Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Actually, There Are Three Out of Ten Good Reasons to Believe in an Historical Adam

Have you ever been in a conversation where one person starts arguing erroneously and then another chimes in to refute him, only to offer up a refutation that is also erroneous? That's what the Historical Adam debate looks like most of the time to me.

Kevin DeYoung posted a "Ten Reasons" list arguing why one should believe in an historical Adam. This is clearly in response to Dr. Enns's denial that a belief in an historical Adam is necessary to the gospel, although I'm sure it also seeks to counter many who believe as he does. James McGrath posted his counter argument called, "Ten Really Bad Reasons to Believe in a Historical Adam." James' arguments consist of a bit of what I might say myself, but I think that his theological position concerning inerrancy and a denial of the Bible as communicating historical reality along with its theological message makes it an argument between one person who believes the Bible literally and one person who believes some of the Bible figuratively and throws out the rest. So let me give you my critique of DeYoung's "Ten Reasons" and then I'll give you my critique of McGrath's.

DeYoung's reasons are as follows (I'll simply offer my response under each one):

1. The Bible does not put an artificial wedge between history and theology. Of course, Genesis is not a history textbook or a science textbook, but that is far from saying we ought to separate the theological wheat from the historical chaff. Such a division owes to the Enlightenment more than the Bible.

This is true, but not in the way that DeYoung seems to be using it. History in the ancient sense (a retelling of history in order to shape the theological and ethical minds of the community) is not the same as history in the modern sense (a report of supposedly uninterpreted facts in the recreation of the event). This is especially true when we speak of the Urgeschichte, or Primeval History (more on that below).

2. The biblical story of creation is meant to supplant other ancient creation stories more than imitate them. Moses wants to show God’s people “this is how things really happened.” The Pentateuch is full of warnings against compromise with the pagan culture. It would be surprising, then, for Genesis to start with one more mythical account of creation like the rest of the ANE.

This is probably the worst of the reasons given, because it assumes precisely what many, even myself who affirms the historical Adam, would consider the point being discussed. In other words, it just begs the question. The question is, What is the text attempting to communicate? And to try and answer this question by asserting a special knowledge of what "Moses wants to show" is a bit absurd. How does DeYoung know what Moses wants to show? Does he have special communication with Moses? The only way to know what the text intends to show is by making a larger literary argument of the text, but it is clear that when one does this, the purpose is to say something about chaos, order and the Sovereignty of God in relation to humanity (see my Revisiting the Days of Genesis).
Second to this, the problem the Torah has with paganism are practices in relation to worshiping other gods, or worshiping God through alternate means, like an idol or omen, etc. The issue is not the use of mythic imagery to present accurate theology about God and man. 
Furthermore, the purpose is not to supplant other creation accounts in terms of their cosmology, but in terms of their theology and ethics. That's an important distinction, since the polemic, then, would use the same material, as polemic often does, but communicate a corrective point through it. Cosmology and history is simply the backdrop to the theology being presented.

3. The opening chapters of Genesis are stylized, but they show no signs of being poetry. Compare Genesis 1 with Psalm 104, for example, and you’ll see how different these texts are. It’s simply not accurate to call Genesis poetry. And even if it were, who says poetry has to be less historically accurate?

Here is where I want to make the point that (1) Yes, DeYoung is right. Although you have arguments made from different scholars that poetry is quite a nebulous term and any text can really be poetic (noted), the text itself isn't the sort of poetry you would get in a Psalm. However, (2) this seems to be based on a false dichotomy. The options are not either poetry or literal historical narrative. The options include a variety of diverse genres that often intermingle. However, when we come to Primeval History, we need to understand that such is a genre unto itself. Primeval History isn't a time that is known to the ancients. They hence filled in that time with a lot of myth, legend, and symbolism with things that likely were true and had been passed down in some way. The cut off, in Mesopotamian history, which is clearly where Genesis 1-11 is situated, is the flood. The closer contemporary history gets to the flood the less known the details of the events become. The events on the other side, of course, are barely known, if at all, to the ancients. Hence, that side is filled with different myths about the gods, how people came to exist, and exaggerated numbers of the reign of monarchs, which seem to be given so that the reader would understand that the actual lengths of their reigns were unknown, but that life was being extended to the kings who had favor with the gods. This does not negate the idea that real history is also presented in Primeval History. It just says that what history is presented is going to be presented in a very symbolic form.

