Saving the Original Sinner: How Christians Have Used the Bible’s First Man to Oppress, Inspire, and Make Sense of the World
The Quest for the Historical Adam: Genesis, Hermeneutics, and Human Origins
The Lost World of Adam and Eve: Genesis 2-3 and the Human Origins Debate
Hans Madueme is Assistant Professor of Theological Studies at Covenant College.
North American evangelical academic institutions are at a fork in the road. Developments in the natural sciences have raised, and continue to raise, difficult questions about the viability of traditional formulations of Christian doctrine. Mainline scholars have long made their peace with the modern world, but because of recent disputes these questions have reached a fever pitch for evangelicals. Tenured faculty, once sacrosanct, have been fired or forced to resign, extinguished professors lying about the cradle of evangelicalism as the strangled snakes beside that of Hercules.1
The casualties are many: Peter Enns, Westminster Theological Seminary; Karl Giberson, Eastern Nazarene College; John Schneider, Calvin College; Howard Van Till, Calvin College; Jim Stump, Bethel College (Indiana); Michael Pahl, Cedarville University; Richard Colling, Olivet Nazarene; Anthony Siegrist, Prairie Bible College (Alberta, Canada); Bruce Waltke, Reformed Theological Seminary; Stephen Barnett, Bryan College; Steven DeGeorge, Bryan College; Brian Eisenback, Bryan College. The list will likely keep growing.2
What might all this portend for confessional institutions and Christian scholars? As Niebuhr pointed out, the dynamic between Christ and culture is an enduring problem that provides the broader context to these debates. Each generation of Christians is confronted with that perennial struggle—“what is ultimately in question is the relation of the revelation in Christ to the reason which prevails in culture.”3 Confessional colleges and seminaries embody varied ways of reconciling commitment to a tradition with inevitable developments in the academic disciplines. Christian scholars, working at those institutions, live within that tension, regularly evaluating the deliverances of their disciplines in the light of their own theological commitments. Pursuing academic knowledge within God’s rich creation magnifies a sense of God’s glory. But it can sometimes feel like walking a tightrope. On the one hand, there is a danger in always resisting genuine advances in knowledge just for the sake of preserving the past; on the other hand, always seizing on newer ideas and moving too quickly to overturn received traditions is fraught with danger as well. There lies the pickle.
In many respects, then, the current controversy over Adam and Eve is only the latest instance in which understanding about the world from extra-biblical sources has prompted a reexamination of traditional assumptions about what the Scriptures intend to teach. Much of the discussion that brings doctrinal claims into dialogue with relevant areas in science takes place in the science-religion discipline.4 Organizations like the Templeton Foundation, BioLogos, The Colossian Forum, and other affiliated groups are stimulating research agendas and new perspectives. In the midst of all this scholarly production, there is difference of opinion among Christians. Though the issues are complex and multi-faceted, some of that disagreement turns on how contemporary scientific views should impact hermeneutical, pastoral, and theological considerations. We take each in turn.
Prior to Copernicus in the 16th century, hardly any orthodox Christians believed that the earth revolves around the sun; in the 21st century, virtually no one denies heliocentrism. So, what happened? In light of the new cosmology, Christians saw occasion to rethink familiar biblical passages that had been widely misinterpreted. There are, then, legitimate instances when scientific developments should prompt hermeneutical revision. We may have misread the Bible. Déjà vu, is that the case here? Are we in a similar situation today, recent insights from a number of scientific disciplines urging us to revisit familiar passages about Adam and Eve, passages that the tradition may have misinterpreted? Judgments are deeply divided on this point—for example, what bearing, if any, do specific biblical texts have on scientific disciplines dealing with origins? On what grounds do we decide how to read relevant passages, “literally,” “metaphorically,” or some nuanced combination of the two? In what sense does a doctrine of accommodation that recognizes the dual nature of Scripture—divine and human—shed light on interpretative questions at the interface of science and theology? These hermeneutical questions are easily multiplied, and they remain contested.
Then there are pressing pastoral questions. More than any previous generation, today’s teenagers and millennials are immersed in the world of science and technology. We live in a culture of science.5 They desire a faith that is able to make existential and intellectual sense of the sciences. Many of them are repelled by popular notions of science and religion locked in eternal warfare, iconic images revived by the New Atheists and their allies. Thanks to the fine work of historians, however, we know that rhetoric is deeply flawed.6 The worry is that resisting the scientific consensus on human origins only plays into this conflict narrative and raises unnecessary barriers to coming to faith. The Christian faith is thus perceived as an anti-scientific, anti-intellectual, obscurantism, the mindless ostrich with its head in the sand. Not only does this posture confirm Mark Noll’s scandal of the evangelical mind, it also contravenes the spread and power of the gospel. Pollsters inform us that young people are leaving the church and the faith, often because of its anti-scientific image; and yet, in some cases, genuine pastoral needs may be better served in the long term by staying the course with the received theological tradition.
This situation is one reason for the argument to update, or simply retire, old theological formulations. Such moves are warranted, we are told, given the clear truths that science has delivered (general and special revelation do not contradict; all truth is God’s truth). These arguments should not be summarily dismissed. At the same time, there may be good reasons to resist changing some doctrines, a stance that is not necessarily driven by an “anti-scientific” agenda. Perhaps there are occasions when theological judgments, judgments handed down to us from the church, should be considered more reliable, more trustworthy, than the latest consensus views in particular scientific disciplines. But how would we know? And are there any criteria?
Three recent books have ventured into this contested terrain.7 None of them says so explicitly, but each volume appears to be written for an evangelical audience interested in the human origins debate; taken together, they offer a helpful window into the key issues in play.
Giberson on the Invention of Adam and Original Sin
Karl Giberson’s book is a soaring narrative with a simple premise: “There is no original sin and there was no original sinner” (176). His exposé recounts how the biblical Adam has been misunderstood, abused, and transformed throughout church history. This “Adam” is an ecclesial construction; he was instrumental to the rise of modern civilization and lies at the root of Western assumptions about gay marriage, race, keeping the Sabbath, sexual ethics, and more. Giberson tells us that Adam and Eve never existed; the early chapters of Genesis are irrelevant to the origins of the cosmos. The human species arose from billions of years of evolution, a process that generated the traits we now associate with sin (such as selfishness and greed). “The culprit is not Adam but the process of natural selection that has shaped our species over the long course of evolution” (177). Our sinfulness is a deep, inescapable part of our evolutionary history.
