According to some Christian outlooks we were made for another world. Perhaps, rather, we were made for this world to recreate, reclaim, redeem, and renew unto God's future aspiration by the power of His Spirit. - R.E. Slater
Secularization theory has been massively falsified. We don't live in an age of secularity. We live in an age of explosive, pervasive religiosity... an age of religious pluralism. - Peter L. Berger
Exploring the edge of life and faith in a post-everything world. - Todd Littleton
I don't need another reason to believe, your love is all around for me to see. – anon
Thou art our need; and in giving us more of thyself thou givest us all. - Khalil Gibran, Prayer XXIII
Be careful what you pretend to be. You become what you pretend to be. - Kurt Vonnegut
Religious beliefs, far from being primary, are often shaped and adjusted by our social goals. - Jim Forest
People, even more than things, need to be restored, renewed, revived, reclaimed, and redeemed; never throw out anyone. – anon
Certainly God's love has made fools of us all. - R.E. Slater
An apocalyptic Christian faith doesn't wait for Jesus to come, but for Jesus to become in our midst. - R.E. Slater
Christian belief in God begins with the cross and resurrection of Jesus, not with rational apologetics. - Eberhard Jüngel, Jürgen Moltmann
Our knowledge of God is through the 'I-Thou' encounter, not in finding God at the end of a syllogism or argument. There is a grave danger in any Christian treatment of God as an object. The God of Jesus Christ and Scripture is irreducibly subject and never made as an object, a force, a power, or a principle that can be manipulated. - Emil Brunner
Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh means "I will be that who I have yet to become." - God (Ex 3.14)
Our job is to love others without stopping to inquire whether or not they are worthy. - Thomas Merton
The church is God's world-changing social experiment of bringing unlikes and differents to the Eucharist/Communion table to share life with one another as a new kind of family. When this happens we show to the world what love, justice, peace, reconciliation, and life together is designed by God to be. The church is God's show-and-tell for the world to see how God wants us to live as a blended, global, polypluralistic family united with one will, by one Lord, and baptized by one Spirit. – anon
The cross that is planted at the heart of the history of the world cannot be uprooted. - Jacques Ellul
The Unity in whose loving presence the universe unfolds is inside each person as a call to welcome the stranger, protect animals and the earth, respect the dignity of each person, think new thoughts, and help bring about ecological civilizations. - John Cobb & Farhan A. Shah
If you board the wrong train it is of no use running along the corridors of the train in the other direction. - Dietrich Bonhoeffer
God's justice is restorative rather than punitive; His discipline is merciful rather than punishing; His power is made perfect in weakness; and His grace is sufficient for all. – anon
Our little [biblical] systems have their day; they have their day and cease to be. They are but broken lights of Thee, and Thou, O God art more than they. - Alfred Lord Tennyson
We can’t control God; God is uncontrollable. God can’t control us; God’s love is uncontrolling! - Thomas Jay Oord
Life in perspective but always in process... as we are relational beings in process to one another so life events are in process in relation to each event... as God is to Self, is to world, is to us... like Father, like sons and daughters, like events... life in process yet always in perspective. - R.E. Slater

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Why Do We Need a Historical Adam? The Bible Doesn't.

