Can you Adam-and-Eve it?

[For non-UK readers, 'Adam-and-Eve' is traditional London Cockney rhyming slang for 'believe'.]

Various sources, print and online, highlight a debate that has taken off in the States on the question of the historicity of Adam and Eve as the two parents of the human race. At least one tenured scholar at Calvin College has apparently lost his job over the question. (Google will get you to lots of sources on the question; I couldn’t find one that summed up both the issues and the recent events in an even-handed way, so I decided not to post a link – if someone else knows of a good one, by all means put it in a comment.)

On the one hand, we have a claim that the sequencing of human genomes has provided a body of data that is incompatible with an account of human origins from a single couple; on the other, a claim that belief in a historic Adam and Eve is necessary to the gospel. My scientific expertise, such as it is (an undistinguished performance in a physics degree from Cambridge in the fairly distant past), and my knowledge of journalistic reports of academic research (which is rather more expert and recent) both lead me to suppose that reports asserting scientific certainty are unlikely to be accurate (particularly on an issue where repeated and controlled experiments are impossible; I presume the scientific consensus is more like ‘every plausible model we’ve proposed for the data we have demands multiple ancestor-pairs, and we’ve proposed a lot of models,’ which is certainly a significant claim, but falls some distance from proof, even in the weakened and imprecise sense that word usually carries in science). My topic in this blog, however, is theology, and so the other side of the debate is the one I will discuss.

On what basis might we propose that it is important that Adam and Eve were historical figures? Two seem possible: a theological basis; and an exegetical basis. It might be that we can’t make sense of the gospel unless humanity shares a common ancestor; or it might be that the point is incidental to the gospel, but clearly taught in Scripture, and so should be believed (that Jesus was born of a woman is central to the gospel; that his mother’s name was Mary is incidental, but nonetheless to be held to be true).

Are there plausible arguments in either direction? Theologically, the best candidate seems to be that some explanation needs to be given for universal falleness/sinfulness, in the face of the necessary teaching that God’s initial creation was good; it seems that some are therefore suggesting that it is necessary to postulate a single ancestor, who sinned, and whose guilt and brokenness was then transmitted through processes of biological reproduction to the rest of the human race. This argument, however, is implausible on a number of grounds.

First, the biological transmission of guilt and sinfulness is not a necessary claim. Within the Reformed tradition, federal Calvinism more-or-less denies the point in terms. Adam is established head of the human race by divine decree, not by biological priority: our fates are bound up with his fate because God has determined it to be so, not because of any process of genetics. (Of course, most classical federal Calvinists happened to believe in the biological priority of Adam and Eve, but this was in a sense incidental to their argument, as was the sinfulness of Eve: Adam alone was the federal head. Had it been the case that Eve surrendered to the serpent’s blandishments but failed to convince Adam to follow her, she would presumably have been held guilty of her sin, but her children would have been free of taint, as they were ‘in Adam’ and Adam had not fallen.)

Second, the biological transmission of guilt and sinfulness is not just not a necessary claim, but a rather difficult one. To put the point bluntly, moral standing is not encoded in genetic material. More pointedly, Christian anthropology has classically, rightly or wrongly, supposed a human being to be composed of body and soul (or body, soul, and spirit); the body, on this account, is the product of sexual union; the soul either created directly by God and infused into the body, or pre-existing in heaven and joined to the body in utero. But the soul is the primary seat, at least, of moral standing, and so to assume that the biological generation of the body somehow necessarily infects the directly-created, or other-sourced, soul seems difficult. (Even Augustine, so brilliant a mind, struggled and probably failed on this point: he suggested that the essence of sinfulness is misplaced desire, and that, east of Eden, every sexual act is infected with inordinate desire;  conception therefore happened in the context of sin, and so infected the child with original sin. Augustine, however, was a creationist when it comes to human souls, and – as far as I know; he wrote a lot… – failed to explain how the context of inordinate desire damaged the soul, newly created by God.)

Third, even if the above points can be overcome, the ‘biological transmission’ argument fails to prove its point. At most one might claim that every one of the first ancestors of humanity fell into sin at the same time. Imagine they were a tribe, bent together on a sinful act (building a tower that would reach up to heaven, say) and so together they all sinned. Biological transmission would then ensure the sinfulness of every succeeding human being, without the need to postulate a first pair.

