using the language of the earlier theology, and of the early church. This is linked in a way that is surprising to some to a greater confessional awareness among some Baptists at the present time. Not just a confession but awareness of it. A confessional awareness that links those who subscribe to such confessions to the theology, specifically to the theism, of the early church. The verse of John Mason’s great hymn given above expresses (with not too much license) the character of this theism. If you haven’t yet learned to treasure a confession of faith then learn Mason’s hymn. It is given in full at the end of this piece.

Theism is what undergirds the character of the remainder of Christian doctrine. You might say, as the theism, so the doctrine. Ours is not an age of doctrine,  but of morality. What divides and unites people is not doctrine (‘doctrine divides’) but morality (‘morality divides’); social morality, social ethics, sex and gender, life  and death, and so on. But what grounds ethics? The Christian church has maintained that ethics is grounded in the character and will of Almighty God and our love of it. Does the doctrine of God matter? It certainly does, it sets forth the character and powers of God.

I

To some the phrase ‘without body, parts and passions’ appearing in a Christian confession, matters not. What’s in a phrase? Isn’t this just rhetoric? No. it isn’t. This phrase compresses a whole theology, in the narrow sense of a doctrine of God.  ‘The Phrase’, as I shall call it here, expresses the purest theism, the theism of catholic Christianity. Note this use of ‘catholic’. It is distinct from ‘Roman Catholic’. In Roman Catholic theology every one of its councils speak the RC faith, for all of them are regarded as consistent. And the Pontiff settles any differences. In ‘catholic’ theology, the first seven councils are embraced, the ecumenical councils, councils that met and pronounced prior to the division into the Eastern and Western Church. ‘Catholic’ in this sense means the universal church, what is generally believed. Judged by this standard the use of the phrase ‘Roman Catholic’ can be oxymoronic: ‘The universal church that at one and the same time recognizes the authority of the Bishop of Rome as its Pontiff’. ‘Catholic’ in what follows is used in the ecumenical sense, not in the Roman sense.

If someone stops to think about The Phrase, they might wonder at the rather strange grammar, a negative clause. It’s about what God is ‘without’. Not what God is, or even what God is like, but what he is not. If John is without his umbrella when the shower suddenly drenches, he is without shelter. The phrase is negative, it tells us what John is not carrying, that he is lacking shelter. Likewise with The Phrase. It tells  us what God is not, and by implication is not like. Such negative language is frequently used of God in Scripture: He is immortal, invisible, without beginning, endless, uncreated. Using such negative expressions emphasizes God’s apartness, his ‘otherness’ as theologians say. He is not like ourselves who are mortal, visible, born and die, creatures. He is in a class by himself. That is not to say that all our language about God is negative. He is almighty, eternal, pure, holy, loving, jealous, abounding in mercy. He is our Creator and our judge. All these are positive expressions, telling us what God is and is like. The use of such negative expressions has the intention of guarding our thinking, our tendency to be familiar with God, thinking we know what God is like, even the tendency we have to think we know what it is like to be God. God is apart from us, transcending our world of time and space.

The other thing that might strike us is the including of  ‘without…passions’. Why single out the exclusion of passions? Without a body and without parts seems to be more manageable. We know that God is pure spirit and does not have hands and feet, and thus does not have parts. That does not quite say it all, however. God is not only without bodily parts he is also without temporal parts. He does not have a yesterday or a tomorrow. As Isaac Watts put it.

Eternity, with all its years,
Stands present in Thy view;
To Thee there’s nothing old appears;
Great God! There’s nothing new.

There is no past for God, no future, no memory, no part of his life is over, nor any part to come. For he is without  parts.

II

Returning to this negative expression, ‘without…passions’, it tells us quite a bit that us positive about God when we reflect upon it. To start with it tells us that the life of God is ‘above’  the goings-on in our lives, or in the lives of any other creature. It is a way of saying that God is changeless, whereas we change. He is not caused to change by his creation. Rather, besides creating and sustaining it,  he is the decreer of changes in his creation, including the changes that his creatures bring about. God decrees such changes and in that sense he brings them about or permits them. But that fact does not allow us to say that God does not care for his creatures, nor grants his grace to men and women. Care, grace, judgment, mercy are expressions of the fullness of God to us creatures, and (again) have to do with our changes, not with his. When we come to recognize that God loves  in Christ, and fills his people with joy and peace in believing, this is a change, and it leads to further changes in them. It was God’s eternal decree that this be so. If human lives descend into indifference to God, or blasphemous rebellion, these are other changes, different responses, different changes to the one unchanging God. Such changes have effects on our passions, or affections, but not on God’s.

A God without passions is not an uncaring God, or unconcerned, in a state of psychotic withdrawal. Nor he is a deistic God. On the contrary he is rich in mercy, abounding in goodness and truth. He will by no means clear the guilty. He will judge the living and the dead, according to his steady will.  So he is not fitful, given over to the onset of moods and spasms, irritable, impatient, quick-tempered, or languid, or indolent.

It is this side of things that is being chipped away by those who wish nonetheless to be thought of as ‘conservative evangelical’, not to speak of those with an altogether more ‘dynamic’ or ‘theo-dramatic’ approach to theology. Chipped away in the interests of presenting a God who is more accessible to us all.

The relation between the Creator and his creatures is an unequal one. Yes, an unequal one. He made us and not we ourselves. We are creatures of his hand, he is not a creature of our hands. Of course not, some may say. But neither is God our buddy, nor are we his buddies, though Christ tells us that his disciples are his friends, his children. We may want a God who is our buddy but that is not the God we have.

III

The loss of The Phrase from our consciousness is both the cause and the effect of profound changes in us. For our first and last thought should be that we are in the hands of eternal God. If we discipline our thinking about God in these ways then the manic panic that affects so much modern theology begins to abate.

The fact that there are Baptists who wish to affirm their confessional position emphasises their willingness to stand with the early church, and of course with the Reformers, and those who are similarly confessionally-minded who followed, and who follow them. More on this next month.

John Mason (1646?–94) was a calvinistic minister in the Church of England, a poet and a pioneering, influential hymn-writer.

How shall I sing that Majesty?

How shall I sing that Majesty

which angels do admire?

Let dust in dust and silence lie;

sing, sing, ye heavenly choir.

thousands of thousands stand around

thy throne, O God most high;

ten thousand times ten thousand sound

thy praise; but who am I?

Thy brightness unto them appears,

whilst I thy footsteps trace;

a sound of God comes to my ears,

but they behold thy face.

I shall, I fear, be dark and cold,

with all my fire and light;

yet when thou dost accept their gold,

Lord, treasure up my mite.

Enlighten with faith’s light my heart,

inflame it with love’s fire;

then shall I sing and bear a part

with that celestial choir.

They sing because thou art their Sun;

Lord, send a beam on me;

for where heaven is but once begun

there alleluias be.

How great a being, Lord, is thine,

which doth all beings keep!

Thy knowledge is the only line

to sound so vast a deep.

thou art a sea without a shore,

a sun without a sphere;

thy time is now and evermore,

thy place is everywhere.