The tale is engaging, full of twists and turns, the biblical figure of Adam construed down the ages in many conflicting, sometimes disturbing ways. Giberson does not ignore recent controversies among evangelicals, but his main quarry is the long view. The book’s strength is to remind us of the larger history of contested interpretations and to help us resist parochial, myopic views of the biblical Adam. We were not the first to puzzle over this enigmatic first couple. Giberson’s book popularizes well, making important scholarly monographs and their key insights accessible to a wider audience.8
The best chapter addresses views about Adam and their relationship to racism. The idea that all men and women are united with Adam, Giberson writes, “could have given birth to a paradigm of human equality if Christians had not understood human diversity within the racist imperialism of Western Europe” (138). Many eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Christians believed that Adam and Eve were the first (and only) ancestors of all humanity; they also believed that climate differences caused ethnic diversity. But their sinful racism led “Christians to interpret the distinctive African, Asian, Indian, and American races as deteriorations rather than variations of a superior white race” (138). As Giberson indicates, it is ironic that conservative biblicists, despite believing that all humanity descended from Adam and Eve, often held problematic views on race.
Readers will likely take exception to parts of the story Giberson tells. He claims, for instance, that few Christians in the late 19th century were “necessarily put off by the idea that life had evolved…over long periods of time from a common ancestor” (124). But that is misleading. In the wake of Darwin’s Origin of Species and his Descent of Man, many pastors and theologians debated vigorously the theological implications of common ancestry.9 Giberson’s account of the doctrine of original sin also needs historical nuancing. He drives a wedge between the Augustinian doctrine and early Christian interpretations of sin (see chapter 3), in part by magnifying Augustine’s mistranslation of Romans 5:12. It is true that the early church emphasized libertarian freedom, not least in reaction to the fatalism and Gnostic determinism of their cultural milieu—but there were antecedents to the doctrine of original sin.10 Augustine also drew on a wide range of scriptural texts and theological motifs (such as infant baptism); the doctrine does not stand or fall on this mistranslation.11 While those may be mere quibbles, Giberson’s account of church history was more troubling; a sense of God’s providential working is virtually absent. Church history, as he tells it, barely transcends the idiosyncrasies of fallible men, the fluke mishmash of personalities and politics, egos and eccentricities—Pelagius was the better theologian, but Augustine outplayed him.12
If Romans 5 and other passages assume Adam’s historicity, are we not obliged to do the same? Giberson’s response is to situate Paul within his literary tradition, “a tradition [that] licensed theological creativity and … paid little attention to historical accuracy” (38). Paul appealed to a historical Adam because “he wanted to universalize Christianity to include non-Jews … And what better way than to make the story of Adam the story of every man, the singular ancestor on everyone’s family tree?” (30). Modern readers are permitted to reject Paul’s beliefs about Adam by relativizing them to his historical context.13
In my view, a core problem underlying Giberson’s book is an insufficiently robust concept of the divine authorship of Scripture. He depicts the Bible as primarily a collection of fallible, historical documents, limited to a merely horizontal, naturalistic, historicist axis. He is thus able to challenge Paul’s interpretation of Adam, as if Paul is writing merely as a fallible rabbi in the 1st century. In his conclusion he asserts,
No received wisdom from the past—in sacred texts, confessions, creeds, statements of faith, or anywhere else—is immune to challenge from the advancing knowledge of the present. Christianity emerged in a different time and must be prepared to evolve like everything else. (176, my emphasis)14
My worry is that he inverts the biblical pattern of authority. Scripture is no longer God’s supernaturally inspired Word, and the reader is “liberated” to doubt the reliability of the divine testimony. In effect, Giberson’s filter for what can or cannot be accepted in the Bible are selected claims of historical-critical research, shaped by modern assumptions and plausibility structures, including the inviolability of his construal of the scientific consensus.
On the subject of young-earth creationists, Giberson has a score to settle (see chapter 10). He lambasts their lack of scientific expertise. On one level, he is surely right that one can find examples of inferior scholarship among young-earth creationists. Serious theologians and scientists who reject the mainstream position on deep time must address this problem with ruthless honesty (see below on VanDoodewaard’s contribution). From reading this book, however, it is unclear whether Giberson always understands what he critiques. Going after Ken Ham and Henry Morris is fair play, of course, but his account would have been sharper had he taken on reputable scientists (such as Leonard Brand, Arthur Chadwick, Paul Garner, Andrew Snelling, Kurt Wise, Todd Wood) and respected theologians (such as Douglas Kelly, John Mark Reynolds, Iain Duguid, Todd Beall, John Frame).15 The point here is not to defend these creationists, but rather to signal a cardinal rule when assessing views with which one disagrees. If you do not engage them at their strongest, “critique” can come across as laziness or rhetorical bluster.17 His arguments leave the reader with a mini-canon within the canon, an eccentric canon for a non-catholic, sub-biblical, stripped-down Christianity.
VanDoodewaard on Reading the Bible Literally
The Quest for the Historical Adam is a bracing frontal assault on the mainstream position within evangelical institutions. Take no prisoners. The book draws a parallel between the eighteenth/nineteenth-century quest for the historical Jesus and the current quest for the historical Adam; in both cases, scholars show more interest in the world behind the text than the world of the text. VanDoodewaard thinks this is a mistake and writes to address an imbalance in the literature, demonstrating that most Christians in the history of the church interpreted the early chapters of Genesis literally (not figuratively). The idea of an original, historical, specially created couple from whom all of humanity descended is an eminently catholic doctrine.
Few theological traditions come away unscathed in his analysis. Polls indicate that most lay believers are young-earth creationists. On the other hand, most evangelical scholars are committed either to an old-earth or some version of theistic evolution. Young-earth creationists are rarely taken seriously within academia; to many, that would be intellectual suicide. If you took your cues from the literature or private conversation, you might wonder how any thoughtful Christian, or someone with half a brain, could believe that the earth is young. Scholars like VanDoodewaard can thus be forgiven for some defensiveness about accepting a historical Adam within a young-earth creationist framework (of the three books under review, VanDoodewaard’s is the strongest theologically).
