Historical Adam and Biblical Inspiration – the options on the table

Young woman reading bible

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:

Total Inerrancy

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.

Total Fallibility

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


    • Yes indeed. I hesitate to identity Barth with any of these categories — his formal doctrine of Scripture is quite liberal, while his material doctrine of Scripture is quite conservative (albeit frequently eccentric and creative in his exegesis). He famously pronounced in his CD that the Bible is capable of any sort of error. However, he also claims (just a few pages later) that there is no objective ground upon which he can adjudicate such matters, which accounts for his incredible reverence vis-à-vis the text. Thus, his de facto approach to Scripture is notably hesitant to use historical-critical tools, as James Barr complained about Barth (in Barr’s book, Fundamentalism).

      While it may be difficult to pin Barth down on “inerrancy”-related concerns, Barth is rather clear about his rejection of a historical Adam and the larger covenant approach of Reformed scholasticism (covenant of works, republication at Sinai, and so forth).

      • Yes, it’s in the CD and also in his small monograph, Christ and Adam. As for the CD, the most relevant sections are in III.2 and IV.1 (especially §60.3).

        To be precise, Barth does not reject the historicity of Adam per se, as if he could know such a thing; rather, he rejects the question as irrelevant and misdirected.

      • Ahh, that makes more sense (irrelevant/misdirected). Barth seems to not really care to much about ‘historical’ questions in theology. I’m not sure how i feel about that, to be honest.

      • This is a big open question in Barth’s theology. He does not want to make our faith contingent upon anything (history, philosophy, science, etc.), yet he is clearly willing to make historical claims about Christ (virgin birth, resurrection), albeit not subject to critical analysis. And he treats a number of OT accounts as historical, from Abraham onward, albeit with “saga” elements here and there.

        I completely understand Barth’s concerns about contingency, introducing questions of authority from outside, which is a detriment to the certainty and joy of our faith. Yet, I am doubtful that Barth has fully made an intelligible account on historical matters. This, by the way, is one of my few criticisms of Barth.

      • I read Barth as criticizing the whole ‘assured results of higher criticism’ thing that was going on, and to an extent, I agree. Our faith is not dependent on a reliable method, as if we can be saved via sound historical methodology and really accurate history books. We need the eyes of faith, healed by grace. That’s how I read him, anyways. I think (and again, this is just how I see it) his removal of matters of faith from the realm of historical investigate-ability is incorrect – N.T. Wright, W. Lane Craig, Mike Licona, etc, have all made big contributions to the question of the historical Jesus, historical context of the gospel, etc. Wright has some pretty powerful criticisms of Barth in this regard.

      • I hear ya. Yet I have questions/concerns about putting the bodily resurrection in the mode of “historical investigative” possibility, as Wright does. My own position would probably be a mediation between Barth and Wright, but I haven’t done the work to see what that looks like. Wright is notoriously weak on theology, so he could use a little Barth!

      • I wonder what Barth would say to St. Luke, who builds his entire corpus (of two documents, lol) on historical investigation – interviewing witnesses, etc. While Luke/Acts isn’t a history textbook and generally fits in better with ancient biography (at least Luke does, acts IMO is much more ‘historical’) it does seem to make it look like historical investigation has some value. But hey, that’s just theo-speculation 🙂

      • Ha, he’d probably just say that we’re not apostles in the 1st century! The rules have changed.

        These are all good thoughts — thanks for the discussion.

      • NT Wright actually does acknowledge that historical argument only gets you so far with the resurrection and it’s not just a fact you mentally assent to. He does not go as far as some apologists.

      • True. Good qualification, Joel. Even the most strident Barthian should be grateful to Wright for his work as a historian of biblical literature (as a theologian, however, that’s another matter for another day!).

  1. I’m sympathetic to the notion that if Adam is removed as a historical person, then the Gospel is compromised. While not cataclysmic destruction (as some may put it), lacking a historical Adam is like lacking a historical David or Abraham. It makes nonsense out of what Paul and other Apostles tried to get across in using the Adam-Christ theme.

    This doesn’t mean I read Genesis as some newspaper account, but it is history, just not as we may understand it. Jacques Ellul once used myth in this way: a full orbed account of an event.

