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Interview by John Wilson


Saving the Original Sinner

A conversation with Karl Giberson.

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Editor's Note: Karl Giberson and I have organized a symposium on the historical Adam, to be posted on the Books & Culture website—a venture inspired in part by Karl's new book, Saving the Original Sinner: How Christians Have Used the Bible's First Man to Oppress, Inspire, and Make Sense of the World (Beacon Press). Karl and I first met at a memorable conference in 1998, which he has described in the pages of B&C. Since that time he has written many pieces for the magazine, and we have been good friends for almost two decades now. Here, as an appetizer for the symposium, I ask Karl a few questions about his project. The conversation was conducted via email on May 27-28.

Karl, you've written a number of books over the years on creation and evolution and other issues relating to science and Christianity. What prompted you to write Saving the Original Sinner, with its focus on "the historical Adam"?

Saving the Original Sinner was inspired by two related things that I was thinking about. The first was my growing sense after decades in this conversation that Adam was a much bigger issue than evolution. I came to realize that most Christians would probably reconsider their opposition to evolution if there were a way to keep a historical Adam in the picture. Wheaton College, in fact, was quite explicit on this on point. They revised their faith statement to include a specially created first couple as the start of the human race, but allowed that evolution was acceptable for the rest of life on this planet. This opens the door to the Big Bang, the ancient age of the earth, and most of evolution. I began to see that the large war being waged against evolution was really a proxy war being fought to protect Adam. You can see this in the energy expended by anti-evolutionists in arguing that evolution is incompatible with Christianity—the arguments are mainly about Adam. So much so that John Schneider got fired from Calvin College for writing a paper arguing that Christianity did not need a historical Adam.

The second thing that struck me came out of conversations with Peter Enns when we were both in leadership roles at BioLogos. We were intrigued by the many proposals from Christians determined to protect a historical Adam from being demolished by science. Many evangelicals—like most of the readers of Books & Culture—have made peace with modern science and accepted evolution, the Big Bang, the great age of the earth, and so on. And they recognize that evolution essentially rules out the possibility that our species consisted of just two people a few thousand years ago. Nevertheless, because St. Paul builds his theology—and his Christology—on the sin of Adam, they are inclined to retain a historical Adam of some sort. These efforts are not driven by biblical literalism or any attempt to protect the story in Genesis from science. They are motivated by Paul. They envision new "Adams" that are often quite different from the Adam in Genesis, but fit more naturally into the evolutionary history of our species. So we find Adam being the head of a tribe. Or being a metaphor for a tribe of humans. Or being selected from a tribe of biologically human creatures to bear, for the first time, the image of God. Or the first man awakened to a sense of the divine. These re-envisioned Adams are far more ancient than the Adam of Genesis; they are evolved creatures, not created from dust. They never lived in the Middle East, where we think Eden was. And so on.

The Adam conversation intrigued me. To preserve the authority of Paul—who most likely believed in the exact Adam described in Genesis—people are inventing new Adams quite different from the guy in Genesis. This really drove home the point about how important Adam was, not on his own terms, but as a theologically significant part of our understanding of sin. So I decided to step back and ask the question "How exactly did Adam become so important?" That is the story I try to tell in Saving the Original Sinner.

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