The term “young-earth creationism” is itself ambiguous. The image that usually comes to mind is that of “scientific creationism” (à la Henry Morris and John Whitcomb), Christians who try to defend a young earth scientifically. Another overlapping image is that of the independent, populist, creationist ministries that defend a young earth by enlisting the expertise of a wide range of people (many of whom, quite frankly, are not academically qualified in the most relevant areas). VanDoodewaard is engaged in a different project. We might call it “theological” or “dogmatic” creationism, a position rooted in the tradition and biblical exegesis; within that tradition, he argues, Adam and Eve as sole ancestors of humanity is a non-negotiable.
In a fascinating critique of Ronald Numbers’ leading account of young-earth creationists, VanDoodewaard rejects the claim that in North America the literal hermeneutic is inseparable from the Adventist George McCready Price.18 He shows that all sorts of Protestants stood in the line of “the millennia old tradition of a literal Genesis hermeneutic” (157), including Scottish Presbyterians in the Northern States (such as Moses Stuart and Richard Dickinson), Southern Presbyterians (such as Robert Dabney and J. H. Thornwell), the Dutch Reformed in North America (such as Geerhardus Vos, Louis Berkhof, and Foppe Ten Hoor), and Lutheran theologians affiliated with the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod and the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod. This observation is a welcome counterweight to Numbers’ account.
In addition to righting scholarly distortions of young-earth creationists, VanDoodewaard defends a particular construal of “literal” exegesis. Repeatedly he classifies interpretations of Genesis as either literal or figurative; the two are mutually exclusive. Interpreting Genesis 1 and 2 literally means we should interpret the text “as a nonfigurative, detailed, historical record of events and existence narrated as they actually were” (6). In a similar vein, he writes: “The crux of current division on creation and human origins is found where evolutionary theory stands in conflict with the traditional, literalistic reading of Genesis 1 through 5 common to the history of Christianity” (3); he speaks affirmatively of “literalist exegetes” (see 10n1).
The word choice is baffling. “Literalism” connotes a flat, monolithic, simplistic reading strategy.19 To be sure, VanDoodewaard recognizes that many patristic and medieval exegetes endorsed deeper typological, figurative meanings within the text, but he tends to downplay that reality. The dominant impression he gives is that interpretations are either literal or figurative. But that presents a false dilemma. Why would VanDoodewaard undermine his position and play into the hands of his critics? Surely an important lesson of VanDoodewaard’s historical retrieval is that Christians embraced the basic historicity of Genesis 1-3 and also recognized rich, typological, even figurative, elements within the text.
The book has a wealth of historical detail, and VanDoodewaard is at his best when addressing the Puritan-Reformed tradition. But there should have been broader engagement with the scholarly discussion. My sense is that VanDoodewaard wrote the book for the widest possible audience, and yet there is no engagement with influential interpretations that undermine his thesis, such as Peter Harrison’s The Bible, Protestantism and the Rise of Natural Science (Cambridge University Press, 1998).20 He does spar with Reformed scholars like Max Rogland and Robert Letham,21 but those exchanges reflect conservative Presbyterian debates and give the book an in-house, parochial feel. Similarly, his discussion of the Protestant reception of Darwin largely ignores the work of Jon Roberts, Brad Gundlach, David Livingstone, Mark Noll, and others. Their scholarship bears directly on the argument of VanDoodewaard’s book.
He also does not give us the whole story on racial attitudes and how they related to the Adamic question. After reviewing Isaac La Peyrère and his descendants (chapter 4), he concludes that past thinkers who held to pre- and co-Adamite theories were often racists. Africans were considered an inferior race. On the flip side, the contemporary critics of racism endorsed a literal interpretation of the early chapters of Genesis. “While mistreatment of non-European ethnicities was not limited to proponents of pre- and co-Adamite theory,” writes VanDoodewaard, “opponents of such mistreatment during this period were most commonly proponents of the special immediate creation of Adam and Eve as the first parents of all humanity” (121). That sounds good, but much of the force of his observations evaporates when we recognize that many Christians in the 19th and 20th centuries gladly affirmed VanDoodewaard’s literal hermeneutic and were racists. I agree with him that anti-racism is entailed in our Adamic unity, but I wish he had laid out all the historical warts and wrinkles.22
The author has given us a powerful narrative of decline. Throughout the story, his theological position is no secret. The reader is never in doubt about the good and bad guys. This style has the virtue of transparency, but rhetorically it is unlikely to persuade anyone unless they already agree with VanDoodewaard. Perhaps that is always the way with this genre of writing. Still, one wonders if it would have been more effective simply to tell the historical story, with a much lighter prescriptive hand, reserving dogmatic implications for the final chapter. I am not endorsing the myth of neutral history-writing; my point is only that VanDoodewaard is more compelling when he shows sympathy to the different factors motivating the other side (and I say this as one who believes the declension story is essentially correct).
One more stylistic comment—the historical method is almost entirely limited to the textual material, those clues left by protagonists in written publications. This is bread and butter, to be sure. But the narrative sometimes misses the social, cultural, and personal factors that help contextualize these men with their different burdens and convictions (for example, on pages 89-90, we miss most of La Peyrère’s fascinating biographical details that help us understand his attraction to the pre-Adamite thesis). As much as I appreciate the textual detail, the social and biographical elements would have strengthened the analysis.23
VanDoodewaard is partial to the mature creation position. “God’s original work of creation,” he writes, “produced an immediately mature creation” (314). He also speculates that the present condition of the created order is a result of the global flood and supernatural effects of the fall. Ultimately, he suspects that special revelation is our only epistemic access because modern science cannot offer reliable answers about ancient history. These sensible suggestions deserve further exploration. Some historians, however, will wish that VanDoodewaard had wrestled more deeply with a historical twist that may strain against his position. Early Christian scientists (or natural philosophers), men with the same young-earth beliefs as VanDoodewaard, were unable to fit what they were discovering in creation with traditional readings of Scripture; that growing inconsistency gradually led them to adopt methodological naturalism in science and to abandon their literal hermeneutic. They might have been wrong to make the moves they did, as I would argue, but the fact is they did.24
How successful then is this book? Readers who disagree with VanDoodewaard and know the history of exegesis will concede that the tradition had a more or less literal approach to interpretation. VanDoodewaard’s main thesis will not strike them as controversial. They would likely rejoin: had these men known what we know scientifically today, they too would have interpreted the early chapters of Genesis differently. Stated as a question, had they been alive today, would these earlier interpreters have resisted the mainstream scientific options? VanDoodewaard does not address this question. For that reason, I suspect that some of his readers will remain unmoved by the substantial evidence he has marshaled.