    Where a history may have been written about the destruction of Sennacherib’s army by a plague from mice (which is believed to have been the material reason for the deaths), the Scripture provide the truth that it was the Angel of the Lord who wrought judgment over the Assyrian army.

    2 cents,

    • It depends on what Paul is actually wanting to get across — the universality of human sin? Then he doesn’t need monogenesis for that, even if monogenesis is (obviously) the paradigm he used. If I agreed with the imputation of Adam’s guilt (the federal model of Reformed scholasticism), then a historical Adam is obviously essential, not accidental. But, I have strong doubts about that model.

      Having said that, it is precisely Romans 5 that gives me hesitation to reject a historical Adam, namely questions related to the Fall, human volition, the entrance of sin, the origin of evil, and theodicy. I do not have a clear position, which I think is something that students of theology need to admit more often.

      • Well, no, it wasn’t necessary logically for Paul to make that argument. But if we take his understanding of what Paul intended in preaching to the Athenians.

        I don’t think we need to take up a juridicial framework of guilt to get to the same place. If Adam was sort of priest-king, and was humanity’s representative, then, he’d be the gateway from whence death and sin came. Sin becomes more than a legal term, but an ontological corruption.

        Anyway, I suppose the inspiration of Scripture isn’t necessarily called into question (in the models you provided) if our understandings are. We can both say Adam is a historical person, and yet attempt to read Genesis in, perhaps, a more “faithful” (whether truly or not, I don’t know) light. People like John Walton and Denis Alexander have done work on this.

        I agree with the last comment, this is something to be approached with humility and admittance of ignorance. That’s how the truth is pursued.

      • Indeed, and the ontological corruption approach (which I agree, following C.E.B. Cranfield, for example) does seem to easily facilitate the possibility for polygenesis and human origins well beyond the biblical time frame, without compromising original sin for all mankind. Basically, the Eden narrative is illustrative of how all humans fell at their beginning.

        Thus, a separate difficulty is whether evangelicals are willing to say that Paul was wrong — or that the genealogies are wrong — on the historicity of Adam and Eve (and their immediate progeny). John Walton, for example, believes in a historical Adam because the Bible presents Adam as a historical figure (e.g., giving Adam’s age at his death, his children, his children’s children, and so on), which it certainly does. Even allowing for gaps in the genealogies, this would put human origins at 10,000 BC at the very earliest. To reject these clear historical affirmations of the Bible is a bridge too far for most evangelicals, and I share their concern — as do you, I presume. All the while, we cannot turn a blind eye to science, hoping for some future paradigm shift that will accommodate the Bible’s primeval history and etiologies — not even remotely likely.

        I know this is nothing new to you, Cal, so I’m just working this out in dialogue with you. That is one of the great benefits of blogs.

      • Maybe it is helpful to distinguish between a historical fall and historical Adam? It really does seem key to the Biblical story that at some point humans had fellowship with God and blew it (Peter Enns seems to consider entire whole thing unimportant, which I think is a mistake). Exactly how that happened is more negotiable, I think.

        Also, does Genesis definitively teach that Adam and Eve were the ancestral first couple? Of course, it seems to in some places, but then there are parts that appear to suggest other humans. Particularly with the old awkward “Cain questions.” 🙂 Maybe these texts were originally from separate traditions, but that is secondary to the text we have now.

      • Yes, you’re right, Joel. I would say that a Fall needs to be maintained within a polygenesis account. I have been disappointed by Enns’ lack of theological sensitivity, on this and other matters.

        I think the Bible teaches monogenesis. Eve is “mother of all the living” (Gen 3.20). Adam, for Paul, is the father of all humans. Moreover, the genealogies are attempts to explain the origins of all human groups, including blessed and cursed ancestral lines. The one difficulty for the monogenesis account is indeed the Cain scenario, but I don’t think it is strong enough evidence to overturn the larger presentation in Scripture (putting aside separate traditions, source criticism, oral history, and the like).

