A Reflection on the Historical Adam-Part 1

By: Dustin Walters

A rejection of the historical Adam as mentioned in Genesis 1-3 undermines biblical authority and reflects a hermeneutic of suspicion rather than a hermeneutic of trust in the Bible. Just as there was a quest for the “historical Jesus”, there have been quests for the historical Adam. William VanDoodwaard wrote, “This quest for the historical Adam” is not new-it has been pursued to some degree in evangelical academia for decades and has historical precedent going back to at least the nineteenth century.” [1] Even within evangelicalism, debate exists regarding the historicity of Genesis 1-11 with particular attention given to the historical Adam. The issue of the historical Adam was revisited in 2021 in William Lane Craig’s In Quest of the Historical Adam. Craig faced some criticism for his claims in this book. Early in the book, Craig posits, “We, therefore, need to consider the option that Gen 1–11 need not be taken literally.” [2] There are serious consequences if evangelical believers begin accepting claims like the one Craig makes. This essay will argue that interpretive decisions about the existence of the historical Adam impact one’s interpretation of all of the scripture including but not limited to one’s understanding of sin and the Incarnation. It is important to clarify some key terms before moving on with the present argument.

Key Terms

Several key terms must be defined in any discussion about the historical Adam. It is imperative to consider what the terms inspiration, inerrancy, hermeneutic, and historicity refer to. Since these terms will be used throughout the project, it is imperative to consider what each of the terms refers to. It is the hope of the writer that this section will provide clarity for the reader.

Inspiration

Christians have affirmed the reliability and trustworthiness of the Bible for centuries. Additionally, the biblical writers recognized other passages as a product of both divine and human authorship. One of the most foundational biblical passages regarding the doctrine of inspiration comes from Paul’s second letter to Timothy.[3]

16 All Scripture is inspired by God and beneficial for teaching, for rebuke, for correction, for training in righteousness; 17 so that the man or woman of God may be fully capable, equipped for every good work.  

From the outset, the reader should know that the writer affirms belief in the doctrine of inspiration as defined by Millard Erickson. Erickson said, “By inspiration of Scripture we mean that supernatural influence of the Holy Spirit on the Scripture writers that rendered their writings an accurate record of the revelation or that resulted in what they wrote actually being the Word of God.” [4] The Triune God inspired the oral and written development of Scripture through human language as an act of his gracious self-revelation and as such, it is without error in all that it teaches. That leads to a discussion of the next key term, inerrancy.

Inerrancy

Christians often refer to the Bible not only as inspired but also inerrant. The doctrine of Biblical inerrancy did not originate in the twentieth century, even though the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy provided clarity regarding what this term means. This doctrine is quickly condemned and rejected by some in higher critical biblical criticism. The critics reduce Scripture to be without error only in those matters pertaining to faith but deny the factuality of the bible in relation to mathematics, science, and human origins. [5] Paul Feinberg provides a clear definition of inerrancy when he remarks, “Inerrancy means that when all facts are known, the Scriptures in their original autographs and properly interpreted will be shown to be wholly true in everything that they affirm, whether that has to do with doctrine or morality or with the social, physical, or life sciences.” [6] In relationship to historical Adam studies, one of the issues raised by critical scholarship concerns the strong connection to the original autographs of the Bible. Since no such copies exist, inerrantists are often called to bear the burden of proof. A strong case can be made for the trustworthiness of the biblical manuscript copies that were used in the development of the biblical canon. Viewing the Genesis account of Adam and Eve as Ancient Near Eastern mythology or as false altogether puts one in a position in which he or she cannot honestly affirm inerrancy. The next term that merits consideration is the term hermeneutic.

