Belief in a Historical Adam: A Call to Courage

In his classic book, The City of God, fourth century bishop, Aurelius Augustine, discusses a notable abuse of scripture in his day. He speaks of contemporaries who “allegorize all that concerns Paradise itself,” who teach “as if there could not be a real terrestrial Paradise!” (COG, 13.21).

After giving some room for allegorizing, Augustine sets a limit: “…so long as we believe the strict truth of the history, confirmed by its circumstantial narrative of facts.” Our ancient father in the faith goes on to reject any reading of Genesis that makes the first man, Adam, into something other than the first man (COG, 14.1).

In our day we face interpretative challenges similar to Augustine’s. We have men who use their own sophistication to make what is real in scripture less real in the church. This is especially the case with contemporary challenges to the doctrine of the historical Adam.

There are two prominent ways the biblical testimony is dismissed by those who reject a historical Adam, that first human being made by God via an act of special creation (Gen. 2:7).

Some explain Adam as the first evolutionary primate with whom God made a covenant. In this view other primeval creatures just like Adam were around but God approached this one not the others. The argument goes that as God chose Israel as a representative nation from among nations God also chose the hominid Adam from among several thousand other hominids existing at the time.

Others explain Adam and Eve as literary archetypes. They are a figurative couple representative of the aggregate of all evolved humanity at the time. This view is distinct from the previous in that no actual hominid is required for us to benefit from the Adam “symbol” in scripture. Adam is merely a mytho-poetic construct to help us understand God’s dealings with all humanity.

But the biblical testimony that all men descend from one man of special divine creation begins in Genesis.

The text of Genesis 2:7 says, “…then the LORD God formed the man of dust from the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living creature.”

Notably, the Hebrew phrase for “living creature” (nephesh chaya) is used throughout Genesis 1 and 2 to describe fish, birds and other beasts in their final created form and function (Gen. 1:20, 21, 24, 30; 2:19). However, the phrase is not used to describe man until after God has performed two actions exclusive to man: God formed man of dust and breathed into man the breath of life.

This means man was not a “living creature” of any kind – hominid or ape – prior to this special creative act singled out for us in the text by the Spirit. God did not take a “living creature” to make a “living creature.” The Lord would not have us believe He did.

Throughout the Old Testament then others speak of Adam as you would expect him to be spoken of if he were a unique individual.

He is personally charged by God as the first man who failed to obey (Gen 3:17). With his wife he brought forth specific children into the world (Gen. 4:1-2, 25). The number of years he lived is recorded in the same format as the age of other individuals is recorded (Gen. 5:5, 9:29). He stands alone at the top of the chronicler’s lengthy genealogy of individual family heads (1 Chron. 1:1).

In coming to the New Testament the testimony for a historical Adam is just as strong. Luke identifies Adam as the first offspring of God in a genealogy that tracks backward from Jesus (Luke 3:38). And Jesus, speaking of our first parents, says, "Have you not read that he who created them from the beginning made them male and female,” (Matt. 19:4). Jesus wants us to understand that Adam came into being by an act of special creation at the beginning.

When we get to the Pauline epistles, the testimony for the historical Adam begins to pile up. A prominent passage is Romans 5. There Paul tells us repeatedly of the effects of “one man’s trespass” (Rom. 5:15, 17) or “one man’s sin” (Rom. 5:16) or “one man’s disobedience” (5:19).

Paul ascribes a real transgression to one real man just as he ascribes a real act of righteousness to one real Savior, Jesus (Rom 5:18). Adam is no a mytho-poetic literary construct. If he is then his trespass was not that of a real man and our need for the real obedience of the one man, Jesus, is really unnecessary. Even more, Christ’s resurrection would need no basis in historic fact. A real victory is not needed for an unreal fall.  Our theological beliefs are grounded in historical events. If those events did not happen, our faith is false.  

Another passage which is thick with sightings of the historical Adam is 1 Corinthians 15. Paul says “For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive” (15:22). Christ is as real here as Adam is real. As a real singular person Christ shares his real life with us through representation only because Adam as a real singular person shared his real death with us through representation. Only that which is real can be imputed, Adam’s sin unto death and Christ’s obedience unto life.

Lastly, in 1 Corinthians 15:49 Paul says, “Just as we have borne the image of the man of dust, we shall also bear the image of the man of heaven. “ The earthly and animal nature of all men issues from this one man of dust. He is a descendent of no one, but all humanity has descended from him. In the family tree he is alone at the top of all those made later from the same stuff. He is without ancestry (Gen. 2:20b), but first ancestor to all (1 Cor. 15:47).

Wherever the judgments of scripture are received with a ready skepticism and the judgments of science with hardy optimism, we have found man’s trust in man eclipsing his trust in God. Let us heed our ancient father Augustine’s challenge and match his courage. Let us believe “the strict truth” of the biblical narrative for it is from God who is faithful and does not lie.

Let us not regard scientific doctrine as a higher authority than scripture. Science today is much more ideological than it lets on, practiced with its own prescientific faith commitments and never as settled as popularly believed (see Vern Poythress, “Adam Versus Claims from Genetics,” WTJ vol. 75, p. 81).

This is no call to disregard science, but rather a call to regard it rightly. The men of scripture were moved along by the Holy Spirit. The men of science are not so moved. We all stagger under the noetic effects of sin and find truth as God blesses. God, however, is always without error. He deals straight and speaks true in all his holy Word. As Lord of creation he has told the truth about Adam. 

John Hartley has been pastor of Apple Valley Presbyterian Church since 2010, having previously been a pastor for 10 years in Vermont. He is a Wisconsin native and a graduate of University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee as well as Dallas Theological Seminary. John lives with his wife Jen and their five children.

John Hartley