4. There is a seamless strand of history from Adam in Genesis 2 to Abraham in Genesis 12. You can’t set Genesis 1-11 aside as prehistory, not in the sense of being less than historically true as we normally understand those terms. Moses deliberately connects Abram with all the history that comes before him, all the way back to Adam and Eve in the garden.

See the statements above. Genesis, in its ancient Near Eastern context, sets the two apart, and like other texts, would treat the prehistory as history. That's what it's meant to be. It's just not history that is presented in the sense that we usually think of it.

5. The genealogies in 1 Chronicles 1 and Luke 3 treat Adam as historical.

Of course, it is not a surprise that the authors in the Bible treat Adam as historical: (1) Because in the Urgeschichte, he is the beginning of the story. They have no problem with putting him in an historical line up because the Bible has no problem with using prehistory this way; (2) because I think he is historical, I have no problem with this, but neither would someone denying the existence of Adam, since they can affirm the Bible's right use of Adam this way per what I said above.

6. Paul believed in a historical Adam (Rom. 5:12-21; 1 Cor. 15:21-22, 45-49). Even some revisionists are honest enough to admit this; they simply maintain that Paul (and Luke) were wrong.

Of course, I think that Paul and Luke were correct; but inspiration and inerrancy does not give omniscience to the human authors through which it is accomplished. Hence, it does not work to correct every historical or scientific misconception that they might have. That's not the function of inspiration, the historical orthodox claim of inerrancy, nor purpose of the revelation given, which is to bring one to a knowledge of salvation and conform him or her to the image of God's Son. Hence, I have no problem with Paul or Luke being wrong. Paul may have believed in the moveable well that likely didn't exist. So what? That has nothing to do with the point being made by Paul or the Holy Spirit through him in the text of Scripture. I'm not arguing, of course, that this point can't be valid in any way. I think it is valid if combined with 7-9 below.

7. The weight of the history of interpretation points to the historicity of Adam. The literature of second temple Judaism affirmed an historical Adam. The history of the church’s interpretation also assumes it.

Now, here's where I will begin to say that DeYoung is making a better argument than many will attribute to him. The Second Temple comment aside, as many people believe all sorts of odd ideas about the Bible in the Second Temple Period, since there is a move to reconstruct the event more than to interpret the text as we have it. However, the second point about church history is important to me in terms of what it taught theologically when its theology necessarily includes the history of what occurred as reality. I believe the Holy Spirit leads His Church into all truth, and as such, if the historicity of Adam is necessary to understand the gospel as the Church has interpreted it, then I put a lot of stock in that. However, if this comment is simply saying that history has been interpreted this way by the Church, I don't put stock in that, since history is not the domain given to the Church to interpret. Theology and ethics (the mind and character of God in all things) is its domain, and that is to what the Holy Spirit brings clarity. However, when combined with point 9, the point is well made with a "high church" guy like me.

8. Without a common descent we lose any firm basis for believing that all people regardless of race or ethnicity have the same nature, the same inherent dignity, the same image of God, the same sin problem, and that despite our divisions we are all part of the same family coming from the same parents.

This, of course, is a problem for naturalistic evolution, and despite the claim to the contrary, it is quite evident that naturalistic/atheistic forms of evolution quite rightly lead to racism. The early interpreters of evolution were consistent in applying it this way, and modern atheists are completely inconsistent. However, if God is involved, and the worth of humanity is given by Him to each individual that He makes through this process, then this statement really doesn't make it. Likewise, everyone can have the same sin problem by virtue of our common rebellion against God. The issue really becomes the reason for that common rebellion, which in my mind, can only be attributed to our human ontology. As such, I'm not sure how a denial of the historical Adam does not lead to a gnostic worldview.