At the very least, this work throws down the gauntlet on behalf of young-earth creationists (see 279, 287-291, and passim). Those like Giberson who think that scholars cannot seriously entertain (much less defend) young-earth creationism will have no further to look than this work of serious scholarship. VanDoodewaard’s account also suggests that once hermeneutical latitude was allowed for the early chapters of Genesis (for example, gap and day-age theories), it was impossible to stymie the liberalizing of theologies of creation and human origins. The slope was too slippery. Readers who reject six-day creation, but share VanDoodewaard’s high view of Scripture, need a strong counterargument if they wish to negate this historical conclusion.
Walton on Genesis as Ancient Cosmology
This new book by the acclaimed OT scholar John Walton builds on his earlier work.25 Genesis, he reminds us, is less familiar, more foreign, than we sometimes recognize. He restores the early chapters of Genesis to their ancient Near Eastern (ANE) context, emphasizing the functional dimensions of Genesis 1-2 over against readings that construe those chapters as a proto-scientific narrative of material origins: “Ancient cosmologies had little interest in material origins, though they recognize that the material cosmos is that which is ordered so that the functions can be carried out” (34). Walton also retrieves neglected motifs in the tradition as he probes linguistic and textual connections between creation and temple passages. In Genesis 1 and 2, the cosmos and the Garden of Eden are both depicted as sacred space. This book aims at a mediating position between Giberson and VanDoodewaard. Adam and Eve were “real people in a real past” (184), but they were not the first humans, they were not created de novo, and not all of us are their direct descendants.
Walton is a welcome voice in the interdisciplinary dialogue on how to relate Genesis and modern science. However, I am not persuaded by the book’s overall argument, largely for two reasons. The first is tied to his functional-material opposition; the second is methodological; that is, his use of Scripture. On the first reason, Walton argues that creation in the ancient world—and thus in Genesis—is a functional, not a material, concept. He defends this opposition in earlier work and throughout the present volume. Alas, his distinction is unhelpful and ultimately unconvincing.
Consider his handling of the scriptural Adam. Walton makes the observation, as others have before him, that ʾādām is used in various ways in Genesis—for example, sometimes with a definite article, sometimes not. He argues that ʾādām in most cases should be taken as generic, archetypal, or representative; in each of these instances, “the representational role is more important than the individual.” According to Walton, “Only in the cases [i.e., Gen 5:1, 3-5] where the word is indefinite and by context being used as a substitute for a personal name would the significance be tied to the individual as an individual, historical person” (61).
These subtle distinctions play down the individual, historical Adam. They are also reflective of a tendency in Walton toward disjunctive reasoning. Why cannot the representational and historical elements be equally implied in specifying ʾādām? My concern is not that Adam had a representative role—that is old news—it is that Walton thinks representation somehow competes with historicity. According to his analysis, most verses about ʾādām in Genesis 1-5 have primarily representational force with far fewer verses intimating a historical individual; these grammatical observations are doing too much theological work, the distinctions are too tidy. One further reason to demur is that while his thesis implies that ʾādām in Genesis 2:7 and Genesis 2:22 is primarily archetypal rather than historical (see table on page 61), Paul in 1 Timothy 2:13, citing both Genesis 2:7 and 2:22, straightforwardly assumes Adam as a historical individual with no reference to archetype.
These unnecessary disjunctions become more apparent in his further analysis of Genesis 2:7 and 2:21. Walton denies that God created Adam from the dust, Eve from his rib. The phrases “forming from dust” and “building from rib” are archetypal claims, not claims of material origin. His argument proceeds in four steps. First, the word translated “formed” in Genesis 2:7 does not imply a creative act, a claim he justifies by appeal to how the word is used in other parts of the OT. Second, the word “dust” should not be understood materially but as a clue to our mortality (based on Genesis 3:19, “For dust you are and to dust you will return”). Walton knows that traditionally Romans 5:12 is taken to mean that Adam was not created mortal; his response is that God placed the tree of life in the garden, suggesting “they were mortal” (73). Paul connects death to sin not because the first sin caused death, but because Adam and Eve were expelled from the Garden, thus losing their access to the Tree of Life—they “were doomed to die” (74). Third, Walton interprets Genesis 2:7 archetypally, not materially, because everything said about Adam and Eve is true for all humans; Genesis 2:7 is about Adam as Everyman. And finally, Genesis 2:21 describes a vision that Adam had, not something that actually happened; that is, Eve was not materially created from Adam’s rib.
The evidence Walton gives for taking Adam in Genesis 2 as exclusively archetypal regarding material origins is not convincing. That Genesis 2 uses poetic, literary language is not at issue; the question is whether those passages exclude material creation. Walton is right that later biblical passages that mention “dust,” “formed,” “breath of life,” and so on, may be extending an archetypal metaphor, but there is no good reason to think that material origin is thereby excluded. The burden is on Walton to prove otherwise.26 Interestingly, when he assesses the NT for evidence of his archetypal-not-material thesis, the only genuinely archetypal examples he finds are Romans 5 and 1 Corinthians 15. In every other instance in the NT, Walton concedes that Adam and Eve are not treated as archetypal. Given the disproportionate emphasis he places on the archetypal-not-material reading of Adam, this admission should give reason for pause.
