Jump directly to the Content
Jump directly to the content

The Historical Adam: William VanDoodewaard

The First Man and Woman

This week as Biologos members meet just a mile from my study to advance the cause of theistic evolution, I happily type to the contrary. I'm struck by how creation debates among Christians can seem insignificant to some: isn't it just a matter of interpretive differences over time and method? Proponents of a literal interpretation of Genesis posit earth's age at 6-10,000 years; proponents of evolutionary models argue for millions to billions. Supporters of a literal interpretation argue for a divine creative work taking place with breath-taking, supernatural suddenness, resulting in a full-orbed, dynamic creation in a matter of one week. Supporters of evolutionary models posit a mediate work primarily through natural processes over spans of time, resulting in increasing complexity and diversity. And there are some who argue for an "old earth" model punctuated by supernatural creative work. All say God created, God sustains. So why debate?

Quite simply because, as Hebrews 12:25 says, God speaks to us by his Word. We all, I think, agree that Scripture reveals the essential aspects of what God wants us to know about creation origins, simply because creation is his, existing because of and for him. As we write or teach on Genesis, we are talking about what God has said and what God has done—realities inseparably connected to who God is. To get it wrong one way or another is to take away from or add to what God reveals about himself and how he made us. Genesis and origins are inseparably connected to our doctrine of Christ: the One by whom all things were created (Col. 1:15-17). It is intertwined with our doctrine of man, sin, and salvation (cf. Matthew 19:4-6; Mark 10:6-8; Luke 3:23-38; Romans 5; 1 Corinthians 15). If we understand that the gospel is the written word of God to us, then it is no stretch to say that Genesis interpretation is inherently a gospel issue. Creation and redemption are not merely connected in a human sphere: they belong to the Triune God as his works. At the end of the day, Genesis is first about God, second about us. Our exegesis and hermeneutic have theological and spiritual consequences, for good or ill.

In the contemporary discussion on Genesis and human origins, some claim a historical Adam and Eve as the first human pair marking an evolutionary-supernatural transition to humanity; some claim a figurative couple as archetypical for an evolving early humanity. Well aware of the history of exceptions, I stand with the mainstream of historic Christian orthodoxy believing the literal tradition, including the creation of Adam and Eve, from dirt and a rib on the sixth day, a day of ordinary duration. There are numerous reasons for the endurance of this view, despite varied efforts to the contrary of a minority stream of individuals from the patristic era to the present. First, the literal understanding of creation, including human origins, is remarkably viable exegetically. It is also hermeneutically consistent with the whole Genesis text. Second, it coheres seamlessly with the rest of Scripture's teaching on creation, man, and redemption. The literal tradition on origins is cohesive with a full-orbed exegetically derived Christian theology.

This does not mean that there is a lack of intelligently argued challenge to the literal tradition—though not primarily via interpretive alternatives on Genesis 1-3. At points the literary and biblical-theological insights of proponents of other views are fully coherent with the literal tradition, but only the literal tradition avoids the errors and pitfalls inherent to alternate views. The most substantive challenge to the literal tradition is posed by mainstream dating methods, particularly in relation to fossils. Even here, an understanding of a mature creation, the fall, curse, and ensuing natural processes interspersed with episodes of catastrophism along the way, gives cogent answers to satisfy issues of geological age and subsequent biological adaptation. The literal tradition has exegetical, hermeneutical, and theological coherence with Scripture, historical endurance beyond all other interpretive models, as well as extensive ecclesial and confessional support. There is good reason to believe that it stands as an example of the Holy Spirit's fulfillment of Christ's promise to guide of the church in the truth of the Word.

For millennia, the mainstream of the church has understood this: Genesis reveals an awe-inspiring mystery. All creation—from matter and time, light and darkness, stars and kinds (not equated with modern species) of creature and plant—was created distinct, mature, and productive, with order and inter-relationship, in one week prefaced by nothing but God's existence. The Trinity acted in a sudden, cosmic event revealing his wisdom, power, and delight. In this context, God formed the image-bearer, Adam, whose humanity Christ would in time take to himself. Shaping Adam from the dust of the earth, God breathed into him the breath of life, so that he became a living being. Eve was likewise intimately created, that same day, from Adam's rib. The divine work of the creation week culminated in this mature, sin-free couple, created to enjoy communion with God, happiness of the proto-typical marriage, be fruitful, multiply, and rejoice in a splendid creation. Here is the beginning of humanity, the beginning of our history.

Pretty much everyone, including Peter Enns and myself, agree that this is the mainstream, historic view of Christian orthodoxy. We both agree to the claim "the church has never questioned the historicity of Adam and Eve." Enns argues that this, however, is irrelevant, "since the history of the church did not have evolution or any scientific discoveries to deal with until recently." While this statement misapprehends what the patristic through Enlightenment era church actually did engage, it is reflective of those pursuing alternate Genesis interpretations on human origins today. The re-interpretive edge argues, "evolution and ancient texts that put the biblical story in its cultural context are new factors we have to address." While this compels some, and evolution and ancient texts do need to be intelligently engaged, I believe the biblical story is actually what places both evolutionary hypotheses and ancient near eastern texts in context. Scripture illumines, and it reveals Adam and Eve marvelously created by God, apart from any ancestry, in less than one of our days.

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

William VanDoodewaard is a Professor of Church History at Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary in Grand Rapids, Michigan. He is an ordained minister in the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church and the author of two books, including his most recent publication, The Quest for the Historical Adam: Genesis, Hermeneutics, and Human Origins.

Most ReadMost Shared