The Historicity of Adam & The Gospel: A Letter

Dear George,

Your question regarding the historical Adam is a question in desperate need of answering in our day. I am going to address your concerns, but let me tell you upfront where I am headed in this letter:  I will argue that a rejection of the historical Adam does damage to the Bible and the gospel message. In other words, the historical Adam is a central component to the Christian faith.

In your previous letter, you reasoned that it does not follow to admit non-literal interpretations of the creation account, only to demand a historical Adam. Not only is this an inconsistency, but you also believe a historical Adam is a peripheral doctrine that has no substantial import to the central issues of, say, being made in the image of God, sin, and redemption.  I will address your former objection first.

As you purported, there are indeed non-literal interpretations of Genesis 1 that are considered orthodox (though, I personally disagree with those non-literal views). One example of this is the framework view held by Meredith Kline. In short, Kline maintains that the creation days are non-sequential and non-literal; that is, the days are structured in a literary framework and are not representative of twenty-four-hour periods.[1] Your question is natural: Given that the creation of Adam is found in a non-literal section of Scripture, on this view, why must one hold to a historical Adam?

To be sure, theologians have rejected a historical Adam, believing Adam was a myth or a “teaching device.” Friedrich Schleiermacher, for example, dehistoricized the creation account. For Schleiermacher, he speaks of the creation account as “an ancient attempt to make good the lack of a historical account of the beginnings of the human race”; nevertheless, we can glean “inner truths” that perpetuate our feeling of “absolute dependence.”[2]

Others have continued to purport a non-historical view: Emil Bruner considered Adam to be a myth, Karl Barth taught that the story of Adam was saga, and H.M. Kuitert believed Adam was simply a “teaching mode.”[3] Regarding Barth, he considered Adam not as a historical person, but a symbol for humanity: “We are all Adam.”[4] Influenced by Immanuel Kant, Barth posited two “dimensions”: Historie and Geschichte. The former is what you find studied by academic historians, while the latter is more akin to a story (which does not have to be completely true) that is not bound or verifiable by professional historians.[5]  Geschichte is where redemptive-history take place.

Kuitert, on the other hand, believed there was a “time-bound dimension” to the biblical writers; thus, Paul is not concerned with history, but with a model by which he can teach about Jesus.[6] A teaching model contains two elements: first, it is a self-effacing illustration, and, second, its significance is bound solely to the illustration.[7] These are just some of the proposals offered by those who reject a historical Adam.

Something to notice upfront is that non-literal does not equate to non-historical, as Kline and others are eager to emphasize.[8] Just because one understands something to be non-literal, does not entail it being ahistorical. There are several reasons why a non-literal reading of the creation account is permitted, while a non-historical view is not.

Broadly speaking, the reason Adam is to be viewed as a historical person is because of the way the rest of the Bible speaks of him. “The other Scriptures,” writes James Petigru Boyce, “both of the Old and New Testament, endorse the correctness of all the facts stated in Genesis by frequent allusions to one or another of them as undoubted truths.”[9]

One of these passages is Romans 5:12-21, which compares Christ over against Adam: “Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned” (v.12).[10] Adam is pictured here as “a type of the one who was to come” (v.14). This τύπος is sometimes designated “pattern” (NIV), “figure” (KJV), or “prototype” (HCSB). J.P. Versteeg says the meaning denotes “impression,” “imprint,” or “statuette”; “The word also takes on the meaning of the ‘mold’ with which an impression, imprint, or statuette is made.”[11]

Given what Versteeg said above, the text of Romans 5 is significant because Adam and Christ relate to each other in a mold-statuette relationship, which involves a fixed correspondence.[12] E.E. Ellis points out three factors regarding New Testament typology: First, the type is not to be separated from what God is doing in history; second, the connecting point between type and antitype is determined by God’s plan of redemption; and third, the Old Testament type and the New Testament antitype, which occur in two different dispensations, can only be understood “within the framework of the divine economy of salvation.”[13] In a more concise way, David Murray defines a “type” as “a real person, place, object, or event that God ordained to act as a predictive patter or resemblance of Jesus’ person and work, or of opposition to both.”[14] Therefore, when Paul calls Adam a “type” of Christ, this speaks directly to the historicity of Adam. It would require significant textual justification to take Adam as the only non-historical type in the Bible.

