As a preliminary to this series about the possible scenarios to explain the Genesis account, which I listed in my previous post, I want to remind us of the biblical data to be accommodated, and its significance to theology. It’s easy to follow a hunch to a theory without considering this adequately.
Genesis 1-4, of course, is the basic text. Read historically (a category that itself is anachronistic to the ANE, but which probably covers sufficient bases for understanding) Genesis 2ff clearly seem to suggest that Adam and Eve were the physical progenitors of the human race. Originally blessed, through their sin they lost primarily immortality (or the opportunity for immortality), which curse passed to their descendants.
A racial fall into sin from innocence is not explicitly stated, but is significantly implied by the series of unrighteous acts that culminates in the story of the Flood. Certainly human sin and death are associated with each other throughout the rest of Scripture, and explicitly related to Adam’s sin by Paul in the New Testament. The Christian gospel is fundamentally the story of how Christ deals with sin and death, and so it is not surprising that the Genesis story has become the foundation for theological understanding of the sinful human condition in Church teaching. I suggest that its position in the Hebrew Bible means that this has always been its role, as Jewish writers like Josephus also claimed.
A couple of things are worth keeping in mind for future reference. In the first place, the idea of Adam as the very first physcial man, created de novo, depends partly on taking Genesis 1 and Genesis 2 as parallel accounts of the same events. In other words “Let us make man [adam] in our image” in chapter 1 is equivalent to “God formed Adam from the dust of the ground” in chapter 2. But this is not necessarily demanded from the text itself nor by the Bible’s later expositions of the text.
That raises a number of new possibilities, for example that Adam was one person selected from the race created in ch1 for some special role, perhaps a long time after that race appeared. The more disparate the purposes of the two accounts, the less we need merge them. “How God made the earth and filled it with people to keep it in order” is, perhaps, quite orthogonal to the story of “How God sought fellowship with the race through a man, and how the man blew it.”
Also, of course, basic historicity does not deny the possibility of figurative or mythic elements or even, per se, of some kind of typological basis for Genesis 2. However, to balance that it should be remembered (a) that the story is given a specific geographical and cultural context, which affects how flexible our interpretations can be, and (b) there was no equivalent to the “everyman allegory” in the ANE. There were certainly “archetypes” in those days – characters whose stories represented general experience – but that by no means precludes historicity. “John Frampton was born in Honiton, on the River Otter, where the lace is made, in 1843” is a different kind of story from “A certain man had a lazy son.”
A couple of relatively minor references occur in the New Testament. Luke’s genealogy of Jesus takes his line back to “Adam, son of God.” Genealogies can be abbreviated, simplified and stylised, but they are given in order to make historical – and in this case theological – claims. The physical descent of Jesus from the fountainhead of humanity was important to what he came to do. But what does “fountainhead of humanity” actually imply?
The second such reference maybe casts some light on that importance. Paul, addressing the Athens Areopagus in Acts 17, says that all humanity arose “from one man” (NIV), in order to show the oneness of the the race and the universality of the Lord’s salvation. Actually the Greek says “from one blood”, implying the commonality which has been confirmed by recent science rather than, necessarily, a single progenitor. But it’s unlikely that Paul (or the author Luke) would have been thinking of anything else but descent from Adam – does that affect what the Spirit had in mind?
There are a couple more minor references, which we may come to in dealing with individual issues in the series.
So we come to Paul’s use of Adam, primarily in Romans 5, but also in similar vein in 1 Corinthians 15.12ff – both worth reading again to familiarise yourself with the arguments before the series gets into the nitty-gritty. That Paul believes in a historic Adam seems confirmed by the way liberal evangelicals solve the problems by invoking Paul’s pre-scientific prejudices on the matter – we now know better, they say. But that, of course, is the point at issue, and it is far from clear that the liberal approach to inspiration represents knowledge, rather than ignorance and prejudice.
We need to consider whether the respective roles of Adam and Jesus necessarily imply physical descent of mankind from Adam, or some other kind of unity – and if so, what. It’s also worth noticing that 1 Corinthians (v45) specifically calls Adam “the first man”, who became a living being (=soul), in contrast to Christ who became a life-giving spirit. Paul also says both in v21 of that chapter that death (ie human death) came into the world through one man, and in Romans 5.12 that sin entered the word through one man. These are truth claims, on which Paul’s doctrine is developed. What kind of truth is the issue to be explored.
If then (as is the position of this blog) we want to take the biblical witness as truthful, our range of possible understandings of Adam will be constrained – though not, in point of fact, restricted to a Young Earth literalist position or anything like it. As Wilcox points out, God’s word and God’s world agree – it’s our understanding of both that gets us into trouble.
This then is the material you should take into account as we move on in the next of these posts to discuss the first of Dr Wilcox’s options.