Guest Post by J Penman – The Place of Adam (Pt 1 of 2)


To clear the air…

I am a Reformed believer. My spiritual home is in the historic Reformed faith, specifically the family of churches that looks historically to the Westminster Confession as providing its theological framework. I am not a liberal, a Barthian, or any other such animal. My doctrine of scripture is Warfieldian. Alongside Warfield, my favorite theologians include Calvin, Turretin, Shedd, Dabney, Girardeau, and Louis Berkhof.

I also have no problem, biblically or scientifically, with the General Theory of Evolution. The evidence for a family-tree of life, with modern forms descended from previous ones over geological time (Ken Ham‘s dreaded “millions of years“), seems to me well-grounded in the fossil record and in genetics. I would not press it so far as to insist on a single common ancestor for all modern life, but (to co-opt a science fiction mantra from Blakes 7) “all life is linked” in a grand genealogy. Maybe there was a single common ancestor, although I can see no logical reason why there couldn’t have been several original forms that interacted either directly or through modified descendants. However, I don’t have a problem with the factuality of transitional forms; the transitions from fish to amphibian, reptile to mammal, and reptile to bird, all have exceedingly plausible justifications in the fossil record. Nor do I dispute the biological descent of modern humanity from pre-modern ancestors.
Others have written convincingly enough, to my mind, about why none of this is inconsistent with Genesis. For the record, I accept the Framework view of Genesis ch.1, ably expounded by (among others) Henri Blocher in his In The Beginning.

Now all of this, remember, is the General Theory of Evolution: common descent with modification over geological time. The Special Theory, by contrast, has to do with mechanisms of modification. Here I confess I am sceptical about the omni-explanatory power attributed by many evolutionists to “random mutation plus natural selection” (“Neo-Darwinism”), for reasons I will not pursue in this essay. I merely note that there seems an increasingly cogent critique of this alleged omni-explanation of modification by cutting edge evolutionists like James Shapiro.

Theologically, of course, God could have employed any modificatory mechanism He pleased. Perhaps He punctuated the evolutionary process with new impulses of creative energy (a view that seems favored by many ID advocates). Perhaps He built in natural mechanisms of modification chosen with divine precision to do the intended job (my preferred option, for various reasons: I am looking for natural mechanisms other than, or alongside, mutation and natural selection). But by whatever method the modifications occurred, as a Reformed theologian I ascribe it all to God’s sovereignty. Nothing can happen, or evolve, save as He decretively intends.

But now to the big issue: where does Adam fit into all this? Can a Reformed believer accept a historical Adam, conceived along broadly traditional and orthodox lines, and at the same time hold to the kind of “Evolutionary Creationist” scenario sketched above? My answer is a robust Yes. Let me now try (briefly) to explain why.

First, before suggesting how a historical Adam fits in with an Evolutionary Creationist scenario, let me begin by arguing that a historical Adam is indeed demanded by the biblical data. Many Evolutionary Creationists find Adam embarrassing, because they think he cannot be fitted into an evolutionary outlook. So they try to eliminate Adam by suggesting that the first eleven chapters of Genesis are “myth” or “saga” or some such category. They intend, by this genre-classification, to free us from having to see any historical information in these chapters.

This, I am convinced, is not a viable procedure. The figure of Adam is by no means limited to early Genesis. He is pivotal in the apostle Paul’s theology in Romans 5 and 1 Corinthians 15: not passing references, but dense passages freighted with rich theology. Adam also figures prominently in Luke’s Gospel, with Jesus’ own family-tree terminating in Adam “the son of God”. In other words, Luke presents Jesus as the New Adam, the bearer of the New Humanity – a fairly massive claim. In order to eliminate a historical Adam, then, we must not only mythologize Genesis 1-11 (a dubious procedure in itself), but also the theology of Luke and Paul at key junctures.