"...Does Paul need Adam to be a historical figure in order to make his argument in Romans 5?
No, not really.... It is a fundamentally anological link, not a fundamentally historical link."
"Genesis is not best understood as a textbook on natural history."
"But it is getting harder and harder to make a case for a historical Adam."
"But, really, who needs a historical Adam? I don’t think Paul does. Nor do I think
that the essential trustworthiness of the Bible depends on Adam’s historicity."
- dm Williams
On August 16, 2011, I reported on a NPR broadcast questioning the existence of Adam and Eve, which then led to another follow up article on January 6, 2012. Rather than be annoyed and bothered by NPR's program it more-or-less spoke to me of moving in the right directions in apprehending how to read the bible from its own perspective rather than from my own perspective. That our epistemologies often get in the way of hearing God's Word because of what we think it is saying rather than what it is saying.
Unknown to me at the time, another fellow listener likewise responded similarly as I did by making analogies to another more recent figure, the little-celebrated physicist Robert Oppenheimer, by relating his atomic research to that of the Greek legend Prometheus, the god of fire. From there he correlated the apostle Paul's primitive understanding of the ancient biblical world to that of the creation story of Adam and Eve. His conclusions echoed mine own written many months earlier causing me to repost this more recent article here below so that when we turn our attention to the Genesis story of Creation at some later time we may have a little background in which to think through these areas of interpretation and dogma. One that sees the obstacles of a literal hermeneutic within a traditional Christian epistemology prohibiting an expanded bible deepened in its usages of prose and poetry. One that is set against the cultural regards of earlier, non-scientific, epistemologies built upon religious folklores and presumptions rather than upon historic renderings resulting from within the ancient biblical cultures themselves. Apparently, the durability of folklore was as true then as it is now, but with the significant difference that we should know better in our 21st Century scholarship, and should likewise be informing our congregations of this literary insight rather than withholding certain knowledge from them.

Consequently, Paul had no excuses because modern science would not be around for another 2000 years. And God's illumined inspiration did not intend to revise ancient man's understanding of the natural world, but to inform Paul and his readers of Christ's redemptive work of spiritual life relative to sin's ingress through humanity bringing death. The purpose of revelation then was to speak to God's salvation through His Son Jesus. It was not to correct the culture of Paul's day towards a more informed scientific understanding. No. They did not have the mindset to understand it. They did not have the scientific tools to prove it. They did not have the academic disciplines to study it (biology, math, chemistry, quantum physics, anthropology, sociology, psychology, etc). They did not have the academic communities to discuss it. They did not have the support of either their religion nor their communities to go forward in their investigations with it. Nor did they have the funding, students and livelihood to provide it. No, God spoke to Paul about the spiritual value and physical accomplishment of Jesus' death and resurrection. Not to correct their primitive understanding of the Earth and its environment. Nor to scientifically inform their creation stories based upon eons of oral legends handed down to them through their generations. In Paul's day, Adam may have been considered a real historical fact - or so we think - but Adam may as well have been considered a historic legend. Regardless, evolutionary theory dispels all creation accounts as myth and legend, regardless of the culture or society (be they Chinese, Mayan, Sumerian, Greek, or some other), else it is our sciences that have over reached... which does not seem to be the case. Consequently, it is our own epistemologies that now over reach and require dispelling when strictly interpreting the Genesis account of creation as literally true, rather than as an allegorically true revelation by the God of creation (and specifically, the Hebrew story of creation and none other).

But lest we become prideful we should always have the mindset to be testing our present day's knowledge against Scripture because both our mindset, and our knowledge, can-and-will change over time-and-circumstance. And for the record, God's understanding isn't the one needing to be changed here. No. It is our own. Our own epistemologies of interpretive language that we think we know but never conclusively in the promised light of future languages of discovery and means. God's Word is profound and we are no less committed to its revelation than previous generations of believers. However, it is we ourselves that must learn to be critiqued so that God's Word becomes more fully revealed and made known. That is the hope of updating the Christian faith within that of today's postmodern discoveries throughout its upcoming generations. We do not lessen the Word of God but do by these progressive acts make it more relevant to our times and generations. Should we not, we do then create an unwarranted skepticism and undue prejudice against God's Word causing it to feel more like a dying religion and irrelevant dogma to today's postmodern academia and cultures than the marvelously living faith that it really is.