Also, in Romans 5, Paul contrasts the differences between Adam and Jesus, as he teaches on the state of those in Adam juxtaposed to those in Christ. Herman Ridderbos captures this, writing, “Christ and Adam stand over against one another as the great representatives of the two aeons, that of life and that of death.”[15] Thomas Schreiner likewise affirms, “Adam and Christ are analogous in that the status of all human beings depends on the work of Adam or Christ. The contrast between the two comes to the forefront in that Adam’s impact on humanity was evil and Christ’s was good.”[16] Given what Paul is doing in Romans 5, positing a teaching model would damage the unique position of Adam, “namely the position of ‘the one,’ the representative head of the old humanity.”[17]

Moreover, the gospel is highlighted by the structure of vv.12-19: All of humanity have sinned in Adam, and therefore need redemption in Christ. Paul begins his argument in verse 12 by introducing the protasis (ὥσπερ), makes a few supportive comments, and then gives the apodosis in verse 18 (οὕτως καὶ). His argument is that the “one sin” by which “all sinned” (aorist active) is the “one trespass” of Adam. In other words, Adam’s sin, by way of immediate imputation, renders all of humanity guilty in Adam. This plight is that which is overturned and undone by Christ. Murray elaborates on the argument of the passage:

[T]he comparison introduced in verse 12, though broken off and not completed in the express terms which the protasis of verse 12 would suggest and dictate, is in essential thought identical with that which is stated in its completeness in verse 18 and 19. This means that the sin referred to in verse 12, particularly in the last clause, must be that same sin that is defined in verse 18 as ‘the one trespass’ and in verse 19 as ‘the disobedience of the one man.’ And when we go back to the three preceding verses (15-17) and bear in mind the close knit unity of the passage, we must conclude that the same sin is in view in verses 15, 17 where it is called the trespass of the one…. Hence Paul is saying that death passed on to and reigned over those who did not personally and voluntarily transgress as Adam did, and therefore the ‘all sinned’ of verse 12 cannot refer to individual personal transgression. [18]

“Christ presupposes Adam and succeeds him,” says Herman Bavinck.[19] This is evidenced by Luke’s Gospel where he caps the beginning of Christ’s genealogy, writing, “the son of Adam, the son of God” (3:38). Genealogies during the first century were carefully investigated, which casts doubt upon the notion that Luke saw Adam as anything but a historical person; in no way is this called into question by the theological import of the genealogy, for the theological character is based on its historicity.[20] That is, there are no textual reasons to understand some persons as fictitious and others as historical in Jesus’ genealogy.

Adam is, furthermore, mentioned elsewhere in the New Testament. In Jude 14, Adam is again listed in a genealogy as being “seventh” from Enoch. Also, in 1 Timothy 2:13-14, Paul anchors his dual prohibition against women teaching and excising authority over a man in both the creation and fall narrative. “For Adam was formed first, then Eve; and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor,” says Paul. Versteeg notes that if Paul is using Adam as an ahistorical teaching model, then Paul is concerned with a “generally valid truth,” which is exemplified by the Adam and Eve illustration. But what “generally valid truth,” he asks? Is it a generally valid truth that men are superior to women, and women are more susceptible to temptation? He concludes:

So, in 1 Timothy 2:13-14 Paul does not start from generally valid truths which Adam and Eve illustrate, but from historical facts. Nothing is said about a generally valid truth of a natural priority of man over women, but certainly something is said about the fact that Adam was formed first.[21]

For these reasons, the Bible will not permit us to speak of Adam as a non-historical person; his historicity is presupposed by the other biblical writers down into the New Testament. Therefore, while one may side with Kline on a non-literal reading of the creation days, he cannot import non-historical features into the creation account if he wishes to remain orthodox. But who cares, you ask? Is not this debate a pedantic enterprise, unconnected from the central truths of Christianity? I will now turn to address your second point.