        Thus, if one rejects monogenesis, then one is also rejecting total inerrancy, as defined by the Chicago Statement. The limited inerrancy positions are, of course, open to polygenesis. You can believe in a historical Adam and Eve, as one couple among many, but I think we have departed from the “incidental history” (as Lamoureux calls it) of the Bible, recognizing its errors as such.

  2. Kevin & Joel:

    I think its adding up the little things that gives one a place to reassess what traditions have said. There’s the “Cain’s Wife” tradition, but the secondary question is who Adam & Eve were.

    They were not merely placed in the world, but in the Garden. Eve received her name not from the beginning, for she was merely woman (isha), but after the Lord gave her the prophecy. I think “Mother of the Living” has more to do with the coming Man than with a biological account.

    The weight of Paul’s account is not necessary monogenetic blood accounting, but monogenetic representation. I think this is the same intent of the bloodlines, not just family accounting, but the representative head of the clan as the Promise was coming.

    Adam was the One, the representative, the Man as his name would imply, and he, by his action, invited sin and death into the world. While it may seem a federal connection, if Adam’s representation brought about an ontological change, you keep both ends of the spectrum together. Its unnecessary to make such a split in the first place.

    I think this follows the same vein of argument that Paul makes in that Adam was the “Father” of this-world and brought into the reign of sin, death and the devil. Christ Jesus is the “Father” of the-world-to-come and is breaking into the here and now, all until He returns.

    Now it can be debated what Paul actually thought, and whether I’m putting words in his mouth. But this is a great place, being a blog, to work out ideas!


    • Good thoughts, Cal. This touches upon a larger hermeneutical problem of the Chicago Statement, and evangelical exegesis in general, by not accounting properly for the divine authorial intention. So, for example, your interpretation of Eve is a legitimate theological move (and very patristic of you!), but the evangelical grounds his exegesis primarily on human authorial intention. Thus, if “mother of all the living” was assumed to include a claim for the monogenesis of all mankind, as I think it would for both the Pentateuchal authors/redactors and for the NT apostles, then we are bound to believe it as such. However, if the divine authorial intention is primary, as the early fathers understood (and manifestly evident by the NT use of the OT), then the problem is not really a problem. The precise historicity of Eden is a dogmatic determinant, not a grammatical-historical determinant favored by evangelical hermeneutics.

      All of which is to say, theology is the queen of sciences!

      • Part of the problem is the epistemology of knowing authorial intent. You can only go so far in trying to parse what exactly the author thought. This can be a black hole, but one that should drive us to another question: how is Scripture to be read?

        Much of evangelicalism is predicated upon the historico-grammatical as the prime axis. Yet how the Apostle’s understood the Scripture always posed a problem. Sometimes it’s explained away as a special position for them, and them alone, and we following must abandon such a way of thinking.

        While divine intent is what matters, I don’t see why that must therefore blot out the possibility of historical reality. Augustine spoke in CoG about this debate, and how the allegoricalists laughed at the historicists as intellectually crude. Why split them, asks Augustine, when both can be true. He uses Paul’s allegoricalization of Hagar and Sarah. Just because they represented what they do, does not therefore mean they cease to be historical people. Thus Eve was a real person, in real time (whatever/whenever that looked like) yet the truth we have in Genesis is that this real person represented a divine promise (mother of the living).

        I think its clear from the Scripture that figures like Moses and David knew who they spoke when they prophecized of Christ. Yet we’re at a loss when we try to make that into a concrete. We can’t know what exactly they knew, only that they did.

        Much of evangelicalism gets lost in the quibbles, and ignores the greater reality: Christ is the heart of the Scripture and its sole axis of interpretation. I’m an infallibalist, but I think the Chicago Statement gets lost majoring in impossibilities.


      • Yes and amen! If I were to rethink my taxonomy, in this post, along patristic or Augustinian lines, it would definitely look different. We can have a total infallibility without the impossibilities and contradictions of the Chicago Statement’s inerrancy.

  3. Kevin & Cal, what if the God-given capabilities of human minds were meant to receive some truths in stories that were connatural to those capabilities, so that earnest attempts to read them unnaturally as objective reports of facts apparent to visiting extraterrestrials is a tragic flight from the truth?

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