Romans 5:12-21 proves to be one of the key texts in any discussion of science and faith these days. We began a discussion of this passage last week with a consideration of the meaning and nature of the death introduced in Gen 3. Another issue in the conflict or reconciliation of scientific knowing with the gospel message strikes us full force in v. 14:
Nevertheless death reigned from Adam until Moses, even over those who had not sinned in the likeness of the offense of Adam, who is a type of Him who was to come. (NASB)
Now we have Adam named as a historical individual alongside Moses, another historical individual. Yet it is hard to reconcile the Adam of Gen 1-4 as a historical individual with our understanding of the age and development of the world.
There are six New Testament passages that deal explicitly with Adam and/or Eve. Only one of these is in the Gospels – in the genealogy of Luke 3. One is in Jude where Enoch is identified as “in the seventh generation from Adam.” The other four references are in the letters of Paul: Romans 5:12-21; 1 Cor. 15:20-22 and 42-49; 2 Cor. 11:2-3; 1 Tim. 2:12-14. The passage in 2 Cor. 11 is an allusion in passing, but the other three are more substantive.
In his discussion of Romans 5:12-21 NT Wright notes:
Paul clearly believed that there had been a single first pair, whose male, Adam, had been given a commandment and had broken it. Paul was, we may be sure, aware of what we would call mythical or metaphorical dimensions to the story, but he would not have regarded these as throwing doubt on the existence, and primal sin, of the first historical pair. (p. 526, The New Interpreter’s Bible, Volume 10)
And this leads us to the key question of the day:
Does it matter that Paul thought Adam was a unique individual living ca. 4000 years earlier? Does the inspiration of scripture require us to assume that Paul was right?
The conflict or reconciliation of scientific knowing with the gospel message has several different facets. Some of these are theological – they deal with the essence of the Christian message, the gospel. The nature of death and decay as a result of the fall is a theological consideration. Incarnation and atonement are theological issues – including the interpretation of the atoning work of Christ. But some of the questions deal more with the nature of scripture and the inspiration of scripture than with roots of Christian theology. I know that some think that the lines are not so neat and clean – but this is a blog post not a doctoral dissertation – so please allow the distinction for the sake of the present discussion.
I don’t find any fundamental theological conflict between science and faith, rather I think that the significant conflicts involve our understanding of the nature of inspiration and of scripture. Paul’s belief in Adam and Eve as a unique first pair impacts first and foremost our understanding of the inspiration of scripture.
I am agnostic on the precise nature of the original humans graced with creation in the image of God, whether there was a unique pair or a community. I am convinced that the original sin was a rebellion against God and that the fall was inevitable but not preordained. I am convinced that Gen 1-3 is mytho-historical not literal-historical.
I think that we misunderstand the nature of scripture as the inspired word of God and the nature of scripture as authoritative when we insist on a literal precision of fact in all parts equally without a role for discernment, interpretation, and the Holy Spirit.
Paul was inspired to develop and write out an exploration of the theology and purpose behind the very real historical events of the life, death, resurrection of Jesus and the gift of the Holy Spirit. This is inspired of God, formative and authoritative for the church. But the form of the document we have is in the context of an educated and intelligent first century Jew writing to a first century church of mixed heritage, Jew and Gentile. Inspiration is not dictation, and inspiration does not remove the author (in this case Paul) from his cultural context, located in time and place.
Paul is relating the gospel revealed to him, the story of the resurrection of Jesus Christ as the atonement for sin, the victory over death, the turning point in human history, and the inaugral event ushering in the ultimate kingdom of God. There was no reason for anyone of the day and age to suspect that Adam and Eve were not historical and no reason for Paul to transcend that understanding. The essence of the story does not depend on the literal-historical or mytho-historical nature of Adam and Eve.
Scot talks in Blue Parakeet about discernment (why are some laws and commands for today and others not?) – with the suggestion that God spoke in Abraham’s days in Abraham’s ways; Moses’s days in Moses’s ways; David’s days in David’s ways, (Paul’s days in Paul’s ways), Peter’s days in Peter’s ways – a paraphrase (and interpolation) not a quote.
I suggest that this applies not only to events and laws related in scripture, proscriptions and prescriptions, but to scripture itself. God accommodated his revelation to the forms and culture of the day, Those forms and that culture are not 20th and 21st century western forms or culture. We err when we expect to see 21st century science reflected in the details of the text and we err when we expect the modern ideals of history (hence the discrepancies and contrasts in Samuel, Kings, Chronicles; the diversity in the Gospels, especially the synoptics compared with John). We err when we expect God to have removed Paul from his context. With respect to Romans 5, God spoke in Paul’s days in Paul’s ways and through Paul in Paul’s context.
My answer to the question: No it doesn’t matter. What do you think?
If you wish you may contact me at rjs4mail[at]att.nett
If you would like to comment on my posts please see Jesus Creed.