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The Historical Adam, Round 2: Hans Madueme


Demythologizing Adam: Case Unproven

The opening reflections in this roundtable exchange are another reminder that my views on Adam and the fall strike most scholars as obscurantist, puerile, or just plainly absurd. Since my wife has called me far worse—alas, with due cause—experience compels me to sit up and pay attention. I know the drill; if I goofed up again, honey, I better man up, fess up, and shut up. But, in my defense, my initial piece gave one or two reasons why I'm in solidarity with the majority of Christians in the world today, and across church history, who take the traditional line on Adam. Let me add a few more reasons.

Consider these words from John Schneider: "[In] high school biology we learned that modern humans did not appear instantly, but evolved over time, that we came from a common ancestor with chimps, not from dust, and that the current human population could not have come from a single original pair—observable genetic diversity makes that impossible." Several of the other contributions share this sentiment; they know that Adam and Eve are not historical because the scientists say so. The confidence in the scientific claims is unquestioned. But is it warranted? No one would put it so baldly, but it is as if the scientific consensus is more or less inerrant (while, as we keep being told, Scripture is not). Part of what's going on, I think, is that people confuse the concepts of general revelation and science. Mistaken identity; they're related yet distinct. Scientists investigate God's general revelation using their fallible assumptions, categories, and conceptual tools. Scientific conclusions are not the thing itself; they are not identical to general revelation, which, if you like, is infallible. Our best scientific formulations gain imperfect access to general revelation. There is a "gap" between the two concepts, and that gap makes all the difference.

Let's begin with the implications for how we understand the nature of sin. Karl Giberson writes: "Evolution has programmed men with unhealthy attitudes toward women and, when not checked, these attitudes express themselves in tragic ways." That's the point. Once a historical fall drops out of the picture, we have to conclude that evolution has "programmed" humanity to sin. Or, perhaps, we can dial it back by saying that we are programmed by evolution to have sinful predispositions. Neither option should thrill us—for if we have sinful predispositions, then we are not holy; if we're not holy, then by definition we are sinful. Theological questions now come banging at the door.

If my sinful condition is rooted in (evolutionary) biology, what are the implications for the doctrine of sanctification? Is regeneration or progressive sanctification even possible apart from reversing or reengineering my biological programming? The cure should match the disease. In response, someone might say: while our sinful condition is a result of evolution, we are not responsible for it. We are only responsible for our willful sinful choices. We're back, ironically, to the moralism of Pelagius: "we do neither good nor evil without the exercise of our will and always have the freedom to do one of the two, being always able to do either" (Pelagius, Letter to Demetrias, VIII.1). Is theistic-evolution-without-Adam committed to Pelagianism? Finally, what do we do with Jesus? He was, and he is, sinless—"in him is no sin" (1 John 3:5; cf. Heb 4:15). Rejecting the fall calls that confession into question. If God created via evolution, and evolution programs us to sin (so the claim goes), then the very fact of being human implies that we will inevitably sin. If so, how can Jesus be fully human and also sinless? We're hoisted on the horns of a dilemma: either Jesus is sinful or he is not fully human. Pick one.

Epistemological questions also call for attention. For example, Denis Lamoureux writes: "Adam's existence is based ultimately on an ancient conceptualization of human origins—de novo creation. More specifically, Adam is the retrojective conclusion of an ancient taxonomy reflecting the immutability of living organisms. And since ancient science does not align with physical reality, it follows that Adam never existed." He counsels us to break off the husk of ancient fallible concepts to uncover the kernel of infallible theological truth. That sounds reasonable in theory, but on what grounds can the reader discern what part of Scripture is husk vs. kernel? It's the same problem that haunted Rudolf Bultmann's demythologization; the determining factor, epistemologically, is the current state of knowledge and its underlying plausibility structures. Furthermore, given that the entire Bible is "ancient" literature, what prevents the reader from applying these same moves to other parts of the OT as well as the NT? While it's easy to heap scorn on the idea of a slippery slope, in practice, it's a very real possibility—especially with the faith of later generations.

Most of these opening reflections assume that Scripture is only concerned with answering "why?" questions while science addresses the "how?" questions. Each should stick to their own turf. There is some truth to that way of seeing things, but the distinction doesn't work as a generalization for all of Scripture. Sometimes the biblical narrative is equally interested in both "how?" and "why?" questions. My broader concern is a tendency toward a "neo-Gnostic" view of the Bible; Scripture is reliable on matters of "spiritual" or "religious" significance but impotent on everything else. Natural science explains the historical and physical aspects of the world, so that the Bible has less and less to say about the actual world we live in. My fellow participants who argue this way like what the Bible says religiously but completely discount its witness to the material world.

I want to close with a lingering Christological worry. Scientific plausibility is the key; can we still believe doctrines that are implausible by the lights of current science? We can invert the question: If scientific plausibility should guide the expectations we bring to Scripture, then why would we be Christians? Why would we believe that the Son of God became a man? That he died and rose again after three days? That he ascended into heaven? These fundamental Christian beliefs contradict everything we know from mainstream science. If we can no longer believe Adam was historical, then why should we believe in the resurrection? In The Evolution of Adam, Peter Enns answers this way: "For Paul, the resurrection of Christ is the central and climactic present-day event in the Jewish drama—and of the world. One could say that Paul was wrong, deluded, stupid, creative, whatever; nevertheless, the resurrection is something that Paul believed to have happened in his time, not primordial time." That misses the point. We're told that we can't affirm a historical Adam because it's scientifically unbelievable, but why trust Paul on the resurrection when that, too, is scientifically unbelievable? Or, to flip the script, if we believe the resurrection, then a historical Adam is no biggie.

This article is part of our Symposium on the Historical Adam:

Hans Madueme is an Assistant Professor of Theological Studies at Covenant College in Lookout Mountain, Georgia, and previously served as the Managing Director of the Carl F. H. Henry Center for Theological Understanding at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. He has published numerous journal articles and reviews, and edited the 2014 book, Adam, the Fall, and Original Sin: Theological, Biblical, and Scientific Perspectives.

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