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.