Adam, Sin, and Death … Oh My 2

The first post in this series, Adam, Sin, and Death … Oh My 1, opened with a question that asked how we learn to think about new challenges in a Christian manner. You could say how we think “biblically,” but that term often seems to be used for rules and prescriptions, extracting the commands from scripture and following them. When faced with new challenges, ones foreign to the original writers and original audience, rules and prescriptions are not enough.

The challenges raised by the age of the earth, evolutionary biology and common descent were not in play for the original audience. These are truly new issues. The original authors and audience had a different cosmology, a different understanding of biology, and a different understanding of human history. The text of scripture reflects the ancient near east cosmology, to a certain extent it reflects an ancient near east understanding of origins, but it takes that understanding to teach about the one true God, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, creator of heaven and earth. The question becomes identifying the dividing line between the incidental inclusion of an ancient understanding of the world and the revelation of God.

For many the most profound problems raised by evolution relate to Adam, the sin of Adam, and sinfulness in all of mankind. The issues are not raised by Genesis as much as they are raised by Paul. This issue was brought up again in the context of the post last week Test of Faith – Does Science Threaten Belief in God?.  The comment, slightly edited, is given below.

I still, however, have trouble with the method Christians who believe in evolution use to mesh science and faith. For instance, do any of you who accept evolution believe “Adam” was a real person, our first parent, from whom we all descend?

If not, then I see a real problem because

3. Paul certainly believed Adam was a real person in Romans 5 — as real as Christ.

4. The doctrine of original sin, and Paul’s main argument in Romans 5 are lost if we accept not that Adam is a real person.

5. Many would say it is heresy to deny any of scripture’s three imputations (a. the imputation of Adam’s sin to us. b. the imputation of our sin to Christ. c. the imputation of Christ’s righteousness to us.). In fact, they would say the Gospel is at stake on this issue. A literal Adam is essential, which I tend to agree with.

6. The whole Bible unfolds as a plan of redemption based on the Adam and Eve story. Serious issues are at stake if this story is called a myth.

So I guess my question is can you believe in a literal Adam whom we all descended from and still believe in evolution. If not, I find it virtually impossible not to reject evolution. Thanks again for all the thoughtful comments.

The question of Adam is a particularly important place to learn how to think about questions in a Christian manner. Theology plays a role that is more significant than in the question of the age of the earth and the presence of death in deep time raised in the post on Tuesday.

Are these serious problems – serious enough to warrant the rejection of evolution?

The points brought up by the commenter are good points – these are not issues of inerrancy or genre in scripture, these are issues of theology and anthropology and they impact some key doctrines of the church.  As we think through the problem we may in fact find that aspects of our understanding of sin in creation will have to adjust to new understandings of the world. Here is a place where science may force a rethinking of theology.

The idea that theology may need to be reshaped in response to what we learn about the world is something of a worrisome idea for many. The comment ends with a statement that reflects the sentiment of many. If evolution is not compatible with certain propositions or components of our theology then evolution must be rejected. The evidence for evolution is irrelevant. No evidence can possibly be sufficient because the issue is not God’s mechanism of creation, it is the rock bottom foundation of orthodox Christianity. Or so it seems. This leads to an ultimatum – either faith or science, Christianity or apostasy. The stakes are enormous and the questions can seem overwhelming.

There are still ways to think through the issues of Adam and sin. The most helpful involve considering carefully what is foundational and what is incidental to the biblical narrative and to our theology and doctrines. Here are three possible approaches to the question of Adam.

  • Paul teaches that sin entered through Adam, original sin poisoned the human race, and the sin of Adam is imputed to all making us (1) guilty before God in our own right and (2) guilty before God because we are human. Therefore Adam must have existed as a unique individual. The Genesis story is easiest to follow as history. Evolution is not true.

Or:

  • Paul teaches that sin entered through Adam, original sin poisoned the human race, and the sin of Adam is imputed to all making us (1) guilty before God in our own right and (2) guilty before God because we are human. Therefore Adam must have existed as a unique individual. Science demonstrates that man evolved in common descent with the rest of life. This also constitutes part of what we know of God’s work. Therefore one of the proposals put forth by people like John Stott, Denis Alexander, or Henri Blocher accommodating both evolution and Adam must be correct.

Or:

  • Adam did not exist as a unique individual, progenitor of the human race. The human population was never less than several thousand individuals. Therefore perhaps we misunderstand the nature of original sin and the imputation of Adam’s sin to all of mankind. These are not universal understandings in the church and we must reconsider and rethink our doctrine.

These approaches and variations on them represent those taken by many people in the conversation, both scientists and theologians. The are not exhaustive of all possibilities, nor are they intended to be.  The first approach starts with a doctrine, and understanding of the faith, and holds tight to that understanding rejecting evolutionary biology. The second starts with science and the doctrine of sin and looks for a solution accommodating both. In some way science must conform to the theology. The third approach starts with science and seeks to conform theology and doctrine to the science.

Which approach outlined above seems more appropriate? Why?

Is there some other approach you would suggest?

What is your starting point when asking questions and searching for answers?

I’ll come back to these questions and more in future posts. They are not simple questions with short, five point answers deliverable in a sermon, a lecture, or a blog post. But today I would just like to throw it open for comments.

If you wish to contact me directly you may do so at rjs4mail[at]att.net

If you have comments please visit Adam, Sin, and Death … Oh My 2 at Jesus Creed.

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