Paul’s Adam and the Gospel

Chapter seven of the new book by Peter Enns, The Evolution of Adam: What the Bible Does and Doesn’t Say about Human Origins moves on to look explicitly at the way Paul uses Adam in Romans 5 and 1 Corinthians 15, with emphasis on Romans 5. There is no question but that these are key passages in the dis-ease with evolution and common descent in the church. Other factors play a role, but this tops the list.

Enns puts forth an argument that Paul, in his day, age, and context, had no reason to doubt the story of Adam and Eve as a historical description of the origins of humanity. In his Christological reading of the history of Israel and his conviction from the Spirit that there was now no distinction between Jew and Gentile in Christ, Paul was inspired to see a universality of the gospel stemming from the universal fatherhood of Adam. The problem  and the solution at the focal point of the gospel are the same for both Jew and Gentile. It is possible, but rather unlikely Enns believes, that Paul saw Adam and Eve and the garden narrative as figurative. First century Jews did not read scripture with the literal-historical biases of modern generations, but Paul still would have no reason to dismiss a unique biological head of the human race.

The questions for us then are Does this matter? and What is Paul’s Spirit-given message?

There are several important points as we begin this discussion.

First – Christ is at the center. Paul’s preaching and teaching is Christ-centered and should be read with this in mind at all times.

Israel’s story, including Adam, is now to be read in light of its climax in the death and resurrection of Christ. In other words, Paul’s understanding of Adam is shaped by Jesus, not the other way around. (p. 122)

This is one of the major points that Enns emphasizes in his book, and it is something he takes very seriously. Paul’s teaching though, is not only Christ-centered but resurrection centered as is made explicit in 1 Cor. 15.

For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, … And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins. … If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.

Second – Paul was a first century Jew. Paul used the tools available to him to develop and describe his new-found understanding of the work of God through Christ.

Paul also sees death as the universal reality – and domineering enemy – of the human drama (cf. Romans 5:14). As a child of Israel’s traditions, Paul uses the theological vocabulary available to him and so names the root cause of that universal dilemma as Adam and his disobedience. (p. 123)

Paul understood that sin and death are universal and self-evident problems impacting all of humanity everywhere over all time. On the other hand …

Paul’s understanding of Adam as the cause reflects his time and place. Although Paul interprets this story in his own distinct what for his own distinct purposes, the Israelite tradition handed to him provides the theological vocabulary by which he can express his unique theology. (p. 124)

Third – The Historicity of Jesus is not at stake. The argument that acceptance of a historical unique individual Jesus, God’s Messiah is coupled to the acceptance of a unique historical Adam, progenitor of the entire human race, is total nonsense. Enns doesn’t put it quite so bluntly – but I do. The summary Enns gives, however, puts it all on the table.

Unlike Adam, Christ was not a primordial, prehistorical man known only through hundreds and hundreds of years of cultural transmission. The resurrection of Christ was a present reality for Paul, an event that had happened in Jerusalem about twenty-five years before he wrote Romans.

… For Paul, the resurrection of Christ is the central and climactic present-day event in the Jewish drama – and of the world. One could say that Paul was wrong, deluded, stupid, creative, whatever; nonetheless the resurrection is something that Paul believed to have happened in his time, not primordial time.

This historical resurrection is the singular focus of Paul’s writing and missionary activity, God’s climactic statement of his love for and presence in the world. It is the recent event that Paul claims to bear witness to along with more than five-hundred others who saw the resurrected Christ (1 Cor. 15:3-8). It is the event to which Paul applies his conscious theological acumen and without which nothing he says makes any sense at all. In other words, the resurrection is not a cultural assumption that Paul makes about primordial time, as he does with Adam. It is for Paul a present-time reality, an actual historical event. (p. 125-126)

Paul “knew” Adam through scripture. He knew Jesus through his experience on the Damascus road and through the witness of the apostles and those who walked, talked, learned from Jesus during his life and after his resurrection.

