The second essay in N. T. Wright’s book Surprised by Scripture addresses the question Do We Need a Historical Adam? Wright accepts a historical Adam and Eve as a representative pair chosen by God, much as God later chose Abraham and Israel. The need for a historical Adam is much the same as the need for a historical Israel. This is the way the story is told, and the way God worked in the world. (My interpretation, Wright never put it quite like this.) The significance of Adam isn’t as progenitor of the human race or as originator of sin. Rather, the significance of Adam is in his vocation to be God’s image bearer in the world and in his failure to live up to this vocation.
In any discussion of Adam the key passages to consider are the passages written by Paul in Romans 5 and 1 Corinthians 15. In Romans 5 Paul draws a contrast between Adam and Jesus: “For just as through the disobedience of the one man the many were made sinners, so also through the obedience of the one man the many will be made righteous.” (v. 19) This comparison leads many to claim a need for Adam as originator of sin, no Adam, no need for Jesus. But this, according to Wright, is to misunderstand Paul’s message.
First Jesus then Paul and Adam. Wright leads into his discussion of Paul and Adam with Jesus and the central message of the Bible.
The central message of the Bible is not simply that we are sinners, but through Jesus God is rescuing us from the sinful world so that we can be with him in heaven. That’s part of it, but it’s not the whole biblical story. The Bible is not about the rescue of humans from the world but about the rescue of humans for the world, and indeed God’s rescue of the world by means of those rescued humans. …
… Yes, Jesus was and is fully divine and fully human. But the point of his divinity in the Gospels is that in him and as him the living God is becoming king. And the point of his humanity in the Gospels is that , in him and as him, human beings are at last taking up again their God-given vocation of being the royal priesthood through which God brings his wise, redemptive ordering to the garden. And yes, the good news is good news of salvation. But in the Bible we are saved not simply so we can go to heaven and enjoy fellowship with God but so that we can be his truly human royal priesthood in his world. (p. 32)
With this idea in mind, we now move to Paul and Adam.
First, Paul’s exposition of Adam in these passages is explicitly in the service not of a traditional soteriology but of the kingdom of God. (p. 33)
This isn’t about how we get saved, but about how God is re-establishing us through Jesus as his image bearers in his kingdom.
Second, there is a close parallel between the biblical vocation of Adam in Genesis and the biblical vocation of Israel. (p. 33)
Adam and Eve failed to carry out their God-given vocation in the garden with serious consequences. Israel failed to carry out its God-given vocation as the people of God and light of the world. “God’s project for the whole creation (that it should be run by obedient humans) was aborted, put on hold“. (p. 34)