Penman, always helpful in providing useful links, has pointed me to a quotation from an interview with theologian N T Wright. In the wide-ranging interview by Andrew Wilson, he is asked about belief in a historical Adam and Eve.
After discussing the alternative extremes – treating Genesis 2-4 as literalistic history or dismissing it as theological fiction – he gives the bare bones of his own understanding:
So I then want to say that, in so far as I understand contemporary evolutionary biology, which is not my field at all, I am not a scientist, I think I want to say that yes, over millennia God created creatures we call hominids, but that at a specific time, just like God called Abraham and Sarah from among the other potentially nomadic peoples of the middle east and said ‘you’re going to be the bearers of my purpose‘, so God called an original primal pair and said ‘Now this thing is fairly chaotic at the moment. You are going to be the ones through whom I am going to plant a garden and we’re going to bring my wisdom, my stewardship, and my love into the world in a whole new way.’ And it seems to me that is a story one can tell with integrity, both as a serious reader of scripture and as somebody prepared to do business with contemporary science.
Wright introduces his remarks by saying it’s not something he has given prolonged study to, but he does also remind us that he’s spent time in discussions with BioLogos and so is not completely apart from the debate either.
A couple of things are interesting about this. The first is that one can get the impression that only Fundamentalist ostriches give any serious consideration to a historical Adam nowadays. In a particularly ill-tempered (and soon deleted) exchange on BioLogos a couple of years ago, Denis Lamoreux replied thus to Darrel Falk’s stated policy of exploring the views of theologians who saw a first couple as historic, but not necessarily the sole genetic progenitors of humankind, though they are a minority:
Why do you think this is the case? It’s because those of us who are trained in Old Testament realize that your view is utterly misguided. It’s not what the Word of God says. But you and others like Denis Alexander are recalcitrant and refuse to listen. You’re both like young earth creationists who refuse to listen when you speak on your academic specialty genetics.
Tom Wright, of course, is noted as a New Testament scholar, so perhaps Lamoreux would include him amongst those without the training necessary to comment on the issue. It’s a shame if the demarcation disputes once seen in labour relations now only apply to biblical studies. But I venture to suggest that Wright has a broader view of Scripture than that – and also note that Lamoreux’s ally Peter Enns, though an OT scholar, is not averse to telling us “how it is” regarding the NT.
More intrinsically helpful, though, is some of Wright’s incisive reasoning for his position – for which he does draw on the New Testament:
[T]he first thing to say is that it is very interesting that in the Old Testament itself hardly anything is made of Adam, which is kind of curious to a Christian looking at it. So when I started to work on Romans I assumed that an Adamic doctrine of Original Sin was deep in Judaism and Paul was just picking it up, and the answer is actually it isn’t. Talk to conservative Jews, liberal Jews, second Temple Jews, there isn’t a doctrine of Original Sin until 4th Ezra and 2 Baruch, which were written after the destruction of the temple in AD 70. Where the destruction of the temple has forced them to say ‘we were aware of problems, but now we realize that it must be much worse than we’d ever imagined and maybe it all goes back to Adam after all.’
And I think what you see in Paul is something very similar, that the death of Jesus has forced him to say ‘the problem of the world must be much worse than we ever imagined. It has been solved by one man. Goodness, maybe that’s actually what that story was about. It wasn’t just a picture to get us going as it were.’
In other words, just as the proto-Holocaust of the destruction of Jerusalem in AD70 caused the Jews newly to see a catastrophic human fall into sin in the Eden story, Paul had already come to such a view de novo for a much better reason – the tremendous cost to God of the Incarnation and Passion of Christ.
It is like the new emphasis on God’s final judgement seen in the New Testament, and particularly in Jesus’s own teaching – the fact of the Cross and the God-forsakenness of Jesus is a graphic demonstration of the necessary reality of judgement. The Church could not circumvent it without denying Christ. And Romans 5, as Wright points out, does a similar job for the Fall of mankind.
How, in detail, would Wright picture his primal couple? Perhaps he will write on it some day – perhaps someone can tell me he already has. But since his whole view of the New Testament is (notoriously) based on Old Testament covenant concepts, as penman suggest his view of Adam is likely to be similar. Throughout the Hebrew Scriptures, individuals are called from the mass of humanity to mediate God’s covenant-making with his people. Noah is called from the descendants of Adam to re-boot humanity. Abram is called from Noah’s line to initiate the salvation covenant. Similarly Moses is separated out from the captive Israel to bring release and blessing, David from the nation to found an eternal governing house and, at last, Messiah is promised, who will bring all things to fruition in a new covenant.
So the idea of Adam as a covenantal figure is completely consistent with the Old Testament, and is not just an ad hoc reaction to evolutionary ideas. Indeed, Reformed teachers have spoken of the first “covenant of works” with Adam for centuries. All that is new is the idea that Adam wasn’t alone in the world when God called him – and that too may even be assumed by the Genesis text, whose roots in Mesopotamian literature also link the origins of “man” to the beginnings of religious society rather than the beginnings of matter.
Besides, Old Testament and ANE scholarship have shown that Paul’s idea of Adam as a type of Christ is far more viable than the oft-suggested ideas of Adam being either an allegorical representation of “Everyman” or of “Israel” in their propensity to sin. Neither the OT nor other ANE texts have such a concept of allegory, as ANE specialist John H Walton informed me when I asked him directly.
But they do, Walton shows, portray archetypes – historical (or purportedly historical) figures whose experience mirrors our own. Such was Gilgamesh, whose failure to find a much desired immortality foreshadowed, rather than merely echoing, our own. Adam, too, is “first of a type” rather than “symbol of a type”.
Adam’s fall does not so much explain sin, as bring home its devasting effect on humanity and what Christ must undergo to remedy it. No other account does justice to that, and N T Wright has done us a service in showing how that must have been Paul’s apostolic and Spirit-led conclusion too.