9. Without a historical Adam, Paul’s doctrine of original sin and guilt does not hold together.

Ergo, as per what I said above, this is really DeYoung's most important argument, and something many others have said before. The doctrine of original sin is necessary to Paul's gospel, which we believe is in fact inspired and inerrant. Hence, the history that is necessary to it must also be inspired and inerrant. This means that an historical Adam must have existed, and the symbolic portrayal of Genesis' Urgeschichte, like Mesopotamian Urgeschichten (cf., for instance, Gilgamesh), although highly symbolic with uses of mythological imagery throughout, paints a picture of an historical person. This is not only true for Paul's gospel but the gospel presented throughout the New Testament that denies that gnosticism is a legitimate interpretation of the gospel message. Hence, warring against the physical nature is worthless to the New Testament authors. It is warring against the spirit of rebellion that was produced by our curse in Adam, the curse that exiled us from God's salvific presence. It is not, therefore, that human nature is merely finite or inherently evil by virtue of its existence, but that it is good, but has been corrupted in rebellion, and now needs to be redeemed in order to regain what was lost in Adam.

10. Without a historical Adam, Paul’s doctrine of the second Adam does not hold together.

This is only partly true. If DeYoung means by this essentially what I say above, then agreed. But if he means that if the analogy of Christ with Adam is to hold, both must be literal persons, that's not actually true. I give an example in my book of comparing Hitler's lust for power with Isildor's in the Lord of the Rings. The analogy is true even if one is real and the other fiction.

So I do think this is a gospel issue, as DeYoung concludes with a quote saying as much from Tim Keller. I just don't think that most of his reasons laid out here are the best. Instead, I would concentrate on 7-9 and possibly 10 if clarified, and I would not pursue them individually, but all of them in conversation with the others.
Now, let me get to McGrath's critique.

It is all well and good to blame things on the Enlightenment. But the truth is that if we are to ask historical or scientific questions, we need to have methods and tools for answering them. Science raised issues for geocentrism, and more recently with a historical Adam, and in neither case can one simply argue that one must keep the Bible and science or the Bible and history in apparent harmony, regardless of the evidence. If one sacrifices the Bible’s teaching about truth and honesty in order to defend the factuality of some of its stories, has one really defended the Bible in any meaningful sense?

This, of course, also begs the question concerning presuppositions and ultimate beliefs that are inseparably linked to, and govern, one's methodology of inquiry. Saying we need to have tools and methods for answering historical questions says nothing toward the point being made. The point is that one must assume a priori a metaphysical position concerning the object, theory, event he is studying, as well to the limitations of his methodologies of inquiry. But I have already critiqued McGrath's lack of awareness in this area on this blog, and don't care to rehash it. My only point here is that this is not an appropriate refutation of what was said, since what was said is true. The wedge between history and theology is a false dichotomy of a refurbished (and reversed) gnosticism that distinguishes between the physical world that can be known and the spiritual world that cannot be known. The Christian message, with which McGrath disagrees, is rooted in history. Where I agree with some of what McGrath is saying here is that the purposes of Scripture are not necessarily historical in all, or even in most, cases. That does not mean that history is not involved simply because that is not the text's primary purpose. It just means that what is secondary will often take a backseat to the primary.

I fully agree with McGrath here. DeYoung should not argue this way.

To call Genesis 1 poetry is certainly an oversimplification, but it does have structure and parallelism which provide internal indicators that its order is about something other than chronology. But even if it is not poetry, who says that prose has to be more historically or scientifically accurate?

I really don't think this hits the mark, even though I agree with its general spirit. My points above are that the only options aren't poetry versus prose, as though prose has no other subcategories that function as their own types of genre (e.g. biographical prose, fictional prose, parabolic prose, etc.).

Ancient literature connects historical figures with prehistorical ones all the time. It is once again modern, post-Enlightenment fundamentalists who say that one cannot do this, seeking to impose their concerns on ancient literature. In the New Testament, two genealogies which do not agree with one another and which selectively omit generations connect Jesus with David, Abraham, and Adam. They provide further confirmation that ancient genealogies do not make the sorts of points or always provide the sorts of historical information that modern readers desire from them.