Apart from this problem of disjunctive analysis, I am also reluctant to accept Walton’s thesis for methodological reasons bound up with how he uses Scripture. In his introduction, the reader is warned not to “blindly accept the scientific consensus if its results are questionable on scientific principles”; and “that regardless of whether the scientific conclusions stand the test of time or not, they pose no threat to biblical belief” (13). In the same introduction, he writes: “I will not give very much attention to the question of the legitimacy of the scientific claims” (13). These statements invite the methodological question: what is driving this project?
The question becomes more pressing in the first chapter. There Walton says much that is helpful, but an ambiguity runs through the whole. The chapter, in effect, takes Stephen Jay Gould’s NOMA principle and contextualizes it to OT biblical scholarship.27 Science answers “how” questions; the Bible answers “why” questions. Keep the two separate. This hermeneutical approach is constructed to prevent any conflict between science and Scripture. Walton insists, repeatedly, that we should read the Bible on its own terms without imposing modern scientific questions, but the irony is that his approach is only conceivable in light of science. No early, medieval, Reformation, or post-Reformation theologian would agree to any number of claims advanced in this chapter (or in this book, for that matter). They are peculiarly modern, plausible to Walton precisely because we live on the far side of Copernicus, Newton, and Darwin.
But let us tread cautiously. I am not saying that Walton’s book is driven solely by extra-textual, scientific pressures; my worry is about the imbalance. He argues, for example, that Genesis 2:4-24 is a sequel to Genesis 1, not a recapitulation of day six. Genesis 1 describes God’s creation of an unspecified number of human beings, whereas Genesis 2 relates the subsequent creation of Adam and Eve. Adam and Eve were not the first human beings. Right here some readers might dismiss Walton, condemning his rereading of Genesis 1 and 2 as a solution made to fit scientific precommitments. That would be too hasty if not uncharitable. There are genuinely intra-textual, exegetical questions raised by the early chapters of Genesis. In Genesis 4 specifically, how does one make sense of the remarkable technological and cultural development (for example, Bedouin life, city-building, metallurgy, and so on)? Taking those textual features to reflect a Neolithic culture, many have interpreted Genesis 4 non-literally.28 The benefit of Walton’s reading, then, is that it gives us plausible answers to old conundrums: Who was Cain’s wife? Who is Cain afraid of in Genesis 4:14? Who lived in Nod (Genesis 4:17)? Stipulating that God created a mass of pre-Adamite humans in Genesis 1 solves the problem. As Walton recognizes, Isaac La Peyrère was one of the first to float this theory (see, for example, 217n2 and 217n4).
Let us grant, then, that Genesis 4 prompts difficult questions, questions that find some resolution in Walton’s new reading of Genesis 1. That counts for something. But is it enough? Genesis 4 notwithstanding, I know of no intertextual canonical reference to Genesis 1 that has anyone in view other than Adam and/or Eve. The individual Adam is the referent of ʾādām. The idea that other human beings are implied in Genesis 1 is difficult to square with the rest of the biblical story (see, for example, the genealogy in Luke 3:23-38). Second Temple literature—representing Jews who were culturally closer to the ANE context than Walton—universally believed that Adam and Eve were the first human beings, as Walton himself concedes: “even very early interpreters undoubtedly considered Adam and Eve to be the progenitors of the entire human race” (181). The New Testament authors believed that Adam and Eve were the first human beings; most Christians since the closing of the canon have believed that Adam and Eve were the first human beings. I am doubtful that Walton’s proposal can overturn that exegetical consensus.
The methodological concerns intensify when Walton interacts with the Pauline material. Part of the problem, of course, is that Paul’s understanding of Adam and Eve is in tension with Walton’s reading of Genesis—for Paul believed that Adam and Eve were the first, the only, and the universal ancestors of humanity. Walton affirms the inerrancy of Scripture, so what to do? He appeals to a nuanced model of accommodation, one that allows him to reconcile Scripture and human reason (that is, science).29 On this view, God accommodated his Word to the erroneous beliefs of the biblical authors; Paul’s background beliefs are theologically irrelevant because they were part of his (fallen) cognitive environment. That allows the reader to separate Paul’s explicit statements from any assumptions or background beliefs in the relevant passages. We are free to discard the background beliefs, but we must retain Paul’s explicit statements. The problem here is that once you open the door to such critical moves, there is no turning back. As Ernst Troeltsch put it, “Give the historical method an inch and it will take a mile. From a strictly orthodox standpoint, therefore, it seems to bear a certain similarity to the devil.”30
In Walton’s exploration of Romans 5, Paul’s theology of sin is made consistent with the existence of co- or pre-Adamites. Romans 5:13 is the loophole that provides a textual basis for pre-Adamites: “for before the law was given, sin was in the world. But sin is not taken into account when there is no law” (NIV). Citing Walton at some length:
This reasoning suggests that even though any human population possibly preceding or coexisting with Adam and Eve may well have been engaged in activity that would be considered sin, they were not being held accountable for it: where there was no law or revelation, there was no sin (no consciousness of relationship, no immortality). In that scenario, the sin of Adam and Eve would be understood as bringing sin to the entire human race by bringing accountability. From Romans 5:13 we infer that, in Paul’s view, sin comes into the world when accountability comes into the world. Any humans prior to Adam did not have a personal, conscious relationship to lose…(155)
This interpretation of Romans 5:13 echoes La Peyrère (in fact, that verse was the exegetical crux of his pre-Adamite thesis). In both cases, I must confess difficulty distinguishing exegesis from eisegesis. Paul has already clarified what accountability would mean for a gentile without the law (see Romans 2:1-16). It has nothing to do with pre-Adamites.31
What is going on? I suggest that the scientific consensus is having an undue methodological influence on Walton’s approach. Consider his basic strategy. Scripture is an ancient document, so we should set aside those parts that reflect what other ancient people believe. Such beliefs were part of their shared cognitive environment but not the intended message. Walton’s schema here raises questions. After all, ancient people believed in God or gods, that they exist, that they act in the world, that they engage with humanity, and so on. He is counseling readers of Scripture ex hypothesi to dismiss those portions as an incidental part of their cognitive environment. Presumably Walton would reply that his methodology only applies to those parts of the Bible that relate to scientific questions; that is, issues in cosmology, biology, and so on. But that proves my point—modern science is having an undue influence. Is this biblical scholarship with a Kantian twist, Scripture within the bounds of a naturalistic science?
