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The historical Adam: The contemporary debate

November 2015 | by Paul Garner

Paul GarnerA debate is currently raging within the theological community and much ink being spilt on a topic that evangelicals would once have regarded as settled and unquestionable: whether Adam was a real, historical individual, ancestral to the whole human race 1.

Belief in an historical Adam was mainstream for the first eighteen centuries of church history 2. But that traditional position is now being assailed in a steady stream of books, conference papers and magazine articles.

In truth, this assault did not arise from the ether; it is the logical outworking of well-meaning but ultimately devastating attempts to harmonise traditional Christian teaching with the theory of evolution.

‘Homo divinus’

For a long time it has been popular among evangelicals to suggest that God created Adam from a population of pre-existing hominids. In this scenario Adam was ‘homo divinus’, the first creature to be made in God’s image. This was the position advocated by John Stott, for example 3. But this raises some obvious questions. Where in evolutionary history is Adam to be located? How long ago did he live? Are we all his descendants?

Denis Alexander, former director of the Faraday Institute for Science and Religion in Cambridge, attempted to answer these questions in his 2008 book, Creation or evolution: do we have to choose? 4 He proposed that Adam was indeed a real man, upon whom God conferred spiritual life, some 6000-8000 years ago.

This dating of Adam is constrained by the biblical genealogies and the perceived ‘Neolithic’ context of Genesis 1-2. But there is a problem. If Adam was a Neolithic farmer, living in the Near East, only a few thousands of years ago, then he cannot have been ancestral to the whole of humanity.

This is because members of our species, Homo sapiens, are present in the archaeological record as far back as 200,000 years ago (assuming the conventional dates, as Alexander does). And so the logical conclusion is reached that, although Adam was appointed the spiritual head of the human race, he cannot possibly have been its physical head.

Other scholars have gone even further and rejected not only Adam’s ancestral status but the very idea that he was historical. One of these scholars is Peter Enns, formerly of Westminster Theological Seminary in Glenside, Pennsylvania 5.

Paul’s assumptions

Enns acknowledges that the apostle Paul regarded Adam as a real, historical individual, and even that Adam plays a pivotal role in Paul’s thinking concerning the person and work of Christ (e.g. Romans 5; 1 Corinthians 15). But Enns sees Paul as a man of the ancient world, whose views of the cosmos and of humanity were common to his time and not necessarily scientifically accurate.

There is no reason, according to Enns, that modern readers must adopt Paul’s assumptions about the historicity of Adam in order to embrace the theological points he is making concerning Christ. A similar position is adopted by Denis Lamoureux in his book, Evolutionary creation 6.

Some responses to these arguments have come from more conservative sources. For example, in his book, Did Adam and Eve really exist? C. John Collins of Covenant Theological Seminary in St Louis, Missouri, reaffirms on biblical grounds that Adam and Eve were real people and probably the forebears of all modern humans 7.

However, a problem with such responses is that they usually seek to address the Adam question in isolation, treating other matters such as our general attitude to evolutionary theory, or to conventional dating methods and the age of the earth, as unrelated questions.

In truth, these questions are intimately interwoven, such that one cannot adequately address the question of whether Adam was a real, historical individual ancestral to the whole human race, without at the same time adopting a position (implicitly or explicitly) on such things as common ancestry and the reliability of geological dating techniques.

For instance, it is conventional dating applied to the archaeological record that suggests that Homo sapiens as a species extends back 200,000 years; and uncritical acceptance of these dates is the reason why Denis Alexander asserts that a biblical Adam can no longer be regarded as ancestral to the whole of humanity.

Wrong assumptions

But what if those dates are wrong? Entirely new vistas open up for us when we question the veracity of the standard geological dates. These issues are far more integrated than many Christian theologians or Bible scholars are willing to admit.

So what’s driving the current debate among theologians? Three things: Firstly, the plethora of new data coming from the field of genetics, said to make the conclusion of the common ancestry of humans and apes intellectually inescapable.

Secondly, the data coming from population studies, supposedly demonstrating beyond any reasonable doubt that the ancestral human population comprised several thousand individuals and never a single pair as the traditional reading of Scripture demands.

Thirdly, the fossil data, revealing an apparently gradual progression from ape-like species living on the African plains some four million years ago, to modern humans that left Africa about 100,000 years ago.

In a future guest column we will briefly consider each of these arguments to ask how compelling the data really is and whether it can be understood in any other way.

Paul Garner MSc, FGS is a researcher and lecturer for Biblical Creation Ministries (www.biblicalcreationministries.org.uk). His Master’s degree is from University College, London, where he specialised in palaeobiology. His first book, The New Creationism, was published by Evangelical Press in 2009.

End notes:

1). Here are some of the books published on the subject within the last six years, representing a range of viewpoints: J. H. Walton, The lost world of Adam and Eve: Genesis 2-3 and the human origins debate, IVP Academic, 2010; C.J. Collins, Did Adam and Eve really exist? Who they were and why it matters, Inter-Varsity Press, 2011; P. Enns, The evolution of Adam: what the Bible does and doesn’t say about human origins, Brazos Press, 2012; M. Barrett and A.B. Caneday (editors), Four views on the historical Adam, Zondervan, 2013; H. Madueme and M. Reeves (editors), Adam, the fall, and original sin: theological, biblical, and scientific perspectives, Baker Academic, 2014; W. VanDoodewaard, The quest for the historical Adam, Reformation Heritage Books, 2015; R. B. Gaffin Jr, No Adam, no gospel, Presbyterian and Reformed, 2015.

2). VanDoodewaard, note 1.

3). J. Stott, Understanding the Bible, Expanded edition, Zondervan, 1999. See especially the quotation on p.55: ‘I myself believe in the historicity of Adam and Eve, as the original couple from whom the human race is descended … But my acceptance of Adam and Eve as historical is not incompatible with my belief that several forms of pre-Adamic “hominid” may have existed for thousands of years previously’.

4). D. Alexander, Creation or evolution: do we have to choose? Monarch, 2008.

5). Enns, note 1.

6). D. O. Lamoureux, Evolutionary creation: a Christian approach to evolution, Lutterworth Press, 2008. See also this helpful review of the books by Alexander and Lamoureux — Stephen Lloyd ‘Genesis: not suitable for modern scientific understanding?’ Origins (Biblical Creation Society) (55):20-24.

7). Collins, note 1.

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