The meaning of man

I’ve been thinking about the best approach to covering more themes from John H Walton’s important new book, The Lost World of Adam and Eve. For myself, I think I prefer to pick on particular ideas in it that may be fruitful. If one of the other Hump writers should wish to do a full review, I’m sure that would complement anything say.

The first 5 propositions of the 21 in the book are, in essence, a recapitulation of the case Walton makes in his older work on Genesis 1, which has become familiar territory here. So I won’t re-examine his evidence that in the ANE “creation” implied establishing order by means of assigning roles and functions, and that therefore Genesis 1 is a functional rather than a material account.

Likewise I will take as read the evidence that what is being established in Genesis 1 (and on a smaller canvas in Genesis 2) is sacred space – a cosmic temple orientated towards mankind, who was formed in and as God’s image to serve him in blessing. This latter concept includes the idea that God’s sabbath rest implies his active rule and enjoyment of the cosmos whose functions he has now assigned.

The last proposition that we’ve already dealt with extensively is that the “goodness” of creation indicates its fitness for purpose, rather than its final or moral perfection. In the context of man’s calling this means there is still work for humans to do in bringing to completion, under God, the ordering of the universe. I explored this, in relationship to its fulfilment in Christ after Adam’s failure, in this recent post.

The first proposition specifically related to the question of Adam, then, is Walton’s Proposition 6, which deals with the way the Hebrew word adam is used in the Genesis accounts. The first point, rather obvious on reflection, is that “Adam” and “Eve” cannot just be the names two individuals happened to have (like “Sid” and “Mabel”) because they are Hebrew, and on any understanding the couple predated the Hebrew language by at least a millennium or two. The names must therefore have been assigned because their meanings (“man” and “life” respectively) matter in the account.

What is less obvious on superficial reading is the complexity of the usage of the word adam. Walton does detailed study on the thirty-four instances of the word in early Genesis, based on both linguistic and contextual issues. He concludes that in some cases the meaning is generic, describing man as a species – in Walton’s terms, that is, though we ought to remember that to take that word biologically is somewhat anachronistic. It implies only that Adam was a man, and that we readers too are “men”, but it makes no attempt to draw boundaries that would relate to palaeontological or even philosophical concepts of humanity. The generic usage of adam, note, is also sometimes employed to distinguish male from female (just as happens in the English use of “man” for both the race and the male, at least before “gender neutral” language became the fad).

Far more often, on Walton’s analysis, adam is used, with the definite article, to indicate “the man” either as a “representational agent” or an “archetype”. I’ll look at those below – the categories overlap to some extent. What is surprising is that the unequivocal use of adam as a personal name is limited to the genealogical section (5.1, 3-5). Adam the individual, then, is deeply and deliberately endowed with some kind of representational character which is closely related to – though textually distinguishable from – mankind as a race or species. This is the most interesting and important aspect of this topic. Walton puts it thus:

When the generic is used, the text is talking about human beings as a species. When the definite article is being used, the referent is an individual serving as a human representative. Such representation could be either as an archetype (all are embodied in the one and counted as having participated in the acts of that one) or as a federal representative (in which one is serving as an elect delegate on behalf of the rest).

Walton goes on to suggest that in all the representational cases, the significance of the events is intended to extend to those Adam represents. Only where the personal name, or a contextually generic use of adam without the definite article, is used is the significance restricted to him as an individual.

I should say at this point that Walton does not appear to be implying that Adam is representational in an allegorical sense, and that what happens to every man is simply pinned on a generically-named individual. Such literary concepts do not appear to have existed in the ANE period, and in any case the complex juxtaposition of undoubtedly generic with undoubtedly representational uses of adam shows something more sophisticated is going on. Walton again, in his glossary:

In a literary sense, an archetype refers to a recurrent symbol or motif, even a type of character. Fictional characters often serve as archetypes of good and evil, heroism or treachery, etc. In this book I am using the term in a narrower sense. An archetype here refers to a representative of a group in whom all others in the group are embodied. As a result, all members of the group are included and participate with their representative.

Avid Hump readers may notice that word “participation” is reminiscent of what Owen Barfield said about ancient patterns of thinking. Such participation is implied, as Walton notes, in Paul’s use of the aorist tense (indicating a one-off, completed, event) in Romans 5.12, when he says that all sinned in Adam.

Walton’s use of the term “federal representative” is interesting. He writes how this concept arose in Reformed covenant theology, for example in John Calvin’s thought, though traceable as far as Augustine and Irenaeus. The historical setting for it, one should note, was after the ancient idea of “participation” had largely dropped out of sight. Federal headhip is a more forensic concept, in which Adam is designated by God as the head of the race, so that the rest of humanity is implicated legally, as it were, in his actions. In particular, the guilt of his sin of disobedience is imputed to the rest of humanity.

The first thing to note is that, though Walton says a lot more about archetypal participation than federal representation, he does not dismiss the latter, but seems to see both as complementary ideas that have validity in understanding the theology of Genesis. In other words, the rather difficult notion (to our modern mindset) of real participation in an archetype, and the forensic idea of Adam’s being the race’s appointed representative, are not mutually exclusive.

In fact (as an aside), the relationship between them matches quite closely the discussion of a significant current debate in theology, the “New Perspective on Paul”, involving, amongst others, N T Wright. One facet of this debate is the contention that traditional Protestant understandings of the atonement, in which the righteousness of Christ is “imputed” to sinners in a forensic manner, do not convey Paul’s true meaning. He is better understood, it is said, as seeing our salvation in terms of our union with Christ – which is to say, our actual participation in him. Both approaches find their source particularly in Romans 5 – in which, of course, Paul also deals with Adam as the contrast to Christ. At least one writer (Michael Bird) has argued that whilst the union/participation language is exegetically more correct, federal representation truthfully conveys important understandings for theology.

Whether he is at all interested in that debate, Walton seems to take an equally accepting position on the Reformed view of Adam’s “federal headship”. Indeed, he enlists it in his later argument that the genealogies of Genesis are related more to archetypal relationships than to genetic ones:

[Adam’s] federal headship would easily serve as an appropriate basis for the genealogy to go back to him.

In other words, a forensic approach gives a good way of understanding this particular element of participation.

Where this whole discussion, on the use of the word adam in Genesis, leads is that, by whichever alternative one views the representative nature of Adam, it is problematic to see him as a purely fictional, or merely symbolic, figure. Whether one is “counted as having participated in the acts of that [archetype]” or as legally accountable with “an elect delegate on behalf of the rest” there is only a case for us to to answer before God if the acts, and the original accountability, actually occurred. It is no more possible to participate in a fictional Adam than it is to participate in Mickey Mouse. Likewise to be held legally accountable for the acts of Adam as a federal representative would be entirely unjust if he, and his acts, were as mythical as those of Geoffrey of Monmouth’s imaginary King Brutus of Britain after the fall of Troy.

One can, of course, rewrite Pauline theology to accommodate “Allegorical Adam”, but that not only raises big questions about apostolic authority and the validity of the gospel, but requires one to explain how such an anachronistic character got into an ancient near eastern text to begin with.

Jon Garvey

About Jon Garvey

Training in medicine (which was my career), social psychology and theology. Interests in most things, but especially the science-faith interface. The rest of my time, though, is spent writing, playing and recording music.
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