Walton at the end of his book gives four reasons that the dialogue on human origins should move forward—creation care; ministry; evangelism; and considering the future. All of that is well said, and powerfully too. Indeed, as I reflected on the shape of the book, it struck me that the argument could be made more compelling with a couple of modifications: The Conclusion and Summary on pages 198-200 should be read as part of the Introduction, the book’s raison d’être; the body of the book is then taken as a speculative exercise—certainly not dogma or even theologoumenon (theological opinion)—a hypothetical way the Bible could be read to minimize tension with science. The argument may not be true, but it is logically possible, and that is sufficient for a minimalist approach. Granted, reconceiving the book as a piece of minimalist apologetics changes its genre, but such a shift might alleviate some of its present weaknesses.
In its current form, the book addresses genuine pastoral worries by theological revisionism. Walton and Giberson are unlikely allies here, despite their differences. Giberson is reflecting on Scripture and theology, and he jettisons those parts he can no longer believe; Walton seeks to show that a high view of Scripture can accommodate the scientific consensus—in practice, however, both Walton and Giberson end up shrinking the scope of God’s Word to us. Walton uses the language of ANE studies and speech act theory, but his argument unwittingly implies a “neo-Gnostic” view of Scripture—regarding human origins—which is to say the Bible has less and less to say about material things and science sets the rules of play.
Walton is partly motivated by the need for evangelism and tolerance of theological differences. He wants those who insist on a historical Adam to “not consider interpreters who are trying to be faithful to Scripture to be denying inerrancy if they arrive at different conclusions” (202). It is one thing to believe in the de novo creation of Adam and Eve, or that they were the first two humans from whom we are all descended, but let us not “be committed to those traditional beliefs as the only acceptable interpretation” (204). I hear you, brother. But this well-intentioned advice is not as innocuous or “tolerant” as he thinks. Walton is effectively asking those who do think there is more at stake theologically to moderate their convictions, not to be as dogmatic, live and let live. In other words, they should simply admit they are wrong or they should adopt an evangelical latitudinarianism. That is not a promising way forward. I would argue instead that Christians need not apologize for holding dogmatic convictions, even insist that some of those convictions are a matter of biblical urgency, while at the same time insisting on public, courteous, charitable discourse with those with whom they disagree.32 As I see it, anyone who would go so far as rejecting Adam’s historicity and the fall would be dogmatically inconsistent; and yes, better by far to be a Christian who denies these doctrines than to be, say, atheist or agnostic. Nevertheless, based on the lessons of history it is an unstable position that, within a generation or two, will likely devolve into more regressive forms of faith.
So what are evangelical institutions to do? Is the historical Adam important enough to warrant hemorrhaging professors at confessional institutions? These are complex, difficult, even painful questions, and there are multiple, intermingling, and competing factors—for example, poor handling by university administrations; unwise belligerence by professors too quick to defend their rights; academics needing a livelihood to feed their families; fewer jobs available for PhDs; institutions pandering to the more conservative pole of their constituencies, and so on. Surely we can do better; surely we must do better, God help us. But we should also recognize that “academic freedom” in a confessional setting is a different creature from the one that roams the halls of the broader academy. Having meaningful continuity with a tradition entails privileging particular theological commitments. If we think otherwise, do we not cease being confessional?
The three books under review invite several reflections. I shall set them out in terms of the hermeneutical, pastoral, and theological triad invoked earlier in this essay. Let us begin with hermeneutics. In the face of scientific pressure, we cannot rule out the possibility that we have misinterpreted the biblical text. This is at least one implication of the Protestant principle of sola scriptura. This hermeneutical option, however, can become a cure-all, a panacea, whenever conclusions from a scientific discipline undermine traditional readings of Scripture. God’s Word becomes a wax nose, scriptural authority an epiphenomenon.33 While there are genuine instances when new scientific insights should prompt a rereading of Scripture, they can also be entirely spurious. Moving forward, scholars need to be much more vigilant about that distinction, perhaps offering guidelines and criteria for responsible, faithful reading strategies.
The appeal to hermeneutics arises in part from the belief that the findings in science and the teachings of Scripture should harmonize. This impulse to concordism insists there is no conflict between the two spheres. The one caution is that views in science often shift. We may court failure if we hitch our theology to the latest deliverance of science; once the scientific position is overturned, the theology becomes obsolete. It does not therefore follow that science is epistemically worthless (see, for example, antirealism), only that in a fallen world it is necessarily imperfect. Some level of concordism, I would argue, is entailed by Christian orthodoxy—for God’s redemptive actions happened within our space-time history—but human creaturely finitude and the noetic effects of sin demand that it be a chastened, humble concordism.34
This debate over Adam and Eve recalls the importance of pastoral wisdom. In the post-Christian West, seekers and doubters often reject the faith because they perceive our doctrinal disputes as anti-science. We cannot ignore that; while we should not apologize for the offense of the gospel, there is nothing virtuous in adding offense to it. God is sovereign, to be sure, but we are also called to be responsible. For instance, some young-earth creationists should stop demonizing others who interpret Scripture differently. Over time, such habits only foster an unsightly culture of misinformation, hyper-suspicion, and anti-intellectualism. Bring on the disagreement, yes; offer critique, yes—in love!—but always recognize that they too are brothers and sisters in the faith who are striving to follow Jesus faithfully.
