Historical Adam and Biblical Inspiration – the options on the table
November 3, 2013
If you maintain any connections whatsoever to evangelical circles, you know that the historicity of Adam has become a fault line for the inspiration of Scripture. For those in academia or hoping to enter academia as faculty, this is increasingly becoming a litmus test for entry into some colleges and seminaries. And I know, from first-hand anecdotes, that certain ordaining bodies (presbyteries or the like) are explicitly asking candidates for ministry about their views on the historicity of Adam — wrong answer, no job.
While I have not come to reject a historical Adam (whatever that may mean), I am surely wary whenever a fellow evangelical tells me — as I have heard multiple times — that the gospel is at stake! Not merely the authority of Scripture, but the very gospel itself is compromised if you reject a historical Adam. If your gospel is inextricably tied to a certain view of federal headship, then I suppose that is true. But for the rest of us, it is manifestly absurd. I may address this at another time.
For now, I just want to list the options on the table, related to biblical inspiration, especially for those who may be relatively new to this topic. Here is what my taxonomy looks like, from a common evangelical perspective, which itself is definitely not the only option on the table and differs remarkably from past hermeneutics, including those of Augustine, Calvin, and Barth. Here is my four-fold division:
This view stipulates that the Bible is incapable of error in all that it affirms. Once the intended affirmation of the text is identified, it is trustworthy. These include affirmations of any sort — theological and historical. This does not preclude a certain allowance for phenomenological descriptions or, say, hyperbolic claims. Yet, if the author is affirming the historicity of Adam and Eve and their immediate progeny, then the Christian is bound to believe the historicity as well. This is the view of the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy, which is referenced by the Evangelical Theological Society.
Limited Inerrancy, Conservative-Style
The Bible is capable of error on matters incidental to the theological affirmation of the text. (John Henry Newman, in the 19th century, called these “accidental” matters, and this has been the dominant Catholic view.) On all matters pertaining to who God is and what he has done for us, the Bible is inerrant. This is not limited to the New Testament, for it includes all theological claims of the OT as well (including the “warrior” God of the OT). As for Adam and Eve, while the biblical authors believed in a historical Adam (e.g., Romans 5), the theology is not inextricably bound to a historicity of Adam. Thus, ancient cosmology and ancient historiography are the vehicles used by God to reveal the inerrant truths about himself (and mankind in relation to himself). This is the view of Denis Lamoureux, University of Alberta, in his excellent book, Evolutionary Creation.
Limited Inerrancy, Liberal-Style
The Bible is capable of error even on theological affirmations, except those that pertain to the perfect revelation in Jesus Christ. Thus, not only some historical matters incidental to theological claims are in error; rather, even theological claims themselves are capable of error. This would include, most famously, certain descriptions of God in the Old Testament conquest narratives. The determining authority for which theological claims are trustworthy is limited to the fuller, more developed, and decisive revelation of Jesus Christ. By all appearances — in his many blog entries — this is the view of Peter Enns, Eastern University.
All of Scripture is capable of error. This does not mean that all of Scripture is in error, but that even matters pertaining to Christ are capable of error. This is the view of old school liberal Protestantism, whether in its historical-positivist mode (Harnack) or in its existential mode (Tillich), as well as the “personal encounter” model of Brunner. The classic test case for this view is the virginal conception of Christ, which is deemed as not relevant to the believer’s faith in Christ.
I am sure that other thoughtful folks could offer a number of helpful qualifications to this taxonomy. And it is possible to find oneself identifying with more than one camp. For example, you can affirm the historicity of Adam (with the total inerrantists) while agreeing with the limited inerrancy, conservative-style, position. This would be, my best guess, the stance of John Lennox at Oxford and several other evangelicals outside of the United States.
UPDATE: I have posted a follow-up: “Beyond Chicago”
Photo: Jacob Gregory, KnightWolf Photography