This then is the task we have set before us as Christian men and women. Not to rewrite science according to our prejudices and religious beliefs. But to rewrite our epistemologies to better embrace God's holy Word. It is we ourselves that must stand in judgment. Not the bible. But our creeds and doctrines refusing the revelatory light of postmodernity's discoveries both old and new. As a Christian, we should never fear change and progress. But embrace it as it makes sense however belatedly we come to its acceptance after due time of prayerful study and theological review. And so it is now that the time has come to do this task. That our past 500 years of Reformation faith must now update itself if only by the evidence that the church's present laity, like myself, are beginning to notice that we are unnecessarily clinging overlong to yesteryear's dogmas and traditions. And that our pulpits and universities must likewise change. And as they do I suspect that God will survive our thoughts and imaginations for my trust in God is infinite. But my trust in man's knowledge is cursory at best knowing how we like to change things towards our own way of thinking (I speak both of the church and of our scientific communities). To that end we do the best we can in academic discipline and honesty while holding in tension multiple levels of understanding God's Word knowing someday all will become clear and light. To that end, may God's peace and blessing be upon you this day. And may this present task set before us grant God's loving guidance and faithful care. Amen.

R.E. Slater
November 13, 2012

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Who Needs a Historical Adam?

The other week I picked up the biography, American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer by Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin. Robert Oppenheimer was a brilliant theoretical physicist who played a key role in the Manhattan Project, helping to develop the world’s first nuclear weapons. After World War II, however, he worked unsuccessfully to prevent a nuclear arms race between the United States and the Soviet Union, fearing the devastating power of his own invention. Naturally enough, his biographers liken his story to the myth of Prometheus, writing in the preface of the book:
Like that rebellious Greek god Prometheus–who stole fire from Zeus and bestowed it upon humankind, Oppenheimer gave us atomic fire. But then, when he tried to control it, when he sought to make us aware of its terrible dangers, the powers-that-be, like Zeus, rose up in anger to punish him. (xiii)
It would be hard to think of a more apposite comparison, a better metaphorical lens for understanding Oppenheimer’s place in our world. But of course, there are a few differences between Prometheus and Oppenheimer, chief among them being the fact that Oppenheimer is a historical figure of recent memory and Prometheus is a fictional character of a mythic past. But no one in their right mind would say that that fact diminishes the validity or the power of Bird and Sherwin’s comparison. No one would say that Bird and Sherwin’s likening of Oppenheimer to Prometheus commits them to the historicity of Prometheus’s story, or that believing that Prometheus’s story is mythological somehow undermines one’s grounds for believing in Robert Oppenheimer.
This morning I was reading the fifth chapter of Paul’s letter to the Romans where he likens Jesus to Adam. Paul writes:
Therefore, just as (hosper) sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned–for sin indeed was in the world before the Law was given, but sin is not counted where there is no law. Yet death reigned from Adam to Moses, even over those whose sinning was not like the transgression of Adam, who was a type (typos) of the one who was to come. (5:12-14, ESV)
With Bird and Sherwin’s biography in the back of my mind it struck me today as never before that Paul’s comparison of Jesus to Adam is fundamentally just that, a comparison. More specifically, Adam’s role in the comparison is that Adam is the typos, the figure, the pattern, the model for Jesus, “the one who was to come (tou mellontos).” Jesus, like Adam, is one man whose singular decisive action has had ramifications for all of subsequent humanity.
The analogy isn’t perfect, as Paul acknowledges:
But the free gift is not like (ouk hws) the trespass. For if many died through one man’s trespass, much more have the grace of God and the free gift by the grace of that one man Jesus Christ abounded for many. And the free gift is not like (ouk hws) the result of that one man’s sin. For the judgment following one trespass brought condemnation, but the free gift following many trespasses brought justification. If, because of one man’s trespass, death reigned through that one man, much more will those who receive the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man Jesus Christ. (Romans 5:15-17, ESV)
The analogy isn’t perfect. Whereas Adam’s action (like Prometheus’s) was catastrophic, Jesus’s action was, to borrow Tolkien’s word, eucatastrophic. Whereas Adam’s was an act of disobedience, Jesus’s action was one of obedience. Whereas Adam’s action was a betrayal of God, Jesus’s action was a gift of God. Whereas Adam’s action brought about a regime of death, Jesus’s action brought about the victory of life. Jesus, in other words, is like Adam turned right-side-up.
The more I look at this passage, the less I see how it makes a lick of difference to the force of Paul’s argument whether Adam is a historical figure or not. To my mind, the fundamental analogy still holds even if we were to add one more disanalogous element to those we have already rehearsed: whereas Adam was a fictional character of a mythic past, Jesus was for Paul a historical figure of recent memory. No matter. The comparison still holds. Jesus is, in some important ways, like Adam, just as He is said elsewhere in the New Testament to be like Moses, like Jonah, like Jeremiah, like Elijah, like a lamb, like a vine, like a door, like a shepherd, and like dozens of other things.
Rembrandt’s “St. Paul at His Writing Desk,” 1630
So did Paul personally believe in a historical Adam? Probably. He was a first century Jew. I’d be surprised if he didn’t (and I’d also be surprised if he didn’t believe in a geocentric cosmos, for that matter).
But does Paul need Adam to be a historical figure in order to make his argument in Romans 5? No, not really. And I would say the same, mutatis mutandis, for his argument in 1 Corinthians 15. The link between Adam and Jesus that he is making is more like Bird and Sherwin’s link between Prometheus and Oppenheimer than it is like the link between, say, Jesus and Pontius Pilate. It is a fundamentally anological link, not a fundamentally historical link.
All of this, of course, matters for those of us who take the New Testament to be our primary source for thinking about life, the universe, and everything, and who are keeping abreast of conversations in both the natural sciences and biblical scholarship which suggest that Genesis is not best understood as a textbook on natural history (see, e.g., this story by NPR). The evidence isn’t all in. It never is. But it is getting harder and harder to make a case for a historical Adam and that is disconcerting in excelsis for many Evangelicals, Fundamentalists, and others who see the Christian faith itself as being on the line in these discussions.
But, really, who needs a historical Adam? I don’t think Paul does. Nor do I think that the essential trustworthiness of the Bible depends on Adam’s historicity.
So who needsreally needs–a historical Adam? Adherents to a traducian account of the soul and a peculiar understanding of original sin? Devotees of the Westminster Confession of Faith? Biblical literalists?
But these are all varieties of Christian faith, not Christianity per se. There have always been within the Christian tradition (better?) alternatives to these particular theological stances, some of which do not logically depend upon the historicity of the Adam story. If the evidence should continue to mount against the historicity of Adam, the choice before us should not be whether we will be Christians or not, but whether we will be these sorts of Christians or those sorts of Christians. Christianity itself is simply not at stake.
So do you need a historical Adam? If so, help me understand why you do. If you don’t, you can tell me about that too.