I suggest, then, that there is no necessary theological reason to believe in a first pair of humans. To preserve a classical account of sinfulness, it is probably necessary to believe either in a federal head appointed by divine decree who fell into sin, or that our first ancestors, whether two, twenty, or two hundred, all fell into sin together. It is not necessary, though, to believe specifically in a unique first pair (of course, nor is there any theological reason not to believe in a unique first pair, but that point does not seem to be at issue). It is simply not important to gospel faith that we confess a first pair, a historical Adam and Eve.

What of the exegesis? The contours of debates over the first three chapters of Genesis are well-known enough not to need rehearsing here; at the very least we must say that there is no exegetical consensus that the passages ask to be taken as historical accounts. (Nor, I take it, is there any consensus regarding the fall narrative in particular that denies that it asks to be taken as a historical account; responsible interpretation now seems to demand that we do not assume that Gen. 1 is intended to be history; we cannot, I think, say the same of Gen. 3.)

It is striking, but true, that the Adamic root of original sin is a doctrine unknown to the canonical Old Testament (Hos. 6:7 is, at most, a claim that the sin of later generations is comparable to the sin of Adam). The doctrine is Pauline through-and-through: it is expounded in Rom. 5 & 1Cor. 15, and assumed in 1Tim. 2 – and that is it, in terms of Biblical support (yeah, I take 1Tim as ‘Pauline’; so shoot me…). Of these texts, only 1Tim. 2 even mentions Eve. In Rom. 5 and 1Cor. 15, ‘Adam’ functions as a representative of fallen humanity. Without going through the exegesis at length, I note that the parallels between Adam and Christ are at least inexact (‘as in Adam all die, so in Christ are all made alive’ – well, that’s either straightforward universalism or a very nuanced statement…); assuming that Christ has priority (something I tend to assume…), ‘Adam’ here is not functioning as the ancestor who infects the whole human race with sin, so much as an archetype which explains the devastating seriousness of the human condition…

…which is to say that there is no over-riding exegetical reason to insist on a historical Adam and Eve. We might, in reviewing the evidence, become convinced that the simplest explanation theologically and exegetically is a historic first pair of humans; but someone can confess the truth of the gospel, and the truthfulness of Scripture, without being committed to this belief.

*       *       *

So what? Well, just this: the stories circulating suggest that someone lost their job over this. I don’t know the details or the person, but I do know that in similar situations, politically-powerful people pushing an agenda that is – not unBiblical, but also not the only possible position a Biblical Christian could take – have damaged not just careers and families, but mission movements and national Christian churches, by condemning positions entirely defensible from Scripture as unBiblical. Jesus had some harsh things to say about the one who causes a fellow-believer to stumble, things involving mill-stones and deep oceans.

Those of us who presume to teach need a finely-tuned awareness of the difference between ‘I think this is right’ and ‘I believe in good conscience that no true Christian could believe anything different’. Of course, I know that conservative Christians – Evangelical or Catholic – are almost always vastly more tolerant than their liberal counterparts, but being better than someone else does not equal being right. We – I – need to be endlessly suspicious about our own assumptions about where the lines of unacceptability do fall, not because everything is acceptable – of course it isn’t – but because our own views of what is acceptable are, just, our own views. And we can always be wrong.

4 Comments

  1. Radical Believer
    Oct 2, 2011

    Thanks for this Steve.

    The basis of the doctrine of original sin is an interesting topic in its own right. My recollection is that the transmission of original sin was one of Augustine’s concerns, but in formulating it he used a circular argument. To support the church’s practise of infant baptism Augustine appealed to the doctrine of original sin, which is passed down to all descendents of Adam by biological transmission, and the necessity of its removal by baptism. Thus practice is legitimated by doctrine.

    However, to support the doctrine of original sin Augustine appealed to the church tradition of infant baptism. The church would not unnecessarily baptise infants, but infants are baptised by the church to remove the stain of original sin which must therefore be real. Here doctrine is legitimated by practice.

    It seems to me that Augustine is here trying to both have his cake and eat it, which to my mind calls into question the legitimacy of the doctrine of original sin, and thus removes any necessity to believe in a literal Adam and Eve.

