Paul’s Adam

The final chapter of the new book Adam and the Genome by Dennis Venema and Scot McKnight looks carefully at the the way at Paul uses Adam in Romans 5 and 1 Corinthians 15. As this is really the core issue for many Christians, we will spread the discussion out over two posts.

Scot starts the chapter with a brief discussion of the role that Science, particularly evolutionary biology, can play in loss of faith. If a person has tightly connected faith with a particular biblical teaching on Genesis and on original sin it can appear that the only two options are (1) dismiss evolutionary biology and much of modern science as a misguided fraud or (2) dismiss orthodox Christian faith as a misguided fraud. Scot provides the example of a man named Kenneth who “chose science because the understanding of the Bible was in his view demonstrably wrong.” (p. 173) In fact, he was “disturbed by the flippant disregard and disdain on the part of many creationists for the patient investigation and analysis that have led most scientists in the past century to accept evolution.” (p. 172)

If the Bible clearly teaches a young earth creation, global flood, woman from side of man and Augustinian Original Sin, then we must make this hard choice, and in my opinion Kenneth made the right one. This particular teaching and interpretation of scripture is demonstrably inconsistent with observations of the world around us. The imaginative extrapolations required to make observations fit the interpretation are mind-blowing. Joel Duff, a professor of biology at Akron, does an excellent job of digging into these on his blog Naturalis Historia.

However, it is not at all clear that the young earth interpretation is the only faithful interpretation of Scripture. Thus, the science compels us to dig deeper into Scripture and into the context within which it was written. This isn’t a new situation. As Kyle Greenwood described in his book Scripture and Cosmology, we walk in the footsteps of those who came before us. The earth is a spheroid with people populating most of the surface, the solar system is sun-centered, not earth centered, neither of which represent the most “literal” interpretation of Scripture. It is also not clear that the interpretation of Adam as the sole male progenitor of the entire human race some 6000 years ago is the only faithful interpretation of Scripture.

If there are alternative interpretations and approaches consistent both with Scripture and with conclusions of modern science, then we should be open to these interpretations. All truth is God’s truth. To fail to do so is to give people an easy excuse to avoid even considering the deeper claims of Christianity embodied in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus the Christ. Paul, after all, was not intent on teaching about Adam, rather he was preaching and teaching the gospel of Jesus Christ as experienced in his life, in the lives of the other apostles, and in the explosion of the early church.

This brings us to the first two of Scot’s five theses concerning Paul’s use of Adam. The following is a sketch – read the book to flesh out details. Scot starts by outlining Romans 5:12-21 following N. T. Wright (The Letter to the Romans, NIB). The passage is complex in part because the argument is interspersed with explanatory asides. The primary argument couples verse 12 with 18: Therefore, just as sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, and in this way death came to all people, because all sinned— … Consequently, just as one trespass resulted in condemnation for all people, so also one righteous act resulted in justification and life for all people. And a triumphant conclusion (v. 21): so that, just as sin reigned in death, so also grace might reign through righteousness to bring eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Thesis 1: The Adam of Paul is the literary, genealogical, image-of-God Adam found in Genesis. (p. 176) Paul didn’t have any extraordinary or supernatural knowledge about Adam. Paul knew about Adam from the Bible. One thing this means is that we shouldn’t impose later (Augustinian for example) understandings back on to Paul. Rather we should consider whether these ideas are or are not consistent with Paul’s intent, based on the Adam of Genesis.

Thesis 2: The Adam of Paul is the Adam of the Bible filtered through – both in agreement and in disagreement with – the Jewish interpretive tradition about Adam. (p. 177) Paul’s use of Adam shows distinct similarities to the Wisdom of Solomon, a first century work included in the Apocrypha or Deuterocanonical books. It has been valued by the church, although not included in the Protestant canon. In particular Romans 1 and Wisdom 13:1-19 show distinct similarities.

This chapter in the Wisdom of Solomon is for New Testament readers another version of Romans 1, and it should not then surprise us that many think Paul had read the Wisdom of Solomon and was echoing it there. At a minimum it had influenced the world in which Paul had learned to think about the human condition. (p. 179)

There are other examples as well. Scot points out: “That Adam had lost his glory in the primal sin is found in Paul and in Jewish texts, but one cannot find it in Genesis, though it is more than easy to infer it.” (p. 179)

In Romans 7 expresses a thought that connects sin with desire – a thought found in other Jewish texts of the time. “Nevertheless, I would not have known what sin was had it not been for the law. For I would not have known what coveting really was if the law had not said, “You shall not covet.” But sin, seizing the opportunity afforded by the commandment, produced in me every kind of coveting.” (7:7-8) The Greek word translated covet/coveting here is translated as desire in James 1:15 “Then, after desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and sin, when it is full-grown, gives birth to death.” The same idea is found in the Apocalypse of Moses (ca. The Apocalypse of Moses, assigned a Semitic 1st Century origin, notes: “For covetousness is the origin of every sin.” (19:3) using the same Greek word as Romans and James in the extant Greek translation.

Paul did not write from or into a vacuum. Rather he wrote out of a culture and into a culture about the central reality of the gospel of Jesus Christ. The context in which we first learned the Adam story shapes the way we read it and the same was true of Paul. He wrote about what he had experienced, what the other apostles in community with Jesus during his life, had experienced. He wrote about this using and adapting concepts in his vocabulary and understanding – and this includes his use of Adam. We should take this into account when interpreting the ways in which Paul uses Adam to describe truths about Christ.

Scot suggests that these two theses should not raise much controversy, but the next steps may bring more debate. This will come in the next (and penultimate) post on the book.

Where did Paul get his information about Adam?

What difference might this make in our understanding?

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1 Response to Paul’s Adam

  1. jeff tomes says:

    Paul primarily wrote about his “surpassing revelations”.

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