* * * * * * * * * * * *

The Apostle Paul
Illustration by Denise Klitsie

Does Paul’s Christ Require a Historical Adam?

The Christian tradition has made much of Adam. We in the Western church speak regularly of the Fall of humanity that took place in Adam’s primal disobedience. Theologically, we speak of inherited sin and guilt—an original [(corporate)] sin that renders us all complicit. We are guilty of humanity’s first great act of disobedience and enslaved to sin’s power.

Such theological claims derive more from our reading of Paul’s reflections on Adam than from the Genesis story itself. For many, the most significant theological reasons for affirming a historical Adam have to do not with what Genesis 1–3 may or may not teach about human origins, but with the theology of Adam that Paul articulates in Romans 5 and 1 Corinthians 15. In short, if there is no historical Adam with whom we are enmeshed in the guilt and power of sin, how can we affirm that in Christ we participate in the justification and freedom of grace?

The levels of freedom (or lack thereof) that many of us experience with regard to the question of Adam as a historical person is inseparable from the theology that we see bound up with him. For some, to reject Adam as a historical person is to reject the authority of Scripture and trustworthiness of the very passages within which we learn of justification and resurrection.1 Others are concerned that to deny a historical Adam is to deny the narrative of a good world gone wrong that serves as the very basis for the good news of Jesus Christ. In short, if there is no Fall, there can be no salvation from it and restoration to what was and/or might have been.2 Even more expansively, Douglas Farrow concludes that “there is very little of importance in Christian theology, hence also in doxology and practice, that is not at stake in the question of whether or not we allow a historical dimension to the Fall.”3

High stakes, indeed. But I want to suggest that things might not be so dire. Specifically, I want to open up the conversation to the possibility that the gospel does not, in fact, depend on a historical Adam or historical Fall in large part because what Paul says about Adam stems from his prior conviction about the saving work of Christ. The theological points Paul wishes to make concern the saving work of the resurrected Christ and the means by which he makes them is the shared cultural and religious framework of his first-century Jewish context.