As hinted above in Romans 5, the historicity of Adam has direct consequence for how one views sin and redemption. This become equally clear in Paul’s contrast of Adam and Christ in 1 Corinthians 15. Here, Paul speaks of people being “in Christ” or “in Adam” (v.22). F. Neugebauer proposes that “in Christ” is to be taken historically rather than locally or mystically. That is, one is “in Christ” with reference to an event: “’to be’ in Christ does not mean an ontological condition but the fact of being determined by the once-for-all work of Christ and having involvement in that event.”[22] Given how “in Christ” is functioning, “in Adam” would function in the same manner: “in Adam” is “the fact of being determined by the disobedience of Adam, through which death came into the world.”[23] Just as the events of Christ are historical, so too are the events of Adam.

First Corinthians 15 gives another comparison of gospel importance. In vv.42-29, Paul compares a dead, sinful body to a resurrection body, and Adam’s pre-fall body (c.f., Gen. 2:7) to Christ’s resurrection body. Interestingly, Paul identifies the “natural (or “psychical”) body” (σῶμα ψυχικόν) of vv.42-44a with Adam’s pre-fall “natural (or “psychical”) body” (σῶμα ψυχικόν) in vv.44b-45. Adam’s pre-fall body, being sub-eschatological, is death-like in comparison to the resurrected body of Christ (and ours, by extension).[24] Here, the covenant of works comes into view. Had Adam obeyed God and kept the covenant, he would have brought humanity from the state of innocence into the state of glory. Though Adam failed (Hos. 6:7), the second Adam kept the covenant of works and will bring His own into glory. According to Richard Gaffin, Paul’s

interest is to show that from the beginning, prior to the fall, a higher or different kind of body than the body of Adam, the psychical body, is in view. Adam, by virtue of creation (not because of sin), anticipates and points to another, higher form of somatic existence. The principle of typology enunciated in Romans 5:14 is present here, albeit somewhat differently: the creation body of Adam is ‘a type of the one to come.’ This suggestion of typology helps illumine the use of Genesis 2:7 in verse 45, especially the addition in 45c.[25]

The connection to sin and redemption could not be more clear. Regarding sin, Strimple astutely notes: the question, “Was Adam a historical person?” is really asking, “Was the Fall a real event in human history?”[26] Without a historical Fall, we are left asking if sin is somehow natural? If sin is natural to humanity, what, if anything, can be done to remove this sin, which is, on this basis, intrinsic to creation? There is much at stake here, for “without a doctrine of the Fall there is no hope of redemption. There is no ‘good news’! There is no biblical Christianity!”[27] Thus the correct, i.e., biblical, view of Adam is that he was a person, in history, who, while representing all of humanity, sinned against God. Humanity, then, relates to Adam in two significant ways, namely, in a natural sense (all are descended from him), and in a forensic sense (his sin is imputed to every human).[28]

Regarding redemption, Strimple rightly observes, “[U]nless we really stand guilty, condemned to death on the basis of the disobedience of Adam, there is no reason to believe that we are justified, declared to be righteous, on the basis of the obedience of the Second Adam, Christ.”[29] The work and mission of the second Adam is incomprehensible if the first Adam was a literary fiction.

One final central doctrine affected by the historical Adam discussion is the image of God. The historical Adam preserves the special creation of man, not after his kind, but by divine counsel (“let us make”). Man, brought to life through formation (Gen. 2:7a) and impartation (Gen. 2:7b), is crafted in the image of God.[30] “So the whole human being,” writes Bavinck, “is image and likeness of God, in soul and body, in all human faculties, powers, and gifts.”[31] After the Fall, the broad image remained (Gen. 5:1; 9:6; Acts 17:28; 1 Cor. 11:7; Jas. 3:9) while the narrow image (i.e., knowledge, righteousness, and holiness) was destroyed, only to be regained through union with Christ (Eph. 4:24; Col. 3:10).[32] Here again, the parallels between Adam and Christ are such that to throw out the historical Adam is to throw anthropology into confusion.