Hermeneutic

One’s methodological approach to the interpretation of the bible is his or her hermeneutic. A hermeneutic is a method of interpretation since hermeneutics is the discipline of interpretation. The English word is based on the Greek verb ἑρμηνεύω (hermenûo), which can be translated, “to help someone understand a subject or matter by making it plain, explain, interpret”. [7] The contention of this paper is that a rejection of the historical Adam is an adoption of a critical hermeneutic toward the canonical text about Adam and Eve. Canonical is an intentional term here. Belief in an inspired Bible extends only to the canonical scripture. Even Craig admits, “The reason for focusing on the canonical text is not that historical-critical questions are uninteresting or unimportant but that the canonical text is, after all, the basis for a Christian doctrine of man.”[8] Attention is directed to the definition of the term historicity.  

Historicity

The term historicity refers to the historical actuality of someone or something being a part of history rather than a myth. This is an epistemological claim about knowledge from the past, in this case, based on an inerrant and reliable retelling of the story by the author of Genesis. The historicity of Adam and Eve means that these key figures in the redemptive story cannot and should not be reduced to characters in an Ancient Near Eastern myth.

Diminished Authority: The Result of Rejecting a Historical Adam

A central claim of this blog is that a rejection of belief in the historical Adam as presented in Genesis 1-3 undermines biblical authority. Rejection in the historical Adam also calls into question one’s commitment to the inerrancy of the Bible. It is inconsistent to claim fidelity to inerrancy yet search for errors in the biblical text where none exist. To claim the bible as authoritative yet reduce its claims about Adam as an error or myth is to be inconsistent in a hermeneutical approach. One goal in interpretation is to be consistent even though one must allow for differences across biblical genres. This second half of the current essay will be a reflection on three evangelical scholars who have either adopted higher biblical criticism outright or specifically adopt a troubling view of the historic Adam. The scholars presented here will be Peter Enns and William Lane Craig.[9] The views of these scholars about the historical Adam are more threatening to Christians than the views of those who openly reject inerrancy.

Peter Enns

Peter Enns employs a modified view of the accommodation theory. He recognizes that a divine and human element are involved in Scripture. Enns remarked, “The human dimension of Scripture is, therefore, part of makes Scripture Scripture. But it is precisely this dimension that can create problems for modern Christian readers because it can make the Bible seem less ‘Bible-like’ than we might have supposed.” [10] It is apparent that Enns believes the human element corrupts scripture which allows for the biblical text to contain errors. Enns is correct to recognize the result of higher criticism of the Bible. He said,

What modern biblical scholarship demonstrated was that the Bible shared many of the standards, concepts, and worldviews of its ancient Near Eastern neighbors. When they got down to it, there really wasn’t anything about the Bible itself that made it all that special, and this seemed very inconsistent with conventional notions of inspiration and God speaking to us in the Bible today. [11]

William Lane Craig

Craig allows for the existence of a historical Adam yet undermines the scriptural claim through his affirmation of contemporary evolutionary theory. Terry Mortenson is correct to note the limitations of Craig’s conclusions about Adam and Eve, the most significant is Craig’s chronological placement of Adam. [12] Craig’s affinity for the evolutionary perspective of millions of years is evident throughout the work and clear in this statement, “Adam plausibly lived sometime between around 1 mya to 750 kya, a conclusion consistent with the evidence of population genetics.” [13]

Consequences of Denying a Historical Adam

Serious consequences result from denial in the historical Adam. There are exegetical or hermeneutical, theological, and anthropological implications of viewing the Adam of Genesis as something less than biblical account depicts him as. From an exegetical perspective, one is forced to address the references to Adam throughout the biblical narrative, especially the references made by Jesus and Paul. One must make important interpretive decisions about any biblical passage. These decisions are not always easy, yet a rejection in the teaching of a historical Adam leads down a slippery slope when it comes to other biblical passages. If the historicity of Adam’s existence is relegated to myth, on what grounds can one justify any other truth claim of scripture? Lastly, anthropological challenges arise from the development of the historical Adam. One of the foundational propositions connected with historical Adam is the proposition that in Adam all humans participated in what has been referred to as the Fall. Once one eliminates the historical Adam other doctrines follow suit. Without a historical Adam, there is no such thing as total depravity or original guilt. There is a pivotal identification with Adam as the head of the human race. This concern arguably fits in each of the categories listed here, yet this writer has chosen to include it in anthropology because truth is connected to life. Affirmation of the historical Adam makes more sense to the total person and is a fairer interpretation of the whole Bible. While some have tried to argue one can be faithful to evangelical or Orthodox Christianity and reject the historicity of Adam, that position is problematic for this writer.

