Adam, the Fall, and Original Sin: Theological, Biblical, and Scientific Perspectives

Hans Madueme and Michael Reeves, eds
Published by Baker Academic in 2014

Reviewed by Steven D. Mason, Old Testament Studies, LeTourneau University

There may be no more important component to the future credibility of Christian higher education than the ability of scholars and educators to offer an authentic account of modern science alongside a true commitment to scripture and traditional Christian theology. While the enterprise we call “the integration of faith and learning” is really not new to Christian university life, even if it is relatively new as a sub-discipline in and of itself, it does seem that in recent years Christians, and particularly Evangelicals, have been wrestling like never before with questions raised by mainstream natural science. The query regarding human origins stands front and center and has become in some circles a dividing line between the stable and the sliding with respect to Christian faithfulness. And so, it is quite a good thing for Christian scholars like those represented in Hans Madueme and Michael Reeves’s Adam, the Fall, and Original Sin to sit around the table to tender the best of theological, biblical, and scientific perspectives on the historicity of Adam and humanity as a whole. We will need voices like the fifteen in this edited volume to continue to speak clearly, honestly, and passionately about this subject as the Church and its universities and seminaries help broker the discussion moving forward.

Adam, the Fall, and Original Sin presents fifteen essays organized into four major sections entitled “Adam in the Bible and Science,” “Original Sin in History,” “Original Sin in Theology,” and “Adam and the Fall in Dispute.” Part One offers essays on Adam in the Old Testament (John Collins) and New Testament (Robert Yarbrough) and an essay on Adam and modern science (written under the pseudonym of William Stone). Part Two traces the doctrine of original sin historically, looking at patristic (Peter Sanlon), Lutheran (Robert Kolb), Reformed (Donald Macleod), Wesleyan (Thomas McCall), and modern (Carl Trueman) theology. Part Three addresses original sin from the perspectives of biblical theology (James Hamilton), systematic theology (Michael Reeves and Hans Madueme), science (Hans Madueme), and pastoral theology (Daniel Doriani). Part Four presents some selected topics of interest, with essays on Romans 5:12–19 (Tom Schreiner), the fall and Genesis 3 (Noel Weeks), and theodicy (William Edgar). The editors conclude with a brief postscript.

In the introduction to the book Madueme and Reeves offer a winsome overview of the recent controversy about the historical Adam, providing the reader insight into the degree of discord within evangelicalism on the issue. The editors acknowledge that complexities are at play within recent evangelical discussion; it is too nondescript simply to affirm Adam’s supernatural creation or subsequent fall without pressing an individual scholar on his or her version of the details. Accordingly, the details matter, since “Adam and the fall do not float free in Scripture like rootless, atomistic, independent ideas. They are central nodes that hold together and are completely enmeshed in a much broader, organic, theological matrix” (ix). The volume has an unashamed apologetics telos to it, and it is a resource essentially for those within the church. It aims to “rescue Adam from his rapidly diminishing theological, cultural, and scientific plausibility” (xii). As the introduction proceeds, it becomes evident that for these authors quite a bit is at stake in compromising a traditional doctrine of original sin and a literal, historical account of Adam, implying that these sorts of touch-points of Christian theology and the gospel (or their trajectories) are worth dying for (xii). While setting the stage in this way is indeed inspiring, it also creates a high expectation with regard to the payoff of the book as a whole.

The volume is certainly successful in offering a range of angles into the discussion with the central intention of articulating a conservative defense of the historical Adam and original sin. Each essay had gifts to offer, and I suspect that almost any reader would learn something valuable from each contributor. Yet the volume does leave more to be desired. For one, the framing of the discussion assumes the audience will be Protestant Evangelicals, which may be so, but it also assumes that evangelical conservatism would not want broader exposure to ideas (168, nt. 1). At various junctures, the authors appear more concerned with responding to particular detractors of traditional formulations of Adam, the fall, and sin (for example, Peter Enns, Christopher Southgate, and Bill Dembski), and could have been less polemical in the process of reaffirming conventional evangelical viewpoints. And while no single book can cover all areas, the science discussion is thin. For many, generating thoughtful responses to the scientific community is the heart of the issue. Stone’s chapter on reconciling paleoanthropology with a historical Adam was helpful, but, as he admits, there is quite a bit of discussion left to be covered regarding genetics and common ancestry which are at the forefront of the science debate.