Christ and Adam

Paul has an important story to tell. It is the story of God’s new creation breaking into the world through the surprising mechanism of a crucified and resurrected Christ. This conviction about the new creation being brought about by Christ provides Paul with the ground to stand on as he draws Adam into the conversation in Romans 5 and 1 Corinthians 15.

One crucial dynamic of Paul’s Adam Christology is representation. Christ does, is, and becomes what we need to participate in, be, and become in order to be God’s eternal family. For this reason, Paul takes hold of the “image of God” language with which we are so familiar from Genesis 1, and uses it to describe Jesus as he stands in relation to us: “he decided in advance that they would be conformed to the image of his Son.”4 Christ represents who we are, and who we are becoming, as members of God’s new-creation family.

This representation is focused on two particular aspects of Christ’s saving work: his death on the cross and his resurrection from the dead. Romans 5 develops Paul’s Adam Christology around Christ’s death. Throughout the latter half of Romans 5, Paul outlines how Christ’s act entails benefits for many: it brings about God’s gracious gift in a manner that more than undoes the work of Adam, even reclaiming humanity’s privilege of ruling the world for God (5:15–17; cf. Genesis 1:26).

Similar dynamics unfurl in 1 Corinthians 15, where Adam is viewed as the progenitor of death in contrast to Christ who, as God’s new representative human being, anticipates humanity’s coming resurrection life (15:21–22). A new humanity has been inaugurated by the resurrected Christ.

This theological framework positions us to step into Paul’s statements about Adam. Paul is working with the stories of Israel, as told in the Old Testament, but from the perspective of someone who knows, now, that God’s great act of salvation has come in Christ.

Christ, the Law, and History

This brings us to our central question: To what extent do we need to affirm a historical Adam in order also to affirm the saving dynamics of Paul’s Adam Christology?

Romans 5 presents us with what are arguably the most pressing reasons to affirm a historical Adam. There we find these striking words from Paul:

  1. E.g., A. B. Caneday, “The Language of God and Adam’s Genesis and Historicity in Paul’s Gospel,” Southern Baptist Journal of Theology 15 (2011): 26–59.
  2. E.g., C. John Collins, Did Adam and Eve Really Exist? Who They Were and Why You Should Care (Wheaton: Crossway, 2011), 133–35; John W. Mahoney, “Why an Historical Adam Matters for the Doctrine of Original Sin,” Southern Baptist Journal of Theology 15 (2011): 60–78; Stephen J. Wellum, “Editorial: Debating the Historicity of Adam: Does It Matter?” Southern Baptist Journal of Theology 15 (2011): 2–3.
  3. Douglas Farrow, “Fall,” in The Oxford Companion to Christian Thought (ed. A. Hastings, A. Mason, and H. S. Pyper; New York: Oxford University Press, 2000), 233–34.
  4. All scriptural citations are from the Common English Bible unless otherwise indicated.
  5. Herman Ridderbos, Paul: An Outline of His Theology (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1975), 44–90.
  6. Ridderbos, Paul, 137.
  7. E. P. Sanders, Paul and Palestinian Judaism (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1977), 474–508.
  8. See, e.g., John R. Schneider, “Recent Genetic Science and Christian Theology on Human Origins: An ‘Aesthetic Superlapsarianism,’” Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith 62 (2010): 196–213.
  9. E.g., Daniel C. Harlow, “After Adam: Reading Adam in an Age of Evolutionary Science,” Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith 62 (2010): 179–95.


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