Fourth – Paul’s use of Adam in Romans 5 is shaped by the argument that he is making in this letter. Enns sees this through the insights of the new perspective on Paul. In the letter to the Romans Paul is focused on making an argument for the inclusion of both Jews and Gentiles in the people of God. Romans isn’t a treatise for personal salvation, the people Paul is speaking to are already Christians. Romans is an argument for the unity of the church and the inclusion of all on equal footing.

“Getting saved” may be part of the application of Romans, but if one makes it the whole message, much of Paul’s argument will be missed. Instead the focus of Romans is that the death and resurrection of Christ put Jew and gentile on an even footing. They reveal the heretofore unrealized fact that together Jew and gentile make up one people of God because they are both saved from the same plight (sin and death) by the same solution (Jesus’s death and resurrection). (p. 130)

Adam is used by Paul to demonstrate the universal nature of both the problem and the solution. The problem, Enns argues, is the inevitability of death and suffering and the universal and inescapable sinfulness of all mankind, the solution is in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ and the future hope of resurrection and new creation. To make his point Paul invests Adam with a reading that is unique to Paul, not the intent of the original author of Genesis, the way the story was read in the Old Testament, or the way the story was interpreted by his contemporaries. Paul’s approach to scripture is, however, consistent with the practices of his day and with the way the Hebrew scriptures were read and interpreted by other NT authors (see, for example, the book of Matthew).

What conclusions should we draw? There are a number of important ideas in this chapter of The Evolution of Adam. I find much of what Enns has written to be insightful and helpful. I struggle however with part of the conclusion that he seems to draw. It is enough, Enns argues, that we recognize the deep truth of the universal nature of sin and death. Paul effectively and truthfully understands and describes the solution to this problem – the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus of living memory in his time. I have a hard time, though, letting go of the importance of a fall in Paul’s thinking. It is not just that we are incapable of righteousness before God, but that we have corporately and universally rebelled against  God.

I agree with Enns that attempts to rescue a historical Adam through a federal headship (as John Stott did in his Romans Commentary) or description of Adam as a neolithic farmer as Denis Alexander prefers are somewhat farfetched and involve a little more contortion than would seem reasonable. This is not the Adam of scripture but an Adam of theology. Does our theology really demand it? For some the answer appears to be yes. This kind of model may then be the best way forward. I don’t agree, but I am open to listen to arguments for the theological importance of retaining such a historical Adam.

I have more sympathy (although it seems Enns does not) with a view such as that put forth by CS Lewis in The Problem of Pain that there was a real fall of some sort among the first humans, those who can be said to carry the image of God. The fall must, I think, have been foreseen by God and inevitable in his good creation. We did not derail God’s plans for his creation. And we should always remember that evil in the form of the serpent, later interpreted as Satan, was present in the Garden. However we interpret the story of Genesis 3, nothing in scripture teaches that evil and rebellion originated with humans. Whether a universal fall was the original intent of the story or not is another point to be argued. The view of Adam as Israel is also worth consideration.

I agree completely, however, with the point that our view of Adam is a secondary issue. The primary issue is Jesus, the crucified and risen Messiah of God. Paul’s point, and indeed the point of the entire New Testament, not to mention the preaching and teaching of the early church, is unabashedly Christ-centered. Christ is seen in everything. We can be more or less completely wrong about Adam, but as long as we are focused on Christ we won’t go far wrong.

The Son is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. And he is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything he might have the supremacy. For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross. (Col. 1:15-20)

This chapter raises many important questions we could discuss. There are no easy answers I fear. A simple retreat to an ancient understanding of human origins, neglecting the persuasive evidence for an old earth, evolution, and common descent, is an option an increasing number of us find untenable. The way forward requires that we wrestle with both the science and the theology.

What do you think?

Is a historical Adam necessary to the gospel Paul preaches and teaches?

Does the view of Adam as a tool Paul uses to make an important point about Jesus seem reasonable?

Is the fall an important component of Christian doctrine and theology?

Has Enns accurately identified the problem that Christ came to solve?

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

If you have comments please visit Paul’s Adam and the Gospel at Jesus Creed.

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