As is the challenge for any edited work with multiple essays, the individual pieces did not speak much to one another. If there is one main thread in the volume, it is how the biblical authors, within their own ideas, narrative movement, and language, and their classic interpreters in the Church, conceive and assume the reality of both a real Adam and Eve and original sin. And yet, for some inquirers, both conservative and otherwise, that may still feel like only one side of the discussion. For example, in his work on Adam and Eve in the Old Testament, Collins essentially proposes four conclusions:

  1. The author intended to relay “straight” history, with a minimum of figurative language.
  2. The author was talking about what he thought were actual events, using rhetorical and literary techniques to shape the readers’ attitudes toward those events.
  3. The author intended to recount an imaginary history, using recognizable literary conventions to convey “timeless truths” about God and man.
  4. The author told a story without caring whether the events were real or imagined; his main goal was to convey various theological and moral truths. (31)

This is a fair (and helpful) summary of views on authorial intent and understanding, but the tougher question is how one squares any of the four with the propositions of scientists. In other words, the deeper issue is negotiating what God intends for us to do with the world of the Bible and the world of good science—if one sees them as divergent. The real challenges occur on the level of implications. Again, it is one thing to argue that Augustine did not invent the doctrine of original sin or that Wesley believed Adam and Eve were real people in line with the Westminster Confession, but it is another to work out why I should care about Augustine’s or Wesley’s position at all.

At other points, several of the authors defended the necessity of maintaining the traditional doctrine of original sin, but it left me wondering if the main impetus of holding on to a traditional view is only to stay theologically safe or to maintain a clear theodicy. For example:

Traditionally, belief in a historical sin and fall of Adam has been an essential part of Christian theodicy. That is, because Adam and Eve committed the first sin at a particular point in time. … God did not create an inherently fallen world. He is not the author of evil. … If we remove a historical Adam and fall from the theological picture, then sin became a side effect of evolution, a part of the natural ontology of created human beings. … The creator God is rendered ultimately responsible for sin. … But if there was no historical Adam and no historical entry point of evil into the world, then [the sovereignty and goodness of God] are things we cannot affirm, and our very Christian confidence must be shaken to its foundations. (Madueme and Reeves, 210-211)

It is indeed helpful to remind the reader that taking an alternative position to a historical Adam means that one is not only going against the grain of classical Christian thought, but may also be tinkering with important propositions about God. But does the loss of a historical Adam absolutely compromise God’s sovereignty and goodness and purity? Is that the only possible conclusion? Does sin as a “side-effect” of evolution absolutely make God the author of evil? Is evolution the only other side to a historical Adam? Are there other ways of imagining historical entry points of sin into the world besides a literal Adam and Eve that could still maintain traditional accounts of theodicy? How do other thoughtful and evangelical believers hold the tensions together? More of what William Edgar begins to offer in this way would have been welcome. The assertions through several of the essays, however, seem at the very least in need of elaboration to avoid oversimplifying the controversies and their ramifications, which can actually debilitate one’s confidence in addressing them in the long run.

In the end, I think the value of this work outweighs its shortcomings. The solid exegetical and theological work presented amidst its pages will lend a good amount of support and meaningful discussion points for defending a longstanding Christian perspective on Adam, the fall, and original sin. There is a center of gravity that this volume offers on the subject, as one can certainly trust the contributing scholars to stay within the bounds of conservative evangelical thought. But if someone were hoping for a presentation of weighty arguments that might challenge traditional modes of thinking, then they will have to find supplements to this volume. I would recommend taking this work along for help on the journey.

Cite this article
Steven D. Mason, “Adam, the Fall, and Original Sin: Theological, Biblical, and Scientific Perspectives”, Christian Scholar’s Review, 46:2 , 203-205

Steven D. Mason

LeTourneau University
Steven D. Mason is Provos and Vice President for Academic Affairs and Professor of Old Testament Studies at LeTourneau University.