The Historical Adam, Round 2: Karl Giberson

On Heroic Efforts to Save the Historical Adam

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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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