Wright and wrong

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.

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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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10 Responses to Wright and wrong

  1. Jon,
    When you say, ‘Adam’s fall does not so much explain sin, as bring home its devastating effect on humanity’ are you implying that, as ‘first of a type’, Adam’s fall does not explain sin?

    • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

      Peter, I mean to say that one can still find oneself saying “How come sinless Adam fell?” and the text doesn’t really answer it. It does, of course, in the light of Paul, show why the rest of us share the bondage he fell into, by whatever interpretation one makes of that fall: whether the corruption of our nature, or the shared guilt of Adam’s sin, or both.

      In fact one might add “by Adam’s failure to bring godliness to the rest of us”, but I’m not so happy with us as it makes God, through creation, the author of sin from which Adam merely failed to save us, whereas Paul clearly says that sin came into the world through Adam.

  2. Cal says:

    This is a fascinating topic, but one I don’t think I’ll ever very much understand or be able to discuss with confidence. Probably a good thing! I certainly lean with you, Pennman and Wright on this, but I’m always suspicious because it sounds novel. Again, as you could wager, I think evolution and a historical Adam are both true.

    Another puzzle is what is meant when Adam is referred to as “a type of Him who was to come”. This can lead to the speculation, “If Adam and Eve had not fallen, would God have been incarnate?” which leads to ideas of while Adam was good, was he perfected?

    Augustine makes a rather fascinating point in his City of God over evil and the fall. Since sin is not a thing, it is absence, then because Adam was made out of nothing, therefore he was open to collapsing back into from whence he came. Thus the Lord created something good, but not something that could not fall.

    Now pieced together, if the Lord willed to be with Creation regardless and Adam was a man yet not perfected, drawing not on his “creatio ex nihilo” but rather from the Creator, then how the Lord is not to blame for sin and how Adam did indeed fall coheres. In fact it even falls in light that Christ, the Word of God, as Athanasius put it, is the living will of the Father. In that it explains God’s will seemingly change throughout biblical narrative, but also why it is constant. The Lord will be with His people, with his creation. A sovereign decision but one inside which freedom exists.

    I think I’m way over my head, and that this speculation is perhaps unnecessary. However, that’s what I make of things! The fundamental truth however that despite our Adamic death-drive, Christ has created a new way for humanity, and in that Way there is life and it everlasting.

    • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:


      “I’m always suspicious because it sounds novel.”

      That’s a good instinct, but it’s possible it sounds novel because we lost some original meaning along the way. For example, if Wright’s not wrong, Paul was forced to “invent” the fall because it was implicit in the narrative either by the author’s intention or the Spirit’s inspiration, though not realised by the Jewish people before Christ. Covenantal meanings are a lot more likely to be inherent in the text than, say, veiled references to evolution or deep time, which many moderns have no problems in accepting.

      “If Adam and Eve had not fallen, would God have been incarnate?” Aslan never says what would have happened. Maybe Lewis said that because God knows from the start what will happen, so provisionality really has meaning only for us in our ignorance.

      A lot of good thoughts in your post, though.

  3. I agree, the idea that Adam failed to save us is unconvincing and unBiblical.

    I’ve yet to come across a synthesis of ‘the fall’ and science that I’m comfortable with. The best I can do is to imagine that Adam was the first hominin to become sufficiently self conscious and God conscious that he became able to distinguish the difference between good and evil. At that point animal savagery became sin. Of course, that doesn’t sit well with the most natural reading of Genesis.
    There is also the question of what happened with the remainder of the hominini alive at the time of Adam.

    As to the possible explanations of how sin might have passed to the rest of mankind, was it that, being ‘in Adam’, ‘the’ Adam, we inherited a nature corrupted by his actions (surely not inherited guilt? if so, would not Jesus be guilty, yet without sin?)
    Or was it that, being in ‘an’ Adam, we were always going to make the same ugly choices that were characteristic of all hominini from the very beginning. Paul says the former.
    Whichever, I wouldn’t make God responsible for sin. It’s our choice.

    • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

      Peter, I’ve suggested before (though not for awhile) that, once Adam becomes an historical covenant-head somewhere in the human line, it becomes possible to consider him in the Genesis historical context, ie in Mesopotamia in the chalcolithic or thereabouts.

      After all, sin became sin primarily when it was committed against relationship with God. So one could conceive of non-God-conscious humans well above the brute beast level – if a neolithic farmer slays his neighbour with no sense of offending God, is he different from a hominin doing so? The question of whether conscience as we know affected men before Adam at all is pretty-well unanswerable, I would think – it may well be part of what makes us “in Adam”.

      How we share Adam’s sin is as tricky in a view that includes evolution as one that does not. I’m not sure that “inherited corruption” is any less problematic than “inherited guilt” with regard to Jesus. But The Scripture asserts he was without sin – which must include being without original sin.

      Indeed, it says he was sinless more than it says he was exactly like us, and given his divine origin and his role as second Adam, it seems likely that he was, in some way not specified, made not like us in that respect. He was more like Adam at his creation than like us – only when tempted he overcame.