Conclusion

A rejection of the historical Adam as mentioned in Genesis 1-3 undermines biblical authority and reflects a hermeneutic of suspicion rather than a hermeneutic of trust in the Bible. There are significant implications whether one accepts the Genesis account as historically reliable or whether one rejects the historicity of Adam. There are lasting implications with regard to the way one understands the Fall of humanity into sin and the possibility for redemption. F. Leroy Forlines offers a timely word about redemption.

Redemption concerns itself with restoring that which was lost in the fall. It is the design of redemption to restore the functional likeness of God in man. It is designed to make humans like God in his personality. He is to be made in the likeness of God both on the conscious and subconscious levels in the way he thinks, feels, and acts. [14] Without the historic Adam, there is no original guilt. Without original guilt, one cannot explain the brokenness experienced by all creation. Without the historic Adam, there can be no new Adam who imputes his righteousness to humanity. A rejection of these foundational truths has grave consequences. A robust articulation of the historicity of Adam, the imputation of his guilt to humanity, and the imputation of Christ’s righteousness to the believer must be revisited regularly until Christ returns and faith becomes sight.

The next part of this blog post will address some objections posed against the historical Adam and will provide further clarity on the reasons I believe the historicity of Adam is an important affirmation for the Christian.

*This blog was initially written as a course paper for the course BIB5027 Issues in Old Testament Studies at Welch Divinity School by Dustin M. Walters. The material here has been redacted for the purposes of this blog.*


[1] William VanDoodewaard, The Quest for the Historical Adam: Genesis, Hermeneutics, and Human Origins (Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 2015), 2.

[2] William Lane Craig, In Quest of the Historical Adam: A Biblical and Scientific Exploration (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2021), 14.

[3] 2 Timothy 3:16-17, NASB 1995.

[4] Millard J. Erickson, Christian Theology, 3rd ed. (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2013), 169.

[5] One problem with the critical position is that it undermines the authority of the Bible and places contemporary expectations on the Biblical text. The relationship between one’s belief in the inerrancy and the historical Adam will hopefully become clearer throughout this discussion.

[6] Paul Feinberg, “The Meaning of Inerrancy” in Inerrancy, ed. Norman Geisler (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1980), 294.

[7] William Arndt et al., A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000), 393.

[8] Craig, 20.

[9] Also, Kenton Sparks claims evangelicalism yet rejects inerrancy in his God’s Word in Human Words, (Grand Rapids, Baker Academic, 2008).

[10] Peter Enns, Inspiration and Incarnation: Evangelicals and the Problem of the Old Testament, (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2005), 18.

[11] Ibid., 46. Enns is eager to affirm that “many evangelical instincts are correct and should be maintained, for example, that the Bible is ultimately from God” (13-14) yet he seems to adopt the notion that there is not anything special about the Bible in comparison to other Ancient Near Eastern texts. This position is inconsistent with his claim to be evangelical.

[12] https://answersingenesis.org/why-does-creation-matter/undermining-scripture-regarding-adam-initial-response-william-lane-craig/. Accessed February 6, 2022.

[13] Craig, 380. Craig uses the abbreviation mya to refer to millions of years ago and the abbreviation kya to refer to thousands of years ago.

[14] F. Leroy Forlines, The Quest for Truth: Theology for Postmodern Times, (Nashville: Randall House, 2006), 166.

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