Pastoral sensitivity works in the other direction as well. Young-earth creationists are treated very poorly in the evangelical academy. Given that most lay believers in North America embrace some kind of young-earth creationism, the dismissive attitude among many Christian scholars toward such views only aggravates the situation. A wiser approach gives thoughtful young-earth creationists a seat at the table, not as a gesture but on principle. This would significantly reduce the level of suspicion and feelings of persecution; such scholars can now focus on the burden of producing first-rate, substantive work. In the process, we dethrone an academic worldliness, a specious elitism that is rife within the evangelical academy. In the Christian guild where we seek to please the Lord rather than the idols of Babylon, scholars should be judged by the quality of their work, the theological integrity of the arguments, not by unholy prejudice or academic peer group pressure. If young-earth creationists are mistaken in their views, then excluding them ideologically only feeds a martyrdom narrative that galvanizes their position, paradoxically. Instead, play fair. The truth will out.35
At the theological level, our core disagreements often turn on different intuitions about dogmatic rank and the epistemic status of scientific judgments. Biblical scholars and theologians who participate in the science-religion dialogue typically have no expertise in the relevant sciences. They are dependent on the testimony of qualified scientists. By those lights, many have concluded that the church was wrong about Adam and Eve. Those doctrines have lost their dogmatic status and are no longer plausible given what we know from evolutionary biology, population genetics, and so on. The reason that others disagree—and I count myself among them—is that they have judged those doctrines as so central to the biblical narrative that they cannot be abandoned without fundamentally altering the shape of the story. They are integral to the redemptive-historical narrative, grounded in biblical exegesis, and widely affirmed by earlier Christians who did not have our blind spots. We rank them high dogmatically, humbly recognizing that some theological realities by their very nature are more secure than the best of what we know, or can know, from scientific investigation.36
Tell me, is it any wonder that these matters are highly contested within and outside evangelicalism? In my own judgment, Giberson’s proposal has the virtue of candor; it has the virtue of avoiding any conflict with the broad consensus on evolutionary biology, but it marks the death knell of anything but a very minimalist kind of Christianity. VanDoodewaard offers a fresh retrieval of the pre-Enlightenment tradition of reading early Genesis—an underrepresented position among scholars—but his book is too parochial and is unlikely to sway the wider evangelical academy. Walton’s thesis, a creative reading of Scripture, is a speculative proposal for reconciling Genesis 1-3 with science—at its best, it shows that evangelical biblical scholarship has the resources to engage difficult questions raised by modern science; at its worst, the picture that emerges is a theologically anemic, hermeneutical mirror dancing to the scientific consensus. These three authors have ventured into an area where angels fear to tread, and we are indebted to them for their courage. No doubt it is far easier to examine critically such proposals at the intersection of science and theology, much harder to lay out a positive, constructive way forward. And that is precisely what the church needs. Happily, on the evidence of these very different books, a vigorous dialogue is well underway.37
Cite this article
- The allusion is to Thomas Huxley in his review of Darwin, published anonymously: “The Origin of Species,” Westminster Review 17 (1860): 556: “Extinguished theologians lie about the cradle of every science as the strangled snakes beside that of Hercules; and history records that whenever science and orthodoxy have been fairly opposed, the latter has been forced to retire from the lists, bleeding and crushed if not annihilated; scotched, if not slain.”
- The scholars on this list are very different theologically from each other and represent views spanning the theological spectrum (for example, some of them clearly endorse a historical Adam and Eve); what they share in common is the experience of leaving their institutions over the human origins controversy. For one perspective on the broader issues, see Brandon G. Withrow and Menachem Wecker, Consider No Evil: Two Faith Traditions and the Problem of Academic Freedom in Religious Higher Education (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2014).
- H. Richard Niebuhr, Christ and Culture (New York: Harper & Row, 1951), 11.
- For introduction, see Peter Harrison, ed., The Cambridge Companion to Science and Religion (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010); and Christopher Southgate, ed., God, Humanity and the Cosmos, rev. and enl. ed. (New York: T&T Clark, 2005).
- See David Kinnaman, You Lost Me: Why Young Christians Are Leaving Church … and Rethinking Faith (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2011), 131-148.
- See, for example, John Hedley Brooke, Science and Religion: Some Historical Perspectives (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991).
- Karl Giberson, Saving the Original Sinner: How Christians Have Used the Bible’s First Man to Oppress, Inspire, and Make Sense of the World (Boston, MA: Beacon, 2015); William VanDoodewaard, The Quest for the Historical Adam: Genesis, Hermeneutics, and Human Origins (Grand Rapids, MI: Reformation Heritage Books, 2015); and John Walton, The Lost World of Adam and Eve: Genesis 2-3 and the Human Origins Debate (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2015). Henceforth, references to each book are included parenthetically in the text.
- See, for example, David Livingstone, Adam’s Ancestors: Race, Religion, and the Politics of Human Origins (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2009); and Philip C. Almond, Adam and Eve in Seventeenth-Century Thought (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999).
- While Giberson cites Jon Roberts’s book frequently in chapter 8, his use of it is hard to square with Roberts’s text. These matters were vigorously contested among North American pastors and theologians. See also Jon H. Roberts, Darwinism and the Divine in America (Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press, 1988).
- For some of the evidence, see Peter Sanlon, “Original Sin in Patristic Theology,” in Adam, the Fall, and Original Sin: Theological, Biblical, and Scientific Perspectives, eds. Hans Madueme and Michael Reeves (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2014), 85-107, esp. 86-88.
- See, for example, Jesse Couenhoven, “Augustine’s Doctrine of Original Sin,” Augustinian Studies 36 (2005): 359-396.
- On the early church’s rejection of Pelagianism, Giberson strikes this typical note: “Politics played a role, perhaps a large one” (70). Such a non-providential approach can be used to deconstruct conciliar Trinitarian formulations (as Jehovah’s Witnesses often do).
- See the similar moves in Peter Enns, The Evolution of Adam (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2012), 119-135. Given Giberson’s acknowledgments, I assume he is indebted to Enns at this point (see, for example, page 179).
- To state the obvious, “sacred texts” includes Holy Scripture.
- His sole mention of Kurt Wise on page 148 is ad hominem.