That this is beyond a slippery slope is seen in Barth, whose rejection of a historical Adam led him to posit a view of “built-in sin,” and thus of “built-in grace” and a symbolical Christ.[33] Given the identical structure between Adam and Christ, what one does with the former has consequence for what one does with the latter.[34] To be sure, science gives pushback on the historicity of Adam, but it would do good to keep the words of Cornelius Van Til in mind: “revelation in nature and revelation in Scripture are mutually meaningless without one another and mutually fruitful when taken together.”[35] As I hope my letter has shown, there is ample reason to believe the Bible requires—nay, mandates—a historical Adam.

Yours Truly,

J. Brandon Burks

© copyright J. Brandon Burks, 2017

Also See:

Sabbath Musings

Theological Conviction: Humble or Arrogant? Martin Luther and the Perspicuity of Scripture

Amillennialism vs. Historic Premillennialism

A Puritan View of Witchcraft

[1]Lee Irons and Meredith Kline, “The Framework View,” in The Genesis Debate, ed. by David G. Hagopian (Mission Viejo, CA: Crux Press, 2001), 217-252.

[2]Friedrich Schleiermacher, The Christian Faith, ed. by H.R. Mackintosh and J.S. Stewart (Philadelphia, PA: Fortress Press, 1976), 244, 250.

[3]Robert B. Strimple, “Was Adam Historical?” in Confident of Better Things: Essays Commemorating Seventy-Five Years of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, ed. by John R. Muether and Danny E. Olinger (Willow Grove, PA: The Committee of the Historian of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, 2011), 215-216.

[4]Ibid., 215.

[5]John M. Frame, A History of Western Philosophy and Theology (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2015), 377-379.

[6]J.P. Versteeg, Adam in the New Testament: Mere Teaching Model or First Historical Man? trans. by Richard B. Gaffin (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2012), 1-3.

[7]Ibid., 4.

[8]Irons and Kline, “The Framework View,” 219.

[9]James P. Boyce, Abstract of Systematic Theology (Cape Coral, FL: Founders Press, 1977), 190.

[10]Unless otherwise stated, all Scripture taken from the English Standard Version (ESV).

[11]Versteeg, Adam in the New Testament, 9.

[12]Ibid., 10.

[13]Ibid., 11-14.

[14]David Murray, Jesus on Every Page: 10 Simple Ways to Seek and Find Christ in the Old Testament (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2013), 138.

[15]Herman Ridderbos, Paul: An Outline of His Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 1975), 57.

[16]Thomas R. Schreiner, “Romans,” in Baker Exegetical Commentary of the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academics, 1998), 284.

[17]Versteeg, Adam in the New Testament, 29.

[18]John Murray, “The Imputation of Adam’s Sin,” in Justified in Christ: God’s Plan for us in Justification, ed. by K. Scott Oliphint (Fern, Ross-shire, Great Britain: Mentor, 2007), 221-222

[19]Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics: God and Creation, vol. 2, ed. by John Bolt, trans. by John Vreind (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academics, 2004), 564.

[20]Versteeg, Adam in the New Testament, 32-34.

[21]Versteeg, Adam in the New Testament, 42.

[22]Ibid., 38.

[23]Ibid., 39.

[24]Lane Tipton, “The Context of Union with Christ:  The Resurrection of Christ as Life-Giving Spirit, Part I (I Cor. 15:42-49)” (lecture, Westminster Theological Seminary, Glenside, PA, 2017).

[25]Richard B. Gaffin, Jr., Resurrection and Redemption: A Study in Paul’s Soteriology (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 1978), 82.

[26]Strimple, “Was Adam Historical?” 216.

[27]Ibid., 218.

[28]Francis Turretin, Institutes of Elenctic Theology, vol. 1, ed. by James T. Dennison, Jr., trans by George Musgrave Giger (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 1992), 577.

[29]Strimple, “Was Adam Historical?” 221.

[30]John Murray, Collected Writings of John Murray, vol. 2: Systematic Theology (Carlisle, PA: The Banner of Truth, 1977), 6-7.

[31]Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, 561.

[32]Ibid., 550.

[33]Strimple, “Was Adam Historical?” 222.

[34]Versteeg, Adam in the New Testament, 56, 66

[35]Cornelius Van Til, “Nature and Scripture,” in The Infallible Word: A Symposium by the Members of the Faculty of Westminster Theological Seminary (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 1967), 269; c.f., 267.

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