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The Historical Adam, Round 2: John H. Walton

Reading Carefully, with Charity

In response to the essays of my colleagues, I have chosen to identify the statement(s) that I most resonate with and those about which I have most concerns. Hopefully this will provide a basis for some distinctions to be drawn that might aid the discerning reader.


Like: I fully agree with his observation that “Christian Tradition’s long conversation about sin was primarily a conversation about what was wrong with us, and only secondarily about how we got to be that way.” It is important for us to keep our focus on the core issues.

Concern: Giberson treats historical Adam and Eve as something that we made up because it is comfortable. In so doing, it seems to me that he dodges the issue of the authority of Scripture. The Bible is not just “received wisdom.” He also jumps from a statement that we could not have inherited sin from Adam (scientifically untenable) to a dismissal of the concept of original sin. A doctrine of original sin can still be maintained without biological inheritance of sin.


Like: Enns draws the distinction that in the ancient world, “They wrote stories about ‘the beginning,’ but not to lecture their people on the abstract question ‘Where do humans come from?’" This is a good example of careful discernment concerning ancient accounts—they are not about biological origins, but about human identity.

Concern: I believe that Enns has drawn a false dichotomy when he says that “If evolution is right about how humans came to be, then the biblical story of Adam and Eve isn't.” He expresses the concern Christians might then have that “God's version of human origins isn't what actually happened.” In this, however, he has made the same mistake that he accuses his antagonists of making: His statements assume that the Bible is offering an account of human origins.


Like: I, of course, fully agree with Lamoureux that “the Bible has an ancient understanding of the structure of the universe.”

Concern: Lamoureux’s insistence that “Adam’s existence is based ultimately on an ancient conceptualization of human origins—de novo creation,” is not demonstrably true. Like Enns and Giberson, he seems to assume that the affirmation of historical Adam must include a theory of biological human origins, and that the Bible therefore offers such a theory (which he is willing to set aside as accommodation). The alternative is found in the idea that the Bible is not positing a theory of human origins, and that Adam need not be the first human from whom all descend, even though he is a real person in a real past through whom sin came into the world.


Like: Madueme makes an important point when he affirms that “Adam, through whom we became sinners, sinned in history; Jesus Christ, through whom we have justification, brought salvation in history.” This is one of several reasons that it makes sense to retain the idea of historical Adam.

Concern: At the same time, Madueme seems to believe that Adam’s role in bringing sin into the world requires positing a biblical view of human origins. “Many evangelicals are saying yes; in light of what scientists are reporting, we must recast biblical Adam in mythical terms . . . if you agree with scientists that a historical Adam is impossible.” Scientists can say nothing about the advent of sin. The fact that they dispute historical Adam in connection with biological human origins does not make historical Adam impossible on other counts. When Adam is dissociated from biological origins, he is not necessarily being cast in mythical terms.


Like: I agree with the point made by Poe that “The studies [Y chromosome Adam and Mitochondrial Eve] do not address the question of Adam and Eve. Instead, they are concerned with suggesting that humans first developed in a small population group.” I believe that he is also on target in pointing out that the image of God is more central than biological origins. The image of God is not something that can be traced by anthropologists, biologists, or neurologists.

Concern: Poe offers little information, however, concerning what his view of Adam and Eve actually is. One could certainly argue that his statement that “The biblical basis for biblical authority . . . is that the Scriptures have been fulfilled,” may be considered somewhat reductionistic. I would be inclined to consider biblical authority far more than just the fact that Scriptures have been fulfilled.


Like: A point that I have consistently tried to make is that the biblical text addresses its own issues, not necessarily our modern issues. Schneider asserts the same in his statement that “If we read Genesis is in its own ancient terms, it becomes clear immediately that it is not a simple record of events, designed to arm us against Darwinism.” Such a perspective is essential as the conversation continues.

Concern: At the same time, I am not comfortable with how he portrays the biblical account: “Without thinking, we recognize the story as a tale, a myth, saga, or a legend.” I do not think that this is the normal impulse of Christian readers. I believe that he is also guilty of overstatement with his claim that “literal Adam and Eve are discrediting the Bible and causing faith to be undermined.” He has assumed the most conservative understanding of “literal Adam and Eve” in this statement. The major concerns about Adam and Eve are not whether they actually existed; it is the role they play in biological human origins.


Like: VanDoodewaard is absolutely correct with his assessment about God being the main focus and about the foundational role of exegesis and hermeneutics: “Genesis is first about God, second about us. Our exegesis and hermeneutic have theological and spiritual consequences, for good or ill.”

Concern: At the same time he misrepresents some of those that he identifies as his antagonists. BioLogos does not seek to “advance the cause of theistic evolution.” They identify themselves with Evolutionary Creation, which carries at least a subtle distinction from theistic evolution, and for some, there is a substantial and essential distinction. His failure to understand the nuances of those he is arguing against is also evident in his statement that “some claim a figurative couple as archetypical for an evolving early humanity.” Since I am the only one among the contributors to this roundtable who uses the designation “archetypal,” I assume he is talking about me. I must protest, however, that I do not consider Adam and Eve to be figurative and I do not consider them an archetype of evolving humanity. When we engage in discussion, we should make sure that we understand what the other person is saying lest we characterize them falsely, creating, in effect, a straw man. Unfortunately, this happens to me often when people are critiquing my view.

The differences between the positions presented in this roundtable focus primarily on the status of Scripture (i.e., how the Bible is Scripture) and what the biblical text claims as scriptural truth. Which aspects of the text are theological affirmations to which we are bound? Which aspects are cultural relics? How important are the intentions of the author, and have we rightly identified those intentions? We can therefore see that one of the main issues is hermeneutics. It also strikes me that those arguing on both sides of the issue have failed to consider that Adam and Eve can be viewed as historical and those through whom sin entered the world without their being connected to the question of biological human origins.

In the end I do not believe that we need a major overhaul of the doctrine of sin (though we may find Augustine less than adequate at some points), nor is there any reason to adopt a more limited doctrine of Scripture. We just need to read the text as carefully as we can and to recognize it as an ancient text. A view of historical Adam and Eve is not demonstrably false even if some aspects of their position or role may require reconsideration. Such re-evaluation can lead to a revised understanding that can accommodate both the demands of scientific realities and the significant essentials of traditional doctrine.

One of my deepest concerns is the attitudes that too easily emerge in the debate. Those who have accepted the conclusions of the scientific consensus too easily use sarcasm, ridicule, and rhetoric replete with exclamation points and scare quotes to denounce their more traditional brothers and sisters as virtual idiots, while those who are convinced that faithful interpretation requires maintaining traditional viewpoints paint their more accommodating brothers and sisters as destroying Christianity. Such attitudes emerge clearly even in many of these short essays. We need to take more seriously the biblical call that we demonstrate our allegiance to Christ by showing love and charity to one another. We should neither insult brothers and sisters nor hereticate them.

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

John H. Walton is a professor of Old Testament at Wheaton College in Illinois. His primary focus is on comparative studies of the Old Testament and the Ancient Near East. He has authored or edited dozens of books and articles, including his most recent publication, The Lost World of Adam and Eve: Genesis 2-3 and the Human Origins Debate (InterVarsity Press).

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