    Of course, I could be wrong …

  2. Shawn Bawulski
    Oct 4, 2011

    Thanks for this, Steve, especially for your call for patience (and not knee-jerk job termination!) in this conversation. Two comments:

    1. On the exegetical reasons for a historical Adam and Eve: it seems to me that the comparison between Adam and Christ is, as you say, “inexact”- if pressed too hard, universalism seems to result. If held too weakly, however, Paul’s arguments wouldn’t work. Thus the question then becomes one of which points of similarity are intended, which are tangential or incidental, and which are in fact dissimilar? At this point I’m hoping for someone to give good arguments (not just vague gestures or mere assertions) that the historicity of Christ as an individual human person, when invoked in the comparisons between Adam and Christ in, say, Rom 5 and 1 Cor. 15, requires that Adam be a specific, historical, individual human person. Perhaps Rom 5:19 might support this, but it needs it be thoroughly argued… have you encountered any presentation of such detailed argument? I haven’t, but I haven’t looked exhaustively… …I’d be very pleased to encounter one.

    2. It also seems to me that there’s a more implicit reason conservatives become (overly?) worked up on this issue, something along these lines:

    (A) Scripture does not assert falsehoods to be true (or, put differently, that which is asserted as true in Scripture is in fact true).

    (B) Paul believed Adam and Eve were specific, historic, individual human persons (hereafter SHIHP).

    (C) Paul, in Scripture, asserts that Adam and Eve were SHIHP (and does so with apostolically authoritative teaching, so he’s not merely stating THAT he believes X, as he does with, say, his travel plans, but that X is in fact true).

    (D) Therefore, Adam and Eve were SHIHP.

    It seems to me that the concern to protect (A) is an underlying motive for many.

    (B) doesn’t become a problem until (C) is introduced: certainly Paul had various false beliefs that never made their way into Scripture. Paul could have held a belief but been wrong about it—the problem is if he introduced this belief in, say, Rom 5 or 1 Cor. 15.

    (C) is the battleground, obviously. But (C) could even be softened to

    (C`) Paul, in Scripture, makes assertions that are dependent on Adam and Eve being SHIHP if those assertions are to be true.

    and the argument would seemingly go through. So even if (C) turns out to be a bit difficult to prove, all that is needed is (C`) to make the argument work. If Paul’s belief that Adam and Eve were SHIHP at least informed Rom 5, 1 Cor 15, or elsewhere, and these passages don’t really work without that belief, are we not also to adopt it, given this argument?

    ((D), by the way, has no necessary commitment to how Adam and Eve were brought about, whether they were taken from pre-existent creatures (and then endowed with the imago) or created, shall we say, “more directly,” and whether or not there were others concurrent with them.)

  3. John Pettigrew
    Oct 6, 2011

    To take a slightly different tack, I’m always intrigued by the biological transmission argument. As you say, Steve, it never made any sense to me as a biologist. A while back, I devised my own model of how this might work (at least, I think it was mine!) and I wondered what you thought.

    Essentially, I suspect that sin itself is best defined as actions that damage relationships – between human beings and God primarily, but also between human beings and other creatures. If this is so, it suggested to me that Original Sin might be best understood as the network of damaged relationships that sin has introduced to the world – beginning with the putative first sinners (call them Adam and Eve if you will) and continuing to this day.

    I babbled a bit about this idea a while back on my (now-defunct) blog: http://john.pettigrew.org.uk/blog/entry_159.php

    Am I impossibly far off?

    pax et bonum

  4. Martin Brunet
    Oct 18, 2011

    Thanks for this, Steve, very interesting as ever. On the theology, I am certainly with you that the biggest danger in interpreting this area is to be dogmatic in our conclusions – which provides me some comfort in my own position of unambiguous uncertainty about the whole area!

    Of interest on the scientific side (and in agreement with your point about reports of scientific certainty needing to be treated with caution), I remember reading an essay on the subject of the origin of any species that argued a good scientific case for a single pair of common ancestors being not only likely, but possibly even necessary as part of the evolution of a new species. To my shame I cannot remember if the essay was by Stephen Jay Gould or Richard Dawkins, but I am fairly sure it was one of the two.

    The argument went something like this: If you assume that there needs to be a large group of individuals, evolving together, in order to form a new species, do they have common ancestors? If they do, then they are not the origin of the species and you have to go further back to those common ancestors and ask the question again. It is only when you get to a single pair that you can stop asking this question. If they do not, then you are implying that two totally separate branches of evolution have come together and are able to breed – which, while it may not be impossible, is certainly not how we think evolution works. It’s an interesting argument, and I guess pivots on the crucial question of what constitutes a new species.

    Maybe scientists could also listen to your words and agree that: “Those of us who presume to teach science need a finely-tuned awareness of the difference between ‘I think this is right’ and ‘I believe in good conscience that no true scientist could believe anything different’.”

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