Agreed, but really, what is McGrath's fascination with calling everyone who is more to the right of him on theological issues "fundamentalists"? He's called me this before, and I just laugh at this. First, is it not also Enlightenment liberals who say that one cannot connect figures in prehistory with historical figures and still be considered accurate history? In fact, isn't the denial of an historical Adam from the text of Scripture based upon the idea that if prehistory isn't literal then the figures themselves did not really exist, and isn't that itself a bogus assessment? This isn't a fundamentalist problem. It's an Enlightenment problem in general. It doesn't matter what camp you're in. Second, this really just seems to be some infatuation of his to act out a vendetta he has against his past, but it not only is unhelpful but it actually makes him seem dishonest, as this issue is common to all in our society.

So what? Genesis 1 treats a dome over the Earth as real. Matthew treats a mountain from which one can see all the kingdoms of the Earth as real. The Bible contains material that does not meet our standards of scientific or historical accuracy, and some of it clearly does not even come close to doing so. By simply pointing to some ancient authors and showing that they shared certain assumptions does not get one any closer to determining whether those assumptions are correct or erroneous.


So here we have the crux of the matter: an unwillingness to accept the Bible’s teaching on human fallibility, or Paul’s own protestation that at times he wrote as a fool.  The fundamental issue is the idolatrous insistence that the Bible’s authors actually shared God’s own attributes such as inerrancy.

1. What does human fallibility and Paul writing as a fool in contexts where neither is applied have to do with it (the biblical authors don't see Scripture as fallible because it was written by humans, nor does Paul say he is writing as an insane man here--that's usually when he is boasting or showing the absurdity of something and he makes that clear)? 2. What a ridiculous assertion concerning inerrancy. No wonder McGrath rejected it. He doesn't even know what it means. The theological and ethical teachings in Scripture, because they are inspired by God, are informed by His omniscience because He is omniscient and the one doing the informing. The authors don't have omniscience. The text doesn't have omniscience. The author is being moved to write something informed by God's omniscience, and therefore, it is without error in what it seeks to communicate from God. Is McGrath saying that God does not have the capability of communicating accurately because nothing can share His essence? So McGrath gives up God's omnipotence for His omniscience? That makes no sense whatsoever. Inerrancy isn't dependent upon the text sharing God's omniscience. It is a sufficient presentation of knowledge informed by God's omniscience, and as such, is completely reliable. The question here is whether what God is communicating is (a) only theology without history, (b) only history without theology, or (c) theology with its necessary historical basis. I choose "c," and so does all of orthodox Christianity on this issue.

Once again, what ancient people assumed or believed is not the issue. The issue is whether we can agree with them, based on the information available to us, much of which was not available to them. We do not determine truth by looking for the consensus of ancient peoples. What do you think the Christian stance on slavery would be if one took this approach?

Again, here's a statement that starts off well and then ends in an odd manner. McGrath is confusing history and ethics here. The inerrantist wants to know what the Bible teaches about slavery because it is a moral guide to him. McGrath doesn't. He's only concerned with what our present culture says. Luckily, I think what our present culture says is what the Bible would affirm here, but my point is that we need to refrain from mixing the issues. No one in my camp is going to listen to a denial of an historical issue when the objection is ethical. I just think that's the wrong way to go there.

No, at least in the form in which this is articulated. Common descent is a well-established scientific conclusion, and so we can make the same point by way of the human genome project. (Ironically, some fundamentalists adamantly deny the scientific basis for this conclusion and deny the scientific conclusion of common ancestry, since it shows that we are related more than to just each other as human beings). On the other hand, people who allegedly adhered to the teaching of Genesis have engaged in slavery, discrimination, and other sorts of racial hatred. And so Genesis is neither necessary for belief in human equality and dignity nor a guarantee that people will adhere to such lofty principles.

Did McGrath actually listen to what DeYoung said here, or is he replaying the same argument he's had with other Christians over in his head. First, is James a scientist who worked on the human genome project? If not, why he is affirming the conclusions of theoretical science by pure faith and then demeaning anyone who doesn't come to that position as factual? Isn't that a bit ironic? Second, DeYoung didn't argue that belief in a literal Adam causes everyone to hold hands and sing, "Kumbaya." He argued that there is no basis for believing that all people are equally God's image, of the same worth, are not of different evolutionary developments and mental capabilities, and have the same sin problem. I disagree, as I said above, with DeYoung's assessment here if it is directed at Christians as opposed to atheists, but McGrath's argument has nothing to do with what he said.

