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The Historical Adam, Round 2: Karl Giberson

On Heroic Efforts to Save the Historical Adam

I want to thank everyone in this discussion for taking the time to engage the question of the historical Adam. I’d like to respond to comments made by Hal Poe, John Walton, Hans Madueme, and William VanDoodewaard, as they are defending various positions that I think are simply untenable.

The controversy that motivates this roundtable is the growing scientific evidence that Adam and Eve never existed and what we should make of that. Christians inclined to reject this conclusion respond in a variety of ways, several of which are represented in this roundtable.

VanDoodewaard and Madueme offer the most strident response and the one that most evangelicals prefer, according to the polls. VanDoodewaard accepts “the literal tradition, including the creation of Adam and Eve, from dirt and a rib on the sixth day, a day of ordinary duration.” This view, he writes, “has exegetical, hermeneutical, and theological coherence with Scripture, historical endurance beyond all other interpretive models, as well as extensive ecclesial and confessional support”—all of which is true. Madueme agrees, and writes “The Bible does very clearly depict a historical Adam.” He rejects what he calls “scientific prejudgments that set epistemic limits on what the Bible can say,” concluding that “Scripture unshackled—not science—is the self-authenticating authority.” He even makes the extraordinary claim that “any scientific opinion that rules out Adam will fail to convince.”

Pitting literal scripture against science is intellectually reckless, and Christians should be wary of those who argue this way, especially when they claim that this is how Christians have always approached conflicts between the Bible and extra-biblical sources. Both Augustine and Aquinas, for example, took challenges to the Bible seriously and warned against rejecting prevailing knowledge of the natural world. Galileo was challenged by biblical literalists pointing to Psalm 93, where we read: “The earth is fixed and cannot be moved.” The Christian tradition’s response to such conflicts—argued eloquently by Galileo in his famous “Letter to the Grand Duchess”—was to recognize that God was both the author of nature and the author of Scripture. This “Two Books” approach transforms science into another expression of divine revelation, one that must be taken seriously and not dismissed when it makes us uncomfortable. When science contradicts the Bible on the question of Adam, the challenge is to reconcile two distinct divine revelations, not to trample “human” knowledge with “revealed” knowledge.

Biblical literalists unfamiliar with contemporary science are like theologians with half the pages missing from their Bibles: their conclusions are bound to be suspect. God’s revelation in nature establishes with certainty that the earth is billions of years old; that humans evolved from other life-forms; and that the human race never consisted of just two individuals. The clarity of this revelation—no matter how unwelcome—requires that we revisit the creation story in Genesis, just as Galileo’s astronomy forced reconsideration of the Psalmist’s claim that the earth did not move.

Walton provides a more tempered but also problematic response. He affirms the “Two Books” concept, writing that “both the world and the Word emanate from God.” As a result, the Bible must be “compatible with the truths about our world that scientists uncover.” Extra-biblical information may thus “prompt us to ask questions of the text that we have not thought to ask before.”

I agree with Walton when he writes “the Israelites as well as the NT authors believed Adam and Eve to be real people who lived in a real past.” Walton concedes that such biblical claims can be ignored if they are “simply cultural.” Such claims are only “binding” if “the text hangs theology” on them. But, as is well-known, theological claims about the Fall and Original Sin are indeed hung on Adam and Eve—at least in the post-Augustine Christian West. Walton thus infers that Adam and Eve must be sufficiently historical to carry these theological claims. However, as no theology is connected to their being the first humans we have some wiggle room in how we think about them: “We can contend that Adam and Eve are theologically and historically significant,” says Walton, “even if they were not the first humans.” Thus liberated from literalist reading, Walton develops an alternative conception of Adam & Eve bearing little resemblance to the couple in the opening pages in Genesis.

Walton’s approach is helpful in reducing tensions with science and is a big improvement over a literalism that demands the rejection of science. However, it seems incongruous to respect Paul’s theology enough to protect it from challenges, but not enough to respect the historical understanding on which it was based. Paul most certainly accepted the Genesis story as simple history and, in consequence, felt comfortable using it in his theology of sin and salvation, even to the point of calling Christ a “Second Adam.” But I am not sure we can assume, as Walton does, that Paul would have developed his theology in exactly the same way if he had known that the Genesis story was not history. If Paul had understood the challenges to locating a Fall in history, would he have formulated his theology in the same way? We cannot know.

The roundtable contribution from Poe illustrates another challenge to Walton’s approach. Poe notes, as I have in my book Saving the Original Sinner—although somewhat more tentatively—that “the doctrine of the fall was a creative theological innovation of Augustine around the year 400 which was not taught by Christians for the first centuries after Christ nor accepted by the Eastern Church.” I will not presume to adjudicate the disagreement over whether Paul or Augustine first conceptualized the Fall. I do note, however, that one would need to resolve this controversy before deciding how much of the story of Adam and Eve to take literally. And I cannot imagine everyone agreeing on how to do that.

Poe does not offer us a specific model for how to think about Adam and Eve. He does, however, take aim at the science of human ancestry, insisting its “studies give no information of theological significance. They do not deal with Adam and Eve.” It seems to me, however, that genetic studies showing that the human race did not consist of two people a few thousand years ago is information of great theological significance—so great that most evangelicals completely reject the offending science. In defending Adam and Eve, Poe challenges science in ways I find alarming. He repeatedly refers to “what no one seems to notice,” as if geneticists are incompetent in assessing their own conclusions. He notes ambiguities, like the exact interval contained in a “generation,” as if these minor issues undermine the challenges posed by science. The reality is they do nothing more than force modest “error bars” on the numerical conclusions, posing no meaningful challenges.

Adam and Eve remain at the center of evangelical theology, and the jury is still out on where the conversation goes from here. I encourage readers to trust the science that tells us Adam and Eve cannot have been the characters described in Genesis. And the creative alternatives provided by those that want to retain a historical Fall seem rather sketchy to me, little more than half-way houses en route to a final destination with no first couple.

But I know the conversation is far from over.

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

Karl Giberson is Scholar-in-Residence in science and religion at Stonehill College in Easton, Massachusetts. He publishes broadly in science and religion and has authored or co-authored ten books, including Saving the Original Sinner: How Christians Have Used the Bible’s First Man to Oppress, Inspire, and Make Sense of the World.

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