      Nevertheless Paul is quite clear, I think, that we became sinful through Adam, as we become righteous through Christ – if Adam is only a symbol for each of us, the argument loses all force: we have no “head” in Adam and Paul is storytelling.

      The “how” of sin’s transmission is still a toughie. It’s more than imitation (that was Pelagius). Inheritance (though not crudely genetic) is still possible in that Adam may well be a common ancestor of all people living now (see my MRCA piece here: http://jongarvey.co.uk/download/pdf/adammrca.pdf), but penman (maybe Wright too, for all I know) takes a pure Reformed “federal headship” view – we are what Adam is by God’s appointment of him as our representative, descendants or not.

  4. Cal says:

    Another addition:

    I find the EO reversal of Original Sin interesting. Instead of the original disobedience corrupting the Adamic race in an Augustinian articulation, rather the sin, while not pervasive, landed Adam beyond the Tree of Life. Therefore, now cut off from life and in the thrall of death, the human race is enslaved to sin because he is enslaved to death.

    Another interesting tack that takes serious Hebrews 2 that talks about being the human race as enslaved to the fear of death. Of course this raises the question: Why did Adam sin if he had access to life?

    Again, it’s a fascinating topic!


    • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:


      I think your para 1 is a better formulation of Irenaean ideas than often portrayed in the west. Irenaeus pictured the descendants of Adam after the fall like children born in prison, Satan being the jailer (in effect) and the one needing to be overcome. He was convinced that Adam needed to be (and was) saved as much as his children must be. It does seem to me that he doesn’t divide sin and death as much as is sometimes claimed – we die only because we sinned, and ultimately because Adam sinned.

      “The sting of death is sin” rather than vice versa – what does that mean? Is it not that we can never view death, as funeral-officiators would have us believe, as merely a natural part of life like stepping into the next room, but as an estrangement from God and a sign of his wrath against sin?

      So just as death and sin are, for us, inseparable, so is the fear of death – not (as I’ve heard it said) that our problem is unwarranted fear of something natural, but warranted fear of final alienation from God.

      Why did Adam sin if he had access to life? Back to my first answer to Peter – Scripture doesn’t tell us, but it does say what a big problem it is for us since even our fallen nature doesn’t exempt us from the justice of God.

  5. Avatar photo penman says:

    [Jon suggested I paste these comments on Adam from N.T.Wright. Lamoureux’s remark about no reputable theologian taking Adam seriously seems threadbare, given Wright’s status as a world-class NT theologian]


    One word, in particular, about the big story of Scripture—the story which is presupposed throughout the NT. How much clearer can I make this? The big story is about the creator’s plan for the world. This plan always envisaged humans being God’s agents in that plan. Humans sin; that’s their problem, but God’s problem is bigger, namely that his plan for the world is thwarted. So God calls Abraham to be the means of rescuing humankind. Then Israel rebels; that’s their problem, but God’s problem is bigger, namely that his plan to rescue humans and thereby the world is thwarted. So God sends Israel-in-person, Jesus the Messiah, to rescue Israel, to perform Israel’s task on behalf of Adam, and Adam’s on behalf of the whole world. He announces God’s kingdom, and is crucified; and this turns out to be God’s answer to the multiple layers of problems, as in the resurrection it appears that death itself has been overcome. It all fits—and it all shows that the point of the covenant is organically and intimately related at every point to the particular concern of sinful, guilty humankind. The point of the covenant with Israel, in the whole of Scripture, is that it is the means by which God is rescuing the children of Adam and so restoring the world. It is not a side issue or a different point. I am surprised to hear of late that I have downplayed Adam. That, perhaps, is part of the attempt to make out that really I’m a dangerous liberal in disguise, going soft on sin. Ask people in the Church of England about that! On the contrary, Adam is vital. Adam’s sin is the problem: God’s covenant with Abraham, which will be fulfilled in Jesus the Messiah, is the solution. If you forget Abraham and the covenant—as so much Protestantism, alas, has done—you will be forced to interpret the solution, which is Jesus the Messiah, in some other way. And when you do that you will introduce major distortions.

    But if the promise to Abraham was also a promise that through Abraham God would rescue Adam (which is not to diminish God’s love for Abraham and his people but rather to enhance and ennoble it), then God’s intention to rescue Adam was also an intention that through Adam God would bless the whole of creation, restoring the original intention of Genesis 1 and 2. That is why, in Scripture, God’s redeemed are to be “a royal priesthood.”

    The point of the gospel, the revelation of Israel’s Messiah as none other than the crucified and risen Jesus, now Lord of the whole world, is that the promise made to Abraham—which, remember, was the promise to deal with the sin of Adam, that is, the promise of forgiveness and new life—is now made available to all.

    [All from Wright’s paper “Justification: Yesterday, Today and For Ever”]

  6. Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

    Thanks for this, penman. I like the big picture he paints of a chain going from creation, through man, through the Jews, through Christ and all the way back to a cosmic salvation again. I’ve long felt that large canvas to be inherent in the whole meaning of Genesis (as a preface to the whole biblical narrative). It’s certainly the picture the New Testament paints – all too often missed by Christians.

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