This has at least two undesirable consequences:

(i) We distort biblical theology. It isn’t just a few outmoded scientific world-pictures we are ditching, but the theological fabric of the bible’s redemptive story. The Adam-Christ parallel extends far beyond the specific passages I’ve mentioned, permeating scripture more widely with the Old Creation / New Creation comparison and contrast, which resonates so loudly through the sacred text. But if we are ready to ditch biblical theology here, by what logic do we retain it anywhere?

(ii) We distort biblical history. I don’t mean to create a huge distinction between history and theology here. I simply mean that if Adam’s historicity can be discarded, there no longer seems any compelling reason to retain the historicity of any other biblical figure who lacks clear extra-biblical attestation. The religion of the Incarnation, the historical religion par excellence, suddenly risks becoming a mass of non-historical allegories, without the key biblical aspect of an earthy “having happened” actuality. If Adam and the Fall are simply a symbol for some spiritual truth, why not put Abraham, Moses, Aaron, Joshua, Samuel, the exodus, the conquest of Canaan, and a host of other persons and events in the same category? Is this any longer recognizably the faith that confesses God Incarnate, the Lord of eternity who entered time and became a historical man?

But is a historical Adam consistent with the Evolutionary Creationism I outlined at the start? Yes, I think so. Consider what function Adam must play in an orthodox theology. He must be in some sense the head of the human race, that is, of humanity as bearing the divine image – Homo divinus as some like to say. In that capacity, Adam must carry the destiny of his race, so that in him the whole race stands or falls before God. In the Fall of Adam, an orthodox theology will locate humanity’s collective race-bondage to sin and death. Can such an Adam cohere with Evolutionary Creationism?

Well, why not? No doubt there are several different ways we could construe Adam’s coherence with Evolutionary Creationism. I will suggest one such way in a moment. But the broader point is that there is no obvious reason why Adam, understood as I have just described, cannot fit comfortably with an Evolutionary Creationist view of life’s history. All we need to hold is that at some point in the divinely decreed unfolding of pre-Adamic life, Adam appeared – not by accident, of course, but by God’s sovereign appointment. At some juncture, by some act or other, God “fathered” Adam, the head of Homo divinus humanity, i.e. of humankind stamped with God’s image. (I won’t investigate in this essay the content of that image. Enough to say here that whatever it is, the divine image is what sets humans apart from the rest of earthly life as capable of both sin and redemption.)

Note: I also do not propose here to discuss the existence of animal and plant death before Adam’s Fall, because our Old Earth Creationist friends are at one with us on this matter, and have written extensively about it. It is not a distinctive of Evolutionary Creationism. I would merely note that belief in carnivores as part of the Creator’s good design is an ancient and catholic belief, found in such titans of orthodoxy as Basil of Caesarea, Augustine, and Aquinas.

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About James Penman

James is from an Anglican background; more broadly, he considers himself part of the Reformed tradition. He has a special interest in the history of ideas, including the interactions between faith and science. Augustine, Calvin, and B.B.Warfield figure among his spiritual and intellectual heroes.
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2 Responses to Guest Post by J Penman – The Place of Adam (Pt 1 of 2)

  1. Gregory says:

    Bravo Penman – thanks, applause from an Adamic sociologist!

    It might be worth inquiring how far the General Theory of Evolution extends and if both it and the Special Theory of Evolution are limited to biology, botany, geology, cosmology or even just natural-physical sciences. But clarifying that makes little difference to your words clearing space among ECs (and TEs) for ‘the place of Adam.’

    Likewise, OED and EC are still both ‘creationism.’ You make a good point to unite these view in your final note. I just wonder when or if the ideology of -ism (linguistically speaking, creation-ism) needs to be distinguished from a view that says more simply: I belive in Creation, an ‘old’ Earth and bio-spheric evolution as a (but not the only) means by which (some, even many) changes in natural history occurred.

  2. Gregory says:

    Correction: that should read OEC as in Old Earth Creationism rather than OED, in case it seemed I was stuck on a Dictionary def’n of Creation! 😉

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