- [My suspicion was heightened when in his conclusion Giberson describes C. John Collins as “a leading fundamentalist theologian” (175). According to Giberson, fundamentalism is “an elaborate anti-intellectual mixture containing a rejection of mainstream science, a simplistic biblical literalism, and a quixotic attempt to create an alternative ‘creation science’” (128). Collins, of course, is nothing of the sort. Apparently, Giberson’s use of “creationist” and “fundamentalist” is purely rhetorical—see, for example, Alvin Plantinga, Warranted Christian Belief (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), 245. /efn_note]
If you want to understand why a growing number of Christians no longer believe in a historical Adam and Eve, this book is a helpful guide. The prose is concise, wide-ranging, and always stimulating. The book’s main weakness, however, is that it abandons the historic understanding of Scripture in order to update the faith in light of science. Giberson’s approach to the Bible tends toward naturalism and Christian doctrines are adjudicated at the bar of a methodologically naturalistic conception of science. His book is perhaps best seen as a clarion call to old-fashioned liberalism, enshrining a theological picture that would not be recognized by any of the major branches of Christianity (historically understood).16See also J. Gresham Machen, Christianity and Liberalism (New York: Macmillan, 1923). Machen believed that “the many varieties of modern liberal religion are rooted in naturalism” (Ibid., 2); he went on to say: “the liberal attempt at reconciling Christianity with modern science has really relinquished everything distinctive of Christianity, so that what remains is in essentials only that same indefinite type of religious aspiration which was in the world before Christianity came upon the scene” (Ibid., 6).
- Ronald L. Numbers, The Creationists: From Scientific Creationism to Intelligent Design, expanded edition (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2006). VanDoodewaard only cites from the first edition—The Creationists: The Evolution of Scientific Creationism (New York: Knopf, 1992).
- Mormons ignore Scripture’s anthropomorphic language and read passages like Genesis 3:8 as teaching God’s actual physicality. Does VanDoodewaard really wish to place himself in that literalistic company?
- See, for example, Jitse M. van der Meer and Richard Oosterhoff, “The Bible, Protestantism and the Rise of Natural Science: A Response to Harrison’s Thesis,” Science and Christian Belief 21 (2009): 133-153; and Peter Harrison, “The Bible, Protestantism and the Rise of Natural Science: A Rejoinder,” Science and Christian Belief 21 (2009): 155-162.
- The book’s index does not indicate all his interactions with Letham (for example, see also 60n39 and 67n62).
- In the concluding chapter, he missed another opportunity to make the point when he argued that unity of race is one of the benefits of holding to a literal hermeneutic (see 294-296).
- In addition, I wish he had probed more deeply the underlying theological and philosophical currents swirling during the 16th and 17th centuries to situate the issues within a larger, more textured background. Debates over the early chapters of Genesis and Adam’s historicity were symptomatic of broader intellectual forces that are sometimes absent in VanDoodewaard’s narrative. In his defense, however, the book is long enough as it is. On the larger context, see Klaus Scholder, The Birth of Modern Critical Theology: Origins and Problems of Biblical Criticism in the Seventeenth Century, trans. John Bowden (London: SCM, 1990).
- For an account of how Christians, ironically, were instrumental in the rise of methodological naturalism, see Ronald L. Numbers, “Science without God: Natural Laws and Christian Beliefs,” in When Science and Christianity Meet, eds. David C. Lindberg and Ronald L. Numbers (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003), 265-285.
- John Walton, The Lost World of Genesis One: Ancient Cosmology and the Origins Debate (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2009); and Genesis 1 as Ancient Cosmology (Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 2011).
- His fellow OT scholars have critiqued him on this point—see the responses by C. John Collins, Todd Beall and Richard Averbeck in Reading Genesis 1-2: An Evangelical Conversation, ed. J. Daryl Charles (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2013), 170-181. See also Richard Averbeck, “The Lost World of Adam and Eve: A Review Essay,” Themelios 40.2 (2015): 226-239; and John Walton, “Response to Richard Averbeck,” Themelios 40.2 (2015): 240-242.
- Gould argued that science and religion cover different domains of inquiry; in principle, there can be no conflict between them (so-called NOMA, “non-overlapping magisteria”). See Stephen Jay Gould, Rock of Ages: Science and Religion and the Fullness of Life (New York: Ballantine, 1999).
- See, for example, Derek Kidner, John Stott, John J. Davis, and Henri Blocher (see Blocher, Original Sin: Illuminating the Riddle [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1997], 40).
- Walton’s understanding of accommodation appears to be more Socinian than classical. For example, see Glenn Sunshine and Martin I. Klauber, “Jean-Alphonse Turrettini on Biblical Accommodation: Calvinist or Socinian?” Calvin Theological Journal 25 (1990): 7-27; and Hoon J. Lee, “Accommodation—Orthodox, Socinian, and Contemporary,” WTJ 75 (2013): 335-348. For a helpful systematic overview, see Theodore G. Van Raalte, “Another Wax Nose?: Accommodation in Divine Revelation,” in Correctly Handling the Word of Truth: Reformed Hermeneutics Today, eds. Mees te Velde and Gerhard H. Visscher (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2014), 226-251.
- Ernst Troeltsch, “Historical and Dogmatic Method in Theology,” in Religion in History, trans. and ed. James Luther Adams and Walter Bense (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1991), 16.
- Walton invited N. T. Wright to contribute chapter 19 (“Excursus on Paul’s Use of Adam,” 170-180). Wright builds on an Adam-Israel typology to suggest “that just as God chose Israel from the rest of humankind for a special, strange, demanding vocation, so perhaps what Genesis is telling us is that God chose one pair from the rest of early hominids for a special, strange, demanding vocation” (177). The typology is helpful, but Wright’s tentative proposal is implausible: While there is copious evidence that Israel failed in her vocation on behalf of the other nations, there is no biblical evidence of Adam failing in his vocation on behalf of co- and pre-Adamites.
- My comments here are primarily with reference to cross-denominational settings.
- Consider, for example, Martin Luther who routinely bemoaned how exegetes in his day dealt with Scripture, “making whatever they want out of it, as if it were a wax nose to be pulled to and fro” (Luther’s Works, vol. 39 [Philadelphia: Fortress, 1970], 81). Luther was not alone; the complaint was common in the wake of the Reformation.
- Hans Madueme, “‘The Most Vulnerable Part of the Whole Christian Account’: Original Sin and Modern Science,” in Adam, the Fall, and Original Sin, 243-244.
- Some of the work of The Colossian Forum, for example, is worth emulating in this regard.
- Consider as an example Madueme, “Most Vulnerable Part of the Whole Christian Account,” 225-249.
- I am very grateful to several colleagues, Tim Morris especially, who commented on an earlier draft.