In last week’s post I wrote (1) that there is indeed a problem with seeing Adam as the progenitor of all human beings who lived a few thousand years before Jesus in that it is incompatible with what we know of the past, scientifically and archaeologically; (2) Paul seems to share such a view of Adam when he says “sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, and in this way death came to all people” (Romans 5:12); (3) Paul’s view of Adam is of non-negotiable theological importance and so must be addressed.
This is the problem in a nutshell: Paul says something of vital and abiding theological importance that is anchored in an ancient view of human origins.
I suggested last week that what Paul says about Adam is not as straightforward as it seems. This week and next I want to begin expanding on that point by outlining some of the issues that invariably arise when trying to understand “Paul’s Adam.”
Raising these issues is not an attempt to make a simple matter more difficult than it needs to be. And digging deeper into what Paul said is not a clever way to ignore him. These are issues that come up inescapably, one way or another, when informed readers try to understand what Paul was communicating. There is nothing new being raised in these posts.
Rather than obscuring Paul, it is important to engage these issues if we are to take Paul with utmost seriousness. That means understanding him as he deserves to be understood—making the effort to hear him as clearly as we can rather than to hear ourselves through him. In order to hear Paul well, the issues listed below are among those that will need to be accounted for somehow.
I realize that dissecting Paul’s view of Adam is a very difficult issue for many, and I do not do this lightly. But it is important to remind readers that BioLogos intends to be a place where important and sometimes emotionally laden issues can be aired and discussed. That is rare in our world—even in our Christian world—where marking out territory and going into battle are unfortunately commonly accurate metaphors for expressing disagreement. Sometimes patience and true understanding are left standing on the periphery (“Better a patient person than a warrior, those with self–control than those who take a city,” Proverbs 16:32).
These are challenging issues—but they are not going away, and simplistic solutions rarely provide lasting comfort. What is needed is patience, respect, and knowledge. It is with this intention that I continue this discussion over Paul’s Adam and how that can, for people of faith, be in conversation with the natural sciences. The list that begins here is intended to lay some of the necessary elements of that conversation.
I should go without saying that neither BioLogos nor I claim to have laid this difficult matter to rest in a series of a few posts. We’re in this together, folks. We welcome interaction with these issues below, and by all means feel free to add other factors that you deem relevant to this discussion.
1. Adam in the Old Testament
As important as Adam is to Paul, he is not a figure that gets a lot of airtime in the Old Testament. In fact, after Genesis 5, Adam makes his lone Old Testament appearance in 1 Chronicles 1:1, the first name in a genealogy (chapters 1-9) that spans from Adam to postexilic Israel. The reference to “adam” in Joshua 3:16 is a place name and in Hosea 6:7 it either refers to humanity in general (e.g., JPS translation “to a man”) or a place name (see TNIV and NIV footnotes; note also the second half of v. 7 where we read “they were unfaithful to me there”). It is unlikely and out of place for Hosea 6:7 to refer to the Adam of Genesis—and even if it did, this lone reference between Genesis 5 and 1 Chronicles 1 hardly amounts to a counter-argument.
So, how does one explain Paul’s high-profile view of Adam vis-à-vis his relative absence in the Old Testament? From where did Paul get his idea of the central importance of Adam for all humanity? What would drive Paul to bring front and center a figure who, of the 923 chapters that make up our Old Testament, is mentioned only in Genesis 2-5 and one postexilic text?
2. Adam Theology in the Old Testament
Adam may not be a major player explicitly in the Old Testament, but Adam theology is another matter. In addition to the Adam/Israel parallel from a previous post, some understand Noah to be an Adam figure as well—a new “first man” at a “new creation.” Noah as a second Adam seems pretty clear, and some also see figures like Abraham, Moses, a David, as “new Adams.” Each of these figures represents the “first” of some “new beginning” for God’s people.
I understand that seeing “Adam theology” all over the Old Testament may not be persuasive to everyone, which is fine since these are just avenues of exploration. Still, seeing Adam as a pattern for other Old Testament figures is hardly rare in the history of Jewish and Christian interpretation. The Old Testament is not seen as a loose connection of some stories or historical reflections. It is a “grand narrative” that tells one story of God and his people. (Some readers may be familiar with what is sometimes called a Biblical Theological approach to interpretation. Others call it Redemptive-Historical.)
Paul presents Jesus as a new Adam (Romans 5:17; 1 Corinthians 15:21-22); Adam is the “pattern” of the one to come (Romans 5:14). Is Paul carrying through this theme of “new beginnings for God’s people”? In other words, is Paul doing more than simply turning to Genesis 2-3 and reading it isolation? Does Paul have a bigger theological grid in mind—a “grand narrative” of the Old Testament?
3. The Fall in the Old Testament
According to the traditional interpretation of Romans 5:12-21, Paul sees Adam’s disobedience in the Garden as the cause of death in the world and the reason all subsequent humans are corrupted by sin. Some add that the actual guilt of Adam’s transgression is immediately passed on to all subsequent humans. (Humans are not just corrupted by Adam’s transgression, but also bear the guilt of what Adam did).
Does that interpretation of Paul fit with how human beings are described in the Old Testament? To be sure, the world is a mess and God needs to set it right. But does the Old Testament teach or imply that every human being is dead in the sin that Adam committed? Are non-Israelites ever referred to, directly or indirectly, as having inherited the guilt of Adam’s transgression? Is the fall in the Garden seen as the problem of humanity that must be dealt with? Why is adamic cause of human misery never mentioned let alone driven home?
As for the Israelites, they are not presented as being dead in sin and thus incapable of pleasing God. The giving of the law, with its blessing for obedience and curses for disobedience, actually assumes the possibility of pleasing God. “Righteousness” is clearly an attainable status through obedience to the law.
So, what connection does Paul’s view of human depravity (“dead in sin”) have to the Old Testament? How does Paul’s view of sin relate to the notion of sin in the Old Testament? Is it “deeper” and more universal than what we find in the Old Testament? If so, why does Paul draw such a central conclusion about sin that is either muted or absent in the Old Testament?
This raises another sort of question: Is it even necessary for Paul and the Old Testament to have the same exact view of the nature of sin? Can Paul have a clearer view on the true depth of our alienation from God that is not yet present in the Old Testament in general or Genesis specifically? Does Paul’s use of the Adam story actually depend on him not reading it literally?
These are the first three issues that need to be thoughtfully and respectfully engaged as we seek to understand Paul’s Adam. We’ll continue this next week.