Recently Kevin DeYoung offered 10 reasons to believe in the historical Adam, in which he cited the apostle Paul's belief in the historical Adam. Even more poignantly, Tim Keller has previously argued, "If you don't believe what he believes about Adam, you are denying the core of Paul's teaching."

Peter Enns, author of The Evolution of Adam, is not convinced. "This is an unfortunate quandary, for to take this admonition seriously, one has really little choice but to turn a blind eye to the scientific investigations of human origins." Enns continues:

Paul's view on Adam is perhaps the central issue in this debate among evangelicals. But the entire question turns on whether Paul's comments on Adam are prepared to settle what can and cannot be concluded about human origin on the basis of scientific investigation.

Enns agrees with DeYoung that Paul did indeed believe in the historical Adam. But he does not believe we must, nor does he see Paul's view of creation as the basis for our conclusions about human origins.

But I'm not sure Enns quite answers the objection. DeYoung and Keller contend that Paul's belief in the historical Adam is critical to how Christ and Adam relate to humanity. If Paul is wrong about Adam, then he is wrong about Christ.

That's a problem far more serious than simply allowing Paul's old-fashioned, traditional beliefs on creation to affect ours.

Same Questions

Back in 1980, D. A. Carson responded to arguments much like the ones Enns poses today.

The question that concerns us at this juncture is whether Paul's argument entails a historical Adam. I do not ask simply if Paul believed in a historical Adam: there is little doubt about that. But someone might argue that Paul's belief regarding the historicity of Adam is irrelevant to his own argument. Adam might stand as a mythological construct which, to modern readers, finds its appropriate equivalent in some notion such as "humanity bound by mortality" or the like. Will the text allow such a view? Several features argue a strong negative.

Below are his three points, based off of 1 Corinthians 15:44-49:

  1. The Adam/Christ contrast found earlier in the chapter requires a historical Adam [1 Corinthians 15:20-27]; and it is difficult to think that Paul has changed to some other perspective when in the same context he returns to this contrast here. This does not prove that Paul's argument in 15:44-49 requires a historical Adam; but it ought to make us [cautious] about jettisoning the idea too quickly.
  2. When Paul in 15:45a cites Gen. 2:7, he inserts the words first and Adam. These additions make it clear that Paul does not intend to refer to man generally, but to one specific man, the first one, Adam by name. It is on this basis that Paul can refer to a second man, a last Adam, as an individual figure. The argument is greatly weakened if the first Adam may be construed as a reference to all humanity; for the last Adam must be an individual and not a reference to the new humanity, since the last Adam has become a life-giving (not a life-receiving) spirit. Only about Jesus Christ, the individual Jesus Christ, could this be said. Moreover, Paul says that "we have borne the likeness of the earthly man" (15:49), not that we are the earthly man; and in the same way we shall bear the likeness of the man from heaven, which clearly cannot mean we are the man from heaven. The language is reminiscent of the "in Adam"/"in Christ" contrast of 15:21. Clearly, neither Adam nor Christ is here presented in a purely private capacity. Both function as representative heads, the one of the earthly humanity, the other of the heavenly humanity; and it is difficult to perceive exactly what Paul could be saying if this parallelism is destroyed. The cogency of his argument for a resurrection body of a nature like Christ's resurrection body is destroyed if there is no representative entailment from Christ to us; and there is no reason to think such entailment must exist unless the historical representative entailment from Adam to us also exists.
  3. We may put this in a slightly different fashion. As Ridderbos writes, "The anthropological contrast is anchored in the redemptive-historical." The "natural" mode of existence which springs from participation in Adam is succeeded by the "spiritual" mode of existence which springs from participation in Christ. But Christ in this passage appears not as an a- temporal parallel to Adam, but as the later figure, the eschatological figure, the antitypical figure, the figure who comes in fulfillment. Such categories are meaningful only if the first figure is a figure in history. One cannot fail to be reminded of the argument of 2 Peter 3:1-7. There we are told that those who scoff at the prospect of the second coming have two historical examples of God's cataclysmic intervention to stand as witnesses to what God can do---viz, the creation and the flood. But to a generation which disbelieves heartily in both of these historical events which God has designed at least in part to serve as pointers to the far greater cataclysm of the second coming, what can we possibly offer by way of assurance that Christ's coming will not be forever delayed? In the same way, we may ask ourselves: To a generation which disbelieves in the historicity of the individual Adam who stands as representative of the race and who introduced both death and a certain kind of body into that race, a man designed by God to serve, at least in part, as a pointer to the second Adam who brings a new, "spiritual" body and escape from death, what can we possibly offer by way of assurance that there is reality to these promises and not just pious talk?

The concern, then, is not whether modern evangelicals' view of Adam should hinge on Paul's view of Adam---though I suppose we could be accused of worse things---but whether Paul's view of salvation, the forgiveness of sins, and the resurrection hinges on his view of Adam.

Requiring Adam

Carson develops similar points in other Pauline passages concerning Adam, which are relevant. But he offers five reflections on Paul's understanding of Adam to summarize:

  1. [N]ot only must we conclude that Paul himself believed in the historicity of Adam, but that the structure of his argument requires the historicity of Adam. In other words, for Paul Adam is more than an optional extra, a mythological accretion which may be excised without loss. Far from it; Paul so tightly relates the saving cross-work of Christ to the significance of historical Adam that it is difficult to see how one can preserve the former if the latter is jettisoned.
  2. Paul's reference to the time period from Adam to Moses (5:13-14) certainly presupposes a historical figure (i.e. Adam) at the beginning of the period, corresponding to a historical figure at the end of the period (Moses). Moreover, this period in world history is not simply an abstract, bounded, temporal entity---we are not dealing with a "time" in the abstract; rather, this period is portrayed as a time during which (a) the "law" (of Moses) had not yet been given; (b) sin was in the world; and (c) death reigned. This threefold description can only refer to the Old Testament period stretching from the fall of Adam to the giving of the law to Moses; and it treats the period as real history inasmuch as all die within it.
  3. Not only does Rom. 5:12-14 lay considerable emphasis on the one sin, one trespass, or one act of disobedience which brought ruin to the race; but implicitly the argument depends on the notion that before that one act of disobedience there was no sin in the race. This accords very well with Gen. 1-3; it cannot be made to cohere with any evolutionary perspective which denies the centrality of a fall in space-time history.
  4. Adam is portrayed as the "type" (tupos, NIV "pattern," 5:14) of one to come. The relationship between type and antitype in the Scriptures is complex; but Ellis correctly insists that New Testament typology cannot be thought of apart from God's saving activity in redemptive history, as determined by God's definite plan of redemption which is moving toward a predetermined goal from a specific point of beginning. As Versteeg comments, "Thus a type always stands at a particular moment in the history of redemption and points away to another (later) moment in the same history. . . . To speak about a type is to speak about the fulfillment of the old dispensation through the new."
  5. Adam is not portrayed as the first sinner, of which other sinners are later copies; but as the representative sinner, whose first sin affected the race. This distinction is crucial if the parallel between Adam and Jesus is to be maintained; for Jesus is certainly not portrayed as the first man to perform some definitive righteous act, but as the representative man whose definitive righteous act affects those who are in him. Preserve this parallel between Adam and Christ, and the historicity of Adam cannot simply be pro forma, as far as Paul is concerned.

John Starke is lead pastor of All Souls Church in the Upper West Side of Manhattan. You can follow him on Twitter.

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John Starke


John Starke is lead pastor of All Souls Church in the Upper West Side of Manhattan. You can follow him on Twitter.

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