The Historical Adam, Round 2: Karl Giberson

On Heroic Efforts to Save the Historical Adam

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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.

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