The very terminology of “original sin” itself reflects a theological construction which uses but goes beyond Paul. But if what is meant is the pervasiveness and universality of human nature with all its flaws, then that is something that one can establish through simple observation – and account for in terms of evolution, biology, and psychology. There is no need for a particular mythical explanation in order to view humanity in this way.
Well, technically, yes, the terminology goes beyond Paul, but the theological construct does not. I don't see Paul's federal argument reflected in McGrath's comments here. And, yes, you can just look around, but the argument in Scripture is that the solution counters the source of the problem, and therefore, the problem. It doesn't just counter the symptoms of the disease which are everywhere apparent. So the issue is where does all of this come from? Is it human ontology, which is what McGrath seems to be arguing for here, which ironically makes DeYoung's point (and mine) for him, or is human ontology fine in and of itself, but the issue is one of human condition in terms of relationship (or lack thereof) with God due to an event that occurred where humanity broke, and/or was broken, from that relationship? Accounting for human sin in terms of evolution, biology and psychology means that there is no sin, just human nature. Nothing willful. Just necessary to the human condition. That, again, is gnosticism, not Christianity.

Sure it does, or at least, it does every bit as much as any other doctrine or bit of symbolism that has to be rethought in light of new information or changing context. Paul’s point is not about us being descended from Jesus rather than Adam. Being “in Adam” vs. being “in Christ” is about two different ways of being human and relating to God. To treat it otherwise is to create a hodge-podge of Pauline theology and later scientific information. Paul’s Adam-Christ contrast is based on Jesus, and could easily have been otherwise, had his belief about what God had done to bring salvation differed. If God had sent two saviors, it would have been easy for him to turn to Genesis and say “Just as through two human beings sin entered the world…” If God had sent successive generations of redeemers, Paul could have easily said, “Just as through multiple generations of human existence sin entered the world…” The contrast makes a theological point in a particular way because of Paul’s view of Jesus. The Adam side could easily have differed. And the symbolism of humanity being a certain, expressed through story, way does not automatically become less meaningful simply because we understand the actual course of history of life on this planet differently.

Again, I agree with this assessment for the most part. However, it doesn't deal with the objection of point 9 together with point 10. The federal argument isn't simply one where Paul is drawing an analogy, but one where Paul is supporting the necessity of the gospel, in light of the human condition, with it. However, although I agree here in part, the point seems to be that, given the truth of point 9, Paul would not have made just any argument here. But that may be for another day.

I hope this post has brought some clarity to the issue (probably not). But at least it can get you thinking about good and bad reasons for believing in an historical Adam.


  1. An interesting article on these issues is Ardel Caneday’s “The Language of God and Adam’s Genesis & Historicity in Paul’s Gospel”

  2. Thanks. I appreciate the comparison of DeYoung's argument with McGrath's.

    Would you be willing to write a separate and more succinct post, without reference to DeYoung and McGrath, giving your own rationale for an historical Adam and Eve? (I felt DeYoung erred to start with by force-fitting his rationale into too many points; ten seemed an artificial choice.)

  3. McGrath calls himself a panENtheist no? It makes quite a difference...

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  5. You're right, Jordan. I misread his comment on this blog post awhile back, where he was discussing pantheism and then said he had panentheistic leanings (I missed the "en"). Thank you for correcting me. I've removed that statement and apologize for the incorrect accusation toward him. Thanks again.

  6. Mike, I may in the future, but I have written a little about it before on this blog in a two part post addressing Mohler's critique of Dr. Enns. My main question really surrounds what I discussed above, How does the rejection of an historical Adam support the gospel as we have it in the New Testament without, by necessity, undermining it by identifying the source as an evil and/or limited human ontology rather than a corrupted human ontology that was originally good and needs to be regained? In other words, how does such a denial not set in place a gnostic rationale for our rebellion against God where a New Testament one once was? I'm not saying this can't be answered. I just haven't heard a good answer for it thus far.