Reconciling the book of nature with Scripture
It is easy to become theologically nostalgic about a time when sermons were uncomplicated. There was clearly a “right” or “biblical” view on most things, and that is the only perspective we were taught. Today we are in a very different place. We have an explosion of evangelical books expounding many views on almost any topic that we can think about. These books imply that well-meaning committed Christians who love Jesus can hold divergent views on many topics we thought were settled.
These books can be very helpful to get us thinking. They can help us become better informed readers of the Bible who are able to articulate a perspective more effectively. These books don’t simply preach but also defend and respond to other voices, sharpening and clarifying ideas.
On the other hand, this whole phenomenon can lead to confusion and a feeling that nothing is certain and the Bible can be used to say almost anything. Just when you might feel confident that a perspective is biblical, someone else argues that you have ignored the appropriate cultural context or ignored the genre of the text, or they pull out the ultimate trump card: love is more important than what the text says, so the verses you thought were significant aren’t really important.
How you feel about the value of providing multiple perspectives will affect how much you will appreciate Four Views on the Historical Adam. This volume follows a fairly typical pattern for the series: each contributor presents a view which the other three critique and then the initial contributor responds.
The one unusual element in this volume involves two final essays by Gregory A. Boyd and Philip G. Ryken on the issue of how important the historicity of Adam is to our faith. (For Boyd, not so much; Ryken strongly disagrees.)
It might seem that the question of whether Adam is historical should have no debate at all. Adam’s story is recorded in Genesis 2–5, referred to in several genealogies (1 Chronicles 1:1, Luke 3:38), mentioned by Paul six times (Romans 5:14 [2x], 1 Corinthians 15:22, 15:45 [2x], 1 Timothy 2:13–14), and included in Jude 14. Although Jesus never specifically mentioned Adam by name, he seems to have alluded to him at several points (Matthew 19:4, 8, Mark 10:6). Almost everyone agrees that Jesus and Paul believed in the historical Adam.
But behind this book lies recent developments in the world of science where committed Christians studying the human genome suggest the idea of a single biological pair from whom every human being originated is contrary to what our own genes are telling us. If “all truth is God’s truth,” then the Book of Nature should not contradict God’s revealed Scripture. This is the conversation that lies in the background of this volume.
The first perspective is that of “evolutionary creationism” articulated by Denis O. Lamoureux (University of Alberta) who holds three doctorate credentials in dentistry, evolutionary biology and theology. He makes what must certainly be a startling claim for many Christians that “Adam never existed, and this fact has no impact whatsoever on the foundational beliefs of Christianity.” Lamoureux argues that God accommodated his message of salvation and Jesus in a book that reflects the scientific language of its own day. We simply need to “unwrap” this foundational salvation story from the limited science that surrounds it and realize that our faith is based on Jesus and not on this wrapping.
The second perspective, “Archetypal Adam,” is that of John A. Walton (Wheaton [Ill.] College) who walks down some of the same path as Lamoureux except that he argues that in the midst of God’s guidance of the evolutionary process, there was a real person called Adam who “sort of” lived out the Genesis 3 story as our archetype or representative – even if he was not the only human on earth and not our sole biological ancestor. But the real Adam was not formed from the ground and the real Eve was not taken from his side. This couple did, however, transgress a divine command and as humanity’s representatives, somehow spread “accountability and disorder” to all of us although it was not through our genetic lineage.
The third view is that of Old Earth Creationism as represented by C. John Collins (Covenant Theological Seminary, St. Louis, Mo.). He is willing to accept that Adam may not have come directly from the “dust” but was a result of God’s intervention at the end of a long evolutionary process. Adam and Eve were the first human couple although they may have produced offspring and formed a sort of “tribe” before the critical events in the Garden. This whole tribe fell when Adam and Eve fell. In comparison to Walton, Collins is more inclined to make a direct genetic and moral connection between this Adam and Eve and all people today.
The fourth view is almost on a different page from the first three. William D. Barrick (The Master’s Seminary, Sun Valley, Cal.) represents Young Earth Creationism and stands diametrically opposed to all the “compromises” of the other views. Barrick provides a voice of warning: to surrender a literal reading of Genesis in these chapters threatens everything Christians have been saying about original sin, salvation, the authority of Scripture and much more. He states it clearly: “Denial of the historicity of Adam, like the denial of the historicity of Christ’s resurrection, destroys the foundations of the Christian faith” (emphasis original).
This volume is a helpful one in the overall series. The four main contributors are articulate and well-known representatives. The dialogue is engaging and generally respectful.
But one wonders whether this book – along with all the other multiple views books – really helps our ability to listen and dialogue or whether it encourages a sort of apathy about theological discussion. The dialogue partners express their views, emphasizing how different each is from the others, but no one seems to move even an inch closer to a consensus. While this might be fine for the academic world, it poses challenges for positive theological discussion in the church.
In the church, we have those who might respond with Lamoureux or Boyd and contend that nothing significant is at stake, while others following Barrick believe that at almost every turn one’s salvation could well be lost and thus we should be willing to die on many a theological hill.
How can we in churches dialogue about these sorts of issues and at the same time worship and serve together? Though this book has given us four clear views on the historicity of Adam, it has not provided much help on this bigger and probably more important question.
—Ken Esau is biblical studies program director at Columbia Bible College, Abbotsford, B.C. He and his wife Karen are members at The Life Centre, Abbotsford, B.C.
Updated August 22, 2014